Posts filed under 'Public Executions'

1771: Edmund James and Joseph Jordan, runaway slave aides

Add comment March 1st, 2019 Headsman

From this doctoral dissertation (pdf) by Gabriele Gottlieb:

The early 1770s in Charleston also saw the largest number of executions of whites who had been convicted of crimes connected with slavery. On March 1, 1771, Edmund James and Joseph Jordan were hanged for “aiding runaway slaves.” Jones [sic], the master of the schooner Two Josephs, and Jordan, a sailor, allegedly had stolen the schooner, taking with them several slaves. Thomas Dannails, a third condemned defendant, was pardoned after he was “recommended to Mercy by the Jury.” Several slaves, likely some of those who had run away on the Two Josephs, were hanged together with Jordan and Jones.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Public Executions,South Carolina,Theft,USA

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1616: Vincenz Fettmilch

Add comment February 28th, 2019 Headsman

Among the ancient remains, that which, from my childhood, had been remarkable to me, was the skull of a State criminal, fastened up on the tower of the bridge, who, out of three or four, as the naked iron spikes showed, bad, since 1616, been preserved in spite of the encroachments of time and weather. Whenever one returned from Sachsenhansen to Frankfort, one had this tower before one; and the skull was directly in view. As a boy, 1 liked to hear related the history of these rebels, — Fettmilch and his confederates, — how they had become dissatisfied with the government of the city, had risen up against it, plotted a mutiny, plundered the Jews’ quarter, and excited a fearful riot, but were at last captured, and condemned to death by a deputy of the emperor. Afterwards I fc!t anxious to know the most minute circumstance, and to hear what sort of people they were. When from an old contemporary book, ornamented with wood-cuts, I learned, that, while these men had indeed been condemned to death, many councillors had at the same time been deposed, becanse various kinds of disorder and very much that was unwarrantable was then going on; when I heard the nearer particulars how all took place, — I pitied the unfortunate persons who might be regarded as sacrifices made for a future better constitution. For from that time was dated the regulation which allows the noble old house of Limpurg, the Fiauenstein-honsc. sprung from a club, besides lawyers, tradespeople, and artisans, to take part in a goverument, which, completed by a system of ballot, complicated in the Venetian fashion, and restricted by the civil colleges, was called to do right, without acquiring any special privilege to do wrong.

Goethe

On this date* in 1616 the muffin man Vincenz Fettmilch was executed for a Frankfurt guild revolt that became a notorious anti-Jewish pogrom.

One of the crown jewels of the Holy Roman Empire, Frankfurt am Main was at this time a predominantly Lutheran city of some 20,000 souls, governed by a council comprising the city’s wealthy patricians to the exclusion of her merchants and artisans. The city also boasted one of Germany’s largest Jewish communities, consisting of well over 1,000 people concentrated in a quarter known as the Judengasse (“Jew Lane”); living in Frankfurt under imperial protection, Jews of course were subject at any given time to varying degrees of community anti-Semitism.

The small and almost accidental spark to light the Fettmilch conflagration began in 1612 when the accession of Emperor Matthias led to citizen petitions for an enumeration of civic rights and the patricianate suspiciously refused to supply the charters. The ensuing conflict brought a growing popular movement that “commanded support from a large cross-section of the city’s inhabitants,” writes Christopher Friedrichs.** “But from the outset a dominant role was assumed by one man: Vincenz Fettmilch, a citizen who had experimented with a number of occupations before becoming a pastry-baker. There is no question that Fettmilch was a dynamic and articulate leader — and a passionate foe of patricians and Jews alike.”

For many months did Fettmilch (the cursory English Wikipedia entry | the much better German) and the patricianate maneuver but the long and short of it was that the latter’s credibility to rule deteriorated fatally with damaging revelations of financial malfeasance. By 1614 the popular movement achieved the outright conquest of municipal power, forcing Frankfurt’s much-resented oligarchs to yield their governing posts to guildsmen.

Which also positioned Vincenz Fettmilch to effect his demand for rousting that huge Jewish population.

On August 22, 1614, a popular riot invaded and ransacked the Judengasse. Fettmilch himself issued the expulsion order the very next day. This event is one of the best known and most studied anti-Jewish pogroms in German history; it’s also recalled as one of the last such incidents before the Third Reich — for Fettmilchs did not commonly get the run of a city, and our Fettmilch did not enjoy his run for very long.

