OMAHA, Neb., June 5. — Charles Sheppard and Christian Fuerst, who murdered Carl Pulsifer Dec. 10, 1889, and then robbed the body of $20, were hanged at Frement [sic] at 10:30 this morning. Sheppard nearly fainted on the gallows, but Fuerst acted entirely unconcerned. When the men were asked if they had anything to say Fuerst replied, “nothin,” but Sheppard said, “We are the men who did the deed and therefore no one else can be accused of it.” Both of the men’s necks were broken.
From the very first volume of the Transactions of the American Ophthalmological Society, spanning 1864 to 1871. The society, and the journal, are still going strong.
The ellipses omit three other hangings investigated by Dr. Dyer.
FRACTURE OF THE CRYSTALLINE LENS IN PERSONS EXECUTED BY HANGING.
By E. Dyer, M.D., of Philadelphia, Pa.
Three years ago I presented to the Society the result of the examination of the eyes of a man who was hanged, also some experiments on the effects of hanging on the crystalline lens of the dog. In the case of the man the anterior capsule and the lens of the right eye were fractured. The direction of the fracture was horizontal and a line below the centre, extending as far back as the middle of the lens. In the left eye the anterior capsule only as involved. In one dog the same conditions were found, in another only one lens was fractured, and in a third no lesion was detected.
Since then I have experimented on rabbits. Two were hanged and four were strangulated. The trachea in two of the latter were laid bare and tied, but no fracture was detected in any case. Drs. S.W. Mitchell and W.W. Keen, who assisted me at the experiments on the dogs, were present.
The following are the notes of several executions at which I have been present since my report of the case already mentioned. I have been able to examine the eyes of the criminals both before and after death.
Gottlieb Williams, aet. 34, was executed in Philadelphia, June 4, 1867. Drop four and one-half feet; the knot slipped so as to be under the occiput; suspended thirty minutes; convulsive movements lasted five minutes; neck not dislocated.
Examination at 11.54 A.M., five minutes after the body was cut down. Appearance of eyes natural; no protrustion; no injection of conjunctival vessels, corneae clear.
Right eye, pupil well dilated; media clear. Small point seen on the anterior capsule of the lens in the median line, just above the margin of the pupil. At 12, M., spot more distinct; at 12.26 P.M., spot still present, somewhat elongated. Optic nerve normal; retinal vessels small.
Left eye, pupil smaller than the right; cornea clear; lens in normal condition; optic nerve normal; arteries small. I was not allowed to remove the eyes.
Drs. H. Yale Smith, physician to the prison, W.W. Keen and J. Ewing Mears assisted me in the examination.
This unpleasant series of investigations has been pursued ith the hope of throwing some light on the vexed question of the mechanism of the accommodation, but as yet without any satisfactory result.
Six Thousand People Present at the Execution of Sandy Mathews.
MEMPHIS, Tenn., June 2 — Sandy Mathews, colored, who murdered Essick Polk, colored, twele miles north of this city last October, was hanged in the county-jail yard this afternoon at 1 o’clock. The execution was witnessed by fully 6,000 people, a majority of whom were colored. The condemned man made a speech from the gallows, in which he confessed the killing, and implored his hearers to repent of their sins and go with him to Heaven. His neck was broken by the fall.
had been erected in the southern portion of the jail-yard and was built high enough to give a full view to the ccrowd that jammed the streets running parallel with the jail. Matthews [sic] slept well last night, and partook of a hearty breakfast this morning. He bade farewell to his wife about 11 o’clock, and began making preparations for the hanging. A few weeks ago he embraced Catholicism, and was attended in his cell by the Rev. Father Lucius, of St. Mary’s Catholic Church. He called for his dinner at noon, and ate heartily, and afterwards smoked a cigar. At half-past 12 o’clock he was brought from his cell and conveyed to the scaffold, where he addressed the crowd for twenty minutes in
A DISCONNECTED SPEECH,
confessing to having killed Polk, and at the same time imploring his hearers to repent of their sins ere too late, and be forgiven, as he had done. He then knelt and repeated the Lord’s Prayer, after which the Rev. Father Lucius said the prayers for the dying. The condemned man was handcuffed, and his arms, and legs, and ankles strapped. The black cap was adjusted, and, as he uttered the words
“FAREWELL FRIENDS, FAREWELL WORLD,”
the drop was sprung, and his body shot down. His neck was broken by the fall, and ther was but very slight convulsions of the body. During the speech many of the colored people responded to his implorations by shouting, “Bless the Lord, Amen.” Sandy Mathews killed Essick Polk for having enticed his wife from him. He struck him three blows with an ax. Several hours afterwards he took the dead remains and buried them in a field near his house. The hole not being large enough, he chopped the dead body in pieces, and thus buried them. The crime was kept concealed for five months, but revealed by a stepdaughter of Mathews, who was the only witness to the killing, and upon whose testimony he was convicted. Gov. Hawkins was appealed to, but declined to interfere with the sentence of the lower court, which was afterwards confirmed by the Supreme Court.
The 18th and last of the “Letters of the Living” comprising the original disciples of the the faith’s founding prophet the Bab, Quddus was a charismatic young mullah of whom it was said that “whoever was intimately associated with him was seized with an insatiable admiration for the charm of the youth.” Denis MacEoin even argues that Quddus’s preaching verged on asserting divinity, and he might have been an incipient rival to the Bab himself for leadership of the new religion.
Under either leader the movement was officially excommunicate to the ulama, and its heretical proselytizing consequently generated no shortage of martyr-making backlash. The backlash in question for this post began with an anti-Baha’i riot in the Mazandaran city of Barfurush (today, Babol) which drove a few hundred adherents to the nearby Shrine of Shaykh Tabarsi where they took refuge behind ad hoc defensive fortifications.
The Persians’ ensuing besiegement of this redoubt constitutes the Battle of Fort Tabarsi — and if the designation sounds a bit exalted for mob control it was dearly earned by the surprising (and to Persia, embarrassing) Baha’i resilience. Under Quddus’s leadership the makeshift fort held out for seven months. Half of those original 18 “Letters of the Living” disciples would die in the engagement — the largest upheaval during those formative years.
At last, having finally been reduced to near-starvation by the encirclement, the Baha’i defenders surrendered on the guarantee of safe passage — a guarantee that was immediately violated, with most of the former “garrison” massacred on the spot on May 10.
