Posts filed under 'Wrongful Executions'

1890: Elizabeth and Josiah Potts, wife and husband

Add comment June 20th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1890, an affectionate married couple hanged together in Elko, Nevada, for a murder they insisted they had not authored.

We obtain this headline and the associated (nationally circulated) story from the San Diego Union of June 26, 1890.

[Associated Press Dispatches.]

ELKO, Nev., June 20. — Elko is in a ferment of excitement, many parties pouring in to witness the execution of the Potts family for the murder of Miles Fawcett in January, 1888. Over sixteen women have already applied for permits to witness the execution, which were refused.

The conduct of Mrs. Potts during the past five days has been an alternation of hysterical crying, screaming and swearing at her husband, who mopes the time away in solitude. Yesterday morning at 5 o’clock she attempted to commit suicide, gashing her wrists and trying to smother herself. The vigilance of the death watch prevented further injury but she fainted from loss of blood. Both the Potts retired early last night in a nervous condition.

At 10:30 o’clock the Sheriff read the death-warrants to Josiah and Elizabeth Potts. The reading of the warrant took place in the doorway of the latticed cell, which Josiah has occupied for so long a period.

He stood in a despondent attitude, with his head bowed down against the iron bars, and not once during the reading of the warrant did he lift his head. His wife stood erect, clad in a neat muslin suit draped in black, with a red rose in her bodice. She was pale, but with a most determined aspect in every feature. During the reading of her own warrant only once did she show any emotion whatever, and she convulsively clutched her throat when her husband’s was being read, and when the words “hanged by the neck till you are dead” were reached, she gave a hysterical gasp and seemed to exhibit much feeling.

The reading of the warrants was finished at 10:30, and both the condemned people emerged from the jail, where they had been confined for eighteen months, and proceeded outside the door to the yard between the Courthouse and jail, in which the scaffold had been erected. The sunshine relieved in a measure the gruesome surroundings. During the readings of the warrants, and evidently owing to the intense nervous strain on every one, a Deputy Sheriff was so overcome that he had to call for a glass of water.

At the conclusion of the reading Mrs. Potts earnestly ejaculated:

I AM INNOCENT AND GOD KNOWS IT,

and Josiah Potts reiterated, “God knows we are innocent.” The gloomy procession led the way through a side door and with a bravery unexpected by the sixty-odd spectators, the condemned couple seated themselves on stools provided on the scaffold, while the deputies speedily proceeded to bind them with leather straps, Mrs. Potts helping to adjust them herself while Potts sat through it all in stolidity.

When everything had been properly adjusted, they were directed to rise and all of the attendants shook hands with the condemned unfortunates. The attendants held the strap attached to Mrs. Potts’ manacled wrists and Potts made several most earnest endeavors to clasp the hands of his wife but without accomplishing it. Finally a touch on her wrist caused her to turn her eyes toward his and a mute appeal of love caused their lips to meet. As the rope was stretched around Mrs. Potts’ neck she clasped her hands together, and lifting her eyes towards the sky, exclaimed “God help me; I am innocent.”

Her husband reiterated in a hollow tone, “God knows we are innocent,” as the black caps were drawn over their heads.

The words of the clergyman who had remained with them to the last broke the silence by saying: “Put your trust in God and He will see you righted,” and then the drop fell. Instantaneously,

MRS. POTTS WAS A CORPSE,

owing to her heavy weight. Her flacid [sic] flesh caused a rupture of the carotid artery and a stream of blood burst forth from under the chin of the dead woman, staining her white raiment. To the great surprise of all who had seen Potts’ emaciated condition his vitality was great, it being a fraction over fourteen minutes, as counted by the Associated Press reporter, before life was pronounced extinct by Drs. Meiggs and Petty.

At 11:08 the body of Mrs. Potts was cut down when it was seen that her excessive weight on the five foot and a half drop had almost dissevered her head from the trunk, the muscles in the back of her neck alone supporting the connection.

About nine minutes later Josiah Potts’ body was cut down and the body of himself and wife, in the absence of any claiming friends, were deposited in the potter’s field of the Elko grave yard half an hour later.

After the interment of the bodies of Mr. and Mrs. Potts, District Attorney Love, accompanied by an Associated Press reporter, placed in the potter’s field all the remains of the murdered Fawcett known to exist above the earth. The box of bones had been in the District Attorney’s office at the Courthouse from the time when he first started to search for the criminals.

THE CRIME

for which the couple was executed was the murder of Miles Fawcett, 70 years of age, at Carlin, January 1st, 1888, because he insisted on being paid some money due from Potts. He visited Potts and this was the last seen of him until his dead body was discovered some months after by a person who rented the house formerly occupied by Potts.


That’s the end of the Union article.

Despite the incriminating circumstances of Mr. Fawcett’s disappearance, many people found the Potts’s insistence upon their innocence persuasive … especially after a last message from Elizabeth Potts reached public ears.


Laramie (Wyoming) Daily Boomerang, June 24, 1624.

Innocent or guilty, Elizabeth Potts remains the first, last, and only woman ever legally executed in Nevada. As of this writing (mid-2018) the Silver State has not had any woman on death row since Priscilla Joyce Ford died in 2005.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Milestones,Murder,Nevada,Pelf,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1916: Henri Herduin and Pierre Millant, “cry against military justice”

Add comment June 11th, 2018 Headsman

Cry, after my death, against military justice!

-Henri Herduin, in his last letter to his wife

On this date in 1916, which happened to be Pentecost, two French lieutenants were shot on the Western Front for not surrendering.


“Le ravin de la mort a Verdun”, by Ferdinand Gueldry.

