Posts filed under '19th Century'

1886: Twenty-two Uganda Martyrs

2 comments June 3rd, 2013 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1886, thirteen Catholic men and boys, as well as nine Anglican Christians, were burned alive in Buganda, a kingdom in modern-day Uganda. Most of them pages at the royal court, they had been martyred for their faith.

The kingdom of Buganda came in contact with Europeans in the 1860s; Arab traders had been doing business there a few decades before that. Christian missionaries arrived in Buganda in 1879. In the next few years many court officials converted.

King Muteesa I tolerated Muslims, Catholics and Protestants and played them off against other for political gain, but his sixteen-year-old son, Mwanga II, who ascended the throne in 1884, was a different story altogether. He saw Christianity as a serious threat to his authority and cracked down on its influence.

Mwanga expelled many missionaries ordered converts to renounce their faith on pain of death. He had James Hannington, the Anglican Bishop of Eastern Equatorial Africa, executed in October 1885.

Between 1885 and 1887, Mwanga ordered the deaths of 45 Christian men (22 Catholics and 23 Anglicans). Collectively they are known as the Martyrs of Uganda. Most of them were young. (One of the boys who would die on this day was all of fourteen years old.)

Joseph Mukasa was the first of the Martyrs to die. A page and personal attendant to King Muteesa, he became majordomo after Mwanga took the throne, and had permission to criticize the king. He had converted to Roman Catholicism in 1882. Mukasa had strongly urged Mwanga to spare Bishop Hannington’s life.

For his pains, Mukasa was himself executed and his body burned only two weeks after Hannington. The chief page, Charles Lwanga, became majordomo in his place.

That very same day, Lwanga went and got himself baptized. He was a Catholic catechist, and he anticipated the cup he was about to quaff. The Dictionary of African Christian Biography records:

The following day, the king assembled all the pages and demanded under pain of death that they confess their Christian allegiance. All of them, Catholic and Anglican, except for three, did so. Mwanga was baffled by the solidarity and constancy of the young Christians, but hesitated to carry out his threat to kill them all. Several times in early December the king attempted to intimidate his pages, in spite of visits from the Catholic and Anglican missionaries. On one occasion, Lwanga exclaimed that, so far from helping the white men to take over the kingdom, he was ready to lay down his life for the king.

After the fire in the royal palace on February 22, 1886, Mwanga moved the court temporarily to his hunting lodge at Munyonyo on the shore of Lake Victoria. Here Lwanga continued to protect the pages … and to prepare them for possible martyrdom. By this time, Mwanga had obtained the consent of his chiefs for a massacre of the Christians. Meanwhile, Lwanga himself baptized five of the most promising catechumens. On May 26 … the pages entered the royal courtyard to receive judgement. Once again, they were called upon to confess their faith. This they did, declaring that they were ready to die rather than to deny it. Mwanga ordered them all, sixteen Catholics and ten Anglicans, to be burnt alive at Namugongo.

Several of the condemned were killed before the main event. The oldest, Matthias Kalema, aged about fifty, was dismembered alive and pieces of him were roasted before his eyes. He died slowly and horribly over the course of three days, finally expiring on May 30. Three others collapsed during the march to the execution site in Namugongo and were killed on the spot.

One of them, however, was inexplicably spared at the last possible moment. Denis Kamyuka was pulled away from the fire by some of the soldiers. It’s worth noting that Kamyuka appears to have been among the youngest of the group, around thirteen or fourteen; perhaps his executioners took pity on him for this reason. It is from his testimony that we know the details of what happened to his friends.

Everyone prayed and recited the catechism on the way to their deaths. Each of the pages were bound and wrapped up in reeds before being placed alive in the bonfire. The exception was Mbaaga Tuzinde, the son of the chief executioner; his father, who had pleaded for him to renounce his religion and offered to hide him, ordered that he be clubbed to death before being put into the flames.

Charles Lwanga, their leader, was burned separately from the others and was allowed to arrange his own pyre. As the executioners taunted him he said, “It is as if you are pouring water on me.”

