Posts filed under '19th Century'

1830: William Banks, housebreaker

Add comment January 11th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1830, William Banks, the leader of a gang of West Moulsey robbers was hanged at London’s Horsemonger Lane Gaol.

Despite a freezing day and a ferocious northerly wind that newsmen enhanced “almost to a hurricane” (London Morning Chronicle, January 12, 1830), a vast concourse of onlookers turned out to witness the execution.

The case attracted such enormous public interest for the boldness of the thieves in plundering the home of a Rev. William Warrington and his wife. That couple “had just undressed for bed,” explain the newspapers (this the Dec. 30, 1829 London Morning Chronicle), “when they were alarmed by the sound of several footsteps walking towards the door of their room.”

Mr. Warrington grabbed for a pistol he kept at the ready as the gang barged into the room, but couldn’t get a shot away before both were seized, trussed up, and deposited in the cellar with two tied-up maids.

Having the place at their disposal now, the robbers made a leisurely search of chests, drawers, cupboards, and the like and loaded up the domestic valuables on one of the house’s own gigs, finally driving it off under the locomotion of one of the house’s own horses at about 4 in the morning.

Though widely reported at the time it happened — way back in November 1828 — there was no break in the case until a year later when a gang member in prison on an unrelated case started informing against them in exchange for a remittance of his own punishment.

The gang’s leader, our man William Banks, “had repeatedly sworn that he would not be taken alive,” the Morning Chronicle reported in its January 12, 1830 account of the hanging. But with a gun literally to his head, he thought better of resistance and surrendered with the accurate prophecy, “I am a dead man.”

Even in 1830, housebreaking was among the two hundred-odd non-homicide crimes eligible for a capital sentence by the terms of England’s Bloody Code; indeed, Frank McLynn observes that it “was treated particularly harshly, as it violated privacy and exposed householders to assault.”

Banks, “a dark but handsome and very muscular man” of 35, dismayed the chaplain with his indifference to his spiritual salvation — for “all he cared about hanging was the pain it would give him, for he knew nothing about a hereafter.”

England in the early 1830s abolished the death penalty for a number of property crimes, including (in 1833) housebreaking.

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1900: The private, decent, and humane execution of a human being named George Smiley

Add comment January 8th, 2015 Headsman

George Smiley’s execution in the Arizona Territory on this date in 1900 was a month late owing to a public relations debacle.

The first and only man ever hanged in Navajo County, Smiley had killed a railroad section foreman.

As his scheduled December 8 execution approached, sheriff Frank Wattron garlanded the routine invitation he was required to send to the official witnesses with a bit more exuberance than was usual for the genre.

Holbrook, Arizona ... 1899.</p>
<p>Mr. .....</p>
<p>You are hereby cordially invited to attend the hanging of one</p>
<p>GEORGE SMILEY, MURDERER.</p>
<p>His soul will be swung into eternity on Dec. 8, 1899, at 2 o'clock, p.m. sharp.</p>
<p>Latest improved methods in the art of scientific strangulation will be employed and everything possible will be done to make the proceedings cheerful and the execution a success.</p>
<p>F.J. WATTRON,<br />
Sheriff of Navajo County

The jaunty, gilt-edged communique found its way into the hands of newsmen who soon reported it coast to coast.

U.S. President William McKinley — Wattron’s ultimate boss, since Arizona was a pre-statehood federal territory at this point — was not amused by the officer’s jollity, and ordered a 30-day reprieve for Smiley and a do-over with a little solemnity this time for Wattron.

The sheriff’s compliance was not altogether in the spirit of the directive. On the eve of the hanging, when it was much too late for news cycles to create any upstairs blowback, he dispatched a black-framed invitation dripping in sarcastic gravity.

Revised Statutes of Arizona, Penal Code, Title X, Section 1849, Page 807, makes it obligatory on sheriff to issue invitations to executions, form (unfortunately) not prescribed.

Holbrook, Arizona

Jan. 7, 1900.

With feelings of profound sorrow and regret, I hereby invite you to attend and witness the private, decent and humane execution of a human being; name, George Smiley, crime, murder.

The said George Smiley will be executed on Jan. 8, 1900, at 2 o’clock p.m.

You are expected to deport yourself in a respectful manner, and any “flippant” or “unseemly” language or conduct on your part will not be allowed. Conduct, on anyone’s part, bordering on ribaldry and tending to mar the solemnity of the occasion will not be tolerated.

