Posts filed under '19th Century'

1897: Lovett Brookins, thanks to bad women

1 comment April 16th, 2014 Robert Elder

(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. This post originally appeared on the Last Words blog. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)

Bad women are the cause of my being in this position…with all due respect to women, I must say they have brought me to ruin … I implore you all to abstain from evil habits. Especially beware of bad women.”

— Lovett Brookins, convicted of murder, hanging, Georgia.
Executed April 16, 1897

Brookins, a teacher, met the gallows smoking cigarettes. Before the drop, he prayed and sang. The high-ranking Freemason received the death penalty for murdering his mistress, Leila McCrary, and a man named Sanders Oliphant.

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1859: The martyrs of Tacubaya

Add comment April 11th, 2014 Headsman

On this date, the conservative Mexican Gen. Leonardo Marquez earned himself the nickname “Tiger of Tacubaya” for the mass execution of liberal prisoners after a battle in Mexico’s Reform War.

The “reform” warred-over is actually the label for a whole era of liberal modernization with all the usual stuff to enrage a conservative old guard: land reform, a liberal constitution, and a rollback in the prerogatives of the clergy and the military.

It was rather sucessful.

The liberals successfully deposed General Santa Anna* and set about implementing this stuff. You, clever reader, have already surmised from the existence of a “Reform War” that they did not do so without resistance.

In the late 1850s, Mexico actually sported two rival presidents — Benito Juarez, under the liberals’ 1857 constitution, and Gen. Miguel Miramon, under a rebellious military junta that rejected this constitution.

One of the conservatives’ top commanders was Leonardo Marquez, our Tiger of Tacubaya: so called because at that ancient village, today engulfed in the sprawl of Mexico City, Marquez defeated a liberal army in a bloody fight.

Beginning that very night, Marquez had all his prisoners executed,** not excepting the wounded, foreign nationals, medical personnel, and even civilians sympathetic to the losing side. U.S. President James Buchanan denounced this affair to Congress in 1859 as evidence of the “wretched state” of Mexico that, he said, demanded American intervention.†

To cap the climax, after the battle of Tacubaya, in April, 1859, General Marquez ordered three citizens of the United States, two of them physicians, to be seized in the hospital at that place, taken out and shot, without crime, and without trial. This was done, notwithstanding our unfortunate countrymen were at the moment engaged in the holy cause of affording relief to the soldiers of both parties who had been wounded in the battle, without making any distinction between them.

Congress demurred on warmongering, but this act of wanton cruelty towards the so-called Martires de Tacubaya helped to turn Mexicans against the conservatives. The liberals had won the Reform War by the first days of 1861 — just in time to brace for that year’s ill-fated French intervention.

* Of Alamo fame, for yanquis; Santa Anna’s loss of Texas to the United States did no favors for his political position back home.

** One notable victim: writer Juan Díaz Covarrubias.

Marquez said he was ordered to carry out the summary executions by Miramon, but Marquez also had a reputation for ruthlessness apart from the incident at hand. Miramon got his a few years later when he was shot by the victorious constitutionalists alongside Emperor Maximilian, a later French-backed interloper not yet on the scene in 1859.

† Buchanan also cited the hanging of Ormond Chase in this same speech.

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1813: Albrecht Ludwig von Berger and Christian Daniel von Finckh, Oldenburgers

Add comment April 10th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1813, the Napoleonic forces occupying Oldenburg, Germany shot Albrecht Ludwig von Berger and Christian Daniel von Finckh as rebels.

The Duchy of Oldenburg in northwest Germany could date its history back to the 12th century — but the end of its run was Napoleon’s takeover in 1810. This action helped break up France’s tenuous arrangement with Russia and lead to continental war, because the tsar’s sister was married to the Duke of Oldenburg. Russia had gone so far as to write Oldenburg’s sovereignty into its treaty with Napoleon.

The ultimate knock-on effects included France’s disastrous invasion of Russia and the collapse of Napoleon’s army.

As we meet Oldenburg in 1813, the French are headed the other way, harried by a vast European coalition. While the overall arc of this war bends towards French retreat, the situation at any given time and place was unpredictable, and Napoleon often gave better than he got.

