Some of the hell so raised consisted in the timeless pastime of wagering on small cardboard rectangles, and to hear Pryde’s (possibly suspect) account of it he got sharked at the poker table: ” I knew nothing about cards, only what I had found out by looking on. I tried the game and won, at one time being $100 ahead, and if I had known enough to quit then I would not be where I am today. But I was flush and my companions urged me to keep right on, saying that luck was with me and I could win everything in sight. I did so, to my regret, and lost all my winnings and also my winter’s wages, having but a few dollars in my pocket when I reached Brainerd, and I was all broke up.”
Back in Brainerd so penniless and broke up, Pryde decided a buddy from the logging camp could supply him and sent Andrew Peterson a letter urging him to hie to Brainerd immediately for a job that was waiting him. Peterson did so; Pryde met him on his return on Feb. 24 and escorted his victim around the outskirts of the city to a spot sufficiently remote to shoot him in the back of the head and rummage through his possessions.
Pryde found one dollar.
Unfortunately for Pryde, Peterson survived — not for good, just long enough to be found and identify his killer before he succumbed and made it a murder charge.
By the time authorities took Pryde into custody on this intelligence, he had already made arrangements for another logger to come on down for another “job”, with the same object in mind. (But hopefully more than a dollar in his pockets.)
With that pleasing want of artifice that can characterize the Upper Midwest at its finest, Pryde admitted everything and lodged a guilty plea just days after Peterson’s March 3 death. He did add that he regretted the mistake he made in not slashing Peterson’s throat to finish him for sure, and then burning the body to hide the crime.
Pryde’s fall — from an employed and relatively flush young man on the make to a condemned murderer — took all of three weeks.
There were suggestions that Pryde might have pulled the same trick on a different fellow who had disappeared from the work camp. He rejected that quite indignantly.
This story from his last days, and including his gallows address (blaming gambling) and his written last statement (blaming gambling) shows a man really locking in a narrative.
What we know about John Pryde is that he killed in cold calculation someone who was in no way connected to his gambling woes, and he was preparing to do the same a second time. There’s really only so much misbehavior one gets to write off to tilt. But Pryde was a young man and we might allow that a sense of guilt (however belated) and a wish to reconcile himself to his loved ones (however hypocritically) are not of themselves discreditable qualities. There were no protracted appeals or dramatic stays of execution to grow him into any other person but the one who shot his work chum dead for a buck. He had a bare five months to make sense of it all: one wonders if his parents in Chicago, who received this last missive from him, ever did.
I received your letter and was glad to hear from you, but I know that it was a hard thing for you to hear what I have done. Well, mother, I have thrown my whole life away, and not only that, how I have disgraced you and pa, and my only sister for the rest of your life; it is true that I made an awful mistake in life. Dear mother, my life was thrown away by the gambling hell hole, there is nothing in the world but that, and it would break most anyone up. It was my first time to gamble, and I was led away by one of my companions and was led into an eternal destruction, that is what put me in the place I am in now. Now my lot is a hard one, but I have made my peace with the Lord, and am prepared to meet my father in Heaven. God will forgive the most sinful if we only believe in Him. The Bible says that God has forgiven the greatest of sins.
I am very sorry over this matter, but it can’t be helped now. There is one thing, that I hope this will warn other young men and will put them on the straight road and show them what gambling will lead a young man to do, first from one thing and then to another.
Dear mother, now I have given you all the news that I have. Oh, dear mother, I cannot reward you for your kindness. You always stuck up for me, and if I had only taken your advice, I don’t think I would be where I am today. It is true what you said. I had a good home, and did not realize what a home was. I know I ought not to have left home but we young men do not pay enough attention to our mother and father. Now, father and mother, don’t take this matter too hard, as it won’t help it in the least. We all have go to go some time, sooner or later. There is a home prepared for us all and there we will have peace and joy. Now I will bring this letter to a close, hoping it will find you all well, as I remain, your most loving son,
Now, I will bid you good bye, good bye. Father, forget me not, keep this letter to remember me.
On this date in 1801, the teenage slave “negro Chloe” — as the press reports almost invariably called her — was hanged at Carlisle, Penn., for murdering her owner’s two young children.
Although a slave by every experience of her short life, Chloe and others of her generation actually existed in a legal twilight space between slave and free. Pennsylvania in 1780 had taken a step towards emancipation that was pioneering for its time but the halfest of half-measures: the Gradual Abolition Act made the children of slaves born in Pennsylvania after 1780 into indentured servants who would be manumitted by age 28.* As a result, dwindling numbers of grandfathered legal slaves remained in Pennsylvania until 1847, even as the state became an antebellum hotbed of abolitionist activism with a huge population of free blacks and slaves fled from Southern plantations via the Underground Railroad.
