Posts filed under 'Wrongful Executions'

1915: Leo Frank lynched

1 comment August 17th, 2015 Headsman

One hundred years ago today, Leo M. Franks was lynched to an oak tree at Marietta — one of the most notorious mob murders in American history.

Methodically extracted hours before from the Midgeville State Penitentiary by an Ocean’s Eleven-style team of coordinated professionals, Frank’s murder was as shocking in 1915 as it reads in retrospect.

The well-heeled Jewish Yankee was factory superintendent at the National Pencil Company in Atlanta when a 13-year-old girl in his employ was discovered in the factory’s basement — throttled and apparently raped. That was in 1913; for the ensuing two years, the prosecution of Mary Phagan’s boss as her murderer would play out in sensational press coverage.

Frank is today widely thought innocent of the crime, although the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles has balked at issuing an unconditional pardon since so little of the original evidence survives. (A 1986 pardon came down “without attempting to address the question of guilt or innocence” in recognition of the slanted trial and the failure to protect Frank from lynchers.) But this was much more than a courtroom drama; the Frank affair crackles with the social tensions of early 20th century America. Industry and labor; integration; sexual violation; sectional politics; race and class and power.

Populist Party politician Thomas E. Watson, whose magazines made a dishonorable intervention by openly agitating for (and then celebrating) Frank’s lynching, captures the Zeitgeist for us as he fulminates against the nationwide campaign to grant the convicted murderer a new trial: “Frank belongs to the Jewish aristocracy, and it was determined by the rich Jews that no aristocrat of their race should die for the death of a working-class Gentile.” Frank came to enjoy (if that’s the right word) the editorial support of most of the country’s major papers, but the meddling of northern publishers, and of fellow Jews in solidarity,* arguably led Georgians to circle wagons in response. Present-day Muslims called upon to disavow every bad act by every other Muslim would surely recognize this no-win position.

But then we must also add that Watson himself, a lawyer, had been approached by Frank’s defense team hoping to enlist his bombast to defend their man at trial. The white supremacist demagogue would have been perfect for the job, for the legal battle pitted the credibility of a black janitor named Jim Conley against that of Frank.

Here amid the nadir of American race relations Frank’s team made its own ugly and unsuccessful pitch for racial solidarity with his neighbors. When formulaically asked by the court that had convicted him for any statement to mitigate the impending sentence, Frank replied that

my execution will make the advent of a new era in Georgia, where a good name and stainless honor count for naught against the word of a vile criminal; where the testimony of Southern white women of unimpeachable character is branded as false by the prosecution, disregarded by the jury and the perjured vaporings of a black brute alone accepted as the whole truth.

This violent collision of two vulnerable minorities each with the keen sense that one or the other of them was being outfitted for WASP America’s nooses makes for riveting and sometimes bizarre reading. Newspapers could hardly fail to note that the all-white jury (Leo Frank’s defense team struck all the blacks) had, as Frank complained, privileged the account of just the sort of “black brute” that Southern courts were accustomed to scorn, or railroad. Thus we have the NAACP organ The Crisis taking umbrage that “Atlanta tried to lynch a Negro for the alleged murder of a young white girl” but “a white degenerate has now been indicted for the crime.” It was likewise reasoned by some that since Conley was a young black man with a criminal record who was a potential suspect in the Deep South in the murderous sexual assault of a little white girl, “the mere fact that Conley did not long ago make his exit from this terrestrial sphere, via a chariot of fire is convincing proof that he, at least, is not the man who committed the deed.”** (New York Age, Oct. 29, 1914.)

In the end it was a zero-sum game between Jim Conley and Leo Frank: one of them was the murderer; each accused the other. Their respective desperate interests permeated to their respective communities. (After Frank’s lynching, hundreds of Jews left Georgia; many who remained took pains to downplay their Jewishness.)

By whatever circumstance police zeroed on Frank and the white community’s passion followed — tunnel vision that would eventually manifest itself in a circus courtroom atmosphere where the prosecuting attorney was cheered and defense witnesses hooted at and the ultimate outcome more demanded than anticipated. The judge feared that an acquittal would result in the summary lynching of not only Frank but his defenders.


Mary Phagan was killed on Confederate Memorial Day, the “holiday” this ballad alludes to.

Unusually for the time, appeals on the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court which declined to intervene — although two justices filed a dissent citing the egregious trial atmosphere.

Mob law does not become due process of law by securing the assent of a terrorized jury …

This is not a matter for polite presumptions; we must look facts in the face. Any judge who has sat with juries knows that in spite of forms they are extremely likely to be impregnated by the environing atmosphere … we think the presumption overwhelming that the jury responded to the passions of the mob …

lynch law [is] as little valid when practiced by a regularly drawn jury as when administered by one elected by a mob intent on death.

But that mob would still have its say. On the eve of Frank’s scheduled June 22, 1915 hanging, outgoing governor John Slaton commuted the sentence.

“Feeling as I do about this case, I would be a murderer if I allowed this man to hang,” the governor said. “It may mean that I must live in obscurity the rest of my days, but I would rather be plowing in a field than feel for the rest of my days that I had this man’s blood on my hands.”†

Frank was spirited away to the penitentiary under cover of darkness; it was hoped that the remote and reinforced edifice would deter any reprisal. It turned out that the furies who hunted Franks could not be dissuaded by mere inconvenience: a committee calling itself the Knights of Mary Phagan formed with the open object of organizing the intended mob vengeance — and indeed it was almost superseded in July of that year by a fellow-prisoner who slashed Frank’s throat as he slept.

Frank survived that murder attempt only to await the next one. Who knows what fancies frequented him in those weeks when he ducked from the shadow of the gallows to that of the lynching-tree, object of pity or hatred. He had time on the last day to savor his impending fate when the Knights methodically cut their way into the penitentiary — snipping the phone wires and disabling the vehicles — and marched their man out with nary a shot fired. Then, a convoy of automobiles “sped” (at 18 miles per hour) all the way back to a prepared execution-site at Marietta. The drive took seven or eight hours over unpaved country lanes, and for every moment of it Frank surely knew how it would end.

* Frank was a chapter president of the Jewish fraternal organization B’nai B’rith; the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith was founded in 1913 as a direct outgrowth of the Frank campaign.

As a contrasting response, the American Jewish Committee declined to participate in the Frank campaign for fear of lending counterproductive credence to charges such as those voiced by the New York Sun (Oct. 12, 1913):

The anti-Semitic feeling was the natural result of the belief that the Jews had banded to free Frank, innocent or guilty. The supposed solidarity of the Jews for Frank, even if he was guilty, caused a Gentile solidarity against him.

