On this date in 1864, a hulking Methodist minister by the name of Bill Sketoe was hanged in Newton, Alabama … but his ghost story was only just beginning.
Sketoe’s life is nearly as spectral as his death, but he is known to have been a longtime denizen of Newton’s Dale County where he preached the gospel and fathered a biblically-appropriate brood of seven children.
The easiest version says that Sketoe deserted the Confederate army to care for his sick wife. However, there’s no documentary evidence that Sketoe actually served under arms in the Civil War, although two of his sons did. He might actually have been suspected of aiding Unionist raiders haunting the forests — men like John Ward, a local pro-Union guerrilla with whom Confederate guards had just days before fought a skirmish.*
For whatever reason, a local Confederate cavalry militia under one Captain Joseph Breare seized the preacher near the Choctawhatchee River on December 3, 1864, and hanged him to a convenient tree.
Now, Bill Sketoe was a large man, and the bough of the Post Oak that supported his noose bent to his weight until Sketoe’s toes touched the ground. For an ad hoc execution, an ad hoc solution: one of Breare’s so-called “Buttermilk Rangers” simply dug out the ground around Sketoe’s feet until they dangled free in the hole and their owner could strangle to death properly.
Beloved Alabama storyteller Kathryn Tucker Windham immortalized “The Hole That Will Not Stay Filled”, one of the chapters of her 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey. Local legend, it seems, held that whenever someone later filled in Sketoe’s dangling-pit — with dirt, rubbish, or anything else — it would be mysteriously un-filled within hours.
Unfortunately the present-day skeptic will not be able to put geist to test because “Sketoe’s Hole” was destroyed in a 1990 flood, and is today covered over with tons of rocks supporting a bridge strut — too much infill even for spooks. (Though not enough to deter visitors.)
Sketoe’s executioner Joseph Breare resumed his law practice after the war … until a falling tree killed him during a storm in 1866.
This day is called the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day and comes safe home,
Will stand o’ tiptoe when the day is named
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall see this day, and live old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbors
And say, “Tomorrow is Saint Crispian.”
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say, “These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.”
…And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
Though the band of brothers is much better-known than Crispin and Crispinian themselves, Shakespeare’s immortal verse alludes to a pair of questionable third-century martyrs whose feast date this is.
They were supposedly Christian missionaries proselytizing in Gaul, or possibly Britain,* and there made to suffer for the faith under Diocletian‘s persecutions: Crispin Crispian’s version of the period’s characteristic “execution survived” story has them being pitched into the drink with millstones, but failing to drown. As usual, the Romans had more methods in reserve than God had escapes.
Somewhat derogated latterly since their historicity is so shaky, C+C are the patrons of leather workers and related professions including tanners, saddlers and cobblers.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell
Rode the six hundred.
“Above all, there was a belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of having suddenly emerged into an era of equality and freedom. Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine.
On this date in 1940, Catalan president Lluis Companys was shot by the Spanish fascists.
Companys had held that notional office for mere hours six years before — but he’s still the last to hold it in any form at all.
Political exile was no unfamiliar terrain for Companys. As a young lawyer, his activism in the first two decades of the century had seen him incarcerated over a dozen times; in fact, his path to political respectability had entailed getting out of a Menorca prison in 1920 courtesy of the parliamentary immunity conferred by winning an election.
And he’d drawn a long sentence for an attempted 1934 rising against a center-right government — the occasion when he had become the President of the Catalan Republic on October 6, and been dispossessed of both office and state by the very next day.
That prison sentence’s reversal by the new republican government in 1936 was a bit of Pyrrhic victory for Companys’s left-wing politics — inasmuch as said republicans’ ascent was also the trigger for the nationalist revolt that resulted in the Spanish Civil War and a military dictatorship lasting until the 1970s.
As the virtual personification of Catalan national aspirations, Companys remained head of the Generalitat de Catalunya from 1933 until his death — in prison, in exile, wherever Companys went he bore along the Catalan cause.
As such, he was in the thick of the civil war’s scrap for control of Barcelona: not only against the fascists but among the left parties whose fractious alliance tore apart in 1937.
It was truly a case of riding the tiger. Companys struggled to maintain the cooperation of his alliance even while the republicans’ Soviet sponsors excommunicated anarchist and anti-Stalinist elements internally. The dreadful spectacle of internecine street fighting among the anti-fascists in May 1937 fills the final tragic pages of Orwell’s Homage, decided by the inescapable materialist circumstances: “the Government could not afford to offend the Communist Party while the Russians were supplying arms.”
Few sources direct much personal blame at Companys for what followed. Under Soviet pressure, he accepted the Communist police raids that had set off the street fighting, accepted the purges and the press censorsip, sacked anti-Stalinist minister Andres Nin from the government. (Nin was later “disappeared” and murdered.)
