Steele was 35 at the time of death and was noted for his “amiable character.” He had a warehouse in London and a lavender plantation in the country at Feltham, and business was going well.
On Friday, November 5, 1802, he set out from his London townhouse to Feltham. He didn’t say exactly when he was coming home, but it was his wife’s birthday on Sunday and the family assumed he’d be back by then.
He didn’t arrive home by Saturday, and everyone figured he’d stayed overnight at his plantation. But when he missed his wife’s birthday party the next day, they got worried. On Monday they sent a messenger to investigate.
Steele, it turned out, had arrived in Feltham, and by 7:00 Saturday evening he was ready to return to his London house. He wasn’t able to procure a carriage, however, and decided to walk across Hounslow Heath, then a notorious haunt of bandits and highwaymen. It was not the sort of place a man with money — Steele was carrying about 26 shillings on him — should be at night.
He had paid for his want of caution with his life.
Searchers subsequently found Steele’s bloodstained coat on the heath, in a gravel pit ten or fifteen yards off the road. His corpse was under a clump of trees in a ditch 200 yards from the road. It had not been buried, but turf had been laid over it to conceal it. He’d been beaten and strangled to death, and the leather strap used to choke him was still tied tightly around his throat. His boots and hat were missing, his pockets had been cut away from his clothes and all his money was missing.
The coroner’s jury recorded a verdict of willful murder against some person or persons unknown. Forensics in the early 1800s basically didn’t exist, and with no witnesses to the crime, it seemed very unlikely that Steele’s murder would ever be solved. As Linda Stratmann records in Middlesex Murders,
Letters were sent to justices in Rutland and Leicester, urging that the most strenuous efforts should be made to apprehend [suspects], but they were never found. Steele’s family placed an advertisement in the newspaper offering a reward of £50 for information leading to the capture of the murderers. Several known criminals were arrested on suspicion, but after questioning they were released. Four years went by and all hope of finding the guilty persons was gone.
In 1806, 26-year-old thief Benjamin Hanfield was sentenced to seven years’ transportation. While awaiting transfer to a convict ship to take him to Australia, he mentioned Steele’s murder to some other prisoners and said three men were involved in the slaying.
Word got around to the authorities, and they took him to Portsmouth by coach for questioning. He implicated John Holloway and Owen Haggerty. It had been Holloway’s idea, he said; he’d somehow found out that a gentleman with money would be at Hounslow Heath on Saturday, November 6, and had recruited the other men to help him commit a robbery.
The three of them went to Hounslow Heath that Saturday, as according to plan, and waited for Steele. When Hanfield accosted their mark and demanded money, Steele was cooperative at first, handing over his cash. But when the robbers demanded his pocketbook as well, he claimed he didn’t have it and begged them not to hurt him. Holloway struck him with his stick, and as Steele began to struggle, Holloway said, “I will silence the bugger,” and beat him several times about his head and body.
They left him lying dead on the heath.
Hanfield ran away first, ahead of the others. He waited for nearly an hour at The Bell public house for them to catch up. After his accomplices arrived, they all went to an inn, the Black Horse. It was midnight and inn was closed for business, but its proprietor was still awake and the three men convinced him to serve them. They shared half a pint of gin there before parting ways.
Hanfield’s story had some evidence to support it. While he was being transported to Portsmouth for questioning, the coach passed the place where Steele had been killed and Hanfield pointed it out. After confession, he was taken back the heath and pointed out the clump of trees where Steele’s body had been located. This was enough to get Holloway and Haggerty arrested. Both men, when apprehended, said they were innocent.
By December 8, Haggerty and Holloway were brought together and Hanfield’s statement was read to them. The two men denied knowing each other, denied any knowledge of the murder, and denied having ever been on Hounslow Heath in their lives.
Hanfield’s story had another problem: he said Holloway knew well in advance that Steele would be on the heath that fatal Saturday. But, although Steele visited his Feltham plantation regularly, he didn’t have a fixed day of the week for doing it, and his own family wasn’t sure when he would be returning when he left London on Friday.
But in spite of the discrepancies, the flat denials from the alleged accomplices, and the lack of evidence supporting Hanfield’s statement, the authorities were sure they had the right men — tunnel vision that presents in many wrongful convictions. Hanfield was granted a free pardon for turning King’s Evidence against his co-defendants, and his previous sentence of transportation was commuted. At the trial, he was chief witness for the prosecution.
The defense argued that Hanfield was a liar and a professional criminal who had implicated innocent people for personal gain. But the defendants could not prove where they had been on a random autumn night five years earlier, and both had clearly lied about being strangers to each other.
