Posts filed under '19th Century'

1864: Martin Robinson, treacherous guide

1 comment March 1st, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1864, a Union officer frustrated of a design to raid Richmond during the U.S. Civil War hanged a local African-American guide whom he thought had intentionally misled him like Susanin.

The account of an army chaplain attached to the 5th New York Cavalry explains:

The guide, a negro, had misled us during the night, and, to obviate the delay of retracing our steps. Col. Dahlgren, on the representations of the negro that an excellent ford was to be found at Dover Mills, concluded to cross at that point. After two hours’ halt we again moved on, and soon reached Dover Mills, but only to meet disappointment.


Dover Milles, Civil War era illustration

The negro had deceived us, no ford existed at this point nor any means of crossing the river. He then stated that the ford was three miles below: this was obviously false, as the river was evidently navigable to and above this place, as we saw a sloop going down the river.

… he came into our lines from Richmond … [and] was born and had always belonged in the immediate vicinity of Dover Mills, was very shrewd and intelligent, and it would seem impossible that he should not know that no ford existed in the neighborhood, where he had seen vessels daily passing. Col. Dahlgren had warned him that if detected acting in bad faith, or lying, we would surely hang him, and after we left Dover Mills, and had gone down the river so far as to render further prevarication unavailing, the colonel charged him with betraying us, destroying the whole design of the expedition, and hazarding the lives of every one engaged in it, — and told him that he should be hung in conformity with the terms of his service. The negro became greatly alarmed, stated confusedly that he was mistaken, thought we intended to cross the river in boats, and finally said that he had done wrong, was sorry, etc. The colonel ordered him to be hung, — a halter strap was used for the purpose, and we left the miserable wretch dangling by the roadside.

Our correspondent terms this the case of the “Faithless Negro”, but posterity has the luxury of a less paranoiac reading than indulged by a troupe of hotheaded commandos deep in enemy territory all a-panic as their expedition implodes. The James River was just plain swollen with winter rains. Bad luck all around.

A Goochland County marker marks the spot of the botched crossing and subsequent execution.

But we’re really just getting started. Stay tuned for some serious blowback from this bootless military debacle.

The full story of the raid is a tangled and contested affair, but it’s well worth perusing in detail. To sum up:

This expedition’s leader, Col. Ulric Dahlgren, abandoned the effort and in the attempt to fall back, rode into a Confederate ambush the next day. He died in the fusillade, while his men were captured.

The body of this late Col. Dahlgren, on whose authority our misfortunate guide was put to death, was found by the Confederates to bear some startling papers* … indicating that the intent of his ill-starred expedition was not merely to liberate starving northern prisoners, but that “once in the City it must be destroyed & Jeff. Davis and Cabinet killed.”

Within days, the story was abroad and Richmond newspapers floridly outraged at this proposed breach of chivalrous warfare.

Though Confederate General Robert E. Lee was able to quash public demands for the Dahlgren party’s summary execution, the documents may indeed have marked a turning point in the war’s conduct, a public announcement of total warfare sufficient for the South to “inaugurate a system of bloody retaliations.”** If so, it was a well-timed license: the Confederacy was in the process of being steamrolled and would soon require recourse to more desperate strategems.

After Dahlgren, argues Come Retribution: The Confederate Secret Service and the Assassination of Lincoln, “there was an increase in Confederate clandestine activity designed to encourage the antiwar faction in the North to organize and revolt” — even including a mirror-image Confederate cavalry raid on Washington D.C. with an eye towards capturing Lincoln.

There are, in fact, some historians who postulate that it was “bloody retaliation” for Dahlgren’s attempt on the Confederate president that ultimately led southern agents to initiate the late-war plots against Abraham Lincoln’s person — resulting ultimately in Lincoln’s assassination:

Ulric Dahlgren, and [his] probable patron [U.S. Secretary of War] Edwin Stanton set out to engineer the death of the Confederacy’s president; the legacy spawned out of the utter failure of their effort may have included the death of their own president.

That is some blowback.

Books exploring the alleged link between the Dahlgren Papers and the Lincoln assassination

* It must be said that the Dahlgren papers have been continually contested as frauds from the moment they were known, though many historians do indeed consider them legitimate. We are in no position to contribute to that debate, and for the purposes of this post’s narration the question is immaterial: the papers, forged or not, certainly existed, were widely publicized, and genuinely angered many southerners.

** These words are the demand of the March 8, 1864 Richmond Dispatch.

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1856: Auguste Chapdelaine, saintly casus belli

1 comment February 29th, 2012 Headsman

On February 29, 1856, local Chinese officials in Guangxi beheaded French missionary priest Auguste Chapdelaine — and handed his countrymen a pretext for war.

Chapdelaine (English Wikipedia page | French) had gone illegally to the Chinese interior to proselytize Christianity.

The local mandarin Zhang Mingfeng was no doubt disposed to take such an harsh line against this provocation by virtue of the ongoing, Christian-inspired Taiping Rebellion, which had originated right there in Guangxi and was in the process of engulfing all of southern China in one of history’s bloodiest conflicts.

So Chapdelaine and his associates were snapped up, put to a few days’ dreadful torture, and on this date a Chinese convert and Chapdelaine were both summarily beheaded. (A female convert, Agnes Tsaou-Kong, expired under torture around the same time.)