** Maurianne Davis’s Strangers and Neighbors: Relations between Blacks and Jews in the United States has a trove of interesting editorial comment from Frank’s contemporaries in the black press, and the Jewish press. Conley was actually the confessed accessory, and served a year in prison for it: he said that he complied with Frank’s order to hide the body for fear that his “white” boss could easily get Conley lynched for the crime. Conley also wrote (under Frank’s directive, he said) the preposterous “murder notes” found with the body that purported to be Mary Phagan’s dying indictment of Newt Lee, the African-American night watchman.

† The allusion to political suicide suggests Slaton’s mind was on the precedent of Illinois Gov. John Altgeld, whose career was destroyed by pardoning some of the Haymarket anarchists. If so, Slaton was quite correct; he actually had to flee Georgia altogether and could not return to the state for more than a decade.

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1817: Not Hall or Read, prosecuted for blood-money

Add comment August 16th, 2015 Headsman

Miscarriages of justice perpetrated by actors in a position to extract private benefit from generating criminal prosecutions is a story as old as the hills. This one, as reprinted in the London Morning Chronicle, Aug. 25, 1817, at least has a happy ending:

EXTRAORDINARY CIRCUMSTANCE

Two soldiers, named Hall and Morrison, were on the 26th July tried for a highway robbery at the Stafford Assizes, before Baron Garrow, convicted, and ordered to be executed. They were prosecuted by a man named Read, a bricklayers labourer, who swore that they knocked him down and robbed him of a shilling and a penny, in a church-yard at Wolverhampton, on the 23d July. The evidence of the woman in whose house the prisoners resided, went to prove that they did not sleep at home on the night of the imputed robbery. To those two witnesses the evidence was confined, and against it there appeared nothing upon the trial, except the declarations of the prisoners, containing facts which were afterwards sworn to be others, and which, after the utmost labour of a few benevolent persons, were the means of saving the innocent prisoners from a death which appeared to all to be inevitable.

The two soldiers were, upon the 23d of July, drinking at an hour too late for admission at their lodging at Wolverhampton, and, after applying in vain to be allowed to go into the guardroom to sleep, walked about the village to kill time.

In loitering through the church-yard they met a man who seemed to be in want of work, and, like themselves, without a lodging for the night. A conversation ensued, and the stranger told them his name was Read; that he was a bricklayer’s labourer out of employment, and a Hertfordshire man.

It happened, that in his description he hit upon the part of the country from which one of the prisoners came. A jesting dialogue took place between them, and at length it was agreed that they should wrestle.

Hall was the friendly opponent of Read upon the occasion, and he was thrown in the first round of wrestling. In the second, however, Hall was more successful in the feat of activity, but his triumph nearly robbed him of his life. The vanquished man dropped a shilling and a penny from his pocket. Morrison immediately picked up the money, said it would do for beer, and put it into his pocket. The soldiers quizzed Read about his loss, and were heard by a watchman near the spot acknowledging that they had the shilling, and would certainly dispose of it in the most convivial way.

Read growled about his money, and showed a disposition to quarrel, but did not utter a word about his being robbed of it. About five o’clock in the morning the three were seen near the market-place by another watchman, and the soldiers were bantering Read upon the same subject.

The good humour of Read, however, at this time, appeared quite broken up; he spoke of having the soldiers taken into custody, but was answered by a laugh from them. A grocer, named Powis, saw them all under similar circumstances, and heard Read complain of no attempt at robbery, but saw that he was not pleased at being laughed at.

The grocer soon after met a man named Roberts, the keeper of the House of Correction at Wolverhampton, and mentioned to him that Read said two soldiers had got his money. The answer of Roberts, which did not strike the grocer as extraordinary at first, was, “I must see that man; this is a good job.”

The event, however, soon explained the language. Roberts immediately inquired after Read, questioned him upon the loss he had sustained, and in a very short time apprehended the two soldiers upon the charge of robbing Read in the highway of a shilling and a penny. Before the magistrate, Read swore that the soldiers knocked him down and robbed him of his money in the church-yard. Their commitment was immediately made out, and they were sent to the Assizes of Stafford, where, on the Saturday following they were tried and condemned for the capital offense.

The inhabitants of Wolverhampton knew nothing of the intention of Read upon the interference of Roberts in this transaction. It was generally concluded amongst them that the angry state of mind in which Read appeared, would have influenced him to swear a common assault, but nothing at all serious was apprehended from the wrestling bout. There was consequently no interference upon the part of those who were acquainted with many of the circumstances; and the matter died away until the village was struck with horror at an account in the Stafford paper of the proceedings of the Assizes. An old man was reading the paper in an ale-house to a number of politicians, who were not much affected at any thing they heard until he came to that part which stated the number of persons left for execution. Amongst the names were those of Hall and Morrison. The whole population of Wolverhampton instantly showed how they felt upon an occasion so dreadful.

The Rev. Mr. Guard, one of the most venerable characters in that part of the country, who officiates in the village where Hall’s family resides, upon hearing the event of the trial, set out for Wolverhampton, where he found the people already meeting and acting upon this subject. The men were to be hanged this day (Saturday last), and not a moment was to be lost. Mr. Guard, who had known Hall from his infancy, and would have staked his life upon the integrity of the young man, made a quick but deep inquiry into the facts, and having found every thing confirmatory of his innocence, followed Baron Garrow on his circuit to state what he had learned from the very best authority, and obtain a respite.

He saw Mr. Baron Garrow, but his Lordship appeared to see no reason to alter the opinion which he had formed from hearing the trial. The worthy Clergyman, however, was so well convinced of the truth of his own information, that he could not help exclaiming, with more zeal than discretion, “I see you are determined to hang these poor men.”

Mr. Baron Garrow was naturally offended at this intemperate observation, and an eminent Barrister remarked, that Mr. Guard’s object was wholly defeated by the use of it.

Mr. Guard was not, however, to be turned from the endeavour to save the lives of the two soldiers; there was another quarter to which he could apply. He immediately came to town, and went without ceremony to Lord Sidmouth, to whom he obtained an easy access. He remained in conversation with his Lordship between three and four hours, and Lord Sidmouth afterwards declared, that he never in his life saw such an interest taken in the fate of men who were not related by domestic ties to the individuals whom he was labouring to save. This meeting gave Mr. Guard hopes; though Lord Sidmouth had observed, that in cases of this kind the Judge was necessarily better acquainted with all the bearings of the evidence than the Secretary of State, and therefore his power was seldom interfered with, except under circumstances of strong fact.

Mr. Guard posted back to Wolverhampton the moment after he parted from the Secretary. A meeting of the inhabitants was called, at which Mr. Mander, and all the other respectable residents of Wolverhampton attended.

The witnesses were sworn, and a Petition to the Prince Regent was signed and delivered into the hands of Mr. Guard, who, accompanied by Mr. Charles Mander, very soon after arrived in town. These two gentlemen went, with Mr. Pearsall, of Cheapside, to Lord Sidmouth, and put into his hands the evidence of the innocence of the soldiers. His Lordship requested that Mr. Pearsall would relate the circumstance.

