(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. This post originally appeared on the Last Words blog here. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Butler’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)
“I have a right to choose the way I die!”
— Douglas Van Vlack, convicted of murder, hanging, Idaho.
Executed December 9, 1937
Van Vlack kidnapped his ex-wife and killed her, as well as two police officers. A few hours before his hanging was scheduled, Van Vlack broke away from his guards and scrambled over the cell block to cling to the ceiling rafters. He stayed in the ceiling for a half an hour as his lawyer and the prison chaplain begged for him to come down; he jumped thirty feet below just before the guards entered the cell block with a net. Van Vlack’s hanging was unsuccessful; technically he died the next day, December 10, after a few hours in a coma.
On this date in 1774, Peter Galwin and John Taylor were hanged together in Burlington in New Jersey.
Galwin was the principal of a small school in Northampton Township with a hankering for prepubescent children. According to court documents, Galwin raped or attempted to rape four young girls on four separate occasions in July and August 1774: Ann Prosser, Hope Reeves, Sarah Deacon and Ann Jones, all of them “infants under the age of ten years.”
The assault caused “great damage” to Ann Jones in particular. Whether or not the victims were his students is not known.
The crimes of John Taylor, alias John Philip Snyder, were still more exotic.
An itinerant farmhand, he allegedly stole money, “two items of female intimate apparel” and other items from his employer, a widow named Orpha Emlay, on August 13, 1774. She suspected him of the theft but lacked proof, so she decided to spy on him.
She wound up getting more than just an eyeful on the afternoon of October 2, 1774. It was then that the wary woman peeked into her barn and saw Taylor committing an act of gross indecency with a cow. Appalled, Emlay presumably let out a shriek because Taylor heard her. The naked pervert chased her down while brandishing a knife and a hammer. He smashed Emlay’s skull and slit her throat from ear to ear.
Understandably, public outrage against both offenders ran high in the community. Hearn notes that guards had to “prevent enraged onlookers from tearing both men apart before they reached the gallows.”
The couple moved north to the settlement York in modern-day Maine in 1646, and “Goodwife Cornish wasted no time in reestablishing her notoriety.”
In 1644, Goodman Cornish’s body was found floating in the York River. He’d been killed in an unusual way: impaled on a stake, then placed in his canoe, which was weighted with stones. As Hearn records:
A cry of murder was raised. The sensational news swept the town and surrounding countryside. Had hostile Indians killed Richard Cornish? Probably not. Although the man’s skull had been crushed as if by a war club no one could imagine an Indian being so wasteful as to purposefully sink a good canoe. Such a craft would have been desirable plunder to an Indian. Moreover, what Indian, it was asked, would squander precious time by weighting down a canoe when he could be making good his escape? For these reasons it was determined that the murder of Richard Cornish was the work of some crafty white person. Suspicion fell upon the wife of the decedent. She had openly despised her husband. She was also rumored to have committed adultery.
Goodwife Cornish, when questioned, denied having murdered her husband.
But she admitted to multiple extramarital affairs and named her latest boyfriend as Edward Johnson. The authorities subjected both of them to “trial by touch,” acting on the old superstition that a murdered person’s corpse would bleed if the killer touched it.
When Goodwife Cornish and Goodman Johnson were brought before Richard Cornish’s body and made to touch it, blood supposedly oozed from his wounds. The ensuing trial, Hearn says, was “a farce.”
Much was made of Goodwife Cornish’s infidelity, but the only actual “evidence” against either her or Johnson was the fact that they’d both flunked the touch test. “It was reputation more than anything else,” Hearn notes, “that counted against Goodwife Cornish.”
Johnson was ultimately acquitted, but Goodwife Cornish was convicted of murder and condemned to die. Having maintained her innocence to the end, she was hanged in York.
At some unspecified day in November 1284, in Edward I’s England, Alice Bowe or Alice at the Bowe (not the garden designer of the same name) was burned at the stake for murder, and seven of the men who took part in her same crime were hanged.
Alice and sixteen others had lynched a guy who’d attacked their friend.
Alfred Marks’s 1908 book Tyburn Tree: Its History and Annals, available for free here, tells the story:
In the year 1284, the 13th of Edward I., Laurence Ducket, goldsmith, having grievously wounded one Ralph Crepin in Westcheape, fled into Bow church, to the which, in the night time, entered certain evil persons, friends unto the said Ralph, and slew the said Laurence, lying in the steeple, and then hanged him up, placing him so by the window as if he had hanged himself, and so was it found by inquisition: for the which fact Laurence Ducket, being drawn by the feet, was buried in a ditch without the City: but shortly after, by relation of a boy, who lay with the said Laurence at the time of his death, and had hid himself there for fear, the truth of the matter was disclosed.