Such uncertain circumstances offer martyrdom to the unlikeliest of characters. Berger and Finckh were just bureaucratic types, respectable figures in their own day whose peers’ bones presently molder unattended in the forlorn appendices of especially thorough genealogists.

But at a momentary nadir of French authority in Oldenburg in March 1813, local risings and the threat of Russian cavalry temporarily put the French administration to flight — leaving in its place a temporary administrative commission to which both Berger and Finckh belonged.

Had Oldenburg immediately fallen to the Sixth Coalition, that item would be a footnote to a treatise on governance in the duchy. Instead, the French regained authority and decided that our two principals were a little too subversively enthusiastic about running Oldenburg sans France. The notoriously hard-hearted commander Dominique Vandamme had them condemned at a court-martial on April 9, and the sentence put to execution the very next day. (The other commissioners got off with prison sentences.)

Little more than a year later, the two were posthumously rehabilitated by the restored dynasty of the post-French Grand Duchy of Oldenburg. Though minor figures in the scheme of things, every martyr pays the same coin; accordingly, the patriotic German might wish to spare a moment for the memorial to them in Oldenburg’s historic Gertrudenfriedhof cemetery.


Memorial to Berger and Finckh at Gertrudenfriedhof in Oldenburg, Germany. (cc) image from Corradox.

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1812: Jose Antonio Aponte, Cuban revolutionary

Add comment April 9th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1812, the great Cuban revolutionary leader “Black” Jose Aponte was executed with eight comrades.

Like South Carolina’s Denmark Vesey, Aponte led a slave revolt but was not actually a slave himself. Instead, he was a free black woodworker, and a respected captain in Cuba’s black militia.

Aponte led a bold island-wide conspiracy of slaves and free blacks who aimed at liberating themselves by revolution.

A few hours’ sail off Cuba’s eastern coast lay Haiti, whose slaves had done just that only a few years before to the greater hope or terror — depending on which end of the lash one had — of slave societies all around the region.*

So it was with Aponte.

There is some debate over the degree to which Aponte personally can be said to have led or coordinated the various planned (and in some cases, actual) rebellions around Cuba. He was certainly a leader of such a plot in the capital city and viewed by Spanish authorities as a figure of significance across the island, and so the whole movement has become known as the Aponte Conspiracy or Aponte Rebellions.

By any name they were an impressive undertaking, and the widespread collaboration of free black militiamen must have chilled the blood of plantation owners who banked on these forces to maintain order in Cuba. Five of those hanged with Aponte were, like him, freemen.

Sadly lost to history is a book of of Aponte’s drawings which are known only by the descriptions of interrogators who were alarmed by its depictions of, among other things, black armies defeating white ones** … and maps of the military fortifications around Havana.

This book and the movement it supported were betrayed to the Spanish with the familiar consequences. Aponte and his comrades hanged outside Havana’s Catillo San Salvador de la Punta on the morning of April 9, 1812. Then their heads were posthumously hewed off for public display around the city.

* Hilario Herrera, a principal organizer of the conspiracy in Oriente, was himself a veteran of the revolution on Saint-Domingue.

** Some of the subversive drawings depicted Aponte’s grandfather, Captain Joaquin Aponte, fighting the 1762 English invasion of Havana.

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1884: Henry Rose

Add comment April 4th, 2014 Headsman

Special dispatch to the St. Louis Globe-Democrat (April 5, 1884), which perhaps accounts for the outsized interest in the provenance of the rope.

MEMPHIS, TENN., April 4. — Henry Rose was hanged to-day at noon at Osceola, the county seat of Mississippi County, Ark., for the killing of Dempsey Tyler, a well-to-do negro who resided near Osceola. The preparations for the hanging were made by Sheriff W. Huskins some two weeks ago. The scaffold was newly built, as it was the first execution there for several years. The rope used was made at St. Louis of hempen material, and was 18 feet long and three-fourths of an inch in diameter. In ordering the rope Sheriff Haskins said he wished it to be good and strong, as the culprit weighed 200 pounds. A large crowd of negroes witnessed the execution. Rose, who is a negro, made a full confession of his guilt, and in a rambling speech on the scaffold told his listeners to be warned by his fate. His neck was broken by the fall.