In 1888, Christian and Muslim converts deposed King Mwanga in a British-backed uprising and put his brother on the throne in his place. Mwanga got his crown back in 1889 after he agreed to turn partial control of Buganda to the British East Africa Company. In 1897, however, he declared war on the British and attacked them. Trounced within weeks, Mwanga fled the country and was deposed in absentia. He returned with an army, but was defeated again, this time for good, and exiled to the Seychelles. In the final years of his short life he converted to Anglicanism. He died in 1903, aged 35.

The 22 Catholic converts who were martyred in Uganda during Mwanga II’s reign were beatified in 1920. Denis Kamyuka was present at the ceremony.

The site where the Uganda Martyrs were burned is now a holy shrine, a 33-acre site marked by a distinctive conical building. Every year on this date, pilgrims come there to commemorate Uganda Martyrs Day.

Re-creation of the burning on-site at the shrine. (cc) image from Christian von Schack.

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1810: Leatherlips, tomahawked

1 comment June 2nd, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1810, Ohio’s Wyandot (aka Huron) tribe executed Leatherlips by tomahawk.

This evocative name,* and his proper Wyandot name of Chief Shateyaronyah, appears among the signatories of the Treaty of Greenville — a pact secured after military action ceding Ohio to white settlers. It’s just an early installment of the rolling continental conquest with its familiar Hobson’s choice for natives: resist or accommodate?

Leatherlips was a leader of the accommodationist strand, advocating peacable relations with neighboring whites.

And in a few years, this would become a very big problem for the leader of the resistance camp — Tecumseh. This soon-to-be-renowned Shawnee would shortly raise a broad confederation up in arms against whites.

To do this, Tecumseh felt it necessary to eliminate the go-along, get-along types.

On June 1, 1810, six Wyandot warriors showed up at the historic Black Horse Tavern, a regular Leatherlips haunt at the Sells Settlement. This germ of present-day Dublin, Ohio, was the Scioto River property of the settler John Sells,** a friend of Leatherlips.

Sells heard about this unsettling visit the next morning, and immediately set out on horseback to find the party. He came upon them in a lodge, with Leatherlips bound, being tried for witchcraft — a charge that was all the vogue after the recent death of a Lenape chief who was thought to have been enspelled. Leatherlips was pushing 80 years of age.

Sells’s attempts to save the elderly Wyandot’s life were in vain. That afternoon, Leatherlips painted his face, sang a war chant, and knelt by his own grave, where one of the braves slew him by tomahawking his head. The Wyandot warriors allegedly drew the Sells party’s attention to Leatherlips’s sweating face as he died, viewing this phenomenon as an indicium of guilt.

Monument to Leatherlips in Dublin, Ohio. (cc) image from future15pic. The monument marks the spot of Leatherlips’s execution, but its plaque attributing the execution date of June 1 appears to me to be mistaken.

* As much as it sounds like the poor guy needed some lip balm, “Leatherlips” was actually a nickname conferred (by whites) for his trustworthiness … as in, any promise that passes his lips is strong as leather, just like RUN-DMC.

** Today, there’s a John Sells Middle School in Dublin in this pioneer’s honor. Leatherlips, for his part, has his name on a street.

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1868: Joseph Brown, for arson, murder, and money

1 comment May 30th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1868, Joseph Brown hanged in Hudson, N.Y..

He and his wife Josephine had recently moved to the hamlet of Canaan just this side of the Massachusetts border. With them was a twelve-year-old daughter.

On the night of December 5, 1867, they left little Angie in their basement rental and called on neighbors for the evening — and the house went up in flames. Neighbors rushing to the emergency had to force their way through the doors to extinguish the blaze, and discovered the Angie’s scorched remains amid several bushels of suspiciously flammable rubbish. Some neighbors thought the Browns had not hurried to the scene as they ought, and found their expressions of grief unconvincing.

