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2015: Shafqat Hussain

1 comment August 4th, 2015 Headsman

Minutes before dawn prayers today, Pakistan hanged Shafqat Hussain in Karachi Central Jail.*

He’s the latest casualty of Pakistan’s wild death penalty resurgence following last December’s bloody terrorist attack on a Peshawar school — leading Islamabad to break a moratorium on carrying out the death sentences that it was continuing to hand down.

And how! According to the BBC, today’s hanging brings to 193 the total of people put to death in the little more than half-year since; Pakistan could stop hanging today (it won’t) and easily rank among 2015’s execution leaders by the end of the year.

Though the first victims of the new policy were people previously death-sentenced for terrorism, and thereby at least thematically linked to the Peshawar massacre, Pakistan by March had dropped the distinction and commenced hanging prisoners by the fistful for ordinary crimes, too.

Shafqat Hussain’s name has repeatedly entered the news cycle during that time, as he has faced and then avoided multiple execution dates, most recently this past June 9. Some have gone to the very brink, and seen the young man reprieved moments from donning his hanging-shroud.

Hussain denied committing the crime laid at his door — the abduction and murder of a 7-year-old boy in the area where he worked as a watchman — but a confession “allegedly” obtained by torture doomed him. Guilt aside, the matter garnered worldwide headlines (and advocacy) largely on account of his youth: Hussain and his advocates say he was a minor of age 14 or 15 when arrested; Pakistani courts have found him to have been 23. (!) It is this dispute about the age that has been at the center of Shafqat Hussain’s recent heart-stopping cycle of appeals and stays.

Shortly before his execution, Shafqat Hussain put his byline to a compelling first-person testimonial for CNN about life on Pakistan’s death row and the experience of nearing an imminent execution date.

When the jailer tells me that my execution date has been set, he separates me immediately from the other prisoners. I spend all seven days by myself in a cell in the barracks for prisoners about to be executed. They conduct a physical exam every one of those seven days. They weigh me every day, take my blood pressure and temperature as well.

On the last two days they also measure my height, my neck and my body for the clothes I am to wear when they hang me.

One day before my hanging, they tell me about my final visit with my family and that I need to execute my will. I cannot really say what I am thinking in those last seven days. My brain is thinking all sorts of things.

* According to a brother, who told AFP that “there is a cut mark on his neck and half of his neck is separated from his body,” they did not hang him very well.

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1795: Jerry Avershaw, contemptuously

Add comment August 3rd, 2015 Headsman

From the Newgate Calendar:


A century since highwaymen were as common as insolvent debtors are now.

Public vehicles were then little known. The roads were covered with night travellers, either on horse or foot, who became the easy prey of one or two armed and desperate ruffians. Turpin, Sixteen-String-Jack, and others of less notoriety, almost made these criminals fashionable; for, strange to say, there is a fashion even in crime.

Their daring was great; and in a country where personal prowess and high courage were so much prized, it was not to be wondered at that such characters should obtain a sort of fame. Now that our roads are covered with stage coaches, the race of highwaymen is extinct; solitary individuals of the species may be now and then met with, but the “calling” has decidedly fallen into disuse; pickpockets have succeeded them, and robberies are thus achieved with greater facility, less danger of personal violence, and with less dread of legal punishment.

The callosity of London thieves is dreadful. The Rev. Mr. Cotton is ordinary of Newgate, and in allusion to that gentleman’s spiritual consolation on the fatal platform, they call hanging, “dying with your ears stuffed with cotton.”

A pickpocket lately gave it as his reason for following his profession, “That it didn’t hurt above the arm pits;” i.e. that if discovered, the punishment was transportation, not hanging.

None of the numerous depredators we have already noticed, can excel in villainy, the subject of the present memoir. He was one of the most fierce, depraved, and infamous of the human race.

From early life he exhibited in his disposition a combination of the worst feelings of our nature, which, as the period of manhood approached, settled into a sort of prerogative of plunder and depredation, by which he seemed to consider himself as entitled to prey on the property, and sport with the lives, of his fellow creatures, with the most heartless impunity.

He attached himself to gangs of the most notorious thieves, and imposters, over whom, by a kind of supererogatory talent for all sorts of villainy, he very soon acquired unlimited influence and command, and by whose aid he committed such numerous and daring acts of highway-robbery, house-breaking, and plunder, as made him the dread and terror of the metropolis and its vicinity.

