Posts filed under '19th Century'

1873: Elizabeth Woolcock, the only woman hanged in South Australia

Add comment December 30th, 2016 Headsman

Elizabeth Woolcock on December 30, 1873 became the first and only woman ever hanged in South Australia.

The daughter of a gold prospector, Elizabeth Oliver (as she was then) began a lifelong bout with chemical dependency when she became hooked on the opium used to treat her after she survived a rape at the tender age of seven. (This attack also left her permanently unable to bear children.)

At 19, she joined the Moonta household of alcoholic Cornish immigrant Thomas Woolcock — first as his housekeeper helping to mind the sole child to survive the tuberculotic ravages that had carried away his brother and mother, and within a few weeks as Woolcock’s wife.

Elizabeth was very young and had not known Thomas long. Her infelicitous choice opened an unhappy union that, in the trial to come, would mark her with an obvious motive for murder. “I have to put with it as long as I can but Tom has got so bad, that I cannot bear it any longer,” she wrote to her stepsister a few months before the events that would lead her to the gallows. “He is a perfect devil; and if stop [sic] here much longer I shall hang myself.”

Motivation aside, however, quite a few people not only latterly but also in Woolcock’s own time have suspected that she got a bum rap, product of shoddy medical evidence and a sort of self-confirming communal tunnel vision when Thomas wasted away over a period of weeks in 1873. Thomas Woolcock’s cousin in particular appears to have spearheaded the campaign to open a coroner’s investigation of the death aimed squarely at his widow.

Three different physicians treated Thomas from the time he fell ill at work on July 23 of that year until his death six weeks later. Drs. Bull, Dickie and Herbert each made different diagnoses and prescribed, as this examination of the case puts it, “a bizarre (to modern eyes at least) range of medication that included rhubarb, cream of tartar, mercury and lead acetate.”

Dr. Bull’s prescription of pills containing mercury seems like any obvious place to begin the inquiry since the government’s chemists concluded that mercury poisoning had killed the man, and since the erratic Bull had a chinashop-type relationship to medical competence. (Dr. Bull had done time in the insane asylum; a few months after Woolcock’s execution, he died of an opium overdose.)

Instead, and seemingly driven by the suspicions of local chin-waggers, the investigation and subsequent trial focused on Elizabeth’s acquisition of “poisons” in a dismayingly unspecific sense: she used her stepson to hustle the local druggist for morphine and opium to service her own addictions, and this was a “poison”; she obtained a dandruff medicine that (like many household products of its day) contained mercury, and this was a “poison”;* she had some strange draught called antinomial wine that she was seen to spice with sugar and this too was inferred a “poison”. It all painted Elizabeth Woolcock as a latter-day Tofana without quite telling a coherent story of how she went about killing her husband. It’s not even clear now — and was publicly questioned in 1873 — whether the initial determination of death by mercury poisoning was itself reliable, nor can be certain whether, if mercury is supposed to be the lethal agent, it alone accounts for the entire span from health to grave or if instead a small exposure from Dr. Bull’s pills or contact with the skin medicine only finished Thomas off in a context where unrelated illness had already broken his health.

The evidence as it survives for us doesn’t rule out the possibility, but it’s difficult to reconcile it with anything like the confidence that ought to sustain a death sentence. However, Elizabeth’s garbled last letter did appear to vindicate the prosecution with an admission, though it’s one that her defenders have dismissed as pro forma for a confessor who would have been pressuring her to acknowledge the crime in the context of a final spiritual redemption.

in a evil hour i yielded to the temptation he was taken ill at the mine and came home and quarreled with me and Satan tempted me and i gave any poison for i more and i being very self willed i told him that i knew what power the poison had as i took it my self for some months and i was so ill treated that i was quite out of my mind and in an evil hour i yielded to the temptation he was taken ill at the mine and came home and quarreled with me and Satan tempted me and i gave him what i ought not but thought at the time that if i gave him time to prepare to meet his god i should not do any great crime to send him out of the World but i see my mistake now i thank god he had time to make his peace with his maker.

Efforts, thus far unavailing, to secure a posthumous pardon for Elizabeth Woolcock continue to the present day.