F.J. Wattron,
Sheriff of Navajo County

I would suggest that a committee, consisting of Governor Murphy, Editors Dunbar, Randolph and Hull, wait on our next legislature and have a form of invitation to executions embodied in our laws.

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1865: Henry Regley and Charles King, General Sheridan’s deserters

Add comment January 6th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1865, two Union soldiers were shot as spies at Winchester, Virginia.

Union General Philip Sheridan and his famed Napoleon complex* were wintering in Winchester, Va. where he had recently clinched northern control of the Shenandoah Valley, and put its fertile farmlands to the torch to cripple the rebel army.

Sheridan, who had in the course of that campaign made his lasting fame by rallying his troops after an initially devastating Confederate surprise attack, was highly concerned at the prospect of rebel spies and infiltrators.

Our two poor fellows, Henry Regley and Charles King, were actually nothing of the sort — just bounty jumper who donned the blue uniform to collect a cash reward for joining up, and then deserted at the first opportunity. Given the state’s primitive tools in the 1860s for monitoring individual citizens or verifying identity, many bounty jumpers simply repeated the enlistment-desertion cycle several times.

Being shot as a deserter was one of the occupational hazards — a small one, but a real one. But being shot as a spy? Well, General Sheridan was on the lookout.

These deserters on their way out of camp happened to bump into a patrol of “Confederates”: actually a Union detail Sheridan had uniformed like the enemy for sneaky reconnaissance. What ensued next was your basic comedy of mistaken identity … with a double execution at the end.

The following is a newspaper dispatch filed a few day later by one of their fellow soldiers writing under the pen name “Manatom” for the Newark Daily Advertiser; it comes from New Jersey Butterfly Boys in the Civil War: The Hussars of the Union Army

Henry Recli [sic] of Co. L and Christian A. Gross, alias Charles King of the same Company, a German by birth, left the regiment while at the present camp. A party of scouts led by Major [Young] of Gen. Sheridan’s staff, at their head, dressed in rebel uniforms met these men up the valley, a number of miles outside the picket lines. As they conversed with them, the deserters supposing them to be genuine rebels, gave them the contraband information, and stated that they had been trying to desert for some time. They assented to a proposal to exchange clothing, and then were arrested.

I am informed by Chaplain John L. Frazee, whose trying duty it was to be with the condemned during their last hours, that both persisted in their innocence to the last. When told by the Provost Marshall Lee, that they were to die at noon, they said they knew that the night before, when they were in Winchester, at which place Gross, who had always signed his name as Charles King, wrote a letter to friends in Philadelphia, signed Christian A. Gross, in which he expressed his doubts of the carrying out of the sentence. The chaplain believes this idea deceived them until the last moment, although they yielded a sort of mechanical compliance with the solemn services held with them in private, and kneeled in prayer before being taken from prison.


Private Friederich Jaeckel’s drawing in his diary of the two deserters, again via New Jersey Butterfly Boys. Though that book’s caption places this on January 6, 1864, context suggests this must in fact be our 1865 incident; there is no indication I can find of an executed pair in the army dating to exactly one year before.

The details of the execution of this kind are terribly formal and impressive. Fully three thousand cavalrymen were drawn upon three sides of a square upon a gentle slope a little way from headquarters. Each regimental and brigade staff was with its organization and centrally stationed was Gen. Custer and his staff and body guard. When the Division was arranged, Provost Marshall Lee gave orders that the condemned should be brought forth, and thoroughly unused as I was to seeing death in that shape, the memories clustering about that slow moving group, seem as if burned in my brain.

The Provost Marshall, preceded by the band, with a small body guard, led — then the firing party, made up of twelve picked men from our own regiment. A large open wagon, drawn by four white horses, came next — in which there were two coffins, upon each of which sat a doomed man riding backwards, with feet ironed and hands tied behind. Each had a long white scarf about the head. Besides these rode the Chaplain and a proper guard dismounted closed the rear.

The fine brigade band, which had marched in silence until near the Division, when the first side of the square was reached, began playing a Dead March, and thus did this little group march slowly around inside the whole army, and at last halt at an open grave — dug in the center.

The men were now lifted from the wagon, the Coffins duly placed, and the men seated as before facing the whole Division. Marshall Lee then, from his horse, read the order and warrant … brief religious services were held, the Chaplain reading a portion of the burial service, and offering prayer for the condemned. Neither had anything to say, and the Chaplain retired a few paces. The faces of the men were then covered, and the firing party quickly drawn up in line with pieces previously carefully loaded and placed in their hands. One of the twelve had, by a merciful regulation in the Articles of War, a blank cartridge, and each comrade had the hope that he should send no fatal ball.

