On this date in 1862, Margaret Coghlan (sometimes spelled “Coughlin” or “Coghlin”) was hanged in Tasmania, Australia for the murder of her husband.
Described as a “gray-headed old woman,” Margaret was, like many residents of the colony, a transported convict.
The murder happened on January 5, less than six weeks before Margaret’s date with death. It was a fairly typical domestic homicide: the Coghlans had a drunken quarrel and Margaret’s husband threw an iron bar at her. He missed and she picked it up and beat him until he was unconscious and perhaps dead.
This much might be colored self-defense, but then Margaret administered coup de grâce by slitting her husband’s throat.
In an act worthy of one of those “dumb criminals” books, she then placed the razor in her husband’s own hand to try to make it look like he committed suicide. But the authorities did not believe the man could have beaten himself to death with the iron bar, cut his throat afterwards and left someone else’s fingerprints in blood on the razor.
According to newspaper coverage of the event, Margaret made the usual scaffold speech acknowledging the justice of her sentence and the foulness of her crime:
I acknowledge fully the justice of my sentence, I deserve this, and a thousand deaths, if that were possible, for the horrible crime I have committed. Drink, the curse that has been on me, strong drink, has caused all my misery—everything has been sacrificed for strong drink … May all forgive me whom I have injured, offended, or scandalised, by my evil living.
She was hanged by Solomon Blay, “the colony’s most unpopular public servant.” He was a convict like Margaret, transported from England after he pleaded guilty to counterfeiting. Margaret would turn out to be the last woman hanged in Tasmania, although the state didn’t abolish the death penalty for more than a hundred years after her execution.
But it was for what Pickett did on this date in 1864 — much less well-recalled today but to the 1864 New York Times correspondent exemplifying “the madness of rebel leaders” — that he had to flee to Canada after the war, for fear of being prosecuted for committing a war crime.
North Carolina men in particular had a reputation (of arguable veracity) for absenting themselves; and, as the state as a whole was the most reluctant (and last) seceder, no small number of those deserters were ducking out for ideological reasons. Plenty of onetime Confederate conscripts who conceived greater loyalty to the Union than to their state shed gray uniforms for blue.
Licking his wounds from the New Bern sortie down the road at Kinston, Pickett recognized a couple of his prisoners as his own former soldiers. They had a testy exchange with the beaten general, and Pickett had them up for a summary court martial in a flash. On February 5, Joe Haskett and David Jones were hanged for desertion.
There followed an interesting exchange between the rival commanders.
Intending to forestall any tit-for-tat killings of POWs, the Union general warned Pickett to treat them humanely.
Dept. of Virginia and North Carolina, Confederate Army:
General: I have the honor to include a list of 53 soldiers of the U. S. Government who are supposed to have fallen into your hands on your late hasty retreat from before New Berne. They are the loyal and true North Carolinians and duly enlisted in the Second North Carolina Infantry. I ask for them the same treatment in all respects as you will mete out to other prisoners of war.
I am, very respectfully, your obedient servant, JOHN J PECK
Pickett must not have appreciated having his martial prowess busted on by his opposite number, because he returned a sarcastic reply promising to use Peck’s list to identify deserters. (In a subsequent letter, he threatened to meet retaliations with 10-for-1 hangings. Pickett showed an “imperious and vaunting temper” in the postwar judgment of Attorney General Holt. Or more directly put, he comes off as an asshole.)
GENERAL: Your communication of the 13th instant is at hand. I have the honor to state in my reply that you have made a slight mistake in regard to numbers, 325 having “fallen into your(our) hands in your (our) late hasty retreat from before New Berne,” instead of the list of 53 with which you have so kindly furnished me, and which will enable me to bring to justice many who have up to this time escaped their just deserts. I herewith return you the names of those who have been tried and convicted by court-martial for desertion from the Confederate service and taken with arms in hand, “duly enlisted in the Second North Carolina Infantry, U S Army.” They have been duly executed according to law and the custom of war.
Your letter and list will, of course, prevent any mercy being shown any of the remaining number, should proper and just proof be brought of their having deserted the Confederate colors, many of these men pleading in extenuation that they have been forced into the ranks of the Federal Government.
