Posts filed under '19th Century'

1838: The first hangings of the Lower Canada Rebellion

1 comment December 21st, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1838, Joseph-Narcisse Cardinal and Joseph Duquet were hanged for a rebellion.

As the names suggest, these weren’t rosbifs themselves: they were French, born under crown jurisdiction by grace of their forbears’ thrashing at British hands in the Seven Years’ War.

In 1837, French Lower Canada rose in rebellion — la Guerre des patriotes, to the Quebecois. The British dispatched it.

Cardinal and Duquet were young notaries of radical sympathies who organized a sort of aftershock insurrection (French link) in 1838 at their native Chateauguay. It was instantly suppressed, its authors court-martialed for treason.

Those patriotes spared the pains of the gallows were condemned instead to a different kind of suffering — exile. The folk song “Un Canadien Errant” (“The Wandering Canadian”) eulogizes the land lost to these unfortunates.

“If you see my country,
my unhappy country,
Go, say to my friends
That I remember them.”

A monument pays tribute to all those executed or exiled for the rebellion.

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1861: William Johnson, impulse deserter

Add comment December 13th, 2011 Headsman

One hundred fifty years ago today, a now-long-forgotten deserter from the Union Army was shot in Washington, D.C. This sad event in the then-novel American Civil War received lavish coverage in the pages of Harper’s Weekly, which we reproduce below.

THE EXECUTION OF JOHNSON.

ON page 828 we illustrate the military execution of Johnson, who was shot at Washington for desertion on 13th. The culprit’s crime is clearly described in the following extract from his confession:


Contemporary illustration from Harper’s Weekly.

I had not the slightest intention of deserting up to a few minutes before I started in the direction of the enemy’s lines. The way I came to leave our army was this: I was on the outposts, and after dinner, when out watering my horse, I thought I would go to the first house on the Braddock road and get a drink of milk. When I rode up to the house I saw a man and a boy. I asked the man for some milk and he said he had none, and to my inquiry as to where I could get some, he said he did not know, except I should go some distance further on. I said I thought it would be dangerous to go far, and he remarked that none of the rebels had been seen in that vicinity for some time. It was then that I conceived the idea of deserting. I thought I could ride right up to the rebel pickets and inside the enemy’s line, go and see my mother in New Orleans, stay for a few weeks in the South, and then be able to get back to our regiment again, perhaps with some valuable information. I never had any idea of going over to the rebels, and as it is I would rather be hung on a tree than go and join the rebel army. I don’t see what under heaven put it into my head to go away. I acted from the impulse of the moment. When the man at the house said none of the enemy had been seen lately in that vicinity I asked where it was that the five rebels I had heard of had been seen some time ago, and he said it was at the round house on the left-hand side of the road. I asked him where the road led to. He said to Centreville, and so I went that way. Riding along on the Braddock road, some miles beyond our pickets, I suddenly came across Colonel Taylor, of the Third New Jersey regiment, with his scouting party. I thought they were the rebels, but at first was so scared that I did not know what to say. However, I asked him who they were, and he said they were the enemy. Said I to him, “I’m all right, then.” “Why so?” said he. “Because we are all friends,” said I; “I am rebel too—I want to go down to New Orleans to see my mother.” Then he asked me how our pickets were stationed. I told him two of our companies which had been out went in that day toward the camps. He asked if I thought he could capture any of them, and I told him I did not think he could. He asked why, and I replied that there were a number of mounted riflemen around. The head scout asked me what kind of arms the Lincoln men received, and at the same time said, “Let me see your pistol.” I handed him my revolver. Colonel Taylor took it, and cocking it, said to me, “Dismount, or I will blow your brains out!” I was so much frightened I thought my brains had been blown out already. 1 dismounted, delivered up my belt and sabre, while at the same time they searched my pockets, but there was nothing in them except a piece of an old New York Ledger, I believe. Then he tied my hands behind me, and sent me back to camp in charge of three men, besides another who took my horse.

He was duly tried by court-martial and found guilty. The sentence having been approved, it was ordered that it be carried into effect on 13th. The following extracts from the Herald report complete the melancholy history:

The spot chosen for the impressive scene was a spacious field near the Fairfax Seminary, a short distance from the camp ground of the division. The troops fell into line, forming three sides of a square, in the order designated in the programme, precisely at three o’clock P.M.

In the mean time the funeral procession was formed at the quarters of Captain Boyd, Provost Marshal of the Alexandria division, near the head-quarters of General Franklin. Shortly after three o’clock it reached the fatal field.

The Provost Marshal, mounted and wearing a crimson scarf across his breast, led the mournful cortege. He was immediately followed by the buglers of the regiment, four abreast, dismounted. Then came the twelve men—one from each company in the regiment, selected by ballot—who constituted the firing party. The arms—Sharp’s breech-loading rifle—had been previously loaded under the direction of the Marshal. One was loaded with a blank cartridge, according to the usual custom, so that neither of the men could positively state that the shot from his rifle killed the unfortunate man. The coffin, which was of pine wood stained, and without any inscription, came next, in a one-horse wagon. Immediately behind followed the unfortunate man, in an open wagon. About five feet six inches in height, with light hair and whiskers, his eyebrows joining each other, Johnson presented a most forlorn spectacle. He was dressed in cavalry uniform, with the regulation overcoat and black gloves. He was supported by Father M’Atee, who was in constant conversation with him, while Farther Willett rode behind on horseback. The rear was brought up by Company C of the Lincoln Cavalry, forming the escort.