Multiple witnesses testified that Haggerty and Holloway had known each other for many years. One of those witnesses was Officer Daniel Bishop, who worked at the jail. The two prisoners had been placed in separate cells side by side, and the partition between them was so thin that they could easily converse with each other. This had been a trick, and Bishop had been hiding in a nearby privy, writing down everything they said. From Haggerty and Holloway’s conversation it was obvious the men were good friends.
That much was true. But it was also true that when they thought they were alone together, neither of them implicated themselves in Steele’s slaying, and in fact they said Hanfield was a liar and that he, and not they, should be hanged.
As the Newgate Calendar said, “There was a great body of evidence adduced, none of which tended materially to incriminate the prisoners, except that of Hanfield, the accomplice, who, under the promise of pardon, had turned King’s evidence.”
The verdict, nevertheless, was guilty, after fifteen minutes’ deliberation. The sentence was death.
Holloway and Haggerty went to the scaffold invoking God and insisting they had not been involved in Steele’s murder. The execution was a memorable one; the Reaper got a bountiful harvest that day. Linda Stratmann describes the awful events in detail:
The crowds that assembled were unparalleled and estimated at about 40,000 people. By 8 a.m. there was not an inch of ground around the scaffold unoccupied. Even before the prisoners arrived the crush was so great that people trapped in the crowd were crying out to be allowed to escape …
At the corner of Green Arbour Lane, nearly opposite the Debtors’ Door, two piemen were selling their wares when one man’s basket was knocked over. He was bending down to pick up his wares when surging crowds tripped and fell over him. There was an immediate panic, in which people fought with each other to escape the crush. It was the weakest and the smallest in the crowd who suffered. Seven people died from suffocation alone, and others were trampled upon, their bodies mangled. A broker named John Etherington was there with twelve-year-old son. The boy was killed in the crush, and the man was at first thought to be dead and placed amongst the corpses, but he survived with serious injuries. A woman with an infant at her breast saved her baby by passing it to a man and begging him to save its life. Moments later she was knocked down and killed. The baby was thrown from person to person over the heads of the crowd and was eventually brought to safety …
Gradually the mobs dispersed and the bodies, thirty in all, were taken up in carts, twenty-seven to Bartholomew’s Hospital, two to St. Sepulchre’s Church and one to The Swan public house. Numerous others were injured, including fifteen men and two women who were so badly bruised that they were taken to the hospital, one of whom died the following day.
As it turned out, the landlord of The Bell didn’t remember any strangers coming to the pub on the night of the murder, and the landlord of the Black Horse didn’t remember three men coming at midnight and asking for gin. There were no details of the murder in Hanfield’s confession that he couldn’t have learned from common gossip. Furthermore, he had a history of making false confessions. A lawyer, James Harmer, actually compiled a pamphlet (Google Play | Google Books) of evidence that supported Haggerty and Holloway’s innocence.
But none of this exculpatory evidence surfaced until after the executions.
In yet another twist, in 1820, John Ward, alias Simon Winter, was indicted for John Cole Steele’s murder. Ward had a bad reputation in the area and was suspected of robbery and livestock theft. It was said he participated in the search for Steele, and one witness said he had seemed to be trying to lead the search party in the opposite direction from where the corpse was found.
The paper-thin murder case against Ward was dismissed for lack of evidence, and rightly so. But by indicting him in the first place, the authorities had as much as said Haggerty and Holloway had been wrongfully convicted.
“The fate of Holloway and Haggerty,” Stratmann notes in her book, “was often referred to in subsequent trials as an example of how little weight could be given to accomplices to a crime. The tragedy which had attended their execution also gave rise to considerable anxiety for many years.”
Hanfield disappeared without a trace after the murder trial; it’s unknown whether he continued his criminal ways.
Milton Yarberry was one of those belt-notching Wild West gunmen badass enough to be worth deputizing for a frontier town with a spiraling crime problem — which Albuquerque was experiencing as the just-completed railroad boomed its population. A number of crimes had been attributed to him in a career that took him from stage-robbing in his native Arkansas, to the Texas Rangers, to a Colorado saloon, to a New Mexico cathouse, a veritable bucket list of spaghetti western tropes packed into 34 roughhewn years with bodies planted at nigh every stop. Yarberry was even reputed to have fought alongside Billy the Kid.
The last of these tropes, of course, was as the bad hombre upon whom the townspeople foist a badge.
