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1875: Henry Wainwright, Whitechapel murderer

Add comment December 21st, 2014 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the corpse stank disgustingly.

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1879: Swift Runner, wendigo

Add comment December 20th, 2014 Headsman

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

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

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

But only Swift Runner himself would return from that camp.

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

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

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

They had all been gobbled up by a wendigo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1694: James Whitney, highwayman

2 comments December 19th, 2014 Headsman

Dapper highwayman James Whitney was hanged at Smithfield on this date in 1694.

A monument to the allures and the perils of a midlife career change, Whitney threw over a tiresome life as the proprietor of an inn in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire,* purchased with his liquidation the accoutrements of the gentleman thief, and took to the road.

“Captain” Whitney — he had no right to the rank he appropriated for himself — was one of those stickup men who greatly esteemed the pose of honor associated with his new calling. On one occasion, he relieved a gentleman traveler of a large sack of silver on Newmarket Heath, but when his victim pleaded the length of his journey Whitney opened the bag to its former owner with an invitation to take what he would need.

The man plunged his hands in and hauled out as much as they would carry, leading Whitney to remark with a smile, “I thought you would have had more conscience, sir.”

In another fine caper (there are more of them assembled here) Whitney told a man to stand and deliver, only to have the traveler reply that he was about to say the same back to him. The two robbers laughed at their encounter and went their separate ways, but Whitney later chanced to turn up at the same inn as his so-called brother plunderer and overhear him regaling his fellows with the tale of having outwitted a highwayman by pretending to be one of the same profession.

Whitney stalked the man and a companion out of the hostel the next morning and this time robbed them successfully: “You should have kept your secret a little longer, and not have boasted so soon of having outwitted a thief. There is now nothing for you but to deliver or die!” Nobody likes your stories anyway, you blowhard.

True, James Whitney ended his adventure at the gallows: death is the fate of us all. From his day to ours, folk toiling away the ceaseless lonesome days between ashes and ashes have understood the soul’s stirring to exalt their scant mortal hours with deeds of valor and romance and derring-do. And as Whitney himself is said to have remarked to a miser whose lucre he was seizing, “Is it not more generous to take a man’s money from him bravely, than to grind him to death by exacting eight or ten per cent, under cover of serving him?”**

Nobody knows any of James Whitney’s peers in the publican guild, but as Captain Whitney he joined England’s most legendary gentleman outlaw in verse.

When Claude du Val was in Newgate thrown,
He carved his name on the dungeon stone;
Quoth a dubsman, who gazed on the shattered wall,
“You have carved your epitaph, Claude du Val,

Du Val was hanged, and the next who came
On the selfsame stone inscribed his name;
“Aha!” quoth the dubsman, with devilish glee,
Tom Waters, your doom is the triple tree!”

Within that dungeon lay Captain Bew,
Rumbold and Whitney — a jolly crew!
All carved their names on the stone, and all
Share the fate of the brave Du Val!

Full twenty highwaymen blithe and bold,
Rattled their chains in that dungeon old:
Of all that number there ‘scaped not one
Who carved his name on the Newgate Stone.

* The George Inn. A map search does yield a The George in Cheshunt; whether this is actually the same facility where our famous highwayman once earned a lawful keep, I have not been able to establish.

** Parables from this golden age of highwaymen often place in the mouths of outlaws sharp critiques of their targets, who despite putative respectability turn out upon examination to be far more deeply corrupt than the dashing adventurer. See for example Old Mobb.

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1939: Fifty-six Poles shot in retaliation at Bochnia

1 comment December 18th, 2014 Headsman

We owe this discomfiting executioner’s-eye view from the ranks of German soldiers as they gun down Poles in the town of Bochnia on December 18, 1939 to a partisan attack two days prior by a Polish underground organization called White Eagle. Fifty-six civilians were executed in retaliation.

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1954: Eugen Turcanu, torturer

Add comment December 17th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1954, Eugen Turcanu and 16 other Romanian political prisoners were executed at Jilava prison.

Turcanu et al were noted as the truncheon arm of one of 20th century’s more blood-chilling torture programs, the Pitesti experiment. (Named for the facility where it began, Pitesti prison.)