Extending to you my thanks for your opportune list,
I remain, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
G. E. PICKETT
He did it, too.
The Confederate chaplain John Paris recounted for his side’s press the scene, a baker’s dozen of men on a large platform, heads sacked, an unknown cross-eyed executioner waiting to strip the bodies of their clothes as payment. Most were local boys, dying shockingly under the eyes of their own family and acquaintances. Reportedly, a number of shaken Confederate soldiers deserted to New Bern after witnessing the scene.
The thirteen marched to the gallows with apparent resignation. Some of them I hope were prepared for their doom. Others I fear were not. On the scaffold they were all arranged in one row. At a given signal, the trap fell, and they were in eternity in a few moments. The scene was truly appalling. But it was as truly the deserters doom. Many of them said I never expected to come to such a end as this. But yet were deserters, and as such they ought to have expected such a doom. The names of these misguided men were, John I Brock, Wm. Haddock, Jesse Summerlin, A I Brittain, Wm. Jones, Lewis Freeman, Calvin Huffman, Stephen Jones, Joseph Brock, Lewis Taylor, Charles Cuthrell, W. C. Daughtry and John Freeman.
The knell of vengeance has sounded. … deserters in North Carolina must now open their eyes, from the mountain to the seaboard. Desertion has become in our army a desperate disease, and desperate cases require desperate remedies. Let fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters and wives, exhort their friends at all times to be faithful to their country under all circumstances.
In all, 22 alleged deserters hanged over the course of February in this affair, the 13 executed together on February 15 obviously accounting for the lion’s share. The incident is the likely inspiration for the novella published later in 1864 by a Confederate North Carolina cavalryman: The Deserter’s Daughter; most certainly, Kinston made the rounds in the North to great indignation.
And an event so notorious was bound to draw attention with the end of the war: even in 1864, the New York Times had editorialized demanding “instant and relentless retaliation … there could be no such thing as acquiescence or empty protest. Even if the Government could bring itself to this abject mood, the public indignation would not tolerate it.” Officers who had been stationed at New Bern did not neglect to keep this sentiment alive in the chain of command, pushing for punitive action to avenge their former comrades.
In the end, there would be none.
Playing it safe, Pickett skipped out for Canada (and even changed his appearance) in 1865 as a board appointed by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton opined that he and other parties to the hangings were “guilty of crimes too heinous to be excused by the United States government … there should be a military commission immediately appointed for [their] trial … to inflict upon [them] their just punishment.” That was especially so as it emerged that some of the hanged had “deserted” from stuff like bridge guards and state militias — not (in the view of prosecution-minded Unionists) the Confederate army proper.
But as the investigations continued into 1866, they zeroed in on Pickett as their specific target. And, they ran out of steam — or into a stone wall.
In 1866, Pickett appealed from exile to Ulysses S. Grant, who just so happened to be an old West Point chum of Pickett’s.* “Certain evil disposed persons,” Pickett wrote, “are attempting to re-open the troubles of the past.” With the Supreme Court’s Ex parte Milligan ruling, the prospect of a military tribunal evaporated.
Grant had the case shelved, even against Congressional appeals, until everybody just gave up and dropped it. “I do not see how good, either to the friends of the deceased, or by fixing an example for the future, can be secured by his trial now,” Grant said once of his old associate. Plus ça change.
* In fairness to U.S. Grant, we are bound to report his stated reason for opposing any prosecution of Pickett: it would violate the grant of clemency he himself had made to secure General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.
On this date in 1859, Paul Loc, a Catholic Vietnamese Martyr, was summarily beheaded at Saigon ahead of a French landing.
The orphaned child of a Catholic family from Cochinchina (southernmost Vietnam), Paul Loc was brought up by a pastor and went to seminary.
His ministry during the reign of a sovereign very hostile to the inroads of Christian missionaries, lasted less than two years. At that point, France went to war to conquer Cochinchina.
At that point, Father Loc was clapped in prison, but even then the earnest young man’s treatment seems to have been light. But on this date, French warships had been sighted ascending the Dong-Nai River towards Saigon itself, and the city’s panicking defenders martyred the priest almost without warning.
