Posts filed under '19th Century'

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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1892: Patrick Boyle, bindle bandit

Add comment January 23rd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1892, Patrick Boyle was hanged in Edwardsville, Illinois.

Boyle was a hobo who, whilst off a-tramping with a fellow-vagrant outside Nameoki, Ill., robbed said vagrant by shooting him in the back.

The victim was in good enough shape after this attack to comply with Boyle’s directive to turn out his pockets (yielding 95 cents) and cough up his bindle (yielding a couple of shirts) … and still doing well enough after transacting the business end of the stickup to hike back to Nameoki as Boyle made his getaway.

Sadly for him, the wound (however non-debilitating) was discovered to be mortal, and he passed away. But of course, he was around long enough to incriminate Boyle.

It didn’t take long for the law to catch up with Boyle, although he escaped once and made it 35 miles in handcuffs before recapture.

(A body can get around in manacles when he’s properly motivated.)

Once firmly in custody, legal matters advanced with the dispatch customary to the poor: according to the St. Louis Republic, the case was called in the morning; “a jury was selected by noon”; “The case was given to them at 6 o’clock, and at 10 they brought in a verdict.”)

Boyle was considered somewhat feebleminded and some clemency petitions led Gov. Joseph Fifer* to grant a dramatic last-second stay prior to Boyle’s planned hanging Jan. 16. But the stay was only good for one week, to give his supporters enough time to make a then-unusual appeal to the Supreme Court. It didn’t work.

* Fifer is a bit (in)famous for having just the previous year pardoned killer Thomas Neill Cream, who used this unexpected liberty after his first murder to strike out across the pond and become one of England’s more notorious serial killers. On the other hand, Fifer couldn’t find any mercy for the surviving Haymarket men.

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1880: Daniel Searles, the first hanging in Tioga County

2 comments January 21st, 2012 Headsman

From the New York Evening Express, January 21, 1880.

DANIEL SEARLES HANGED.

THE NEGRO MURDERER OF OLD MR. REWEY

Sketch of a Brutal Crime — The Condemned Man Owns His Guilt and Admits the Justice of His Sentence.

OSWEGOOWEGO, N.Y., January 21. — The first instance of capital punishment in Tioga county occurred here to-day at noon. The extreme penalty of the law was inflicted upon Daniel Searles, an illiterate negro, who in June last murdered Eldridge Rewey, an aged farmer, who lived alone in the neighboring vilage of Newark Valley.

The murder was for the purpose of robbery, and was one of fiendish atrocity. Calling at the farmer’s house in the early evening of June 25, Searles felled him senseless to the floor, and then cut his throat with a razor.

He obtained about $300 by searching the house, and, on preparing to leave, noticed that his victim had revived. Rewey had also drawn a knife from his pocket, as if to defend himself, which the negro wrested from him, and with which he nearly decapitated his helpless victim.

He was arrested next day, tried before Judge Follett at OswegoOwego, and on December 8 was sentenced to be hung to-day.

Searles has made no attempt to deny his guilt, openly confessing the crime and saying he deserved to die for it. He has preserved a brave exterior throughout, and passed his last night on earth seemingly with less anxiety than did his executioner.

The execution took place in a temporary frame structure in the jail-yard, erected for the purpose. A cordon of military attended. The gallows was the same on which Penwell was executed at Elmira in July, 1877, for wife murder. The ponderous drop weighed three hundred pounds.

The spectators were in attendance at 11:45, some two hundred being present. Prayers were said in the prisoner’s cell at noon and the death warrant read to him.

Part of the Daily Triple: 1880 and Death.

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1880: Andrew Scott and Thomas Rogan, bushrangers

1 comment January 20th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1880, Andrew George Scott and Thomas George “condemned to death for the part they took in the outrage at Wantabadgery, resulting in the death of constable Bowen, were executed at Darlinghurst Gaol.”


Andrew George Scott, aka Captain Moonlite (top); Thomas Rogan (bottom)

Scott is our main man here, an Anglican lay reader turned grifter turned flat-out outlaw with the nom de plunder “Captain Moonlite”: one of the strangest characters in Australia’s criminal annals.

How did a fellow with such a family-friendly alias end up involved in an “outrage”?

This colorful, charismatic immigrant (from Ireland, via New Zealand — and, legend has it, with a side trip to Italy to fight with Garibaldi) became a notorious public figure when, in outlandish masked getup, he robbed the bank of the South Victoria gold rush town of Mount Egerton.

