Posts filed under '19th Century'

1878: J.W. Rover, sulfurous

Add comment February 19th, 2014 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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1815: Eight deserters by order of Andrew Jackson

4 comments February 17th, 2014 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1815, eight young men condemned for desertion during the War of 1812 were executed by firing squad in Nashville, Tennessee.

They were brought out to be shot one by one, as there weren’t enough people available to form a firing squad large enough for the group of them.

Desertion was rife during this inglorious conflict, according to Wikipedia:

The desertion rate for American soldiers in the War of 1812 was 12.7%, according to available service records. Desertion was especially common in 1814, when enlistment bonuses were increased from $16 to $124, inducing many men to desert one unit and enlist in another to get two bonuses.

We’re not sure how well these eight got paid off in life … only that they collected their last check in lead.

  1. Nathaniel Chester, age unknown, a member of the Corp of Artillery.
  2. Benjamin Harris, 38, a private in the 44th Regiment. Born in Virginia and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, he enlisted on March 26, 1814 and deserted on July 1.
  3. John Jones, 33, a private in the 2nd Rifle Regiment. He’d enlisted for a five-year stint on July 25, 1814 in Farquier, Virginia. The date he deserted has not been recorded.
  4. Jacob King, 20, a private in the 1st U.S. Artillery. He was born in Pennsylvania and enlisted on March 28, 1814 for five years. He deserted on July 12.
  5. James McBride, 21, a native of Virginia. Records about his military service are unclear: some reports are that he enlisted on April 20, 1813, and other accounts give the date as July 22, 1814. It’s possible he deserted twice; this was a common practice, as noted above.
  6. William Myers, 19, a private from Georgia. He enlisted on March 27, 1814; it’s unknown when he deserted.
  7. Drury Puckett, 36, a member of the 2nd Infantry. (Almost certainly the son and namesake of this Drury Puckett.) Like Harris and McBride, he was from Virginia and he had enlisted there for five years on September 24, 1814. The record says he deserted on December 31, but this is surely in error, because by then he had already been sentenced to die.
  8. John Young, age unknown, from Winchester, Virginia. He enlisted on October 3, 1814 and deserted after a mere five days.

General (and future President) Andrew Jackson affirmed their sentences on January 28, pardoning five others at the same time. This was twenty days after Jackson fought the Battle of New Orleans, the final major conflict in the war. This day’s event was the largest mass execution in Tennessee history.

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1864: Bizoton Affair executions

Add comment February 13th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1864, a bustling market Saturday in Port-au-Prince, Haiti was enlivened with the public executions of eight Haitians for cannibalistic murder.

It was perhaps the signal event in a long-running campaign against vodou (voodoo, vaudoux) in whose service the murder was supposedly committed. The charge sheet had it that a man intent on an occult rite to propitiate the spirit world had slaughtered his own young niece and with several friends and family devoured her remains.

It made for some great copy.

“The eye of the law has penetrated into the midst of the bloody mysteries of this religious cannibalism, against which all the teachings of Catholicism have remained powerless,” breathed the world press in salacious revelry.


Sketch of the Bizoton Affair accused from Harper’s Weekly.

Within Haiti and without, vodou itself stood in the dock alongside its adherents. This was quite likely the very point of the trial.

The popular syncretic religion, heavily derived from Haitian slaves’ African roots, represented to Haitian elites and European observers alike all that was most barbarous about the one place that had run white slavers off. Just a few years ago as I write this, the U.S. televagelist Pat Robertson claimed that Haiti had come by its liberty due to a long-ago pact with the devil. That “pact” was a secret vodou ceremony launching the rebellion that became the Haitian Revolution.

Vodou persisted throughout the 19th century — it still persists today — among Haiti’s underclasses. Though frequently persecuted, vodou enjoyed the support and personal devotion of Emperor Faustin Soulouque, a former slave who ruled Haiti in the 1850s. When Soulouque was overthrown by Fabre Geffrard in a coup backed by Haiti’s elites, dissociating from vodou was one of his principal tasks.

