Posts filed under 'England'

1776: James Langar, Smuggerlius?

Add comment April 12th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1776, footpad James Langar was hanged at Tyburn for robbing a Hyde Park gentleman of his watch and coat.

Actually, and despite a reputation for honesty attested by his fellow militiamen, Langar was implicated in several highway robberies on shaky witness testimony, prompting him to remark in disgust, “I see they are determined to swear my life away, I leave myself to the mercy of the Court.”

He didn’t get it.

A vanishing obscurity even in his own time, Langar has been making 21st century headlines based on a pair of researchers’ identifying him with a ghoulish ecorche sculpture known as “Smugglerius”.

That astonishing object, and its controversial identification with James Langar, are discussed in this previous Executed Today post.

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1642: George Spencer, pork loin

1 comment April 8th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1642, George Spencer paid the penalty at the New Haven (Connecticut) colony for a pig-fucking that he probably never perpetrated.

Seven and a half weeks previous, a farmer named John Wakeman had reported to magistrates that his pregnant sow had delivered a litter of healthy piglets … plus one abomination from the nightmares of H.P. Lovecraft and Ron Jeremy.

Itt had no haire on the whole body, the skin was very tender, and of a reddish white collour like a childs; the head most straing, itt had butt one eye in the midle of the face, and thatt large and open, like some blemished eye of a man; over the eye, in the bottome of the foreheade which was like a childes, a thing of flesh grew forth and hung downe, itt was hollow, and like the mans instrument of generation.

Genetics is a funny thing. Once in a while the little variations in a new generation will produce an adaptive advantage that takes the species another step down its evolutionary path.

And then other times what you get is dickface swineclops.

As so often with a proper monster story, it was the frightened townsfolk who produced the real horror.

The resemblance of this poor (and mercifully stillborn) pig to a man — “nose, mouth and chinne deformed, butt nott much unlike a childs, the neck and eares had allso such resemblance” — looked like palpable divine anger to New Haven worthies, and inspired a suitably inquisitorial response.

Its target was localized to George Spencer, a former servant to the pig’s former owner. Spencer had a bum eye himself plus a reputation as a “prophane, lying, scoffing and lewd speritt.” With a model of heredity we might strain to credit as primitive, it emerged as widespread suspicion that soon manifested into fact that Spencer had fathered the penis-headed chimera.

Maybe George Spencer really did go hog wild. Who really knows? But the account of the “investigation” — in which the only actual evidence was Spencer’s own confession plus his mutant “progeny” — has every hallmark of the false confessions whose prevalence is only lately becoming well-understood. European and American “witches” were also telling their persecutors just what they wanted to hear in the mid-17th century.

Spencer denied the charges at first. The magistrate Stephen Goodyear(e)* interrogated him: did Spencer not “take notice of something in [the monster pig] like him”? Goodyear implied that they already knew Spencer was guilty.

During a nervous pause, which Goodyear took to be Spencer preparing his soul to unburden itself but a less hostile viewer might have taken to be the frightened farmhand fretting about how he was going to escape with his neck, Goodyear hit him with Proverbs 28:13. It’s a nice dual-purpose verse to stamp the divine imprimatur on the good cop-bad cop approach: “He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy.”

Spencer wasn’t getting anywhere denying everything. He decided to try confessing and getting in on that mercy.

(Even at this, he told someone else that he had only confessed “for favor”. Upon hearing this, Goodyear stalked back to Spencer’s cell and made him commit to the confession.)

The next day, a team of town grandees showed up to get the details. Again, Spencer denied it, but now his previous day’s remarks hemmed him in. His story was shifty; he changed the location of the sin from the sty to the stable, varied between a half-hour and two hours engaged in his sin.

By the time of the trial that commenced on March 2, Spencer — perhaps now realizing that the proverb he ought to have heeded was “don’t talk to police” — was back to full denial. This time he stuck to it all the way through the proceedings, and little good it did him as witness after witness who had heard various iterations of his confession reported the admission. The judges had to decide how to adjudicate this kind of case at all, and they decided to go straight to the Pentateuch.

according to the fundamentall agreement, made and published by full and generall consent, when the plantation began and government was settled, that the judiciall law of God given by Moses and expounded in other parts of scripture, so far as itt is a hedg and a fence to the morrall law, and neither ceremoniall nor tipicall, nor had any referrence to Canaan, hath an everlasting equity in itt, and should be the rule of their proceedings. They judged the crime cappitall, and thatt the prisoner and the sow, according to Levit. 20 and 15, should be put to death.

By hanging-day on April 8, Spencer was still refusing to admit the charges, and he even continued his obstinacy to the gallows — giving only the sort of standard-issue hanging-day exhortation to straighten those laces and not skip church that everyone always gave. To this he still “joyned a denyall of his fact.”

