Back in the 19th century, islands stacked high with guano were worth their weight in bird crap. The phosphate-rich dung piled meters-deep in some places, and could be mined for agricultural fertilization and for use in gunpowder and explosives.
In 1856, Congress even passed a Guano Islands Act empowering skippers to plant the stars and stripes on any of these lucrative little turd reefs they happened to run across. That’s how the U.S. came to possess, for instance, Midway Island … and more than 100 other islands as well.
Most of these claims have long since been ceded, but a few remain today. One of them is (still!) Navassa, a three-square-mile speck off the coast of Haiti, 100 miles south of Guantanamo Bay.
But in the late 19th century, its sweet, sweet guano was being extracted by a Baltimore-based firm known as the Navassa Phosphate Company. This operation employed 137 African-American laborers, moving groaning shitloads of product by raw muscle power under a blistering tropical sun … and under 11 white overseers.
The nature of the assignment — an island very far from the nearest American settlement, with no other industry, community or outpost to repair to — made taking a job on Navassa almost like hitching on somewhere as a sailor: you were off to a little floating dictatorship, with no way out until the end of the contract.
Navassa’s overseers turned out to have a taste for the cat o’nine tails, and worse.
“The conditions surrounding the prisoners and their fellows were of a most peculiar character,” Harrison noted in his eventual commutation order.
They were American citizens, under contracts to perform labor upon specified terms, within American territory, removed from any opportunity to appeal to any court or public officer for redress of any injury or the enforcement of any civil right. Their employers were, in fact, their masters. The bosses placed over them imposed fines and penalties without any semblance of trial. These penalties extended to imprisonment, and even to the cruel practice of tricing men up for a refusal to work. Escape was impossible, and the state of things generally such as might make men reckless and dangerous.
Or, as a naval inspection judged it, Navassa resembled “a convict establishment without its comforts and cleanliness”: people being worked brutally to the bone during their contract, eating rancid rations and living in filth.
Not surprisingly, Navassa’s “convict” laboring population rebelled in 1889, and in a vicious hour-long riot slew five overseers while maiming several others.
Warships calling on the island shipped 18 back to face murder charges; ultimately, three black guano-miners were sentenced to death for the affair.*
However, a huge clemency push spearheaded by the Baltimore-based black fraternal organization the Grand United Order of Galilean Fishermen raised the cry to spare the condemned men.
Guano harvesting resumed after the riot, but was aborted in 1898 by the Spanish-American War; the Navassa Phosphate Company fell into bankruptcy, and although the U.S. later threw up a lighthouse on Navassa to aid Panama Canal-bound vessels, it’s been effectively uninhabited ever since.
* The appeals arising from the Navassa conviction generated the 1890 Supreme Court case Jones v. United States, affirming Navassa’s American territoriality, and establishing Congressional jurisdiction over violations of U.S. law that didn’t take place in any particular state. This bit of jurisprudence has turned up all over the place in the century-plus since it was issued.
After a short-lived attempt to maintain a posture of “armed neutrality”vis-a-vis the Civil War combatants, Kentucky became the uncertain and bloodilycontested frontier march between the rival governments.
With the 1862 invasions of Kentucky by armies North and South, sides had to be chosen. Corbin enlisted with some local militia mates in the Confederate army; after wintering in Virginia, he was dispatched back to his native Campbell County, Ky. — now under Union control — to beat the bushes for more Confederate enlistees. With him was another Campbell County native son now serving in the Southern army, Jefferson McGraw.
In April 1863, a Union patrol out hunting Confederate guerrillas accidentally caught wind of the recruiters’ activities and followed McGraw to the Rouse’s Mill safe house where he was to rendezvous with the waiting Corbin.
Several days after the recruiters’ capture, Union Gen. Ambrose Burnside issued General Order 38, threatening the death penalty for “all persons found within our lines who commit acts for the benefit of the enemies of our country.” This order explicitly compassed “Secret recruiting officers within our lines.”
This book has a chapter about the Corbin-McGraw case.
General Order 38 was viewed as targeting “Copperheads” and other anti-war northern agitators — and it almost immediately resulted in the arrest of Ohio Democrat Clement Vallandigham** — but it was the less august Corbin and McGraw who paid the heavier penalty.†
Again, General Order 38 postdated Corbin and McGraw’s arrest. They had expected, and perhaps were even directly assured by their captors, to be treated as regular prisoners of war. On the other hand, Order 38 aside, these men were undoubtedly working covertly behind Union lines, and risked harsher treatment on that basis alone.
