Posts filed under 'Public Executions'

1793: Philibert Francois Rouxel de Blanchelande, governor of Saint-Domingue

Add comment April 15th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1793, Philibert Francois Rouxel de Blanchelande was guillotined in Paris — victim of two revolutions an ocean apart.

Blanchelande (English Wikipedia entry | French) was a comfortable henchmen of the ancien regime, descended of a marshal.

At the outbreak of the French Revolution, Blanchelande was the governor of the Caribbean sugar colony of Saint-Domingue.

Like other New World colonies, Saint-Domingue’s brutal slave plantations generated vast wealth for the grand blancs, a tiny white oligopoly which was massively outnumbered by its black servile chattel. The demographics made for a perpetual source of conflict and danger — but that was the price of doing business for Europe’s sweet tooth.

The promised liberte, egalite, fraternite of 1789 fell into this tinderbox like a torch.

By 1791, slaves were in full rebellion. Mirabeau had once said that Saint-Domingue’s masters “slept at the foot of Vesuvius”; when it exploded, Blanchelande fell into the caldera with the grand blancs. The slave rebellion quickly overran the western third of Saint-Domingue — the germ of the imminent Republic of Haiti. But the situation on the ground in the early 1790s was extremely fluid, and perilous from the French perspective: Great Britain lurked at nearby Jamaica, scheming to swipe the lucrative island away from its rival amid the chaos. So here Britain accepted Saint-Domingue’s white refugees, and there she treated with black rebels to grant their emancipation in exchange for their allegiance.

The old royal hand Blanchelande was impotent to control the cataclysm with only a handful of troops, and he must have looked increasingly antiquated by the rapid progress of the Revolution too. A 1792 relief force of 6,000 soldiers arrived bearing word of the National Assembly’s too-little-too-late grant of political rights to free blacks, and bearing also Blanchelande’s replacement: a Girondin envoy named Leger-Felicite Sonthonax.

Both these steps were also swiftly overrun by the eruption. Blanchelande returned to Paris and was forgettably guillotined as a counterrevolutionary on April 15, 1793, not long after France and Britain officially went to war. “For losing Saint-Domingo,” Carlyle says a bit dismissively, and maybe that’s even right. But if so the loss reounded to the glory of the Jacobins. The Revolution’s ideals would soon come to mesh with the pragmatics of maintaining the allegiance of Saint-Domingue.

On February 4, 1794 — 16 Pluviose Year II, if you like the revolutionary calendar — the National Convention thrilled to “launch liberty into the colonies” (Danton) with a momentous proclamation abolishing slavery throughout the empire.

Slavery of the blacks is abolished in all the colonies … all men living in the colonies, without distinction of color, are French citizens and enjoy all the rights guaranteed by the constitution.


“Les Mortels sont égaux, ce n’est pas la naissance c’est la seule vertu qui fait la différence…” (Via).

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1776: James Langar, Smuggerlius?

Add comment April 12th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1776, footpad James Langar was hanged at Tyburn for robbing a Hyde Park gentleman of his watch and coat.

Actually, and despite a reputation for honesty attested by his fellow militiamen, Langar was implicated in several highway robberies on shaky witness testimony, prompting him to remark in disgust, “I see they are determined to swear my life away, I leave myself to the mercy of the Court.”

He didn’t get it.

A vanishing obscurity even in his own time, Langar has been making 21st century headlines based on a pair of researchers’ identifying him with a ghoulish ecorche sculpture known as “Smugglerius”.

That astonishing object, and its controversial identification with James Langar, are discussed in this previous Executed Today post.

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1812: Jose Antonio Aponte, Cuban revolutionary

Add comment April 9th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1812, the great Cuban revolutionary leader “Black” Jose Aponte was executed with eight comrades.

Like South Carolina’s Denmark Vesey, Aponte led a slave revolt but was not actually a slave himself. Instead, he was a free black woodworker, and a respected captain in Cuba’s black militia.

Aponte led a bold island-wide conspiracy of slaves and free blacks who aimed at liberating themselves by revolution.

A few hours’ sail off Cuba’s eastern coast lay Haiti, whose slaves had done just that only a few years before to the greater hope or terror — depending on which end of the lash one had — of slave societies all around the region.*

So it was with Aponte.

There is some debate over the degree to which Aponte personally can be said to have led or coordinated the various planned (and in some cases, actual) rebellions around Cuba. He was certainly a leader of such a plot in the capital city and viewed by Spanish authorities as a figure of significance across the island, and so the whole movement has become known as the Aponte Conspiracy or Aponte Rebellions.

