Posts filed under '19th Century'

1899: Martha Place, the first woman electrocuted

2 comments March 20th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1899, Martha Place became the first woman to die in the electric chair.

William Place, a widowed insurance adjuster at 598 Hancock Street in Brooklyn, had taken Martha Garretson on as a housekeeper.

In time William felt her a suitable enough helpmate to put a ring on it and make her Ida’s full-time mother.

Honestly, though, some kids are just better off in a single-parent household.

Martha’s aptitude as a nurturer really can’t have met Bill Place’s expectations. “She felt that her husband loved his daughter more than he did her, and her jealousy rapidly changed into hatred for the little girl,” opined the New York Times. (July 9, 1898) “As the child grew into a pretty young woman and became more and more of a contrast to her, her hatred began to take active form. Place tried to reconcile them, but in vain. For three years Ida and her stepmother rarely spoke to each other, and in her father’s absence the girl was generally away from home.”

On at least one occasion, Mr. Place summoned the police to deal with a death threat that landed Martha in the dock.

On February 7, 1898, there’d be no more need for threats.

William Place arrived home that day to find the vengeful termagant brandishing an axe in his direction, with which she clobbered him twice about the head. Only wounded when she walked away from him, Place managed to pry a door open and call for help. When the police arrived, they found Martha in a gas-filled room attempting suicide (or pretending to) … and they found Martha’s bete noir, the poor stepdaughter, stone dead on her bed with acid burns on her face and an axe-gash from her scalp to her neck.

There’s a reason the “Wicked Stepmother” is such a venerable trope.

Public opinion did not take kindly to this destruction of hearth and home by such an unlovely faux-mother. The Times (July 8, 1898, once again) judged her

rather tall and spare, with a pale, sharp face. Her nose is long and pointed, her chin sharp and prominent, her lips thin and her forehead retreating. There is something about her face that reminds one of a rat’s,* and the bright, but changeless eyes somehow strengthen the impression. She looks like a woman of great strength of mind and relentless determination. The only time her expression changed during the trial was when her husband, William W. Place, testified to the attack made upon him. Then her thin lips parted in a sardonic grin, and she fixed her eyes upon him. The smile hardly ever left her face while he was on the stand. He did not look at her.

A greater contrast than that between this husband and wife could not be imagined. He is a man of refined appearance, and speaks in a quiet, pleasant voice. He testified calmly, except once or twice, when the questions of the lawyers bore upon the persecution of Ida. Then his voice trembled with emotion, while, on the other hand, it was impossible to make one’s self believe that Mrs. Place was possessed of any other feeling than that of a mild curiosity.

The criminal conviction was simplicity itself, and if women are generally less exposed to the risk of execution, their most characteristic point of vulnerability will tend to be a violation of the demands of sacred motherhood. Envious rat-faced stepmom acid-burns blooming daughter of refined burgher? That’s as paradigmatic as a female execution gets.

There was, of course, no shortage of attention since executions of women aren’t exactly everyday affairs in American history … and this one in particular would be the very first since New York introduced the industrial age’s death penalty innovation, the electric chair. The Medico-Legal Society of New York had a contentious debate at its February 1899 meeting over whether women ought to be executed at all. (The lone female speaker, Ida Trafford Bell, earned applause from the women in attendance by insisting that the fairer sex should have “just as much right to be electrocuted as a man.” (NYT, Feb. 16, 1899) Probably so, but they were still a generation away from having just as much right to vote.

Anyway, the governor of the state — Theodore Roosevelt, who was just a couple of years from becoming U.S. president thanks to another New York murderer — had the final say in the matter. Martha Place’s presence in these annals naturally discloses the outcome of his deliberations.

No more painful case can come before a Governor than an appeal to arrest the course of justice in order to save a woman from capital punishment, when that woman’s guilt has been clearly established, and when there are no circumstances whatever to mitigate the crime. If there were any reasonable doubt of the guilt — if there were any basis whatsoever for interference with the course of justice in this case — I should so interfere. But there is no ground for interference …

The only case of capital punishment which has occurred since the beginning of my term was for wife murder, and I refused to consider the appeals then made to me on behalf of the man who had killed his wife, after I became convinced that he had really done the deed and was sane.** In that case a woman was killed by a man; in this a woman was killed by another woman. The law makes no distinction of sex in such a crime.