It will not surprise that even when minted as a peace officer, Marshal Yarberry continued his manslaying ways. Still, nobody in our present age of impunity could well imagine a lawman standing trial for murder twice in the space of a year.
Yarberry in early 1882 defeated a charge for wasting his lover’s paramour during a row in the street, as witnesses said Harry Brown shot first, just like Greedo.
There was no administrative leave or counseling after that, just straight back on the beat — and barely a month later, the copper gunned down a guy whom he was trying to stop for questioning. It was a confusing encounter in which the Marshal insisted that he fired when the victim, Charles Campbell, wheeled on him with a gun. A single state’s witness was able to establish in the court’s mind that there was no gun in Campbell’s possession.
Our hard-living triggerman would never waver from his self-defense story as his appeals were made;** he had many supporters who believed that he was being railroaded on account of the public relations hit the city was taking for employing a dude who had so liberally populated the Republic’s Boot Hills — and those advocates included the sheriff who recruited Yarberry as a Marshal, Perfecto Armijo, who was also the sheriff detailed to hang Yarberry in the end.
The local Albuquerque podcast City on the Edge has an episode dedicated to Yarberry here.
* In the anarchic game of telephone that was 19th century reporting, some editor somewhere mistakenly understood a story of Yarberry’s condemnation in 1882 as an actual report of his execution; as a result, there were news stories (themselves repeated by multiple papers) announcing Yarberry’s hanging in June 1882. In this business, once one wrong date is out there it’s bound to be echoed into eternity, so it’s still possible to find sources that misdate the execution to June 16, 1882. Past the question of the calendar, the fact that these stories actually expanded with details about the fictitious hanging scene strongly underscores the degree to which the hang-day bulletin had become colorfully but generically abstracted from any save accidental relationship to the actual scene at the gallows.
Cincinnati Daily Gazette, June 17, 1882, vividly peopling an imaginary scene.
** Because New Mexico was still just a territory — it was only admitted to the Union as a state in 1912 — Yarberry’s clemency decision went to the U.S. President, Chester A. Arthur.
George Beck, 20, George Hearson, 22, and John Armstrong, 26, were among twenty-plus alleged rioters arrested by the military whose intervention had been required to contain the disturbance. They were unlucky as much as anything, prey to statecraft’s requisites of resolve shown and examples made, for in the chaos of the riots the evidence gathered against these three as particular baddies resided at best on the arbitrary and dubious side. Such a public outcry arose against their punishment that officials made sure to delay the hanging until after the day’s post reached town, lest it bear along a last-minute pardon.
On 4 January Armstrong had been found guilty of causing the Beeston riot and the destruction of Lowe’s silk mill. The other two had been arrested later the same month and charged with involvement in the same crime. Unfortunately for Beck and Hearson, though, their convictions had been made on spurious identification evidence. No one at their trial had given irrefutable evidence to establish guilt and by the time they climbed on to the scaffold to join Armstrong some 24,000 people had signed petitions for their release and well over that number swelled the crowds which gathered to watch the executions. So nervous were the Nottingham officials that they called out the 15th Hussars, The Queens Bays, the 18th Foot and a significant body of special constables to block off High Pavement and prevent any outbreak of unrest.
From a contemporary news account:
On the day of execution (Wednesday February 1st), the condemned took a glass of wine. Both Hearson and Armstrong protested their innocence by saying “I am a murdered man”. Beck ascended the platform first and a cry of “Murder!” could be heard from the crowd. Despite his irons, Hearson ran quickly up and jumped on the scaffold, calling to friends in the crowd. He then twirled his cap around his hand, “as if in triumph”, followed by his neckerchief, to cheers from the crowd. He also did a little dance before being calmed, and before Armstrong ascended. The ropes had been adjusted, and the chaplain began the service. On uttering the words “in the midst of life we are in death”, the drop fell!
The blog Pallax View has an excellent entry about the riots and resulting trials and executions, focusing on Hearson in particular. He was a married lace manufacturer and an enthusiastic boxer, called “Curley Hearson” in the prize ring.
A poem about the injustice of the executions gained wide circulation:
Hark! The Trumps are mournful sounding,
Wafting souls to realms above,
Where there’s naught but bliss abounding,
Glorying too for Jesu love.
The reckless fate of these poor creatures,
Fills the town with sad dismay,
For Nottingham, with its bright features,
Could not check that dreadful day.
To see the prime of youth now wither,
‘Midst relations, friends so dear,
It makes one’s blood almost to shiver,
Who could stop the burning tear?