By any name they were an impressive undertaking, and the widespread collaboration of free black militiamen must have chilled the blood of plantation owners who banked on these forces to maintain order in Cuba. Five of those hanged with Aponte were, like him, freemen.

Sadly lost to history is a book of of Aponte’s drawings which are known only by the descriptions of interrogators who were alarmed by its depictions of, among other things, black armies defeating white ones** … and maps of the military fortifications around Havana.

This book and the movement it supported were betrayed to the Spanish with the familiar consequences. Aponte and his comrades hanged outside Havana’s Catillo San Salvador de la Punta on the morning of April 9, 1812. Then their heads were posthumously hewed off for public display around the city.

* Hilario Herrera, a principal organizer of the conspiracy in Oriente, was himself a veteran of the revolution on Saint-Domingue.

** Some of the subversive drawings depicted Aponte’s grandfather, Captain Joaquin Aponte, fighting the 1762 English invasion of Havana.

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1642: George Spencer, pork loin

1 comment April 8th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1642, George Spencer paid the penalty at the New Haven (Connecticut) colony for a pig-fucking that he probably never perpetrated.

Seven and a half weeks previous, a farmer named John Wakeman had reported to magistrates that his pregnant sow had delivered a litter of healthy piglets … plus one abomination from the nightmares of H.P. Lovecraft and Ron Jeremy.

Itt had no haire on the whole body, the skin was very tender, and of a reddish white collour like a childs; the head most straing, itt had butt one eye in the midle of the face, and thatt large and open, like some blemished eye of a man; over the eye, in the bottome of the foreheade which was like a childes, a thing of flesh grew forth and hung downe, itt was hollow, and like the mans instrument of generation.

Genetics is a funny thing. Once in a while the little variations in a new generation will produce an adaptive advantage that takes the species another step down its evolutionary path.

And then other times what you get is dickface swineclops.

As so often with a proper monster story, it was the frightened townsfolk who produced the real horror.

The resemblance of this poor (and mercifully stillborn) pig to a man — “nose, mouth and chinne deformed, butt nott much unlike a childs, the neck and eares had allso such resemblance” — looked like palpable divine anger to New Haven worthies, and inspired a suitably inquisitorial response.

Its target was localized to George Spencer, a former servant to the pig’s former owner. Spencer had a bum eye himself plus a reputation as a “prophane, lying, scoffing and lewd speritt.” With a model of heredity we might strain to credit as primitive, it emerged as widespread suspicion that soon manifested into fact that Spencer had fathered the penis-headed chimera.

Maybe George Spencer really did go hog wild. Who really knows? But the account of the “investigation” — in which the only actual evidence was Spencer’s own confession plus his mutant “progeny” — has every hallmark of the false confessions whose prevalence is only lately becoming well-understood. European and American “witches” were also telling their persecutors just what they wanted to hear in the mid-17th century.

Spencer denied the charges at first. The magistrate Stephen Goodyear(e)* interrogated him: did Spencer not “take notice of something in [the monster pig] like him”? Goodyear implied that they already knew Spencer was guilty.

During a nervous pause, which Goodyear took to be Spencer preparing his soul to unburden itself but a less hostile viewer might have taken to be the frightened farmhand fretting about how he was going to escape with his neck, Goodyear hit him with Proverbs 28:13. It’s a nice dual-purpose verse to stamp the divine imprimatur on the good cop-bad cop approach: “He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy.”

Spencer wasn’t getting anywhere denying everything. He decided to try confessing and getting in on that mercy.

(Even at this, he told someone else that he had only confessed “for favor”. Upon hearing this, Goodyear stalked back to Spencer’s cell and made him commit to the confession.)

The next day, a team of town grandees showed up to get the details. Again, Spencer denied it, but now his previous day’s remarks hemmed him in. His story was shifty; he changed the location of the sin from the sty to the stable, varied between a half-hour and two hours engaged in his sin.

By the time of the trial that commenced on March 2, Spencer — perhaps now realizing that the proverb he ought to have heeded was “don’t talk to police” — was back to full denial. This time he stuck to it all the way through the proceedings, and little good it did him as witness after witness who had heard various iterations of his confession reported the admission. The judges had to decide how to adjudicate this kind of case at all, and they decided to go straight to the Pentateuch.

according to the fundamentall agreement, made and published by full and generall consent, when the plantation began and government was settled, that the judiciall law of God given by Moses and expounded in other parts of scripture, so far as itt is a hedg and a fence to the morrall law, and neither ceremoniall nor tipicall, nor had any referrence to Canaan, hath an everlasting equity in itt, and should be the rule of their proceedings. They judged the crime cappitall, and thatt the prisoner and the sow, according to Levit. 20 and 15, should be put to death.