Arriving on the ground at half past three o’clock, the musicians and the escort took a position a little to the left, while the criminal descended from the wagon. The coffin was placed on the ground, and he took his place beside it. The firing party was marched up to within six paces of the prisoner, who stood between the clergymen. The final order of execution was then read to the condemned.

While the order was being read Johnson stood with his hat on, his head a little inclined to the left, and his eyes fixed in a steady gaze on the ground. Near the close of the reading one of his spiritual attendants whispered something in his ear. Johnson had expressed a desire to say a few final words before he should leave this world to appear before his Maker. He was conducted close to the firing party, and in an almost inaudible voice spoke as follows: “Boys,—I ask forgiveness from Almighty God and from my fellow-men for what I have done. I did not know what I was doing. May God forgive me, and may the Almighty keep all of you from all such sin!”

He was then placed beside the coffin again. The troops were witnessing the whole of these proceedings with the intensest interest. Then the Marshal and the chaplains began to prepare the culprit for his death. He was too weak to stand. He sat down on the foot of the coffin. Captain Boyd then bandaged his eyes with a white handkerchief. A few minutes of painful suspense intervened while the Catholic clergymen were having their final interview with the unfortunate man. All being ready the Marshal waved his handkerchief as the signal, and the firing party discharged the volley. Johnson did not move, remaining in a sitting posture for several seconds after the rifles were discharged. Then he quivered a little, and fell over beside his coffin. He was still alive, however, and the four reserves were called to complete the work. It was found that two of the firing party, Germans, had not discharged their pieces, and they were immediately put in irons. Johnson was shot several times in the heart by the first volley. Each of the four shots fired by the reserves took effect in his head, and he died instantly. One penetrated his chin, another his left cheek, while two entered the brain just above the left eyebrow. He died at precisely a quarter to four o’clock.

The troops then all marched round, and each man looked on the bloody corpse of his late comrade, who had proved a traitor to his country.

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1852: Jose Forni, the first legal hanging in California

1 comment December 10th, 2011 Headsman

Detail view (click for the full image) of the hanging of Jose Forni (Forner)

“My friends! You have come to see an innocent man die. I die for having killed an assassin. He attempted to rob me; I resisted; he stabbed me and fled. Maddened and smarting from my wounds, I pursued, overtook, and killed him. I am a native of Valencia, Spain. I have but few friends in San Francisco.

I have resided in Cuba, where I have many friends. I was tried by a judge and jury who were utter strangers to me. I could produce no witnesses in my favor. What led to my killing my assailant is known only to God and myself. What I have said is true. After I have spoken these few words I shall never speak more. No doubt those who tried me acted justly according to the testimony. They could not have known the truth. The Americans are good people; they have ever treated me well and kindly; I thank them for it. I have nothing but love and kindly feelings for all. Farewell, people of San Francisco! World, farewell.”

-Jose Forni’s last words (translated from Spanish)

Having so declaimed, Jose Forni (or Forner) dropped through a trap on San Francisco’s Russian Hill and into the history books as the first hanging under color of law in the state of California.

Forni was pretty small potatoes for such a milestone, a Spanish immigrant caught stabbing to death a Mexican in broad daylight a mere three months before.

Despite Forni’s mysterious last statement, everyone was in fact pretty sure they knew what led to the killing.

Forni was found with a sash containing $350. This sash, a Mexican style not popular with Spaniards, had been observed in the possession of the victim Jose Rodriguez earlier that evening, by a gambling-hall dealer who saw Forni follow Rodriguez out the door. (Source)

Forni stuck to the story that it was his, and that Rodriguez had tried to jump him and take it when Forni set the sash down to relieve himself. And that then, after he’d been stabbed in the leg, he chased down the assailant.

Yeah, right.

“It was a proud day for the law,” wrote (doc) historian Hubert Howe Bancroft. “It was a happy sight, I say, this hanging of the moneyless, friendless Spanish stranger.”

If this doesn’t seem like the sort of thing hippy-dippy San Francisco would ordinarily strut about, bear in mind that the previous year, a standing Committee of Vigilance had formed itself and meted out extrajudicial lynchings without waiting on “the quibbles of the law, the insecurity of prisons, the carelessness or corruption of the police, or a laxity of those who pretend to administer justice.” Similar committees operated elsewhere in the state.

So the fact that Forni was suffered to wait on the quibbles of the law was a sort of progress. And it does sound, from the report in the next week’s (December 16) Alta California, as if the populace were jolly pleased to see it.

