Both men had in their day been instrumental to winning the independence (de facto, if not yet de jure) that the Low Countries were already enjoying: laandsadvocaat van Oldenbarnevelt as the commanding political personality holding together the potentially fractious provinces in the 1580s and 1590s; stadtholder Maurice as the great general* of those provinces, whose sword-arm in the 1590s and 1600s more or less staked out the borders of the present-day Netherlands.
Thanks to their good offices, the once-desperate Dutch Revolt had triumphed in all but name, and in the 1610s paused to savor the fruits of victory during the Twelve Years’ Truce.**
Increasingly after 1600, the two developed a rivalry that was both personal, and political, andreligious — for in their prominence they also became the chief exponents of the neighborhood schism, van Oldenbarnevelt championing the Remonstrants or Arminians (they remonstrated against some Calvinist doctrines) and Maurice upholding the orthodox Counter-Remonstrants or Gomarist side. The conflict was no joke; the States of Holland at van Oldenbarnevelt’s urging went so far as to hire its own mercenary army, knowing that it could not trust the national army commanded by the Counter-Remonstrant William. William secured the support of the States-General to forcibly disband this rival militia in July 1618† — and from that point until his death in 1625, William was the strongman in the Low Countries.
And van Oldenbarnevelt, well — he got the kangaroo court. See?
Tried by a special (dubiously legal) court comprised of enemies, the grizzled pol was condemned to death as a traitor. On May 13, the day he went to the block at the Binnenhof in The Hague, his home province the States of Holland saluted him as “a man of great business, activity, memory and wisdom — yes, extra-ordinary in every respect.”
He who stands, let him take care that he does not fall
Detail view (click for the full image) of a 17th century engraving of Johan van Oldenbarnevelt’s beheading.
Van Oldenbarnevelt’s son Reinier, lord of Groeneveld was beheaded in 1623 for conspiring to assassinate Maurice in revenge for his father’s execution.
* Maurice of Orange was recognized in his time as perhaps Europe’s greatest and most innovative commander. His introduction of infantry volley fire and highly disciplined drill regimens revolutionized the battlefield — and made the Dutch very difficult for their Spanish masters to handle.
The Indian Ocean island-nation Mauritius, discovered by Dutch explorers in 1598, was named for him.
** Posterity has the luxury of hindsight knowledge that although war would resume for the Low Countries in 1621, the peace of Westphalia would secure an independent Netherlands. However, already during the Twelve Years’ Truce the place was acting as an independent country, and some other states formally recognized it as such.
† One of van Oldenbarnevelt’s supporters was international law pioneer Hugo Grotius. Grotius was clapped in prison with van Oldenbarnevelt’s fall in 1618; he famously escaped this dungeon in 1621 by hiding in a chest of books and lived out his scribbling days in France.
The Sheffield & Rotherham Independent, Feb. 8, 1868:
FRIGHTFUL CRIMES IN DUMFRIES-SHIRE
On Sunday, the Scotch police apprehended in Carlisle, Robert Smith, whitewasher, aged 20, for an awful crime. On Saturday evening, near Cummertrees, Dumfries-shire, he took a girl, aged 14, into a wood, where he robbed her of 7s. 6d., hung her to a tree, and when dead cut her body down. Afterwards he entered a cottage at Longford, and stabbed a woman named Jane Paterson so fearfully about the neck that death is expected.
The following are additional particulars of this shocking crime: — A murder bearing a horrible resemblance to that lately committed at Alton has just startled the county of Dumfries. It appears that on Saturday afternoon, between 3 and 4 o’clock, a young man, named Smith, who earns a living by jobbing and labouring about the country, was observed by a woman, named Patterson, to take into a wood near to Cummertrees, a village between Annan and Dumfies, a girl, about fourteen years of age.
The woman, as it turned out, had been observed by the ruffian, for some time afterwards he entered her house at Longford-cottages and felled her to the ground. While down he attacked her with his knife and inflicted five stabs about her neck. Her cries alarmed three young men who were passing, and who rushed in to her assistance. The ruffian had meanwhile escaped.
On the poor woman recovering, she related what she had seen near the wood. Information was given at the nearest police-station, and on the party going to the wood they saw a horrible sight. The girl with whom the villain had been seen was found to have been robbed and murdered, after another atrocious crime had been committed. The murderer had hanged her up to a tree & then cut down her body.
Pursuit was at once commenced, and Smith was apprehended on Sunday. He had gone to a farm-house, where blood was observed on his clothes, and in his pocket was found a leather shoelace tied in a noose. There is little doubt that he is the murderer.
The atrocious affair has created the utmost horror. Another account states that the poor little girl is the daughter of a shoemaker at Cummertrees, named Scott, and that she was going to Annan to purchase groceries; that she stopped for shelter at a cottae on the road, and the supposed murderer, Robert Smith, a farm labourer, aged 20, known in the neighbourhood, arranged to accompany her. The man and girl left the cottage together at noon, and the latter was never seen alive again. It was 3 in the afternoon before Smith returned to the cottage and made the murderous attack upon the woman, with the design, as it is supposed, of preventing her from giving evidence against him.
Some additional facts have come to light.
It appears that the prisoner had, after murdering the little girl, gone on to Annan, and there purchased a pistol, with the necessary ammunition, such as powder, shot, and caps. The pistol has since been found in Longford Cottage, and the woman, who can tell a short story, states that after being struc she heard a pistol fired off, though she was stunned at the time.