By hanging-day on April 8, Spencer was still refusing to admit the charges, and he even continued his obstinacy to the gallows — giving only the sort of standard-issue hanging-day exhortation to straighten those laces and not skip church that everyone always gave. To this he still “joyned a denyall of his fact.”

Only at the very last, with the noose about his neck, “and being tolde it was an ill time now to provoke God when he was falling into his hands, as a righteous and seveere judge who had vengeanc at hand for all his other sins, so for his impudency and atheisme, he justified the sentence as righteous, and fully confessed the bestiality in all the scircumstances,” meanwhile blaming for the probable damnation of his soul a sawyer in the audience named Will Harding who tried to keep the flesh alive by counseling Spencer to just keep his damned mouth shut and not confess anything in the first place. This death’s-edge admission would have satisfied onlookers, but ought not satisfy us; the complex psychology of false confessions with their underlying fear of punishment and need to please a captor are potentially even sharper at the communal performance of a public execution — the offender’s last opportunity to spiritually rejoin his own community. Spencer knew he was doomed; he knew everyone thought he was lying; he would presumably have genuinely feared hell and deeply desired to give his own certain death meaning. Somewhere in this id soup is surely reason enough to say the thing his friends and neighbors all but willed him to say.

Thing said, the poor sow was butchered under Spencer’s eyes first (as Leviticus demands). Then Spencer was strangled on hemp, “God opening his mouth before his death, to give him the glory of his rightousnes, to the full satisfaction of all then present.”

* Goodyear(e)‘s daughter Hannah would eventually marry the son of John Wakeman, whose sow it was that gave birth to the pig that started all the ruckus. In the early 1650s, Stephen Goodyear would favor colonial authorities with suspicions of a witch in his very own household, but that poor servant managed to avoid execution.

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1571: James Hamilton, Archbishop of St. Andrews and uncle of a crack shot

1 comment April 6th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1571, the Archbishop of St. Andrews hanged in his clerical vestments at the Mercat Cross in Stirling.

John Hamilton‘s fate was tied up in that of his Romish church during the strife-wearied years of Queen Mary. There was a sure reckoning for the Church due in those years, but whose?

After the transition in England from the Catholic Queen Mary to the Protestant Queen Elizabeth, an alliance of Protestant Scottish nobles moved to overthrow the authority Mary of Guise, the French Catholic who ruled Scotland as regent for her expatriate daughter Mary, Queen of Scots.

As she was pushed back, Mary of Guise called in French reinforcements, and the Protestant lords English reinforcements. But Mary of Guise dropped dead of dropsy in 1560 and put the Protestants in the driver’s seat, shattering Scotland’s centuries-long Auld Alliance with France.

Political maneuvering in Scotland over the next decade makes for a tangled skein with many unexpected accommodations and alliances. But the religious direction of the realm would be the most prominent and knotty thread of them all.

James Stuart, Earl of Moray, one of the most prominent Protestant lords, was the illegitimate half-brother of Mary, Queen of Scots — Mary of Guise’s very Catholic daughter, who soon returned to rule a native land she had not laid eyes upon since the age of five.* The practical Moray became at first the real power behind the throne of the teenage queen, but the two also increasingly maneuvered against one another for, among other things, the future of Scottish Christianity.

The prelate Hamilton naturally held for out to keep reforms within the pale of orthodoxy. He had printed a noteworthy “Hamilton’s catechism” of Catholic doctrine in the 1550s, in the vernacular for popular consumption.

So as the Moray-Mary relationship went pear-shaped in the late 1560s and the country fell into civil war, Hamilton of course gravitated to the side of the Catholic queen. Mary by this time had been forced to abdicate the throne in favor of her son, James VI (eventually also James I of England). Moray was now “Regent Moray” and exercised power in the infant king’s name. He also drove Mary to England, and her eventual execution.

He certainly had no shortage of mortal enemies.

On January 23, 1570, from the window of a house Archbishop Hamilton owned with his brother in Linlithgow, their kinsman James Hamilton shot Regent Moray dead as he passed in a procession en route to a diplomatic rendezvous in Edinburgh.


James Hamilton prepares to win your barstool bet by becoming the first firearm assassin in history on January 23, 1570. (via)

This appears to be the first assassination with firearm on record (beating William the Silent‘s murder by a good 14 years), and it would set an encouraging precedent for Team Assassin: the gunman sprang onto a ready-saddled horse and successfully escaped his pursuers by desperately daggering his own mount in the hindquarters to spur it to leap over a creek. James Hamilton took refuge with others of the Hamilton clan in the town of that name.

