Posts filed under '19th Century'

1865: Robert Cobb Kennedy, Confederate terrorist

Add comment March 25th, 2020 Headsman

Robert Cobb Kennedy, the last Confederate executed by the Union during the U.S. Civil War, was hanged on this date in 1865 as an arsonist.


Harper’s magazine illustration of an arsonist.

Kennedy, a West Point washout from a Louisiana plantation, was part of an ensemble of Confederate agents who attempted to torch New York City on November 25, 1864 — a mission designed to revenge Sherman’s march.

On that Friday evening, the night after Thanksgiving, the eight conspirators fired 13 Gotham hotels as well as theaters, public buildings, and the ludicrous museum of showman P.T. Barnum.* Nineteen fires were started overall, the plotters hoping that their simultaneous flaring would overwhelm the city’s capacity to respond and turn into a general conflagration. Through a combination of good luck, bad arson, and timely informants the various blazes were caught before they could do any real damage.

That couldn’t quite be said of the arsonists, who were all — even Kennedy — able to slip away safely to Canada before they could be caught. Kennedy risked a return trip through Detroit hoping to reach Confederate soil. He didn’t make it.

“Mr. Kennedy is a man of apparently 30 years of age, with an exceedingly unprepossessing countenance,” by the description of the New York Times (Feb. 28, 1865) as he stood trial before a military tribunal.

His head is well shaped, but his brow is lowering, his eyes deep sunken and his look unsteady. Evidently a keen-witted, desperate man, he combines the cunning and the enthusiasm of a fanatic, with the lack of moral principle characteristic of many Southern Hotspurs, whose former college experiences, and most recent hotel-burning plots are somewhat familiar to our readers. Kennedy is well connected at the South, is a relative, a nephew we believe, of Howell Cobb, and was educated at the expense of the United States, at West Point, where he remained two years, leaving at that partial period of study in consequence of mental or physical inability. While there he made the acquaintance of Ex. Brig. Gen. E.W. Stoughton, who courteously proffered his services as counsel for his ancient friend in his present needy hour. During Kennedy’s confinement here, while awaiting trial, he made sundry foolish admissions, wrote several letters which have told against him, and in general did, either intentionally or indiscreetly, many things, which seem to have rendered his conviction almost a matter of entire certainty.

He was hanged at Fort Lafayette, having admitted to setting the fire at Barnum’s museum (“simply a reckless joke … There was no fiendishness about it. The Museum was set on fire by merest accident, after I had been drinking, and just for the fun of a scare”). His was the only life claimed by the Confederate incendiaries.

* This facility was born under a bad star: although it survived the ministrations of Kennedy and friends, it burned to the ground the following July. Barnum put up a successor museum which also burned down, in 1868 — leading the man to pivot into the circus industry where he fixed his name in the firmament.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arson,Capital Punishment,Confederates,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,New York,Terrorists,USA,Wartime Executions

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1817: Ann Statham, infanticide

Add comment March 21st, 2020 Richard Clark

(Thanks to Richard Clark of Capital Punishment U.K. for the guest post, a reprint of an article originally published on that site with some explanatory links added by Executed Today. CapitalPunishmentUK.org features a trove of research and feature articles on the death penalty in England and elsewhere. -ed.)

Ann Statham was an unmarried twenty eight year old woman who had lived with her mother near Wichnor (nowadays spelt Wychnor) between Lichfield and Burton on Trent in Staffordshire. Thomas Webster drove the Mail Coach between Birmingham and Derby and had got to know Ann who lived just a few yards from the main road that he traversed each journey. They formed a relationship and she moved to Birmingham to be with him. They had been living together for some ten months at the time of the crime and Ann had quickly become pregnant by him. Unlike some men of the time it seems that Thomas was happy to support Ann and the baby.

In June 1816, the now heavily pregnant Ann moved to Derby where her baby boy was born. She returned to Wichnor aboard Thomas’ coach on the 23rd of July, when the baby was five weeks old. She stopped off at nearby Burton on Trent on the way back and went to visit John Mason who was a constable in the town. John saw that Ann had a baby with her and heard it cry although he was later to tell her trial that he could not identify the baby as he did not see its face which was covered by a shawl. On the following Saturday John took Ann to the Three Tuns public house in Wichnor and noticed that she did not have the baby with her. He enquired after it and was told by Ann that it had died suddenly, she thought from a fit. She said that she was going to bury the baby at Walton and John offered her money to help with the funeral expenses which she told him she didn’t need.

On the evening of Tuesday the 29th of July, Ann was walking along the tow path of the Trent and Mersey canal and was seen with the baby by a bargeman named John Deakin. He testified at her trial that the bank was in poor condition and very muddy.

The wife of the landlord of the Three Tuns, Mrs. Thompson had spoken to Ann on the Tuesday evening and she had told her that she had suffered a fit whilst walking along the tow path and dropped the baby who had fallen into the canal. This surprised Mrs. Thompson, as she had known Ann for some years and had never known her have a fit.