In Chloe’s case, she had been born to a slave in 1782, then willed when her owner William Kelso died in 1789 to William’s daughter Rebecca, who eventually sold Chloe on to a dealer.
In 1794, Chloe was bought and sold repeatedly: she was sold in July of that year, and then again in August, and then again in October, until an Irish merchant named Oliver Pollock finally bought her in March of 1795 and gave her a little bit of stability. In her eventual last confession, Chloe credited Pollock and his daughter as the only owners who took any care for her education.
Pollock, however, sold Chloe as well at the end of 1796. One wonders if the “high passion” to which she would eventually attribute her murders made her a notably ungovernable slave-child for all these passing masters, or whether it was all just happenstance — that she was just a commodity that could be liquefied in a pinch.
Whatever the case, Andrew Carothers — the man who bought Chloe from Pollock — would be her last master.**
The hard-working Andrew Carothers and his wife, Mary, had a little log cabin in Cumberland County, home to six children. Chloe was their first slave, to relieve Mary of her household labors while Andrew cleared a plot of forested land nearby, and the tone of Chloe’s last confession — widely published at the time of her execution — clearly implies a going resentment for Mary. Chloe will have just turned 18 years old when she commits her capital crimes; she’s grown out of childhood and through adolescence in this family, working as Mary’s constant domestic drudge and probably sleeping in the barn.
On January 24, 1801, the family realized that four-year-old Lucetta had gone missing. Andrew found her dead in the nearby creek where they drew water.
Since we’ve begun our story at the end we know the author of the deed in advance. Chloe would say that she had been given of late to “temptations” to do violence to her owners — sudden fancies that she would unthinkingly indulge. She had already tried and failed to murder the family’s youngest son, she said, and twice attempted to fire the barn.
On that fatal Saturday, Chloe had taken Lucetta to the creek when she needed to retrieve some water without, she said, intending any mischief. But the “temptation” came upon her there and she yielded to it readily, suffocating Lucetta and leaving her in the creek.
By returning nonchalantly and playing surprised that evening, Chloe evaded suspicion in this instance. It wouldn’t have been so implausible that an unattended little girl in a rural family might have fallen into a river and drowned, and a relieved Chloe “promised myself good days” without violent urges.
But, she said, Mary’s strict discipline soon undid those better angels. After Lucetta was buried on Sunday the 25th, Mary “made me strip off my short-gown, and gave me a severe whipping, with a cowskin; also on Tuesday she gave me another, and on the following Saturday she gave me a third.” For one who had so lately experienced the cruel pleasure of visiting lethal violence upon her tormenter’s own flesh and blood, this treatment was too much to bear. That weekend she lured another daughter, six-year-old Polly, to the creek and did her the same way.
Chloe was reported to have forsworn “any spite or malice against” her victims — “on the contrary, I loved them both.”
But, she said, she murdered them because their tattling on her misbehaviors set her up for Mary’s corrective hidings (“far beyond the demerit of the fault”); and, “the second and greatest motive … to bring all the misery I possibly could upon the family, and particularly upon my mistress.”
If suspicion had escaped Mary the first time around, it now insisted upon itself.
Mary’s account of matters also hit the papers; she said that on the Monday following Polly’s death she accused Chloe of the horrible crime. “She [Chloe] said she did not do it, had no hand in it, and full denied it till Monday was a week.” That must have been an excruciating week, doing the wash and preparing dinner with the sullen teenager who you’re also convinced is picking off your family and torturing to that effect. “I was much whipped by my master, to extort a confession,” Chloe recalled. At last the Carothers’ pressure overwhelmed their slave.
I said [to Chloe] it was not worth while to deny it, her countenance would condemn her, it was plain she had a hand in it — it was plain, for the children would have crawled on their hands and feet out of the run if somebody had not held them in … she might as well tell as not — I could not bear the sight of her about the house; I was sure she had done it.
Chloe eventually consented to confess not to Mary Carothers but to a neighbor, Mrs. Clendinen, who had a lighter personal touch and not so much acrimonious history with Chloe. Even so it was still another two weeks before they escorted Chloe to the sheriff. The spiritual instruction that her many owners had never bothered with in her life now became available to her as she approached death — obviously all-inclusive with ghostwriting services as well.