Quddus was preserved for special treatment in Barfurush several days later: not judicial execution, but simply handing over to an angry rabble who tore him apart.
The Bab, already imprisoned pending the passion he would suffer the following year, was said to be so devastated at learning of Quddus’s fate that he could scarcely write any longer: “the deep grief which he felt had stilled the voice of revelation and silenced His pen. How deeply He mourned His loss! What cries of anguish He must have uttered as the tale of the siege, the untold sufferings, the shameless betrayal, and the wholesale massacre of the companions of Shaykh Tabarsi reached His ears and was unfolded before His eyes!” (Source)
William Sawyer hanged on this date in 1815* at London’s Newgate Gaol for a murder he committed while in Portugal.
Dispatched to Iberia during the 1814 mopping-up stages of the Peninsular War, Sawyer preferred to make time with a young Englishwoman named Harriet Gaskett who was supposed to be there as the mistress of Sawyer’s friend and fellow-officer. (Both of the men in question had wives back in Blighty.)
When this third wheel discovered their liaison,** Sawyer and Gaskett fell into that death-seeking tragic mooning that lovers do and after dinner one night in April they wandered off to the garden. Other guests soon heard three pistol shots crack the evening air. The reports proved to correlate with a dead Harriet, and a severely (but not mortally) wounded William.
After he was cleaned up — and after he once more failed to kill himself by slashing his own throat — his friends solicited a forthright confession.
Having laid violent hands upon myself, in consequence of the death of Harriet, I think it but justice to mankind and the world, being of sound mind, solemnly to attest that her death was occasioned by her having taken part of a phial of laudanum and my discharging a pistol at her head, provided for the occasion. I took the residue of the laudanum myself, and discharged two pistols at my head. They failing in their effect, I then retired to the house and endeavoured to put an end to my life, leaving myself the unfortunate object you now behold me.
Besides doing the tragic lover thing, Sawyer was obviously intent on doing the officer-and-a-gentleman thing. His friends did very well believe the convenient-sounding version of events that he presented, such was his rectitude and lovesickness.
But under any construction of motive and circumstance, this narrative of “discharging a pistol at her head” amounted to confession to a hanging crime and Sawyer was convicted with ease.
Sympathetic to a fault, the Lord Chief Justice Ellenborough who personally tried the case reserved judgment as to the penalty pending a review by a panel of the king’s judges of several technical legal points. These were all defeated as entirely as was Sawyer’s wife’s attempt to see him in prison.
Despite his avoiding such an awkward interview Sawyer went to the gallows “very dejected,” in the words of the Newgate Calendar.
During the ceremony a profound silence prevailed throughout the populace. He died under evident symptoms of paroxysm, and a quantity of blood gushed from his mouth, from the cut in his throat. At nine o’clock the body was taken to Bartholomew’s Hospital in a cart, attended by the under-sheriff and officers. He was dressed in a suit of black, and [it] was not ironed.
* The Newgate Calendar, whose command of detail is often unreliable, mistakenly gives May 22 as the execution date — a week later than the true event.
** Intent on layering on the melodrama, Sawyer’s story was that the friend had actually given the two lovebirds leave to go live together. Great! Except Gaskell was convinced the permission was insincere and that he meant on killing himself once they did so and “although she had promised not to live with me, she had not promised not to die with me.” Anything for love.
Purple prose for a broken neck from the San Francisco Bulletin of May 14, 1873. Transcribed below is only the first third of the article — the remainder being dedicated to accounts of various other previous San Francisco executions.
This day has been marked by an event of signal import in the history of this city, wherein the slow hand of justice, after a lapse of many years, has overtaken one of the class of reckless criminals who have reveled in rapine and bloodshed, bringing reproach on the fair fame of San Francisco, and red-handed murder has expiated its guilt by the righteous penalty of ignominious death upon the scaffold.
Whatever may be the abhorrence of capital punishment commonly experienced by a portion of the people, while contemplating the events of the past few years, the tardy and uncertain sway of justice, a sense of satisfaction and increased security will be inspired in the whole community by the announcement of John Devine, “The Chicken,” has met the fate which the law prescribes for the destroyer of human life, and there is one murderer less in San Francisco.
From the infamous character of this man, and the terror which his deeds of violence excited through a long course of comparatively unpunishable crime, ere consigning him to oblivion, the public will be interested in a brief sketch of the
Career of the Murderer.
The man who has now paid the penalty of his last dark crime, leaves a record which has no parallel among the many depraved wretches who have figured in the brief but terrible criminal history of San Francisco, and perhaps the half has not been told.
The police officials considered him the most dangerous and unscrupulous criminal that infested the city, and hint at mysterious deeds of blood, never unravelled by the minions of justice, with which he is believed to have been connected. In truth, he was a fellow by the hand of nature marked, quoted and signed to do a deed of shame — apt, liable to be employed in danger with neither pity, love nor fear.
Devine was a native of Waterford, Ireland, where he was born in the year 1840, and was accordingly 33 years old at the time of his death.
He was of medium size, sharp features, dark-blue eyes, a low forehead, and generally repulsive expression of countenance.
He arrived in San Francisco in the year 1863, as a seaman on the clipper ship Young America.
On the voyage hither he distinguished himself as a quarrelsome fellow, and was frequently confined in irons to restore the discipline of the ship.
After squandering the wages he received in a short spell of carousing on shore, he was driven to the sea again and made a voyage to China, returning in the spring of 1865. He then obtained employment as a runner for sailor boarding-houses, in which capacity he perpetrated innumerable deeds of ruffianism in the “shanghaing” of sailors and citizens on outward bound ships. Shortly after engaging in this vocation he received the title of
Which was endearingly conferred by one of his fellows, as significant of his prowess in a prize-fight.
Devine had four notable encounters of this order, in the city and vicinity, and displayed remarkable endurance and determination, though not always successful.
His career from the time of setting himself on shore was one continuous round of crime, and he is well suspected of having a knowledge of the manner in which many a corpse found floating in the bay, with fractured skull and rifled pockets, yielded up i[t]s life. His record on the police register shows
Up to May 16, 1871, when his final arrest for the crime of murder was made.
The charges against him embraced all manner of crimes, principally robberies and assaults with deadly weapons, it being his custom to assault his victims with slung-shot and brass-knuckles. His recorded crimes, however, are not supposed to embrace any near approach to the ull measure of enormities that were charged upon his guilty soul.