The body was recovered by a another bargeman, Thomas Wooton, on Sunday the 28th of July who spotted a small bundle in a white bed gown and cap floating in the water. He took it to the Three Tuns where it was placed in the store room. First thing on the Sunday morning the body of a baby was viewed by John Mason and it seemed to be about the same age as Ann’s baby. John sent for Charles Nicholls, another constable from Burton and he went to Ann’s mother’s house where she was eating breakfast with her mother and questioned her. When he asked her where her baby was she became agitated and she told him that it was in Derby. He persisted with the questioning, reminding her that she had been seen with the baby near the Three Tuns on the Tuesday evening. Ann simply repeated that the baby was in Derby, an answer that in no way satisfied constable Nicholls who arrested her.

William Challinor, a butcher from Burton, had also seen Ann with the baby when she had visited the town a few days earlier and had been able to see its face so was able to positively identify the dead baby as hers.

Mr. Enoch Hand, the Coroner, who performed the inquest on the corpse, asked Ann if the child had been christened and she told him that it had, as William Statham. Death was found to be due to drowning and it was recorded that there were no marks of violence on the body.

She was taken to Burton and was committed by the magistrates to stand trial at Stafford Assizes, charged with the baby’s murder. Charles Nicholls was in charge of Ann for the journey to Stafford Gaol on Tuesday the 8th of August and told the court that she had said to him “Do you think I shall be hung? … They cannot hang me for nobody saw me.”

Ann had to wait nearly nine months until the Staffordshire Lent Assizes of 1817 for her trial which took place on the Wednesday the 19th of March of that year, before Mr. Justice Park. The prosecution was led by a Mr. Dauncey and the various people mentioned above gave evidence against her. Mr. Justice Park pointed out to the all male jury the various contradictions in Ann’s story and they returned a verdict of guilty.

Before passing sentence the judge told Ann that the crime of murder of an infant was a particularly heinous one, especially as at one moment it appeared that she had been breast feeding the little boy and the next she had had dropped him into the canal and left him to drown. There was no apparent motive for the crime. Thomas Webster, the father, was happy to support them both and all her friends knew about the pregnancy and birth.

He then passed sentence on her, telling her that “she was to be taken to the place from whence she came and that on Friday next she was to be taken from there to the place of execution where she was to be hanged by the neck until she was dead” and that afterwards her body was to be delivered to the surgeons for dissection. Ann would become the first woman to be executed outside Stafford Gaol.

Ann had now just two days left to live in accordance with the provisions of the 1752 Murder Act.

As was customary at many prisons at this time, the gallows was set up over the imposing main entrance of the gaol on the flat roof of the gatehouse, as this location was much easier to guard and afforded the many spectators a good view of the proceedings. In the condemned cell Ann seemed resigned to her fate and had confessed her guilt to the chaplain. The execution was set to take place between eleven o’clock in the morning and noon and a large crowd had assembled in Gaol Square. Soon after eleven o’clock Ann was duly led up onto the gatehouse roof in a procession with the under sheriff, the chaplain and several turnkeys. She ascended the few steps onto the platform of the New Drop style gallows and knelt in prayer with the chaplain. It is reported that the structure collapsed at this point, sending Ann, the chaplain, the hangman and the turnkeys into a heap on the roof below. The gallows was quickly repaired enabling the execution to take place an hour or so later. By this time Ann was, unsurprisingly, in a great state of agitation and had to be supported on the drop by two turnkeys whilst the preparations were made. The bolt was released by the unidentified executioner and Ann paid the ultimate price for her crime. Her body was left to hang for the normal hour, before being taken back into the Gaol. It seems that she was not actually dissected but that her body was symbolically cut several times before it was returned to her friends for burial.

If one accepts the evidence against Ann, which is difficult to question nearly two centuries later, it is clear that there was no recognition of the possibility that she was suffering from post natal depression at the time. Could this explain her actions? As stated earlier it appears that the father was willing to support Ann and the baby and that she was not stigmatised by her friends or in danger of loosing her job as the result of her pregnancy and William’s subsequent birth. In 1817 she was simply seen as evil and a murderess, now she would be viewed quite differently and be examined by psychologists to determine her motives and her responsibility for her actions.