Oh! what have I done? In revenging the injuries I suffered, I have drawn the fierce indignation of heaven upon myself. The voice of the blood of two innocent children crieth against me from the ground. Is my sin too great, for the mercy of God to pardon? Is my stain too deep for the blood of Jesus to wash away? I am full encouraged to trust that, loud as the blood of these innocents cries for vengeannce, the blood of Jesus cries louder still for mercy and pardon and I trust that his unbounded goodness will not suffer me to perish.
The original source of both Chloe’s and Mary Carothers’s accounts are separate 1801 articles in Kline’s Carlisle Weekly Gazette: July 22 (Chloe) and June 24 (Mary). Both were subsequently reprinted by other newspapers around the young country.
* This law inconvenienced the political elites of the early Republic, since it also prohibited importing new slaves — even for the Southern congressmen who came to Philadelphia while that city served as the U.S. capital during the 1790s. George Washington, famous for crossing the Delaware, had to run his black slaves over that river to New Jersey periodically while he was president, lest they become automatically liberated by residing continuously in Pennsylvania for six-plus months.
That said, the Gradual Abolition framework did sustain a market in human chattel inasmuch as somebody’s compulsory labor unto age 28 was still a value that could be calculated and sold. The way to import slaves to Pennsylvania was to bring them in under the same transit auspices that Washington used, legally manumit them there into “indentured servitude” pending their 28th birthday, and then sell the indenture contract.
There’s a noticeable discrepancy here in that the execution order (the first document) references, and names, two people sentenced to die — but the ensuing garrison orders consistently refer to “the prisoner” in the singular. I have not been able to clarify this discrepancy, and it’s worth noting that the Espy file of historic U.S. executions — which is incomplete, but nevertheless pretty complete — does not note an execution on or around this date. It’s possible that either or both of the men were pardoned; there had been an amnesty proclaimed in June for (successful) deserters who were still on the lam, and although that wouldn’t have directly covered these cases, it might have signaled a corresponding leniency liable to extend within the courts-martial system.
Headquarters 3d Military District,
N. Y., July 7th, 1814.
Capt. Moses Swett or officer commanding troops on Governor’s Island.
Sir :–The general court martial which convened on Governor’s Island on the 23d ult., of which Col. D. Brearly,* of the 15th Inft. is president, having sentenced John Reid and Roger Wilson, privates in the corps of artillery, to be shot to death — By power in me vested you are hereby directed to have the sentence carried into execution on the day and at the hour prescribed in the general order of the 3d inst., for which this shall be your warrant. I am, sir, your obedient servant,
The troops on Governor’s Island will parade tomorrow morning at 11:30 o’clock on the Grand Parade, for the purpose of witnessing the execution of the prisoner [singular -- sic?] sentenced by a general order of the 3d inst. to be shot to death.
The troops will form three sides of a square, the artillery will form the right and left flank, the Infantry the rear; the execution parties, consisting of a sergeant and twelve privates, will parade at 11:30 o’clock and placed under the command of Lieut. Forbes, Provost Marshal; the guards of the advanced posts will have their sentries at their respective posts, and will repair to the parade at 11:30, those under charge of the Provost Marshal will join the execution party, for the purpose of escorting the prisoner to the place of execution.
The execution parties, in divisions preceded by the music with the Provost Marshal at their head, will march in front of the prisoner, the music playing the dead march; the guards formed in divisions will march in rear of the prisoner.
The procession will enter the square from the rear, face ten paces from the coffin placed in the center, upon which the prisoner kneels by a signal from the Provost Marshal. The music ceases, the warrant and sentence of death is read, the signal to fire is then given to the execution parties. By order of
From the York Herald and General Advertiser (York, England) of Saturday, Aug. 16, 1817.
Five English soldiers being on guard, the 18th of June last, at one of the gates of Valenciennes, committed a robbery on the house of an individual, and were condemned to be hanged. They were conducted, by the orders of Lord Wellington, on the 3d of July, outside the walls of the town, to undergo their punishment.
The people followed the culprits, invoking, in accents of sorrow, the pity of their officers, and crying “Mercy! Mercy!”
Two of them were executed, and the other three received their pardon at the very moment they were about to part with life. At this news the joy of the numerous spectators was extreme, and the thanks they addressed to the English General were no doubt less eloquent than the joy from which they emanated.
On this date in 1820, Louis Pierre Louvel was guillotined at Paris’s Place de Greve for murdering the heir to the French throne.
Louvel (French link) was a Bonapartist saddler, so embittered by the return of the ancien regime that he vowed on the day of the Restoration to exterminate all the Bourbons.
