Posts filed under '19th Century'

1844: Gabriel de la Concepcion Valdes, “Placido”

Add comment June 28th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1844, Cuban poet Gabriel de la Concepcion Valdes was executed in Matanzas for conspiring to overthrow Spanish authority on the island.

His mother (who gave him up to an orphanage) was a Spanish dancer. His father (who adopted him back) was a “quadroon” barber. Valdes, aka Placido (Spanish link, which is true of most available online resources about him) grew up as a free mixed-race youth in a slave society.

This situated him in the privileged (relative to plantation slaves) but precarious position of the petty bourgeoisie, menaced not only by the prospect of economic reversal but by the vicissitudes of Spanish policy towards his caste — whose growth many colonial officials fretted warily.

Though Placido made his bread apprenticing as a print-maker and later making turquoise combs, he made his fame by dint of literary gift that was celebrated throughout Cuba and abroad. His “La siempreviva” won a literary competition when he was just 25, and led to an invitation to visit Spain (Placido declined it); the Cuban-born, naturalized Mexican poet Jose Maria Heredia visited Cuba in 1836 and made a point to look up Placido; and according to the out-of-print Cuba’s Romantic Poet: The Story of Placido by Frederick Stimson, the young Cuban was wildly popular with North American slavery abolitionists as well.

Placido is less well-remembered beyond his home island today, but arguably rates as Cuba’s most distinguished Romantic poet.

In the 1830s especially, when civil war in Spain put the reigning monarch on the liberal side, Placido was able to exploit the opening to write openly of Cuban political aspirations.

His La Sombra de Padilla, dedicated to Spain’s “wise and exalted Queen”, imagines one of Spain’s martyred comuneros charging him to venture his life for liberty against absolutism.

Better to fall prey to La Parca [the Grim Reaper]
Than to a despotic Monarca

But notwithstanding the war in Iberia, the exalted Queen still put Cuba under special (read: repressive) law. Placido’s prominence, having advocated for much more freedom than Cuba was slated to enjoy, subjected him to automatic Spanish suspicion as more authoritarian governance arrived in the 1840s.

The poet was arrested in the Conspiración de La Escalera (Conspiracy of the Ladder, so named for the structure its accused were tortured upon). This purported plot to raise a slave revolt may or may not (pdf) have really existed, but the crackdown it authorized sure did. Indeed, despite the “slave revolt” bogeyman, it was overwhelmingly free blacks whom the Spanish suppressed in this affair.

Gariel de la Concepcion Valdes, known as “Placido”, was shot with ten others, “miserable instruments of the most depraved machinations of immoral men, men who deserve the curse of the living and the opprobrium of generations to come,” just a week after his conviction.

The appointed lot has come upon me, mother,
The mournful ending of my years of strife,
This changing world I leave, and to another
In blood and terror goes my spirit’s life.

But thou, grief-smitten, cease thy mortal weeping
And let thy soul her wonted peace regain;
I fall for right, and thoughts of thee are sweeping
Across my lyre to wake its dying strains.

A strain of joy and gladness, free, unfailing
All glorious and holy, pure, divine,
And innocent, unconscious as the wailing
I uttered on my birth; and I resign

Even now, my life, even now descending slowly,
Faith’s mantle folds me to my slumbers holy.
Mother, farewell! God keep thee — and forever!

-Valdes, “Farewell to My Mother”

There are volumes of Placido’s poetry (in the original Spanish) freely available via public-domain Google books offerings here and here, with a short thumbnail biography here. For the nonfiction biographical exploration of Placido’s life, and detailed critical analysis of his poetry, this Vanderbilt master’s thesis (pdf) is highly recommended.

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1804: Georges Cadoudal, Chouan

1 comment June 25th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1804, royalist counterrevolutionary Georges Cadoudal was guillotined in Paris with eleven of his chouan brothers-in-arms.

Cadoudal (English Wikipedia entry | the much more detailed French) was the French Revolution’s ultimate antagonist, a Breton notary (and commoner, obviously) who obstinately resisted the bloody progress of those years to the last of his strength.

His decade of royalist adventures (French) reads* like an adventure novel, a mind-bogglingly perilous series of revolts, captures, escapes, rappelling, martial exploits, diplomatic intrigue, terrorist plotting, high principles, low politics … a desperately heroic (or anti-heroic) struggle using every resource of a changing world to claw back the lost age of Bourbons.

After that dynasty’s last (up until then) king was guillotined in 1793, the intrepid Cadoudal staked his life to the 1793 Vendee rising, mounted an insurrection at Brest, and became one of the principal leaders of the anti-revolutionary Chouannerie fighting les bleus around northwest France through the 1790s.

Beaten but not bowed, Cadoudal took refuge in England when those campaigns came to grief following the royalist debacle at Quiberon, but he was never one to retire to the exile social circuit. Cadoudal remained an active schemer against the France of a rising Napoleon Bonaparte, and he was backed now by Britain’s statecraft … and her gold.

Spurning a proffered arrangement with the Corsican — who, say what one will, could recognize ability when he saw it — Cadoudal instead oversaw a dramatic 1800 assassination attempt on Napoleon that didn’t get the dictator but blew a bunch of Parisian bystanders to smithereens.

This effort having failed, our persistent intriguer slipped back into France to attempt an even bolder venture to kidnap Napoleon and elevate the Duke of Enghien — the going Bourbon candidate, who lurked on the French frontier to rush into the power vacuum.

This didn’t work either. As outlandish as the idea seems with benefit of hindsight, it was hardly a crackpot plan — as attested by the credentials of its participants.

“All Europe laughs at the conspiracy in Paris; it was, however, a well-built machine. Men, money, everything was ready. Bonaparte was to be taken alive and carried out like lightning from one post to the sea and the English fleet … I am inconsolable that it missed its mark. Those who criticize the French princes that they do not risk themselves while others fight for them, they will be the first to cry: What madness! How childish! [that d’Enghien risked himself] That is how men are made.”