During the endless Battle of Verdun, which spanned most of 1916, the Germans at one point overran a French bunker called Fort Vaux. German bombardment of the Thiaumont Farm area during this attack smashed the 347th Infantry Regiment to which both Henri Herduin and Pierre Millant belonged. With the regiment commanders killed into the bargain, Herduin and Millant found themselves at the head of a remnant of 40 or so survivors spent of both energy and ammunition, forced to fall back to avoid German encirclement.

“Our division is broken, the regiment annihilated; I have just lived five terrible days, seeing death at every moment,” Herduin wrote to his wife Fernande on June 9th after he had presented himself at Anthouard barracks. He had not yet any inkling that he too would be a casualty of those terrible days. “Four days without drinking or eating, among the mud and the shells, what a miracle that I’m still here!”


Anthouard barracks during World War I. (U.S. Library of Congress)

Fate and the brass had a perverse sense of humor, for when the two lieutenants presented themselves and their fellow survivors to the reassembled remains of their regiment, about 150 men strong, they discovered that they’d survived all that mud and shelling only to die for France at the stake.

Their unit’s captain held a standing order to execute Herduin and Millant on sight for deserting their post: no need for even the pro forma proceedings of a tribunal. Indeed, the extrajudicial command might have been a fuck-you to civilian authorities who had recently attempted to curtail the army’s enthusiasm for executions. The captain, having no pleasure himself in this order, suffered Herduin to write a hasty explanation/appeal, to which the captain appended his own attestation of good character. Their missive was returned unopened, coldly marked Pas d’observation. Exécution immédiate. Had they not endured those privations to retreat but simply surrendered to the Hun, they would have been better off.

Herduin, a career soldier aged 35, gave his last service as an officer steadying the nerves of his own younger comrades in the firing squad with a demand to “hold to the end for France” — before issuing the firing command from his own lips.

Fernande made good on her husband’s own dying plea to her, and once the Great War’s guns fell silent she waged a public, and embarrassing for the army, fight to clear the men’s names. She eventually achieved a formal posthumous exoneration in 1926, as well as the honor- and pension-clinching appellations “Mort pour la France” applied to their death certificates. She even got a still-extant Rue Lieutenant Herduin christened in that man’s native city of Reims. On Armistice Day 2008, a marker to both men was unveiled on that street; yet another memorial stands to them in Fleury-devant-Douaumont, near the place they were shot.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Desertion,Execution,France,History,Military Crimes,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1697: The Paisley Witches

1 comment June 10th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1697, the Paisley, Renfrewshire Gallow Green played stage for the strangling and burning of six “witches.” They’re known as the Paisley witches, the Renfrewshire witches, or the Bargarran witches, and are sometimes acclaimed the last mass-executed witches in western Europe.

This book posits a more than incidental resemblance between Salem and Renfrewshire, given that the “possessed child” figure was not a usual ornament for Scottish witchcraft cases.

In a setup bearing a disturbing similarity to the Salem witch trials,* an 11-year-old brat named Christian Shaw, the daughter of a local laird, got a tongue-lashing from the family servant and then turned around and accused her a sorceress.

The psychological mechanisms at play make interesting speculation in such cases. Was she merely a spiteful little monster, or did she believe in accordance with the superstitions of her time that the servant’s curses had effect, and suffer real afflictions that ensued upon this belief? Can we see her in the end as a creature necessarily produced by her nation in its troubled hour, unmoored as it was by the political and religious dislocations of the Glorious Revolution, gnawed by famine, and hurtling towards an unwilling union with England? (The bizarre execution of an Edinburgh university student for blasphemy also unfolded in 1696-1697.)

We leave such speculations to the reader as we plunge into the onset of supernatural doings in these environs almost a year before the consequent executions — via a 1698 pamphlet titled “A True Narrative of the Sufferings and Relief of a Young Girle Strangely Molested, by Evil Spirits and their Instruments, in the West”

August 22 [1696], the Child went to Bed in good health; but so soon as she fell asleep, began to struggle and cry, Help, Help: And then suddenly got up, and did fly over the top of a Resting-bed, where she was lying (her Father, Mother, and others being in the Room, and to their great Astonishment and Admiration) with such violence, that probably her Brains had been dasht out, if a Woman, providentially standing by, and supported by a Door at her back, had not broke the force of the Childs motion, who being laid in another Bed, remained stiff and insensible as if she had been dead, for the space of half an Hour; but for Fourty eight Hours thereafter could not sleep, crying out of violent Pains thorow her whole Body, and no sooner began to sleep or turn drowsie but seemed greatly affrighted, crying still Help, Help.

These frightening spasms continued for days, contorting her body and robbing her of speech; helpless doctors bled her to no effect.

Some dayes thereafter was an alteration in her Fitts, so far, that she got speaking, during the time of them; and while she was in the fits, fell a crying, that Katharine Campbel and Agnes Naismith were cutting her side, and other parts of her Body; Which parts were in that time violently Tormented. And when the fit was over she still averred, that she had seen the same Persons doing the same things which she complained of while under the fit (it being remarkable that in the intervals she was still as well and sensible as ever) and would not believe but that others present saw them as well as she!

Katharine Campbell was servant who had chewed her out. Agnes Naismith was an old lady with a witchy reputation. In time they would headline the execution that occasions this post.

We must here pause to remark that the decision of the adults around Christian Shaw to steer this crisis in the girl’s life towards a judicial witch hunt was by no means predetermined. While capital statutes against bewitchment remained on the books, they were fading in practice; according to the invaluable Survey of Scottish Witchcraft database, there had been only a single witchcraft prosecution in Scotland since 1683, and that one did not result in execution. The sudden eruption of a dormant and vanishing cosmology, with sufficient force to devour seven humans, shocks the eye.