Pietistic accounts of believers’ last extremes are here and here.


(Images from this French page.)

It took months for word of this martyrdom to reach French consular officials, and many months more for the gears of international diplomacy to turn — but when they did so, France pressed a demand for reparations.

Since pere Chapdelaine had been acting illegally in the first place, the Qing’s obdurate Viceroy Ye(h) adamantly refused to offer Paris satisfaction.

By 1858, this intransigence sufficed to license French entry (alongside Britain) into the Second Opium War, from which the Europeans won by force of arms a noxious treaty guaranteeing their right to push Christianity in China, extracting a couple million silver taels in damages, and (of course) assuring their right to traffic opium into China.

It would be rather ungenerous to hold all the ugly imperial consequences personally against our day’s martyr. August Chapdelaine was canonized by the Catholic Church in 2000 as one of 120 Martyrs of China.

China was not impressed by this celebration of a onetime colonial catspaw, and met the Vatican’s “anti-China” celestial promotion announcement with one of its own — charging that Chapdelaine “collaborated with corrupt local officials, raped women and was notorious in those areas [where he preached].”

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1845: Maria Trinidad Sanchez, Dominican Republic heroine

Add comment February 27th, 2012 Headsman

We’ve previously noted in these pages Francisco del Rosario Sanchez, one of the Dominican Republic’s founding heroes, who in 1861 was shot for propounding independence.

Martyrdom was the family business.

On February 27, 1845, his sister Maria Trinidad Sanchez (Spanish link) had been, well, shot for propounding independence. (More Spanish)

That date, February 27, also happens to be the Dominican Republic’s Independence Day celebration — because a year to the date before her death, Maria Sanchez, her brother, and others of the anti-colonial La Trinitaria proclaimed independence from a bloody 22-year Haitian occupation.

Maria Sanchez, together with another woman named Concepcion Bona, made the first Dominican Republic flag.


Sanchez and Bona’s original flag for the Dominican Republic.

This was all well and good, until the resulting head of state steered the Dominican Republic towards recolonization by Spain, as a hedge against reconquest by Haiti. La Trinitaria types took an understandably dim view of this gambit, so busting them up was part of the deal.

Many of the country’s founding heroes, including brother Francisco, were chased into exile; Maria was rounded up by the new government and tortured for information about the Trinitarian “plots” against the new regime. She refused to name any names, and was shot on the country’s first independence anniversary.

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1870: Wyatt Outlaw lynched by the Ku Klux Klan

2 comments February 26th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1870, the lynching of a mulatto freedman in Alamance County, North Carolina sounded the tocsin for ex-Confederates’ rollback of Reconstruction.

Perhaps America’s most tragic period, the aftermath of the Civil War saw a too-brief attempt to enforce ex-slaves’ civil rights, before it succumbed to violent counterattack. The prevailing historiography in the century-long era of Southern apartheid that followed remembered it as a time of impertinent Negroes ravishing Dixie’s virtue by being seated in the legislature and giving orders to their natural betters.

Winners write history, after all.

Those of the pro-Republican coalition at the time, before Northerners folded their hand, had a mind to write a different history.

Alamance County was one epicenter of this aborted alternative. The enclave was cool to secession from the beginning, and in the early years of Reconstruction had a live black-white coalition. Wyatt Outlaw, a mixed-race Alamance native who had fought for the Union, was a local leader in it. A member of the antislavery Union League, which registered freedmen as voters throughout the South, he was appointed a town commissioner for Graham, N.C. under the state’s new constitution.

This made him a prime target of Ku Kluxers. On the night of February 26, 1870, an armed party of white supremacists about 100 strong raided his home and strung him up on an elm tree facing the county courthouse. Pinned to his corpse for the edification of the morning’s churchgoers was a note:

“Beware you guilty — both white and black.”

North Carolina Governor William Holden complained to the U.S. Senate of federal unwillingness to act against such outrages.

What is being done to protect good citizens in Alamance County? We have Federal troops, but we want power to act. Is it possible the government will abandon its loyal people to be whipped and hanged? The habeas corpus should be at once suspended.

After another pro-Reconstruction politician was murdered later that year, Holden boldly took the initiative himself and called out the troops to arrest suspected Klansmen. But the right-wing Democratic party won midterm elections in 1870, and promptly impeached Holden for this atrocious tyranny; he was the first U.S. governor ever removed from office by impeachment.*


A “carpetbagger” ally of Wyatt Outlaw named Albion Tourgee — a judge who stood as one of North Carolina’s most prominent and hated advocates for African American equality — later wrote a novel about his experiences, A Fool’s Errand, by One of the Fools. Now in the public domain and available free online, this book’s portrayal of the Reconstruction South is receiving renewed scholarly appreciation** — including Tourgee’s catalogue of terrorism against emancipated blacks and the Republican government. The novel was a sensation (pdf) in its time.

One of the characters in Fool’s Errand is a nearly exact representation of Wyatt Outlaw: “Uncle Jerry Hunt”, who resists the Klan. It is “chiefly through Uncle Jerry’s persuasions, and because of his prominence and acknowledged leadership, this spirit had gone out among the colored men of the county.” He meets a graphic end that almost journalistically reports Outlaw’s real fate.