Wherefore a certain woman, Alice atte Bowe, the mistress of Crepin, a clerk, the chief causer of the said mischief, and with her sixteen men, were imprisoned, and later, Alice was burnt, and seven were drawn and hanged, to wit, Reginald de Lanfar, Robert Pinnot, Paul de Stybbenheth, Thomas Corouner, John de Tholosane, Thomas Russel, and Robert Scott. Ralph Crepin, Jordan Godchep, Gilbert le Clerk and Geoffrey le Clerk were attainted of the felony and remained prisoners in the Tower.
The church was placed under an interdict by the archbishop: the doors and windows stopped up with thorns. But the body of Laurence was taken from the place where it lay, and given burial by the clergy in the churchyard. After a while, the bishop of Rochester, by command of the archbishop, removed the interdict.
Andre-Marie Ampere, one of the founding pioneers of electromagnetism (Ampere called the new field “electrodynamics”) lost his father to the French Revolution’s guillotines.
The father in question was Jean-Jacques Ampère, an intelligent and levelheaded man whose sense of duty outweighed his instincts of self-preservation.
He was determined to do every job he had to the best of his ability — whether the task was educating a son or discharging the office of justice of the peace — and this diligence cost him his life.
A bourgeois silk merchant (a quintessentially Lyonnais occupation), he lived with his wife and son in a tiny village outside of Lyon called Poleymieux-au-Mont-d’Or. It was there that he and his wife, who were one of only five bourgeois families in a primarily peasant population, raised the boy who would grow up to be the father of electrodynamics.
In 1782, he retired and devoted himself full-time to his children’s upbringing — particularly that of his son, whom he soon realized was not an ordinary child. Born partly of necessity (Poleymieux lacked a school) and partly of choice (Jean-Jacques had, after all, opted to move to Poleymieux, and some speculate that he wished to give his son an upbringing like the one advocated by Rousseau in Émile), André-Marie’s unorthodox education resembled what today’s DIY pedagogues might call “unschooling”: he was encouraged to take charge of his own learning, given access to his father’s library, and taught a variety of eclectic subjects according to what most held his interest at the moment.
For most children, this technique is questionable; but when your kid happens to be a genius and a polymath, it works just fine. André-Marie was an audodidact and proactive in his learning, which would be a force for good in his life: as we’ll see, it was what pulled him out of his depression after his father’s death.
When the Bastille fell in 1789, not much changed at first. Jean-Jacques embraced the ideals of the Revolution and even wrote a play called Artaxerxe ou le Roi constitutionnel [Artaxerxe or the constitutional king], which James Hofmann, author of André-Marie Ampère: Enlightenment and Electrodynamics, sees as a parable containing Revolutionary themes.
A month after the fall of the Bastille, he lost his job as local aristocrat Guillin Dumontet’s procureur fiscal (a “judicial and administrative position,” according to Hofmann). Then, in the fall of 1791, he took another bureaucratic job: justice of the peace and “presiding legal functionary for the police tribunal” in Lyon. He may have done it voluntarily, out of sincere political fervor; but he may also have done it to protect his family, since his former boss, Guillin Dumontet, had been beheaded and partially cannibalized by his peasants a few months prior. If he had indeed taken this post for the good of his family, his plan backfired horribly…
The Revolution ran counter to the grain of Lyonnais culture for a number of historical reasons (the strong Catholic tradition and the silk trade being two of them). More immediately, famine and taxes had not disposed the people of Lyon towards the local Revolutionary government — particularly the far-left Jacobin faction, which continuously struggled for control of the city.
When the Jacobins seized power in March 1793, they provoked opposition from Girondins and royalists alike, and on May 29 important members of the Jacobin leadership were arrested. Among those apprehended was Joseph Chalier, head of a major Jacobin club known as the “Central Club.” Someone had to open the case against Chalier, and that someone was Jean-Jacques Ampère.
In spite of the Convention’s attempts at negotiation (which quickly turned to threats), Chalier was sentenced to death on July 16 and guillotined the next day. It was not Jean-Jacques who condemned Chalier to death — that does not appear to have been part of his job — but it was he who sent out the warrant for his arrest, and this was more than enough to get him sentenced to death when the political tides turned. (If the judges who actually sentenced Chalier to death — Cozon, Pourret, Régnier, and Maret — were ever punished, I haven’t found any evidence for it.)
Paris responded by placing Lyon under siege on August 9, and two months later, the city surrendered to the Convention. Rather than flee, Jean-Jacques remained in the city, resolved to see his duty through to the bitter end. Throughout the siege, he instructed his wife not to tell their children of the danger he was in. When Lyon was taken, he was immediately arrested, and in the six weeks he spent in prison, he had little doubt about his fate.
Trial and execution
Much of his trial is preserved in court documents. They refer to Lyon as “Ville-Affranchie” — “Liberated City,” the name Bertrand Barère gave to the town before declaring, “Lyon has made war against liberty; Lyon is no more” — so you know they mean business.