Revolutionary peasants made the rich agricultural lands of Andalusia among the anarchist strongholds: the shadowy La Mano Negra, the “Black Hand”, had been smashed up with a number of executions in the early 1880s. This was not the end of agitation, however: its successor movement, Los Desheredades, “the Disinherited,” continued to grow.
On the night of January 9, 1892, a band of several hundred agricultural workers boldly raided Jerez in an attempt to free some anarchist prisoners. They were driven off after a night’s fearful fighting — a prototype “anarchist outrage” for headlines the world over. It was, for Federico Urales, “an act of dreams. Sticks and sickles to beat the well-fed lords of Jerez, from the men who starved to keep to keep their lands.” (Source, in Spanish)
From the Melbourne, Australia Argus, Jan. 11, 1892
“We know what the workers are: wicked people! With them, one has the bread in one hand, and the garrote in the other.” -from Vicente Blasco Ibanez’s La Bodega, in which the Jerez mutiny is a central theme. It’s available in the public domain in the original Spanish
Dozens of “outragers” were captured in hot pursuit that next morning. The investigation quickly honed in on the four ringleaders, who were put to death this date. One allegedly left a written statement conveniently renouncing anarchy. Another spoke from the platform, and “declared that he died in the cause of the working classes, and he appealed to the crowd not to respond by expressing sympathy.”*
But many others would suffer lengthy, non-capital sentences on evidence perhaps more expedient than rigorous. The poet Fermin Salvochea spent most of his fifties in prison on a spurious accusation of having conspired in the Jerez attack.
And these executions scarcely quelled Spain’s unrest. Angry cadres demonstrated (or rioted) against the executions throughout Iberia, provoking the familiar cycle of more police raids, more outrages, more martyrs … for years to come, and culminating in the indiscriminate arrests and mass torture of Barcelona anarchists in that city’s Montjuic Castle in in 1896-97
* From the Feb. 11, 1892 New York Times, which proceeds to describe the distinctive execution method thus:
[The garrote] is a brass collar, which is contracted by means of a screw in the back. As the screw is turned the collar shuts upon the neck of the condemned, and at the same time the sharpened steel point of the screw enters the spinal marrow where it joins with the brain, causing instantaneous death.
On this date in 1804, two known as John Setton/Sutton and James May were hanged at Greenville, Mississippi.
They were, in fact, Wiley “Little” Harpe and his outlaw partner Peter Alston — the survivors (well, up until then) of a notorious gang of Mississippi River pirates and frontier highwaymen.
Their villainous coterie had plagued the Mississippi (river) and the proximate byways from Kentucky down to Mississippi (state), making a couple of spots on the great river legendary pirate hideouts in the process.
With a price on the head of the notorious leader Samuel Mason, “Sutton” and “May” coldly murdered their captain to turn in his head for the reward.
They got their reward alright. They were recognized as Mason’s own fellow-bandits, and themselves put on trial for piracy.
The Harpe Brothers
This date’s hanging was not only the end of the Mason gang — it was the end of the Harpe Brothers.
Micajah Harpe (“Big Harpe”) and Wiley Harpe were brothers or cousins who cut a bloody swathe through the early American Republic, such that some have acclaimed the Harpes that young nation’s first serial killers. They were, in one historian’s words, “the most brutal monsters of the human race.”
Heading west out of North Carolina after Revolutionary War service as Tory irregulars, the Harpes made for Knoxville, Tennessee, kidnapping wives for themselves along the way. When they were rousted out of their cabin on accusations of livestock-rustling in 1797, their notorious careers really began in earnest.
This was, then, the extreme western frontier of the United States, and the Harpes were consequently able to plunder in wilderness impunity.