As his subsequent course suggests, James Hamilton was not a lone gunman: a number of family members knew of and aided his plot. (He had actually been stalking Moray over several cities on his travels, looking for the right opportunity.)

Through them, the killer escaped to France. His uncle the archbishop was not so fortunate.

John Hamilton fled to the refuge of Dumbarton Castle following the assassination, but this citadel loyal to Mary was taken by surprise at the start of April 1571 by a daring nighttime escalade. John Hamilton was captured there and hailed to Stirling, where he was put to immediate death without benefit of trial.

* It was a bit of a step down from the French court for Mary, who had briefly been Queen consort of France when her frail husband unexpectedly succeeded the throne following the death of Henri II in a joust.

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2013: A day in the death penalty around the Persian Gulf

2 comments April 1st, 2014 Headsman

A year ago today, three Persian Gulf states made the news for their April 1 executions.

Iraq

Iraq four people on April 1, 2013 for terrorism-related offenses, including Munaf Abdul Rahim al-Rawi.

This onetime al-Qaeda figure once styled the “governor” of Baghdad was arrested in 2010 and actually cooperated with his captors, enabling U.S. and Iraqi officials to assassinate two other al-Qaeda leadersAbu Abdullah al-Rashid al-Baghdadi and the long-hunted Abu Ayyub al-Masri.


Munaf Abdul Rahim al-Rawi, in a 2010 interrogation

Such cooperation didn’t come with any assurance for safety of his own. After the operations his intelligence made possible, al-Rawi went on trial for his life. “One of the investigators said a death sentence is waiting for me,” he told a reporter nonchalantly. “I told him, ‘It is normal.’”

The hangings were Iraq’s 19th, 20th, 21st, and 22nd of the year.

Saudi Arabia

On April 1, 2013, Saudi Arabia beheaded Abdul Rahman Al Qah’tani in Riyadh. He “shot dead Saleh Moutared following a dispute.”

His was the 29th execution of the year.

Kuwait

Three men were hanged at the central jail in Sulaibiya, Kuwait, on April 1, 2013, the first executions in the gulf monarchy since May 2007.

  • Pakistani Parvez Ghulam, convicted of strangling a Kuwaiti couple in 2006.
  • Saudi Faisal Dhawi Al-Otaibi, who stabbed a friend to death.
  • A stateless Arab Bedouin, Dhaher (or Thaher) al-Oteibi, who killed his wife and children and claimed to be the long-awaited twelfth imam. One imagines there was conceivably some mental instability there.

Kuwait employed the gallows with some regularity, with 72 hangings from the death penalty’s introduction in 1964 up until 2007. At that point, it ceased carrying out executions without any public explanation, though it has never ceased handing down death sentences.

This date’s resumption of hangings did not play at subtlety: media invitations resulted in a harvest of gallows photography. (See below.)

“We have begun executing death sentences as criminality and brutality have increased in our community, and the court issues sentences for serious crimes on a daily basis,” Kuwaiti prosecutor Mohammad Al-Duaij said in announcing the hangings. “These executions should eliminate the increasing number of crimes and be a deterrent.”

He added, ominously, that the other 48 people then on Kuwaiti death row had had their cases submitted to the emir for approval.

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1878: The Brassell boys

Add comment March 27th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1878, Joe and Teek* Brassell were hanged in Cookeville, Tennessee.

These brothers (their eldest sibling Jim Brassell wisely bowed out of the scheme) and two other buddies got into the whiskey moonshine from the Brassells’ own home still, and decided to knock over a nearby lodging where two guests thought to be heavy with cash were staying.

So the quartet blacked up faces and turned clothes inside out by way of disguise and around midnight tromped up to the Allison Stand Inn wielding pistols.

“Don’t worry!” Russell Allison called to his guests, recognizing his onetime schoolmates. “It’s the Brassell boys!”

Great disguise.

Nothing daunted by their identities outed, the moonshine party invaded the log residence. A bedroom melee ensued, and in the course of it Teek Russell shot Russell Allison fatally in the gut; another shot only narrowly missed Mrs. Isbell, the wife of the tax collector W.J. Isbell whom the party was trying to target in the first place.** Isbell wasn’t there at all, and the whole band fled the house not a penny richer, but about to be wanted men.

