Posts filed under '19th Century'

1825: Peggy Facto, Plattsburgh infanticide

Add comment March 18th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1825, a woman named Peggy Facto was hung on Plattsburgh, N.Y.‘s Broad Street Arsenal Lot.

Facto — or “Facteau,” which variant recalls the French influence here on the shores of Lake Champlain — started her way to the gallows the previous autumn when some neighborhood dogs unearthed the remains of a human infant. It had been partially burned in a fireplace, and when found it still had fast about its throat the cord used to choke it to death. (Plus, of course, the dogs had done their own damage.)

This hideous discovery led back to our day’s principal character, the local mother of two [living] children whose husband had abandoned her due to her affair with a guy named Francis LaBare. Both Peggy and Francis were indicted for “being moved and seduced by the instigation of the devil” to murder their inconvenient bastard immediately after birth.

They faced separate trials for the crime, just hours apart on January 19, 1825, on very similar evidence. Witnesses established the discovery of the body, and an acquaintance named Mary Chandreau testified that she had seen Peggy Facto in an obvious late stage of pregnancy that August. This woman also visited Peggy Facto in jail before trial, and testified that Peggy admitted to having taken a string from one of her gowns to furnish the strangulation-cord.

While this evidence was sufficient to condemn Peggy Facto upon mere minutes of juror deliberation, the same case against Francis LaBare resulted in an acquittal. The mother, who did not testify at her own trial, did take the stand at LaBare’s trial, claiming (according to the notes of the judge), that immediately after she delivered the child, Facto

asked [LaBare] to go find her mother & he refused. She then asked him to go find Mrs. Chandreau & he refused, and next asked him if he meant to let her die there & he said the damned old bitch, I can do better than she can. She then requested him to help her & he did & then the child was born & he took it out and went off & was gone an hour, and when he returned … he came towards her with a knife & threatened her life if she said anything about it.

This quote, and much of what is known about Peggy Facto generally, comes via the research of Plattsburgh judge Penelope Clute. See here and here for HTML versions of the article, or here for a pdf.

It’s difficult to account, on the face of it, for the wildly differential outcomes of these trials; the all-male juries might have something to do with it.

At any rate, while LaBare walked, judge Reuben Walworth* pronounced Facto’s fate with enough fury for two … and a distinct disbelief in Facto’s attempt to blame LaBare:

there are very strong reasons for the belief that your own wicked hands have perpetrated the horrid deed. And if there was any other guilty participator in the murder, that your own wickedness and depravity instigated and persuaded him to participate in your crime. To the crime of murder, you have added the crime of perjury, and that in the face of Heaven, and even on the very threshhold of eternity. I am also constrained to say, it is much to be feared, that you will meet more than one murdered child, as an accusing spirit at the bar of Heaven.

Wretched and deluded woman! In vain was the foul and unnatural murder committed under the protecting shade of night, in your lone and sequestered dwelling, where no human eye was near to witness your guilt.

Facto’s only “appeal” after her half-day trial was the clemency consideration of Gov. DeWitt Clinton, a petition that ended up garnering a great deal of popular support, on three stated grounds:

  1. doubts with many as to the guilt of the convict
  2. as to this being a case that requires a public example
  3. As to the policy of executing any person for the crime of murder when the public opinion is much divided on this subject

Even Judge Walworth ultimately supported this appeal, despite his confidence “that the woman was perfectly abandoned and depraved and that she had destroyed this child and probably the one the year previous, not for the purpose of hiding her shame which was open and apparent to everybody that saw her but for the purpose of ridding herself of the trouble of taking care of them and providing for their support.”

The governor disagreed, arguing that the sort of enlightened people who signed on to death penalty appeals were out of touch with the rank terror necessary to keep the criminal orders cowed.**

So on March 18, 1825, an enormous crowd (fretfully many of them women) summoned from all the nearby towns slogged through spring-muddied roads to be duly cowed by the execution of the infanticide. The condemned, visibly terrified, barely made it through her death-ritual without fainting away, but she managed to re-assert her innocence from the gallows. (Some of the firsthand newspapering is here.)

After execution, Peggy Facto’s remains were turned over to the Medical Society for dissection. “A great many went to see her body, although it had been agreed that it should not be seen,” one woman later recollected in her memoirs. “Many young men went. So much talk was made of this that they said that no other body should ever be given to the doctors.”

* Walworth was a man of illustrious descent; one ancestor, William Walworth, was the Lord Mayor of London who killed Wat Tyler.

Judge Walworth would later become, for two decades, New York’s highest-ranking judicial officer; Walworth, N.Y. and Walworth County, Wisc. are named for him. But the American Walworths were bound for a tragic end … including a scandalous murder.