It was a chill, dreary night. A dry, harsh wind blew from the north. The moon was at the full, and shone clear and cold in the blue vault.

There was one shrill whistle, some noise of quietly moving horses; and those who looked from their windows saw a black-gowned and grimly-masked horseman sitting upon a draped horse at every corner of the streets, and before each house, –grim, silent, threatening. Those who saw dared not move, or give any alarm. Instinctively they knew that the enemy they had feared had come, had them in his clutches, and would work his will of them, whether they resisted or not. So, with the instinct of self-preservation, all were silent–all simulated sleep.

Five, ten, fifteen minutes the silent watch continued. A half-hour passed, and there had been no sound. Each masked sentry sat his horse as if horse and rider were only some magic statuary with which the bleak night cheated the affrighted eye. Then a whistle sounded on the road toward Verdenton. The masked horsemen turned their horses’ heads in that direction, and slowly and silently moved away. Gathering in twos, they fell into ranks with the regularity and ease of a practiced soldiery, and, as they filed on towards Verdenton, showed a cavalcade of several hundred strong; and upon one of the foremost horses rode one with a strange figure lashed securely to him.

When the few who were awake in the little village found courage to inquire as to what the silent enemy had done, they rushed from house to house with chattering teeth and trembling limbs, only to find that all were safe within, until they came to the house where old Uncle Jerry Hunt had been dwelling alone since the death of his wife six months before. The door was open.

The house was empty. The straw mattress had been thrown from the bed, and the hempen cord on which it rested had been removed.

The sabbath morrow was well advanced when the Fool [i.e., Tourgee himself] was first apprised of the raid. He at once rode into the town, arriving there just as the morning services closed, and met the people coming along the streets to their homes. Upon the limb of a low-branching oak not more than forty steps from the Temple of Justice, hung the lifeless body of old Jerry. The wind turned it slowly to and fro. The snowy hair and beard contrasted strangely with the dusky pallor of the peaceful face, which seemed even in death to proffer a benison to the people of God who passed to and fro from the house of prayer, unmindful both of the peace which lighted the dead face, and of the rifled temple of the Holy Ghost which appealed to them for sepulture. Over all pulsed the sacred echo of the sabbath bells. The sun shone brightly. The wind rustled the autumn leaves. A few idlers sat upon the steps of the court-house, and gazed carelessly at the ghastly burden on the oak. The brightly-dressed church-goers enlivened the streets. Not a colored man was to be seen. All except the brown cadaver on the tree spoke of peace and prayer–a holy day among a godly people, with whom rested the benison of peace.

The Fool asked of some trusty friends the story of the night before. With trembling lips one told it to him,

“I heard the noise of horses–quiet and orderly, but many. Looking from the window in the clear moonlight, I saw horsemen passing down the street, taking their stations here and there, like guards who have been told off for duty, at specific points. Two stopped before my house, two opposite Mr. Haskin’s, and two or three upon the corner below. They seemed to have been sent on before as a sort of picket-guard for the main body, which soon came in. I should say there were from a hundred to a hundred and fifty still in line. They were all masked, and wore black robes. The horses were disguised, too, by drapings. There were only a few mules in the whole company. They were good horses, though: one could tell that by their movements. Oh, it was a respectable crowd! No doubt about that, sir. Beggars don’t ride in this country. I don’t know when I have seen so many good horses together since the Yankee cavalry left here after the surrender. They were well drilled too. Plenty of old soldiers in that crowd. Why, every thing went just like clock-work. Not a word was said–just a few whistles given. They came like a dream, and went away like a mist. I thought we should have to fight for our lives; but they did not disturb any one here. They gathered down by the court-house. I could not see precisely what they were at, but, from my back upper window, saw them down about the tree. After a while a signal was given, and just at that time a match was struck, and I saw a dark body swing down under the limb. I knew then they had hung somebody, but had no idea who it was. To tell the truth, I had a notion it was you, Colonel. I saw several citizens go out and speak to these men on the horses. There were lights in some of the offices about the court-house, and in several of the houses about town. Every thing was as still as the grave,–no shouting or loud talking, and no excitement or stir about town. It was evident that a great many of the citizens expected the movement, and were prepared to co-operate with it by manifesting no curiosity, or otherwise endangering its success. I am inclined to think a good many from this town were in it. I never felt so powerless in my life. Here the town was in the hands of two or three hundred armed and disciplined men, hidden from the eye of the law, and having friends and co-workers in almost every house. I knew that resistance was useless.”

“But why,” asked the Fool, “has not the body been removed?”

“We have been thinking about it,” was the reply; “but the truth is, it don’t seem like a very safe business. And, after what we saw last night, no one feels like being the first to do what may be held an affront by those men. I tell you, Colonel, I went through the war, and saw as much danger as most men in it; but I would rather charge up the Heights of Gettysburg again than be the object of a raid by that crowd.”

After some parley, however, some colored men were found, and a little party made up, who went out and saw the body of Uncle Jerry cut down, and laid upon a box to await the coming of the coroner, who had already been notified. The inquest developed only these facts, and the sworn jurors solemnly and honestly found the cause of death unknown. One of the colored men who had watched the proceedings gave utterance to the prevailing opinion, when he said,–

“It don’t do fer niggers to know too much! Dat’s what ail Uncle Jerry!”