Kennington Common, Hounslow Heath, Bagshot Heath, and indeed all the commons and roads for several miles round London, were the scenes of the predatory depredations of Avershaw and his associates; and such a degree of terror had his repeated acts of robbery and brutality inspired, that the post-boys, coachmen, and all whose duty compelled them frequently to travel over the theatre of his exploits, trembled at his name and dreaded his visitation.

Although the peculiar features of the criminal laws of our country for a long time operated to the impunity of this abandoned ruffian and desperado, the cup of his iniquities was gradually filling, and he at length fell under the hand of outraged justice; but not till, unhappily, he had added a new act of murder to the long and black catalogue of his unatoned crimes: and it is lamentable to record that so base, so villainous, and so bloody a being, should have found creatures, bearing the form and name of men, so entirely forgetful of their duties to society and to God, as not only to become the admirers and apologists of what they misnamed the valour of Avershaw, but who absolutely affected to trace something prophetic in the fiendlike declarations he had too often made, that “he would murder the first ****** who attempted to deliver him into the hands of justice,” because, in the spirit of his diabolical declarations, he did actually shed the blood of a fellow-creature, who in the performance of his duty as a police officer, essayed the arrest of this most notorious of culprits.

Jerry Avershaw was the son of a laboring man who worked at one of the dye houses at Bankside — his father having met with a severe accident, was rendered incapable of following his usual employment — the support of the family consequently devolved upon the mother who took in washing, and was very indulgent to her family.

Jerry was educated in the parochial school of St. Saviour’s, Southwark — and at an early age resorted to places of public amusement which were then established in the neighborhood of St. George’s fields, where he soon became distinguished by his extravagant style of dress and profuse expenditure.

He associated at that time with many respectable young men, who were unacquainted with his real character, and way of living. This however became at length so notorious that he was obliged to seek associates in the lowest pot-houses, where from his superior address and appearance — and the liberal manner in which he spent his money — he was always welcome. Without reference to his other crimes, we shall proceed to give an account of his remarkable trial.

Jeremiah Avershaw, alias Abershaw, was tried before Mr. Baron Perryn, at Croydon, July 30th, 1795.

The prisoner was charged on two indictments; one for having, at the Two Brewers Public-house,* Southwark, feloniously shot at and murdered D. Price, an Officer belonging to the Police-Office, held at Union-hall, in the Borough. The other indictment was for having, at the same time and place, fired a pistol at Bernard Turner, another officer attached the office at Union-hall, with an intent to murder him.

Mr. Garrow, the leading counsel for the prosecution, opened the case to the Court and jury, by stating, that the prisoner at the bar, being a person of very ill fame, had been suspected of having perpetrated a number of felonies. The Magistrates of the Police-Office in the Borough of Southwark, having received information against the prisoner, sent, as was their duty, an order for his apprehension.

To execute the warrant, the deceased Price, and another officer of the name of Turner, went to the Two Brewers, a public-house, in Maid Lane, where they understood he was then drinking, in company with some other persons.

At the entrance of a parlour in the house, the prisoner appeared in a posture of intending to resist. Holding a loaded pistol in each of his hands, he with threats and imprecations desired the officers to stand off, as he would otherwise fire at them.

The officers, without being intimidated by those menaces, attempted to rush in and seize him, on which the prisoner discharged both the pistols at the same instant of time, lodging the contents of one in the body of David Price, and with the other wounded Turner very severely in the head. Price after languishing a few hours died of the wound.

Mr. Garrow was very pathetic and animated in his description of the several circumstances composing the shocking barbarity. To prove it, he would call four witnesses, whose evidence, he said, would be but too clear to establish the prisoner’s guilt.

The Jury would be enabled to judge from the facts to be submitted to them, and would undoubtedly decide on the issue joined between the Crown and the prisoner at the bar.

The learned counsel accordingly called Turner, the landlord of the house, a surgeon, and a fourth witness; but as the substance of their evidence is comprised in Mr. G’s opening of the indictment, it would be superfluous to repeat it. Turner said positively, he saw the prisoner discharge the pistols, from one of which he himself received his wound, and the contents of the other were lodged in the body of Price, who died very shortly after. The surgeon proved that the death was in consequence of the wound.