He was capable of the most savage treachery, and on one occasion attempted the murder of a prize-fighter named Tommy Chandler, by springing upon him from behind a door with a heavy iron bar. Being foiled in this, he subsequently shot Chandler, but not inflicting fatal injury, he got off with a short term of imprisonment on conviction of assault to murder.
A Characteristic Exploit.
On the 8th of June, 1867, about 6 o’clock in the morning, Devine assailed an aged German lady, named Mary Martin, as she was walking along Merchant street, near Battery, tore the pocket from her dress, and robbed her of a purse containing a check for [obscure] and $25 in coin.
For this robbery he was arrested, and released on bail, for notwithstanding the character he bore, he was usually enabled to find friends to go upon his bond in a certain part of the city.
When the case came up for trial officers went in search of Mrs. Martin, who had resided at a house on Powell street, as the important witness for the prosecution of Devine. The lady had disappeared.
What became of her was never known; but it was possible that Devine might have told. Passing over a list of comparative minor offences, such as knocking down and robbing people, the next noticeable affair in which this remarkable criminal figured was the
Attempted Murder of Miss McDonald.
On the night of the 9th, October, 1867, Miss Martha McDonald was standing in front of her place of residence, at the Mission, when she was suddenly seized by two men who were masked.
She was gagged by a handkerchief being forced into her mouth, and prevented from giving any alarm. In this condition the men dragged her a distance of two blocks and a half, to the bridge which crosses Mission Creek at Sixteenth street.
One of the two then started, according to the directions of his companion to “get the carriage.”
Being left in the custody of one only, Miss McDonald made a desperate effort to release herself. The fellow attempted to chloroform her; but the drug being spilled from the bottle, he then endeavored to secure her with a strap.
At this juncture the other man returned, and she heard the exclamation, “kill her, kill her!” A moment after she was pushed off the bridge, and fell into the muddy waters of the creek, while the two men who had abducted her ran away.
Slowly and surely she was sinking into the muddy bottom, with no assistance at hand, until the water was about her neck. Fortunately an alarm of fire started some person past the locality, and her cries of distress being heard, she was discovered and rescued.
Devine was arrested as one of the participants in this crime, and Miss McDonald positively identified him by his voice. Devine extricated himself from the affair by proving an alibi, it appearing that he was serving a term in the County Jail at the time of the attempted murder.
It subsequently transpired, however, that he held the privileged position at the County Jail of “outside trusty,” and was permitted to travel to all parts of the city at will in the performance of errands for prisoners in more restricted limits. And more than this, he was abroad at the very time the abduction of Miss McDonald was made.
The Loss of a Hand.
In the month of May, 1868, Devine was indulging in one of his periodical carousing spells, and often bringing terror to several of the resorts on his beat at the city front, he entered a boarding house kept by William Maitland, on Battery street.
Here he flourished a huge knife with the recklessness of a savage, and caused a precipitate retreat of all who happened to be in the place.
The proprietor had been asleep in the second story of the house, and hearing the uproar, came came down for a reconnaissance. Devine immediately started for him when he made his appearance, but Maitland was not of so yielding a disposition as to be driven from his own castle, and closing with Devine, he succeeded in disarming him.
The latter then made an attempt to recover the knife, when Maitland with a powerful stroke cut him across the wrist. The blade, by wonderful chance, entered the wrist joint, and the completely severed hand fell to the floor.
Devine was appalled for once in his life, and hurriedly departed; but presently he returned and demanded his lost hand, which Maitland kicked out upon the sidewalk to him. Devine took the severed member and hastened to a drug store, where he implored a clerk to try and sew it on again. But the injury was irreparable.
Devine as a Merchant.
After a season of retirement in the County Hospital, Devine emerged as far repaired as medical science would permit, and being a cripple, his condition excited the pity of boarding-house masters and others at the city front with whom he had been associated.
A contribution was made among them, amounting to $800, to enable Devine to establish himself in business by keeping a cigar stand.
He took the money, but instead of following the advice of his benefactors he squandered the whole sum in a few weeks of dissipation, and again returned to the pursuit of crime with all his previous energy.
He was associated with a woman named Mary Dolan, as bad as himself, and who was punished by terms of imprisonment in the County Jail and Penitentiary.
From the time of losing his hand up to his final arrest, he perpetrated numerous larcenies, some of considerable amounts, and was always busily engaged in thieving when not confined in jail.
A complete history of this man and his offenses would be one of the most appalling in the annals of crime. Such was John Devine, and rarely has the slow grip of justice overtaken a criminal more richly deserving of the severest penalty known to the law.
Murder of August Kamp.
The crime which John Devine has now expiated with his life, was one of the most cruel and wanton ever recorded in a civilized community, and could only have been accomplished by one utterly depraved.
It was in perfect keeping with the whole life and character of Devine, who had become callous to every impulse that elevates a man above the merest savage.
August Kamp was an unsuspecting young German, without relatives in the country. On the 10th of May, 1871, he arrived in the city from Antioch, where he had been employed, bringing with him his savings, to the amount of about $120.
He started immediately in search of employment, and while making his inquiries along the city front, he was met by Devine, who offered to procure him a situation on a fishing vessel.
Elated with this promise, young Kamp was persuaded to loan $20 to Devine, on the understanding that it would be repaid him the following day. The money was not returned as agreed, and Kamp finally suspecting the true character of his debtor, importuned him earnestly for his pay. Devine put him off repeatedly, at one time pretending that he had nothing but greenbacks on hand, and again making some other excuse.
On the 15th of May, Kamp having again demanded his pay, Devine told him that if he wanted the money very bad, he must go with him to his mother’s ranch, beyond Bay View. Accordingly the two started for the imaginary ranch, walking as far as Long Bridge, when they boarded one of the Bay View cars. On reaching the terminus of the railroad, the two got off the car and walked along the road. After passing the Five-Mile House, Devine pointed off to one side, saying that his mother’s ranch was in that direction, and by striking off across the fields instead of following the road they might save a distance of one mile out of two. Young Kamp assented and the two started across a lonely stretch of land, through vales and over hills, until a point was reached which the murderer thought sufficiently secluded for carrying out his design.
Kamp stooped down to crawl between the rails of a fence, Devine walking behind him, when the latter suddenly drew a pistol and fired the fatal shot, the ball entering Kamp’s skull behind the right ear.