And indeed it did seem as if his case was one in which ignorance might have been bliss.

The multitalented, ahead-of-his-time Tourgee might well have uttered the same sentiment in 1896, when he was the lead attorney on the losing side of Plessy v. Ferguson — the Supreme Court’s landmark sanction of the color line that Uncle Jerry’s hangmen had drawn.

There are a couple of interesting journal articles touching on Alamance County during Reconstruction which are freely available as pdfs from the Journal of Backcountry Studies: “Other Souths”: The Civil War and Reconstruction in Alamance County, North Carolina and Scalawags Among Us: Alamance County Among the “Other Souths”.

* Narrowly beating Nebraska’s David Butler, who got the boot a few months later. Holden remains the only governor to suffer this indignity in North Carolina history; there has been a recent push in the Raleigh legislature to posthumously pardon him. Holden’s own memoirs are also available free online.

** Along with the book’s contention that northern Republicans were to blame for vacillating on Reconstruction. “This cowardly shirking of responsibility, this pandering to sentimental whimsicalities, this snuffling whine about peace and conciliation, is sheer weakness … [the North is] a country debauched by weak humanitarianisms, more anxious to avoid the appearance of offending its enemies than desirous of securing its own power or its own ends.”

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1897: Henri-Osime Basset

2 comments February 25th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1897, all Versailles turned out to witness the beheading of recidivist pedophile Henri-Osime Basset, a 23-year-old who had kidnapped and strangled to death (French link) 13-year-old Louise Millier the previous summer.

Executioner Anatole Deibler and crew arrived at 3:30 a.m. to erect the portable guillotine at the pont Colbert* for the occasion, under the eyes of a curious pre-dawn crowd restrained by dragoons; by 4:45 la sinistre machine was fully installed.

About an hour after that, the prisoner Basset was awoken from his fitful sleep — he’d been plagued by restless guillotine-themed dreams lately, for some reason — and advised that his application for presidential clemency had been denied.

Le Petit Parisien nevertheless found the prisoner in steady enough spirits for his expiatory moment. He took the bad news with equanimity, received communion, and stuck close by the comforting priest to whom he had already given his last confession. (And who helpfully steeled the doomed man’s nerves with a steady supply of rum, cigars, and Bourdeaux wine.)

In any event, the practiced French executioners did not give Basset long to stew on his fate. After the toilette to prepare him for the blade, he was out the door shortly after 6 a.m. — broad daylight by now, and the crowd swollen in anticipation of the show. The blade fell at 6:33, and the remains of the late Henri-Osime Basset were immediately deposited at the Cimetirie des Gonards.

* This is pont Colbert in Versailles, not the cool then-new steel bridge in Dieppe, which is now the last hydraulic turn bridge still in use in Europe.

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1836: Giuseppe Fieschi, Pierre Morey, and Theodore Pepin, infernal machinists

1 comment February 19th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1836, three men were guillotined for a spectacular but unsuccessful regicide attempt.

Giuseppe Fieschi

This was in the days of the July Monarchy, a much-despised government of the country’s wealthiest elites that generated opposition both right and left and a ceaseless string of assassination attempts (French link) against King Louis-Philippe.* As Marx put it,

when the liberal banker Laffitte led his compère, the Duke of Orléans, in triumph to the Hôtel de Ville, he let fall the words: “From now on the bankers will rule”. Laffitte had betrayed the secret of the revolution.

It was not the French bourgeoisie that ruled under Louis Philippe, but one faction of it … the so-called financial aristocracy. It sat on the throne, it dictated laws in the Chambers, it distributed public offices, from cabinet portfolios to tobacco bureau posts.

Hard to imagine such a state of affairs.

Fieschi (English Wikipedia page | French) et al conceived a bold attempt to destroy the entire ruling family in a single fusillade, and to that end constructed a machine infernale of 25 gun barrels mounted together to fire on a single fuse.

Unleashed upon a royal procession along the Boulevard du Temple on the fifth anniversary of the monarchy’s founding July days, this monster proved quite impressively destructive.


The assassination attempt of Fieschi, 28 July 1835 by Eugene Lami.

The infernale barrage took out an esteemed marshal and a bunch of bystanders, but somehow managed to miss everyone in the royal family. (Louis-Philippe himself was grazed … and his horse was hit.)

Exploiting the familiar power of a terrorist incident to enact horrible new policies not available in normal times, “Parliament was hastily recalled and in a near-panic atmosphere passed severe measures against the newspaper press,” notes William Fortescue. “Approximately thirty more republican newspapers were closed down by the September 1835 Press Laws.”

Police soon traced the conspiracy to Fieschi, a truly Gallic character of mixed-up national pride, personal honor, class envy, and opportunistic lechery, who had fought for Bonaparte and helped Joachim Murat on the latter’s fatal attempt to re-take “his” kingdom of Naples back in his youth. But lately, a more worn-out and middle-aged Fieschi had been booted out by his mistress and lost all his money.

Fieschi, according to Barricades: The War of the Streets in Revolutionary Paris, 1830-1848, basically became a dependent of Morey and Pepin, true-blue republicans who helped channel Fieschi’s unmoored passions into engineering his hydra-headed musket. He’d be back on the French-nationalism side by the end.