This murder was one of peculiar deliberation and atrocity. To interfere with the course of the law in this case could be justified only on the ground that never hereafter, under any circumstances, should capital punishment be inflicted upon any murderess, even though the victim was herself a woman and even though that victim’s torture preceded her death.” (as quoted in the New York Times, March 16, 1899)

Happily the Sing Sing electric chair performed its duty smoothly with, per the March 21 Times, “no revolting feature” in evidence. It was, boasted the prison doctor, “the best execution that has ever occurred here.”

* As we’ve often seen, observers of women in the dock have a knack for perceiving a correlation of physical beauty to virtue, and the reverse.

** Roosevelt rejected Bailer Decker’s appeal for mercy on January 3, 1899 — his very first day in office.

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1878: Joseph LaPage, murderer of Josie Langmaid

Add comment March 15th, 2014 Headsman

Joseph LaPage died on a gallows at Concord, N.H. on this date in 1878 for the horrific murder of Josie Langmaid more than two years before.

The 17-year-old Josie’s disappearance one October morn while walking to her classes at the Pembroke Academy shocked the town of Pembroke and the adjoining village of Suncook. Late that night, frantic search parties found Josie’s body by torchlight in a cluster of trees just off Academy Road — ravaged, mutilated, and headless. (The head turned up the next morning, half a mile away.)

The horror of her murder so shook* Pembroke that it put up a memorial obelisk that still stands today — right near the turn into present-day Three Rivers School. Additional inscriptions on the macabre monument direct the viewer to a little stone pillar 90 feet north at the exact spot her body was recovered … and yet another one 82 rods on where her head was recovered.

“As I pull out of the driveway of the school, leaving my daughter behind, the monument is a visible reminder of how quickly our lives can change,” one commenter mused in a detailed post on the excellent true-crime blog Murder By Gaslight.

All of New England thrilled to the horrific crime, in consequence of which — after a week’s worth of panicky arrests of random tramps and the town’s only African-American — it soon became known that an itinerant French woodcutter named Joseph LaPage who had been suspected of a similar slaying previously in St. Alban’s, Vermont, just so happened to be in the area.

And upon arrest, he was found to have a boot whose bloodied heel appeared to match the shape of a violent gouge found on Langmaid’s severed head.

This is not reliable forensic evidence in the modern sense. But evidence began to exclude nearly ever other person who had fallen under early suspicion, and the circumstances implicating Joseph LaPage soon stood out damningly.

Perhaps the most powerful was a history of savage violence against women.

LaPage (born outside Montreal as Joseph Paget) had come to live in the United States by escaping over the Canadian border after raping his sister-in-law, Julianne Rousse. He had escaped the St. Alban’s prosecution in part thanks to alibis provided by his sons, who now recanted their testimony. LaPage was known to abuse his wife, and was thought to have outraged his own daughter.

And it was found that in Pembroke, LaPage had been making unnervingly personal inquiries after the habits of his employer’s pretty young daughter — a Pembroke Academy student herself who customarily walked to school along Academy Road with Josie Langmaid. She might have been LaPage’s intended target, but on the fateful morning she chanced to catch a carriage ride instead.

Though LaPage fought his sentence for two years and even won an appeal overturning the first verdict against him, he was condemned a second time. He confessed on the eve of his hanging to both Langmaid’s murder, and that of Marietta Ball in St. Alban’s — complete with hand-drawn maps for both crimes indicating how he had gone about committing them, and where he had disposed of the remains.

However, because LaPage was not forthcoming with such a confession at the point of trial, and because evidence such as Julianne Rousse’s rape testimony and the suspicions against him from St. Alban’s was excluded as irrelevant, it had been necessary to develop the strongest possible evidentiary case in the Langmaid murder without depending overmuch on the accused’s brutish reputation.

To that end, the LaPage prosecutions also became a bit of a minor forensics laboratory: there had been bloodstains found on some of his clothes, but of course, this could be blood from butchering an animal or from injuring himself in the course of woodcutting, or anything else.

Could one say more than that in the 1870s? A significant subplot of LaPage’s trials consisted of scientists expert in “blood microscopy” explaining their tests on Langmaid’s and LaPage’s clothing, and in particular their suggestion of a tentative match between some of the samples based on restoring with a simulated serum the dried corpuscules to something resembling their living state and examining the dimensions of the corpuscules. The blood on Josie Langmaid’s clothes “resembled in every respect that found upon the clothing of LaPage,” one doctor testified. (St. Albans (Vt.) Messenger — which newspaper heavily reported the course of LaPage’s trial, for obvious reasons — January 10, 1876.)