Only at the very last, with the noose about his neck, “and being tolde it was an ill time now to provoke God when he was falling into his hands, as a righteous and seveere judge who had vengeanc at hand for all his other sins, so for his impudency and atheisme, he justified the sentence as righteous, and fully confessed the bestiality in all the scircumstances,” meanwhile blaming for the probable damnation of his soul a sawyer in the audience named Will Harding who tried to keep the flesh alive by counseling Spencer to just keep his damned mouth shut and not confess anything in the first place. This death’s-edge admission would have satisfied onlookers, but ought not satisfy us; the complex psychology of false confessions with their underlying fear of punishment and need to please a captor are potentially even sharper at the communal performance of a public execution — the offender’s last opportunity to spiritually rejoin his own community. Spencer knew he was doomed; he knew everyone thought he was lying; he would presumably have genuinely feared hell and deeply desired to give his own certain death meaning. Somewhere in this id soup is surely reason enough to say the thing his friends and neighbors all but willed him to say.

Thing said, the poor sow was butchered under Spencer’s eyes first (as Leviticus demands). Then Spencer was strangled on hemp, “God opening his mouth before his death, to give him the glory of his rightousnes, to the full satisfaction of all then present.”

* Goodyear(e)‘s daughter Hannah would eventually marry the son of John Wakeman, whose sow it was that gave birth to the pig that started all the ruckus. In the early 1650s, Stephen Goodyear would favor colonial authorities with suspicions of a witch in his very own household, but that poor servant managed to avoid execution.

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1875: John Morgan, slasher

Add comment March 30th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1875, a private named John Morgan was hanged for murdering his fellow.

The London Times reported the trial (March 12, 1875: Morgan did not outlive his victim by so much as a month) thus:

THE SHORNCLIFFE MURDER

Home Circuit.
Maidstone, March 11.
Crown Court.– (Before Mr. Justice Denman.)

The Court was occupied all day with a trial for murder — a case of a very remarkable character.

John Morgan, a private in the 82d Regiment, was indicted for the murder of Joseph Foulstone, another private in the same regiment, at Shorncliffe, on Saturday last.

Mr. Biron and Mr. Denny were for the prosecution; Mr. Norman, at the desire of the learned Judge, defended the prisoner, and was assisted by Mr. Grubb.

The prisoner Morgan and Foulstone, the deceased, were quartered at Shorncliffe. The prisoner and Foulstone occupied the same “hut,” No. 26. At 9 o’clock on the night of last Saturday they were in the same room together, with two boys and a man named Reader, who was fast asleep, sleeping off the effects of drunkenness. Just after 9 the prisoner asked one of the boys to go and get him some sweets, giving him a shilling for the purpose, and when he was gone told the other boy to go and get him some sauce. When they left the hug Foulstone was reading near a bed (not the one on which Reader was sleeping, but another one). Almost immediately afterwards a man named Brown, in the next hut, was horrified at seeing Foulstone, the deceased, coming staggering towards him, holding his throat with both hands and the blood gushing from it rapidly. He motioned for writing materials and wrote something not in evidence. [n.b. -- he wrote "Morgan done it" -ed.] The attempts to stop the flow of blood from his throat were vain, and in a minute or two he dropped his head and died. The prisoner was found in his hut, standing over a can of water, evidently in the act of washing. There were marks of blood on his shirt, and one of his sleeves was wet as if recently washed. There were also drops of blood on his coat and trousers and boots. When brought into the presence of the dying man the latter motioned with his hands towards him. The prisoner said, “I did not do it; he did it himself,” and that was the defence set up. The evidence of the surgeon, however, went to show that the wound was such as the deceased could not have inflicted himself. There was a clean fresh cut on the prisoner’s thumb, and there were cuts both on the left and right hand of the deceased. A razor covered with blood was found in the hut, and was evidently the weapon with which the wound was inflicted.

The suicide story seemed so far-fetched that the jury had little difficulty reaching its verdict. In time, Morgan did confess to the crime; according to the London Times of March 31, 1875 he admitted the motive for it only to his chaplain and under a strict seal of confidentiality — an unusual stricture that can’t but put one in the mind of a scandalous subtext like the love that dare not speak its name.


Since consummate professional hangman William Marwood was busy long-dropping Morgan at Maidstone Gaol, a yokel named George Incher had to be recruited to carry out a simultaneous execution at Stafford Gaol. Twenty-three-year-old John Stanton had murdered his uncle in a quarrel earlier that month, and spent his last weeks pleading contrition for this family tragedy to anyone who would listen; this non-Marwood hanging used the old “short drop”, which meant that Morgan just strangled to death.

Part of the Daily Double: Victorian Soldiery.

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1875: Richard Coates, gunner and rapist

Add comment March 29th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1875, artilleryman Richard Coates (or “Coote”) was hanged for murder.

He’d been detailed as a schoolteacher for the Purfleet garrison. One day deep into his cups, he raped a 6-year-old* girl. And then killed her by bashing her head into a privy.

The “Purfleet Murder” got all kinds of copy on the Victorian crime wire, for the crime was very simple and simply horrendous. After he had done with his victim, Coates tucked her broken body under his greatcoat like a shoplifter and smuggled her down to the river to dispose of.