A continuous line of human beings was pressing up the hill all the morning, until a crowd numbering three thousand at least had gathered together [n.b. - nearly a tenth of San Francisco's population at this time -ed.] … the assemblage was indeed a singular one — there being at least one-fourth of the number composed of youths, women and children. Women elbowed their way as near as possible to have a full view of the gallows, whilst others were on horseback and in carriages, riding around with as much gaiety as if on a pleasure drive.

But what was most shocking was to see respectable looking parents taking their little sons and daughters into such a heterogenous crowd, to witness such a terrible spectacle. Despite the slight rain, they stood it out with heroical fortitude and patience worthy of a better occasion. Before the prisoner had arrived, the small boys amused themselves with playing marbles, the bigger ones with dog fights, whilst others whiled away the time recounting their experience in such matters.

Reflecting on the homicide that had occasioned all this festivity, the Alta prayed that “our criminal records never be stained again with the history of such a dark and bloody transaction.”

Yeah, right.

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1869: Nicholas Melady, the last public hanging in Canada

2 comments December 7th, 2011 John Melady

Thanks to John Melady, author of Double Trap, for the guest post about his kinsman. -ed.

I was standing with my father, looking at the ruins of an old house. I thought what remained of the brickwork was interesting, until Dad said, rather offhandedly: “And this is where the murder happened.” I was rather shocked, and asked what he meant.

His answer led me to write Double Trap, the story of the last public hanging in Canada.

Briefly, the tale goes something like this.

A man named Nicholas Melady Senior, my great-grandfather’s half brother, amassed substantial landholdings in Huron County, Ontario Canada, prior to 1868. In the years just before that, he played various family members off against each other, and depending on his whim, one or other of them would be promised his inheritance. His son Nicholas Junior was used worst of all. He worked without pay for his father, was promised all or at least some of the lands, but then was told he would get nothing — several times.

One night, Nicholas Senior, who was commonly called The Old Man, was in bed with his new wife, when Nicholas Junior and two of his friends, all of whom were drunk, broke into the Old Man’s house. A terrible fight ensued, and it included a hand gun and an axe, but at the end of the thing, the Old Man and his bride were dead.

After some very shoddy detective work, Nicholas Junior and his two friends were rounded up and lodged in a basement cell of an old house in nearby Seaforth, Ontario. (The local magistrate owned the place.) Part of that cell still exists, including the barred window the culprits would have looked through — at the rest of the cellar. It is rather creepy to visit, and while I researched Double Trap, I did not want to be there for long, and never at night.

In due course, the three desperadoes were sent to an even more chilling old jail in Goderich, Ontario. (It is now a Canadian historic site, and is visited by throngs of people every year.) There, Nicholas Junior’s friends ultimately turned against him.

However, before that happened, local detectives used a unique stratagem to gain evidence against Nicholas. I could never be sure where they got the idea. They hired a beautiful young woman who was born in Michigan, (who was likely a prostitute) and talked her into spending time in a cell in the jail. She was paid to gain the trust of Nicholas, and hopefully a confession.

In that sense, she was the first part of the “double trap,” in the book’s title.

The woman was given the name “Jenny,” and in time, by dropping notes where he would find them, and ultimately putting herself in a position where she could whisper to him through his cell window, (she positioned herself in the women’s exercise yard; he was inside his cell), she caused him to fall in love with her. All of her notes, and his as well, were used in the trial that followed. The two never actually touched each other.

When she walked into the courtroom during the trial and took the stand to describe her job and show the letters Nicholas had written, he was utterly speechless with shock. He had completely trusted her, and to him, her betrayal was total.

The execution of Nicholas Melady was a macabre affair, as were events leading up to it. His death cell was positioned quite close to where he was hanged. He could hear workers building his scaffold, and while I cannot prove it, I believe he would have been able to witness the construction of the thing. The death cell still exists, and in researching this book, I visited it several times. Now that is creepy.

So is the ground where he took his final few steps, out to the scaffold. It was built on top of the prison wall. He went up the steps on the inside, then lurched to his death, down the outside of the wall — where all the spectators waited to see the spectacle. His fall, through the trapdoor in the gallows floor was the second trap of the book’s title.

The execution was the last public one in Canada. Three weeks later the government of the country abolished public executions because they were regarded as too barbaric. There was controversy however, around the one for Nicholas. Many people felt he had been betrayed, by his accomplices, and by “Jenny,” and so lots of talk in the community made the public officials fear that there would be demonstrations the day of the death.

For that reason, they moved the execution time up by about three hours. “Only” about 300 people witnessed it. Several thousand came to see the spectacle later in the day, but by the time they reached the site, the show was over. His body was cut down, and for reasons I could never fathom, was actually waked for two days in the same house where the killings took place. Lots of the curious came to see the corpse of the killer, laid out for display.

The day after the execution, the New York Times was the first newspaper on the street with the story. I could find no trace of “Jenny,” or what became of her after her jailhouse job. Her testimony in court was never really challenged.

I was able to position myself in the cell where Nicholas was when he whispered to “Jenny.” I then went into the women’s exercise yard and by leaning against the jail wall easily understood how the conversations between the two transpired.