More rapidly than I can trace this account was the preparation done. Ten paces off stood the line — each man sternly appreciative of his fearful duty.

“Attention” Ready! Aim! Fire! The report was almost as if one carbine had responded. Two bodies fallen backwards and dead were all that remained of Recli and Gross. The surgeon in a few moments pronounced life extinct; and the scene closed by marching the whole body of troops past their Coffins, lying as they fell — this most solemn warning one can imagine to the soldier — to be faithful to himself, his oath and his Country. MANATOM

* Abraham Lincoln’s hilarious description of the 1.65-meter (5′ 5″) “Little Phil”: “A brown, chunky little chap, with a long body, short legs, not enough neck to hang him, and such long arms that if his ankles itch he can scratch them without stooping.”


General Sheridan

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1900: Geronimo Parra and Antonio Flores, the last hanged in El Paso

Add comment January 5th, 2015 Headsman

The last-ever hanging in El Paso, Texas, on this date in 1900* was distinguished by an astonishing attempted fight to the finish by the two doomed men.

Despite what Hollywood would have one believe, the dramatic bodily escape from the executioner is really never a thing. (Well, hardly ever.) And even if Geronimo Parra and Antonio Flores could not effect their escape that day, they would have been content, as Flores bellowed while brandishing his shank, if “You shall all go to hell with me!”

Parra, by far the more notable character in this drama, was long a noted desperado in the borderlands. Though known for all manner of outlawry, he was specifically hunted by the Texas Rangers for slayingf one of their number, John Fusselman, in a mountain ambush way back in 1890.

Parra was in jail in New Mexico for an unrelated robbery under an assumed name when he was recognized as the wanted murderer. Texas Ranger John R. Hughes cut a deal with the Sheriff of Dona Ana County, New Mexico — a lawman you might have heard of by the name of Pat Garrett.** Garrett wanted a fugitive hiding out in Texas, and arranged to extradite Parra in return if Hughes could find the man for him.

The second man doomed to die with Parra, Antonio Flores, was an altogether more everyday criminal: his avidity for a Smeltertown woman who would not have him led him to stab her to death, crying — as if he had not already done enough to poor Ramona Vizcaya without sending her to the next world with an eye-rolling banality — “If I cannot have you then no other man shall!”

Flores’s, shall we say, passion would prove an asset for the desperate duo on their final day.

The gallows had only a single trap, so the two men were to hang consecutively. When guards came to retrieve Antonio Flores, however, both he and Parra raced out of the open cell door wielding homemade blades — steel wire twisted and sharpened into makeshift daggers.


Dalls Morning News, January 6, 1900.

With the certainty of immediate death upon them, the prisoners made a desperate melee in the little hall.

Flores planted his cruel dirk into the stomach of a deputy named Ed Bryant, while Parra scored glancing blows on two men before he was shoved back into the cell. While the rustler looked on helplessly from behind bars, the available toughs piled onto Parra and subdued him.

Parra was trussed hand and foot and dragged straight to the scaffold for instant execution. On pain of prospective death by the constables’ revolvers, Parra too submitted when his turn came, and satisfied himself with declaring his innocence on the gallows — after which the noose nearly ripped the man’s head clean away.


San Antonio Express, January 6, 1900.

Spare a thought for these long-lost frontiersmen when next visiting the gorge where Ranger Fusselman caught that fatal bullet from Parra’s gang of cattle rustlers: Fusselman Canyon.

* Some sites give January 6 for the execution date. The primary sources here unambiguously show this is incorrect.

** Famous for shooting Billy the Kid. Pat Garrett served only a single term as sheriff of Lincoln County; his reputation for excessive violence and shady associations helped to give his career in New Mexico and Texas a somewhat vagabond quality.

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1868: Thomas Jones, bad uncle

Add comment December 29th, 2014 Meaghan

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

Four days after Christmas in 1868, Thomas Jones was executed in London, Ontario for one of the most sensational murders perpetrated in the region at the time. He had brutally slaughtered his twelve-year-old niece in the town of Delaware.

Early that year, according to this article on the case, Jones had tried to rob his own brother’s house while wearing a false beard to disguise his identity. Unfortunately for him, young Mary Jones recognized her uncle and subsequently testified against him in the ensuing trial. Thomas Jones held this against her, as did Thomas’s daughter Elizabeth, who was thirteen.