** “Their excellent character elevates them above those feelings which govern the conduct of the depraved … if terror loses its influence with them then indeed the life of no man will be secure.” For more on the evolution of the idea of “exemplary deterrence” as the death penalty’s raison d’etre, see Paul Friedland.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,New York,Notable Participants,Public Executions,Sex,USA,Women

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1872: Sher Ali Afridi, assassin of the viceroy

Add comment March 11th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1872, Sher Ali Afridi was hanged at Viper Island for knifing to death the British Viceroy of India 32 days before.

Richard Bourke, the 6th Earl of Mayo, had stopped off to visit the convict settlement at the Andaman Islands.

Little remembered today, Great Britain shipped tens of thousands of Indian convicts to that Bay of Bengal archipelago in the latter half of the 19th century (and continuing into the 1930s).

One of them was Sher Ali.

This former cavalryman in the UK’s Indian military forces had murdered a relative in a private feud, and was dispatched to the prison colony for his trouble. Evidently he nursed a terrible grudge at being judicially punished for what, in his opinion, was no crime at all. The standard story* is that he dreamed of wreaking revenge on the person of “some high British official.”

They don’t come much higher than the Viceroy to India.

So despite his sterling conduct record as a prisoner, Sher Ali was ready with an opportunistic blade when Lord Mayo took the wrong pause at the wrong spot.

Notwithstanding the enormity of the blow — the Viceroy of India was literally one of the most powerful figures in the British Empire — the incident was relatively downplayed, perhaps to avoid stoking any wider sectarian martyr-making or conveying the impression of colonies in turmoil. Arrested on the spot, Sher Ali was condemned quickly and hanged with little fanfare.

An Indian paper quoted by the April 15 London Times reported the assassin’s last hours thus:

I had a long interview with the prisoner the evening previous to his execution. He talked quite freely, and appeared to think he had done a fine thing. He had been told about an hour before I saw him that he was to be hanged next morning. We got up steam early next morning and went to Chatham, passing him with his police guard in a boat on the way. As soon as we were moored we got over to Viper Island, where the gaol is. There was no unusual preparation for the affair, and the convicts were at work as usual. Indeed, it was not generally known that it was to be. There were from 30 to 40 Europeans present, no natives except the police and sepoys, and no European soldiers. About a quarter to 8 the fellow was led out. He was smiling and quite collected. The police officer who came down to investigate the affair, as he ascended the steps leading up to the scaffold, asked him a question. He shook his head with a smile, as he said nahin sahib. As soon as he got up he asked the hangman to turn his face towards Mecca, and then began to pray very loudly and quickly. He said two prayers, and kept on repeating the Mussulman’s creed. The drop fell at seven minutes to 8 o’clock exactly. The knot slipped round to the back of his neck, and although he had nearly seven feet of a drop, his neck was not broken, so he died very hard. He was hanging about ten minutes before he ceased to struggle. As he was scantily clothed, and his legs and most of his body naked, his struggles were distinctly visible. We were quite close to the scaffold. After he was dead we adjourned, and returned to see him cut down at 9. His face was not distorted in the least, but wore an expression of pain. We afterwards went to see the post mortem examination. There were only eight persons present. The prisoner’s lungs, liver, heart, &c., were taken out and weighed. The top of his head was cut off, and his brain taken out: the latter weighed 47 ounces.

Despite not making a particularly big deal about Lord Mayo’s murder, the Empire did favor its Indian subjects with a Calcutta equestrian statue of the assassinated viceroy.


This monument and other former public memorials from the British imperial period now squirreled out of view in independent India can be found on a fun Flickr gallery, Forgotten Statuary of the British Raj. Brits can find the Earl of Mayo in marble closer to home in Cockermouth.

Mayo was also the namesake of the Mayo School of Arts in Lahore, present-day Pakistan (it’s now known as the National College of Arts). The school’s first principal was Lockwood Kipling, and this man was able to hook his 16-year-old son up with an assistant-editorship at a Lahore newspaper … from which young Rudyard Kipling launched his literary career.

* The “lone nut with a grudge” version has been latterly disputed with attempts to reconstruct Sher Ali as an Islamic revolutionary.

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1886: David Roberts, dutiful son

Add comment March 2nd, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1886, David Roberts was hanged at Cardiff for a murder-robbery the October previous.

Both Roberts and his father, Edward Roberts, were arraigned for the murder. The Robertses, father and son, had both been playing cards with the late David Thomas on the night of the crime, and left together with him (as well as another man).