Hearson, Beck and Armstrong boldly,
Met their fates beneath the tree;
Villains swore against them coldly,
And their doom we all shall see.
If he was real at all, or even if he wasn’t, Antonio Mamerto Gil Nunez was an freelance ranchhand gaucho who ditched his conscription into the Argentine Civil Wars for life as an outlaw — flourishing in the classic social bandit guise as a friend to the put-upon peasantry with beneficence extending all the way to saintly healing powers.
Ambushed and captured at last, Gil’s last charity was reserved for the policeman who decided to have him summarily executed — whom Gil warned was about to receive an en-route pardon. The cop didn’t buy this obvious dilatory gambit and slit the bandit’s throat, only to return and find the promised clemency riding on up. As Gil had also prophesied, the policeman’s son had fallen quite ill and now he prayed to the brigand he had just put to death, who posthumously secured the boy a miraculous recovery.
The reports of the duly impressed executioner proliferated and soon fathered a flourishing popular veneration. Although Gauchito Gil is of course entirely unrecognized by the institutional Catholic Church, many devout pilgrims visit his site to pray for, or to offer thanks for, a favorable intercession in life.
Elizabeth Woolcock on December 30, 1873 became the first and only woman ever hanged in South Australia.
The daughter of a gold prospector, Elizabeth Oliver (as she was then) began a lifelong bout with chemical dependency when she became hooked on the opium used to treat her after she survived a rape at the tender age of seven. (This attack also left her permanently unable to bear children.)
At 19, she joined the Moonta household of alcoholic Cornish immigrant Thomas Woolcock — first as his housekeeper helping to mind the sole child to survive the tuberculotic ravages that had carried away his brother and mother, and within a few weeks as Woolcock’s wife.
Elizabeth was very young and had not known Thomas long. Her infelicitous choice opened an unhappy union that, in the trial to come, would mark her with an obvious motive for murder. “I have to put with it as long as I can but Tom has got so bad, that I cannot bear it any longer,” she wrote to her stepsister a few months before the events that would lead her to the gallows. “He is a perfect devil; and if stop [sic] here much longer I shall hang myself.”
Motivation aside, however, quite a few people not only latterly but also in Woolcock’s own time have suspected that she got a bum rap, product of shoddy medical evidence and a sort of self-confirming communal tunnel vision when Thomas wasted away over a period of weeks in 1873. Thomas Woolcock’s cousin in particular appears to have spearheaded the campaign to open a coroner’s investigation of the death aimed squarely at his widow.
Three different physicians treated Thomas from the time he fell ill at work on July 23 of that year until his death six weeks later. Drs. Bull, Dickie and Herbert each made different diagnoses and prescribed, as this examination of the case puts it, “a bizarre (to modern eyes at least) range of medication that included rhubarb, cream of tartar, mercury and lead acetate.”
Dr. Bull’s prescription of pills containing mercury seems like any obvious place to begin the inquiry since the government’s chemists concluded that mercury poisoning had killed the man, and since the erratic Bull had a chinashop-type relationship to medical competence. (Dr. Bull had done time in the insane asylum; a few months after Woolcock’s execution, he died of an opium overdose.)
Instead, and seemingly driven by the suspicions of local chin-waggers, the investigation and subsequent trial focused on Elizabeth’s acquisition of “poisons” in a dismayingly unspecific sense: she used her stepson to hustle the local druggist for morphine and opium to service her own addictions, and this was a “poison”; she obtained a dandruff medicine that (like many household products of its day) contained mercury, and this was a “poison”;* she had some strange draught called antinomial wine that she was seen to spice with sugar and this too was inferred a “poison”. It all painted Elizabeth Woolcock as a latter-day Tofana without quite telling a coherent story of how she went about killing her husband. It’s not even clear now — and was publicly questioned in 1873 — whether the initial determination of death by mercury poisoning was itself reliable, nor can be certain whether, if mercury is supposed to be the lethal agent, it alone accounts for the entire span from health to grave or if instead a small exposure from Dr. Bull’s pills or contact with the skin medicine only finished Thomas off in a context where unrelated illness had already broken his health.