* The family dog died shortly before Thomas got sick; it would be postulated against Elizabeth that she experimented with poisoning on the pet before moving on to the man. An alternative hypothesis that fits the facts could be that the dandruff medicine was administered to treat a skin condition of the dog, which then proceeded to lick at the ointment and poison itself.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Australia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Milestones,Murder,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1888: Leong Sing

Add comment December 28th, 2016 Headsman

From the San Francisco Bulletin, Dec. 28 1888:

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Pelf,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1864: Richard Hale, but not Cecilia Baker

Add comment December 27th, 2016 Meaghan

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

On December 27, 1864, Richard Hale was hanged at the Stafford Gaol for the murder of his eight-year-old daughter, Eliza Silletto.

Little Eliza’s body had been found in a cornfield in Coseley in the West Midlands region of England on August 2 that year. Her body was so badly decomposed that at first it was impossible to determine the gender, but it was assumed to be a girl because it was wearing girls’ clothing. Although authorities couldn’t determine the precise cause of death due to the decomposition, they believed the child’s throat had been cut. The body was eventually identified as Eliza. Her father had reported her missing on July 20.

Richard Hale was known in the area as a bit of a hard case: he had recently done time for manslaughter. The victim in that case was his wife, Eliza’s mother, who had starved to death.

After his release, he shacked up with Cecilia Baker and, although not legally married, they lived as man and wife. He had been heard to say he wished his daughter was “out of the way.”

Both Hale and his girlfriend were both arrested and charged with murder, but Baker had to be released for lack of evidence.

However, a witness came forward and said he thought he might have seen the murder. According to John Jones, he was walking near the cornfield when he saw a man and a woman pushing a little girl back and forth between them, harder and harder until the woman actually threw the girl at the man and then turned and started walking away. The little girl started crying loudly, then the sobs stopped abruptly.

Jones hadn’t reported the incident at the time because he didn’t find it suspicious. After all, who commits a murder in broad daylight right in front of a witness?

Jones identified Eliza’s father and his paramour as the man and the woman he had seen that day. His statement gave the authorities the evidence they needed to re-arrest Cecilia Baker for her role in the crime.

Given Jones’s identification and Hale’s criminal history, it wasn’t hard to convince a jury of the couple’s guilt. Hale was sentenced to death, but Cecilia’s death sentence was respited because she was pregnant. Her sentence was eventually commuted and she served a life term at the Knaphill Female Convict Prison in Surrey — the same place where the notorious poisoner Florrie Maybrick did time decades later.

For his part, Hale suffered a public double execution alongside an unrelated murderer, Charles Brough. The visibly nervous Hale pled his innocence all the way to the gallows.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Murder,Not Executed,Other Voices

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1882: Myles Joyce, Maamtrasna murder miscarriage

Add comment December 15th, 2016 James Joyce

Thanks to James Joyce for the guest post on “the ancient tribe of the Joyces”, originally published as “Ireland at the Bar” on September 16, 1907 during Joyce’s Italian exile for nationalist newspaper Il Piccolo della Sera of Austrian-dominated Trieste. As the reader will see, James Joyce is interested here in this case as symbolic,* but readers curious about the particulars of the murders and this still-notorious miscarriage of justice might want to tune into the Irish History Podcast’s three-part series on the case or follow the various links for more. -ed.

The definitive 1992 book on this trial, Maamtrasna: The Murders and the Mystery, is out of print but not difficult to find on the used book market. An earlier volume, The Maamtrasna Massacre: Impeachment of the Trials, is in the public domain.

Several years ago a sensational trial was held in Ireland. In a lonely place in a western province, called Maamtrasna, a murder was committed. Four or five townsmen, all belonging to the ancient tribe of the Joyces, were arrested. The oldest of them, the seventy year old Myles Joyce, was the prime suspect. Public opinion at the time thought him innocent and today considers him a martyr. Neither the old man nor the others accused knew English. The court had to resort to the services of an interpreter. The questioning, conducted through the interpreter, was at times comic and at times tragic. On one side was the excessively ceremonious interpreter, on the other the patriarch of a miserable tribe unused to civilized customs, who seemed stupefied by all the judicial ceremony. The magistrate said:

‘Ask the accused if he saw the lady that night.’

The question was referred to him in Irish, and the old man broke out into an involved explanation, gesticulating, appealing to the others accused and to heaven. Then he quieted down, worn out by his effort, and the interpreter turned to the magistrate and said:

‘He says no, your worship.’

‘Ask him if he was in that neighbourhood at that hour.’

