Posts filed under '19th Century'

Daily Quintuple: The Morant Bay rebellion

Add comment October 20th, 2012 Headsman

In 1865, British-controlled Jamaica faced an economically-driven revolt that altered its history.

Though slavery had been abolished in the British empire during the 1830s, emancipation had not come with land reform. Ex-slaves and their descendants remained desperately poor. Indeed, Britain’s near-simultaneous liberalization of the sugar trade had cratered prices for Jamaica’s top export — and with it, cratered most of the Caribbean economy.

To a petition early in 1865 for access to crown lands to relieve these dire conditions, Queen Victoria had extended a familiar classic of cruel and condescending economic catechism: shut up and work.

“The prosperity of the Labouring Classes, as well as of all other Classes,” quoth the piece that would be published as “The Queen’s Advice”,

depends, in Jamaica, and in other Countries, upon their working for Wages, not uncertainly, or capriciously, but steadily and continuously, at the times when their labour is wanted, and for so long as it is wanted; and if they would use his industry, and thereby render the Plantations productive, they would enable the Planters to pay them higher Wages for the same hours of work than are received by the best Field Labourers in this country; and as the cost of the necessaries of life is much less n Jamaica than it is here, they would be enabled, by adding prudence to industry, to lay by an ample provision for seasons of drought and dearth; and they may be assured, that it is from their own industry and prudence, in availing themselves of the means of prospering that are before them, and not from any such schemes as have been suggested to them, that the must look for an improvement in their condition; and that her Majesty will regard with interest and satisfaction their advancement through their own merits and efforts.

So your average Jamaican fieldhand’s “merits and efforts” became so much dry tinder accumulating, just waiting for the spark. (Note: Princeton has an album of photographs from this period here.)

In October 1865, flint struck steel with the prosecution of a poor black laborer for trespassing onto unused land.

The ensuing protest mushroomed into the Morant Bay rebellion: a scuffle with police, leading to proscriptions, leading to a more confrontational mob, an outnumbered and trigger-happy militia, and a full-fledged riot that seized the town of Morant Bay and proceeded to attack nearby plantations.

Dreadful reports, more terrifying for their scantiness and uncertainty, went abroad in those days, of “atrocities revolting to human nature.” That’s the New York Daily News, which ran a letter from Kingston, Jamaica, reporting “the whites who have fallen into the hands of these savages have been doomed to slaughter without distinction of age or sex. They tear out the tongues of their victims, cut off the breasts of women, strangle and mutilate little children.”*

Fearing a Haiti-like general revolution, Jamaican Governor Edward John Eyre — once an Australian explorer, which is why you can find his name on a New South Wales wine label — bloodily crushed the uprising.

Hundreds were put to death, either summarily in the field or after proceedings that would have wanted twice the deliberation to rise to the level of perfunctory. Hundreds more, including pregnant women, were flogged. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time without a demonstrable alibi ready to hand was liable to be worth a body’s life.

We note over the next five days two famous cases and three obscurities that may give a sense of how things were in those days — though Morant Bay depredations could in fact sustain several numbing weeks in these pages. For instance, a missive dated October 19 reports in passing the capture of “a number of prisoners from the rebel camp. Finding their guilt clear, and being unable either to take or leave them, I had them all shot. The constables then hung them upon trees, eleven in number.”

One officer** who showed excessive (read: any) exactitude for process was ordered in writing to emulate a comrade “doing splendid service … shooting every black man who cannot account for himself.”

Nelson at Port Antonio hanging like fun by court martial. I hope you will not send any black prisoners.

All this “fun” would put Governor Eyre in the eyre of a storm back in the home country.

These executions — but most especially that of colonial assemblyman George William Gordon — had little or no color of law, and spurred many English liberals to demand Eyre himself be prosecuted for murder. Nor was this merely an elite predilection: English working classes then in the midst of their own push for representation rallied in support of the Jamaicans, even burning Gov. Eyre in effigy. British Tories and propertied Jamaicans called Eyre a hero.

Ultimately, this furious “Eyre Controversy” proved insufficient to generate an actual criminal procedure against an agent of the empire, which would have entailed clearing a very high bar indeed. Recourse to the civil courts produced a landmark 1870 decision, Phillips v. Eyre whose upshot was to validate a law Eyre had the Jamaican assembly hastily enact retroactively legalizing his behavior and thereby rule out the prospect of a tort claim.

That Jamaican assembly was spooked enough that in 1866 it renounced its own power and made Jamaica into a Crown Colony directly governed by its British executive.

But if the need of the moment was to suppress the uprising, the need of history was to celebrate it — and the hero for posterity would not be Governor Eyre. The Morant Bay insurgents, a bare few of whom we will meet over the next days, have been valorized as slave rebels even if they weren’t quite literally slaves, and generally occupy an honored place in Jamaica.

* Cited in London Times, Nov. 13, 1865 — by which time the actual revolt was well over.

** That reluctant officer complied with his orders, but threw himself into the sea when recalled to England for subsequent the parliamentary inquiry.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Daily Doubles,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Jamaica,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Revolutionaries

Tags: , , ,

1891: William Rose

Add comment October 16th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1891, William Rose was hanged — and, when the rope snapped, hauled back up and hanged again — for murdering his feuding neighbor Moses Lufkin in Redwood County, Minn.

The scaffold botch was an apt conclusion to a deeply controversial case. Two juries hung (both leaning towards acquittal) before a third trial finally convicted Rose with the help of new eyewitness testimony that wouldn’t inspire much confidence now — and didn’t even back then.

Lufkin had been shot through a window at night — this is according to that questionable eyewitness testimony — by an unknown assailant who then fled. Connecting Rose to the murder required stitching together circumstances: Rose’s known hatred for Lufkin; the want of an alibi; the fact that he’d recently bought some ammunition. Rose protested his innocence from start to finish, and many people believed him.

In a letter published by the St. Paul Weekly Pioneer Press on Oct. 15, Rose accused that very witness of the murder: Lufkin, who was loathed by many besides Rose, had been living with the witness; said witness also knew Lufkin had cash on hand from a pension payment and the sale of his farm. Rose even repeated this accusation at the gallows.

The contentious proceeding — “one of the most remarkable cases known in the history of the State of Minnesota,” in the words of one contemporaneous report* — has been revived for a present-day audience in Patricia Lubeck’s new book, Murder in Gales: A Rose Hanged Twice. Lubeck and her friend and research assistant Michelle Gatz combed through original trial transcripts and newspaper coverage, and it left the author “pretty sure that William Rose didn’t do.”

Lubeck (author website) is the curator of Redwood County Museum, which still preserves the jail cell where Rose spent his last night on earth. She was gracious enough to share her research with Executed Today. (Other interviews with Ms. Lubeck are here and here.)


Patricia Lubeck. (Photo courtesy of Ms. Lubeck.)

Murder in Gales: A Rose Hanged Twice book coverET: First off, how did you come by this story and what made you decide to devote a whole book to it?

PL: Kind of by a fluke. I came across it at the Minnesota History Center; I was helping my friend research.

When I worked at Yellow Medicine County, I researched the first man hanged in that county and became interested in early crime in southwestern Minnesota. At one point, the archivist at the Minnesota History Center brought out several boxes of court transcripts from trials. I was perusing through several cases when I came across the Lufkin vs. Rose case, and it looked very interesting.

