(Thanks to guest writer Victor Hugo, who having haunted these pages in many a post kindly permits us to republish the open letter he wrote on February 11, 1854 to Home Secretary (and future Prime Minister) Lord Palmerston. This is the English version as published by London’s Daily News on February 17 of that year; here is a French version of the same. Hugo at the time was living as an exile from the French Empire in the British-controlled Channel Island of Jersey; the case concerned was the highly controversial hanging of John Tapner on the nearby island of Guernsey for the murder of an aged Frenchwoman. Nobody ever hanged again on Guernsey after this possible wrongful execution.
The footnote appears in the original. -ed.)
I lay before you a series of facts which have transpired in Jersey within the last few years:
Fifteen years ago Caliot, a murderer, was condemned to death, and pardoned. Eight years ago Thomas Nicolle, a murderer, was condemned to death, and pardoned. Three years ago, in 1851, Jacques Fouquet, a murderer, was condemned to death, and pardoned.* In each of these cases the penalty of death was commuted for transportation.
In each case, to obtain a commutation of the sentence, a petition signed by the inhabitants of the island was sufficient.
In 1851 transportation was thought a sufficient punishment for Edward Carlton, who murdered his wife under circumstances of the most horrible description.
All this has taken place within fifteen years in the island from which I now address you.
Let us shift the scene from Jersey to Guernsey.
Tapner, a murderer, an incendiary, and a robber, is condemned to death.
At present, and the facts above stated prove the truth of the assertion, the penalty of death is virtually abolished in the opinion of every sane, well thinking man.
No sooner is Tapner condemned than a cry is heard, petitions are multiplied; one, energetically establishing itself on the principle of the inviolability of human life, was signed by 600 of the most enlightened of the inhabitants of the island.
And it is worthy of notice that not one minister of any Christian sect has deigned to affix his signature to either of these petitions. These men are probably ignorant that the cross is a gallows. — The people cried: “Mercy!” The priest cried: “Death!” — Let us pity the priest and resume our subject.
These petitions have been forwarded to you — a repsite has been granted. In similar cases a respite was equal to a commutation of the sentence — the island draws breath — the gallows is not to be erected — cruel error! the gallows is erected — Tapner is hung! and this after mature consideration.
Why should Guernsey be refused that which has been so often granted to Jersey?
Why deal to one concession and to the other affront? — Why should pardon be sent here and the executioner there?
Why this difference where all things else are equal? — What use was the respite but to aggravate the torture? — Was some mystery involved? To what purpose has been consideration?
Things are whispered, sir, to which I dare not listen. No! it cannot be true. What! a voice, and that of the most obscure, if it be the voice of an exile, cannot ask pardon from an insignificant corner of Europe for a man about to die without being heard by M. Bonaparte, without M. Bonaparte’s interference. What, M. Bonaparte, who has the guillotine of Bellay, the guillotine of Draguignan and the guillotine of Montpellier, not satisfied with all these! Has he still an appetite left for a gallows in Guernsey.
What — in such a case could you have refused justice to the proscribed for fear of giving umbrage to the proscriber. If so, the man was hung to accommodate, and the gallows erected as an act of courtesy, and could you have done all this to strengthen your alliance. No, no; I do not, I cannot believe it. I cannot even admit the idea, although I shudder at it.
Before the great and generous English nation can your Queen have the right of pardon, and M. Bonaparte that of a veto. At the same time that there is an omnipotent in heaven, can there be an omnipotent on earth? No.
I merely say that it was not possible for the French journals to speak of Tapner. I state the fact, but I draw no conclusion from it. However this may be, you have determined to use the terms of the despatch, that justice should take its course, and all is over.
However this may be, Tapner, after having been three times respited, and had his case three times under consideration, was hung yesterday, the 10th of February, and if there be any truth in the conjectures, which for myself I utterly reject, I present you, sir, with the bulletin of the day. you may, if such be the case, transmit it to the Tuileries. These details cannot be offensive to the Empire of the 2nd of December. The Eagle will hover with delight over the field of this victory! He is a gallows Eagle!
A garden joined the prison. In this garden the scaffold was erected. A breach was made in the wall for the prisoner to pass through. At 8 o’clock in the morning the neighbouring streets were crowded with spectators, of whom 200 of the privileged were admitted into the garden. The man appeared in the breach. He walked erect and with a firm step; he was pale, the red circle caused by anxious wakefulness surrounded his eyes.
The month just passed had added twenty years to his age — a man thirty years of age appeared fifty.
“A cotton night-cap was drawn over his head and turned up in front (says an eye-witness); he was dressed in a brown coat, which he wore during the trial, and an old pair of slippers.”
He walked partly round the garden, in a walk gravelled expressly for the occasion. The javelin men, the sheriff, the under-sheriff, and the Queen’s solicitor surrounded him. His hands were tied loosely, as we shall presently see.
According to English custom, while the hands were crossed upon the breast, a cord bound the elbows behind the back.
Behind him, the chaplains, who had refused to sign the petition for mercy, followed weeping.