-Joseph de Maistre (Source)

Which is a long way of saying that it still comes down to wins and losses.

Having lost, the Bourbon pretender (he’s a pretender because he lost, of course) d’Enghien was arrested and immediately shot for his trouble; Cadoudal, taken on the streets of Paris,** was around long enough to see the hated Bonaparte take sufficient warning from the conspiracies against him to vest his governance in the imperial dignity. That was proclaimed on May 18. (The famous coronation wasn’t until December.)


Happy now, Georges? Napoleon on his Imperial throne, by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.

“We have done better than we hoped,” the doomed Cadoudal remarked caustically from his dungeon. “We intended to give France a king, and we have given her an emperor.”

He was rock-ribbed in his royalism to the very last.

He’d met Napoleon face to face years before in an abortive parley — when Cadoudal was offered, and rejected, the bribe of a lucrative Republican military commission — and now Cadoudal’s proposed victim let it be known to him that mercy was his for the asking. The indignant Breton scorned as dishonorable the very idea of supplicating Napoleon, even when the invitation was refreshed as he underwent the fatal toilette on his final day. His dozen-strong party went to their deaths this date taking heart from following the very footsteps of their martyred king.


The Execution of Georges Cadoudal, by Armand de Polignac … who portrayed several scenes of the conspirators.

A very lovely mausoleum in his native village of Kerleano preserves Cadoudal’s remains (reburied honorably there after his Bourbon Restoration finally came to pass), and his memory.

* A descendant wrote this now-public-domain book about our man.

** Reproached for orphaning a policeman’s family as he resisted capture, Cadoudal sneered, “then you should have sent a bachelor.”

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1842: Charles Stoddart and Arthur Conolly, Great Game diplomats

1 comment June 17th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1842,* British diplomats Charles Stoddart and Arthur Conolly were summarily beheaded by a Central Asian potentate as London’s ill-chosen intervention in Afganistan came to a disastrous conclusion.

The backdrop is “the Great Game”,** the long-running chess match for supremacy in Central Asia between an expanding Russian Empire and Great Britain, with its imperial position in India.

Seeking to pre-empt a Russian move into Afghanistan, Britain invaded in 1839. This was the First Anglo-Afghan War: it would have, for the Brits, an inglorious end.

Our day’s featured principals were among the postscript casualties of that catastrophe, never-avenged losses for an empire that had overreached itself.

Stoddart, an intelligence officer, had been dispatched northward to the ancient silk road city of Bokhara intending enlist the allegiance, or at least the benign neutrality, of its emir, Nasrullah Khan. Today Uzbekistan’s fifth-largest city, Bokhara was then an independent state .

[I]n the nineteenth century, the executions carried out there with genuine cruelty, as well as the tales told by travelers gave the city a reputation of being a forbidden, closed, and hostile place. It was “despotic” Bukhara, and the Europeans projected onto it their own oriental fantasies: with citadel, dungeons, palaces, and city walls bolted shut at night, all helping to set the scene.

(Vibe on some the oriental fantasy in the 1911 volume The Emir of Bokhara and His Country, or this volume on Russian Central Asia, which by then included Bokhara.)


Scenic! Bukhara’s historic citadel, the Ark, where Stoddart (and later Conolly) were imprisoned (and later executed). (cc) image from elif ayse.

Into this scene, our Brit entered clumsily, immediately irritating the ruler he intended to supplicate. Reportedly (though the fact has been disputed), he was on the brink of execution when he acceded to save his life to Nasrullah’s formulaic offer of clemency in exchange for conversion to Islam.

In any event, Stoddart languished for years, alternately imprisoned and in the custody of the (better-received) Russian mission. Though the latter had also been charged by its sovereign to retrieve the ill-favored English emissary as a gesture of Great Powers goodwill (and to deprive England of any rationale for intervention that his captivity might offer), Stoddart seems to have been too stubbornly prideful to get out via St. Petersburg while the getting was good.

Instead, he waited on the arrival of countryman Arthur Conolly, who showed up in late 1841 on a mission to secure Stoddart’s release. But Stoddart’s situation little improved, considering Nasrullah Khan’s wary reaction to this second British interloper.

Word has it that the Bukharan prince was piqued that correspondence to him did not arrive over the signature of the British monarch herself, but merely some subcontinental subaltern — as well as, we might think understandably, suspicious at his guests’ motivations and mission.

The captor’s uncertain attitude towards his prisoners was resolved by Britain’s catastrophic loss of Kabul and the subsequent massacre of an entire 16,000-strong army as it attempted to retreat.

Seriously, the whole army. To a man. Except for one guy.


Remnants of an Army, by Elizabeth Butler, depicts the only British subject on retreat from Kabul to reach Jalalabad, William Brydon.

Battles don’t get much more decisive than that.†

Reasoning‡ that the routed British were now of no conceivable threat, nor his prisoners of any conceivable benefit, Nasrullah Khan now accused them of espionage and abused them with impunity.

The two were cast into an Indiana Jones-esque “bug pit,” an oubliette infested with … well, you know.§

Later, finding illicit writing materials secreted on his captives’ persons, the mercurial Nasrullah disposed of them outright.

their quarters were entered by several men, who stripped them, and carried them off to prison … In stripping Colonel Stoddart a lead pencil was found in the lining of his coat, and some papers in his waist. These were taken to the Ameer, who gave orders that Colonel Stoddart should be beaten with heavy sticks until he disclosed who brought the papers, and to whom he wrote. He was most violently beaten, but he revealed nothing; he was beaten repeatedly for two or three days. On Friday, the 8th or 9th (the 7th) of Jemmadee-ool-Eovel (17th of June), the Ameer gave orders that Colonel Stoddart should be killed in the presence of Captain Conolly, who was to be offered life if he would become a Mahomedan. In the afternoon they were taken outside the prison into the street, which is a kind of small square. Their hands were tied across in front. Many people assembled to behold the spectacle. Their graves were dug before their eyes. Colonel Stoddart exclaimed aloud at the cruelty and tyranny of the Ameer. His head was then cut off with a knife.