Strangely the Staffordshire Advertiser newspaper makes no mention of the gallows collapse nor does it give any real details of her execution. However Ann was the last prisoner to be hanged on top of the gatehouse Lodge at Stafford. From here on executions were performed on a portable gallows, similar in pattern to the one used at Newgate, drawn out in front of the gatehouse. This arrangement was used for the execution of Edward Campbell for uttering forgery on the 16th of August 1817, who was the only other person was hanged in the county that year. Ann was one of seventeen prisoners condemned at the Lent Assizes but the only one to be executed. Only three more women were executed at Stafford. They were twenty four year old Mary Smith for the murder of her bastard child at Bloxwich, who was hanged on Wednesday the 19th of March 1834, Ann Wycherley, for child murder on the 5th of May 1838 and finally Sarah Westwood for poisoning her husband with arsenic who was executed on Saturday the 13th of January 1844. Male executions continued to be carried out at Stafford until 1914 when part of the prison was turned over to the military during World War I. After which Staffordshire executions took place at Winson Green prison in Birmingham.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Murder,Other Voices,Public Executions,Women

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1871: Generals Lecomte and Thomas, at the birth of the Paris Commune

Add comment March 18th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1871, the Paris Commune was born, with the execution of Generals Lecomte and Thomas.

Paris had come to the brink of revolution by dint of the country’s humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. After a monthslong Prussian siege of the capital, Paris had become thoroughly radicalized and stood at tense loggerheads with the newly elected conservative national government of Adolphe Thiers. A militant National Guard swelled by the city’s large proletariat had defended Paris during its late privations, only to see a government of national humiliation accept punishing peace terms from Bismarck and submit to a Prussian victory parade on the Champs d’Elysees.

Now, it blanched at the national government’s intention to reassert its own long-absent authority in Paris.

These sovereigns’ rivalries chanced to focus in the critical moment upon 400 bronze cannon in Paris, which the National Guard had used in the city’s defense and deployed to working-class neighborhoods with the intention of keeping them out of the government’s hands.

On March 18, upon an order by Thiers which some of his ministers opposed, the army moved upon these guns, intending to seize weapons and authority together. General Claude Lecomte (English Wikipedia entry | French), a rock-ribbed career officer of 63, had charge of this operation so offensive to the Parisian populace.

Lecomte was able to deploy his men at Montmarte where a great portion of the guns would come into his possession, but well did the master observe that “The line between disorder and order lies in logistics” — for a delay in the arrival of the horses and tumbrils by which the artillery would be hauled away gave time for word to spread in the city and an angry crowd assemble to oppose this outrage. Thiers had overruled objections that his soldiery was itself sympathetic to the radicals and would not be reliable in the breach; now, those warnings were vindicated as the soldiery declined to fire on Parisians and instead fraternized as the people took back Montmarte.

Although Lecomte was “merely” seized for the Central Committee of the National Guard, Paris’s blood was up; “the mob wanted to tear their victims to pieces, and it is my opinion they are the culpable judges,” writes John Leighton in Paris Under the Commune.

The first to lay hands on General Lecomte were linesmen and Mobiles, one of the latter observing, as he made a gesture, “Formerly you punished me with thirty days in prison, now I will be the first to fire at you.” Whilst this was going on a new movement was observed in the crowd. It was the arrival of another prisoner, a venerable gentleman, with a white beard, in plain clothes. It was General Clement Thomas, who had been arrested in the Place Pigalle by the National Guards. The General had been advised to run away, but he would remain, saying, “I will walk, it is my right.” This brought about a mob, who conducted him to the Rue des Rosiers, making it still worse for the prisoner Lecomte, for it was well known that Clement Thomas had been pretty severe at the Hotel de Ville and elsewhere, on the battalions of Montmartre and Belleville.

Once in the Rue des Rosiers, General Thomas felt he was lost, but as he would not die without knowing the cause, he mounted some steps and in a loud voice demanded, “What do you reproach me with?” “To death!” replied the crowd. “You are too great cowards to shoot me,” said the General. With these words he was driven into the garden, whilst General Lecomte in the scuffle attempted to escape by the back door, though unfortunately without success. Once in the garden, the old vine-covered walls and chestnut trees became crowded with miserable spectators ready to see the horrible deed perpetrated by a peloton of soldiers of the line and two francs-tireurs. In falling, poor General Lecomte exclaimed, “Oh my poor children! my —-” As he sunk mortally wounded, a villain of the group stepped forward and slapped him in the face. Clement Thomas was shot by National Guards. At first only wounded, he afterwards fell pierced in fourteen places. A National Guard pulled him over by the beard, that his face might be seen, and for two hours afterwards the bodies afforded a ghastly spectacle that was enjoyed by an ignoble procession of spectators.

Outside the garden, with the city in an uproar, the proletarian organs that had grown over the long siege took Paris firmly in hand while national government officials fled as they could — or were rounded up as hostages if they could not. The Commune would be master of Paris for ten tense weeks, until Thiers’s republic drowned it in blood.