The next day as Allison lay expiring from his painful wound, the Allison family rounded up its own posse and descended on the Brassell residence. Again, Teek gut-shot an Allison — Russell’s brother Joe — and killed him, too. But the rest of the posse detained the desperados and they were soon hailed to Cookeville Jail. The murder became extremely notorious in the area and the Brassells boys were easily condemned, albeit after nearly two years’ worth of legal continuances.†

We’ve liberally included these youths in our arsenic themed set. Of course, these young men worked their mayhem with firearms and not philters, but in a sense their case underscores the ubiquity of that poison for 19th century crime. Desperate to escape, even the brutally direct Brassell boys turned like dissatisfied housewives and furtive insurance adjusters to inheritance powder: in their case, they managed to have some smuggled to them in jail, which they planned to insinuate into some apples they would share with their guards while being moved between Nashville and Cookville.

As it transpired, the guards caught wind of this scheme and foiled it, along with several other jailbreak attempts. But that was the great thing about that innocuous dust: everywhere someone would profit from some other fellow dropping unexpectedly dead, the first thought was invariably arsenic!

Frustrated of this and all other exits from their grim condition, the Brassell boys at last had to face the hemp. It would be the only judicial hanging in the history of Putnam County, Tennessee, and it would not want for ceremony. The execution itself occurred on a Wednesday; on the Sabbath preceding, the local Sunday school’s curriculum included (pdf) a visit to the condemned cells, where prisoners and children sang “Let us cross over the river”.

On hanging-day itself, the boys were up early for press interviews in the jailhouse. Shortly after 11 a.m., they piled into a wagon, grabbed seats on their own coffins, and were taken under guard to the double gallows specially built for them on Billy Goat Hill. Their sister Amanda trailed the wagon, but after a farewell hug she complied with Joe and Teek’s request to leave without seeing them hang.

Amanda had plenty of time to comply. The hanging wasn’t until 1:30!

The Brassells passed their last two hours or so of life on the scaffold. As they sat under their hanging-nooses, a crowd of thousands — some estimates put it as high as 20,000; old folks in the early 20th century would still say that it was the largest crowd Cookeville had ever seen — imbibed a series of preachers and religious songs, the warnings of the condemned duo themselves, and a scene where their intended target Mr. Isbell climbed up on the platform himself and pressed the two for a confession. Joe admitted his guilt. Teek refused until the very end to do so.‡ To cap off the drama, the sheriff, hatchet in hand to chop the fatal rope, counted down the last five minutes.

It seems this whole event, from the murder to the hanging, still survives in Cookeville folklore. There’s a lengthy ballad about the Brassell boys’ crime and execution, available here (pdf). Also see this fantastically detailed web page about the crime, including a blurry restored photograph of the hanging, and this pdf roundup.

A fragment of the Brassell boys’ joint headstone can still be seen at a family plot adjacent to Upperman High School in the small town of Baxter, just outside Cookeville.

* Teek had “George Andrew” on his birth certificate.

** William Jefferson Isbell was a tax collector carrying his proceeds; he had fallen ill that day and had to stop elsewhere. The Isbells and Allisons were related through marriage.

† “Justice, when most severe to him who has offended, is always most mercifully to him who would offend,” the Supreme Court most severely ruled — admonishing the young men not to entertain any hope of reprieve. (Quoted in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, March 28, 1878)

‡ Teek’s obstinacy on claiming innocence when the evidence against him seemed to overwhelming led to some later speculation that he might have semi-willingly taken the rap for a different Brassell — maybe Jim, the one who supposedly bowed out of the raid, or maybe even Amanda.

Part of the Themed Set: Arsenic.

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1851: Sarah Chesham, poisoner

Add comment March 25th, 2014 Headsman

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1851, 41-year-old Sarah Chesham was hanged before a crowd of six to seven thousand people in Chelmsford, England. She’d been convicted of a single count of attempted murder, but the evidence indicates, and the public certainly believed, that she was responsible for several deaths and had perhaps even taught her deadly craft to other women.

Sarah lived in the village of Clavering in Essex. In January 1845, two of her six children died suddenly, one after the other, and were buried in a single coffin. Their deaths were written off as cholera, a common and deadly disease in those times. Yet, according to later accounts, just about everyone in Clavering knew the boys had been murdered.

In fact, Sarah’s reputation as a poisoner had been well known long before her sons’ untimely deaths.

In spite of the rumors, no action was taken until later that year — when Sarah was arrested on the charge of poisoning a friend’s illegitimate baby, a boy named Solomon Taylor. Solomon had been born healthy and thrived for the first few months of his life, but in late June 1845 he became sick, rapidly wasted away and died. His mother accused Sarah of murder.

