Posts filed under '19th Century'

1899: Bailer Decker, Theodore Roosevelt’s first

Add comment January 9th, 2016 Headsman

This report of the New York Times, Jan. 10, 1899, concerns the forgettable murderer whose electrocution was approved on his first day in office by New York’s new governor — Theodore Roosevelt, soon to become President of the United States.

SING SING, N.Y., Jan. 9 — Bailer Decker, the negro wife murderer of Tottenville, Staten Island, died to-day in the electric chair in Sing Sing Prison. The curren was twice turned on, each time with a voltage of 1,780. He was pronounced dead five minutes after the first shock.

Decker met death without flinching. Just before he started from his cell to the execution room he requested of Warden Sage that the other four murderers in the condemned cells be permitted to sing “Comrades.” The Warden granted the request, and Decker joined in the singing with a clear tenor voice.

The witnesses to the execution included H.F. Bridges, Warden of the Massachusetts State Prison, at Charlestown. That State, it is said, is likely to adopt the electric chair. Mr. Bridges expressed himself as pleased with the method of the execution.*

The crime for which Decker was executed was the murder of his wife, a white woman, on May 25 last. Decker was an oysterman, but spent much of his time in saloons. He was jealous, and shot the woman while in a drunken rage. He then fired a bullet into his own abdomen with suicidal intent.

* Indeed, Massachusetts did adopt the electric chair in 1900: it would eventually use this device to kill Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,Murder,New York,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1859: William Burgess

Add comment January 7th, 2016 Meaghan

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

An unusual handbill was distributed in the areas of North Somerset and North Devon in the late summer of 1858, about a somewhat peculiar criminal case: a child had been murdered, and a suspect arrested, but authorities had yet to find a body.

The handbills read,

£10 REWARD — Whereas I have received information which leads me to suppose a Girl of six years of age, named Hannah Burgess, has been murdered and her body concealed either on Exmoor Forest or in the vicinity of Porlock, I am therefore authorised to offer a Reward of Ten Pounds to any Person who shall discover the said Body. Should the Body be found, the person finding it is requested not to move it or remove anything on it, but immediately to communicate the circumstances to the nearest Police Constable, or to Mr. Superintendent Jeffs at Exford. The above stated Reward will be paid by Valentine Good, Esquire, Chief Constable, to any person who may become entitled to it under the conditions of this notice.

CRESANT JEFFS, Superintendent
Exford, August 24, 1858

The dry legalese of those notices had a tragic story behind it, involving “a man of weak character” with “dissolute habits,” and a little girl, his own daughter. William Burgess was hanged for her murder on this date in 1859.

William Burgess was a widower with several children and, like most men in that time and place, he was poor and made his living doing hard physical labor in the mines and farms. Unlike most men, however, he was not too proud to beg, going around to wealthier people’s homes and asking them to put up a collection for him and his motherless offspring. At one point the locals did raise a sum of money on behalf of the Burgess family, but the father spent it all on a drinking binge and people were far less sympathetic to him after that.

By the summer of 1858, William had placed all of his older children “in service,” working for landowners as domestics or farmhands. Only the youngest, Hannah Maria, remained with him; at six, she was too young to go to work. At first he asked his sister and brother­-in­-law in Porlock to take her in, but that arrangement fell through and William arranged for Hannah to be fostered by a local couple for two shillings a week.

Then, in June, he removed Hannah from her foster home and they both moved into a lodging house, Gallon House Cottage, run by Sarah Marley in the village of Simonsbath on Exmoor. William paid half a crown a week in rent for his bed, which he shared with Hannah and another lodger. For an extra two shillings and sixpence, Mrs. Marley looked after the child, fed her and did her laundry.

At the time, William had a steady job at the local iron mine and was paid two shillings a day, so Hannah’s care ate up a significant, but not unaffordable, part of his income.

In his book No Justice for the Poor: Four True Tales of Death and Mystery of West Country Pauper Children (from which most of the information in this account is drawn), Harry Clement writes,

Hannah’s father is described a placid man except when he was in drink, which apparently happened quite often. From comments that he made, it was obvious that he begrudged paying Sarah Marley the half­a­crown each week, probably desiring instead to spend it on drink … It was also claimed that he did not appear to have any love for the child, no doubt this was assumed because of his attitude towards the child, although the reports do not clarify why this was thought.

Only three weeks after Hannah was placed in Sarah Marley’s care, William announced that he planned to move her again. He told Mrs. Marley to have Hannah cleaned up and her clothes packed and ready to go by the evening of Saturday the 24th because in the morning he was going to take her to stay with his sister in Porlock.

At half-­past three in the morning on Sunday — a most unusual hour to be starting a trip of this kind — William got up, dressed Hannah and left the house with her and her spare clothing, what there was of it, wrapped in a bundle.

Their bedmate, a fellow laboring man named Cockram, was the last person to see her alive. William returned to Simonsbath later that day without his daughter.

Some time later, men working in the surface mines had noticed that some earth had been moved from the top of one of the shafts. Burgess was present and suggested somebody had stolen a sheep and buried the carcass for retrieval later on. (This was apparently a common practice.) The miners decided to exhume the dead sheep, butcher it and share the meat, but when they dug down, they didn’t find anything. They shrugged and returned to work.

William did not have a reputation for honesty, and as the weeks passed, when he was asked about Hannah he gave conflicting answers as to her whereabouts. He said once that she was at Brimsworthy, and another time that she was with her aunt.

On the tenth of August, he left town in a hurry, saying he was going to leave the country and take Hannah with him.

On the eleventh, a farmowner’s son was walking across one of his father’s fields and noticed a place where someone had had a small fire. The following morning, he and his brother went to the site again and stirred through the ashes. They found some charred bits of cloth, a piece of fur, and some buttons and hook-­and-­eye fasteners.

Clement reports,

These rumors and suspicions caused several people to take an interest in the matter, and on Sunday 15th August, Mary Fraley, who also lived at Gallon House cottage, walked across the fields to where John Mills had discovered the pile of ashes. Mary also stirred about the remains and picked up a piece of lilac cotton print and a piece of black yard stocking. She later said she knew this piece of print to be part of the pinafore that Hannah had worn, in fact she had washed it at Sarah Marley’s house. Still intent to unravel what was ominously becoming what appeared to be the foreboding of a terrible tragedy, Mary Farley took the pieces to Mrs. Marley and asked her if she recognized them, to which Mrs. Marley replied, “Yes, it is a piece of Hannah Burgess’s pinafore.”

The concerned local vicar, W.H. Thornton, sent people to both Brimsworthy and Porlock to look for Hannah. When they came back and said she wasn’t in either place, Thornton was so alarmed he made a five­-hour ride on horseback to the Chief Constable’s home in Somerset to tell him his suspicions.

Thornton brought the police to Simonsbath and was met by a crowd of villagers who told them about the disturbed soil they’d seen near the mine, which, in retrospect, was beginning to seem ominous. A group went back to the spot and found fresh turf had been laid over it. They raised the sod and found a rectangular hole, about four feet long by two feet wide. It was empty, but there was the telltale stench of decaying flesh. Something, or someone, had been buried there recently.