That gentleman repeated the manner in which Read and the two soldiers had acted in the presence of the watchmen and the grocer. Lord Sidmouth was just going up with the Recorder’s Report, and said, that upon his return he would examine the affidavits, and act upon them. Mr. Pearsall observed, that the men were ordered for execution on Saturday, but was assured by his Lordship that their case should not be neglected, and that the affidavits should be laid before the Attorney-General.

Upon the next meeting, Lord Sidmouth said there had been no necessity for laying the affidavits before the Attorney-General. The case, he observed, was one of the most interesting that ever came before him.

Indeed, such was the effect of the affidavits upon him, that he was not only immediately convinced that the soldiers should not be executed, but, in the absence of his clerks, he wrote the dispatch for their respite with his own hand, and sent it to the Sheriff; “because,” said his Lordship, “I could not endure the thought that the soldiers should have one hour more of unnecessary anxiety.”

Mr. Pearsall said there was no doubt that the men had no intention of felony; it would also appear, at another time, that the prosecutor had no intention of indicting them, until he was instigated by Roberts, with the view of gaining the reward called “Blood-money,” which was accordingly pocketed by Read and the keeper of the prison, to the amount of 80l.

Lord Sidmouth declared, that, under such circumstances, an immediate investigation should take place. He coincided in the opinion of the impropriety of Roberts’s conduct, and said a pardon would be instantly granted to the soldiers. He also complimented, in the warmest manner, the conduct of Mr. Guard and the other gentleman, who had exerted themselves. In the course of his observations to Lord Sidmouth, Mr. Guard said he would give up half his fortune to save the life of Hall, so convinced was he of his honesty.

While these operations were going forward in London, affidavits, copied from those handed to the Secretary, were brought to Mr. Baron Garrow by Lieut. Buchanan, of the same regiment as the soldiers, and a respite was instantly granted by his Lordship when he read them.

The Officer stated, that Baron Garrow, upon reading the affidavits, said, if the facts had been known before, their respite should have been granted; and asked whether they would, upon being pardoned, be taken into the regiment again? Lieutenant Buchanan immediately replied, that they would be most gladly received.

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1575: Charles du Puy-Montbrun, unequal

Add comment August 13th, 2015 Headsman

The intrepid Huguenot commander Charles du Puy-Montbrun was beheaded on this date in 1575.

We turn for this account to a 19th century history in the public domain by Henry Martyn Baird:


Whatever military advantages the Huguenots obtained in various parts of the realm were more than outweighed by the death of “the brave Montbrun.”

This daring and energetic leader, the terror of the enemy in Dauphiny, had just defeated a large body of Swiss auxiliaries, upon whom he inflicted a loss of eight or nine hundred men and eighteen ensigns, while that of the Huguenots scarcely amounted to half a dozen men.

But his brilliant success in this and other engagements had made Montbrun and his soldiers more incautious than usual.

They attacked a strong detachment of men-at-arms, and mistaking the confusion into which they threw the advance guard for a rout of the entire body, dispersed to gather the booty and offered a tempting opportunity to the Roman Catholics as they came up.

Montbrun, who, too late, discovered the danger of his troops, and endeavored to rally them, was at one time enveloped by the enemy, but would have made good his escape had there not been a broad ditch in his way. Here his horse missed its footing, and in the fall the leader’s thigh was broken.

In this pitiable plight he surrendered his sword to a Roman Catholic captain, from whom he received the assurance that his life would be spared.

The king and his mother had other views.

Henry, on receiving the grateful news of Montbrun’s capture, promptly gave orders that the prisoner be taken to Grenoble and tried by the Parliament of Dauphiny on a charge of treason.

Vain were the efforts of the Huguenots, equally vain the intercession of the Duke of Guise, who wished to have Montbrun exchanged for Besme, Coligny‘s murderer, recently fallen into Huguenot hands.

Henry and Catharine de’ Medici were determined that Montbrun should die. They urged the reluctant judges by reiterated commands; they overruled the objection that to put the prisoner to death would be to violate good faith and the laws of honorable warfare.

Catharine had not forgotten the honest Frenchman’s allusion to her “perfidious and degenerate” countrymen.

As for Henry, an insult received at Montbrun’s hands rankled in his breast and made forgiveness impossible. Some months before, the king had sent a message to him in a somewhat haughty tone, demanding the restoration of the royal baggage and certain prisoners taken by the Huguenots.

“What is this!” exclaimed the general. “The king writes to me as a king, and as if I were bound to obey him! I want him to know that that would be very well in time of peace; I should then recognize his royal claim. But in time of war, when men are armed and in the saddle, all men are equal.”

On hearing this, we are told, Henry swore that Montbrun should repent his insolence.

In his glee over the Huguenot’s mishap he recalled the prophecy and broke out with the exclamation, “Montbrun will now see whether he is my equal.”

Under these circumstances there was little chance for a Huguenot, were he never so innocent, to be acquitted by a servile parliament.

Accordingly Montbrun was condemned to be beheaded as a rebel against the king and a disturber of the public peace. The execution was hastened last natural death from the injury received should balk the malice of his relentless enemies.

A contemporary, who may even have been an eye-witness, describes the closing scene in words eloquent from their unaffected simplicity.

He was dragged, half dead, from the prison, and was carried in a chair to the place of execution, exhibiting in his affliction an assured countenance; while the Parliament of Grenoble trembled and the entire city lamented. He had been enjoined not to say a word to the people, unless he wished to have his tongue cut off.

Nevertheless he complained, in the presence of the whole parliament, of the wrong done to him, proving at great length his innocence and contemning the fury of his enemies who were attacking a man as good as dead. He showed that it was without cause that he was charged with being a rebel, since never had he had any design but to guarantee peaceable Frenchmen from the violence of strangers who abused the name and authority of the king.

His death was constant and Christian. He was a gentleman held in high esteem, inasmuch as he was neither avaricious nor rapacious, but on the contrary devoted to religion, bold, moderate, upright; yet he was too indulgent to his soldiers, whose license and excesses gained him much ill-will and many enemies in Dauphiny. His death so irritated these soldiers that they ravaged after a strange fashion the environs of Grenoble.

The death of so prominent and energetic a Huguenot captain was likely to embolden the Roman Catholic party, not only in Dauphiny but in the rest of the kingdom. In reality, it only transferred the supreme direction in warlike affairs to still more competent hands.

The young lieutenant of Montbrun, who shortly succeeded him in command, was Francois de Bonne, better known from his territorial designation as Sieur des Lesdiguieres, a future marshal of Henry the Fourth.

Although the resplendent military abilities of Lesdiguieres had not yet had an opportunity for display, it was not long before the Roman Catholics discovered that they gained nothing by the exchange.