On June 11, 1868, Mary’s mother sent her to Uncle Thomas’s house to fetch a cup of flour. (One wonders why she did so, given the history of bad blood between uncle and niece.) Mary never returned.

Suspicion inevitably fell on Thomas, who insisted she’d come and gotten the flour and left his home alive and well. Forty-eight hours after Mary’s disappearance, the search party got fed up, grabbed Thomas’s ten-year-old son and threatened to kill him if he didn’t tell what happened to his cousin.

The boy led them to her body, hidden in the woods under a fallen tree. Her skull had been fractured.

According to the child, both his father and his sister Elizabeth had participated in Mary’s murder. Public feeling ran high against the accused and the entire family had to be taken into custody and transported from Delaware to London to avoid a possible lynching. Only Thomas and Elizabeth faced murder charges, but according to this account, Thomas’s wife and younger son were kept in jail for four months and his two older sons, both in their teens, remained there until well after their father’s death.

The prosecution’s theory was that either Thomas had murdered his niece after Elizabeth lead her into the woods at his direction, or Thomas talked Elizabeth into committing the murder.

At trial, Elizabeth tried to take the rap for her father, claiming she’d beaten Mary to death entirely on her own and Thomas had only helped her hide the body. Thomas’s youngest son testified in support of this, saying he’d witnessed his sister striking Mary with a club.

Thomas used his underaged daughter’s statements like a shield — he would maintain his innocence to his dying breath — but in the end the jury convicted him of murder. What may have tipped the balance was the medical evidence, which indicated Mary had been dealt some powerful blows, stronger than a child could have inflicted.

Elizabeth was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to ten years for her role in the crime, in spite of her youth. The older two of Thomas’s three sons, ages seventeen and fifteen, were finally released without charge in the spring of 1869. Elizabeth served seven years before she was freed.

In spite of the bitter cold many residents of Delaware came to watch Thomas hang at the Middlesex County Gaol. Around six thousand people were in the crowd — approximately half the population of London. This would be the last hanging in Middlesex county.

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1821: Ketaukah and Kewahiskin, the first hangings in the Michigan Territory

Add comment December 27th, 2014 Headsman

From the Salem (Mass.) Gazette, Jan. 18, 1822.

Executions — Two Indians,* Ketaukah and Kewahiskin [elsewhere given as Kewaubis -ed.] were hanged at Detroit on the 27th ult. the former for the murder of Dr. W.S. Madison, the latter for the murder of Charles Ulrick.

The criminals (says the account) often acknowledged the justice of their sentence,** and in their way they had prepared themselves to meet its execution.

For several weeks past they appeared very anxious to obtain presents of tobacco, pipes, &c. none of which they used, but carefully laid them aside as an offering to the Great Spirit on the day of their death.

They had contrived a sort of drum, by drawing a piece of leather over the vessel that contained their drink, and often engaged in their solemn death dance. On the night previous to their execution, they continued their death dance to a very late hour, and commenced it again early in the morning.

They had been presented, among other things, with some red paint — with this they painted on the wall of their cell numerous figures of men, quadrupeds, reptiles, &c. — on their blankets were also painted many figures — among the rest, an Indian, hanging by the neck, was observed.

From the jail they were taken to the Protestant Church, where an appropriate discourse was delivered to the assemblage by Mr. J.S. Hudson (one of the gentlemen belonging to the Mission family).

They appeared throughout the whole of the solemn preparatory steps to be perfectly collected — they walked firmly to the gallows, and previously to ascending to the drop, shook hands with the Rev. Mr. Juvier, Mr. Hudson, the Sheriff and Marshal, and several other gentlemen who stood near them.

They ascended the steps of the drop in a manner peculiarly firm — after which, they asked, through the interpreter, the pardon of the surrounding spectators, for the crime they had committed.

They then shook hands and gazed for a few minutes on the assemblage and on the heavens, when their caps were drawn over their faces, and they were launched into eternity.

* Ketaukah was of the Ojibwe (Chippewa) people, while Kewahiskin was a Menominee. (Source) The two men were not associates of each other prior to their shared condemnation, and their crimes were completely unrelated.

** Be that as it may, Ketaukah tested the jurisdiction of the Territorial Court (Michigan had not yet been admitted to statehood). He argued (like Tommy Jemmy in New York) that Anglo juries had no jurisdiction over his crime, which had been committed against a white doctor on Winnebago land. He also demanded the inclusion of Indians on the jury; complications of a potential language barrier within the jury pool, and the matter of whether an interpreter’s presence at jury deliberations would vitiate the verdict, defeated that motion. (For the jurisdictional question, see American Indians and State Law: Sovereignty, Race, and Citizenship, 1790-1880. For the jury composition, see the footnote on page 123 of this masters thesis.)