The next day, David Thomas was found in a field bludgeoned and stabbed to death, with David Roberts’ pipe nearby. A search of the Roberts home revealed £66 stashed away in a bloody handkerchief, the approximate amount Thomas as known to have made at market on the day before he died.

David Roberts made a voluntary written confession specifically claiming sole responsibility for the murder. He even pleaded guilty in court, shouting out, “I swear my dad had nothing to do with this murder!”

Apparently he was persuasive: prosecutors decided to present no evidence against Edward Thomas and allowed him to be acquitted.

So Roberts stood alone on the trap this day, having at least the comfort of having done right by his family duty. Unfortunately the hangman did not quite do right by Roberts fils as he appeared to survive the drop. Witnesses were hastily conducted away while Roberts dangled, still twitching and strangling. The error was ascribed to the condemned man’s “muscular neck,” but this alleged physiognomy only mattered because at this late date British hangmen still designed the parameters of the drop impressionistically.

All that was changing to follow the professional example of the scientific William Marwood, however. Later in 1886, a commission was formed under former Liberal Home Secretary Baron Aberdare to examine the issue. This commission ultimately produced the first official table of drops specifying the fall that should be allotted to prisoners based on their weight, with a view to reliably breaking the neck.

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1862: Margaret Coghlan, the last woman hanged in Tasmania

Add comment February 18th, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1862, Margaret Coghlan (sometimes spelled “Coughlin” or “Coghlin”) was hanged in Tasmania, Australia for the murder of her husband.

Described as a “gray-headed old woman,” Margaret was, like many residents of the colony, a transported convict.

The murder happened on January 5, less than six weeks before Margaret’s date with death. It was a fairly typical domestic homicide: the Coghlans had a drunken quarrel and Margaret’s husband threw an iron bar at her. He missed and she picked it up and beat him until he was unconscious and perhaps dead.

This much might be colored self-defense, but then Margaret administered coup de grâce by slitting her husband’s throat.

In an act worthy of one of those “dumb criminals” books, she then placed the razor in her husband’s own hand to try to make it look like he committed suicide. But the authorities did not believe the man could have beaten himself to death with the iron bar, cut his throat afterwards and left someone else’s fingerprints in blood on the razor.

According to newspaper coverage of the event, Margaret made the usual scaffold speech acknowledging the justice of her sentence and the foulness of her crime:

I acknowledge fully the justice of my sentence, I deserve this, and a thousand deaths, if that were possible, for the horrible crime I have committed. Drink, the curse that has been on me, strong drink, has caused all my misery—everything has been sacrificed for strong drink … May all forgive me whom I have injured, offended, or scandalised, by my evil living.

She was hanged by Solomon Blay, “the colony’s most unpopular public servant.” He was a convict like Margaret, transported from England after he pleaded guilty to counterfeiting. Margaret would turn out to be the last woman hanged in Tasmania, although the state didn’t abolish the death penalty for more than a hundred years after her execution.

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1864: The Kinston hangings

2 comments February 15th, 2013 Headsman

Even the most casual student of the U.S. Civil War will know of Confederate Gen. George Pickett, namesake of Pickett’s Charge during the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg.

But it was for what Pickett did on this date in 1864 — much less well-recalled today but to the 1864 New York Times correspondent exemplifying “the madness of rebel leaders” — that he had to flee to Canada after the war, for fear of being prosecuted for committing a war crime.

Book CoverGeneral Pickett is far removed now from the high-water mark of the Confederacy, scrapping in eastern North Carolina, where loyalties in the Civil War are quite divided.

There, the federals had held the town of New Bern going on two long years. Pickett was detailed to mount an assault upon it, which failed, but netted him a number of Union prisoners.

Desertion plagued the Confederate army in general.

North Carolina men in particular had a reputation (of arguable veracity) for absenting themselves; and, as the state as a whole was the most reluctant (and last) seceder, no small number of those deserters were ducking out for ideological reasons. Plenty of onetime Confederate conscripts who conceived greater loyalty to the Union than to their state shed gray uniforms for blue.

Licking his wounds from the New Bern sortie down the road at Kinston, Pickett recognized a couple of his prisoners as his own former soldiers. They had a testy exchange with the beaten general, and Pickett had them up for a summary court martial in a flash. On February 5, Joe Haskett and David Jones were hanged for desertion.


There followed an interesting exchange between the rival commanders.

Intending to forestall any tit-for-tat killings of POWs, the Union general warned Pickett to treat them humanely.

Major-General Pickett,
Dept. of Virginia and North Carolina, Confederate Army:
General: I have the honor to include a list of 53 soldiers of the U. S. Government who are supposed to have fallen into your hands on your late hasty retreat from before New Berne. They are the loyal and true North Carolinians and duly enlisted in the Second North Carolina Infantry. I ask for them the same treatment in all respects as you will mete out to other prisoners of war.