So, William Rose and Moses Lufkin were neighbors and foes. What was the nature of their enmity — how did it get started?

They were two families who settled in southwest part of Minnesota in the late 1800s and they were friendly neighbors in the beginning. But soon petty differences arose, and the quarreling increased in bitterness from year to year.

Then a new element came into the picture when William Rose fell in love with Lufkin’s beautiful daughter Grace, and her father put a stop to the romance. This sparked the feud and lawsuits.

I think because of that feud, when Lufkin was murdered, the community kind of thought that maybe Rose did it.

The problem of the dicey sufficiency of the evidence was at the heart of the case at the time — in trial, on appeal, in the court of public opinion. Does this case have any lessons for thinking about the wrongful-conviction phenomenon here in the 21st century? Or what else do you hope the reader will take away from your book?

I guess I was just really outraged by what William Rose went through, and I felt like I was the voice for Rose. This is a story that not many people know about; it was not just a cut-and-dried case and there were a lot of factors involved. I just want people to know that there were many other possible suspects that could have done it, but that he, Rose, was the one who paid for the crime.

And I still feel that somebody has the missing piece, and somebody may come forward to exonerate Rose. I would like anyone who has information about this case to contact me by mail at: Box 52, Belview, MN 56214.

They had to try him three times to get the conviction, and the case was unusually protracted and controversial. Was there any legal chicanery involved in accomplishing the guilty verdict? By the standards of the time were there any areas where the courts clearly dropped the ball legally?

Another man who lingered alone [after Rose’s funeral] was ol’ man Slover … [who] proclaimed to those still standing at the gravesite, “Gentlemen, this is awful.”

“It certainly is,” replied [Rose’s friend] John [Averill]. “Are you sure you’ve got the right man?”

Slover replied, “I don’t know, John, but I hope so.”

-from Murder in Gales

The difference in the third trial was that Eli Slover came forward and said he was sure that it was William Rose who shot the gun. He had testified at the previous two trials that he wasn’t sure at all … and the shooter was someone he supposedly saw from the back, in the dark, so how would he be sure?

The prosecutor, Michael Madigan, was suspected of meeting with certain witnesses prior to their testimony; coaxing them and possibly even bribing them to give the testimony he wanted in order to bring in a conviction against Rose. I think that the prosecutor wanted to bring in a guilty verdict, and he persuaded Eli Slover to say that William Rose was the one that he saw that night, running away. Later on, this prosecutor got in trouble himself. He went to prison and got disbarred for perjury in 1893.

William Rose on the gallows accused Slover by name as the murderer; Lufkin had moved in with the Slovers and recently sold his farm, so the Slovers knew he had cash on him. He [Slover] is one of a number of other possible suspects I list in the book. This Lufkin guy was a bad man; he himself always stated he would die a violent death.

But at the time that William Rose was facing his trials, there was another murder that happened around the same time period in Redwood County — Clifton Holden, who killed Frank Dodge. People were shocked to have two murders in their midst, after having had a couple of other homicides in the recent past,** and there was a danger that Holden and Rose could have been lynched. At the time, the press and public sentiment cried out for a conviction, and the county was becoming burdened by the costs of trials and so a guilty verdict was found. Holden was also sentenced to hang, but at the 11th hour, Gov. Merriam reduced the sentence to life in prison.


Although memory of these sad events have faded, they were talked-about in the area for years after William Rose’s hanging. “Time and again,” said one newspaper account Lubeck quoted, “has some cute individual started the story that Will Rose was innocent.” There were even confused local rumors that Slover had made a deathbed confession from his later residence in Oregon.

“These events brought home to the people of Minnesota the the truth that the prevailing system during the 1800s, of executing criminals, was radically, morally, and terribly wrong,” Lubeck argues.

William Rose was the only person ever executed in Redwood County. Minnesota abolished the death penalty full stop in 1911.

* St. Paul (Minn.) Daily News, Oct. 15, 1891

** The Marshall (Minn.) News Messenger harrumphed on Nov. 30, 1888, shortly after Rose’s avoided conviction in his first trial, “Redwood County had its fourth murder in two years, and we know of no other county where a murderer may so easily escape, even by going through the court system of Redwood.

“The Alexander murder, premeditated, easily escaped. The Gorres murder only got 6 years for manslaughter, about what a small thief would receive; the Rose murder resulted in acquittal. And now Clifton Holden has murdered a fourth victim.

“Meanwhile the taxpayers are being grieveously burdened with taxation for all these murder trials.”

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Interviews,Minnesota,Murder,Other Voices,USA,Wrongful Executions

Tags: , , , , , ,

1817: Gertrudis Bocanegra, Mexican independence heroine

1 comment October 11th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1817, Mexican War of Independence heroine Gertrudis Bocanegra was publicly shot in her native town of Pátzcuaro for treason.

Bocanegra (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish), a literate Enlightenment woman was already 45 years old when the rebellion against the Spanish empire broke out.

Her husband and son joined Hidalgo‘s forces, in which service they would lay down their own lives.

Gertrudis Bocanegra kept a safe house, gathered supplies and money, shuttled messages … until Spanish authorities arrested her in 1817 and tortured her for information. (Need one even ask if the noble Bocanegra informed on her compatriots?)

She’s known as La Heroína de Pátzcuaro and is the namesake for, among other things, a plaza in that city and the striking Biblioteca Gertrudis Bocanegra, where one can find this:


(cc) image from eperales depicts Juan O’Gorman‘s monumental Historia de Michoacan. We’ve seen this monument before, as it depicts the Spanish burning to death the last native Tarasco ruler.

Bocanegra’s own execution is also shown in the mural — in the lower right, obscured by the bookshelves in the photograph above, but captured in detail in this Spanish blog post.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,Martyrs,Mexico,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Shot,Spain,Torture,Treason,Wartime Executions,Women

Tags: , , , ,

1898: Alfred C. Williams

Add comment October 7th, 2012 Robert Wilhelm

(Thanks for the guest post to Robert Wilhelm, author of the Murder By Gaslight historic crime blog, and author of the book Murder And Mayhem in Essex County. Executed Today readers are sure to enjoy Wilhelm’s detailed investigations into long-lost historic crime. -ed.)

When Alfred C. Williams was arrested for the murder of John Gallo, his conviction seemed highly unlikely. There appeared to be no direct link between Williams and Gallo. There was no absolute proof that Gallo had been murdered, or even that he was dead. But in this case, circumstantial evidence, rather than increasing doubt, actually succeeded in dispelling doubt, bringing investigators closer to the truth and drawing the noose ever tighter around Alfred Williams’s neck.

John Gallo was a young Italian immigrant who worked on a farm in Lynnfield, Massachusetts. He was industrious and popular with the other workers, but kept to himself and very seldom left the farm. Gallo lived alone in a small shack in the rear of the farm. In the early hours of July 28, 1897, the shack caught fire and burned with flames so high they could be seen in neighboring towns. The shack was leveled, leaving nothing but ashes and the charred remains of a body, so badly burned that it could not be identified.