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1875: Henry Wainwright, Whitechapel murderer

Add comment December 21st, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1875, Whitechapel’s most notorious murderer ere Jack the Ripper arrived on the scene paid for his double life on the gallows of Newgate.

Henry Wainwright, brushmaker and philanderer, came to his mortal ruin by way of a financial one.

The expansive Wainwright could not confine his adventures to actresses at the theater adjacent his Whitechapel Road shop* but in 1872 installed a mistress, one Harriet Lane, in a flat of her own with a liberal £5-a-week stipend. “Mrs. King”, as she styled herself with a better ear for the forgettable name than Wainwright would evidence (we’ll come to that part), bore her lover two children.

But by the next year, Wainwright’s prodigalities and a worldwide economic crisis had sunk him in debt. As his creditors circled, Wainwright pinched farthings where he could, putting predictable strain on his lover’s allowance — and with it, her affection, her sobriety, and her discretion.

As Wainwright succumbed to bankruptcy, Harriet Lane’s demands for money and occasional drunken forays into his very place of business had Wainwright scrambling for some way to fob the mistress off on some other man. His efforts thereto were frustrated, so he contrived the next best thing: prevailing on his brother Thomas** to write his mistress mash notes under the ungainly pseudonym of “Edward Frieake”, Wainwright spun a plausible scenario for her elopement.

Unfortunately for Mrs. King, the honeymoon would be a chloride of lime pit under the floorboards of Wainwright’s warehouse.

On September 11, 1874, the lady sallied out of her apartment, and was never heard from again.

Laborers working near Wainwright’s warehouse that night would report hearing three gunshots, but being unable to pinpoint their source they let the matter drop — just as did police with Harriett Lane’s disappearance. With the help of a chaser letter or two from his brother, Wainwright represented that she had run off to Paris with her correspondent. Why, she might never be heard from again!

According to Jonathan Goodman, the 1844 Thomas Hood poem “The Bridge of Sighs” was a Wainwright favorite, one he often recited to entertain his family(s):

One more Unfortunate,
Weary of breath,
Rashly importunate,
Gone to her death!

Take her up tenderly,
Lift her with care;
Fashion’d so slenderly
Young, and so fair!

Wainwright himself qualified for verse not long after poor Harriet Cole’s remains tumbled into plain view on that London street, like the “Awful Murder and Mutilation of a Female At the East-end of London”, whose composition mirrors its expository title:

Her head was severed from her body,
Her arms as well — how sad to tell

The above fragment (I have not located the entire original) is from this informative post about murder ballads

Another year on, Wainwright had good cause to believe he’d gotten away with the whole thing.† But his finances having finally collapsed, the warehouse that doubled has Harriet Lane’s tomb had been foreclosed upon in July of 1875, and it would soon be sold to new and potentially nosy owners. Wainwright had a body to move. And when the hole was opened up on September 10, 1875, it uncovered not a few scraps of a satisfyingly dissolved corpse — but the body entire, preserved rather than eroded by its chemical bath.

And the corpse stank disgustingly.

Showing the extraordinary judgment that had got him into this mess in the first place, Wainwright bought a spade and a cleaver to dismember the foul limbs he had once made love to, and then engaged a colleague to help him schlep the resulting packages out to the street. Arthur Stokes would later attribute his decision to peek to a divine command that struck him from the firmament, but nothing more remarkable than below-average curiosity will be required of a man encumbered by a heavy, fetid parcel to wonder what they might contain. A more impressive explanation will be required to justify Henry Wainwright’s decision to leave Stokes alone with the horrors while Wainwright jogged off to hail a cab.

Thinking fast for a man come face to face with a severed head, Stokes rewrapped the horrendous bundle and casually helped his homicidal friend pack it all onto the cab. When Wainwright drove off, Stokes trailed him, looking for constables to summon. And when he found them, and they approached the cab asking to inspect his cargo, all Henry Wainwright’s nauseating hypocrisy spilled out on the street in a lurid pile. He lamely tried to bribe the constables two hundred quid to ignore the putrid sackful of human remains.

A distinct scar and the dress Harriet Lane had worn on the day of her “elopement” identified the body to everyone’s satisfaction, and the circumstances of the body’s discovery did not admit much hope for Wainwright’s defense team.‡

So notorious was Wainwright’s crime that a vast concourse of gawkers mobbed the exterior of Newgate on the morning of his hanging, just like in the bad old days — even though, all executions by this late date being private affairs, these masses had no opportunity to glimpse anything save the black flag hoisted over Newgate to signal that the sentence of the law had been carried into effect.