THE CRIME.

The murder was a cold-blooded affair, as Taylor was killed while seated at his fireside one dark and stormy night, a load of buckshot being fired into the back of his head through a window only a few feet distant with fatal effect. The murderer escaped for the time being, but he left tracks which led to his discovery, arrest and conviction. He had gone to Taylor’s house in his stocking feet, and Sheriff Haskins, suspecting him of being the guilty party, inquired of a little girl at his residence for the stockings Rose wore on the night of the killing. The girl in reply to the Sheriff said, “Dey am under de bed, hid.” The tell-tale objects were found, and they led to further developments, which fixed the deed where it properly belonged. The man killed was popular with his race, but was regarded as an impudent and overbearing person by his white neighbors. It was for some slight or fancied wrong that Rose sought to revenge himself by slaying Taylor in the manner he did.

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1880: James Madison Wyatt Stone, landing on his feet

2 comments April 2nd, 2014 Headsman

The wonderful blog Ghosts of D.C. calls our attention (via SanhoTree) to a fabulously gruesome botched hanging in the nation’s capital on this day in 1880.

Stone was condemned for a brutal double-throat-slashing attack on his estranged wife, Alberta, and her sister, Lavinia Pitcher. Those two women lived together in Northwest D.C. along with Alberta’s two children by Stone; they had already had to shoo away the husband on previous occasions.

On Oct. 5, 1878, Stone forced his way into their residence and attacked Lavinia — she just happened to be in the sitting room when Stone burst the door. Pursuing her into the yard, Stone slashed her throat with a razor. Alberta came rushing down the stair to her shrieking sister’s aid, and Stone turned on her and delivered a similar injury. Alberta died the next morning; Lavinia survived.

Stone was chased down by neighbors who had been roused by the very noisy assault, which citizen captors then fended off attempts to exact summary justice until police arrived to take Stone into custody.

So that’s the crime. But get a load of the punishment.

Stone was hanged in a prison courtyard from a gallows 20 feet high, with just a five-foot drop of the rope. The details are important here because you might think from the story that follows that he was dropped almost all the way to the ground: the violence of the noose striking tends to cause a hanged body to oscillate. “He’s only got to be an inch or two off-centre and he’ll swing like a bloody pendulum when he’s dropped,” the executioner Syd Dernley remembered being told during his 20th century training program.

You can see pretty easily why that’s pertinent from the Washington Post‘s account of what happened when the trap was dropped.

Instead of the dangling and possible convulsed form of the dying man being as expected, all were horrified at seeing the body standing for a moment headless on the ground, the blood spurting in thin jets from the neck. Before anyone had time to realize what had occurred the decapitated trunk fell back, prone. The head had shot backwards also and bounded against the frame of the scaffold, falling about four or five feet from the body, the bleeding base being uppermost.

Falling 20 feet to land arrow-straight upright while your black-bagged was torn off by a rope must be something like tossing a coin and having it come up … sides.

Physicians coolly retrieved the head from its bloodied sack, and found Stone’s visage “placid, and the lips moved as if about to say something.” (New York Times) It was sewed back to the murderer’s formerly blood-jetting neck for burial.

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1875: John Morgan, slasher

Add comment March 30th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1875, a private named John Morgan was hanged for murdering his fellow.

The London Times reported the trial (March 12, 1875: Morgan did not outlive his victim by so much as a month) thus:

THE SHORNCLIFFE MURDER

Home Circuit.
Maidstone, March 11.
Crown Court.– (Before Mr. Justice Denman.)

The Court was occupied all day with a trial for murder — a case of a very remarkable character.

John Morgan, a private in the 82d Regiment, was indicted for the murder of Joseph Foulstone, another private in the same regiment, at Shorncliffe, on Saturday last.

Mr. Biron and Mr. Denny were for the prosecution; Mr. Norman, at the desire of the learned Judge, defended the prisoner, and was assisted by Mr. Grubb.