For Leighton, no friend of the Commune, all the woe in its suppression could be traced to the ham-handed cannon debacle of March 18, 1871:

One thing appears certain — that General Lecomte did not take prompt measures and proper precautions, and that the Government, which sent him to remove 171 guns, without teams, and so small a force, acted inconsiderately, and must be held morally responsible for the disasters which ensued — disasters that, terrible as they are, might have been worse and have led to the total ruin of France.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",Cycle of Violence,Execution,France,History,No Formal Charge,Power,Public Executions,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1874: Sid Wallace

Add comment March 14th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1874, colorful outlaw Sid[ney] Wallace was hanged for murder in Reconstruction Arkansas.*

A large enough figure to merit his own entry in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, Wallace was a little boy on a farm near Clarksville in Johnson County when his father was murdered by Union men in 1863.

The legend has it that his family’s slave, Missouri Blackard, kept the identities of the killers from the youth until he turned 20 or 21 … whereupon Wallace served his revenge cold, tracking one of them as far as Kansas to murder him.

How Sid learned that one of the killers had relocated to Kansas is never explained, but the account describes him traveling to Kansas, finding the murderer, and staying the night with him and his family, claiming to be a peddler. He even displayed his wares to the family to make his story convincing. Only in the morning, as he was taking leave of the family, did he identify himself as the son of Vincent Wallace, as he drew a pistol and shot his host dead. No charges were ever filed against Sid for this cold-blooded act, nor was it mentioned during his trials for the killings that happened in Johnson County. (Unvarnished Arkansas: The Naked Truth about Nine Famous Arkansans)

Back in Clarksville, Wallace carved out a niche (with his brother George, until the latter got shot) as a colorful James Gang-like populist criminal with a knack for escaping actual or would-be jailers: the most charming adventure attributed him is dodging a posse by hiding under Missouri Blackard’s (evidently quite capacious) skirts while the latter took a casual stroll to the well. We’re not vouching for this story, just reporting the allegation.

To return to Unvarnished Arkansas, Clarksville

was shattered by a pair of murders in the last days of August 1873. Constable R.W. “Doc” Ward was the first victim to be assassinated. Doc Ward had first come to Arkansas with the Federal army during the Civil War; like some other northern soldiers, Ward had stayed in the South after the war to make his fortune. Such men often were described as “carpetbaggers,” suggesting that their only motivation to remain in the South was to profit at the expense of the defeated and demoralized southerners. Carpetbaggers had rebuilt the government of Arkansas and other southern states, even representing these states in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, as well as in state legislatures and in governors’ offices. Carpetbaggers had opened banks, built railroads, started businesses, and constructed houses for themselves and their famlies. Many carpetbaggers, like Doc Ward, had been appointed or elected to positions of local authority. Ward does not appear to have been generally disliked in Johnson County; he was just a man doing his job, like so many other men around the county. Still, as constable, he had a responsibility to arrest criminals, and anyone pursuing a life of crime could expect to profit from the elimination of the local enforcer of the law.

Doc Ward was sitting on a wooden sidewalk in front of W.P. Rose’s drugstore one fine summer evening — August 20, 1873 — when a single gunshot rang out, and the constable fell, mortally wounded. He did not die until September 12, however. The shocked witnesses reported that a gunman had fired a double-barreled shotgun at the constable and then ridden away on horseback. No one was arrested for the crime. Exactly one week later, county judge Elisha Mears was walking home for his noontime meal after a pleasant visit to Blind Bob’s Saloon in Clarksville when, once again, a single shot rang out. Mears fell, badly injured — he died an hour after midnight. Witnesses said that the gunman had been concealed, but no one claimed to know who had fired the shots. Tongues began to wag, though, and fingers of blame were being pointed at Sid Wallace. Even in Little Rock, the Arkansas Gazette took notice of the crimes, grumbling that no effort was being made to bring the assassin to justice.** Citizens of Johnson County were not as blind to criminal behavior, however, as the Little Rock journalist suggested. More than a century later, one writer would characterize their attitude with these words: “The killing of Judge Meers [sic], a progressive Johnson County native, turned the tide of public opinion in Clarksville against Sid Wallace. Sid was the prime suspect, and most thought he should not have shot the judge, even if he was a Republican.”

But even under sentence of death, the roue got a pass to escort the prison warden’s daughter to a dance. Unsurprisingly, she returned home begging for her date’s life.

He was hanged publicly in Clarksville on March 14, 1873, with the manful last words, “I have no confession to make to man, but whatever I have to confess must be to God. I die in defense of myself and friends, and I regret not having a dozen deaths to die.” He had only the one, but that hasn’t hindered his rich posthumous life in folk hero-dom, regional class, including a highly dubious rumor that he survived his execution and lived on to rob and murder again on western trails.

* The very tail end of that post-Civil War era: in Arkansas, the terminal event was a factional bush war that broke out in April 1874 and brought about a new state constitution followed by nearly a full century of Democratic governors.

** Arkansas, which was out on the frontier at this point in America’s march across the continent, had a national reputation: the New York Times threw it some shade while reporting Wallace’s hanging: “The determination which has been shown during the past year by the decent citizens of Arkansas to bring murderers to justice will eventually result in making the State a desirable place of residence. For many years it has been heard of almost entirely in connection with the reports of dark deeds.”