At any rate, the two were condemned to die by a military commission in Cincinnati for violating Order 38 by recruiting behind Union lines. Neither Gen. Burnside nor Abraham Lincoln himself — who were both besieged by petitions for clemency — would consent to spare them.
Corbin, who was a church elder in his home environs, led a prayer service for guards and inmates alike at the prison chapel on the morning of his execution. Writing 34 years later, a witness recalled the moment:
That scene, and the words which fell from his lips on that occasion, are indelibly stamped on my memory …
After reading and prayer by Captain Corbin, he said, in part, speaking of himself, that “life was just as sweet to him as any man, but if necessary for him to die in order to vindicate the law of the country, he was ready to die, he did not fear death; he had done nothing he was ashamed of; he had acted on his own convictions and was not sorry for what he had done; he was fighting for a principle, which in the sight of God and man, and in the view of death which awaited him, he believed was right, and feeling this he had nothing to fear in the future.” He closed his talk by expressing his faith in the promises of Christ and his religion.
To see this man, standing in the presence of an audience composed of officers, privates, and prisoners of all grades, chained to and bearing his ball, and bearing it alone, presenting the religion of Christ to others while exemplifying it himself, was a scene which would melt the strongest heart, and when he took his seat every heart in that audience was softened and every eye bathed in tears.
After Corbin and McGraw were shot, two Union prisoners of war in Confederate custody were selected by lot for a retaliatory execution. With some diplomatic maneuvering (and a Union threat to retaliate for the retaliation by executing Robert E. Lee’s captured son), they managed to avoid that fate. (One of these men almost executed in retaliation, Henry Washington Sawyer, went on after the war to build the still-extant Chalfonte Hotel in his hometown of Cape May, N.J.)
** General Order 38 also resulted in the arrest of an Indiana legislator named Alexander Douglas. Douglas beat these charges thanks to the energetic defense mounted at the tribunal by his neighbor, attorney Lambdin P. Milligan … and the fame thereby falling to the latter man would eventually help to fix his own name into the jurisprudential firmament as the subject of the landmark Supreme Court ruling Ex parte Milligan. For more background, see this pdf.
† Nobody else was ever executed under General Order 38.
“Land agents” — the rent-squeezing fist of distant landlords — were not popular people in Ireland. These bill collectors literally ran people out of house and home: one late 19th century land agent in Ireland recalled in his memoirs having received over a hundred threatening letters and, in November 1884, having his house in Kerry dynamited.
So the 1857 murder of Tipperary land agent John Ellis drew little surprise (his life had been attempted at least twice before, when he evicted people to prospective starvation during the Great Famine), and drew scarcely any mourning.
“He had been earning this for many a year, if any man however bad could be said to earn such an end, by turning people out in the road,” an observer noted. That observer was the Archbishop … talk about a tough crowd.
Since £90 had been left undisturbed in the murdered man’s pockets, authorities were pretty sure it was no passing robber that got the best of John Ellis but someone who targeted the hated land agent. However, the only witness — and the word applies only in the loosest sense — was the teenage cart-driver who had been ferrying Ellis home near midnight when his passenger had been shot by ambush from the bushes. Young Thomas Burke hadn’t seen anything useful.
Still, within only days, police had zeroed in on their suspects — with classic tunnel vision.
In fine, the working official hypothesis was that Ellis had been shot over a personal grudge, and not because of his distasteful profession. William and Daniel Cormack had a sister who had just given birth out of wedlock in the poorhouse; they had another sister who was known to be carrying on with John Ellis, who was a notorious cad during his downtime between evictions. The idea was that the brothers shot Ellis to preserve their one sister from the other sister’s fate.
With no actual evidence to buttress this just-so story, John Law got to twisting arms. An 11-year-old girl was parked in solitary confinement for two months to try to get her to incriminate the Cormacks.
The child, to her glory, stubbornly refused to do so. But Thomas Burke, the cart-driver, could not equal her steel. After initially deposing that he had seen nothing — it was very dark, after all — he managed to “remember” that he actually had seen the Cormacks on the scene after all. Another man also “verified” this testimony.
On the strength of these eminently impeachable eyewitnesses the Cormacks were doomed to die. Burke would later admit that he lied, and 2,000-plus people signed a petition pleading for a pardon.
None was forthcoming.
Mounting a public scaffold at Nenagh for a crowd welling with pity, Daniel Cormack made a dying declaration that everyone believed: “Lord have mercy on me, for you know, Jesus, that I neither had hand, act, nor part in that for which I am about to die. Good people, pray for me.”
This rank injustice only rankled more* as years passed.
Fifty-two years later the hanged boys were exhumed from their graves in Nenagh Gaol and given a long honorary procession to their native town of Loughmore, where they were laid to rest in a prominent white mausoleum that can still be visited today.