The body was so charred that it took two examinations to verify that it was, in fact, the body of a human. The head and neck were gone, both arms and both legs had been completely consumed, bone and all, by the fire. The spinal column remained with some back muscle attached; the heart, liver, kidneys, and bladders remained, but were badly burned. Everything else was completely gone. The medical examiner could state that the body was that of an adult human being, but nothing more.

With the destruction so complete, it appeared to investigators that nothing could be learned to explain what had happened that night. But as the investigation progressed, details began to emerge, like an image developing on a photographic plate. The fact that there was too little information became a clue in itself, and soon investigators were able to compile a list of facts that pointed to foul play:

  1. The body had been destroyed to a greater extent than would be expected from a fire in such a small building.
  2. The deceased had not been burned in bed. The bedsprings had survived the blaze but the body was found several feet away.
  3. The victim had not been dressed. Some buckles, metal buttons, a few coins and the clasp of a pocketbook were found by the side of the bedsprings, none were found near the body.
  4. The body lay in the doorway between rooms with the head back in the room toward the bed, not falling forward as a person naturally would if trying to escape from a burning room.
  5. A kerosene-oil can, which was usually kept near the stove, was found in the middle of the floor
    next to the body.

It was believed that the victim had been murdered before the fire started. His body was doused with kerosene and ignited, which would account for the severe damage to the body. The flame then quickly spread to the rest of the house.

John Gallo had earned $1.50 a day at Phillips’s farm and was paid monthly, always in five dollar bills. He spent very little and at the time of his death, it was suspected that he had around one hundred dollars earned on the farm. It was also well known that Gallo always carried three twenty dollar gold pieces that he had earned on a construction job prior to coming to the farm. No trace of the gold pieces or any melted gold were found.

Another crime had allegedly been committed near Lynnfield in the early morning of July 28. That afternoon, Alfred C. Williams reported that he had been held up near his rooming house in Wakefield. He had been unable to sleep and went outside to smoke a cigar. As he stood with one foot on the rail fence by the road, someone struck him on the head from behind. He turned to fight back, striking his assailant on the nose causing it to bleed. He was knocked unconscious, robbed of his watch and a small amount of money, and then thrown down the banks of Wakefield Pond.

He told his story to the police, showing them bruises on his neck and face from the fight, and bloodstains on his clothing from the assailant’s nose. The officers were skeptical of his story and held Williams for questioning. Unlike most holdups, Williams apparently had more money in his possession after the crime than he did before. On July 27, Williams had not had enough money to buy a meal or even pay a five-cent streetcar fare. The morning of July 28, he paid his back board bill and made some purchases. The police found seventy-five dollars, in five dollar bills, on his person.

The police learned that Williams had previously worked as a laborer on Phillips farm and knew the habits of the deceased. They searched Williams’s room and under the carpet, they found two twenty dollar gold pieces. When Williams was told where they found the coins he responded, “I know, I put them there.” They also found a bloodstained coat and vest in his room. Alfred C. Williams was arrested for the murder of John Gallo.

At the trial, the prosecution presented a case against Williams that was based entirely on circumstantial evidence. While there was nothing to directly link Williams to the fire, his familiarity with Gallo’s habits, his possession of money — including gold pieces — the day after the fire, the bloody clothing, and Williams’s inconsistent stories, taken all together were incriminating.

The defense challenged the very core of the evidence. There was no proof that the body found in the ashes was John Gallo’s; it could not be proven that a murder was committed or that the fire was not started accidentally; there was no proof that Alfred Williams was anywhere near the fire that night. But Williams was sticking to the story that he was held up on the night of July 28, so his alibi was also a matter of circumstantial evidence, and no one seemed willing to believe it. The jury deliberated for six hours before returning a verdict of guilty, first degree murder.

Alfred C. Williams was hanged in the yard of Salem jail on October 7, 1898. It was not a public hanging; the sheriff issued a few invitations, but only for the purpose of providing legal witnesses. Williams’s arms and legs were bound and his head was covered as he stood on the gallows. At 10:01 a.m. the trap was sprung and Williams dropped six feet, one inch. His neck was broken and he died within seconds. Williams professed innocence to the end.

Get Murder and Mayhem in Essex County here.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arson,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Massachusetts,Murder,Other Voices,Pelf,Theft,USA

Tags: , , , , , ,

1900: Coleman Gillespie

Add comment October 5th, 2012 Meaghan

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

The story behind Coleman Gillespie’s execution on this day in 1900 actually begins on February 21, 1856: on that winter’s day, a small group of hostile Rogue River Indians murdered more than half of Christina Edson’s family at their home in what would become the state of Oregon.

The victims included John Geisel, Christina’s husband of 13 years, and their sons Andrew, 5, Henry, 7, and John, 9.

Christina, her three-week old infant Annie and her thirteen-year-old daughter Mary were spared and force-marched into captivity at an Indian camp twelve miles away. Along the way they had to pass the burning houses and dead bodies of their neighbors. 24 people were killed and 60 homes burned in all.

The pioneers wanted vengeance and they got it: the rebellious Indians were defeated in May 1856 and mobs lynched more than a dozen of them, including the man who betrayed the Geisel family. In July of that year, more than 700 Indians were forced to relocate to two different reservations.

All in all, it was a terrible tragedy.

And four decades later, indirectly, it claimed its last victim.

Long-suffering: Christina Edson

Christina, somehow, put her life back together after surviving two weeks in captivity with her daughters. She never had any more children, but she remarried three times (divorcing twice, and being left a widow with her final husband’s death in 1883).

In 1887, Christina filed a claim with the federal government seeking compensation for the loss of her first husband and sons and their farm, which the Indians had burned down. It took twelve years to get through all the red tape. In the end her application was successful and she was granted a monthly pension.

Christina turned 77 years old in 1899. Although her grown-up daughters wanted her to move in with them, she cherished her independence and lived alone in a cabin in Gold Beach, Oregon. Her very first pension check, for $75, arrived Monday, September 18, 1899.

On September 19, her cabin burned to the ground.

The postman found her charred corpse lying sprawled on her bed in the ruins. She’d been tortured and strangled. The fire was arson, and authorities presumed Christina had been killed for her money; her pension check was missing.

The brutal murder of this elderly pioneer horrified the community. As Diane Goeres-Gardner explains in her book Necktie Parties: Legal Executions in Oregon 1851-1905,

Christina Edson had seen her husband and sons tortured and burned by the Indians. The savages could be excused because they were fighting for their rights to the land they once owned. [Christina’s murder] was even more horrifying because it was done in cold blood for a few dollars.

The police got a lead when the check was cashed in Roseburg by one C.O. White, who was brought in for questioning. He said he’d bought the check at a discount from Coleman Gillespie, a known criminal with two prior convictions for theft.

Arrested a few days later, Gillespie quickly broke down and confessed in writing to Christina Edson’s murder. He named his co-conspirator as Charles Strahan, a commercial salmon fisherman who had mysteriously disappeared. There were rumors that he’d tried to flee the area but had drowned in the Rogue River, and other reports that he’d drowned in an ordinary fishing accident: whatever the case, he was never seen again, neither alive nor dead.

Authorities thought the fisherman a red herring — that Gillespie had acted alone and, having heard of Strahan’s disappearance, tried to share the blame with the convenient phantom. Gillespie’s statements about Christina Edson’s murder over time evolved to shift ever more responsibility onto the missing “accomplice”, until Gillespie was all but denying his own presence at the murder scene. He didn’t really seem to realize that, at the end of the day, he was legally just as guilty whether or not he himself had done the killing.