Who knows but that even these evil days were not still the best that could be made of a bad circumstance: whatever they were, they were not enough for republican Spain or for Catalonia.
When those dreams fell under the fascist advance little more than a year later, Companys couldn’t flee Franco far enough for safety. Soon after his 1939 escape to France, that country was overrun by militaristic rightists from the other direction — and the German occupiers happily handed Companys back to Spain as soon as they got their hands on him.
Spain, where questions of Catalan sovereignty and the Franco years are both sensitive subjects, has never reversed the judgment (Spanish link) against Companys. However, a Barcelona promenade is named in Companys’s honor, as is a major stadium — actually the arena where the anti-fascist 1936 People’s Olympiad in opposition to the notorious master race spectacle of Berlin was to have taken place, before that whole Civil War unpleasantness.
Mukhtar, a religious teacher and follower of the Senussi movement, became the leader of the Libyan resistance that dogged the Italian occupation. Mukhtar proved an energetic and successful desert guerrilla fighter, and he had to be given the Italians’ mechanized military.
The Italians executed an estimated 4,000 Libyans in the 1920s, and drove hundreds of thousands into concentration camps, and gradually, only gradually, gained the upper hand on their adversaries.
Captured in battle after he abandoned a 1929 truce, Mukhtar was denied prisoner-of-war status and subjected to a snap military tribunal in one of the small coastal enclaves actually controlled by Italy — “a regular trial and consequent sentence, which will surely be death,” as the Italian general directed. It surely was.
A national hero for contemporary Libyans across any social divide you’d care to name, Omar Mukhtar was valorized by the rebels who recently overthrew the aforementioned Gaddafi (here’s Mukhtar on a billboard in rebel-held Benghazi). “The whole world knows what Omar al-Mukhtar did,” Mukhtar’s 90-year-old son told media during the civil war. “That’s where they get their energy from. Ask the youth, they’ll tell you they are all the grandsons of Omar al-Mukhtar.”
Early this morning in 1970, in the prison at Cajamarca, Peru, Ubilberto Vasquez Bautista was shot for the slaughter of a young shepherdess.
The young girl — either 9 or 11 years old — had been raped, then stabbed 27 times.
Udilberto Vasquez was found with some blood incriminatingly all over his underwear. Though he never admitted guilt, his story went through a few iterations, one of which entailed pointing the finger at his brother. (… with whom he shared underwear, I guess.)
Basically desperate for any angle, his attorney pushed that as a defense.
As one might readily infer from his presence on these pages, not that defense nor any other sufficed to save his client’s life.
Rather, Vasquez became the first victim (Spanish link, as are nearly all those that follow) of draconian new legislation imposed by the Juan Velasco Alvarado dictatorship reinstating capital punishment for fatal sexual assaults on particularly young victims.** This law was only in place from 1969 to 1973, so it was bad timing as much as anything for Udilberto Vasquez. (Peru’s 1979 constitution would restrict the death penalty to wartime treason.)
In execution, Vasquez joined the curious pantheon of Latin American folk saints comprised of ordinarily criminals widely considered innocent. Vasquez had converted in prison to the Adventist Church, and some fellow inmates believed he had the power to work miracles.
Such divine providence necessarily implies a view of its author’s innocence in that whole rape-murder thing. Among followers, the attorney’s notion of Vasquez’s brother’s culpability — and still more, the sacrificial concept that Vasquez willingly gave himself to protect his brother (which seems at odds with Vasquez blaming his brother) — has improved into a mythic truism.
August 21 is the harvest-time feast of Consualia, honoring the Roman god of grain storage, Consus.
We mark on this occasion the legendary capital punishment inflicted by Lucius Junius Brutus when he was consul of the ancient Roman Republic upon two rebels — his own sons, Titus and Tiberius.
The great Brutus had been one of the leaders of the revolt that expelled Rome’s last king, Lucius Tarquinius — reputedly after the king’s son raped Lucius’s kinswoman Lucretia. (Brutus was also Tarquin’s nephew.)
Upon completing his coup, Brutus immediately summoned the populace to swear an oath that no king would ever rule Rome again. So potent was the civic memory of this event that even centuries later when the Republic was well gone, Rome’s emperors dared not appropriate such an incendiary title as “King”.
But that was for a later time, after the winners wrote the history.
The exiled Etruscan king, subsequent Romans’ eternal watchword for tyranny, got the boot about 510 B.C.E., and in 509 was still hanging about looking for an opportunity to re-seat his dynasty. The plot he hatched is known as the Tarquinian conspiracy, and Brutus, to his grief, would discover that his own children had adhered to it. The statesman’s willingness to put his own flesh and blood to death for the security of Rome would long stand as a parable of manful patriotism.