Adding humiliation to the greater sins of the day, he was unable there to get the body up over the palings, so he abandoned it inside the fence. Presumably no veteran hand at homicide, Coates appeared palpably agitated to basically everyone else who saw him that day, and his clothes turned up bloodstained. He was an easy suspect to collar.


To the tune of Civil War hymn “Just Before the Battle, Mother” by George F. Root.

Richard Coates, that cruel murderer,
Now is cold within his grave,
None could show him any pity,
None stretch for a hand to save;
His horrid crime was so unmanly,
I’m sure we no excuse could give,
He did disgrace our gallant soldiers,
And he was not fit to live.


CHORUS

Richard Coates, the Purfleet murderer,
On Easter Monday met his doom;
He killed the soldier’s little daughter,
Now he’s dead and in his tomb.

For the murder of poor Alice Bougham
He justly was condemned to die,
For a murder so outrageous,
The country for his death did cry;
You never heard or ever read of
Such treatment to a little child,
Altho’ so innocent and so loving,
Cruelly murdered and defiled.

A full confession of the murder
To the champlain he has made,
He has told the truth to those around him,
For which his poor old mother prayed;
He took his victim to the closet,
Frightful was his conduct there,
He took her life in a cruel manner,
Before his death he did declare.

He tried to throw his victim’s body
Over the pailings in the sea,
The fence was high, he could not do it,
It was ordained it should not be;
Could he have thrown her in the water,
And the tide have carried her away,
The murder of the soldier’s daughter
Would not have been found out to-day.

He might have done well in the army,
In the barracks he was born,
Alas! he has disgraced his father,
Who the uniform has worn;
Heaven help his poor old mother,
She has been a true good soldier’s wife,
She would sooner have seen him shot in action,
Than in such a way to lose his life.

Then let us all now take a warning
By his sad and fearful end,
Don’t give way to unholy passion,
Nor against the laws offend;
Try to be honest and be sober,
I’m sure you’ll find it is the best,
In the world let’s do our duty,
As we hope in heaven to rest.


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This one is set to “Driven From Home” by William Shakespeare Hays.

Upon Easter Monday within Chelmsford gaol,
A murderer, when dying, his crime doth bewail,
Upon the dark scaffold he drew his last breath,
The penalty of murder he paid with his death;
Richard Coates was his name, by Sata beguiled,
He outraged so cruel a dear little child,
And all through the country it has been the cry,
His sentence was just, he deserved to die.


CHORUS

Gone from this life, gone from this world,
By the hands of the hangman to Eternity hurled,
May heaven forgive him, is all we can say,
As we hope for forgiveness on our dying day.

There never was known such a cowardly crime,
That we are relating at this present time;
It is dreadful to think there could be a man,
Who in his senses this murder could plan.
He pleaded “not guilty” almost to the last,
Till he saw all the chance of forgiveness was past;
His poor moter begg’d him the truth to unfold,
And confess to his crime for the sake of his soul.

He took the poor child to the coset, he said,
Innocent and smiling to her death she was led.
He murdered her there at the bottom of the field,
And beneath his great coat her dead body conceal’d,
He went to the edge of the wide rolling sea,
To throw the child in but it was not to be,
Tho’ time after time the villain did try,
He could not reach over the pailings so high.

When he found that his crime he could not conceal,
He left the child’s body ‘neath the grass in the field,
Where the dear little angel soon after was found,
By those who so long had been searching around.
They seized him and ask’d him the crime to explain,
He cried “I’m not guilty” again and again;
They could not believe him in spite of denial,
They sent him to saol to wait for his trial.

As he walked from the cell through the sweet morning air,
At the end of the prison the gallows was there;
‘Twas the last time he’d gaze on that beatiful sky,
As he walked to the spot where he knew he must die.
The hangman was ready, deep sounded the bell,
‘Twas scarcely a moment before the drop fell!
The murderer, Coates, from the world was torn,
His body was there, but his dear life was gone.

May his fate be a warning to both old and young,
May it be an example to everyone,
From the straight path of duty never to stray,
Or we shall regret it on our dying day.
The murderer now is gone from this world,
By his own folly to destruction is hurled,
Then pray let us all to this warning attend,
And may heaven preserve us from his fearful den.


According to Flat Earth: History of an Infamous Idea, Coates’s condemnation was immediately followed — in the same courtroom, before the same judge — by the tragicomc libel trial of nutbar flat-earther John Hampden for his ongoing campaign to savage the reputation of Alfred Russel Wallace.**

The bombastic Hampden — who denounced “that Satanic device of a round and revolving globe, which sets Scripture, reason, and facts at defiance” and actually wrote Wallace’s wife wishing that her hubbie would have “every bone in his head smashed to a pulp” — would have been right at home with the Coates ballad that vengefully prayed,

While the spotless soul of little Alice,
Is taken to a better land
May perdition light upon the monster,
Who has disgraced the name of man.

* Reports of age differ, but Alice Boughen was definitely a prepubescent youngster well under the age of 10.

