Posts filed under 'Where'

1870: John Gregson, drunk and disorderly

Add comment January 10th, 2017 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1870, the very first private execution took place at Kirkdale Gaol in Liverpool.

Steven Horton’s book Liverpool Hangings: Kirkdale Hangings, 1870-1891 notes that between 1831 and 1867, executions at Kirkdale Gaol had been public, observed by crowds ranging in size from 500 to 100,000 people, but the Capital Punishment Amendment Act of 1868 put an end to them.

However, Horton says, “Hangings that carried on in private [at Kirkdale Gaol] were so near the walls that it was said by those outside that a thud could be heard when the trapdoor opened.”

Between 1870 and 1892, the year Kirkdale Gaol closed, 29 condemned prisoners were hanged privately there. “Most of those condemned,” Horton says,

were from slum properties and lived lives of squalor where drink seemed their only escape, fueling angry misjudgments which would ultimately lead to them standing on the scaffold. Just under half of the killings … involved a man or woman killing their spouse or partner. The majority were following drinking bouts …

The very first case, that of John Gregson, fit this description very well.

Gregson was a collier at Wigan. (Over sixty years later, George Orwell would write a book about the miners there.) He had married his wife Ellen in 1863. John was an alcoholic who habitually abused his wife, even after the births of their two children, and the marriage was miserable. Throughout the 1860s he appeared in court a whopping 24 times for drunken, disorderly conduct, once spending a six-month term in jail.

On October 18, 1969, John Gregson was once again in court for drunkenness. Ellen paid his fine and they went home together, stopping at a few pubs along the way. The couple lived with a lodger, who was looking after their children while they were out that day. Once the Gregsons returned, Ellen began breastfeeding the baby and two neighbors dropped by to visit.

John removed his jacket and asked one of the neighbors, Mrs. Littler, to pawn it for him. She promised to do it the next day, but he didn’t want to wait and said he’d take it to the pawnshop himself. Ellen told him if he would wait a few minutes, she’d take it there for him. John then took the baby and told her to go out, pawn the jacket and come back with a pint of beer or he would kick her.

Ellen told him the children were hungry and she was willing to pawn the jacket for food, but not drink, and John became enraged, tripped her, and began kicking her back, side and chest as she lay on the floor.

The second guest, a man named Hilton, tried to intervene and forced John into a chair, but John stood up, kicked Hilton and then began kicking Ellen again, striking her on the back of the head.

Blood began leaking from Ellen’s ears and mouth and Hilton said, horrified, “You’ve killed her.”

“If I haven’t, I ought to,” John snapped.

Ellen wasn’t dead, though, and she was put to bed, where she lay moaning while John went to sleep next to her. The next day he got some brandy and tried to give it to her, but her teeth were clenched tightly and she wasn’t able to swallow anything. Finally beginning to feel ashamed of himself, he pawned the jacket for ten shillings and used the money to pay for a doctor.

By then it was too late. In fact, it was probably too late the moment John’s heavy, iron-soled clogs connected with his wife’s head. Ellen died in the hospital on October 21; the autopsy showed a fracture at the base of her skull.

At his trial in December, John wept while the evidence was presented. His defense attorney argued by way of mitigation(!) that he regularly beat his wife and that day had been no different, and as there had been no intent to kill he was only guilty of manslaughter. But the judge, Baron Martin, told the jury that if they believed the testimony of the witnesses present during the attack, this was a case of a murder.

The jury convicted John Gregson of murder, but recommended mercy. However, Judge Martin told Gregson not to hold out any hope for a reprieve and said he, personally, had no more doubt that this was a murder than he had in his own existence.

As Martin J. Wiener’s book Men of Blood: Violence, Manliness, and Criminal Justice in Victorian England noted, by the 1860s, fatal domestic violence was being punished more severely than it used to be:

Gregson’s drunken fatal kicking of his wife near Liverpool produced … not only a murder conviction, but his execution. Gregson could not successfully claim that his wife had herself been drunk or otherwise grievously provoking; furthermore, his case displayed a tightening in judicial interpretation of “malicious intent.” When his counsel argued that from mere drunken kicking itself one could not find an intent to kill, or even do serious bodily injury, Baron Martin immediately interjected to say that this statement about the law was “not so”: “if a man does an unlawful act, and death ensues, he is guilty of murder.” The hesitant jury’s recommendation of mercy as well as a petition campaign for reprieve that followed (joined by the coroner who had conducted the original inquest) were of no avail, since in addition the Home Office believed that he did in fact intend to kill her.

As all murder convictions came as a matter of course to be considered for reprieve, the Home Office’s role in the punishment of spousal killings expanded, while at the same time its line on such cases was hardening.

