Posts filed under '19th Century'
December 18th, 2013
From the Dec. 18, 1894 Atchison (Ks.) Daily:
HARTFORD, Conn., Dec. 18. — John Cronin was hanged here at 1:00 o’clock this morning.
The execution of Cronin was especially interesting, being the first hanging in this state under the law passed by the last general assembly and the first trial of an automatic gallows in the east.
This last is the idea of Warden Woodbridge. Aided by James H. Rabbett, a forger, now serving a two and one-half years’ sentence, the warden evolved what he considers an improvement on the hanging machine in use in Colorado.
Small shot has been substituted for water in the operation of the lever which releases the weight and an arrangement made whereby the execution may be stayed at any moment.
The compartment in which the shot are confined resembles an hour glass and the mechanism is thoroughly under the warden’s control. The shot was started in motion by the movement of a lever, and another lever would have enabled the warden to have stopped it at any time. The progress of the shot and the approaching moment when the weight would be released is indicated on a dial resembling a clock.
When Cronin had been seated in the chair and made fast, a signal from the executioner indicated to the man who had charge of the lever that he was ready. The machinery was then set in motion, there being no visible evidence of anything unusual.
The adjustment of the machine was made so perfect that the weight of 306 pounds made no perceptible noise as it was released and fell back to the ground beneath. Instantaneously the victim was jerked into the air, falling backward to within 2 feet of the floor.
One of the principal improvements over the Colorado appliance is the fact that the prisoner is not his own executioner. With the original machine,* when the prisoner was placed on the chair it released a lever which started the mechanism and in this way the man was practically forced to commit suicide.
John Cronin’s crime was the murder of Albert Skinner, at South Windsor, October 6, 1893. He was prompted by revenge for some fancied grievance. He had been boarding with Skinner for several months, but finally was ordered away. A fight ensued at the time and Cronin then went on a protracted debauch. The morning of the murder he went to Skinner’s house and meeting Skinner in the yard immediately shot him, inflicting a fatal wound.
* Developed to hang Dr. T. Thatcher Graves but to my knowledge never actually used.
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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Connecticut,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,USA
Tags: 1890s, 1894, death tech, december 18, hartford, john cronin
December 11th, 2013
From the Dec. 12, 1876 Argus (Melbourne, Australia):
EXECUTION OF BONDIETTO.
Basilio Bondietto, who was tried and convicted at the last criminal sittings of the murder of Carlo Comisto, at Sandy Creek, on or about the 4th of September last, underwent the extreme penalty of the law within the walls of the Melbourne Gaol yesterday morning.
Bondietto was a Swiss, and Comisto was believed to be an Italian. They both lived together for about eight months on a selection of Comisto’s near Sandy Creek, their principal occupation being charcoal burning. About the 4th September Comisto told some neighbours that he intended proceeding to Melbourne, to make arrangements for the sale of firewood. He was never seen alive afterwards.
Bondietto when questioned as to his partner’s absence, gave several contradictory accounts, stating at one time that he had gone away with a woman, and again, that he had a quarrel with an Englishman and after a drinking bout had run away.
Suspicion being aroused, the hut where the two men lived was searched, and several stains of what was sworn to be human blood were found on the woodwork about the place. Human blood was also found on an axe outside the hut, and in the remains of the charcoal kilns a quantity of bones were discovered, some of which Professor Halford was able to swear belonged to a human body.
Boot nails, trousers buttons, and buckles were also discovered in the same place, which taken in conjunction with the blood stains and the disappearance of Comisto, left little doubt that the man had been murdered and his body afterwards consumed in one of the kilns.
At the trial, which took place before Mr. Justice Stephen, Bondietto was ably defended by Mr. Wrixon, but after a very careful investigation, extending over three days, the jury found the prisoner guilty. Since the verdict was announced strenuous exertions have been made by a number of persons to obtain a mitigation of the sentence, but without success. A very careful consideration was given by the Executive to all the circumstance, and it was determined that there was no reason to interfere with the course of justice.
Ever since his conviction the condemned man has been assiduously attended by the Rev. Fathers O’Malley, Lordan and Donaghy, he being a member of the Roman Catholic Church. The reverend gentlemen were able to converse with Bondietto in his native language, and exhorted him to entertain no hope of a reprieve but to prepare for the fate awaiting him. To those exhortations he paid great attention, and for some time past spent a considerable portion of each day in prayer.
Since his conviction his demeanour in the gaol has been generally of a composed character, although now and again he would break out into cries of “miserecordia,” and indulge in indistinct mutterings.
He evinced a hearty appetite for all his meals, the gaol allowance being scarcely sufficient to supply his wants. He professed to be altogether ignorant of English, although it was sworn by several witnesses at the trial that he could make himself understood in that language when living in the neighbourhood of Seymour.
The only English word that he seemed able to utter in gaol was “tobacco,” of which a certain quantity was allowed him. Of his antecedents very little has been discovered. It is known that he had resided in the colony for a number of years, and that he had a long acquaintance with Comisto, whom he has been executed for murdering.
He was about 60 years of age, of a spare form, hollow lantern-shaped jaws, black whiskers, and piercing eyes. There was a considerable look of imbecility in the countenance, but he appeared to be of sound mind.
