Posts filed under 'Themed Sets'

Corpses Strewn: The Murrell Excitement

Add comment July 2nd, 2017 Headsman

In 1835, Madison County in the U.S. Deep South state of Mississippi thrilled to the frightening rumor that its huge slave population was on the brink of insurrection.

As with many squelched servile revolts we have seen in these ghastly pages we have no conclusive evidence on the reality of the alleged plot … but we can certainly read the panic of the masters. They were, or became, acutely conscious of their vulnerability; Madison County’s* vast and wealthy plantations had one of the highest concentrations of slaves in the Union. An 1834 travelogue, not thinking of the prospects for a jacquerie, remarked on the “immense bodies of rich land” that were

all being converted into cotton fields, and negro quarters — leaving so sparse a white population, as to preclude the possibility of building up any thing like an interesting state of society. Many of the owners of those large plantations reside in the older settled parts of the State, and not a few of them in other States — leaving on a plantation containing perhaps, several sections of land, no white person except the overseer.**

This was the setup for numerous actual or almost slave rebellions, from the Caribbean to Nat Turner‘s rising in Virginia just four years before.

Spooked Mississippians took a page from the playbook of their Old Dominion brethren — exhausting patrols,* sleepless nights, vigilante justice. “I have not slept two hours in the twenty-four for six days and nights,” one planter wrote on July 9, “and have been on horseback more than four-fifths of the time” … and was scribbling in a rush for “I have to hurry to Clinton this morning.”†

The rumor seems to have been first put abroad by a Georgian adventurer named Virgil Stewart, who infiltrated himself into the company of bandit and slave-stealer John Murrell and got the latter arrested some months previous. Stewart circulated a pamphlet grandiosely titled “A history of the detection, conviction, life and designs of John A. Murel, the great western land pirate. Together with his system of villainy, and plan of exciting a Negro rebellion.” (Read it here.) This document is a principal source for the bloodbath that follows, along with “The History of Virgil A. Stewart, and His Adventure in Capturing and Exposing the Great ‘Western Land Pirate’ and His Gang, in Connection with the Evidence; also of the Trials, Confessions, and Execution of a Number of Murrell’s Associates in the State of Mississippi during the Summer of 1835, and the Execution of Five Professional Gamblers by the Citizens of Vicksburg, on the 6th of July, 1835″ (here) and “Proceedings of the Citizens of Madison County, Mississippi, at Livingston, in July, 1835, in Relation to the Trial and Punishment of Several Individuals Implicated in a Contemplated Insurrection in This State” (here)

Stewart purported to have obtained a confession from Murrell’s own lips to the effect that “The grand object that we have in contemplation, is to excite a rebellion among the negroes, throughout the slave-holding States. Our plan is to manage so as to have it commence every where at the same hour.” The outlaw certainly had a trenchant critique of the Slave Power.

We find the most vicious and wicked disposed ones, on large farms: and poison their minds by telling them how they are mistreated, and that they are entitled to their freedom as much as their masters, and that all the wealth of the country is the proceeds of the black people’s labor; we remind them of the pomp and splendor of their masters, and then refer them to their own degraded situation, and tell them that it is power and tyranny which rivets their chains of bondage, and not because they are an inferior race of people. We tell them that all Europe has abandoned slavery, and that the West Indies are all free; and that they got their freedom by rebelling a few times and slaughtering the whites, and convince them, that if they will follow the example of the West India negroes, that they will obtain their liberty, and become as much respected as if they were white, and that they can marry white women when they are all put on a level. In addition to this, get them to believe, that the most of people are in favor of their being free, and that the free States, in the United States, would not interfere with the negroes, if they were to butcher every white man in the slave-holding States.

With Stewart’s report as background, a white woman at a Beatties Bluff plantation reported overhearing her slaves murmuring in hushed tones about a rebellion. In a twinkle a vigilance committee was formed up to pursue this lead, and it appears to have grafted some themes from Stewart/Murrell — a coordinated holiday rising (Murrell had said Christmas, but here the focus fell on Independence Day), the leadership of white scofflaws (hence the “Murrell Excitement”) — and it recorded an erudite defense of its confessedly rough and extralegal behavior.