He found out on August 23, 1900, when he was condemned to die for robbery and murder.

When Coleman Gillespie was hanged six weeks later — the first and last legal execution in Curry County — his neck didn’t break. He expiated every penny of the discounted $75 pension check slowly strangling at the end of the rope.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Military Crimes,Oregon,Other Voices,Pelf,Theft,USA

Tags: , , , ,

1830: Stephen Simmons, the last executed by Michigan

Add comment September 24th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1830, Stephen Simmons was publicly hanged in Detroit, Michigan: the very last time that state has conducted an execution.*

Michigan was the first English-speaking jurisdiction in the world to abolish the death penalty for ordinary crimes. Death penalty foes celebrate March 1 as “International Death Penalty Abolition Day” (pdf) after the date Michigan’s law took effect.

Simmons himself was a minor malefactor in the scheme of things but amply detested in the day of his crime.

A tavern-keeper by trade, he had a habit of getting into the whiskey himself, to violent effect. One night at home, a sodden Simmons picked a fight with his wife Livana and killed her with a vicious blow to the abdomen. The main trouble in this noteworthy trial (pdf) was seating a jury not completely biased against him.

An estimated two thousand people turned up to watch him pay for his crime, and for their “comfort and entertainment” the authorities had “wooden grandstands erected on three sides of the scaffolding, uniformed militia to be deployed around the scaffolding as a guard of honor, a military band to serenade the crowd while it waited for the main event, and vendors to patrol the grounds hawking food, whiskey, and rum.”

Sounds like a place about to abolish the death penalty, right?

Executed Today was pleased to speak with David Chardavoyne, law professor at Wayne State University and the University of Detroit-Michigan, about this case and its place in Michigan’s early path to abolition. Chardavoyne is the author of the award-winning book A Hanging In Detroit: Stephen Wayne Simmons and the Last Execution Under Michigan Law

Book CoverET: To set the scene, what is Detroit like in 1830?

DC: In 1830 Detroit was the capital of the Michigan Territory, but it had only about 2,000 inhabitants. It was, though, a bustling community because it was the entryway for the tens of thousands of settlers heading into the wilderness west and north of Detroit. Most buildings were on a narrow strip of land between the river and Jefferson Avenue, although the capitol, jail, and Simmons’s execution site were further north, about a half mile from the river.

This was the last execution in Michigan, but to what extent can we really say that it led to the end of the death penalty there? It strikes me that support must have been pretty soft to start with if that’s the case.

To be precise, the last execution under Michigan law — there were 2 executions under federal law a short time later and the Chebatoris execution in the 1930s.

I conclude in my book that there is no real evidence that the Simmons case caused the abolition of capital punishment. Most people living in Michigan in the 1840s, and almost all of the legislators who voted for abolition, arrived in Michigan after 1830 and there was no mention of that case in the extensive debates in the constitutional conventions in 1835-36 or in the legislature in the 1840s.

However, incidents surrounding the Simmons execution show that unease about capital punishment existed in 1830. First, the fact that most killers before and after 1830 were convicted of manslaughter whatever the facts. Second, the alleged mob that tore down the city whipping post right after Simmons’s execution. Third, Governor Cass, in his annual address a couple of months later stated that he was sorry that the law did not allow him to reduce Simmons’s sentence to time in prison.

Why was it that this one hanging, of a guy who had clearly killed his wife even if not intentionally, so powerfully affected people? And how troubled were Michiganders by the case itself, before the specific events of execution day?

Whatever effect the Simmons execution had on the spectators had little to do with Simmons but rather their exposure to a gruesome death. The people seem to have been genuinely outraged by the crime and the fact that the victim was his wife, so that it was very difficult to seat a fair jury. There is little to no evidence of any sympathy for Simmons.

What about the accounts of attendees stunned and shamed by Simmons’ last-minute plea for mercy in the midst of the public-festival environment.

In the book, I explain that my research puts this whole story very much in doubt. It first appeared almost 50 years later in a speech at the state historical convention, but it is not clear that the speaker was even in town that day. It was picked up and repeated by subsequent writers, but the Detroit newspaper at the time made no mention of it, nor did the very few other witness accounts.

When Michigan did abolish the death penalty, how were people talking about the Simmons case? Did it swing any votes?

Again, the Simmons case seems to have been forgotten by then, or at least neither side thought that it would help their arguments.

We’re accustomed now to think of clemency decisions as highly political. How did Lewis Cass’s political aspirations affect his handling of Simmons, if they did at all? And for that matter, did he or anyone else end up suffering any political fallout for the way events ultimately transpired?

As noted above, under territorial law Cass’s only option was to pardon Simmons — he could not just reduce the sentence. It may or may not have been relevant that he left town early on the day of the execution to visit his mother in Ohio and did not attend the execution.

What’s really amazing is that Michigan has kept the death penalty off the books for nearing two centuries. That can’t all be about Stephen Simmons. What is it about Michigan’s culture, politics, or demographics that has kept it so staunchly anti-death penalty?

This is a question that writers have been asking for decades. Remember that abolition was a close-run thing. Religion, political party, and other divisions do not appear to have been a factor in the voting.

My guess is that it had to do with personality. The legislators in 1846 were mostly young men who were adventurous and optimistic enough to leave their friends and families in the east for the frontier. Such people, according to my psychologist friends tend to be against capital punishment. Why capital punishment was never reinstated is a tribute, I think, to the fact that the system works. Every so often a particularly bad killing starts politicians shouting about bringing it back, but it never goes anywhere. Since 1963, of course, the ban has been in our state constitution, and removing it would be very difficult.

* As Prof. Chardavoyne mentions, a few executions have been conducted in Michigan under federal (not state) law since 1830.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Michigan,Milestones,Murder,Public Executions,USA

Tags: , , , , ,

1895: The Vegetarian perpetrators of the Kucheng Massacre

Add comment September 17th, 2012 Headsman

On the morning of September 17, 1895, in the presence of the British and American consuls, seven perpetrators of a Chinese massacre of western Christian missionaries were beheaded at Foochow.

Anticipating the better-known Boxer Rebellion by four years, the Kucheng Massacre (there are many other transliterations of “Kucheng”) was likewise a response to the Celestial Empire’s frustrating second-class status as against European interlopers.

Christian missionaries had been a point of friction in China for decades. Though their rights to proselytize had been guaranteed in a hated treaty dictated to China by force of arms, they often met resentment or worse on the ground.

“You bring incense in one hand, a spear in the other;” one evangelist reported being told: that is, however honorable the immediate intentions of many individual missionaries, their presence looked like a stalking horse for less reputable western interventions like the opium trade. (That’s how it looked to many Chinese. Professional western diplomats themselves found the impolitic preachers a hindrance to their statecraft, according to Ian Welch’s 2006 paper “Missionaries, Murder and Diplomacy in Late 19th Century China: A Case Study” (pdf).*)

On August 1, 1895, these frustrations unleashed a river of blood at the village of Huashan in Gutian County, where a Buddhist secret society — known as “Vegetarians” in the western press for their characteristic dietary vow — fell upon a group of vacationing British Anglican missionaries still abed at dawn and ruthlessly slaughtered eleven of them. (There are some 1890s books paying tribute to the fallen available online: Robert and Louisa Stewart: In Life and in Death, and The sister martyrs of Ku Cheng : Memoir and Letters of Eleanor and Elizabeth Saunders (“Nellie” and “Topsie”) of Melbourne.)