By the sixteenth of August, Superintendent Jeffs had put the word throughout rural North Devon and North Somerset, and its fishing villages and ports, to find William Burgess, as he was wanted on suspicion of murder. They learned he’d gotten a ferry ride to Swansea in Wales, and began looking there.

It didn’t take long: on the nineteenth, Jeffs personally arrested Burgess, who had found a job at the docks in Swansea. When Jeffs told him why he was being arrested, Burgess replied, “I done it and must die for it. I would sooner die than live. I shall never be happy no more.”

He wasn’t kidding about wanting to die: a few days after his arrest, Burgess tried to commit suicide by stabbing himself in the throat with a pair of scissors, opening them up to widen the wound, and struggling against the four police officers who held him down while a doctor stitched it shut. His jailers kept a much closer eye on him after that.

Meanwhile, the police and the community continued looking for Hannah’s body.

Although Burgess claimed he’d dumped it far off at sea, searchers focused on local mines where he’d previously worked. One of them, an iron mine known as the Wheal Eliza, had been shut down and was flooded. Deeming it too risky to send down a diver, the authorities spent months having the water pumped out “at great expense,” stopping from time to time when the mine became filled with foul air. It wasn’t until the evening of December 2 that conditions were safe enough to send someone down. By then the water level was down to just a few feet.

On some staging in the mineshaft, 207 feet down, rested a coarse hemp sack, tied with cord.

They brought it up on a windlass and untied it. Inside that bag were two large, heavy stones and another bag, containing the remains of a small child.

The search for Hannah Burgess was over.

The body was in surprisingly good shape, considering how long it had spent in the water. Sarah Marley, the Burgesses’ landlady, and William Cockram, who shared Hannah and William’s bed, identified it. Sarah said the child was wearing the clothes she was dressed in the morning she was last seen alive. She also identified the raincoat as William Burgess’s. Burgess had had a pair of child’s boots among his possessions when he was arrested. They were Hannah’s: Sarah knew them very well, for it was she who had laced the little girl’s boots every morning and tied them for her.

The local surgeon had a look at Hannah’s body and noted there were clods of dirt and bits of gravel stuck to her clothes and under her shawl — soil that matched that in the area of the apparent gravesite. Hannah had a skull fracture that would probably have been fatal, but not instantly so; the doctor thought the actual cause of death was suffocation.

William Burgess was tried less than two weeks later. It wasn’t much of a trial. Given the damning circumstantial evidence and his confession to Superintendent Jeffs, there was very little he or his defense counsel could say.

The defense lawyer, a Mr. Rotton, presented no evidence and merely made a statement to jury claiming there was no motive for the crime and suggesting Burgess was insane. He said he could have presented a better case for insanity, but a lack of time and money made this impossible. As it was, the only evidence he count point to was Burgess’s suicide attempt while in custody, and the fact that one of his brothers had died in a lunatic asylum.

The jury voted for conviction more or less immediately.

In the brief interval between his conviction and his execution, Burgess was visited by the usual stream of clergymen, including W.H. Thornton, the man who had brought Hannah’s disappearance to the attention of the police. To all of them he admitted his guilt and said he deserved to die. He continued to make threats of suicide and the authorities watched him very closely, lest he try to cheat the gallows. At least two and possibly four of his surviving children came to visit him during his last days.

In his final confession to the Reverend Thornton, he supposedly said,

I murdered my child for the purpose of saving two shillings and sixpence per week, that I might be enabled thereby to indulge myself in more drink; and to indulge in drunkenness I committed this awful deed. Do you sir, go back to Simonsbath and tell the drunkards there to forsake drunkenness and strong drinks, or they may yet stand a condemned felon as I now stand.

On the morning of his hanging he had the usual breakfast that was served to every inmate, and was allowed to attend chapel during the eight a.m. service, but he was not permitted to take Communion.

It was said that the prison officials were afraid Burgess might put up a fight when the time came, but he surprised them with “a fortitude that had not been anticipated.” His executioner was the famous William Calcraft.

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

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1863: William Ockold, the last hanged at Worcester

1 comment January 2nd, 2016 Headsman

This date in 1863 saw the last hanging ever at Worcester — that of a decrepit old drunk, William Ockold, either 69 or 70 years of age, who had beaten his wife to death in one of the brutal thrashings that had been a mainstay of their half-century of married life.

We’ll let the period’s press tell the tale.

Birmingham Daily Post November 10, 1862

On Saturday morning a shocking murder was committed at Hales Owen Street, Oldbury, and as might be expected, the inhabitants of that locality manifested no small interest in the matter.

The facts, so far as we have been enabled to ascertain at present are as follow: — William Ockold, tailor, in his 70th year, and his wife, Sophia Ockold, aged seventy-three, lived together in the above-named street. They lived in a very poor way, and were known to indulge together in intoxicating drinks.

For a few days prior to Saturday last Mrs. Ockold was unwell, but not confined to her bed; and at about a quarter past nine on the morning in question a young woman, named Maria Glazebrook, aged about nineteen or twenty years, went into the house to enquire as to Mrs. Ockold’s health. The young woman was very intimate with the Ockolds, and though not related to them, she called them respectively “grandfather” and “grandmother.” She is a domestic servant at the George and Dragon public house, in Hales Owen Street.

When she went to Ockold’s house she asked him how “grandmother” was.

He replied, “I don’t know.”

The girl then said, “Where is she? Is she in bed?”

Ockold made answer, “I suppose she is.”

The girl then noticed that there was some blood upon Ockold, and she said to him “Laws, grandfather, how did that come there?” and he said, “I have given the old woman a punch or two.”

The girl then went to the foot of the stairs, and called out “grandmother,” and, receiving no answer, she asked Ockold if his wife was asleep. She again called at the foot of the stairs two or three times, and still receiving no answer, she said she would go upstairs. Ockold told her she must not; but he did not get up to prevent her doing so, but continued as he had been during the time of the ialogue given above, working on the board. She, however, said “I will go up,” and went upstairs accordingly.

Here a shocking spectacle presented itself to the view of the affrighted girl. The body of Mrs. Ockold was stretched upon the floor, covered with blood, life being quite extinct.

The girl screamed out, and ran down stairs, exclaiming, “Why, grandfather, you have killed her.”

He said “Her ain’t dead, is her?” and the girl replied “She is, though.”

She then ran out of the house, and fetched in some neighbours, Mr. Weston, butcher, who lives next door, with his wife, being the first to come into the house. In the meantime Ockold went upstairs, took up the body of his murdered wife, and laid it upon the bed.

The police were then communicated with, and Sergeant Simmons was speedily in attendance.

By the time he arrived the news of the sad affair had spread rapidly through the town, and a crowd of from 200 to 300 persons had assembled. Mr. Simmons went into the house, and saw the old man standing in the chimney corner apparently careless of what was going on around.

The officer went upstairs, and briefly examined the body of deceased, observing that the face was covered with blood, and that one of the eyes presented the appearance of having been battered in. He came downstairs, and then observed that there was blood all the way down …

No one saw the murder committed, yet the facts are so concise and significant that there exists not the slightest doubt as to how and when it was done. When the body was found life had not been extinct more than an hour or two, and the heart was still warm. It is supposed that Ockold had been at work al night, that he had been disagreeing with his wife, and that in a moment of passion he committed the awful crime.