The sentence was carried into effect at 10 o’clock yesterday morning. Shortly before that hour the sheriff (Mr. Wright), accompanied by the under sheriff (Mr. Ellis), arrived at the gaol, and, according to the usual form, handed his warrant for the execution to the governor of the gaol, and demanded the body of Basilio Bondietto.
Mr. Castieau handed to the sheriff the formal protest of Sir George Stephen against the execution, until an appeal was made to the Imperial authorities.
The sheriff was then conducted to the condemned cell, where Bondietto was confined. Immediately afterwards the hangman Gately entered from an adjoining cell, and performed the duty of pinioning the culprit. Bondietto all the time seemed to be exerting himself to the utmost to meet his fate with fortitude but it was evident that he was suffering terribly.
The pinioning, which took a considerable time, being completed, the white cap was put on but not drawn over the face, and the condemned man was led by Gately to the scaffold, the sheriff and governor of the gaol following in the rear.
On the platform the culprit was met by his spiritual counsellors. The form of service of the Catholic Church suitable to the occasion was read by Rev. Father Lordan, whilst Father O’Malley held the crucifix before the eyes of the condemned man.
Bondietto was asked by the latter reverend gentlemen if he had anything to say in public before quitting the world. He made some reply which was altogether unintelligible, and it was evident from the wild stare of his eyes that his whole thoughts were engrossed by the dreadful situation in which he was placed.
The rope was quickly adjusted round the neck of the culprit by Gately, but the executioner forgot to follow the usual practice of drawing the white cap over the face of the condemned.
After adjusting the rope, Gately stepped back and drew the bolt. Death was almost instantaneous, there being very few writhings of the body and the features did not appear much discomposed. After hanging for a short time, the body was cut down, and in the afternoon an inquest was held by Dr. Youl, the city coroner, when the usual verdict was returned.
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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Australia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder
Tags: 1870s, 1876, basilio bondietto, december 11, melbourne
December 10th, 2013
From The Fabulous Frontier, 1846-1912. (The entire text below is a single large paragraph in that book, so line breaks have been added for readability.)
On August 2, 1875, Robert Casey was shot and killed by William Wilson in Lincoln with a bullet fired from a Winchester rifle. Wilson was tried, convicted by a jury and sentenced to be hanged.
On December 10, 1875, the appointed day, a large crowd gathered in the Lincoln* jail yard to witness the hanging. Ash Upson** was present as a representative of the press, but left shortly after the trap was sprung, probably to get a drink.
After being suspended by a rope for nine and one-half minutes by the Sheriff’s watch, Wilson’s body was taken down from the scaffold and placed in the coffin.
Spectators nudged the Sheriff and told him that Wilson was not yet dead.
Red-faced and embarrassed the Sheriff and several helpers lifted William Wilson from his wooden coffin, escorted him once more to the scaffold. The rope was again tied around the condemned man’s neck and he was suspended for an additional twenty minutes, at the end of which time there was not much doubt that the demands of the law had been satisfied.
Father Antonio Lamy, twenty-eight years old, a native of France, a nephew of Archbishop John B. Lamy of Santa Fe, had been a reluctant witness to the hanging … Padre Lamy had been in Lincoln on a missionary tour. He called at the jail to offer spiritual consolation to William Wilson, soon to be hanged. Wilson prepared himself for death under Father Lamy’s direction and accepted his offer of company to the scaffold.
The hanging and rehanging of Wilson proved too much for the frail young man of God.
Rather desperately ill, suffering from chills and high temperature, the Padre insisted on returning on horseback to Manzano a few days after William Wilson had been hanged. Arriving in Manzano, Father Lamy’s condition rapidly became worse. He died there on February 6, 1876.
The remains of the priest were buried under the floor of the parish church at Manzano. The story of Padre Lamy’s death has for many years been kept alive in the Manzano community. His grave in the church has long been a silent sermon in opposition to the brutality of capital punishment.
* Lincoln was a little hit and miss with its necktie parties: it’s also the town where Billy the Kid escaped a hanging.
** Ghostwriter of Pat Garrett‘s memoir, The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid.
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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Executions Survived,Hanged,History,Murder,New Mexico,Public Executions,USA
Tags: 1870s, 1875, antonio lamy, ash upson, december 10, lincoln, manzano, william wilson
December 3rd, 2013
On this date in 1864, a hulking Methodist minister by the name of Bill Sketoe was hanged in Newton, Alabama … but his ghost story was only just beginning.
Sketoe’s life is nearly as spectral as his death, but he is known to have been a longtime denizen of Newton’s Dale County where he preached the gospel and fathered a biblically-appropriate brood of seven children.
The easiest version says that Sketoe deserted the Confederate army to care for his sick wife. However, there’s no documentary evidence that Sketoe actually served under arms in the Civil War, although two of his sons did. He might actually have been suspected of aiding Unionist raiders haunting the forests — men like John Ward, a local pro-Union guerrilla with whom Confederate guards had just days before fought a skirmish.*
For whatever reason, a local Confederate cavalry militia under one Captain Joseph Breare seized the preacher near the Choctawhatchee River on December 3, 1864, and hanged him to a convenient tree.
Now, Bill Sketoe was a large man, and the bough of the Post Oak that supported his noose bent to his weight until Sketoe’s toes touched the ground. For an ad hoc execution, an ad hoc solution: one of Breare’s so-called “Buttermilk Rangers” simply dug out the ground around Sketoe’s feet until they dangled free in the hole and their owner could strangle to death properly.