The old man again began to talk, to protest, to shout, almost beside himself with the anguish of being unable to understand or to make himself understood, weeping in anger and terror. And the interpreter, again, dryly:

‘He says no, your worship.’

When the questioning was over, the guilt of the poor old man was declared proved, and he was remanded to a superior court which condemned him to the noose. On the day the sentence was executed, the square in front of the prison was jammed full of kneeling people shouting prayers in Irish for the repose of Myles Joyce’s soul. The story was told that the executioner, unable to make the victim understand him, kicked at the miserable man’s head in anger to shove it into the noose. [The hanging was botched -ed.]

The figure of this dumbfounded old man, a remnant of a civilization not ours, deaf and dumb before his judge, is a symbol of the Irish nation at the bar of public opinion. Like him, she is unable to appeal to the modern conscience of England and other countries. The English journalists act as interpreters between Ireland and the English electorate, which gives them ear from time to time and ends up being vexed by the endless complaints of the Nationalist representatives who have entered her House, as she believes, to disrupt its order and extort money.

Abroad there is no talk of Ireland except when uprisings break out, like those which made the telegraph office hop these last few days. Skimming over the dispatches from London (which, though they lack pungency, have something of the laconic quality of the interpreter mentioned above), the public conceives of the Irish as highwaymen with distorted faces, roaming the night with the object of taking the hide of every Unionist. And by the real sovereign of Ireland, the Pope, such news is received like so many dogs in church. Already weakened by their long journey, the cries are nearly spent when they arrive at the bronze door. The messengers of the people who never in the past have renounced the Holy See, the only Catholic people to whom faith also means the exercise of faith, are rejected in favour of messengers of a monarch, descended from apostates, who solemnly apostasized himself on the day of his coronation, declaring in the presence of his nobles and commons that the rites of the Roman Catholic Church are ‘superstition and idolatry’.


Myles Joyce (leftmost) along with Patrick Joyce (center) and Patrick Casey (right). All three hanged together.

There are twenty million Irishmen scattered all over the world. The Emerald Isle contains only a small part of them. But, reflecting that, while England makes the Irish question the centre of all her internal politics she proceeds with a wealth of good judgment in quickly disposing of the more complex questions of colonial politics, the observer can do no less than ask himself why St. George’s Channel makes an abyss deeper than the ocean between Ireland and her proud dominator. In fact, the Irish question is not solved even today, after six centuries of armed occupation and more than a hundred years of English legislation, which has reduced the population of the unhappy island from eight to four million, quadrupled the taxes, and twisted the agrarian problem into many more knots.

In truth there is no problem more snarled than this one. The Irish themselves understand little about it, the English even less. For other people it is a black plague. But on the other hand the Irish know that it is the cause of all their sufferings, and therefore they often adopt violent methods of solution. For example, twenty-eight years ago, seeing themselves reduced to misery by the brutalities of the large landholders, they refused to pay their land rents and obtained from Gladstone remedies and reforms. Today, seeing pastures full of well fed cattle while an eighth of the population lacks means of subsistence, they drive the cattle from the farms. In irritation, the Liberal government arranges to refurbish the coercive tactics of the Conservatives, and for several weeks the London press dedicates innumerable articles to the agrarian crisis, which, it says, is very serious. It publishes alarming news of agrarian revolts, which is then reproduced by journalists abroad.

I do not propose to make an exegesis of the Irish agrarian question nor to relate what goes on behind the scene in the two faced politics of the government. But I think it useful to make a modest correction of facts. Anyone who has read the telegrams launched from London is sure that Ireland is undergoing a period of unusual crime. An erroneous judgment, very erroneous. There is less crime in Ireland than in any other country in Europe. In Ireland there is no organized underworld. When one of those events which the Parisian journalists, with atrocious irony, call ‘red idylls’ occurs, the whole country is shaken by it. It is true that in recent months there were two violent deaths in Ireland, but at the hands of British troops in Belfast, where the soldiers fired without warning on an unarmed crowd and killed a man and woman. There were attacks on cattle; but not even these were in Ireland, where the crowd was content to open the stalls and chase the cattle through several miles of streets, but at Great Wyrley in England, where for six years bestial, maddened criminals have ravaged the cattle to such an extent that the English companies will no longer insure them. Five years ago an innocent man, now at liberty, was condemned to forced labour to appease public indignation. But even while he was in prison the crimes continued. And last week two horses were found dead with the usual slashes in their lower abdomen and their bowels scattered in the grass.