There are rumours abroad that deceased and his wife were heard having high words at four o’clock on the morning of the murder, and the police-constable on duty heard him cursing her at about that time. Another rumour is that the old woman was heard begging for mercy at about the hour named. A broken mopstick was found in the pantry by Sergeant Simmons, and this leads to the suggestion that the prisoner broke it over the head of his victim. Deceased and her husband were well known in the parish, the latter for certain peculiarities of conduct in working all night and playing all day. They frequently went out together drinking, and used to return home arm in arm, the worse for what they had taken.

The prisoner had half-a-pint of beer at six o’clock on the morning of the murder. There is some pretence that he was very much vexed at his wife for having been drinking with another man; but this seems to be too ridiculous a notion to be entertained seriously, especially as deceased had been very unwell for two or three days prior to her death …


Birmingham Daily Post, December 15, 1862

WORCESTER WINTER ASSIZES

Mr. Benson proceeded to the task of defending the prisoner. The learned counsel, in a powerful speech, contended, first that there could not have been any motive on the part of the prisoner to murder his wife. It had been shown that for almost half a century the deceased had shared the humble bed and board of the prisoner, and in the manner of the rough part of the country in which they lived, they lived in terms of conjugal love and fellowship …

That the wife fell by the hand of her husband he would at once concede, but arguing upon the absence of motive, of malice, or forethought, the learned counsel, contended that the crime of the prisoner was not greater than the crime of manslaughter, and asked the Jury to spare the prisoner the few short years which Providence might still allot to him, and not send his tottering feet to the gallows, and leave a gibbet over the prison gate as a legacy of their labours that day.

There was no doubt that on the night when the woman met her fearful death, the husband and wife were quarrelling, and the man made use of passionate words, which would in all probability be met with taunting words by his wife … The man had gone upstairs to get his wife from bed, and used the violence which had caused her death in a moment of passion; he appeared indifferent the next morning when asked where his wife was, for the simple reason that he in ungoverned anger had thrown his wife down without knowing that he had hurt her. He was callous, harsh, brutal if they would, but not guilty of murder and malice aforethought. The learned counsel went into a careful and searching analysis of the evidence offered on behalf of the prosecution, and concluded by an eloquent appeal to the Jury for the life of the old man at the bar.

The learned Judge then proceeded to sum up to the Jury, and charged them to disabuse their minds of all compassion and indignation, and return a verdict which would be a just one. He carefully stated to the Jury the facts which had been brought before them, and fully explained the law of the case.

The Jury then retired, and after an absence of an hour returned into Court. The prisoner was brought up from the cell and again placed at the bar. The indifferent look which he had borne during the trial was now passed away, and his twitching lips and moistening eye showed the state of his feelings.

Amid solemn silence the Foreman of the Jury said that they had found the prisoner guilty, but desired to recommend him to mercy, on the ground that nothing had transpired during the trial which was adverse to his previous good character, and also on account of his extreme age.

The Clerk of Arraigns called upon the prisoner whether he had anything to say why sentence should not be pronounced upon him, and his lips moved as though he would have spoken, but the words died in his throat, and he stood calm and silent.

The learned Judge then assumed the black cap, and in a tremulous voice addressed the prisoner and said: William Ockold, you have been found guilty of this dreadful crime, the murder of your wife, to whom you had been married, by your own statement made to your son, near upon fifty years.

It is a most painful thing indeed to see a man at your advanced period of life, convicted of such a crime, and a crime committed against the wife whom you had sworn to love and cherish.

The Jury have recommended you to mercy. That recommendation I shall take care to transmit to the proper quarter. I have no power whatever to hold out any hopes to you; the power is entirely vested in the breast of the Sovereign, and it is only from her clemency that any possible mitigation of your sentence can proceed. What may be the course taken is not for me to say, and I should be deceiving you if I were to hold out hopes of any remission of the sentence.

I beseech you, therefore, by penitence and prayer to apply yourself to the Throne of Mercy, that you may obtain that mercy which you denied your poor ailing unfortunate wife, and that the short remainder of your days may be spent in preparation for the doom which awaits you, and the other Judge, before whom you will have to stand; and may God in his infinite mercy have mercy upon your soul.

His Lordship then passed sentence of death in the usual form, and the prisoner was removed from the dock.


Birmingham Daily Post, December 16, 1862

In the name of humanity as well as of justice, we feel bound to call attention to the case of William Ockold, found guilty and sentenced to death, on Saturday, at Worcester Assizes, for the murder of his wife.

The facts of the sad history may be very briefly told. Ockold, who is in his seventieth year, was a tailor at Oldbury, his wife, who was about the same age, assisting him in his business. They seem to have been very poor, and their means were still further reduced by their addiction to drinking. Drink led to its natural result, — frequent quarrels, accompanied by violence; and, indeed, the wretched pair seem to have led a sadly dissipated, wrangling, miserable kind of life — tolerably good-tempered when sober, but when drunk perpetually quarrelling. Several witnesses deposed to this — one of them adding that “the people round there [the place where Ockold lived] are very rough people.”

On the 7th of November Mrs. Ockold was ill — as one of the witnesses stated, “she was groaning very much and seemed in great pain.” Ockold, evidently disbelieving his wife’s illness, expressed great annoyance at having been kept awake by her groans during the previous night, and declared that she should not keep him awake again — evidently meaning that he would give her a beating.

In the night a policeman heard the wife groaning and the prisoner cursing her from the bottom of the stairs; but such noises being frequently heard upon his beat the officer took no further notice of them. On the morning of the 8th Mrs. Ockold was found dead in her bedroom, death having evidently resulted from blows inflicted on the head with a mopstick.

Ockold who was seated at work downstairs admitted at once that he had beaten his wife, but was evidently unconscious that the poor woman was dead. Dead, however, she was, manifestly killed by the blows inflicted by her husband.

On this evidence the Jury returned a verdict of wilful murder, coupled with a recommendation to mercy; but the Judge while promising to send the recommendation to the Home Office, held out no hope that it would be complied with.

We call attention to this case because while entirely assenting to the recommendation of the Jury, we dissent from the grounds on which their merciful conclusion was arrived at. The Jury endeavoured to save the life of the unhappy convict “because nothing had transpired during the trial which was adverse to his previous good character, and also on account of his great age.”

The latter reason is a good ground for abstaining from hanging this wretched old man, but the former, if acted upon, would free from punishment half the murderers who are arraigned at the bar of justice.

The strongest ground in favour of a remission of sentence is, we think, that urged by Mr. Benson, the prisoner’s counsel — that the prisoner was deeply irritated in a quarrel with his wife, that the blows were given in a moment of uncontrollable passion, without premeditation, and with no design to cause death; and therefore, that the offence was not murder but manslaughter.