The chief executioner then turned to Captain Conolly, and said — “The Ameer spares your life if you will become a Mussulman.” Captain Conolly answered, “Colonel Stoddart has been a Mussulman for three years, and you have killed him, you killed Yoosoof too; I will not be a Mussulman, and I am ready to die.” Saying which he stretched forth his neck. His head was then cut off.

-London Times, Aug. 22, 1843, reporting the testimony of a dubious local semi-ally

The veracity of this faint bulletin from a distant and inaccessible realm nevertheless remained in some doubt. Friends of the lost men, despairing of obtaining definitive word of their fate, commissioned a strange but courageous missionary named Joseph Wolff to brave his own sojourn to Bokhara to investigate.

Wolff barely escaped with his own life, but seemingly confirmed the sad story and published a Narrative of his travels in 1845 (Part 1, Part 2).

* The initially reported June 17 execution date was subsequently contested by Joseph Pierre Ferrier, who argued that the chronology instead pointed to the next Friday, June 24. The matter appears to me permanently unresolvable.

** Ironically, the sportive phrase “the Great Game” was itself attributed to Arthur Conolly for whom, in the end, events turned out to be quite other than playful.

† Britain recaptured Kabul in reprisal later in 1842, upon which pretext it was able to declare its honor vindicated and depart Kabul (sans massacre), ending the war. Certain latter-day occupations of that “graveyard of empires” might envy their forebear’s talent for declaring victory and leaving.

‡ Correctly. Nasrullah Khan faced no British reprisal for his treatment of Stoddart and Conolly, notwithstanding the attempt by some friends to use their sad fate as some sort of casus belli. This public domain book from 1845 bears a dedication to Queen Victoria in “hope of directing your Majesty’s attention to the cruel sufferings and alleged murder of two British officers … abandoned in an unaccountable manner, by your Majesty’s Government … [in circumstances] degrading to the British nation;” the same man had previously published an “Appeal to the British Nation” in an “endeavour to excite the public sympathy.” Sympathy or no, the two British officers stayed abandoned.

§ Bug tortureenhanced interrogation was actually authorized during the Bush administration for the insect-averse Abu Zubaydah. The gentleman approving that technique, Jay Bybee, is now a federal circuit judge.

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1857: Return Ward, dismemberer

3 comments June 12th, 2012 Headsman

Headline: Shocking Murder of a Female - The Body Burned: Arrest of her husband!

On this date in 1857, a “hulking lout” with the unusual handle of Return Jonathan Meigs Ward was hanged in Toledo for Syvlania, Ohio’s most shocking murder.

Ward makes his notorious entry in the annals of Ohio crime by killing his wife after which, in the words of a wire story, he “sits up nights, with his door locked, cuts her into small pieces, and burns up her remains in the stove. This process occupied several days, in which time he drew largely on the shops around for shavings, and the unsavory scent went forth from the chimney, and filled the nostrils of those who happened to be in that vicinity.”

That’s from the April 2, 1857 Lowell (Mass.) Daily Citizen and News, and indicates that this itinerant character had become a national story. Ward, indeed, appears to have perpetrated a couple of theretofore unsolved homicides in his past, and the experience of dislimbing a previous murder victim to box him in a crate is just the sort of thing to give a man the sang-froid to dice up and incinerate his late spouse.

Anyway, the neighbors being unsatisfied with Ward’s accounts of his wife’s absence, they started poking around his place and turned up the bone fragments he hadn’t been able to completely burn away. Though the evidence against him was circumstantial, it was pretty overwhelming — and a jury took less than a half-hour in a standing-room-only courtroom to convict.

Ward went with the old “accidentally killed her during a domestic fight and cut her all to pieces in my panic” story. You know, the classic. In a post-conviction quasi-confession to the Toledo Blade, he took that tack while giving a stomach-churning description of how he annihilated the corpse (here reprinted by the Newark Advocate, April 15, 1857). Warning: Skip this if detailed descriptions of human dismemberment aren’t your thing.

I tore the clothes open, from the throat down. I then took a small pocket knife and opened the body, took out the bowels first, and then put them on the stove, upon the wood; they being filled with air would make a noise in exploding, so I took my knife and pricked holes through them to prevent the noise; then took out the liver and heart, and put them in the stove; found it very difficult to burn them; had to take the poker and frequently stir them before they could be destroyed; found the lungs very much decayed. I then took out the blood remaining in the cavity of the body, by placing a copper kettle close to the same and scooping it out with my hands. I then dipped portions of her clothing in the same, and burnt it together, fearing if I put the blood in the stove alone, that it might be discovered. I then made an incision through the flesh, along down each side, broke off the ribs and took out the breast bone, and throwing it into a large boiler, unjointed the arms at the shoulders, doubled them up and placed them in the boiler; then severed the remaining portions of the body, by placing a stick of wood under the back and breaking the back bone over the same, cutting away the flesh and ligament with a knife. Then tried to sever the head from the body; it proving ineffectual, I put the whole upper portion of the body into the boiler. Then took a large carving knife and severed the lower portion of the body, unjointed the legs at the knee, and again at the hip joint; cut the thighs open and took out the bones and burnt them up; they burned very rapidly.