The book is Double Trap, by John Melady. Published by Dundurn, and available in the United States at Dundurn Publishing, 2250 Military Road, Tonawanda, New York 14150. In Canada, the pub address is: Dundurn Publishing, 3 Church Street, Suite 500, Toronto, Ontario M5E 1M2 In Britain, the address is: Gazelle Book Services Limited, White Cross Mills, High Town, Lancaster, England LA1 4XS.

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1831: John Bishop and Thomas Head, the London Burkers

6 comments December 5th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1831, two of the “London Burkers” hanged for murdering a child to sell his body to anatomy schools for dissection.

It was one of the city’s most infamous crimes, touching explosive resentments among Londoners for the vampiric trade in human cadavers ultimately demanded by medical students. Thirty thousand packed the streets around Newgate Prison to send this date’s hated offenders on to the hereafter.

As the gang’s nickname indicates, it closely followed the similar affair of Burke and Hare in Edinburgh. (“Burking” had immediately come to mean “killing someone for their marketable cadaver”, a shadowy underworld phenomenon that was in need of a catchy name.) But although William Burke made the OED, it was the London Burkers who most directly triggered the legislation to reform the anatomy business.

Historian Sarah Wise wrote the acclaimed book about this case, The Italian Boy. Executed Today is thrilled to interview her on this 180th anniversary of the London Burkers’ deaths.

The Italian Boy purchase links for Anglophones

Book CoverET: Let’s begin with the title of your book, The Italian Boy — an allusion to the victim in the case. Who was this youth, how did he come to be in London, and what did the city look like to a penniless foreign child in 1830?

SW: Well the book is less a ‘whodunnit’ and more of a ‘who-was-it-done-to’. The identity of that particular victim was never fully established. But, as still happens today in murder cases, some types of victim seem to have more appeal than others, and rumour that a little Italian beggar boy was missing from his usual pitches snowballed into a situation where even the courts, police and newspapers were accepting it as fact that it was his body that had been delivered to an anatomist. The final chapter of my book goes into why this might not have been so.

The ‘Italian Boy trade’ was a racket, whereby traffickers paid poor peasant parents, worried about what future they could offer their children, and took charge of the child, walked them north to the wealthy cities of northern Europe, and got them exhibiting small animals or plaster images around the streets, in the hope of being thrown a penny or two. Huge sums could be obtained in this way, but needless to say, the children themselves saw little of this. [There's an 1872 New York Times article describing the trade into North America here. -ed]

I was fascinated by the warmth shown to these kids in what was otherwise a pretty mean city. This really is the London of Oliver Twist — dark, filthy, with all sorts of Fagin types (and much worse) around. Child vagrancy (as with adult vagrancy) was all too common and yet there were practically no public or civic bodies to offer any help; the idea of hordes of kids sleeping rough is just extraordinary, but that’s how London was right up until the end of the 19th-century.

But Londoners loved these attractive, exotic-looking little Italian waifs, and would also defend other types of beggars if anyone appeared to be hassling them. Ordinary city-dwellers seemed to me, in reading the primary source material, to be a lot less withdrawn and in their own little world than we city-dwellers are today, and seemed to show more class, or social, solidarity.

And how about the killers? What’s their own background, and how do they get into the business of killing people to sell the bodies?

One of the killers, John Bishop, came from a good, solid, small-business background, having been bequeathed a successful carting company. He drank away the family firm, and then turned to the related trade of bodysnatching — there was often a close connection between those involved in city transport and those who needed to move their very questionable goods around surreptitiously. Both trades had the pubs in the street called Old Bailey as their headquarters.

The other killer, Thomas Head, aka Williams, was younger and harder to find out about. He was said to have come from a very poor but honest home, and his parents were devastated when he began to go off the rails in his adolescence, firstly petty-thieving, and then moving on to the less petty-thieving of grave robbery.

I’ve touched a bit elsewhere on the site on the underlying dynamic at work: more demand for medical cadavers than was being met by the gallows. Do we have a sense at this time, after the Burke execution, what proportion of those extra cadavers were being provided by resurrectionists? And how many might have been provided by outright homicide?

Numerical estimates vary hugely for every aspect of this subject. In terms of the sheer volume of bodies medical students were getting through, the 1828 Select Committee on Anatomy canvassed many opinions, and came up with the hugely divergent total of between 500 and 1,000 in a year — the ideal being three bodies per student, with each student completing a 16-month surgical and dissection training. The Select Committee suggested that on average, the Resurrection Men were supplying around 500 to 550 corpses a year — by one means or another. But all these stats should be used with caution.

As for grave robbery: it was all highly surreptitious, as you would expect — there is no great documentary source to turn to, and so we have only scraps of rumour and hearsay. John Bishop, one of the Italian Boy murderers, is said to have ‘lifted’ between 500 and 1,000 corpses in his career, which lasted from 1818 to 1831. That is a huge differential and there is no way of checking whether the lower or higher number is the more likely. Someone shouted at Bishop, in the Old Bailey cells, ‘You’re a bloody murdering bastard, and you should have been topped [hanged] years ago!’, which suggests that the Italian Boy killing was not his first.