Robert Smith, or Colvan, the perpetrator of the shocking outrage, is a native of Eaglesfield, near Kirtlebridge, in the county of Dumfiresshire. His mother died when he was about eight years of age. He was then taken charge of by an uncle, named Michael Smith, whose name he has since borne, though Colvan is his right name.
At the age of nine he was cast on the world to fight for himself. He commenced to work about some limekilns in the neighbourhood, and subsequently as a farm servant. During last harvest he found work on Longford Farm, where also the husband of the woman he so brutally mangled was employed.
Mrs. Creighton is progressing more favourably than was at first anticipated, and hopes are now entertained of her recovery.
Nottinghamshire Guardian, Apr. 24, 1868:
THE DUMFRIESSHIRE MURDER.
At the Dumfries Spring Court of Justiciary on Tuesday, Robert Smith, alias Colwin, was charged with the murder, on the 1st of February last, of Thomasina Scott.
The deceased, a girl of tne, was the daughter of a small shopkeeper at Cummertrees. On the morning in question she left home to go to Annan, a neighbouring town, and on her way thither she called at the house of an acquaintance, Mrs. Creighton.
The prisoner, who was a farm labourer, was in the house at the time, and when the deceased departed he too left the house. Some distance from that place the two were seen together.
Two hours later the prisoner returned alone, made a desperate attempt on the life of Mrs. Creighton, and then fled.
Subsequently the deceased was missed and a search in a plantation in the locality discovered her violated and murdered body. Death had been caused by strangulation.
The prisoner pleaded guilty to having committed a criminal assault. — His counsel contended that he was at the time in the state of mind called “moral mania.” — The Jury returned a verdict of guilty; and the prisoner was sentenced to be hanged on the 12th May.
Cheshire Observer and Chester, Birkenhead, Crewe and North Wales Times, May 16, 1868:
EXECUTION AT DUMFRIES.
On Tuesday morning, at eight minutes past eight o’clock, Robert Smith, or Colvin, was hanged at Dumfries Goal [sic], for the murder and rape of Thomasina Scott, a girl, on the first of February last.
Since his conviction the culprit seemed thoroughly resigned to his fate, and recognised the fact that the atrocity of his crime placed the commutation of his sentence beyond the reach of hope.
He expressed contrition for what he had done, and had written to th emother of his victim, asking her pardon.
His demeanour was, however, firm, and even stolid; and though he listened with attention to the ministrations of the chaplain (the Rev. Mr. Cowans), their effect upon him was not very visible. On Monday night he took supper at seven, and the chaplain remained with him till eight; when asked, he declined to receive any other minister.
The culprit rose about six on Tuesday morning. He stated that he had slept well — never better in his life; and, while taking breakfast, he conversed about his impending death with the utmost equanimity. The county authorities assembled in the prison about half-past seven, shortly after which the executioner, Thos. Asern, of York (Calcraft being retained to hang Barrett), was introduced to the condemned man.
He submitted to the process of pinioning, and in the procession to the scaffold he walked with firmness. On the platform he never once faltered, but stood with patience while the hangman rectified an error which he had made, and through which the noose had to be taken off and readjusted.
The drop fell at eight minutes past eight; the culprit struggled and swung a little, but in two minutes the body ceased to quiver.
The weather was raw and wet, and, in consequence, the assembled crowd was small. Some women shrieked when the unfortunate youth was led up the ladder, but otherwise all was orderly.
Beginning on this May 11th, and scattered depressingly over the coming weeks, we revisit New York City’s great terrorist panic … of 1741.
This was scarcely the first security scare of New York — indeed, the city had been rocked by a major slave revolt back in 1712, a revolt that included arson.
By 1741, New York “boasted” the second-largest slave population of Britain’s North American colonies, behind only Charleston: enough souls to outnumber the city’s propertied elite should they manage to act in concert. As the cruel winter of 1741 abated, a series of fires in the city raised suspicion … and then fear … and soon, certainty … that just such a slave conspiracy was underway.
Nobody could be sure what happened, but the cold-dried tinders of a wooden city were easy prey to accidental sparks. Though devastating, the calamity was not necessarily suspicious.
The event took on a different hue when another fire broke out near the ruins of the fort the very next week, March 25. Another occurred on April 1, and yet another on April 4.
1762 illustration of New Yorkers fighting a blaze by passing water buckets to a pumping wagon.
There were 10 fires in all, plus alarming near-misses like fizzled coals left under a heap of straw, and although each was contained without devastating the city it must have seemed that the flames licked Manhattan from the very mouth of hell, convening an ever more rattled bucket brigade again and again until — as the city’s Common Council recorded in convening on April 11 — “every one that reflected on the Circumstances attending them, the Frequency of them, and the Causes yet undiscovered, must necessarily conclude, that they were occasioned and set on Foot by some villainous Confederacy of latent Enemies amongst us.”
New-York Weekly Journal, April 20, 1741
A frightened populace confronting a shadowy menace in a world at war made an environment ripe for a witch hunt. That was not quite true in the literal sense:* a half-century’s distance from the Salem trials put 1741 New Yorkers in a different philosophical universe.
But for at least 30 of New York’s slaves, and for four white people known to keep intimacy with them, the effect was much the same. Harrowed between the masters’ self-confirming fears and their fellows’ desperate accusations under duress, the plot or the “plot” staked them to flaming pyres, high gallows, and public infamy.