On Thursday night, I commenced burning the body, by placing the upper and back portions of the same, together with the head, in the stove. On Friday morning, finding it had not been consumed, I built a large fire by placing wood around and under it, and in a short time it was wholly consumed, except some small portions of the larger bones and of the skull. The remaining portions of the body were kept in the boiler and in tubs, under the bed, covered up with a corded petticoat, and were there at the time the first search was made on Saturday, by Constable Curtis. — Hearing on Saturday evening that the citizens were not satisfied with the search made by Mr. Curtis, I proceeded on Sunday morning to destroy the remainder of the body by burning the same in the stove, cutting the fleshy parts of the thighs in small strips, the more readily to dispose of them. On Monday morning I took up the ashes in a small bag, sifting out the larger pieces of bone with my hands, placing the same in my overcoat pockets, which I scattered in various places in the fields, at different time. Also took the major portion of the trunk nails, together with the hinges, and scattered them in different places. I then burned her trunk and every vestige of her clothing, disposing of small portions at a time, to prevent their creating too much smoke.

Though the hanging itself occurred behind prison walls — and just as well, since the jittery Ward was unmanned and incoherent — Toledo was reportedly thronged with curiosity-seekers on the day of the execution.

That curiosity hasn’t disappeared in the intervening years.

Just in time for the 150th death-iversary of Return Ward in 2007, Gaye Gindy recaptured the case for these latter days in her Murder in Sylvania, Ohio: As Told in 1857.

Part of the Themed Set: Ohio.

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1896: Amelia Dyer, baby farmer

3 comments June 10th, 2012 Headsman

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

On this date in 1896, Amelia Elizabeth Dyer was hanged at Newgate Prison in London. At 58 years old, she was the oldest woman hung in Great Britain between 1844 and 1955.

Amelia was a baby farmer, one of many from that time and place. Baby farmers would, for a fee, take an infant or toddler if its mother was unable or unwilling to care for it. The idea was that the baby farmer would either become the baby’s foster parent, or find someone else to foster or adopt the child.

In the days when illegitimacy carried a heavy social stigma, this was an attractive option — indeed, often the only option — for single or impoverished mothers, and likewise for communities facing the burden of an orphaned newborn. Young Oliver in Charles Dickens’s novel Oliver Twist grew up on a baby farm after his mother died in childbirth and his father disappeared.

In many cases, everyone benefited from the transaction: the mother would go back to her life knowing her baby was all right, a childless couple would have a baby to love, and the baby itself would grow up in a secure home.

Unhappily, however, many other cases produced horrendous results: the baby was not necessarily safe once the mother had handed it over and paid money in advance for its care. Unscrupulous and greedy women realized that, once they got the lump sum payment, they could make a profit if the baby died, the sooner the better.

Victorian Britain was rife with baby farmers who would quietly do away with their helpless charges, or simply starve and neglect the infants until they expired. Authorities made unavailing, ill-enforced attempts to control the problem by, for example, requiring women who adopted or fostered more than one infant at a time to register. (And by doling out a few sporadic, but high-profile, executions.)

It was a widespread and well-known problem, as Alison Rattle and Allison Vale note in their biography, Amelia Dyer: Angel Maker:

It was impossible for newspapers of the day to keep count of the numbers of bodies found strewn about the towns and cities. Scarcely a day passed without yet another report of the corpse of some young innocent being found abandoned beneath the seat of a railway carriage, under an archway, in a sewer grating or just carelessly dumped in one of the open spaces of a city suburb. Many cases were not even reported …

Amelia Dyer was the worst of the worst.

She was convicted of a single murder, but they’d found the bodies of half a dozen more, and by the time she was caught she’d been operating for for twenty years or more. Her victims may well have numbered in the hundreds, making her a mass killer of Harold Shipman-like proportions.

Amelia was born in Bristol to a respectable working-class family. Unlike most children of the time, she was able to attend school until age fourteen, and her four siblings. But there was tragedy in her family: her mother went insane (apparently brain-damaged by the effects of typhus), and died when Amelia was eleven years old.

In 1861, at age 24, Amelia married George Thomas, a 57-year-old widower. They had a daughter together before his death in 1869. Three years later, she married William Dyer and they had a daughter and a son, as well as several children who didn’t survive infancy. Eventually she left him.

She was a qualified nurse and did work in that field off and on for several years, but for most of her life after her first husband’s death, her primary occupation was baby farming. At first, Amelia acted only as an intermediary, taking babies from their mothers for a fee and, for another fee, handing them over to other baby farmers who, often as not, let them die. She also kept pregnant women in her home and nursed them until delivery, and the newborns were reported stillborn as often as they survived.

It isn’t known just when she started murdering the infants herself, but by 1879 she came to the attention of the authorities: four nurse-children in her care had died within two weeks of each other.

They wanted to get her for manslaughter, but there was insufficient evidence. Amelia was found guilty of criminal neglect and served the maximum, six months at hard labor. She tried to go straight, working a variety of low-paying jobs.

Inevitably, however, she returned to what she was best at.

She had learned an important lesson from her previous brush with the law: don’t bring in a doctor to sign the death certificate, don’t leave a paper trail. Instead, she started disposing of the bodies herself.

Like her colleagues she put out notices in the newspapers, advertising herself as a respectable married woman who wanted to adopt or foster a baby in exchange for money. Sometimes there was an understanding that the mother would be permitted to visit the child, or take it back once she was in a position to care for it.

However, a mother usually never saw either Amelia or child again after handing over her infant.

Amelia kept herself constantly on the move and used a number of alias names to avoid attention. At times she was receiving as many as six babies a day. Her youngest daughter, Polly, grew up helping her mother take care of the babies; for her, it was a way of life.

When she married and moved away from home, she and her husband, Arthur Palmer, ultimately set themselves up as baby farmers too, sometimes working alongside Amelia. The Palmers habitually neglected and abandoned their charges, and at least two of their babies died.

Amelia started showing signs of mental illness after her release from prison: she had violent fits, claimed to hear voices, made at least one serious suicide attempt and ultimately was admitted four times to three different asylums. Her mental illness may have genuine, possibly caused or exacerbated by her substance abuse (she was addicted to both laudanum and alcohol), or she may have been malingering: her breakdowns tended to happen after the authorities or parents seeking to reclaim their babies started poking their noses around in her business.