** Wallace is the guy whose collegial letters to Darwin mooting Wallace’s own ideas about natural selection led the previously reticent Darwin to rush into publication with On the Origin of Species.

Part of the Daily Double: Victorian Soldiery.

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1913: Henry Lovell William Clark, Raj poisoner

Add comment March 26th, 2014 Headsman

This date in 1913 saw the hanging of Henry Lovell William Clark for a sensational pair of domestic murders in the British Raj.

The half-Indian Lieutenant Henry Lovell William Clark of the Indian Subordinate Medical Department struck up a sweltering affair in colonial Agra with the bored memsahib Augusta Fullam.

Their trysts over three-odd years from 1909 would become the scandal of British India — the specifically British part — after Clark’s wife Louisa was sabered to death in her home in November 1912 by a quartet of native assailants* who turned out to have been hired by her faithless husband.

The police inquiry soon uncovered a much deeper passion and depravity.

A trunk full of adulterous correspondence incautiously retained by Fullam documented months of her frustrated attempts to poison off her husband over the course of 1911.

The plan had simply been to infiltrate arsenic doses into Edward Fullam’s food. Arsenic poisoning was so popular precisely because the symptoms were so difficult to isolate from natural causes of death; off in India, it could easily be passed off as heat stroke or cholera.

“I give him half a tonic powder every day in his Sanatogen, lovie darling, because it lays on the top of the white powder quite unsuspiciously,” Augusta cooed to her doctor-lover in one letter.

Despite Augusta’s best efforts, lovie darling, Edward’s constitution proved to be as tenacious of his life as it was unsuspecting of his wife.

For month after harrowing month, his helpmate tried to kill him at dinner and teatime and anywhere else she got the opportunity to administer a packet of the “tonic powders” Dr. Clark supplied. He would often vomit and fall ill — Fullam recorded one occasion in June where her husband puked ten times in a single evening — but it wasn’t until October that Edward finally succumbed. Clark himself topped the arsenic wallop for that fading patient with a lethal dose of gelsemine just to make sure, then put his professional signature to the death certificate.

One spouse down. One to go.

It might have been wise for the lovers to stick with this potentially subtle method of homicide for Louisa Clark. While “murdered by swarthy intruders” is a classic, it can’t be signed off quietly by some random member of the medical professional. Neighbors had figured out the love affair, and when police pursued that line of inquiry, everyone’s alibis fell apart. Not to mention that trunk full of lovey-dovey bloodthirst.

Though Henry Clark hanged for the murder on March 26, 1913, he left his mistress pregnant — and this sufficed to save Augusta Fullam from the gallows. She died in Naini prison in 1914.

* According to this book, three of the four hired assassins were also executed.

Part of the Themed Set: Arsenic.

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1851: Sarah Chesham, poisoner

Add comment March 25th, 2014 Headsman

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

On this date in 1851, 41-year-old Sarah Chesham was hanged before a crowd of six to seven thousand people in Chelmsford, England. She’d been convicted of a single count of attempted murder, but the evidence indicates, and the public certainly believed, that she was responsible for several deaths and had perhaps even taught her deadly craft to other women.

Sarah lived in the village of Clavering in Essex. In January 1845, two of her six children died suddenly, one after the other, and were buried in a single coffin. Their deaths were written off as cholera, a common and deadly disease in those times. Yet, according to later accounts, just about everyone in Clavering knew the boys had been murdered.

In fact, Sarah’s reputation as a poisoner had been well known long before her sons’ untimely deaths.

In spite of the rumors, no action was taken until later that year — when Sarah was arrested on the charge of poisoning a friend’s illegitimate baby, a boy named Solomon Taylor. Solomon had been born healthy and thrived for the first few months of his life, but in late June 1845 he became sick, rapidly wasted away and died. His mother accused Sarah of murder.

Suspicious, the authorities exhumed the bodies of ten-year-old Joseph and eight-year-old James Chesham.

The boys’ corpses turned out to be saturated with arsenic.

James C. Whorton, in his book The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain was Poisoned at Home, Work and Play, describes what happened next:

An inquest quickly led to Chesham being indicted for murder, and she was brought to trial in the spring of 1847. The evidence against her seemed conclusive: her sons had arsenic in their bodies, police had found “an assortment of poisons” in her house, and during the trial there were clear attempts to coerce witnesses not to testify against her. Sarah Chesham was nevertheless acquitted of all charges.

The jury’s foreman for Joseph’s case explained, “We have no doubt of the child having been poisoned, but we do not see any proof who administered it.” After all, no one had actually seen Sarah giving arsenic to her sons.

After her trials for the murders of James and Joseph Chesham, Sarah was tried for Solomon Taylor’s murder. Again she was acquitted; there was no evidence of poison in the infant’s body. Whorton records,

The verdict struck most observers as outrageous, but even if it was correct, something very disturbing was going on. The woman’s neighbors had believed her to be spreading poison for years, yet had uttered not a word to authorities. “What is to be said,” a newspaper asked, “of a district where cold-blooded murder meets with all the popular favor which is shown to smuggling in Sussex?”