The plaque at that structure records the closest thing to the verdict of history upon the case:
By the Irish Race in memory of the brothers DANIEL and WILLIAM CORMACK who for the murder of a land agent named ELLIS were hanged at NENAGH after solemn protestation by each on the scaffold of absolute and entire innocence of that crime, the 11th day of May 1858. The tragedy of the brothers occurred through false testimony procured through GOLD and terror, the action in their trial of JUDGE KEOGH, a man who considered personally, politically, religiously and officially was one of the monsters of mankind, and the verdict of a prejudiced, partisan packed perjured jury. Clear proof of the innocence of the brothers afforded by ARCHBISHOP LEAHY to the VICEROY of the day but he nevertheless gratified the appetite of a bigoted, exterminating and ascendancy caste by a judicial murder of the kind which lives bitterly and perpetually in a nation’s remembrance.
* A later ballad (just one of several) ramps up the nationalist-confrontation factor for the age of Fenianism … and fabricates the detail of an exculpatory thunderstorm.
In the year of fifty eight, my boys, that was the troublesome time
When cruel landlords and their agents were rulers of our isle.
It was then that Ellis was shot down by an unknown hand.
When the news spread round Killara that Trent’s agent he was shot,
The police were then informed and assembled on the spot.
They searched every field and garden, every lane and every shed,
Until they came to McCormack’s house where two boys were in bed.
They accused these boys of murder from information they had got
From the coachman who was driving at the time that Ellis was shot.
They said that they were innocent, but ’twas all of no avail.
They were handcuffed and made prisoners and conveyed to County Gaol.
At the Spring Assizes these two young men stood their trial in Nenagh town.
By a packed jury of Orangemen, they were guilty found.
The judge addressed the prisoners. He asked what they had to say
Before he signed their execution for eleventh day of May.
“In Mill Killara we were reared, between Thurles and Templemore,
Well known by all inhabitants around the parish of Loughmore.
We’re as innocent of shooting Ellis as the child in the cradle do lie,
And can’t see the reason, for another man’s crime, we are condemned to die.”
The execution it took place, by their holy priest reconciled, their maker for to face.
Such thunder, rain and lightning has ne’er been witnessed since
As the Lord sent down on that day, as a token of their innocence,
That their sould may rest in heaven above as their remains rest in Loughmore.
On this date in 1883, Heinrich “Henry” Furhmann was hanged in Helena in the then-territory of Montana. He was the first person hanged in that city, and at seventy years old, the oldest person ever executed in Montana.
A non-English-speaking German national who walked with a cane, Furhmann was tiny. There was even speculation that at less than 100 pounds, he didn’t weigh enough to stretch the rope.*
Furhmann was executed for the murder of his son-in-law, Jacob Kenck, whom he’d shot three days before Christmas the previous year. While Kenck was standing in the doorway of his saloon on upper Main Street, talking to another man, Furhmann walked up to him from behind and shot him in the head.
The victim collapsed immediately, but didn’t seem to realize what had happened: as a crowd gathered around him, he said, “Boys, what is the matter? Is somebody hurt?” He passed out and was carried home, where a doctor was summoned to tend to his wound.
Furhmann was arrested immediately and, when told Kenck might survive, said he was sorry and would kill him again if he could.
But Furhmann’s disappointment didn’t last long: Kenck died within hours.
The old man had moved to Montana from his native country a decade before, after his daughter, who had emigrated before him, raised the money for his passage. She sickened and died several years after his arrival and Furhmann blamed her husband, Kenck, and nursed a bitter grudge against Kenck the way Kenck hadn’t nursed his late wife back to health.
After the emigre’s arrest he admitted he’d been plotting the murder for a year and had been carrying a gun everywhere he went, waiting for his chance.
There was quite a lot of shouting, but no actual attempt to storm the jail, and eventually the mob dispersed. The curious, perhaps, went home disappointed.
Given the fact that Furhmann shot the victim at literal high noon on literal Main Street in front of witnesses, it’s surprising that the jury deliberated a full 24 hours before convicting. When jurors returned with the condemnation — after it was translated for the defendant — he responded indifferently, “It is what I expected.”
He didn’t hope for clemency, just for the more-honorable death of a firing squad. Nein!
Furhmann died with a smirk on his face. His last words, referring to Jacob Kenck’s brother, were, “Now Chris Kenck will laugh.”
After his death, doctors removed and examined his brain, which turned out to be of average size and perfectly ordinary in appearance.