In prison John regularly met with the chaplain, saying he repented of his actions and believed his sentence was just, although he swore he had never meant to kill Ellen. Many of his fellow prisoners were there for alcohol-related offenses, and John asked the chaplain to share his story with them, so they might learn from his mistakes before it was too late.

In the last week of his life he was visited by Ellen’s father, his own mother, and his two about-to-be-orphaned children.

The execution took place on Monday morning. Horton says:

The Daily Post reported how the private nature of the execution, free of unruly crowds, gave it a much more solemn air, with people speaking in no more than a whisper. Outside there were none of the ‘denizens of the lowest purlieus of Liverpool’, instead just half a dozen policemen and a few interested onlookers waiting for the black flag to be hoisted.

At 8:00 a.m., executioner William Calcraft slipped the rope around John Gregson’s neck. The condemned man was pale and shaky, but he quietly submitted to the hangman’s ministrations. Calcraft drew the bolt, and after “three or four slight writings” the killer was dead.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Milestones,Murder,Other Voices

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1824: John Thurtell, the Radlett murderer

1 comment January 9th, 2017 Headsman

They cut his throat from ear to ear,
His head they battered in.
His name was Mr William Weare,
He lived in Lyons Inn.

At noon this date in 1824, upon a fresh-built black gallows adjoining Hertford Prison, John Thurtell hanged for one of regency England’s most infamous crimes.

Son of the Norwich mayor, John Thurtell was rubbish with money and had twice crashed his bombazine business into insolvency while stiffing his creditors. (John’s brother Tom served time for defrauding an insurance company with a suspicious warehouse fire.)

But these were merely business matters.

When Thurtell fell into a £300 gambling debt to thanks to Weare’s cheating at cards, maybe it was a matter of honor. Thurtell invited the Lyon’s Inn barrister to a gaming piss-up at Thurtell’s cottage in the village of Radlett. They’d be joined by Thurtell’s mates Joseph Hunt and William Probert, “Turpin lads” in Thurtell’s estimation.

Just short of their destination, on a street later to be known as “Murder Lane”, Thurtell shot Weare in the face. The shot scored only a glancing hit against his victim’s cheekbone, but Thurtell was in for a penny, in for a pound: he tackled the fleeing Weare, opened his throat from ear to ear, and pistol-whipped his skull into bloody-brained bits.

Whatever malice aforethought had moved Thurtell to this vengeful crime did not contain near enough calculation. “The whole history of the murder, and the scenes which ensued, are strange pictures of desperate and short-sighted wickedness,” Sir Walter Scott marveled.

Abandoning the gun at the scene — it was one of a paired set of which Thurtell owned the other — the killer and his friends hauled the corpse to a nearby pond, then proceeded unperturbed to the night’s revelry fresh from homicide, even donning Weare’s own clothes in subsequent days.

Worst of all from the perfect-crime standpoint, Thurtell had undertaken the crime himself (openly popping off, per the subsequent court record, “if Weare comes down, I will do him, for he has done me out of several hundred pounds”) and his companions turned on him when the investigation inevitably bore down on them. Probert went crown’s evidence immediately in exchange for immunity, even leading authorities to the body; Hunt stalled and lied for a while, but cracked soon enough.

To the nationwide outrage at this shocking callousness among obnoxious society rakes was added the whiff of scandal about Thurtell’s involvement in “the Fancy” — the semi-illicit sport of amateur boxing.

Frequented then as now both by underworld elements and society gentlemen, boxing was officially illegal but widely celebrated and openly advertised without much fear of police intervention. At the same time, the burgeoning sport — with its naked brutality, more-than-occasional fatalities, multiracial proletarian cast, and associations with various unsavory characters, had ample moral-panic potential. The Fancy, said a judge in 1803,

draws industrious people away from the subject of their industry; and when great multitudes are so collected, they are likely enough to be engaged in broils. It affords an opportunity for people of the most mischievous disposition to assemble, under the colour of seeing this exhibition, and to do a great deal of mischief; in short, it is a practice that is extremely injurious in every respect and must be repressed.

But many of his peers were there in the audience, laying their own mischievous wagers.

As magistrates it may have been their duty to discountenance, but as county gentleman it was their privilege to support, the noble champions of the art, especially when they had their money on the event.

Thurtell, briefly an amateur pugilist himself, was a trainer and promoter on the boxing circuit.


Detail view (click for full image) of “A correct view of the execution, taken on the spot by an eminent artist.” (Source)

Thurtell was anatomized after execution; a wax likeliness of the hated murderer stood in Madame Tussaud’s until the 1970s.

As for Thurtell’s confederates: Joseph Hunt’s cooperation was sufficient to cop a last-second commutation of his death sentence; he was transported to Australia instead. William Probert completely avoided prosecution thanks to his expeditious turn to crown’s evidence, but the career criminal (now practically disbarred from honest labor by dint of his nationwide infamy) found himself in hangman Foxen‘s hands not long thereafter for stealing a horse.