“The attack came,” said a physician from a nearby town who was summoned to the bloody scene, “like a thunderbolt from a clear sky, not one of the victims having received the slightest intimation of the intended assault.”

Word of the carnage struck western powers with similar force.

Incensed newspaper-readers literally demanded** gunboat diplomacy, and literally got it, especially when Chinese authorities drug their feet on the condign punishment the missionaries’ countrymen were clamoring for.

All this put British diplomacy on a sticky wicket, which Welch (pdf) deals with in detail. To satisfy the domestic audience, the government had to be seen to be taking a hard line on avenging the outrages; at the same time, London was wise to the Chinese state’s shakiness and wary that a “barbarous holocaust” perpetrated against the Vegetarians would trigger a mass backlash and bring the whole thing down.

An obdurate Chinese viceroy impeded the quick resolution everyone was after by making inflammatory public proclamations against Christians, and releasing without explanation six of the thirteen men who had initially been condemned to death in the month of August. The seven who were executed on this date were therefore only the vanguard of 26 humans ultimately put to death for their involvement in the atrocity.

Some of the execution photographs that follow are Mature Content. They’re obtained via Visual Cultures in East Asia; some also available at USC Digital Library.



Raids and investigations to bring the Vegetarian movement to heel continued for several months thereafter, and the whole affair ultimately was quelled without doing any of the wider damage that might have been feared — not even to missionaries who continued pouring into China.

And that, effectively, kicked the can down the road on the anti-foreigner sentiments afoot in the land … sentiments that would find much costlier expression a few years later when another secret society kicked off the Boxer Rebellion.

* I’ve relied heavily on Welch for this post. He’s also collected a massive trove (over 1,200 pages) of primary documents from this incident available in a series of pdfs (some quite large) from the Australian National University website:

** This was not universally so. The wife of missionary Stephen Livingston Baldwin, who knew some of the victims of the attack, urged a “charitable” response and sensitivity that “the Chinese feel that all the world is against them, and they are not far from right.” (New York Times, Aug. 10, 1895) In letters responding to intemperate coverage elsewhere, she acidly compared (pdf) western editorialists’ high dudgeon to their look-forward-not-back dismissal of recent stateside anti-Chinese violence.

It was ten years yesterday since more Chinese were killed, and burned alive and left to die wounded, in one hour, at Rock Springs, Wyoming (the very same Territory in which the recent massacre occurred) than have been Americans and English in China in the thirty-four years I have personally known that land, being a resident there twenty years and closely connected with it ever since. Ten years yesterday since that awful Rock Springs massacre, and up to date no one arrested, much less punished! The anti-Chinese papers of the town and neighbourhood gloating over the awful details and assuring all that there would be “no Congressional investigation,” and no waste of “enterprising newspaper eloquence” over the woes of the Chinese, “though their blood flow like rivers, as they had no votes and no friends.” In less than four weeks after the Ku-Cheng massacre, arrest, investigation and execution have all taken place for the Ku-Cheng massacre. Would that our colored, red and yellow brethren, so helpless in our so-called civilized and Christian land, had some power behind them to bestir Ministers Plenipotentiary, wave flags, and run gunboats to the front, to bully, if necessary, our pusillanimous Government into some sort of civilization — I will not say Christian justice!

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,England,Execution,God,History,Mass Executions,Mature Content,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,Terrorists

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1866: Dmitry Karakozov

Add comment September 15th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1866 (September 3 O.S.; September 15 N.S.), Russian revolutionary Dmitry Karakozov was hanged in Peter and Paul Fortress for attempting to assassinate Tsar Alexander II.

Karakozov was a son of noble stock — the self-hating variety, obviously, and suicidally disturbed into the bargain. He supposedly hailed from a terrorism cell branding itself “Hell”, although this was bandied about by the police afterwards and conveniently supported a hunt for radicals.

Karakozov, at least, considered the state of tsarist Russia positively infernal, and on April 4, 1866, he went to scourge it — firing a shot at the monarch at St. Petersburg’s Summer Garden. He missed.

The tsar’s guards tackled him as he fled, and the unharmed Alexander walked up to the gunman and asked him, “What do you want?” He may have been genuinely bewildered: Alexander was the guy trying to liberalize Russia. Just a few years before, he had freed the serfs.

“Nothing,” Karakazov replied. “Nothing.”

A statement of implacability: no progress would be bargained with even the most progressive despot. The despotism itself must go. A manifesto addressed to “Friends-Workers” was found in his pocket underscoring the point; it read in part (translated from p. 21 of this Russian pdf):

I have decided to destroy the wicked Tsar, and to die for my beloved people…

If I accomplish this deed, I will die with the thought that in death I did something good for my dear friend, the Russian peasant.

If I do not accomplish it, then others will follow my path. Where I fail, they will succeed, and my death will be their example and inspiration.

Others would follow him, and in time successfully murder Alexander II after all.

Karakozov himself, the first Russian revolutionary to attempt regicide, didn’t seem to have revolutionary satisfaction on his mind at the end. He converted to Orthodox Christianity in prison, sought “as a Christian, of a Christian” his prospective victim’s clemency … and multiple newspaper accounts report him kneeling to kiss a cross presented to him on the scaffold by the priest. (All via Odd Man Karakozov, which argues that all this need not imply such a reversal of conscience as it might appear.)

What certainly did happen — more immediately than those copycat assassinations — was a reactionary wave of national chauvinism, whose more wretched manifestations will not be unfamiliar to the present day. The patriotic Glinka opera Ivan Susanin was staged a few days later at the Bolshoi in Moscow. According to an eyewitness account of Tchaikovsky quoted in Romanov Riches: Russian Writers and Artists Under the Tsars, this salute to a Russian peasant’s sacrifice for the Romanov dynasty went a little bit off-script.

I think the Moscow audience went beyond the bounds of sense in their outburst of enthusiasm. The opera was not really performed, for as soon as the Poles appeared onstage, the whole theater shouted, “Down with the Poles!” and so on. In the last scene of Act 4, when the Poles are supposed to kill Susanin …

… the actor playing him started fighting the chorus members who played Poles, and being very strong, knocked down several of them, while the rest of the extras, seeing that the audience approved this mockery of art, truth, and decency, fell down, and the triumphant Susanin left unharmed, brandishing his arms, to the deafening applause of the Muscovites.

If true, that is little short of fantastic.

The apparatus of state went so far as to build up a new Susanin for the occasion at hand, hyping a questionable story that a young peasant named Osip Komissarov — who was from Susanin’s own province of Kostroma — had jostled Karakozov just as he took the shot, causing it to go awry. The good-natured bumpkin was rewarded with summary ennoblement as “Komissarov-Kostromskoy” and eye-rollingly terrible poetic tributes from the likes of Vyazemsky and Nekrasov. However, Komissarov’s embarrassing stupidity and want of manners would eventually necessitate Komissarov-Kostromskoy’s being packed out of polite society to country estates on a generous pension to bankroll his ample appetite for liquor.