His distinctive voice — remember, he was a parish reader — was recognized by his erstwhile friend at the other end of the gun, but Scott brazenly reversed the accusation and actually had his victim in the dock for a time. This Mount Egerton crime is the source of the man’s luminescent nickname, after the signature placed on a stickup note.

When he got out of prison in 1879 — having defended himself with panache, and escaped once along the way — he had a public profile, and actually got out on the lecture circuit for a brief spell.

But he soon returned to the annals of preposterous criminality.

Gathering five young followers, Moonlite went full-time into the bush. Allegedly spurned in a bid to join Ned Kelly‘s gang, Moonlite et al sought work at Wantabadgery Station.

When this refuge, too, turned them away, the outlaws found themselves in a rather pathetic state of hunger and desperately seized the place by main force. The resulting “outrage” was not a wholesale plunder of the station or wanton abuse of the prisoners (no rapes, no murders … although Moonlite did conduct a kangaroo “trial” of one of his hostages for attempting to escape: the verdict was not guilty): it was the inevitable ensuing shootout with police in which the bushrangers James Nesbitt and Augustus Wernicke died, along with the constable Bowen.

Two of the other three who survived this shootout also survived their brush with the law by blaming Captain Moonlite. The “Captain” may have been plenty eager to accept this fatal inculpation for reasons beyond those of mere honor.

In his prolific prison correspondence awaiting execution, Scott avowed his broken-hearted love for James Nesbitt, one of the two companions who had been killed in the shootout. The terms are astonishingly explicit for the time.

“My boy with a golden heart who died trying to save me … He was my constant companion; we had the deepest, truest bond of friendship. We were one heart and soul, he died in my arms and I long to join him, where there shall be no more parting. He died in my arms; his death has broken my hear. When I think of my dearest Jim, I am nearly driven mad. My dying wish is to be buried beside my beloved James Nesbitt”

Scott hanged wearing a ring of the late Nesbitt’s hair,* but his wish to share a burial plot was not honored — until Captain Moonlite was exhumed and reburied in 1995.


(cc) image from AYArktos.

* Asserted in Who’s Who In Gay and Lesbian History from Antiquity to World War II.

Part of the Daily Triple: 1880 and Death.

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1880: Prevost, predatory Parisian policeman

1 comment January 19th, 2012 Headsman

From a Paris Dispatch report via the New York Times. (Additional paragraph breaks have been added for readability.)

It is just 10 years ago, day for day, that the notorious Troppman, the murderer of the Kink family, was executed on the Place de la Roquette. This morning another convict of the same stamp underwent the penalty of death on the same spot.

Prevost, the policeman who murdered the woman Blondin and the jewelry-dealer, Lenoble, and afterward cut their bodies up and threw the pieces into the sewers, was guillotined there at daybreak.


Thwack: Prevost clobbers Lenoble.

It having become known last night that his appeal for mercy had been rejected by the President of the Republic, a large crowd began to assemble as early as 9 o’clock round the place of execution. To prevent a recurrence of the scenes of disorder which took place there when the young criminals Lebiez and Barre, the assassins of the woman Gilles, were put to death, a strong force of infantry and cavalry guarded the square and kept the people at a distance.

The crowd, in spite of the bitter cold and piercing north-east wind, grew more numerous toward midnight, and by the hour of execution all the thoroughfares leading to the spot were crammed with people.

The executioner arrived at 4 o’clock, and, aided by his assistants, erected the guillotine about 20 paces from the central door of the prison. The guillotine once in order, the headsman and his assistants entered the prison to arrange what is called the toilet of the culprit previous to his death.

The Abbe Crozes, the Chaplain of the jail, was the first to enter the prisoner’s cell. Prevost started up, gazed wildly at the reverend gentleman, and then buried his head in his hands, trembling and groaning.

“Alas!” said the Chaplain, “there is no hope now but in the mercy of God.”

Prevost had lured the jewel-trader Lenoble on the pretext of arranging a transaction, then for no reason save crass acquisition of his wares bludgeoned him to death with the iron rod-and-ball device used to link railroad cars.

It was a premeditated and gruesomely executed crime.

Using butchers’ knives he had pre-obtained for the purpose, Prevost spent the next several hours skinning Lenoble, dismembering Lenoble, and ultimately dicing Lenoble up into cutlets so that he could heap Lenoble in a basket and dispose of Lenoble’s bits in less-suspicious fragments in a variety of sewer grates and refuse heaps.