As if taking Orwell’s 1984 as a paragon instead of a grim dystopian warning, the Pitesti experiment subjected several thousand political and religious dissidents to a savage course of ideological re-engineering. The object was to beat and brainwash undesirables into model Communists.

“Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation,” Orwell’s torturer-apparatchik O’Brien in the novel. “Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.”

Turcanu knew from the inside just what that sort of transformation entailed. He was by all appearances a proper Communist and a member of the right clubs thereto when, on the cusp of his 23rd birthday in 1948, he was arrested for a youthful prewar affiliation with the fascist Legionary movement.

He caught a harsh seven-year sentence but found his (short) life’s work in prison. His wheedling convinced wardens of his ideological suitability, and his Herculean physique suggested tasks that could only be entrusted to a co-founder of the Organization of Convinced Communist Detainees.

From late 1949 into 1952, Turcanu and a team of fellow goons were employed dishing out near-lethal thrashings on a wholesale scale to wrongthinkers. One thousand to five thousand souls are thought to have passed through the hands of Turcanu’s team; Soviet gulag survivor Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn called Pitesti “the most terrible act of barbarism in the contemporary world.”

As is customary with torturers, the ordeals extended far beyond brute force to invasive ritual debasement: people forced to eat shit, sexually humiliated, and manipulated into themselves turning torturer on their fellow prisoners and former friends. There’s a video documentary about this program (forcusing especially on its religious persecutions) embedded in its entirety here.

Obviously such practices, enacted on a nigh-industrial scale, were not the freelance initiatives of a few bad apples in the prison system. But no reader of the 21st century will be surprised that it was only the kapos like Turcanu who were punished for it once Stalin’s death relaxed the oppressive ideological terror in eastern Europe. While 22 prisoners were condemned (and 17 ultimately shot), the officers of Romania’s state police who had overseen them “suffered” things like reprimands and amnestied misdemeanor convictions.

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1937: Titsian Tabidze, poet

Add comment December 16th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1937, the Georgian poet Titsian Tabidze was executed in Stalin’s purges.

“Titsiani”, who co-founded the “Blue Horns” symbolist circle in 1916, is the addressee of fellow dissident litterateur Boris Pasternak’s Letters to a Georgian Friend.

“There is as much soul in his poetry as there was in him, a reserved and complicated soul, wholly attracted to the good and capable of clairvoyance and self-sacrifice,” Pasternak would remember of his comrade. “The memory of Tabidze puts me in mind of the country; landscapes rise in my imagination, the waves of the sea and a vast flowering plain; clouds drifting in a row and, behind them in the distance, mountains rising to the same level.”

The problem was their decidedly less sentimental countryman in the Kremlin.

Georgian security chief Lavrenty Beria put the screws to the Georgian writers’ association, driving fellow Blue Horns alum Paolo Yashvili to suicide when he was pressured to denounce Tabidze.

But of course the only difference that made was for Yashvili’s soul.

Arrested as a traitor a bare two months before his death, Tabidze defiantly betrayed to his interrogators the name of only a single fellow-traveler: 18th century Georgian poet Besiki.

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1865: William Corbett and Patrick Fleming

1 comment December 15th, 2014 Ramicles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1793: A Lyon mitraillade

Add comment December 14th, 2014 Headsman

The executions on December 14, 1793 illustrated above (image from here) date to Revolutionary France’s violent suppression that month of the France’s second city for its resistance to Jacobin power.

We have alluded before to this bloody interim, led by the National Convention‘s ruthless emissaries Collot d’Herbois and Joseph Fouche — two men well aware that any appearance of undue leniency in the chastisement of Lyons might send their own heads under the guillotine back in Paris.

To accomplish such an urgent task, they dispensed with the mere guillotine and rolled out a new death-dealing technology: the mitraillades, or execution by grapeshot.*

This bizarre killing method involved lining up the prisoners to be executed — scores or hundreds at once at the height of the Lyons crackdown — before the mouths of cannon loaded with anti-infantry balls. When the cannons fired, they mowed down the victims en masse. And then, gloated the executioners’ Convention ally Barere, “the corpses of the rebellious Lyonese, floating down the Rhone, would warn the citizens of Toulon of their coming fate!”