Suspicious, the authorities exhumed the bodies of ten-year-old Joseph and eight-year-old James Chesham.

The boys’ corpses turned out to be saturated with arsenic.

James C. Whorton, in his book The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain was Poisoned at Home, Work and Play, describes what happened next:

An inquest quickly led to Chesham being indicted for murder, and she was brought to trial in the spring of 1847. The evidence against her seemed conclusive: her sons had arsenic in their bodies, police had found “an assortment of poisons” in her house, and during the trial there were clear attempts to coerce witnesses not to testify against her. Sarah Chesham was nevertheless acquitted of all charges.

The jury’s foreman for Joseph’s case explained, “We have no doubt of the child having been poisoned, but we do not see any proof who administered it.” After all, no one had actually seen Sarah giving arsenic to her sons.

After her trials for the murders of James and Joseph Chesham, Sarah was tried for Solomon Taylor’s murder. Again she was acquitted; there was no evidence of poison in the infant’s body. Whorton records,

The verdict struck most observers as outrageous, but even if it was correct, something very disturbing was going on. The woman’s neighbors had believed her to be spreading poison for years, yet had uttered not a word to authorities. “What is to be said,” a newspaper asked, “of a district where cold-blooded murder meets with all the popular favor which is shown to smuggling in Sussex?”

One can’t help but think of the many incidents in modern times when “everyone knew” about the child abuse going on in some local household, but nobody bothered to report it until after a tragedy occurred.

Chesham was released from custody, went home and resumed her life. Then, in 1849, her husband died. He had much the same symptoms his dead sons had, but suffered a great deal longer: it took months for him to die.

During his illness, the solicitous Sarah was constantly by his side. She gave him milk thickened with rice or flour and wouldn’t let anyone else feed him anything.

After Richard Chesham’s death, authorities seized a sack of rice from Sarah’s kitchen. It was contaminated with sixteen grains of arsenic. (Two or three grains can kill a healthy adult.) Richard had arsenic in his body as well, but only in traces.

Although her latest alleged victim had died, Sarah was charged only with attempted murder: Richard suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis and it was unclear whether it was the arsenic or the lung disease that caused him to die. (It’s theorized that Sarah, having learned something from her earlier trials, had poisoned her husband slowly in small doses rather than in one dose all at once, as she allegedly did with her children.)

The punishment was the same either way: death. Sarah would be the last woman in Britain to be hanged for attempted murder.

Sarah Chesham may have wanted to rid herself of an inconvenient husband, perhaps reasoning that he would die of consumption anyway so she might as well speed him along. In some other fatal poisonings in Essex during that time period, however, it appears the motive was the deceased’s burial club money.

Club Dead

Many of England’s poor and working-class subscribed to burial clubs for themselves and their families. These were a form of life insurance and meant to provide money for the funeral if a member died, thus sparing the person from a pauper’s grave or worse, the anatomist’s dissecting table.

Some people, however, subscribed for different reasons, as Whorton noted:

Yet there were, inevitably, some subscribers who were not at all averse to a child or spouse receiving a pauper’s send-off, and if sufficient economies were adopted in their disposal, there would be enough money left over to make murder worthwhile … If done right, profits were not inconsiderable. First of all, club dues were affordable for virtually anyone … Second, benefits were relatively generous. Manchester clubs, for example, paid out £3 as a rule, but some paid £4 or even £5; a basic funeral for a child could be financed for only £1 or £2.

Provided they came up with the money for subscription fees, there was nothing stopping people from joining multiple burial clubs at the same time and getting a big fat payout upon their relative’s untimely death. Wharton mentions one child from Manchester who belonged to nineteen burial clubs at once.

Poisoner Mary May, who was convicted of killing her half-brother and hanged in 1849, had subscribed to multiple burial clubs without her victim’s knowledge. After she poisoned him she got £10 in all. Some people got double or triple that sum. And this at a time when an unskilled laborer could expect to earn only about £27 annually.

Cases like Sarah Chesham’s and Mary May’s set off a moral panic about poisonings in the 1840s and 1850s. As the London Medical Gazette noted, twopence could buy enough arsenic to kill one hundred people.

The press had everyone convinced that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people were poisoning others for profit. Newspapers devoted a great deal of space to poisoning trials and speculated that these cases were only a few of a “multitude” of murders that went unpunished — and that this multitude was growing. Jill Ainsley wrote about this at length and says,

According to the press, the bodies subjected to forensic examination represented the tip of the iceberg of poisoned corpses. Poison narratives routinely assumed that poisoners were caught only once their lethal practice was well established. Once a particular individual was suspected in one death, their pool of alleged victims automatically expanded to include anyone else they had contact with who subsequently died. The implications of references to large families “all of whom were dead” were clear to regular readers of crime reports.