“I’m going to appear before God,” Fieschi said on the scaffold, after Morey and Pepin had preceded him. “I have spoken the truth. I die content. I have rendered a service to my country in signaling my accomplices … I regret my victims more than my life.”

More repressive laws and radical-hunting followed. They did not slake the thirst abroad in France for regicide.

* Louis-Philippe’s royal dad backed the French Revolution, but was still executed by Robespierre.

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1845: John Gordon, the last hanged in Rhode Island

Add comment February 14th, 2012 Headsman

Last year, the Rhode Island General Assembly approved a measure posthumously pardoning John Gordon — who on February 14, 1845 was the last man executed in that state.

Gordon’s hanging, for the murder of a prominent industrialist who had bad blood with Gordon’s brother, was long notorious in Rhode Island as one secured on highly uncertain evidence in an atmosphere of anti-Irish prejudice.

Executed Today is pleased to welcome on this occasion University of Rhode Island labor historian Scott Molloy, author of Irish Titan, Irish Toilers and a major advocate of the Gordon pardon.

ET: Can you set the scene — what’s going on in Rhode Island at this time, and what are the tensions surrounding Irish immigrants?

SM: Rhode Island was the site of the first factory in America in the 1790s, called Slater Mill. It really changed the face of Rhode Island and eventually the rest of the US.

In Rhode Island, curiously, as more and more people left the farms to work on the mills, they had an unusual requirement that really didn’t make any difference years earlier: in order to vote, you had to have so much land. (Specifically, $134 worth of land.)

By 1840, not only were the usual suspects not able to vote — women, people of color, Native Americans — 60% of native-born white male Rhode Islanders were also unable to vote. It meant that just a handful of people ruled the state, compared to the time of the American Revolution when just about every white male could vote. And immigrants in particular — and in those days, that was the Irish — were basically precluded from voting. You had a residency requirement, a property qualification. It made Rhode Island almost unique in New England, almost like a southern state.

A group of reformers came to the forefront, a guy named Thomas Wilson Dorr, a blueblood aristocrat, Harvard-educated, one of the best legal minds of the country. He threw his lot in with the reformers to try to get people the right to vote. It really polarized the state in 1842.

The Irish were sympathetic, but Irish priests tried to keep them out of it because they wanted to acclimate. But because a lot of the animosity toward people having the right to vote was directed at Irish immigrants. People blamed the Irish even though the Irish didn’t get particularly involved in the Dorr War.

Often times they got blamed for everything whether they did it or not. And of course we face the same situation with immigrants today.

What was the crime and how did the Gordons come to be the focus of the prosecution?

In 1843, a Yankee industrialist out in Cranston by the name of Amasa Sprague was found on New Year’s Eve 1843 bludgeoned to death in what today we might call a hate crime. He had a gold watch still on him, he had money in his poket, and he had been beaten to death.

Amasa Sprague was a very influential guy. His older brother who helped run the mill with him and was the US Senator from Rhode Island had the local city council lift the liquor license from the Gordon family’s business, which for all intents and purposes ended their livelihood. This was Nicholas Gordon’s shop: John Gordon had only just crossed over from Ireland.

When Sprague was found dead about six months after the license was lost, they focused on the Gordon family. The authorities formed a posse and they went after this Irish family.

Book CoverHow did anti-Irish sentiment manifest itself at trial?

The juries in all three trials had no Catholics and no Irish that I’m aware of. There was a lot of religious and socioeconomic animosity.

At the time, the Supreme Court of the state would sit in on the whole trial just because it was a capital trial, and the trial judge would say in the transcript — which is still available (pdf) — he basically says to the jury, if you find testimony that contradicts itself between a Yankee and an Irish witness, you should give the Yankee testimony more credence.

Doesn’t the fact that John Gordon’s brothers were not convicted militate against the notion of overwhelming anti-Irish prejudice?

You can’t go overboard on these things. The juries — all three of them — they found one Gordon innocent and in the other case they had a hung jury. I don’t want to say they were completely prejudiced, because they weren’t, but almost everything else in Rhode Island at that time was stacked up against them.

The earlier Irish who came in the 1820s and 1830s were a little bit better off, a little bit better-educated [compared to later Irish immigrants after the potato famine]. The animus against the Irish was still intense; the Irish were seen as criminal, unskilled, uneducated, ignorant. The Protestant majority at the time, mostly of English heritage, kind of brought that over with them even though they had been there for a long time.

So how did the legal proceedings play out?

They put two of the recently immigrated brothers up for conspiracy for murder, but not the oldest brother. So John Gordon and his brother William go on trial first.

The jury came back with a guilty verdict for John Gordon, who didn’t have much of an alibi, but a not guilty verdict for William, who did have an alibi. So you’ve got a conspiracy conviction with only one conviction.

Then they put Nicholas Gordon on trial, and the jury comes back deadlocked. His second trial is not going to be until the spring of 1845. In the interim, his brother John was to be hanged, Valentine‘s Day 1845 — rather than wait to see what happened at Nicholas Gordon’s trial and whether there even is a conspiracy.

The defense petitions the governor and the general assembly to hold off the execution until after the trial of the oldest brother. The governor washes his hands of it, and the general assembly votes very narrowly to go ahead with the execution.