Big Harp confessed before dying in 1798 to 20 murders, probably not counting the babies. Estimates are as high as 40, but usually around 30. After two killings, one in Knox County and one on the Wilderness Trail, the Harps left Tennessee in December 1798 for Kentucky, where they killed two traveling men from Maryland…
The final stretch of slaughter took place soon after this, in July 1798, when the Harps returned to Eastern Tennessee. The victims included a farmer named Bradbury; a man named Hardin; a boy named Coffey; William Ballard, who was cut open, filled with stones, and dumped in the Holston River; James Brassel, with his throat ripped apart on Brassel’s Knob; John Tully, father of eight. On the Marrowbone Creek in south central Kentucky, John Graves and his teenaged son, out planting crops, had their heads axed. Moving toward Logan County, the Harps came upon a little girl, whom they killed, as they did a young slave on his way to the mill. Once in Logan County, near today’s Adairville, near the Whippoorwill River, they butchered an entire migrating family asleep in their camp, but for one son who survived. (Source)
TruTV also has an account of them sending a hijacked flatboat passenger over a cliff, and bashing a little girl’s head in against the side of a bridge.
“They murdered all classes and sexes, without distinction,” a Knoxville man* recounted years later, “not for plunder but for the love of shedding human blood.” We don’t have Little Harpe’s conscience on the record, but Big Harpe would only express remorse for one of his dozens of homicides: smashing his own infant child against a tree to make it stop crying.
That sentiment would come at the end, when Big Harpe had been cornered by a posse after murdering a frontier woman. The widower in that posse halved the Harpe menace by hewing Big Harpe’s head from his shoulders.
For generations after the subsequent roosting-spot of this deathly visage — presented to a justice of the peace to verify the man’s death (and pocket the price on his literal head), then hung up for public display by the intersection of Morgenfield, Henderson, and Maidensville Roads in Union County — was known as Harpe’s Head.
Little Harpe’s subsequent career with Sam Mason and his own violent demise capped the Harpe brothers’ nefarious legacy.
Their name was so infamous that many of their family changed it … including, according to rumor, the ancestors of legendary Wild West lawman Wyatt Earp.
* J.W.M. Breazeale was part of the posse that hunted down Big Harpe, and a witness to Big Harpe’s death, and gives the outlaw the (possibly tall-tale) last words directed to his slaughterer in mid-beheading: “You are a God damned rough butcher, but cut on and be damned.”
On this date in 1862, Private Samuel H. Calhoun of the 2nd Kentucky Infantry was executed by the Union Army in Bardstown, Kentucky, for murdering a local farmer.
(Calhoun had previously killed the farmer’s pig, and the farmer had Calhoun arrested. So this was settling the score.)
“I shall pass away, the moral wreck of a degenerate age,” he signed off in his published confession, dictated to Jonathan Harrington Green. “Adieu.”
If the confession is to be believed the farmer was just the last of maybe dozens of Calhoun’s victims, slain remorselessly everywhere from North Carolina to Mexico over the preceding years. But is this unverifiable
On this date in 1816, four British sailors on the HMS Africaine were hanged for buggery. One other crewman suffered 200 lashes; a second, a 17-year-old sentenced to 300, had the flogging stopped at 170 stripes by a surgeon who feared the youth’s life was in danger.
The Africaine: it was a French ship originally, captured in 1810 by the British.
“The Africaine had a reputation as a ‘man-fucking ship’ long before evidence of sodomitic practices came to the attention of Captain [Edward] Rodney,”* Arthur Gilbert explained in his seminal study published in the very first (volume 1, issue 1 — 1976) edition of the Journal of Homosexuality. “There were several reports of “uncleanliness” on the ship early in 1815 and, on one occasion, two seamen were punished for ‘lying on a chest together one night’.”
Late in 1815, Captain Rodney determined to crack down on the man-fucking and by threatening them with “dreadful consequences” coerced two of the crew into implicating themselves and a great many others in a buggery ring. As the Africaine made its way back to Portsmouth that autumn, it was scene to an ever-widening investigation.
Out of about 220 to 230 men aboard, some 50 members of the crew would ultimately be involved in the investigation, 23 of them charged or implicated with a wide variety of riffs on “the unnatural crime”: one Raphael Seraco was seen “with his yard actually in the posterior of John Westerman”; another sailor “placed his yard between [my] thighs and in that position effected an emission”; still another had “his yard against the backside of the boy Christopher Jay and … in quick motion as if he was committing the unnatural crime”; one of the ship’s boys “being much hurt sung out ‘Oh'” during an attempted rape; and someone had been rogered “on the flag stones of the Galley.”