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arkansas,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Outlaws,Public Executions,USA

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1889: Jessie King, the last woman hanged in Edinburgh

Add comment March 11th, 2020 Headsman

Jessie King, the last woman executed in Edinburgh, was hanged on this date in 1889.

She was a practitioner of that distinctive late Victorian industry of baby farming: for a few pounds (literally just £2 to &pound5;) King adopted illegitimate children from pregnant working-class girls who couldn’t bear the financial or reputational cost of rearing them, with the promise of moving them on to loving homes that was often a reality of shuffling them off this mortal coil — either via neglect or outright homicide.

This particular operation was detected when some youths found a bundle where she’d hidden one such body, and a raid upon the apartment King shared with the much older Thomas Pearson revealed two more dead adoptees. Pearson, who could have easily been construed as the prime mover in this operation, was suffered to turn crown’s evidence, and save his own neck by stretching his lover’s. That wasn’t all she was up against in the courtroom: she also faced the adverse medical testimony of Dr. Joseph Bell, notable as the inspiration for the literary Sherlock Holmes character.

Contemporaries doubted King’s mental health, and she attempted suicide to cheat the hangman. Her Catholic confessor unsuccessfully appealed for clemency with the suggestion that she’d been steered into her crimes by the domineering Pearson.

To save Pearson she made the statement which has done her so much injury. She now declares that he in one of the cases did the deed and in the other two, he stood near directing and guiding her in the administration of the [whisky] …

It seems a more likely solution of this terrible crime that this hard-hearted man and unfaithful husband — an aged man! was there directing the unsteady and clumsy hand of a poor woman he had made his slave.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Pelf,Scotland,Women

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1803: Mathias Weber, Rhineland robber

Add comment February 19th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1803, robber Mathias Weber was guillotined.

“Fetzer” made a scintillating career in brigandage in 1790s Rhineland — whose west bank Prussia had been forced to cede to revolutionary France. (The legendary bandit Schinderhannes plied his trade in the same unsettled environs; the two men shared a ride to Mainz as prisoners.)

Fetzer’s gang robbed liberally and violently on the roads; their pinnacle capers were twice raiding the river town of Neuss.

Tried (and eventually executed) in Cologne, he was persuaded to confess — albeit not regret — his considerable career in villainy by a prosecutor named Anton Keil, who made use of his access to this notorious figure to print a little biography of his famous prey. Fetzer, for his part, amused himself by sketching guillotines on his cell wall and building a tally of the distinct robberies he could recollect, eventually cataloguing 178 of them. He wowed the standing-room crowd at his trial with his nerve in the courtroom, joking and sparring and readily revealing all without any expectation of trading admissions for leniency.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Germany,Guillotine,Murder,Outlaws,Public Executions,Theft

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1819: Pierre Charles Rodolphe Foulard, Henry-Clement Sanson’s first execution

Add comment February 17th, 2020 Henry-Clement Sanson

(Thanks to Henry-Clement Sanson for the guest post. The former executioner — the last of his illustrious dynasty comprising six generations of bourreaux — was the grandson of that dread figure of the Paris Terror, Charles Henri Sanson. Henry-Clement’s Memoirs of the Sansons: From Private Notes and Documents (1688-1847) describes some famous or infamous executions from the family annals. We have observed in previous Sanson “guest posts” that his annals merit caution as pertains to the adventures of his forefathers; in this instance, however, he communicates — albeit in dramatized form, through an interlocutor ghost-writer — his firsthand recollection of his own debut. -ed.)

MY FIRST EXECUTION.

The first year of my marriage was calm and peaceable. I had every reason to be happy. Thanks to the cares of my good mother, we had very little to think of beyond our pleasures and comforts. My young wife was as cheerful and kind as she was pretty, and our union promised to be one of undisturbed harmony.

My father made no allusion to my promise to take his office;* but that promise was constantly in my mind; it was the only thought that clouded my happiness. Sometimes I looked with sadness at my young partner, thinking that a time should come for her to assume in her turn the title of Madame de Paris. The fulfilment of my pledge was even nearer at hand than I expected. My father was taken ill in the middle of the winter of 1819, and he was laid up for two months. His constant preoccupation during his illness was a sentence of death passed by the assize court of the Seine on a soldier of the Royal Guard, Pierre Charles Rodolphe Foulard, who had murdered two unfortunate women, to steal a watch and a pair of earrings. Foulard was barely twenty years of age, but his crime was so atrocious that there was no hope of a reprieve for him. Foulard’s case, however, had still to pass before the Court of Revision; but my father felt that his health would not permit him to superintend the execution. He was thinking of appealing to one of his provincial colleagues. This was rather awkward, as it was well known that I was to be my father’s successor, and the judicial authorities might well inquire why I did not act as his substitute. Since my marriage I had made a point of following my father in the few executions that had occurred, but I had taken no active part in them. I may add that my father’s part was hardly more active than mine; he had said the truth when he told me that almost everything was done by the assistants, and that the executioner only superintended what his servants did.