We will pause for the particulars of various individuals’ situations as we meet them. As to the general outline, the provincial supreme court that condemned these 30-plus souls (and inflicted various sub-lethal punishments on others) had via testimony delivered to a grand jury beginning on April 22 evolved a working theory that the black slaves who frequented a tavern kept by a white couple named John and Peggy Hughson had formed a sinister society bent on outright revolution. The allegations of the Hughsons’ servant Mary Burton, drawn from her with fear and favor, were key to the entire affair; in her words, three slaves named Caesar, Prince, and Cuffee were the architects of the plan along with Mr. Hughson and they aimed to “burn the whole town … [and] when all this was done, Caesar should be governor, and Hughson, her master, should be king.” More than that: these dark serviles should when they ruled New York have the city’s white women for their own. There is something of the Witches’ Sabbath about these specifications after all.
Whether there ever was a slave conspiracy — and if so, whether it ever compassed more than a handful of people, or rose past the level of loose words or isolated and opportunistic deeds — has never really been known. Cities have now and very much had then a susceptibility to fire, and their inhabitants a susceptibility to finding spurious patterns in noisy data.
As soon as July of that same year 1741 it was charged publicly (albeit anonymously) that those tongues of Hell had been the “merciless Flames of an Imaginary Plot,” and New Yorkers admonished that “making Bonfires of the Negros … [is] perhaps thereby loading yourselves with greater Guilt than theirs.” On the other hand — and one is reminded here of the Rorschach quality these distant and ill-documented episodes carry — the idea of an actual wide-ranging slave plot has also been valorized as working class resistance to the cruel Atlantic economy. To think, the ghost of Spartacus abroad in Manhattan! If it were, then they died like Spartacuses, too.
The first executions for New York’s 1741 fires took place on this date in 1741, several weeks before any others. They were two slaves of regal name: Caesar, the property of a baker named John Vaarck, and Prince, who was owned by the merchant John Auboyneau.
The first thing to know about these two men is that they were arrested in the first days of March … more than two weeks before fire consumed Fort George and initiated Gotham’s burning season. Though Prince was out on bail (as were the tavern owners John and Peggy Hughson, also arrested at the same time), Caesar and his white lover Peggy Kerry had been under lock and key throughout the supposed arson spree, awaiting trial for burglary.
Days prior to their arrest, they had contrived to unlock a window and steal coins plus £60 of linen merchandise from the shop of Rebecca Hogg. These men were indeed thieves, and they had a reputation in a town still intimately small (12,000 or so). Back in 1738, Caesar and Prince — along with Cuffee, who in 1741 would again be esteemed their third triumvir — had been carted shirtless through a Manhattan winter’s day, “attended by a Number of Spectators of all Degrees Ages and Sizes, and were continually complimented with Snow Balls and Dirt, and at every Corner had five Lashes with a Cowskin well laid on each of their naked black Backs.” (New York Gazette) The reason was that, in a celebratory mood, the three had broken into a pub and stolen its gin, thereafter toasting themselves the Geneva Club in celebration. They used the liquor as part of a mock initiation ceremony, travestying for their own fraternity the outlandish rites of New York’s white Freemasons. This in turn had led to them christening themselves as Black Masons.
This alliance of minor crooks was so obvious a target that the bailed-out Prince was re-arrested two days after Fort George burned, at the order of New York’s mayor. Round up the usual suspects!
They are also, collectively, the Patient Zero for that city’s epidemic of incendiary accusations. We can even date the first onset: April 22, 1741. That’s the day the Hughsons’ servant Mary Burton provided to Daniel Horsmanden‘s grand jury the crucial testimony that would cast their society as not merely deviant, but menacing. After making a great show of refusing to give evidence, Burton sang when threatened with the prospect of joining Caesar, Prince, Peggy Kerry, and the Hughsons in city hall’s cellar jail. Mary was no fool: far better the star witness in court than the undercard attraction at the gallows.
And when she started talking, she had a shocking story to tell them — one that would firmly fix upon the accused the city’s rampant rumors and speculations about a black plot.
Accordingly, she being sworn, came before the grand jury; but as they were proceeding to her examination, and before they asked her any questions, she told them she would acquaint them with what she knew relating to the goods stolen from Mr. Hogg’s, but would say nothing about the fires.
This expression thus, as it were providentially, slipping from the evidence, much alarmed the grand jury; for, as they naturally concluded, it did by construction amount to an affirmative, that she could give an account of the occasion of the several fires; and therefore, as it highly became those gentlemen in the discharge of their trust, they determined to use their utmost diligence to sift out the discovery, but still she remained inflexible, till at length, having recourse to religious topics, representing to her the heinousness of the crime which she would be guilty of, if she was privy to, and could discover so wicked a design, as the firing houses about our ears; whereby not only people’s estates would be destroyed, but many persons might lose their lives in the flames: this she would have to answer for at the day of judgment, as much as any person immediately concerned, because she might have prevented this destruction, and would not; so that a most damnable sin would lie at her door; and what need she fear from her divulging it; she was sure of the protection of the magistrates? or the grand jury expressed themselves in words to the same purpose; which arguments at last prevailed, and she gave the following evidence, which however, notwithstanding what had been said, came from her, as if still under some terrible apprehensions or restraints.
Deposition, No. 1. — Mary Burton, being sworn, deposeth,
1. “That Prince and Caesar brought the things of which they had robbed Mr. Hogg, to her master, John Hughson’s house, and that they were handed in through the window, Hughson, his wife, and Peggy receiving them, about two or three o’clock on a Sunday morning.