With all respect for the Jury, we submit that the whole probabilities of the case favour this view, and that it is very hard to reconcile the incidents narrated by the witnesses with any other. The girl Glazebrook proved that Ockold did not believe in the reality of his wife’s illness, the policeman and a neighbour deposed to the occurrence of a quarrel in the night, and the demeanour of the prisoner next morning was perfectly consistent with the supposition that he meant to beat his wife, but did not mean to kill her. There was plenty of evidence to support this view of the case; but none at all to indicate the malicious motive and design which the law regards as the very essence of murder.

If we felt sure that the recommendation of the Jury would produce its effect we should not trouble our readers with these remarks. But we are inclined to think that some further effort may be needed to induce a reconsideration of the case; and as there is no time to spare, we urge some benevolent persons to take the matter in hand at once.

To hang a gray-headed man, who has nearly run out the period allotted to human life, would be bad enough under any circumstances; but it would be infinitely worse in a case like this where so much doubt hangs over the nature of the offence.

Even if he were guilty of murder, what would justice gain by hanging this wretched old man, already tottering on the brink of the grave, and so sunk in ignorance, so debased by constant association with scenes of violence that he scarcely knows the character or the consequences of his acts? In the “rough neighbourhoods” of the black country blows and curses are unhappily the commonest arguments of domestic life, and a passionate man living within constant sight and hearing of such teaching might easily carry his violence to a fatal issue, without the least intention either to kill his victim or to bring himself within the grasp of the law.

We have no doubt that this was Ockold’s case, and therefore we feel that, despite the serious nature of his crime, it would be a grievous perversion of justice to hang an old man, with the snows of seventy winters upon his head, for an offence which substantially does not amount at the utmost to more than aggravated manslaughter.


Aris’s Birmingham Gazette, December 27, 1862

THE CONDEMNED CONVICT, W. OCKOLD

Unless the sentence of death passed upon this old man at the late Worcestershire Assize, for the murder of his wife, is commuted, the dreadful spectacle of an execution will be witnessed in Worcester city on Friday next. A memorial to the Home Secretary, praying for a commutation of the sentence, has been got up, and there is a strong feeling that it will meet with success, and that the prisoner will not be hanged.


The Morning Post, January 01, 1863

THE CONDEMNED CONVICT OCKOLD

This wretched old man, now lying in Worcester county gaol, condemned to death for the murder of his wife at Oldbury, will, it seems, be executed.

Friday next is the day fixed for the execution, and workmen are already engaged in erecting the drop.

On Tuesday the following communication was received from the Home-office, in answer to a memorial sent up by the city magistrates, praying for some commutation of the sentence: —

Whitehall, Dec. 27, 1862.

Sir, — I am directed by Secretary Sir George Grey to acknowledge the receipt of a memorial presented by you from the mayor and magistrates of Worcester, on behalf of William Ockold, now under sentence of death for the murder of his wife.

Sir George Grey would have been very glad if he could have satisfied himself that there were sufficient grounds for complying with the prayer of this memorial, and of another which he had previously received, which prayed for the commutation of the sentence on the ground that the prisoner was not of sound mind when he killed his wife.

Of the latter allegation — which, indeed, is rather suggested as probable than affirmed as a fact — there is no evidence whatever.

He has, therefore, only to consider the evidence given at trial, which he has carefully read, and the recommendation to mercy with which the verdict was accompanied.

The attack by the prisoner on his wife appears from the evidence to have been wanton and unprovoked. She was so weak and ill as to be unable to make any effectual resistance, and the violence used and the repeated blows which must have been struck were such as, under such circumstances, would not fail to produce death.

She was heard crying out to him “not to kill her,” or “that he would kill her;” and the state of her body, as proved by the medical witness, afforded ample evidence of the determination with which the prisoner acted in the commission of the crime.

The jury recommended the prisoner to mercy on account of his extreme age, and nothing having transpired detrimental to his previous character. Character may be entitled to much weight where doubt exists as to the facts, but not so where the crime is clearly proved to have been committed; but were it otherwise, the recommendation on the ground of character seems in this case scarcely consistent with the evidence of the bad feeling of the prisoner towards his wife, and of the language used by him to her.

The age of the prisoner, Sir George Grey is informed, is 69. He cannot agree in the opinion that a murder committed by a person of this age is on that account only to be exempt from the penalty attached to it by law. He fears that if he yielded to the consideration, he should be establishing a precedent which would be detrimental to the due administration of the criminal law.

Under these circumstances, he much regrets that he oes not feel it consistent with his duty to advise any interference in this case with the ordinary course of law.

–I am, sir, your obedient servant,
H. Waddington
Sir E. Lechmere, High Sheriff of Worcestershire


Birmingham Daily Post, January 3, 1863

THE OLDBURY MURDER.
EXECUTION OF OCKOLD, YESTERDAY.
(From our own Reporter.)

Within the calm old city of Worcester, yesterday — in the early light of the second morning of this new year — while we were yet keeping high festival in honour of Christmas — and while the departing echoes of that angel-song of peace and goodwill, sung eighteen centuries ago, still lingered on the confines of thes eason — William Ockold, a hale old man of seventy, white-headed, rosy-faced, and kindly-looking, was publicly hanged, in the presence of gaping thousands, for the wilful murder of his wife, at Oldbury.

It was a harrowing spectacle — a sight to make the heart sick.

Hard upon threescore and ten years had the old man journeyed through time, and for nearly half a century had the old woman, who was older than he by some three or four years, borne him company. They had children; and, on the whole, seem to have lived as happily as people in their class of life and of their tastes do in the Black Country.

When the old man — who was a tailor — worked, the old woman helped him; when he went out drinking — which was often — she went with him, and they generally staggered home in company.

They mostly lived upon the parish, and spent their scant earnings in drink.

Occasionally the old man best his wife, but not very often and not very badly — perhaps not oftener than he conscientiously thought she deserved it, for he does not look like a cruel man, and report speaks somewhat kindly of him for a drunkard.

And thus they travelled on through life — loving each other very much, in their rude way, at times, and falling out now and then when provisions or money ran short. It was a long journey in married life — fifty years; and they had nearly completed it. A peaceful grave lay before them, and a few more tottering paces would have brought them to it. The old woman, indeed, was well nigh there, for she was very infirm and sorely diseased.

But they were never destined to reach it.

In the last stage, just before the final step was to be taken, the old man either unwittingly or wilfully — a Jury of his countrymen say wilfully — hurled the old woman into eternity before her time, and followed her, red-handed, to the presence of their common Maker, by way of the gallows, yesterday.

It is a fearful story.

Instead of waiting a few brief moments, till Death came, the hoary patriarch dragged his seventy years through blood to meet him, and while earning for himself a murderer’s grave, leaves nothing to his children but the bitter legacy of shame and sorrow.

And what is more dreadful is the fact that he never seems to have realised to the full the enormity of his crime.

Utterly ignorant, accustomed no doubt in his younger day to constant scenes of brutality, his mental acuteness blunted by the wear of drunk and years, and his dim notions of right and wrong almost entirely obliterated, he has shown hardly any symptom either of sorrow for what he has done, of pity for his victim or of fear regarding his own fate. He seems indeed to have been a man, not brutal by nature, but one who overcome by the stupor of ignorance, mingled blindly with the class amongst whom he fell; never dreaming, even, that there was anything nobler in life than eating and drinking, and sleeping and dying.