Now, grapeshot is an outstanding weapon in the right spot, but it is not at all certain to kill its targets. On the battlefield, mangled survivors were just about as good as dead bodies when it came to mauling the soldiery.

But executioners usually aim for something a bit more predictably lethal. The mitraillades could not offer anything close to dependable, near-universal slaughter … and so the horror of the artillery discharge was followed (as one sees in the drawing above) by the horror of the many stunned and injured survivors of the cannonade being finished one by one at close quarters with muskets and bayonets. Though a single coup de grace might count as a mercy, a hundred at once made for simple butchery.

The mitraillade did such brutal work that the national government soon ordered its Lyons deputation to lay off the innovation and return to the standard device for a Republican execution — the guillotine.

* Present-day Francophones will most likely associate the word mitrailleuse with the machine gun. That term dates to a a 19th century “volley gun” capable of spitting out 25 rounds from a cluster of rifle barrel activated by a single crank; for obvious reasons, this weapon inherited its name from the French word for grapeshot, mitraillade.

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1949: John Wilson and Benjamin Roberts, Syd Dernley’s first(s)

2 comments December 13th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1949, two young miners from northern England were hanged together at Durham prison for unrelated crimes of passion: one had ravaged and strangled another man’s wife when his attempts to seduce her were met with a demand for money; the other had murdered a local girl (and then botched his suicide) when he found himself on the third point of a love triangle.

Both crimes happened on the same weekend, just a few miles apart — so they were tried at the same assizes and advanced through the process from murder to hanging-date together. Double executions were already quite rare at this point: this date’s affair was among the last such events in UK history.*

However, it was the very first execution in which Syd Dernley participated.

Dernley was an assistant executioner for 20-odd hangings, and while he’s far from the most noteworthy man to tread the scaffold, his 1989-90 The Hangman’s Tale: Memoirs of a Public Executioner might interest the person who takes up the pen for a labor history of the modern death penalty.

Dernley, a Nottinghamshire pit welder by day, gives an inside look at the recruitment process and on-the-job operations for a minor-league hangman. Bored with his job, he wrote the Prison Commission cold in January 1947 offering his services (“I feel sure that I could do the job”), got a generic polite dismissal, and then was one of several rookie volunteers summoned in October 1948 for a training course — a rationalization of the qualification process to go with the rationalization of hangings themselves.

Dernley had to wait a full year and then some to actually get into the act.** The basic hanging protocol featured a lead executioner and an assistant who would together escort their man to the gallows platform and perform the hanging; since this was a double execution, there are two such pairs involved. Dernley here is the assistant of veteran hangman Steve Wade. The other pair has Henry Kirk as the lead hangman, assisted by Harry Allen.†

Britain didn’t have the volume of executions for anyone to be a full-time hangman, although some hangmen, like Kirk, were also prison officers.

Jobs were farmed out by the Prison Commission among its small roster of active executioners, and would begin for the hangman with the receipt of a package from the Commission with two copies of a Memorandum of Conditions for executioners’ employment — one for the executioner’s records, and one to return to the Commission when formally accepting the assignment.

The day before the hanging, the executioners traveled to the prison where the sentence was to be carried out. The hanging team would not leave the prison’s walls until the execution was complete: after their prep work on execution’s eve, they slept in the jail.

Although prisoners rarely realized this until the last moment, the gallows platform stood just steps outside the condemned cells, the better for the instant performance of the actual hanging. They waited until Wilson and Roberts were safely out of earshot at chapel or in the exercise yard to set up the ropes.

The lead executioner Wade “controlled and double-checked everything from the moment he opened the execution boxes and took out the three ropes. He examined each of them minutely before rejecting one of them which was immediately coiled up and returned to the box. He measured the drop along the rope and marked it with chalk. I was allowed to shackle the rope to one of the chains hanging down from the beam and I had to go up the steps to adjust the chain as we got the chalk mark to the height of the man’s head, but [Wade] went up the steps to check both the shackling and the chain when I had finished.”

Once both ropes had been prepped, they noosed two sandbags approximating the respective weights of the prisoners, summoned the prison governor, and performed an actual test hanging. Everything went off without a hitch.