When, too, it is recollected, that all we hold most dear in this world was involved in the common danger, and calling for every manly energy in its defence, the odds will be found very great between the cold reasoning of statesmen and lawyers, and the vituperations of fanatics at a distance. But imminent and pressing as was the danger, the organization of a committee, chosen by the unanimous consent of their fellow-citizens, assembled on the occasion, and invested by them (however unclothed with the forms of law) with the fearful power of life and death, was the result.

… why was not the civil authority appealed to? … The civil authority was inadequate to this end in Madison county; for there is no jail in that county sufficient to contain more than six or eight prisoners, and even those very insecurely; and, whenever prisoners would have been despatched to any other county, a guard would have been required, which would have left many families defenceless; and it was unknown at what moment this protection might be required; besides, immediate example, and its consequent terror, without hope from the law’s delay or evasion, seemed, as in truth it was, indispensable to safety.

Already had many of the slaves marked out the victims of their lust or revenge; and no time to convince them of the fatal attempts of their rash enterprise was to be lost. If they had been permitted to commence it, though a failure must have eventually taken place, horrid would their momentary triumph have been. That the plot was headed by a daring band of villanous [sic] white men, there now remains no doubt, and the desperate evil required a prompt and efficient remedy, to the extent of the one resorted to by the citizens of Madison county, and carried into effect by the committee.

For several scattered days ahead, we’ll follow this desperate committee’s prompt and efficient remedies.

As a postscript, Murrell made master criminal Cooperstown to the extent that treasure hunters still pursue his supposed deposits. Mark Twain dwells on “Murel’s Gang” as a “colossal combination of robbers, horse-thieves, negro-stealers, and counterfeiters” in Life on the Mississippi, rating him much the more impressive outlaw than the likes of Jesse James: “James’s modest genius dreamed of no loftier flight than the planning of raids upon cars, coaches, and country banks; Murel projected negro insurrections and the capture of New Orleans.” Humphrey Bogart played Murrell (or a fictional version of Murrell who lived long enough to figure in Civil War adventures) in the 1940 film Virginia City.

* There are 19 Madison Counties in the United States; Madison County, Mississippi is not the one with the bridges.

** As quoted by Edwin A. Miles, “The Mississippi Slave Insurrection Scare of 1835,” The Journal of Negro History, Jan. 1957.

† Quote from the National Intelligencer, July 29, 1835

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Themed Set: The Calendar of Saints

Add comment June 11th, 2017 Headsman

Whatever Executed Today has done by way of its daily trade in memorable deaths was done earlier, deeper, and more consequentially by the index of hagiographies that is the Catholic calendar of saints. For every occasion — even Christmas! — the Church knows a selection of faithful culled from the Roman Martyrology who gave their life for Christ just like you should be willing to do, and darned if those folks and the believers who have prayed their intercession didn’t turn an obscure Levantine cult into a world-shaping religious edifice.

Say what you will about the calendar’s shortcomings as journalism — it has numerous made-up dates and historically dubious martyrs — it fantastically achieves its objectives of propaganda and historical memory: the very seasons in their passage day by day as a thread of heroic missionary martyrdom joining believers across place and time and circumstance from the present-day pews back to the suffering Savior himself.

We’ve many times here used this or that entry from the calendar. For the next few days, we’ll yield the floor entirely to this monumental ancestor of our little project … for as one great martyr put it, “the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.”

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Daily Double: Hameln after the war

Add comment May 15th, 2017 Headsman

Famous for its Pied Piper, the Saxon town of Hameln (Hamelin) after World War II had the honor or burden of sending off 150+ of the war criminals whose volkische enchantments had so devastated Europe. (Plus a number of others for more ordinary crimes under military jurisdiction.)

Taking over a prison where the Nazis had murdered leftists, Jews, and homosexuals, the British made it Albert Pierrepoint‘s home away from home, the gallows-clearinghouse for war crimes trials throughout the western Reich. In Hameln the suave hangman noosed many of the World War II convicts that have featured on this here site down the years, including those of

Great Britain maintained a military presence in Hameln throughout the Cold War, which it is only now winding down. However, she handed the prison back to the West German government in 1950, and German authorities responded by controversially reburying 91 hanged war criminals in a consecrated cemetery.

The prison buildings still stand today, but they’ve been since converted into a four-star hotel which doesn’t advertise the many frightful ghosts who haunt its suites.