Lesdiguieres was as brave as his master in arms, and he was his master’s superior in the skill and caution with which he sketched and executed his military plans. The discipline of the Huguenot army at once exhibited marked improvement.

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2015: Shafqat Hussain

2 comments August 4th, 2015 Headsman

Minutes before dawn prayers today, Pakistan hanged Shafqat Hussain in Karachi Central Jail.*

He’s the latest casualty of Pakistan’s wild death penalty resurgence following last December’s bloody terrorist attack on a Peshawar school — leading Islamabad to break a moratorium on carrying out the death sentences that it was continuing to hand down.

And how! According to the BBC, today’s hanging brings to 193 the total of people put to death in the little more than half-year since; Pakistan could stop hanging today (it won’t) and easily rank among 2015’s execution leaders by the end of the year.

Though the first victims of the new policy were people previously death-sentenced for terrorism, and thereby at least thematically linked to the Peshawar massacre, Pakistan by March had dropped the distinction and commenced hanging prisoners by the fistful for ordinary crimes, too.

Shafqat Hussain’s name has repeatedly entered the news cycle during that time, as he has faced and then avoided multiple execution dates, most recently this past June 9. Some have gone to the very brink, and seen the young man reprieved moments from donning his hanging-shroud.

Hussain denied committing the crime laid at his door — the abduction and murder of a 7-year-old boy in the area where he worked as a watchman — but a confession “allegedly” obtained by torture doomed him. Guilt aside, the matter garnered worldwide headlines (and advocacy) largely on account of his youth: Hussain and his advocates say he was a minor of age 14 or 15 when arrested; Pakistani courts have found him to have been 23. (!) It is this dispute about the age that has been at the center of Shafqat Hussain’s recent heart-stopping cycle of appeals and stays.

Shortly before his execution, Shafqat Hussain put his byline to a compelling first-person testimonial for CNN about life on Pakistan’s death row and the experience of nearing an imminent execution date.

When the jailer tells me that my execution date has been set, he separates me immediately from the other prisoners. I spend all seven days by myself in a cell in the barracks for prisoners about to be executed. They conduct a physical exam every one of those seven days. They weigh me every day, take my blood pressure and temperature as well.

On the last two days they also measure my height, my neck and my body for the clothes I am to wear when they hang me.

One day before my hanging, they tell me about my final visit with my family and that I need to execute my will. I cannot really say what I am thinking in those last seven days. My brain is thinking all sorts of things.

* According to a brother, who told AFP that “there is a cut mark on his neck and half of his neck is separated from his body,” they did not hang him very well.

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1830: Charles Wall

2 comments July 30th, 2015 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1830, Charles Wall was hanged at Worcester Prison for the murder of his fiancee’s daughter.

Wall’s fiancee, Mary Chance, lived in the town of Lye and had two illegitimate children. Wall was not their father and didn’t support them financially, but he seemed fond of them and was never known to mistreat them.

The oldest child, five-year-old Sally, vanished without a trace on May 16, 1830. Sally and her mother had gone out visiting with Wall, and that evening the little girl asked permission to go outside and play. She never returned, and her mother and Wall searched frantically for her until the wee hours, but to no avail.

Little Sally’s body wasn’t recovered until May 19; it was found at Old Swinford at the bottom of a limestone pit some 240 feet deep. She had died of a fractured skull. But did she fall … or was she pushed?

Several people reported having seen Wall alone with Sally the night of her disappearance. One witness picked him out of a lineup of more than a dozen men and said he’d seen Wall carrying Sally, who was sobbing and begging to be allowed to go home for her supper. Another witness saw Wall walking alone from the direction of the limestone pit at 9:00 that evening. Still a third witness said that on the morning of May 16, Wall had asked her some questions about which limestone pits in the area were being worked.

The inquest returned a verdict of willful murder against Wall and he was brought to trial. Nicola Sly’s A Grim Almanac of the Black Country notes,

For every witness called by the prosecution, the defense countered with a witness who had either seen Sally playing alone around the top of the unfenced mineshaft on the night of her disappearance, or who testified about the kindness shown by Wall to both of Mary Chance’s illegitimate children.

Mr. Justice Park told the jury that he personally could not see any possible motive that Wall might have for killing the little girl, reminding them that nobody had spoken of anything but kindness and fondness between Wall and his alleged victim.

He was convicted anyway, after only fifteen minutes’ deliberation on the part of the jury, but they recommended mercy. Wall’s death sentence was not respited, though. He was hanged two days later, still protesting his innocence.

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1815: Eliza Fenning, for the dumplings

2 comments July 26th, 2015 Headsman

Two hundred years ago today, an Irish serving-girl named Eliza Fenning hanged for poisoning her master’s family. The reliability of the judgment against her was widely questioned in 1815 and has not improved with age.

Robert Turner’s family, along with one of his apprentice stationers all sat down to a meal of dumplings that Eliza, a cook, had prepared for dinner on March 21 of that same year. Within minutes, all were in agony. As Charlotte Turner, who was the mistress of the house even though only a few months older than Ms. Fenning, told the Old Bailey:

I was taken ill myself in less than three minutes afterwards; the effect was so violent, that I had hardly time to get into the yard before my dinner came up. I felt considerable heat across my stomach and chest, and pain.

Q. Was the vomitting of a common kind?

I never experienced any thing before like it for violence; I was terribly irritated; it was not more than a quarter of an hour my apprentice Roger Gadsell was taken very ill in a similar way to myself.

It appeared from the symptoms — and from the blackened dough of the dumplings — that the meal had been laced with arsenic, that cunningly ubiquitous terror of the 19th century. The inference of family, Crown, and eventually court was that Eliza had availed the opportunity of preparing the food to revenge herself on the Turners because Charlotte Turner had caught her some days before sneaking into the apprentices’ room for a snog.

It’s a sure thing that homo sapiens has murdered for feebler reasons than this, but the insufficiency of the provocation, the vociferous denials of the condemned, and the puzzling fact that she too ate the noxious dumplings — all these things militated against confidence in the verdict which was hotly disputed in the public at large. Methods of establishing the presence and quantity of arsenic in a sample were extremely primitive in general, and painfully specious as applied by the surgeon who came to that verdict in the Fenning case.

The court inconclusively pursued the various ingredients in the dish: the same flour had been used for a meat pie that had brought up nobody’s dinner, so that was out; Eliza suggested the milk might be to blame, or a new yeast the house obtained on the eve of the dinner party. There is a wide-ranging effort in the transcript to establish the young woman’s access to an arsenic packet that Robert Turner kept in a desk drawer to poison mice, but this seems little relevant; it was an unlocked desk drawer in a busy household, plus arsenic was widely available in town. Everyone had effective access to arsenic, should she or he have a mind to find it.