As imperial soldiers gathered for an order-restoring incursion that rebellious Frankfurt would be powerless to resist, Vincenz Fettmilch was summarily arrested later in 1614 by other Frankfurters, sparing the city a good deal of destruction and speedily collapsing the new order he had created. Fettmilch had over a year as a ward of the empire’s torturers before he with three associates was beheaded and quartered on February 28, 1616 — the same day that Frankfurt’s Jewish refugees were officially re-admitted back to the Judengasse.


Broadside of the punishment of Fettmilch and associates by Johann Ludwig Schimmel.†

From the time of Fettmilch to this day inconclusive debate has raged among historians and other Germans about how to weigh, interpret, and reconcile those two thrusts of the rebellion — the resistance to Frankfurt’s optimates, and the chauvinism against her Jewry.

* You’ll also find the date of March 10 in various sources; this 10-day discrepancy is that commonplace calendar complication, the Julian-Gregorian split. Frankfurt am Main was a free imperial city within the Holy Roman Empire, and while the empire had gone Gregorian from its introduction in 1582, the mostly Protestant Frankfurt (along with many other German states) stayed away from this papist device until 1700. Our dating here defers to the local Julian sentiment.

** Friedrichs, “The Fettmilch Uprising in German and Jewish History,” Central European History, June 1986.

† Image from Karl Harter in From Mutual Observation to Propaganda War: Premodern Revolts in Their Transnational Representations; that author contextualizes the scene as follows:

In the middle of the picture we see the scaffold set up at the market place of Frankfurt cordoned by heavily armed soldiers and railings with posts showing the imperial eagle: The punishment of the rebels is taking place within the separated legal space of the empire, where only the delinquent, the executioner, the judge and several officials (representative of the imperial commission) and the soldiers appear. The city council and the representatives of the guilds on the two platforms in the centre of the background as well as the burghers of Frankfurt surround that space, watching from the outside. The executioner decapitates one of the delinquents, the recently severed finger of whom can be seen in front of him. The dismembering of the finger – the Schwurfinger – clearly points at the illegal conjuration or conspiracy in terms of penal law. Two more decapitated corpses of ringleaders are positioned on the scaffold. In the background on the left, outside the city three gallows are set up; one with a corpse hanged at the feet and another exposing part of quartered corpse. Both death penalties — reverse hanging and quartering — are typical of the aggravated and infamous punishment of treason. In the case of the Fettmilch-revolt, the four main ringleaders were dismembered, decapitated, quartered and parts of their corpses were exposed at the gallows outside of town. Furthermore, their heads were impaled and exposed on the gate tower on the Rhine side, which was the main entrance to the city, depicted with the four decapitated heads and a super-sized imperial eagle in the left background of the broadsheet. The symbolic implication, communicated and enhanced by the broadsheet, is quite obvious: The ringleaders and the revolt are to be commemorated as a serious political crime. This was emphasized by the total demolition of Fettmilch’s house shown in the foreground of the illustration on the right and the infamous shaving, flogging and banning of his family depicted in the background on the right: the total social disintegration and exclusion of the main ringleader — comprising his family, his name, his house — for eternal memory (“zum ewigen Gedächtnuß”). Apart from the ringleaders and their families, the punishment of other rebels (17 associates and followers) by flogging and banning, shown in the background on the left, seems almost lenient. In addition to the punishment of the rebels, the restitution of the legal and imperial order is represented by the re-entry of the Jewish community in form of a procession, just passing the scaffold.

All other broadsides dealing with the punishment of the rebels depict the same scene and make use of similar iconic elements: scaffold, armed soldiers, imperial posts and eagle, the dismembering of the Schwurfinger and decapitation, the tower with the heads, the gallows with the quartered corpses, whipping and expulsion, the demolition of the house, the re-entry of the Jews etc.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Gibbeted,History,Holy Roman Empire,Martyrs,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Torture,Treason

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1794: Jean-Pierre du Teil, Napoleon mentor

Add comment February 27th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1794, the French artillery general Jean-Pierre du Teil was guillotined at Lyon.

The baron du Teil (English Wikipedia entry | French) numbered among many ancien regime officers whose talents were needed but allegiances were suspect in the citizens’ army of revolutionary France. Such figures were forever vulnerable to attack as secret royalists; du Teil while serving in the Army of the Alps fell prey to that very charge made by the ferocious Jacobin rulers of Lyon, Collot d’Herbois and Joseph Fouche.