They dined that night, and breakfasted the next morning, on prison mash — it was invariably eggs and bacon for breakfast, Dernley remembered later in his career. After stealing silently back into the execution chamber, practically in the shadow of the last devotions of their unwitting prey, they repositioned the ropes which had been (intentionally) stretched out by half an inch from being left dangling their sandbags overnight. The ropes, and their supporting chains, needed to be positioned such that the noose dangled at convenient head height — again, the efficiency of the actual hanging was paramount — and so that, when the trap was released, the rope provided a drop of the precise length necessary to break the neck.

The next forty-five minutes as we waited in our quarters for the call were about the worst of my life. Everything that needed to be said had been said and it was clearly no time for social chit-chat, so we sat there and waited. There was fear afoot in the prison; you could almost smell it. The whole place was silent, waiting.

The butterflies in my stomach, which had disappeared when we went to the execution chamber and had something to do, were back with a vengeance. A jumble of thoughts flitted through my mind. Questions: Would we do a good job? Would I put up a good showing? Would we be quick? There were fears too: Will he fight? How will I handle it if he does?

The door opened and a warder took a step into the room. Wade got to his feet. “It’s time,” he said simply. “Are you ready?” I nodded. I don’t think I could have said anything. Kirky looked across at me and smiled. “Make it a good job, young ‘un,” he said quietly.

In those last few moments I was most conscious of faces, faces turned towards us … screws standing quite still at strategic points, all staring at us … the people standing near the doors of the condemned cells watching us approach … the faces of the official party as they glanced over their shoulders … but above all the face of the clock hanging on the wall at the end of the wing. It was a gigantic thing, about three feet across, and the minute hand was now just a fraction away from nine o’clock.

We were halfway to the condemned cells when the silence was broken and my blood froze. The sound was faint to begin with but it rapidly swelled — singing!

I could not believe my ears. “Jesu … lover … of my soul,” croaked the quavering voice.

Another stronger voice joined in: “Let me to thy bosom fly.”

“Who the hell is that?” I asked one of the screws who was walking along beside me.

He looked shattered but he was not going to admit it. “It’s one of them you’re going to top in a minute,” he replied, trying to sound cool.

With that eerie sound ringing round the wing, we arrived outside the condemned cells. The singing was coming from number two cell, and for the next thirty seconds we stood listening to the doomed man and his priest singing in harmony. In other circumstances it might have been lovely. Here, now, it was weird and unreal.

Everyone was in position as the hands of the huge clock moved the last fraction of an inch to nine o’clock: Wade and I outside the number one cell; Harry and Kirky a few steps away across the landing outside the number two cell …

From the instant the cell door cracked open, the prisoner should have just a few seconds left to live — although the prisoner wouldn’t realize that fact since his guards were under strict orders to brush off the doomed fellow’s inevitable questions about procedure. The two executioners would walk to the center of the cell, stand the prisoner up, and each taking an arm, efficiently pinion them behind his back. Then they whisked him out a secondary door which opened directly to the execution chamber, where they’d glide right into the waiting head-height noose. The name of the game for the hangmen was calm and firmness: don’t scare the man unnecessarily, just enter with professional inevitability and have the man on his noose in less time than it would take him to find the wit for panic or swoon or fight.

The double job complicated matters, but only slightly. The plan was for Wade and Dernley to enter cell number one only moments before Kirky and Allen entered cell number two. That way, both Wilson and Roberts would enter the scaffold singly and the respective hanging teams wouldn’t be in one another’s way — but it would only entail an extra second or two on the traps for the dead men as they were positioned in rapid sequence. It didn’t quite work out that way.

Wade moved straight through the door and I followed him into the cell. It seemed quite crowded with the two warders backing clear and the white-faced priest sitting on the other side of the table looking up at us. The condemned man was positioned as per the book, sitting at the table with his back to the door.

By the time I got to him, he was on his feet and Wade was bringing his left arm behind his back. There was no resistance as I caught hold of his right arm. He just let me bring it behind his back and Wade was waiting for it.

Things were moving incredibly quickly, there was hardly time to take anything in. Wade was walking through the yellow doors. Our man had turned to watch him but had not moved so I just put my hand on his shoulder and, with only the gentlest of pressure, he started to follow. A warder either side of him, we walked through and on to the trap. Wade stopped him and I slipped the legstrap out of my pocket, bobbed down and fastened it round his ankles.‡ I doubt I had ever done it so quickly but by the time I stood up and took a pace off the trap, Wade had finished and the man was standing with his head hidden under the bag and the noose round his neck.