The time came for Foulard’s execution; it came sooner than my father expected, so that he was unable to secure some one else’s services. He was much better, but certainly not well enough to resume his duties; and my conscience smote me when he expressed his determination to risk his health, perhaps his life, and execute Foulard. I said to myself that, since I must begin, I had better begin at once, and I proposed to my father to take his place.

He gladly acquiesced, and gave me all the necessary instructions; he also pointed out two assistants on whose zeal I could especially rely; and finally I was assured that my attendance at the execution was little more than a formality. The assistants entered my father’s room just as I was leaving it, and he made them a short speech in which he urged them to afford me their best help and protection.

I was very nervous and frightened; nevertheless, I strictly acted upon the instructions furnished to me, and I gave the necessary directions to the carpenters. As night came on, my discomfort increased. I could scarcely eat any dinner. Fortunately my father was in his room, otherwise he might have insisted on doing the work himself My mother and my wife were as uneasy as I was, but they abstained from making any observation on the matter. After dinner I retired to my room, and passed one of the worst nights of my life. When I got up next morning I was feverish and tired. The assistants were waiting for me in the courtyard. My father had ordered out his carriage for me, and with my new servants I silently proceeded to the Conciergerie. The horses went slowly enough, yet the journey seemed to me fearfully short.

It was yet dark when we entered that dismal prison. My assistants followed me at a short distance. I thought I saw an expression of disdain on the faces of the turnkeys and prison officials. I was in no humour to brook the contempt of men whose position, after all, did not much differ from mine. I assumed a sharp and imperative tone calculated to make them understand that I was not to be imposed upon, and ordered the head gaoler to hand us over the culprit. He led us into a low-ceilinged hall, where Foulard shortly after appeared, accompanied by the worthy Abbe Montes, a priest whose friendship I afterwards acquired. Foulard’s consternation struck me. The unfortunate boy was under age;** had his father left him the smallest sum of money he could not have touched it; nevertheless he was considered responsible. This appeared to me iniquitous, the more so as I was only a year older than he. Foulard was a tall and handsome fellow, and his face betrayed no signs of the perversity he had shown in the perpetration of his horrible deed.

Fauconnier, my chief assistant, saw I was flurried; he came forward and told Foulard to sit down. When the young man’s hair was cut, we got into the cart: the Abbe Montes and Foulard were behind us, and I stood in front with my two assistants.† The almoner of the Conciergerie doubtless perceived that I required encouragement and support as well as the man whose life I was going to take, for he spoke to me with much kindness: “I see, sir, that you are now attending to your father’s duties. Such missions as yours demand no small amount of courage. We are invested with duties which in some degree are akin: you represent the justice of men, I represent the mercy of God. You may be assured of my good disposition towards you, and of my readiness to assist you whenever it is in my power.”

I could not find a single word to answer, although I felt intensely grateful to the Abbe Montes for his kindness. Foulard was taciturn, but when we reached the quay he became very excited, and cried out in a loud voice:

Fathers and mothers! behold the consequences of neglect of one’s children! I am guilty, but my parents are responsible for my crime, for they gave me neither advice nor education.

We reached the Place de Greve. The guillotine raised her two red arms, and the pale rays of a winter sun were reflected by the polished steel of the knife. A great many people were looking on. Foulard embraced the priest, and looked round before ascending the steps. In the first rank of the soldiers who surrounded the guillotine he saw a sergeant of his company. “Come to me, my old comrade,” he cried to him, “and let me bid you farewell.” The old soldier did not hesitate; he came forward and embraced the dying man. Foulard was very excited. He suddenly turned to me: “Let me embrace you too,” he said, “if only to show that I forgive everybody.” This, I confess, gave me a fearful blow. I stepped back. I really think that if the unfortunate man had embraced me I could not have given the signal for his death.

But even in this I am mistaken; this signal I did not give. My assistants saw my movement of retreat and understood the peril. They pushed Foulard up the steps. In less time than I take to write it he was strapped down and his head fell. I looked stupidly at the bloody scene. I saw one of the assistants pushing the headless trunk into a basket, while another was sponging the blood which had spurted on the scaffold.

I was seized with irresistible terror, and I ran away as fast as my legs could carry me. I wandered about town hardly knowing what I was about. I thought people were following and hooting me. It was only when I found myself at Neuilly that I recovered, and even then my conscience smote me bitterly. At last I made up my mind. I had crossed the line, there was no help for it; I had, as it were, passed my examination of executioner, and I could not return on my steps. I went home subdued, if not comforted, and I found some relief in the thought that the first step was made, and the first bitterness had passed.


Shinichi Sakamoto: The Sansons in tragic manga.