Beloved Alabama storyteller Kathryn Tucker Windham immortalized “The Hole That Will Not Stay Filled”, one of the chapters of her 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey. Local legend, it seems, held that whenever someone later filled in Sketoe’s dangling-pit — with dirt, rubbish, or anything else — it would be mysteriously un-filled within hours.
Unfortunately the present-day skeptic will not be able to put geist to test because “Sketoe’s Hole” was destroyed in a 1990 flood, and is today covered over with tons of rocks supporting a bridge strut — too much infill even for spooks. (Though not enough to deter visitors.)
Sketoe’s executioner Joseph Breare resumed his law practice after the war … until a falling tree killed him during a storm in 1866.
* David Williams develops the John Ward connection in Rich Man’s War: Caste, Class, and Confederate Defeat in the Lower Chattahoochee Valley. A few months later an incursion of different irregulars led by a Dale County Confederate officer who deserted to the Union, Joseph Sanders, precipitated the Battle of Newton.
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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Alabama,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Confederates,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Lynching,Popular Culture,Summary Executions,The Supernatural,USA,Wartime Executions
Tags: 1860s, 1864, american civil war, bill sketoe, civil war, december 3, ghosts, john ward, joseph breare, joseph sanders, newton
November 25th, 2013
November 25, 1881, was the day after Thanksgiving. And that date was a true “Black Friday” on the American gallows: four distinct murderers, all African-American men, were hanged in four different cities on this date in 1881.
We’re cadging entirely from the New York Herald of Nov. 26, and all quotes (as well as the pictured headline) source to that journal.
Richard James (South Carolina)
Richard James hanged in Marion, South Carolina for the previous year’s murder of a local shopkeep, David M. Harrell.
James insisted on his innocence, and even “turned upon the preacher with indignation” at in his cell on his last day when importuned to unburden himself of his sin. He “swore by all that was holy that he knew nothing of the crime, and was ready to face his Maker with this oath on his lips.”
James, “a light colored negro about thirty two years old” who “looked capable of committing any crime” and had a bad reputation in town, had been tried with his two brothers, Benjamin and Lewis for having waylaid the Harrell on his way home from closing the store.
A mixed-race jury (nine whites, three blacks) convicted the first two but acquitted Lewis. Benjamin had already been executed some weeks previously.
Henry Johnson (South Carolina)
Shortly afternoon that same day, Henry Johnson hanged in the jail in Sumter while “the housetops and fences near the jailyard were crowded with negroes, who heightened the scene by melancholy exclamations.”
Johnson, who converted to Catholicism the week before his death, occupied his last morning writing to a sweetheart in Port Royal, S.C. (He sent her some wooden buttons to remember him by, and demanded that she never marry.)
While he went mildly, his crime was “one of the most cold-blooded and unparalleled murders ever known in South Carolina.” (Of course, newspapers say this about every crime.)
John Davis, a good and hard working colored man was going through Hope Swamp on his way to the forest, where he was employed to cut cross ties for the railroad [but] he was followed by one Henry Johnson, also colored, who shrouded himself from view by the thick undergrowth. Thus, Indian like, he thirsted for his victim’s blood, and followed David step for step with the greed of a hungry panther until they arrived at a point where the depth and loneliness of the swamp was best suited for the tragedy that was enacted. The desired spot having been reached, Johnson, without uttering a word, raised his gun and fired, shooting John Davis in the middle of the back. Davis dropped dead in his tracks instantly. Johnson then caught him by his heels and dragged him to a hollow log, in which he placed Davis and then covered the log all over with … straw and leaves.
And then Johnson went to Davis’s house, where he knew he would get a good reception since Davis’s wife fancied him.
Explaining that Davis had had to go into town on business and would not be back for a day or three, Johnson made himself “not only lord of Davis’ house, but his much beloved wife.” He tried to lay the blame on a local fellow named Orange Isaacs whom Johnson by all appearances sincerely believed to be a sorcerer.
Joseph Harris (Tennesee)
In Rogersville, Tenn., Joseph Harris hanged for slaying two men in November 1880 in a crime that aroused so much local hatred that he was stashed away in Nashville until two days prior to the execution to prevent the appearance of lynch law.
Unlike the South Carolina condemned, Harris’s hanging was fully public, and a fair concourse of onlookers braved freezing temperatures to satisfy themselves with the course of justice.
Harris had targeted the outgoing proprietor of a country farm called Marble Hall. John Brown, having sold the estate, had sent his family on to their next lodgings in Bristol while he remained at Marble Hall with a 17-year-old stable hand named Heck to sell off the remaining livestock and close up affairs.
Those affairs were closed for good on November 23, when the room that Brown and Heck occupied was discovered on fire, its inhabitants having had their brains bashed in. $500 Brown had recently pocketed from the sale of his hogs was missing.
Sang Armor (Georgia)
Sang Armor not only had the most unusual name of November 25′s grim harvest, but was distinguished as the first-ever public execution (or execution of any kind) in Taliaferro county, Georgia. Taliaferro is currently (circa 2010 census) the least populous county east of the Mississippi with a population of just 1,717.
Armor was egged on by the crowd at his gallows to give up the names of accomplices whom he had previously implied had aided him in the murder of an elderly white man, but he remained “sullenly silent on the subject and talked only on religious matters.” The scaffold was erected in Ellington meadow, on the land of his victim, Amos Ellington.