While his attempt to greet the returning Louis XVIII in April 1814 with a dagger came to naught, Louvel’s patience paid off six years later.
On February 13, 1820, he surprised the Duke of Berry outside the opera and plunged a knife into his chest.
Louvel, who expired only the next morning, was not the heir to the throne: he was the younger of two sons of the Comte d’Artois, who was the brother of the still-reigning Louis XVIII. These Bourbons, however, seemed congenitally unable to reproduce: Louis XVIII would die childless, leaving the aforesaid Comte d’Artois to inherit as Charles X; the oldest of Artois’s children also had a childless marriage.
So the potential future of the dynasty looked a murky thing in 1820. The Duke of Berry had an infant daughter, and the guy looked like maybe the only male in the royal family’s younger generation who might be capable of fathering a son. Louvel’s blow potentially set the stage for an eventual succession crisis.*
The killer was promptly arrested and made no bones about his action, avowing that he acted without aid or accomplice. He had, he said, no particular personal beef with the Duke: it’s just that he considered the guy’s entire family traitors whose presence dishonored the nation. (Here’s a complete French account of his trial.)
Because Louvel had his head cut off by the guillotine, he was not around to experience the miraculous September delivery by Louvel’s widow of a posthumous son and heir. In time, this son would become the Legitimst pretender to the French throne.
As a matter of fact, the prideful Count of Chambord could have become king after the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune wiped away the Second Empire. But to the grief of practical-minded monarchists, he publicly refused to accept the offered throne that he’d been waiting all his life for unless the nation also gave up the beloved tricolore flag associated with the regicidal Revolution. France said no thanks, and hasn’t had a monarch since.
* One more immediate consequence of Louvel’s strike: the liberal monarchist prime minister Elie Decazes came under opportunistic attack by ultra-royalists for giving aid and comfort to the terrorists with his moderate policies. Decazes was forced to resign and briefly went into exile in England due to the Ultras’ fulminations.
The New York-born couple Marcus and Narcissa Whitman* were two of the most notable figures among the hundreds, and then thousands, of settlers pouring into the territory every year. In 1836, they founded on the banks of the Walla Walla River a Christian mission to the nomadic Cayuse who roamed the territory. It’s in present-day Washington State, which was then part (with the current U.S. states of Oregon and Idaho) of a single frontier territory collectively known as Oregon.
The Whitmans’ early settlement, offering medicine, education, and (of course) proselytizing, proved a success at first; it would become for several years a waypoint on the developing Oregon Trail.
White diseases came with the settlers.
The Cayuse people had already dwindled (pdf) to just a thousand or two after the decimations of smallpox and other plagues swept the region in the decades preceding. Now, outbreaks of measles were ravaging those remaining.
Marcus Whitman, a doctor as well as a spiritualist, proved unable to check the new epidemic. Rumors went abroad that the missionaries were bewitching or poisoning the Cayuse, as the vanguard of a coming territorial conquest; the Whitmans themselves were very keen to the hostile feeling the situation had engendered and had even heard whispers that they were the targets of assassination plots. Bravely, they stayed.
“Perhaps God thought it for the best that your little child should be called away,” Narcissa Whitman said in strange consolation to the grieving mother of an Anglo child who also succumbed to measles in 1847. “It may calm the Indians to see a white child taken as well as so many natives, for otherwise we may all be compelled to leave within two weeks.” (pdf source, op. cit.; this document also reconstructs a detailed narrative of the unfolding tragedy)
But that remark was only days before the terrible November 29, 1847. On that cold autumn Monday, a small party of Cayuse led by a chief named Tiloukaikt fell on the mission and slaughtered both Whitmans plus another 11** inhabitants of the little compound.
Some 54 surviving women and children were taken hostage, and several of these died in custody as well. A Canadian official of the Hudson’s Bay Company hurried to ransom the captives at the price of 62 blankets, 63 cotton shirts, 12 muskets, 600 loads of ammunition, 37 pounds of tobacco, and a dozen flints.†
This quick response might have forestalled a worse tragedy for the missionaries — but as far as the Cayuse went, the die was already cast. A volunteer militia of Oregonians under Cornelius Gilliam soon mobilized to retaliate, driving many Cayuse into the Blue Mountains.
By mid-1848, spurred in part by the Whitman bloodbath, Congress officially incorporated the region as the Oregon Territory; arriving early in 1849, the new territorial governor Joseph Lane immediately opened negotiations with the Cayuse to hand over the perpetrators of the massacre. With federal troops arriving later in 1849, the Cayuse at last capitulated and gave up five warriors: Tiloukaikt, the leader; Tomahas; Kiamasumpkin; Iaiachalakis; and Klokomas. (There are numerous alternative transliterations of these names.)