Women in particular were liable to suspicion.

In fact, the papers alleged that in Essex there was a “secret society” of female poisoners who conspired together to murder people with arsenic, and that the general public was aware of the situation and accepted it. There is no actual evidence that such a conspiracy existed, never mind that it was condoned by the locals.

It is true that the number of prosecutions in poisoning cases rose during this time period, but that was probably because of the application of the Marsh test, invented in 1836 by chemist James Marsh.

The Marsh test was the first reliable test for arsenic in the human body and it was extremely sensitive. Before that, just about the only way to figure out if something was poisoned was to give some of the suspect substance to a dog and see if it died.

Arsenic during the nineteenth century was cheap, plentiful and used in a myriad of things, from wallpaper coloring to makeup to sheep dip. In small amounts it made a good rat poison, and that’s usually what it was used for.

Since it came in the form of a grainy white powder that could easily be mistaken for flour, salt or sugar, a lot of people got poisoned — not all of them intentionally, either.

There were not a few suicides and many, many accidents. Ainsley, who studied the Essex poisonings at length, believes it’s entirely on the cards that the arsenic that killed James and Joseph Chesham got into their systems accidentally.

It was partly due to the notoriety of Sarah Chesham’s crimes that the British parliament passed the Sale of Arsenic Regulation Bill in 1851. The law required arsenic sellers to record the name of each buyer and to sell it only to people they knew personally. It also required arsenic to by dyed some other color so people would no longer mistake it for food.

Getting back to Sarah: after her execution, her family was permitted to claim her body for burial in the local churchyard. But before the internment could take place, the body was stolen, probably for dissection, by a person or persons unknown. It was never recovered.

Part of the Themed Set: Arsenic.

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1860: Ann Bilansky

Add comment March 23rd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1860, Ann Bilansky was hanged in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Bilansky — her Christian name is given as Ann, Anne, or Anna in various reports — was condemned for poisoning her husband, an immigrant Polish saloonkeeper named Stanislaus, so that she could get with her bit on the side.

Just a couple of weeks before Stanislaus’s unexpected March 1860 demise, Ann had gone with a friend to a local drug store and picked up a bit of the deadly powder, allegedly to deal with vermin. (This was arsenic’s very common, legitimate use.) She suspiciously tried to get her friend to put the purchase in her name.

The community suspected Ann a murderess as soon as Stanislaus dropped dead. She showed far less evident grief about her spouse than could possibly suffice for decency, and one local snoop peeped on her being a very merry widow indeed with her suspected paramour … on the very day after the funeral. Call it one for the road: the late husband’s stomach, when autopsied, had revealed that suspicious rat poison. She was soon behind bars, and would be convicted with ease.

(In July 1859, she escaped through a window of the barely-secure jail, rendezvoused with her old lover, and fled to the countryside. It was a week before the law collared her.)

Ann Bilansky continued to maintain her innocence at trial, in jail, and all the way to the scaffold. She reveled in the attention her case garnered and plied numerous visitors with claims of innocence and minute supposed errors in her trial. “She was a complete pettifogger,” said a newspaperman, “and had imbibed an opinion, which is common among better informed people, that technicalities could defeat justice in every case.”

But the versions of events she pushed on her many callers stood so starkly at odds with the evidence and the popular sense of her guilt that she even found her way into the local idiom for a time: a St. Paul resident could drolly call b.s. on someone by remarking, “You have been to see Mrs. Bilansky.”

Still, she was a condemned woman — and from the sound of it a rather appealing one — who asserted her innocence, and this meant she did not want for supporters. Legislators were among her jailhouse social circle, and she had enough sympathetic lawmakers that both the House and Senate actually passed a private bill for commutation of her sentence. Gov. Alexander Ramsey vetoed it.

Other visitors arrived bearing more forceful means of liberation: one slipped her chloroform, to disable the guards; a female visitor got caught in the act of trying to swap clothes with the doomed woman. Ann Bilansky even copped to having a specific family that she had arranged to hide out with if she could get out.

She just never quite managed the trick.

Ann Bilansky’s death was accounted a good one by the metrics of gallows-conduct: she did not faint or quail at the sight of the rope, or beg unbecomingly for mercy. But her last words plainly indicate that although she may have reconciled herself to death, she was not in the end at peace with the events that had brought about her end. (Many observers thought she entertained hope for the dramatic arrival of a last-second pardon.)