One can’t help but think of the many incidents in modern times when “everyone knew” about the child abuse going on in some local household, but nobody bothered to report it until after a tragedy occurred.

Chesham was released from custody, went home and resumed her life. Then, in 1849, her husband died. He had much the same symptoms his dead sons had, but suffered a great deal longer: it took months for him to die.

During his illness, the solicitous Sarah was constantly by his side. She gave him milk thickened with rice or flour and wouldn’t let anyone else feed him anything.

After Richard Chesham’s death, authorities seized a sack of rice from Sarah’s kitchen. It was contaminated with sixteen grains of arsenic. (Two or three grains can kill a healthy adult.) Richard had arsenic in his body as well, but only in traces.

Although her latest alleged victim had died, Sarah was charged only with attempted murder: Richard suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis and it was unclear whether it was the arsenic or the lung disease that caused him to die. (It’s theorized that Sarah, having learned something from her earlier trials, had poisoned her husband slowly in small doses rather than in one dose all at once, as she allegedly did with her children.)

The punishment was the same either way: death. Sarah would be the last woman in Britain to be hanged for attempted murder.

Sarah Chesham may have wanted to rid herself of an inconvenient husband, perhaps reasoning that he would die of consumption anyway so she might as well speed him along. In some other fatal poisonings in Essex during that time period, however, it appears the motive was the deceased’s burial club money.

Club Dead

Many of England’s poor and working-class subscribed to burial clubs for themselves and their families. These were a form of life insurance and meant to provide money for the funeral if a member died, thus sparing the person from a pauper’s grave or worse, the anatomist’s dissecting table.

Some people, however, subscribed for different reasons, as Whorton noted:

Yet there were, inevitably, some subscribers who were not at all averse to a child or spouse receiving a pauper’s send-off, and if sufficient economies were adopted in their disposal, there would be enough money left over to make murder worthwhile … If done right, profits were not inconsiderable. First of all, club dues were affordable for virtually anyone … Second, benefits were relatively generous. Manchester clubs, for example, paid out £3 as a rule, but some paid £4 or even £5; a basic funeral for a child could be financed for only £1 or £2.

Provided they came up with the money for subscription fees, there was nothing stopping people from joining multiple burial clubs at the same time and getting a big fat payout upon their relative’s untimely death. Wharton mentions one child from Manchester who belonged to nineteen burial clubs at once.

Poisoner Mary May, who was convicted of killing her half-brother and hanged in 1849, had subscribed to multiple burial clubs without her victim’s knowledge. After she poisoned him she got £10 in all. Some people got double or triple that sum. And this at a time when an unskilled laborer could expect to earn only about £27 annually.

Cases like Sarah Chesham’s and Mary May’s set off a moral panic about poisonings in the 1840s and 1850s. As the London Medical Gazette noted, twopence could buy enough arsenic to kill one hundred people.

The press had everyone convinced that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people were poisoning others for profit. Newspapers devoted a great deal of space to poisoning trials and speculated that these cases were only a few of a “multitude” of murders that went unpunished — and that this multitude was growing. Jill Ainsley wrote about this at length and says,

According to the press, the bodies subjected to forensic examination represented the tip of the iceberg of poisoned corpses. Poison narratives routinely assumed that poisoners were caught only once their lethal practice was well established. Once a particular individual was suspected in one death, their pool of alleged victims automatically expanded to include anyone else they had contact with who subsequently died. The implications of references to large families “all of whom were dead” were clear to regular readers of crime reports.

Women in particular were liable to suspicion.

In fact, the papers alleged that in Essex there was a “secret society” of female poisoners who conspired together to murder people with arsenic, and that the general public was aware of the situation and accepted it. There is no actual evidence that such a conspiracy existed, never mind that it was condoned by the locals.

It is true that the number of prosecutions in poisoning cases rose during this time period, but that was probably because of the application of the Marsh test, invented in 1836 by chemist James Marsh.

The Marsh test was the first reliable test for arsenic in the human body and it was extremely sensitive. Before that, just about the only way to figure out if something was poisoned was to give some of the suspect substance to a dog and see if it died.

Arsenic during the nineteenth century was cheap, plentiful and used in a myriad of things, from wallpaper coloring to makeup to sheep dip. In small amounts it made a good rat poison, and that’s usually what it was used for.

Since it came in the form of a grainy white powder that could easily be mistaken for flour, salt or sugar, a lot of people got poisoned — not all of them intentionally, either.

There were not a few suicides and many, many accidents. Ainsley, who studied the Essex poisonings at length, believes it’s entirely on the cards that the arsenic that killed James and Joseph Chesham got into their systems accidentally.

It was partly due to the notoriety of Sarah Chesham’s crimes that the British parliament passed the Sale of Arsenic Regulation Bill in 1851. The law required arsenic sellers to record the name of each buyer and to sell it only to people they knew personally. It also required arsenic to by dyed some other color so people would no longer mistake it for food.