“The feeling against Armor was very strong,” concludes the report, “especially among the colored men, several of whom he tried to implicate in the crime.”
Not Squire Clark (South Carolina)
It wasn’t all doom and gloom. Squire Clark, who was supposed to hang in Lexington, S.C., was respited until December 23.
Clark, sentenced to be die in a strange case where a body was found on a railroad tracks, mutilated by passing trains, had been convicted circumstantially for having killed the fellow before dumping his remains on the tracks. Convicted, overturned on appeal, convicted again, and ultimately commuted to a penal sentence, Clark never made it into the executioners annals.
The estate of his victim later sued the railroad for negligence in having run over the remains of W.S. Hook no fewer than three times.
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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Georgia,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,South Carolina,Tennessee,USA
Tags: 1880s, 1881, henry johnson, joseph harris, marion, november 25, richard james, rogersville, sang armor, squire clark, sumter
November 24th, 2013
On this date in 1879, the British Consul General in Bangkok lost his son-in-law to the headsman.
Fanny Knox was the multiracial daughter of Consul Thomas Knox and a Siamese noblewoman named Prang Yen.
R.J. Minney (who also popularized Violetta Szabo in Carve Her Name With Pride) novelized her intriguing story for a popular audience in the 1960s, following up on the Victorian-ingenue-in-Indochina interest created by Anna and the King of Siam. His Fanny and the Regent of Siam didn’t quite enter the canon, but 50-year-old used copies can still be scared up for a few pennies.
Anna of Anna and the King and Fanny of Fanny and the Regent had a link besides the publishing industry: Anna Leonowens‘s son Louis actually paid court to Fanny Knox. He wound up settling for Fanny’s sister Caroline when Fanny went for the Siamese aristocrat Phra Pricha (or Preecha) Kon-la-Karn. (“Phra” is an honorific for Pricha’s rank. Fanny would later be known as the Baroness Pricha Kon-la-Karn.)
But just weeks after their marriage — and while Fanny was pregnant with their first (only!) child — the new groom was accused of peculation and treachery, leading to his shocking Nov. 24 beheading.
The New York Times marveled in a sketchy April 12, 1880 recap:
Nothing so startling has happened here in a quarter of a century. You can only understand its effect by imagining John Sherman, Secretary of the Treasury, to be suddenly arrested, carried off mysteriously to Richmond or Petersburg, Va., and as mysteriously hanged. You may say that you do not hang high officers in the United States. Neither do they behead high officers in Siam. The instance of Pra Preecah [another alternate spelling] can hardly be paralleled here, at least in this generation.
The unparalleled and opaque tragedy transpired in the first few years of the majority of Siam’s King Chulalongkorn (or Rama V) — one of the royal princes tutored by the aforementioned Anna Leonowens.
In time, Chulalongkorn would be known as Rama the Great, the brilliant modernizer in his country’s history … but at this time those aspirations were constrained by much more conservative Siamese elites, most especially personified in the man who had been Chulalongkorn’s regent during his minority, Si Suriyawongse. The Times article just quoted ungenerously judges the king “a weak, cruel, cowardly despot” who “cannot much longer retain his power.”
Prominent among the king’s “Young Siam” party was the Amatayakun family, and the most prominent among that clan was Phra Pricha. Pricha was the governor of Prachinburi.
The substance of the formal accusation was that our man abused his control of Prachinburi’s lucrative Kabin gold mine to embezzle revenues that rightly belonged to the crown while grotesquely oppressing, even outright murdering, laborers under his jurisdiction there. The baron even confessed to the charge, though it’s difficult to know what weight to put upon that.
The probable subtext is political enmity between the Amatayakun family and the Bunnag family of the “Old Siam” ex-regent. Indeed, it’s been speculated that it was precisely because Phra Pricha detected the imminent accusations against him that he married Fanny Knox — so that he could give the money to his wife to protect it.
The British consul, meanwhile, quite overreached himself to intervene on behalf of his new son-in-law.
In a personal visit to Chulalongkorn, he urged the king that Pricha’s political enemies had concocted the charges — and that British gunships would back the sovereign if he should use the occasion to reverse the power of the old guard who intended to prosecute the former governor. (Source)
Chulalongkorn declined to upset the apple cart. Phra Pricha was handled by his enemies, and his family fell from power with his execution
Was the king’s reticence timidity or sagacity? 1879-1880 proved to be the nadir of Chulalongkorn’s power. Within months after Phra Pricha’s execution, team Young Siam was wresting its influence back. As the 1880s unfolded, Old Siam was literally dying off, and loyalists of the young king began filling their ministries.
Chulalongkorn’s reluctance to invite foreign intervention would foreshadow perhaps his essential accomplishment: although entirely surrounded by British and French colonies and certainly subject to those empires’ pressures, Rama the Great maintained the independence of Siam/Thailand.
Consul General Thomas Knox, meanwhile, was recalled over his impolitic meddling. Millions of tourists to Thailand’s unofficial northern capital might be interested in this side note: Nigel Brailey suggests that “It could be said that Siam’s role in Chiengmai,” which was then a distinct tributary kingdom of Siam’s subject to the growing influence of the neighboring British, “was saved by the … Phra Pricha affair.” The ambassador swap caused a year-long gap in British-Siamese diplomatic negotiations thereto which had been intensifying in early 1879.