Devine then ran away, supposing he had effectually dispatched his victim, and was seen hastening back alone to the railroad terminus.
Kamp was shortly after discovered by a Spaniard, who was herding sheep in the locality, and being still able to walk, he was assisted to a saloon on the road, and from thence brought in to the city and given in charge of the authorities.
From the representations which the mortally wounded youth could make, and other circumstances, the police were immediately confident that Devine was his murderer, and measures were at once instituted for his arrest.
He was traced to various places in the city, where he had boasted of obtaining money by an easy method, admitted to several that he had shot a man and endeavored to dispose of a revolver.
He was finally captured on board a steamer at Meiggs’ wharf, which was just about crossing over to Marin county, and the revolver, with two chambers discharged, was still in his possession.
At the City Prison he was placed in the midst of fifteen or twenty persons, and Kamp, who was yet rational, readily singled him out as the murderer. He walked up and placed his hand on Devine, saying, “You are the man that shot me.” Kamp was taken to the County Hospital, and every effort made to save his life, but without avail.
Just before his death, which occurred on the 5th of May, an effort was made to take his ante-mortem deposition, but unfortunately the Coroner arrived too late, and the important evidence of the murdered man was not secured in the case.
The chain of circumstances presented in the several trials, however, made out a case against the accused as strong circumstantial evidence could be drawn, and a doubt of his guilt was hardily admissible.
The First Trial
Was brought in the Twelth District Court, before Judge McKinstry, on the 20th of February, 187, and occupied eight days, resulting in a verdict according to the indictment of “murder in the first degree.” The Court sentenced Devine to be executed on the 25th of April, 1872.
Judge Tyler, counsel for the condemned, appealed to the Supreme Court for a new trial on mere technical grounds, his principal point having reference to a minor discrepancy of evidence of one witness as taken before the Coroner at the trial. Although the several points did not affect the merits of the case in the least, the appeal was successful, and to the efforts of most indefatigable counsel the wretched man was indebted to an extension of his lease of life a full year.
The case was brought to a second trial in March last, in the same court. In the meantime an important witness had died, and the prisoner and his counsel were exceedingly hopeful of founding complications on this circumstance equal to another successful appeal to the Supreme Court.
After another tedious trial the inevitable verdict of “guilty” fell upon the ear of the doomed man for the second time, and he was again sentenced to be executed on Friday the 9th of May.
Hope was still buoyant in his breast, relying upon the determined goal of his counsel, until the 7th, when the announcement was made that the Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the lower court, and his fate was sealed beyond the further probability of human interference.
By the earnest intercession of the spiritual adviser of the condemned prisoner, the Governor was persuaded to grant a brief reprieve of five days, in the hope that the guilty wretch, with the certainty of speedy death before him, might finally yield to the ministrations of his anxious spiritual adviser, Rev. Father Spreckles, and meet his end in a penitential spirit.
During his long term of imprisonment Devine manifested a bearing of bravado, never believing that merited retribution would finally overtake him, and on several occasions he laughed to scorn kindly persons who ought to impress him with a realization of his terrible position, and turn him to preparation for another life. By a
His execution occurred two years to a day from the commission of the murderous act that consigned him to death at the hands of justice, and in his case it may be said, “God’s mills grind slow but sure.”
After receiving his brief reprieve from the Governor, Devine realized that no earthly interference could avail him further, and he relinquished all hope of life.
At his own solicitation all visitors were ecluded from his cell with the exception of his spiritual advisers, and he gave himself earnestly to preparations for the awful change that awaited him, in the few hours that still remained.
At times he wept bitterly when exhorted to a contemplation of his guilty life and true repentance, and the consolations of religious faith seemed to reconcile him to his fate, and enable him to await his end with fortitude.
On Monday he received the Sacrament of Communion from Rev. Father Spreckles, and Archbishop Alemany conferred upon him confirmation in the Roman Catholic Church.
On the succeeding days Devine assumed an air of cheerfulness. On Tuesday he asked permission of the Sheriff to be shaved, which was granted, the precaution first being taken to bind him securely to guard against any suicidal designs. His ostensible wife, Mary Dolan, was in jail at the time of the execution, having been committed a few weeks since for her common offence of habitual drunkenness.
Parting With His Son.
Devine also had a son, a child of six years of age, whom he had not seen for several years, and he expressed an earnest desire to see him before his death.
The Sheriff and his deputies were anxious to gratify this last request, and visited the various charitable institutions in the city yesterday, endeavoring to find the child.
Devine last heard of him at the Protestant Orphan Asylum, where he had caused him to be placed immediately after his arrest for murder, the mother, Mary Dolan, being unfit to care or provide for him in consequence of her continual drunkenness and frequent detentions in jail.
The lad had been removed from the Orphan Asylum, but the Sheriff happily discovered him in charge of the Ladies’ Relief Society, comfortably provided for.
When the child arrived at the cell of his wretched father last evening, Devine was much affected, and exhibited instincts of humanity he had never known before. He embraced his offspring tenderly, wept over him, and implored him to shun the evil ways that had brought his father to ignominious death, and when the lad was finally removed, he clung to him with convulsive throbs, as if parting with the only object that had ever awakened the emotion of affection in his breast.
Last Hours of the Doomed Man.
Devine retired at about 10 o’clock last night after devotion with his spiritual adviser. He slept soundly through the night until 5 o’clock this morning, when he was awakened by the Jailor.
In reply to the inquiries of the officer, he said that he had enjoyed refreshing slumber, as one could who had a clear conscience. He dressed himself with care, and gave much attention to combing his hair neatly and arranging his toilet, having been provided with a new suit of black and a pair of slippers.
At 8 o’clock he ate a hearty breakfast, and shortly after his spiritual adviser, Rev. Father Spreckles, Archbishop Alameney [sic] and two Sisters of Mercy arrived. The doomed man devoted the remaining few hours of his life to fervent supplications for mercy.
As the hour for the execution approached, the wickets in all the cells were closed, the “trustees” allowed the limits of the Jail were locked up, and the condemned murderer Russell was taken to a remote part of the jail and locked in the room formerly occupied by Mrs. Fair.
At 11 o’clock the reporters of the press were admitted and allowed to inspect the preparations for the execution.