* Not that it was being used in Big Sky Country, but the classic drop tables/formula would potentially imply a fall of more than three meters to develop the necessary force to break such a slight man’s neck.
On this date in 1897, John Gibson was hanged for murder.
In its particulars, the case itself was as minute and forgettable as a homicide ever could be: Gibson got into a spat with a plantation overseer over the theft of 20 or 25 cents from his wages. Later that night, still steaming and now drunk, he called the boss out through the window. The overseer went out to the confrontation armed (Gibson wasn’t), and wound up shot dead by his own gun in the struggle.
This literal two-bit crime became national news, however, and went twice to the Mississippi Supreme Court and twice to the U.S. Supreme Court as a vehicle to challenge Mississippi’s new Jim Crow constitution.
After Reconstruction but especially in the 1890s, the dreadful regime of American apartheid reversed black civil rights gains.
Mississippi’s all-white* constitutional convention of 1890 was a signal event for this nadir of race relations — the first of a wave of new southern constitutions aimed at setting up a color bar. In addition to mandating segregated schools, that constitution imposed a few, ahem, reasonable requirements for voting, which lacked any overt racial language but just so happened to disenfranchise the black electorate almost to a man. (Don’t even get started about women.**)
every voter must pay “a uniform poll tax of two dollars”;
“every elector shall … be able to read any section of the constitution of this State.” Now, lest one miss the intent here, Mississippi added a clause permitting anyone descended from a legal voter pre-1867 to cast a ballot without passing the exam: if your grandfather could vote, you could vote too … too bad if your grandfather couldn’t vote on account of being property. This one-two punch throughout the South kept poor whites on the right team, and bequeathed to English the phrase “grandfather clause”.
Both these gratuitous hurdles to voting are now confined to the history books, but two other important techniques of disenfranchisement remain very much in use today.
a needlessly onerous voter registration process;
and, the franchise is reserved for upstanding voters who have “never been convicted of bribery, burglary, theft, arson, obtaining money or goods under false pretenses, perjury, forgery, embezzlement or bigamy.” In a context where wholesale incarceration of African Americans was a matter of policy.
Plus of course, brute force up to and including lynch law for political terrorism. “In those days,” one black Mississippian said, “it was ‘Kill a mule, buy another. Kill a nigger, hire another.’ They had to have a license to kill anything but a nigger. We was always in season.”
From 1901 to 1973, the South never once seated a black lawmaker in the U.S. Congress.
So it’s a grim scene for racial justice in the twilight of the 19th century. But we dwell on the voting-rights aspect because jurors were drawn from the voting rosters: all the filters that excluded African Americans from the ballot box likewise excluded them from the jury box. And here’s where we get back to John Gibson.
could show a racial motive in refusing potential black voters (and likewise potential black jurors), they would have a reasonably strong case.
The elements of a strong, jury-based anti-disfranchisement case were in place for Jones and Hewlett and all that they really wanted was to have his case remanded to a U.S. district court. That might seem anticlimactic, but it would have meant that southern judges, sheriffs, and voting registrars would find themselves standing before federal district judges to justify their administration of jury selection and voter registration. In the immediate short term, there would almost surely be some benefit for disfranchised African Americans.
They argued the cases on December 13, 1895, and the Supreme Court announced decisions in Gibson and [a companion case] Smith on April 13, 1896, little more than one month before [Jim Crow landmark] Plessy v. Ferguson. Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote both opinions and dismissed each case on jurisdictional grounds. The problem lay in the evidence, which was conspicuous by its paucity … Mississippi did not exclude blacks in terms … [and] in Gibson, Jones had not shown that Mississippi’s courts committed “any error of law of which this court may take cognizance” or that his client’s murder conviction “was due to prejudice of race.”
Washington Post, Oct. 27, 1895
In the real world, where rights need enforcement if they are to thrive, this ruling had the effect of giving a free hand to white power so long as it had the sense God gave a vegetable and didn’t directly declare that any of its universally all-white juries (or electorates) were constituted as a matter of explicit race prejudice. Just a marvelous coincidence! Nothing to see here, you federal judges.
As the Southwestern Christian Advocate editorialized after the ruling (Apr. 23, 1896)
Proof need hardly be asked that there was a deliberate purpose on the part of the persons charged with that responsibility [i.e., seating juries] to absolutely ignore the colored man as a juror. This is the cold truth, that the sheriffs and other court officers who have charge of the impanneling of juries will not select colored men. The persistency with which they deny such intent is one of the most gigantic mysteries of the age.
Of course, there is no constitutional enactment on the statute books of the State of Mississippi denying the right of jury service to Negroes, yet they do not serve, and for the simple reason that they are not chosen. It is the easiest matter in the world to keep Negroes out of the jury box in Mississippi. It is one of their sovereign rights.