Getting back to Sarah: after her execution, her family was permitted to claim her body for burial in the local churchyard. But before the internment could take place, the body was stolen, probably for dissection, by a person or persons unknown. It was never recovered.

Part of the Themed Set: Arsenic.

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1873: Mary Ann Cotton, serial poisoner

Add comment March 24th, 2014 Headsman

Mary Ann Cotton
She’s dead and she’s rotten
She lies in her bed
With her eyes wide open
Sing, sing!
Oh what can I sing?
Mary Ann Cotton is tied up with string
Where, where?
Up in the air
Selling black pudding a penny a pair.

-Children’s nursery rhyme

On this date in 1873, prolific poisoner Mary Ann Cotton — whom some have tabbed Britain’s first serial killer for an arsenic murder spree claiming 21 or so souls — hanged at Durham County Gaol.

Her exact death toll remains somewhat conjectural since her method of choice — arsenic poisoning — so closely mirrored gastroenteritis. Vomiting, diarrhea, and dehydration were hallmark symptoms of both afflictions, and as Mary Ann’s many children succumbed in such conditions over the years, they were easily chalked up to just another childhood mortality among the vast ranks of working poor.

At age 20, she wed a coal miner (her father had been one too, but fell to his death in a mine shaft years before). In the twelve-plus years of their marriage, she bore William Mowbray at least four children. Three died in childhood of — so the death certificates read — gastric ailments. William himself died of one too in January 1865, and Mary banked 35 quid in life insurance on the occasion.

Mary’s own testimony would eventually indicate at least four other children by Mowbray from when they lived in Plymouth. These were the circumstances for a repeat killer to thrive: when a mother can be eight or nine bodies into her career, every one of them close family members, and nobody has bothered to notice. She was said to be a consummate actress in her grief.

With Mowbray and her ample brood — of whatever size — off her hands, Mary Ann now made a career of disposable short-term marriages to men who could support her for a while, and then would mysteriously drop dead of a gastric problem with life insurance policies naming Mary Ann.

An engineer named George Ward, married in 1865 and died in 1866.

A widower named James Robinson had the good fortune to throw Mary Ann out of the house in 1869 for stealing. But that was only after five children in the household mysteriously died (three by Robinson’s previous marriage, one of Mary Ann’s and Robinson’s, and the last surviving child of Mary Ann and William Mowbray). Mary Ann also dipped out of that household for a bit to care for her ailing mother, who also then died within days. Robinson would say after his former wife’s arrest that he had been suspicious of all the dead kids and her eagerness to insure him, but nothing so strong it would lead him to, say, call the police.

In 1870, she found a Northumberland miner name of Frederick Cotton, who gave her the name by which history knows her. Only after Cotton dropped dead — and her lover Joseph Nattrass dropped dead — and a stepson and her own son by Cotton both dropped dead — did the black widow finally come to official attention. That happened when the mother, desperate to fob off her inconvenient last child, incautiously implied to a village overseer in Walbottle, Northumberland where she had moved to wed Frederick Cotton that young Charles Edward Cotton was likely to die soon.*

When he did so, that official had the death certificate held up to examine the boy’s body. Though arsenic’s symptoms were difficult to distinguish from less sinister medical conditions, the mid-19th century had seen the advent of an effective scientific test for toxin: the Marsh test. The end of the arsenic era would be the ensuing decades’ march towards ever more powerful forensic tests that could put the lie to the “gastroenteritis” diagnosis.

The Marsh test easily did so when applied to Charles Edward Cotton. All it had taken these twenty years was for someone at last to suspect something. Her trial of the “West Auckland poisoner” over a few days in early March — delayed because she was pregnant with one last child when arrested — saw intense public interest, and an easy conviction.

She only dropped her pretense of innocence, partially, on the morning of the hanging itself, under the persistent questioning of her Wesleyan minister “when, after some hesitancy, she said, ‘I believe that I poisoned the boy.’ She was also minutely questioned about the other cases of poisoning, and when it was urged that they could not have been accidental, she made no reply, but turned aside, leaving it to be inferred that she had been the cause of the other deaths.” (Huddersfield Daily Chronicle, March 25, 1873)

A fuller account of Mary Ann Cotton’s biography with a handy graphic of her suspected victims can be found in this article by the author of a recent book about the poisoner.

* She was remarking on the difficulty that care of Cotton’s son posed for her intended next marriage/victim. “T’won’t matter, I won’t be troubled long,” she said … which looks foolishly self-incriminating in print, but she had probably said such knowing-wink nothings to others before without trouble, seeing as even the wholesale deaths of several men’s entire progenies had not formerly sufficed to attract an inquiry.

Part of the Themed Set: Arsenic.

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1819: Hannah Bocking, 16-year-old poisoner

Add comment March 22nd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1819, 16-year-old Hannah Bocking was hanged outside the Derby Gaol for murdering a friend with an arsenic-laced spice cake. She appears to be the youngest girl executed in 19th century England.