During his interrogation, Ampère père was accused not only of having issued the warrant for Chalier’s arrest, but also of having sentenced male and female Jacobin club members to public humiliation and having their eyebrows shaved off, respectively — as well as just generally having been a jerk to Jacobin detainees during interrogations.
The responses he gives show a man resolved to keep both his pride and his honor in the face of certain death, a functionary convinced that he had committed no wrong. Ampère admits to having had Chalier arrested but vehemently denies the other charges. He was also asked if he had left his post and/or sent a revocation to Paris, and responded that he had kept his post and had “no revocation to make.” This probably sealed his fate.
Interrogation of Jean-Jacques Ampère, 61 years of age, justice of the peace of the canton of Halle-aux-Blés, residing in Lyon, Quai Saint-Antoine, Number 44. — Responses he gave.
I was in Lyon during the siege.
I never had any correspondence with the so-called constituent authorities in Lyon.
Question: You are accused of having filed the whole procedure against the patriots, of having been president of the correctional police during the whole time of the counter-Revolution, and of having judged those who had committed no crime other than belonging to the [Jacobin] club, sentencing the men to be tied to the post [this refers to a punishment formally known as "exhibition," which was sort of like the pillory] and the women to having their eyebrows cut off; of having condemned, among others, Cadet Rufard, member of the [Jacobin] club, to six months of imprisonment for having sought bread for his brother, put in chains on May 29. You are reproached with having said to all of those whom you interrogated, “You are scoundrels, you people with your clubs; you had agents all the way out in the country, and your plot was the destruction of honest people.” In a word, you are accused of the assassination of the virtuous Chalier, since it was you who filed the first procedure, and it’s thanks to your arrest warrant that he mounted the scaffold.
Response: I never had any part in the judgments against patriots, men or women, which pronounced the sentence of pillory against the men and shaved eyebrows against the women; I admit to having filed the procedure against Citizen Chalier, on the declaration that had been made to me on May 27 by the public prosecutor who had the right to provoke my ministry; I also made several investigations against certain municipal officers after May 29, and in ruling on these procedures, I followed the law in sending back the accused in the presence of the director of the jury, the indictment alone regulating the jurisdiction. I conformed to the investigation of the functions of police officers who are uniformly employed to gather the vestiges of crimes and send the judgment back to the courts who should be informed of them. The circumstances were such that prudence joined with my sense of duty in making me carry out the measure indicated by the law. Before ruling on the procedure against the municipal officers, I had also ruled on the fate of a municipal named Sautemouche. I let him out under an oath to return, and soon after his release, the unfortunate Sautemouche succumbed to the blows of malicious persons. He was murdered, and most of the sections shouted for my arrest, because I had obeyed my conscience and my opinion by delivering an innocent man.
Question: Did you leave Lyon and did you send your revocation to the Committee of Public Safety, according to the law?
Response: I have no revocation to make.
Question: Did you continue your functions during the siege in a city in revolt?
Response: Yes, from May 27 until the beginning of August.
Question: Did you issue the warrant for Chalier’s arrest?
Response: Yes, on June 7.
On November 22, the same day as his trial (other sources give the date as November 23, 24 or 25, but I’m going by the date of execution given in legal documents), he was guillotined in Place Bellecour along with three men who appear not to have been involved in the affair: Étienne Chazottier, a lawyer and the president and secretary of the “permanent section” (a local political office), for “offenses against patriots”; Pierre-Elisabeth Chaponnay, an aristocrat, for “giving considerable sums to, and favoring the plans of, counterrevolutionaries”; and Jean Freidière, a geometer and secretary of the “surveillance committee” — no crime given. Ampère was 61 years old.
My dear angel, I have received your comforting letter; it was a life-giving balm to the emotional wounds that had been inflicted on my soul by my regret at being misunderstood by my fellow-citizens, who have denied me, through the most cruel separation, a homeland that I have cherished so much and whose prosperity is so close to my heart. I wish for my death to be the seal of a general reconciliation between our fellow-men. I pardon those who rejoice in it, those who caused it, and those who ordered it. I have reason to believe that the national vengeance, of which I am one of the most innocent victims, will not extend to the few possessions that have been sustaining us, thanks to your wise money-saving and our frugality, which was your favorite virtue … After my trust in the Eternal, to whose breast I hope will be taken that which remains of me, my sweetest consolation is that you will cherish my memory as much as I cherished you. That much is owed me. If from my home in Eternity, where our dear daughter has preceded me, I am able to attend to things on earth, you and my dear children will be the object of my care and concern. May they enjoy a better fate than their father and always have before their eyes the fear of God, that salutary fear that makes innocence and justice act on our hearts in spite of the fragility of our nature! … Do not speak to Josephine [André-Marie's younger sister, then about eight years old] of her father’s misfortune — make sure she does not know about it; as for my son, there is nothing I do not expect of him. As long as you have them, and they have you, embrace each other in my memory: I leave you all my heart.