So Dmitry Karakozov did do something for the Russian peasant after all.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Assassins,Attempted Murder,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Notable for their Victims,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Russia,Terrorists

Tags: , , , , , , ,

1812: Not Pierre Bezukhov, in War and Peace

3 comments September 8th, 2012 Headsman

On this date* in French-occupied Moscow of the War of 1812, many alleged arsonists — unnamed and unnumbered — were shot by Napoleon’s army in the ashes of Moscow.

Although real, flesh-and-blood Muscovites died, they are best known via their bespectacled fictional companion, Pierre Bezukhov, whose miraculous escape is one of the pivotal episodes of Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

Merely the greatest novel in history by some reckonings — we’ll just let Tolstoy fight it out with Dostoyevsky for top of table in the competitive 19th Century Russia literary scene — the epic War and Peace tracks that country’s transformation under the revolutionary pressures of the Napoleonic age.

In Russian director Sergey Bondarchuk’s sprawling cinematic adaptation of War and Peace, the part of Pierre Bezukhov is played by Bondarchuk himself.

Pierre Bezukhov (“without ears”) is one of the book’s central figures, the illegitimate son of a count who unexpectedly inherits, forever consumed with his next impulsive, passionate quest for meaning (boozing around, freemasonry, religion …).

Pierre finds himself present in Moscow when the Grande Armee rolls in following its Pyrrhic victory at the Battle of Borodino. His fancy of the moment is to assassinate Napoleon: “he suddenly felt that what before had seemed to him merely a possibility had now become absolutely necessary and inevitable. He must remain in Moscow, concealing his name, and must meet Napoleon and kill him, and either perish or put an end to the misery of all Europe.” And to think, a younger Pierre actually used to admire Napoleon.


Historically, the city of Moscow started burning as soon as the French occupied it. The reasons for this conflagration have been widely disputed; Tolstoy detours in War and Peace to characterize it as nothing more than the natural consequence of the occupation, when the city’s civil infrastructure has broken down and the everyday fires that spark in wooden buildings are more liable to grow out of control.

The French blamed terrorists.

A bulletin of the Grande Armee dated September 20 (Gregorian date; this corresponds to the Julian date September 8) reports on the successful efforts to bring arsonists to heel through the expedient of mass executions.

Three hundred incendiaries have been arrested and shot; they were provided with fuse six inches long, which they had between two pieces of wood: they had also squibs, which they threw upon the roofs of the houses. The wretch Rastapchin had these prepared, on the pretence that he wished to send a balloon, full of combustible matter, amidst the French army …

The fires subsided on the 19th and 20th; three quarters of the city are burned; among other palaces that beautiful one of Catherine, which had been newly furnished: not above a quarter of the houses remain. …

Manufactures were beginning to flourish at Moscow: they are destroyed. The conflagration of this capital will throw Russia one hundred years back. The weather is becoming rainy: the greatest part of the army is in barracks in Moscow.


In this paranoid occupation, the fictional Pierre, wandering Moscow armed without a good excuse, gets himself picked up by French troops.

The travail of his resulting drumhead trial offers the anti-authoritarian (and anti-death penalty) Tolstoy the opportunity to reflect on the “legal” arrangements, a passage Tolstoy dates September 8 on the Julian calendar — the same day that army bulletin above was penned.

[Pierre] learned that all these prisoners (he, probably, among them) were to be tried for incendiarism. On the third day he was taken with the others to a house where a French general with a white mustache sat with two colonels and other Frenchmen with scarves on their arms. With the precision and definiteness customary in addressing prisoners, and which is supposed to preclude human frailty, Pierre like the others was questioned as to who he was, where he had been, with what object, and so on.

These questions, like questions put at trials generally, left the essence of the matter aside, shut out the possibility of that essence’s being revealed, and were designed only to form a channel through which the judges wished the answers of the accused to flow so as to lead to the desired result, namely a conviction. As soon as Pierre began to say anything that did not fit in with that aim, the channel was removed and the water could flow to waste. Pierre felt, moreover, what the accused always feel at their trial, perplexity as to why these questions were put to him. He had a feeling that it was only out of condescension or a kind of civility that this device of placing a channel was employed. He knew he was in these men’s power, that only by force had they brought him there, that force alone gave them the right to demand answers to their questions, and that the sole object of that assembly was to inculpate him. And so, as they had the power and wish to inculpate him, this expedient of an inquiry and trial seemed unnecessary. It was evident that any answer would lead to conviction.

It’s only by Pierre’s chance ability to forge a human connection with the officer detailed to condemn him that he’s mysteriously, and arbitrarily, not sentenced to death — a fact that Pierre doesn’t even realize until he’s led out with the rest of the prisoners only to see that it’s “only” the others who are being shot. This is the narration at length from Book XII, Chapters 10-11.

On the eighth of September an officer- a very important one judging by the respect the guards showed him- entered the coach house where the prisoners were. This officer, probably someone on the staff, was holding a paper in his hand, and called over all the Russians there, naming Pierre as “the man who does not give his name.” Glancing indolently and indifferently at all the prisoners, he ordered the officer in charge to have them decently dressed and tidied up before taking them to the marshal. An hour later a squad of soldiers arrived and Pierre with thirteen others was led to the Virgin’s Field. It was a fine day, sunny after rain, and the air was unusually pure. The smoke did not hang low as on the day when Pierre had been taken from the guardhouse on the Zubovski rampart, but rose through the pure air in columns. No flames were seen, but columns of smoke rose on all sides, and all Moscow as far as Pierre could see was one vast charred ruin. On all sides there were waste spaces with only stoves and chimney stacks still standing, and here and there the blackened walls of some brick houses. Pierre gazed at the ruins and did not recognize districts he had known well. Here and there he could see churches that had not been burned. The Kremlin, which was not destroyed, gleamed white in the distance with its towers and the belfry of Ivan the Great. The domes of the New Convent of the Virgin glittered brightly and its bells were ringing particularly clearly. These bells reminded Pierre that it was Sunday and the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin. But there seemed to be no one to celebrate this holiday: everywhere were blackened ruins, and the few Russians to be seen were tattered and frightened people who tried to hide when they saw the French.

Pierre had been taken by one set of soldiers and led first to one and then to another place with dozens of other men, and it seemed that they might have forgotten him, or confused him with the others. But no: the answers he had given when questioned had come back to him in his designation as “the man who does not give his name,” and under that appellation, which to Pierre seemed terrible, they were now leading him somewhere with unhesitating assurance on their faces that he and all the other prisoners were exactly the ones they wanted and that they were being taken to the proper place. Pierre felt himself to be an insignificant chip fallen among the wheels of a machine whose action he did not understand but which was working well.

He and the other prisoners were taken to the right side of the Virgin’s Field, to a large white house with an immense garden not far from the convent. This was Prince Shcherbatov‘s house, where Pierre had often been in other days, and which, as he learned from the talk of the soldiers, was now occupied by the marshal, the Duke of Eckmuhl (Davout).

They were taken to the entrance and led into the house one by one. Pierre was the sixth to enter. He was conducted through a glass gallery, an anteroom, and a hall, which were familiar to him, into a long low study at the door of which stood an adjutant.