He’s noteworthy to posterity as a mentor to the young Napoleon Bonaparte at the Royal Artillery School of Auxonne. Du Teil took notice of the precocious teenage artillerist and honored him with special assignments — “a mark of unheard-of favor,” Napoleon gushed in private correspondence.

Napoleon upon his death left 100,000 francs in his will to du Teil’s son “as a token of gratitude for the care this great general took in me.”

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Public Executions,Soldiers,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1852: Hélène Jégado, serial arsenic murderer

Add comment February 26th, 2019 Headsman

Prolific French poisoner Hélène Jégado was guillotined on this date in 1852.

An orphaned peasant, Jegado (English Wikipedia entry | French) made her way as a domestic servant which was a very fine situation for exploring her true passion of insinuating arsenic into folks’ meals.

This Jegado did with astonishing frequency in her 18 years as Brittany’s Locusta: though condemned for just three successful murders, her body count is thought to run well into the twenties or thirties. Although she was a habitual petty thief as well, she was a true serial killer for whom only a handful of her many murders redounded to some palpable benefit for her. She killed from a compulsion.

For example, as the servant of a village cure, she brazenly poisoned off seven people in 1833,* including the priest himself and her own sister Anne Jegado. But the village had been ravaged by cholera in recent months and Helene Jegado by all accounts made for a convincingly bereaved tragic actress. Amazingly, nobody got suspicious, enabling her to poison off her own aunt and two other people when she returned to her own town to bury that dearly departed sister. For the next several years she kept moving and moving, new lodgings in new towns throughout Brittany but over and over again in a position to season the soup. Surprising and sudden deaths repeatedly occurred in her proximity but the pattern never caught anyone’s eye.

Her fire for the inheritance powder mostly burned out by about 1841 when she had a suspected 23 victims to her name. “I am going into retreat,” she’s said to have strangely declared to an employer who caught her stealing in 1841. “God has forgiven me my sins!” Then the suspicious deaths stopped.

At this point, Helene Jegado was pushing 40. Maybe she thought to cleanse her soul and make a fresh and un-homicidal start, or simply to retire her murder spree while she was so very far ahead. Maybe the sensational Marie Lafarge arsenic case of 1840 scared her straight and made her aware of dangerous forensics advances. There was also some idea that she had somehow procured a large stockpile of arsenic at the outset of her career, but discarded it in a panic the first time that she felt herself in danger of being accused.

Whatever the reason for her lull, she seems to have managed the cold turkey program admirably for a good long time … but surely somewhere inside her lurked the hunger to again give rein to her compulsion.

The last days of 1849 find her at Rennes, where she resumed just as suddenly as she had stopped: the ailing son of a couple who employed her as their only servant was suddenly finished off through his porridge, and then the couple themselves sickened by another meal (they survived). Now the bit was again in her teeth and she ran with it through a series of employers: in the course of just weeks she made fresh attacks in the Ozanne household, upon the family’s little son (he died); in the hotel owned by Monsieur Roussell, upon the proprietor’s mother (she survived) and a rival servant (she died).

By the autumn of 1850 she again had her fresh — and her final — employment, with the law professor and sometime politician Theophile Bidard.

Yet it was not the sharp observations or relentless deductions of her scholar-master that exposed Helene Jegado: it was a want of sangfroid downright shocking in one who had already filled so many tombs. When another servant of the Bidards died unexpectedly, Rennes medical men who suspected poisoning called on Bidard. Jegado answered the door, and upon hearing them announce their mission to the man of the house she unnecessarily blurted out an assertion of innocence. Nobody had even mentioned her.

Once she invited everyone’s suspicion the rest followed inevitably. Bodies she had given Rennes households to bury during the preceding year showed clear evidence of arsenic poisoning when exhumed, and the pattern of deaths associated with her — even though they lay beyond prosecution — seemingly confirmed the worst. Helene denied all but went to the guillotine on the Champ-de-Mars at Rennes on February 26, 1852.