For the next two days, we’ll resurrect a few of them from consecutive mass hangings in 1946. For more about Hameln and a thorough roster of its postwar executions, see this page on the invaluable Capital Punishment UK site.

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Themed Set: The Ordinary of Newgate

1 comment March 3rd, 2017 Headsman

The Ordinary of Newgate’s Accounts occupy an extra-ordinary place in the development of English crime literature, and although Executed Today has often enough crossed paths with these bulletins we have not yet burdened them with their own categorical spotlight.

The Ordinary was the chaplain at London’s Newgate Prison, a post held by a succession of different men into the 19th century. Broadly, the Ordinary’s job description was to care for the souls of prisoners, and he naturally took special interest in the salvation of the many souls destined for the Tyburn Tree.

But by the early 18th century, the Ordinary’s real racket — from a cash flow standpoint — was publishing. The Rev. Paul Lorrain, Ordinary from 1700 and a great innovator of the Accounts, notoriously left an estate of £5,000 at his death in 1719 … on an annual salary of £35.*

Beginning in the 1670s, an Ordinary named Samuel Smith began publishing short, broadside-scale accounts of the condemned prisoners in his charge. These accounts had and always retained a didactic purpose for their audience that can read quite heavy-handed and repetitive; while not every malefactor succumbed to Ordinary’s pitch, so many did so and with such formulaic consistency that wags like Defoe would laugh that Lorrain was forever “mak[ing] a Sheep-stealer a saint.” Nevertheless, their influence was considerable, and they’d form one of the core sources for the Newgate Calendar.

And as it turned out, the Ordinary’s Accounts also tapped what proved to be a bottomless public appetite for crime stories.

The Ordinaries, Lorrain especially, soon found they could leverage their unique dungeon access to notorious criminals into fantastic sales. Ordinary’s Accounts grew by the 1710s to lengthy pamphlets, containing the Ordinary’s own sermons, summaries of the offenses, and reports of the behavior of the condemned at the gallows; and, the public profile thereby obtained positioned the Ordinary like so many scrabbling bloggers to market books deriving from his ephemera. As copy moved, these ministers of salvation did not shrink from selling their column-inches for advertising, padding some Ordinary’s Accounts installments out to 50 pages long.

This greater bulk was also a reply, as was a race towards the earliest publication hour possible, to the competition of rival catchpennies aggressively cranked out by commercial pamphleteers in the burgeoning industry of print, and bidding to capitalize upon the same spectacle in the same fashion.

Whatever his flaws and foibles and no matter the contradiction with his ministerial role, the Ordinary stands as the tallest figure in this formative bustle but even as this dungeon minister shaped the burgeoning city’s cacophony he in time became eclipsed by it. In its earliest form the Ordinary speaks the penitential tones of a receding era, striving for reconciliation, forgiveness, fellow-feeling among the prisoners and the community that had condemned them, part of a cosmology where sheep-stealers and saints really could clasp hands. Ordinary’s Accounts ceased in 1772, not long before Tyburn itself closed down, and by then London was the ascendant global capital of a bourgeois order with a markedly different conception of crime and criminal.

For the next few days, we’ll visit a few of these Ordinary’s ccounts; though we have often excerpted them in these pages with a natural focus to the bits about the actual crime or execution, here we’ll enjoy them in their entirety — sermonizing, advertisements, and all.

* Lincoln Faller, “In Contrast to Defoe: The Rev. Paul Lorrain, Historian of Crime”, Huntington Library Quarterly, Nov. 1976

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Entry Filed under: Arts and Literature,Themed Sets

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Daily Double: Child Burglars in Nuremberg

Add comment February 11th, 2017 Headsman

Our subject today is the journal Franz Schmidt, the redoubtable master executioner of the German city Nuremberg. On February 11-12 in 1584, Schmidt made an end of a gang of near-feral youth burglars with colorfully outlandish nicknames — an occasion notable enough to merit an illustration in the Nuremberg chronicle.

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Themed Set: Sexual Deviance

Add comment November 27th, 2016 Headsman

We have from time to time in these pages glimpsed the scaffold as the paradoxical junction of death to eros — the “little death” writ large, as when St. Catherine of Siena orgasmically clutched the falling head of a political prisoner. Modernity has half-lost the sense with our medicalized executions, but through most of human history the scaffold has been a site of sheer carnality: spurting blood, clashing flesh, involuntary priapism.