Mr. Knowles and Mr. Best were counsel for the prisoner, but the weight of evidence against him was too strong to be combatted by any exertions.

Mr. Baron Perryn summed up the evidence, on every essential part of which his lordship made several apposite, pointed, and accurate observations. The counsel for the prisoner, he remarked to the jury, had principally rested his defence on the circumstances of several other persons being present when the pistols were discharged, by some of which they contended the death wound might possibly have been inflicted. But, with respect to that part of the transaction, it would be proper for the jury to observe, that the witness Turner, had sworn positively to his having seen the prisoner in the act of discharging the contents of the pistol.

The jury, after a consultation of about three minutes, pronounced the dreadful verdict of — Guilty.

Through a flaw in the indictment for the murder, an objection was taken by the counsel. The indictment did not state that Price died in St. Saviour’s parish. This was argued nearly two hours, when Mr. Baron Perryn intimating a wish to take the opinion of the Twelve Judges of England, the counsel for the prosecution, waiving [sic] the point for the present, insisted on the prisoner’s being tried on the another [sic] indictment, for feloniously shooting at Barnaby Windsor, the officer who apprehended him after he had shot Price, which the learned counsel said, would occupy no great portion of time, as it could be sufficiently supported by the testimony of a single witness. He was accordingly tried and found guilty on a second capital indictment.

The prisoner, who, contrary to expectation, had in a great measure refrained from his usual audacity, began with unparalelled insolence of expression and gesture, to ask his lordship if he “was to be murderd by the evidence of one witness?” several times repeating the question, till the jury returned him Guilty.

When Mr. Baron Perryn put on the judicial cap, the prisoner, unconscious, and regardless of his dreadful situation, at the same time put on his hat, observing the judge with contemptuous looks while he was passing the sentence. When the constables were removing him from the dock to a coach, he continued to vent torrents of abuse against the judge and jury, whom, he charged with, as he styled it, his murder.

As his desperate dispostion was well known, he was, to prevent resistance, hand-cuffed, and his thighs and arms also bound strongly together, in which situation he was conveyed back to prison.

So callous was this ruffian to every degree of feeling, that on his way to be tried, as he was passing near the usual place of execution on Kennington Common, he put his head out of the coach window, and with all the sang froid imaginable, asked some of those who guarded him, if they did not think he would be twisted on that pretty spot by Saturday.

He was executed on Kennington Common, on the 3rd of August, 1795, with James [John] Little for the murder of Mr. Macevoy and Mrs. King at Richmond, and Sarah King for the murder of her new born bastard, at Nutfield, Surrey, in the presence of an immense multitude of spectators, among whom he recognized many acquaintances and confederates, to whom he bowed, nodded, and laughed with the most unfeeling indifference.

He had a flower in his mouth, and his waistcoat and shirt were unbuttoned, leaving his bosom open in the true style of vulgar gaiety: and, talking to the mob, and venting curses on the officers, he died, as he had lived, a ruffian and a brute! He was afterwards hung in chains upon Wimbledon Common.

The infamy of his life, and the atrocity of his deeds, rendered him a fit object for the posthumous punishment of hanging in chains on the arena of his crimes, and (painful as is the record, the truth must be told,) while the disgusting carcass of this malefactor, devoured by the birds and withered by the elements, gradually disappeared, the spot on which he had been gibbetted was converted into a temple of infamy, to which the thieves and vagabonds of London resorted in a sort of pilgrimage; and while the leading ruffians of the flash school, of which Avershaw was the child and champion, procured from his decaying and piece-meal carcass the bones of his fingers and toes to convert into stoppers for their tobacco-pipes, the tyro villains contented themselves with tearing the buttons from his clothes, as mementos of the estimation in which they held their arch prototype.


The newsmen effected horror that “Abershaw continued to the last moment of his existence in the same hardened state” (Telegraph, Aug. 4, 1795) and “took no notice either of his fellow-sufferers, or what the clergyman endeavoured to say to him” — then “when the executioner took the whip and touched the horse, made a spring from the cart, and was heard to repeat a horrid curse the last word he spoke.”