I am, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
JOHN J PECK

Pickett must not have appreciated having his martial prowess busted on by his opposite number, because he returned a sarcastic reply promising to use Peck’s list to identify deserters. (In a subsequent letter, he threatened to meet retaliations with 10-for-1 hangings. Pickett showed an “imperious and vaunting temper” in the postwar judgment of Attorney General Holt. Or more directly put, he comes off as an asshole.)

GENERAL: Your communication of the 13th instant is at hand. I have the honor to state in my reply that you have made a slight mistake in regard to numbers, 325 having “fallen into your(our) hands in your (our) late hasty retreat from before New Berne,” instead of the list of 53 with which you have so kindly furnished me, and which will enable me to bring to justice many who have up to this time escaped their just deserts. I herewith return you the names of those who have been tried and convicted by court-martial for desertion from the Confederate service and taken with arms in hand, “duly enlisted in the Second North Carolina Infantry, U S Army.” They have been duly executed according to law and the custom of war.

Your letter and list will, of course, prevent any mercy being shown any of the remaining number, should proper and just proof be brought of their having deserted the Confederate colors, many of these men pleading in extenuation that they have been forced into the ranks of the Federal Government.

Extending to you my thanks for your opportune list,

I remain, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
G. E. PICKETT

He did it, too.

The Confederate chaplain John Paris recounted for his side’s press the scene, a baker’s dozen of men on a large platform, heads sacked, an unknown cross-eyed executioner waiting to strip the bodies of their clothes as payment. Most were local boys, dying shockingly under the eyes of their own family and acquaintances. Reportedly, a number of shaken Confederate soldiers deserted to New Bern after witnessing the scene.

The thirteen marched to the gallows with apparent resignation. Some of them I hope were prepared for their doom. Others I fear were not. On the scaffold they were all arranged in one row. At a given signal, the trap fell, and they were in eternity in a few moments. The scene was truly appalling. But it was as truly the deserters doom. Many of them said I never expected to come to such a end as this. But yet were deserters, and as such they ought to have expected such a doom. The names of these misguided men were, John I Brock, Wm. Haddock, Jesse Summerlin, A I Brittain, Wm. Jones, Lewis Freeman, Calvin Huffman, Stephen Jones, Joseph Brock, Lewis Taylor, Charles Cuthrell, W. C. Daughtry and John Freeman.

The knell of vengeance has sounded. … deserters in North Carolina must now open their eyes, from the mountain to the seaboard. Desertion has become in our army a desperate disease, and desperate cases require desperate remedies. Let fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters and wives, exhort their friends at all times to be faithful to their country under all circumstances.

In all, 22 alleged deserters hanged over the course of February in this affair, the 13 executed together on February 15 obviously accounting for the lion’s share. The incident is the likely inspiration for the novella published later in 1864 by a Confederate North Carolina cavalryman: The Deserter’s Daughter; most certainly, Kinston made the rounds in the North to great indignation.

And an event so notorious was bound to draw attention with the end of the war: even in 1864, the New York Times had editorialized demanding “instant and relentless retaliation … there could be no such thing as acquiescence or empty protest. Even if the Government could bring itself to this abject mood, the public indignation would not tolerate it.” Officers who had been stationed at New Bern did not neglect to keep this sentiment alive in the chain of command, pushing for punitive action to avenge their former comrades.

In the end, there would be none.

Playing it safe, Pickett skipped out for Canada (and even changed his appearance) in 1865 as a board appointed by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton opined that he and other parties to the hangings were “guilty of crimes too heinous to be excused by the United States government … there should be a military commission immediately appointed for [their] trial … to inflict upon [them] their just punishment.” That was especially so as it emerged that some of the hanged had “deserted” from stuff like bridge guards and state militias — not (in the view of prosecution-minded Unionists) the Confederate army proper.

But as the investigations continued into 1866, they zeroed in on Pickett as their specific target. And, they ran out of steam — or into a stone wall.

In 1866, Pickett appealed from exile to Ulysses S. Grant, who just so happened to be an old West Point chum of Pickett’s.* “Certain evil disposed persons,” Pickett wrote, “are attempting to re-open the troubles of the past.” With the Supreme Court’s Ex parte Milligan ruling, the prospect of a military tribunal evaporated.

Grant had the case shelved, even against Congressional appeals, until everybody just gave up and dropped it. “I do not see how good, either to the friends of the deceased, or by fixing an example for the future, can be secured by his trial now,” Grant said once of his old associate. Plus ça change.