The author then explains that “There follow a few pieces of advice concerning the household economy, notes about paying off debts, and meticulous scruples regarding antique probity, signed with these words: J.-J. Ampère, husband, father, friend, and forever-faithful citizen.”
He continues with a sentiment shared by most nineteenth-century commentators on this affair: “Thus died, with resignation, with grandeur, and expressing himself almost as Jean-Jacques [Rousseau] would have been able to, this simple man, this reclusive merchant, this justice of the peace from Lyon. He died like so many members of the National Assembly, like so many Girondins, sons of [the spirit of] ’89 and ’91, children of the Revolution, devoured by it, but pious to the end, and not cursing it!”
We are also treated to some of Ampère’s actual notes (it would have been nice if Sainte-Beuve had just reprinted them in their entirety instead of only snatches): “It is impossible, my dear friend, for me to leave you rich, or even moderately comfortable; you cannot attribute this to my bad conduct nor to any spendthrift behavior. My greatest expense was the purchase of books and geometrical instruments which our son could not do without; but that expense was itself a bargain, because he never had any tutor except for himself.”
The Jacobins greatly spun the proceedings against Ampère; in a November 25 letter to the Convention, Collot d’Herbois and Fouché claimed that: “It was liberty that they wanted to assassinate in killing Chalier; his executioners have confessed it; before coming under the blade of justice, they were heard to say that they were dying for the king, that they had wanted to give him a successor.” It goes without saying that there is no reason to believe that Ampère said any such thing on the scaffold—he lived and died a Republican.
To say the execution was a shock to the eighteen-year-old André-Marie would be an understatement.
He never truly recovered from the death of his father, which was neither the first nor the last personal tragedy that would befall him; his older sister Antoinette had died a year earlier, and he would also lose his first wife after only four years of marriage. James Hofmann points out in Enlightenment and Electrodynamics that Jean-Jacques was André-Marie’s only link to the world outside Poleymieux, where he was socially isolated in addition to being intellectually stimulated (his undersocialization did indeed have a permanent effect; he was extremely awkward all his life).
Although André-Marie made a “return to normalcy” through study, he was scarred for life; Hofmann asserts that the event “contributed to the permanently melancholy cast of his adult temperament.”
After hearing the news, André-Marie became catatonic for a year; according to his friend and fellow-scientist François Arago, “The blow was too hard; it was beyond the strength of a young man of eighteen: Ampère was shattered. His intellectual faculties, so active, so intense, so developed, suddenly gave way to a veritable idiocy. He spent his days mechanically contemplating the earth and sky, or making little heaps of sand.”
Yikes. Arago claims that André-Marie was able to snap out of it with the help of Rousseau’s writings on, of all things, botany: “This lethargy of all moral and intellectual feeling had lasted for more than a year, when the letters of J.-J. Rousseau, on botany, came into Ampère’s hands. The limpid and harmonious language of this work entered the soul of the sick young man and partially gave him his nerves back, as the rays of the rising sun pierce the thick fogs of morning and bring life to the heart of plants stiff from the night’s chill.” With that, Ampère’s intellectual life reawakened; he began to study, and eventually became more or less functional — although, according to Hofmann, direct discussion of the event remained a taboo subject.
Indirect references are another matter; he named his son Jean-Jacques, in memory of his father and also, some speculate, as an homage to Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
On this day in 2011, multi-filicide Reginald Brooks was executed in the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio.* He was the fifth man executed that year and, at 66, the oldest since 1999.
Brooks (top) and the children he murdered.
Although his guilt was never in question, he had spent close to thirty years on death row while his appeals wound their way through the system.
On March 6, 1982, just days after his wife filed for divorce, Brooks shot their three sleeping sons: Reginald Jr., 17, Vaughn, 15, and Niarchos, 11. He then bought a bus ticket to Las Vegas, taking the gun with him in his suitcase, as well as his birth certificate and high school diploma. The police caught up with him in Utah.
Brooks had some history of domestic violence, but his only prior arrest had been for grand theft. His aunt, when asking the appeals board for clemency, said he had a normal, loving relationship with his children. Before shooting them all in their sleep, that is.
His attorneys argued that his crimes were motivated by mental illness, namely paranoid schizophrenia. Brooks had a normal childhood and young adulthood, but started to fall apart in the years prior to the murders. He quit his job in the 1970s because he thought his coworkers were trying to poison him. (He never worked again and his wife had to support their family.)
Beginning around 1980, he began isolating himself from friends and family, and accused his wife of committing incest with Reginald Jr. The family tried to get psychiatric help for him, to no avail.
In spite of overwhelming evidence, Brooks never admitted to his crime and suggested various bizarre theories as to what had really happened. A psychiatrist who evaluated him in 2010 and 2011 believed Brooks genuinely could not remember shooting his sons.