The prisoner Morgan and Foulstone, the deceased, were quartered at Shorncliffe. The prisoner and Foulstone occupied the same “hut,” No. 26. At 9 o’clock on the night of last Saturday they were in the same room together, with two boys and a man named Reader, who was fast asleep, sleeping off the effects of drunkenness. Just after 9 the prisoner asked one of the boys to go and get him some sweets, giving him a shilling for the purpose, and when he was gone told the other boy to go and get him some sauce. When they left the hug Foulstone was reading near a bed (not the one on which Reader was sleeping, but another one). Almost immediately afterwards a man named Brown, in the next hut, was horrified at seeing Foulstone, the deceased, coming staggering towards him, holding his throat with both hands and the blood gushing from it rapidly. He motioned for writing materials and wrote something not in evidence. [n.b. — he wrote “Morgan done it” -ed.] The attempts to stop the flow of blood from his throat were vain, and in a minute or two he dropped his head and died. The prisoner was found in his hut, standing over a can of water, evidently in the act of washing. There were marks of blood on his shirt, and one of his sleeves was wet as if recently washed. There were also drops of blood on his coat and trousers and boots. When brought into the presence of the dying man the latter motioned with his hands towards him. The prisoner said, “I did not do it; he did it himself,” and that was the defence set up. The evidence of the surgeon, however, went to show that the wound was such as the deceased could not have inflicted himself. There was a clean fresh cut on the prisoner’s thumb, and there were cuts both on the left and right hand of the deceased. A razor covered with blood was found in the hut, and was evidently the weapon with which the wound was inflicted.

The suicide story seemed so far-fetched that the jury had little difficulty reaching its verdict. In time, Morgan did confess to the crime; according to the London Times of March 31, 1875 he admitted the motive for it only to his chaplain and under a strict seal of confidentiality — an unusual stricture that can’t but put one in the mind of a scandalous subtext like the love that dare not speak its name.


Since consummate professional hangman William Marwood was busy long-dropping Morgan at Maidstone Gaol, a yokel named George Incher had to be recruited to carry out a simultaneous execution at Stafford Gaol. Twenty-three-year-old John Stanton had murdered his uncle in a quarrel earlier that month, and spent his last weeks pleading contrition for this family tragedy to anyone who would listen; this non-Marwood hanging used the old “short drop”, which meant that Morgan just strangled to death.

Part of the Daily Double: Victorian Soldiery.

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1875: Richard Coates, gunner and rapist

Add comment March 29th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1875, artilleryman Richard Coates (or “Coote”) was hanged for murder.

He’d been detailed as a schoolteacher for the Purfleet garrison. One day deep into his cups, he raped a 6-year-old* girl. And then killed her by bashing her head into a privy.

The “Purfleet Murder” got all kinds of copy on the Victorian crime wire, for the crime was very simple and simply horrendous. After he had done with his victim, Coates tucked her broken body under his greatcoat like a shoplifter and smuggled her down to the river to dispose of.

Adding humiliation to the greater sins of the day, he was unable there to get the body up over the palings, so he abandoned it inside the fence. Presumably no veteran hand at homicide, Coates appeared palpably agitated to basically everyone else who saw him that day, and his clothes turned up bloodstained. He was an easy suspect to collar.


To the tune of Civil War hymn “Just Before the Battle, Mother” by George F. Root.

Richard Coates, that cruel murderer,
Now is cold within his grave,
None could show him any pity,
None stretch for a hand to save;
His horrid crime was so unmanly,
I’m sure we no excuse could give,
He did disgrace our gallant soldiers,
And he was not fit to live.


CHORUS

Richard Coates, the Purfleet murderer,
On Easter Monday met his doom;
He killed the soldier’s little daughter,
Now he’s dead and in his tomb.

For the murder of poor Alice Bougham
He justly was condemned to die,
For a murder so outrageous,
The country for his death did cry;
You never heard or ever read of
Such treatment to a little child,
Altho’ so innocent and so loving,
Cruelly murdered and defiled.