The gravel walk led to the ladder — the cord was swinging — Tapner ascended the ladder — the executioner trembled: inferior executioners are at times susceptible of pity. Tapner placed himself under the noose, and pressed it over his head, and his hands not being firmly tied, he desired the executioner, who seemed quite confused, to arrange the rope. Then, “as if he had had a presentiment of what was to follow,” says the same eye-witness, “he said, ‘Tie my hands tighter.’ ‘That is unnecessary,’ replied the executioner.” Tapner standing thus with the rope round his neck, and his feet on the trap, the executioner drew the night-cap over his eyes, and nothing more could be seen of that pale face but the mouth moving as in prayer.
After some moments, the man destined to this high office pressed a spring — the drop fell, and the body fell abruptly through — the cord tightened, the body turned, and the man was considered dead.
“It was thought (says the eye-witness) that Tapner was killed at once by the rupture of the spinal marrow, he having fallen 4 feet,” but the witness further adds, “the relief of our oppressed hearts did not last two minutes.” Suddenly the man not yet a corpse, but already a spectre, moved.
The legs were thrown convulsively about, as if seeking some stay in the empty space; what could be discovered of the face was horribly disfigured; and the hands, which had become loose, were clasped and relaxed, as if to implore assistance. The cord around the elbows had snapped in the fall. Amidst these convulsions the rope began to swing, the elbows of the poor wretch came in contact with the edge of the trap, he clung to it with his hands, rested his right knee upon it, raised his body, and seemed to lean towards the crowd. Again he fell; and twice, says the eye witness, was the same scene repeated. He then raised his cap, and the crowd gained a sight of his face. This, it seemed, was too much. It was necessary to close the scene. The executioner reascended the scaffold, and caused the sufferer (I still quote the eyewitness) to let go his hold. The executioner and the victim struggled for a moment; the executioner triumphed. Then this wretch, himself like one condemned, threw himself into the aperture where Tapner was hanging, straightened his knees, and hung to his feet. The rope oscillated for a moment, bearing the victim and the executioner, the crime and the law. At last the executioner himself relaxed his hold; all was over; the man was dead.
Also a prolific drawer, Victor Hugo produced this Ecce in 1854, and several other depictions of the gallows in the ensuing years — possibly inspired by his horror at Tapner’s fate. Ecce is also known as John Brown, although that American slavery abolitionist was not executed until 1859.
You see, sir, how things were managed; the effect was completed; for the town, being built as an amphitheatre, everything was seen from the windows, all eyes were fixed on the garden. If it were the object to excite a feeling of horror, it was done: the crowd cried “Shame, shame,” and several females fainted.
During this time, Fouquet, who had been pardoned in 1851, is repeating. The executioner has converted Tapner into a corpse; Mercy, Fouquet into a man!
Between the time when Tapner fell into the trap, and that in which the executioner, no longer perceiving any motion, let go his feet, 12 minutes elapsed. Twelve minutes! Let that time be calculated, if any one knows by what clock to number the moments of suffering. Such, sir, was the mode of Tapner’s death.
The theory of example is satisfied; the philosopher alone mourns, and asks himself if this be what is called allowing justice to take its course? We must believe the philosopher to be wrong. The punishment has been frightful, but the crime was hideous. Must not society be defended? What will become of us if, &c. &c. The audacity of criminals would meet with no restraint. There would be nothing but atrocities and murders. A check is absolutely necessary. At least, it seems your opinion, Sir, that Tapners should be hung unless they be emperors. Let the will of statesmen be done!
Theorists, dreamers, those visionary spirits who have formed some notion of good and evil, cannot sound, without difficulty, certain depths of the problem of destiny.
Had Tapner, instead of killing one woman, destroyed 300, adding to the heap some hundreds of old men and children — had he instead of breaking a door, violated an oath — had he, instead of purloining a few shillings, stolen 25 millions — had he, instead of burning the house Saujon, overawed Paris by force of arms, he would have an ambassador at London.
It might, however, be as well to define a little more precisely the point at which Tapner ceases to be a robber, and Schinderhannes commences politician. Sir, this is horrible! We are members, you and I, of the infinitely small. I am only a refugee, you are only a minister — I am ashes, you are dust — Atom may surely speak freely to atom — where each is nothing, truth may be spoken. Well then, be assured, whatever may be the actual success of your policy, however glorious the alliance of M. Bonaparte, however honourable it may be for you to act in strict union with him, however far famed and magnificently may be your common triumph in Turkish affairs, this rope, which was fastened round a human sack, the trap which opened under his feet, the hope that, in falling, he would break his spine, the face become livid beneath the deep shadow of the gallows, the bloodshot eyes bursting from their sockets, the tongue lolling from the throat, that groan of anguish only stifled by the knot, the terrified soul which still clings to its tenement, the convulsed knees which seek some support, those bound hands mutely clasped and asking help — and that other man, that man of darkness, who throws himself upon these last struggles, who clings to the knees of the dying wretch, and himself hangs upon the hanging — Sir, these things are frightful!
Victor Hugo, The Hanged Man, c. 1855-1860.