Our account here is from Livy (line breaks have been added for readability), and the excuse to approximate this undated execution to summer’s harvest-time is bolded therein.
liberty was well nigh lost by treachery and fraud, a thing they had never apprehended. There were, among the Roman youth, several young men of no mean families, who, during the regal government, had pursued their pleasures without any restraint; being of the same age with, and companions of, the young Tarquins, and accustomed to live in princely style.
Longing for that licentiousness, now that the privileges of all were equalized, they complained that the liberty of others has been converted to their slavery: “that a king was a human being, from whom you can obtain, where right, or where wrong may be necessary; that there was room for favour and for kindness; that he could be angry, and could forgive; that he knew the difference between a friend and an enemy; that laws were a deaf, inexorable thing, more beneficial and advantageous for the poor than the rich; that they allowed of no relaxation or indulgence, if you transgress bounds; that it was a perilous state, amid so so many human errors, to live solely by one’s integrity.”
Whilst their minds were already thus discontented of their own accord, ambassadors from the royal family come unexpectedly, demanding restitution of their effects merely, without any mention of return. After their application was heard in the senate, the deliberation on it lasted for several days, (fearing) lest the non-restitution might be a pretext for war, and the restitution a fund and assistance for war. In the mean time the ambassadors were planning different schemes; openly demanding the property, they secretly concerted measures for recovering the throne, and soliciting them as if for the object which appeared to be under consideration, they sound their feelings; to those by whom their proposals were favourably received they give letters from the Tarquins, and confer with them about admitting the royal family into the city secretly by night.
The matter was first intrusted to brothers of the name of Vitellii and those of the name of Aquilii. A sister of the Vitellii had been married to Brutus the consul, and the issue of that marriage were young men, Titus and Tiberius; these also their uncles admit into a participation of the plot: several young noblemen also were taken in as associates, the memory of whose names has been lost from distance of time. In the mean time, when that opinion had prevailed in the senate, which recommended the giving back of the property, and the ambassadors made use of this as a pretext for delay in the city, because they had obtained from the consuls time to procure modes of conveyance, by which they might convey away the effects of the royal family; all this time they spend in consulting with the conspirators, and by pressing they succeed in having letters given to them for the Tarquins. For otherwise how were they to believe that the accounts brought by the ambassadors on matters of such importance were not idle?
The letters, given to be a pledge of their sincerity, discovered the plot; for when, the day before the ambassadors set out to the Tarquins, they had supped by chance at the house of the Vitellii, and the conspirators there in private discoursed much together concerning their new design, as is natural, one of the slaves, who had already perceived what was going on, overheard their conversation; but waited for the occasion when the letters should be given to the ambassadors, the detection of which would prove the transaction; when he perceived that they were given, he laid the whole affair before the consuls. The consuls, having left their home to seize the ambassadors and conspirators, crushed the whole affair without any tumult; particular care being taken of the letters, lest they should escape them.
The traitors being immediately thrown into chains, a little doubt was entertained respecting the ambassadors, and though they deserved to be considered as enemies, the law of nations however prevailed.
The question concerning the restitution of the tyrants’ effects, which the senate had formerly voted, came again under consideration. The fathers, fired with indignation, expressly forbad them either to be restored or confiscated. They were given to be rifled by the people, that after being made participators in the royal plunder, they might lose for ever all hopes of a reconciliation with the Tarquins. A field belonging to them, which lay between the city and the Tiber, having been consecrated to Mars, has been called the Campus Martius. It happened that there was a crop of corn* upon it ready to be cut down, which produce of the field, as they thought it unlawful to use, after it was reaped, a great number of men carried the corn and straw in baskets, and threw them into the Tiber, which then flowed with shallow water, as is usual in the heat of summer; that thus the heaps of corn as it stuck in the shallows became settled when covered over with mud: by these and the afflux of other things, which the river happened to bring thither, an island was formed by degrees. Afterwards I believe that mounds were added, and that aid was afforded by art, that a surface so well raised might be firm enough for sustaining temples and porticoes.
After plundering the tyrants’ effects, the traitors were condemned and capital punishment inflicted. Their punishment was the more remarkable, because the consulship imposed on the father the office of punishing his own children, and him who should have been removed as a spectator, fortune assigned as the person to exact the punishment.
Young men of the highest quality stood tied to a stake; but the consul’s sons attracted the eyes of all the spectators from the rest of the criminals, as from persons unknown; nor did the people pity them more on account of the severity of the punishment, than the horrid crime by which they had deserved it.
“That they, in that year particularly, should have brought themselves to betray into the hands of Tarquin, formerly a proud tyrant, and now an exasperated exile, their country just delivered, their father its deliverer, the consulate which took its rise from the family of the Junii, the fathers, the people, and whatever belonged either to the gods or the citizens of Rome.”