Davout, spectacles on nose, sat bent over a table at the further end of the room. Pierre went close up to him, but Davout, evidently consulting a paper that lay before him, did not look up. Without raising his eyes, he said in a low voice:

“Who are you?”

Pierre was silent because he was incapable of uttering a word. To him Davout was not merely a French general, but a man notorious for his cruelty. Looking at his cold face, as he sat like a stern schoolmaster who was prepared to wait awhile for an answer, Pierre felt that every instant of delay might cost him his life; but he did not know what to say. He did not venture to repeat what he had said at his first examination, yet to disclose his rank and position was dangerous and embarrassing. So he was silent. But before he had decided what to do, Davout raised his head, pushed his spectacles back on his forehead, screwed up his eyes, and looked intently at him.

“I know that man,” he said in a cold, measured tone, evidently calculated to frighten Pierre.

The chill that had been running down Pierre’s back now seized his head as in a vise.

“You cannot know me, General, I have never seen you…”

“He is a Russian spy,” Davout interrupted, addressing another general who was present, but whom Pierre had not noticed.

Davout turned away. With an unexpected reverberation in his voice Pierre rapidly began:

“No, monseigneur,” he said, suddenly remembering that Davout was a duke. “No, monseigneur, you cannot have known me. I am a militia officer and have not quitted Moscow.”

“Your name?” asked Davout.

“Bezukhov.”

“What proof have I that you are not lying?”

“Monseigneur!” exclaimed Pierre, not in an offended but in a pleading voice.

Davout looked up and gazed intently at him. For some seconds they looked at one another, and that look saved Pierre. Apart from conditions of war and law, that look established human relations between the two men. At that moment an immense number of things passed dimly through both their minds, and they realized that they were both children of humanity and were brothers.

At the first glance, when Davout had only raised his head from the papers where human affairs and lives were indicated by numbers, Pierre was merely a circumstance, and Davout could have shot him without burdening his conscience with an evil deed, but now he saw in him a human being. He reflected for a moment.

“How can you show me that you are telling the truth?” said Davout coldly.

Pierre remembered Ramballe, and named him and his regiment and the street where the house was.

“You are not what you say,” returned Davout.

In a trembling, faltering voice Pierre began adducing proofs of the truth of his statements.

But at that moment an adjutant entered and reported something to Davout.

Davout brightened up at the news the adjutant brought, and began buttoning up his uniform. It seemed that he had quite forgotten Pierre.

When the adjutant reminded him of the prisoner, he jerked his head in Pierre’s direction with a frown and ordered him to be led away. But where they were to take him Pierre did not know: back to the coach house or to the place of execution his companions had pointed out to him as they crossed the Virgin’s Field.

He turned his head and saw that the adjutant was putting another question to Davout.

“Yes, of course!” replied Davout, but what this “yes” meant, Pierre did not know.

Pierre could not afterwards remember how he went, whether it was far, or in which direction. His faculties were quite numbed, he was stupefied, and noticing nothing around him went on moving his legs as the others did till they all stopped and he stopped too. The only thought in his mind at that time was: who was it that had really sentenced him to death? Not the men on the commission that had first examined him — not one of them wished to or, evidently, could have done it. It was not Davout, who had looked at him in so human a way. In another moment Davout would have realized that he was doing wrong, but just then the adjutant had come in and interrupted him. The adjutant, also, had evidently had no evil intent though he might have refrained from coming in. Then who was executing him, killing him, depriving him of life — him, Pierre, with all his memories, aspirations, hopes, and thoughts? Who was doing this? And Pierre felt that it was no one.

It was a system — a concurrence of circumstances.

A system of some sort was killing him — Pierre — depriving him of life, of everything, annihilating him.

From Prince Shcherbatov’s house the prisoners were led straight down the Virgin’s Field, to the left of the nunnery, as far as a kitchen garden in which a post had been set up. Beyond that post a fresh pit had been dug in the ground, and near the post and the pit a large crowd stood in a semicircle. The crowd consisted of a few Russians and many of Napoleon’s soldiers who were not on duty- Germans, Italians, and Frenchmen, in a variety of uniforms. To the right and left of the post stood rows of French troops in blue uniforms with red epaulets and high boots and shakos.

The prisoners were placed in a certain order, according to the list (Pierre was sixth), and were led to the post. Several drums suddenly began to beat on both sides of them, and at that sound Pierre felt as if part of his soul had been torn away. He lost the power of thinking or understanding. He could only hear and see. And he had only one wish- that the frightful thing that had to happen should happen quickly. Pierre looked round at his fellow prisoners and scrutinized them.

The two first were convicts with shaven heads. One was tall and thin, the other dark, shaggy, and sinewy, with a flat nose. The third was a domestic serf, about forty-five years old, with grizzled hair and a plump, well-nourished body. The fourth was a peasant, a very handsome man with a broad, light-brown beard and black eyes. The fifth was a factory hand, a thin, sallow-faced lad of eighteen in a loose coat.

Pierre heard the French consulting whether to shoot them separately or two at a time. “In couples,” replied the officer in command in a calm voice. There was a stir in the ranks of the soldiers and it was evident that they were all hurrying — not as men hurry to do something they understand, but as people hurry to finish a necessary but unpleasant and incomprehensible task.

A French official wearing a scarf came up to the right of the row of prisoners and read out the sentence in Russian and in French.

Then two pairs of Frenchmen approached the criminals and at the officer’s command took the two convicts who stood first in the row. The convicts stopped when they reached the post and, while sacks were being brought, looked dumbly around as a wounded beast looks at an approaching huntsman. One crossed himself continually, the other scratched his back and made a movement of the lips resembling a smile. With hurried hands the soldiers blindfolded them, drawing the sacks over their heads, and bound them to the post.

Twelve sharpshooters with muskets stepped out of the ranks with a firm regular tread and halted eight paces from the post. Pierre turned away to avoid seeing what was going to happen. Suddenly a crackling, rolling noise was heard which seemed to him louder than the most terrific thunder, and he looked round. There was some smoke, and the Frenchmen were doing something near the pit, with pale faces and trembling hands. Two more prisoners were led up. In the same way and with similar looks, these two glanced vainly at the onlookers with only a silent appeal for protection in their eyes, evidently unable to understand or believe what was going to happen to them. They could not believe it because they alone knew what their life meant to them, and so they neither understood nor believed that it could be taken from them.

Again Pierre did not wish to look and again turned away; but again the sound as of a frightful explosion struck his ear, and at the same moment he saw smoke, blood, and the pale, scared faces of the Frenchmen who were again doing something by the post, their trembling hands impeding one another. Pierre, breathing heavily, looked around as if asking what it meant. The same question was expressed in all the looks that met his.

On the faces of all the Russians and of the French soldiers and officers without exception, he read the same dismay, horror, and conflict that were in his own heart. “But who, after all, is doing this? They are all suffering as I am. Who then is it? Who?” flashed for an instant through his mind.

“Sharpshooters of the 86th, forward!” shouted someone. The fifth prisoner, the one next to Pierre, was led away- alone. Pierre did not understand that he was saved, that he and the rest had been brought there only to witness the execution. With ever-growing horror, and no sense of joy or relief, he gazed at what was taking place. The fifth man was the factory lad in the loose cloak. The moment they laid hands on him he sprang aside in terror and clutched at Pierre. (Pierre shuddered and shook himself free.) The lad was unable to walk. They dragged him along, holding him up under the arms, and he screamed. When they got him to the post he grew quiet, as if he suddenly understood something. Whether he understood that screaming was useless or whether he thought it incredible that men should kill him, at any rate he took his stand at the post, waiting to be blindfolded like the others, and like a wounded animal looked around him with glittering eyes.