And if haply the conjectures which I disavow be true, if the man who hung to the feet of Tapner were indeed M. Bonaparte, it would be monstrous. But, I repeat, I do not believe this. You have yielded to no influence; you simply said — let justice take its course; you gave this order, as you would have done any other, the prolonged discussions concerning capital punishment do not interest you. To hang a man, and to drink a glass of water are the same things in your estimation — you did not comprehend the importance of the act; it was the oversight of a statesman, nothing more. Sir, keep your blinders for earth, and do not offer them to eternity! Do not trifle with such deep interests, mix nothing of your own with them; it would be impudent. I can see more deeply into those interests than you — Beware! Exul sicul mortuus. I speak as from the tomb.
Bah! what matters it? A man is hung; and what more? a coil of rope to be wound up; some timber work to be taken to pieces a corpse to be buried. Certainly these are great matters! We will fire the cannon, a little smoke in the East, and all will be over. A microscope will be required to detect Guernsey and Tapner. Gentlemen, this rope, this beam, this corpse, this dreadful though invisible gallows, this suffering, carry us into immensity. They involve the social question, which is more important than the political; they do more — they carry us beyond earth. That, which is of little consequence, is your cannon, your politics, and your smoke. The assassin who to-morrow becomes the victim, as a soul which takes its flight holding the end of the gallows-rope — it is this which is frightful. Statesmen, who between two protocols, two dinners, and two smiles, carelessly press with white-gloved hand the spring of the gibbet, and the trap falls under the feet of the victim. Know you what you do? The infinite appears; the unfathomable and the unknown; the mighty shade which rises suddenly and terribly beneath your littleness.
Proceed! Let us observe the men of the old world at their work. Since the past still struggles let us examine it. Let us observe its successive phases.
At Tunis it is impaling; with the Czar the knout; with the Pope it is the garrot; in France the guillotine; in England the gallows; in Asia and America the slave market. All this will be swept away. We, the anarchists, the demagogues, the blood-drinkers, tell you, the protectors and saviours of the world, that human liberty is to be respected, human intelligence is holy, human life is sacred, and the human soul divine. Now go on hanging! But beware! The future opens. You think that living which is dead, and that dead which is living. The ancient form of society, but it is dead. You are deceived. You have stretched out your hand to the spectre of darkness, and chosen her for your bride. You turn your back upon life: it will soon arise behind you. When we pronounce the words Progress, Revolution, Liberty, Humanity, you smile, unhappy man, and point to the darkness in which we both are involved. Do you indeed know what that night is? Learn the truth; ere long the ideas will burst forth in all their strength and glory. Democracy yesterday took the name of France; to-morrow it will take that of Europe. The eclipse does but conceal the increasing magnitude of the star.
* We read in the Jersey newspapers, of January 7, 1851:
James Fouquet — We are informed that James Fouquet, condemned to death by our Royal Court, for the murder of Derbyshire, and whose punishment was commuted by her Majesty into transportation for life, was removed, about six months ago, from the prison at Milbank, where he had hitherto remained, to Dartmoor. He is nearly cured of the wound in his neck, and his conduct has been such, while at Millbank, that the governor of that prison thinks it extremely possible, there will be a further commutation of his sentence into banishment from the English territories.
While one might suppose that the plague of school shootings is a strictly recent phenomenon for our degenerated times, Benjamin Ratcliff hanged in Canon City, Colorado on this date in 1896 for gunning down the entire school board of Jefferson district, Park County.
One of the daughters had suffered a crippling injury that left one leg shorter than the other. She walked with a permanent limp.
Among the many woes this imposed upon her was an extreme difficulty reaching the Michigan Creek school, which sat on another ranch seven miles away from the Ratcliff home. Ratcliff petitioned unsuccessfully for some manner of accommodation but so far was the school board from consenting that he caught wind of a rumor allegedly being circulated by one of its number to the effect that Ratcliff pere had incestuously impregnated his own 18-year-old daughter.
Spitting mad, Ratcliff stopped by the schoolhouse on election day — May 6, 1895 — to air his grievances. When the school board arrived to open the polls he picked a fight that ended with Ratcliff gunning down all three members of the board with his Winchester rifle: Samuel Taylor, Lincoln McCurdy, and George Wyatt.
Four years before Ratcliff hanged, another settler who lived about 30 miles from the Ratcliff ranch had disappeared. Gottlieb Fluhmann was never accounted for in his own time, but his apparent remains were accidentally discovered in 1944; Ratcliff has sometimes been speculatively credited with that murder, too — though Ratcliff descendants reject that imputation as so much rehashed gossip.
Dennis W. Dilda was born on a farm near Rome, Georgia, in 1849. In his twenties he left home to avoid arrest after he stabbed a Negro to death for his money. He traveled to Texas, where he was soon charged with murdering a white man. Dilda fled and pursued, captured, tried, and acquitted, but there appears to be no record of either the crime or his trial. After being freed in Texas, he met and married his wife, Georgia, and soon followed her family from Texas to the Salt River Valley in the Arizona Territory. Over the next several years, Dilda got into several shooting scrapes in Phoenix, although no one was injured, but when his brother-in-law began to object to his sister’s choice of husband, the brother-in-law disappeared under suspicious circumstances. His body was never found and the family never heard from him again.
