Posts filed under '19th Century'

1858: Maniram Dewan, tea infuser

Add comment February 26th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1858, the British hanged Assamese grandee Maniram Dewan for joining the 1857 Indian Rebellion.

Maniram was a young man going on 20 when the British wrested control from Burma of the eastern province Assam, and he carved himself a successful career in the empire.

But without doubt his lasting service to the Union Jack and the world was discovering to the British the existence of a theretofore unknown varietal of the tea plant, cultivated in Assam’s monsoon-drenched jungles by the Singhpo people* — a fact of geopolitical significance since it augured a means to crack the Chinese stranglehold on tea supply so taxing to the current accounts.** Today, rich Assam tea is one of the world’s largest tea crops, yielding 1.5 million pounds annually.

Maniram himself was among its earliest commercial cultivators (in fact, the first native Indian cultivator), setting up with an estate at the village of Chenimora in the 1840s, but the next decade found him increasingly irritated by the injuries British avarice to the extent that he began intriguing to restore the lately dispossessed kings.

With the outbreak of rebellion in 1857, Maniram and the like-minded made their move to restore the Ahom heir Kandarpeswar Singha but the plot was betrayed and landed its authors in irons.

Although he suffered the law’s last extremity for his plot, Maniram’s name lives on in honor in modern India. A trade center in Assam’s largest city bears his name, for instance; and, when India declared tea its official drink in 2013, it timed the announcement to fall on Maniram’s birthday (April 17, 1806).

* It goes without saying that imperial recognition of their secret produce did not redound to the benefit of the Singhpo. Although Singhpo assembled the very first export crop, much of their land was soon gobbled up by tea plantations, and when they rebelled in 1843 the East India Company annexed it outright. “Now it is said that where the tea grows, that is yours, but when we make sacrifices we require tea for our funerals,” a Singhpo chief wrote the Company, mournfully. “We therefore perceive that you have taken all the country, and we, the old and respectable, cannot get tea to drink.” (Source)

** China required payments in specie for tea, an imbalance which London tried to redress by foisting an undesirable import upon China — resulting in the Opium War.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,Hanged,History,India,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Power,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1807: John Holloway and Owen Haggerty, sworn away

Add comment February 23rd, 2017 Meaghan

On this date in 1807, John Holloway, 39, and Owen Haggerty, 24, were hanged outside Debtors’ Door at Newgate Prison for the murder of John Cole Steele five years earlier. They died alongside murderer Elizabeth Godfrey, who had stabbed a man.

Steele was 35 at the time of death and was noted for his “amiable character.” He had a warehouse in London and a lavender plantation in the country at Feltham, and business was going well.

On Friday, November 5, 1802, he set out from his London townhouse to Feltham. He didn’t say exactly when he was coming home, but it was his wife’s birthday on Sunday and the family assumed he’d be back by then.

He didn’t arrive home by Saturday, and everyone figured he’d stayed overnight at his plantation. But when he missed his wife’s birthday party the next day, they got worried. On Monday they sent a messenger to investigate.

Steele, it turned out, had arrived in Feltham, and by 7:00 Saturday evening he was ready to return to his London house. He wasn’t able to procure a carriage, however, and decided to walk across Hounslow Heath, then a notorious haunt of bandits and highwaymen. It was not the sort of place a man with money — Steele was carrying about 26 shillings on him — should be at night.

He had paid for his want of caution with his life.

Searchers subsequently found Steele’s bloodstained coat on the heath, in a gravel pit ten or fifteen yards off the road. His corpse was under a clump of trees in a ditch 200 yards from the road. It had not been buried, but turf had been laid over it to conceal it. He’d been beaten and strangled to death, and the leather strap used to choke him was still tied tightly around his throat. His boots and hat were missing, his pockets had been cut away from his clothes and all his money was missing.