The consuls seated themselves in their tribunal, and the lictors, being despatched to inflict punishment, strip them naked, beat them with rods, and strike off their heads. Whilst during all this time, the father, his looks and his countenance, presented a touching spectacle, the feelings of the father bursting forth occasionally during the office of superintending the public execution.
This Brutus was an ancestor of the Brutus who helped assassinate Julius Caesar, and that later et tu, Brutus is commonly represented as having been convinced to turn against his friend and patron by, in part, the example of his legendary namesake.
O, you and I have heard our fathers say,
There was a Brutus once that would have brooked
The eternal devil to keep his state in Rome
As easily as a king.
-Cassius to Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (Act 1, Scene 2)
One of the original Apostles (literally, he and his brother John are the first two whom Jesus calls in the Gospels), James also had the distinction of apparently being the first Apostle to die for Christ.** His execution at the hands of Herod Agrippa† is reported in Acts 12:2;‡ it’s the only apostolic execution in the New Testament.
This, of course, occurred on the southeastern fringe of the Mediterranean, so it’s a wonder that James’s bones came to repose at a Spanish city literally situated on Finisterre, the far western edge of the world as far as Europeans saw it. The Lord works in mysterious ways.
It’s certainly plausible — though impossible to substantiate — that James evangelized in Spain prior to his execution. The whole Mediterranean was a Roman lake. More towards the outlandish is the patriotic story (pdf) that James’s relics were miraculously discovered there in 813 at the moment when Muslim expansion into Iberia gave the hard-pressed Christian kingdoms the greatest possible need for a morale boost.§
“A knight of Christ’s squadrons,” Cervantes wrote. “St. James the moorslayer, one of the most valiant saints and knights the world ever had, and that now the heavens have … this great knight with the vermilion cross has been given by God to Spain for its patron and protection.”
James’s martial prowess is entirely posthumous: when the Son of God recruits him, he’s a humble piscator at labor mending his nets (there are some less-bellicose present-day churches going under the name “Saint James the Fisherman”). Gibbon could not but marvel at the “stupendous metamorphosis [that] was performed in the ninth century, when from a peaceful fisherman of the Lake of Gennesareth, the apostle James was transformed into a valorous knight, who charged at the head of Spanish chivalry in battles against the Moors. The gravest historians have celebrated his exploits; the miraculous shrine of Compostella displayed his power; and the sword of a military order, assisted by the terrors of the inquisition, was sufficient to remove every objection of profane criticism.”
But mythmaking exercises a historicity all its own, and the James legends offered a rallying-point for Spain’s Christians. He stands to this day the patron of Spain as well as a number of places colonized by Spain.
Pilgrims have ever since that stupendous metamorphosis of the 9th century made the journey to the apostle’s purported resting-place; this Way of St. James, actually comprising several different possible routes covering hundreds of kilometers on foot, has in recent years emerged as a major tourist draw. The Way terminates, of course, at Santiago de Compostela and the enormous cathedral there where repose James’s relics.
Saint James’s Day, 25 July, is its celebratory culmination.
James so overawes July 25 on the liturgical calendar that it’s a mere footnote to add that this same day also pays homage to Saint Christopher, a historically dubious Christian martyr from the third or early fourth century Roman Empire.
Christopher is rather nifty, because he’s sometimes depicted in iconography as cynocephalic — that is, having the head of a dog. At least the rest of him is human, unlike Saint Guinefort the Greyhound. (No lie. It’s a doggie saint, albeit of the distinctly unofficial variety. To stamp out folk veneration, an incensed preacher “had the dead dog disinterred, and the sacred wood [where it received offerings] cut down and burnt, along with the remains of the dog.”)
* The name “Santiago” derives from our saint’s name in Latin, Sanctu Iacobu. This is also the source, and James the intended honorary, for other places on the map named Santiago, such as Santiago, Chile.
† Herod Agrippa is not to be confused with his grandfather Herod the Great — the Biblical Massacre of the Innocents guy — nor with his uncle Herod Antipas — the guy who punted Jesus’s prosecution back to Pontius Pilate. Three different Herods; three different New Testament heavies.
‡ James’s death in Acts 12 is followed immediately by Saint Peter staging a supernatural jailbreak out of the same prison. The latter goes on to evangelize for another 20-odd years.
By the ancient world’s tradition, it was on July 21, 356 — the night of Alexander the Great‘s birth* — that a theretofore forgettable man set fire to the wooden rafters of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus.
Situated on the Hellenized coast of Asia Minor, near present-day Selcuk, Turkey, Ephesus was one of the great cities of the Mediterranean. It counted Artemis (Diana) its patron deity, and gloried in a jaw-dropping marble temple, bankrolled two centuries before by the Lydian king Croesus, that would have nearly covered a modern football pitch. Ephesians took their Artemis seriously: 400-plus years later, St. Paul would barely escape lynching at the hands of enraged Artemis devotees when he proselytized there.