Avershaw’s larger-than-death performance of “dying game” would in subsequent years be a much-honored exemplar among kindred spirits who would not occasionally be required to attempt to outdo him in dramatic contempt of the gallows.

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1834: Eliza Joyce, confessed poisoner

4 comments August 2nd, 2015 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1844, Eliza Joyce was hanged on the roof of Cobb Hall at Lincoln Castle for the murders by poison of her two daughters and her stepson.

She was the fifth and last woman to be publicly hanged at the castle during the 19th century, and she remains the last woman in England to be hanged for a crime she’s pleaded guilty to.

Eliza had married William Joyce, a gardener, in 1840. He had two children by his prior marriage, Emma and William Jr., and he and Eliza went on to have a daughter together, Ann.

However, Emma died suddenly in October 1841 and William took sick the following year. In September 1842 he was visited by a doctor, who prescribed medicine for him. Eliza went to the chemist’s … where she picked not that medication, but arsenic.

Her husband found out and took the poison back to the chemist’s, where they realized some of it was missing. By then William Jr.’s condition had worsened considerably and he was showing symptoms of arsenic poisoning. Before his death at Christmastime he gave a statement, confirming his stepmother had given him the arsenic. He was fifteen years old.

Early in 1843, Eliza’s baby daughter Ann also died. Eliza was charged with William Jr.’s murder, but the indictment was thrown out on a technicality. She was then re-charged with attempted murder, which at the time carried the same penalty: death. But at her trial she claimed William Jr.’s poisoning was accidental: she’d spilled some of the arsenic powder on the floor, she said, and picked it up with a spoon, and later without washing it she used the same spoon to give William his medication.

The jury bought the story and Eliza was freed in the summer of 1843.

However, in light of what had happened, her husband cast her out and she had to move into the workhouse.

Eventually, her conscience began to trouble her and she confessed she’d been guilty all along of William Jr.’s murder, and that she had also poisoned both Emma and Ann with laudanum.

When asked why she’d done such terrible things, she plaintively replied, “I don’t know, except I thought it was such a troublesome thing to bring a family of children into this troublesome world.”

By now fully resigned to her punishment, she offered no defense to the court and pleaded guilty to both girls’ murders. (She couldn’t be charged with her stepson’s murder a second time.) William Calcraft handled her execution, and (for once) he didn’t botch it; she died quickly and quietly.

The prisoner walked with tolerable firmness, being only occasionally supported; and once, when about midway on the platform, she paused for a second, and turned to take a parting glance at the sunny scenery by which she was surrounded, and, as if to bed a lingering farewell to the bright and glorious world which she had sacrificed: her face and features wore an aspect of ghastly agony which none can forget who gazed upon her. Having ascended to the top of the tower on which the scaffold was erected, her bonnet was removed, her arms pinioned, and the cap placed over her face. She then ascended the step of the gallows. The effect of her appearance on the immense crowd was awfully striking. In an instant, the hootings, bellowings, and imprecations, which ever distinguish such enormous assemblages, were hushed, and a profound stillness reigned throughout the living mass.

-The Hull Packet and East Riding Times, Aug. 9, 1844

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1831: John Bell, age 14

Add comment August 1st, 2015 Headsman

Fourteen-year-old John Bell was hanged at Maidstone Prison on this date in 1831, for slashing the throat of a 13-year-old chum near Rochester in order to steal a pittance of poor relief that boy had received from a parish church. (The murder netted “three half-crowns, a shilling, and a six-pence” per the Aug. 6, 1831 Preston Chronicle, from which the facts of the case below are also drawn.)

Bell’s little(r) brother James gave the evidence that would hang John: that John spied Richard Taylor and on a lark announced that they would slay him for his pennies.

To this end John borrowed James’s knife, and before employing it to open Richard’s carotid artery, retired with Richard to a turnip-field where the blade pared a few snacks for greedy boys.

Then on the pretense of taking a shortcut home, James guided Richard into a woods where avarice guided his hand to a greater sin than turnip-theft. Showing a streak of the same ruthless acquisitiveness, 11-year-old James demanded half the proceeds lest he blab on his brother — leading James, whose situation was beginning to dawn upon him, to exclaim, “Torment will come upon me for this; I know I shall be hanged!”*

The hardihood which the culprit had displayed at his trial, and even when sentence was passed, deserted him as he entered his cell. He wept bitterly; and when his mother visited him on Sunday afternoon, [the day before the hanging -ed.] he acused her of being the cause of bringing him to his “present scrape.”