Was laid across the railings of the upper corridor at the north end, the trap in the centre permitting the body to drop to the lower corridor within about three feet of the floor, the rope allowing a fall of six feet.
The gallows beam was extended above under the skylights, the ends resting in the ventillating apertures on either side.
On the west side of the scaffold an iron rod run up, to which was attached a cord, secured to a ring in one of the cell doors, the slipping of which drew the bolt by a weight and allowed the trap to fall. The gallows was the same used in previous executions, the last murderer who had stood thereon being the Chinaman, Chung Wong, who was executed in 1865.
At twenty minutes to 12 the Sisters of Mercy took their leave of Devine, and shortly after, attended by the Sheriff and the priests, Devine was conducted from the No. 1 cell near the entrance of the lower corridor, which he had occupied since his fate became sealed, to No. 41 cell in the second corridor, which was located nearly opposite the steps leading upon the scaffold. He looked pale and haggard, but a smile rested upon his countenance as he passed the group of reporters at the foot of the stairway.
He ascended the stairway with a light elastic step, and seemed to look car[e]lessly at the gallows as he tripped along the gallery.
At half past 12 o’clock an immense crowd had gathered in the street in front of the jail, and on all sides of the building where a position might be obtained to observe even the grim walls within which the dread scene of violent death was being enacted.
The Sheriff then admitted all those who had received permission to be present, to the number of about two hundred. The spectators included several Sheriffs from adjoining counties, members of the Board of Supervisors, physicians, city officials, and upwards of thirty reporters of the press, among the latter being representatives of some of the Eastern papers, and artists for the New York illustrated journals.
The reporters were assigned a position directly in front of the scaffold, in the west gallery of the upper corridor, and the physicians took their places within the line on the floor of the lower corridor.
The prisoner remained in his cell engaged in his final devotions, while the tramping of many feet and the subdued murmur of voices without, reminded him of the relentless hand of Justice, eager to close his career.
The corridors, above and below, were greatly crowded, while the side openings, below the sky lights, in either, were completely occupied, their appearance suggestive of the private boxes of a public exhibition.
At a quarter to 1 o’clock, the Sheriff directed his deputies to their positions upon the scaffold, and immediately after he entered the cell of the doomed man for a parting interview of brief duration.
On emerging, Sheriff Adams mounted the scaffold and stated to the spectators that it was the wish of Devine that all should preserve silence and ask him no questions.
At two minutes before 1 o’clock the Sheriff opened the door of the cell and Devine emerged, carrying a crucifix in his hand and followed by Father Spreckles. He ascended the steps to the scaffold with closed eyes, manifesting symptoms of weakness, and though bearing up with great power of nerve, the expression of his countenance and the twitching muscles of his throat indicated the welling up of inexpressible agony of soul.
While standing upon the scaffold his eyes remained closed, while Father Spreckles, taking the crucifix, continued whispering the consolations of the Church in his ear.
The death-warrant was hurriedly read by Deputy Lamott, but Devine gave no heed thereto, attending closely to the ministrations of Father Spreckles and frequently kissing the crucifix with much fervor as it was placed to his lips.
At the conclusion of the reading of the warrant, ailor McKenzie bound the doomed man with straps. One was passed round his breast and pinioned the arms at the elbows, another at the waist pinioned the wrists, and two other straps were secured about the knees and the ankles. The rope was then placed about his neck, the large knot of the noose fixed under the left ear.
Last Scene of All.
The murderer now stood upon the verge of the unknown. He opened his eyes for the first time upon the scaffold ere quitting the warm precincts of the cheerful day, and cast one longing, lingering look behind.
The bright sunshine shimmered through the skylights into the gloomy corridor, and wrought the shadow of the gallows-beam before him.
Loud laughter and the murmur of the thoughtless crowd without disturbed the awful stillness that reigned within.
Nerving himself for the last moment, Devine exclaimed with a loud voice, “Oh, my sweet Jesus, unto thy hands I commend my spirit. Amen.” He kissed the crucifix again, and the black cap was drawn over his head.
The spectators awaited with bated breath.
A moment more and a dull grating sound lie the swinging of a gate, broke the solemn stillness, and the soul of the murderer had passed out.
As the trap swung, Devine dropped about six feet, a sharp snap indicating that his neck was broken. A few convulsive throes succeeded for a moment with drawing up of the knees, and death resulted speedily with little pain. The physicians made the usual observations, and pronounced life entirely extinct in less than 15 minutes. The execution was most successfully carried out in every detail.
The spectators commenced leaving the jail immediately after the fall of the drop, excepting the few whose presence was required to sign as witnesses of the due execution of the sentence. The large crowd without lingered until the afternoon was well advanced, in morbid curiosity, discussing the death and career of the departed murderer.
The Sheffield & Rotherham Independent, Feb. 8, 1868:
FRIGHTFUL CRIMES IN DUMFRIES-SHIRE
On Sunday, the Scotch police apprehended in Carlisle, Robert Smith, whitewasher, aged 20, for an awful crime. On Saturday evening, near Cummertrees, Dumfries-shire, he took a girl, aged 14, into a wood, where he robbed her of 7s. 6d., hung her to a tree, and when dead cut her body down. Afterwards he entered a cottage at Longford, and stabbed a woman named Jane Paterson so fearfully about the neck that death is expected.
The following are additional particulars of this shocking crime: — A murder bearing a horrible resemblance to that lately committed at Alton has just startled the county of Dumfries. It appears that on Saturday afternoon, between 3 and 4 o’clock, a young man, named Smith, who earns a living by jobbing and labouring about the country, was observed by a woman, named Patterson, to take into a wood near to Cummertrees, a village between Annan and Dumfies, a girl, about fourteen years of age.
The woman, as it turned out, had been observed by the ruffian, for some time afterwards he entered her house at Longford-cottages and felled her to the ground. While down he attacked her with his knife and inflicted five stabs about her neck. Her cries alarmed three young men who were passing, and who rushed in to her assistance. The ruffian had meanwhile escaped.
On the poor woman recovering, she related what she had seen near the wood. Information was given at the nearest police-station, and on the party going to the wood they saw a horrible sight. The girl with whom the villain had been seen was found to have been robbed and murdered, after another atrocious crime had been committed. The murderer had hanged her up to a tree & then cut down her body.