* Narrated by the author in the preceding chapter, in which he solicits an interview with his father for the twofold purpose of announcing that “I have thought the matter over for the last two years, and I have now to express my resolve to select no other profession than yours” and also soliciting the old fella’s permission to marry his sweetheart. (Dad approved both of these questionable decisions.)

** The age of majority was 21; it had been lowered during the Revolution from its ancien regime threshold of 25 — a blow against the prolonged authority of a family’s patriarch. (See Suzann Desan, The Family on Trial in Revolutionary France.) This is distinct from marriageable age, which had been increased by revolutionaries from 12 or 14 (for girls or boys, respectively) to 15 or 18. In today’s France all these ages — full legal adulthood, and marriageability — have converged at 18, regardless of gender.

† Sanson himself has a footnote here, noting a deviation from the traditional arrangement of passengers on the fatal cart with a defensiveness that suggests he got some stick about it: “Until then my father and grandfather had occupied a back seat beside the priest, and assigned a front place to the culprit. I was the first to alter this custom. My object was to leave the culprit with his last friend, the priest. I hope this does not appear childish. I acted with the best intention, and I believe I acted rightly.”

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guest Writers,Guillotine,History,Milestones,Murder,Other Voices,Public Executions,Theft

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1879: Anders Larsson, the first private execution in Sweden

Add comment February 13th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1879, Sweden conducted its first private execution, that of Anders Larsson.

Executioner Johan Fredrik Hjort.

Deep in the 19th century’s Long Depression, the farmer had murdered his pregnant wife in despair at providing for the whole family.

This positioned him to become the first* subject of an 1877 royal decree moving Sweden’s beheadings behind prison walls. The time and the location of the execution were also supposed to be concealed from the public — announced only after the fact, like present-day hangings in Japan — but in this instance word got around and the walls of Västerås county jail were thronged with would-be gawkers.

* There’s a complete list of modern Swedish executions here.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Milestones,Murder,Sweden

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1820: The pirates of the William

Add comment February 4th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1820, six pirates of the brig William hanged at the Maltese capital Valletta.

This vessel had the previous July departed her Liverpool berth hauling a cargo of lucrative sugar to Malta under the command of Charles Christopher Delano. The latter evidently labored under some legal judgment he considered unjust and convinced a none-too-reluctant crew that it would be “neither a sin nor a shame” to augment their wages by turning buccaneer.

To this end, the William waylaid an Italy-bound English brigantine, the Helen, off the Spanish coast just inside the Straits of Gibraltar on August 2. All that night and throughout the next day the pirates were engaged in transferring the Helen‘s cargo to their own ship, finally boring open the hull and abandoning her to sink with all hands aboard. The contingent of the Helen was able with difficult to force their way out of confinement and take a longboat (likewise disabled by the raiders and therefore in need of constant bailing) towards the coast until they encountered the aid of friendlier mariners. All survived their brush with the William although their prosecutor would rightly observe that “the confidence on which the prisoners relied for their security (and which has led to their present arraignment) must have arisen from the belief that all evidence of their crime was extinct, and that the intention of a deliberate and comprehensive murder must be added to their already too prominent offence.”

The William, meanwhile, had proceeded to Sardinia where her crew was able to unload some of the ill-gotten gains, and thence to Malta, where they discharged the remainder, along with the legitimate sugar cargo they’d carried out of Liverpool.* However, the Maltese transactions attracted enough suspicion that after the William left harbor, British insurance men there hired a ship named Frederick to apprehend the William — which was soon accomplished.

The case itself was open and shut, and from an appendix to its record we discover the usual climax that is this site‘s stock in trade:

On Friday morning, the 4th of February, at eight o’clock, the awful sentence of the law was carried into execution, on board the brig William, upon Charles Christopher Delano, Thomas Thompson, Benjamin Wilcock, John Smith, John Lewis, and John Webb, in the mode prescribed by the following order issued upon that occasion: —

That the William, brig, being the vessel in which the unfortunate convicts committed the flagrant and most atrocious act of piracy, be painted black, hauled out and anchored in the middle of the great port of Malta, viz. that of Valetta [sic]; and that the aforesaid most unhappy convicts be carried on board of the said vessel, at such time and in such manner as may hereafter be directed; and that on Friday morning, being the fourth day of the month, between the hours of eight and twelve, the aforesaid convicts, viz. Charles Christopher Delano, the late master of the said brig; Thomas Thompson, late mate of ditto; Benjamin Wilcock, late mariner and second mate of ditto; John Webb, late mariner of ditto; John Lewis, late mariner and cook of ditto; John Smith, late mariner of ditto; John Curtis, late carpenter of ditto;** and Reuben Marshall, late mariner of ditto, be hanged as may be directed between the hours of eight and twelve on Friday morning next, being the fourth day of the month of February, in the year of Our Lord one thousand eight hundred and twenty; and after hanging till they be dead, that they be cut down, put in open shells, and protected by a proper guard from his Majesty’s ships; that they be carried to the appointed place, viz. Fort Ricasoli, where the body of the late Charles Christopher Delano, late Captain of the William, is to be hung in irons on the right hand gibbet, next to the Port of Valletta, erected for this purpose in the north-west angle of the said fort; the body of John Lewis, late cook and mariner on board the same vessel, on the left hand gibbet in the same angle; the body of Thomas Thompson, late mate, on the right hand gibbet, erected for the purpose on the north-east angle of the same part of the said fort; and the body of John Smith on the left hand gibbet in the same fort; and that the four remaining bodies be interred at the feet of the before-mentioned gibbets — the body of Benjamin Wilcock under the gibbet on which the late Charles Christopher Delano hangs; the body of John Webb under the gibbet on which the late John Lewis hangs; the body of John Curtis under that on which Thomas Thompson hangs; and the body of Reuben Marshall under the gibbet on which John Smith hangs.