The coroner’s jury recorded a verdict of willful murder against some person or persons unknown. Forensics in the early 1800s basically didn’t exist, and with no witnesses to the crime, it seemed very unlikely that Steele’s murder would ever be solved. As Linda Stratmann records in Middlesex Murders,

Letters were sent to justices in Rutland and Leicester, urging that the most strenuous efforts should be made to apprehend [suspects], but they were never found. Steele’s family placed an advertisement in the newspaper offering a reward of £50 for information leading to the capture of the murderers. Several known criminals were arrested on suspicion, but after questioning they were released. Four years went by and all hope of finding the guilty persons was gone.

But then…

In 1806, 26-year-old thief Benjamin Hanfield was sentenced to seven years’ transportation. While awaiting transfer to a convict ship to take him to Australia, he mentioned Steele’s murder to some other prisoners and said three men were involved in the slaying.

Word got around to the authorities, and they took him to Portsmouth by coach for questioning. He implicated John Holloway and Owen Haggerty. It had been Holloway’s idea, he said; he’d somehow found out that a gentleman with money would be at Hounslow Heath on Saturday, November 6, and had recruited the other men to help him commit a robbery.

The three of them went to Hounslow Heath that Saturday, as according to plan, and waited for Steele. When Hanfield accosted their mark and demanded money, Steele was cooperative at first, handing over his cash. But when the robbers demanded his pocketbook as well, he claimed he didn’t have it and begged them not to hurt him. Holloway struck him with his stick, and as Steele began to struggle, Holloway said, “I will silence the bugger,” and beat him several times about his head and body.

They left him lying dead on the heath.

Hanfield ran away first, ahead of the others. He waited for nearly an hour at The Bell public house for them to catch up. After his accomplices arrived, they all went to an inn, the Black Horse. It was midnight and inn was closed for business, but its proprietor was still awake and the three men convinced him to serve them. They shared half a pint of gin there before parting ways.

Hanfield’s story had some evidence to support it. While he was being transported to Portsmouth for questioning, the coach passed the place where Steele had been killed and Hanfield pointed it out. After confession, he was taken back the heath and pointed out the clump of trees where Steele’s body had been located. This was enough to get Holloway and Haggerty arrested. Both men, when apprehended, said they were innocent.

By December 8, Haggerty and Holloway were brought together and Hanfield’s statement was read to them. The two men denied knowing each other, denied any knowledge of the murder, and denied having ever been on Hounslow Heath in their lives.

Hanfield’s story had another problem: he said Holloway knew well in advance that Steele would be on the heath that fatal Saturday. But, although Steele visited his Feltham plantation regularly, he didn’t have a fixed day of the week for doing it, and his own family wasn’t sure when he would be returning when he left London on Friday.

But in spite of the discrepancies, the flat denials from the alleged accomplices, and the lack of evidence supporting Hanfield’s statement, the authorities were sure they had the right men — tunnel vision that presents in many wrongful convictions. Hanfield was granted a free pardon for turning King’s Evidence against his co-defendants, and his previous sentence of transportation was commuted. At the trial, he was chief witness for the prosecution.

The defense argued that Hanfield was a liar and a professional criminal who had implicated innocent people for personal gain. But the defendants could not prove where they had been on a random autumn night five years earlier, and both had clearly lied about being strangers to each other.

Multiple witnesses testified that Haggerty and Holloway had known each other for many years. One of those witnesses was Officer Daniel Bishop, who worked at the jail. The two prisoners had been placed in separate cells side by side, and the partition between them was so thin that they could easily converse with each other. This had been a trick, and Bishop had been hiding in a nearby privy, writing down everything they said. From Haggerty and Holloway’s conversation it was obvious the men were good friends.

That much was true. But it was also true that when they thought they were alone together, neither of them implicated themselves in Steele’s slaying, and in fact they said Hanfield was a liar and that he, and not they, should be hanged.

As the Newgate Calendar said, “There was a great body of evidence adduced, none of which tended materially to incriminate the prisoners, except that of Hanfield, the accomplice, who, under the promise of pardon, had turned King’s evidence.”

The verdict, nevertheless, was guilty, after fifteen minutes’ deliberation. The sentence was death.