Pursuit was at once commenced, and Smith was apprehended on Sunday. He had gone to a farm-house, where blood was observed on his clothes, and in his pocket was found a leather shoelace tied in a noose. There is little doubt that he is the murderer.
The atrocious affair has created the utmost horror. Another account states that the poor little girl is the daughter of a shoemaker at Cummertrees, named Scott, and that she was going to Annan to purchase groceries; that she stopped for shelter at a cottae on the road, and the supposed murderer, Robert Smith, a farm labourer, aged 20, known in the neighbourhood, arranged to accompany her. The man and girl left the cottage together at noon, and the latter was never seen alive again. It was 3 in the afternoon before Smith returned to the cottage and made the murderous attack upon the woman, with the design, as it is supposed, of preventing her from giving evidence against him.
Some additional facts have come to light.
It appears that the prisoner had, after murdering the little girl, gone on to Annan, and there purchased a pistol, with the necessary ammunition, such as powder, shot, and caps. The pistol has since been found in Longford Cottage, and the woman, who can tell a short story, states that after being struc she heard a pistol fired off, though she was stunned at the time.
Robert Smith, or Colvan, the perpetrator of the shocking outrage, is a native of Eaglesfield, near Kirtlebridge, in the county of Dumfiresshire. His mother died when he was about eight years of age. He was then taken charge of by an uncle, named Michael Smith, whose name he has since borne, though Colvan is his right name.
At the age of nine he was cast on the world to fight for himself. He commenced to work about some limekilns in the neighbourhood, and subsequently as a farm servant. During last harvest he found work on Longford Farm, where also the husband of the woman he so brutally mangled was employed.
Mrs. Creighton is progressing more favourably than was at first anticipated, and hopes are now entertained of her recovery.
Nottinghamshire Guardian, Apr. 24, 1868:
THE DUMFRIESSHIRE MURDER.
At the Dumfries Spring Court of Justiciary on Tuesday, Robert Smith, alias Colwin, was charged with the murder, on the 1st of February last, of Thomasina Scott.
The deceased, a girl of tne, was the daughter of a small shopkeeper at Cummertrees. On the morning in question she left home to go to Annan, a neighbouring town, and on her way thither she called at the house of an acquaintance, Mrs. Creighton.
The prisoner, who was a farm labourer, was in the house at the time, and when the deceased departed he too left the house. Some distance from that place the two were seen together.
Two hours later the prisoner returned alone, made a desperate attempt on the life of Mrs. Creighton, and then fled.
Subsequently the deceased was missed and a search in a plantation in the locality discovered her violated and murdered body. Death had been caused by strangulation.
The prisoner pleaded guilty to having committed a criminal assault. — His counsel contended that he was at the time in the state of mind called “moral mania.” — The Jury returned a verdict of guilty; and the prisoner was sentenced to be hanged on the 12th May.
Cheshire Observer and Chester, Birkenhead, Crewe and North Wales Times, May 16, 1868:
EXECUTION AT DUMFRIES.
On Tuesday morning, at eight minutes past eight o’clock, Robert Smith, or Colvin, was hanged at Dumfries Goal [sic], for the murder and rape of Thomasina Scott, a girl, on the first of February last.
Since his conviction the culprit seemed thoroughly resigned to his fate, and recognised the fact that the atrocity of his crime placed the commutation of his sentence beyond the reach of hope.
He expressed contrition for what he had done, and had written to th emother of his victim, asking her pardon.
His demeanour was, however, firm, and even stolid; and though he listened with attention to the ministrations of the chaplain (the Rev. Mr. Cowans), their effect upon him was not very visible. On Monday night he took supper at seven, and the chaplain remained with him till eight; when asked, he declined to receive any other minister.
The culprit rose about six on Tuesday morning. He stated that he had slept well — never better in his life; and, while taking breakfast, he conversed about his impending death with the utmost equanimity. The county authorities assembled in the prison about half-past seven, shortly after which the executioner, Thos. Asern, of York (Calcraft being retained to hang Barrett), was introduced to the condemned man.
He submitted to the process of pinioning, and in the procession to the scaffold he walked with firmness. On the platform he never once faltered, but stood with patience while the hangman rectified an error which he had made, and through which the noose had to be taken off and readjusted.
The drop fell at eight minutes past eight; the culprit struggled and swung a little, but in two minutes the body ceased to quiver.
The weather was raw and wet, and, in consequence, the assembled crowd was small. Some women shrieked when the unfortunate youth was led up the ladder, but otherwise all was orderly.
On this date in 1854, an Albany, N.Y. man named John Hendrickson hanged for the murder by aconite poisoning of his wife, Maria. “He has suffered the highest penalty of the law,” New York’s Weekly Herald pronounced the next day — “but whether justly or not, will likely never be known on earth.”
Whatever the prisoner’s denials,* a web of suspicious circumstances clasped the hemp around his throat. Hendrickson, whose family had some money and connections, fought the conviction tooth and nail; his then-unusual three appeals, plus clemency petition to the governor, stretched the time from conviction to execution out to nearly a year. “The evidence adduced … was so entirely circumstantial, and the testimony of the scientific men so liable to doubt and contradiction, that it was generally feared the murderer would escape,” a Boston Post correspondent reported.** But not to worry: “the atmosphere of guilt seemed to surround him in the whole county; not a man could be found that, at heart, believed him innocent.” We’re scarcely prepared at this distance to assert an affirmative case for the man’s innocence, but in some ways it reads like an antebellum Cameron Willingham case, all the way down to the dubious forensic evidence.
Like Willingham, Hendrickson was a less than stellar husband. He was noted for abusing his wife, philandering, and doing both together when he “communicated to her a loathsome veneral disease.”
The supposed murder motivation was his wife’s recent inheritance of the estate of her father, who died just a few months before the murder. Little could really be proven save by inference from the man’s bad character; in classic tunnel-vision fashion, the record suggests nearly every data point became fixed according to this theory. For example, Hendrickson’s trial prosecutors read into evidence — in the part of their presentation they called the “Moral Evidence” — that Hendrickson remarked at his wife’s autopsy that “they won’t find arsenic.” You and I might think he’s saying that the examination will dispel the gathering suspicions of poisoning, and saying it by reference to the chemical that was the metonym for poisoning in the nineteenth century. For the state, his uttering these words was
as if he knew (as he undoubtedly did) the precise poison which she had swallowed — as if he knew that that common poison, which is found in most cases of the kind, had not been given by the murderer in this case, and hence they won’t find arsenic. Ah! gentlemen, it was nature speaking out, as she often unconsciously or unguardedly will, disclosing the otherwise well concealed and apparently undiscoverable crime.