While seabound sodomy was hardly unheard-of, the practitioners among the Africaine‘s crew had seemingly grown unusually (and dangerously) bold about practicing it without a modicum of concealment, “copulating in plain view like dogs.”
“God must put it into men’s heads to commit the unnatural crime of buggery,” an accused boatswain’s mate had allegedly declared. “If God was to put it into his head to fuck a man, [I] would as soon do it as fuck a woman.”
The sheer number of men rolled up in accusation and counter-accusation made across-the-board death sentences inconceivable. And among those implicated, it was extremely difficult to ascertain truth when fear and favoritism and innuendo were so thick in the air — “terrified as we were,” as one accused man later recounted, “in the idea of being prosecuted for the horrible crime imputed to us, dismayed and alarmed … in the duress of our situation, our minds and feelings every moment distorted by hope and fear without a friend to counsel us.”**
Blackstone had long before noted that the witch-hunt potential of a charge of sexual deviance demanded “that the accusation should be clearly made out.” To Rodney’s credit, he didn’t start stringing people up from the yardarm while the Africaine was at sea.
In port, Captain Rodney gave the matter over to the Admiralty with what one imagines was probably no small relief. In the grand tradition of prosecutorial discretion, the court-martial board proceeded to break down the many accused into those who would be charged and those who would cut deals to implicate the charged.
Seraco and Westerman, mentioned above, were the first sentenced to death, and then Seraco again condemned along with another partner, John Charles. (Seraco had been implicated by several people during Captain Rodney’s seaside inquiry, and Seraco in turn had accused no fewer than 14 of his mates in a vain attempt at self-protection.)
One of the other (uncharged) seamen giving against Seraco offered this juridically damning and sociologically interesting testimony:
Seraco put the question to me whether I would let him fuck me. I told him I did not much mind. He connected with me forward on the Starboard side. He entered my backside — I did the same with him three times. John Charles the prisoner was the first who mentioned the thing to me or I should never have had such a thought in my head.
Testimony of this nature, Gilbert says, posed a problem of jurisprudence: this was evidence not directly bearing on the charge that the defendant committed a specific act of sodomy with the other defendant. Legally, unless the Seraco-Charles liaison had been the charge at the bar, this testimony was extraneous. The Attorney General opined that, in a like civilian trial, he would have advised against executing a death sentence that had been obtained with such evidence — and that fact may have helped procure a pardon for a sailor named Joseph Tall.
Raphaelo Treake (Troyac), condemned with Tall, got the same favor — but Treake was immediately re-tried for a different act of buggery and re-condemned. Treake was another Italian, and Albert notes that their common crime was popularly euphemized as le vice Italien and considered a characteristically Mediterranean indulgence. “All the scandalous behavior in the Africaine has been owing to Treake and Seraco. They are the origin of the whole of it,” another crew member — a Spanish Morisco — testified.†
As January 1816 unfolded, several others went before the court martial and received prison sentences (or in the odd case, acquittal) as the great sodomy-and-uncleanliness audit proceeded.
By month’s end, it was all finished but the noosings.
On February 1, the four condemned “died truly penitent acknowledging the justice of their sentences and admonishing their shipmates to take warning from their unhappy fate not to be guilty of such detestable practices.” The ship’s clipped log entry tersely recorded that unhappy fate.
a.m. Fresh breezes and cloudy … employed getting ready for punishment. At 9 made signal [with] a gun. At 11 executed Seraco, Westerman, Charles, and Treake [for] a breach of te 29th article of war, and punished alongside [John] Parsons … with 200 lashes and [Joseph] Hubbard with 170 lashes for a breach of the 2nd article of war as sentenced by a court martial.
p.m. … sent the bodes of the executed to the hosptal. Read articles of war to the ship’s company.
On that same date as the poor buggers of the Africaine suffered their various corporal punishments, the Portsmouth commander Admiral Edward Thornborough appointed three captains to lead an inquiry into whether this floating Sodom was the fault of Captain Rodney’s soft discipline. The investigators heard good testimony all around among the ship’s junior officers to the conduct of Captain Rodney, and within days exonerated all the higher-ups, only pausing to complain that there could have been more frequent religious services and readings of the Articles of War.