As the history blogger Mike Dash explains in a detailed exploration of the case’s background, the deeply Catholic Geffrard had come to an arrangement with the Vatican that

committed the president to making Catholicism Haiti’s state religion — and the executions of February 1864, which so clearly demonstrated Christian “orthodoxy,” took place just weeks before the priests of the first mission to the country arrived from Rome. The trial was followed up, moreover, by a redrafting of Haiti’s Code Pénal, which increased the fines levied for “sorcery” sevenfold and added that “all dances and other practices that … maintain the spirit of fetishism and superstition in the population will be considered spells and punished with the same penalties.”

The original records of the trial are long lost, meaning the surviving accounts are typically the very partisan ones already convinced that pagan vodou cannibalism was rampant in Haiti. The British charge d’affaires Spenser St. John* has one of the best-known and most influential from his 1887 memoir of Haiti. (St. John attended the trial personally with other European dignitaries.)

St. John considered the case self-evident, and dwelt on its lurid revelations of the cannibalism scene — the flaying of little Claircine’s body, the palm of the hand savored by one cannibal as the choicest morsel. Cannibal testimony was St. John’s own choice morsel; in his view, Haitians extremely “sensitive to foreign public opinion” obstinately threw up a collective wall of silence on a practice that “every foreigner in Hayti” just knew was everywhere around him. But even when St. John published, after another 20-odd years past the Bizoton trial to gather evidence of anthropophagism, all that he managed to produce were two highly dubious second-hand accounts of white men allegedly sneaking into vodou ceremonies under cover of blackface and reporting the sacrifice of children. In the hands of Victorian writers prone to still further embroidery these few sketchy dispatches — and the notorious Bizoton case — would help to cement vodou’s sinister reputation.

St. John’s American counterpart was less impressed with the show trial, its moral panic scenario, and the thrashings administered to the accused to force their confessions.

It was not a fair trial; the evidence was extracted by torture. There was a report in circulation. It caused great excitement. Government took it up, and was determined to convict, because it was a seeming stain on their race. The verdict was forced.

Per St. John, the execution itself was badly botched. “The prisoners, tied in pairs” were “fired [at] with such inaccuracy” by their respective shooting teams “that only six fell wounded on the first discharge.” It took half an hour and much reloading to complete the executions, “and the incidents were so painful, that the horror at the prisoners’ crimes was almost turned into pity at witnessing their unnecessary sufferings.”

* As a consular official in a previous post on the opposite side of the globe, St. John accompanied two of the earliest ascents of Mount Kinabalu in Borneo; as a consequence, one of that mountain’s peaks bears his name.

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1896: Bartholomew “Bat” Shea, political machine ballot-stuffer

2 comments February 11th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1896, during a driving Adirondack snowstorm, Bartholomew “Bat” Shea was electrocuted at New York’s Clinton Prison for a political murder two years prior.

This was the great boom time for machine politics, corrupt political patronage networks doling “spoils” like jobs and benefits to members who in turn maintained a party’s stranglehold on an electorate. These flourished in an industrializing America’s burgeoning cities; Troy, N.Y., at 60,000-plus in the 1890s (it has fewer than that today), was one of upstate New York’s prime industrial centers, and home to a municipal machine rooted in Irish Catholic immigrants and bossed by Democratic U.S. Senator Edward Murphy.

Machine politics were a major bone of contention in the Progressive Era, and certainly in the Troy elections of 1894. The ballot that year would decide Troy’s mayor, and as per usual the Murphy machine meant to stuff the box for its handpicked candidate.

On March 6, 1894, a group of Murphy “repeaters” (so called for their intent to vote repeatedly) including “Bat” Shea and (he’ll figure momentarily) John McGough approached a Thirteenth Ward polling place.

Republican poll watchers Robert and William Ross awaited them — armed, and expecting trouble. They had sparred with the Murphy machine at the ward caucus a few days previous.

“In a twinkling,” went a press report, “clubs and revolvers were flourished. Many shots were fired and when the fight closed it was found that Robert Ross had been fatally shot, that his brother, William, received a bullet in the neck and that Shea and McGough, who fled from the scene, had each been slightly wounded.”