There is no enactment against it, nothing for it, so there it is. And what is the Supreme Court or the Federal government going to do about it? Why, simply render its decisions upon what it does not permit. The fact is that the amendments to the Constitution, so far as the black man is concerned, are not worth the paper they are written upon without the moral sentiments of high minded and noble people behind it. And this will apply to State, Federal and Supreme Courts as well.
Meanwhile, the black man is expected to be an intelligent and a loyal citizen, notwithstanding the rights which he fought and bled for are now almost exclusively in the hands of those who at one time sought to pull the fair fabric of our Constitutional liberties to the ground.
It’s still to this day the case that defendants have very little scope to scrutinize potentially prejudicial jury composition. It’s still to this day the case that the Supreme Court has nothing but a toothless remedy. And it’s still to this day the case that some state’s attorneys can and do craft racially discriminatory juries more prone to convict by excluding blacks … so long as it’s “not in terms” and instead for literally any other pretext.
* Except for one black man.
** Representative sentiment of a Mississippian: “We are not afraid to maul a black man over the head if he dares to vote, but we can’t treat women, even black women, that way. No, we’ll allow no woman suffrage.” Mississippi only ratified female suffrage in 1984.
† There are some claims out there that the first black attorney to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court did so only in 1910; I may be overlooking a nuance in the manner these issues were presented to the high court, but so far as I can discern, Gibson was argued by black attorneys. This source suggests that it was hardly the first.
This date in 1899 was the one appointed for the Roseburg, Ore. hanging of a miner named J.M. Olberman for murdering his partner-in-prospecting.
But as described in this April 28, 1899 story from the Portland Oregonian (transcribed in its entirety), a governor willing to “take a larger and less restricted view” of a case than the courts would do spared Olberman on the eve of his hanging.
SALEM, April 27. — The sentence of J.M. Olberman, who was to have been hanged in Roseburg tomorrow for the murder of J.N. Casteel, his mining partner, near Myrtle Creek, last year, has been commuted to life imprisonment. At 5 o’clock this afternoon Governor Geer sent a telegram to Sheriff Stephens, of Douglas county, advising him of the commutation. When asked tonight to give his reasons for extending clemency to Olberman, Governor Geer said:
I finally concluded to commute Olberman’s sentence to life imprisonment for the reason that there were many extenuating circumstances that remove his crime from the class of deliberately planned murders. His victim had not only viciously warned him the night before that he would kill him when he was least expecting it, but had refused to go to bed, lying on the lounge al lnight, and muttering his threats long after Olberman had retired. Reputable citizens of Mytle Creek have proven to me that Casteel had not only threatened Olberman’s life, but that of several other men, and that he was a ‘bully’ by natre, and a dangerous man. I have petitions signed by 62 citizens of Myrtle creek, where the tragedy occurred, stating that Casteel ‘frequently threatened to kill people, drove his son-in-law from home by threats to kill him; that he threatened to kill Olberman, and we believe he would have carried the threat into execution had he not himself been killed.’
To my mind, these facts, which are well established, make a wide distinction between Olberman’s crime and that which is committed by a highwayman, who deliberately murders for gain, or the brute who takes human life purely for revenge, and there should be a distinction between the degrees of punishment following their commission.
Courts are sometimes prohibited from going outside the forms of law and the record, although convinced, perhaps, that the equities of the case would warrant a different finding. It is to correct such conditions that the right to take a larger and less restricted view of the circumstances surrounding a case is given to the executive. It is great power to place in the hands of one man, and should be used very sparingly and rarely.
I have an abundance of testimony from Myrtle Creek and Portland, where he lived for four years, that Olberman is a man of steady habits, and of a peacable disposition, and has never associated with the criminal class. The commutation of his sentence was asked by most of the people in the vicinity where the murder was committed, and the same request was made by letter to me by both the daughters of the murdered man, one of his sons-in-law, and three of the trial jurors.
Olberman committed a great crime, but the provocation surrounding him makes him less guilty, in my judgment, than the other man who deliberately murders for either gain or revenge; and his crime being less his punishment should be less. I do not think I have erred in saving this man’s life, but if I have it has been on the side of mercy, and to do so is sometimes a positive virtue.
Among those who signed petitions and sent personal letters to the governor in Olberman’s behalf were Governor Bradley, of Kentucky; a member of congress from Kentucky; United States Senator Joseph Simon, H.M. Martin, William Flocks and George McDougall, three of the trial jurors, and Mrs. May Stewart and Mrs. June Reynolds, daughters of the murdered man.