What a horror it must have been for 4th century BCE Ephesians to awake this day to the destruction of their city’s own sacred pride.
Even more shockingly, the temple’s destroyer made no effort to conceal himself. He openly boasted of his act, and of the horrifying reason for it: merely to exalt his obscure name with the luster of infamy.
Ephesus not only put this man to death, but passed a damnatio memoriae upon him, forbidding any mention of his name, in order to deny him his victory.
But the the historian Theopompus, who was not Ephesian, cheated the city of its sentence by recording it: Herostratus. It’s a word that has become a metonym in many languages and an allegory in many books for any villain impelled to his wickedness by the allure of celebrity.
We have no specific date for Herotratus’s execution. But we do have his last tortured victory. We do have his name.
The Ephesians in time rebuilt the magnificent temple, bigger and more awe-inspiring than before. It stood some 600 years more until the Goths sacked it in 268 AD, long enough to secure its place among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
“I have set eyes on the wall of lofty Babylon on which is a road for chariots, and the statue of Zeus by the Alpheus, and the hanging gardens, and the colossus of the Sun, and the huge labour of the high pyramids, and the vast tomb of Mausolus,” wrote Antipater of Sidon of the reconstructed, post-Herostratus temple. “But when I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and I said, ‘Lo, apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on aught so grand.’”
The Temple of Artemis today: a weedy rubble. (cc) image from LWY.
* Plutarch remarked that Artemis was too distracted delivering the conqueror into the world to protect her shrine.
On this date in 1955, Albert Pierrepoint escorted the alluringly tragic Ruth Ellis to the gallows at Holloway Prison — the last woman ever hanged in Great Britain.
The former hostess had tracked her inconstant and abusive lover David Blakely to a Hampstead pub a few months before — getting the ride, and the murder weapon, from her unrequited hanger-on Desmond Cussen — and shot Blakely dead on the street. Five bullets: the last, a coup de grace. (Another missed entirely and winged a passerby.)
A bitterly controversial case from the moment it entered the public eye, Ellis’s hanging bolstered the movement to abolish Britain’s death penalty. Juridically, however, it was resolved in the blink of an eye when a crown’s attorney cross-examined the murderess:
Christmas Humphreys: Mrs. Ellis, when you fired that revolver at close range into the body of David Blakely what did you intend to do?
Ellis: It was obvious that when I shot him I intended to kill him.
The jury, which never heard that Blakely regularly beat his killer (including once to induce a miscarriage), needed 14 minutes to convict her.
ET: I think at a certain point in time, everyone in Great Britain would have known who Ruth Ellis was, and quite a few abroad, too. How true is that still, nearing 60 years after her execution?
I think her name is still quite familiar, to be honest.
When I began researching the book, everyone I discussed it with either already knew the very basic facts of Ruth’s story, and at the very least that she was the last woman to be hanged in England. The 1985 biopic Dance with a Stranger left a big impression too, even though it wasn’t entirely faithful to Ruth’s character, making her seem much more hysterical a personality than she actually was, although I thought Miranda Richardson was brilliant in the role — as she always is!
What led you to the Ruth Ellis story?
I’ve always been interested in Ruth and that period in history — and I vividly remember going to see ‘Dance with a Stranger’ when it came out in the cinemas here. But it always struck me that her full story had never been told, particularly the last few months of her life after she shot David Blakely. And a couple of years ago there was quite an intense debate about bringing back capital punishment; Ruth’s name was always mentioned in relation to that particular argument, and I really felt it was time to explore her whole story.
What are the greatest misconceptions people have of her? Have her previous biographies and screen portrayals fed those misconceptions?
Without doubt, many people see Ruth as she was shown in ‘Dance with a Stranger’ — very screechy, out of control and violently jealous.
I think it’s true to say that she and David were both deeply jealous of each other (both giving the other reason to be so), but Ruth was not as hysterical as she was portrayed in the film. In fact, it was quite the opposite — the men were hysterical and it was Ruth who usually vented a sort of quiet fury. There is one scene in the film which shows her smashing the windows of David’s car and screaming in the street. Reading the original police statement about that night reveals a very different story; she was described as very calm and rational. There was no screaming, and although she did damage the vehicle, it was not remotely as it was shown in the film.
I think other adaptations have also done her a disservice. Ironically, probably the most accurate portrayal is in the film ‘Pierrepoint,’ where the character of Ruth appears for no more than a minute or two on screen.