This bloodshed, profaning as it seemed a sacred pillar of the polis, aroused a passionate if opportunistic response from Republicans, anti-machine reformers, and Troy’s Protestants. The killer(s) “were guilty of a crime against the Republic and against republican institutions,” as the resulting Committee of Public Safety put it, deep into the appeals process. (NYT, Jan. 15, 1896) “If such a crime is to go unpunished, ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people,’ must perish from the earth.”

“In this case there is something dearer than a single life,” said a prosecutor.*

It is the question of American citizenship, a question which comes home to us all, Democrats and Republicans, rich and poor. The question is whether it is the good citizen with the ballot, or the thug with his revolver, who shall control our nation.

Two other men were actually implicated in Robert Ross’s death before “Bat” Shea. John Boland, a fellow ballot-watcher, was the first arrested, but outcry against the apparent bid by the Murphy machine to fix the homicide on the victimized party soon freed him.

John McGough of the “repeater” party was also taken into custody, and accused at first of having fired the fatal shot.

Eyewitnesses soon pinned the murder on “Bat” Shea, and a conviction was speedily secured on this basis — with McGough subsequently receiving a long prison sentence for attempted murder, his shot having come within centimeters of taking William Ross’s life, too.

But many of those whom the Murphy machine benefited never believed the evidence against Shea and certainly never thought him capitally liable. Eyewitnesses hewing to their own party affiliation, pushing their own political agenda aided by convenient certainty upon the triggerman of this or that specific bullet in a general firefight. (The Rosses were shooting, too.)

The evidence could certainly be disputed, and over nearly two years Shea’s advocates did just that in courts and clemency petitions — a remarkable (for the time) odyssey to save Shea from the gallows.

Days prior to Shea’s January 1896 execution, his fellow repeater McGough sent a letter to Republican Gov. Levi Morton,** claiming that he, not Shea, shot Ross.

Interviewed directly by the governor’s agents, McGough stuck to his story. This wasn’t enough to convince Morton to spare Shea. For one thing, it would invite the suspicion that the Murphy people were conniving to weasel each other out of the debt that someone owed for Ross’s blood — McGough having already been convicted for his part in the skirmish, and thus safely out of the executioner’s potential grasp.

So much for Republican New York, Protestant New York, respectable New York. Shea’s many supporters who could never secure a legal toehold received his remains in honor at Troy, crowding a train platform where the coffin arrived in at 2:30 a.m. the morning after the electrocution. All that Wednesday, February 12, throngs of supporters paid their respects as the electrocuted man lay in state at his family’s River Street home.

At funeral services at St. Patrick’s Church on February 13, the officiating Father Swift averred uncertainty as to Shea’s guilt.

“If he was guilty,” said Swift (NYT, Feb. 14, 1896), “I do not believe he was conscious of it.”

For the reported 10,000 who turned out to lay the “murderer” to rest, the sentiment was quite a bit less ambivalent. Countless floral arrangements crowded into the Shea home. “Innocent,” read the cards upon many of them. Or, “Murdered.” (With a similar sympathy but perhaps much less taste, someone else sent flowers shaped like the electric chair.)

The present-day visitor to Troy can see “Bat” Shea’s name on a downtown Irish pub … and a monument of Robert Ross defending a ballot box at Oakwood Cemetery.


(cc) image from @zakkforchilli.

* This statement was made in the McGough trial, not the Shea trial. It’s sourced to this 1890s celebration of Ross and his cause.

** Morton had been U.S. Vice President from 1889 to 1893. More interestingly for this blog, Morton was U.S. President James Garfield’s 1881 appointee as ambassador to France. This was the very diplomatic post for which Charles Guiteau had petitioned Garfield, and being passed over (on account of being a whackadoodle obscurity) caused Guiteau to assassinate Garfield. Morton was succeeded as governor by Frank Swett Black … a Troy clean-elections crusader who had gone into politics after sitting at the prosecution’s bar in the case of “Bat” Shea.

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1814: Mariano Matamoros, Mexican revolutionary

Add comment February 3rd, 2014 Headsman

Two hundred years ago today, the Mexican revolutionary Mariano Matamoros was shot by the Spanish at Valladolid.