* These seven and most of the others attributed to Helene Jegado’s potions are merely irresistible inference; she was detected long past any opportunity to establish direct proof of her hand behind any of the pre-1849 deaths.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,Murder,Public Executions,Serial Killers,Women

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1663: William Dillon, anatomized and diarized

Add comment February 25th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1663, a very pious William Dillon lost his life for a murder during a brawl on London’s Long Acre. Whether he gained, as he anticipated, his eternal soul, surpasseth the understanding of this site. But he achieved, at least, a small measure of literary immortality.

Good People, I stand here a Spectacle to God, Angels and Men, sad and deplorable (I believe) to you, but in my inward Reflections on my Regenerate Estate, in my dear and blessed Saviour Jesus, full of Spiritual Hopes and Comfort.

I declare my self to you all a true and constant Christian, an Apostolical Romane Catholick, and on that account, I am particularly obliged to protest that my hopes are totally and solely placed in the Al-sufficient [sic] Merits of my glorious Redeemer, from whose Merits, the Merits of Man receive their total supernatural condignity and worth. To help the compleating of the Sufferings of his own Body, in his mystical, I am come here to participate of his beloved Crosse, sanctified and dignified by his own most pretious blood.

I give thanks to those deserving and charitable Persons, who desired and endeavoured my longer Life, for my better Repentance and amendment. But although they have failed in their Merciful Intercessions for me, there is an Advocate with the Father, even Jesus Christ the Just, whose Power is infinite, to save to the uttermost.

As I infold my self in the Arms of his rich and embracing Mercy, so I would be joyned with you all in his Divine, as I am in my own derived charity.

I wish you all good, as I should have done that very person, if known to me, for whose Death I am condemned. God Omniscient knoweth my Innocency in that particular, being in my Conscience so clear and free from that guilt, that to my knowledge I never touched the Man. May they have the benefit of the blood of Christ, who have occasioned the losse of mine; and God forgive me in His, as I do them for my own.

After his execution, Dillon was anatomized: it is thanks to this posthumous punishment that we meet him, or at any rate his cold kidneys and ureters and heart and lungs, two days after death through the pen of London diarist Samuel Pepys — a man we’ve run into several times before. Here in its chatty entirety is Pepys’s entry for February 27, 1663:

Up and to my office, whither several persons came to me about office business. About 11 o’clock, Commissioner Pett and I walked to Chyrurgeon’s Hall (we being all invited thither, and promised to dine there); where we were led into the Theatre; and by and by comes the reader, Dr. Tearne, with the Master and Company, in a very handsome manner: and all being settled, he begun his lecture, this being the second upon the kidneys, ureters, &c., which was very fine; and his discourse being ended, we walked into the Hall, and there being great store of company, we had a fine dinner and good learned company, many Doctors of Phisique, and we used with extraordinary great respect.

Among other observables we drank the King’s health out of a gilt cup given by King Henry VIII. to this Company, with bells hanging at it, which every man is to ring by shaking after he hath drunk up the whole cup. There is also a very excellent piece of the King, done by Holbein, stands up in the Hall, with the officers of the Company kneeling to him to receive their Charter.

After dinner Dr. Scarborough took some of his friends, and I went along with them, to see the body alone, which we did, which was a lusty fellow, a seaman, that was hanged for a robbery. I did touch the dead body with my bare hand: it felt cold, but methought it was a very unpleasant sight.

It seems one Dillon, of a great family, was, after much endeavours to have saved him, hanged with a silken halter this Sessions (of his own preparing), not for honour only, but it seems, it being soft and sleek, it do slip close and kills, that is, strangles presently: whereas, a stiff one do not come so close together, and so the party may live the longer before killed. But all the Doctors at table conclude, that there is no pain at all in hanging, for that it do stop the circulation of the blood; and so stops all sense and motion in an instant.

Thence we went into a private room, where I perceive they prepare the bodies, and there were the kidneys, ureters [&c.], upon which he read to-day, and Dr. Scarborough upon my desire and the company’s did show very clearly the manner of the disease of the stone and the cutting and all other questions that I could think of … how the water [comes] into the bladder through the three skins or coats just as poor Dr. Jolly has heretofore told me.

Thence with great satisfaction to me back to the Company, where I heard good discourse, and so to the afternoon Lecture upon the heart and lungs, &c., and that being done we broke up, took leave, and back to the office, we two, Sir W. Batten, who dined here also, being gone before.