I get the sense that Ruth was always running uphill against her class position, trying to climb a little higher than she could reach — right up to the end where her lover is a well-off cad and the rivals for the lover’s affection are his middle-class friends. What role did England’s class relations have in Ruth Ellis’s life and death, and in the way that others perceived her? Do they still shape the way we talk about her all these years later?
Class and politics played a huge role in Ruth’s life generally.
England was distinctly class-led at the time and when the case hit the headlines, she was described as a working-class floozie who attached herself to the upper-class David Blakely purely in order to hoist herself up the class ladder.
That couldn’t have been further from the truth; if she was only interested in using men to better herself socially, she would surely have married her sometime-lover Desmond Cussen, who was a much steadier prospect with money and property and who wanted very much to marry her. Ruth worked hard to better herself but she didn’t use the men she loved to do so.
And when it came to her trial, the class values of the time were heavy in the courtroom with the male barristers and judge and so on all very much men of the upper classes — and who viewed her accordingly. I hope we have got beyond all that nonsense now — but it does add a very distinct dimension to discussions of her case.
She was working as a hostess when she met David Blakely. What would a hostess do, who worked in this trade, and who were the clientele? Was it usual for “real” relationships to evolve? Do people still have this job in the same form as Ruth had it?
Hostessing in the clubs in which Ruth worked was quite straightforward — or it should have been, but there was Morris Conley to contend with, and he was quite a character.
Ruth’s basic job description was to look good and to chat to customers (mostly men) in the clubs, laugh at their jokes and keep them buying food and drink for as long as possible. Most hostesses were in their late teens and early twenties, working-class girls who thought the lifestyle was more glamorous than toiling in a factory or in a shop.
They were usually paid badly and relied on tips to make ends meet, but were given a dress allowance so that they could look as alluring as possible. The clientele mainly consisted of demobbed servicemen who suddenly seemed to have lost their attractiveness to women after the war — where once they had been heroes, by the late 1940s many of them were down on their luck and working as door-to-door salesmen, very lonely and eager to talk to pretty young girls about their war exploits.
The girls who worked for Morris Conley, like Ruth, were expected to sleep with the clients if that was asked of them, and often had to sleep with ‘Morrie’ and his less than respectable friends too. Many of them were very poor young women who lived in flats owned by Conley and his wife — and if they didn’t toe the line, they lost their jobs and their homes in one fell swoop.
Did real relationships evolve? Yes, they did, but very rarely. There are girls all over the world doing very similar jobs today — from London to Japan and everywhere in between too, no doubt.
You have this quote from Ruth about David Blakely: ‘I thought the world of him; I put him on the highest of pedestals. He could do nothing wrong and I trusted him implicitly.’ Ruth had an alcoholic, abusive father, and then she had two children from marriages with two different men that both fell apart — one from bigamy and abandonment, the second from alcoholism and domestic violence. Blakely himself cheated on her. Why wasn’t she more cynical about Blakely? If you take away the tragic ending to this particular relationship, was something like this a pattern she was doomed to keep repeating ad infinitum?
She loved him — it’s really as simple as that.
Although she obviously had a good degree of self-awareness and knew what David was and always would be, she truly loved him and for a time believed they had a future together. As for a pattern — I don’t know. Perhaps if she had met one good, steady man to whom she was attracted as much as she was to David, her life — and David’s too of course — might have been very different.
I’m going to phrase this inelegantly: what is the DEAL with Desmond Cussen?
Good question! I really think that he was as confused and tormented by everything that was happening as a result of Ruth’s and David’s relationship as Ruth herself.
I think he did love Ruth, and he tried hard to make things work with her, but he knew her heart was with David. His apparent lack of self-respect and backbone is baffling — quite why he kept ferrying her across London and out to Buckinghamshire in pursuit of David is a bit mystifying. I did question in the book why no one seemed to query his state of mind as much as Ruth’s — and as to whether he gave her the gun or not, knowing what she intended to do … I am sure he did, even though he must have known where it would end for Ruth herself.
Perhaps he hoped that with David out of the way, she would be reprieved and they could then have a life together. But I really don’t know!
Ruth’s legal defence was legendarily feeble. That said, I’m very interested in the barrister’s attempt to frame its insanity defense around feminine hysteria — “the effect of jealousy upon a female mind can so work as to unseat the reason and can operate to a degree in which a male mind is quite incapable of operating.” This was bound to be undermined by Ruth’s own calm and the statements about her intent to kill that she gave to police and in court. Was it the case that the law at the time didn’t have the instruments to situate Ruth’s context and state of mind, other than hysterical/not? Or could an abler barrister have presented a different story?
I think part of the difficulty is obviously that the defence of diminished responsibility was not introduced in the courts here until 1957 — largely as a direct result of this particular case.