A Catholic priest (defrocked for the occasion of his execution) who had previously gone to prison for his nationalist sympathies, Matamoros joined the revolutionary army of fellow-clergyman Jose Maria Morelos as the Mexican War of Independence blossomed.

Matamoros proved to have the knack for martial leadership and was a lieutenant general and Morelos’s second-in-command within months.

The Spanish captured him in early January 1814 after the revolutionaries’ failed attempt to take Valladolid. His foes could not be moved to exchange him on any terms.

Though Morelos too would suffer this fate in time, their cause eventually prevailed. Post-independence, the martyred Matamoros became a Mexican national hero. He’s interred today at Mexico City’s iconic El Angel monumental column.

He’s the namesake of several locations, including the border city of Matamoros. (Longtime readers of this site might recall the 1913 Mexican Revolution execution in Matamoros that we’ve previously profiled.) One of Mexico City’s airports also bears the Matamoros name.

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1857: Jean-Louis Verger, doctrinaire

Add comment January 30th, 2014 Headsman

On Saturday, January 3, 1857, the Archbishop of Paris Marie-Dominique-Auguste Sibour the church of Saint-Etienne-du-Mont when Jean-Loiuis Verger stepped out of a crowd — out of obscurity — and plunged a long Catalan knife fatally into Sibour’s chest.

The assassin Verger (English Wikipedia entry | French) was a 30-year-old ordained priest who had accumulated a quarrelsome reputation among his ecclesiastical peers. The previous year, he had been laid under an official interdiction for preaching against the Catholic Church’s controversial new doctrine of the Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception.

Some reports had Verger crying out “No goddesses!” as he daggered the archbishop. “It is nowise the person of the Archbishop of Paris whom I wished to strike, but, in his person, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception,” Verger told the magistrates who judged him within days. There wasn’t a whole lot of doubt about the trial, so why wait around? But Verger’s vendetta wasn’t only theological; his suspension meant he wasn’t getting paid, and as his fury mounted over it he went so far as to post himself at the door of a church with a placard proclaiming that he was starving.

Archbishop of Paris was a surprisingly dangerous job in the mid-19th century. Sibour got the post because his predecessor was shot dead negotiating at a barricade during the 1848 revolution; in 1871, Archbishop Georges Darboy was taken hostage by the Paris Commune and executed by his captors when the national government invaded the city.

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1820: Not Stephen Boorn, saved by newsprint

1 comment January 28th, 2014 Headsman

January 28, 1820 was the scheduled hanging-date for Stephen Boorn in Vermont, who was spared by the stroke of luck in one of the Republic’s seminal wrongful conviction cases. For all its vintage, it has a disturbingly current feel.

Stephen Boorn and his brother Jesse were farmers in Manchester living with their possibly feebleminded brother-in-law Russell Colvin when Colvin suddenly vanished in May 1812. Vanishing unexplained for weeks on end was actually an established behavior for this peculiar gentleman, so it was only gradually that suspicion of foul play accumulated. There was some bad blood known to exist between Colvin and his brothers-in-law; they had even been seen in a violent quarrel just before Russell Colvin disappeared (pdf). There were whispers, but never any real evidence.

And so weeks stretched into months, and then to years. Many years. Was it possible two neighbors of the good people of Manchester, Vt., had gotten away with murder plain as day and gone about bringing in their crops just like nothing happened?

The break arrived in 1819 courtesy of the brothers’ aged uncle Amos Boorn. Amos reported that Russell Colvin had appeared to him in a dream and accused his former in-laws of murder. Now a dream couldn’t be read in evidence, but it proved sufficient to re-open a cold case and endow the investigation with official “tunnel vision” so familiar to the staging of a wrongful conviction.

The other classic trappings of that scene followed anon: shoddy evidence, a jailhouse snitch, and even a false confession.