* Even, Christine O’Neill-Bernhard argues in “Symbol of the Irish Nation, or of a Foulfamed Potheen District: James Joyce on Myles Joyce” (James Joyce Quarterly, Spring-Summer 1995) to the point of indulging “highly tendentious” polemical misrepresentations, such as inflating the middle-aged Myles Joyce into a 70-year-old patriarch. In James Joyce’s defense, his expatriate apartments on the Adriatic did not comprise a strong fact-checking position with regard to Irish criminal annals, and he might have been working entirely from memory.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Ireland,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Wrongful Executions

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1884: Howard Sullivan, ravisher and murderer

Add comment December 2nd, 2016 Headsman

From the New York Times, Dec. 3, 1884:

SALEM, N.J., Dec. 2. — The hanging of Howard Sullivan, the negro, which took place at the county jail this morning, was the closing act of a tragedy that has never been equaled in Salem and rarely in any other county in the State of New-Jersey. Ella Watson, on the night of Aug. 18, while proceeding to her home over a lonely road near Yorktown, a thrifty little village, nine miles north of this place, was waylaid, robbed, ravished, and murdered, and her body concealed in some bushes near by, where it was discovered a few days later.

For a time the murder was enveloped in mystery, but the vigilance of two or three detectives, among them a colored man, who exhibited remarkable skill in working up the case, soon unraveled it, and Sullivan was charged with the murder.

He had not been long in jail before a confession was wormed from him,* and when placed on trial before a Supreme Court and three lay Judges, in the Court of Oyer and Terminer, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to be hanged. Sullivan stood the prison life bravely, and not once did he display the slightest emotion.

Sullivan did not go to bed until after midnight last night. A great part of the time he spent in singing and praying, and when not engaged in this he was conversing with his death-watchers.

Confined in a cell on the third floor, the one he formerly occupied, and from which he attempted to escape, is a colored woman named Sallie Fisher, convicted of the larceny of a watch chain, and sentenced to imprisonment in the county jail for 90 days. Nearly all last night she prayed and wept aloud for Sullivan. Her voice could be heard for a long distance from the jail, and her cries were piteous in the extreme. Sullivan’s mother called to see him and remained with him for some time. The scene between them was an affecting one.

The morning opened clear and pleasant, and Sullivan arose at exactly 7:05 A.M., when he was awakened by the Warden. He left his breakfast untouched, saying he would eat “after a while.” When asked if he wished to make any statement for the public, he said: “There is nothing more that I care to say about the case. I have got no complaint at all to make about my trial or my treatment. I have had all I want to eat and Sheriff Kelty and ex-Sheriff Coles have been very kind to me. I hope to go to a better world, and I believe my sins will be forgiven.”

Sullivan added that he had slept quite as well as usual during the night. After making this statement he ate the breakfast that had been prepared for him. His manner was calm, and when talking to his companions he was almost cheerful.

At 9 o’clock the gallows was tested and found to be in good working order. A few minutes later the condemned man’s fater and mother called to see him, and while they were with him in the cell all others, except his spiritual adviser, were excluded. The father is a bright, honest looking man, 65 years of age, though his appearance does not indicate it.

The meeting between Sullivan and his father and mother, together with the Rev. Richard Miles, Pastor of the Mount Pisgah Methodist Episcopal (colored) Church, of this city, one of his spiritual advisers, was a quiet one. They all sat around a stove in an outer room and chatted pleasantly for a few minutes. Sullivan said to his parents: “If you cry I will want to cry, but if you control yourselves I will.” This was all he said regarding his feelings.

While his family were still with him the Rev. William S. Zane, Pastor of the Walnut-Street Church, and the Rev. W.V. Louderbough, Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, called on him and uttered a few consoling words. They have been regular visitors for some time, but took no part in the execution. The Rev. Wilson Peterson, Pastor of the African Church of Bushtown, also called while Sullivan’s parents were with him, and before taking their final leave all joined in singing “Take the Name of Jesus with you.”

Finally, the prisoner’s sisters entered the jail, and his parting with them was distressing.

His sister Emeline fell in a fainting fit and had to be carried out. This sight proved too much for his mother’s nerves, and, weeping and wailing, she was led into another room. When Emeline was taken to the street, on her way to the railroad station, she again fell in a fainting fit, and was actually dragged to the train. Mrs. Sullivan kept up long enough to reach the house of a friend, where she remained until her departure for Yorktown at noon.