These dubious circumstances could hardly help but lift an eyebrow, but in the end there was little for it and a coroner ruled the death accidental, perhaps caused by the unattended child attempting to fill a lighted kerosene lamp.

However, the fate of “poor little Angie” took on a decidedly more sinister cast when the Browns turned around and filed for a $5,000 life insurance benefit on Angie’s bones — a short-term, three-month policy due to expire in two weeks. A suspiciously dead child was one thing, but now there was money at stake. Travelers Insurance — the present-day corporate conglomerate then in its infancy, carving out its titular niche with innovative policies insuring against once-dangerous rail travel — put some real investigative muscle into the situation before it paid up.

The facts as developed by Travelers made a damning circumstantial case against the couple that was soon taken over by the criminal authorities: “a reflected glow of guilt,” in the summing-up of the state’s attorney who prosecuted Joseph.

Angie turned out not to be the couple’s own child at all, but a loaner from a woman in their hometown of Dayton, Ohio. She had given permission for her daughter to accompany the couple on a trip to Connecticut. (A weird arrangement in which the child was to call them “mother” and “father”, but one made innocently by the victim’s natural mother so far as anyone could determine.)

En route, Joe and Jo insured the life of this child who was not their own. And by the time they got to Canaan, Joseph had indiscreetly negotiated to purchase some property, intimating an ability in no way justified by his pre-fire resources to pay several thousand dollars cash on the nail.

To cinch Joseph’s conviction, physicians hired by Travelers testified that Angie had not inhaled smoke … meaning that she was dead before the fire started at all.

“I have told the insurance company that I would give them the policy if they would let me go,” a desperate Joseph at one point said in a police interview. He should have thought of that sooner.

But he was, as he said on the scaffold, “not an accomplished man” and he could only complain confusedly about minor points of the trial he considered prejudicial while maintaining a general insistence upon his innocence that persuaded nobody.

At the time of this hanging, Josephine Brown still lay in the Columbia County jail awaiting her turn at the bar in the same affair. But despite the sense among many participants in the case that it was she who instigated her cloddish husband to the lucrative homicide, the prosecution couldn’t assemble a satisfactory case and dropped charges later that year.

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1818: Abraham Casler, marital woes

1 comment May 29th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1818, Abraham Casler was hanged in Schoharie, N.Y. for escaping an ill-advised marriage by means of an illicit powder.

Casler had got young Catherine (Caty) Sprecker pregnant and was only induced to change her name in 1812 by threat of prosecution. Even at the wedding he told the bride’s own brother that he didn’t intend to live with the poor girl.

Casler immediately regretted committing himself to wedlock in any form whatsoever (his alternative would have been to pay a fine, much the bargain as compared to an unpromising marriage — particularly so in those benighted days before no-fault divorce). So he promptly enlisted in the army then fighting the War of 1812 so as “not to live with his wife that he wished … was out of the land of the living,” as he said to another recruit.


If wishes were fishes, they’d have arsenic inside. (n.b.: they do!)

When he finally had to return, Casler preferred to spend his time paying court to a widowed Albany innkeeper, and generally had a manifestly unhappy time of it with Caty. The latter’s epileptic fits probably only exacerbated the unwilling husband’s ire.

At last, while traveling, Caty Casler took ill with “a burning heat at her stomach & breast … cold chills by spells accompanied with sweat.” She “said her whole body was in pain; she was alernately [sic] cold and hot; would throw off the bed clothes, and then cover herself again.” After a couple of miserable bedridden days, all the while being personally treated by an attentive Abraham Casler who also shooed away attempts by other guests to assist or to summon medical aid,* Caty Casler succumbed, and “looked blue round the mouth and eyes” and “her hair came out.”

Doctors who conducted the post-mortem found what they were certain was arsenic and opium in Caty’s stomach. The trial record features a number of these medical men describing the exact tests they used to establish the presence of this deadly mineral; for instance, a Dr. James W. Miller described finding “particles … of a vitrious appearance” in the stomach.