They were tried in Oregon City, the territorial capital at the time — a town of 500 or so on the Willamette River Falls — in a landmark case: the first proper death penalty trial in the young territory.‡ This would fall a little short of modern standards, and not just because it was held in a tavern for want of a regular courthouse. The prosecution was not especially rigorous linking all the defendants to specific violent acts, but the defense’s recourse to Cayuse cultural practices that held shamans liable for the failure of their medicine conceded the point by implication. The judge‘s final instructions simply directed his jury to “infer” the defendants’ culpability by virtue of “the surrender of the Defendants by the Cayuse nation as the murderers, the nation knowing best who those murderers were.” So why even have the trial? Kiamasumpkin, against whom no evidence was ever individually presented, went to the gallows insisting that he didn’t even arrive to the Whitman Mission until the day after the massacre.
All five were condemned in the end, and executed by prominent early pioneer and lawman Joe Meek.§ “On the 3d of June an election and a hanging match took place at Oregon City,” ran the Aug. 22, 1850 story in the New York Tribune — for the Whitman massacre had been a matter of national interest. “The town was full of men and women, the former coming to see how the election resulted, and the latter to see how the Indians were hung.”
“Their tribe, the Cayuses, gave them up to keep peace with the whites. Much doubt was felt as to the policy of hanging them, but the popularity of doing so was undeniable.”
Fears that the quintuple hanging would stoke a running conflict with the Cayuse were not altogether misplaced, but over the subsequent years the dwindling tribe was simply dwarfed by over 30,000 newly arriving settlers lured by a congressional grant of free land. By 1855, the defeated Cayuse were forced onto the small Umatilla Reservation, ceding (along with the Umatillas and the Walla Wallas) 6.4 million acres to whites. The Cayuse tongue was extinct by the end of the century.
** Figures of both 13 and 14 (inclusive of the Whitmans) are cited in various places for the Whitman Massacre’s body count; the discrepancy turns on whether one’s tally includes as a casualty Peter Hall, who escaped from the mission, fled to Fort Walla Walla, and then made a panicky attempt to reach The Dalles. Hall disappeared into the wilderness, and was never heard from again.
† Ransom covered gratis by the Hudson’s Bay Company.
‡ The Espy file‘s index of U.S. executions lists only a couple of undated executions many years before under informal frontier justice.
On this date in 1879, Sacramento County public administrator Troy Dye was hanged for murder, along with the Swedish goon whom he’d hired to do the dirty work.
A 36-year-old father of three, Dye was a prosperous tavern owner in the California capital who volunteered at the Sunday school. In 1877, voters entrusted him with the necessary public office of managing intestate estates.
In retrospect one can safely say that Dye was not cut out for the public trust.
The position entailed a percentage claim on the estate so handled, which meant in practice that it was a thankless burden for long periods when only paupers died without their wills made out, punctuated by rare jackpots when the occasional wealthy fellow kicked off without heirs.
San Francisco Bulletin, Aug. 16, 1878.
All Dye did was speed that cycle up a little, by arranging to murder a fifty-five-year-old bachelor in order to lay hands on his 650-acre farm and plunder the “rich old son of a bitch.”
Dye hired a Swedish sausage-maker named Ed Anderson and a young tough named Tom Lawton at three grand apiece to handle the labor.
For six hot summer weeks, Anderson and Lawton built a boat on Dye’s property with the one mission in mind. On July 30, they put it into the Sacramento River and rowed it downstream to the Grand Island orchards of their target, Aaron Moses Tullis. Under the guise of soliciting work, Anderson approached Tullis in his groves, and when the man’s back was turned, clobbered him with a blackjack. In the ensuing melee, Lawton, leaping into the fray from hiding nearby, shot Tullis through the throat, then felled him with a shot in the back, and finished him off with an execution-style coup de grace.
The two killers fled two miles down the river, where they ditched the boat. Their employer, signaling furtively by whistling, picked them up in a buggy and rode them back to Sacramento for celebratory oysters.
They wouldn’t be celebrating for long.
News of the murder puzzled the community as it got out. Tullis was wealthy all right, but his assailants had stolen nothing; he wasn’t known to have any enemies; and nobody had seen the riverborne assassins slip onto the property.