As friend of the site (and occasional guest blogger) Richard Clark puts it in his overview, “it is difficult to be sure whether Eliza was guilty or not” even all these years later. But it’s a certainty that what was developed against her in 1815 would fall leagues short of any present-day standard for a confident conviction. Was she really unbalanced enough to try to murder the entire household over a tongue-lashing, yet steely enough to eat the poisoned dish herself to dispel suspicion, yet incautious enough not to have readied any other alibi for the moment when attention would turn to the cook? What possible basis could she have had for believing that she could salt in enough of the toxin to kill everyone else but eat a safely sub-lethal dose herself?

And maybe, as with Cameron Willingham, we might best begin with the premise: was there actually a dose of arsenic, laid in by a sinister hand — or might some contaminant carelessly proximate to the food supply of an unruly metropolis have been the true and undetected culprit?*

The case dissolves under even mild scrutiny into a tissue of social and medical quackery: the uppity servant, the sexually precocious Irishwoman, the assassin infiltrating the dumplings. (See Judith Flanders’s The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime for a scathing defense of Fenning.)

Whatever it was that the family puked up, everyone did so speedily enough to remain among the living. Attempted murder, however, was still a capital crime in England, and would remain so until 1861.

Though her case would attract widespread sympathy and public controvrsy, Eliza Fenning’s defense before the bar was all but nonexistent: four good-character witnesses, plus this statement:

My lord, I am truly innocent of all the charge, as God is my witness; I am innocent, indeed I am; I liked my place, I was very comfortable; as to my master saying I did not assist him, I was too ill. I had no concern with the drawer at all; when I wanted a piece of paper I always asked for it.

That’s the whole of it — complete and unabridged. It is a pathetic thought to consider this helpless plea in light of the idea that the food might have been poisoned accidentally; tunnel vision had already settled on a semi-coherent story of the embittered serving-girl’s revenge,** and without the art to draw out some different interpretation of the few facts available, Eliza found her place fixed by the self-validating suspicions cast upon her.

She held to her innocence all the way to the end; it was put about that a Newgate screw had overheard her father bid her do so no matter what lest he lose all honor after she died. One last character assassination for the road.

Supporters — and she has had many, down to the present day — flocked to Eliza’s Irish wake in the days after her hanging (the body “being placed in the kitchen of the house, and dressed out in ribbons, flowers, &c.”†) and then thronged a funerary procession from Red Lion Square to the tombs of St. George Bloomsbury.

* In 1900, to the consternation of brewers, around 6,000 pub-fanciers in northern England fell ill from beer that turned out to be contaminated with arsenic present in an ingredient (sulphuric acid) that made a different ingredient (glucose) that went into the beer.

** As Fenning was condemned just a few weeks before Waterloo, the paranoia that England’s burghers nurtured over the prospect of incipient Jacobinism must be presumed a relevant part of the scenario … doubly so, considering the young lady’s nationality.

The Lincoln, Rutland and Stamford Mercury, Aug. 4, 1815. Reports that the family had the effrontery to accept 40 quid worth of gifts from well-wishers were also lamely represented by Fenning’s persecutors as black marks on the family name.

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1934: Not Walter Lett, To Kill a Mockingbird inspiration

3 comments July 20th, 2015 Headsman

July 20, 1934 was the third and last of Walter Lett’s scheduled execution dates for raping a white woman in Monroeville, Alabama.

A thirty-something ex-convict, Lett’s protestations of innocence stood little chance against the word of a white woman named Naomi Lowery, herself a penniless drifter.

Lett was almost lynched but despite his certain condemnation there was something wrong about this case — something discomfiting even for Monroeville’s worthies. We have seen elsewhere in these pages that a rape accusation was a powerful weapon on the ambiguous fringes of the color line. Just three years before this story, nine black teens had been accused of a rape on an Alabama train, and the legal odyssey of these Scottsboro Boys would dominate headlines during the Depression.

“It may have been that [Lett] and Lowery were lovers, or that she was involved with another Negro man,” one author put it. “If a white woman became pregnant under those circumstances, it was not uncommon for her to claim rape, or accuse someone other than her lover.”

Records of this trial seem to have gone missing, but Lett’s claims had enough weight (and Lowery’s had little enough) to induce Monroeville’s elders to petition Gov. Benjamin Miller* against carrying out the electrocution. Miller reprieved Lett ahead of May 11 and June 20 execution dates: “I am of the opinion and conviction that there is much doubt as to the man being guilty,” Miller told the Montgomery Advertiser. Gov. Miller was so sure that Lett didn’t do it that before the man went to the chair on July 20, Miller decided instead to let him spend the rest of his life in prison for the thing he didn’t do.

We don’t have Walter Lett’s side of this story because the strain of his position drove him mad; when the sentence was commuted, he was transported from death row directly to a mental hospital, where he died of tuberculosis in 1937.

In his stead, we have a different voice: a Monroeville schoolgirl at the time of Lett’s trial named Harper Lee** would later channel the case’s undertones of racial injustice for her legendary (and, until recently, only) novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.

In one of the famously retiring Lee’s few public comments on the book, she cited the Lett case as her model for the book’s fictional, and manifestly unjust, rape trial.

Lee’s father, A.C. Lee was the editor-publisher of the Monroeville Journal at the time of l’affaire Lett. But as a young lawyer, before Harper’s birth, Lee himself had once defended in court two men who wound up being hanged. An idealized† version of this man is the clear foundation for the defense attorney Atticus Finch in Lee’s book.

Charles Shields, whose 2006 biography of Harper Lee is quoted above on the indeterminate reason for the rape allegation, writes that the author “had a free hand to retell this macabre episode in her father’s life, which he always referred to in vague terms, no doubt because of the pain it caused him. (He never accepted another criminal case.) This time, under his daughter’s sensitive hand, A. C. Lee, in the character of Atticus Finch, could be made to argue in defense of Walter Lett, and his virtues as a humane, fair minded man would be honored.”

* Miller was an anti-Ku Klux Klan politician, a fact of possible relevance to his actions.

** Harper Lee’s childhood friend was Truman Capote, future author of In Cold Blood. (Lee traveled to Kansas with Capote and helped him research the murder case in question.) Alabama’s legislature has recognized Monroeville as the state’s literary capital.

† According to Shields, the real A.C. Lee was more of a gentleman, establishment segregationist: more like the warts-and-all Atticus Finch of Lee’s Go Set a Watchman than the saintly character played by Gregory Peck. In 1952-53, A.C. Lee helped to force out the pastor of the local First Methodist church over controversial pro-integration remarks from the pulpit. Rev. Ray Whatley’s post-Monroeville assignment took him to Montgomery, where he was president of a chapter of the Alabama Council on Human Relations while the young Rev. Martin Luther King was vice-president. Whatley was forced out of his Montgomery congregation, too: called “a liar, a communist, and a few other things” (Whatley’s words) for supporting the Montgomery Bus Boycott. They tried to reassign him to tiny Linden, Alabama, but townspeople there immediately rejected him and many stopped paying church tithes until he was shipped onward to Mobile.