In September 1885, Dilda got a job helping to manage William Hamilton Williscraft’s farm. The farmhouse came along with the job and Dilda and his wife and children moved in. Williscraft went to live elsewhere but kept one room in the farmhouse for himself. The room was always securely locked and inside was a locked trunk.
Dilda was supposed to have worked alongside the farm’s general caretaker, “General Grant” Jenkins. By December, however, Jenkins had disappeared, and Williscraft noticed the lock had been pried off the door of his reserved room, the trunk had been opened and a gold watch and two pistols were missing. Dilda told his boss that his coworker had hated the job and complained all the time, and one morning he simply left. He denied knowing anything about the theft and suggested Jenkins had done it.
Williscraft, however, knew and trusted Jenkins, who had worked for him for twenty years. He didn’t believe his faithful employee would have stolen from him and then left without giving notice.
So he rode to town and swore out a warrant with the Yavapai County Sheriff, William J. Mulvenon, charging Dilda with the theft.
Deputy Sheriff John W. Murphy went to serve the warrant, stopping at rancher Charley Behm’s house on the way. He went to Dilda’s house several times on December 20, but each time Georgia Dilda told him her husband was out hunting.
Murphy borrowed Behm’s needle gun and tried one more time after dark. The sky was clear and there was full moon. Again, Dilda’s wife said he wasn’t home. In fact, he was hiding behind a fence, armed and waiting for his quarry, something Georgia was well aware of. When Murphy started to leave, Dilda shot him in the back. The deputy sheriff was able to fire the needle gun once before he collapsed and bled to death. Dennis and Georgia Dilda dragged his body inside the farmhouse and down into the cellar, and Dilda buried it there.
The next day, alarmed that Murphy hadn’t returned, Williscraft went to the farmhouse himself and found Murphy’s horse tied up just twenty feet from the house, and pools of blood in that yard. He gathered a posse of men, but Dilda had already left on foot and he was armed to the teeth, with Behm’s needle gun, his own .30 caliber Remington rifle, and Murphy’s .44 caliber revolver and cartridge belt.
Searchers found the corpse of “General Grant” Jenkins buried in the garden, concealed beneath a bed of replanted sunflowers. He had been shot in the head and had been dead for weeks. The searchers found Murphy’s body a short time afterwards.
A search party went looking for the fugitive and found him two days later, asleep under a tree. He did not resist when Sheriff Mulvenon arrested him. “You know it would be natural for a man in my position, if he could tell anything that would benefit him, he would do so,” Dilda replied simply when pressed for a confession. “But I have nothing to say.”
Dilda’s last night on earth, Wilson notes, “was restless, as he would doze only to awaken suddenly with a startled scream.” In the morning they took him to his favorite Chinese restaurant for breakfast and he ate heartily. At eleven o’clock, Dilda had one final photograph taken with his wife and two small children, Fern and John.
The hanging was at 2:00 p.m.
While Dilda was standing on the scaffold, Sheriff Mulvenon asked, “Is there anything you want?”
“A drink,” Dilda replied. Mulvenon let him take a long draw from a bottle of whiskey.
Some eight hundred men, as well as a dozen women, watched the hanging. Dilda went to his death quietly. The only commotion came from the audience: a reporter sent to cover the execution fainted as the trap was sprung.
The condemned man’s last words were, “Goodbye, boys!”
Georgia Dilda did not face charges for her role in Deputy Sheriff Murphy’s death. She returned to her family in Phoenix after the execution and never bothered to send for her husband’s body.
On this date in 1871, John Hanlon expiated a cold-case Philadelphia murder.
Back in September of 1868, a young girl named Mary Mohrmann vanished while playing outside — her outraged corpse to be discovered days later dumped on a vacant lot a few blocks away at Sixth and Susquehanna.
The crime had every hallmark of a neighborhood perpetrator, someone who would have had the ability to hide away the kidnapped or dead girl in his own home before disposing of her body nearby.
John Hanlon, a nearby barber who knew Mary’s mother, numbered among the several men suspected of the crime and even detained for it. But it was frustratingly impossible to pin a solid accusation on him or anyone else. There were a few witnesses who had seen Mary led off, and a few others who saw someone abandon a bulky encumbrance where Mary was found, but among them all nobody was prepared to venture an identification.
So there the matter rested, and little Mary Mohrmann’s file might to this day reside in the dusty back rooms of the Philadelphia police cold case lockers had Hanlon restraint enough to lay off the predation following his lucky escape.
He did have the wisdom to move (within Philadelphia), and even to change his name to “Charles Harris”, but some detectives who investigated the original case still had him in view. In December 1869, “Harris” caught a fire-year sentence for attempting to molest a 10-year-old girl — and this naturally strengthened the suspicion against him in the Mohrmann case to (as the Cincinnati Enquirer put it on Dec. 30, 1869) “morally certain” despite the “lack of legal evidence to place him on trial.”
Now sure of their mark — indeed, seemingly tunnel-visioned in a fashion highly conducive to a wrongful conviction — police resumed their efforts to remedy that want of legal evidence.
To this end, they provided the suspect a cellmate in the person of a thief named Michael Dunn, whose detail was to elicit from “Harris” particulars of his criminal career. Sure enough, this stool pigeon soon had a self-reported confession in hand.