But within a few days, discovery of the abandoned boat led to the lumberyard that stamped its planks, and that led to the fellows who purchased it. Tom Lawton wisely used this tiny interval to leave California; Ed Anderson and Troy Dye stuck around and made national wire copy with their confessions before August was out.
Having spilled all the beans, Dye had only the feeblest of gambits remaining to avoid the noose.
At trial, Dye argued that the whole plan was the idea of the other two men, and he, Dye, was was just too damn weak-minded to say them nay.
At sentencing, Dye whined that the district attorney had induced him to confess by dint of a promise to let him walk.**
And during his appeals and clemency process he inconsistently shammed insanity, fooling nobody.
“A more pitiable object than Troy Dye, the assassin, never marched to the scaffold,” one observer noted of the pallid, stocking-footed figure whom the ticketed observers saw on execution day. (Quoted in this pdf retrospective on “one of the most shocking and melancholy episodes in the history of Sacramento.”)
Against Dye’s wheedling and quailing, Anderson cut a picture of manfulness. Even on the eve of the execution, while Dye was just this side of collapse, Anderson noticed the sheriff toting the hanging ropes and insisted on inspecting them, then shocked the lawman with a cool off-color joke.
But this was calm and not mere bravado. Time that Dye wasted in his simulated spasms was spent by Anderson with his spiritual counselor; his gracious last statement from the gallows confessed his guilt and begged forgiveness. “Troy Dye Dies, Anderson Ascends” ran the headline afterwards.
* A county clerk reached by the Sacramento Record-Union recalled a conversation that clouded suspiciously in retrospect: “he said that unless something turned up, that he would not make enough out of it to pay his expenses … I said to him: ‘You cannot tell when some one will die and leave a good estate.’ … he said he did not know of any one who was likely to die that was worth any amount except Mr. Tullis, down the river. He said he was an old man and drank a great deal, and was likely to die at any time, and that he was rich. If he should drop off and he got the estate, it would help him out.” (Reprinted by the San Francisco Bulletin, Aug. 15, 1878)
** That was indeed the case, as it seems that Dye’s confession revealed himself much more deeply involved than the prosecutor had previously assumed. This is why it’s much better to just shut up already.
America’s national debate over abolishing slavery in the decades leading up to the Civil War is well-known. Not as well remembered is a different group of “abolitionists” — for death penalty foes, too, took this name,* and mounted a vigorous challenge against capital punishment, too.
In the main, they did not attain their ultimate objective, although Michigan in 1847 did become the world’s first Anglo polity to abolish executions.** But their contemporary-sounding arguments against the morality and efficacy of capital punishment did help drive important reforms, especially in the Northeast: narrowing the scope of the death penalty towards murder alone, and removing the spectacle of public hangings to the privacy of prison walls. Anti-death penalty scholar Hugo Bedau terms this the “first abolitionist era.”
Alexis de Tocqueville’s American travels began in 1831 with a brief from the French government to investigate the prison system; in the classic Democracy in America that ensued, Tocqueville characterized Americans as “extremely open to compassion.”
In no country is criminal justice administered with more mildness than in the United States. Whilst the English seem disposed carefully to retain the bloody traces of the dark ages in their penal legislation, the Americans have almost expunged capital punishment from their codes. North America is, I think, the only one country upon earth in which the life of no one citizen has been taken for a political offence in the course of the last fifty years.
In Massachusetts, executions nearly ground to a halt … but they never quite got banned de jure. A committee headed by the very liberal legislator Robert Rantoul, who had cut his teeth as a young barrister defending an accused murderer in a death penalty trial, produced for Gov. Edward Everett a strong recommendation to take the death penalty off the books. The votes in the legislature never quite got there, but Gov. Everett would have signed it:
A grave question has been started, wheter it would be safe to abolish altogether the punishment of Death. An increasing tenderness for human life is one of the most decided characteristics of the civilization of the day, and should in every proper way be cherished. Whether it can, with safety to the community, be carried so far, as t permit the punishment of death to be entirely dispensed with, is a question not yet decided by philanthropists and legislators. It may deserve your consideration, whether this interestion question cannot be brought to the test of the sure teacher, — experience. An experiment, instituted and pursued for a sufficient length of time, might settle it on the side of mercy. Such a decision would be matter of cordial congratulation. Should a contrary result ensue, it would probably reconcile the public mind to the continued infliction of capital punishment, as a necessary evil.
Rantoul (and Edwards) had to settle for an 1839 law removing burglary and highway robbery from the ranks of potential capital crimes.