Credit must go to Shaw for a rare commitment to the performance, as her symptoms continued intermittently for months, and accumulated a growing roster of accused supernatural tormentors. She was taken to Glasgow for treatment, and taken again; she went on regimens of prayer and fasting; at one point she began pulling debris out of mouth like a prestidigitator, in such number and variety that her doctor remarked that “Were it not for the hairs, hay, straw, and other things wholly contrary to human nature, I should not despair to reduce all the other symptoms to their proper classes in the catalogue of human diseases.”

Although modernity will doubt that they bewitched the child, the accused women, Agnes and Katharine, knew exactly what was up when they were brought to confront their accuser. They addressed their common peril with opposite strategems. Agnes, “did (tho not desired) pray for her, viz. that the Lord God of Heaven and Earth might send the Damsel her health,” which prayer cured Christian Shaw of continuing to accuse Agnes of muddling her (“upon the contrary, as she apprehended, defending her from the fury of the rest” of the witches) — whereas the saltier Katharine “could by no means be prevailed with to pray for the Damsel, but upon the contrary when desired by some, cursed them and all the Family of Bargarran, and in particular the Damsel and all that belonged to her, withal adding this grievous Imprecation; The Devil let her never grow better, nor any concern’d in her, be in a better condition than she was in, for what they had done to her.” I like this Katharine, but Laird Bargarran had the sheriff throw her forthwith into the dungeon; the reader may recall from our foreshadowing that Agnes’s more diplomatic approach did not ultimately serve her any better.

By January, five months after Christian’s first fits, the doctors and ministers had been defeated and the Privy Council appointed a tribunal to investigate the matter and shoo away the hags bothering Christian Shaw. The annals of their actions makes for repellent reading, even by the standards of judges. Readers with strong eyeglass prescriptions can enjoy the full pdf here, but most will probably prefer this lucid summary by Undine, a onetime Executed Today guest blogger. We also have a Victorian compilation of records related to the affair here.

The hunt swept up a 14-year-old boy and his 11-year-old brother, a 17-year-old girl who was made to furnish accusations that incriminated still more people besides. One can see in our credulous 1698 account the enspelled little shit begin to revel in her theatrics and the power she held over her neighbors.

February 12. Margaret Laing and her Daughter Martha Semple, being delated by the three Confessants, and accused by the Girl to have been active instruments in her Trouble, came of their own accord to Bargarran’s House, and before they came up Stairs the Girl said, she was now bound up, and could not accuse Margaret Laing to her face: And accordingly the Girl’s Mother having desired somer of those who were sitting by her to feel some parts of her Body, and they having done it, found her Body so stiff and inflexible, that there was no moving of it, and immediately again found some parts of her Body contracted and drawn hard togethe [sic], as if by Cords; after this Margaret Lang and her Daughter, having gone to the Chamber of the Girle, did in presence of the Ministers and others, desire the Damsel to come to her; for she would do her no Harm, and laying her Arms about her, spake very fairly to her, and question’d her if ever she had seen her other Daughter among her Tormentors, to which the Girle did positively reply, she had frequently seen her Daughter; but declined thorow fear to accuse herself, saying faintly No, after which Margaret and her Daughter returning into the Hall, and the Minister enquiring at her why she said No, seeing she had accus’d her before, she answered, take me contrar, upon which she was seiz’d with a grievous Fit; yet after her recovery being urg’d again by those present to tell her Mind freely, whether or not Margaret Lang was one of her Tormentors the Child thereupon Essaying to say Yes, and having half-pronounced the Word, was cast into unexpressible Anguishes; and again in the interval of the Fit, she Essay’d to express the same thing, and saying only the word Tint (that is soft) was on a sudden struck with another fit, and when the fit was over, and the Child returned to the Chamber, Margaret Lang who was sitting near the Hall door, spoke these words after her. The Lord bless thee, and ding (that is beat, or drive) the Devil out of thee. A little after which words, Margaret going down stairs, the Damsel came to the Hall and said, her Bonds were now loos’d, and that now she could accuse Margaret Lang to her Face, and declar’d the occasion of her being so Restrain’d and Bound up while Margaret was present, was her letting fall a parcel of Hair at the Hall door as she came in; being a Charm made by her for that end, which also had been the occasion of her uttering the word Tint in the former fit: And accordingly a parcel of Hair had been found at the Hall-door, after Margaret Lang had gone straight from the Hall to the Chamber, which immediately was cast into the Fire and burnt. And its remarkable, that it could be attested that there was no Hair, or any other thing else in that place before Margaret Lang came in, and the Girle being enquired, what way she knew Margaret Lang had laid the forementioned Charm upon her, replyed, something speaking distinctly to her as it were above her Head, had suggested that to her.

In the end — and posterity unfortunately lacks the original trial record — there were seven condemned to death and although their names in the surviving accounts “are not very distinctly stated” they appear to comprise our two original accused, Katharine Campbell and Agnes Naismith, the aforementioned Margaret Lang, the 14-year-old child James Lindsay and an apparent kinsman named John Lindsay, and also John Reid and Margaret Fulton. (Some accounts more mawkishly make it little James Lindsay with his 11-year-old brother Thomas, but that’s not indicated by the primary sources which repeatedly note that Thomas is “under the age of pupilarity.”)

John Reid managed to hang himself in prison and cheat the executioner. Katharine Campbell did him one better by fighting her persecutors all the way to the stake, and deservedly showering everyone in earshot with curses. The legend has it that Campbell’s malediction lurks behind any civic setback endured by Paisley down the years, such as the 1810 Paisley canal disaster. A horseshoe placed over the embittered sorceress’s grave to keep ill fortune at bay was lost in the 1960s; in 2008, a brass horseshoe plaque was installed in its place at the intersection of Maxwellton and St. George Streets — the memorial admitting the injustice done to all the Renfrewshire witches.