Holloway and Haggerty went to the scaffold invoking God and insisting they had not been involved in Steele’s murder. The execution was a memorable one; the Reaper got a bountiful harvest that day. Linda Stratmann describes the awful events in detail:

The crowds that assembled were unparalleled and estimated at about 40,000 people. By 8 a.m. there was not an inch of ground around the scaffold unoccupied. Even before the prisoners arrived the crush was so great that people trapped in the crowd were crying out to be allowed to escape …

At the corner of Green Arbour Lane, nearly opposite the Debtors’ Door, two piemen were selling their wares when one man’s basket was knocked over. He was bending down to pick up his wares when surging crowds tripped and fell over him. There was an immediate panic, in which people fought with each other to escape the crush. It was the weakest and the smallest in the crowd who suffered. Seven people died from suffocation alone, and others were trampled upon, their bodies mangled. A broker named John Etherington was there with twelve-year-old son. The boy was killed in the crush, and the man was at first thought to be dead and placed amongst the corpses, but he survived with serious injuries. A woman with an infant at her breast saved her baby by passing it to a man and begging him to save its life. Moments later she was knocked down and killed. The baby was thrown from person to person over the heads of the crowd and was eventually brought to safety …

Gradually the mobs dispersed and the bodies, thirty in all, were taken up in carts, twenty-seven to Bartholomew’s Hospital, two to St. Sepulchre’s Church and one to The Swan public house. Numerous others were injured, including fifteen men and two women who were so badly bruised that they were taken to the hospital, one of whom died the following day.

As it turned out, the landlord of The Bell didn’t remember any strangers coming to the pub on the night of the murder, and the landlord of the Black Horse didn’t remember three men coming at midnight and asking for gin. There were no details of the murder in Hanfield’s confession that he couldn’t have learned from common gossip. Furthermore, he had a history of making false confessions. A lawyer, James Harmer, actually compiled a pamphlet (Google Play | Google Books) of evidence that supported Haggerty and Holloway’s innocence.

But none of this exculpatory evidence surfaced until after the executions.

In yet another twist, in 1820, John Ward, alias Simon Winter, was indicted for John Cole Steele’s murder. Ward had a bad reputation in the area and was suspected of robbery and livestock theft. It was said he participated in the search for Steele, and one witness said he had seemed to be trying to lead the search party in the opposite direction from where the corpse was found.

The paper-thin murder case against Ward was dismissed for lack of evidence, and rightly so. But by indicting him in the first place, the authorities had as much as said Haggerty and Holloway had been wrongfully convicted.

“The fate of Holloway and Haggerty,” Stratmann notes in her book, “was often referred to in subsequent trials as an example of how little weight could be given to accomplices to a crime. The tragedy which had attended their execution also gave rise to considerable anxiety for many years.”

Hanfield disappeared without a trace after the murder trial; it’s unknown whether he continued his criminal ways.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Murder,Other Voices,Pelf,Theft,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1828: Uriah Sligh

Add comment February 22nd, 2017 Headsman

From the Charleston Courier, March 29, 1827.

PENDLETON, MARCH 21. — We regret to announce that Captain Jehu Orr, who was stabbed on the 12th of February by Uriah Sligh, died on Sunday morning last of the wound.

Captain Orr has been long an inhabitant of the district, and has been very generally esteemed as an upright man and respectable citizen. His sufferings from the period of the infliction of the wound to that of his death, are represented to have been severe, and to have been borne with the most Christian fortitude.

Sligh, who was some time since admitted to bail, has been recommitted, and will probably be tried at the ensuing Court, which will commence on Monday next.

From Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser (Philadelphia, Pa.), March 13, 1828:

Pendleton, (S.C.) February 27, 1828.

On Friday last pursuant to the sentence of the law, Uriah Sligh was executed at this place for the murder of Jehu Orr.

As usual on such occasions, a large concourse of people assembled to witness the last pangs of a suffering fellow creature. It is certainly a strange curiosity which prompts people to attend the execution of a criminal, but it has so happened that the three occurrences of the kind which have unfortunately taken place here within two years, have severally collected together a more numerous assemblage than we have observed on any other occasion.

The following has been handed us by a gentleman who was present; the address being as nearly as can be remembered in the words uttered by the criminal on the eve of execution: —

After some religious exercises, he rose and addressed the crowd as follows.