Once under the pall of suspicion, random events around the Boorns began to seem sinister. The dream-Russell’s accusation led to a cellar-hole being excavated, which turned up some random junk (a penknife, a button); was it Colvin’s random junk? A barn on the Boorn farm burned down; had it been torched to conceal evidence? A boy found bones at a stump on the property; were they human remains? (They turned out to be animal remains.)

Stephen Boorn had moved to Denmark, New York, but Jesse Boorn was taken into custody for interrogation. There he was parked in a jail cell with a forger named Silas Merrill.

Lo and behold, Jesse Boorn immediately spewed to his bunkmate the awful secret of the murder. Yup, after keeping it quiet for seven years he detailed it all to Silas Merrill one “night, when he and Jesse had waked from their sleep, and without any previous persuasion or advice on the subject” and also just happened to tie in all that random sinister stuff from the investigation like the barn and the bonestump. Naturally, Merrill was released for relaying to his jailers this valuable and in no way impeachable information.

Now cornered, Jesse confessed to the murder. The causes of false confessions are complex, but the advent of DNA exonerations has underscored the alarming frequency of this phenomenon. A strictly rationalist explanation might postulate that Jesse thought he could avoid hanging by taking responsibility for a crime he was now certain to be convicted of, and framing it in the least culpable possible light; the murkier fathoms of human psychology might suggest a desire to please his captors or a conscience conforming itself to the conviction of his neighbors. Whatever the case, the confession got Stephen extradited from New York, and under interrogation Stephen too confessed. Stop confessing to things, people! (In fact, best say nothing at all.)

Despite retracting the confession, the brothers were convicted with ease in a trial held at the town’s church, the better to accommodate huge crowds that would have overflowed the courtroom. They were both slated to hang on January 28.*

While Jesse Boorn won a commutation his brother appeared doomed.

As an almost literal last gasp, Stephen took out newspaper advertisements searching for Russell Colvin. And they worked. At least, this is the version of the story as it is commonly recounted, dating I believe to this 1932 volume on wrongful convictions. The primary sources referenced there actually appear to me to indicate that the Boorn-saver, a New Jersey gentleman named Taber Chadwick, responded with a letter to the editor to a simple news report of the case, which report naively credited the dream-driven conviction as “divine providence”.


From the New York Evening Post, Nov. 26, 1819.

Luckily, Mr. Chadwick realized that he knew a Russell Colvin from Manchester whose mental state was thoroughly addled.


New York Evening Post, Dec. 10, 1819.

A fortnight after this letter hit the press, Colvin was back in Manchester … and this time, it was not in a dream.

Colvin confirmed that his brothers-in-law hadn’t hurt him at all and both Boorns — who, we remind you, had each previously confessed to killing a man who was now here in the flesh and blood to exonerate them — both these Boorns walked free.

Update: Embarrassingly not noticed by my own self in researching this post, a comment from the outstanding 19th century crime blog Murder By Gaslight flags the hypothesis that the entire exoneration was staged using an imposter to weasel the Boorns out of prison.

* According to this biography of the African-American divine Thomas Lemuel Haynes, Haynes was the Boorns’ confessor while they awaited execution, and one of the only people to believe the brothers’ protestations of innocence. Haynes was eventually moved to spend his own money on the famous advertisement hoping that “any person who can give information of the said Colvin may save the life of an innocent man.” If there’s one Vermonter who comes out of this astonishing story smelling like a rose, it’s Reverend Haynes.

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1868: Three Italian bandits

Add comment January 27th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1868, a trio of notorious Italian brigands went under the French guillotine in Marseilles.

Joseph Coda-Zabetta, the leader, had escaped a hard labor sentence in Italy and fled to France where he founded a large band of robbers who terrorized France’s Mediterranean countryside from Nice to Marseilles for some months in 1867.

From raiding unoccupied country homes the gang soon progressed to bold invasions of occupied houses and waylaying travelers. “In one instance,” a press report of their trial reported,* “six of the band attacked a convoy of carriers, one of whom received a pistol-shot in the breast and a stab with a knife, from which injuries he afterwards died.”

Twelve of the band faced trial, and four of their number received death sentences. (Seven others had long prison sentences; a man named Muletto was acquitted.)