LaPage’s defense naturally attempted to repel such evidence by arguing against the method of “restoring” corpuscules, against the reliability of their post-mortem characteristics, and against the dependability of the alleged matches between samples. LaPage’s last-minute confession led the St. Alban’s Messenger (March 22, 1878) to exult that

[i]t must be exceedingly gratifying to Drs. Richardson, Treadwell and Chase, to have this confirmation by voluntary confession of the revelations of crime by the microscope. It will no longer do for flippant attorneys to scout** the revelations which modern science gives, at the hands of intelligent, patient, skillful and thoughtful manipulators in microscopy and photography; and the conviction and punishment of such a monster as LaPage, largely by the testimony of blood experts secures another triumph for modern science.

* In addition to the obelisk, a “Suncook Town Tragedy Ballad” (lyrics here) preserves the terrible tale.

** “To scout” has a little-used meaning of “to scorn; dismiss”. This meaning has a completely different etymology from the more usual meaning of searching or reconnoitering.

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1865: Amy Spain, liberation anticipation

1 comment March 10th, 2014 Headsman

This date in 1865, just weeks before the final collapse of the Confederacy, a slave named Amy was hanged on a sycamore tree before the courthouse of Darlingon, S.C., for anticipating her liberty a little too exuberantly.

Mopping up after his march to the sea, Union Gen. William T. Sherman proceeded to South Carolina. After occuping the capital, Columbia, Sherman’s army made a northerly progression towards North Carolina.

In early March, Union Cavalry appeared in Darlington. Our 17-year-old principal, the domestic of a local lawyer named A.C. Spain,* exulted at this arrival.

“Bless the Lord, the Yankees have come!” Harper’s Weekly** would later report her to have exclaimed.

The long night of darkness which had bound her in slavery was about to break away. It was impossible to repress the exuberance of her feelings; and although powerless to aid the advancing deliverers of her caste, or to injure her oppressors, the simple expression of satisfaction at the event sealed her doom.

But the Union men were not long for the town. It was just a scout party; constrained by strategic objectives, and hindered by swollen early-spring rivers, the main body of Union forces passed Darlington by.

Anticipating an occupation that was not about to occur, Amy recklessly declared herself free and took some of the Spain household’s possessions — the fruit of her own involuntary labor. Whatever her exact actions in those days, they were frightfully punished — over the objection of A.C. Spain himself, who reportedly served as her advocate at the rebel military trial that condemned her.


This illustration of Amy Spain’s execution appeared with the Harper’s Weekly article quoted above.

Her persecutors will pass away and be forgotten, but Amy Spain’s name is now hallowed among the Africans, who, emancipated and free, dare, with the starry folds of the flag of the free floating over them, speak her name with holy reverence.

-Harper’s Weekly

* Spain was also a Confederate commissioner to Arkansas at the start of the Civil War, in which capacity he successfully urged Arkansas into the rebel camp.

** Septemer 30, 1865.

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1868: Joseph Eisele, honest, kind-hearted triple murderer

Add comment March 6th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1868, several thousand folk braved knee-deep mud to converge on Parkersburg, West Virginia for the last public hanging in Wood County.

Joseph Eisele was a German immigrant who worked at a furniture shop. He had, he would admit, manifested a predilection for crime from his childhood in Germany, on account of which he’d begun going by “John Schafer” once he pulled up stakes for America.

“Joseph Eisele is five feet nine inches high, stoutly built, somewhat round shouldered, and weighs one hundred and seventy pounds,” ran the introduction to Joseph Eisele’s own confessional pamphlet about Joseph Eisele.* “He is thirty-four years of age, with a complexion quite fair and florid, his light brown hair is worn short, and his beard shaved clean, except a light moustache, which gracefully shades a slightly sensual, though well shaped mouth, his nose is straight, well cut and proportioned, his gray eyes are somewhat deep set, and of a mingled expression of sadness and timidity, not in keeping with the open, genial brow, square jaw, strong chin, and other features of his manly and prepossessing countenance.”

It’s a description aiming to suggest a physiognomy of queer contrasts, mirroring the cold-blooded series of crimes committed by a seemingly conscientious and thoughtful man.