See When the Church Bell Rang Racist by Donald Collins, who notes that Whatley’s anathema had a chilling effect on other white Methodist clergy — now clearly given to understand that there would be “a great price to be paid if a minister chose to speak out for racial justice.”

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1911: Daniel “Nealy” Duncan, posthumous pardon candidate

2 comments July 7th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1911, still professing his innocence, Daniel “Nealy” Duncan hanged in the county jail at Charleston, South Carolina.

“Short, thick set and very black,”* Duncan was, at length, arrested for the murder of a King Street tailor named Max Lubelsky. Poor Mr. Lubelsky had been discovered on June 21, 1910 as he lay dying of a fractured skull — the bloody cudgel rudely enhanced with a nail abandoned beside its victim was the only clue, besides someone in the neighborhood who thought they noticed “a negro, dressed in a blue suit, wearing a derby hat”** who left the store around the time of the midday attack. The attacker’s purpose was robbery.

With very little to go on, police “rounded up a number of characters” and, the papers forthrightly reported, gave these black men “the ‘third degree'”: that is, tortured them.

Granting that we find ourselves at this moment at the nadir of race relations in the Jim Crow south, these officers conceived themselves acting in good faith, torture and all. They were not utterly indiscriminate; several of the beaten-up suspects were able to produce an alibi and were duly released with their newly acquired welts. But in the absence of a witness (or knuckle-assisted self-incrimination) they had little to work with.

And so the assailant remained a mystery.

There matters still stood on July 8 when the widow Mrs. Lubelsky came racing out of her late husband’s store with blood streaming down her own face, crying murder at the top of her lungs.

To take up the narration reported in the next day’s edition of The State,

Just then a negro emerged and two men, Isaac Goodman and Moses Needle, who were passing, gave chase of the negro. He was caught a few blocks distant and promptly turned over to Police Officer Stanley and Detective Levy, who had also taken up the chase. Protesting his innocence and declaring that another negro had attempted to kill the woman, Daniels was taken to the station house amidst great excitement and the patrol wagon did not roll off any too soon from the excited neighborhood …

The State has given us an incriminating narration, but if we begin from our suspect’s denial it is not too difficult to conceive the scene otherwise — a bystander swept into the chaos as the panicked Mrs. Lubelsky barges out of her shop, the sudden attention of a crowd which the newsman gives us to understand was wound up enough for a lynching. You’d run, too.

The traumatized Mrs. Lubelsky insisted that it was Duncan who attacked her; this is one of the few pieces of palpable evidence we have in the case, though eyewitness error is a frequent factor in wrongful convictions. She would have glimpsed her assailant for a moment, dashed out of the store in a panic, then a fleeing man was chased down and hauled back to her — perfect cues for her memory to fix this man with all sincerity as the picture of her assailant.

And whatever the cliche about criminals returning to the scenes of their crimes, few are bold enough to repeat a literally identical attack days apart. It was basically just by analogy that the July 8 assault was held to place Duncan at the scene of the murder 17 days before; the vague description of the blue-suited man who might or might not have had anything to do with the murder could have fit Duncan or numerous other people. A local black man said that Duncan had been in the area on the day Max Lubelsky was killed, which would scarcely rise to the level of circumstantial even were one to discount the possible confirmation bias (or police pressure) introduced by Duncan’s arrest.

One would like to think (forlorn hope!) that a jury in 2015 would demand better than this to stretch a man’s neck … but in Charleston in 1910, it was enough to surpass reasonable doubt.†


The State, Oct. 8, 1910.

Duncan’s insistence on innocence was passed down in his own family and in the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church whose congregation the hanged man once belonged to. In these halls, he is widely understood to have been an innocent man and this conclusion has not wanted for latter-day advocates.‡

The case surfaced to the broader public recently, with a push around the centennial of Duncan’s hanging to have him posthumously exonerated. The measure failed on a 3-3 vote in 19112011.

Left: Dead Weight, a historical novel based on the Duncan case; right: Charleston’s Trial, a nonfiction account.

Duncan was the last person hanged in Charleston, but not the last in South Carolina; there was a double execution in December of 1911 before the Palmetto state adopted electrocution beginning in 1912.

* The State (Columbia, S.C.), June 11, 1911.

** The State, June 22, 1911.

† The supernaturally inclined took notice from the August 1911 hurricane that devastated Charleston as a portend of Duncan’s innocence — and nicknamed it “the Duncan storm”.

‡ 2010-2011 media accounts indicated that the victim’s descendants did not share such confidence in Duncan’s innocence.

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90: Cornelia, Vestal Virgin

Add comment June 9th, 2015 Headsman

How happy is the blameless Vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot:
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each prayer accepted, and each wish resign’d.

-Alexander Pope

June 9 in ancient Rome was the festival of the Vesta, the acme of the Vestalia festival extending until June 15.*

We hope this hearth-goddess will accept the homage Pluto‘s emissaries here propose to pay her most famous servants, the Vestal Virgins.

An ancient order of priestesses reaching back to Rome’s mythical founding period, perhaps even rooted in Rome’s matriarchal Etruscan predecessors, the Virgins by the time of the classical era numbered six — selected from among candidate girls aged 6 to 10 who would be whisked away from their families to serve for thirty years.

Vestal Virgins enjoyed great prestige and a number of social prerogatives (they had the power to pardon condemned prisoners, among other things). In exchange, they were tasked with maintaining Rome’s favor with her temperamental gods by tending diligently to the city’s most cherished religious observances.


The remains of the House of the Vestals on the Roman Forum ((cc) image from Milos Kravcik.) Here’s a reconstructed view of what the residence might have looked like in its glory.

From the moment of their selection, Vestal Virgins became a sort of personification of Rome itself — Rome’s civic virtue; Rome’s standing with the gods. Rome and the Vestals, joined by the sacred eternal hearth-flame whose perpetual kindling was the virgins’ chief ceremonial duty, drew succor from one another. Pliny wrote that they “have the power, by uttering a certain prayer, to arrest the flight of runaway slaves, and to rivet them to the spot, provided they have not gone beyond the precincts of the City” — but Rome’s greatness, too, was attributed to the citizenry’s dutiful maintenance of the Vestals through the centuries.

For such an empyreal creature to indulge the fleeting pleasures of the flesh was quite beyond question. Vesta, said Ovid,

was always unable to tolerate men.
What wonder if a virgin delights in virgin servants,
And only allows chaste hands to touch her sacred relics?
Realize that Vesta is nothing but living flame,
And you’ll see that no bodies are born from her.
She’s truly a virgin, who neither accepts seed
Nor yields it, and she loves virgin companions.