Coda, Antoine Quaranta, and Felix Mardi (Italian pdf) were all guillotined on this date in 1868. (They died, it was said, repentant (French).) The fourth condemned prisoner, Jacques Mulatere, had his death sentenced commuted to life at hard labor.

* London Times, Dec. 20, 1867

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1855: Emmanuel Barthelemy, duelist

1 comment January 22nd, 2014 Headsman

The winner of England’s last fatal duel was hanged at Newgate on this date in 1855 … but not for the duel.

Both participants in that duel, Emmanuel Bart(h)elemy and Frederic Cournet, were French emigres* who had commanded Parisian barricades during the 1848 revolution.

On its surface the duel was one of those trivial affairs of honor: Barthelemy heard that Cournet (otherwise unknown to him) had repeated some defamatory rumors about Barthelemy already abroad in France, and challenged Cournet on that basis; Cournet at first dissociated himself from any such smears, but upon better consideration thought he considered Barthelemy’s notice a little on the ultimatum side and took exception to that.

The consequent set-to was delayed some time by negotiations over every element of its ceremony. When at last it was arranged, it unfolded thus:**

it should commence with pistols, the combatants, being 40 paces apart, advancing 10 paces before firing if they chose, and having two shots each, miss-fires not counting; that the choice of position, the choice of pistols, and the signal for firing should be determined by tossing up; that if the pistols proved ineffectual swords should be resorted to to terminate the affair.

Cournet won the toss and got to choose his position and take the first shot. Barthelemy had to stand stock-still as Cournet

advanced his 10 paces and fired, but though on 14 similar occasions he had never failed to hit his opponent this time he missed. Barthelemy then told him that he had his life in his hands, but would surrender his right to fire if Cournet would agree to terminate the duel with swords. [Barthelemy had wanted swords to be the dueling weapon in the first place -ed.] Cournet declined to do so, saying that he would stand his adversary’s fire and take his second shot. Barthelemy then levelled his pistol, but … it snapped. He put a fresh cap on and it snapped a second time,† and it was then agreed that he should use Cournet’s pistol, which was loaded and handed to him. Before discharging it, however, he again offered ineffectually to terminate the contest with swords. He then fired, and with fatal precision.

Barthelemy himself and all four of the seconds involved (both Barthelemy’s and Cournet’s) were arraigned in this case, but the jury returned only a manslaughter verdict. Barthelemy served a few months; he would have to exercise fatal precision once again to find a different route to the scaffold.

In his non-duelling life, Barthelemy was a mechanical engineer, and it was in this capacity that a soda-water manufacturer named George Moore employed him to repair his machinery at 73 Warren Street, just off Fitzroy Square.

Late the night of Friday, December 8, Barthelemy showed up with a veiled woman at the place and asked for Moore. Minutes later, the servant-girl saw all three emerge struggling violently together from their private meeting. As she raced to the door to scream for help she saw the Frenchman raise a pistol and fire …

“Murder!”

Her screams started attracting the neighbors as Barthelemy burst past her, but an iron gate in front of the house obstructed him. Before more people could assemble he fled back into the house and locked it shut behind him.

Moore’s neighbor, a former East India Company man named Charles Collard, thought quickly to his own grief. Collard raced around the back side of the house where a garden opened onto another street, and arrived just in time to catch Barthelemy vaulting over the garden wall. Collard pounced on him, and in the ensuing melee Barthelemy shot him, too.

This was all too late for Barthelemy, for the delay had brought an onrushing of neighbors and passersby who quickly subdued the gunman. Somehow — nobody quite knew how — his companion was nowhere to be found. She had vanished from the house leaving only her veil, and as she had surely not escaped by the front gate it was thought that she must have found some way to slip out the back casually amid the commotion and made a nonchalant escape. She was never seen again.

Moore was found quite dead in his home: he’d been shot through the head, and the marks on his body indicated that the fatal wound had been preceded by some whacks with a cane. Collard lingered on many hours in agony — long enough for his captured murderer to be brought before him and Collard to deliver a signed j’accuse identifying Barthelemy as the villain.