In practice, Massachusetts had not hanged anyone for mere theft in a number of years and by the late 1830s and throughout the 1840s scarcely hanged anyone at all.†
That tenderness of human life would meet what proved a decisive test with Washington Goode‘s execution on May 25, 1849 for the murder of a fellow sailor over a romantic rivalry.
While philanthropists and legislators debated the merits of the rope in those years, Goode grew up at sea. There was a woman he called on when he made port in Boston, one Mary Ann Williams — married to someone else but kept by no man, Washington Goode included.
In 1848, Goode discovered in his lover’s boudoir a handkerchief given her by another seaman and soon enough started stewing over it. According to the circumstantial case that Goode’s jury ultimately accepted, he went out the next night, packing a wicked sheath knife and openly boasting to drinking buddies of his imminent revenge upon that Thomas Harding.
Later that night, the two rivals (plus Williams) all managed to run into each other in the same joint. Goode and Harding crossed words, then left that place one after another. Half an hour later, Harding had a sheath knife between his ribs. Nobody had actually seen it happened, but the identity of the murderer appeared self-evident.
However plausible the argument for Goode’s guilt and execution in the narrow case at hand, it could not help but be complicated by the execution-free years that had preceded him. Was this the most atrocious crime in Massachusetts of the 1840s? In 1845, a burgher named Albert Terrill had cut the throat of a prostitute on Beacon Hill, and set fire to her room; he had been spared execution.‡
Boston’s death penalty abolitionists mounted a furious clemency campaign, and again the arguments strike a familiar tone for present-day readers: the fallibility of the justice system (Goode maintained his innocence all the way to the gallows); the prospect that, were Goode indeed guilty, alcohol and passion had clouded his mind; and the manifest disproportionality between the extreme penalty that just so happened to be handed down to a poor black workingman when more atrocious crimes by better-connected Bostonians had lately merited far more lenient treatment. Thousands subscribed to petition, like this one, demanding mercy. Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson
But the Commonwealth was not moved. Despairing, Goode slashed his veins during the night preceding the hanging in a vain bid for suicide. He would be hanged that day — after a physician stanched the bleeding and patched him so that Goode could die properly — seated in a chair. The fall broke his neck, and purpled some prose into the bargain.
The scene is past. A more fearful tragedy has never been enacted in our city. A more disgraceful scene never occured in any country. A stain has been made upon Massachusetts that ages can never wash away.
Ostensibly “private”, the jailyard hanging was readily visible from surrounding windows and rooftops in the neighborhood. Some shops in the vicinity even shut up their doors in protest, and hung up placards to make sure those arriving for a rented overlooking window knew it.
But the first abolitionist era was even now giving way to the rising section tension about to tear the country apart. Even people who cared deeply about the death penalty usually cared moreso about slavery … and the stain of Washington Goode’s hanging would be blotted out by the far bloodier years to come.
** Wisconsin and Rhode Island both followed Michigan’s lead. None of those three states has conducted an execution since the mid-19th century, although Rhode Island did put never-used death penalty statutes back on its books for most of the 20th century.
† According to the Espy file‘s survey of historical U.S. executions.
‡ Terrill was acquitted by his jury in two separate death penalty trials — one for the murder, one for the arson. The verdicts were commonly believed to be acts of nullification by juries unwilling to sully their consciences with a death sentence. (Terrill’s barristers resorted to the embarrassing somnabulism defense.) “We infer that no person will hereafter be convicted of murder in the courts of Massachusetts,” the Boston Courier editorialized. “There is prevalent in society such a feeling of horror [about capital punishment] … jurors will not hesitate to acquite.” But after Terrill, backlash against the verdicts inverted the horror — since it now appeared that the tender scruples of jurymen proposed to hand villains carte blanche.
That conflict in turn triggered the 1871 working-class revolution in Paris which briefly drove the established government to the old Bourbon haunts at Versailles while maintaining the capital as the Paris Commune.
Darboy declined to follow the many Parisian bourgeoisie who escaped the city in those brief months, but his importance as a visible envoy of the rival order was not so easily refused. The Communards seized Darboy as perhaps the crown jewel among dozens of hostages against the anticipated Versailles counterattack.
Versailles declined to bargain for Darboy or any of the other human shields.** Instead, the city’s cobblestones drank the blood of 20,000 or more in a seven-day urban invasion in late May that has become known as the “bloody week” (semaine sangiante) — and the Commune’s hostages would mingle their blood with the those on the barricades, suffering in their few individual persons the vengeance the Parisian workers longed to visit upon an entire class.