On Sunday evening, after the condemned sermon had been preached by the Rev. Chaplain, Bell made a full confession of his guilt. His statement did not materially differ from that which was given on the trial; but he added some particulars of the conduct of his victim before he murdered him, which make the blood run cold.

He said that when he sprung upon Taylor with the knife in his hand, the poor boy, aware of his murderous intention, fell upon his knees before him — offered him all the money he had, his knife, his cap, and whatever else he liked. Said he would love him during the whole of his life, and never tell what had happened to any human being. This pathetic appeal was lost on the murderer, and without making any answer to it, he struck the knife into his throat!”

At half-past 11 o’clock, the solemn peals of the prison bell announced the preparations for the execution. After the operation of pinioning, &c. had been completed, the culprit attended by the Chaplain, &c., walked steadily to the platform.

When he appeared there, he gazed steadily around him; but his eyes did not quail, nor was his cheek blanched. After the rope was adjusted round his neck, he exclaimed in a firm and loud tone of voice, “Lord have mercy upon us. Pray good Lord have mercy upon us. Lord have mercy upon us. All the people before me take warning by me!”

Having been asked if he had any thing farther to say, he repeated the same words, and added, “Lord have mercy upon my poor soul.”

At the appointed signal, the bolt was withdrawn, and in a minute or two the wretched malefactor ceased to exist.

The body is to be given over to the surgeons at Rochester for dissection.

The number of persons present could not be less than 8,000 or 9,000.

The jury did not even retire to come to its verdict, but it strongly endorsed commuting the consequent (mandatory) death sentence.


The Spectator editorialized for the occasion (and we draw this text from its reprint in the Standard of Aug. 8, 1831):

The boy Bell, whose conviction of the murder of little Taylor, near Chatham, we mentioned in our last number, was hanged on Monday, at Maidstone. Bell was only 14 years of age; and, from the utter neglect of his education, could hardly be regarded, even had he been much older, as an accountable being.

It does not appear, from any thing that transpired at the trial or after it, that he felt any greater qualm in killing Taylor, than he would have done in killing the rabbit to whose squeak the dying shriek of the child was, with horrid reality, compared by the brother of the slayer.

Was an untutored boy like this, with his chubby cheeks and flaxen locks, and every attribute of childhood, a proper subject for the halter and the dissecting-knife? Is it required that our code, like that of Moloch, should receive its sanction by the sacrifice of infants? Are our children and schoolboys already murderers in intention, that we should offer them such an example; or was it our grown-up men that we sought to deter from crime by so revolting a specimen of punishment?

Of all the legal tragedies that have been enacted for the last twenty years, there has been none so replete with horror.

And yet we are told therer wer multitudes assembled to behold it! And the masses that pressed forward to glut their eyes with the expiring convulsions of the miserable boy were angry because they had to wait from eight to eleven o’clock until their longing was satisfied!

* This quote is from the Liverpool Mercury of Aug. 5, 1831.

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1701: Esther Rodgers, repentant

Add comment July 31st, 2015 Headsman

O my dear Friends — Take Warning by me. Here I come to Dy, and if God be not Merciful to my Soul, I shall be undone to all Eternity — If I do not turn by Repentance. I Bless God, I have found more Comfort in Prison, than ever before. O Turn to God now. O how hard it is to Repent; If you go on in Sin, God may give you up to a hard Heart. Oh! Turn whilst the Day of Grace lasts.

These, shouted to a crowd of thousands, were the last uttered by repentant sex worker and infanticide Esther Rodgers at her hanging in Ipswich, Mass., on this date in 1701. Esther Rodgers’s life story and jailhouse conversion in New England are richly explored by author and sometime Executed Today guest blogger Anthony Vaver on his site, Early American Crime. Take a look here.

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1830: Charles Wall

2 comments July 30th, 2015 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1830, Charles Wall was hanged at Worcester Prison for the murder of his fiancee’s daughter.

Wall’s fiancee, Mary Chance, lived in the town of Lye and had two illegitimate children. Wall was not their father and didn’t support them financially, but he seemed fond of them and was never known to mistreat them.