2. “That Caesar, Prince, and Mr. Philipse’s* negro man (Cuffee) used to meet frequently at her master’s house, and that she had heard them (the negroes) talk frequently of burning the fort; and that they would go down to the fly and burn the whole town; and that her master and mistress said, they would aid and assist them as much as they could.
3. “That in their common conversation they used to say, that when all this was done, Caesar should be governor, and Hughson, her master, should be king.
4. “That Cuffee used to say, that a great many people had too much, and others too little; that his old master had a great deal of money, but that, in a short time, he should have less, and that he (Cuffee) should have more.
5. “That at the same time when the things of which Mr. Hogg was robbed, were brought to her master’s house, they brought some indigo and bees wax, which was likewise received by her master and mistress.
6. “That at the meetings of the three aforesaid negroes, Caesar, Prince, and Cuffee, at her master’s house, they used to say, in their conversations, that when they set fire to the town, they would do it in the night, and as the white people came to extinguish it, they would kill and destroy them.
7. “That she has known at times, seven or eight guns in her master’s house, and some swords, and that she has seen twenty or thirty negroes at one time in her master’s house; and that at such large meetings, the three aforesaid negroes, Cuffee, Prince, and Caesar, were generally present, and most active, and that they used to say, that the other negroes durst not refuse to do what they commanded them, and they were sure that they had a number sufficient to stand by them.
8. “That Hughson (her master) and her mistress used to threaten, that if she, the deponent, ever made mention of the goods stolen from Mr. Hogg, they would poison her; and the negroes swore, if ever she published, or discovered the design of burning the town, they would burn her whenever they met her.
9. “That she never saw any white person in company when they talked of burning the town, but her master, her mistress, and Peggy.”
This evidence of a conspiracy, not only to burn the city, but also destroy and murder the people, was most astonishing to the grand jury, and that any white people should become so abandoned as to confederate with slaves in such an execrable and detestable purpose, could not but be very amazing to everyone that heard it; what could scarce be credited; but that the several fires had been occasioned by some combination of villains, was, at the time of them, naturally to be collected from the manner and circumstances attending them.
By the summer, Mary Burton’s credibility was shot. But for months before her fall from public confidence, the town fence’s 16-year-old servant sent many slaves and some whites too scrambling to protect themselves, unfolding a warren of defensive silences, opportunistic denials, and pay-it-forward name-naming that would flesh out the “twenty or thirty negroes” and more.
Caesar and Prince were just the low-hanging fruit. Languishing in jail and already charged with a theft that could be constructed as a capital crime, their now-certain doom became the leverage used against their white co-accused. Before they died, they would see Caesar’s lover Peggy Kerry, the mother of his son,** “admit” the plot — desperate gambit that would not in the end save her, either.
The court did not bother to keep them around for the arson trials that would come, but it was clear at Caesar and Prince’s sentencing (May 8, 1741) that it wasn’t the stolen linens that were on Judge Philipse’s mind.
I have great reason to believe, that the crimes you now stand convicted of, are not the least of those you have been concerned in; for by your general characters you have been very wicked fellows, hardened sinners, and ripe, as well as ready, for the most enormous and daring enterprises especially you, Caesar: and as the time you have yet to live is to be but very short, I earnestly advise and exhort both of you to employ it in the most diligent and best manner you can, by confessing your sins, repenting sincerely of them, and praying God of his infinite goodness to have mercy on your souls: and as God knows the secrets of your hearts, and cannot be cheated or imposed upon, so you must shortly give an account to him, and answer for all your actions; and depend upon it, if you do not truly repent before you die, there is a hell to punish the wicked eternally.
And as it is not in your powers to make full restitution for the many injuries you have done the public; so I advise both of you to do all that in you is, to prevent further mischief’s, by discovering such persons as have been concerned with you, in designing or endeavouring to burn this city, and to destroy its inhabitants. This I am fully persuaded is in your power to do if you will; if so, and you do not make such discovery, be assured God Almighty will punish you for it, though we do not:† therefore I advise you to consider this well, and I hope both of you will tell the truth.
The condemned slaves did not gratify their persecutors with any such discoveries.
MONDAY, MAY 11
Caesar and Prince were executed this day at the gallows, according to sentence. They died very stubbornly, without confessing any thing about the conspiracy; and denied they knew any thing of it to the last. The body of Caesar was accordingly hung in chains.
These two negroes bore the characters of very wicked idle fellows; had before been detected in some robberies, for which they had been publicly chastised at the whipping-post, and were persons of most obstinate and untractable tempers; so that there was no expectation of drawing any thing from them which would make for the discovery of the conspiracy, though there seemed good reason to conclude, as well from their characters as what had been charged upon them by information from others, that they were two principal ringleaders in it amongst the blacks. It was thought proper to execute them for the robbery, and not wait for the bringing them to a trial for the conspiracy, though the proof against them was strong and clear concerning their guilt as to that also; and it was imagined, that as stealing and plundering was a principal part of the he1lish scheme in agitation, amongst the inferior sort of these infernal confederates, this earnest of example and punishment might break the knot, and induce some of them to unfold this mystery of iniquity, in hopes thereby to recommend themselves to mercy, and it is probable, that with some it had this effect.
* Frederick Philipse, also one of the judges in this case. As already noted, the city was intimately small.
** An infant at the time events unfold here, the child presumably died as it disappears from the record about the time Peggy Kerry was arrested.
† Many other slaves burned for the purported conspiracy instead of “merely” hanging; this surely would have been the fate of Caesar and Prince had they been formally convicted of leading a plot to fire the city. But it’s still not quite the case that they weren’t punished for the fires: slaves being valuable property, it’s rather doubtful that they would have been executed for the linen thefts absent the subsequent security panic.