Bocking had been turned down for a household servant’s position on account of “her unamiable temper and disposition,” but her friend Jane Grant had been hired.

Instead of tightening up her job-interview game, the seething Bocking plotted her revenge on Jane, with whom she maintained a feigned comity. One day while out for a walk past the clanking remains of Anthony Lingard, who had been hanged four years before and left on display to strike terror into the hearts of malefactors, the un-deterred Bocking gave Jane her little pastry. Jane ate it, and died in agony, but not so much agony that she wasn’t able to tell what happened.

It was an easy conviction, and the sentence executed just four days later. Still, “at the moment, when she [Hannah Bocking] was launched into eternity,” one observer reported, “an involuntary shuddering pervaded the assembled crowd, and although she excited little sympathy, a general feeling of horror was expressed that one so young should have been so guilty, and so insensible.”

We have this lovely hanging broadsheet of Hannah’s execution (transcribed below) via Harvard University library.


Hannah Bocking, though of so young an age, appears to have had a mind greatly darkened and depraved, for it seems that she was instigated to the dreadful crime that she committed, solely from envy and hatred to the young woman (Jane Grant) because she lived in the family of her Grandfather-in-law, as servant, where she had herself formerly lived, and been turned away.

She procured arsnic [sic] at a surgeon’s in the neighbourhood, by saying, that it was for her Grandfather, for the purpose of killing Rats, and she prevailed on a young man to go with her, saying, that they would not sell it alone to her.

This mortal poison she put into a spice cake, and gave it the young woman, who thanked her, and unsuspectedly eat it, but was soon after seized with dreadful pains and agonies. In her illness she was attended by her relations, and being about to expire, her dying declaration was taken, that the cake she had eaten was the cause of the torments she suffered, which dying declaration was produced at the trial, and which, connected with other strong circumstances, was satisfactory to the minds of the jury and to every person in court.

So senseless and hardened in sin was this wretched creature, that she shewed no signs of remorse, nor appeared at all sensible of her awful situation when he solemn sentence of death was passed on her by the Learned Judge, but it seems that she felt severely afterwards on her return in the Caravan to the Gaol she shed many bitter tears, and continued crying for hours.

It was in this situation that she confessed her crime to a Lady, distinguished for her humanity; and entirely cleared her Brother and Sister in law from any participation in her crime. She declared that she alone was guilty.

On the Jury returning their verdict of Guilty, the learned Judge rose and passed sentence of death upon her, that her body should be given to the surgeons to be dissected and anatomized; at the same time most solemnly expatiating upon the enormity of the unnatural crime she had committed, and the horrid light she must appear before her divine Maker, recommending a sincere repentance and a full confession of her guilt.

Since her condemnation she has been attended by the Chaplain of the Gaol, and the Rev. Mr. Leech and others; and we hope their instructions have proved beneficial to her soul Between twelve and one o’clock she was brought in front of the county Gaol, and having spent a shot time in prayer, she was launched into eternity, amidst a vast concourse of spectators, a dreadful example for all such as indulge the sin of envy, hatred, or malice. From envy, hatred, and malice may the Lord in his grace deliver us. Amen.

Sin has a thousand treach’rous arts,
 To practice on the mind;
With flatt’ring looks she tempts our hearts,
 BUt leaves a sting behind.

With names of virtue she deceives
 The aged and the young;
And while the heedless wretch believes,
 She makes his fetters strong.

She pleads for all the joys she brings,
 And gives a fair pretence;
But cheats the soul of heav’nly things,
 And chains it down to sense.

Part of the Themed Set: Arsenic.

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1330: Edmund of Woodstock, family man

Add comment March 19th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1330, the king’s half-brother Edmund of Woodstock lost his head for treason.

Edmund was the youngest son of Edward I. That patrimony didn’t come with a throne attached, but hey, you could do a lot worse than Earl of Kent.

You could do a lot better too, though, if you had royal blood.

According to the chronicle Vita Edwardi Secundi, Edmund (or possibly the middle brother Thomas) was intended by his father for the more august and lucrative earldom of Cornwall.* But Edward I died when Edmund and Thomas were young boys, and “his sad death prevented what would have been appropriate from being consummated.” Instead, the heir-turned-king Edward II stiffed flesh and blood to hand Cornwall to his notorious favorite, Piers Gaveston.

Edmund seemed to get over the slight and generally had the king’s back during the turbulent 1320s.

However, after fighting for his brother’s interests in France, he found himself there in Paris in 1325-26 with Edward’s French Queen Isabella and her lover Roger Mortimer just as that couple set about plotting their rebellion.

Edmund joined their circle, took part in their invasion of England, and sat on the tribunal that condemned the deposed king’s new notorious favorite, Hugh Despenser, to death. As the price for his support, Isabella and Mortimer fulfilled the cash pledges Edward I had long ago made to the boy.

His attitudes and allegiances appear ambiguous during the unsteady years of Isabella and Mortimer. Whatever his acquiescence — whatever his payoff — he had little real affection for the new master and mistress of the realm.