So they hang him, and what’s interesting in that part of it is an itinerant, traveling Catholic priest — a guy named Father John Brady — hears John Gordon’s last confession.

Well, they invite the elite of providence inside the prison to watch the hanging. (There’s about 1,000 Irish outside the prison in support of John Gordon.) When they put the noose around his neck, the priest is with him, and the priest berates the elites and authorities, and he says, John, you are going before a just God who has seen way too many of your countrymen.

I always argue in my writings that this guy, he’s an immigrant, he’s uneducated, he’s just been in America for a few months. I just can’t believe that this guy would ever lie to the priest hearing his last confession, and the priest would never berate the elites unless he’d heard a confession of innocence.

After John Gordon’s hanging, his brother Nicholas goes on trial as planned, and they come back with another hung jury — this time, with a majority voting him as innocent. They were going to try him again except about 18 months later, Nicholas dies of natural causes.

I’ve seen a lot of people describe growing up hearing unambiguously that this was a wrongful execution. Is that how it was perceived right from the start? How universal was/is that perception?

There was such a collective feeling of guilt about this that in 1854, Rhode Island abolished the death penalty and John Gordon was the last person ever executed there.

There’s one flaw in the law. This was added late in the 20th century, that anyone convicted of killing a prison guard during an escape could still be killed. And there was an incident, I remember it as a kid maybe 30 years ago, but they still didn’t condemn even that person to death. But Rhode Island has never changed that.

None of us who ever testified ever said categorically that John Gordon was innocent, because we just can’t prove that. But we did say that he never got a fair trial, just like Sacco and Vanzetti in the 1920s.

We did in our research was come up with two or three suspects who had much better reason to assassinate Sprague. But there were no witnesses to the case. It was all circumstantial evidence. I have to say, every time I look at the case — there are some pieces of evidence that would make the Gordons look very guilty. There are other aspects of it that make them look very innocent. If it was in today’s world, the police would interrogate them as people of interest.

It’s not as cut-and-dried as some people make it. All I know is that they got an unfair trial.

Gordon was posthumously pardoned last year. How did that campaign get going, and how receptive were folks in the capitol?

The problem was a lot of people had forgotten the case. I had been writing for a number of years op-ed pieces in the Providence Journal, and mentioned John Gordon from time to time.

But it was an 80-year-old guy named Ken Dooley, and he grew up a couple miles from the murder site near Cranston, and he was a playwright. He came back home and remembered his grandmother singing some little ditty of a song 70 years ago saying something like “Poor Johnny Gordon”, and so he researched it, and he wrote a play.

And they put it on in Cranston, and over the couse of the month several thousand people saw it. A state representative, an Irish guy, saw the play four or five times and then introduced that into the general assembly trying to obtain a posthumous pardon — just to say that the evidence didn’t support the execution.

And Gov. Chaffee, who comes from an ancient Yankee family in Rhode Island, signed the damn thing. It was that play that this guy wrote and we were all amazed that this kind of came out of the blue. We held a lot of events around it — had church services, put up ceremonial headstones. I always tell people that I want this on my headstone: that I had a hand in getting John Gordon pardoned.


There are some excellent resources already available online concerning the Gordon case, including:

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1839: Amos Perley and Joshua Doane, for the Upper Canada Rebellion

Add comment February 6th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1839, Amos Perley and Joshua Doan(e) were hanged in London, Ontario for a feeble armed invasion from Detroit.

The Battle of Windsor was pretty much the last gasp of Canada’s Rebellions of 1837 — touching Lower Canada (Quebec) as well as Upper (Ontario).

The effort saw stateside refugees of the Upper Canada Rebellion, also known as the Patriot War, organize an attempt to overthrow British-Canadian authority between Windsor and Niagara. But a brief incursion (a few houses were captured) failed to trigger a general response in a populace that was all risings’ed out, while United States authorities stayed well clear of these troublemakers. Officials had little difficulty mopping them up.

Six different people (named here) were executed at intervals in London, Ontario, beginning on January 7, 1839 — and ending with the two this date.

Amos Perley was a New Brunswick native who had been an American resident (citizenship status is unclear) for some time, but fell in with the Patriots.

Joshua Doane was a Quaker — a sect ordinarily leery of armed conflict and liable to be considered disloyal as a result — who abandoned the whole pacifism thing in favor of the Patriot cause. He’d had to beat it over the border when the last round of Upper Canada disturbances had been put down the previous winter: he wouldn’t get another chance after the 1838 invasion fizzled.

Doane’s touching last letter to his soon-to-be-widow survives.

London, January 27th, 1839

Dear Wife,

I am at this moment confined in the cell from which I am to go to the scaffold. I received my sentence today, and am to be executed on February 6th. I am permitted to see you tomorrow, any time after 10 o’clock in the morning, as may suit you best. I wish you to think of such questions as you wish to ask me, as I do not know how long you will be permitted to stay. Think as little of my unhappy fate as you can; as from the love you bear me, I know too well how it must affect you. I wish you to inform my father and brother of my sentence as soon as possible. I must say good-bye for the night, and may God protect you and my dear child, and give you fortitude to meet that coming event with the Christian grace and fortitude which is the gift of Him, our Lord, who created us. That this may be the case, is the prayer of your affectionate husband,

JOSHUA G. DOANE.