On this date in 1900, Sonnie (or Sonny) Crain and William “Bill” Brown, both 40, and John Watson, 59, were hanged side by side a quarter-mile from the Warren County Jail in McMinnville, Tennessee.
This was an integrated execution: Brown and Watson were white, and Crain was black.
From the April 27, 1900 American Citizen (Kansas City, Mo.)
The gallows was contained in a 30-by-30-foot enclosure and had been built especially for this day’s event. There were twenty official witnesses. A crowd of about two thousand waited outside the fence, hoping to catch a glimpse of the execution, but their view was obscured by a canvas curtain drawn hanging from the top of the gallows.
Watson, a Civil War veteran who’d fought at Shiloh, had committed his crime on December 21, 1898. He shot a neighbor, 40-year-old James Hillis, white, after an argument about some corn and some fence rails.
Hillis walked away from the fight. Watson fetched his shotgun, waited for his chance then shot Hillis on the road that evening, in front of the victim’s daughter. Hillis lived for a few hours after the shooting and named Watson as his attacker.
The killer had a reputation for violence; he’d allegedly shot and seriously wounded a black man in a drunken rage in 1893, but was acquitted at trial. He had also served a term in federal prison for making and selling moonshine, and he was stone drunk on his own apple brandy at the time of Hillis’s murder.
His defense, one of temporary insanity caused by alcohol, didn’t fly with the jury.
Bill Brown was an illiterate tenant farmer; his victim was his wife of ten years, Mary Fults Brown. Bill was tired of his wife and attempted to leave her, but everywhere he went she just followed him. He and his brother, John “Bud” Brown, decided she had to die.
On May 5, 1898, In accordance with the plan, Bill invited a friend, Bill Rogers, to spend the night. Bill made sure to leave the door unlocked, and while Mary and the guest were sleeping, Bud Brown sneaked into the house, shot his sister-in-law and fled. Bill then woke up Rogers, crying, “Lordy, lordy, someone’s shot Mary!”
Bill told Rogers the shooter had fired through the open window, but this didn’t make sense because Mary had been asleep beside her husband and Bill was lying between her and the window. He claimed he didn’t own a gun, but a search of the house turned up a recently fired pistol hidden in a trunk.
It didn’t take long for Bill to crack. He confessed to his role in Mary’s death and implicated his brother Bud (who, incidentally, had a prior record for beastiality with a mare).
The brothers were to be tried separately and Bill went first. He was convicted and sentenced to death, but his conviction was appealed on the grounds that one of the jurors had mistakenly believed he was sitting at the trial of Bud Brown, not Bill Brown. (Like Sauron and Saruman, they’re easily confused.)
The appeals court judge couldn’t believe it when Bill’s attorney made this ludicrous assertion, and threatened to hold him in contempt for making a mockery of the proceedings and wasting the court’s time. Then Bill’s attorney brought in the juror in question, who admitted his error. (The confusion arose in part because Bill and Bud, neither of whom testified at the trial, were sitting next to each other at the defendant’s table.)
While Bud Brown was awaiting his first trial, Bill was waiting his second trial, and John Watson was awaiting the outcome of his appeal, they were all housed in a jail cell with Sonnie Crain.
Crain had been convicted of second-degree murder for shooting Will Snellings in a dispute over a craps game, and was sentenced to ten years in prison. He was housed in the jail while his case was under appeal.
On May 22, 1899, as the Brown brothers slept, Crain bludgeoned them both in the head with a piece of his bed, killing Bud and critically injuring Bill. He later said the brothers had threatened him and he’d acted in self-defense, but the authorities had another theory as to motive.
The jailer was away at the time of the murder and had placed his wife in charge, and there was some evidence that Watson and Crain had conspired together to murder their cellmates in order to create a diversion so they could escape when the jailer’s wife came to get Crain.
Crain (who denied any plan to escape from jail and insisted to his dying breath that he’d acted in self-defense) was convicted of Bud Brown’s murder and sentenced to death. Although Bill Brown’s wounds were very serious and he was not expected to live, he recovered from his injuries in time to be hanged alongside the man who’d tried to kill him and the other man who’d possibly conspired in his attempted murder.
So now that no one is confused … the three ultimately set to die in this labyrinthine affair were hanged at 11:50 a.m. on April 25, attended by two black ministers and two white ones. Crain and Brown were stoic, but Watson’s nerves failed him on the scaffold and he cried and shook as the noose was placed around his neck.
It was the last public(ish) hanging ever in McMinnville.