The foreman of the jury that convicted Thurtell went on to become the Prime Minister.

And Thurtell’s victim Weare did his own posthumous bit for the annals of English publishing when a printer multiplied its customary revenue stream on a Thurtell gallows broadsheet with a second edition headed “WE ARE alive”. Printed in such a way to intentionally make the first two words appear to read “WEARE”, its handsome sales to the gullible allegedly originated the term “catchpenny”.

There are a number of 19th century accounts of this case available in the public domain, including here, here and here.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Athletes,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Notable Participants,Pelf,Public Executions

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1878: Gauchito Gil, Argentina folk saint

Add comment January 8th, 2017 Headsman

January 8 is the execution day in 1878 of Argentine folk saint “Gauchito Gil”.

Nobody knows for sure if he really existed, but thousands flock to his sanctuary near Mercedes on this remembrance date while roadside red-flagged shrines throughout Argentina pay him homage all the year round.

If he was real at all, or even if he wasn’t, Antonio Mamerto Gil Nunez was an freelance ranchhand gaucho who ditched his conscription into the Argentine Civil Wars for life as an outlaw — flourishing in the classic social bandit guise as a friend to the put-upon peasantry with beneficence extending all the way to saintly healing powers.

Ambushed and captured at last, Gil’s last charity was reserved for the policeman who decided to have him summarily executed — whom Gil warned was about to receive an en-route pardon. The cop didn’t buy this obvious dilatory gambit and slit the bandit’s throat, only to return and find the promised clemency riding on up. As Gil had also prophesied, the policeman’s son had fallen quite ill and now he prayed to the brigand he had just put to death, who posthumously secured the boy a miraculous recovery.

The reports of the duly impressed executioner proliferated and soon fathered a flourishing popular veneration. Although Gauchito Gil is of course entirely unrecognized by the institutional Catholic Church, many devout pilgrims visit his site to pray for, or to offer thanks for, a favorable intercession in life.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Argentina,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,Myths,No Formal Charge,Outlaws,Popular Culture,Put to the Sword,Religious Figures,Summary Executions,The Supernatural,Theft,Wrongful Executions

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1755: Henri Mongeot, Lescombat assassin

Add comment January 7th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1755, Henri Mongeot was broken on the wheel for assassinating the husband of his adulterous lover, Marie.

Louis Alexandre Lescombat was a Paris architect; the betrayal of his flighty wife Marie Catherine Taperet was all the talk of Paris after her lover Mongeot slew the husband whilst out on a walk in December of 1754 — then summoned the watch to present a bogus self-defense claim.

This tactic has been known to work when the killer enjoys sufficient impunity; perhaps a respectable bourgeois like Lescombat could have done it to Mongeot — but when the horny 23-year-old busts up the family home with one blade and then the other, it’s La Mort de Lescombat, a tragedy.

For the widow, one good betrayal would deserve another: Mongeot faithfully avoided implicating her in the murder but when he discovered on the very eve of his death that she was already making time with a new fellow, he summoned the judge and revenged himself by exposing her incitement to the crime. His evidence would doom her to follow him many months later, after the sentence was suspended long enough for the widow Lescombat to deliver a son.

Joining Mongeot on the scaffold this date was a 15-year-old heir to the family executioner business apparently conducting just his second such sentence — Charles-Henri Sanson, the famed bourreau destined in time to cut off the head of the king and queen. Mongeot makes a passing appearance in the 19th century Memoirs of the Sansons; in it, Charles-Henri’s grandson remarks from the family notes that “Mdme. Lescombat … was confronted with him [i.e., her doomed lover] at the foot of the scaffold. She was remarkably handsome, and she tried the effect of her charms on her judges, but without avail.”

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Gruesome Methods,History,Murder,Public Executions,Sex

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1928: Floyd Hewitt, “Boy Clubber”

Add comment January 6th, 2017 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1928, seventeen-year-old Floyd Hewitt was executed in Ohio’s electric chair for the horrific murder of a farmer’s wife and five-year-old son.

Floyd grew up in rural area outside Conneaut, Ohio. Although at 6’4″ he had the body of a grown man, he was mentally disabled, callously described by his defense attorneys as “a moron with a ten-year-old’s intellect.” One newspaper portrayed him thus:

He is not considered of normal intellect, his drooping mouth, dull eyes and appearances contributing to the opinion. He was not bright in his classes at school.

On the evening of February 14, 1927, he visited a local farm belonging to the Brown family. He was a frequent visitor there; he loved listening to jazz music on the radio and the Browns were the only family in the area who had a set at home. Celia Brown’s husband, Fred, was away in town and she was home alone with their son Freddie.