Here late, and to Sir W. Batten’s to speak upon some business, where I found Sir J. Minnes pretty well fuddled I thought: he took me aside to tell me how being at my Lord Chancellor‘s to-day, my Lord told him that there was a Great Seal passing for Sir W. Pen, through the impossibility of the Comptroller’s duty to be performed by one man; to be as it were joynt-comptroller with him, at which he is stark mad; and swears he will give up his place, and do rail at Sir W. Pen the cruellest; he I made shift to encourage as much as I could, but it pleased me heartily to hear him rail against him, so that I do see thoroughly that they are not like to be great friends, for he cries out against him for his house and yard and God knows what. For my part, I do hope, when all is done, that my following my business will keep me secure against all their envys. But to see how the old man do strut, and swear that he understands all his duty as easily as crack a nut, and easier, he told my Lord Chancellor, for his teeth are gone; and that he understands it as well as any man in England; and that he will never leave to record that he should be said to be unable to do his duty alone; though, God knows, he cannot do it more than a child. All this I am glad to see fall out between them and myself safe, and yet I hope the King’s service well done for all this, for I would not that should be hindered by any of our private differences.

So to my office, and then home to supper and to bed.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions

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1719: Lt. Edward Bird, ungentlemanly

Add comment February 23rd, 2019 Headsman

Three hundred years ago today, a bad-tempered brute called Lieutenant Edward Bird found he could not buy his way out of a noose.

This man’s journey to the halter began in a bagnio, where he was supposed to be relaxing but instead threw such a fit over the servants’ delay in drawing a bath that the master and mistress of the house were roused in the middle of the night to quell him — for (per the trial record) “I have seve[ral] of consideration in my House” being perturbed by the racket. To this Lt. Bird replied by immediately running servant Samuel Loxton through with his sword, killing him instantly; it’s a good job that the owners were both there together, along with another servant, for all were needed to subdue the guest as he ranted threats to murder all the rest of them. At least, that was their evidence against him; Bird’s story was that they attacked him first, and he had dispatched poor Mr. Loxton in self-defense.

At the time, ordinary criminal prosecutions were privately initiated, and so it fell to the servant’s poor widow Diana to bring the case against Edward Bird.

Although not of high estate, Bird had the werewithal to make himself less accessible to Diana Loxton’s justice than the average footpad or highwayman — first using actual or feigned illness to slow-walk his arraignment from October of 1718 to January of 1719, then calling to his defense “several Persons of Credit and Worth” who attested “his Reputation and peaceable demeanour, [and] who gave him a very good Character.”

Despite his condemnation he must have called on these same reserves of social capital liberally in the subsequent five weeks, for that diligent Ordinary of Newgate named Paul Lorrain was exasperated to find that he could barely get a word in edgewise so preoccupied was his charge with his more corporeal affairs:

I found him always so busie, sometimes in Writing, and at other times with Company, that I could hardly have any Opportunity to speak to him of his Future State. Nevertheless I endeavour’d to prepare him for his great Change, and for a better Life, by perswading him sincerely to repent of all the Sins he had committed in this, and earnestly to pray for GOD’s Pardon and Mercy, through the infinite Merits of CHRIST: Which if he did not now he had time; for it, I desir’d him seriously to consider what might become of him to all Eternity. To this he seem’d to give a little Attention; but something coming into his Mind which he said he must do presently, he desir’d me to leave him; saying, he would send for me another time, when he was at leisure. Accordingly he did, but when I came to him, I found he had not sent for me to pray by him, or discourse him about Divine Matters, but only to shew me the Draught of a Paper which he said he had prepar’d by the help of a Friend, and which he intended to publish. Upon this, after I had (as he desir’d I should) read it, I told him plainly, that the Drift of that Paper, being to insinuate he had not Justice done him at his Trial, he must not think that the World would believe him to be (as he endeavour’d to appear) innocent of the Murder he Was condemn’d for.

Bird did indeed publish such a document. His potentially most compelling juridical claim was one that would strike the modern reader as an utter irrelevancy, but that went to the heart of system of private prosecutions: Bird argued that Samuel Loxton was a bigamist and thus Diana Loxton nee Seedwell as his second wife had no standing to harry him in the courts. This of course entailed besmirching the reputation of the victim and his surviving family and in-laws; with his life on the line, Bird was bold enough to put out payola for dirt on the Loxtons, and even to feel out Diana Loxton herself for the price of her cooperation.* Call it a bit of blood money, payment to be rendered in guineas for reputation.