Even while “prowling around nightly with his terrible hatchet in his pocket, seeking more victims, he was sustaining a character for industry, frugality, temperance, honesty, kind-hearted liberality, and all the house-hold and domestic virtues, together with a dignity, modesty and intelligence rare among men in his walk of life,” a correspondent mused to the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Eisele murdered three men, Joseph Lilienthal, Aloys Ulrich, and Rudolph Tsutor, and robbed them, and did so with a carelessness for his own safety that would astonish once it became public. Lilienthal he killed in daylight behind an occupied boarding house. Ulrich’s distinctive possessions were sold off with little attempt to disguise them. Tsutor Eisele slew at his home at 10 in the morning, miraculously without being observed coming or going. Then the killer paid out his debts that same day.

Since it looks like Sherlock Holmes wouldn’t be on this case, it would be up to Eisele’s prey to help themselves.

Finally in early January 1868, Eisele clobbered a creditor across the neck in an attempt to take his fourth victim. John White fought back with “almost superhuman strength and courage” as his attacker later put it admiringly. The melee careened out into the street where finally, finally, Eisele was detected in his crime. He managed to flee the scene as bystanders came running, but was arrested shortly after.

At this point, the dignity, modesty, and intelligence stuff resurfaced.

Eisele’s trial began at 2 p.m. on January 20, and so ready was the defendant to expiate his guilt that the verdict was in the books before dinner. In a prepared statement that a translator read from Eisele’s native German (which also begged his adoptive countrymen not to think ill of Germans), Eisele foreswore any defense.

I want no witness and no defense, and can not really give any reason for my misdeeds, except that the evil spirit led me into temptation, and I could not resist it. I am willing to sacrifice my blood and life for my crimes, and hope the Almighty God will forgive me, and after death receive me into his kingdom. I therefore beg the people present for their forgiveness. I have no enmity towards any one in the world, and acknowledge that I deserve all that may befall me and am ready to bear it all with patience.**

There’s apparently some sentiment to mark the spot of the historic hanging in Parkersburg.

* As of this writing, Eisele’s book is available on Amazon! The quotes from it source to the Cincinnati Daily Enquirer, March 11, 1868.

** Cincinnati Daily Gazette, Jan. 27, 1868.

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1871: Ma Hualong, Dungan rebel

Add comment March 2nd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1871, the Qing executed Ma Hualong (or Ma Hua-lung), one of the principal leaders of a 15-year Muslim revolt in northwest China.

Ma was the fifth leader of the Jahriyya, a Sufi order whose founder Ma Mingxin had himself been executed during disturbances in the early 1780s.

By the team of Ma’s leadership, the Jahriyya were a major force in Gansu, Shaanxi and Ningxia.

Neither Ma nor any other single person led the Dungan revolt. (“Dungan” was a 19th century term for the ethnicity that’s now known as the Hui.) Rather, a cascading series of ethnic riots led in 1862 — while the Chinese army was absorbed elsewhere with the bloody Taiping Rebellion — to a patchwork of rebellious leaders and movements, operating independently and often viewing one another as rivals.

The Jahriyya was the closest thing to a unifying element among discontented Muslims. According to this volume, though Ma struck a pose of moderation and loyalty, in the Chinese court’s eyes, the disturbances “depend[ed] on Ma Hua-lung.” For the Qing, Ma’s nearly impregnable position at Jinjipu (Chin-chi-pao) and his diplomatic finesse were the lynchpin.

Dispatched to put down the revolt, General Tso Tsung-tang had the prestigious Ma as his primary target: with him gone, the rest of the rebels could be divided and conquered at leisure.

Unable to take Jinjipu by storm, General Tso besieged it unto near starvation, forcing Ma to surrender himself. Notwithstanding his attempts to take all the blame for the revolt on his own shoulders,

Ma was executed, together with twelve members of his immediate family, by the “slicing process”; some eighty of the lesser Muslim leaders were beheaded. Chin-chi-p’u was depopulated, and the surviving Muslims were sent, en masse, into exile or slavery.

Just a drop in a bucket for a conflict with 8 million-plus dead.

The Jahriyya order still exists to this day. And so too, of course, does General Tso — on Chinese restaurant menus.