Image of a burking, from a broadside on the London Burkers among a book full of street literature here.

As we know, only around twelve people a year were executed for murder in England in these years — people executed for other crimes were not sent to the anatomists. My guess is that many folks who died in public hospitals or workhouses were anatomised, but that this was a highly secret matter and went on illegally. The other main sources of corpses, to make up the shortfall, will have been corrupt undertakers, church sextons and gravediggers. I suspect many coffins in London graveyards were filled with nothing more than brick or earth. As the 1820s wore on, actual exhumations are likely to have declined in favour of more simple ‘sneak-thieving’, with insiders giving the tip-off about where a recently deceased body was likely to be found.

One more ‘statistic’ for you: in a plea bargain attempt during the Italian Boy case, the police placed in front of one prolific bodysnatcher a list of all the resurrection men they had ever known or come across and asked the witness if he would mark with a cross any of the 50 whom he thought capable of murder for dissection. When he handed it back, he had marked six names.

Huge irony: when anatomised, John Bishop was found to be one of the very best specimens the Royal College of Surgeons had ever dissected — great, strong muscles, extremely fit and hearty, from his horrible career in body-handling.

How overtly implicated were aspiring or actual doctors with this sort of thing (even “mere” resurrection as against murder) as a “necessary” part of their education that they chose to turn a blind eye towards? And was there any engagement with the problem as an ethical question?

The public cared hugely about the ethics; the legislature very little. That’s why Dr. Knox, in the Burke and Hare case, was so unusual — no one protected him when the case came to trial, and he was vilified and more or less chased out of Edinburgh. But in the Italian Boy murders, no doctor got anywhere near the witness box. Society and the legislature really rallied around them, to make sure the public did not take their feelings out on them.

But popular resentment that the doctors might have encouraged, or turned a blind eye to, grave-robbery (not murder) remained very common.

By around 1800, doctors and students had wholly outsourced exhumations for dissection material — gangs of specialised labouring men did it for them, and part of the deal was that (in return for a good wage) the bodysnatchers themselves, if caught, would keep silent, do their stretch in gaol, and they and their families would be looked after financially by the surgeons who commissioned them.

One surgeon, Joshua Brookes, fell foul of the bodysnatchers (refusing to put up their wages) and in revenge, they placed half-dissected corpses close to his Soho premises. These were tripped over in the dark by pedestrians, which caused a huge rumpus and the police had to come to protect Brookes from the mobs who wanted to stone his house. Such events were the exception, rather than the rule.

There’s something just sublimely Swiftian about a disposable person being literally, bodily consumed by the city and its professional class. Was it surprising that a doctor would bust these men when they came to sell the body, and/or that it would trigger an aggressive police response? Had they probably pulled this trick with a wink and a nod many times before?

The Italian Boy case was highly unusual in that it was a surgeon, Richard Partridge, who blew the whistle — not only on the killers but essentially on the whole trade. He was the anatomy teacher at the brand-new King’s College, which was very religious-based, though funnily enough, I don’t think Partridge himself was devout. In getting the men arrested, he really blew wide open this secretive, terrifying world of the trafficking of (poor people’s) corpses.

It is the Italian Boy case — not Burke and Hare — which brought about swift legal change, which ensured the demise of surreptitious grave-robbery for anatomical teaching.

Other than hanging the perps, what was the fallout from this case at the level of policy or social evolution? Was there conflict between the privileged and the poor over how to understand this sort of crime and how to go about addressing it?

The ‘resolution’, the ‘evolution’, was the 1832 Anatomy Act, which essentially legalised what had been going on all along. It permitted anatomists to claim as legitimate teaching material the corpse of anyone who died in a workhouse or public hospital whose body went unclaimed by friends or family for private burial. In practice, it seems that even when apparently friendless beggars died, and associates did come forward, the doctors had already earmarked the body for their own purposes.

This type of thing caused decades and decades of bitter class resentment in this country, and fear of doctors and hospitals was even discernible in my late parents’ generation. These worries still occasionally resurrect themselves. The UK’s Human Tissue Act of 2004 was passed following disclosure of the mass storage of children’s organs, without any permission or consent having been sought from the parents. I think consent remains a huge issue in medical matters, in most cultures, and those who are deemed powerless in some way — by class, race, caste, gender and so on — are by far the more likely to have their bodies commandeered in the name of science.

Sarah Wise has been a Londoner since the age of 14. She has a BA in English Literature and a Masters degree in Victorian Studies, from Birkbeck College, University of London. The Italian Boy: Murder and Grave Robbery in 1830s London won the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction in 2005 and was shortlisted for the 2005 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction.

Sarah was a major contributor to Iain Sinclair’s compendium London, City of Disappearances, published by Hamish Hamilton in 2006.

Her forthcoming book, Inconvenient People, investigates the phenomenon of sane people being put into lunatic asylums in Victorian England, and will be published in the summer of 2012.