This distasteful strategem made possible the case that hanged John Hanlon: with it, the state could situate its moral certainty in a coherent narrative of the crime that Dunn read into the court transcripts as issuing straight from the mouth of the accused.
While Hanlon denied to the last that he ever confessed anything to the convenient jailhouse snitch, posterity might comfort itself (as did contemporaries)* by the culprit’s conspicuous caginess when it came to his actual culpability. His refusal even to remark on his own guilt or innocence appeared to speak volumes.
So it is hardly a surprise that few other Philadelphians besides Hanlon’s own mother, sisters, and 16-year-old wife** were at all troubled by the cheat necessary to noose the man. The New York Herald, whose bulletins on the case ran towards sensationalism, reported “a general sense of relief” in the City of Brotherly love post-execution.
When it was found that … Hanlon had really been hung people began to breathe freer — they feel that now their innocents are safe. The influence exerted by Hanlon’s deeds on the minds of every one having helpless children in their family has been something wonderful … no sympathy has been manifested for the guilty wretch.†
He died firmly, having immersed himself in prayer in his last days, and pronounced himself at peace with the world and with his mortal fate.
Editorial from the Feb. 3, 1871 New York Tribune.
* Hanlon, understandably, did not share this equanimity and at sentencing subjected the court to a bitter rant against the prosecutors who stitched him up. “I will die by murder!” he cried. “If ever another such case should come to light, lay before the jury John Hanlon’s last words, and let no more blood be spilled by perjury.” (Harrisburg Patriot, Dec. 12, 1870) Towards the end, in an interview with one of the detectives responsible, a more resigned Hanlon peacably reproached the lawman, “You and I know how it was done, and I don’t want to talk about it.” (New York Tribune, Feb. 2, 1871) By this time, Hanlon had a dying man’s thirst for reconciliation, and he apologized to the detective for the sharp tone he had taken in court.
In his last statement on the gallows, he generically sought forgiveness from “all whom I have injured in any way whatsoever.” (Harrisburg Patriot, Feb. 2, 1871)
** She was 13 when they married.
† New York Herald, Feb. 2, 1871. This author admitted that “it was necessary to use Dunn as a witness … the end will justify the means; yet it is a bad precedent to establish.”
On this date in 1802, disgraced colonial administrator Joseph Wall was executed in London for crimes committed on the appropriately named island of Goree, off the coast of modern-day Senegal in Africa.
Paterson, who formerly kept a hatter’s shop in Catherine-street, Strand … was brought to the gangway by order of the Governor, without drum-head, or any other Court-martial, and flogged with a Boatswains cat, until his bones were denuded of flesh. Still the unfortunate man never uttered a groan. The Governor, who superintended the punishment, swore he would conquer the rascals [sic] stubbornness, and make him cry out, or whip his guts out … the flogging was continued until the convulsions of his bowels appeared through the wounds of his lacerated loins, when he fainted under the lash, and was consigned to the Surgeon’s care; but died in a few days.
The Irish-born Wall came from an “ancient and respectable family.” He became a soldier and distinguished himself in Cuba during the Seven Years’ War, but as a civilian he wasn’t up to par: he allegedly assaulted a girl he was courting, and later killed a man in a duel. In 1779, he became Lieutenant Governor of Goree, where he quickly developed a reputation for brutality.
Over the next few years his health began to suffer and, in 1782, he decided to return to England.
On July 10, 1782, shortly before Wall’s departure, a deputation of his men approached him and asked to be paid their back wages. Outraged by the effrontery of the help, Wall ordered the petitioners arrested on charges of mutiny. Without benefit of court-martial, seven of the men were sentenced to flogging, four of them to an incredible 800 lashes each. Three died a few days after the beatings.
Wall was charged with cruelty on his return home, but the charges were initially dropped for lack of evidence. After more witnesses turned up, Wall had to flee to the Continent, where he lived under an assumed name for several years. He came back to England in 1797 and in 1801 he surrendered himself to stand trial.
Since all but two of the witnesses against him had died by then, Wall may have expected that the case against him had weakened. Instead he found himself convicted of murder and sentenced to be hanged.
His execution didn’t go well: it was a “short drop” hanging, and when the trap sprung, the knot on the rope slipped around to the back of his head. He strangled to death slowly over twenty minutes.
On this date in 1888, New York City crime lord Danny Driscoll went to the gallows in the Tombs.
(Co-)leader of the Irish gang the Whyos — so named for a distinctive signaling hoot that once echoed through the Five Points — Driscoll inherited power when his predecessor Mike McGloin hanged in 1884.
This band emerged after the disruptions of the Civil War as Manhattan’s most powerful criminal syndicate. The Whyos’ run in the 1870s and 1880s marks a transitional phase from the wild and woolly Gangs of New York street-brawling era into the more businesslike mafiosos of the 20th century.
Like the Mos Eisley cantina, the Whyos’ seedy tavern of choice (aptly named The Morgue) was notorious for over 100 recorded homicides in gang shootouts and drunken brawls; like Jabba the Hutt, the gang also took a methodical approach to extortion, racketeering, and murder that put the “organized” in their crime. One goon answering to the colorful name Piker Ryan (and old time New York crooks are nothing if not flamboyantly named) was once arrested with an actual ultraviolence menu from which budget-conscious clientele could custom-order thrashings for delivery.