This news column and this article describe what happened in detail. Floyd got “stirred up inside” by the music. Feeling “an overpowering love,” he made sexual overtures towards Celia, who slapped him. He hit back, and she grabbed the fireplace poker to defend herself, but he tore it from her hands. In the ensuing fight Floyd hurled Celia down the stairs and struck her repeatedly with the poker until she was dead. Then, afraid the little boy would tell on him, Floyd chased Freddie into the basement and beat him to death with a baseball bat, too.

Then he went back upstairs, washed his hands, walked the short distance home and sat down to read the newspaper.

Fred Brown got home a little after midnight, found his wife’s body on the porch. There was blood everywhere. Fred summoned neighbors and the police. After searching the rest of the house, the neighbors found little Freddie’s body in the basement.

Floyd rapidly came under suspicion; he literally left a trail of footprints right to his front door. The next morning he was arrested, wearing the same bloodstained sweater he’d worn the night before. One of the buttons had been torn off and was left at the crime scene.

Within hours, Hewitt had made a full confession. He even went so far as to take the police on a tour of the Brown house to point out what had occurred and where. The next day, however, he retracted his statements and would maintain his innocence until his death.

The press bluntly christened him “the boy clubber.”

On the first day of his trial, as he was taken into the courtroom, Floyd remarked, “This is certainly a beautiful day, isn’t it?” One reporter described him as “like a big overgrown boy, who did not realize the seriousness of the crimes with which he is charged.”

He was indeed an overgrown boy, only sixteen years old at the time of his crime, but the prosecution demanded the death penalty.

Death penalty expert Victor Streib in this review of Ohio juvenile executions summed matters up thus:

Although indicted for two first degree murders (mother and son), he was tried only for the first degree murder of the five-year-old boy.

During the three week trial, the state relied heavily upon Hewitt’s signed confession while the defense stressed Hewitt’s mental disabilities. On April 26, the jury returned a verdict of guilty without a recommendation of mercy.

Hewitt appealed, and his execution was postponed for a time, but the appeals process wore down in less than a year and the board of clemency refused to recommend a commutation to the governor …

Hewitt’s chronological age at execution was seventeen, but his mental age remained forever fixed at ten.

Floyd Hewitt might have been the youngest person ever executed by the state of Ohio, and he was the first from Ashtabula County. A “bedraggled figure … with his long black hair hanging low over his face,” and clutching a photo of his family, he died in the electric chair at the Ohio State Penitentiary Annex at 7:43 p.m.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Electrocuted,Execution,Guest Writers,Murder,Ohio,Other Voices,USA

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1963: Stanislaw Jaros, twice-failed assassin

Add comment January 5th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1963, Polish electrician Stanislaw Jaros (English Wikipedia entry | Polish) hanged for two assassination attempts on Polish premier Wladyslaw Gomulka.

A figure nearly forgotten outside of Poland and not well-known within, Jaros is mostly written about in Polish as the links in this post will attest. His affair was quietly handled at the time, and that has sufficed to consign him to obscurity even in the post-Communist Poland.

On December 3, 1961, with the First Secretary in the mining town of Zagorze for a St. Barbara’s Day coal mine ribbon-cutter, Jaros set off a homemade bomb concealed in a roadside pole or tree. Gomulka’s motorcade had already passed the spot, but the blast mortally injured one adult bystander, and wounded a child.

A rigorous police investigation captured him, and soon determined that Jaros had been bombing away in merry anonymity for many years — including a 1959 device placed to target Gomulka and visiting Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, which had failed to detonate. (That incident had been discovered, but hushed up to avoid antagonizing Moscow.)

Jaros professed an inchoate ideological motivation in the form of bitterness against the state police after he’d been brutalized when caught stealing bullets from a factory in the postwar years, but it is difficult to tell where principled anticommunism ends and pyromania begins.

After his release from prison, he returned to live with his mother, never marrying or holding steady employment. His occasional hobby was sabotaging state economic assets with his home-brew explosives. No person was ever injured by one of his mines until the second Gomulka bomb, but he did acknowledge that he certainly was trying to kill the head of state — inspired, he said, by reading about the plots to kill Hitler.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Attempted Murder,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Notable for their Victims,Poland,Treason

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1944: Kaj Munk, Danish pastor-poet

Add comment January 4th, 2017 Headsman

Danish “pastor-poet” Kaj Munk was kidnapped and extrajudicially executed by the German occupation on this date in 1944.

Named for the adoptive family who raised him on the Baltic island of Lolland, Munk (English Wikipedia entry | Danish) was one of his country’s most popular playwrights of the 1930s.

He felt then the era’s pull to the Führerprinzip, and expressed admiration for the fascist rulers emerging in Germany and Italy — and disdain for parliamentarian prattle. Mussolini, he wrote, “was the new man, the future of Europe.”