A much more prodigious body count had been ordered initially by the court, but clemencies straight from the hand of U.S. President (and former hangman) Grover Cleveland averted five of seven death sentences on their eve of execution. All the killers under sentence, spared or no, committed their murders in Indian Country.
In February, 1886, seven men were sentenced to be hung on April 23, 1886, but before that day arrived the sentences of all but two had been commuted. The two unfortunates were Joseph Jackson, a negro, convicted of killing his wife at Oak Lodge, Choctaw Nation, on March 9, 1885, and James Wasson, a white man, who participated in the murder of Henry Martin in 1872, but was not apprehended until he took a hand in the killing of a man named Watkins in 1884.* (Source)
Jackson slashed his own throat with the shard of a vase in an unsuccessful bid to cheat the hangman, and sported a terrible gash on his neck when he hanged.
* According to the Atchison (Ks.) Daily Globe of April 30, 1885, Watkins was a cattle baron, whose widow wife then put a $1,000 price on Wasson’s head. The killer’s arrest ensued promptly. Although Wasson hanged for the earlier murder and not for that of Watkins, the aggrieved Texan woman “was here [at Fort Smith] every term of court after Wasson was brought in, and employed counsel to assist the District Attorney in prosecuting him, having, it is said, spent over $7,000 in bringing him to justice.” (St. Louis Globe-Democrat, April 24, 1886.)
On this date in 1882* Stepan Khalturin** was hanged in Odessa, Ukraine … but not for his most (in)famous crime.
Khalturin (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) came from a well-off peasant family near the city of Vyatka (today, Kirov; it was renamed for an assassinated Bolshevik). As a young carpenter in 1870s St. Petersburg, he fell in with revolutionary circles and became a distinguished propagandist and organizer. Khalturin helped found the first political labor labor organization in Russia, the “Northern Russian Workers’ Union”.
He’s said by other leftist agitators who knew him to have “persuaded his student workers with tears in his eyes to continue propagandizing, but in no event go down the path of terror. From this, there is no return.”
If that used to be his sentiment, Khalturin’s thinking … evolved.
By February 1880, Khalturin was for all intents and purposes in on the terrorism strategy. He took advantage of a workman’s gig at the Winter Palace to pack the cellar full of dynamite,† two floors below the imperial dining room.
But Tsar Alexander II and party had not yet returned when it blew. Eleven people, mostly guardsmen in the intervening room below the dining hall, died in the blast; dozens of others were injured.
Khalturin watched in frustration from the iron gates of the Winter Palace, and slipped away — never detected. His co-conspirator Zhelyabov consoled him with the prospects of mass recruitment sure to be unleashed by this spectacular propaganda of the deed. “An explosion in the king’s lair — the first attack on the autocracy! Your deed will live forever.” (Russian source)
A year later, Narodnaya Volya finally succeeded in assassinating Alexander II in St. Petersburg. Zhelyabov and five others hanged for that.
Khalturin wasn’t involved in that plot: he had escaped to Odessa.
There, he shot a police officer named Strelnikov. He was captured and hanged under a bogus alias, nobody realizing that they were also executing the mysterious Winter Palace bomber.
Unusually considering Lenin’s distaste for terrorism and Narodnaya Volya, Khalturin was elevated in post-Soviet times into an officially-approved revolutionary exemplar. The street Millionnaya running to the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg was cheekily renamed for him (it’s subsequently been changed back). Public monuments went up for the bomber, especially in the environs of his native soil around Kirov.
* April 3 by the Gregorian calendar; March 22 by the Julian calendar still in use in 19th century Russia.
** Appropriately given Khalturin’s Winter Palace work, khaltura is Russian for an item of shoddy construction. The word has no etymological connection to our man, however. (Linguistic tip courtesy of Sonechka.)
On this date in 1897, some 4,000 residents of Lafayette turned up to watch the hanging of two Parisian-born young men.
It had been nearly a full year since Martin Begnaud was discovered bound, gagged, and stabbed over 50 times in his general store at Scott, Louisiana, just outside Lafayette. That was on April 22, 1896.
The motive was self-evident: the prosperous late burgher had been plundered of several thousand dollars. But who did it?
The matter remained a mystery for many months, although two men were indicted for the deed — and blessedly never brought to trial.
But a few days after the murders, brothers Ernest and Alexis Blanc, teenage French orphans who were sharecropping on a plantation in April 1896 also abruptly disappeared without even bothering to sell their crop shares. This naturally raised suspicion as well, but their whereabouts were totally unknown and as months passed any hope of finding them had practically vanished.
Just after New Year’s 1897, the Blancs made a slight miscalculation: they turned up again in Scott and applied to work at their old plantation.