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1867: The Manchester Martyrs

Add comment November 23rd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1867, three Fenians hanged for the murder of a Manchester policeman.

They were the Manchester Martyrs — Michael O’Brien, William Philip Allen and Michael Larkin.

“Who were they?” an admiring James Connolly later asked, rhetorically.*

Two members of the Fenian organisation -– Kelly and Deasy –- were trapped in Manchester, and lay awaiting trial in an English prison. The Fenians in that city resolved to rescue them. [Manchester was a hotbed of Irish radicalism -ed.] This they did by stopping the prison van upon the road between Manchester and Salford, breaking open the van, shooting a policeman in the act, and carrying off their comrades under the very eyes of the English authorities.


Marker on the spot of the ambush that started all the trouble. (cc) image from Tom Jeffs.

Out of a number of men arrested for complicity in the deed, three were hanged. These three were ALLEN, LARKIN and O’BRIEN –- the three Manchester Martyrs whose memory we honour today.

There were actually five in all selected to stand trial for their lives for what the British dubbed the “Manchester Outrage”; although all five were condemned to swing, one received clemency and a second was pardoned outright since the evidence against him was soon proven to have been entirely perjured.

Indeed, all five of the men asserted their innocence in the shooting even when they acknowledged joining the crowd attempting to free their brethren.

But they, and especially their partisans, were still more energetic asserting the Fenian cause from the platform afforded by the legal antechambers to the scaffold. “God save Ireland!” they cried at several dramatic points in the trial — and these words titled a beloved patriotic tune in the martyrs’ honor.

The British, basically, freaked at the effrontery of an Irish mob hijacking a police wagon, making Fenian as dirty a word among the Anglo respectable as terrorist is today, and stampeded the case to judgment without dithering overmuch about fine points like meticulous investigation. While respectable liberals could (and did) make the clemency case on grounds of actual innocence, the right-thinking were scandalized by Irish marches in overt support of Fenianism.

“These Irish are really shocking, abominable people,” Queen Victoria wrote privately to one of the government’s Tory cabinet members. “Not like any other civilized nation.”

So it was a bloodthirsty rabble, baying and not a little drunk, that gathered outside the walls of Manchester’s New Bailey Prison to see Allen, Larkin, and O’Brien hang** for their abominableness. This lot also happened to witness the last public hanging in Manchester; England shifted to private executions the next year.

But these by no means represented everyone in Manchester.

The very week of the Fenian ambush, a philosopher had dropped in to Manchester to visit a local industrialist. These were, granted, not Englishmen but Germans. Still, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were keenly interested in the Fenian cause.

Marx exhorted English workers, now and over the years ahead, to make common cause with Fenianism; he apparently authored this clemency appeal for the Manchester Martyrs sent by the First International. The very day after the execution, Engels — our Manchester industrialist — compared the martyrs to John Brown and prophesied that the hangings “accomplished the final act of separation between England and Ireland.” (See Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies)

These martyrs have stood the test of time, in part because Engels’ prediction (more or less) came to pass. But we think it’s their countryman Connolly whose epitaph rings truest — the summons three men in Manchester issued posterity to stand against monstrous edifices as “unyielding foes even to the dungeon and the scaffold.”

We honour them because of their heroic souls. Let us remember that by every test by which parties in Ireland to-day measure political wisdom, or personal prudence, the act of these men ought to be condemned. They were in a hostile city, surrounded by a hostile population; they were playing into the hands of the Government by bringing all the Fenians out in broad daylight to be spotted and remembered; they were discouraging the Irish people by giving them another failure to record; they had no hopes of foreign help even if their brothers in Ireland took the field spurred by their action; at the most their action would only be an Irish riot in an English city; and finally, they were imperilling the whole organisation for the sake of two men. These were all the sound sensible arguments of the prudent, practical politicians and theoretical revolutionists. But “how beggarly appear words before a defiant deed!”

* Connolly was observing the anniversary of the men’s death in 1915, which was the same anniversary a 13-year-old Kevin Barry began his own path to future martyrdom by attending a Manchester Martyrs memorial.

** Hanged badly. Notoriously erratic hangman William Calcraft only killed Allen on the drop; descended the gallows to help Larkin along; and was denied access by O’Brien’s confessor, who said he held that strangling man’s hand full 45 minutes until he finally succumbed.

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1880: Ned Kelly

2 comments November 11th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1880, legendary bushranger Ned Kelly hanged at Melbourne Gaol.

The Dick Turpin of Australian outlawry — in the sense that he’s the first name on the marquee — Kelly was the son of an Irishman shipped to Van Damien’s Land on the British convict transportation plan.

Setting down in Greta, Victoria the Kelly family cultivated a keen reputation for criminality (e.g., see this 1880 newspaper article; also, here).