It is satisfactory to state, that the unfortunate man, who commanded the piratical vessel, confessed, in the last hours of his life, in order to reconcile himself with that Supreme Being on whom alone all his hopes then depended, that he was the prime mover and instigator of this most heinous crime.

His Majesty’s most gracious clemency was extended to the persons of the other two prisoners, Reuben Marshall and John Curtis, whose fatal sentence was respited on the spot, after the execution of their associates, by a warrant to that effect from his Excellency Sir Thomas Maitland,† issued at ten o’clock on the preceding night.

The following extract from the Malta Government Gazette will explain the laudable motives which induced His Excellency to this most humane and gracious act of clemency: —

We understand that His Excellency was induced to grant this mark of favour from the conviction, after a laborious investigation into the subject, that cases had occurred, although very rarely, of such clemency having been extended, in previous instances, to some of the parties convicted of aggravated piracy.

Such a precedent was, no doubt, most grateful to his Excellency’s feelings, and in the choice of the two persons to be spared, we understand his Excellency was guided by the uncommonly good character which Marshall had possessed previous to this atrocious act in which he was concerned; and in the case of Curtis, independently of his youth, by some very peculiar circumstances which had been disclosed in his favour by the captain and the rest of his ill-fated associates.

* One of the crew members reported receiving a total of 345 dollars from his share of the booty. Even allowing that “legitimate” fourfold share he claimed for himself as the captain, Delano apparently shortchanged his associates.

** So many Johns!

† Catch a Maitland cameo in this post from the Haitian Revolution.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,At Sea,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Last Minute Reprieve,Malta,Mass Executions,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Pardons and Clemencies,Pelf,Piracy,Pirates,Public Executions

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1860: James Stephens

Add comment February 3rd, 2020 Headsman

James Stephens hanged in New York on this date in 1860, for poisoning his wife.

We’ve referenced passingly a number of 19th century hangings on then-trendy “upward-jerking” gallows — whose action is not to drop the offender down through a trap, but to drop a heavy weight which levers the offender up.

Thanks to the Feb. 4, 1860 edition of the New York Herald, we have a very detailed description of this macabre device.

Perhaps the reporter’s skepticism as to this machine’s humane efficacy is informed here by a bit of hindsight, for when it engaged to end the life of our Mr. Stephens,

Up went the culprit high into the air, not with a sudden violent jerk as usual, but slowly, as if by the strength of a man’s arms, instead of a powerful weight of some 300 pounds. It became evident immediately that something was wrong, and soon a rumor went round that the rope had been unwound instead of cut by the hangman. It appeared that the executioner, who was inexperienced, got frightened, and thus the barbarous manner of hanging the culprit was explained.

It was extraordinary that under these circumstances the unfortunate wretch, suspended between heaven and earth, did not exhibit indications of violent suffering. The moment the rope tightened around his neck, and he was elevated about half way up, a slight twitching of the fingers and kicking of the legs were perceptible. Then a few moments intervened without the slightest indication of suffering, except the hard breathing, which was fearful to listen to. After hanging two minutes in this way, another convulsive throe took place; the vessels in the neck seemed to be swelled almost to bursting, the fingers and wrists assumed a bluish hue, and the feet twitched once or twice spasmodically. Three minutes came, and with it a very feeble tremor showed itself in the whole body; but it lasted only a few seconds, when all further motion ceased, and life seemed to be completely extinct. The surgeons, Drs. Woodward, Simmons and Covell, viewed the body after a suspension of five minutes, and gave it as their opinion that animation was certainly gone; but the body was not lowered until fourteen minutes had expired. The surgeons then again examined the body, found no pulse, and the flesh icy cold. Considering the circumstances, the culprit died a remarkably easy death, which was owing, doubtless, to the feeble condition of his constitution. Had he been in good strength at the time of his execution there is no question but that he would have struggled in the most frightful agony for half an hour.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Murder,New York,USA

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