The evidence as it survives for us doesn’t rule out the possibility, but it’s difficult to reconcile it with anything like the confidence that ought to sustain a death sentence. However, Elizabeth’s garbled last letter did appear to vindicate the prosecution with an admission, though it’s one that her defenders have dismissed as pro forma for a confessor who would have been pressuring her to acknowledge the crime in the context of a final spiritual redemption.
in a evil hour i yielded to the temptation he was taken ill at the mine and came home and quarreled with me and Satan tempted me and i gave any poison for i more and i being very self willed i told him that i knew what power the poison had as i took it my self for some months and i was so ill treated that i was quite out of my mind and in an evil hour i yielded to the temptation he was taken ill at the mine and came home and quarreled with me and Satan tempted me and i gave him what i ought not but thought at the time that if i gave him time to prepare to meet his god i should not do any great crime to send him out of the World but i see my mistake now i thank god he had time to make his peace with his maker.
Efforts, thus far unavailing, to secure a posthumous pardon for Elizabeth Woolcock continue to the present day.
* The family dog died shortly before Thomas got sick; it would be postulated against Elizabeth that she experimented with poisoning on the pet before moving on to the man. An alternative hypothesis that fits the facts could be that the dandruff medicine was administered to treat a skin condition of the dog, which then proceeded to lick at the ointment and poison itself.
Thanks to James Joyce for the guest post on “the ancient tribe of the Joyces”, originally published as “Ireland at the Bar” on September 16, 1907 during Joyce’s Italian exile for nationalist newspaper Il Piccolo della Sera of Austrian-dominated Trieste. As the reader will see, James Joyce is interested here in this case as symbolic,* but readers curious about the particulars of the murders and this still-notoriousmiscarriage of justice might want to tune into the Irish History Podcast’s three-part series on the case or follow the various links for more. -ed.
Several years ago a sensational trial was held in Ireland. In a lonely place in a western province, called Maamtrasna, a murder was committed. Four or five townsmen, all belonging to the ancient tribe of the Joyces, were arrested. The oldest of them, the seventy year old Myles Joyce, was the prime suspect. Public opinion at the time thought him innocent and today considers him a martyr. Neither the old man nor the others accused knew English. The court had to resort to the services of an interpreter. The questioning, conducted through the interpreter, was at times comic and at times tragic. On one side was the excessively ceremonious interpreter, on the other the patriarch of a miserable tribe unused to civilized customs, who seemed stupefied by all the judicial ceremony. The magistrate said:
‘Ask the accused if he saw the lady that night.’
The question was referred to him in Irish, and the old man broke out into an involved explanation, gesticulating, appealing to the others accused and to heaven. Then he quieted down, worn out by his effort, and the interpreter turned to the magistrate and said:
‘He says no, your worship.’
‘Ask him if he was in that neighbourhood at that hour.’
The old man again began to talk, to protest, to shout, almost beside himself with the anguish of being unable to understand or to make himself understood, weeping in anger and terror. And the interpreter, again, dryly:
‘He says no, your worship.’
When the questioning was over, the guilt of the poor old man was declared proved, and he was remanded to a superior court which condemned him to the noose. On the day the sentence was executed, the square in front of the prison was jammed full of kneeling people shouting prayers in Irish for the repose of Myles Joyce’s soul. The story was told that the executioner, unable to make the victim understand him, kicked at the miserable man’s head in anger to shove it into the noose. [The hanging was botched -ed.]
The figure of this dumbfounded old man, a remnant of a civilization not ours, deaf and dumb before his judge, is a symbol of the Irish nation at the bar of public opinion. Like him, she is unable to appeal to the modern conscience of England and other countries. The English journalists act as interpreters between Ireland and the English electorate, which gives them ear from time to time and ends up being vexed by the endless complaints of the Nationalist representatives who have entered her House, as she believes, to disrupt its order and extort money.
Abroad there is no talk of Ireland except when uprisings break out, like those which made the telegraph office hop these last few days. Skimming over the dispatches from London (which, though they lack pungency, have something of the laconic quality of the interpreter mentioned above), the public conceives of the Irish as highwaymen with distorted faces, roaming the night with the object of taking the hide of every Unionist. And by the real sovereign of Ireland, the Pope, such news is received like so many dogs in church. Already weakened by their long journey, the cries are nearly spent when they arrive at the bronze door. The messengers of the people who never in the past have renounced the Holy See, the only Catholic people to whom faith also means the exercise of faith, are rejected in favour of messengers of a monarch, descended from apostates, who solemnly apostasized himself on the day of his coronation, declaring in the presence of his nobles and commons that the rites of the Roman Catholic Church are ‘superstition and idolatry’.
Myles Joyce (leftmost) along with Patrick Joyce (center) and Patrick Casey (right). All three hanged together.