They were swiftly arrested and questioned separately. It did not take long for them to crack; indeed, full of guilt as they were, one might speculate whether these young Catholics didn’t return with the subconscious desire to purge themselves.
The older sibling Ernest explained that they had
secured the loan of a book treating of the daring deeds of Jesse James. From reading this book originated the idea and our plans for the murder. Seeing how poor we were, and how difficult to otherwise better our situation, we made up our minds to emulate the examples inculcated by the book.
The boys executed this plan with something less than the steel-hearted aplomb of a seasoned outlaw, however. Having gained access after hours to Begnaud and his store on the pretext of making a purchase, the brothers nervously bought tobacco … and then sardines … and then made small talk about mouse traps … all the while trying to screw up the nerve to do the deed, and get Begnaud to turn his back on them so they could have the advantage. When Ernest (as he claimed) finally murdered the shopkeep, “my hand trembled. The triangular instrument burned my hand. I shut my eyes.”
After that, they took off on a travel spree which ought to have carried them safely away from the scene of their crime for good. Instead they returned, like a dog to vomit, and gave up their lives to unburden their hearts. “We have talked too much,” Alexis said matter-of-factly to a reporter before their sentencing. “That is all. Had we kept the secret and not confessed, we would not be here.”
The fact that there was a sentencing at all was a bit of an achievement, and the Blancs have generally been considered the first legal hangings in Lafayette Parish. Actual or suspected malefactors were typically handled with more dispatch and fewer legal niceties previously (also making it something of a miracle that the original, wrongly-accused pair was still around to draw breath). Both Ernest and Alexis spent a good deal of their time jailed in New Orleans for their own protection.
The Lafayette Gazette scored a coup by securing a lengthy confessional from the hands of the doomed lads themselves, which ran on April 3 and reiterated the role of leisure reading in the crime spree.*
It was a life of tranquility, sweet and honest, which we regret having discarded to follow the evil promptings of ambition; the love of fortune, and the desire for gold which the devil suggested to us through the leaves of a book entitled the “James Boys.”** It was by reading this book we were lead to steal. Why work in the field? Why walk behind a plow? And at the end of the year receive not enough to buy clothes to put on our backs?
To rob one of his gold in a single night appeared to us much easier. The birds had eaten the crops and we were discouraged.
The murder itself, they said, had not been premeditated. But
[w]e were discussing the manner in which we would tie [Begnaud] so that he could not give the alarm before morning, when he said:
“Do not destroy my account books nor my private papers, without which I cannot make a living.”
In the silence of the night this sonorous voice appeared probably stronger than it really was and impressed us with a feeling impossible to express, and we rushed to his room and I (Ernest) stabbed Martin who was sitting on his bed. How many times I stabbed him I know not, nor did I ever know.
The Blancs logged some serious mileage in their months living on the Begnaud score. But Catholic guilt aside, it sounds as if their capture might really be attributed more to the country’s miserable economic situation.
After visiting Belgium and England we boarded a steamer for New York City arriving there on the 12th of July. We had already spent the greater portion of the $3,000 [stolen from Begnaud]. Then we commenced our journey across the United States, visiting Chicago, St. Paul, Helena, Portland, Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles, El Paso, Salt Lake City, Ogden, Omaha, Council Bluffs and St. Louis. In the latter city we spent the remainder of our money. Each one having ten dollars, we took the Frisco line on foot, passing through Missouri, Arkansas, Indiana Territory and Texas, and followed the Texas Pacific as far as Mexico, where we rested a few days. All along the route we tried to get work, but failed. There was nothing for strangers to do. It is in this manner that we reached Lafayette on January 2, 1897. Knowing so many people there we thought it would be easy to find employment. We knew that we were risking our necks, but being so miserable, did not care very much.
And this decision to risk returning in preference to starvation is, after all, nothing but the same calculation of risk and reward that people at the economic margins have always made: to descend a lethal mine to feed one’s family; to seek one’s fortune on the treacherous seas; or if it should come to that, not to walk behind the plow but to follow the lead of the James boys and make one’s bread by banditry.
* According to No Spark of Malice: The Murder of Martin Begnaud, the Gazette cleverly obtained the full rights to all the Blancs’ prison writings, and were able to turn them into a 23-page French pamphlet La Vie, le Crime et les Confessions d’Ernest et Alexis Blanc; ou, L’Histoire d’un Crime Horrible. This sold like hotcakes after the hangings and would now be in the public domain; sadly, it does not appear to be available online as of present writing.
** There were probably several books of this title then, just as there have been severalsince. This volume has a 1911 copyright, but if it is not a version of the same book the Blancs read, it’s surely not too far distant.