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1837: The slave Julius, property of John and Rebecca Matthews

1 comment March 1st, 2014 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1837, a slave named Julius, property of John and Rebecca Matthews, was hanged for the attempted murder of his mistress. He was 20 years old. The story of his crime is told in detail in Lewis L. Laska’s Legal Executions in Tennessee: A Comprehensive Registry, 1782-2009.

Julius was the Matthews family’s only slave and was apparently mentally disabled; Rebecca said he had “but half sense” and John said he “had just sense enough to be a good negro.”

Both John and Rebecca emphasized that Julius was docile, obedient and apparently quite attached to his owners, who had three small children. They were baffled when he brutally assault Rebecca and tried to kill her.

On the day of the attack, John was absent. Julius went out corn-shucking with Littlebury Fallin and his uncle William Fallin, both of them white men. He came home at 6:00 p.m., drunk, did some household chores and made a large fire in the fireplace.

At 7:00, Rebecca heard some whistles outside the house and asked Julius what was going on. He said he didn’t know. He went outside and returned with an ax, saying he would use it to defend Rebecca if they were attacked. Rebecca locked the doors and windows, then sat at her spinning wheel for awhile.

When she bent over to pick something up, Julius grabbed her by the throat and said he was going to kill her, take all the money in the house and run away to a free state. He tried to throw her into the fireplace, saying he’d made the fire to burn her body.

There followed a fierce struggle and Rebecca put up a good fight. She was able to wrestle the ax away from her attacker, unlock the door and run outside. Julius tried to brain her with a large rock but he dropped it when she grabbed his arm. He then tried to stab her with a pocketknife but wound up accidentally cutting his own throat instead. Rebecca wrapped her hands around his neck and choked him until she felt him lapse into unconsciousness.

Then she grabbed her youngest daughter, age three, and legged it for a neighbor’s house. As she ran she noticed Littlebury and William Fallin right behind her.

In the state of Tennessee, even a slave was entitled to a lawyer at a criminal trial. John Matthews refused to appoint counsel for Julius, so the state appointed two lawyers to defend him. (One of them, Alfred O. P. Nicholson, would later serve two terms in the Senate and, after that, on the Tennessee Supreme Court.)

Julius expressed great remorse for his crime, saying he would never have done it sober and he wished Rebecca had killed him. At his trial, he confessed everything and implicated the Fallins, saying that they’d gotten him drunk during the corn-shucking and urged him to rob and kill his mistress.

William, who lived in Kentucky, promised to help him get to a free state. The whistles, Julius explained, had been signals from the Fallins that they were outside the cabin waiting for him to kill Rebecca.

Littlebury testified and denied everything. William did not testify. Neither man ever faced charges for their alleged role in the crime.

The jury convicted Julius after deliberating overnight, but they recommended mercy on account of his youth, his prior good character and the suspicion that he had been lead astray by others. Nevertheless, the sentence was death.

As Julius was awaiting his execution date, help came from an unlikely source: John Matthews, his owner and the husband of the victim. He wrote to the governor, Newton Cannon, asking that the errant slave be pardoned so Matthews could sell him. He listed the following reasons:

  1. The negro is shown to have had a most excellent character.
  2. He was quite young.
  3. He was proved to have but a very limited portion of intellect.
  4. He was shown to be in liquor and the circumstances raised a strong presumption that he was induced by white men to drink for the very purpose of being instigated to commit the murder.
  5. The circumstances rendered it certain that he was instigated by white men, and with his limited
    sense, and in liquor, that he was almost a passive instrument in their hands.
  6. He was the only slave of his master.

That last might have been the nub of it. Matthews emphasized that if Julius were hanged and his owners got no compensation — and the state of Tennessee never compensated an executed slave’s owner for the economic loss — the family would suffer greatly. This created an odd confluence of interest between the condemned slave and the one-slave family whose matron he had attempted.

John Matthews expressed confidence that Julius “was not himself when he did the act” and added that it seemed unreasonable “to take away a life when no murder had been committed.”

Going against Matthews’s letter was a petition from the citizens of Maury County, asking that justice take its course and Julius be executed. Julius had had a fair trial, the petition said. Sparing his life and merely selling him on would not only endanger public safety but would also set a bad example for other slaves: “For what is to restrain the slave from imbuing his hands on his masters’ blood, with whom he is incensed, if he had good reason to believe that his punishment, if caught, is to only be a change of masters, and a chance that the may be for the better?”