There was, however, clear evidence of premeditation: Brooks had purchased the murder weapon nine days before the murders, lying on his application form where it asked if he’d ever been convicted of a felony. He also turned on the stereo in his apartment and left the music blaring loudly, presumably to drown out the sound of the gunshots. Then, after the murders, Brooks immediately left town, taking documents he would need to start a new life — clearly suggesting cognizance of guilt.
The prosecution conceded Brooks did have schizophrenia, but argued that his illness was not so severe as to make him incompetent or legally insane, and that he was lying when he said he couldn’t remember committing the murders. Attorneys for the state suggested he murdered his children to spite his wife, “through a twisted sense of jealousy, hatred, or despair.”
Brooks’s ex-wife, Beverly, witnessed his execution. He had no last words, but he did give a message: glaring at the glass behind which the witnesses were standing, he stuck out the middle fingers of both hands. And as he slowly lost consciousness and breathed his last, his middle fingers still stood erect.
On this date in 1888, after a hearty breakfast of beefsteak, eggs, sweet potatoes and coffee, William Showers became the eighth man judicially hanged in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania.
He had been condemned for the murder of his grandson, William “Willie” Kahler. An account of his trial and death, assembled by the Lebanon County Historical Society, describes the condemned man as he appeared on the day of his execution: “The aged Bill Showers [he was sixty-two] looked like what he was, a pathetic soul. He was only five feet two inches in height and weighed less than one hundred twenty-five pounds.”
Showers had been dealt a hard hand in life, and he didn’t have a good reputation among his neighbors in the village of Annville. Much to the shame of the family, his only daughter Sara had borne six children out of wedlock. Sara died young in 1886, and her father was left in charge of two of her children: six-year-old Willie Kahler and his brother, Samuel “Sammy” Speraw, age four. (What happened to the other four children has not been recorded.)
Bill Showers was a widower by then. For about six months, with the help of his son and his daughter-in-law, Showers did the best he could to provide a home for his grandsons.
But in April 1887, Showers’s son and his wife stopped helping him care for Willie and Sammy. Bill had never wanted the boys in the first place, and he couldn’t afford to feed them on his own.
For about a month the three of them lived alone and Bill tried to get someone to take the children off his hands. He tried a few different foster homes, but he couldn’t afford to pay the foster parents for the boys’ keep. He took them to an orphanage, but they were refused admission. The county almshouse rejected them also.
Bitter and desperate, Bill complained to a friend, “If no one will take them, I have one place to put them. I won’t be a damned fool and raise other people’s children.”
In mid-May, however, Showers’s normally sulky and reclusive attitude suddenly changed and he went to the neighbors and cheerfully announced that he had finally found another home for the children. Two brothers in Schuylkill County were willing to adopt them and take them to Texas to start a new life, and they would be out of Bill’s hair forever. Showers asked his daughter-in-law to mend the boys’ clothing in preparation for their journey.
Then, on May 17, he borrowed the local minister’s buggy and set off over the mountains to Sammy and Willie’s new adoptive home. A few of the neighbors noticed Showers riding out of town that morning. They also noticed that he was alone.
By May 30, the good citizens of Annville were suspicious enough to go to the local constable, Joseph Fegan. When Fegan questioned Showers as to the whereabouts of his grandchildren, Bill told them a most extraordinary story: on the way to Schuykill County, he said, he’d encountered two black men and asked them for directions.
He then stopped to water his horses, letting the children out of the buggy as he did so. When he returned to the wagon, Willie and Sammy were gone. He believed they’d been abducted by the two black men. But he never reported their disappearances, he said, because he was “too upset.”
No one believed this wild story, and the people of Annville organized search parties to look for the two children, whom they were sure had been murdered. They found their tiny, nearly naked bodies that very same day, in a ditch only about 70 yards from Showers’s house. They had both been beaten and strangled to death.
Showers was arrested, charged with murder and lodged in the county jail. Which was just as well for him, because his neighbors were inclined to lynch him. His son hired a very able local attorney, Frank Seltzer, to defend him. Seltzer selected Frank Lanz, a former state senator, as co-counsel.
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania charged the defendant only with the murder of Willie. The idea was that if they lost that case, they could go forward and try Showers for the murder of Sammy.
The trial date was in mid-June, and the first thing Showers’s attorneys did was move that it be delayed. As the Lebanon County Historial Society puts it:
Seltzer…had a different view of the situation. He rose and objected to the call of the case with a voice that could be heard in the county jail one-half block away. Promptly and resignedly, his tone of voice changed. As if explaining a baptismal font to a heathen, he told the judges that he and Senator Lantz had been retained for less than a week. Their request for a continuance was not made :in the spirit of vexatious delay” but rather for lack of time to prepare the case for trial and, of prime importance, the inability to have a fair trial in the county at the time in light of the prevailing rumors. Adverse pretrial publicity, pleaded Seltzer, rendered a fair trial impossible at this time.