Just the way they drew it up … except the Kirky-Allen team was nowhere to be found.

They should have been on the trap by now and there was no sign of them!

They were having some sort of trouble, but what? As the seconds ticked away, I strained to hear what was going on, but there was not a sound coming from the other side of the landing. That at least was reassuring because whatever was going wrong it was not some massive fight. We would have heard that.

I looked around the cell. Wade was staring through the open door, brow creased in a frown, with wide, worried eyes. By God, he looked worried. The governor and the under-sheriff looked as white as a pair of sheets.

In the centre of all this, the hooded and noosed figure of our man — who should have been dead by now — stood waiting patiently without a sound.

I looked back through the door. Still nothing. I felt so helpless; I wanted to run through and help or do something, but I knew I had to stand just where I was.

A double hanging should take around fifteen seconds from start to finish; we had now been standing with our man ready to go for at least forty-five seconds, although it felt like hours.

A sound to my right brought my eyes back from the door into the execution chamber. One of the screws seemed about to take a pace towards our man, a look almost of horror on his face. The hooded figure was starting to sway. He was going to faint!

At that moment Kirky rushed through the door followed by the lover and Harry. Kirky, looking red-faced and flustered, immediately peeled off to the left and Wade in a blur of motion was stopping the man on the chalk T. In what seemed almost one motion, he whipped the white hood over the man’s head and flicked the noose on. I didn’t even see Harry get the legstrap on before Wade was hurling himself off the trap. The lever went over and away the whole lot went with that massive boom.

Allen later told Dernley that their man, the singing one, “just wasn’t ready” and while he didn’t fight the executioners he also didn’t comply with them as they tried to get his arms into their straps. “In the end we just had to force him.”

His nerves none the worse for the off-script debut, Dernley would remain an assistant executioner — he was never the head man — until another one of his hobbies came embarrassingly to light.


From the April 28, 1954 London Times.

Dernley published his book in 1989, by which time the British hangman was almost as archaic as the smut bust. (The poor lech died in 1994, just short of the Internet revolution.) But Dernley, unlike Pierrepoint, never evinced any second thoughts about his career on the gallows and had an unabashed pro-capital punishment position.§

“I have no regrets about what I did and I sleep pretty soundly in my bed,” he sums up. “I do not believe that my career as a hangman has had any ill-effect on me. Not that you ever get away from it so far as people are concerned — once a hangman always a hangman, it seems. Even after all these years I am still pointed out to people and I have a little chuckle to myself when I find somebody in a pub staring at me in that familiar way and I wonder who has been talking to them.” The inference from his lines, and the photos of Dernley jovially showing off his private model gallows, is that the old hangman made it a point to keep the talk going.

* Per the extremely useful Capital Punishment UK page, there was a double execution in 1950, another in 1951, another in 1952, and the last in 1954.

** Dernley did avail himself of an opportunity to witness personally the March 29, 1949, hanging of James Farrell.

† A man named Harry Allen, from Manchester, would one day be dignified Britain’s Last Executioner. In the 1960s, Allen literally did conduct one of the two simultaneous last hangings in England, as well as the last in Scotland. However, Dernley’s counterpart in this execution is a different Harry Allen, from Birmingham.

‡ “As assistant your job will be to strap [the prisoner’s] ankles and get yourself off the trap; the number one will do everything else,” Dernley had been told at his training the year before. “If you’re still mucking about when he’s ready, the number one will tap you on the shoulder and then you don’t bugger about … you get off or go down — and it’s a nasty drop even if you haven’t got a rope round your neck.”

§ Dernley was Pierrepoint’s assistant for the hanging of Timothy Evans, for a murder that, three years later, would be imputed to a serial killer living in his building. Dernley’s autobiography backs the government’s whitewash conclusion that Evans was probably guilty too on the weak grounds that Evans didn’t declared his innocence at his hanging.

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1888: Tsimequor, indigenous Snuneymuxw

Add comment December 12th, 2014 Meaghan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pfeifer and Leyton-Brown record:

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

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


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

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Canada,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Racial and Ethnic Minorities

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