(cc) image by Paisley Scotland.

As for the witches’ accuser, Christian Shaw mirrored in her own life’s story the epochal shift that transformed witches from a legally recognized threat to a ridiculous superstition — as she grew up to become essentially the founder of Paisley’s distinctive (and still to this day important) thread industry by creating the “Bargarran Thread” .

* Coincidentally, the first execution of the Salem trials also occurred on June 10.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Cheated the Hangman,Children,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Mass Executions,Not Executed,Notable for their Victims,Public Executions,Scotland,The Supernatural,Witchcraft,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1639: The Duke of Valette, in effigy

Add comment June 8th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1639, the Duke of Valette was beheaded in Paris as a traitor. Having anticipated this cruel stroke, however, he was happily away in England at the time.

Valette (later the Duke of Epernon, like his dad) outlived his execution by 22 years.

Valette‘s father, the Duke of Epernon, was a rival of the realm’s mighty consigliere, Cardinal Richelieu, which was a dangerous thing to be. The rivalry had already impacted the duke’s second son: Valette was married to Richelieu’s niece in 1634, in a vain bid for detente. (Valette preferred his mistress.)

Valette’s military reversal at the French Siege of Fuenterrabia in 1638 set him up for the revenge of his scheming in-law. Blamed for refusing to lead an ill-conceived charge, he got the Iraq War critic treatment when that charge turned into a debacle as he had warned.

But rather than face Richelieu’s summons to answer a charge he obviously had no odds of defeating, Valette crossed the channel and chilled in the exile court of another defeated Richelieu foe, Marie de’ Medici.

The Cardinal de Richelieu not contented with his having left the Kingdom, caus’d a Process to be commenc’d against him,” outrageously fixing the verdict.

Just as Valette lost his head only ceremonially, he lost his homeland only temporarily. When Louis XIII died in 1643, Valette — by this time become the Duke of Epernon — was able to return and re-enter the ranks of respectable nobility, unimperiled by the headsman’s blade for the remainder of his days. He died in 1661.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Executed in Effigy,Execution,France,History,Nobility,Not Executed,Power,Public Executions,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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1806: Dominic Daley and James Halligan, hated foreigners

Add comment June 5th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1806, immigrants Dominic Daley and James Halligan were hanged at Northampton, Massachusetts. In the words of one widely reproduced report, “They persisted in their innocence to the last moment, although there were perhaps not a single one of the numerous spectators present, which was presumed to amount to nearly 15,000, who entertained a doubt of their guilt.”

Today, nearly everyone thinks them innocent.

The case began, as many wrongful convictions do, with a particularly outrageous crime — a young farmer, Marcus Lyon, found dead in a Massachusetts creek en route to his home in Connecticut. He’d been shot through the chest and his brains battered out of his skull. The motive: robbery.

In the absence of substantive evidence, some witnesses with vague reports of strangers on the fatal turnpike furnished tissue for an entire theory of the case, and through the misapprehended focus of tunnel vision the strangers became Irishmen, and the Irishmen became Dominic Haley and James Halligan.

In the close aftermath of American independence, New England was still overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon and Protestant. Most of the Irish people about at this moment were also Protestants: large-scale Irish Catholic immigration into the region only began in the 1820s and it panicked the normies when it came, with preachers and politicians railing against the insidious incursions of idolatrous papists.

So in 1805, when the hunt for strangers settled on two Irish-born Catholic immigrants … well, what was left to know? Just days later, a North Wilbraham Congregationalist minister thundered from the pulpit,

We see the evil attending a continued influx of vicious and polluted foreigners in this country. Many of the outrages we suffer proceed from this source. Who break open our homes in the unsuspecting hours of sleep? Who set fire to our large cities and towns for the sake of plunder? And who rob and commit murder on our highways? We are far from exculpating all of our own native citizens; we regret, indeed, that so many of them disgrace themselves and injure society by evil deeds. But these things notwithstanding, we are doubtless justified in saying, that a great proportion of the crimes above mentioned, together with many others which might be named, are committed by foreigners. And that atrocious deed which has so recently congealed all our blood with horror, in this place, is supposed to have been perpetrated by foreigners. Look at the annual reports of the overseers of the prisons and you will find them be principally occupied by foreigners

The first planters of this country were, generally speaking, men of pure lives and good morals and they were induced to come here for the sake of religion. And, for a long time, they maintained a wholesome and orderly state of society. But since the rapid increase of our commerce with other nations, and the great ingress of foreigners, many of whom are said to come here for the sake of escaping the retribution of justice in their own country; we have ripened apace in all the arts of vice and depravity. Some, who come among us from abroad, we readily acknowledge to be worthy and good men, and we cordially welcome their approach. But the number of these is comparatively small. The best and most useful citizens are cautiously retained, while the worst are readily parted with. Hence the rapid influx upon us, of late, of the most violent and abandoned of the human race. The late and present disturbances in foreign countries have greatly increased the calamity. The prisons of Europe and the West Indies are now disgorging themselves upon our shores; and this country is thus becoming the general asylum of convicts. This is a sore evil, and will furnish an increasing number of inhabitants for our prisons and victims for the halter.

The case in court would comprise 24 witnesses not one of whom had witnessed the crime; at most they could suggest that two strangers had taken the same well-trafficked public road on the same day as the victim, who was also a stranger in these parts. Even this much was not certain among the witnesses; their renderings were vague, tentative, contradictory — but witness recollections and prejudicial readings of circumstance soon shaped themselves around the shared understanding of events, and from so much smoke they wove the hemp.