Ruth’s lawyers tried to argue this as a defence for her to some extent, but it just wasn’t possible legally. That said, I think they served her quite badly and didn’t bring out so much that might have enabled the jury to see her crime in context. There was no mention of the abuse in her childhood, no mention of the violence she had suffered at the hands of her ex-husband and very little said about David’s own brutal treatment of her.
But Ruth herself did not seem to care much what happened in the courtroom, once it became evident that the story as she saw it — David’s friends having, in her view, deliberately destroyed the relationship between them — was not going to come to light. She gave up, and volunteered nothing that could have helped her, minimizing the violence to which she had been subjected and dismissing most of the questions put to her in a short sentence or two.
She also infamously replied to the prosecution’s question of what she intended to do when she set out to find David with the gun, “It is obvious when I shot him I intended to kill him.” That one line completely sealed her fate.
Despite all this, the public did seem to be shocked by Ruth Ellis’s hanging, and it’s supposed to have boosted the anti-death penalty campaign. If one may phrase it this way, were people shocked for the right reasons? How much did the symbolic “Ruth Ellis” that even her supporters among the general public had in view have to do with the real person as you understand her?
I think any case is always immeasurably more complex than it is presented in newspaper columns and headlines.
I think, again, the outcry at her execution has to be seen in context — people were becoming more and more opposed to the death penalty and there had been some very high-profile, contentious cases that really did cause a great deal of debate, anger, and distress: the hanging of Timothy Evans in 1950 and of Derek Bentley in 1953 for instance (both of whom were posthumously pardoned).
The fact that Ruth was a young, attractive, lively woman with two small children caused many people to question the validity of capital punishment. It was her death on the scaffold that gave the abolition movement its emotional spur.
What became of Ruth Ellis’s body after her hanging? And what became of her family and the others who were part of the story?
Ruth was buried in the confines of Holloway Prison after her execution, sharing her unmarked grave with four other women who had been hanged there. In 1971, when the prison was demolished and rebuilt, her body was released to her son for burial.
He had hoped to lay his mother to rest alongside David Blakely at the Holy Trinity churchyard in Penn but the vicar there would not allow it. Ruth was instead buried in the churchyard of St Mary’s in Amersham, a few miles away.
As to what became of her family: her son Andre (who was ten when Ruth was executed) was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a very young man and never came to terms with the loss of his mother. He committed suicide in 1982. Ruth’s daughter, Georgina, had quite a colourful life, becoming a successful model who was in the newspapers fairly often as part of the George Best ‘set.’ She married and had children and worked hard to win a posthumous pardon for her mother, of whom she spoke often. She died of cancer at the age of only 50.
As for Desmond Cussen: he emigrated to Australia and opened a flower shop there. He never married and became an alcoholic, dying in Perth on 8 May 1991 of pneumonia and organ failure following a fracture dislocation of the neck in a fall at his home.
On this date in 1573, 19-year-old Frantz Schmidt — heretofore only an apprentice to his father’s craft — conducted his first solo hanging. As the body of the thief hung there, his father or perhaps another established Scharfrichter stepped forward and ritually slapped the teenage hangman three times, announcing his successful passage into the ranks of Germany’s master executioners.
“Leinhardt Russ of Zeyern, a thief. Executed with the rope at the city of Steinach. Was my first execution.” Those words begin Meister Frantz’s remarkable diary* of 361 hangings, beheadings, breakings-on-the-wheel, drownings, and burnings — as well as many other sub-capital punishments, primarily as the executioner of Nuremberg from 1578 to 1617.
Nuremberg executioner Frantz Schmidt at work in 1584.
Executioners occupied a strange outcast social niche, with charge not only of death sentences but of other dishonorable public tasks. Either as cause or consequence of this, the profession carried its own stigma for underworld less-than-respectable behavior; it was not unheard-of for a shady executioner to wind up climbing the scaffold as patient rather than hangman.
But in his 45-year career, the sober Meister Frantz operated with ahead-of-his-time dignity and sobriety, so much so that Schmidt was granted citizenship in Nuremberg and eventually had his civic honor officially restored. He freed himself and his heirs from the social pollution inherent to his life’s work.
ET: Your book is built around a sort of life’s mission by Frantz Schmidt to return himself and his family to respectable-ness. Certainly he accomplished this marvelously in the end, but I’m curious how firm do you feel is the inference that this was his specific intent from the start?
JH: I have no doubts that as a child, Frantz Schmidt was repeatedly told the tale of his family’s fall from grace, especially since he can still remember so many details even as an old man. We also know from his own words in his appeal to the emperor to restore that lost honor that his grandfather, father, and his own children all felt the sting of this stigma. Finally, the late-in-life struggles to assert that regain honor — against the challenges of his bitter successor — further underscore the centrality of this mission in Frantz Schmidt’s life.