Sources:

* Wainwright’s old shop apparently still stands, in relatively good condition. There are some 21st century photos of it and some interesting discussion of the case on casebook.org.

** Exactly when Thomas Wainwright became aware of what his brother had been up to with this “Edward Frieake” stuff is not certain. He did help his brother open Harriet Lane’s lime grave prior to its catastrophic attempted move.

Tried for his life alongside his brother, Thomas was acquitted of capital murder but caught a seven-year prison sentence as an accessory after the fact.

† The illegitimate children were in the care of a dressmaker, Ellen Wilmore, who still had them by the time of Wainwright’s trial. (Wilmore was called to testify.) It is not known what became of them thereafter.

‡ We are indebted to Foul Deeds and Suspicious Deaths in London’s East End for this outstanding detail: librettist W.S. Gilbert appears as a part of Wainwright’s defense. Gilbert, a barrister by training who had just made his big breakthrough by writing the 1875 musical theater hit Trial by Jury, was in the process of launching the collaborative career that puts Gilbert and Sullivan productions on community playhouse stages down to the present day.

Late in 1875, W.S. Gilbert received a jury summons highly inconvenient to his burgeoning artistic career. Consequently, he managed to finagle for himself a nominal assignment on the Wainwright defense team as a means of re-establishing “practicing attorney” bona fides that would exempt him from any jury boxes.

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1879: Swift Runner, wendigo

1 comment December 20th, 2014 Headsman

The first legal hanging in Alberta, Canada, took place on this date in 1879. Generations later, it’s still remembered as one of the province’s worst, and strangest, crimes.

The hanged man was a native Cree known as Swift Runner (Ka-Ki-Si-Kutchin) — a tall and muscular character with “as ugly and evil-looking a face as I have ever seen,” in the words of an Anglo Fort Saskatchewan officer. Whatever his comeliness, Swift Runner was on good terms with the frontier authorities, who trusted him as a guide for the North West Mounted Police. That is, until the Cree’s violent whiskey benders unbalanced him so much that the police sent him back to his tribe … and then his tribe kicked him out, too.

He took to the wilderness to shift as he could with his family in the winter of 1878-79: a wife, mother, brother, and six children.

But only Swift Runner himself would return from that camp.

When police were alerted to the suspicious absence of Swift Runner’s party, the former guide himself escorted investigators to the scene.

One child had died of natural causes, and was buried there.

The eight other humans had been reduced to bones, strewn around the camp like the set of a slasher film.*

They had all been gobbled up by a wendigo.

The wendigo (various alternate spellings, such as windigo and witiko, are also available) is a frightful supernatural half-beast of Algonquin mythology, so ravenous it is said to devour its own lips — and human flesh too. For some quick nightmare fuel,* try an image search.

The revolting wendigo was mythically associated with cannibalism, so closely that humans who resort to anthropophagy could also be called wendigos. According to Swift Runner, the ferocious spirit entered into him and bid him slaughter and eat all his relations.

Swift Runner is the poster child for the “Wendigo Psychosis”, a mental disorder particular to the Northern Algonquin peoples. In the psychosis, diagnosed by the early 1900s but hotly disputed in psychological literature, people are said to have experienced themselves possessed by the wendigo and wracked by violent dreams and a compulsion to cannibalism. It’s importantly distinguished from famine cannibalism: though it was the wilderness during winter, Swift Runner had access to other food when he turned wendigo. The author of a 1916 report on the phenomenon said he had “known a few instances of this deplorable turn of mind, and not one instance could plead hunger, much less famine as an excuse of it.”**

The disorder, whatever it was, was nevertheless surely bound to the precariousness of life in the bush; wendigo cases vanish in the 20th century as grows afflicted populations’ contact with the encroaching sedentary civilization.

For Canadian authorities in 1879, however, there was no X-File case or philosophical puzzle: there was a man who had shot, bludgeoned, and/or throttled his whole family and snapped open long bones to suckle on their marrow.