Pierre was no longer able to turn away and close his eyes. His curiosity and agitation, like that of the whole crowd, reached the highest pitch at this fifth murder. Like the others this fifth man seemed calm; he wrapped his loose cloak closer and rubbed one bare foot with the other.

When they began to blindfold him he himself adjusted the knot which hurt the back of his head; then when they propped him against the bloodstained post, he leaned back and, not being comfortable in that position, straightened himself, adjusted his feet, and leaned back again more comfortably. Pierre did not take his eyes from him and did not miss his slightest movement.

Probably a word of command was given and was followed by the reports of eight muskets; but try as he would Pierre could not afterwards remember having heard the slightest sound of the shots. He only saw how the workman suddenly sank down on the cords that held him, how blood showed itself in two places, how the ropes slackened under the weight of the hanging body, and how the workman sat down, his head hanging unnaturally and one leg bent under him. Pierre ran up to the post. No one hindered him. Pale, frightened people were doing something around the workman. The lower jaw of an old Frenchman with a thick mustache trembled as he untied the ropes. The body collapsed. The soldiers dragged it awkwardly from the post and began pushing it into the pit.

They all plainly and certainly knew that they were criminals who must hide the traces of their guilt as quickly as possible.

Pierre glanced into the pit and saw that the factory lad was lying with his knees close up to his head and one shoulder higher than the other. That shoulder rose and fell rhythmically and convulsively, but spadefuls of earth were already being thrown over the whole body. One of the soldiers, evidently suffering, shouted gruffly and angrily at Pierre to go back. But Pierre did not understand him and remained near the post, and no one drove him away.

When the pit had been filled up a command was given. Pierre was taken back to his place, and the rows of troops on both sides of the post made a half turn and went past it at a measured pace. The twenty-four sharpshooters with discharged muskets, standing in the center of the circle, ran back to their places as the companies passed by.

Pierre gazed now with dazed eyes at these sharpshooters who ran in couples out of the circle. All but one rejoined their companies. This one, a young soldier, his face deadly pale, his shako pushed back, and his musket resting on the ground, still stood near the pit at the spot from which he had fired. He swayed like a drunken man, taking some steps forward and back to save himself from falling. An old, noncommissioned officer ran out of the ranks and taking him by the elbow dragged him to his company. The crowd of Russians and Frenchmen began to disperse. They all went away silently and with drooping heads.

“That will teach them to start fires,” said one of the Frenchmen.

Pierre glanced round at the speaker and saw that it was a soldier who was trying to find some relief after what had been done, but was not able to do so. Without finishing what he had begun to say he made a hopeless movement with his arm and went away.

* It’s our practice (although we’re sure it’s been violated here and there) to utilize Gregorian dates universally after the mid-18th century, even for executions in Orthodox Christendom where the Julian calendar prevailed into the 20th century. For this post, seeing as it’s straight from the text of Tolstoy himself, in his magnum opus, channeling the soul of the Russian rodina, we’re making an exception: the 12-day-slower, local-to-Russia Julian calendar prevails … just like the Russians themselves did.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arson,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Fictional,France,History,Innocent Bystanders,Known But To God,Last Minute Reprieve,Lucky to be Alive,Mass Executions,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Pardons and Clemencies,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Russia,Shot,Summary Executions,Terrorists,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1821: Timothy Bennett, duelist

Add comment September 3rd, 2012 Headsman

From the Oct. 12, 1927 Republican Herald recapping the Land of Lincoln’s hanging history on the occasion of its trendy switch to the electric chair.

Hanging has been the legal method of execution in the state of Illinois for 106 years, the first execution in the state being held at Belleville on September 3, 1821, when Timothy Bennett paid the penalty for murder resulting in a duel in which Timothy [sic — the rest of the article refers to the victim as “Alphonso”] C. Stewart was killed.

According to the account appearing in an old history of St. Clair county, now in the state historical library, Timothy Bennett and Alphonso C. Stewart became involved in an argument while under the influence of liquor, on February 8, 1819, at Belleville. Friends interfered and sought to effect a reconciliation, but their efforts were unavail[ing]. Finally it was agreed to arrange a sham duel in the belief that the ridiculous issue would bring the two participants to their senses.

“The duel was arranged,” the account reads. “Jacob Short and Nathan Fike acted as seconds. When the word was given and the rifles discharged, it was proven the ‘sham’ duel was fought with powder and lead-at any rate Alphonso C. Stewart fell to the ground mortally wounded.

Special Session in Court

“Timothy Bennett was arrested and so were the seconds, Short and Fike. A special term of the circuit court was held March 8, 1919 [sic], under a special law of the legislature to hold said term. The officers of the court, John Reynolds, judge; John Hay, clerk, and W.A. Beard, sheriff, were all appointed by Governor Shadrack Bond.

“The grand jury found true bills of indictments for murder against Bennett and the two seconds after hearing the testimony of Reuben Anderson, James Parks, James Kincade, James Reed, Daniel Million, Ben Million, Peter Sprinkle and Michael Tannahill.

“When the case was called for trial the sheriff reported that Bennett had broken jail and was at large. Short and Fike had their trial in June 1819, and were acquited [sic].

“Bennett was captured and jailed about July 1, 1821. A special term of court was held July 26, 1821. The grand jury found a new indictment against him for the same offense

Trial Starts Immediately

“Bennett was put on trial July 27, 1821, before Judge Reynolds and a jury. The jury rendered a verdict July 28, and found the presoner [sic] guilty. He had entered a plea of not guilty.

“The court then proceeded to pass sentence upon him in the following words:

“And it being demanded of him if anything for himself he had or knew to say why the court should not proceed to pass sentence upon him, he said he had nothing more than he had before said. Therefore it was considered by the court that he be hanged by the neck until he is dead, and that the sheriff of the county do cause execution of this judgment to be done and performed on him, the said Timothy Bennett, on Monday, the third of September, next, between the hours of ten in the forenoon and four in the afternoon at or near the town of Belleville.”

“Neither Bennett nor his friends believed that this awful sentence would ever be executed. The latter made strenuous efforts to have him pardoned. Failing in this, they tried to have the sentence commuted. But the governor remained firm and against all entreaty.

“On the day appointed for his execution, Bennett was hanged near West Belleville, near the site of the Henry Raab school. The execution was witnessed by a multitude of men, women and children.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Illinois,Milestones,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Public Executions,USA

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Next Posts Previous Posts


Calendar

February 2015
M T W T F S S
« Jan    
 1
2345678
9101112131415
16171819202122
232425262728  

Archives

Categories

Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!


Recently Commented

  • souqui jay: He’s a legend in Nigeria Terrorist...
  • Diana: Kevin, I’m curious, why was Mike Fisher...
  • Left Overs: This case has many elements in it that draw...
  • Fiz: He was 14 and locked in a room where a confession...
  • Gloria: HE ADMITTED IT !!!! And nothing in this story...