Far more obvious is the propensity of illicit desire to send a person into the clutches of the carnifex in the first place; take, for example, the dozens of crimes on this site alone attributable to love triangles.

Power has always concerned itself deeply with sexuality (and vice versa!), defining and delimiting its forms with the scaffold as an ultimate albeit infrequent guarantor against unauthorized concupiscence. For our next few posts, we’ll meet some people who transgressed the lines in their worlds to their grief.

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Entry Filed under: Sex,Themed Sets

Daily Double: Felix Platter’s Diary

3 comments September 28th, 2016 Headsman

We have visited previously the 16th century diary of Swiss medical student Felix Platter during his studies in Montpellier. (The diary is available free online.)

This book portrays the 16th century through the remarkable Platter family.

Platter isn’t a diarist of executions in particular: his is a record of everyday life comprising Platter’s own personal affairs, university events (such as a student protest), and highlight events in the town (such as a storm that knocked down a steeple). Given his course of studies, Felix was ever next door to death; his forays to cemeteries for moonlight grave-robbing of corpses to anatomize make great reading.

my principal study was anatomy. Not only did I never miss the dissections of men and animals that took place in the College, but I also took part in every secret autopsy of corpses, and I came to put my own hand to the scalpel, despite the repulsion I had felt at first. I joined with French students and exposed myself to danger to procure subjects.

A bachelor of medicine named Gallotus, who had married a woman from Montpellier and was passing rich, would lend us his house. He invited me, with some others, to join him in nocturnal expeditions outside the town, to dig up bodies freshly buried in the cloister cemetery, and we carried them to his house for dissection. We had spies to tell us of burials and to lead us by night to the graves.

Our first excursion of this kind took place on the 11th of November 1554. As night fell Gallotus led us out of the town to the monastery of the Augustins, where we met a monk, called Brother Bernhard, a determined fellow, who had disguised himself in order to help us. When we came to the monastery we stayed to drink, quietly, until midnight. Then, in complete silence, and with swords in hand, we made our way to the cemetery of the monastery of Saint-Denis. There we dug up a corpse with our hands, the earth being still loose, because the burial had taken place only that day, As soon as we had uncovered it we pulled it out with ropes, wrapped it in a flassada (blanket) and carried it on two poles as far as the gates of the town. It must then have been about three o’clock in the morning.

We put the corpse to one side and knocked on the postern that is opened for coming and going at night, and the old porter came in his shirt to open it for us. We asked him to bring us something to drink, under the pretext that we were dying of thirst, and while he went in search of wine three of us brought the cadaver in and carried it directly to Gallotus’s house, which was not far away. The porter was not suspicious, and we rejoined our companions. On opening the winding sheet in which the body was sewn, we found a woman with a congenital deformity of the legs, the two feet turned inwards. We did an autopsy and found, among other curiosities, various veins vasorwn spermaticonm, which were not deformed, but followed the curve of the legs towards the buttocks. She had a lead ring, and as I detest these it added to my disgust.

Encouraged by the success of this expedition, we tried again five days later. We had been informed that a student and a child had been buried in the same cemetery of Saint-Denis.

When night came we left die town to go to the monastery of the Augustins. It was the 16th of December. [sic: he meant to say the 16th of November] In Brother Bernhard’s cell we ate a chicken cooked with cabbage. We got the cabbage ourselves, from the garden, and seasoned it with wine supplied by the monk. Leaving the table, we went out with our weapons drawn, for the monks of Saint-Denis had discovered that we had exhumed the woman, and they had threatened us direly should we return. Myconius carried his naked sword, and the Frenchmen their rapiers. The two corpses were disinterred, wrapped in our cloaks, and carried on poles as before as far as the gates of the town. We did not dare to rouse the porter this time, so one of us crawled inside through a hole that we discovered under the gate for they were very negligently maintained. We passed the cadavers through the same opening, and they were pulled through from the inside. We followed in turn, pulling ourselves through on our backs; I remember that I scratched my nose as I went through.