A full confession of the murder
To the champlain he has made,
He has told the truth to those around him,
For which his poor old mother prayed;
He took his victim to the closet,
Frightful was his conduct there,
He took her life in a cruel manner,
Before his death he did declare.

He tried to throw his victim’s body
Over the pailings in the sea,
The fence was high, he could not do it,
It was ordained it should not be;
Could he have thrown her in the water,
And the tide have carried her away,
The murder of the soldier’s daughter
Would not have been found out to-day.

He might have done well in the army,
In the barracks he was born,
Alas! he has disgraced his father,
Who the uniform has worn;
Heaven help his poor old mother,
She has been a true good soldier’s wife,
She would sooner have seen him shot in action,
Than in such a way to lose his life.

Then let us all now take a warning
By his sad and fearful end,
Don’t give way to unholy passion,
Nor against the laws offend;
Try to be honest and be sober,
I’m sure you’ll find it is the best,
In the world let’s do our duty,
As we hope in heaven to rest.


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This one is set to “Driven From Home” by William Shakespeare Hays.

Upon Easter Monday within Chelmsford gaol,
A murderer, when dying, his crime doth bewail,
Upon the dark scaffold he drew his last breath,
The penalty of murder he paid with his death;
Richard Coates was his name, by Sata beguiled,
He outraged so cruel a dear little child,
And all through the country it has been the cry,
His sentence was just, he deserved to die.


CHORUS

Gone from this life, gone from this world,
By the hands of the hangman to Eternity hurled,
May heaven forgive him, is all we can say,
As we hope for forgiveness on our dying day.

There never was known such a cowardly crime,
That we are relating at this present time;
It is dreadful to think there could be a man,
Who in his senses this murder could plan.
He pleaded “not guilty” almost to the last,
Till he saw all the chance of forgiveness was past;
His poor moter begg’d him the truth to unfold,
And confess to his crime for the sake of his soul.

He took the poor child to the coset, he said,
Innocent and smiling to her death she was led.
He murdered her there at the bottom of the field,
And beneath his great coat her dead body conceal’d,
He went to the edge of the wide rolling sea,
To throw the child in but it was not to be,
Tho’ time after time the villain did try,
He could not reach over the pailings so high.

When he found that his crime he could not conceal,
He left the child’s body ‘neath the grass in the field,
Where the dear little angel soon after was found,
By those who so long had been searching around.
They seized him and ask’d him the crime to explain,
He cried “I’m not guilty” again and again;
They could not believe him in spite of denial,
They sent him to saol to wait for his trial.

As he walked from the cell through the sweet morning air,
At the end of the prison the gallows was there;
‘Twas the last time he’d gaze on that beatiful sky,
As he walked to the spot where he knew he must die.
The hangman was ready, deep sounded the bell,
‘Twas scarcely a moment before the drop fell!
The murderer, Coates, from the world was torn,
His body was there, but his dear life was gone.

May his fate be a warning to both old and young,
May it be an example to everyone,
From the straight path of duty never to stray,
Or we shall regret it on our dying day.
The murderer now is gone from this world,
By his own folly to destruction is hurled,
Then pray let us all to this warning attend,
And may heaven preserve us from his fearful den.


According to Flat Earth: History of an Infamous Idea, Coates’s condemnation was immediately followed — in the same courtroom, before the same judge — by the tragicomc libel trial of nutbar flat-earther John Hampden for his ongoing campaign to savage the reputation of Alfred Russel Wallace.**

The bombastic Hampden — who denounced “that Satanic device of a round and revolving globe, which sets Scripture, reason, and facts at defiance” and actually wrote Wallace’s wife wishing that her hubbie would have “every bone in his head smashed to a pulp” — would have been right at home with the Coates ballad that vengefully prayed,

While the spotless soul of little Alice,
Is taken to a better land
May perdition light upon the monster,
Who has disgraced the name of man.

* Reports of age differ, but Alice Boughen was definitely a prepubescent youngster well under the age of 10.

** Wallace is the guy whose collegial letters to Darwin mooting Wallace’s own ideas about natural selection led the previously reticent Darwin to rush into publication with On the Origin of Species.

Part of the Daily Double: Victorian Soldiery.