At the same time, Munk’s deep religiosity led him to condemn Nazi anti-Semitism, and fascist Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia, and then later Germany’s seizure of Czechoslovakia — an expansion that would presage Germany’s easy conquest of Denmark in 1940. By now well past disillusionment with Hitler, the outspoken Munk did not shrink from denouncing the occupation, and the “cowardice” of Copenhagen in acceding to it just hours after German tanks rolled across the border. (See Resisters, Rescuers, and Refugees: Historical and Ethical Issues.)

He could scarcely have been ignorant of the danger this posture invited.

To this period dates Munk’s postwar fame, as well as his celebrated play Niels Ebbesen — which is all about a medieval Danish squire who assassinated a German tyrant. You can imagine how that went over in Berlin.

And as a working pastor, Munk had another platform, too.

“The pulpit has become for us a place of responsibility,” he wrote in 1941. “We tremble in our black garments when we ascend its stairs, because here, in God’s house, the Word is free … the Holy Ghost … forces us not to stay silent but to speak.”

And Munk was willing to do it, to exploit his position to oppose the cooperative stance his superiors were trying to promulgate; to preach against the occupation from the Copenhagen Cathedral in December of 1943; and to have subversive sermons illegally printed and promulgated — the last just days before his death.

Seized by the Gestapo on January 4, 1944, he was shot immediately after at Silkeborg. (The site is dignified by a a pious and understated memorial.) His abandoned corpse was discovered the next morning; consequently, January 5 is often the occasion for events marking the anniversary of Munk’s martyrdom.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Borderline "Executions",Denmark,Execution,Famous,Germany,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Religious Figures,Shot,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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68 or 69: Locusta, infamous poisoner

1 comment January 3rd, 2017 Headsman

Come close and see her and hearken. This is she.
Stop the ways fast against the stench that nips
Your nostril as it nears her. Lo, the lips
That between prayer and prayer find time to be
Poisonous, the hands holding a cup and key,
Key of deep hell, cup whence blood reeks and drips;
The loose lewd limbs, the reeling hingeless hips,
The scurf that is not skin but leprosy.
This haggard harlot grey of face and green
With the old hand’s cunning mixes her new priest
The cup she mixed her Nero, stirred and spiced.
She lisps of Mary and Jesus Nazarene
With a tongue tuned, and head that bends to the east,
Praying. There are who say she is bride of Christ.

-“Locusta”, by Algernon Charles Swinburne

On an unknown date late in the year 68 or in the very first days of the year 69 the infamous Locusta was put to death.

Like most ancients, Locusta survives for us through a bare handful of lines — but the notoriety of her deadly potions has made her name a metonym for poisoners down the centuries and inspired outlandishly lurid Game of Thrones-esque legends like the one about being executed via giraffe-rape.

According to Suetonius and Tacitus, Locusta was fished out of the dungeons in the year 55 for use by the young Nero, the stepson of the emperor Claudius, to murder Claudius’s natural brother Britannicus and assure Nero uncontested power. (There’s some speculation that she might have offed Claudius, too.)

[Nero] meditated a secret device and directed poison to be prepared through the agency of Julius Pollio, tribune of one of the praetorian cohorts, who had in his custody a woman under sentence for poisoning, Locusta by name, with a vast reputation for crime. That every one about the person of Britannicus should care nothing for right or honour, had long ago been provided for. He actually received his first dose of poison from his tutors and passed it off his bowels, as it was rather weak or so qualified as not at once to prove deadly. But Nero, impatient at such slow progress in crime, threatened the tribune and ordered the poisoner to execution for prolonging his anxiety while they were thinking of the popular talk and planning their own defence. Then they promised that death should be as sudden as if it were the hurried work of the dagger, and a rapid poison of previously tested ingredients was prepared close to the emperor’s chamber.


Locusta and Nero test their new and improved poison on a slave before administering it to Britannicus, by Joseph Noël Sylvestre c. 1875

It was customary for the imperial princes to sit during their meals with other nobles of the same age, in the sight of their kinsfolk, at a table of their own, furnished somewhat frugally. There Britannicus was dining, and as what he ate and drank was always tested by the taste of a select attendant, the following device was contrived, that the usage might not be dropped or the crime betrayed by the death of both prince and attendant. A cup as yet harmless, but extremely hot and already tasted, was handed to Britannicus; then, on his refusing it because of its warmth, poison was poured in with some cold water, and this so penetrated his entire frame that he lost alike voice and breath. There was a stir among the company; some, taken by surprise, ran hither and thither, while those whose discernment was keener, remained motionless, with their eyes fixed on Nero, who, as he still reclined in seeming unconsciousness, said that this was a common occurrence, from a periodical epilepsy, with which Britannicus had been afflicted from his earliest infancy, and that his sight and senses would gradually return. As for Agrippina [Nero’s mother, later murdered by the monster -ed.], her terror and confusion, though her countenance struggled to hide it, so visibly appeared, that she was clearly just as ignorant as was Octavia, Britannicus’s own sister [and Nero’s wife … also later murdered by Nero -ed.]. She saw, in fact, that she was robbed of her only remaining refuge, and that here was a precedent for parricide. Even Octavia, notwithstanding her youthful inexperience, had learnt to hide her grief, her affection, and indeed every emotion.