And to this besotted callousness rather than to any actual, premeditated guilt perhaps his violent death yesterday was owing.

Imminent death upon the scaffold seemed to have no terrors for him, and as to that mystic other world, he did not comprehend it. The chaplain of the gaol (the Rev. J. Adlington) was unremitting in his endeavours to impress the old man with a due sense of his position, but without any apparent effect.

Sometimes he would sit and listen as to a strange story that had pleased him, and at others as to a dreary narration that wearied him, but at no time did he seem to grasp hold of and understand the truths laid before him.

With what he occupied his mind during the long night watches in the silence of the condemned cell is a secret that none mortal may know, for he revealed his mind to no one … when he displayed any emotion of the mind at all it was generally of a cheerful character; as, for instance, when on one occasion he congratulated himself that the prison apartments were like those of a palace when compared with his wretched home at Oldbury.

[F]rom first to last, his conduct was that of an old, old man, whose uneducated faculties were dimmed by age, who had no very refined ideas of right and wrong, who thought beating a righteous correction for a wife who displeased him, and who, in an untoward moment of passion, under-rated his own strength, over-rated his poor old wife’s powers of endurance, and dealt her a blow that unhappily proved fatal to both of them.

And so the old man of seventy, half unconscious of having committed any crime at all, utterly incapable of comprehending the enormity of it, and too sunken in ignorance to lay hold on the comforts of religion, was publicly and judicially strangled in front of the County Gaol at Worcester, yesterday.

And thousands came as witnesses. Not many thousands — four or five perhaps — of whom several hundreds were strangers in the city. The mere anticipation of the sickening sight had proved sufficiently attractive to bring crowds from their warm beds miles away, and that on a miserably windy stormy night.

Early on the previous evening the wind blew up briskly, and brought with it some sharp sprinklings; and as the night wore on the breese [sic] broke up into cold gusts, and bore upon its wings still heavier loads of rain. It whistled dismally through the streets all night long, and sung mournfully through the gallows which had been put up ere midnight.

Some few hundreds of citizens ventured out in the storm to see it, but after gazing at it, and finding no signs of early crows, they shivered drearily, and betook themselves homewards. As time went on, and three and four o’clock came, a pedestrian party or two from the black country, drenched but hilarious, tramped up to the gaol front, and finding all still clear, sauntered off to neighbouring public-houses. Five came, and with it a continual plashing of footsteps along the sloppy streets. More people had come in from the country, some in traps and some on foot, and there were two continual streams of them passing each other to and from the gallows; for few cared to take their places even yet.

At six, however, the wind came unladen with rain, and from that time onward sunk to a low soft breeze. And then the crowd began to assemble in Infirmary Walk, a road running straight out in front of that part of the gaol on which the drop had been erected. Some few had come from Birmingham overnight.

Seventy years ago it seems the old man was born there, and six and fifty years ago he was apprenticed by his mother, who carried on business as a pawnbroker, to a tailor in Steelhouse Lane … From the villages and hamlets immediately around Worcester, too, there came a large sprinkling of agricultural labourers. But what was most revolting was the fact that women and children formed a very large part of the crowd. There were mothers there — not one or two, but many — with infants in their arms, and there were old men with their grandchildren.

There were people of all ages, from the man well stricken in years to the baby in arms; there were people of all classes, from the well-to-do tradesman to the pauper; and there were hundreds of little boys and girls mingling with them everywhere.

And by half-past seven in the gray morning they had crowded up the three avenues to the gaol. And there they stood gazing upon the gallows fixed high up on the castellated gaol, and looking more like some ghastly remnant of feudal barbarity than an engine of modern punishment in a Christian land.

As the morning light intensified, and the sky cleared, the crowd thickened, and then some three or our Scripture-readers made their appearance to “improve the occasion” — some by distributing tracts, and two by preaching extempore sermons. And so the crowd waited on, very orderly in its conduct, more than usually so, for the harrowing scene to follow.

A strong body of the county police, under the charge of Superintendent Phillips, were the duty inside the gaol railings, and a strong body of the city police, under the charge of Chief-superintendent Power, were on duty outside. But their services were not required.

Meanwhile, the old man inside the gaol was being made ready for death.

He went to bed on the previous night at nine, fell asleep directly, and woke at two. During the remainder of the night he only slept at intervals, and seemed restless but still indifferent. The warder who was with him thought proper to remind him that he was spending his last morning on earth, to which the old man replied, almost jocularly, “That’s a pretty thing to tell a fellow, that is.”

The whole of his conversation during the night was of a similarly cheerful character. Between six and seven he got up and dressed himself, and had breakfast — tea and bread and butter, of which he ate and drank as heartily as usual. At half-past seven he was visited by the chaplain, who remained and prayed with him, the old man remaining to all appearance indifferent the while, until the hour fixed for the execution.

He would have been hanged at eight, but the Governor had deferred the execution till after the arrival of the morning post, hoping to the last that a reprieve would arrive. Shortly before half-past eight Mr. Hyde, the Under-Sheriff, accompanied by his javelin men — for the ceremony was performed in the ancient manner — arrived. The morning post was in, and no reprieve had come, so the usual procession was formed, and the old man was led out of the condemned cell in the east wing, to death.

The chapel bell clanged out three weird notes — and three more — and three more.

And while that awful funeral cortege moved slowly on to the gallows, and that hoar old man was listening to the reading of his own burial service, a dreadful hush ran through the crowd without.

Then followed a brief low murmur of excitement and a gentle surging down upon the gaol railings. And then there were a few brief moments of eager expectancy. The procession had halted in the porter’s tower in order that the old man might be bound. Arrived there he calmly sat down upon a seat provided for him, and was pinioned without displaying the least sign of fear or emotion of any kind until he was told to set forward again.

Then, and not till then, a tear stealing out of his eye rolled down his cheek, and he paled and began to tremble violently. The bell again clanged out three dismal notes, and there was another hush in the crowd without. And then, one by one, the execution[er]s and their victim glided out upon the scaffold.

First came six javelin men, who ranged themselves in front of the scaffold, then six warders, who ranged themselves behind it. Then came the Governor of the Gaol and the Under Sheriff, and then Calcraft — for he had been engaged to end the ceremony — leading along the old man, at sight of whom, bare-headed, pale and trembling, his long white hair fluttering in the morning breeze, the very crowd who came to see him hanged sent up, with one consent, a long low utterance of pity.

Still he was led on, along the scaffold, up the rude steps, beneath the gallows, on to the drop. Once there, while the burial-service was being ended, he looked calmly down upon the thousands of upturned faces before him. The Chaplain, who, though not seen could be distinctly heard, then paused, and Calcraft came forward — with some difficulty drew a too small cap over the white flowing hair, over the furrowed face, down to the thin gaunt neck of the old man — quietly dropped the noose upon his shoulders, while the victim trembled in every joint — drew it tight around the throat — adjusted the knot with deadly nicety upon the blue scaly prominent vein — fillipped the other end of the rope over the cross-beam, looped it into a knot around it — grasped the shrivelled hand in token of farewell — buckled a strap around the thin weak legs — grasped the hand again — and was about to retire, when the old man questioned him.