There are twenty million Irishmen scattered all over the world. The Emerald Isle contains only a small part of them. But, reflecting that, while England makes the Irish question the centre of all her internal politics she proceeds with a wealth of good judgment in quickly disposing of the more complex questions of colonial politics, the observer can do no less than ask himself why St. George’s Channel makes an abyss deeper than the ocean between Ireland and her proud dominator. In fact, the Irish question is not solved even today, after six centuries of armed occupation and more than a hundred years of English legislation, which has reduced the population of the unhappy island from eight to four million, quadrupled the taxes, and twisted the agrarian problem into many more knots.
In truth there is no problem more snarled than this one. The Irish themselves understand little about it, the English even less. For other people it is a black plague. But on the other hand the Irish know that it is the cause of all their sufferings, and therefore they often adopt violent methods of solution. For example, twenty-eight years ago, seeing themselves reduced to misery by the brutalities of the large landholders, they refused to pay their land rents and obtained from Gladstone remedies and reforms. Today, seeing pastures full of well fed cattle while an eighth of the population lacks means of subsistence, they drive the cattle from the farms. In irritation, the Liberal government arranges to refurbish the coercive tactics of the Conservatives, and for several weeks the London press dedicates innumerable articles to the agrarian crisis, which, it says, is very serious. It publishes alarming news of agrarian revolts, which is then reproduced by journalists abroad.
I do not propose to make an exegesis of the Irish agrarian question nor to relate what goes on behind the scene in the two faced politics of the government. But I think it useful to make a modest correction of facts. Anyone who has read the telegrams launched from London is sure that Ireland is undergoing a period of unusual crime. An erroneous judgment, very erroneous. There is less crime in Ireland than in any other country in Europe. In Ireland there is no organized underworld. When one of those events which the Parisian journalists, with atrocious irony, call ‘red idylls’ occurs, the whole country is shaken by it. It is true that in recent months there were two violent deaths in Ireland, but at the hands of British troops in Belfast, where the soldiers fired without warning on an unarmed crowd and killed a man and woman. There were attacks on cattle; but not even these were in Ireland, where the crowd was content to open the stalls and chase the cattle through several miles of streets, but at Great Wyrley in England, where for six years bestial, maddened criminals have ravaged the cattle to such an extent that the English companies will no longer insure them. Five years ago an innocent man, now at liberty, was condemned to forced labour to appease public indignation. But even while he was in prison the crimes continued. And last week two horses were found dead with the usual slashes in their lower abdomen and their bowels scattered in the grass.
* Even, Christine O’Neill-Bernhard argues in “Symbol of the Irish Nation, or of a Foulfamed Potheen District: James Joyce on Myles Joyce” (James Joyce Quarterly, Spring-Summer 1995) to the point of indulging “highly tendentious” polemical misrepresentations, such as inflating the middle-aged Myles Joyce into a 70-year-old patriarch. In James Joyce’s defense, his expatriate apartments on the Adriatic did not comprise a strong fact-checking position with regard to Irish criminal annals, and he might have been working entirely from memory.
An event horribly underscoring the heartlessness of the brass against frail flesh in their ghastly war of machines, this shooting succeeded a surprise German attack on November 27 whose short-lived push into the French line momentarily drove part of the 298th Regiment to fall back out of their forward trench, before the French rallied and retook their own position to restore the status quo ante. The whole back-and-forth consumed spanned mere minutes — just another snapshot of the trench war stalemate that would become so grindingly familiar to all belligerents in the years ahead.
French commanders in the earliest months of the war had shown a notable lack of empathy for any vexation of plans arising from the fog of war; indeed, exemplary executions became policy for enforcing military discipline to an unrealistic expectation. So, as punishment for their units’ “unauthorized* retreat,” six were selected for execution as an example to their fellows.
Some heartbreaking (or blood-boiling) last letters of the doomed survive.
Corporal Henri Floch (to his wife)
My darling Lucie,
By the time you receive this letter I shall be dead by firing squad. This is why: on 27th November, around 5pm, after 2 hours of heavy shelling in a trench on the front line, just as we were finishing our supper, Germans got into the trench. They captured me and two others. In the confusion I was able to escape from the Germans. I followed my comrades and then I was accused of dereliction of duty in the face of the enemy.
Twenty-four of us went before the War Council last night. Six were condemned to death and one of them was me. I am no more guilty than the others, but they want to make an example of us. My wallet will be sent home to you along with its contents.
In haste I say my last farewell to you, with tears in my eyes and a heavy heart. I humbly beg your forgiveness for all the grief that I will cause you and the difficulties that you will have to face because of me.