The friendless immigrants’ court-appointed attorney, Francis Blake, who had been tasked with this first capital case of his life a bare 48 hours before the trial opened, made a vehement, eloquent, and futile address to the jury against “this illiberal, this inhuman prejudice” closing around the throats of his clients.

That the prisoners have, however, been tried, convicted, and condemned, in almost every bar-room, and barber’s-shop, and in every other place of public resort in the county, is a fact which will not be contested. That the sentence of the law has not been anticipated, and that they have not already suffered the penalty of death, may be ascribed rather to defect of power, than to lenity of disposition, in many of their accusers …

There is yet another species of prejudice, against the influence of which it is my duty to warn you. I allude to the inveterate hostility against the people of that wretched country, from which the Prisoners have emigrated, for which the people of New-England are peculiarly distinguished …

Pronounce then a verdict against them! Condemn them to the gibbet! Hold out an awful warning to the wretched fugitives from that oppressed and persecuted nation! Tell them that although they are driven into the ocean, by the tempest which sweeps over their land, which lays waste their dwellings, and deluges their fields with blood; — though they float on its billows upon the broken fragments, of their liberty and independence; — yet our inhospitable coast presents no Ararat upon which they can rest in safety; that although we are not cannibals, and do not feast upon human flesh, yet with all our boasted philanthropy, which embraces every circle on the habitable globe, we have yet no mercy for a wandering and expatriated fugitive from Ireland. That the name of an Irishman is, among us, but another name, for a robber and an assassin; that every man’s hand is lifted against him; that when a crime of unexampled atrocity is perpetrated among us, we look around for an Irishman; that because he is an outlaw, with him the benevolent maxim of our law is reversed, and that the moment he is accused, he is presumed to be guilty, until his innocence appears! …

The lives of the prisoners are now consigned to your disposal. Before you proceed to the performance of this awful duty, let me borrow the language of one of their countrymen, not degraded by the ignominious reproaches against his nation, but elevated to the highest rank among the orators of the elder world by the most splendid talents, the purest patriotism, and the most unsullied integrity. Let me beseech you to “remember that there is another than a human tribunal, where the best of us, will, on one day, have occasion to look back on the little good we may have done. In that solemn trial may your verdict on this day give assurance to your bones and afford you strength and consolation in the awful presence of an adjudging God!”

The words fell on deaf ears.

Daley and Halligan maintained their innocence from arrest to execution, but in the end they would require the offices of another foreign refugee, Father Jean-Louis de Cheverus, a French-born priest in Boston, who had fled the anti-clerical paroxysms of his own homeland. (Later, he would become the first Catholic Bishop of Boston.) It’s said that he stayed in jail with his charges, as no one in Northampton would suffer the papist priest to sleep under their own roof — and that his ministrations to them included the first Catholic mass said in that city.

Folklore cropped up around the 1830s to the effect that a local man had given a deathbed confession exonerating the hanged Irishmen … and that this murderer was the kinsman of one of the witnesses against Daley and Halligan. I cannot establish that this is any more than a just-so story, a fable, but even so it speaks to the continuing injury done by this execution to the now-growing Irish Catholic community. In time that demographic’s maturing numbers and political muscle flipped the story of Daley and Halligan from one of foreigners ripened in depravity to a sobering caution against bigotry and rush to judgment.

We have no real way, now, to access a definitive assessment of guilt or innocence; we can certainly say with confidence that the evidence was appallingly flimsy to hang a man even for the time. Both Daley and Halligan were posthumously exonerated by a writ of Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis in 1984. Dukakis discussed that action, and history’s view of the Daley-Halligan railroading, in a 2011 panel available in podcast form here.

For additional resources, check this Historic Northampton page (already linked several times within this post). Below, you can read the entirety of an 1806 publication reporting the trial, from which the defense lawyer’s remarks have been drawn.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Massachusetts,Murder,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Theft,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1718: A horse thief and two travelers, “the worst rideing that ever I rid”

Add comment June 4th, 2018 Headsman

This date’s post brings us back to one of our regular wells, James Kelly’s Gallows Speeches From Eighteenth-Century Ireland … and the days when a life was cheaper than a horse.

The three men hanged together on this date all concurred in their stories that only one of them stole the horses in question and the other two merely thumbed rides on his extra mounts as passing travellers. Whether or not this is true or was simply their common play for a potential ⅔ pardon posterity obviously has no way of determining.

The Last Speech and Dying Words of
Daniel O Neal, Edmond Mc. Guire, and Henery Graham

who was Executed near St. Stevens Green, on Wednesday June the 4th 1718.

Good Christians,

I was Born in the North of Ireland, of very good honest Parents, who brought me up very Tenderly, and never speard any Cost to Instruct and bring me up in the fear of God, Alas! all was in vain, for tho’ I took all the care that I could to attain to Learning but at the end I prov’d very Careless of the fame, for I neglected both the laws of God and Man, or else I had never been brought to this shameful End, it is true I was taken up for the Stealing of three Horses, and two Mares, and these my fellow Sufferers along with me, but as I shall Answer the great God, they Die Innocently, for as I was Riding along the Road, I overtook these my fellow Sufferers who seeing me leading 4 Horses asked me if I would let them ride, I tould them they should, now as I am a dying Man this is all they knew of it, which grives me to the Heart, and indeed I am more sorry for their Death, than my own.

I freely forgive all the World, and I beg forgiveness of all those whom I ever offended, I am now about six and thirty Years of Age, I die a [sic] of the Church of England, and the Lord have mercy on my Soul, Amen.

This is my true Speech and no other

Daniel O Neal

The Speech of Edmond M’Guire.