After Sullivan’s cell was cleared of all except his spiritual adviser a final prayer in the jail was offered by the Rev. Mr. Peterson, after which, at 10:20 A.M., Sheriff Kelty, in the presence of Prosecutor Slape, read the death warrant. Sullivan was the coolest man in the party.

At 11:18 the jury appointed by the court filed down stairs to the basement and thence to the yard.

Sullivan, preceded by the two spiritual advisers, and accompanied by his friend, ex-Sheriff Coles, followed immediately after. He was dressed in a neat-fitting black diagonal suit, and wore black cloth gloves.

At the scaffold the Rev. Mr. Miles offered a prayer. Then the prisoner’s ankles were pinioned and his hands were fastened behind him with handcuffs

Ex-Sheriff Coles asked him if he desired to say anything, and he replied: “I hope the Lord will bless you all, and I hope to meet you all in heaven. Good-bye. When I fall from here I will fall into the arms of Jesus. It is a warning for all. It is very sad for my mother, my father, for Mr. Kelty, and for every one, but it is not sad for me. It is a marriage ceremony with me, and I want to be there in time for the feast with all those good men that have gone before me. I want all you gentlemen who have sons to take heed and learn them. Good-bye all.”

As the black cap was being adjusted Sullivan bade his friend Coles good-bye. There was just the slightest tremor in his voice as he spoke.

At exactly 11:29 the drop fell. There was a twitching of the body for a minute, and then it hung withut motion. In three minutes Sullivan was pronounced dead; his neck had been broken. The body was allowed to hang for half an hour, when it was cut down and placed in the coffin. It was buried at Bushtown in the afternoon.

* By a Pinkerton detective infiltrated into his cell for the purpose. According to the Chicago Tribune report of the trial, relating that detective’s gloss on Sullivan’s alleged jailhouse confession,

Sullivan said he sneaked up behind Ella Watson unperceived and struck her three or four terrible blows with a cane had had picked up in the woods. She fell to the ground, and, grasping the prostrate form, he dragged it across the road into the bushes, where he attempted to commit a dastardly assault upon the dying girl. She resisted his attempts, but he accomplished his design. Then the girl raised her head and exclaimed, “O, I know you!” “Then,” said Sullivan, “I clutched her by the throat and choked her with all my might. That killed her. I didn’t stop choking her until a shudder ran through her and I knew she was dead.”

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

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1887: Joseph Morley

1 comment November 21st, 2016 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1887, a teenager named Joseph Morley was hanged for the brutal murder of his 24-year-old landlady, Martha Bodger. He had been only seventeen at the time of the crime.

Morley, a journeyman blacksmith, lived with a married couple, Martha Bodger and James Mears Bodger, along the Romford Road in Essex. James worked as a gardener at nearby ominous Hainault Lodge.


The Overlook Hotel-esque lodge is no longer extant and its former site has been turned into a nature preserve.

Joseph had been living with them since early in 1887 and had caused no trouble in the household.

James last saw his wife alive on October 11, 1887. He rose at 4:00 a.m. and, at 5:40 a.m., took a cup of tea to his wife. He set off for work at 5:45, reminding Joseph to make sure and shut the front door on his way out.

Just a few minutes later, the neighbors heard screams coming from from the direction of Martha’s bedroom.

The noise was cut off abruptly, and did not resume. One of the witnesses, next-door neighbor Thomas Briant, tried the Bodgers’ front door, but it was locked and no one answered. Briant’s niece, who was present, said she heard the sound of a man’s heavy footsteps coming from the kitchen. Briant also worked at Hainault Lodge and, uncomfortable with the situation, he decided to go there and tell James what had happened, just to be on the safe side.

While Briant was hurrying to the lodge, his niece stayed inside and heard someone leaving through the Bodgers’ front door. She looked out and saw Joseph Morley walking away from the house at an unhurried pace, evidently en route to his job at a blacksmith’s shop 200 yards away.

When Thomas Briant told James Bodger about the noises, the worried husband and father rushed home to see what had happened. The sight that greeted him in the bedroom was something from a horror movie. As Linda Rhodes and Kathryn Abnett describe in their book, Foul Deeds and Suspicious Deaths in Barking, Dagenham and Chadwell Heath:

Martha was lying on her back across the center of the bed. Her nightdress was pulled up towards her waist, leaving her lower body exposed. Her legs hung over the side of the bed facing the door, the feet not quite touching the ground. There was blood everywhere — across her throat, on the floor, and across the walls. The blanket, counterpane and sheet lay on the floor, and were also saturated with blood.