But if the verdict and sentence were clear, the logistics were less so: hangings were virgin territory for the Fort Saskatchewan bugler put in charge of orchestrating the event. Swift Runner, by this time repentant, had to wait in the cold on the frigid morning of his hanging while the old pensioner hired to hang him retrieved the straps he’d forgotten, to pinion his man, and fixed the gallows trap. “I could kill myself with a tomahawk, and save the hangman further trouble,” Swift Runner joked

* In the Stephen King novel Pet Sematary (but not in its cinematic adaptation) the master adversary behind the reanimation of murderous household pets is a wendigo. For a classical horror-lit interpretation, Algernon Blackwood’s 1910 The Wendigo is freely available in the public domain.

** Cited by Robert A. Brightman in “On Windigo Psychosis,” Current Anthropology, February 1983.

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1865: William Corbett and Patrick Fleming

1 comment December 15th, 2014 Ramicles

(Thanks to Ramicles, the pseudonymous 19th century Chicago correspondent of the Providence Press, for this eyewitness account of a December 15, 1865 hanging off two hired assassins. It appeared under a December 16 dateline in that paper’s December 21, 1865 edition. -ed.)

I have promised the numerous readers of the EVENING PRESS a description of a death scene, and I will keep my word. But believe me, it is no welcome task; my heart is not in it. On my mind one solemn moral is impressed — one moral only: the terrible reality of crime, the terrible reality of punishment. One naturally follows the other, as night follows day.

At the hour of three, lacking ten minutes, on yesterday afternoon, I saw two men, William Corbett and Patrick Fleming, take a formal farewell of this world and enter an untried existence. Those who love to linger on the few hours which the wretched men passed, in the anticipation of that final scene, may do so. I will not. They knew that they had incurred the law’s extreme penalty, and must suffer that penalty. There is a disposition on the part of doomed men to “die game;” and much of the apparent heartlessness is bravado only.

As I have said in a former letter, Fleming has for several days seemed indifferent or defiant. Whether he had faint hopes of pardon, I know not; but there seemed to be something in his manner that showed his reliance to some extent on the mobid [sic] humanitarianism of the age, (as exhibited in the case of the Malden murderer Greene,) and had not finally made up his mind for death.

Those who had not made human nature a study, were therefore unprepared to see the difference in demeanor of the two men, on the scaffold. Corbett, who, since his sentence, has seemed to realize his solemn situation, and has been much depressed, because, as his last moments drew near, cheerful and even jubilant, and the gloomy Court House echoed his hilarious merriment, which was startlingly horrible, as wild laughter wakened in the throat of death. There is something grotesquely awful in hearing a man laugh while the rope is around his neck. (The Republican reporter styled that death “ecstacies!” [sic] I had always supposed that ecstacy was less boisterous; but I am ready at all times to receive new ideas and novel definitions. — Who ever knew a man in Chicago to be wrong? “If any, speak, for him have I offended.”) The conduct of Flemming [sic] was in striking contrast. He seemed chilled with the thought of death, and was so lost in contemplation that he scarcely heard the voice of the clergyman admonishing him to pray.

He indeed repeated the words of the prayer, but so unconsciously that it seemed only mechanical. His eyes were vacantly staring, and his countenance was ghastly in its expression of deadly fear. Was that gaze fixed on vacancy alone? Was it a retrospective vision of the soul gazing on itself, and with reversed sight recalling all the past — the hours of childhood — the fleeting moments of early manhood — the years whose only noteworthy incidents were damning deeds of midnight robbery — that night of blood — that death-cry of his victim — the fatal shot — the flight — the vision of justice and the avenging Nemises [sic] following his track — the arrest — the trial — the death sentence, and the lingering death of expectation preceding its infliction? Or was there one more torture? Was his the gift of prescience, and the power to look beyond the Shadow of the Dark Valley, and was it what he there saw that transfixed him into a statue of cold horror? Who shall say?

Those were my reflections when I looked on the miserable man; and I unconsciously repeated to myself the heartfelt words of the psalmist: “Cut me not off, O, my God, in the midst of my days!”

I shuddered as I thought that the doomed one might be silently repeating the same prayer, and II, by mesmeric rapport or sympathy, had caught up his inaudible petition. Then came another hideous laugh from the lips of Corbett — a few hasty words of farewell — a slight gliding sound as the well oiled bolts slid swiftly back — and two forms shrouded in white cloth were spasmodically struggling with death. The drop was located in the east wing of the Court House, the trap being constructed in the floor. After the two surgeons in attendance had pronounced them both dead, the bodies were lowered into the coffins, as usual, and a few had a curiosity to look at the faces. Singular as it may seem, Flemming had undoubtedly suffered the least pain of the two. The features were somewhat distorted and discolored. But Corbett’s face was a sight such as one would look on but once, and wish to efface [sic] the memory of that one look, and think of it no more forever. The tongue protruded fearfully from the mouth, and the teeth had bitten through it, in that last agony of dissolution. Truly is an execution a moral lesson which no one may witness without a thrill of horror whatever one may think of the theory of capital punishment.