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1878: The Brassell boys

Add comment March 27th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1878, Joe and Teek* Brassell were hanged in Cookeville, Tennessee.

These brothers (their eldest sibling Jim Brassell wisely bowed out of the scheme) and two other buddies got into the whiskey moonshine from the Brassells’ own home still, and decided to knock over a nearby lodging where two guests thought to be heavy with cash were staying.

So the quartet blacked up faces and turned clothes inside out by way of disguise and around midnight tromped up to the Allison Stand Inn wielding pistols.

“Don’t worry!” Russell Allison called to his guests, recognizing his onetime schoolmates. “It’s the Brassell boys!”

Great disguise.

Nothing daunted by their identities outed, the moonshine party invaded the log residence. A bedroom melee ensued, and in the course of it Teek Russell shot Russell Allison fatally in the gut; another shot only narrowly missed Mrs. Isbell, the wife of the tax collector W.J. Isbell whom the party was trying to target in the first place.** Isbell wasn’t there at all, and the whole band fled the house not a penny richer, but about to be wanted men.

The next day as Allison lay expiring from his painful wound, the Allison family rounded up its own posse and descended on the Brassell residence. Again, Teek gut-shot an Allison — Russell’s brother Joe — and killed him, too. But the rest of the posse detained the desperados and they were soon hailed to Cookeville Jail. The murder became extremely notorious in the area and the Brassells boys were easily condemned, albeit after nearly two years’ worth of legal continuances.†

We’ve liberally included these youths in our arsenic themed set. Of course, these young men worked their mayhem with firearms and not philters, but in a sense their case underscores the ubiquity of that poison for 19th century crime. Desperate to escape, even the brutally direct Brassell boys turned like dissatisfied housewives and furtive insurance adjusters to inheritance powder: in their case, they managed to have some smuggled to them in jail, which they planned to insinuate into some apples they would share with their guards while being moved between Nashville and Cookville.

As it transpired, the guards caught wind of this scheme and foiled it, along with several other jailbreak attempts. But that was the great thing about that innocuous dust: everywhere someone would profit from some other fellow dropping unexpectedly dead, the first thought was invariably arsenic!

Frustrated of this and all other exits from their grim condition, the Brassell boys at last had to face the hemp. It would be the only judicial hanging in the history of Putnam County, Tennessee, and it would not want for ceremony. The execution itself occurred on a Wednesday; on the Sabbath preceding, the local Sunday school’s curriculum included (pdf) a visit to the condemned cells, where prisoners and children sang “Let us cross over the river”.

On hanging-day itself, the boys were up early for press interviews in the jailhouse. Shortly after 11 a.m., they piled into a wagon, grabbed seats on their own coffins, and were taken under guard to the double gallows specially built for them on Billy Goat Hill. Their sister Amanda trailed the wagon, but after a farewell hug she complied with Joe and Teek’s request to leave without seeing them hang.

Amanda had plenty of time to comply. The hanging wasn’t until 1:30!

The Brassells passed their last two hours or so of life on the scaffold. As they sat under their hanging-nooses, a crowd of thousands — some estimates put it as high as 20,000; old folks in the early 20th century would still say that it was the largest crowd Cookeville had ever seen — imbibed a series of preachers and religious songs, the warnings of the condemned duo themselves, and a scene where their intended target Mr. Isbell climbed up on the platform himself and pressed the two for a confession. Joe admitted his guilt. Teek refused until the very end to do so.‡ To cap off the drama, the sheriff, hatchet in hand to chop the fatal rope, counted down the last five minutes.

It seems this whole event, from the murder to the hanging, still survives in Cookeville folklore. There’s a lengthy ballad about the Brassell boys’ crime and execution, available here (pdf). Also see this fantastically detailed web page about the crime, including a blurry restored photograph of the hanging, and this pdf roundup.

A fragment of the Brassell boys’ joint headstone can still be seen at a family plot adjacent to Upperman High School in the small town of Baxter, just outside Cookeville.

* Teek had “George Andrew” on his birth certificate.