Next to Martha’s body lay the couple’s six-month-old baby, Amy Elizabeth. Little Amy was covered in blood but unharmed, and giggled when she saw her father. The murder weapon, James Bodger’s razor, was under the bed. The killer had wielded it with such force that the blade had snapped off the handle.

Martha was beyond help; she was already dead by the time her husband found her. The doctor counted four long, deep cuts across her throat as well as a gash on her face and defensive wounds on her left hand. She had also suffered a blow to the side of the head. There was no evidence of sexual assault, in spite of the position of her clothes. Her purse was by the bed with no money missing.

James had no doubt who must have killed his wife, and went storming off to Joseph Morley’s place of work. Morley flatly denied having had anything to do with the matter, but his boss noticed some small spots of blood on his coat.

Closer scrutiny revealed additional stains on his coat and pants, as well as on his shirt, which had been turned inside out. Morley claimed the blood was from a cut he’d gotten when he fell off his bicycle the night before, and produced deep cuts on both hands that he said were from yesterday’s accident. But the same doctor who had examined Martha’s body had a look at Joseph’s hands and said the cuts were very recent, an hour or two old at the most.

He was placed under arrest for murder. Morley, with a “dreamy unconcerned manner,” followed the police constable to the station.

At his trial in early November, Morley’s attorney argued the case against him was only circumstantial. Forensics of the 1880s could not have identified the source of the bloodstains on his clothes, or even proven they were human. Nevertheless, he was convicted, and shortly afterwards he confessed his guilt.

Deploying the timeless “blame the media” gambit, Morley claimed he had had lately been obsessed with reading about murders and other crimes in the news, particularly a case in Suffolk where a vicar had been murdered with a razor in his own bed. He said he had yielded to an irresistible impulse to kill Martha and he deeply regretted his actions. He denied any sexual motive for the crime.

He was hanged by executioner James Berry, who told reporters that Morley was the youngest person he’d had to hang so far in his career. After a good night’s sleep, Morley enjoyed a breakfast of fish, bread and butter before mounting the scaffold. He died quickly and easily, and a reporter who viewed his corpse afterwards said it looked as if he had passed away peacefully in bed.

James Bodger remarried two and a half years after his first wife’s murder, and his second marriage produced a son. Unfortunately, Bodger’s life would be a short one: he died of influenza in 1894, aged only 33.

Amy Elizabeth was brought up by her aunt and uncle. She stayed in the local area, married in 1912 and lived a long life, dying at age 90.

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

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1886: William Wilson

Add comment November 12th, 2016 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1886, 45-year-old William S. Wilson was hanged for murder in Jonesboro, Illinois. He had killed his wife, Margaret.

Wilson was good at producing offspring — he was the father of at least seven children and possibly as many as nine — but not so good at providing for them. At Christmas in 1885, he left his family and went to Kentucky, leaving his destitute wife and kids only $5 in cash (the equivalent of about $130 in modern terms) and very little fuel. When supplies ran out in early January, several neighbors took pity on Margaret Wilson and her brood and banded together to cut enough firewood to get them through the winter.

When William returned home on January 7, however, he was furious when he learned Margaret had shamed him by accepting charity.

Daniel Allen Hearn, in his book Legal Executions in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky and Missouri: A Comprehensive Registry, 1866-1965, records,

Wilson berated his wife for allowing the neighbors to act. He chased the heavily pregnant woman out of their cabin and shot her down in the mud and slush. The sight of her near-term unborn baby vainly kicking against the interior wall of her abdomen appalled witnesses, who could do nothing to save it. Details such as these illustrate the brutality that often characterizes these all-too-common wife-killing cases.

William had shot Margaret twice: once in the chest inside the house, and once again outdoors as she was running away. As she lay dying on the frozen ground he walked away. He didn’t get far before he was arrested.

A contemporary newspaper article speculated that William might be crazy, noting that he had been “affected for a long time with some incurable disease” and “is not regarded by some as sane.” But it wasn’t enough. William paid the ultimate price for his crime eleven months after the murder.

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

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1807: Ephraim Blackburn, low roller

Add comment November 11th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1807, a throw of the dice noosed Ephraim Blackburn.