“I suppose I’m goin now, aint I?” he asked.

“I’ll let you know that,” replied the hangman, and retired.

Then there was one moment in which the chaplain’s voice rose up in the midst of the surrounding silence, and the old man’s weaker voice joined with it, in the antiphon, “Lord have mercy upon us; Christ have mercy upon us; Lord have mercy upon us.”

The words were scarcely ended ere there was a rattling of bolts. The drop fell with a horrible clatter; a wild wail, acute, heart-piercing, arose from the crow, and the body of William Ockold, after a few brief nervous contortions, swung lifeless in the breeze.

In that one moment the pains, many, and the pleasures, few, of a long, sad life were ended — the memories of seventy years driven rudely from their storehouse. In that one moment the soul of the old man had learned more than seventy years could teach it, and appallingly ignorant as he was, that one “leap in the dark” made him wiser than all living.

In one instant the clutch of man had released him from the clutch of man, and had rendered him up to the hand of that All Wise One who will try him truly, judge him righteously, and temper mercy with justice, in a way of which we blind mortals know little and perhaps guess hardly.

As soon as the body had ceased to move the greater part of the crowd dispersed, but large numbers still remained to see it cut own. After it had hung an hour it was removed. It was then found that the neck had been broken and the jugular vein burst in the fall. Cessation of sensation must, therefore, have been instantaneous, and the convulsions after the fall the result of unconscious vitality. The body was at once buried beside those of two other murderers, under the western wall of the prison, hard by the debtors’ promenade.

This makes the seventh execution at Worcester since 1832. In that year two brothers, James and Joseph Carter, were executed the highway robbery near Bewdley; in 1834, Robert Lilley was executed for the murder of Jonathan Wall, at Bromagrove; in 1837, William Lighthand was executed for the murder of Joseph Hawkins, at Areley Kings; in 1849, Robert Pulley was executed for the murder of Mary Ann Staight, at Broughton; in 1855, Joseph Meadows was executed for the murder of his sweetheart, Mary Ann Mason, at Kate’s Hill, near dudley; and now, in the first week of 1863, William Ockold, an old man of seventy, has been executed for the murder of his wife, at Oldbury.

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1831: Edmund Bushby, Swing rioter

Add comment January 1st, 2016 Headsman

On New Year’s Day of 1831, Edmund Bushby was hanged in Horsham for arson committed during southern England’s great agricultural labor rising, the Swing Riots.

“Captain Swing” was the rebellion’s namesake, a Ned Ludd-like legendary archetype, a figurehead who could never swing from the gallows. Swing was a long-suffering tenant farmer fallen desperately below subsistence and ready to fight back, and it goes without saying that in this the fictional “captain” mirrored his very real cohort — who were known to sign the captain’s anonymizing name to their letters threatening prosperous farmers: “work, money, or fire”.

Wages in Britain, which perhaps were mired in a generations-long slide to begin with, had cratered painfully following the Napoleonic Wars. And few felt the pinch more sharply than the working class in the rural economies of England’s southern half from East Anglia, Essex and Kent clear across to Somerset and Devon. Here, without the wage prop that coal mining was already beginning to confer in the north, the situation in the fields grew desperate.*

Years later, in 1851, James Caird would draw an east-west line through the English countryside — a wages line, he called it. North of that line, Caird noticed, agricultural workers were still being paid better than their brethren to the south by an enormous margin, 30% or more.

And so with the onset of harder times, like a devastating financial crash in the 1820s, this was also the line below which every farmhand existed at the edge of utter destitution — mitigated only by a niggardly allotment of poor relief forever squeezed smaller by its donors, the local landowners.** This zone of rural immiseration was the home of Captain Swing.


From Stuart Macdonald, “The progress of the early threshing machine”, Agricultural History Review, 23:1 (1975). It’s available online in pdf form here.

In 1830, following two consecutive years of crop failures, English radical William Cobbett published his survey of the countryside’s growing want in his Rural Rides. Written over the course of several years previous, it was a prescient appraisal.

As far as I had an opportunity of ascertaining the facts, the farmers feel all the pinchings of distress, and the still harsher pinchings of anxiety for the future; and the labouring people are suffering in a degree not to be described. The shutting of the male paupers up in pounds is common through Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire. Left at large during the day, they roam about and maraud. What are the farmers to do with them? God knows how long the peace is to be kept, if this state of things be not put a stop to.

Those words Cobbett set down late in 1829. By the summer of the following year, labor rebellions began breaking out in these counties.

This wave of mutually inspired resistance saw villages’ working classes take the offensive against their local grandees. Beginning that summer, farmers’ hay ricks were set ablaze by secret arsonists; resistance rapidly metastasized from that point. (See this pdf.) “Burnings were necessary to bring people to their senses,” one Swing radical proclaimed — to force the rural gentry to come to terms with the plight of their neighbors.


1844 Punch magazine cartoon. (Source)

Following a long tradition of English machine-wrecking, Swing rioters also turned their fury on hated threshing machines, which were popping up by the hundreds and promising to displace still more of the shrinking wage share available in the countryside. (A very cheap portable machine invented in 1829 augured especially ill for the workers whose labor it would obviate; see N.E. Fox, “The Spread of the Threshing Machine in Central Southern England”, The Agricultural History Review, Vol. 26, No. 1 (1978).)

Nearly 400 were reportedly destroyed from 1830-1832 — and typically the owner of the machine would then be mulcted £2 per thresher for the dismantling labor. (In the subsequent assizes, these forcibly exactions were prosecuted as highway robbery.)

A countryside threatening to go up in flames like the farmers’ ricks inspired the requisite shock and exercise of state suppression, beginning with an aggressive investigation with widespread prosecutions in the last weeks of 1830. By the time it was all said and done, 252 people were sentenced to die and although all save 19 of those were commuted to transportation, the effect of a few very public examples would scarcely be neglected. Thomas Hardy,† born in 1840 the son of rural Dorset stonemason, would later describe his father’s recollection of the Swing days:

My father saw four men hung for being with some others who had set fire to a rick. Among them was a stripling boy of eighteen … with youth’s excitement he had rushed to the scene to see the blaze … Nothing my father ever said to me drove the tragedy of life so deeply into mind.

Edmund Bushby was one of these misfortunate souls marked for the scaffold instead of Australia. (Another Swing arsonist, Thomas Goodman, was to have hanged immediately after Bushby. Goodman was reprieved but was not told of it until after Bushby died.)

Convicted at the busy Lewes assizes of torching farmer George Oliver’s wheat in East Preston, Bushby hanged firmly‡ before a crowd of “eight to nine hundred persons,” according to the January 4 Morning Chronicle reprint of a Sussex Advertiser report,

three parts out of four of whom appeared to be agricultural labourers, who seemed deeply affected at the awful scene, and the most profound silence prevailed amongst them. The Sheriff’s javelin men surrounded the gallows, and two companies of foot guards were drawn up on the square, in the centre of the town, a considerable distance from the jail, and not within sight of the populace. Every thing passed off with the utmost order and decorum.

After the body had been suspended the usual time, it was cut down and delivered to the friends of the deceased for interment, who were waiting with a cart to receive it.