At this point, “people [in London] were so fed up” with the intermittent public hangings they’d been subjected to that the remaining condemned had their sentences commuted instead to penal transportation, and got shipped to Australia instead.

The disruptions did, however, help to contribute to the 1840 political unification of Upper and Lower Canada.

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1860: John Guthrie, antislavery horse thief

Add comment February 5th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1860 in “Bleeding Kansas” — the frontier zone of dirty war by and against the Slave Power where John Brown got his start — a man named John Guthrie was hanged under scant-to-no color of law.

The site of this execution is still known as Guthrie’s Mountain or Mound … and it’s even alleged that the spot is still ill-omened by the event, and that the dying Guthrie “assailed his executioners for lynching an innocent man,” prophesying that “each of them would meet a horrible death” which curse the imminent U.S. Civil War carried into effect.

For a fuller account, see this pdf of a 1982 Kansas History article, “Guthrie Mound and the Hanging of John Guthrie”.


I know a story I think worth preserving of a Bourbon county execution without benefit of clergy, but it was not a lynching. I have had the story from a lot of people, including two eyewitnesses — not participants, of course. Away back in the later territorial days, when Bourbon county was in the ‘region beyant the law,’ a young man named Guthrie was caught up near Mapleton riding somebody else’s horse. Everybody knows that at that time in those parts, horse stealing and nigger chasing and homicide were offenses in a class by themselves. The hardheaded and hard-fisted farmers thereabouts gathered in a hurry. But there were no courts that they respected or had reason to respect. What to do?

Just across the river south of Mapleton in the Little Osage bottom is a little round hill about three hundred feet high shaped almost exactly like an overturned soup bowl. They adjourned to the top of that hill. There they elected a judge and a sheriff and a prosecuting attorney. They selected a jury and tried their man, who admitted his guilt. After the verdict and the proper sentence, the sheriff had no place to keep the man, so he executed the sentence at once by hanging him to the limb of a jack oak tree nearby. His body was buried where it was cut dawn. It is there yet.

From what I have been told I am quite satisfied that that trial was quite as regular and formal as many cases in the regular courts of that day, though not sanctioned by the law.

By the way, that hill is the same ‘pretty little hill’ where Lieut. Zebulon M. Pike ate the fried venison steak that September morning in 1806, as he notes in his journal. It is still called Guthrie mountain, and is one of the real beauty spots of old Bourbon.

-C.E. Cory, 1932

The horse-thief story has different versions, in which Guthrie is either innocent of the charge or not. For what it may be worth, the 1860 New York Times also reported a “very imperfect” version of this take.


However, there’s at least one primary document suggesting that “thieving” may have been a pretext for killing the man over his anti-slavery stance.

Mapleton, K. T., Feb. 12, 1860. “MY DEAR PARENTS: … Last Sunday night about 1 o’clock a man named John R. Guthrie was hanged about a mile and a half from here on the top. of what is known as Tigret Mound. He was left suspended until Monday eve. His corpse was in plain sight from here as he hung. The proslavery’s hung him for an alleged crime of horse stealing. They arrested him without authority or shadow of law and never gave him even a mock trial, as has generally been the case. The country is again in commotion. I know not what will be the result, the probability is that unless Montgomery takes the field again it will soon blow over and give them a chance to hang the next ones that gets in their way.

-Free Stater (i.e., anti-slavery) Alpheus H. Taylor

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1894: George Painter, Chicago infamous

1 comment January 26th, 2012 Headsman

While there may be serious doubt about the wisdom of capital punishment it is at present imposed by the law of this State, and if it is to be applied in any case then it should be in this … Any man who will live off of the shame of a woman and beat her from time to time as he would a dog, and finally kill her, must expect to suffer the penalty of the law.

-Illinois Gov. John Altgeld denying clemency to George Painter (Jan. 25, 1894)

On this date in 1894, the Land of Lincoln bloodily botched (but ultimately accomplished) the hanging of George Painter.

Painter died for the sordid murder of prostitute-lover-income source Alice Martin.

Painter insisted he was out at the pub when Martin was throttled and bludgeoned to death in their mutual bed, but the timelines left the alibi leaky and a patch of bloody on the reprobate’s coat undid him.

Despite swearing his innocence on pains of being “condemned to a flaming hell for all eternity” and winning three gubernatorial reprieves as his appellate lawyers scrounged up sketchy supportive testimony from various lowlifes, matters were pretty solidly against him by the end. So much so that the seemingly-sturdy rope, “of the same coil with which the anarchists were hanged,” snapped jaggedly when Painter was dropped.

The condemned killer’s body carthwheeled from the jolt of the rope’s end, crashing headlong into the concrete floor. Doctors advised that Painter’s neck was broken and life gone or ebbing … and puzzled executioners, unsure what to do with this unusual semi-successful botch, hauled the hemorrhaging near-corpse back up the scaffold, strapped it up, and dropped it again. You can’t be too careful.

We came by this story on the website of Robert Loerzel’s Alchemy of Bones, a wonderful book about another infamous turn-of-the-century Chicago homicide. (Loerzel’s post gives the train-wreck Painter case a much more detailed rubbernecking.)

Although the subject of Loerzel’s book, the immigrant sausage-maker Adolph Luetgert, was not put to death for his trouble, we were thrilled that the author sat down with Executed Today to find out a little bit about how criminal justice looked in Chicago on the eve of the 20th century.