** William Jefferson Isbell was a tax collector carrying his proceeds; he had fallen ill that day and had to stop elsewhere. The Isbells and Allisons were related through marriage.

† “Justice, when most severe to him who has offended, is always most mercifully to him who would offend,” the Supreme Court most severely ruled — admonishing the young men not to entertain any hope of reprieve. (Quoted in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, March 28, 1878)

‡ Teek’s obstinacy on claiming innocence when the evidence against him seemed to overwhelming led to some later speculation that he might have semi-willingly taken the rap for a different Brassell — maybe Jim, the one who supposedly bowed out of the raid, or maybe even Amanda.

Part of the Themed Set: Arsenic.

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1851: Sarah Chesham, poisoner

Add comment March 25th, 2014 Headsman

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

On this date in 1851, 41-year-old Sarah Chesham was hanged before a crowd of six to seven thousand people in Chelmsford, England. She’d been convicted of a single count of attempted murder, but the evidence indicates, and the public certainly believed, that she was responsible for several deaths and had perhaps even taught her deadly craft to other women.

Sarah lived in the village of Clavering in Essex. In January 1845, two of her six children died suddenly, one after the other, and were buried in a single coffin. Their deaths were written off as cholera, a common and deadly disease in those times. Yet, according to later accounts, just about everyone in Clavering knew the boys had been murdered.

In fact, Sarah’s reputation as a poisoner had been well known long before her sons’ untimely deaths.

In spite of the rumors, no action was taken until later that year — when Sarah was arrested on the charge of poisoning a friend’s illegitimate baby, a boy named Solomon Taylor. Solomon had been born healthy and thrived for the first few months of his life, but in late June 1845 he became sick, rapidly wasted away and died. His mother accused Sarah of murder.

Suspicious, the authorities exhumed the bodies of ten-year-old Joseph and eight-year-old James Chesham.

The boys’ corpses turned out to be saturated with arsenic.

James C. Whorton, in his book The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain was Poisoned at Home, Work and Play, describes what happened next:

An inquest quickly led to Chesham being indicted for murder, and she was brought to trial in the spring of 1847. The evidence against her seemed conclusive: her sons had arsenic in their bodies, police had found “an assortment of poisons” in her house, and during the trial there were clear attempts to coerce witnesses not to testify against her. Sarah Chesham was nevertheless acquitted of all charges.

The jury’s foreman for Joseph’s case explained, “We have no doubt of the child having been poisoned, but we do not see any proof who administered it.” After all, no one had actually seen Sarah giving arsenic to her sons.

After her trials for the murders of James and Joseph Chesham, Sarah was tried for Solomon Taylor’s murder. Again she was acquitted; there was no evidence of poison in the infant’s body. Whorton records,

The verdict struck most observers as outrageous, but even if it was correct, something very disturbing was going on. The woman’s neighbors had believed her to be spreading poison for years, yet had uttered not a word to authorities. “What is to be said,” a newspaper asked, “of a district where cold-blooded murder meets with all the popular favor which is shown to smuggling in Sussex?”

One can’t help but think of the many incidents in modern times when “everyone knew” about the child abuse going on in some local household, but nobody bothered to report it until after a tragedy occurred.

Chesham was released from custody, went home and resumed her life. Then, in 1849, her husband died. He had much the same symptoms his dead sons had, but suffered a great deal longer: it took months for him to die.

During his illness, the solicitous Sarah was constantly by his side. She gave him milk thickened with rice or flour and wouldn’t let anyone else feed him anything.

After Richard Chesham’s death, authorities seized a sack of rice from Sarah’s kitchen. It was contaminated with sixteen grains of arsenic. (Two or three grains can kill a healthy adult.) Richard had arsenic in his body as well, but only in traces.

Although her latest alleged victim had died, Sarah was charged only with attempted murder: Richard suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis and it was unclear whether it was the arsenic or the lung disease that caused him to die. (It’s theorized that Sarah, having learned something from her earlier trials, had poisoned her husband slowly in small doses rather than in one dose all at once, as she allegedly did with her children.)

The punishment was the same either way: death. Sarah would be the last woman in Britain to be hanged for attempted murder.