* The southern counties, nearest London, were also the areas where enclosure was most advanced and the rural labor force most thoroughly proletarianized.

** To add to the woes, comfortable parish parsons also had a customary right to exact a cash tithe that their flock could scarcely afford in bad times.

† We have met Thomas Hardy several times in these pages; his was surely a soul sensitive to the plight of the condemned. Hardy [probably] set the action of his short story “The Withered Arm” (with its gallows climax) in the Swing Riots period.

‡ His reported last words on the scaffold: “I hope you will take warning from my fate; and, my dear fellows, always attend to the Sabbath-day.” If accurately reported — and unironically uttered — this ageless gallows formula so irrelevant to Bushby’s situation surely attests to the power of a cliche. There is a good chance that Bushby heard these words spoken by some other hanged fellow in his lifetime, and knew them described more widely than that as the sort of thing everyone ought to say before turning off.

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1819: John Booth and Thomas Wildish, minor crooks

Add comment December 31st, 2015 Headsman

Two days ago, we noticed imprisoned English radical John Hobhouse, noticing a hanging. (Not his own.)

As jarring and “frightful” as this event was, we are at this moment in England of the Bloody Code — the tail end, to be sure, but still a world answering to Blackstone’s lament that “It is a melancholy truth that among the variety of actions which men are daily liable to commit, no less than a hundred and sixty have been declared by act of parliament to be felonies without benefit of clergy; or, in other words, to be worthy of instant death.”

According to the invaluable Capital Punishment UK site, 110 hangings ornamented the damnable* year of 1819.

Our wretched sodomite from two days past, John Markham, was the 108th. The 109th and 110th were reserved for New Year’s Eve: John Booth and Thomas Wildish. And two days on from the last execution, our author Hobhouse has already begun numbing to the horror:

Friday December 31st 1819: Two men, Wildish and Booth, hanged at eight o’clock — they had a psalm sung under the gallows — I looked out a moment after they dropped — could not discern any motion except a little tremor in the hands of one of them — I am quite certain that the contemplation of these scenes frequently would very much diminish in me the fear of dying on a scaffold — I felt much less shocked this day than I did on Wednesday last.

Booth and Wildish were both non-violent offenders. Wildish, a young man, was condemned for passing a number of forged £10 notes. Booth, taking a more direct approach to his fraud, exploited his position in the General Post Office to steal from the mail. (A common abuse, as guest blogger Meaghan Good has noted in these pages.)

Emoting a bit more than Hobhouse, the newspaper report (this version taken from the Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle of Jan. 3, 1820) described the exit of these unfortunate crooks thus:

EXECUTION. — The execution of J. Booth, for embezzling money letters from the General Post Office; and T. Wildish, for uttering a quantity of forged 10l. notes upon the Dover Bank, took place in the Old Bailey … Booth had held a situation in the Post Office for some years, and was much respected. His father, it appeared, had been in the domestic service of the King. He was about 10 years of age, and had a wife and child.

Wildish was a fine looking young man, of about 25 years of age. His father is an innkeeper in Kent, and he was also respectably connected. The crime for which he suffered appears to have been his first offence in that way, and he was led to the commission of it by the art of two notorious venders of forged notes, one of whom is at present suffering the judgment of the law for the minor offence.

Great exertions were made to save the life of Wildish, but without success. Mr. Alderman Rothwell, who knew his family, was particularly active in endeavouring to effect this object. Wildish had also a wife and a child, who, together with those of Booth, had a parting interview with the unhappy men in their cells on Thursday afternoon. The scene was truly afflicting, particularly with Wildish, whose wife is extremely young and interesting, and whose infant is but 12 months old.

From the moment of their conviction, each of the unhappy men evinced the most exemplary conduct, invariably acknowledging the justice of their fate, and betaking themselves in the most fervent devotion. The Rev. Mr. Cotton, and some religious friends, spent that night with them alternately in prayer. They were visited by the former at an early hour next morning, and after spending a considerable time in singing and prayer, they partook of the Sacrament. During this ceremony Wildish appeared quite enthusiastic. Booth seemed equally happy, but not so animated as his companion. The latter, upon receiving the cup of wine, (either from thirst or religious fervour) drank off the entire contents, nearly a pint.

On their way to the scaffold, they embraced all they met. Wildish was first le[d] out. He was most ardent in recommending his wife and infant child to the care of the Almighty. Booth, upon being led forth, embraced his companion, and both joined in hymns and prayer together. The fatal preparations being made, and they again joined the Ordinary in a short prayer, and at 20 minutes after eight were launched into eternity.

* Percy Bysshe Shelley:

England in 1819

An old, mad, blind, despis’d, and dying king,
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn — mud from a muddy spring,
Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know,
But leech-like to their fainting country cling,
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow,
A people starv’d and stabb’d in the untill’d field,
An army, which liberticide and prey
Makes as a two-edg’d sword to all who wield,
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay,
Religion Christless, Godless — a book seal’d,
A Senate — Time’s worst statute unrepeal’d,
Are graves, from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.

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1819: John Markham, abominable offence

Add comment December 29th, 2015 Headsman

The diary (pdf) of a man imprisoned at Newgate recorded for this date in 1819 that

A man was hanged this morning for an unnatural crime. Had my windows fastened up but could not sleep. They began putting up the scaffold at 4 o’clock. The tolling of the bell at 8 was frightful. I heard the crash of the drop falling and a woman screech violently at the same moment. Instantly afterwards, the sound of the pye man crying, “all hot, all hot.” ‘Tis dreadful hanging a man for this practice.* There are two, a man and boy now in jail, who were caught in flagrante delictu — and yet only sentenced to two years imprisonment. The poor wretch was half dead, so they told me, before he was hanged.

Of this poor soul fallen away into the indifferent cries of the pye-man we have this from The Morning Post of December 30, 1819 (see also Rictor Norton):

EXECUTION. Yesterday morning the sentence of the law was carried into effect at the usual place in the Old Bailey, on John Markham, convicted at the October Sessions of an abominable offence. Precisely at eight o'clock the wretched culprit was placed on the scaffold, more dead than alive, attended by the Rev. Mr. COTTON, with whom he appeared to join in fervent prayer while the executioner was performing his melancholy office. In a few minutes the drop fell, and the miserable wretch was dead in an instant. Markham was a person of the lowest stamp in society: he had been for some time, and was at the period of the commission of the offence, for which he forfeited his life, a pauper inmate of St. Giles's workhouse. There were fewer spectators than ever attended on any former occasion.

John Markham was obscure, no doubt; his condemnation literally was for unspeakable acts, since it barely rates a line at all in the Old Bailey’s archives.

But the aural observer of his death was not obscure at all.

John Hobhouse, though he would eventually become the first Baron Broughton, was a buddy of the queer-friendly Lord Byron (the fourth canto of Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage is dedicated to Hobhouse). Hobhouse was also a prominent radical rabble-rouser, which is precisely why he was in Newgate on the day of Markham’s hanging.