Colonial counterfeiter Owen Syllavan (Sullivan) was executed in New York on this date in 1756.
An Irish runaway, Syllavan followed an indenture to the North American colonies and wound up enlisted in the army during the French and Indian War. As a militia armorer, he picked up the smithing skills with which he would later turn out plates to to clone the colonies’ bills of exchange.
On this date in 1800, French Canadiens Joseph Baker (anglicized from Joseph Boulanger), Peter Peterson (LeCroix), and Joseph Berouse hanged in Philadelphia for a murderous mutiny.
That trio had seized control of their schooner Eliza, slaying three men in the process. They had a view to selling off the cargo but none of the three knew how to navigate the vessel — so they were obliged to bargain with the deposed captain William Wheland to sail them to Spanish territory. Eventually Wheland was able to get the drop on his mutineers, locking up LaCroix and Berouse in the hold while Baker was at the helm, then surprising the Canadian ringleader to get his ship back.
Norwith Courier, July 30, 1800
Whelan turned the naughty help over to a U.S. Navy ship, and in the consequent trial back at Philadelphia “his narrative alone was sufficient to carry conviction with it. The facts were too strong to admit a doubt of the commitment of the horrid crime with which the prisoners stood charged, and the jury, with very little hesitation, gave in their verdict guilty.” (Maryland Herald, May 1, 1800.)
The men died, penitent, at an execution island in the city harbor, “in the view of an immense concourse of spectators, who crouded the wharfs and the shipping.” A sorrowful confession purportedly taken down from Baker himself survives and can be read in full online.
(Thanks to Robert Walsh for the guest post. Mr. Walsh’s home page has a trove of articles about historical executions, including another American serviceman hanged at Shepton Mallet. -ed.)
VE (Victory in Europe) marked the official end of hostilities in the European theatre of operations and quite possibly the largest and most joyous celebration in human history.
Unless, of course, you happened to be former US Army Air Forces Private George Edward Smith.
While most of the rest of the world basked in the joy of victory and the relief of the European war being over, Private Smith had a rather more pressing engagement to think about. The rest of the population might be about to enter a brave new world, but Smith was about to depart rather suddenly from the old one.
It was his execution day.
Smith, previously serving at RAF Attlebridge in Norfolk with the US Air Force’s 784th Bombardment Squadron, wouldn’t be celebrating the end of the European war. He’d be watching the clock tick relentlessly down to 1 a.m. when he’d be escorted from the Condemned Cell at Her Majesty’s Prison, Shepton Mallet, Somerset (loaned to the US military for the duration of the war). He’d be sat near the gallows pondering a past that was about to cost him his life while hoping for a reprieve that wouldn’t arrive and a future that was already lost.
While most of the world celebrated, George Edward Smith was going to die.
Smith’s guilt wasn’t in any doubt. Near RAF Attlebridge lay the sleepy Norfolk town of Honingham and the stately home named Honingham Hall (demolished in the 1960s).
Honingham Hall and the adjoining land were home to distinguished diplomat Sir Eric Teichmann, a long-serving figure vastly experienced in the Far East and serving as advisor to the British Embassy at Chungking. He’d noticed, as so many country gentlemen do, that he had a problem with poachers. December 3, 1944 would be the last time he had a problem with anything. It was in the small hours of the morning that he met George Edward Smith.
Smith and his accomplice Private Wijpacha had ‘borrowed’ a pair of M1 carbines from the base armoury and decided to do a spot of illicit hunting. Teichmann, familiar with the fact that poachers aren’t usually violent offenders and will usually run if challenged, heard gunshots from nearby woodland and went out to investigate. He went out unarmed, challenged Smith and Wijpacha — and Smith promptly shot him once through the head with his M1. Both men fled hurriedly back to their base, hoping that their absence wouldn’t be noticed.
Of course, a senior British diplomat lying murdered in the woodland was noticed.
Before long both men were arrested and questioned, during which Smith confessed, a confession he later retracted claiming that it was made under duress. That, not surprisingly, cut no ice whatsoever with either the American military or the British authorities. Smith and Wijpacha were court-martialled at RAF Attlebridge and Wijpacha (who hadn’t fired a shot) received a lengthy prison sentence. Smith, the triggerman, drew the death penalty.
Under the Visiting Forces Act, 1942 the Americans were free to try, imprison and condemn their own criminals independent of the British system of justice, not that it would have made any difference to Smith’s case. Murder was then a capital crime in Britain regardless of the criminal’s nationality. If Smith hadn’t been condemned by an American court-martial then a British trial would have seen the judge don the legendary ‘Black Cap’ and pass what British reporters once called ‘the dread sentence’ especially given the status of the victim.
Smith was promptly shipped to the prison at Shepton Mallet in the county of Somerset to await a mandatory review of his case and, if clemency was refused, execution.
View of Shepton Mallet (left) and its execution shed (right)
Shepton Mallet had been a civilian prison for centuries before being turned over to the British military, who then lent it to the Americans as part of the Visiting Forces Act. Until its final closure a few years ago Shepton Mallet remained the oldest prison in the UK still operational, a dubious distinction now belonging to Dartmoor. There were, however, a few difficulties with the arrangement.
The Americans carried out 18 executions at Shepton Mallet during their tenure between mid-1942 and September, 1945. Two (Alex Miranda and Benjamin Pyegate) were by firing squad, upsetting local people, who knew very well what it meant to live next to a military prison and hear a single rifle volley at 8 a.m. The American military also preferred hanging common criminals to allowing them to be shot like soldiers.