* “Chiengmai and the Inception of an Administrative Centralization Policy in Siam (II),” Southeast Asian Studies, March 1974. (pdf cached here)
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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Nobility,Pelf,Power,Thailand
Tags: 1870s, 1879, anna leonowens, bangkok, chiang mai, chulalongkorn, diplomacy, fanny knox, geopolitics, novels, november 24, phra pricha, pra preecha, thomas knox
November 14th, 2013
(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)
On this date in 1888, after a hearty breakfast of beefsteak, eggs, sweet potatoes and coffee, William Showers became the eighth man judicially hanged in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania.
He had been condemned for the murder of his grandson, William “Willie” Kahler. An account of his trial and death, assembled by the Lebanon County Historical Society, describes the condemned man as he appeared on the day of his execution: “The aged Bill Showers [he was sixty-two] looked like what he was, a pathetic soul. He was only five feet two inches in height and weighed less than one hundred twenty-five pounds.”
Showers had been dealt a hard hand in life, and he didn’t have a good reputation among his neighbors in the village of Annville. Much to the shame of the family, his only daughter Sara had borne six children out of wedlock. Sara died young in 1886, and her father was left in charge of two of her children: six-year-old Willie Kahler and his brother, Samuel “Sammy” Speraw, age four. (What happened to the other four children has not been recorded.)
Bill Showers was a widower by then. For about six months, with the help of his son and his daughter-in-law, Showers did the best he could to provide a home for his grandsons.
But in April 1887, Showers’s son and his wife stopped helping him care for Willie and Sammy. Bill had never wanted the boys in the first place, and he couldn’t afford to feed them on his own.
For about a month the three of them lived alone and Bill tried to get someone to take the children off his hands. He tried a few different foster homes, but he couldn’t afford to pay the foster parents for the boys’ keep. He took them to an orphanage, but they were refused admission. The county almshouse rejected them also.
Bitter and desperate, Bill complained to a friend, “If no one will take them, I have one place to put them. I won’t be a damned fool and raise other people’s children.”
In mid-May, however, Showers’s normally sulky and reclusive attitude suddenly changed and he went to the neighbors and cheerfully announced that he had finally found another home for the children. Two brothers in Schuylkill County were willing to adopt them and take them to Texas to start a new life, and they would be out of Bill’s hair forever. Showers asked his daughter-in-law to mend the boys’ clothing in preparation for their journey.
Then, on May 17, he borrowed the local minister’s buggy and set off over the mountains to Sammy and Willie’s new adoptive home. A few of the neighbors noticed Showers riding out of town that morning. They also noticed that he was alone.
By May 30, the good citizens of Annville were suspicious enough to go to the local constable, Joseph Fegan. When Fegan questioned Showers as to the whereabouts of his grandchildren, Bill told them a most extraordinary story: on the way to Schuykill County, he said, he’d encountered two black men and asked them for directions.
He then stopped to water his horses, letting the children out of the buggy as he did so. When he returned to the wagon, Willie and Sammy were gone. He believed they’d been abducted by the two black men. But he never reported their disappearances, he said, because he was “too upset.”
No one believed this wild story, and the people of Annville organized search parties to look for the two children, whom they were sure had been murdered. They found their tiny, nearly naked bodies that very same day, in a ditch only about 70 yards from Showers’s house. They had both been beaten and strangled to death.
Showers was arrested, charged with murder and lodged in the county jail. Which was just as well for him, because his neighbors were inclined to lynch him. His son hired a very able local attorney, Frank Seltzer, to defend him. Seltzer selected Frank Lanz, a former state senator, as co-counsel.
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania charged the defendant only with the murder of Willie. The idea was that if they lost that case, they could go forward and try Showers for the murder of Sammy.
The trial date was in mid-June, and the first thing Showers’s attorneys did was move that it be delayed. As the Lebanon County Historial Society puts it:
Seltzer…had a different view of the situation. He rose and objected to the call of the case with a voice that could be heard in the county jail one-half block away. Promptly and resignedly, his tone of voice changed. As if explaining a baptismal font to a heathen, he told the judges that he and Senator Lantz had been retained for less than a week. Their request for a continuance was not made :in the spirit of vexatious delay” but rather for lack of time to prepare the case for trial and, of prime importance, the inability to have a fair trial in the county at the time in light of the prevailing rumors. Adverse pretrial publicity, pleaded Seltzer, rendered a fair trial impossible at this time.
[The prosecutor] Ehrgood replied to Seltzer that he had been given prompt notice he was going to press for immediate trial and Seltzer would have ample time to prepare, since it was only Monday and he would not be ready for trial until the following Thursday. This was a concession which Seltzer and Lantz hardly appreciated.
The judge agreed with the defense, and set a new trial date for September. This would give time for his lawyers to prepare, and maybe for the rumor mill to stop spinning. These were some of the stories floating around:
- Seltzer murdered his wife in 1886.
- He also killed his daughter Sara, Willie and Sammy’s mother.
- He was in love with a local seamstress, Elizabeth Sargent, and killed his family members to get them out of the way so he could marry her.
The press didn’t help matters.
Headlines in the local papers included shockers like “Annville the Scene of a Murder Most Foul!” and “William Showers Dyes His Hands with His Grandchildren’s Blood!”