The son of a Pennsylvanian who served in George Washington’s army, Blackburn sought his own martial adventure by joining the expedition of Louisiana-Mexico border trader Philip Nolan in 1801.

Nolan had spent the 1790s living and trading along the frontier of Mexico and (Spanish, until 1800) Louisiana. Nolan worked in a legal twilight, earning the connivance of some Mexican officials and the hostility of others; perhaps no Anglo was better-acquainted with Texas.

By 1800 he was barred from the territory but assembled a coterie of 30-plus armed men and ventured into Texas once agan on an apparent filibustering operation seeking to carve out control of some piece of Texas. Our man Ephraim Blackburn was among these daring souls, whose wooden palisade somewhere near the Brazos River was quickly overwhelmed by a Mexican attack.

Nolan died in the battle, leading the remainder of his men to surrender. From there they would embark on a strange years-long legal road, their numbers continually winnowed by escapes. Ordinarily when one is prosecuted as a foreign invader, one is not permitted to have the liberty of the city or to go into business, but that is exactly what occurred with the Nolan men.

One of their number, Peter Ellis Bean, is known to have survived his incarceration; he escaped and fought for Father Miguel Hidalgo‘s Mexican revolutionaries against Spain, returned to the United States in 1818, then re-settled in post-independence Mexico. Bean conferred on posterity a memoir recalling that during their imprisonment,*

Some of my companions got leave of the general to go to other towns to live, but I thought I would find out some way of making something. I gave myself out as a hatter. There was a gentleman who trusted me for whatever was necessary to carry on that business. I employed two Spanish hatters to work with me, for, in fact, I was no hatter at all. In about six months I had so raised my name, that no one would purchase hats except of the American. By this means I got a number of journeymen to work with me. I was clear of debt, and making from fifty to sixty dollars per week.

All this entrepreneurialism was unfolding while capital case meandered with no great urgency among Spanish courts. One judge recommended the prisoners’ outright release in 1804; by the time the message had been shipped across the Atlantic and back, it was 1807, and the judge had died. The crown’s reversal horrifyingly required the death of one in every five of the invaders — although since deaths and escapes had now reduced their ranks to just nine, the local authorities mercifully rounded the figure down to one.

On the 9th of November, the nine remaining prisoners were gathered in a Chihuahua barracks and made aware of their situation. They agreed among themselves to cast dice in order of seniority — low roll hangs.**

Blackburn was the oldest, and the first to roll. He threw a 3 and 1. Bean narrates, beginning with the frighteningly mysterious arrival of confessional priests the night before the survival lottery:

all our conversation that night was in view of our being put to death. I told them that we should trust to fate, and not fret ourselves about what we could not remedy. One of them said the bravest would be cast down to see his open grave before him. “But,” said I, “if you find no way to escape that grave, is it not better to march up to it like a man, than to be dragged to it like one dead? It is enough for them to drag me to it when life is gone. The most cowardly, where under sentence of death, have marched up with great bravery. And, as for myself, if I must die, I mean not to disgrace my country.” The reason I talked so was that I did not believe they would put us to death.

Soon the next morning the priests returned, and David Fero asked them if we were to be put to death. They said they did not know — perhaps some might be. I then began to conclude it would be me, and all my companions thought the same thing. I, however, said nothing; for, as I had before talked of valor in such cases, it became necessary for me to support that character. The priests said we must confess all our sins to them, and we should be forgiven. As for myself, I had been taught that God knew all my crimes and it was not worth while to relate them to the parsons. But some of my companions began to confess, and had their sins forgiven. When they asked me, I told them I must have four or five days to recollect all my sins — that they were so many, it was doubtful whether I could ever remember them all. The parsons advised me to begin, and God would enlighten me, and help me to remember them. I told them I could not that day, but perhaps by the next day I could remember some things. They then left us. All that day the talk among us was as to who it would be. I told them, I supposed, as I was the worst, it would be me; and, as my friend Tony Waters had been put in with us to share our fate, I thought, as he had broken open my letter, that if the thing went according to justice, and they hung the worst man, it must be him, for he was, without doubt, the greatest villain and ought to have been dead some years ago. Waters sighed, but said nothing. The next day the parsons came again, and brought with them a colonel, who read to us the king’s order — which was, that every fifth man was to be hung, for firing on the king’s troops. But, as some were dead, there were but nine of us, and, out of the nine, but one had to die. This was to be decided by throwing dice on the head of a drum. Whoever threw lowest, was to be executed. It was then agreed that the oldest must throw first. I was the youngest, and had to throw last. The first was blindfolded, and two dice put in a glass tumbler. He was led to the drum which was put in the room, and there cast the dice on the head of the drum. And so we went up, one by one, to cast the awful throw of life or death. All of my companions, except one, threw high: he threw four. As I was the last, all his hopes were that I should throw lower than he. As for my part, I was indifferent about it, for I had resigned myself to fortune. I took the glass in my hand, and gained the prize of life, for I threw five.