The oldest child, five-year-old Sally, vanished without a trace on May 16, 1830. Sally and her mother had gone out visiting with Wall, and that evening the little girl asked permission to go outside and play. She never returned, and her mother and Wall searched frantically for her until the wee hours, but to no avail.

Little Sally’s body wasn’t recovered until May 19; it was found at Old Swinford at the bottom of a limestone pit some 240 feet deep. She had died of a fractured skull. But did she fall … or was she pushed?

Several people reported having seen Wall alone with Sally the night of her disappearance. One witness picked him out of a lineup of more than a dozen men and said he’d seen Wall carrying Sally, who was sobbing and begging to be allowed to go home for her supper. Another witness saw Wall walking alone from the direction of the limestone pit at 9:00 that evening. Still a third witness said that on the morning of May 16, Wall had asked her some questions about which limestone pits in the area were being worked.

The inquest returned a verdict of willful murder against Wall and he was brought to trial. Nicola Sly’s A Grim Almanac of the Black Country notes,

For every witness called by the prosecution, the defense countered with a witness who had either seen Sally playing alone around the top of the unfenced mineshaft on the night of her disappearance, or who testified about the kindness shown by Wall to both of Mary Chance’s illegitimate children.

Mr. Justice Park told the jury that he personally could not see any possible motive that Wall might have for killing the little girl, reminding them that nobody had spoken of anything but kindness and fondness between Wall and his alleged victim.

He was convicted anyway, after only fifteen minutes’ deliberation on the part of the jury, but they recommended mercy. Wall’s death sentence was not respited, though. He was hanged two days later, still protesting his innocence.

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1629: Louis Bertran, martyr in Japan

Add comment July 29th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1629, Spanish Dominican Louis Bertran was burned at Omura, Japan for evangelizing, along with two Japanese-born converts known as Mancius of the Holy Cross and Peter of the Holy Mother of God.

Bearing the Gospel to the far-flung corners of the globe was sort of the family business: Bertran’s more famous relative and namesake, Louis Bertran(d), ministered to the New World so tirelessly that he’s been unofficially known as the Apostle of South America.

For two generations by this point, Christianity had struggled under intensifying official persecution — the shogunate deeply suspicious of the infiltration of western clerics who so often it seemed from Japan’s neighbors to bring along with them some patron king’s overweening navy.

Just a few years on from these martyrdoms, Japan closed itself to outside interference altogether. (More or less.)

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1941: Ben Zion bar Shlomo Halberstam, the second Bobever Rebbe

1 comment July 28th, 2015 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1941, less than two months after the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, they executed the Hassidic Rabbi Ben Zion Halberstam along with his son, Rabbi Moshe Aaron, three of his sons-in-law, and a number of other Jews.

Born in Galicia in 1874, Ben Zion was the son of Grand Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam in the village of Bobov. After the father’s death in 1905, the Chassidim elected the son Grand Rabbi in his place.

During World War I, the Bobever Rebbe fled to Austria, but he returned to Poland once hostilities ceased and founded a highly regarded yeshiva. During the mid-thirties he lived in the town of Trzebinia in south central Poland, and developed a following of thousands of disciples.

He was a farsighted man and in 1938, when Germany expelled its Polish-Jewish minority, he wrote an open letter to the Jews of Poland explaining the terrible situation and asking them to help their displaced brethren. After the Nazis invaded Poland, Haberstam fled to Lvov,* which was under Soviet control and relatively safer. He hid there in a disciple’s house, and his followers tried and failed to get him papers to travel to the United States.

In June 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. By June 30 they’d reached Lvov, and by July 25, Rabbi Halberstam and several other members of his family were placed under arrest and marched to the Gestapo prison.

As Yad Vashem records,

Rabbi Ben Zion [he was 67 years old by then] was weak, and could not keep up with the fast pace of the march. When he fell to the back of the column, the policemen whipped him and shouted at him to move faster. The march continued until the prisoners arrived at the Gestapo headquarters. Rabbi Ben Zion’s family tried everything to win their release, but after three days, he was executed at the Yanover forest together with his son, three sons-in-law and the other prisoners.