During the summer of 1887, Showers’s attorney, Seltzer, fell ill and was confined to bed, unable to assist with the defense. It seemed unlikely that the trial would really take place in September. Perhaps Showers couldn’t stand the suspense anymore, for on September 23 he summoned his sons Stephen and William Jr. to the jail, along with the lawyer Luther F. Houck.
Showers made an oral confession to all of them, speaking in his native German, and Houck wrote it down and translated it into English.
The substance of Showers’s confession was that Elizabeth Sargent had agreed to marry him on the condition that he got rid of the boys, and they had agreed to kill them. Elizabeth, he said, helped him strangle Willie and Sammy and dump their bodies in a pre-dug grave.
In court later that day, Showers pleaded guilty to both murders, and his confession was read out for everyone to hear. Elizabeth Sargent was in the audience and she leaped up and shouted, “That’s a lie!” The judge had her removed from the courtroom. The next day she and her parents took a train out of town. Because Showers had implicated her and the police weren’t sure as to whether she was involved in the children’s deaths, the court issued a bench warrant for her arrest.
The townspeople, however, didn’t believe Showers’s second story any more than they had his first one. They were convinced of Elizabeth’s innocence. She subsequently reappeared and presented an alibi, proving she had not been with Showers on the dates he specified in his statement.
When he heard the news about his client, Selzer rose from his sickbed and rushed to court to try to undo the damage. He begged the judge not to accept the guilty plea. In private, Showers told his attorney the confession was completely untrue and he made up the story because he’d been sick and weak, and people who visited him in jail told him he would be hanged if he didn’t own up to what he did.
Selzer’s argument persuaded the judge: Showers’s guilty plea was withdrawn. He finally went to trial on December 15, 1887.
He testified on his own behalf and gave yet another bizarre story, this time implicating a local man named George Matterness and his dead daughter Sara’s husband, a man named Huffnagle. He said Matterness and Hufnagle, along with two other men in blackface, had visited Showers’s home on the night of May 17 and lead Willie and Sammy out of the house. Matterness, Showers said, had later told him the children were buried in the ditch. Showers had told no one about this before because Hufnagle had repeatedly threatened his life.
The prosecution immediately called George Matterness as a rebuttal witness. Matterness, a teacher, freely admitted he knew Showers slightly, but said the whole story was a lie and he was baffled as to why the old man would have implicated him.
Given the circumstances, it’s surprising the jury actually deliberated till midnight and then on to 8:00 a.m. the next morning before pronouncing Showers guilty.
He told Seltzer, “I’m glad they didn’t find me innocent so they can’t go ahead and try me on the indictment for the murder of Sammy.” He expressed hope that he would prevail on appeal, but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied him and the governor quickly issued a death warrant.
Three hundred people were allowed into the prison courtyard to witness the execution. Thousands more clogged the streets around the jail into a “solid mass of morbid minded humanity bent on seeing Bill Showers tripped into endless time.”
The morbid mass got its wish. The small, slight man fell only three feet, and his neck was not broken. He strangled slowly for seventeen minutes.
As Showers’s sons all refused to take custody of the body, he was buried on the grounds of the county almshouse. This was the same institution that had refused to accept his grandsons, an act that would have saved their lives.
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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Murder,Other Voices,Pennsylvania,USA
Tags: 1880s, 1888, november 14, william showers
November 11th, 2013
On this date in 1806, the Neapolitan partisan Michele Pezza was hanged as a bandit.
Better known by his infernal nickname “Fra Diavolo” — “Brother Devil” — Pezza (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) was forced into the army of the Kingdom of Naples as punishment for manslaughter in 1797, just in time to experience its thrashing at the hands of the French Republicans rolling down the peninsula.
By 1799, Naples was no longer a kingdom at all, but a French-modeled and -backed republic, one of several in Italy.
Populist, Catholic resistance to these impositions commenced almost immediately. Fra Diavolo was destined to become the enduring legend of this sanfedismo movement.
Pezza’s band, which eventually numbered as much as 4,000, stalked the roads around Rome and Naples, terrorizing French soldiers and Republicans. They had a reputation for cruelty.
Francis Maceroni, a writer and an aide (and eventual biographer) for Napoleonic marshal Murat, charges that Fra Diavolo was merely “a well known assassin and highwayman [who] could not but be infamous, in any service. Brief, he was put upon his trial, — found guilty of as many horrid felonies as would fill a dozen volumes like that of ‘Rookwood,’ and hanged upon a gibbet of extraordinary height, at the Ponte della Maddalena at Naples.” The author is disgusted that the name Fra Diavolo “has not only been immortalized by his atrocious crimes, but by the appliances of fine music and operatic representation” for the outlaw “was a most unmitigated mass of evil, without one redeeming point.”
Actually, his effectiveness with irregulars was a very significant redeeming point in a dirty-war environment.
After Naples’ Parthenopean Republic was deposed by France’s foes, Pezza was retired with an aristocratic title, a substantial pension, and a trophy bride: just the Bourbons’ way to say thanks.
But he was recalled to the field when the French re-invaded Naples in 1806, briefly installing Napoleon’s brother Joseph Bonaparte as the new Neapolitan king, and again set to raiding with a mass of guerrillas. This time the French hunted him to ground, defeating his irregulars in an October 1806 engagement and capturing Fra Diavolo himself days later.
Pezza hanged as a brigand in Naples, but the city’s exiled royalty funded a funeral mass for their lost commander in the cathedral of Palermo.