And so after a brief pause the company resumed its mirth. One and the same night witnessed Britannicus’s death and funeral, preparations having been already made for his obsequies, which were on a humble scale. He was however buried in the Campus Martius, amid storms so violent, that in the popular belief they portended the wrath of heaven …

-Tacitus

The family horror of the Julio-Claudians was the career breakthrough for Locusta, whom Nero rewarded “for her eminent services with a full pardon and large estates in the country, and actually sent her pupils.” (Suetonius)

One presumes (although the ancient historians are not so kind as to share her accounts with posterity) that her baneful academy proceeded to do a roaring business for the balance of Nero’s 14-year reign, for she resurfaces in the narrative at the very end of it — as the desperate Nero’s supplier for a suicide draught when he was fleeing the Senate’s proscription.

Nero ended up doing the deed with a blade, not the poison. His dour and forgettable successor, Galba, enjoyed only the briefest ascendancy before he too was done to death on January 15 of the year 69 — but he made sure to use that interval to destroy Nero’s most hated henchmen, Locusta included. (Sans giraffe.)

In the case, however, of Helius, Narcissus, Patrobius, Lucusta, the sorceress, and others of the scum that had come to the surface in Nero’s day, he ordered them to be led in chains throughout the whole city and then to be executed. (Cassius Dio)

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Infamous,Italy,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Popular Culture,Roman Empire,Uncertain Dates,Women

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1823: Robert Hartley, on Penenden Heath

Add comment January 2nd, 2017 Headsman

From the Lincoln, Rutland and Stamford Mercury, Jan. 17, 1823.

CONFESSIONS OF ROBERT HARTLEY

On the 2d instant, an immense concourse of people assembled at Penenden Heath, to witness the execution of Robert Stainton Hartley, convicted at the late Kent Assizes of stabbing Captain Owen, of the Bellerophon hulk,* at Sheerness.

He was of a bold and fearless disposition, and seemed to be little concerned at the thoughts of death. He had frequently observed, “I do not fear death, nor ought I to fear it. I have sought for it, and have got it; and I have got no more than I deserved.”

Previously to his execution, he made confessions, which, if they can be relied on (but those that knew him say that truth was a stranger to his nature), may be the means of bringing to justice the long-sought murderers both of Mrs. Donatty, and Mr. Bird and his housekeeper, at Greenwich.

Hartley confessed to the Rev. Mr. Winter having been concerned in upwards of two hundred burglaries, in Kent, Essex, Surry [sic], Middlesex, Hampshire, Hertfordshire, Yorkshire, Westmorland, Durham, Lincoln, and Norfolk. He had been confined in sixteen different prisons, besides undergoing several examinations at the different police-officers; and he had gone by the following names: — Robert Stainton, Alexander Rombollon, George Grimes, Robert Wood, William Smith, George Croggington, and Robert Hartley.

Hartley’s father formerly kept an inn (the Sir John Falstaff), at Hull, in Yorkshire. He was put to school in that neighbourhood, but his conduct at school was so marked with depravity, and so continually did he play the truant, that he was dismissed as unmanageable. He then, although only nine years of age, began with pilfering and robbing gardens and orchards, till at length his friends were obliged to send him to sea.

He soon contrived to run away from the vessel in which he had been placed, and having regained the land, pursued his old habits, and got connected with many of the principal thieves in London, with whom he commenced business regularly as a house-breaker, which was almost always his line of robbery.

Hartley acknowledged that from his earliest days he was of a most vindictive and revengeful spirit. He had been punished when at school, and, in revenge, contrived to get from his bed in the night, and destroy the whole of the fruit-trees and every plant and shrub in his master’s garden.

At another time, having robbed a neighbour’s garden, he was detected and punished; when, in order to wreak his vengeance, he set fire to the house in the night, which was nearly destroyed, together with its intimates. He had adopted a plan to escape from his father’s house in the night-time without detection, which was done by means of a rope ladder, that he let down from his bed-room window, and after effecting his robberies, he used to return to his room in the same way.

Hartley had once before received sentence of death, and was not respited till within a few hours of the usual time of execution; he was then sent to Botany Bay, whence he contrived to make his escape, and afterwards entered on board one of his Majesty’s ships in the East Indies. Whilst at this station, he was removed to the hospital on shore at Bombay, on account of sickness; but even in this state he could not refrain from thieving.