They were a mere 19 kilometers from the future site of Auschwitz.**

Although the Halberstam family suffered significant losses during the Holocaust, at least one of Ben Zion’s sons survived, and so their dynasty did not die out. There exists today a community of Bobover Hassidim in Borough Park, Brooklyn.


Rabbi Ben Zion Halberstam in the center, pictured during his time in Trzebinia. The bare-faced youth directly over the rabbi’s shoulder is Moshe Aaron Halberstam, the son who would eventually be shot at the rabbi’s side.

* Called Lviv in Ukrainian, Lvov in Russian, Lwow in Polish and Lemberg in German; the city is at the heart of Galicia, and has changed hands repeatedly between these countries. Right now it’s Lviv.

** Although the smaller Auschwitz I camp for political prisoners existed from 1940, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the Reich’s metonymical extermination facility, was constructed towards the end of 1941.

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1676: Matoonas, a Nipmuc shot on Boston Common

Add comment July 27th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1676, an indigenous Nipmuc named Matoonas was marched into Boston, condemned by a summary judicial proceeding, and immediately shot on Boston Common.

Though he was a so-called “Jesus Indian” — a converted Christian — Matoonas had become a principal adversary of the European colonists once long-building tensions exploded into King Philip’s War.

To the communal grievances that made up this war, Matoonas brought a very personal injury: back in 1671, his son Nehemiah had been accused by English colonists of murder and executed on that basis. And not just executed, but his rotting head set up on a pike at the gallows, to really rub it in.

Matoonas bided his time, but joined King Philip (Metacomet) with gusto. On July 14, 1675, Nipmuc warriors under his command raided the town of Mendon, Massachusetts, leaving five dead — the very first Anglo casualties of the war.

“A dark cloud of anxiety and fear now settled down upon the place,” a bicentennial a Rev. Carlton Staples recalled in a bicentennial address on Mendon’s history 1867. “With tears and lamentations they tenderly gathered the bodies of the slain and laid them away in some pleasant spot, we know not where. The houses and farms remote from this central point were abandoned, and the people fled to other places, or gathered here to save their flocks and growing crops. All sense of security was gone. They only dared to go abroad in companies. While some worked in the fields and gardens, others watched for the lurking foe.” A few months later, the settlers had to abandon Mendon altogether, and the Nipmuc burned the ghost town to the ground.

But the tide of the war soon turned against the natives, and Matoonas would find that he had his own lurking foe.

Sagamore John comes in, brings Mattoonus and his sonne prisoner. Mattoonus shot to death the same day by John’s men.

-diary of Samuel Sewall

A mysterious Nipmuc leader known as Sagamore John (“Sagamore” designates a sachem or chief) betrayed Matoonas in exchange for a pardon from the Massachusetts colony, marching Matoonas and his son right into Boston on the 27th of July.

After an improvised tribunal set down the inevitable punishment, Matoonas was lashed to a tree on Boston Common. Sagamore John himself performed the execution himself — although whether he volunteered or “volunteered” is not quite clear. The late Nipmuc raider’s head, too, was set on a pole — just opposite Nehemiah’s.


Memorial to Sagamore John in Medford, Mass. (cc) image from David Bruce.

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1815: Eliza Fenning, for the dumplings

2 comments July 26th, 2015 Headsman

Two hundred years ago today, an Irish serving-girl named Eliza Fenning hanged for poisoning her master’s family. The reliability of the judgment against her was widely questioned in 1815 and has not improved with age.

Robert Turner’s family, along with one of his apprentice stationers all sat down to a meal of dumplings that Eliza, a cook, had prepared for dinner on March 21 of that same year. Within minutes, all were in agony. As Charlotte Turner, who was the mistress of the house even though only a few months older than Ms. Fenning, told the Old Bailey:

I was taken ill myself in less than three minutes afterwards; the effect was so violent, that I had hardly time to get into the yard before my dinner came up. I felt considerable heat across my stomach and chest, and pain.

Q. Was the vomitting of a common kind?

I never experienced any thing before like it for violence; I was terribly irritated; it was not more than a quarter of an hour my apprentice Roger Gadsell was taken very ill in a similar way to myself.

It appeared from the symptoms — and from the blackened dough of the dumplings — that the meal had been laced with arsenic, that cunningly ubiquitous terror of the 19th century. The inference of family, Crown, and eventually court was that Eliza had availed the opportunity of preparing the food to revenge herself on the Turners because Charlotte Turner had caught her some days before sneaking into the apprentices’ room for a snog.