The governor ignored John Matthews’s plea and upheld the rule of law: Julius was hanged at 2:30 p.m. on March 1, and his master was not reimbursed. On the scaffold, the young slave “confessed his guilt, and deplored his error; spoke of his mistress with much tenderness and warned the colored persons present to remember his fate.”

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1860: Khan Bahadur Khan Rohilla, Bareilly rebel

Add comment February 24th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1860, the British hanged Khan Bahadur Khan Rohilla, a Pashtun leader who when India revolted in 1857 set up a short-lived independent government at Bareilly.*

Having word of the burgeoning rebellion elsewhere on the subcontinent, Bareilly’s native troops mutinied on May 31, 1857. Three captured European civilians were shot that evening; three more followed the next day.

Though Bareilly did not furnish the most spectacular massacre of the rebellion, it was one of several** that became grist for industrial Britain’s burgeoning mass media … and reports of bloody deeds prepared the British public to respond in kind. One Englishman wrote the London Times on June 3 (it was published on July 14): “When this crisis shall have passed, stern and unflinching vengeance on those who have mutinied and been guilty of atrocities, tempered with judicious and gracious clemency to those who were only misled into a willingness to joing them, will, I fondly hope, tend greatly to create and consolidate a lasting loyalty throughout our native troops.”

After the initial shock of the various risings, Great Britain set about methodically putting down the revolt.

In 1858, it was Bareilly’s turn. Fresh off defeating the most vigorous rebel commander Tantia Tope, the British commander Colin Campbell wrapped up the Indian campaign by marching his Highland regiments “in red coats, kilt, and feather bonnet, under a blazing sun, showing 112 degrees in the shade.”

That wished-for stern and unflinching vengeance marched with them.

Sergeant David McAusland of the 42nd Highland Regiment recalled that during his service in Bareilly during the Rebellion, “three scaffolds and six whipping posts stood outside of the town along side of the jail and there [took place] executions to the number of six every day.” The judge in charge of trials had lost his wife during the conflict, and had told McAusland, “if ever I get the chance of [judging] these Black rebels I will hang a man for every hair that was in my wife’s head.” McAusland responded by asking him how many men he had executed already, “he told me close on 700 well I said if you just continue you will have made good your work and turning to Sergt … Aden I said you mind what Sir Colin [Campbell] said to us at Cawnpore that every man that had a black face was our enemy and we could not do wrong in shooting him so you know how to act here.” (Source pdf, an essay eventually integrated into the author’s book-length study Martial Races: The Military, Race and Masculinity in British Imperial Culture, 1857-1914

As the man who had styled himself chief of Bareilly in opposition to British power could scarcely expect to escape such indiscriminate revenge.

“The complicity of this wretched man in the atrocities committed at Bareilly admits of no doubt whatever, and to allow him to escape from the gallows would be an outrage upon the memory of his unhappy victims,” the London Times reported on April 21, 1860, upon receiving (much belated) word of his execution.

* Great Britain’s initial seizure of Bareilly (Rohilkhand) from Khan Bahadur Khan’s ancestors in a 1774 war became part of the impeachment case Edmund Burke leveled in an impeachment case against colonial official Warren Hastings. As we’ve seen elsewhere on this site, that remarkable case also involved a shady execution.

** The largest and most inflammatory, of course, was Cawnpore/Kanpur.

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1828: Antoine Berthet, Stendhal inspiration

Add comment February 23rd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1828, Antoine Berthet capped his gift to the arts by going under the guillotine at Grenoble‘s Place Grenette.

You probably haven’t heard of Antoine Berthet, but if you’ve read The Red and the Black (Le Rouge et le Noir) you know his story. Stendhal (a native of Grenoble) published his magnum opus not three years after Berthet lost his head, and the novel’s executed fictional protagonist Julien Sorel bears an unmistakable resemblance to the very real Berthet.

Berthet was a smart seminary student of low birth who hired out as a tutor for the Michoud family but was dismissed under a cloud for an apparent affair with Madame Michoud.

Nothing daunted, Berthet caught on as a tutor in another family — where he proceeded to seduce the lovely daughter Henriette. But a letter from Madame Michoud to the new employers terminated job and liaison alike.

The enraged Berthet stalked his former mistress to Mass and melodramatically shot her right there in the church. He failed to kill his target, and likewise failed his attempted suicide.