Fellow-Citizens of Pendleton District — You see me in this situation. It is intemperance has brought me here. I was an honest and industrious man and strove to maintain my family in honesty and comfort.

I have no recollection of the action for which I am now suffering. I never had any ill-will or intention of killing that man.

And I now warn all of the danger of a habit of intemperance; particularly the poorer class who have it not always in their power. When they have an opportunity they will go to great excess.

I would exhort all to seek religion as the only sure guard against such awful practices. If you were always in the discharge of your duty and serving your God, you would be in no danger of coming to an end like mine.

He then knelt down and prayed with much earnestness that the Lord would pardon his sins and receive him to happiness; expressing a strong hope that as the blessed Saviour had promised that none who came to him should be cast out, he would also receive his spirit, and cleanse him by his blood.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Public Executions,South Carolina,USA

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1818: Samuel Godfrey, American picaro

Add comment February 13th, 2017 Headsman

“The day was remarkably calm, serene and placid, for the season — as was also, the mind, the countenance, and the conduct of the prisoner” on February the 13th of 1818 when “more than ten thousand persons” witnessed the execution of Samuel Godfrey on Woodstock (Vt.) Green.

That’s per A Sketch of the Life of Samuel E. Godfrey, which is reproduced in full in this post; some version of the publication was sold on Woodstock Green on the day of the hanging, presumably without the final appendix actually reporting the execution’s result.*

Alternating between mariner and hatter, with frequent brushes against authority and a keen feel (up to and including the transaction that cost him his own life) for the injustices visited upon him by the powerful, Samuel Godfrey emerges episodically as an American picaro on the Canadian frontier — which he is made to cross thanks to the hated British practice of seizing and impressing American seamen.

Although the man’s personal history is impossible to audit, the historical events in which he situates his autobiography were quite real: the dramatic naval battle of the HMS Cleopatra and the Ville de Milan is narrated here; there were American-British skirmishes at Odelltown, Quebec during the War of 1812; and certainly his audience would have been familiar with the flood that devastated Woodstock in 1811.

* Despite the extensive prepared “valedictory address” printed in the document in this post, Godfrey’s scaffold statement was actually quite cursory thanks to a planning snafu. According to the Amherst, N.H. Farmers’ Cabinet (Feb. 21, 1818), he said only: “I have no remarks to make, only that I declare before God and man, that I am innocent of the crime for which I am about to suffer. I had an address prepared for the occasion, but it is not here; if it was, I should be glad to have it read.”

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

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1883: Milton Yarberry, Marshal of Albuquerque

Add comment February 9th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1883,* Albuquerque hanged its Town Marshal.

Milton Yarberry was one of those belt-notching Wild West gunmen badass enough to be worth deputizing for a frontier town with a spiraling crime problem — which Albuquerque was experiencing as the just-completed railroad boomed its population. A number of crimes had been attributed to him in a career that took him from stage-robbing in his native Arkansas, to the Texas Rangers, to a Colorado saloon, to a New Mexico cathouse, a veritable bucket list of spaghetti western tropes packed into 34 roughhewn years with bodies planted at nigh every stop. Yarberry was even reputed to have fought alongside Billy the Kid.

The last of these tropes, of course, was as the bad hombre upon whom the townspeople foist a badge.

It will not surprise that even when minted as a peace officer, Marshal Yarberry continued his manslaying ways. Still, nobody in our present age of impunity could well imagine a lawman standing trial for murder twice in the space of a year.

Yarberry in early 1882 defeated a charge for wasting his lover’s paramour during a row in the street, as witnesses said Harry Brown shot first, just like Greedo.

There was no administrative leave or counseling after that, just straight back on the beat — and barely a month later, the copper gunned down a guy whom he was trying to stop for questioning. It was a confusing encounter in which the Marshal insisted that he fired when the victim, Charles Campbell, wheeled on him with a gun. A single state’s witness was able to establish in the court’s mind that there was no gun in Campbell’s possession.