Such as was recovered was heaped together at the morgue, “a mass of quivering flesh, stripped of skin … bones covered with their tendons, sternum, ribs with fragments of the chest, bones of the shoulder blades and arms … the liver, heart and guts, and the fragments of skin torn off one by one from each severed part.”*

After his capture for this shocking crime, he admitted that he’d also been the author of the unsolved murder several years before of his lover, Adele Blondin — likewise for pecuniary gain, and likewise disposed of in pieces after Pevost’s ghoulish close work with corpse and saw.

The condemned man then left his bed, but he was too much overcome to dress himself. That task was done by the executioner and his assistants. He was then left alone with the Abbe Crozes to prepare his soul. He embraced the Chaplain several times and wept bitterly.

“Take courage, take courage,” said the reverend gentleman.

“Yes, yes,” replied Prevost, “I will take courage and try to meet my fate. I ask pardon of the Police administration, to which I belonged seven years.”

“If this … pawnbroker has been murdered by some one of a higher class in society,” Dostoyevsky had mused in Crime and Punishment in 1866, “how are we to explain this demoralisation of the civilised part of our society?”

Prevost’s demoralization afflicted his cognition as well as his conscience, because he had actually made previous chit-chat with fellow-officers to the effect that were he to commit the perfect crime he would surely go and butcher the body for no-fuss disposal.

The condemned man, after kissing the crucifix three or four times, marched out to the guillotine wit a firm step, and in an instant he was on the fatal bascule.

The spring was touched, a dull thud was heard, and the next second his head fell into the basket.

After the execution the body and head of the murderer were taken to the School of Medicine, and, having been sown together, electrical experiments were made on them, and in the opinion of all the doctors present death must have been instantaneous.

* This quote, and the other interspersed crime details, and the nice bashing illustration, are all via this French crime pamphlet.

Part of the Daily Triple: 1880 and Death.

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1887: Thomas Cluverius, Richmond murderer

Add comment January 14th, 2012 Headsman


Dallas Morning News, January 14, 1887.

On this date in 1887, a long-running (for the time) legal drama in Richmond ended with the hanging of Thomas Cluverius for murder.

On Friday the 13th — March 13, 1885 — Cluverius killed his cousin and lover Lillian Madison, who was eight months pregnant with his child, an act “as dark as any that can be found in all the calendar of crimes.” (Columbus Daily Enquirer, Jan. 15, 1887)

From the illicit affair to the shocking crime of passion and calculation to the damning lost watch key found at the site of the murder: everything conspired to spill newsprint, not only in Virginia but nationwide.

Nevertheless, by the time he hanged, the young lawyer was supported by at least a chunk of public opinion prepared to credit his dogged insistence on innocence.* He maintained it all the way to the scaffold. The drama of a potential gubernatorial reprieve, backed by hundreds of Old Dominion worthies, went to literally the very last hour of the condemned man.

The facts of this case now 125 years in the grave enjoy meticulous and evocative coverage at The Shockoe Examiner, a Richmond blog that we come to via Murder by Gaslight’s Cluverius post.

We’re very pleased on this occasion to interview a writer who has given “Tommie” and “Lillie” a more literary treatment. John Milliken Thompson‘s first novel The Reservoir (review), just published in the summer of 2011, illuminates the timeless conflicts between lust and propriety, in the very specific locale of post-Reconstruction Richmond.

ET: For you as a writer, how did you come by this story, and why did you decide to make it your first novel?

JMT: I came across a brief mention of the case in a book on Richmond history and made a mental note of it.

Sometime later I began looking into the case and, after finding all kinds of material on the trial and on Richmond in the 1880s, I became more and more intrigued. A failed attempt to turn the story into a nonfiction account led me to write it as a novel.

Book CoverWhat was the most challenging thing about approaching the story?

Creating believable, interesting characters within a compelling plot is THE challenge of writing any piece of fiction. This one was no different, though it helped to have a historical framework and tons of good material to turn to.

That said, one of the toughest things about telling this story was getting the voice right. My goal was to create a narrative that could get close in to Tommie’s head, without revealing too much (to the reader or himself), and then pull farther back.