The district attorney introduced evidence courtesy of chemists named Salisbury and Swinburne, to the effect that it was no mean arsenic that carried away Maria Hendrickson but the more exotic potion of aconite — derived from a toxic herb seeded (per Ovid) by Cerberus himself.
One can peruse the evidence presented in the case here, but the most remarkable part of this trial record is the appendix — wherein numerous medical men, including a former teacher of Dr. Salisbury, skewer the forensic processes used to decide that Maria Hendrickson died by poison and even offer to reproduce them in person under the eyes of Gov. Horatio Seymour to prove their unreliability. Their findings harshly undercut the only concrete evidence that any murder took place at all.
“I am pained and oppressed with the conviction that the medical witnesses for the prosecution have, in a main point of this case, abused the confidence with which criminal courts so often compliment the man of science,” one writes — words that could still today be applied to many disciplines of junk science that have disappeared bodies into oubliettes on the strength of lie detectors, bite mark analysis, matching hair samples, and suchlike hocus-pocus.
We turn from the contemplation of this subject with feelings of sorrow, not that any of ours have been crushed under the wheels of mutilated justice, set in motion by ignorance and false science, but we feel now, as we have always felt, that a great personal wrong has been committed under the authority of law, for which there can be no atonement, as the dead cannot be brought to life, nor the blasted feelings of the living restored.
It would be well, too, for judges and jurors, who are very often hasty and inconsiderate in letting their feelings and prejudices get the better of their judgment, to remember that life, human life, is neither a toy nor a rattle, but the gift of God; when once extinguished, no matter how, it is gone forever, and the dead never rise again.
-Dr. Charles A. Lee, reviewing the Hendrickson case
* Hendrickson’s final message to his parents via his spiritual advisor, on the eve of his hanging:
To-morrow I am to die, and standing as I do on the brink of eternity, I wish to say to you, in the presence of that God before whom I am so soon to appear, that I am entirely innocent of the crime of murdering my wife. I did not give her poison. I do not know that any one gave her poison. She did not come to her death by violence of any kind, so far as I know. I believe she died a natural death. She did not vomit on the night of her death. [This remark touches the disputed forensic evidence; vomiting would be a symptom of poisoning, and state chemists’ assertion that Maria had done so was among the conclusions challenged by outside scientists. -ed.] I never knew that there was such an article as aconite in the world, until after I was in jail. Nor did I know it by any other name. I do not know that I have anything further to add, except to say some farewell words to my parents. But you will remember what I have said to you, and inform them of it. I wish you to make it public.
** Transcribed here via the Portland (Me.) Advertiser of Apr. 18, 1854.
On this date in 1867, Modiste Villebrun was hanged in Sorel, Quebec, in what would be the last execution before Canada became its own country. His partner in crime, Sophie Boisclair, might very well have been executed alongside him had she not been pregnant.
Villebrun, a lumberjack from St. Zephirin, was having an affair with Boisclair and they wanted to get married. They had two slight problems to deal with, in the form of their respective spouses. In those times, divorce was unthinkable. Murder, apparently, was not.
The first victim was Villebrun’s wife, and their plan seemed to work well. No one suspected foul play when the previously healthy woman died, or at least no one could prove anything. Braced by their success, the lovers soon turned their attention to Boisclair’s husband, Francois-Xavier Jutras. Boisclair suggested to her husband that they should allow Villebrun to move in with them since the death of his wife had left him all alone. Jutras agreed to his wife’s request and almost immediately Boisclair began to lace his food with her “special” ingredient. It was not long before the strychnine took effect and Jutras was dead.
Unfortunately for the two lovers, a suspicious doctor demanded an autopsy, which revealed the dead man’s body was saturated with poison. Villebrun and Boisclair soon found themselves arrested.
They were tried separately and both were convicted in short order and sentenced to death. When asked, at sentencing, whether she had anything to say, Boisclair announced she was expecting a baby. She got a temporary reprieve until delivery, and got the opportunity to watch Villebrun’s execution from the window in her cell.
Ten thousand people attended his hanging.
Seven months later, Boisclair gave birth to his child, and her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.
“Boisclair ended up serving 20 years in the penitentiary,” records Pfeifer, “before being released, a broken woman.”
On this date in 1836, a troubled (ex-)family man named Isaac Young — latterly going by Isaac Heller — was publicly hanged in Liberty, Indiana for axing his entire family to death in a fit of madness.
Young hailed from Pennsylvania, and the reason he had changed his name and moved to Indiana was that he had done a similar thing in his native haunts.
As a teenager in the 1820s, Isaac Young had been seized strangely by the spiritual tremors abroad during America’s Second Great Awakening. A baptized zealot who fancied himself blessed with the power of prophesy, Young was also captive to an inescapable — and seemingly defeatist — impression of being forever pursued and haunted by the devil. Young’s religious thunderings tended to produce more interest in the utterer’s state of mind than in the listener’s state of soul, and the youth was known to succumb to “gusts of passion.”
Eventually, those gusts blew a hurricane.
Young lived with his brother, who had a wife and a 10-year-old orphan girl — and, little did they know, the devil watching over them all. One night in 1830, Young awoke with a start at a sound he perceived upon the stair, convinced that some entity had entered the room he shared with the little girl; his religious eccentricities jumbling him right into lunacy.
“The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” Young bellowed at the dragon from Revelations come to visit him in his nightshirt in Dauphin County. He tried to grapple with the phantom but missed it, and of a sudden he turned his frenzy on the girl, battering her furiously. Young would later say that he was “forcibly impelled” to the attack by an overwhelming “duty” to “destroy” the child; his brother and his sister-in-law attempted to intervene but Young seized a club and with a berserker rage chased them from the house — then returned to his cowering little roommate, and sawed off her head with his knife.
He was acquitted of this murder by reason of his manifest insanity, but this was not a time and place with resources to aid the mentally ill. All anyone could think to do was to keep him chained in the poor house until after a few months he appeared to return to reason — at which point he was finally released and blew town, now rechristened with his mother’s maiden name.