It’s hard to gauge how much traction this appeal ever gained with the elites in a position to spare Bird’s life. Surely with a more pliable prosecutor he might have had a hand to play: to his grief, he discovered that Diana Loxton was a foe whose tenacity ran quite a bit deeper than his purse.

The London Saturday’s Post reported on February 21 that the incensed widow “presented a petition to his Majesty when he came from Chappel, setting forth the many Difficulties which she laboured under to bring the said Lieutenant to Justice; His Majesty, moved at her just Complaint, ordered a Cabinet Council to meet the next Day, and the Deputy Recorder of London to attend, in order to re-examine the Matter; when the Board, shocked at the wicked Artifices that had been made use of to obstruct the Course of Justice, his Majesty … was pleased to order a Warrant to be made out for the Execution of the said Criminal on Monday next at Tyburn.”

Bird fought his losing corner to the end, even resorting to poisoning and stabbing himself on the eve of his hanging in an attempt to cheat the gallows. All was for naught.

Carried to Tyburn in a comfortable mourning coach where he tarried an hour with his mother (plus three other, all of whom, says Lorrain, “could work no Good on him”), Bird one last time “inveigh’d against Diana Loxton, saying, that if he had time, he could prove she was the second Wife of the Deceas’d, and therefore had no Right to bring an Appeal. He ask’d for a Glass of Wine at the Tree, and being told there was none, he desired a Pinch of Snuff, which was given him.” (London Post Boy, Feb. 21-24, 1719) Then with a salute to the health of his gathered gentlemen friends, who would within the hour claim his body to protect it from the scalpels of ravenous doctors, Lt. Bird was noosed up and turned off, dragged down by the weight of all those unspent gratuities still a-pocket.

* e.g., Powell’s Weekly Journal, Feb. 14-21 1719, speaking of the widow’s outraged reaction to “an Account of that Trial come out, seemingly calculated for the Advantage of the Criminal, and with all the Disadvantages on the side of the Prosecution, by the means of a Printer, who, it is to be feared, did not shut his Eyes against Bribes, as she has done.” She insists against any public suspicion of “being privy to any Intercession that is said to be making in Favour of the Murtherer of her deceased Husband, and to giv[ing] Ear to any Terms of Accommodation with the hateful Cause of his Death, by way of Premium and Reward, in Exchange for his Blood” for these “are Actions so abhorrent to her Nature and unalterable Affection for his dear Memory, as not to be passed by without the utmost Protestations of her Innocence … she has Knowledge of some Application intended to be made to her for putting a Stop to the Prosecution of the Lieutenant before Trial; and a Relation can bear her Witness, that she was offered 100 Guineas to make interest with her to take 2000 l. for that End”; likewise another servant, Loxton claims, turned down “a considerable yearly Estate to be settled upon him and his Children for ever” and instead testified against Lt. Bird, while a charwoman in the Loxton house was offered and refused 40 quid for “swearing any thing scandalous relating to the said House.”

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Pelf,Public Executions

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1595: Robert Southwell

Add comment February 21st, 2019 Headsman

February 2O, 1594-5, [Father Robert] Southwell, a Jesuit, that long time had lain prisoner in the Tower of London, was arraigned at the King’s-bench bar. He was condemned, and on the next morning drawn from Newgate to Tyburn, and there hanged, bowelled and quartered.

-Chronicle of John Stow

Youngest child in a gentry household of Catholic-leaning Norfolk, Robert Southwell was for holy orders and martyr’s laurels from the jump; in 1576 at the tender age of 15, he made for Douai and its English seminary, noted for training missionary priests who would return secretly to Elizabethan England to court torture and death for the Word. Within a decade he was a prefect at the English College in Rome and a fully armed and operational member of the Society of Jesus.

In 1586, Southwell sailed for his homeland with fellow Jesuit Henry Garnet, who would one day go to the gallows for Guy Fawkes’s Gunpowder Plot.

For Southwell, the pen was mightier than such detonations.

“St. Peter’s Complaint” (Excerpt)
by Robert Southwell

Ah! life, sweet drop, drown’d in a sea of sours,
A flying good, posting to doubtful end;
Still losing months and years to gain new hours,
Fain times to have and spare, yet forced to spend;
Thy growth, decrease; a moment all thou hast.
That gone ere known; the rest, to come, or past.