Both eyes blacked $4
Nose and jaw broke $10
Jacked out (knocked out with a Blackjack) $15
Ear chewed off $15
Leg or arm broke $19
Shot in the leg $25
“Doing the big job” (murder) $100 and up
These 1884 selections perhaps already represent a moderation from earlier methods; a previous Whyo hoodlum, “Dandy” John Dolan, was noted for the copper eye-gouger he wore on his thumb just in case he needed to — well, you know. Dolan hanged back in 1876.
Wait til they get a load of the clamps.
Driscoll kept a house with his young wife, and was charitable enough also to share it with a whore named “Beezie” Bridget Garrity — with whom Driscoll often caroused in the rough Whyo territory. One night in 1886 their alcoholic peregrinations brought them up against a brothel run by a tough named John McCart(h)y, against whom Driscoll had an existing grudge — and as they entered, Driscoll and McCarty wound up in a threshold gunfight. Beezie Garrity had the bad luck to catch a fatal bullet in the crossfire. Both men would blame each other for firing the shot that killed Garrity, and produce numerous witnesses of variously impaired credibility, but for the city there was no confusion at all: between the two, Driscoll was the man worth getting rid of.
“I’ve got a bad name with the police and they say ‘give a dog a bad name and we’ll hang him,'” Driscoll complained to the court. His criminal record reached back to childhood.
Newspapers in the run-up to the hanging were rife with stories of escape attempts and Whyo menace, but police correctly prophesied that the gang had not the numbers or vigor to make any real disturbance. A cordon of 150 gendarmes around the Tombs saw “small groups of young men with hard, wicked-looking visages whom the police pronounced remnants of the Whyo gang … among them were some of the brazen-faced young women of the class to which Beezie Garrity” belonged. (New Haven Register, Jan. 23, 1888) Driscoll died game, his neck efficiently snapped by a noose of white Italian hemp … which seems by retrospection an apt instrument for his passing.
After Driscoll and his fellow alpha male Danny Lyons both hanged in 1888, the Whyos shrank into memory. They would be overtaken in the 1890s by Monk Eastman‘s gang, one last dinosaur from a fading era of hardscrabble toughs; Eastman was in turn supplanted by the Five Points Gang — a more recognizably sophisticated operation to key the 20th century, composed predominantly of the growing Italian-American emigre demographic that would define organized crime for the Godfather era.
On this date in 1894, West Virginia hanged before a crowd of 3,000 for a mining camp murder three months before.
Hardy was reportedly already at odds with Thomas Drews, a fellow laborer in the booming Appalachian coal industry, over their mutual pursuit of the same woman when Hardy lost big to Drews in a craps game on October 13, 1893.
While it’s true that twenty-five cents doesn’t really seem all that “big”, this sum could represent a decent slice of a day’s pay in the coal mining game, and that in an industry where downward wage pressure had generated a ferocious national strike only months before. Hardy was profoundly nonplussed to have to fork over the sweat of his brow to a love rival and, with the added incitement of whiskey, shot Drews dead. (Ten more spectators at his hanging wound up in stir themselves for drunk and disorderlies.)
One of the most popular folk ballads in American history, the song has foggy origins but amazing reach: it has been performed, covered, and reinterpreted by a scores of artists including the Carter Family, Lead Belly, Duke Ellington, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Bob Dylan with the Grateful Dead.
DEAR SIR: We, the subscribers, request to say that there was found this morning a dead man, and still hanging, in our neighborhood, as the inclosed scrip which was found pinned to his back, will show you by whom it was done. We have made a suitable box and buried him near the place he was found hung. Should his friends wish to get his body, they can get it by applying to any of the subscribers. We trust that you will not attach any blame to any of the citizens of this neighborhood, as we were entirely ignorant of any of the circumstances until we found the body. From all we can learn, he was brought across the Chowan River to this place, and as soon as the men who had him in charge hung him, they went back.
It was signed by ten people of Pasquotank County, North Carolina.
The note they enclosed, retrieved from the hanging body, read:
Here hangs Private Samuel Jones, of Company B, Fifth Ohio regiment, by order of Maj.-Gen. Pickett, in retaliation for Private Daniel Bright, of Company L, Sixty-second Georgia regiment, hung Dec. 18, 1863, by order of Brig.-Gen. Wild.
Bright, a member of the newly-formed 66th North Carolina guerrillas, had been hanged as a spy. Jones had been obtained by casting lots among Union prisoners of war held at the Confederate capital of Richmond, in response to Pickett’s demand for some Yankee to execute tit for tat. (Pickett’s proclivity for retaliatory executions would soon require him to quit the country at the end of the Civil War.)
This report of the New York Times, Jan. 10, 1899, concerns the forgettable murderer whose electrocution was approved on his first day in office by New York’s new governor — Theodore Roosevelt, soon to become President of the United States.
SING SING, N.Y., Jan. 9 — Bailer Decker, the negro wife murderer of Tottenville, Staten Island, died to-day in the electric chair in Sing Sing Prison. The curren was twice turned on, each time with a voltage of 1,780. He was pronounced dead five minutes after the first shock.