Pickett lived until 1875, selling insurance without legal molestation but also shadowed by the dark cloud of Kinston. After his death at age 50, his wife went on to rehabilitate Pickett’s reputation in the popular eye.

But not in every eye.

As late as the turn of the century, a veteran’s polemic was dedicated to excoriating not only Pickett, but Grant and the Union men who had declined to punish him.

We’ve only outlined the Kinston story in this post, but much more detailed narratives can be found at:

* In fairness to U.S. Grant, we are bound to report his stated reason for opposing any prosecution of Pickett: it would violate the grant of clemency he himself had made to secure General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

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1859: Father Paul Loc, Vietnamese martyr

Add comment February 13th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1859, Paul Loc, a Catholic Vietnamese Martyr, was summarily beheaded at Saigon ahead of a French landing.

The orphaned child of a Catholic family from Cochinchina (southernmost Vietnam), Paul Loc was brought up by a pastor and went to seminary.

His ministry during the reign of a sovereign very hostile to the inroads of Christian missionaries, lasted less than two years. At that point, France went to war to conquer Cochinchina.

At that point, Father Loc was clapped in prison, but even then the earnest young man’s treatment seems to have been light. But on this date, French warships had been sighted ascending the Dong-Nai River towards Saigon itself, and the city’s panicking defenders martyred the priest almost without warning.

According to this French text, Paul Loc had his head cut off at the gates of Saigon’s citadel. Just a few days later, the French did indeed successfully take Saigon … the start of a beautiful friendship.

Pope Pius X elevated Paul Loc to “Blessed’ in 1909.

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1892: Four anarchists in Jerez

Add comment February 10th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1892, four anarchists named Burique, Lamela, Lebrijano and Zarzuela were publicly garroted on a large stage in front of the prison at the Andalusian city of Jerez (or Xeres).


Via

Spain, like many other European states, grappled with anarchists in the late years of the 19th century.

Revolutionary peasants made the rich agricultural lands of Andalusia among the anarchist strongholds: the shadowy La Mano Negra, the “Black Hand”, had been smashed up with a number of executions in the early 1880s. This was not the end of agitation, however: its successor movement, Los Desheredades, “the Disinherited,” continued to grow.

On the night of January 9, 1892, a band of several hundred agricultural workers boldly raided Jerez in an attempt to free some anarchist prisoners. They were driven off after a night’s fearful fighting — a prototype “anarchist outrage” for headlines the world over. It was, for Federico Urales, “an act of dreams. Sticks and sickles to beat the well-fed lords of Jerez, from the men who starved to keep to keep their lands.” (Source, in Spanish)


From the Melbourne, Australia Argus, Jan. 11, 1892

“We know what the workers are: wicked people! With them, one has the bread in one hand, and the garrote in the other.” -from Vicente Blasco Ibanez’s La Bodega, in which the Jerez mutiny is a central theme. It’s available in the public domain in the original Spanish

Dozens of “outragers” were captured in hot pursuit that next morning. The investigation quickly honed in on the four ringleaders, who were put to death this date. One allegedly left a written statement conveniently renouncing anarchy. Another spoke from the platform, and “declared that he died in the cause of the working classes, and he appealed to the crowd not to respond by expressing sympathy.”*

But many others would suffer lengthy, non-capital sentences on evidence perhaps more expedient than rigorous. The poet Fermin Salvochea spent most of his fifties in prison on a spurious accusation of having conspired in the Jerez attack.

And these executions scarcely quelled Spain’s unrest. Angry cadres demonstrated (or rioted) against the executions throughout Iberia, provoking the familiar cycle of more police raids, more outrages, more martyrs … for years to come, and culminating in the indiscriminate arrests and mass torture of Barcelona anarchists in that city’s Montjuic Castle in in 1896-97

* From the Feb. 11, 1892 New York Times, which proceeds to describe the distinctive execution method thus:

[The garrote] is a brass collar, which is contracted by means of a screw in the back. As the screw is turned the collar shuts upon the neck of the condemned, and at the same time the sharpened steel point of the screw enters the spinal marrow where it joins with the brain, causing instantaneous death.

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1804: Little Harpe and Peter Alston, Mississippi pirates

2 comments February 8th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1804, two known as John Setton/Sutton and James May were hanged at Greenville, Mississippi.

They were, in fact, Wiley “Little” Harpe and his outlaw partner Peter Alston — the survivors (well, up until then) of a notorious gang of Mississippi River pirates and frontier highwaymen.

Their villainous coterie had plagued the Mississippi (river) and the proximate byways from Kentucky down to Mississippi (state), making a couple of spots on the great river legendary pirate hideouts in the process.