I found it interesting that you said you “felt so connected to these long-dead people that [you] owed it to them to get it right,” because I have that sense myself sometimes. In the end, what are you hoping that 21st century readers take away from the story? What did you take away from it?

In the end, I think what I most want is for readers to feel moved by the plight of these young people, who made some crucial mistakes and paid dearly for them. We all make mistakes in our youth; sometimes we learn our lessons before we get in deeper, sometimes not.

The inference is that Tommie killed Lillian because she was pregnant. How damaging would Lillian’s giving birth really have been to Tommie socially, professionally, or otherwise? Do we need to look for more complex motivations?

That’s a good question, and Tommie even considers what his life would be like if he had “done the right thing” by Lillie and married her. Even if he had been able to live down the scandal of marrying a pregnant girl, which in those days and in their circle would’ve been significant, it would still not have been the life this ambitious young man had envisioned for himself.

And what about the world he lived in — 1880s Virginia, and the place of the crime, Richmond. What’s this place like a generation after the Civil War? And why did this crime in this place become national news?

Well, Richmond, the former Confederate capital, was making a comeback after being ravaged by the war. This event caught the interest of the general public because of the high standing of the families involved and because the lawyers trying the case were distinguished men and famous orators.

Despite maintaining innocence to the last, it seems pretty difficult to imagine that Thomas Cluverius was actually innocent. Still, at the time there were plenty of people who apparently thought he might be. Why on earth did he attract that level of support? If not for the watch-key, might he have avoided conviction altogether?

That’s the fickle nature of the public — once the scapegoat has been cast out, there is a lingering sense of doubt and guilt that causes many of us to look into our own hearts … let he who is without sin.

I think the watch-key did play a big role, but it wasn’t necessarily the sine qua non. I think the sheer volume of testimony offered by the prosecution overwhelmed any reserve the all-male jury might have felt. The burden of proof, in fact if not by law, lay with the defense, and the proof (of innocence) simply wasn’t there.

What are you working on next?

I’m finishing up a coming-of-age novel about a young woman who suffers a number of poignant losses in turn-of-the-century North Carolina. By the way, until “turn-of-the-century” means turn of the 21st (maybe in two decades?) I’m using that phrase to mean turn of the 20th.

Thanks for inviting me on your blog.

* Or empathize with the young lawyer’s lost-potential pathos.

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1801: Chevalier, bomb plot scapegoat

1 comment January 11th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1801, a Jacobin chemist was wrongly executed for Royalists’ plot against Napoleon.

Our scene is France, the year following Napoleon’s coup of 18th Brumaire (November 9, 1799 on the stodgy old Gregorian calendar). Marx’s “first time as tragedy”* saw the Corsican achieve monarch-esque power, and the months ensuing saw a plethora of plots against him.

The ranks of aggrieved potential assassins included both Jacobins, incensed at the military dictatorship, and Bourbons, incensed that it wasn’t their dictatorship — in both cases exacerbated by Napoleon’s decisive battlefield triumphs which consolidated his hold on power.

On Christmas Eve 1800, the man on horseback was a man in a carriage, careening through Paris to catch a performance of Haydn’s oratorio The Creation.

When, all of a sudden, a gigantic explosion on the Rue Saint-Nicaise attempted to un-create the First Consul. It failed, exploding after Napoleon had passed and before Josephine’s family followed, “merely” killing and maiming fifty-some miscellaneous Parisian bystanders instead.


Kablamo! The explosion of the Infernal Machine.
The Catherine Delors historical novel For the King (author’s teaser) is built around investigating the Plot of the Rue Saint-Nicaise.

“Every one,” wrote Sir Walter Scott,

shocked with the wild atrocity of such a reckless plot, became, while they execrated the perpetrators, attached in proportion to the object of their cruelty. A disappointed conspiracy always adds strength to the government against which it is directed; and Buonaparte did not fail to push this advantage to the uttermost.

This “Infernal Machine” had actually been built by disgruntled monarchists at the instigation of intriguer Georges Cadoudal, as was swiftly discerned by Napoleon’s Minister of Police, the ruthless ex-revolutionary Joseph Fouche.

Realpolitik exigencies — Napoleon was trying (unsuccessfully) to reach political terms with the royalist faction — instead drove a rush to pin the detonation on the Jacobins.

Who, it should be said, made themselves the primary suspects by virtue of the fact that they’d also been trying to blow up Napoleon. Chevalier had been arrested a couple of months before when a bomb of his, evidently an experiment for a similar Jacobin plot, loudly blew up near Salpetriere.