The two subjects were carried to Gallotus’s house and their coverings were removed. One was a student whom we had known. The autopsy revealed serious lesions. The lungs were decomposed and stank horribly, despite the vinegar that we sprinkled on them; we found some small stones in them. The child was a little boy, and we made a skeleton of him.

When I returned to my lodging early in the morning, the shop boy who slept with me did not hear me ring, and he did not wake even when I threw stones against the shutters. I was obliged to go for some sleep to the house of one of the Frenchmen who had been with us. After this the monks of Saint-Denis guarded their graveyard, and if a student came near he was received with bolts from a crossbow.

But often enough too we find him observing the near side of death’s door. The casual frequency with which Platter notes public executions — with sufficient detail to imply the author’s personal attendance — underscores their ubiquity; there would not have been a person alive for whom the phenomenon was unfamiliar, for maximal exposure was its modus operandi. In the first pages of Platter’s diary, he remarks on seeing “several men hanging from gibbets and others exposed on wheels” as his travel party nears Lyons.

Paradoxically, their frequency makes these events forgettable: just the latest in an unending chain of small crooks broken apart by the state for the possible predation of aspiring doctors. The executions Platter remarks for the next two days fit this category; they have little historical weight as such, but through Platter we have them, frozen in amber as it were, a preserved moment from a half-alien past.

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Themed Set: Italy

1 comment August 8th, 2016 Headsman

Italy today might be the capital of the anti-capital punishment movement; it’s turned the Roman Colosseum — whose thirsty sands once drank so much state-spilled blood — into a sort of permanent monument to abolition that’s lit up beautifully in celebration of repeals and moratoria all around the world.

Obviously, it was not always thus. Never mind the ancient punishments from ancient Rome’s foggy infancy or her Etruscan ancestry; the papacy which today shows so prominently against the executioner in the 19th century employed one of the most famous of the species, to the admiration of tourists.

Italy as a whole only officially got rid of the death penalty on January 1, 1948, but it does have a deeper heritage to claim. The then-independent Grand Duchy of Tuscany enjoys pride of place for its 1786 abolition — on November 30, to be exact, a date which is now a public holiday in Tuscany and observed internationally as Cities for Life Day.

So, fine, everyone has a few skeletons in the closet even if they’re not on the execution playing cards. For the next few days we’ll pull on our boots and wade through Italy’s.

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Themed Set: The 2010s

1 comment May 26th, 2016 Headsman

While Executed Today does not aspire to walk the daily news beat, our eight-plus years on the scene have tracked an ample quantity of hangings, shootings, injections, and beheadings around the world, truly enough that this site really could subsist on those literally executed today.

In fact recent years have only brought us growing quantities of material.

Amnesty International‘s annual count of executions — which notably excludes the unobtainium of secretive China — records a distinct upward trajectory for executions* in the present decade notwithstanding the organization’s repeated assertions of a “global trend towards abolition”:

2010: 527
2011: 676
2012: 682
2013: 778
2014: 607
2015: 1,634

Though China is number one with an annual butcher’s bill thought to number in the thousands, the vast majority of these countable executions come from just three countries: Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, the latter of whom went wild in 2015 with over 300 hangings after a terrorist outrage led it to break a years-long death penalty moratorium. Even so, Amnesty allows of 2015 that “at least six countries who had not put anyone to death in 2014 did so in 2015, including Chad where executions were carried out for the first time in more than a decade.”

One could easily overstate the point. There are certainly moves away from the death penalty in many places, and the footprint of the few largest users is so great that the “worldwide trend” as measured by the aggregate essentially reflects the chance local prerogatives of only a handful of polities. Still, it’s clear that the executioner won’t be exiting the human comedy any time soon. As this piece goes to publication in May 2016, Egypt’s military dictatorship is considering hanging three journalists (and, still, the former president it deposed); there’s a new president-elect in the Philippines who has vowed to reinstate capital punishment after a 16-year abeyance; Indonesia has just now widened its death penalty to include child rape; and Israel’s incoming governing coalition is openly mooting the pleasures of executing Palestinians. (Up to this point, Israel has only judicially executed one guy in its whole history: Adolf Eichmann.)

For the next few days, we’ll be unabashedly ripping from the headlines — trying to salvage for the record just a few of the many thousands who have trod our path right under our very noses.