Sarah Chesham may have wanted to rid herself of an inconvenient husband, perhaps reasoning that he would die of consumption anyway so she might as well speed him along. In some other fatal poisonings in Essex during that time period, however, it appears the motive was the deceased’s burial club money.

Club Dead

Many of England’s poor and working-class subscribed to burial clubs for themselves and their families. These were a form of life insurance and meant to provide money for the funeral if a member died, thus sparing the person from a pauper’s grave or worse, the anatomist’s dissecting table.

Some people, however, subscribed for different reasons, as Whorton noted:

Yet there were, inevitably, some subscribers who were not at all averse to a child or spouse receiving a pauper’s send-off, and if sufficient economies were adopted in their disposal, there would be enough money left over to make murder worthwhile … If done right, profits were not inconsiderable. First of all, club dues were affordable for virtually anyone … Second, benefits were relatively generous. Manchester clubs, for example, paid out £3 as a rule, but some paid £4 or even £5; a basic funeral for a child could be financed for only £1 or £2.

Provided they came up with the money for subscription fees, there was nothing stopping people from joining multiple burial clubs at the same time and getting a big fat payout upon their relative’s untimely death. Wharton mentions one child from Manchester who belonged to nineteen burial clubs at once.

Poisoner Mary May, who was convicted of killing her half-brother and hanged in 1849, had subscribed to multiple burial clubs without her victim’s knowledge. After she poisoned him she got £10 in all. Some people got double or triple that sum. And this at a time when an unskilled laborer could expect to earn only about £27 annually.

Cases like Sarah Chesham’s and Mary May’s set off a moral panic about poisonings in the 1840s and 1850s. As the London Medical Gazette noted, twopence could buy enough arsenic to kill one hundred people.

The press had everyone convinced that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people were poisoning others for profit. Newspapers devoted a great deal of space to poisoning trials and speculated that these cases were only a few of a “multitude” of murders that went unpunished — and that this multitude was growing. Jill Ainsley wrote about this at length and says,

According to the press, the bodies subjected to forensic examination represented the tip of the iceberg of poisoned corpses. Poison narratives routinely assumed that poisoners were caught only once their lethal practice was well established. Once a particular individual was suspected in one death, their pool of alleged victims automatically expanded to include anyone else they had contact with who subsequently died. The implications of references to large families “all of whom were dead” were clear to regular readers of crime reports.

Women in particular were liable to suspicion.

In fact, the papers alleged that in Essex there was a “secret society” of female poisoners who conspired together to murder people with arsenic, and that the general public was aware of the situation and accepted it. There is no actual evidence that such a conspiracy existed, never mind that it was condoned by the locals.

It is true that the number of prosecutions in poisoning cases rose during this time period, but that was probably because of the application of the Marsh test, invented in 1836 by chemist James Marsh.

The Marsh test was the first reliable test for arsenic in the human body and it was extremely sensitive. Before that, just about the only way to figure out if something was poisoned was to give some of the suspect substance to a dog and see if it died.

Arsenic during the nineteenth century was cheap, plentiful and used in a myriad of things, from wallpaper coloring to makeup to sheep dip. In small amounts it made a good rat poison, and that’s usually what it was used for.

Since it came in the form of a grainy white powder that could easily be mistaken for flour, salt or sugar, a lot of people got poisoned — not all of them intentionally, either.

There were not a few suicides and many, many accidents. Ainsley, who studied the Essex poisonings at length, believes it’s entirely on the cards that the arsenic that killed James and Joseph Chesham got into their systems accidentally.

It was partly due to the notoriety of Sarah Chesham’s crimes that the British parliament passed the Sale of Arsenic Regulation Bill in 1851. The law required arsenic sellers to record the name of each buyer and to sell it only to people they knew personally. It also required arsenic to by dyed some other color so people would no longer mistake it for food.

Getting back to Sarah: after her execution, her family was permitted to claim her body for burial in the local churchyard. But before the internment could take place, the body was stolen, probably for dissection, by a person or persons unknown. It was never recovered.

Part of the Themed Set: Arsenic.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Other Voices,Public Executions,Women

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