My dear Lucie, again, please forgive me. I’m going to Confession now and I hope to see you again in a better place. I die innocent of the crime of desertion of which I stand accused. If, instead of escaping from the Germans, I had remained a prisoner, my life would have been spared. It must be fate.
My last thoughts are for you, right to the end.
Jean Quinault (to his wife)
I am writing to you my latest news. It’s over for me. I do not have the courage. We had a story in the company. We went to the court martial. We are 6 condemned to death. I am in the six and I am no more guilty than the comrades, but our life is sacrificed for others. Last farewell, dear little woman. It’s over for me. Last letter from me, deceased for a reason of which I do not know well the reason. The officers are all wrong and we are condemned to pay for them. I should never have thought of finishing my days at Vingre, and especially of being shot for so little and not guilty. It never happened, a case like this. I am buried in Vingré
Jean Blanchard (to his wife)
3 December 1914, 11.30 pm
My dear Beloved, it is in great distress that I begin to write to you and if God and the Blessed Virgin do not come to my aid it is for the last time …
I will try in a few words to tell you my situation but I do not know if I can, I do not feel the courage. On November 27, at night, as we occupied a trench facing the enemy, the Germans surprised us, and panicked us, in our trench, we retreated into a trench behind, and we returned to resume our places almost immediately, with this result: a dozen prisoners in the company of which one was in my squad, for this fault our squad (twenty-four men) spent today before the council of war and alas! We are six to pay for all, I can not explain it further to you, my dear friend, I suffer too much; friend Darlet will be able to explain to you better, I have a calm conscience, and submit entirely to the will of God who wants it so; It is this which gives me strength to be able to write to you these words, my dear beloved, who have made me so happy the time that I spent with you and of which I had so much hope to find. December 1 morning we were deposed on what had happened, and when I saw the charge that was brought against us and which no one could suspect, I cried a part of the day and have not had the strength to write to you …
Oh! Blessed be my parents! My poor parents, my poor mother, my poor father, what will become of them when they learn what I have become? O my beloved, my dear Michelle, take good care of my poor parents so long as they are of this world, be their consolation and support in their grief, I leave them to your good care, tell them I have not deserved this hard punishment and we will all find each other in the other world, assist them in their last moments and God will reward you for it, beg my forgiveness of your good parents for the punishment that they will experience by me, tell them well that I loved them very much and that they do not forget me in their prayers, that I was happy to have become their son and to be able to support and care for them their old days but since God has judged otherwise, that His will be done and not mine. Goodbye up there, my dear wife.
* The “cowards” contended that a falling-back had been ordered by a lieutenant who no doubt was as war-befogged as everyone else. Since this order could have set up Lt. Paulaud himself to be the guy shot for example, he naturally denied issuing it; when the six were exonerated after the war, Paulaud was indicted for perjury, but acquitted.
On this date in 1678, Catholic courtier Edward Col(e)man was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn — the second victim of Titus Oates’s “Popish Plot” concotion.
Colman was a Catholic convert whose zeal for the old faith led him into a variety of treacherous intrigues with the French court — although Colman’s eager and fruitless offices more annoyed than profited his allies.
His behavior was sufficiently indiscreet that fabulist Titus Oates had Colman queued up by name* as a Catholic plotter in the first round of 1678 Catholic terrorism allegations that would roil the realm for the next three years.
That indiscretion was very real, however, and extended to a careless presumption of his own safety. He seems to have been tipped to his danger by the judge who first took Oates’s evidence, a friend named Sir Edmund Godfrey, but he failed to use this advance intelligence to destroy his own correspondence. Godfrey in his own turn went on to a starring role in the Popish Plot debacle when he turned up murdered in October of 1678, a crime whose immediate attribution to the Catholic conspiracy that Oates had unfolded for him sent England clear round the bend.**
Colman’s case had already begun and half-fizzled by that point but with the apparent assassination of the judge a cry for his own blood now shook Parliament — “Colman’s letters!” alluding to that correspondence he surely wished he had burned: its volumes unfolded intelligence leaks, offers to exert French influence in the government even so far as dissolving Parliament, and applications for King Louis’s gold.
There are some incriminating examples in the trial transcript that, Lord Chief Justice William Scroggs charged, show “That your Design was to bring in Popery into England, and to promote the interest of the French King in this place, for which you hoped to have a Pension.” While Oates was a legendary perjurer and his fables destined to take the lives of 20-odd innocent souls in the months to come, the fact was that Colman really was caught out. His scheming ought not have merited such spectacular punishment under less extraordinary circumstances, but the things Colman really did do made it easy for Oates to position him as a paymaster in the fictitious regicidal conspiracy. “Mr. Colman, your own papers are enough to condemn you,” Scroggs said when his prisoner asserted innocence.