When Ned was all of 11, pa died doing a six-month prison stint at hard labor for stealing a neighbor’s cow, and it wasn’t much longer before young master Edward was making the acquaintance of the law himself: arrested for assault in 1869 at age 14; arrested once again the following year as an accomplice to the bushranger with the pornstar name, Harry Powers; imprisoned later in 1870 for three years for receiving stolen goods … and then he got into the family horse-rustling racket upon his release. Crime and gaol were just part of Ned’s world.

So was police antagonism.

The man’s famous last years started with what reads as a trumped-up run-in with a cop who turned up at a station complaining that the Kellys had shot him. (The Kelly story is that he got fresh with Ned’s sister and got whacked by a shovel.) Whatever the facts of the matter, it sent Ned and his brother Dan into the bush as fugitives.

At Stringybark Creek, the “Kelly gang” got the drop on the police posse sent to arrest them, and three officers died in the firefight. Now there was real trouble.

An 1878 “Felons Apprehension Act” immediately proscribed the men, making it “lawful for any of Her Majesty’s subjects whether a constable or not and without being accountable for the using of any deadly weapon in aid of such apprehension whether its use be preceded by a demand of surrender or not to apprehend or take such outlaw alive or dead.”

The ensuing two-year saga was a captivating cycle of dramatic robberies, escalating government bounties, state hostage-taking in the form of imprisoned family and friends, and Kelly’s own Joycean self-vindication.

he would be a king to a policeman who for a lazy loafing cowardly bilit left the ash corner deserted the shamrock, the emblem of true wit and beauty to serve under a flag and nation that has destroyed massacreed and murdered their fore-fathers by the greatest of torture as rolling them down hill in spiked barrels pulling their toe and finger nails and on the wheel. and every torture imaginable more was transported to Van Diemand’s Land to pine their young lives away in starvation and misery among tyrants worse than the promised hell itself all of true blood bone and beauty, that was not murdered on their own soil, or had fled to America or other countries to bloom again another day, were doomed to Port Mcquarie Toweringabbie norfolk island and Emu plains and in those places of tyrany and condemnation many a blooming Irishman rather than subdue to the Saxon yoke Were flogged to death and bravely died in servile chains but true to the shamrock and a credit to Paddys land.*

The hunt culminated in a cinematic shootout at the Glenrowan Inn, Kelly an accomplices entering the fray clad in bulky but effective homemade body armor they’d literally hammered out of ploughshares. (It’s thanks to the armor’s protection of his head and trunk that Ned Kelly survived the Glenrowan siege so he could be hanged instead.) Now on display at the State Library of Victoria, it’s the most queer and recognizable artifact of an era that was already then slipping into the past.

Ned Kelly in his armor (left), and the logo of the Victoria Bushrangers cricket club patterned after it (right).

I do not pretend that I have led a blameless life or that one fault justifies another; but the public, judging a case like mine, should remember that the darkest life may have a bright side, and after the worst has been said against a man, he may, if he is heard, tell a story in his own rough way that will lead them to soften the harshness of their thoughts against him and find as many excuses for him as he would plead for himself.

-Ned Kelly, during his trial

This cut no ice with the men who judged him guilty of murder, but the brawler, cop-killer, bank-robber Kelly seems to have found a way to tell that story to posterity and its thoughts have softened very much indeed.

Everything from his hardscrabble upbringing to his romantic man-against-the-world criminal career to his iconic robot-suit armor to his existentially heroic last words “such is life” equips his image for posthumous appropriation. He seems one-half charming anachronism, one-half hirsute postmodern avatar, especially when you go sculpt a mailbox out of him.

131 years dead today, Ned Kelly remains very much alive in memory. To this day, descendants and supporters lay flowers at the Melbourne Gaol where he hanged, and the recent decision to release his remains for reburial (as Kelly himself requested) made national headlines.

As to Kelly in the wider culture … well, you can’t escape him.

* All this Celtic stuff because the cop whose allegation started the trouble was named Fitzpatrick.

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1834: The bushrangers John Jenkins and Thomas Tattersdale

Add comment November 10th, 2011 Headsman

Cried Peter, where’s your certificate
Or if you have not one to show
Pray who in Heaven do you know?

Well I know Brave Donohue
Young Troy and Jenkins too
And many others whom floggers mangled
And lastly were by Jack Ketch strangled.

-“A Convict’s Tour to Hell” by Australian prisoner Frank McNamara (1839)

On this date in 1834 was strangled the aforementioned Jenkins — John, to his friends — alongside accomplice Thomas Tattersdale for one of 19th century Australia’s headline-grabbing crimes.*

Along with a third man who would turn state’s evidence to save his own neck, these convicts busted out of jail.

On the run in the bush, these fugitives came across the massive estate of Dr. Robert Wardell, a prominent public figure in early Australia. When this newspaper publisher, barrister, and land magnate personally bumped into the trio, he naturally urged the prisoners to give themselves up. Instead, John Jenkins shot Wardell dead.

These outlaws were definitely not of the gentleman variety.