Good Christians,

I Was born in the North of Ireland, of Poor, but honest Parents, who with their Industry, Care and Labour, brought me to these Years, during which time, I behav’d my self true and honest in the World, and endeavour’d very hard for my Bread; but I being born to hard Fortune, I was taken up by one Mr. Legg, for being concern’d in stealing of three Horses and two Mares; ‘tiw true I had one of the aforesaid Beasts under me, but the way I came by it was in the manner following: I having been in Dublin for some time, was willing to return home to my Wife and Children, and overtaking Daniel O Neale, my fellow Sufferer; he having the Cattle abovemention’d, I ask’d him if he wou’d let me Ride, he said he wou’d oblige any Traveller as much as he could, and so bid me Mount one of the Horses, which I did, and was very thankful to him for his kindness; but to my great Sorrow, it has prov’d the worst rideing that ever I rid in my life: Now as I am a dying Man, I was never guilty of Stealing the value of two Pence in all my Life: nor had I any Hand in stealing those Beasts which I am to Dye for. I forgive all the World, as I hope to be forgiven. I am about 40 Years of Age, and Dye a Roman Catholik, and the Lord have Mercy on my Poor Soul. Amen, Amen.

The Speech of Henry Graham.

Good Christians,

I was born in the North of Ireland, of very honest Parents, who was very tender over me, and brought me up in the fear of GOD as much as in them Lay; but Fortune has been very Cruel to me, or else I had never came to this Place, for I liv’d with my Parents will I came to get a Wife; and indeed it was my Fortune to get a poor honest Girl, who endeavour’d very honest for her Bread as well as I, but the World frowning upon me, I went and listed in the Army, where I behav’d myself as became a good Subject, at lenth [sic] I was broak, and so return’d home to my Wife again, but my Business calling me home to Dublin, to my great Sorrow I went there, but having finish’d my Business, I was going home again, where unfortunately I met with Daniel O. Neal, and Edmond M’Guire a Riding along the Road, to whom I said, pray let me Ride, and indeed, they freely comply’d, but I had not Rid long before we were all taken and committed to Goal, and from that brought to Dublin, so Try’d and found Guilty of the same, and now brought to [t]his Place to end my life, now as God is my Judge, before whom I hope to appear in short time, I had neither Art nor Part in stealing of the said Horses, or any of them, and I die in Charity with all Men, and do freely forgive those who Swore away my Life as I hope to be forgiven, I am about 30 years of Age. I die a Protestant and the Lord have mercy on my Soul.

Henry Graham.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Innocent Bystanders,Ireland,Public Executions,Theft,Wrongful Executions

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1813: A Nez Perce thief, by the Pacific Fur Company

Add comment June 1st, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1813, Anglo-American fur trader John Clarke had an indigenous Nez Perce summarily hanged for stealing a goblet … dangerously poisoning relations between the respective communities in the Pacific Northwest.

We lay our day’s scene in the Oregon Territory, far frontier of then-only-prospective American continental expansion, beyond even the fathomless reaches of the Louisiana Purchase. The Stars and Stripes had penetrated there courtesy of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, but British, Spanish, and Russian expeditions had planted their own flags too, to say nothing of the claims of its native inhabitants.

And all these claimants had one common desire: the pelts of the beavers swarming that verdant sector.

The New York businessman John Jacob Astor bought a stake in the fur trade in the form of the Pacific Fur Company, and set down the outpost of Astoria, Oregon. (Astor was destined to become one of the republic’s early homegrown plutocrats, a fact which is merely incidental for our purposes. It was the fur business that propelled him to wealth.)

One agent of the P.F.C. was a singularly undiplomatic trader aged about 31 summers, John Clarke. Calling on a mixed Nez Perce-Palouse village to trade his canoes for horses to make an overland journey, Clarke was irritated to find that prices weren’t to his liking and the locals enjoyed pilfering his baubles.

American scribbler Washington Irving recorded the ensuing events:

[Clarke] was a tall, good-looking man, and somewhat given to pomp and circumstance, which made him an object of note in the eyes of the wondering savages. He was stately, too, in his appointments, and had a silver goblet or drinking cup, out of which he would drink with a magnificent air, and then lock it up in a large gardevin, which accompanied him in his travels, and stood in his tent. This goblet had originally been sent as a present from Mr. Astor to Mr. M’Kay, the partner who had unfortunately been blown up in the Tonquin. As it reached Astoria after the departure of that gentleman, it had remained in the possession of Mr. Clarke.

A silver goblet was too glittering a prize not to catch the eye of a Pierced-nose. It was like the shining tin case of John Reed. Such a wonder had never been seen in the land before. The Indians talked about it to one another. They marked the care with which it was deposited in the gardevin, like a relic in its shrine, and concluded that it must be a “great medicine.” That night Mr. Clarke neglected to lock up his treasure; in the morning the sacred casket was open—the precious relic gone!

Clarke was now outrageous. All the past vexations that he had suffered from this pilfering community rose to mind, and he threatened that, unless the goblet was promptly returned, he would hang the thief should he eventually discover him. The day [May 31st, 1813] gassed away, however, without the restoration of the cup. At night sentinels were secretly posted about the camp. With all their vigilance a Pierced-nose contrived to get into the camp unperceived, and to load himself with booty; it was only on his retreat that he was discovered and taken. At daybreak the culprit was brought to trial, and promptly convicted. He stood responsible for all the spoliations of the camp, the precious goblet among the number, and Mr. Clarke passed sentence of death upon him.