Our hard-living triggerman would never waver from his self-defense story as his appeals were made;** he had many supporters who believed that he was being railroaded on account of the public relations hit the city was taking for employing a dude who had so liberally populated the Republic’s Boot Hills — and those advocates included the sheriff who recruited Yarberry as a Marshal, Perfecto Armijo, who was also the sheriff detailed to hang Yarberry in the end.

The local Albuquerque podcast City on the Edge has an episode dedicated to Yarberry here.

* In the anarchic game of telephone that was 19th century reporting, some editor somewhere mistakenly understood a story of Yarberry’s condemnation in 1882 as an actual report of his execution; as a result, there were news stories (themselves repeated by multiple papers) announcing Yarberry’s hanging in June 1882. In this business, once one wrong date is out there it’s bound to be echoed into eternity, so it’s still possible to find sources that misdate the execution to June 16, 1882. Past the question of the calendar, the fact that these stories actually expanded with details about the fictitious hanging scene strongly underscores the degree to which the hang-day bulletin had become colorfully but generically abstracted from any save accidental relationship to the actual scene at the gallows.


Cincinnati Daily Gazette, June 17, 1882, vividly peopling an imaginary scene.

** Because New Mexico was still just a territory — it was only admitted to the Union as a state in 1912 — Yarberry’s clemency decision went to the U.S. President, Chester A. Arthur.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,New Mexico,Public Executions,U.S. Federal,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1832: Three Nottingham rioters, for better governance

Add comment February 1st, 2017 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1832, three young men were hanged in front of Nottingham’s County Hall for riots that erupted in late 1831 against Tory lords’ opposition to urgently needed reform of England’s grossly misrepresentative allocations of governing power.

George Beck, 20, George Hearson, 22, and John Armstrong, 26, were among twenty-plus alleged rioters arrested by the military whose intervention had been required to contain the disturbance. They were unlucky as much as anything, prey to statecraft’s requisites of resolve shown and examples made, for in the chaos of the riots the evidence gathered against these three as particular baddies resided at best on the arbitrary and dubious side. Such a public outcry arose against their punishment that officials made sure to delay the hanging until after the day’s post reached town, lest it bear along a last-minute pardon.

Kevin Turton’s A Grim Almanac of Nottinghamshire records,

On 4 January Armstrong had been found guilty of causing the Beeston riot and the destruction of Lowe’s silk mill. The other two had been arrested later the same month and charged with involvement in the same crime. Unfortunately for Beck and Hearson, though, their convictions had been made on spurious identification evidence. No one at their trial had given irrefutable evidence to establish guilt and by the time they climbed on to the scaffold to join Armstrong some 24,000 people had signed petitions for their release and well over that number swelled the crowds which gathered to watch the executions. So nervous were the Nottingham officials that they called out the 15th Hussars, The Queens Bays, the 18th Foot and a significant body of special constables to block off High Pavement and prevent any outbreak of unrest.

From a contemporary news account:

On the day of execution (Wednesday February 1st), the condemned took a glass of wine. Both Hearson and Armstrong protested their innocence by saying “I am a murdered man”. Beck ascended the platform first and a cry of “Murder!” could be heard from the crowd. Despite his irons, Hearson ran quickly up and jumped on the scaffold, calling to friends in the crowd. He then twirled his cap around his hand, “as if in triumph”, followed by his neckerchief, to cheers from the crowd. He also did a little dance before being calmed, and before Armstrong ascended. The ropes had been adjusted, and the chaplain began the service. On uttering the words “in the midst of life we are in death”, the drop fell!

The blog Pallax View has an excellent entry about the riots and resulting trials and executions, focusing on Hearson in particular. He was a married lace manufacturer and an enthusiastic boxer, called “Curley Hearson” in the prize ring.

A poem about the injustice of the executions gained wide circulation:

Hark! The Trumps are mournful sounding,
Wafting souls to realms above,
Where there’s naught but bliss abounding,
Glorying too for Jesu love.

The reckless fate of these poor creatures,
Fills the town with sad dismay,
For Nottingham, with its bright features,
Could not check that dreadful day.