The problems were simple. The locals didn’t like firing squads made no secret of it. Not surprisingly, there were complaints. The US military felt being shot was too good for most of its condemned and the British didn’t like the methods and equipment used by American hangmen, who had acquired a nasty and thoroughly-deserved reputation for using badly-designed scaffolds, the wrong type of rope and the antiquated standard drop instead of a drop length scientifically calculated by the prisoner’s weight.
The British also regarded American hanging equipment as outdated, while American military hangmen John Woods and Joseph Malta were entirely unfamiliar with the British kit. And British hangmen had evolved hanging to almost an art, needing mere seconds to complete the procedure.
Another problem was that the gallows at Shepton Mallet hadn’t been used since March, 1926. By 1942 it was considered unfit for service and needed replacing. A compromise had to be reached, and was.
The Americans could continue executions at Shepton Mallet, but the vast majority (16 out of 18) were performed by British hangmen using a British gallows in an extension built onto the end of one of the cellblocks. The Americans were permitted their usual practice of having the condemned stand strapped, noosed and hooded on the gallows while their death warrant and charge sheet were read out and then being asked for any last words. This caused executioner Albert Pierrepoint, master of the speedy hanging, to complain at what seemed to him a cruel, unnecessary delay in ending the prisoner’s misery.
Pierrepoint also complained about overcrowding in the gallows room during executions. At a British hanging there would be the prisoner, the hangman, his assistant, the prison Governor, the Chief Warder, the doctor, the Chaplain and two or four prison officers. At an American military hanging there were usually twenty or so people clustered around the trapdoors and lever. He felt a hanging should be both quick and perfect and that a crowded gallows room invited disaster.
Hangman Thomas Pierrepoint.
By VE Day the arrangement was well-established. Thomas Pierrepoint, uncle of Albert and brother of Henry (both of whom were also hangmen) performed 13 of the 16 hangings at Shepton Mallet while Albert performed the remaining three when he wasn’t busy elsewhere.
Their assistants were Steve Wade, Herbert Morris and Alexander Riley. Tom Pierrepoint had performed the last hanging at Shepton Mallet in 1926 (that of murderer John Lincoln) assisted by Lionel Mann. While the two firing squads were performed at 8 a.m., the hangings would be carried out at 1 a.m. which was discreet enough not to arouse neighbors’ ire.
Smith’s case was reviewed. Not surprisingly, his appeal was denied as were other requests including (most generously, under the circumstances) one from Lady Teichmann, widow of his victim. His date was set for 1 a.m. on what turned out to be the very day Europe’s guns fell silent. Tom Pierrepoint would do the job assisted by Herbert Morris. Smith was transferred to the Condemned Cell a few days prior to the execution date where he was granted free access to the military Chaplain.
When the time came, while the rest of the population celebrated the arrival of a new world and Smith contemplated his departure from the old one, it went as smoothly as could be expected. Smith was taken from his cell wearing standard military uniform, from which any badges or flashes marking him as a soldier were deliberately removed. Paperwork was completed signifying his dishonourable discharge from the US military as a common criminal and the US military were determined that he should die like one.
Given the delays caused by the reading of the charge sheet and death warrant and Smith being asked for his last words (he apparently had none) it took 22 minutes between Smith being taken from his cell and being certified dead by the prison doctor. Compare this with a standard British execution (minus the bureaucracy and speechifying) where 22 seconds would have been considered twice as long as was needed to do the job. Smith’s punishment, however, wasn’t done yet. Executed American servicemen were initially buried at Brookwood cemetery, but then moved to the notorious ‘Plot E’ of the Oisne-Aisne Military Cemetery in France. Plot E is deliberately hidden from the rest of that cemetery. Its residents have no names on their graves, only numbers. They have no headstones or crosses, only flat stone markers. No American flag hangs in their plot. It doesn’t appear on the plan of the cemetery even today and the markers are placed facing away from the graves of other Americans. Visits to Plot E are still discouraged and it wasn’t until a Freedom of Information request in 2009 that the names of those buried there were released.
A view of the “Dishonored Dead” in Plot E, Oise-Aisne American Cemetery. (cc) image by Stranger20824.
Whatever they may have done, and some committed truly dreadful crimes, it seems distasteful to virtually deny their existence and shame them even after death. It also denied their families and friends the chance to visit and grieve, despite the fact that they themselves had committed no crime.
That said, it’s no different to the routine imposed on condemned British criminals. In fact, the British death sentence expressly demanded that inmates be buried in unmarked graves within the prison walls inflicting the same suffering on their friends and relatives. The British hanged were officially designated ‘Property of the Crown,’ many of whom were not properly reburied until after abolition. At many British prisons they still remain in unmarked graves according to the following sentence:
Prisoner at the Bar, it is the sentence of this Court that you be taken from this place to a lawful prison and thence to a place of execution where you shall be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and that your body be afterwards cut down and buried within the precincts of the prison in which you were last confined before execution. And may the Lord have mercy upon your soul.
It also became a lusty early adopter of the emerging beheading-video genre: an ancient penalty perfectly adapted for the digital age.
This ferocious group was a severe mismatch for Berg, a Pennsylvanian freelance radio tower repairman (and pertinently, a Jew) who set up his Prometheus Methods Tower Service in the northern city of Mosul* in the months following the 2003 U.S. invasion. This was also around the time that American occupation forces’ abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib came to light — a powerful excuse for blood vengeance.