With a price on the head of the notorious leader Samuel Mason, “Sutton” and “May” coldly murdered their captain to turn in his head for the reward.

They got their reward alright. They were recognized as Mason’s own fellow-bandits, and themselves put on trial for piracy.


The Harpe Brothers

This date’s hanging was not only the end of the Mason gang — it was the end of the Harpe Brothers.

Micajah Harpe (“Big Harpe”) and Wiley Harpe were brothers or cousins who cut a bloody swathe through the early American Republic, such that some have acclaimed the Harpes that young nation’s first serial killers. They were, in one historian’s words, “the most brutal monsters of the human race.”

Heading west out of North Carolina after Revolutionary War service as Tory irregulars, the Harpes made for Knoxville, Tennessee, kidnapping wives for themselves along the way. When they were rousted out of their cabin on accusations of livestock-rustling in 1797, their notorious careers really began in earnest.

This was, then, the extreme western frontier of the United States, and the Harpes were consequently able to plunder in wilderness impunity.

And they slew with a frequency and savagery far in excess of the professional demands of a bush robber.

Big Harp confessed before dying in 1798 to 20 murders, probably not counting the babies. Estimates are as high as 40, but usually around 30. After two killings, one in Knox County and one on the Wilderness Trail, the Harps left Tennessee in December 1798 for Kentucky, where they killed two traveling men from Maryland…

The final stretch of slaughter took place soon after this, in July 1798, when the Harps returned to Eastern Tennessee. The victims included a farmer named Bradbury; a man named Hardin; a boy named Coffey; William Ballard, who was cut open, filled with stones, and dumped in the Holston River; James Brassel, with his throat ripped apart on Brassel’s Knob; John Tully, father of eight. On the Marrowbone Creek in south central Kentucky, John Graves and his teenaged son, out planting crops, had their heads axed. Moving toward Logan County, the Harps came upon a little girl, whom they killed, as they did a young slave on his way to the mill. Once in Logan County, near today’s Adairville, near the Whippoorwill River, they butchered an entire migrating family asleep in their camp, but for one son who survived. (Source)

TruTV also has an account of them sending a hijacked flatboat passenger over a cliff, and bashing a little girl’s head in against the side of a bridge.

“They murdered all classes and sexes, without distinction,” a Knoxville man* recounted years later, “not for plunder but for the love of shedding human blood.” We don’t have Little Harpe’s conscience on the record, but Big Harpe would only express remorse for one of his dozens of homicides: smashing his own infant child against a tree to make it stop crying.

That sentiment would come at the end, when Big Harpe had been cornered by a posse after murdering a frontier woman. The widower in that posse halved the Harpe menace by hewing Big Harpe’s head from his shoulders.

For generations after the subsequent roosting-spot of this deathly visage — presented to a justice of the peace to verify the man’s death (and pocket the price on his literal head), then hung up for public display by the intersection of Morgenfield, Henderson, and Maidensville Roads in Union County — was known as Harpe’s Head.

Little Harpe’s subsequent career with Sam Mason and his own violent demise capped the Harpe brothers’ nefarious legacy.

Their name was so infamous that many of their family changed it … including, according to rumor, the ancestors of legendary Wild West lawman Wyatt Earp.

* J.W.M. Breazeale was part of the posse that hunted down Big Harpe, and a witness to Big Harpe’s death, and gives the outlaw the (possibly tall-tale) last words directed to his slaughterer in mid-beheading: “You are a God damned rough butcher, but cut on and be damned.”

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1862: Samuel Calhoun, antebellum serial killer

Add comment February 5th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1862, Private Samuel H. Calhoun of the 2nd Kentucky Infantry was executed by the Union Army in Bardstown, Kentucky, for murdering a local farmer.

(Calhoun had previously killed the farmer’s pig, and the farmer had Calhoun arrested. So this was settling the score.)

“I shall pass away, the moral wreck of a degenerate age,” he signed off in his published confession, dictated to Jonathan Harrington Green. “Adieu.”

If the confession is to be believed the farmer was just the last of maybe dozens of Calhoun’s victims, slain remorselessly everywhere from North Carolina to Mexico over the preceding years. But is this unverifiable

Read on for the full story in a post at Civil War Medicine guest-authored by one of our favorite crime-history bloggers, Robert Wilhelm of Murder by Gaslight.

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1816: Four sodomite sailors of the Africaine

Add comment February 1st, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1816, four British sailors on the HMS Africaine were hanged for buggery. One other crewman suffered 200 lashes; a second, a 17-year-old sentenced to 300, had the flogging stopped at 170 stripes by a surgeon who feared the youth’s life was in danger.