Some of those particles were placed on a heated iron; a dense white fume arose from their combustion. Some of them were likewise placed between two plates of polished copper prepared for the purpose; those coppers were bound by an iron wire and placed into the fire until they were brought to red heat; they were then removed and after they were cold they were separated, the interior of the plates were whitened towards the edges of the plate in the form of a circle.

Last, taking two teaspoons of stomach fluid containing these suspicious particles,

He diluted it with a pint of water, then took the nitrate of silver and dissolved it and put into a separate glass; took pure ammonia into another glass; then took two glass rods, wet the end of one of them in the solution of the nitrate of silver, and dipped the end of the other in the pure ammonia, then brought the two ends of the rods in contact on the surface of the water in the vessel containing the contents of the stomach, and passed them down into the fluid; there was a precipitate from the point of contact, that precipitate was of an orange colour. He repeated that experiment several times, and also with arsenic dissolved in water. The results of the experiment were similar; the same precipitate in the one as in the other, tho’ it was more distinct in the solution made of arsenic, that being coulourless.

There was, in Dr. Miller’s opinion, “arsenic in the stomach; [he] has no doubt of it; considers the test made by him infallible; does not know that any thing except arsenic, will produce the same effect on copper, as was produced by those particles in the experiment.”

The court record merely summarizes the testimony witness by witness rather than providing a literal transcription, but one gets a sense of the thing merely leafing through it: it has 16 pages of prosecution testimony, from Casler’s Albany crush and family members catching him in suspicious circumstances, plus six different physicians, one of whom was a Professor of Chemistry at Fairfield Medical Academy.

The defense has one-half of one page, consisting of a flat denial by Casler and the observations of one former boarder with nothing useful to say.

The jury took two hours to convict.

After Casler hanged at the eponymous seat of Schoharie County (admitting his guilt on the scaffold), the gallows were left standing “as a solemn admonition of the penalty such crimes demand.”

That admonition had to be repeated: less than a year later, the crossbeam that had once supported Casler’s dying throes was tested again to dispatch a farmer from Sharon Springs who had bludgeoned a deputy sheriff to death.

* “It would only make a bill of expense,” Casler said of the prospect of summoning a physician for his wife. This was also the same disquieting answer he gave when asked if he would be taking the body to bury with her family; instead, he unsentimentally buried it at the nearest available spot, where it was soon exhumed by suspicious locals. The guy hung himself with skinflintedness.

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1829: George Chapman, besotted

2 comments May 28th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1829, George Chapman became the first person hanged in Waterloo, N.Y.

According to the July 29, 1829 New York Spectator, the tailor Chapman “had a quarrel with Daniel Wright, laborer (both excessively intemperate drinkers),” but the two sorted it out.

“According to a vulgar custom, however, they must ratify their treaty of amity over a bottle of whiskey”: in drinking their accord the drunks promptly fell back into dispute, leading Chapman to fatally clobber Wright across the head with a shovel.

This article refers soberingly to the perpetrator’s “inevitable doom”, and so it was.

The following spring (according to this pdf memoir which misstates the year of the event), thousands came by foot, by boat, by ox-cart, sleeping under the stars to witness the strange spectacle of Chapman’s public execution. “Trees around the spot were so filled with sight-seers that they looked as if they were covered with blackbirds.”

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1872: John Presswood Jr., the last legal hanging in DeKalb County

Add comment May 24th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1872, a faltering John Presswood Jr., “nearly 18 years old,” was publicly hanged in Smithville, Tenn., for a still-infamous crime there. He’s the last person to suffer that fate in DeKalb County.

This image (click for a larger version) of the Presswood hanging — in which the gallows practically disappear into the scenery — comes from the Library of Congress.

It was all the way back in late 1870 that Presswood murdered 36-year-old Rachel Fowler Billings, a Civil War widow remarried to a man who unfortunately was away rafting the Caney Fork River. Presswood savagely axed the woman to death in her house, in the presence of her three children — and bashed 11-year-old Inez, the oldest of them, with the axe as well.