All of this occurred in the tense wake of the Peterloo Massacre, which saw British cavalry ride down their countrymen in Manchester for assembling to demand the reform of a parliament long grown egregiously unrepresentative. (Manchester was a case in point: it had no M.P. at all based on a centuries-old allocation of boroughs even though it had now boomed into one of the realm’s leading centers of industry.**)

Following the Peterloo outrage, our correspondent Mr. Hobhouse had suggested in one of his many combative pamphlets that absent such brutal exertions the members of Parliament “would be pulled out by their ears” at the hands of an aggrieved populace. Given the all-too-recent aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars — and their antecedent, the French Revolution — the potential threat in these words seemed to the powers that be a step beyond mere colorful rhetoric.

Accordingly, the House of Commons judged Hobhouse guilty of a breach of privilege and had him arrested earlier that same December. His cause more advanced by the martyrdom than inconvenienced by a gentleman’s loose detention — Hobhouse’s at-liberty associates not only held political meetings in his ample prison apartments but planned and advertised them in advance — the man won election to that selfsame House of Commons from Westminster the following March.


(Via)

* A few days later, Hobhouse will record in his diary that he has been told that Markham “had committed his crime with a pauper in a workhouse on a coffin.”

** The U.K. finally enacted parliamentary reform in 1832. A few years after that, it even stopped hanging people for sodomy.

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1864: James Utz, St. Louis spy

1 comment December 26th, 2015 Headsman

Confederate agent James Morgan Utz had a blue Christmas indeed in 1864, awaiting his December 26 execution for espionage.

The Missourian had been captured traveling with a small band out of St. Louis disguised in Union uniforms and carrying supplies and ciphered messages for the invading Confederate army of General (and former governor) Sterling Price.

The federals handled Utz as a spy and a military court sentenced him to hang — a sentence that had already been carried out by the time President Lincoln’s grant of executed clemency arrived.

Tuesday morning last I was horrified at the announcement by a friend that Jas. Utz, Paul’s companion and leader in their attempt to go South, had been executed, being hung on Monday, the day after Christmas, in the jail yard.

It plunged me in a stupor or excitement from which my mind was not free for the entire day. The sentence barely issued and the punishment instantly carried out! The hurry, the suddenness was most revolting. No time given for taking leave of family, friends! No time for appealing for mercy or for a reprieve. No time allowed for composing himself for death!

-Diary of a family member of Paul Fusz, one of Utz’s secret party. (Fusz, only 17 when captured, was pardoned after serving six months at hard labor.)

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1897: John Morgan, the last public hanging in West Virginia

Add comment December 16th, 2015 Headsman

This date in 1897 marked the last public hanging in the history of West Virginia.

The chief character in the dramatic milestone was a fellow named John Morgan,* condemned for murdering an aged widow named Chloe Greene and her two children near Ripley, W. Va. It was a mean trick indeed, as Mrs. Greene had taken in Morgan when the latter was an orphan, and raised him to manhood; Morgan had married and moved out of the house, but was on good terms with his adoptive family.

On the morning of November 3, as Mrs. Greene’s children James Greene and (by a previous husband) Alice and Matilda Pfost puttered around with their routine chores, Morgan — having spent the night at the house — suddenly took up a hatchet and started slashing. Matilda and James were slain, along with the 70-year-old Mrs. Greene; Alice survived a skulll-fracturing bash from the hatchet and managed to escape when her assailant turned his attention to her sister. Were it not for Alice’s eventual testimony, the author of this ghastly and seemingly purposeless carnage might never have been known. As best one could determine, he butchered his lifelong benefactors for no better reason than to steal the $56 they had in the house thanks to the recent sale of some horses.


Wheeling Register, Nov. 6, 1897.

In a triumph of the “speedy trial” system, Morgan was condemned a mere two days after the murder — “one meting out the swiftest justice to a murderer ever known in the annals of criminal history in West Virginia,” the admiring Wheeling Register reported on Nov. 6. (Not neglecting to note that a greater delay might have invited the verdict of Judge Lynch.)

He hanged just six weeks after that, but proved himself a cool customer in that short time. He sold a confession of the crime for $25, so that he could afford a suit to wear on the gallows … and then made a brave bid to balk gibbet and suit alike of its big occasion.


Boston Journal, Dec. 4, 1897.

It seems that one evening about two weeks before his scheduled (and, since we already know how this ends, his actual) death, Morgan was playing checkers in the jail corridor with one of his guards. He made a great show of exhaustion, and when the guard ducked out to pick up Morgan’s supper, Morgan stuffed a dummy into his bed in a posture of deep sleep, then climbed himself on top of the cell while the guard quietly left the meal for his “sleeping” captive. Once the cell was locked up for the night, Morgan just slipped right out.

The escape was not discovered until morning, but Morgan was recaptured after only a couple of days abroad — not nearly enough to interfere with the execution. His bravado cracked at the end; press reports have him in a state of collapse on that morning. “The scene in the jail this morning beggars description,” the Baltimore Sun reported on Dec. 17. “His spiritual advisers were praying, singing and pleading with the doomed man to surrender his soul to its Maker, while Morgan was a pitching, crying, agonizing man.” He managed to pull himself together well enough to die game.

If only Morgan’s avarice could have abided a little patience! December 16 would have been an excellent day to rob the good citizens of Jackson county, since practically all of them — a reported 5,000 souls at least — turned out for the first hanging in that locale for 47 years. (Ripley had only 700 residents and not nearly enough rooms to handle the swell, so impromptu campings sprang up all around the outskirts of town.)


Baltimore Sun, Dec. 17, 1897.

The uncouth scene, with the usual horror of drinking and carousing even compassing 2,000 women unladylike enough to present themselves led West Virginia to abolish public executions in 1898.

* His actual name by birth was John Raines. Perversely, he used the surname of a man whom his father, Andy Raines, had murdered when Raines was a tot; it was because his father was subsequently killed resisting capture that Raines/Morgan was an orphan.

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

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1812: John Rickey but not Benjamin Jackson

Add comment December 11th, 2015 Headsman

The New York Evening Post published this item excerpted from the Philadelphia Democratic Press on Thursday, December 17, 1812.

On Friday, a large concourse of people assembled at Fort Mifflin, to witness the execution of John Rickey and Benjamin Jackson, soldiers of the 16th Regt. U.S. Infantry, sentenced to be shot for desertion, the former having deserted three times, the latter once.

They were conducted to the fatal spot at 1 o’clock, attended by about 600 soldiers of the 2d Artillery and 16th infantry. Rickey’s sentence having been carried into effect, Jackson was pardoned by the commanding officer.

We trust the execution of Rickey, and the exercise of mercy to Jackson, will operate as a warning to the deserters in and about this city. It is stated upon good authority, that every reasonable indulgence will be extended to such deserters as may deliver themselves up voluntarily, but those who are taken cannot expect to be shielded from the penalty of the law.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Desertion,Execution,Last Minute Reprieve,Military Crimes,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Pennsylvania,Public Executions,Shot,Soldiers,U.S. Military,USA,Wartime Executions

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1848: James Langford, violent drunk

Add comment December 1st, 2015 Headsman


Charleston Southern Patriot, January 22, 1847


Trenton State Gazette, July 1, 1847


Trenton State Gazette, September 22, 1847


Baltimore Sun, Dec. 12, 1848

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

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