And that was that … even for the ship itself. By mid-February, the HMS Africaine was being stripped down at a Thames dock. She would be officially decomissioned and broken up that year.
How exceptional were the Africaine sodomites in the British navy as the 18th century gave way to the 19th?
I’d like to start with a question about the historiography. Arthur Gilbert brought this incident to wide public view in the 1970s, and you’ve written about it much more recently. How has the scholarly sense of homoeroticism in the British navy, or in western militaries generally, evolved in the past forty years or so?
Its evolution has paralleled the gay rights movement that began with the Stonewall riots. Generally, scholars have come to realize that homoeroticism in the ranks is more than an isolated phenomenon. Most research on the matter, however, has centered on the persecution of gay service members or the rights of gays to serve openly: can it be allowed, what problems would it create, how military personnel and the public might deal with it, etc. Scholarly interest in the historical dimension of military homoeroticism has been confined to an isolated handful of researchers. Most scholars are dealing with more contemporary and more relevant aspects of the subject.
How widespread were same-sex trysts in the Royal Navy at this time?
No idea. This is, of course, what everyone wants to know, and there is simply no data that even suggests a guess let alone an answer.
What was it about the case of the Africaine that resulted in this sizable court-martial and multiple hanging, when at least some other incidents of “buggery” and “uncleanliness” over the years appear to have been dealt with quietly or discreetly ignored?
What made the Africaine different? The number and conspicuousness of the Africaine business meant it had to be dealt with. All other known incidents that produced courts martial or even summary punishment involved only pairs of mariners. Admittedly, some mariners were involved with multiple partners, but the relationships were dyadic rather than involving multiple partners simultaneously.
Do we know if men who engaged in homosexual behavior within the navy also did so on terra firma, or is that an “identity” most took on specifically to adapt to their confined all-male environment at sea? Is there any connection or analogue we can speak to between these cases and the simultaneous molly culture?
I have only run across mention of one or two navy sodomites who took their proclivities with them on land. This does not mean it didn’t happen. It is just that it is almost impossible to follow sailors once they leave their ships. They leave almost no evidence of their individual activities when not signed on board navy ships. No, I see no parallels or connections to eighteenth-century molly culture.
This is a a tangential point, but I was struck by your remark relative to the Italian Rafael Seraco that “sodomy, Popery, and Italy were inseparably linked in the minds of eighteenth-century Englishmen.” Why was that?
Sodomy, Popery, and Italy were linked in the minds of Englishmen long before the eighteenth century. Sodomy arrived in England as an Italian import according to popular views prevalent at least since the early seventeenth century, and probably earlier. The pope and the Catholic Church were also considered the handmaidens of sodomy at the same time. Part of this is due to raging anti-Catholicism in England dating from the Reformation of Henry VIII. Another part of it is the human tendency to blame the “other” for real or perceived ills: Jews, Communists, Fundamentalists, Liberals, whoever is handy. Catholics and sodomites were easy targets for Englishmen from the sixteenth century onward.
On this date in 1846, a 46-year-old woman lamed from a fall got noosed in her rocking chair in Fulton, N.Y.
Elizabeth Van Valkenburgh had been widowed at 34 with four children, when her first husband died of dyspepsia and exposure. “There is no foundation,” the prisoner explained, “for the report that I had in any way hastened his death, nor did such a thing ever enter my mind.”
She remarried shortly thereafter to John Van Valkenburgh, apparently a violent drunk, whose depredations eventually led Elizabeth to get rid of him by spiking his tea with arsenic. “To this act I was prompted by no living soul,” she said in her confession. “I consulted with no one on the subject, nor was any individual privy to it.” She may have been keen to clear any public suspicion from her oldest children — they were old enough to try to get mom to move out of the house with them and offer to help take care of the younger kids. She suffered a fall from a barn’s hayloft as she was hiding out, which crippled her leg.