Maceroni wasn’t kidding about the “fine music and operative representation,” by the way. Daniel Auber composed a hit 1830 debut, Fra Diavolo.
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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Italy,Murder,Naples,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Soldiers,Wartime Executions
Tags: 1800s, 1806, fra diavolo, joseph bonaparte, michele pezza, napoleonic wars, november 11
November 1st, 2013
On this date in 1822, David Lamphier was hanged for “a deed of unparalleled atrocity” as multiple newspaper reports put it: striking Sadsbury Township constable Samuel W. Smith dead with an ax blow that nearly beheaded the lawman.
Smith had been out to arrest Lamphier in Crawford county near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border for what’s described in the documents as “obtaining goods upon false pretense,” which seems like it could mean a great many possible malfeasances.
Whatever they were, Lamphier’s pretenses to Constable Smith were perfectly plain.
“As I Came to Mr. Campbell’s bars I saw Abel Freeman and one or two other Persons & bid them good evening I Stept over the Bans and walk’d along towards the Porch,” the strapping six-footer said later under interrogation. He had a heavy ax slung over his shoulder. (Not during the interrogation, of course.)
I got along towards the end of the house and saw Mr. Smith the Constable Coming out of the entry partly behind me. I turned Round and spoke to him and said I understand you want to take me tonight but I don’t mean that you Shall. Mr. Smith then step’d up to me I took my ax off my shoulder and I told him to stand back or I would strike him, as he Came up I step’d back a few steps intending to run and get out of his way. As he advanced upon me I made use of my ax I hardly know how, whether with the edge or the head or how, as soon as I made the blow I turned and run but did not know that I injured him untill I saw men coming to my father’s in Ohio with guns and supposed they might be after me.
Lamphier fled into a nearby swamp but gave himself up a few days later. He was shocked to learn that the constable was dead.
Although Lamphier would maintain on the scaffold that he had not intended Smith’s life, but “had given the fatal blow from the suddenness with which Smith had pressed upon him,” the fact that he admitted explicitly warning his Javert not to approach him put the fatal chop squarely into premeditation territory.
Shortly after noon this date, according to Murders, Mysteries and History of Crawford County, Pennsylvania 1800-1956, Lamphier appeared at the Meadville courthouse with a rope about his neck. Escorted by the local militia and fortified by a swig of wine, he walked the mile to the gallows on Baldwin Street, where three or four thousand souls had turned up to see him bravely die (after an hour-long exegesis there on the scaffold by the local minister).
“It is stated that the wretched man manifested the greatest resignation and composure to the last moment of his existence; but whether it was the composure of hardened depravity, the resignation of contrition for past sins, or of despair, it is not necessary for us to decide.” (Baltimore Patriot & Mercantile Advertiser, Nov. 16, 1822; this same story made the rounds of many other papers.)
His friends, less resigned, tried in vain to resuscitate Lamphier when he was cut down after hanging only a survivable twenty minutes.
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Tags: 1820s, 1822, daniel lamphier, meadville, november 1
October 22nd, 2013
Cincinnati Daily Gazette, May 27, 1875.
ST. LOUIS, May 26. — Philip Pfarr, a German, living on what is known as the Skinker road, several miles from this city, was murdered about half-past 9 o’clock last night, by a negro, name unknown, and his wife, who was about to become a mother, ravished. It appears that a negro man, about twenty-five years old, called at Pfarr’s house, about 5 o’clock last evening, and asked for work.
Mrs. Pfarr told him they wanted no help.
He called again about 7 o’clock, after Mr. Pfarr had returned from his labor in the field, and was again told no help was wanted.
About half-past 9 at night Pfarr and his family were aroused by a noise in the yard, and by the barking of their dog.
Pfarr went out to see what was the matter, and was met by the negro who visited the house in the evening, and struck a violent blow on the head, apparently with some blunt instrument, and his skull fractured.
Mrs. Pfarr, who followed her husband to the door, was then savagely seized by the negro, forced to give up what money was in the house, and afterward brutally ravished.
After the negro had fled, Mrs. Pfarr dragged her insensible husband to the house and aroused her neighbors, and everything possible was done for him, but he remained unconscious until noon to-day, when he died.
Intense excitement prevails in the neighborhood, and twenty mounted policemen have been scouring the woods and fields all day, but at last accounts had found no trace of the fiendish murderer.
Cincinnati Daily Gazette, May 29, 1875.
ST. LOUIS, May 28. — Mrs. Pfarr, whose husband was murdered last Tuesday night at her home, a few miles from this city, was brought to town, to-day, by the police authorities, and promptly and fully identified the negro, Henry Brown, who was arrested last evening, as the man who killed her husband and violated her own person.
Aside from this identification, Capt. Fox, of the mounted police force, has worked the case up to such a point that there is no doubt whatever but that the man under arrest is the one who committed the atrocious deed.
Cincinnati Enquirer, Oct. 23, 1875.
ST. LOUIS, MO., October 22. — About 2,500 specators were present at the execution of Henry Brown, who was hanged to-day in the jail-yard of this country, for the murder of Philip Pfarr, and the rape and robbery of Mrs. Pfarr.
All the forenoon the doomed man was melancholy and uncommunicative. At 11 a.m. his two sisters called on him and bade him farewell.