[The prosecutor] Ehrgood replied to Seltzer that he had been given prompt notice he was going to press for immediate trial and Seltzer would have ample time to prepare, since it was only Monday and he would not be ready for trial until the following Thursday. This was a concession which Seltzer and Lantz hardly appreciated.
The judge agreed with the defense, and set a new trial date for September. This would give time for his lawyers to prepare, and maybe for the rumor mill to stop spinning. These were some of the stories floating around:
Seltzer murdered his wife in 1886.
He also killed his daughter Sara, Willie and Sammy’s mother.
He was in love with a local seamstress, Elizabeth Sargent, and killed his family members to get them out of the way so he could marry her.
The press didn’t help matters.
Headlines in the local papers included shockers like “Annville the Scene of a Murder Most Foul!” and “William Showers Dyes His Hands with His Grandchildren’s Blood!”
During the summer of 1887, Showers’s attorney, Seltzer, fell ill and was confined to bed, unable to assist with the defense. It seemed unlikely that the trial would really take place in September. Perhaps Showers couldn’t stand the suspense anymore, for on September 23 he summoned his sons Stephen and William Jr. to the jail, along with the lawyer Luther F. Houck.
Showers made an oral confession to all of them, speaking in his native German, and Houck wrote it down and translated it into English.
The substance of Showers’s confession was that Elizabeth Sargent had agreed to marry him on the condition that he got rid of the boys, and they had agreed to kill them. Elizabeth, he said, helped him strangle Willie and Sammy and dump their bodies in a pre-dug grave.
In court later that day, Showers pleaded guilty to both murders, and his confession was read out for everyone to hear. Elizabeth Sargent was in the audience and she leaped up and shouted, “That’s a lie!” The judge had her removed from the courtroom. The next day she and her parents took a train out of town. Because Showers had implicated her and the police weren’t sure as to whether she was involved in the children’s deaths, the court issued a bench warrant for her arrest.
The townspeople, however, didn’t believe Showers’s second story any more than they had his first one. They were convinced of Elizabeth’s innocence. She subsequently reappeared and presented an alibi, proving she had not been with Showers on the dates he specified in his statement.
When he heard the news about his client, Selzer rose from his sickbed and rushed to court to try to undo the damage. He begged the judge not to accept the guilty plea. In private, Showers told his attorney the confession was completely untrue and he made up the story because he’d been sick and weak, and people who visited him in jail told him he would be hanged if he didn’t own up to what he did.
Selzer’s argument persuaded the judge: Showers’s guilty plea was withdrawn. He finally went to trial on December 15, 1887.
He testified on his own behalf and gave yet another bizarre story, this time implicating a local man named George Matterness and his dead daughter Sara’s husband, a man named Huffnagle. He said Matterness and Hufnagle, along with two other men in blackface, had visited Showers’s home on the night of May 17 and lead Willie and Sammy out of the house. Matterness, Showers said, had later told him the children were buried in the ditch. Showers had told no one about this before because Hufnagle had repeatedly threatened his life.
The prosecution immediately called George Matterness as a rebuttal witness. Matterness, a teacher, freely admitted he knew Showers slightly, but said the whole story was a lie and he was baffled as to why the old man would have implicated him.
Given the circumstances, it’s surprising the jury actually deliberated till midnight and then on to 8:00 a.m. the next morning before pronouncing Showers guilty.
He told Seltzer, “I’m glad they didn’t find me innocent so they can’t go ahead and try me on the indictment for the murder of Sammy.” He expressed hope that he would prevail on appeal, but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied him and the governor quickly issued a death warrant.
Three hundred people were allowed into the prison courtyard to witness the execution. Thousands more clogged the streets around the jail into a “solid mass of morbid minded humanity bent on seeing Bill Showers tripped into endless time.”
The morbid mass got its wish. The small, slight man fell only three feet, and his neck was not broken. He strangled slowly for seventeen minutes.
As Showers’s sons all refused to take custody of the body, he was buried on the grounds of the county almshouse. This was the same institution that had refused to accept his grandsons, an act that would have saved their lives.
Although his crimes were committed in Australia and were not war-related, he was court-martialed and sentenced to die under American military law.
This was the first and last time a foreign national who committed crimes in Australia was tried and sentenced under the laws of their own country. Eddie was only the second U.S. serviceman to be executed in World War II. (The first, James Rowe, had been convicted of murdering another soldier and was hanged in Arizona just three weeks earlier.)
Known as the “Brownout Strangler” due to his penchant for attacking women at night on Melbourne’s dimly lit streets, Leonski killed three people and assaulted several others of the course of just over two weeks, from May 3 to May 18, 1942. He said he was fascinated by women’s singing and killed his victims to “get at their voices.”