Oh, and one other thing. On the eve of her hanging, the condemned murderess produced a germane revision to her aforementioned confession, recalling that there may actually have been some foundation for the report that she also hastened her first husband’s death.
With respect to my first husband I should have stated that about a year before his death I mixed arsenic, which I purchased several months previously at Mr. Saddler’s in Johnstown, with some rum which he had in a jug, of which he drunk once, and by which he was made very sick and vomited, but it did not prevent his going to work the next day and continuing to work afterwards, until the next June. His feet and the lower part of his legs became numb after drinking this, which continued until his death, and his digestion was also impaired.
I always had a very ungovernable temper, and was so provoked by his going to Mr. Terrill’s bar where he had determined to go and I had threatened that if he did go he should never go to another bar, and as he did go nothwithstanding this, I put in the arsenic as I have said.
Because of the her impaired mobility, the condemned poisoner was carried in her rocking chair to the gallows, and stayed right in it for the whole procedure. They noosed her up sitting in the rocker, and dropped the platform to hang her as she rocked away in it.
On this day in 1894, Bomberger was hanged in the four-year-old state of North Dakota for the gruesome mass murder he’d committed the year before. His execution within sight of the Kreider home where he’d slaughtered six people (and raped a seventh) went off smoothly, but it almost didn’t: when the trap was sprung, his feet were only six inches above the ground.
Born in Pennsylvania in 1871, Bomberger left home as a teenager and worked his way west. At some undetermined point, he was hired to work on the Kreider on a farm southeast of Cando, North Dakota, a job that came with his own room within the farmers’ home. Bomberger was apparently a relative of some sort, and hailed from the same part of Pennsylvania the Kreiders were originally from.
The Kreider family was a large one. Besides Daniel S. Kreider* and his wife Barbara, there were eight children: sons Aaron, 12, David, 7, and Henry, 3, and daughters Annie, 15, Bernice, 13, Murby, 11, Mary, 9, and Eva, 5.**
Bomberger became infatuated with the eldest daughter Annie and would not be put off by her rebuffs. After midnight on July 6, 1893, he sneaked into her bedroom, which was next to his own; Annie kicked him out and threatened to tell her parents if he didn’t quit bothering her. Bomberger slunk back to his bed, furious and humiliated, and plotted revenge.
On the morning of July 7, Bomberger found Daniel Kreider asleep in bed and shot him with a double-barreled shotgun.
Then he went down to the kitchen where Mrs. Kreider was fixing breakfast and shot her to death as well.
And last, he penned up Annie, Aaron, Eve and Henry in his bedroom.
With those kids locked up, Bomberger tracked down Murby, Mary and David, and blasted them with a single load of buckshot each.
13-year-old Bernice attempted escape by jumping out a second-floor window and running for help. Bomberger caught her, and she cried and begged to be allowed to see her family again. He obligingly took her inside, showed her each of the dead bodies (Mary turned out to be still alive, so Bomberger slit her throat), then then shot Bernice dead at close range while she cowered in the corner with her hands over her face.
While Bomberger was thus occupied, Aaron, Eva and Henry escaped his room and hid elsewhere in the farm. The murderer wasn’t interested in them anyway; he turned his attentions to Annie. He raped her in her bedroom, took her to the barn, raped her again and then forced her to make his breakfast, give him $50, and pack his lunch.
Bomberger then tied Annie up, put her in the barn’s loft, saddled up and rode straight for the nearby Canadian border on one of the children’s horses.
He did make it to Manitoba, but that didn’t stop Cando’s sheriff from hopping the 49th parallel himself to arrest the murderer. Bomberger had little to say for himself. He seemed indifferent to his fate and, when asked to explain why he’d committed such a horrific crime, blamed booze.
He even pleaded guilty: the entire court procedure lasted fifteen minutes.
Almost 120 years later, amateur historian R. Michael Wilson would say that, of all the criminals he’d written about in his extensive studies of crime in the western United States, Albert Bomberger stood out as one of the most horrible.
The dead Kreiders were buried together in one grave at a Mennonite cemetery in their home state of Pennsylvania. Some 15,000 people attended their funeral. The murder farm was sold at auction; the house where the murders took place burned down in 1917.