To see the prime of youth now wither,
‘Midst relations, friends so dear,
It makes one’s blood almost to shiver,
Who could stop the burning tear?

Hearson, Beck and Armstrong boldly,
Met their fates beneath the tree;
Villains swore against them coldly,
And their doom we all shall see.

The bitterly-fought parliamentary reform was at last enacted that June.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Other Voices,Public Executions,Rioting,Wrongful Executions

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1820: The slaves Ephraim and Sam, “awful dispensation of justice”

Add comment January 28th, 2017 Headsman

From the Savannah Daily Gazette, Feb. 5, 1820:


From the August Chronicle 2d inst.

EXECUTION:

On Friday last two negro men, named Ephraim and Sam, were executed in conformity to their sentence, for the murder of their master Mr. Thomas Hancock, of Edgefield District S.C.

Sam was burnt and Ephraim hung, and his head severed from his body and publicly exposed. The circumstances attending the crime for which these miserable beings have suffered, were of a nature so aggravated, as imperiously demanded the terrible punishment which has been inflicted upon them.

The burning of malefactors is a punishment only resorted to, when absolute necessity demands a signal example. It must be a horrid and appealing sight to see a human being consigned to the flames.

Let even fancy picture the scene — the pile — the stake — the victim — and the mind sickens, and sinks under the oppression of its own feelings — what then must be the dread reality!

From some of the spectators we learn, that it was a scene which transfixed in breathless horror almost every one who witnessed it. As the flames approached, the piercing shrieks of the unfortunate victim struck upon the heart with a fearful, painful vibration — but when the devouring element seized upon his body, all was hushed — yet the cry of agony still thrilled in the ear, and an involuntary and sympathetic shudder ran thro’ the crowd.

We hope that this awful dispensation of justice may be attended with such salutary effects as to forever preclude the necessity of its repetition.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Murder,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,South Carolina,USA

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1876: Marshall Crain, Bloody Williamson killer

Add comment January 21st, 2017 Robert Elder

(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. This post originally appeared on the Last Words blog here. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)

“I must make a statement in regard to this matter. I feel it my duty to God and to man to do so. I am guilty of killing the two men. My soul is stained with blood and my punishment is just. I hope all will forgive me. I pray God to guide and prosper this country. I am the murderer of William Spence. And George W. Sisney. That is all I have to say.”

Marshall Crain, convicted of murder, hanging, Illinois.
Executed January 21, 1876

Crain, a twenty-year-old hired assassin, murdered Sisney and Spence in 1876. The double murder, labeled by the press the “Williamson County Vendetta,” was part of a long- standing feud between the Bulliner and Henderson families of Carbondale, Illinois. Before Crain’s execution, he was remanded to a jail in Marion County in order to avoid a lynching at the hands of an angry mob.

The Chicago Tribune noted: “He was born, raised, educated, married, committed his crimes and was executed within a radius of 10 miles.”

(Williamson County, Illinois has an impressively vast catalogue of highlight-reel violence to its history; there’s more about the Great Vendetta and other skeletons in Williamson’s closet in Bloody Williamson: A Chapter in American Lawlessness.

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1884: Not Crow Dog, saved by an ex parte

Add comment January 14th, 2017 Headsman

January 14 was supposed to be the hanging day in 1884 for the Sioux Crow Dog — but instead of being executed he was busy making caselaw.

A sub-chief of the Brule Lakota, Crow Dog on August 5, 1881, met — intentionally? — the tribal chief Spotted Tail on a road in the Rosebud Reservation and shot him dead with a rifle.

The killing was adjudicated the very next day within the Brule community, at a council where the killer and the survivors of his victim agreed together on the appropriate compensation, and paid up.* But the U.S. Indian agent on the scene also arrested Crow Dog a few days later, and had him tried for murder in a non-Indian court in the the frontier town of Deadwood.

Sidney Harring, who would expand this review to book length with Crow Dog’s Murder: American Indian Sovereignty, Tribal Law, and United States Law in the Nineteenth Century, argued in a 1988/1989 paper** that the needless white court’s trial was staged from the outset as a test case by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, angling for new legal tools to break the doctrine of tribal sovereignty which dated back to Worcester v. Georgia (1832). Although that anti-sovereignty cause would suffer a tactical setback in this case, it would very soon carry the day.