The end came on March 30, 1896, when a bargeman pulled the body of fifteen-month-old Helena Fry out of the River Thames. She’d been strangled with dressmaking tape, which was still tied around her neck. When the police closely examined the paper she was wrapped in, they were able to make out an address: 26 Piggotts Road, Reading.

When the authorities searched that home, they found numerous items of interest including more dressmaking tape, piles of baby clothes and pawn tickets for more clothes, and letters from mothers asking about their children. The house reeked of human decomposition.

The police set up a sting to catch Dyer, using a young woman to act as a decoy. But on April 4, the day they were supposed to meet to talk business, she found herself arrested instead and charged with the murder of Helena Fry. Shortly thereafter, her daughter and son-in-law, Arthur and Polly Palmer, were charged as accessories.

Investigators dragged the Thames and found four more bodies, three boys and one girl. All of them had white dressmaking tape knotted around their throats. Two of the victims were later identified as Harry Simmons, thirteen months, and Doris Marmon, four months. They had been killed only a few days before Amelia’s arrest, stuffed into a carpetbag together and thrown off a dock. Later, two more bodies turned up: another girl and another boy.

The investigation determined that at least 20 children had been given over to Amelia Dyer’s care in the few months prior to her being caught. During the previous year, between thirty and forty bodies had been pulled from the Thames. Almost all of them were of infants and authorities suspected most of the deaths were the work of one person.

Within a few days, Amelia had confessed everything, but denied that Polly and Arthur had any guilty knowledge of the murders, and the Palmers also maintained their innocence. Amelia confirmed that she’d dumped most of the babies’ bodies in the river. “You’ll know mine,” she said, “by the tape around their necks.”

The charges against Arthur Palmer were dropped for lack of evidence just before Amelia went to trial. Polly, anxious to save herself, became the main witness against her mother and claimed she had had no inkling of the murders of Doris Harmon and Harry Simmons, although they’d been killed in her house within a day of each other and she’d been present at the time. Her statements were contradicted by other witnesses.

Amelia was first tried for the murder of little Doris; the idea was that if she was acquitted, they could try her in the other cases one by one. She pleaded insanity, emphasizing her own mother’s madness and her own stays in insane asylums — but two of the three doctors who examined Amelia did not believe she was mentally unsound.

The jury deliberated four and a half minutes before finding her guilty.

Polly’s trial was supposed to take place on June 16, and her mother was summonsed to testify, in spite of the fact that she was due to be executed a week beforehand. Amelia appears to have really loved her daughter and was focused solely on saving her from suffering the same fate. In a letter she wrote on June 5, she said,

I was glad to see her looking so well dear child. God only knows how grieved I am to know she is suffering for no fault of her own. She did nothing, she knew nothing.

If only Amelia’s concern for her own child had extended to other people’s, too.

On the eve of her mother’s execution, the case against Polly was dropped. Amelia expressed great relief about this in her final letter to her daughter. But Polly and Arthur didn’t give up baby farming and in 1898 they were caught after they abandoned a (living) baby girl on a train.

On the scaffold, when asked for a last statement, Amelia answered, “I have nothing to say.” She was hanged at 9:00 a.m.

In the aftermath of her trial and execution, Parliament enacted more laws in order to protect helpless infants from suffering the same fate as Amelia’s nurse-children. Nevertheless, during the next ten years, three more baby farmers would suffer the ultimate penalty for infanticide.

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1884: Mary Lefley, exonerated by a deathbed confession

3 comments May 26th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1884, Mary Lefley was hanged at Lincoln County Gaol for lacing her husband’s pudding with a lethal dose of arsenic.*

It was less than four months since William Lefley ate the rice pudding his wife Mary had left him in the oven while she called at a nearby town. This strange poisoning case is admirably covered by Capital Punishment UK, whose work we’ve featured here before. It’s one of the essential online sources on British execution history.

Shrieking in terror, Lefley had to be dragged to the gallows — still protesting her innocence. She’d never admitted to the crime, and they’d never been able to show that she purchased any arsenic.

There was some thought that William may have committed suicide: he’s known to have attempted it once before. But the more outlandish defense hypothesis that some unknown third party might have snuck in and poisoned the morsel gained unexpected credence in 1893 when a farmer made a deathbed confession to having done just that … over a wholly unrelated-to-Mary financial grudge.

* Mary Lefley knew the last notorious Lincolnshire poisoner, Priscilla Biggadyke — who hanged for poisoning off her husband in 1868. “They are hanging me for my past!” Lefley exclaimed when she was convicted. (Priscilla turned out to be innocent, too.)

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1872: Communards Serizier, Boin and Boudin

1 comment May 25th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1872, three adherents of the late Paris Commune were shot at Satory (which was doing steady business in the execution of Communards).

We take this story from the dispatch filed the same day for the London Telegraph and reprinted in the New York Times. Paragraph breaks have been added for readability.


Dilatory as the French authorities are in bringing culprits to trial, they dispatch them with terrible haste so soon as their guilt has been certified by the final Court of Appeal. No public notice is ever given of an execution, and few people ever hear of it until it is all over.

A paragraph appeared in an evening paper last night to this effect: “The Commission of Pardons has commuted the sentenced passed on PASCAL and LUCIPIA; the appeals of SERIZIER, BOIN and BOUDIN have been rejected.” To the world at large this paragraph conveys no hint as to the date of execution; the initiated read between the lines that on the following morning, dawn will rise on a dismal military pageant on the plains of Satory.

There is, nevertheless, a certain amount of uncertainty in the matter, so very closely are all such secrets kept in France; and it was only on the receipt of a hint from a high authority that some time after midnight I determined to start with a friend for Satory. The impression made upon me by the ghastly spectacle I shall try to describe in the plainest possible language.

SATORY.

A finer exercising ground than the plain of Satory it is not possible to imagine. The ground is as flat as a billiard-table, and it is not devoid of a certain beauty — the thick turf being singularly fresh, and he vast square plain surrounded by a belt of fine trees.