Ah! life, the maze of countless straying ways,
Open to erring steps and strew’d with baits.
To bind weak senses into endless strays,
Aloof from Virtue’s rough, unbeaten straits
A flower, a play, a blast, a shade, a dream,
A living death, a never-turning stream.

Quietly nestled in as the house confessor to Catholic noblewoman Anne Howard, Southwell scratched out page after page to fortify the hearts of the beleaguered Old Faith — standard stuff like martyrology testimony concerning his brother priests, overt manifestos like An humble supplication to Her Maiestie, and literary bestsellers admired by Protestant countrymen like Mary Magdalene’s Funeral Tears and his verse collection St. Peter’s Complaint, and Other Poems.*

This last appeared posthumously. After three years’ imprisonment — “I am decayed in memory with long and close imprisonment, and I have been tortured ten times,” the imminent martyr said of his handling by notorious Catholic-hunter Richard Topcliffe; “I had rather have endured ten executions” — Southwell was brought to the bar on February 20, 1595, to answer as a traitor and put to the traitor’s death the very next day.

Though less widely familiar now, his literary output was well-known and highly regarded long after he died, and perhaps influenced many other writers including Shakespeare. The Catholic Church elevated Southwell to sainthood in 1970.

* A couple of Southwell’s epistles are preserved in the 1741 volume Memoirs of Missionary Priests.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,God,Gruesome Methods,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Torture,Treason

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1820: John and Lavinia Fisher

Add comment February 18th, 2019 Headsman

February 18, 1820 was the execution date of South Carolina crime Hall of Famers John and Lavinia Fisher.

By legendary repute the first serial killer in America, Fisher and her husband John were said to lure travelers to their Six Mile Wayfarer House near Ashley Ferry outside Charleston where they’d be poisoned, stabbed, and robbed.

Alas, the Fishers were actually a more conventional sort of brigand.


National Advocate for the Country (New York, N.Y.), January 28, 1820.

Quite incredible legends have been embroidered for this purported Bates Motel of the early Republic: for instance, that their cover was blown by a man named John Peoples/Peeples who grew suspicious enough to avoid drinking the poisoned tea and then sat up all night like young Felix Platter until he caught wind of the imminent attack, sprang out a window, and fled to safety. If so, it was a woeful failure of the period’s journalists merely to report that he had been savagely beaten and robbed.

A few books about the Lavinia Fisher case

Instead, these two seemed to be part of a gang of bandits who occupied not only their Six Mile House but also the Five Mile House, and Lavinia wasn’t the only woman in the lot: one Jane Howard was among the half-dozen arrested when the Six Mile lair was raided by a vigilante posse in February 1819, along with William Heyward, James M’Elwray, and Seth Young, along with others uncaptured. (Names via National Advocate, March 3, 1819) Papers of the time slate them with offenses like stealing livestock and highway robbery, and it’s the latter crime — not murder — that brought the Fishers to their gallows.

Either way, Charleston tour guides will tell you that she haunts the old city jail to this day. She’s also famous for her purported last words, “If you have a message you want to send to Hell, give it to me; I’ll carry it,” which might even be a real quote.


Alexandria [Va.] Gazette & Daily Advertiser, Feb. 26, 1820

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous Last Words,Hanged,History,Organized Crime,Public Executions,South Carolina,The Supernatural,Theft,USA,Women

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706: Leontios and Apsimar

Add comment February 15th, 2019 Headsman

Likely around February 706 the Byzantine emperors Leontios (Leontius) and Apsimar were executed by the man they’d deposed.

Although a very lesser member of the Roman Empire’s purple club, they had the honor of sort of sounding the death knell of the century-old dynasty founded by the mighty Heraclius.

Heraclius’s great-great-grandson Justinian II had shown himself over a ten-year reign beginning 685 a high- and a ham-handed prince; indeed, his eventual usurper had felt that wrath in 692 when Justinian threw Leontios in prison for losing a battle to the Arabs.

Later restored as strategos of Hellas, Leontios predictably rebelled almost immediately and deposed the irritating legacy case in 695. While many of Justinian’s ministers were put to death, the new boss made an unwise show of clemency by only mutilating Justinian.

(Justinian’s nose was cut off, a mercy masquerading as a grotesquerie: it was commonly meted out in lieu of execution to potential rival imperial claimants with the understanding that the visible mutilation would make it effectively impossible for that person to effectually claim power in the future. Leontios was destined to experience this “mercy” firsthand.)