Inez survived, but hadn’t seen the attacker. Her three-year-old (!) half-sister provided the identification: “It was Bill Presswood.” While the assailant calmly cleaned himself up with the family water bucket, the traumatized kids comforted each other around the butchered corpse of their mother. (Later, other women of the community would shrink from the neighborly job of tidying up poor Rachel for burial — so horribly had she been mauled.) In the end, the badly injured Inez had to hoof it half a mile to the nearest neighbor to summon help.

An estimated 8,000 people crowded Smithville’s courthouse square for the execution. The sheriff charged with conducting it made sure to give them a pulse-pounding, excrutiating (especially for Presswood!) show.

Immediately following the sermon and reading of the confession, Sheriff Henry Blackburn put a hood over Presswood’s head, attached the rope tightly and stood back.

With his hand on the trip bar, he intoned, “Presswood, you have five minutes to Live.”

The crowd surged forward, and then relaxed.

Again Sheriff Blackburn said, “Presswood, you have four minutes to live.”

Beside the lonely figure in the hood, Sheriff Blackburn stood out in sharp contrast. He was a handsome figure, tall, well proportioned and filled with the dignity of his office. He was “High Sheriff” of Dekalb County.

After seemingly hours Sheriff Blackburn announced, “Presswood, you have three minutes to live.”

Occasionally a sob as if a heart were being torn from a body was heard, but there was no outburst from the crowd. The stillness of the May morning was again broken by the commanding voice of Sheriff Blackburn, “Presswood, you have two minutes to live.”

By now several persons in the crowd, no doubt from a pang of conscience, were shifting from one foot to another. Neighbors look guilty at neighbors and the calmest man of all was Sheriff Blackburn as he announced, “Presswood, you have one minute to live.”

Brave members of the crowd gazed intently, wonderingly as the still form with the hood on his head stood torically on the scaffold just a few feet above their heads.

Suddenly Sheriff Blackburn shouted, “Presswood, you die” and sprung the trap. The body jerked at the end of the rope, quivered slightly, and was still.

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1891: Benjamin Harrison spares the Navassa rioters

1 comment May 18th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1891, U.S. President Benjamin Harrison settled a death penalty case from the remote Navassa Island by granting a commutation.

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.

Today, Navassa is uninhabited and administered by the Department of the Interior on somewhat disputable footing. (Haiti, just two miles away, also claims Navassa.)

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.

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1863: William Francis Corbin and Thomas Jefferson McGraw

Add comment May 15th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1863, two men were shot* on the beach at Johnson’s Island in Lake Erie, site of a Civil War prison. Their crime: recruiting for the Confederate army behind Union lines.

After a short-lived attempt to maintain a posture of “armed neutrality” vis-a-vis the Civil War combatants, Kentucky became the uncertain and bloodily contested 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.”

Not to be confused with Order 66.

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.)

There is a weathered but still-visible monument to Thomas J. McGraw erected in 1914 by the Daughters of the Confederacy at the Flagg Springs Baptist Church cemetery where his remains were interred. (Corbin’s remains are at a family cemetery in Carthage.)

* Corbin and McGraw were set up for execution seated on the edges of their own coffins, so that the force of the firing detail’s barrage would knock them conveniently back in. That’s efficiency.

** 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.

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1858: William and Daniel Cormack, for murdering John Ellis

Add comment May 11th, 2013 Headsman

“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.

The excellent Irish History Podcast site is all over this story, with a detailed post and a heart-wrenching podcast episode.

* 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.

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1883: Heinrich “Henry” Furhmann, oldest hanged in Montana

Add comment May 2nd, 2013 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

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.

News of the murder rocked the community, and that night a crowd gathered in front of the jail. Tom Donovan, in his book Hanging Around The Big Sky: The Unofficial Guide to Lynching, Strangling and Legal Hangings of Montana says they were a mixed lot: “interested citizens trying to maintain law and order as well as angry members of the community who wanted to take care of business, with a sprinkling of curious folks wanting to see how it would all turn out.”

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.

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