As for the surviving children, they stayed in Pennsylvania after the murders. Annie married, had at least two children and lived a long life: she died in 1960, age 82.
* The brother of future Pennsylvania Congressman Aaron Kreider (R).
** Various sources give them different ages; these are the best estimations I could make. It’s also worth noting that Murby’s name is occasionally given as “Merby” or “Melby” and Bernice may be called “Beatrice”. I’m going with the names as they were listed in the cemetery records, but those could well be wrong.
One hundred and fifty years ago, day to day,* the Apache chief Dasoda-hae — better known as Mangas Coloradas, “red sleeves” — was extrajudicially executed by U.S. Army soldiers at Fort McLane, New Mexico.
This legendary Apache statesman’s nickname was Spanish, because he’d spent the 1830s and 1840s fighting Mexicans seeking bounties on Apache scalps. Indeed, when the U.S. in 1846 attacked Mexico, Mangas Coloradas gave U.S. soldiers safe passage through Apache territory, and subsequently signed a treaty with the victorious Americans. (There’s a handy map of the scene in this pdf.)
He did his utmost to keep relations with the gigantic industrial society on his borders safely diplomatic, but over the 1850s Apaches spiraled into conflict with aggressive Anglo settlers drawn by the call of gold. In 1861 Mangas Coloradas married his daughter to another Apache chief, Cochise. These two were able to keep whites at bay with raids for a short time (and given a big assist from the resource diversion of the Civil War). But there was only one way this was going to end.
In January 1863, Mangas Coloradas — about 70 years old and still alive to the impossibility of long-term success by force of arms — arrived under a flag of truce to negotiate a ceasefire with Brigadier General Joseph Rodman West. West had him clapped in irons instead, and let his soldiers know exactly how to handle their prisoner.
Men, that old murderer has got away from every soldier command and has left a trail of blood for 500 miles on the old stage line. I want him dead or alive tomorrow morning, do you understand? I want him dead.
That night, Mangas Coloradas was tortured with red-hot bayonets and shot “trying to escape.” The Apache Wars would expand calamitously in the years to come.
The army medical officer David Sturgeon took the Apache’s scalped head (they scalped him, too), eventually bringing it to Ohio after he left the service. Sturgeon finally presented his prize to Prof. Orson Squire Fowler; Fowler examined it and published a description in his 1873 work Human Science: Or, Phrenology: Its Principles, Proofs, Faculties, Organs, Temperaments, Combinations, Conditions, Teachings, Philosophies, Etc., Etc..**
The fate of this horrid trophy after it passed through Fowler’s hands is a mystery. It’s rumored that the Smithsonian received it, and perhaps surreptitiously got rid of it; while the institution has always denied ever having the skull of Mangas Coloradas, it is a fact that the Smithsonian collected and still possesses an alarmingly enormous trove of Native American remains.
* It appears to me that Mangas Coloradas entered into army custody on January 17, and was shot just about midnight that night: the exact moment of the incident could be either the 17th or the 18th. An eyewitness account from one of the soldiers on night watch describes giving over the watch to George Lount until midnight. When the first watchman returned at that time, he noticed that “Mangas arose upon his left elbow, angrily protesting that he was no child to be played with. Thereupon the two soldiers [who had been torturing Mangas], without removing their bayonets from their Minie muskets, each quickly fired upon the chief, following with two shots each from their navy six-shooters.”
** What did the skull-measurer make of his prize? “It bulges out at its side in the region of Secretion, Caution, and Destruction, beyond anything I ever saw. Cunning is his largest organ, and far exceeds any other development of it I have ever seen, even in any and all Indian heads. It is simply monstrous. Yet Destruction also far exceeds any other development of it I ever saw …
“Conscience and Worship are unusually large, both absolutely and relatively, which coincides with the scrupulous fidelity with which he kept his promises. He doubtless thought he was but doing his duty in avenging the injuries white men had done to his tribe, by torturing and killing them. He must also have been a devout worshipper of the Great Spirit and extremely superstitious. Benevolence is very poorly developed indeed.”
(Mangas Coloradas actually was a very tall man with a very large head: a number of accounts attest to this.)