Unlike his literary doppleganger — the Julien Sorel character defiantly spurns his former lovers’ attempts to pull strings on his behalf and insists on his responsibility in court — Antoine Berthet mounted an unsuccessful insanity defense. It was the “irresistible derangements of love” drove him to outrage feminine virtue, consecrated grounds, and (maybe most scandalously) the upper classes.

His prosecutor disagreed, attributing all to Berthet’s frustrated “ambitious dreams”: “understanding too late that he could not reach the goal that his pride proposed, Berthet, stripped of his hopes, would perish; but his rage would drag a victim along with him to the tomb that he dug for himself!”

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1862: Nathaniel Gordon, slave trader

1 comment February 21st, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1862, the American commercial shipper Nathaniel Gordon was hanged at the Tombs for slave trading.

Importing slaves to the U.S. had been nominally illegal for over half a century, but had never been strongly enforced. In 1820, slaving (regardless of destination) had even been defined as piracy, a capital crime.

Importation of kidnapped Africans into the United States did significantly abate during this period, and that was just fine with U.S. slaveowners ever paranoid of servile rebellion.

But a voracious demand for conscript labor persisted elsewhere whatever the legal situation. About 3 million slaves arrived to Brazil and Cuba, the principal slave shipment destinations, between 1790 and 1860 — even though the traffic was formally illicit for most of this time.

Great Britain was endeavoring to strangle the Atlantic slave trade, but the diplomatic weight she had to throw around Europe didn’t play in the U.S. Washington’s adamant refusal to permit the Royal Navy to board and search U.S.-flagged ships made the stars and stripes the banner of choice for human traffickers profitably plying the African coast. “As late as 1859 there were seven slavers regularly fitted out in New York, and many more in all the larger ports,” one history avers.

Hanging crime? No slave-runner had ever gone to the gallows as a “pirate” — not until Nathaniel Gordon.

The U.S. Navy did mount its own anti-slaving patrols, but the odd seizure of human cargo was more in the line of costs of doing business than a legal terror for merchants.

So Gordon, a veteran of several known slaving runs, didn’t necessarily think much of it on August 8, 1860, when the Mohican brought Gordon’s ship to bear 50 miles from the Congo with 897 naked Africans stuffed in the hold, bound for Havana. Half of his slaves were children.

“The stench from the hold was fearful, and the filth and dirt upon their persons indescribably offensive,” Harpers reported.

Gordon chilled in very loose confinement in the Tombs, even enjoying family leave furloughs as he readied for the customary slap on the wrist.

But with Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860, Gordon was promoted to demonstration case.

After a hung jury in June 1861, the feds won a conviction and death sentence on those long-unused piracy laws in November 1861.

Many New Yorkers were shocked at the prospect of such draconian punishment.

Abraham Lincoln found himself besieged by appeals public and private against the unprecedented judgment. “For more than forty years the statute under which he has been convicted has been a dead letter, because the moral sense of the community revolted at the penalty of death imposed on an act when done between Africa and Cuba which the law sanctioned between Maryland and Carolina,” Gordon’s counsel Judge Gilbert Dean wrote in an open letter to the President* — an argument that could hardly be more poorly calibrated to impress in 1862.

Despite Lincoln’s famous proclivity for the humanitarian pardon, he stood absolutely firm on the precedent Gordon’s hanging would set — especially in the midst of a bloody civil war driven by the very legal sanction Dean had cited so approvingly. As Lincoln wrote on February 4, 1862,

I think I would personally prefer to let this man live in confinement and let him meditate on his deeds, yet in the name of justice and the majesty of law, there ought to be one case, at least one specific instance, of a professional slave-trader, a Northern white man, given the exact penalty of death because of the incalculable number of deaths he and his kind inflicted upon black men amid the horror of the sea-voyage from Africa.

Gordon’s hanging was the one case — the only one ever.

* New York Times, Feb. 21, 1862.

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1878: J.W. Rover, sulfurous

Add comment February 19th, 2014 Headsman

Reno, Nevada had its only hanging on this date in 1878, and it’s never since been certain whether it was the right man they hung.

J.W. Rover, Frank McWorthy, and Isaac Sharp(e) had come from Oakland to work a sulfur claim in present-day Pershing County (then Humboldt County).

Sharp ended up dead, his body horribly mutilated and its dismembered parts scattered to different burial holes.