Condemned to death early in 1882, Crow Dog had various appeals, respites, and delaying actions that stretched the case out for nearly two years until the U.S. Supreme Court at last stepped in ahead of a scheduled January 14, 1884 execution to adjudicate the question of whether a murder within a tribe, on that tribe’s own reservation, was within the proper jurisdiction of non-Indian courts like the one that tried Crow Dog. Its Ex parte Crow Dog resoundingly answered in the negative, a milestone in the legal framework around Indian sovereignty in the U.S. To execute Crow Dog under the white court’s verdict, the justices ruled, would require Anglo law to be

extended over aliens and strangers; over the members of a community, separated by race, by tradition, by the instincts of a free though savage life, from the authority and power which seeks to impose upon them the restraints of an external and unknown code, and to subject them to the responsibilities of civil conduct, according to rules and penalties of which they could have no previous warning; which judges them by a standard made by others, and not for them, which takes no account of the conditions which should except them from its exactions, and makes no allowance for their inability to understand it. It tries them not by their peers, nor by the customs of their people, nor the law of their land, but by superiors of a different race, according to the law of a social state of which they have an imperfect conception and which is opposed to the traditions of their history, to the habits of their lives, to the strongest prejudices of their savage nature; one which measures the red man’s revenge by the maxims of the white man’s morality.

The legal doctrine at work here holds that although conquered, native tribes still possess internal sovereignty. And with Ex parte Crow Dog it became clear and settled American jurisprudence that one attribute of that remaining sovereignty was plenary — that is, absolute — power over purely internal affairs.

At least, for a year.

White America was discomfited by the abrogation of its morality-maxims over the revengeful red man, and the situation invited moral panic around any malfeasance in Indian country. The Washington D.C. Evening Star would complain months later (June 5, 1884) that Ex parte Crow Dog “has had the effect of creating the idea among the Indians that there is no law to punish an Indian for a crime committed on a reservation.” And the Supreme Court itself had slyly noted that it was obliged to make such rulings absent “a clear expression of the intention of Congress” to take a bite out of Indian sovereignty — an intent “that we have not been able to find.”

So in 1885, the U.S. Congress decided to express that intent and voted the Major Crimes Act placing Indians under federal, not tribal, jurisdiction for seven major types of crimes — including, of course, murder. “We all feel that an Indian, when he commits a crime, should be recognized as a criminal,” Michigan Congressman Byron Cutcheon urged on the legislation’s behalf. “It is an infamy upon our civilization, a disgrace to this nation, that there should be anywhere within its boundaries a body of people who can, with absolute impunity, commit the crime of murder, there being no tribunal before which they can be brought for punishment.”

This briefest interim between Ex parte Crow Dog and the Major Crimes Act was in a sense the high water mark for tribal sovereignty. Following the Major Crimes bill, white politicians began almost systematically reaching onto the reservations to legislate, picking away at tribal sovereignty until another much more infamous case, Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock, disastrously declared that plenary power now resided in Congress.

Crow Dog went on to become a major figure in the ghost dance movement. Present-day American Indian Movement activist Leonard Crow Dog is a descendant; he’s written a book connecting back to his famous ancestor called Crow Dog: Four Generations of Sioux Medicine Men. Meanwhile, South Dakota’s Sinte Gleska University is named for Spotted Tail.

* The price was $600, eight horses, and a blanket.

** Sidney Harring in “Crow Dog’s Case: A Chapter in the Legal History of Tribal Sovereignty,” American Indian Law Review, Vol. 14, No. 2 (1988/1989) — also the source of the preceding footnote.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Not Executed,Notable for their Victims,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,South Dakota,U.S. Federal,USA

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1830: Agnus Magnusdottir and Fridrik Sigurdsson, Iceland’s last executions

Add comment January 12th, 2017 Headsman

Iceland last used the death penalty on January 12, 1830 with the beheading of farm servants Agnes Magnusdottir and Fridrik Sigurdsson.