* Note that Amnesty’s reported figure for any single year can vary slightly in different reports over time as its data develops.

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Corpses Strewn: New York’s slave conspiracy of 1741

1 comment May 11th, 2016 Headsman

Beginning on this May 11th, and scattered depressingly over the coming weeks, we revisit New York City’s great terrorist panic … of 1741.

This was scarcely the first security scare of New York — indeed, the city had been rocked by a major slave revolt back in 1712, a revolt that included arson.

By 1741, New York “boasted” the second-largest slave population of Britain’s North American colonies, behind only Charleston: enough souls to outnumber the city’s propertied elite should they manage to act in concert. As the cruel winter of 1741 abated, a series of fires in the city raised suspicion … and then fear … and soon, certainty … that just such a slave conspiracy was underway.

On March 18, Fort George caught fire, burning to the ground with the mansion of the autocratic royal governor before a semi-timely rainstorm aborted a potential Great Fire of London scenario.

Nobody could be sure what happened, but the cold-dried tinders of a wooden city were easy prey to accidental sparks. Though devastating, the calamity was not necessarily suspicious.

The event took on a different hue when another fire broke out near the ruins of the fort the very next week, March 25. Another occurred on April 1, and yet another on April 4.


1762 illustration of New Yorkers fighting a blaze by passing water buckets to a pumping wagon.

There were 10 fires in all, plus alarming near-misses like fizzled coals left under a heap of straw, and although each was contained without devastating the city it must have seemed that the flames licked Manhattan from the very mouth of hell, convening an ever more rattled bucket brigade again and again until — as the city’s Common Council recorded in convening on April 11 — “every one that reflected on the Circumstances attending them, the Frequency of them, and the Causes yet undiscovered, must necessarily conclude, that they were occasioned and set on Foot by some villainous Confederacy of latent Enemies amongst us.”


New-York Weekly Journal, April 20, 1741

A frightened populace confronting a shadowy menace in a world at war made an environment ripe for a witch hunt. That was not quite true in the literal sense:* a half-century’s distance from the Salem trials put 1741 New Yorkers in a different philosophical universe.

But for at least 30 of New York’s slaves, and for four white people known to keep intimacy with them, the effect was much the same. Harrowed between the masters’ self-confirming fears and their fellows’ desperate accusations under duress, the plot or the “plot” staked them to flaming pyres, high gallows, and public infamy.

We will pause for the particulars of various individuals’ situations as we meet them. As to the general outline, the provincial supreme court that condemned these 30-plus souls (and inflicted various sub-lethal punishments on others) had via testimony delivered to a grand jury beginning on April 22 evolved a working theory that the black slaves who frequented a tavern kept by a white couple named John and Peggy Hughson had formed a sinister society bent on outright revolution. The allegations of the Hughsons’ servant Mary Burton, drawn from her with fear and favor, were key to the entire affair; in her words, three slaves named Caesar, Prince, and Cuffee were the architects of the plan along with Mr. Hughson and they aimed to “burn the whole town … [and] when all this was done, Caesar should be governor, and Hughson, her master, should be king.” More than that: these dark serviles should when they ruled New York have the city’s white women for their own. There is something of the Witches’ Sabbath about these specifications after all.

Whether there ever was a slave conspiracy — and if so, whether it ever compassed more than a handful of people, or rose past the level of loose words or isolated and opportunistic deeds — has never really been known. Cities have now and very much had then a susceptibility to fire, and their inhabitants a susceptibility to finding spurious patterns in noisy data.

As soon as July of that same year 1741 it was charged publicly (albeit anonymously) that those tongues of Hell had been the “merciless Flames of an Imaginary Plot,” and New Yorkers admonished that “making Bonfires of the Negros … [is] perhaps thereby loading yourselves with greater Guilt than theirs.” On the other hand — and one is reminded here of the Rorschach quality these distant and ill-documented episodes carry — the idea of an actual wide-ranging slave plot has also been valorized as working class resistance to the cruel Atlantic economy. To think, the ghost of Spartacus abroad in Manhattan! If it were, then they died like Spartacuses, too.

A few books about the slave conspiracy

* Witches were actually passingly entertained as the possible malefactors here, as the day for this superstition was not yet entirely past.

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