Berg vanished from Baghdad in April 2004, and was not seen in public again until the whole world saw him: the unwilling feature of a May 11 video titled Sheik Abu Musab al-Zarqawi slaughters an American infidel with his hands and promises Bush more.
“We tell you that the dignity of the Muslim men and women in Abu Ghraib and others is not redeemed except by blood and souls,” a voice says. “You will not receive anything from us but coffins after coffins … slaughtered in this way.”
Warning: Mature Content. This is both a political document of our time, and a horrifying snuff film. Notice that Berg appears in an orange jumpsuit, a seeming allusion to Muslim prisoners being held by the United States at Guantanamo Bay.
Twenty-five months later to the day, Zarqawi was assassinated by a U.S. Air Force bombing.
* As of this writing, Mosul is occupied by Zarqawi’s creation, the Islamic State.
On this date in 1791, a man named William Jones hanged in Newark, N.J.
Jones cut an apologetic figure at his public execution, and a confession he signed off in the hours before was widely reprinted in New England newspapers. (This transcription is from the Boston Independent Chronicle of May 26, 1791.)
Knowing that without repentance there can be no salvation, and without a sincere confession of our public transgressions, there can be no true repentance, therefore I would give glory to God, exonerate and ease my own wretched mind; and as far as possible, afford that satisfaction to the public, by confessing my crimes, that others may take warning by my awful but just end, and be preserved from such horrid iniquities. This is the only reparation I can make to society, for the evil I have done, for which I am righteously, in the midst of my days, cut off from among men.
I confess I have been exceedingly wicked from my youth. I have been habitually addicted to Sabbath breaking, swearing, keeping evil company, gaming, drinking to excess; and when in liquor, passionate and quarrelsome, and have indulged myself to a high degree in other base and horrid abominations.
But the crime for which I am now to die, I would, with the greatest exactness relate. — I solemnly declare, I never intended to kill Mr. Shotwell, nor had I, at any time, as far as I know, murderous intentions in my heart against him, yet, I was the unfortunate man, that, to gratify my wicked passions, was the occasion of his death. I had long had a spite against Shotwell, because I looked upon it, that he & another man had injured me much, and were the cause of my being obliged to settle a civil prosecution, commenced against me, greatly to my wrong. Therefore I had often said, I would whip, beat or flog Shotwell, but as I never had a thought in my heart to murder him; as a dying man, I never said, I would kill him.
On the evening of Friday the 1st day of April, about or a little after sun down, I saw Samuel Shotwell pass my mother’s house driving cattle or a pair of oxen. In sometime, afterwards, I arose, went out into the road, and followed after him. I met Letts and stopped and talked with him for some minutes perhaps six or eight; then we parted and I followed after Shotwell. I crossed the fence in order to cut off a crook in the road and re-crossed the fence into the road still behind him. About three quarters of a mile from where I had seen Letts, I overtook Shotwell, and, without speaking a word to him, or he to me, I knocked him down with my fist, and there kicked him in the face and head, having on a pair of strong heavy shoes. I then passed the fence into the field opposite to where Shotwell lay. In a short time I saw him rise and go on the road, and I went along in the field. I had thoughts of going to a certain house, at no great distance before us, but before I came to the house, I altered my purpose, and so passed the fence into the road before Shotwell and going back along the way, I presently met him. I knocked him down again with my first, and again kicked him, and left him, and went on the road home. After sitting by the fire a little while, I went to bed, but was very uneasy lest I had beat Shotwell too much.
With regard to the club, of which much was said in the course of my trial, I never had it in my hand, nor did I ever see it, till the next day at the Coroner’s inquest. It was not the weapon I made use of nor had I any weapon whatsoever; but by knocking down Shotwell and kicking him in the manner related, I was the unhappy cause of his death.
I leave this testimony and confession, that my awful conduct may be a warning to others, that they by my dreadful fate, may be admonished to refrain from evil company, and from allowing themselves in drunkenness, wrath, malice or intemperate passions. My wickedness has brought me to this just and awful doom. May all others hear and fear!
A sad end for Messrs. Jones and Shotwell both; readers of the 21st century as well as the 18th ought to hear and fear.
But to the end of this awful but uncomplicated tragedy, we have this curious broadsheet published later in 1791.
What to make of this artifact?
One notices at first blush that as the document was printed in broadsheet form, it was presumably intended for the enrichment of its publisher … and we might suppose treacherous albeit not unpassable footing on the route from anyone actually party to such an occult missive in real life to a hustler harvesting gawkers’ pennies on the incredible secret. Indeed, it would be a profoundly ill turn for Jones or his correspondent, for no better reason than a gloat, to expose the physician of his deliverance to the sanctions that might attend unmasking. If this pamphlet’s remarkable claims were recapitulated in any other media at the time, I have not been able to locate it.
Even presuming that we have a sensational forgery, our bulletin does have something to say to us yet, and not only about the evergreen human fascination with surviving an execution.
This is a document from the Enlightenment, an interval where the vaunting progress of human ingenuity designed even to steal a march from the reaper himself by reviving the drowned or reanimating the dead.
Hangings weresurvivedsometimes — not commonly, but often enough that the phenomenon was familiar and occasionally the enterprising condemned even schemed to accomplish it intentionally. Such a scenario necessarily inspired artists, whose fabulisms would only have reflected the fancies of their audiences. The scaffold was already being given over routinely as the portal to spiritual escape for the penitent knave crushed by his sin … why not the escapism of the flesh, too?