Only threadbare details survive to posterity about their crime: one night in 1828, Agnes roused a neighboring farm to give the alarm that Natan Ketilsson’s farmhouse, where she worked, was afire. Neighbors were able to quench the blaze quickly enough to realize that Ketilsson himself had not died because he was trapped in the flame — but because he had been stabbed to death, along with another man known as a criminal, Petur Jonsson.

Agnes, 33, and teenager Fridrik were arrested for murder and eventually beheaded on a desolate hill on the frozen northern coast where a mossed-over stone still silently marks the spot.*


(cc) photo taken by Jennifer Boyer on the walking path to be found at the site of crime.

Why were these men killed? The trial record attributes it to Fridrik’s “hatred of Natan, and a desire to steal,” which are answers that ask their own questions. If the stones remember, they aren’t telling and in the scantiness of documentation the job has fallen to literature instead, for there is something to be said for an mysterious double murder in the ashes of a half-burned farm and the novelty of a woman being the very last human to have her head chopped off in Iceland. (On execution day, Fridrik went first.)

Agnes was Natan’s lover, but the farmer had a reputation for womanizing and, so all suspect, eyes for Fridrik’s young girlfriend;** the inference of a jealous domestic psychodrama cast on the fringe of the Arctic Sea, of chilly twilit tables gathering furtive eyes above with wandering hands below, seems hard to resist. One of Natan’s other paramours was the poet Skald-Rosa, who addressed an anguished quatrain to Agnes in the weeks after the murder, helping to fix the latter’s place in national lore as the wicked moving spirit behind the whole disaster.

Don’t be surprised by the sorrow in my eyes
Nor at the bitter pangs of pain that I feel:
For you have stolen with your scheming he who gave my life meaning,
And thrown your life to the Devil to deal.

And then there was the strange coda, while verdicts were sent to Denmark for confirmation,† of the condemned simply living and working among the community waiting to execute them. Nineteenth century rural Iceland was a little short on jail cells and surplus provisions.

After studying on an exchange program in Iceland, Australian Hannah Kent found this speculative environment a rich source for her well-received first novel, Burial Rites. (There’s a lengthy and interesting podcast interview with her by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation here.)

Kent’s drama has made headway in Hollywood, with Jennifer Lawrence said to be keen on playing the tragic lead; if it someday does hit the silver screen, however, it won’t even be the first on its subject matter — witness the 1995 film Agnes.


As of this writing, the full movie can also be searched on YouTube…

The criminals Fridrik Sigurdsson and Agnes Magnusdottir were today moved out of custody to the place of execution, and following them to the execution site were the priests Reverend Tomasson and Reverend Thorvardur Jonsson, an assistant priest. The criminals had wished that the latter two help them prepare for their deaths. After the priest Johann Tomasson completed a speech of admonition to the convict Fridrik Sigurdsson, Fridrik’s head was taken off with one blow of the axe. The farmer Gudmundur Ketilsson,‡ who had been ordered to be executioner, committed the work that he had been asked to do with dexterity and fearlessness. The criminal Agnes Magnusdottir, who, while this was taking place, had been kept at a remote station where she could not see the site of execution, was then fetched. After the Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jonsson had appropriately prepared her for death, the same executioner cut off her head, and with the same craftsmanship as before. The lifeless heads were then set upon two stakes at the site of execution, and their bodies put in two coffins of untreated boards, and buried before the men were dismissed. While the deed took place, and there until it was finished, everything was appropriately quiet and well-ordered, and it was concluded by a short address by Reverend Magnus Arnason to those that were there.

Actum ut supra.

B. Blondal, R. Olsen, A. Arnason
(From the Magistrate’s Book of Hunavatn District, 1830 — as quoted in the epilogue of Kent’s Burial Rites)

* The milestone murderers, or at least their heads, rest in Tjörn.

** This young woman, Sigridur Gudmundsdottir, was condemned to death with the other two but got to keep her head in the end.

† Iceland did not become independent of Denmark until 1944.

‡ The victim’s brother was the executioner.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,History,Iceland,Milestones,Murder,Public Executions,Women

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