Troops are marching in companies to take up their appointed positions on the ground. A raised battery is a prominent object, and opposite to it, at some distance, is a huge earthen mound, against which a target stands out distinctly in black and white. The troops are forming in three sides of a square, which is completed by this butt.

It is not until you get quite close to the mound that you perceive on the lower ground immediately in front three white sticks ranged in a line, each about four feet high and five feet apart. These are the poteaux against which the culprits are to stand.

A good many soldiers, not on duty, have turned out en amateur to see the show; they collect on the top of a mound near the butt, but they are driven down by the artillery sentinels and mounted police, who, dressed in a little authority, canter about with superfluous fidgety zeal.

The morning air is chill, and everybody on duty or off duty tries to comfort himself with a smoke. “Nous avons encore trente-cinq minutes,” says a sergent-de-ville, in a grumbling, querulous tone. And the condemned men? They only had thirty-five minutes, and methinks they had as much reason to complain.

A soldier proceeds to work at the target, sqwing it off short; he is going to take it away, perhaps, that it may not divert the soldiers’ aim; and one feels irritated with him for being so slow.

One wonders, too, that they have allowed the red signal flag to remain at the top of the butt. Would not a Communist see an omen or an augury in the accident?

An engineer close to me is coolly fashioning wedges, in preparation for the artillery practice, which is to begin “aussitot que cette affaire est finie.”

Another protests impatiently that he wants his breakfast. Three dogs, which are perpetually frightening the horses of the mounted police, as well as the riders, excite continual merriment. There are scarcely more than a dozen civilians present, but I observe two women.

One — a brazen-looking creature, with a black mustache, and wearing that peculiar kind of hooded cloak which you see constantly in Belgium — was laughing a hoarse, harsh laugh, that chilled one’s blood. The other was charmingly dressed in black silk, and looked like a lady; she spoke to nobody; her face was deadly pale; her eyes were large with tears, and yet there was a strange compression about the lips that told of intesnse firmness of purpose. Her bearing was rigidly calm, but I fancied that the stick of her dainty black parasol was snapped in two.

What had that woman to do at such a scene? I know not; but, assuredly, it was not curiosity that brought her there. There was now a slight diversion. A cart drove up covered with black cloth, and hid itself away to the left of the poteaux.

THE EXECUTIONERS AND THE CONDEMNED.

Then the pelotons or firing parties marched in and piled arms opposite the same slim sticks about which everything in that huge plain seemed to gather of its own accord.

The pelotons were taken, one from the line, two from the Chasseurs de Vincennes. Hardened though they must be by this time and embittered though they are against the Communists, I do not think, to do them justice, that they liked their duty. They looked pale, they were perpetually falling out, and they smoked with suspicious eagerness.

I tried to impress on my own mind that these fellows were murderous ruffians who had slain unoffending fellow-creatures in cold blood. SERIZIER and BOIN, Colonel and Lieutenant in the Communist army, had tortured and killed the very priests who had devoted themselves to the task of tending the wounded on both sides, for no reason but that they were good men. BOUDIN had actually shot down a chemist in the Rue Richelieu because he protested against his son, a mere lad, being impressed into working at a barricade.

But, with the best will in the world, I could not persuade myself that it was right and proper for 5,000 soldiers to be brought out under arms for the mere sake of killing three defenceless wretches. Meanwhile the minutes passed on; the officers rolled up cigarettes, compared watches, and consoled each other with the reflection, “Soyez tranquille, mon cher, ca sera l’heure militaire.”

And so it was; for just as the first silvery tones of a distant church clock were wafted across the heath, striking the hour, the trumpets rang, the drums beat Aux champs, the troops dressed up, and the three ambulance wagons dashed into the square at a sharp trot.

The prisoners had not been apprised of their appeal hvaing been rejected until four o’clock in the morning, but they seem to have accepted their fate with singular philosophy. They had all eaten and drunk, and SERIZIER had asked for a “pipe of tobacc” for the last time. In driving along he said to the two gendarmes by whom he was accompanied, “Wat a mistake I made to quit Belgium! Quelie belle affaire j’ai fait la. C’est egal, je saurai bien mourir.

Strangely enough, he confessed to a Dominican, a priest of the ver order against which he had shown such diabolical hatred.

Each man was accompanied by two gendarmes. And here I cannot help noting one of the strange peculiarities of an over-excited state of mind. When the drums beat “Aux champs,” the merely dramatic feeling of the scene was intensely moving.

And yet when, a moment later, I first caught sight of the tops of the jack-boots of the first tell gendarme who appeared at the ambulance doors, I was so forcibly reminded of “Le Petit Faust,” and scores of other pieces wherein these functionaries are held up to ridicule, that I almost burst out into hysterical laughter.

The tragedy, however, soon proved too terrible, for the gendarme was closely followed by BOIN, who had scarcely touched the ground before he exclaimed, waving his hat in the air, “Vive la Commune!”

The three men walked quickly to the poteaux, and placed themselves in position as coolly as though it were the most natural thing in the world. They then, as though with one accord, flung their hats or caps into the air, and shouted several times in thrilling tones, “Vive la Commune!”

They all three were smoking. SERIZIER threw away his pipe, but BOIN kept his cigar in his hand, and BOUDIN was actually smoking as he fell. The face of the latter was so covered up by the handkerchief with which he alone allowed his eyes to be bandaged that his features could not be discerned.

SERIZIER, who was in the middle, indignantly threw down the handkerchief with such force as to cast it far beyond him. BOIN also refused the bandage wherewith the soldier stationed beyond him offered to cover his eyes, and by an involuntary action he put it into his pocket.

BOUDIN was coarsely clad; and SERIZIER, an undersized man, with heavy sensual features, looked like the type of a London rough. BOIN was a tall, well-built man, having good, clean-cut features and black mustaches. He was dressed in a light-brown velvet coat, Garde Nationale trousers, and a colored-scarf round the waist.