A mental health counselor I know is fond of saying of the family dysfunctions he has handled that who is crazy depends upon who gets to the phone first. It turns out that sometimes murder does, too.

McWorthy rode in to Winnemucca and swore out a complaint accusing Rover of the murder. Rover would spend the next three years vigorously but never quite successfully insisting that McWorthy was the one who killed Sharp.

Rover was convicted of murder in July 1875, but because the verdict didn’t mention degree of murder, the case had to be retried. In April 1876, Rover was convicted again, of first-degree murder, thank you very much. But the Nevada Supreme Court overturned that verdict, too, and granted Rover a change of venue to Reno’s Washoe County, where Rover was convicted for a third time in June 1877.

In all these proceedings, Rover never wavered from his claim of innocence, calling God to witness at trial after trial that it was his associate and accuser McWorthy who was the guilty party and wanted to frame up Rover to get his hands on that lucrative sulfur deposit.

Having failed three times over in court, Rover’s lawyers turned as the hanging approached to Section 458, a remote provision of the criminal code permitting a special jury to be impaneled “if after judgment of death there be good reason to suppose that the defendant has become insane.”

Three years and all those hearings on, Rover’s fate would finally rest in the hands of twelve new jurors impaneled on the very eve of his hanging. While Rover passed his final night in the Reno jail, his sanity jury met in a courtroom in an upper-story room.

Rover’s lawyers and the District Attorney made their arguments to the jury until midnight that night, then adjourned, and then re-assembled at 7:30 on the morning of the scheduled execution. Rover couldn’t sleep a wink, passing the night rambling emotionally with reporters — at one point breaking down as he read them a letter from his sister.

“As he lay there he formed an object at once of pity and interest,” one scribe wrote for the newspaper of nearby silver mining boomtown Virginia City.*

He was reclining upon a rude bed covered by a coarse blanket. His pillow had no case, and his hair was unkempt and rough-looking. His beard had the appearance of being about one month’s growth. The cell was narrow, and was lighted by the feeble rays of a tallow candle held by a Deputy Sheriff.

Once or twice, he would furtively ask the reporters’ estimation of his chances with the proceedings upstairs. The reporters didn’t know. The jury didn’t either.

That morning, as crowds besieged the courthouse seeking one of the 200 visitors’ permits for the “private” execution, the jury huddled inside it making its final deliberations over four long hours. At last, at noon, it came down seven votes for sane, five for insane.**

Seventy minutes after that vote, Rover was escorted to the gallows supported by two men and a stiff drink of whiskey. This was nearly a two-hour theater in its own right: after a 20-minute recitation of the death warrant, Rover spoke for 50-plus minutes, continuing to insist upon his innocence:

I am so prostrated by this long prosecution that I am unable to say what I want to say …

Gentlemen, McWorthy has got away, but if I had my liberty the face of the world would not be large enough to hide him. I would search him out and bring him to justice, and if the law could not reach him I would find a strong arm of justice that would reach him …

I must be hung; you will be sorry for it some day, but what good will that do me when I am dead and gone? Good-by. My heart is with you.

By the end, Rover could barely hold up. He took a drink of water. “Oh, gentlemen, I cannot realize that I am to be hung!” he cried as his limbs were pinioned at last, and had to be supported lest he swoon. The Catholic priest finally had to settle him down from his last babbling.

“Not guilty,” he insisted one last time. Then to the sheriff: “Go on and do your duty.”


Rumors of Rover’s innocence persisted for years after his hanging, not excluding claims that his ghost was on the haunt.†

In 1899, a newspaper reported that “It afterward developed that Rover was innocent of the crime for which he suffered. McWorthy died a few years ago in Arizona, and on his deathbed confessed that he was the murderer of Sharp.”

McWorthy might or might not have been the guilty party. But that story was not accurate — McWorthy was still alive at the time in Oakland, California.

* The newspaper in question was the Territorial Enterprise, notable for employing the young Mark Twain in the early 1860s. Indeed, it was here that the writer Samuel Clemens first employed that nom de plume. Ten years before Rover’s hanging, Clemens/Twain actually witnessed and wrote about a public hanging in Virginia City.

** Not as close as it sounds: Rover needed a unanimous verdict.

† The present-day Washoe County Courthouse, not built until many years after Rover’s hanging, allegedly has a haunted jail whose spook might be Rover.

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

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