A gibbet was accordingly constructed of oars; the chief of the village and his people were assembled and the culprit was produced, with his legs and arms pinioned. Clarke then made a harangue. He reminded the tribe of the benefits he had bestowed upon them during his former visits, and the many thefts an other misdeeds which he had overlooked. The prisoner especially had always been peculiarly well treated by the white men, but had repeatedly been guilty of pilfering. He was to be punished for his own misdeeds, and as a warning to is tribe.

The Indians now gathered round Mr. Clarke and interceded for the culprit, They were willing he should be punished severely, but implored that his life might be spared. The companions, too, of Mr. Clarke, considered the sentence too severe, and advised him to mitigate it; but he was inexorable. He was not naturally a stern or cruel man; but from his boyhood he had lived in the Indian country among lndian traders, and held the life of a savage extremely cheap. He was, moreover, a firm believer in the doctrine of intimidation.

Farnham, a clerk, a tall “Green Mountain boy” from Vermont, who had been robbed of a pistol, acted as executioner. The signal was given, and the poor Pierced-nose, resisting, struggling, and screaming, in the most frightful manner, was launched into eternity. The Indians stood round gazing in silence and mute awe, but made no attempt to oppose the execution, nor testified any emotion when it was over. They locked up their feelings within their bosoms until an opportunity should arrive to gratify them with — a bloody act of vengeance.

Having made his grand gesture, Clarke quickly realized that he had enacted it while his small party was alone in an Indian village where they were at the mercy of their far more numerous hosts. Fearing a backlash, the white traders accordingly hightailed it back to Astoria, and then evacuated Astoria itself.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Oregon,Public Executions,Summary Executions,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1584: Samuel Zborowski, dangerous precedent

Add comment May 26th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1584, Samuel Zborowski was beheaded at Krakow’s Wawel Hill for treason and murder committed ten years before.

A monument to the timeless abuse of the prosecutor’s discretion, Zborowski (English Wikipedia entry | Polish) was a powerful nobleman who got into a snit when nobody of equal stature would enter the lists with him at a tournament.

Instead, his challenge was answered by a common trooper in the retinue of the castellan of Wojnice,* one Jan Teczynski. Pissed at the affront, and doubly so when his own retainer was defeated by Teczynski’s, Zborowski went right after Teczynski right there in the presence of the newly elected Polish king, Henry de Valois.** The affront of lese-majeste was compounded when Zborowski’s flailing mace mortally wounded another castellan who attempted to intervene.

The outlawed Zborowski fled to the protection of Stephen Bathory,† Voivode of Transylvania.

That might have been that, and left Zborowski to join Europe’s forgettable ranks of exiles, adventurers, and pretenders playing out the string under the patronage of some foreign prince.

But when the elective throne of mighty Poland came open soon thereafter, Zborowski’s patron decided that he liked the look of it — and he obtained the result, with the help of a dynastic marriage into Poland’s Jagiellon dynasty of illustrious memory.

Since the Zborowskis had been big supporters of Stephen Bathory, Samuel returned as well, justifiably anticipating not merely pardon but elevation. To their dismay, they found themselves frozen out … and they responded with a series of insubordinations: plotting with the invading Russians, fomenting an unwanted diplomatic crisis with freelance attacks upon the Ottomans.

In the end, our man was undone by the same violent highhandedness that had forced his flight from Poland in the first place. Zborowski’s ill treatment of the young lute composer Wojciech Dlugoraj left the latter so desperate to escape Zborowski’s court that Dlugoraj stole some treasonable correspondence between Zborowski and his brothers and sent it to Zborowski’s enemy, Jan Zamoyski.‡ Those letters indicated that Samuel was contemplating assassinating the king.

Zamoyski found, and Bathory agreed, that the most expedient way to remove this troublemaker was simply to execute the 1574 sentence, from that bludgeoned castellan. The new regime had conveniently never bothered to lift it.

Although legal, Zborowski’s execution was obviously quite irregular and it outraged many in the nobility who perceived it a potential precedent for absolutism; recrimination over the action tore apart the 1585 meeting of the Polish Sejm. (In later years, this body formally endorsed Zamoyski’s actions but only after enacting a Lex Zborowski to better govern the handling of treason cases.)


Jan Matejko‘s 19th century rendering of Samuel Zborowski en route to beheading.

* At the time an important fortified city, Wojnice or Wojnicz was ravaged by a Swedish army in the 1650s and never recovered; today, it’s a town — having only re-promoted itself from “village” status in 2007 — of fewer than four thousand souls.

** This youngest son in the French royal house had seemed to the Valois safe to make available on the transfer market for foreign sovereigns. However, his brothers’ uncanny talent for dying young without issue very soon required his return to his homeland to take up the throne of France as Henri III during that country’s Wars of Religion. There Henri proved not to be exempt from the family curse: we have previously explored the circumstances of his own violent death — which was also the end of the House of Valois — during the War of the Three Henrys.

† A legendary surname in the annals of horror. This Stephen Bathory was the maternal uncle of the infamous “Countess of Blood”.

‡ The gambit did indeed get the scared lutenist free from Zborowski’s control, but he had to flee to Germany for fear of Zborowski kinsmen’s vengeance.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Murder,Nobility,Notable Jurisprudence,Poland,Power,Public Executions,Soldiers,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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1916: Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, Patrick McIntyre and Thomas Dickson, by Captain Bowen-Colthurst

Add comment April 26th, 2018 Headsman

On the morning of this date in 1916, British Captain John Bowen-Colthurst ordered the summary execution of three Irish journalists in his custody: part of a still-notorious murderous rampage through Dublin amid the Easter Rising.

Bowen-Colthurst’s subsequent “insanity” skate has been a sore subject in the century since its predictable enactment.

The product of landed Anglo-Irish elites — his childhood manor, Dripsey Castle, still stands — had trotted the globe in service of the empire: the Boer Wars, India, Tibet, and the western front.