But over the centuries, not all of Vesta’s servants kept that same hard line on unchaste hands** — and in so doing risked punishment by an unusual execution of living burial. Even defiled Vestals were inviolate in their persons: their blood could not be shed, and the hands of the common executioner could not touch them. They had to be dispatched without direct violence, by immuring them alive under the earth. (Not so their seducers: getting busy with a Vestal Virgin would cost a man as many strokes of a scourge as required to kill him.)

Back to Ovid:

Now sacred flames you shine brightly under Caesar’s rule:
The fire on the Ilian hearths is there, and will remain,
It won’t be said that under him any priestess disgraced
Her office, nor that she was buried alive in the earth.
So the unchaste die, being entombed in what they
Have violated: since divine Earth and Vesta are one.

We have no specific calendar dates to go with any of these, but the British Museum antiquarian G.H. Noehdon compiled the available information about Vestals’ executions at some length in this public domain text:

a subterraneous chamber or cell of small dimension was formed, into which you descended from above. There were placed in it a couch or bed, a burning lamp, and a few necessaries of life, such as bread, water, milk, and oil. It would have been impious, according to Plutarch, to destroy by hunger, a life that had been consecrated by the most holy rites. The wretched victim, it is to be imagined, chiefly perished by suffocation. For the cell was closely shut, and overlaid with earth, as soon as she was descended.

The whole proceedings were terrific. The delinquent was conveyed to that place of horror in a litter, so fastened up and covered from without, that not even a sound or groan could escape from it. She was thus carried through the market-place, while the people, in fearful silence, made way, and followed speechless, impressed with the awe of this frightful ceremony. No sight, says Plutarch, could be more shocking, nor was there ever a day at Rome more gloomy and sorrowful.


Detail view (click for the full image) of Execution of a Vestal Virgin, by Heinrich Friedrich Fuger.

Per Noehdon, the oldest case on record was of one Pinaria, executed for impurity under Tarquin the Elder. A Vestal named Minucia suffered the same fate in the 4th century BCE; two more, Opimia and Floronia, were condemned in the 3rd century, though one committed suicide in preference to immurement. Dionysius of Halicarnassus attributes a plague to the incontinence of the Vestal Urbenia, and its abatement to her punishment. Cassius Dio credits no fewer than three Vestals with execution for unchastity in 114 BCE — but one can hardly fail to note that this is a period of deepening class tension in Rome in the aftermath of the Gracchi. One wonders if carnal indulgences were merely a pretext to purge Aemilia, Licinia, and Marcia for the wrong factional alignment.

Probably the best-attested and best-known Vestal Virgin executed was Cornelia, the Virgo Maxima (chief Vestal) entombed by order of the notorious tyrant Domitian. (Domitian had also executed three other Vestals some years prior.) Pliny the Younger recorded her going to her death effecting (as did her purported lover) a persuasive mien of indignant innocence.

Domitian generally raged most furiously where his evidence failed him most hopelessly. That emperor had determined that Cornelia, chief of the Vestal Virgins, should be buried alive, from an extravagant notion that exemplary severities of this kind conferred lustre upon his reign.

Accordingly, by virtue of his office as supreme pontiff, or, rather, in the exercise of a tyrant’s cruelty, a despot’s lawlessness, he convened the sacred college, not in the pontifical court where they usually assemble, but at his villa near Alba; and there, with a guilt no less heinous than that which he professed to be punishing, he condemned her, when she was not present to defend herself, on the charge of incest, while he himself had been guilty, not only of debauching his own brother’s daughter, but was also accessory to her death: for that lady, being a widow, in order to conceal her shame, endeavoured to procure an abortion, and by that means lost her life.

However, the priests were directed to see the sentence immediately executed upon Cornelia. As they were leading her to the place of execution, she called upon Vesta, and the rest of the gods, to attest her innocence; and, amongst other exclamations, frequently cried out, “Is it possible that Caesar can think me polluted, under the influence of whose sacred functions he has conquered and triumphed?” Whether she said this in flattery or derision; whether it proceeded from a consciousness of her innocence, or contempt of the emperor, is uncertain; but she continued exclaiming in this manner, til she came to the place of execution, to which she was led, whether innocent or guilty I cannot say, at all events with every appearance and demonstration of innocence. As she was being lowered down into the subterranean vault, her robe happening to catch upon something in the descent, she turned round and disengaged it, when, the executioner offering his assistance, she drew herself back with horror, refusing to be so much as touched by him, as though it were a defilement to her pure and unspotted chastity: still preserving the appearance of sanctity up to the last moment; and, among all the other instances of her modesty, “She took great care to fall with decency.”

Celer likewise, a Roman knight, who was accused of an intrigue with her, while they were scourging him with rods in the Forum, persisted in exclaiming, “What have I done? — I have done nothing.”

The Vestal Virgins were finally suppressed (and their eternal flame quenched) by the Christian emperor Theodosius, in 394.†

A few years later, Rome was sacked for the first time in 800 years.

* There are mixed accounts as to whether June 9 or June 7 was the first day of the Vestalia, but the 9th was unquestionably the most important.

** Legend has it that Rome’s founders, Romulus and Remus, were sons of a Vestal Virgin, Rhea Silvia: again, this tradition could well be the refracted memory of Etruscan priestesses, or princesses, or both. The man who was to kill these unholy offspring instead took pity on them and cast them adrift on the Tiber — and that’s how they ended up being famously suckled by wolves.

† Eliminating pagan holdovers was a great sport in this period for Rome’s now-Christian emperors. Theodosius also ended the Olympic Games; his son Honorius got rid of gladiatorial combat.

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1868: Michael Barrett, the last public hanging in England

Add comment May 26th, 2015 Headsman

England held its last-ever public execution on this date in 1868, and made it big game indeed: Fenian Michael Barrett, whose Clerkenwell Prison bombing long remained one of the most infamous atrocities of the Irish nationalist cause.

The bill certifying the end of that distinctive institution, the public hanging, would be finalized three days hence, so the occasion’s milestone was anticipated in advance. Elites increasingly disdained the boorish carnivals that unfolded under the gallows, like Dickens who complained that “no sorrow, no salutary terror, no abhorrence, no seriousness; nothing but ribaldry, debauchery, levity, drunkenness, and flaunting vice in fifty other shapes” redeemed the 1840 hanging of Courvoisier.


“The Great Moral Lesson at Horsemonger Lane Gaol”, Punch magazine’s view of the notoriously rowdy mob at Frederick and Marie Manning execution.

“The crowd was most unusually orderly,” ran the Times‘ report of Barrett’s death — a sort of dual eulogy — “but it was not a crowd in which one would like to trust.”