The Africaine: it was a French ship originally, captured in 1810 by the British.

“The Africaine had a reputation as a ‘man-fucking ship’ long before evidence of sodomitic practices came to the attention of Captain [Edward] Rodney,”* Arthur Gilbert explained in his seminal study published in the very first (volume 1, issue 1 — 1976) edition of the Journal of Homosexuality. “There were several reports of “uncleanliness” on the ship early in 1815 and, on one occasion, two seamen were punished for ‘lying on a chest together one night’.”

Late in 1815, Captain Rodney determined to crack down on the man-fucking and by threatening them with “dreadful consequences” coerced two of the crew into implicating themselves and a great many others in a buggery ring. As the Africaine made its way back to Portsmouth that autumn, it was scene to an ever-widening investigation.

Out of about 220 to 230 men aboard, some 50 members of the crew would ultimately be involved in the investigation, 23 of them charged or implicated with a wide variety of riffs on “the unnatural crime”: one Raphael Seraco was seen “with his yard actually in the posterior of John Westerman”; another sailor “placed his yard between [my] thighs and in that position effected an emission”; still another had “his yard against the backside of the boy Christopher Jay and … in quick motion as if he was committing the unnatural crime”; one of the ship’s boys “being much hurt sung out ‘Oh'” during an attempted rape; and someone had been rogered “on the flag stones of the Galley.”

While seabound sodomy was hardly unheard-of, the practitioners among the Africaine‘s crew had seemingly grown unusually (and dangerously) bold about practicing it without a modicum of concealment, “copulating in plain view like dogs.”

“God must put it into men’s heads to commit the unnatural crime of buggery,” an accused boatswain’s mate had allegedly declared. “If God was to put it into his head to fuck a man, [I] would as soon do it as fuck a woman.”

The sheer number of men rolled up in accusation and counter-accusation made across-the-board death sentences inconceivable. And among those implicated, it was extremely difficult to ascertain truth when fear and favoritism and innuendo were so thick in the air — “terrified as we were,” as one accused man later recounted, “in the idea of being prosecuted for the horrible crime imputed to us, dismayed and alarmed … in the duress of our situation, our minds and feelings every moment distorted by hope and fear without a friend to counsel us.”**

Blackstone had long before noted that the witch-hunt potential of a charge of sexual deviance demanded “that the accusation should be clearly made out.” To Rodney’s credit, he didn’t start stringing people up from the yardarm while the Africaine was at sea.

In port, Captain Rodney gave the matter over to the Admiralty with what one imagines was probably no small relief. In the grand tradition of prosecutorial discretion, the court-martial board proceeded to break down the many accused into those who would be charged and those who would cut deals to implicate the charged.

Seraco and Westerman, mentioned above, were the first sentenced to death, and then Seraco again condemned along with another partner, John Charles. (Seraco had been implicated by several people during Captain Rodney’s seaside inquiry, and Seraco in turn had accused no fewer than 14 of his mates in a vain attempt at self-protection.)

One of the other (uncharged) seamen giving against Seraco offered this juridically damning and sociologically interesting testimony:

Seraco put the question to me whether I would let him fuck me. I told him I did not much mind. He connected with me forward on the Starboard side. He entered my backside — I did the same with him three times. John Charles the prisoner was the first who mentioned the thing to me or I should never have had such a thought in my head.

Testimony of this nature, Gilbert says, posed a problem of jurisprudence: this was evidence not directly bearing on the charge that the defendant committed a specific act of sodomy with the other defendant. Legally, unless the Seraco-Charles liaison had been the charge at the bar, this testimony was extraneous. The Attorney General opined that, in a like civilian trial, he would have advised against executing a death sentence that had been obtained with such evidence — and that fact may have helped procure a pardon for a sailor named Joseph Tall.

Raphaelo Treake (Troyac), condemned with Tall, got the same favor — but Treake was immediately re-tried for a different act of buggery and re-condemned. Treake was another Italian, and Albert notes that their common crime was popularly euphemized as le vice Italien and considered a characteristically Mediterranean indulgence. “All the scandalous behavior in the Africaine has been owing to Treake and Seraco. They are the origin of the whole of it,” another crew member — a Spanish Morisco — testified.†

As January 1816 unfolded, several others went before the court martial and received prison sentences (or in the odd case, acquittal) as the great sodomy-and-uncleanliness audit proceeded.

By month’s end, it was all finished but the noosings.