Edmund’s end in 1330 touches a sensitive historical controversy.

Of a sudden, the Earl of Kent became convinced that his brother Edward II was being held at Corfe Castle and resolved to liberate him. He attempted to pass a letter to the captive king — a letter that proved quite enough to incriminate him when it was intercepted by Roger Mortimer. (Mortimer might have baited him into writing it in the first place.)

Worships and reverence, with a brother’s liegeance and subjection. Sir knight, worshipful and dear brother, if you please, I pray heartily that you are of good comfort, for I shall ordain for you, that you shall soon come out of prison, and be delivered of that disease in which you find yourself. Your lordship should know that I have the assent of almost all the great lords of England, with all their apparel, that is to say with armour, and with treasure without limit, in order to maintain and help you in your quarrel so you shall be king again as you were before, and that they all – prelates, earls and barons – have sworn to me upon a book.

What’s really queer about this isn’t so much the volte-face on whether Edward ought to rule: it was the fact that Kent had actually attended Edward II’s funeral in 1327.

How could Edmund think a guy he saw buried would read his letter three years later? Was the funeral a sham? Did Edward survive his (conventionally accepted) 1327 death/murder in captivity? Edward II blogger Kathryn Warner, who calls Edmund “a brave man who tried to do the right thing”, thinks so. She makes the case in a four-part series on the Earl of Kent’s conspiracy here:

Fortunately for your humble narrator, mere headsmen are not called upon to adjudicate such controversies. Our job is just to cut whose head we’re told. Although in Edmund’s case, even that couldn’t go to plan: the poor guy was parked outside the walls of Winchester for the whole day of March 19th before someone could finally be found to give him the chop. It was a condemned prisoner who obtained his own release by turning executioner. (Source)

Later that same year of 1330, Edmund’s 17-year-old nephew Edward III — in whose name the usurpers Isabella and Mortimer ruled — mounted a palace coup to take his reign into his own hands.

With that turn of fortune, Mortimer found himself in the executioner’s clutches, and Edmund was posthumously rehabilitated. Edmund’s daughter Princess Joan — the “Fair Maid of Kent”, and in Froissart’s estimation, “the most beautiful woman in all the realm of England, and the most loving” — married Hundred Years War hero Edward, the Black Prince. Among the children Joan bore Edward was the eventual King Richard II.

* Infinitely more lucrative: the Earldom of Kent was a newly re-created title that had last been used 50 years before. It came initially with no estates or income at all.

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1789: Not Mary Wade, 11-year-old thief

Add comment March 16th, 2014 Headsman

Thanks to Aaron Molyneux for the guestpost. It’s just an excerpt of a much more detailed treatment Molyneux first made of this case on PrisonVoices.org. I’ve made a handful of minor edits to compress this excerpt, and added or moved some links. -ed.

On Wednesday the 14th of January 1789 Mary Wade stood in court at the age of just 11 years old and received the verdict that her life was to be cut short. For the robbery of one cotton frock, a linen tippet and a linen cap she was found guilty and sentenced to hang. Judged to have committed an adult’s crime, she would face an adult’s punishment.

Although in modern Britain theft may seem a quite unremarkable crime, in Mary Wade’s age robbery was dealt with by extreme punishment. The court suggested that Mary’s theft was equal to “holding a pistol to the breast of a grown person”. Whether or not Mary Wade was aware of the hard-lined punishments given to those who stole remains unknown but having committed a very similar crime at the age of eight, only to get away with it because of her young age, she did know it was a crime and therefore it would seem that there was an air of desperation about Mary’s actions.

Sentenced to die by hanging Mary was taken away from her mother and marched out of the Old Bailey. For a girl of Mary’s age this situation must’ve been a frightening ordeal. Being sent to Newgate prison was not for the faint hearted. It was a vile place deemed so unhealthy that Physicians often refused to go in. By the time Mary entered, Newgate was London’s main jail and Mary joined many others waiting to be hanged before huge crowds outside the prison doors. Arriving in irons Mary would have been faced with open sewage, disease and lack of water. It would be a shock to the system for anybody never mind an eleven year old girl. If those entering had enough money they would enter the Master’s side or the press yard where they would have beds, heat and have their irons removed. But those who could not afford would be thrown into the Common Felons side. These would go without bedding or proper clothing and be forced to slum in the overcrowded, rat-infested cells. Mary almost certainly would have been with the fellow women convicts in the Common Felons side.

More than likely alone, vulnerable and scared Mary would spent a total of ninety three days waiting to be marched out in front of the baying crowds which gathered outside the prison walls to watch convicts hang for their crimes. Ninety three days in which she would wait for her death.

Then, on the 16th of March 1789, in celebration of King George III‘s recovery from madness, Mary Wade’s death sentence was respited along with all other condemned women. Instead of hanging, she would be transported to New South Wales on the convict ship Lady Juliana.

Read on at Prison Voices for more on Mary Wade’s offense, and for her story as a transported convict — where she became the ancestor of a huge number of latter-day Australians.

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