In the hamlet of Liberty, the new man Heller escaped the devil … for a few years. He opened a grocery store and married a woman named Elizabeth McCollam with whom he had a happy brood of three children.
Until one day the gusts returned to swirl his soul again.
“The first symptom of insanity noticed in this county was about three years ago [i.e., 1833], by a young man who was going home with him on a Sabbath evening,” the Connersville (Ind.) Watchman reported in a profile that was widely reprinted around the Republic.*
The young man noticed something very extraordinary in his manner, and was much affected. At length he asked him what was the matter. He replied in effect that a superhuman influence or inspiration was upon him. Soon after he became very much excited on religious subjects … Witnesses stated that for several days at a time, during the last two or three years, he would act like a wild man or a raving maniac. During that time he was twice taken into the care of the overseers of the poor and kept some time as an insane person.
Heller’s neglect of his work soon exhausted his family’s modest reserves and left wife and children surviving on the charity of neighbors, spiraling Heller even deeper into depression, and in his “great horror of the poor house” he owned “that he would rather die than be separated from his family.” One hears in these words a man with the walls closing in about him … or else, a man hammering out the rationale for the madness he has already determined to undertake. There was calculation in Heller’s fatal outburst; a neighbor visited on the morning of his hecatomb and found the family in good spirits and Heller cogent. The disturbed patriarch waited until the guest was well away before he
took his axe from under the bed, went to the fire, turned round [and] commenced rubbing the fingers of one hand over the edge. His wife asked him what he was going to do — he replied he was going to chop some wood. About this time the woman told the children to get some apples out from under the bed. the two little ones immediately crawled under the bed, and the little sister-in-law stood near the bed looking at Heller. She saw him raise the axe and strike his wife one full blow about the chin and neck. Seeing this she sprang to the door, threw it open and fled for the nearest neighbor’s between a quarter and a half a mile off, crying murder as she ran. After she had fled some two hundred yards, she saw Heller come round the end of the house and look after her. Heller states that after he had despatched his wife he went out of the house and looked after the little girl — that he then went back into the house — his little boy came towards him, when he split him down and chopped his head off. He then dragged his little daughter Sarah out from under the bed — placed his foot upon her breast — she raised her hands for protection, and at the first blow he cut off the fingers of one hand and nearly took off her head. He then went and rolled the mother off of the infant on which she had partly fallen, and cut its head off.
His spiritual torments and probable schizophrenia here are the framework — a cynic might say, the excuse — for a much more commonplace scourge: the murderer said “in justification of the act ‘that they were likely to become a county charge, and that he would rather see them in their present situation.'” (Connecticut Courant, Mar. 21, 1836) In the confession he willingly supplied later, he admitted having attempted to set his homicidal plan in motion several times prior, once even brandishing a butcher’s blade over his wife like the Psycho shower scene before she soothed him. Elizabeth Heller must have been a woman of remarkable calm under pressure; unfortunately for her, resources for abused spouses were about as plentiful as those for the mentally ill.
“Nearly all … who know any thing about the case, regard it as incomprehensibly mysterious,” the newspaper reports concluded. “Many who know the most about it, say they hardly know how or what to think of it. It is doubted whether the annals of crime can produce a parallel case, and it is devoutly hoped they never may!”
But the annals of crime hold many mansions, as readers of this here site surely know.
Heller’s final, “successful” outburst was actually just one of a number of grisly mass-murders by family fathers who through the closely intimate exertion of a bloody blade drenched their domestic idylls with the gore of their loved ones — enough even to form a discernible pattern. Struggling to come to grips with this “homicidal insanity” or “monomanie-homicide”, the early American psychologist Isaac Raylamented the “painful frequency” of cases “where the individual, without provocation or any other rational motive, apparently in the full possession of his reason, and oftentimes in spite of his most strenuous efforts to the contrary, imbrues his hands in the blood of others, — oftener than otherwise, of the partner of his bosom, of the children of his affections.” Incomprehensible perhaps, but scarcely unparalleled: what could make sense of this “horrid phenomenon”?
Pious family men turning Middle America domiciles into charnel houses was the going postal of settler-era America, and maybe Ray even had the Young/Heller-style addled religiosity in mind when he noted that absent some rational accounting the mind would default “to that time-honored solution of all the mysteries of human delinquency, the instigation of the devil.”
In a review of the period’s “familicide” cases, Daniel Cohen (“Homicidal Compulsion and the Conditions of Freedom: The Social and Psychological Origins of Familicide in America’s Early Republic,” Journal of Social History, Summer, 1995) speculates that the revolutionary grant of personal autonomy exacted a dangerous emotional toll upon men who felt themselves failures or simply could not pay “the high psychic costs of economic freedom, particularly for men prone to anxiety and depression.” Isaac was surely prone.
The efforts of those men to submit to supernatural authority were less single-minded pursuits of spiritual perfection than desperate attempts to evade seemingly irresolvable personal conflicts, most importantly between moral demands (or social obligations) and destructive urges or desires. It was ultimately less important for them to avoid sin than to resolve dilemmas or evade choice. When the breathless individual freedom of the early republic collided with the relentless responsibilities of paternal stewardship, the result was an implosion of self-destructive violence … the beginning not the end of a disturbing national tradition …
Many social barriers had fallen in post-Revolutionary America, but several unhappy men could still not control the rain, or the currency, or their own darker impulses. Where others may have perceived boundless opportunities, they experienced gnawing fears and terrifying compulsions. Situations of free choice did not inspire them with a “heady feeling of command” or a “sense of marvelous potential,” to use Robert Wiebe’s expansive phrases, but drove them instead to desperation. Physical unsettlement, economic insecurities, and religious speculations all combined to baffle and torment them. Unable to cope with the perplexities of life in a free society, they constructed internal imperatives to evade and annul that very freedom. By their actions, each tacitly endorsed John Cowan’s conclusion in prison: “Liberty would be more horrible to me than death.” Thus did a handful of troubled Americans confront freedoms profound enough to transform sober Christians into deluded visionaries, loving husbands into axe-wielding assassins, and tidy republican households into slaughterhouses.
Where Pennsylvania acquitted, Indiana convicted — but within even a few years the cooling of passions stirred by the slaughter led many to regret the judgment. According to this volume, even the judge later acknowledged that he ought to have set aside the verdict owing to Heller’s state of mind.
* We’re channeling this via the Gloucester (Mass.) Telegraph of May 4, 1836.