THE EXECUTION.

The priest, going up to each in turn, kissed him on both cheeks, in what seemed to me a hurried and perfunctory manner.

Then, while the sentence was being read to the prisoners in a quick, low, quite inaudible tone, BOIN made a long harangue, much of which was lost in the perpetual rolling of those ghastly drums.

But one could distinguish snatches of sentences such as “Soldiers, you are children of the people as we are, and we will show you how children of the people can die. Nous mourons innocents,” and then opening wide his light coat — he wore no waistcoat — he offered his white shirt-front for a mark, and, striking his heart with his open palm, he exclaimed: “Portez armes en joue! feu! tirez au coeur!”

This he repeated several times, and while he was yet speaking, standing out clear away from the poteaux and looking death at ten paces literally in the face, a sword flashed in the sun, and the three men leaped from the ground only to fall to it in horrible contortions.

The smoke and the report were unheeded, for all the senses of the horrified spectator were arrested by the awful spectacle of writhing limbs and twisting hands.

BOIN seemed to be rewarded for his bravery by suffering less than the others, but SERIZIER literally rolled over, and BOUDIN also moved. The surgeon then went up, examined BOUDIN first, and then directed one of the sergeants in reserve to give the coup de grace in the ear. Then SERIZIER was examined and treated in the same way; and lastly, after a considerable interval, BOIN was dragged into position and dispatched.

I cannot give you any idea of the sickening impression produced by this seemingly deliberate butchery.

I say seemingly, for the men may have been dead, but, in any case, surely if the coup de grace must be given, it should be done at once. I did not time the proceedings, but, long as my description is, I believe that not more than two minutes elapsed from the time that the ambulance wagons came on to the ground to the time that the volley was fired.

Several more minutes, however, elapsed before the dull thud of the last coup de grace delivered a bout pontant right into the poor wretch’s ear struck upon the ground. I have seen something of the horrors of war at Sedan and Strasbourg; I have witnessed the degradations of a public hanging in England, but have never seen anything so horrible as this supplemental butchery of the coup de grace.

AN AFTER SCENE.

When the surgeon and his attendants retired fro the poteaux, it became evident that painfully long as the interval had been, he had not been sparing of trouble. For with an eye to dramatic effect, he had disposed the bodies symmetrically, so that their feet should point towards the defiling troops.

Then the trumpets struck up a lively tune, and all the troops present — three batteries of artillery, carbineers and other caalry, four or five battalions of the line, engineers, &c. — some five thousand men — marched at quick step before the stark, stiff, staring bodies.

I cannot think that such a sight can have any other effect than that of exciting sympathy for the guilty. To see a man lying on his back there, his head a shapeless mass and the large red spot on his breast growing every moment larger and larger, and to think that not ten minutes ago he was speaking with passionate eloquence — this tended rather to make one forget his crimes than to remember his cruelty.

Yet I am bound to confess that this feeling is not shared by all, for when the troops had passed by, and the black van had driven up and unladen its dreadful burden of plain coffins, I saw an officer point with his foot at the yet warm brains of BOIN, and I heard him say, “C’est avec celui qu’il a fait son discours.”

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1892: Frederick Bailey Deeming, Bluebeard

2 comments May 23rd, 2012 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1892, Frederick Bailey Deeming was hanged in Melbourne, Australia for the murder of his second wife, Emily Mather. She was not his only victim; he’d also murdered his first wife, son and three daughters.

Deeming was born and raised in Ashby-de-la-Zouch in the UK. One of seven children, he was reportedly a “difficult” child. He later claimed he’d spent years in mental hospitals as a youth, something his brother disputed.

Deeming ran away to sea at sixteen and began committing crimes, mostly thefts. Wherever he went, he swindled and stole from people.

Deeming married Marie James in 1881 (his brother married Marie’s sister) and they moved to Australia. They went on to have four children.

In 1888, Deeming and his family moved to South Africa. His movements around that time are unclear, but he was definitely back in England by November 1889, and separated from his wife and children, who lived in another city.

Deeming bigamously married Helen Matheson in 1890, and deserted her shortly after the honeymoon. He visited his wife, gave her some money and told he was going to South America and would send for her and the children once he’d settled. Before he left he conned some jewelers in Hull; as a result, he was arrested upon his arrival in Montevideo, Uruguay and sent back to England to serve nine months in the clink.

In 1891, after his release from prison, Deeming took the name “Albert Williams” and leased a house in the village of Rainhill. A woman and several children were seen visiting him; he claimed they were his sister and her children.

The woman and children disappeared — off to an extended holiday, Deeming said. A short time later, complaining that the drains were defective, Deeming had the floor of his house re-concreted.

In fact, the “sister” was his first wife Marie and the “nieces” and “nephews” his own children — Bertha, 9, Marie, 7, Sidney, 5, and Leala, 18 months. And in fact, they were “vacationing” permanently, under the concrete floor. Authorities believe he killed them on or about July 26, 1891.

By that time, Deeming was already courting Emily Lydia Mather. They married on September 22 and by December 1891 had up and moved to Melbourne.

Emily didn’t make it past Christmas before Deeming had her entombed under the fireplace.

In January 1892, Deeming moved to Sydney. On the way he met a delightful young lady named Kate Rousenfell. He gave her several expensive gifts, including jewelry he’d stolen while he was in Melbourne, and proposed marriage. She agreed and said she would join him in Western Australia when he moved there.

But the course of true love never did run smooth, and Miss Rousenfell was cheated of her bridegroom by Deeming’s March 11 arrest for Emily’s murder.

Emily’s body had been discovered on March 3, after the house’s owner, investigating his new tenant’s complaints of a strange smell, raised the hearthstone. Her throat had been cut and her skull was fractured. When Deeming was taken into custody, he had some of her things with him, including her prayer book.