At 1 p.m. he was led to the scaffold, which he mounted with a ready, fearless step, It was evident that he had been liberally plied with whisky.
He made a rambling speech, twenty minutes long, and was so tedious in its delivery that he had to be reminded that his time was up. His harangue was incoherent and disconnected, such as any drunken man would make. He persistently denied the rape of Mrs. Pfarr, and asserted that he only struck Pfarr in self-defense.
His death was almost instantaneous, the neck having been broken. Eight minutes after the drop fell he was pronounced dead. His body was lowered into a rude coffin and carted off to the bone-yard.
Was of a peculiarly atrocious character, involving, as it did, murder, rape and robbery. The scene of this triple deed was a small farm in this county, three miles from the city limits, on which lived a well-known German farmer named Philip Pfarr and his wife. The place is somewhat secluded, no one living nearer than one-quarter of a mile.
According to Mrs. Pfarr’s statement, a negro man, who was subsequently identified as Henry Brown, came to the house on the afternoon of May 26th and asked for work. Mr. Pfarr informed him that he had no work to give him.
The negro continued to loiter around the gate, and Mrs. Pfarr was so suspicious of danger that she would not permit her husband to return to the field to work that afternoon.
About nine o’clock that night Mr. and Mrs. Pfarr were awakened by the loud barking of their dogs. Pfarr went outside to ascertain the cause, and Mrs. Pfarr got up and stood in the doorway.
She heard her husband ask, “What do you want?” and immediately thereafter she heard a heavy blow struck, and saw her husband stagger and fall.
Before she had time to get out of the doorway the assassin, who was none other than Brown, rushed upon her, and throwing her violently upon the floor ravished her before she recovered from the stunning shock of the fall.
To complete his brutality, he struck her a severe blow on the head and demanded what money she had in the house. She delivered her purse, which contained only seventy-fie cents. Taking this he disappeared in the darkness.
The unfortunate woman was at that time in the last stages of pregnancy, and her injuries were so serious that she could scarcely walk. But she managed to go to her husband, whom she found lying at the gate breathing heavily. He was still able to move, and with her assistance reached the door.
She laid him down upon the floor, placing a pillow under his head and covering him with a quilt.
He immediately became insensible, and did not speak again. His skull had been crushed in with a heavy piece of wagon timber, which was found at the gate.
After thus caring for her husband Mrs. Pfarr alarmed the neighbors, who gathered in crowds. When she told her pitiful story the excitement became intense.
Old man Pfarr died at midnight.
By daylight next morning numerous parties had been organized, and the country for miles around was scoured.
More than twenty negroes were arrested and carried into the presence of Mrs. Pfarr, but she failed to identify any of them as the criminal who assaulted her. The excited populace came near lynching two or three suspected individuals, in spite of the declaration of the outraged woman that the right man had not yet been caught.
THE FATAL BELT.
The detection of Brown was brought about by one little circumstance.
In retreating from the room, the ravisher dropped a leather belt from his waist. A police officer took this belt and showed it to a number of people, among whom was a colored woman living near by, who instantly recognized it as the property of her son, Henry Brown.
The entire police and detective force were put on the watch for Brown, who had suddenly and mysteriously disappeared.
The next day his arrest was effected and Mrs. Pfarr was brought to the jail for the purpose of
IDENTIFYING THE ACCUSED.
She had previously failed to identify at least twenty-five colored men, promptly exculpating each as they were produced, but as soon as Brown was brought into her presence she exclaimed, in broken English, that he was the man who had killed her husband, and ravished and robbed her.
In reply to her reproaches, the prisoner hung his head and confusedly said that he did not know what the woman was talking about.
Brown at first bitterly denied all connection with the crime, and alleged that he was not in the neighborhood on the fatal night. The next day, however,
That he was walking past Pfarr’s place on the night in question when Praff came out and set his dog on him, at the same time throwing a heavy stick at him.
He caught the stick in his hands and threw it back, striking Pfarr and knocking him down. He persistently denied the assault upon Mrs. Pfarr.
He was tried September 15th, the jury, on the testimony of Mrs. Pfarr, promptly finding him guilty of murder in the first degree.
His attorneys were untiring in their efforts to save his neck. The Supreme Court refused a writ of supersedeas and the Governor declined to interfere. There was nothing left for the doomed African but the halter and the cap.
AN INTERVIEW WITH BROWN.
Your correspondent called upon the doomed man Wednesday afternoon.
At first he refused to talk, answering questions in profane and vituperative monosyllables.
After a brief time, however, he became more communicative. He bitterly denied the assault on Mrs. Pfarr and alleged that the blow he struck Pfarr was in self-defense.
He made a special request that his body should not be given to the dissectors, and asked his attorney to make a speech for him on the scaffold. His attorney promised him that both requests should be complied with.
Brown’s personal appearance was extremely brutal.
His forehead was low and narrow, his nose flat and his lips thick and projecting. His color was of that black and shiny hue so peculiar to the pale African. His look was diabolic. Nature seems to have stamped him as an assassin and cut-throat. His muscular development was something wonderful, and his strength must have been prodigious. Despite his protestations of justification and innocence, the community feels that his fate was just and well deserved.
(Line breaks have been added to all the above stories for readability relative to their solid-wall-of-text 19th century originals.)
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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Missouri,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,USA
Tags: 1870s, 1875, henry brown, october 22, philip pfarr, st. louis