On February 1, the four condemned “died truly penitent acknowledging the justice of their sentences and admonishing their shipmates to take warning from their unhappy fate not to be guilty of such detestable practices.” The ship’s clipped log entry tersely recorded that unhappy fate.

a.m. Fresh breezes and cloudy … employed getting ready for punishment. At 9 made signal [with] a gun. At 11 executed Seraco, Westerman, Charles, and Treake [for] a breach of te 29th article of war, and punished alongside [John] Parsons … with 200 lashes and [Joseph] Hubbard with 170 lashes for a breach of the 2nd article of war as sentenced by a court martial.

p.m. … sent the bodes of the executed to the hosptal. Read articles of war to the ship’s company.

On that same date as the poor buggers of the Africaine suffered their various corporal punishments, the Portsmouth commander Admiral Edward Thornborough appointed three captains to lead an inquiry into whether this floating Sodom was the fault of Captain Rodney’s soft discipline. The investigators heard good testimony all around among the ship’s junior officers to the conduct of Captain Rodney, and within days exonerated all the higher-ups, only pausing to complain that there could have been more frequent religious services and readings of the Articles of War.

And that was that … even for the ship itself. By mid-February, the HMS Africaine was being stripped down at a Thames dock. She would be officially decomissioned and broken up that year.


How exceptional were the Africaine sodomites in the British navy as the 18th century gave way to the 19th?

Dr. Richard Burg, author of Boys at Sea: Sodomy, Indecency, and Courts Martial in Nelson’s Navy as well as a 2009 Journal of Homosexuality article on the Africaine case (see †), was generous enough to offer his insights into this elusive subculture.

I’d like to start with a question about the historiography. Arthur Gilbert brought this incident to wide public view in the 1970s, and you’ve written about it much more recently. How has the scholarly sense of homoeroticism in the British navy, or in western militaries generally, evolved in the past forty years or so?

Its evolution has paralleled the gay rights movement that began with the Stonewall riots. Generally, scholars have come to realize that homoeroticism in the ranks is more than an isolated phenomenon. Most research on the matter, however, has centered on the persecution of gay service members or the rights of gays to serve openly: can it be allowed, what problems would it create, how military personnel and the public might deal with it, etc. Scholarly interest in the historical dimension of military homoeroticism has been confined to an isolated handful of researchers. Most scholars are dealing with more contemporary and more relevant aspects of the subject.

How widespread were same-sex trysts in the Royal Navy at this time?

No idea. This is, of course, what everyone wants to know, and there is simply no data that even suggests a guess let alone an answer.

What was it about the case of the Africaine that resulted in this sizable court-martial and multiple hanging, when at least some other incidents of “buggery” and “uncleanliness” over the years appear to have been dealt with quietly or discreetly ignored?

What made the Africaine different? The number and conspicuousness of the Africaine business meant it had to be dealt with. All other known incidents that produced courts martial or even summary punishment involved only pairs of mariners. Admittedly, some mariners were involved with multiple partners, but the relationships were dyadic rather than involving multiple partners simultaneously.

Do we know if men who engaged in homosexual behavior within the navy also did so on terra firma, or is that an “identity” most took on specifically to adapt to their confined all-male environment at sea? Is there any connection or analogue we can speak to between these cases and the simultaneous molly culture?

I have only run across mention of one or two navy sodomites who took their proclivities with them on land. This does not mean it didn’t happen. It is just that it is almost impossible to follow sailors once they leave their ships. They leave almost no evidence of their individual activities when not signed on board navy ships. No, I see no parallels or connections to eighteenth-century molly culture.

This is a a tangential point, but I was struck by your remark relative to the Italian Rafael Seraco that “sodomy, Popery, and Italy were inseparably linked in the minds of eighteenth-century Englishmen.” Why was that?

Sodomy, Popery, and Italy were linked in the minds of Englishmen long before the eighteenth century. Sodomy arrived in England as an Italian import according to popular views prevalent at least since the early seventeenth century, and probably earlier. The pope and the Catholic Church were also considered the handmaidens of sodomy at the same time. Part of this is due to raging anti-Catholicism in England dating from the Reformation of Henry VIII. Another part of it is the human tendency to blame the “other” for real or perceived ills: Jews, Communists, Fundamentalists, Liberals, whoever is handy. Catholics and sodomites were easy targets for Englishmen from the sixteenth century onward.

* Captain Rodney was the youngest son of Admiral George Brydges Rodney, a famed commander during the American Revolution. It’s thanks to Admiral Rodney’s career that the name Rodney became popularized as a first name.

** Midshipman Christopher Beauchamp. This was his explanation for why he had (falsely, he said) confessed to the lesser offense of (non-penetrative) “uncleanliness”.

† Quoted in B. R. Burg, “The HMS African Revisited: The Royal Navy and the Homosexual Community,” Journal of Homosexuality, 56:2 (2009).

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