Maybe our broadsheet publishers took inspiration from the fantastic story a couple of years prior of a different man living through his hanging in Massachusetts. Though that earlier tale was perhaps more overtly crafted for moral instruction, the particulars of the harrowing procedure are much the same: the assistance of an obligingly altruistic doctor, the agonizing pain of resuscitation, and the convenient vanishing into unverifiable distant anonymity. Even Nathaniel Hawthorne would allude via a minor character in The Blithesdale Romance to the legend that an English banker executed in the 1820s had duped the hangman — and not unlike our William Johnson, Hawthorne judged that living phantom and his stolen years “a mere image, an optical delusion, created by the sunshine of prosperity, … [who] seemed to leave no vacancy.”
On this date in 1854, an Albany, N.Y. man named John Hendrickson hanged for the murder by aconite poisoning of his wife, Maria. “He has suffered the highest penalty of the law,” New York’s Weekly Herald pronounced the next day — “but whether justly or not, will likely never be known on earth.”
Whatever the prisoner’s denials,* a web of suspicious circumstances clasped the hemp around his throat. Hendrickson, whose family had some money and connections, fought the conviction tooth and nail; his then-unusual three appeals, plus clemency petition to the governor, stretched the time from conviction to execution out to nearly a year. “The evidence adduced … was so entirely circumstantial, and the testimony of the scientific men so liable to doubt and contradiction, that it was generally feared the murderer would escape,” a Boston Post correspondent reported.** But not to worry: “the atmosphere of guilt seemed to surround him in the whole county; not a man could be found that, at heart, believed him innocent.” We’re scarcely prepared at this distance to assert an affirmative case for the man’s innocence, but in some ways it reads like an antebellum Cameron Willingham case, all the way down to the dubious forensic evidence.
Like Willingham, Hendrickson was a less than stellar husband. He was noted for abusing his wife, philandering, and doing both together when he “communicated to her a loathsome veneral disease.”
The supposed murder motivation was his wife’s recent inheritance of the estate of her father, who died just a few months before the murder. Little could really be proven save by inference from the man’s bad character; in classic tunnel-vision fashion, the record suggests nearly every data point became fixed according to this theory. For example, Hendrickson’s trial prosecutors read into evidence — in the part of their presentation they called the “Moral Evidence” — that Hendrickson remarked at his wife’s autopsy that “they won’t find arsenic.” You and I might think he’s saying that the examination will dispel the gathering suspicions of poisoning, and saying it by reference to the chemical that was the metonym for poisoning in the nineteenth century. For the state, his uttering these words was
as if he knew (as he undoubtedly did) the precise poison which she had swallowed — as if he knew that that common poison, which is found in most cases of the kind, had not been given by the murderer in this case, and hence they won’t find arsenic. Ah! gentlemen, it was nature speaking out, as she often unconsciously or unguardedly will, disclosing the otherwise well concealed and apparently undiscoverable crime.
The district attorney introduced evidence courtesy of chemists named Salisbury and Swinburne, to the effect that it was no mean arsenic that carried away Maria Hendrickson but the more exotic potion of aconite — derived from a toxic herb seeded (per Ovid) by Cerberus himself.
One can peruse the evidence presented in the case here, but the most remarkable part of this trial record is the appendix — wherein numerous medical men, including a former teacher of Dr. Salisbury, skewer the forensic processes used to decide that Maria Hendrickson died by poison and even offer to reproduce them in person under the eyes of Gov. Horatio Seymour to prove their unreliability. Their findings harshly undercut the only concrete evidence that any murder took place at all.
“I am pained and oppressed with the conviction that the medical witnesses for the prosecution have, in a main point of this case, abused the confidence with which criminal courts so often compliment the man of science,” one writes — words that could still today be applied to many disciplines of junk science that have disappeared bodies into oubliettes on the strength of lie detectors, bite mark analysis, matching hair samples, and suchlike hocus-pocus.
We turn from the contemplation of this subject with feelings of sorrow, not that any of ours have been crushed under the wheels of mutilated justice, set in motion by ignorance and false science, but we feel now, as we have always felt, that a great personal wrong has been committed under the authority of law, for which there can be no atonement, as the dead cannot be brought to life, nor the blasted feelings of the living restored.
It would be well, too, for judges and jurors, who are very often hasty and inconsiderate in letting their feelings and prejudices get the better of their judgment, to remember that life, human life, is neither a toy nor a rattle, but the gift of God; when once extinguished, no matter how, it is gone forever, and the dead never rise again.
-Dr. Charles A. Lee, reviewing the Hendrickson case
* Hendrickson’s final message to his parents via his spiritual advisor, on the eve of his hanging:
To-morrow I am to die, and standing as I do on the brink of eternity, I wish to say to you, in the presence of that God before whom I am so soon to appear, that I am entirely innocent of the crime of murdering my wife. I did not give her poison. I do not know that any one gave her poison. She did not come to her death by violence of any kind, so far as I know. I believe she died a natural death. She did not vomit on the night of her death. [This remark touches the disputed forensic evidence; vomiting would be a symptom of poisoning, and state chemists’ assertion that Maria had done so was among the conclusions challenged by outside scientists. -ed.] I never knew that there was such an article as aconite in the world, until after I was in jail. Nor did I know it by any other name. I do not know that I have anything further to add, except to say some farewell words to my parents. But you will remember what I have said to you, and inform them of it. I wish you to make it public.
** Transcribed here via the Portland (Me.) Advertiser of Apr. 18, 1854.