I die without having had any mercy shown me, or justice. I die for the good of my soul, and not for murder. May you all profit by my death. Your courts of justice are not courts of justice — but I will yet get justice in Heaven. I am a guilty woman I know, but not of this murder, which was committed by another. I forgive everybody who did me wrong. I die a sacrifice to the law. I hope you all may be judged better than I have been, and by a more righteous judge. I die prepared to meet my God.

Bilansky was the first woman executed in the state of Minnesota. (Minnesota had just become a state in 1858.) She remains to this date the last, and since Minnesota has no death penalty at present, she figures to keep the distinction for the foreseeable future.

Source: April 3, 1860 New York Herald

Part of the Themed Set: Arsenic.

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1819: Hannah Bocking, 16-year-old poisoner

Add comment March 22nd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1819, 16-year-old Hannah Bocking was hanged outside the Derby Gaol for murdering a friend with an arsenic-laced spice cake. She appears to be the youngest girl executed in 19th century England.

Bocking had been turned down for a household servant’s position on account of “her unamiable temper and disposition,” but her friend Jane Grant had been hired.

Instead of tightening up her job-interview game, the seething Bocking plotted her revenge on Jane, with whom she maintained a feigned comity. One day while out for a walk past the clanking remains of Anthony Lingard, who had been hanged four years before and left on display to strike terror into the hearts of malefactors, the un-deterred Bocking gave Jane her little pastry. Jane ate it, and died in agony, but not so much agony that she wasn’t able to tell what happened.

It was an easy conviction, and the sentence executed just four days later. Still, “at the moment, when she [Hannah Bocking] was launched into eternity,” one observer reported, “an involuntary shuddering pervaded the assembled crowd, and although she excited little sympathy, a general feeling of horror was expressed that one so young should have been so guilty, and so insensible.”

We have this lovely hanging broadsheet of Hannah’s execution (transcribed below) via Harvard University library.


Hannah Bocking, though of so young an age, appears to have had a mind greatly darkened and depraved, for it seems that she was instigated to the dreadful crime that she committed, solely from envy and hatred to the young woman (Jane Grant) because she lived in the family of her Grandfather-in-law, as servant, where she had herself formerly lived, and been turned away.

She procured arsnic [sic] at a surgeon’s in the neighbourhood, by saying, that it was for her Grandfather, for the purpose of killing Rats, and she prevailed on a young man to go with her, saying, that they would not sell it alone to her.

This mortal poison she put into a spice cake, and gave it the young woman, who thanked her, and unsuspectedly eat it, but was soon after seized with dreadful pains and agonies. In her illness she was attended by her relations, and being about to expire, her dying declaration was taken, that the cake she had eaten was the cause of the torments she suffered, which dying declaration was produced at the trial, and which, connected with other strong circumstances, was satisfactory to the minds of the jury and to every person in court.

So senseless and hardened in sin was this wretched creature, that she shewed no signs of remorse, nor appeared at all sensible of her awful situation when he solemn sentence of death was passed on her by the Learned Judge, but it seems that she felt severely afterwards on her return in the Caravan to the Gaol she shed many bitter tears, and continued crying for hours.

It was in this situation that she confessed her crime to a Lady, distinguished for her humanity; and entirely cleared her Brother and Sister in law from any participation in her crime. She declared that she alone was guilty.

On the Jury returning their verdict of Guilty, the learned Judge rose and passed sentence of death upon her, that her body should be given to the surgeons to be dissected and anatomized; at the same time most solemnly expatiating upon the enormity of the unnatural crime she had committed, and the horrid light she must appear before her divine Maker, recommending a sincere repentance and a full confession of her guilt.

Since her condemnation she has been attended by the Chaplain of the Gaol, and the Rev. Mr. Leech and others; and we hope their instructions have proved beneficial to her soul Between twelve and one o’clock she was brought in front of the county Gaol, and having spent a shot time in prayer, she was launched into eternity, amidst a vast concourse of spectators, a dreadful example for all such as indulge the sin of envy, hatred, or malice. From envy, hatred, and malice may the Lord in his grace deliver us. Amen.

Sin has a thousand treach’rous arts,
 To practice on the mind;
With flatt’ring looks she tempts our hearts,
 BUt leaves a sting behind.

With names of virtue she deceives
 The aged and the young;
And while the heedless wretch believes,
 She makes his fetters strong.

She pleads for all the joys she brings,
 And gives a fair pretence;
But cheats the soul of heav’nly things,
 And chains it down to sense.

Part of the Themed Set: Arsenic.

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