It’s the sort of background that should have made Bowen-Colthurst a calm hand in a tight spot.* Instead, the Easter Rising panicked him. Atrocities against Irish nationalists are not exactly surprising in the abstract here, but Bowen-Colthurst’s behavior in these hours was so erratic and violent that his men would remark that he had lost his head … although they strikingly never disobeyed his patently illegal orders.

At Portobello Barracks in Dublin, which in this week swarmed chaotically with off-duty leave soldiers reporting themselves for duty in the face of the armed insurrection, the Third Royal Irish Rifles’ commander was absent on sick leave and evidently took command discipline with him. “Captain Colthurst, although not the equal in rank of Major Rosborough, was the senior office in point of service and, according to all the evidence, considered himself at liberty to ignore his brother-officers,” Francis Sheehy-Skeffington’s widow explained.

Sheehy-Skeffington — a gentle pacifist affectionately known among antiwar socialists and the women’s movement as “Skeffy” — had been arrested on sight on April 25th, while out and about trying to dissuade looters. Bowen-Colthurst marched him out overnight as a human shield for a random patrol, and did not mind murdering before his eyes a passing young man caught out after curfew.

Proceeding along, Bowen-Colthurst grenades a tobacconist’s shop, mistakenly thinking that its owner, named Kelly, was Sinn Fein man Tom Kelly. In fact, the tobacconist Kelly was a loyalist, as were the two publishers that Bowen-Colthurst arrested at his place: Patrick McIntyre and Thomas Dickson.

Ignoring their protests, our unstable captain brought all three men back to the barracks. By morning’s light, he had decided on no authority but his own to have them executed.

“I am taking these prisoners out and I am going to shoot them because I think it is the right thing to do” was all the justification that he submitted. Later, he would say that he feared the prisoners would escape; that, believing that Germans were landing and revolutionaries were gunning down Black and Tans throughout Dublin, “I took the gloomiest view of the situation and felt that only desperate measures would save the situation.” So he shot the one guy who didn’t want to fight and two guys who were on his own team. According to later testimony, he would even order Skeffy to be re-shot upon being informed that the man was still moving several minutes after execution.

Still, the tilting captain had enough self-possession to openly worry to a brother-officer that he might have committed a hanging offense … and to actively conceal the evidence of it. Had events not been exposed by a courageous whistleblower, Sir Francis Vane, everything surely would have been obfuscated into the soupy fog of war. Embarrassingly compelled by Vane’s tattling to court-martial Bowen-Colthurst only to pass him off to an asylum (and later, to Canada), the brass took it out on Vane by terminating his career a few months later: “this officer was relegated to unemployment owing to his action in the Skeffington murder case in the Sinn Fein rebellion.”

Uproar at the Bowen-Colthurst affair had some interesting knock-on effects: for one thing, the naked impunity available to an officer at a time when enlisted men in France were being shot at dawn for minor disciplinary lapses might have contributed to the British command’s decision later in 1916 to permit the execution of a shellshocked lieutenant. And, an associate of the loyalist British commander in Ireland during the Easter Rising claimed that Sheehy-Skeffington blowback subsequently led to the execution reprieve granted to Eamon de Valera: that future president of independent Ireland just so happened to have his name “first on the list” when the matter came to a head.

Today, a visitor center at the former Portobello Barracks (now called Cathal Brugha Barracks) memorializes the three men executed there on April 26, 1916.

* We don’t mean to be cavalier about the psychological strains inflicted by violence. Bowen-Colthurst seemed to exhibit signs of shell shock in the trenches, whether due to the shells themselves or to having lost his younger brother in the war.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Innocent Bystanders,Intellectuals,Ireland,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Shot,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1941: Harry Gleeson, posthumously exonerated

Add comment April 23rd, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1941, Harry Gleeson hanged for murder in Ireland — wrongly, the government admitted in 2015.

Gleeson was the nephew and farmhand of a man called John Caesar, whose County Tipperary property abutted a cottage inhabited by a local prostitute called Moll McCarthy. On November 21, 1940, Gleeson found Moll McCarthy dead on a farm field. Her face had been destroyed by a gunshot; her murder orphaned seven children, many of them the illegitimate progeny of local married men.

Nine days later, Irish police arrested a surprised Gleeson for the murder. He hotly denied their theory that he had availed himself of the victim’s services, and then slain her to prevent his uncle finding out about it.

It was, the Irish Times says in a review of one of the several books about the case, “a definitively Irish murder case: the prosecution claimed that ‘Gleeson was meeting Moll at the field pump, away from prying eyes, and arranging to give her potatoes in exchange for sex.'”

As a criminal case, it involved that brew of tunnel vision preoccupation with the wrong guy and outright cheating to nail him that frequently characterizes errant convictions. But there may have been a political undercurrent besides.

Gleeson was defended by former Irish Republican Army chief of staff Sean MacBride,* and it’s been hypothesized that the barrister’s political affiliations critically unbalanced the case for at least a couple of important reasons:

  • A prejudicial court and jury perhaps gave their verdict as much against MacBride as against Gleeson. (The jury issued its conviction alongside an unsuccessful application for clemency.)
  • MacBride himself might have pulled some punches from the defense bar in view of the possibility — as charged by Kieran Fagan in The Framing of Harry Gleeson — that McCarthy was actually murdered for informing on IRA men.
A few books about Mary MacCarthy and Harry Gleeson

* MacBride’s father John “Foxy Jack” MacBride hanged in 1916 for his role in the Easter Rising.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Innocent Bystanders,Ireland,Murder,Notable Participants,Ripped from the Headlines,Sex,Wrongful Executions

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