His practice was to scale the walls of the hospital in the evening, and way-lay the natives, whom he contrived to rob, by knocking them down with a short ebony stick; and then seizing their turbans, in which their wealth was usually deposited, he stole off unperceived, whilst his victims were left weltering in blood, which always followed his blows.

Whilst on this station, a gentleman on board the ship missed a valuable box of pearls, and suspicion falling upon a native Indian, he was put on shore and dreadfully tortured (his finger and toe nails being torn out), to make him confess. A few days before Hartley’s execution, he confessed that he had been the thief, having stolen the pearls, and secreted them in a crevice in the ship’s side, where they had slipped down to the bottom, and he never could get at them again.

Hartley wrote an account of this circumstance to the commander of the ship, who came to Maidstone immediately, and recognized Hartley as having been engaged as an officer’s servant on board; and the latter assured him that the pearls still remained in the place where he had secreted them.

Hartley acknowledged that he was an accomplice in the murder of Mr. Bird and his housekeeper, at Greenwich, for which murder Hussey was executed in 1818, but that neither himself nor Hussey was the actual murderer. Hartley obtained admission into the house by presenting a note at the door, when himself, with Hussey and another person, whom he named, —, rushed into the house and shut the door.

Hartley instantly ran up stairs to plunder the drawers, and whilst there he heard a loud cry for mercy. He went to the top of the stairs, and saw Hussey pull Mr. Bird’s housekeeper to the floor, whilst — struck her repeatedly with a hammer. Hartley ran down stairs, and saw Mr. Bird lying dead on his back. The sight so affected him that he immediately threw on the table two watches which he had secured, ran out of the house, and never saw Hussey afterwards, nor had any share in the plunder.

Happy would it have been had his hands always been as free from blood; but he confessed that he afterwards met a gentleman on the highway and shot him dead; after which he took from his person a watch and 75l.

Hartley was also witness to another scene of murder which occurred in one of his midnight robberies. Himself and a companion had entered the house of a gentleman, who, being alarmed, seized a poker and made towards Hartley, who snapped a pistol, which missed fire. The gentleman seized him by the collar and drugged him to the floor, when Hartley’s companion plunged a knife into his heart, and he fell dead upon hartley.

Two ladies had followed the gentleman into the room, and at the horrid sight they instantly fainted, whilst Hartley and his companion made their escape. He has also frequent[l]y confessed that the murderer of Mrs. Donatty was the above-mentioned —, who he represented to be a most blood-thirsty villain.

In one of his midnight excursions with two of his companions, he had a narrow escape of his life. They had packed up the principal part of the plate in the lower rooms; when one of his companions, with horrid oaths, declared that he would proceed up stairs, in attempting which, he was shot dead at the side of Hartley, who with his other companion, made a hasty retreat.

This circumstance only served to harden him in iniquity, as he acknowledged that he was totally devoid of fear and natural affection. Feelings of remorse were, however, a little awakened a few days before his trial, by an affectionate letter from a sister imprisoned for debt, whom he had robbed of two hundred pounds by forging a power of attorney, by which he obtained possession of a legacy bequeathed to her by a distant relation.

He looked forward to the time of his execution with astonishing coolness; and, in order that he might have the day continually before him, he had drawn a circle on paper, to form a kind of dial, with an index pointing to the number of days yet remaining, and this index he moved daily as the days of life decreased. This monitor he fastened against the wall of his cell, where it was constantly in view. He was but twenty-five years of age, and about five feet six inches high.

* The HMS Bellerophon was one of the most distinguished ships of the Napoleonic wars — the very one aboard which Napoleon surrendered after Waterloo.

That was curtains for the Bellerophon‘s career as well as the Corsican’s; the ship was converted into a prison hulk upon her return. Jams celebrating the ship by her nickname, “Billy Ruffian”, still live on to this day.

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

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1912: Sikat-ul-Islam, by the Russians occupying Tabriz

2 comments January 1st, 2017 Headsman

On or very near this date in 1912,* Russian troops in the northern Iran city of Tabriz publicly hanged eight men for resisting the tsarist occupation — including the city’s highest mullah, Sikat-ul-Islam.

Russia’s invasion of Tabriz the previous month brought a bloody curtain down on the Persian constitutional revolution of 1905-1911.

Persia shook in those years with a brave but doomed movement that was simultaneously constitutionalist and parliamentarian against the rotting Qajar dynasty, and nationalist against foreign intervention (specifically by Russia and Great Britain) — and thus was resisted by monarchists and foreign powers alike.