Nor could he protect himself with position. (Men even higher than Colman would succumb to the panic in time.) As detestably elevated as Colman looked to the average commoner, he was not himself a lord and was already (pre-Oates) regarded by King Charles II and many members of the court as a loose cannon. Everything pointed to sacrificing him … and they did. But as events would prove, the popular rage was not quenched on Colman’s bones alone.
* By name — not by face: Oates would be embarrassed at Colman’s eventual trial by the prisoner pointing out that Oates, who now claimed to have been personally paid out by Colman for various seditious errands, had utterly failed to recognize his “conspirator” when Oates appeared before the Privy Council to lay his charges in September.
** Godfrey’s murder has never been satisfactorily explained. There’s a good chance that it was a wholly unrelated affair with amazing bad timing; the revenge of the truculent Earl of Pembroke, whom Godfrey had prosecuted for murder a few months previous, is one leading possibility.
(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)
“The time will come when my innocence will be proven, and then Bob Dodge will haunt you for his murder.”
— Robert S. Dodge, convicted of murder, hanging, California.
Executed November 8, 1866
Borrowing a double-barrel shotgun, ostensibly to hunt quail, Dodge could not account for his whereabouts when a man who was quarreling with his brother was shot. Dodge went through two trials and during the second was found guilty of first-degree murder. In prison, he attempted suicide by taking opium.
To Elder’s hanging-day sketch (and since blog column-inches are free) we add the report of the San Francisco Evening Bulletin, Nov. 10, 1866 — itself channeling the Nevada Transcript. (Meaning Nevada City, Calif., not the state of Nevada.)
[Dodge] was twice tried and convicted of the murder of Mark P. Hammock, and after both trials the case was taken to the Supreme Court, whence the case was once sent back.
The verdict after the second conviction was sustained and the District Court ordered to fix a day for the execution.
The testimony against Dodge was entirely circumstantial.
Sheriff Gentry read the death-warrant, after which Dodge stepped to the rail in front and addressed those in the yard in a speech of ten minutes. He said he had once more the privilege of addressing them in this dark and gloomy world. He alluded to his home, his mother and friends, speaking of them in affectionate terms, and picturing the grief they would feel on hearing that their youngest son had died upon the gallows.
He spoke of the anxiety manifested to witness his death, and warned those present that the time would come when they would repent having seen it, and that when they discovered, as they surely would, that he was innocent, remorse would forever follow them.
He declared that he suffered on account of false testimony offered against him. He alluded to the future, saying that in “eternity Bob Dodge would be seen coming in glory.”
At the conclusion of the speech he turned to Sheriff Gentry and requested him to finish the work quickly. When asked if he had anything further to say by the Sheriff, he replied only “I am innocent.”
He then bid those on the platform good-bye, shaking hands with them, and then stepped upon the trap. His limbs were lashed with cords and the black cap placed over his head.
He then said, in a loud voice, “Boys, I want you all to hear, I am innocent.”
A prayer was read by Mr. Anderson, and at 18 minutes past 1 o’clock the trap fell, and the soul of Dodge was sent to a higher court for judgment.
Hugh Cahun had been in Scotland since probably 1565, in the service of a unit commanded by his older brother William. It was one of three Scottish cavalry commands in Sweden at this time; French and German troops too joined the polyglot coalition.*
In the summer of 1573, Cahun caught wind of recruitment among these foreign auxiliaries for a plot to depose the Swedish King John III in favor of his imprisoned predecessor Erik XIV. Cahun reported the plot, but he didn’t know enough about it to make it stick to someone else — so perversely, he himself became the one suspected of seditious design.
King John appears by his vacillation not to have been all that convinced of the turn justice had taken in this case, twice reprieving Cahun and ultimately sparing him the horrors of the breaking-wheel for a simple beheading — sort of the early modern equivalent of the calculating modern governor who, faced with compelling evidence of innocence, consents to send a condemned man to a dungeon for the rest of his life instead of letting the law take its course. (There’s an account of the back-and-forth run-up to Cahun’s execution in this public domain book, provided you’re packing your Swedish proficiency.)
He would have cause to regret his severity soon enough: in the months to come, it would emerge that the plot was actually being spearheaded by a French loyalist of Erik named Charles de Mornay, who would himself be executed the following September.