Leonski was born in New Jersey in 1917, the sixth child of Polish/Russian immigrant parents, and grew up in New York City. Crime historian Harold Schechter notes he had the kind of unstable childhood, dysfunctional family background and mommy issues typical of serial killers:
Both [parents were] confirmed alcoholics. He was seven when his father abandoned the family. Not long afterward, his mother, Amelia, took up with another drunkard. She herself suffered at least two mental breakdowns, severe enough to land her in Bellevue, where she was diagnosed with both manic-depression and incipient schizophrenia. From an early age, three of his brothers were chronic troublemakers, eventually racking up lengthy rap sheets. One of them ended up in a state institution, where he lived out his life.
According to all accounts, Eddie was the apple of his unstable mother’s eye. He, in turn, had the kind of deeply disturbing attachment to her found in other homicidal mama’s boys.
On the surface Eddie seemed to have risen above his origins. He began weight-lifting in adolescence and eventually developed an impressive physique. Following high school he took a three-year stenography course and graduated in the top ten percent of his class. He was a promising employee at a Manhattan supermarket chain before he was drafted into the Army in 1941.
Leonski didn’t do nearly so well in the military: although he was reliable and charming when sober, he drank heavily and was unstable and aggressive when under the influence. As a result, he was always in some minor trouble or another.
But there was a war on and the United States was not in a position to be picky about who would serve. Eddie was sent to Australia in early 1942.
Only weeks after his arrival, he began attacking women and trying to choke them. The first few times, he was interrupted and had to flee before he could accomplish his purpose. Then his crime spree was interrupted in the last week of March after he went AWOL on a six-day bender and was thrown into the brig for a month. As soon as he got out he began stalking women again.
At 2:00 a.m. on May 3, an extremely intoxicated Leonski encountered 40-year-old Ivy Violet McLeod waiting for a streetcar near a dry cleaner’s. He strangled her to death and ripped off her clothing, but was scared away when he heard footsteps.
McLeod’s body was found several hours later: “legs wide apart and feet tucked under her thighs, with genitals exposed.” Her killer had not had time to rape her.
A week later, Eddie was in a restaurant when he struck up a conversation with 31-year-old Pauline Buchan Thompson, a policeman’s wife and mother of two. They went to a bar after dinner and spent several hours talking and drinking.
Close to midnight, Eddie offered to escort her home. On the way, Mrs. Thompson started drunkenly singing.
“She had a nice voice,” he said in his confession. He got angry when she stopped: “I got mad and then tore at her, I tore her apart.”
A few hours later a night watchman found her body on the very steps of her boardinghouse. Like Mrs. McLeod, she was nearly nude with her legs splayed, but had not been raped.
Hours later, a hung-over Eddie Leonski was nursing the hair of the dog that bit him when he told a fellow soldier what he’d done. He made more statements about the two murders over the next few days, but his friend didn’t believe him and told no one what Leonski was saying — time during which Leonski made three more unsuccessful assaults on women.
Eddie’s friend finally took him seriously on the morning of May 19, after the body of 41-year-old Gladys Lillian Hosking was found sprawled in a patch of yellow mud outside Camp Pell, where the American soldiers were stationed.
The previous night, Eddie had come in after midnight, slathered head to toe in the same yellow mud. Too drunk to clean himself up (he’d consumed an incredible thirty beers and seven whiskeys that day), he just shed his soiled clothes and collapsed into bed.
Leonski’s friend finally went to the cops.
When he was arrested, Eddie made no pretense of innocence: he quickly confessed, and various witnesses to his aborted attacks identified him. (That said, Ivan Chapman’s out-of-print book on Leonski makes the point that the evidence against him might not really have held up without those confessions: 1940s forensics techniques would not have yielded a positive match to a victim from his bloodstained trousers, and the yellow mud could easily have been picked up innocently by any drunken G.I. who stumbled traversing the trench.)
Fredric Wertham, a noted forensic psychiatrist who never met Leonski, believed he was insane and the murders were prompted by his twisted relationship with his mother:
That his three victims were all women considerably older than he was is psychiatrically most significant. He unconsciously linked their voices with his mother. The whole psychological explosion occurred in a period of deprivation when he was away from home and separated from his mother — but not from her dominating image. The deeds constituted symbolic matricide.
Very Norman Batesian.
Army psychiatrists, however, believed that while Eddie Leonski was certainly a psychopath, he was not psychotic and was fully aware of the wrongfulness of his acts. Douglas MacArthur personally signed the death warrant.
Eddie maintained a positive, chipper attitude awaiting execution. He spent his time memorizing Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol, and converted to Catholicism, and went to the gallows singing a popular song that was called, ironically, “It’s a Lovely Day Tomorrow.”
On November 7, 1918, mere days before the end of World War I, British privates Louis Harris and Ernest Jackson were shot for desertion and cowardice. Jackson, of the 24th Battalion Royal Fusiliers, and Harris, of the 10th Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment, were the last British soldiers shot for military offenses in the First World War.
Jackson had been conscripted into the military in July 1916 and sent to France in November. He first ran into trouble in April 1917, when he went AWOL for 28 hours and was sentenced to two years in prison. In most cases the sentence would have been suspended, but for some reason that didn’t happen with Jackson and he spent sixteen months behind bars before he was released and returned to his battalion in August 1918.