When the Versaillese fixed his eye upon you, you must die; when he searched a house, nothing escaped him. “These are no longer soldiers accomplishing a duty,” said a conservative journal, La France. And indeed these were hyenas, thirsting for blood and pillage. In some places it sufficed to have a watch to be shot. The corpses were searched, and the correspondents of foreign newspapers called those thefts the last perquisition. And the same day M. Thiers had the effrontery to tell the Assembly: “Our valiant soldiers conduct themselves in such a manner as to inspire foreign countries with the highest esteem and admiration.”
At half-past seven a great noise was heard before the prison of La Roquette, where the day before the three hundred hostages, detained until then at Mazas, had been transported. Amidst a crowd of guards, exasperated at the massacres, stood a delegate of the Public Safety Commission, who said, ‘Since they shoot our men, six hostages shall be executed. Who will form the platoon?’ ‘I! I!’ was cried from all sides. One advanced and said, ‘I avenge my father,’ another, ‘I avenge my brother.’ ‘As for me,’ said a guard, ‘they have shot my wife.’ Each one brought forward his right to vengeance. Thirty men were chosen and entered the prison.
The delegate looked over the jail register, pointed out the Archbishop Darboy, the President Bonjean, the banker Jecker, the Jesuits Allard, Clerc, and Ducoudray; at the last moment Jecker was replaced by the Curé Deguerry.
They were taken to the exercise-ground. Darboy stammered out, ‘I am not the enemy of the Commune. I have done all I could. I have written twice to Versailles.’ He recovered a little when he saw death was inevitable. Bonjean could not keep on his legs. ‘Who condemns us?’ said he. ‘The justice of the people.’ ’0h, this is not the right one,’ replied the president. One of the priests threw himself against the sentry-box and uncovered his breast. They were led further on, and, turning a corner, — met the firing-party. Some men harangued them; the delegate at once ordered silence. The hostages placed themselves against the wall, and the officer of the platoon said to them, ‘It is not we whom you must accuse of your death, but the Versaillese, who are shooting the prisoners.’ He then gave the signal and the guns were fired. The hostages fell back in one line, at an equal distance from each other. Darboy alone remained standing, wounded in the head, one hand raised. A second volley laid him by the side of the others.
The blind justice of revolutions punishes in the first-comers the accumulated crimes of their caste.
The six who fell on this occasion would be followed in the Commune’s few remaining days by many more of their fellow hostages — and by countless communards. Theophile Ferre, who authorized the May 24 reprisal execution (and specifically called for Archbishop Darboy’s selection) was himself executed by the victorious bourgeois government that November.
On May 22 the scaffold was again erected for the execution of an Italian, a native of Rome, named Antonio Brochetti. He was imprisoned at Bicetre at the time of the murder, he having been previously sentenced to hard labour for life. He killed one of the turnkeys, with no other object than putting an end to his own life. Life in a prison or in the hulks seemed to him a much more severe punishment than death. His wish was fulfilled; he was condemned to death, and executed on the Place de Greve five days after, at four o’clock in the afternoon.
He went to the scaffold with eagerness. “I would rather die a thousand times than go to the hulks!” he exclaimed several times. Since Brochetti’s execution the severity displayed in French penitentiaries has increased; and his example has been followed by many.
“Galley slavery” in the antique Ben-Hur sense had been a mainstay of European navies since France got the bright idea to address a shortage of oarsmen by making press gangs out of magistrates. This idea was widely copied, and intensified.
At their peak in 1690, French galleys had 15,000 under oars — captured Turks, defeated Huguenots, slaves seized from Africa and North America, and, of course, criminals or anyone who could be construed as such.
Yet even by this time the galley was virtually obsolete as a military asset; Paul Bamford argues that they were maintained for pageantry and (internal) state-building for the French crown. Thus, as the 18th century unfolded, “galley” slaves were increasingly used for hard labor on the docks and in the arsenals — still-brutal punishment in a similar spirit, but no longer literally pulling an oar. By 1748, they were at last formally subsumed into a network of port prisons.
By this late date, however, usage had established the word galérien for convict galley-slaves so firmly that it persisted even now with the new redefinition.** (Italian still to this day has la galera for prison: the acme of seagoing Italian city-states coincided with that of the galley.)
* Lionel Casson (in “Galley Slaves” from the Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, vol. 97 (1966)) dates this to a January 22, 1443 edict of Charles VII conferring on merchant Jacques Coeur the right to impress vagabonds into his fleet.
** Victor Hugo’s Jean Valjean (Les Miserables) was a galley-slave; he would have been by Antonio Brochetti’s time just a few years out of the galleys himself.