Our first usurper marks the start of a tumultuous era known as the Twenty Years’ Anarchy wherein seven different emperors ruled in the course of a single generation — so of course he did not have the perquisites of power very long. (The History of Byzantium podcast covers this period in episodes 65 and 66.)

In 698, after the Arabs conquered Carthage — permanently ending the Roman presence in Africa, which dated to the Roman Republic — an admiral named Apsimar claimed the throne for himself. Perhaps it was a pre-emptive lest he be blamed for the Carthage debacle: like Leontios, he first set his foot upon the dais thanks to a failure in the field. For whatever reason it worked with an ease that speaks to the scant legitimacy that Leontios had established among his subjects. Apsimar — Tiberius III, if you please — went as easy on Leontios as had Leontios on his own predecessor, condemning him only to nasal mutilation and monastic imprisonment.

Apsimar had a bit more success and a bit more longevity, but only a bit — for in the early 700s, the embittered and vengeful Justinian cinematically managed to escape his overseers, strangle two assassins sent to hunt him down, and sail through a deadly storm* on the Black Sea to catch on with the Bulgars.

There, mutilated face and all, he raised an army to take back Constantinople. This he duly achieved by dint of an ill-guarded water channel to re-enthrone the dynasty of Heraclius, then hauled both of the interregnum rulers before him and smugly propped up his feet upon their backs. Justinian got a golden prosthetic nose and imperial power; the now-ex-kings got publicly beheaded in an amphitheater known as the Kynegion.

Justinian’s improbable political second act lasted just six years more, until he was overthrown in 711 for the second and final time. This usurper had the good sense to kill him.

* In fear of his life during the storm, one of Justinian’s companions allegedly called on him to placate God by promising his enemies mercy. “If I spare a single one of them, may God drown me here,” replied the once and future emperor.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Beheaded,Byzantine Empire,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Heads of State,History,Power,Public Executions,Soldiers,The Worm Turns,Treason,Turkey,Uncertain Dates

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1844: John Knatchbull, moral madman

Add comment February 13th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1844, John Knatchbull hanged before an orderly crowd of 10,000 at Taylor Square in Sydney, Australia.

Knatchbull was among 20 children of a prolific baronet. The youngster fought at sea in the Napoleonic Wars but found himself in financial straits after demobilization and spiraled into a criminality.

Transported to Australia for an armed robbery, he there cultivated an extensive rap sheet — mutiny, forgery, poisoning his guards. It was a comprehensive Jekyll-to-Hyde heel turn: “all traces of a gentleman had long disappeared, he exhibited no evidence that he had been in a higher social position,” wrote a clergyman who visited him. “[H]e appeared to be in his natural place.”

So you couldn’t say that nobody saw it coming in early 1844 when Knatchbull, out on a ticket of leave, went

into the shop of a poor widow, named Ellen Jamieson, and asked for some trifling article. While Mrs. Jamieson was serving him, the ruffian raised a tomahawk, which he held in his hand, and clove the unfortunate woman’s head in a savage manner. She lingered for a few days, and died, leaving two orphan children … though an attempt was made to set up a plea of insanity, a barrister being employed by the agent for the suppression of capital punishment, so foul a villain could not be saved from the gallows. (Source)

This insanity defense was a then-novel “moral insanity” claim contending “a form of mental derangement in which the intellectual faculties were unaffected, but the affects or emotions were damaged, causing patients to be carried away by some kind of furious instinct.” That is, Knatchbull knew that he did wrong when he struck the luckless shopkeep, but he had no power to restrain himself. The court took a pass.


Sketch of the scene at Knatchbull’s hanging.

More fortunate of birth and temperament, John’s brother Edward Knatchbull, who was not only the sitting baronet but the UK’s Paymaster General, made good his vocation by arranging a donative to Ellen Jamieson’s orphaned children.

This family — the donors, not the orphans — remains among the peers of the realm, its vintage baronetcy of Mersham Hatch having been upgraded to a baronage in 1880. It’s currently held by Norton Knatchbull, who is also Earl Mountbatten (he’s the maternal grandson of the Mountbatten who led British forces in Southeast Asia, took down the Union Jack in India, and was assassinated by the IRA).

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Australia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Nobility,Notably Survived By,Public Executions

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