Barthelemy must have had a way with jurors because even in convicting him for murder on this occasion, the panel still recommended mercy. There seems to have been some thought that the mysterious dispute in the house might have been a spontaneous affair qualifying as manslaughter, while the murder of Collard might have passed (since Collard grabbed Barthelemy) as self-defense. The crown unsurprisingly did not share this exceptionally generous view of a man who had already been in the dock for homicide in the past and declined to extend mercy.

Barthelemy disdained the religious entreaties of his captors, scandalizing the right-thinking with bon mots like “it is no use to pray to God, as God will not break the rope.” Indeed, He did not.

* It was perhaps fitting that Frenchmen, a people with an abiding enthusiasm for the duel, who transacted this milestone encounter. En garde!

** Per the London Times of Oct. 28, 1852, summarizing evidence presented in court.

† Upon post-duel examination it emerged that Barthelemy’s pistol had failed to discharge because of a bit of linen rag stuck in the breach. This eyebrow-raising fact gave rise to the suspicion of foul play, though on whose part and to what end is less distinct. Both guys ended up with a shot at one another with the exact same pistol. Cournet just missed his.

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1891: James Eubanks

Add comment January 19th, 2014 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1891, middle-aged widower James M. Eubanks was hanged in the yard of the county jail in San Jose, California. He’d killed his oldest daughter, Ada, thirteen months before.

Ada was fifteen years old at the time of her death, and worked as a waitress at a restaurant called Heath House in Los Gatos. Her relationship with her father was troubled and James was often abusive towards her. Once, the girl’s uncle had to intervene when he saw James chasing after Ada brandishing a stick.

James, a father of six, played the part of the beleaguered single parent with an out-of-control child: he said Ada was a habitual runaway, was “running around at night too much,” and that he he had “heard a great many reports that she was of loose character.”

There were hints of something more than typical inter-generational tension and teenage rebellion in the Eubanks family, however. Ada confided to a female relative that her father had committed “improper actions” that caused a great deal of trouble for her, and there were rumors that she had been pregnant by her own father.

Three days before Christmas in 1889, Ada was at work at Heath House and her father was loitering at the saloon next door.

He’d taken a position at the upstairs window, which afforded him a view of the Heath House kitchen, and was sullenly eyeballing his daughter.

Between nine and ten in the morning, James left his surveillance point carrying a double barreled shotgun. He came into the restaurant through the kitchen door and called for Ada.

When she came to the door, he took aim and fired, hitting her in the chest and killing her instantly. James then fired a shot at his own head, but missed.

He calmly walked back into the saloon, ordered a drink of whiskey, consumed it and went back upstairs. There he tried to cut his throat with a razor, but inflicted only a minor wound before the constable came and arrested him.

Admitting to the slaying, the “drunken, worthless wretch” said he’d been angry because Ada refused to turn over her earnings from her job.

At his trial, Eubanks’s lawyer presented a defense of diminished capacity: he admitted he’d fatally shot his daughter, but said that “from the long and excessive use of intoxicating liquors … he was, at the time of the homicide, and for a long time prior thereto, of a weak and enfeebled mind” and therefore incapable of forming the malice aforethought necessary for a first-degree murder conviction.

His attorney argued for a conviction of second-degree murder, or at least a recommendation of mercy.

The jury would have none of it, and James Eubanks didn’t seem to care. “I am a nuisance to the world,” he wrote in a memorandum confessing to the killing, “so I leave it in disgust.”

He found religion on death row, like so many others of his kind, and said he believed God had forgiven him and he would go to Heaven.

According to one newspaper report, the day before James was hanged, 2,000 men, women and children were permitted to traipse through the jailyard to have a look at the gallows. James Eubanks himself traversed it speedily; he died a speedy six minutes after the drop, having delivered himself of the trite last words, “I hope this will be a warning to others.”

Sheriff Giles E. McDougall‘s duty required him to preside over the hanging, and he was sickened by the experience. He lobbied for a change in California law — going so far as to write to every county sheriff in the state to solicit support — so that executions would fall within the confines of the state prison system and would no longer be the responsibility of individual counties. McDougall got his new law within a year.

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