The murder case received extensive publicity and when those back in England heard of it, they decided to have a look at Deeming’s former home in Rainhill. There they dug up the bodies of Marie and the four children.

At his trial, Deeming claimed insanity and brain damage from epilepsy and tertiary syphilis, and said his dead mother’s spirit had ordered him to commit the murders.

He told the jury that Marie wasn’t dead and had, in fact, left him for another man. In the three weeks between the verdict and the hanging he penned his biography and some bad poetry. English publishers offered him £1,000 for the rights to his writings, but the Australian government had them all destroyed.

There have been suggestions, in Deeming’s time and ours, that he was the serial killer Jack the Ripper, who slaughtered and mutilated a handful of London prostitutes in 1888. The fact that evidence indicates Deeming was in South Africa at the time of the Jack the Ripper murders hasn’t stopped the speculation. He allegedly told his cellmates he was the Ripper, but when asked directly by the authorities, he refused to answer yes or no.

Deeming’s skull and death mask are still on display in the Old Melbourne Gaol Museum.

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1856: Casey and Cora, by the San Francisco Vigilance Committee

1 comment May 22nd, 2012 John Putnam

Gold attracts all kinds of people but has a particular allure to crooks and corrupt politicians. When gold was found in California they flowed in from all over the world. Soon the gamblers and thugs had the run of San Francisco. Politicians and judges were bought and paid for. Crime went unpunished. (Usually.)

At the same time San Francisco was growing fast, and was filled with the flimsiest, most flammable wooden buildings imaginable. By 1850 huge fires began to rake the city and while they leveled block after block criminals would loot the homes and businesses of the good citizens who were out trying to fight the flames.

The first vigilance committee formed in 1851 after the fifth fire simply because the city government would do nothing to protect the people. The committee, made up of most of the leading citizens and with the backing of almost every honest person, hung a few men and chased a lot more out of town. Within months things improved dramatically and the committee disbanded.

But it’s hard to keep crooks that are in cahoots with corrupt politicians under control for long and by 1855 things were in terrible shape once more. Gold production was down, voting fraud was rampant, banks and business failed, a city supervisor slipped out of town just before his imminent arrest for a major real estate scam involving city money and a pier we now know as Fisherman’s Wharf.

James King of William, a once well-known banker who had lost everything in the collapse of 1855 was now running a small newspaper, The Evening Bulletin, devoted to exposing the corruption in the city. King was fearless in his reporting and ruthless but impartial in his editorials.

Yet things were still a mess in 1856 when the gambler, Charles Cora, took his doxy, a high powered and wealthy Madame called Belle, to the theater. By her presence she offended the young and ambitious US Marshal Richardson and a heated dispute arose between the two men. Then, days later, after that dispute was resumed in a local saloon, Cora shot Richardson in the chest in cold blood at point blank range.

King denounced the city officials who were holding Cora for trial, saying that the man could not be found guilty of even such a blatant crime in a city as corrupt as San Francisco. And as King predicted, amid charges of bribery, the jury in the trial of Charles Cora could not reach a verdict and Cora had escaped his punishment for murder. King then went after James P. Casey, a city supervisor, and exposed him as having once been a prisoner in New York’s infamous Sing Sing prison.

Casey was incensed and on May 14th stormed into the offices of the Bulletin and protested loudly. King ordered him out. Casey went but waited just up the street. An hour later, when King left for the day, Casey walked up to him in the middle of Montgomery Street and shot him down with a Navy Colt.

The news spread fast. Tens of thousands of people soon gathered.

Casey, joined by his powerful friends, went straight to the jail where Cora was still held for his own protection. Soon the crowd arrived. The local militia was called in to guard the place and there was no trouble that night. The next morning members of the old Committee of Vigilance met and by the time King died on May 20th a new committee had been formed and already had 3,500 members.

By now most of the militia sided with the vigilantes, so when the committee marched in mass to the jail and surrounded it, the jailers soon were soon persuaded to turn Casey over. A short time later the committee returned for Cora. The prisoners were taken to the committee’s headquarters, known as Fort Gunnybags, on Sacramento Street and held there under guard.

Both men were appointed lawyers and put on trial by the vigilantes. Each was convicted with a unanimous verdict.

On May 22nd they were hanged from short platforms extending from second floor windows of Fort Gunnybags before an enormous crowd of San Franciscans who filled the streets, buildings and roof tops all around. The Committee of Vigilance continued to operate until they were convinced that all corrupt politicians and crooks had been purged from city. This resulted in a wholesale change of the political power in San Francisco.

John Putnam is the author of Hangtown Creek, an exciting tale of the early California gold rush. His rich history of that incredible era at can be found at mygoldrushtales.com.

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1881: Po’olua, “darkened in my mind”

Add comment May 20th, 2012 Headsman

This date in 1881 saw the hanging of a native Hawaiian named Po’olua for a homicide of domestic jealousy tinged by almost tragic remorse.

This case is described in the 1991 essay “A Short History of Hawaiian Executions, 1826-1947″ by Joseph Theroux.

In 1881, the Hawaiian [Po’olua] grew enraged when his when his common-law wife, according to the papers, “paraded her infidelity” before him and slaughtered her with a “big butcher knife.” Then, in a fit of remorse, he draped his house in mourning with black crepe paper.

… The experts of the day — family doctors and preachers — were conducted in to interview the bewildered man. They questioned him and concluded that he was not insane. Po’olua himsel agreed that he was sane but “darkened in my mind.” … the Reverend H.H. Parker explained the man’s actions this way: “A Hawaiian would do many things which a white man would not.”

When it as found that Po’olua had a heart abnormality and that he would likely die soon anyway, letters of clemency were circulated on his behalf. But he was hanged on May 20, 1881. Permission was sought for a post mortem to investigate the state of his heart, but officials denied the request. The Advertiser remarked that it “should have been done. Being attended to, might have laid him quiet in his grave; but being forbidden, his spirit will rise up Banquo-like for many a day to come.”

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