Tattersdale, a non-triggerman who had actually tried to talk Jenkins out of killing Wardell in the first place, sported a suitably Dostoyevskyan appreciation of his own guilt, and basically just asked the court for a few days to prepare his soul. Jenkins made the trial a three-ring circus with his profane attacks on the court, and his bodily attack on his fellow-defendant when he learned that Tattersdale had offered to testify for the crown. (Tattersdale weepily made up with an irritated Jenkins at the time of their hanging, which was only three days after they were condemned.)

Tattersdale’s lamblike submission just got him written out of the ballads; even the newsmen covering the hanging itself “did not much regard” him.

Jenkins, by contrast, stole the show “with that vulgar attempt at bravado courage which distinguishes men of his class.” He’d been joking about his hanging since the trial, and he played cocksure right up to the time they dropped the trap on him — including a distinctly unauthorized last comment on his life and crime.

Well, good bye my lads, I have not time to say much to you. I acknowledge I shot the Doctor, but it was not for gain, it was for the sake of my fellow prisoners because he was a tyrant and I have one thing to recommend you as a friend, if any of you take the bush, about every bloody tyrant you come across, and there are several now in the yard who ought to be served so.

* An unrelated criminal named McCormick died with them, for murdering his wife.

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1842: Stephen Brennan, desperate bushranger

1 comment November 9th, 2011 Headsman

From the 1908 History of the Australian Bushrangers:

Stephen Brennan was sent to the island for bushranging. He was tried there and found guilty of the murder of another convict. There had been no quarrel between the two men, who were as friendly as circumstances permitted under the rigid discipline, nevertheless Brennan suddenly struck Patrick Lynch a blow with a stone-breaker’s hammer, and then stabbed him with a knife. The murder was committed avowedly so that the perpetrator might be hung, and thus escape the harsh treatment he was subjected to, and it is not improbable that it was committed with the consent of the victim, for although there is no evidence of this in this case, it is well known that men had actually drawn lots in Norfolk Island, to decide which should murder the other and get hung for the crime.

This is a very compelling parable, but as a factual matter we’re not sure the basis of the word “avowedly” here; be that mutual lot-drawing trend as it may, the reporting accessible from the National Library of Australia archives suggests that Brennan mounted a vigorous defense, and continued to claim to the foot of the gallows that the homicide was strictly self-defense.

Incidents of “suicide by hangman” had been known among the prison population under the island’s rigorous recent commandant, Joseph Anderson.

But in the early 1840s, the once notoriously draconian penal colony was being run by noted reformer Alexander Maconochie, who relaxed prison discipline with mixed results. (Rougher varieties of discipline would be reimposed thereafter, contributing to the prison riot that resulted in the hanging of bushranger Jackey Jackey.)

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1861: Sushun, by Empress Dowager Cixi

Add comment November 8th, 2011 Headsman

One hundred fifty years ago today, Qing China’s last great ruler, the Empress Dowager Cixi, having seized the helm of the state she would drive for 47 years, had her deposed predecessor executed.

Formally, China was being “ruled” at this time by the illustrious Tongzhi Emperor, age five.

This child’s old man, depressively self-medicating at the drubbing China was taking in the Second Opium War, had died young, leaving his only son the throne, in care of a council of regents.

As one of the late monarch’s key advisors, Sushun was among that eight-strong panel, and he was popularly regarded as the worst of the lot — vicious, drunken, spendthrift, and just the guy to blame (along with co-regents Zaiyuan and Duanhua) for all the vicious, drunken, and spendthrift stuff the deceased emperor had put his seal to. Or, just the sort of stories trumped up by the rivals of the man really steering the state. Either way is good.

The Empress Dowager Cixi (1905 photograph)

More perilous for Sushun was his burgeoning rivalry with “the Concubine Yi,” the master of harem politics and mother of the new boy-emperor. She had long distrusted the courtier.

Recast in both title and name with her lover’s passing, the woman now known as “Empress Dowager Cixi” was able to obstruct the regency’s policies. And she did one better than that, intrepidly allying with disgruntled princes to engineer a coup d’etat against Sushun’s faction.

The end of Sushun’s regency arrived within months, and transpired within days: less than a week separated Sushun’s liberty from his beheading in a vegetable market. (Striking a liberal pose, Cixi declined to have him put to death by lingchi.) Cixi’s side simply took him into custody, decreed his execution on the attainder of a secret committee, and speedily carried it out. Zaiyuan and Duanhua were ordered to commit suicide the same day.

“Surely,” wrote a British diplomat who had only barely avoided execution at the hands of the lately toppled regime, “we may trace the finger of God in these events, and trust that they augur well for the future of China … we yet may see peace or order return to this poor torn country.” Peace and order and a robust opium market, he meant.

But whatever the form, the poor torn country was in the hands of the Empress Dowager Cixi from here on in.

For a half-century, she would be the consummate survivor — but it was survival during an epoch of terminal decline for the Qing. Riven by conflicts within and without, the imperial system simply couldn’t adapt.

And when the cagey Empress Dowager finally died in her 73rd year, the whole enterprise came apart.

On her deathbed in 1908, Cixi named as emperor the toddler Puyi. A few years later, revolution ensured that Puyi would be the last person ever to hold that title.

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