Four other Jacobins followed Chevalier to death later in January (and two royalists actually involved in the bomb got the same treatment). Some 130 other prominent Jacobins (French link) were expelled on Napoleon’s say-so — no legislative consultation — to the empire’s far-flung colonies, pretty much putting the remains of the long-supine revolutionary left permanently out of the picture as a political force.

* See the 18th Brumaire; the “second time as farce” also came with its own history-repeating-itself executions.

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1900: Louisa Josephine Jemima Masset

4 comments January 9th, 2012 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1900, 36-year-old Louisa Josephine Jemima Masset (also called “Louise” in some accounts) was hung for the murder of her young son the previous year. She was the first woman, indeed the first person, to be executed in London in the brand spanking new 1900s.

Her crime, even by today’s standards, was shocking and there is little doubt that had it occurred today, Louisa would be featured on blogs with names like People You’ll See In Hell. (Actually, she got a TV miniseries in the early 1990s.)

The story of the murder and Louisa’s trial and death were recorded in detail in John J. Eddleston’s A Century of London Murders and Executions. Capital Punishment U.K. provides additional details, and the trial records can be seen here.

Our story begins a little after six on Friday, October 27, 1899, when a lady at the Dalston Junction train station in London found the body of a small boy shoved behind the door to the women’s lavatory. The child was naked, bloody and partially covered with a black shawl, and a bloodstained brick lay nearby.


Dalston Junction: Mind the gap. (cc) image from Matt From London

The post-mortem determined that the child had been beaten “with much violence” on the head and face, but the actual cause of death was suffocation. He probably died only about an hour or two before his body was found. There was no indication of his identity, so his description was published in the newspapers with hopes that someone would recognize him.

Someone did: the following Monday, a children’s nurse named Helen Eliza Gentle came forward and identified the murdered boy as Manfred Louis Masset, age three and a half, who had been in her charge until the previous Friday.

Manfred was illegitimate and had been in Helen Gentle’s care since shortly after birth. Louisa, his mother, doesn’t seem to have been the maternal type. She paid 37 shillings a month for his care and would visit him once every two weeks and take him to the park. The money supposedly came from Manfred’s father in France; Louisa herself earned a living as a day governess and gave piano lessons.

The arrangement with Helen Gentle ended when Louisa told Helen that she was sending Manfred to France to be with his father. Helen handed the child over to her at 12:45 p.m. on October 27, only hours before his death.


The day before giving him up, Helen Gentle took this picture of the tot to remember him by.

When she was tracked down at her brother-in-law’s house, Louisa denied having harmed her son and stated she didn’t even know he was dead until she read about it in the newspaper. She admitted the story about taking Manfred to France a lie and said she only wanted to transfer him to another carer, as she thought Nurse Gentle wasn’t educating him properly. Louisa claimed she had met two women, one of them a schoolmistress, in the park a few weeks earlier. She arranged to enroll Manfred for the price of £18 per annum, and handed the little boy over on October 27.

When pressed, however, Louisa couldn’t remember much about these women or their school. The police smelled a rat and took her into custody for murder.

At Louisa’s trial in December, she stuck to her story about giving Manfred to a schoolmistress. She said she’d handed him over at the train station at 4:00 p.m., along with a £12 deposit towards his school tuition, then took the 4:07 train to Brighton. No one at the station saw the two women Louisa described. However, three witnesses at the train station remembered seeing Louisa and Manfred, who was crying, hanging about the station for over an hour on the afternoon of Manfred’s death: one of those same witnesses saw and spoke to Louisa at the station at 6:50 p.m., nearly two hours after Louisa claimed to have left, and said her little boy wasn’t with her anymore.

The icing on the cake was when the brick used to batter Manfred was shown to be same kind as those in Louisa’s garden.

Louisa’s story was partially true; she did go to Brighton that day, hours later than she said, and Manfred’s clothes turned up in the waiting room of the train station there. Eudor Lucas, Louisa’s next-door neighbor, said they had spent the weekend together in Brighton, sleeping in the same bed, and he had “had connection” with her.

The jury must have been outraged by their blatantly immoral behavior, and in any case the evidence against Louisa was overwhelming. The jury got the case on December 18 and took thirty minutes to convict her. She was hung just three weeks later.