It’s a sure thing that homo sapiens has murdered for feebler reasons than this, but the insufficiency of the provocation, the vociferous denials of the condemned, and the puzzling fact that she too ate the noxious dumplings — all these things militated against confidence in the verdict which was hotly disputed in the public at large. Methods of establishing the presence and quantity of arsenic in a sample were extremely primitive in general, and painfully specious as applied by the surgeon who came to that verdict in the Fenning case.

The court inconclusively pursued the various ingredients in the dish: the same flour had been used for a meat pie that had brought up nobody’s dinner, so that was out; Eliza suggested the milk might be to blame, or a new yeast the house obtained on the eve of the dinner party. There is a wide-ranging effort in the transcript to establish the young woman’s access to an arsenic packet that Robert Turner kept in a desk drawer to poison mice, but this seems little relevant; it was an unlocked desk drawer in a busy household, plus arsenic was widely available in town. Everyone had effective access to arsenic, should she or he have a mind to find it.

As friend of the site (and occasional guest blogger) Richard Clark puts it in his overview, “it is difficult to be sure whether Eliza was guilty or not” even all these years later. But it’s a certainty that what was developed against her in 1815 would fall leagues short of any present-day standard for a confident conviction. Was she really unbalanced enough to try to murder the entire household over a tongue-lashing, yet steely enough to eat the poisoned dish herself to dispel suspicion, yet incautious enough not to have readied any other alibi for the moment when attention would turn to the cook? What possible basis could she have had for believing that she could salt in enough of the toxin to kill everyone else but eat a safely sub-lethal dose herself?

And maybe, as with Cameron Willingham, we might best begin with the premise: was there actually a dose of arsenic, laid in by a sinister hand — or might some contaminant carelessly proximate to the food supply of an unruly metropolis have been the true and undetected culprit?*

The case dissolves under even mild scrutiny into a tissue of social and medical quackery: the uppity servant, the sexually precocious Irishwoman, the assassin infiltrating the dumplings. (See Judith Flanders’s The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime for a scathing defense of Fenning.)

Whatever it was that the family puked up, everyone did so speedily enough to remain among the living. Attempted murder, however, was still a capital crime in England, and would remain so until 1861.

Though her case would attract widespread sympathy and public controvrsy, Eliza Fenning’s defense before the bar was all but nonexistent: four good-character witnesses, plus this statement:

My lord, I am truly innocent of all the charge, as God is my witness; I am innocent, indeed I am; I liked my place, I was very comfortable; as to my master saying I did not assist him, I was too ill. I had no concern with the drawer at all; when I wanted a piece of paper I always asked for it.

That’s the whole of it — complete and unabridged. It is a pathetic thought to consider this helpless plea in light of the idea that the food might have been poisoned accidentally; tunnel vision had already settled on a semi-coherent story of the embittered serving-girl’s revenge,** and without the art to draw out some different interpretation of the few facts available, Eliza found her place fixed by the self-validating suspicions cast upon her.

She held to her innocence all the way to the end; it was put about that a Newgate screw had overheard her father bid her do so no matter what lest he lose all honor after she died. One last character assassination for the road.

Supporters — and she has had many, down to the present day — flocked to Eliza’s Irish wake in the days after her hanging (the body “being placed in the kitchen of the house, and dressed out in ribbons, flowers, &c.”†) and then thronged a funerary procession from Red Lion Square to the tombs of St. George Bloomsbury.

* In 1900, to the consternation of brewers, around 6,000 pub-fanciers in northern England fell ill from beer that turned out to be contaminated with arsenic present in an ingredient (sulphuric acid) that made a different ingredient (glucose) that went into the beer.

** As Fenning was condemned just a few weeks before Waterloo, the paranoia that England’s burghers nurtured over the prospect of incipient Jacobinism must be presumed a relevant part of the scenario … doubly so, considering the young lady’s nationality.

The Lincoln, Rutland and Stamford Mercury, Aug. 4, 1815. Reports that the family had the effrontery to accept 40 quid worth of gifts from well-wishers were also lamely represented by Fenning’s persecutors as black marks on the family name.

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