It is said that one sees on the road to the Derby such animals as are never seen elsewhere; so on an execution morning one see faces that are never seen save round the gallows or near a great fire. Some laughed, some fought, some preached, some gave tracts, and some sang hymns; but what may be called the general good-humoured disorder of the crowd remained the same, and there was laughter at the preacher or silence when an open robbery was going on. None could look on the scene, with all its exceptional quietness, without a thankful feeling that this was to be the last public execution in England. Towards 7 o’clock the mass of people was immense. A very wide open space was kept round the gallows by the police, but beyond this the concourse was dense, stretching up beyond St. Sepulchre’s Church, and far back almost, into Smithfield — a great surging mass of people which, in spite of the barriers, kept swaying to and from like waving corn. Now and then there was a great laughter as a girl fainted, and was passed out hand over hand above the heads of the mob, and then there came a scuffle and a fight, and then a hymn, and then a sermon, and then a comic song, and so on from hour to hour, the crowd thickening as the day brightened, and the sun shone out with such a glare as to extinguish the very feeble light which showed itself faintly through the glass roof above where the culprit lay. It was a wild, rough crowd, not so numerous nor nearly so violent as that which thronged to see Muller or the pirates die. In one way they showed their feeling by loudly hooting a magnificently-attired woman, who, accompanied by two gentlemen, swept down the avenue kept open by the police, and occupied a window afterwards right in front of the gallows. This temporary exhibition of feeling was, however, soon allayed by coppers being thrown from the window for the roughs to scramble for. It is not right, perhaps, that a murderer’s death should be surrounded by all the pious and tender accessories which accompany the departure of a good man to a better world, but most assuredly the sight of public executions to those who have to witness them is as disgusting as it must be demoralizing even to all the hordes of thieves and prostitutes it draws together. Yesterday the assembly was of its kind an orderly one, yet it was such as we feel grateful to think will under the new law never be drawn together again in England.

Michael Barrett’s ticket to this last assembly was punched by a different execution six months previous — the hanging of the Manchester Martyrs. This trio of Irish patriots were part of a mob who liberated some comrades from a police van, shooting a policeman in the process — though it was far from certain that any of these three actually fired shots.

Of importance for our purposes today was the crackdown on other Fenians occasioned by the Manchester affair. In November of 1867, a Fenian agent named Richard O’Sullivan Burke was arrested with his companion Joseph Casey in London purchasing weapons for the movement. They were clapped in Clerkenwell Prison pending trial.

The bombing that brought Michael Barrett to the gallows was a bid to liberate these men … and it did not pause for subtlety. The conspirators simply wheeled a barrel of gunpowder up to the wall of the facility when they expected the inmates to be at exercise in the adjacent yard. The explosion blasted a 60-foot gap in the wall; the inward-collapsing rubble might easily have been the death rather than the salvation of the prospective beneficiaries, except that they weren’t actually in the yard at all — nobody was there, and nobody escaped Clerkenwell.

But numerous working-class families lived in little tenements opposite the prison and were there, and in fact Clerkenwell had a reputation for political radicalism and Fenian sympathy. This monstrous new “infernal machine” tore through Clerkenwell homes, leaving 12 people dead and numerous buildings near to collapse, while windows and chimneys shivered to pieces all up and down the block.


Improvised struts shore up damaged buildings opposite the wall of Clerkenwell Prison reduced to rubble by the December 13, 1867 Fenian bombing.

Karl Marx, a strong supporter of the Irish cause, despaired this counterproductive turn towards terrorism: “The London masses, who have shown great sympathy towards Ireland, will be made wild and driven into the arms of a reactionary government. One cannot expect the London proletarians to allow themselves to be blown up in honour of Fenian emissaries.”

English reformer Charles Bradlaugh agreed. “The worst enemy of the Irish people could not have devised a scheme better calculated to destroy all sympathy,” he wrote.


Punch magazine depicts the Clerkenwell bomber(s) as the “Fenian Guy Fawkes“.

Considering the magnitude of the crime, someone would have to pay for it. That Barrett was that someone did not sit well for many.

Five men and a woman stood trial at the Old Bailey in April for the Clerkenwell outrage, but Barrett was the only one of them convicted, a terribly inadequate investigation/prosecution outcome given the infamy of the crime.

That conviction stood on the basis of disputed eyewitness identifications: Barrett produced witnesses who said he was in Glasgow when the bomb went off, while the crown found others who would swear he was actually in London. (The length of Barrett’s whiskers on specific dates in late November and early December forms a running subplot of the dueling testimonies.)

The reliability and even the good faith of all such winesses might well be impugned. A highly questionable stool pigeon named Patrick Mullany who ducked prosecution by turning crown’s evidence, charged that Barrett personally set off the ordnance.

Despite his certain doom, Barrett eloquently vindicated himself at his sentencing

To give me credit for such an undertaking is utterly absurd; being, as I am, a total stranger to acts of daring, and without any experience which would in any way fit me for engaging in such an enterprise. Is it not ridiculous to suppose that in the City of London, where … there are ten thousand armed Fenians, they would have sent to Glasgow for a party to do this work, and then select a person of no higher standing and no greater abilities than the humble individual who now stands convicted before you? To suppose such a thing is a stretch of imagination that the disordered minds of the frightened officials of this country could alone be capable of entertaining.

If it is murder to love Ireland more dearly than life, then indeed I am a murderer. If I could in any way remove the miseries or redress the grievances of that land by the sacrifice of my own life I would willingly, nay, gladly, do so. if it should please the God of Justice to turn to some account, for the benefit of my suffering country, the sacrifice of my poor, worthless life, I could, by the grace of God, ascend the scaffold with firmness, strengthened by the consoling reflection that the stain of murder did not rest upon me, and mingling my prayers for the salvation of my immortal soul with those for the regeneration of my native land.

Benjamin Disraeli’s government could not in the end realistically entertain the agitation from liberal and radical circles for sparing Barrett, because that would mean that nobody would hang for Clerkenwell. But as the next day’s edition of Reynold’s News noted, “Millions will continue to doubt that a guilty man has been hanged at all; and the future historian of the Fenian panic may declare that Michael Barrett was sacrificed to the exigencies of the police, and the vindication of the good Tory principle, that there is nothing like blood.”

Three months after Barrett made that expiation, England officially began its era of fully private hangings behind prison walls.

* James Joyce hung out with a (much-older) Joseph Casey in Paris in the early 20th century. Yes, that’s in Ulysses too: “He prowled with Colonel Richard Burk, tanist of his sept, under the walls of Clerkenwell and crouching saw a flame of vengeance hurl them upward in the fog. Shattered glass and toppling masonry. In gay Paree he hides, Egan of Paris, unsought by any save by me.”

Part of the Themed Set: Terrorism.

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