There was one fact in connection with the affair, which I cannot understand. The widow of the murdered man repeatedly made application to the Sheriff for permission to see the hanging and it was refused. At an early hour I saw a lady dressed in deep mourning standing at the Court House gate and I was informed that it was Mrs. Maloney. After all was over, she still stood there, shivering in the intense cold, the bitter freezing cold. It appears some one had told her that the men who had murdered her husband and left her desolate, would be reprieved, and that only increased her anxiety to see the sentence of the law fulfilled.

Hour after hour she waited, while stout men, wrapping more closely their overcoats and mufflers around them, hurried on more rapidly as they felt the keen blast which swept across the square. Several times she was assured that the criminals were hanged; but she refused to believe it, till an acquaintance in whom she had confidence told her, and then with an expression of relief and satisfaction on her face, she suddenly left for home, and I saw her no more. Poor woman! the wrong done her and her child had been avenged. Justice had vindicated itself. Who shall say but half the sorrow of bereavement was lifted from her heart by the knowledge that the slayers of her husband had tasted the bitter waters of death, held to their unwilling lips by the hand of Retribution? Why was it that the satisfaction of witnessing the punishment was denied her? I may be wrong, but I only repeat the sentiments of many men here and elsewhere when I say: Hangings should be public.

I have heard and read many objections to public executions; but I am convinced that whatever may be said of the rude and brutal deportment of the crowd — the levity — the profanity, &c. &c., I am convinced that no man ever saw an infliction of the Death Penalty, and forgot it. Men may read the long accounts given by newspaper reporters, but the reality beggars description. The reader can get but a very poor idea from the most graphic account, and like any other item of news, it is not long remembered. If the grand object is to warn men, by impressing on their minds the terrible consequences of crime, then that warning should be given in the most public manner possible.

When I commenced this communication I had no thought of making a plea for the gallows; and I will only say, that until some more fearful mode of punishing the crime of murder can be invented, hanging commends itself to the approval of reflecting people. It is a severe remedy, but it is the only effectual one; and those individuals who oppose capital punishment so zealously, may easily find other ways to vent their sentimentalism. Sympathy for those whom crime has injured would be better placed than sympathy for criminals. You will hear from me on this subject no more until Jeff. Davis is hanged, and then I shall probably have some comments to make, as I shall endeavor to “be there to see.”

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1888: Tsimequor, indigenous Snuneymuxw

Add comment December 12th, 2014 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1888, Tsimequor, a member of the Snuneymuxw First Nation, was executed in Nanaimo, British Columbia for a bizarre murder that clashed Aboriginal and white Canadian cultures.

What happened is explained in Jeffrey Pfeifer and Ken Leyton-Brown’s book Death By Rope: An Anthology of Canadian Executions:

The matter that brought Tsimequor to public attention arose out of a tribal custom designed to help members of the community better deal with grief following the death of a child. The custom dictated that when a child died, it was the practice for all other persons in the tribe who bore the same name to immediately change their names. In this way, relatives of the deceased child would be less likely to be reminded of their loss.

Tsimequor’s son Moses died in 1888 and, as per custom, all the Snuneymuxw who were named “Moses” changed their names to something else.

But there was one little boy in the community whose name was Moïse — “Moses” in French — and Tsimequor demanded that he change his name as well. The four-year-old’s parents refused, and days later somebody killed their son.

Had it been solely in the hands of the Snuneymuxw, the crime might have been forgiven. But to the Canadian legal authorities killing a four-year-old because of his name was unambiguously capital murder, and so Tsimequor was arrested and brought to trial. He maintained his innocence, but was convicted on November 7, 1888 and sentenced to death.

Pfeifer and Leyton-Brown record:

Surprisingly, there was considerable sympathy for Tsimequor expressed in the local newspaper, which pointed out that the crime had been committed “through superstition” and noting that Tsimequor had had no legal counsel to defend him at the trial. According to one newspaper report, “a sentence designed to educate Aboriginal people would be more appropriate.” There was however no doubt which tradition would be followed in this case.

Tsimequor was hanged in the Nanaimo Gaol five weeks after his trial.


Privy Council minutes determining that ‘law should be allowed to take its course’ with the hanging of the indigenous man Tsimequor in 1888

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