Executioners often had a family trade at this point, but the Schmidts — specifically the father, Heinrich Schmidt — had a bizarre path into this business via the German nobility’s old prerogatives. Could you explicate the “ancient custom” that allowed Albrecht Alcibiades to force Frantz’s father Heinrich, who was not an executioner, to become one? And for that matter, the social customs that then led Heinrich’s neighbors in Hof to treat him as a dishonored untouchable after he was forced to carry out these three executions — rather than viewing him, as we might today, as himself a victim who ought to be helped to get back to his real life?
Most European laws in the early sixteenth century were customary and highly localized. Legal codification throughout jurisdictions was just getting underway. This meant that two villages only a few miles apart might have very different traditions regarding something like execution. In the larger cities, such as Nuremberg, and well organized territorial states, such as the prince-bishopric of Bamberg, standing executioners on salary were the norm. But in many of the hundreds of tiny German states during this period, execution by the victim’s oldest male relative or by another local male was still practiced.
In the case of Hof, the margrave intentionally invoked an ancient and outdated tradition because he was in a hurry to get the job done. The stigma around the job of executioner in general was, by contrast, nearly universal. There seems to have been a little less hostility in southern German states but nobody would have openly socialized with an executioner or his family. As I describe in the book, the severity of this stigma — like all social prejudices — would depend on the individual or occasion in question. So, while some people clearly had sympathy for Meister Frantz, there were still stark boundaries of propriety as to how they might express that sympathy.
Executioners had charge of a variety of disreputable tasks and spheres of civil live: refuse, prostitutes, lepers, torture, and so forth. I’m struck by the importance of Schmidt’s Nuremberg assistant, “the Lion”, in allowing the faithful executioner to (somewhat) separate some of the most visibly dishonorable tasks from Schmdit’s direct purview. Just as a realistic matter, could Frantz Schmidt have reached respectability had he himself had to handle everything personally?
You’re right, the Lion played a key role in this respect. The broader evolution of the job was also significant, from a kind of catch-all for various unpleasant tasks to a civic professional focused on interrogation and punishment. You can also see this in the clothing that executioners start to wear in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, usually either colorful bourgeois outfits or military garb.
Frantz Schmidt’s later entries have a great deal of detail, and you use that to tease out the executioner’s psychology, and the way he thinks about crime, sin, choice, and misfortune in his mature adulthood. It’s quite intriguing. Why, however, did Schmidt begin his journal in the first place? Is there something his shorter, earlier entries tell us about the younger man and the evolution of his views of the “poor sinners” he handled?
After a long time — and especially after I found the oldest version of the journal — I figured out that he started the journal upon his 1578 appointment in Nuremberg. This means that he reconstructed the executions of the previous five years from memory (and without dates).
Why then? The timing strongly suggested to me that he was already thinking about using the journal as a supporting document in his eventual appeal to have his honor restored.
As for changes over time, the most obvious ones are that his passages become much longer, more detailed, and more concerned with motivations and explanations than the earlier, bare-bones accounts. The main evolution in his thinking about poor sinners shows both harsher judgments of those who squandered countless chances to reform and greater pity for those who simply make a bad decision in the heat of the moment.
You have a fascinating chapter devoted to Schmidt’s sidelight as a healer, and to the important ways this practice intersected with executioners’ expertise in [harming] the body. I was amazed that Frantz Schmidt himself also took part in the era’s dissection trend. If one were a regular Nuremberger at this time, would one have any compunctions about a medical consultation with the executioner, a man one might otherwise shun? If a non-executioner physician were available too, would there be any intrinsic preference for the physician as a more respectable figure?
Yes, it’s quite a paradox. You would think that most people would be squeamish or embarrassed about consulting an executioner on medical matters, but by his own estimate Frantz Schmidt saw 15,000 patients over the course of 45 years — fifty times the number of individuals he executed. So he must have been doing something right.
This journal was (re-)discovered at an interesting point, at the beginning of the 19th century when public executions are ending but romantic German nationalism is beginning. How has “Frantz Schmidt” the present-day cultural figure been used and misused by we moderns? What’s the most important misapprehension that reading his diary ought to dispel for us?
This is really the focus of my epilogue, which discusses how “medieval” executioners have been used for the purposes of “enlightened” penal reform, nineteenth-century gothic fantasies, and in modern tourism to elicit disgust, amusement, or even the glorification of pain and suffering. My chief goal in writing the book was to get closer to understanding one such man in his own terms and in the context of his own society. To the degree that the book succeeds, parts of his world will look bizarre and alien, while other aspects (especially how people treat each other) will be strikingly familiar.
* Print-on-demand editions of Schmidt’s original diary are on the market. Although these derive from what I believe to be public domain translations, I have not been able to locate a free English copy online; German speakers can read it here.