Decker met death without flinching. Just before he started from his cell to the execution room he requested of Warden Sage that the other four murderers in the condemned cells be permitted to sing “Comrades.” The Warden granted the request, and Decker joined in the singing with a clear tenor voice.
The witnesses to the execution included H.F. Bridges, Warden of the Massachusetts State Prison, at Charlestown. That State, it is said, is likely to adopt the electric chair. Mr. Bridges expressed himself as pleased with the method of the execution.*
The crime for which Decker was executed was the murder of his wife, a white woman, on May 25 last. Decker was an oysterman, but spent much of his time in saloons. He was jealous, and shot the woman while in a drunken rage. He then fired a bullet into his own abdomen with suicidal intent.
An unusual handbill was distributed in the areas of North Somerset and North Devon in the late summer of 1858, about a somewhat peculiar criminal case: a child had been murdered, and a suspect arrested, but authorities had yet to find a body.
The handbills read,
£10 REWARD — Whereas I have received information which leads me to suppose a Girl of six years of age, named Hannah Burgess, has been murdered and her body concealed either on Exmoor Forest or in the vicinity of Porlock, I am therefore authorised to offer a Reward of Ten Pounds to any Person who shall discover the said Body. Should the Body be found, the person finding it is requested not to move it or remove anything on it, but immediately to communicate the circumstances to the nearest Police Constable, or to Mr. Superintendent Jeffs at Exford. The above stated Reward will be paid by Valentine Good, Esquire, Chief Constable, to any person who may become entitled to it under the conditions of this notice.
CRESANT JEFFS, Superintendent
Exford, August 24, 1858
The dry legalese of those notices had a tragic story behind it, involving “a man of weak character” with “dissolute habits,” and a little girl, his own daughter. William Burgess was hanged for her murder on this date in 1859.
William Burgess was a widower with several children and, like most men in that time and place, he was poor and made his living doing hard physical labor in the mines and farms. Unlike most men, however, he was not too proud to beg, going around to wealthier people’s homes and asking them to put up a collection for him and his motherless offspring. At one point the locals did raise a sum of money on behalf of the Burgess family, but the father spent it all on a drinking binge and people were far less sympathetic to him after that.
By the summer of 1858, William had placed all of his older children “in service,” working for landowners as domestics or farmhands. Only the youngest, Hannah Maria, remained with him; at six, she was too young to go to work. At first he asked his sister and brother-in-law in Porlock to take her in, but that arrangement fell through and William arranged for Hannah to be fostered by a local couple for two shillings a week.
Then, in June, he removed Hannah from her foster home and they both moved into a lodging house, Gallon House Cottage, run by Sarah Marley in the village of Simonsbath on Exmoor. William paid half a crown a week in rent for his bed, which he shared with Hannah and another lodger. For an extra two shillings and sixpence, Mrs. Marley looked after the child, fed her and did her laundry.
At the time, William had a steady job at the local iron mine and was paid two shillings a day, so Hannah’s care ate up a significant, but not unaffordable, part of his income.
Hannah’s father is described a placid man except when he was in drink, which apparently happened quite often. From comments that he made, it was obvious that he begrudged paying Sarah Marley the halfacrown each week, probably desiring instead to spend it on drink … It was also claimed that he did not appear to have any love for the child, no doubt this was assumed because of his attitude towards the child, although the reports do not clarify why this was thought.
Only three weeks after Hannah was placed in Sarah Marley’s care, William announced that he planned to move her again. He told Mrs. Marley to have Hannah cleaned up and her clothes packed and ready to go by the evening of Saturday the 24th because in the morning he was going to take her to stay with his sister in Porlock.
At half-past three in the morning on Sunday — a most unusual hour to be starting a trip of this kind — William got up, dressed Hannah and left the house with her and her spare clothing, what there was of it, wrapped in a bundle.
Their bedmate, a fellow laboring man named Cockram, was the last person to see her alive. William returned to Simonsbath later that day without his daughter.
Some time later, men working in the surface mines had noticed that some earth had been moved from the top of one of the shafts. Burgess was present and suggested somebody had stolen a sheep and buried the carcass for retrieval later on. (This was apparently a common practice.) The miners decided to exhume the dead sheep, butcher it and share the meat, but when they dug down, they didn’t find anything. They shrugged and returned to work.
William did not have a reputation for honesty, and as the weeks passed, when he was asked about Hannah he gave conflicting answers as to her whereabouts. He said once that she was at Brimsworthy, and another time that she was with her aunt.
On the tenth of August, he left town in a hurry, saying he was going to leave the country and take Hannah with him.
On the eleventh, a farmowner’s son was walking across one of his father’s fields and noticed a place where someone had had a small fire. The following morning, he and his brother went to the site again and stirred through the ashes. They found some charred bits of cloth, a piece of fur, and some buttons and hook-and-eye fasteners.