Constitutionalists had been able to march on Tehran in 1909 and chase the hated Shah Mohammad Ali into Russian exile, leaving the Qajar throne in the hands of his 11-year-old son.** But it was the imperial powers who maintained the true vigor of reaction. At this same time, Russia — which had throughout the 19th century periodically peeled Caucasus real estate away from the Qajars — occupied Tabriz in 1909 to force that capital of Iranian Azerbaijan to submit to a monarchist siege. Its troops were only ever withdrawn to the outskirts, poised for the next two years to intervene again against the precarious constitutionalist state at a moment’s notice.

That moment arrived in 1911 when Tehran, advised by American Morgan Shuster, provoked St. Petersburg by attempting to collect taxes in the northern Russian sphere and to expropriate the property of the Shah’s brother. The Russians struck back by seizing Tabriz to install the rule of a pro-Russian warlord, also exploiting the occasion for a wide purge of constitutionalists who were invariably slated with the crime of attempting or advocating resistance — or as Russia preferred to phrase it, “extermination of the Russians,” as if the tsar’s military interposed in a foreign city constituted a put-upon minority enclave.

Shuster, whose ouster the Russians demanded (and by their intervention effected), later wrote a book about his experience that’s now in the public domain, The Strangling of Persia.

Serious street fighting commenced [December 21st], and continued for several days. The Acting Governor reported that the Russian troops indulged in terrible brutality, killing women and children in the streets and hundreds of other non-combatants … The superior numbers and the artillery of the Eussians finally conquered, and there then ensued a period of terrorism during which no Persian’s life or honor was safe …

On New Year’s Day, which was the 10th of Muharram, a day of great mourning and held sacred in the Persian religious calendar, the Russian Military Governor, who had hoisted Russian flags over the Government buildings at Tabriz, hung the Sikutu’l-Islam, who was the chief priest of Tabriz, two other priests, and five others, among them several high officials of the Provincial Government. As one British journalist put it, the effect of this outrage on the Persians was that which would be produced on the English people by the hanging of the Archbishop of Canterbury on Good Friday. From this time on the Russians at Tabriz continued to hang or shoot any Persian whom they chose to consider guilty of the crime of being a “Constitutionalist.” When the fighting there was first reported a prominent official of the Foreign Office at St. Petersburg, in an interview to the press, made the statement that Russia would take vengeance into her own hands until the “revolutionary dregs” had been exterminated.

“True humanity requires cruelty,” Russia explained, Orwellianly.



Two views of the Jan. 1, 1912 hanging of eight Persian constitutionalists in Tabriz. The gallows is gaily painted with Russian white, blue and red stripes.

As Shuster indicates, the shocking eightfold hanging this date would be followed by many more executions in the weeks to come as Russia (together with Britain in the south) buried the constitutional era for good. Our Sikat-ul-Islam’s “crime” set the tone: he acknowledged writing a letter to a friend in another northern city noting with approval that Tabriz was resisting the Russians and others ought to do likewise.

Another western friend of the Persian constitutionalists, British Orientalist Edward Granville Browne, published a volume with photographs of many such atrocities, The Reign of Terror at Tabriz. Browne’s pamphlet identifies all eight executed people by name; besides the headline cleric, they were:†

  • Ziya-ul-Ulama, a scientist who was also the son-in-law of a prominent constitutionalist judge
  • Muhammad-Kuli Khan, Ziya-ul-Ulama’s uncle who was seized when he attempted to plead for his nephew
  • Sadiq-ul-Mulk, a military engineer
  • Agha Muhammad Ibrahim
  • Shaikh Salim, a cleric known for fighting for the poor
  • Hasan and Kadir, two teenage brothers whose crime was that their father (already deceased) had been a prominent constitutionalist

* Multiple western newspaper reports of the time (e.g., London Times, Jan. 4, 1912) place the event on January 1 per the Gregorian calendar. It’s also noted and denounced) for its impolitic occurrence on the Shi’ite sacred day of Ashura, the 10th day of the month of Muharram on the Islamic lunar calendar; unfortunately, this complicates rather than clarifies the chronology, as different Hijri calendar converters translate 10 Muharram to different Gregorian dates.

I’m going here with January 1 based on the period’s reportage as supported by Shuster (in an excerpt in the post) as well as by Browne in Letters from Tabriz: The Suppression of the Iranian Constitutional Movement. (e.g., the chapter title equating 3 January 1912 with 12 Muharram) However, one can also find knowledgeable citations attributing the executions to December 31 or January 2.

** The refugee Shah would try and fail to return with Russian backing in 1910-11. He ended up dying in exile in Italy.

† Some additional details about these people is drawn from The Iranian Constitutional Revolution, 1906-1911, by Janet Afary.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Intellectuals,Iran,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Mature Content,Occupation and Colonialism,Persia,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Russia,Wartime Executions

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