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1872: Du Wenxiu, Panthay rebellion leader

Add comment December 26th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1872, China’s Panthay Rebellion came to an end with the surrender, suicide, and execution — in that order — of Du Wenxiu.

The Panthay Rebellion (also known as the Du Wenxiu Rebellion) was one of several cataclysmic revolts to shake foundering imperial China in the 19th century.

This one was centered in the city of Dali (also known as Talifoo) in the southeastern Yunnan Province, near the Burmese border.* The rebels in question were the Hui people, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group who had been pushed around for years by Qing officials and by the ethnic Han.

The backstory of Han-on-Hui ethnic cleansing in the 1840s makes for harrowing reading, lowlighted by the 1845 massacre of 8,000 Hui in Baoshan.

An even more ambitious operation in May 1856 went down in Kunming, where a massacre — Qing officials publicly posted a directive to “kill [the Hui] one and all”** — claimed several thousand more and razed the city’s mosques. This outburst spawned an attempt at wholesale ethnic cleansing throughout the province … but that attempt blew back on its perpetrators by triggering a rebellion that would require a generation to tame.

The unexpected tenacity of Hui resistance was multiplied by the disadvantages for the Chinese state of operating in a distant and mountainous territory, and its preoccupation with the much larger simultaneous Taiping Rebellion. Though these considerations were not sufficient to dissuade local officials from picking the fight in the first place, they would help them come to regret it.

Hui resistance quickly coalesced into an organized rebellion, and that rebellion overran Dali by the end of the year, establishing itself as the seat of an independent kingdom called Pingnan Guo. Meanwhile, the onset of the Second Opium War left China incapable of contemplating a reconquest.

Du Wenxiu, the half-Han Islamic convert rebel leader acclaimed Sultan Sulaiman of Dali, was therefore left with some operating room to establish a Hui state. He led a pluralistic nation (for the Hui themselves were and are a pluralistic identity) in the western half of Yunnan, stretching from the Tibetan frontier almost to Kunming. (They came close but never quite managed to take this city).

Alas, in due time and with sufficient stability elsewhere in China the Pingnan state came under withering attack from the late 1860s. It sought help from the British as a potential foil against Chinese power, but the aid was not forthcoming and probably would have been too little and much too late. The Pingnan / Panthay / Hui state

ended much as it had begun — in a bloody massacre of the Hui populace. On 26 December 1872, imperial troops surrounded Dali, the Pingnan capital. Du Wenxiu, in a move that he hoped would spare the lives of the city’s residents, made the decision to hand himself over to the Qing general. Swallowing a fatal dose of opium as his palanquin carried him to the Qing encampment, Du was already dead by the time that he was delivered to the Qing commander. Not to be robbed of the gratification of killing him themselves, Qing officials hastily dragged Du before the Qing troops to be decapitated.† According to Emile Rocher, a French adviser to the provincial officials in Yunnan at the time, Du’s head was encased in honey and sent to the emperor.

Du’s sacrifice, however, was in vain. Three days later, imperial troops began a massacre that, according to the government’s own conservative estimates, took ten thousand lives by the time it was concluded — four thousand of the victims were women, children, and the elderly. Hundreds drowned trying to escape from Dali by swimming across Erhai Lake. Others attempted to flee through the narrow passes at either end of the valley. All were chased down and slain by the Qing troops. The imperial soldiers were ordered to cut an ear from each of the dead. These grisly trophies filled twenty-four massive baskets and, together with Du’s severed head, were sent to Beijing, where they served as a silent and unequivocal corroboration of the Pingnan regime’s bloody demise.**

Du Wenxiu was within living memory when the Qing themselves fell; shortly after that happened, an honorary tomb was constructed for the martyred rebel outside Dali.

* “Panthay” is a Burmese word for Chinese Muslims.

** David Atwill, “Blinkered Visions: Islamic Identity, Hui Ethnicity, and the Panthay Rebellion in Southwest China, 1856-1873,” The Journal of Asian Studies, Nov. 2003. This article and/or Atwill’s book (review) on the same subject appear to be the ultimate source of nearly every accessible English resource on the Panthay Rebellion.

† According to the London Times (Aug. 27, 1873) the aides and litter-bearers who accompanied the dying Du to the Qin camp were also beheaded for their troubles. It ballparks the ensuing butchery at 40,000 to 50,000 souls.

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1838: The first hangings of the Lower Canada Rebellion

1 comment December 21st, 2011 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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