These rumors and suspicions caused several people to take an interest in the matter, and on Sunday 15th August, Mary Fraley, who also lived at Gallon House cottage, walked across the fields to where John Mills had discovered the pile of ashes. Mary also stirred about the remains and picked up a piece of lilac cotton print and a piece of black yard stocking. She later said she knew this piece of print to be part of the pinafore that Hannah had worn, in fact she had washed it at Sarah Marley’s house. Still intent to unravel what was ominously becoming what appeared to be the foreboding of a terrible tragedy, Mary Farley took the pieces to Mrs. Marley and asked her if she recognized them, to which Mrs. Marley replied, “Yes, it is a piece of Hannah Burgess’s pinafore.”
The concerned local vicar, W.H. Thornton, sent people to both Brimsworthy and Porlock to look for Hannah. When they came back and said she wasn’t in either place, Thornton was so alarmed he made a five-hour ride on horseback to the Chief Constable’s home in Somerset to tell him his suspicions.
Thornton brought the police to Simonsbath and was met by a crowd of villagers who told them about the disturbed soil they’d seen near the mine, which, in retrospect, was beginning to seem ominous. A group went back to the spot and found fresh turf had been laid over it. They raised the sod and found a rectangular hole, about four feet long by two feet wide. It was empty, but there was the telltale stench of decaying flesh. Something, or someone, had been buried there recently.
By the sixteenth of August, Superintendent Jeffs had put the word throughout rural North Devon and North Somerset, and its fishing villages and ports, to find William Burgess, as he was wanted on suspicion of murder. They learned he’d gotten a ferry ride to Swansea in Wales, and began looking there.
It didn’t take long: on the nineteenth, Jeffs personally arrested Burgess, who had found a job at the docks in Swansea. When Jeffs told him why he was being arrested, Burgess replied, “I done it and must die for it. I would sooner die than live. I shall never be happy no more.”
He wasn’t kidding about wanting to die: a few days after his arrest, Burgess tried to commit suicide by stabbing himself in the throat with a pair of scissors, opening them up to widen the wound, and struggling against the four police officers who held him down while a doctor stitched it shut. His jailers kept a much closer eye on him after that.
Meanwhile, the police and the community continued looking for Hannah’s body.
Although Burgess claimed he’d dumped it far off at sea, searchers focused on local mines where he’d previously worked. One of them, an iron mine known as the Wheal Eliza, had been shut down and was flooded. Deeming it too risky to send down a diver, the authorities spent months having the water pumped out “at great expense,” stopping from time to time when the mine became filled with foul air. It wasn’t until the evening of December 2 that conditions were safe enough to send someone down. By then the water level was down to just a few feet.
On some staging in the mineshaft, 207 feet down, rested a coarse hemp sack, tied with cord.
They brought it up on a windlass and untied it. Inside that bag were two large, heavy stones and another bag, containing the remains of a small child.
The search for Hannah Burgess was over.
The body was in surprisingly good shape, considering how long it had spent in the water. Sarah Marley, the Burgesses’ landlady, and William Cockram, who shared Hannah and William’s bed, identified it. Sarah said the child was wearing the clothes she was dressed in the morning she was last seen alive. She also identified the raincoat as William Burgess’s. Burgess had had a pair of child’s boots among his possessions when he was arrested. They were Hannah’s: Sarah knew them very well, for it was she who had laced the little girl’s boots every morning and tied them for her.
The local surgeon had a look at Hannah’s body and noted there were clods of dirt and bits of gravel stuck to her clothes and under her shawl — soil that matched that in the area of the apparent gravesite. Hannah had a skull fracture that would probably have been fatal, but not instantly so; the doctor thought the actual cause of death was suffocation.
William Burgess was tried less than two weeks later. It wasn’t much of a trial. Given the damning circumstantial evidence and his confession to Superintendent Jeffs, there was very little he or his defense counsel could say.
The defense lawyer, a Mr. Rotton, presented no evidence and merely made a statement to jury claiming there was no motive for the crime and suggesting Burgess was insane. He said he could have presented a better case for insanity, but a lack of time and money made this impossible. As it was, the only evidence he count point to was Burgess’s suicide attempt while in custody, and the fact that one of his brothers had died in a lunatic asylum.
The jury voted for conviction more or less immediately.
In the brief interval between his conviction and his execution, Burgess was visited by the usual stream of clergymen, including W.H. Thornton, the man who had brought Hannah’s disappearance to the attention of the police. To all of them he admitted his guilt and said he deserved to die. He continued to make threats of suicide and the authorities watched him very closely, lest he try to cheat the gallows. At least two and possibly four of his surviving children came to visit him during his last days.
In his final confession to the Reverend Thornton, he supposedly said,
I murdered my child for the purpose of saving two shillings and sixpence per week, that I might be enabled thereby to indulge myself in more drink; and to indulge in drunkenness I committed this awful deed. Do you sir, go back to Simonsbath and tell the drunkards there to forsake drunkenness and strong drinks, or they may yet stand a condemned felon as I now stand.
On the morning of his hanging he had the usual breakfast that was served to every inmate, and was allowed to attend chapel during the eight a.m. service, but he was not permitted to take Communion.
It was said that the prison officials were afraid Burgess might put up a fight when the time came, but he surprised them with “a fortitude that had not been anticipated.” His executioner was the famous William Calcraft.