Book CoverET: One of the aspects that you cover in Alchemy of Bones that’s also present in the Painter case is circumstantial evidence of uncertain probative value. What’s a definitive piece of evidence to a late 19th-century juror?

RL: Obviously if we had a time machine and we could go back 100 years and reinvestigate some of these cases with today’s forensic science, I think we would find a lot of cases of miscarriages of justice. It’s hard to tell looking at these cases today when all you have is these newspaper articles and court transcripts. You can look at it with common sense and try to determine from what people are saying whether there might be some element of doubt.

Today there’s been this huge change with the introduction of DNA evidence and we’ve suddenly discovered that a huge number of people on death row or in prison who are innocent. And that has caused a lot of people to question the reliability of eyewitness testimony and the identification of suspects.

All these things — the testimony of witnesses who say they saw something or said, yeah, that’s the guy — that’s what people in the 19th century were being convicted on. We’re talking about an era when even fingerprints weren’t being used yet.

In the Luetgert case one of the key things was that they found some bone fragments. The Luetgert case is one of these rare murder cases where for all intents and purposes there was no body found. We have some of those cases still today where someone is missing; all the circumstances seem to point to the fact that someone is dead. And prosecutors and police face an additional hurdle — they have to persuade a court that a murder actually happened.

With those sorts of cases, you had some bones that were found. The forensic science of the time — you coudn’t run a DNA test on it. Part of the question was, were those bone fragments even human? Is it possible that pig bones or cow bones were found in a sausage factory? Of course it was possible.

The Luetgert trial was one of the first cases which had testimony from anthropologists, which was a pretty new field at the time. They brought in some experts from the Field Museum.

How did that go?

It wasn’t necessarily the greatest start — but it was sort of like the criminal justice system started to take some baby steps toward bringing science into the courtroom.

Later, in the 1920s or 30s, there was a landmark case called Frye. They still today have the Frye rule — when courts look at a witness to determine if he is an expert. In the Luetgert case, they didn’t do that, and it was kind of a carnival. A high school chemistry teacher was one of the people they put on the stand to testify about the bones.

Luetgert’s crime, murdering his wife and dissolving her or possibly stuffing her into the sausages, was so much more infamous than Painter’s. Why didn’t Luetgert get the death penalty?

Then as now, it was somewhat arbitrary which criminals would get the death penalty and which would get a prison sentence.

In Illinois during that era, there were a lot of people convicted of crimes and sent to prison for much less than a life sentence. They had a system there of “indeterminate sentence” where they would sentence someone to a wide range of possible terms, maybe from two years to 50 years; it was really flexible and vague with the idea that it was a more humane way of dealing with criminals.

It probably also put the thought in the minds of jurors that, do we want to put this guy in prison and he might be getting out in a few years?

In the Luetgert case, there was some outrage that if you were going to convict a person of this crime, you have to sentence him to death. Some people thought that they sentenced him to life in prison because, what if his wife is still alive? There were all these stories coming out at the time of the trial where people thought they had seen Mrs. Luetgert.

So there was the thought, what if we hang him and a year later, Mrs. Luetgert shows up?

None of the jurors ever came right out and said it, but it’s possible that that doubt played some role in the decision not to sentence him to death.

Luetgert’s case got national media attention which Painter’s did not. Was it a milestone for that kind of treatment? What was the media landscape for crime reporting at the time?

There were a few other cases during that era, so it’s hard for me to say that this was the first. But it was certainly an early example of a sort of 19th century equivalent of what we experience with, for instance, the O.J. Simpson trial.

Newspapers covered it in great depth. In Chicago they had a dozen newspapers at the time; they would print page after page of transcripts and reports — far more detailed than anything you see in trial coverage in newspapers now.

The prosecutor, who later became Governor of Illinois, had six scrapbook volumes of newspaper coverage, with clips from Los Angeles and Buffalo and Baltimore and New York.

It actually looks like a lot of newspapers around the country did what we today call news aggregating. We complain about sites like the Huffington Post … well, a 19th century newspaper in a small town in Iowa would just publish a huge long excerpt of a story from a Chicago newspaper. And sometimes they would credit it and sometimes they wouldn’t.

Compared to present-day one- and two-paper cities, that’s still quite a difference.

There’s a lot of media out there now. If you look on the web, blogs, news aggregator sites, TV and radio. We still have a lot of media coverage now, it’s just spread out into a lot of different channels.

I was frankly shocked when I was researching how detailed some of the articles were. It helped me as a researcher. Interestingly, the readership included a lot of people who were not necessarily well-educated, yet newspapers wouldn’t hesitate to run page after page of transcripts. Nowadays, I think you’d have an editor saying, “give me 10 inches.”

Having written the book on the case, do you think Luetgert was rightly convicted?

I believe so. More than the forensic testimony, Adolph Luetgert’s behavior after his wife disappeared sort of points to a guilty conscience. He feared that certain people would go to the police and he either offered them jobs or threatened them.

Though this is precisely the sort of fuzzy circumstantial evidence those 19th century juries were acting on.

That’s absolutely true. In some of these cases you look at, what’s the difference between a man acting suspicious and an innocent man being wrongfully accused? There’s some overlap there.

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