After two days to prepare himself, Blackburn hanged on Chihuahua’s Plaza de los Urangas. The remaining prisoners were scattered to different prisons for many years to come; among the survivors, only Bean is known to have set eyes on his native soil again.

* On the expedition that would staple his name to mainland America’s highest peak, Zebulon Pike was briefly captured by the Mexicans and taken to Chihuahua, where he met some of the Nolan gang prisoners.

** Both the random selection and its circumstances — punishing Anglo adventurers — strongly foreshadow Mexico’s later Black Bean Lottery.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Chosen by Lot,Death Penalty,Execution,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Mexico,Public Executions,Soldiers,Spain,Terrorists,Texas,USA

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1882: Samuel and Milton Hodge

Add comment November 10th, 2016 Headsman

From the Lebanon Daily News, Nov. 11, 1882:

KNOXVILLE, Tenn., Nov. 10 — Samuel and Milton Hodge, both colored brothers, were hanged here to-day in the presence of about 8,000 persons. The doomed men spoke for about ten minutes, each saying they were prepared to die and were “going home to glory.” They warned those present to beware of their fate. As the black cap was pulled over Milton’s face, he sang in a strong voice “Going Home on da Even’ Train,” and Samuel was singing “Going Home to Die no More,” when he was choked by the rope.

The crime for which the Hodge’s [sic] were hanged was the killing of their brother-in-law, James McFarland, over a year ago.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Tennessee,USA

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1866: Robert Dodge, haunter

Add comment November 8th, 2016 Robert Elder

(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. 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.)

“The time will come when my innocence will be proven, and then Bob Dodge will haunt you for his murder.”

— Robert S. Dodge, convicted of murder, hanging, California.
Executed November 8, 1866

Borrowing a double-barrel shotgun, ostensibly to hunt quail, Dodge could not account for his whereabouts when a man who was quarreling with his brother was shot. Dodge went through two trials and during the second was found guilty of first-degree murder. In prison, he attempted suicide by taking opium.


To Elder’s hanging-day sketch (and since blog column-inches are free) we add the report of the San Francisco Evening Bulletin, Nov. 10, 1866 — itself channeling the Nevada Transcript. (Meaning Nevada City, Calif., not the state of Nevada.)

[Dodge] was twice tried and convicted of the murder of Mark P. Hammock, and after both trials the case was taken to the Supreme Court, whence the case was once sent back.

The verdict after the second conviction was sustained and the District Court ordered to fix a day for the execution.

The testimony against Dodge was entirely circumstantial.

Sheriff Gentry read the death-warrant, after which Dodge stepped to the rail in front and addressed those in the yard in a speech of ten minutes. He said he had once more the privilege of addressing them in this dark and gloomy world. He alluded to his home, his mother and friends, speaking of them in affectionate terms, and picturing the grief they would feel on hearing that their youngest son had died upon the gallows.

He spoke of the anxiety manifested to witness his death, and warned those present that the time would come when they would repent having seen it, and that when they discovered, as they surely would, that he was innocent, remorse would forever follow them.

He declared that he suffered on account of false testimony offered against him. He alluded to the future, saying that in “eternity Bob Dodge would be seen coming in glory.”

At the conclusion of the speech he turned to Sheriff Gentry and requested him to finish the work quickly. When asked if he had anything further to say by the Sheriff, he replied only “I am innocent.”

He then bid those on the platform good-bye, shaking hands with them, and then stepped upon the trap. His limbs were lashed with cords and the black cap placed over his head.

He then said, in a loud voice, “Boys, I want you all to hear, I am innocent.”

A prayer was read by Mr. Anderson, and at 18 minutes past 1 o’clock the trap fell, and the soul of Dodge was sent to a higher court for judgment.

On this day..

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

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