A little over a month later, on September 29, he disappeared from his battalion transport lines near Flesquières, where he’d been sick and waiting to be sent to the field ambulance.
Arrested on October 3, Jackson got sent back to the to the 24th Battalion, which was then at Noyelles, 3,000 yards from the front lines. By mid-afternoon he had dropped out of sight again, but was arrested by the military police the next day at Douellens. On October 8, Jackson’s NCO found his arms and equipment in a shelter not far from where he’d gone missing.
Jackson faced a Field General Court Martial (FGCM) on three charges:
Going AWOL on September 29
Deserting on October 4
“Shamefully casting away his arms, ammunition and equipment in the presence of the enemy” on October 4
When asked to explain himself before the tribunal, Jackson said, “I left because I could not stand the treatment I was receiving. I wanted to get away from everything … I have been looked down on by everyone and that is the cause of my being here today.” He added that both his parents had died in insane asylums and he himself suffered from “mental problems caused by worries.”
The FGCM would have none of it and sentenced Jackson to death. He was shot at St. Python in northern France at 6:10 a.m. He was 32 years old.
Nineteen minutes later and 25 kilometers away, at Locquignol, Private Louis Harris faced the firing squad.
Harris had volunteered for the Army in 1915, but was discharged as unfit. He got conscripted in 1916, however, and was sent to France in July, where he served as part of a Lewis gun team. On September 2, in the middle of an attack at Rocquigny, while there was “no firing and practically no opposition,” Harris ditched his kit and his comrades and vanished. He was arrested the next day and faced an FGCM for desertion and cowardice.
Harris — surprisingly … was not defended at his trial and made no attempt to cross-examine any of the witnesses, nor did he make a statement in his own defence. It would appear that the 23-year-old soldier either did not understand the seriousness of his position, or was resigned to his fate.
He was found not guilty of cowardice, but guilty of desertion, and his bad record (which included repeated charges of insubordination) was held against him. His CO wrote, “Pte. Harris L. has not got a good record in this Battalion. His fighting value is NIL.” The Brigade Commander agreed, summing up his case thusly:
I recommend that the extreme penalty be carried out for the following reasons:
Pte. Harris’s action was deliberate.
He has previously attempted to desert unsuccessfully.
He is worthless as a soldier.
During an action he deliberately abandoned his comrades.
His example is a disgraceful one.
Harris’s execution was, as previously stated, the last. Four days later on November 11, the war ended and all death sentences for military offenses were commuted to penal servitude. In 1929 the death penalty was abolished for desertion and other military crimes.
This entry in our Corpses Strewn series on the October 1698 extirpation of the Streltsy is courtesy of the diaries of Austrian diplomat Johann Georg Korb, an eyewitness to the events.
Again, in front of the Kremlin Castle two others, whose thighs and extremities had been broken, and who were tied alive to the wheel, with horrid lamentations throughout the afternoon and the following night, closed their miserable existence in the utmoft agony. One of them, the younger of the two, survived amidst his enduring tortures until noon the following day. The Czar dined at his cafe (commode) with the Boyar Leo Kirilowicz Narefkin, all the representatives and the Czar’s ministers being present. The successive and earnest supplications of all present induced the monarch, who was long reluctant, to give command to that Gabriel who is so well known at his court that an end might be put with a ball to the life and pangs of the criminal that still continued breathing.
For the remainder of the rebels, who were still guarded in places round about, their respective places of confinement were also their places of execution, lest by collecting them all together this torturing and butchery in the one place of such a multitude of men, should smell of tyranny. And especially left the minds of the citizens, already terror-stricken at so many melancholy exhibitions of their perishing fellow men should dread every kind of cruelty from their sovereign.
But considering the daily perils to which the Czar’s Majesty was hitherto exposed, without an hour’s security, and hardly escaping from many snares, he was very naturally always in great apprehension of the exceeding treachery of the Strelitz, so that he fairly concluded not to tolerate a single Strelitz in his empire, — to banish all of them that remained to the farthest confines of Muscovy after having almost extirpated the very name. In the provinces, leave was given to any that preferred to renounce military service for ever, and with the consent of the Voivodes to addict themselves to domestic services. Nor were they quite innocent: for the officers that were quartered in the camp at Azov to keep ward against the hostile inroads of the enemy, told how they were never secure, and hourly expected an atrocious outbreak of treason from the Strelitz; nor was there any doubt but that they had very ambiguous sympathies for the fortunes of the other rebels. All the wives of the Strelitz were commanded to leave the neighbourhood of Moscow, and thus experienced the consequences of the crimes of their husbands. It was forbidden by Ukase, under penalty of death, for any person to keep any of them or afford them Secret harbour, unless they would send them out of Moscow to serve upon their estates.