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1854: John Tapner, the last hanged on Guernsey

Add comment February 10th, 2016 Victor Hugo

(Thanks to guest writer Victor Hugo, who having haunted these pages in many a post kindly permits us to republish the open letter he wrote on February 11, 1854 to Home Secretary (and future Prime Minister) Lord Palmerston. This is the English version as published by London’s Daily News on February 17 of that year; here is a French version of the same. Hugo at the time was living as an exile from the French Empire in the British-controlled Channel Island of Jersey; the case concerned was the highly controversial hanging of John Tapner on the nearby island of Guernsey for the murder of an aged Frenchwoman. Nobody ever hanged again on Guernsey after this possible wrongful execution.

The footnote appears in the original. -ed.)

Sir, —

I lay before you a series of facts which have transpired in Jersey within the last few years:

Fifteen years ago Caliot, a murderer, was condemned to death, and pardoned. Eight years ago Thomas Nicolle, a murderer, was condemned to death, and pardoned. Three years ago, in 1851, Jacques Fouquet, a murderer, was condemned to death, and pardoned.* In each of these cases the penalty of death was commuted for transportation.

In each case, to obtain a commutation of the sentence, a petition signed by the inhabitants of the island was sufficient.

In 1851 transportation was thought a sufficient punishment for Edward Carlton, who murdered his wife under circumstances of the most horrible description.

All this has taken place within fifteen years in the island from which I now address you.

Let us shift the scene from Jersey to Guernsey.

Tapner, a murderer, an incendiary, and a robber, is condemned to death.

At present, and the facts above stated prove the truth of the assertion, the penalty of death is virtually abolished in the opinion of every sane, well thinking man.

No sooner is Tapner condemned than a cry is heard, petitions are multiplied; one, energetically establishing itself on the principle of the inviolability of human life, was signed by 600 of the most enlightened of the inhabitants of the island.

And it is worthy of notice that not one minister of any Christian sect has deigned to affix his signature to either of these petitions. These men are probably ignorant that the cross is a gallows. — The people cried: “Mercy!” The priest cried: “Death!” — Let us pity the priest and resume our subject.

These petitions have been forwarded to you — a repsite has been granted. In similar cases a respite was equal to a commutation of the sentence — the island draws breath — the gallows is not to be erected — cruel error! the gallows is erected — Tapner is hung! and this after mature consideration.

Why?

Why should Guernsey be refused that which has been so often granted to Jersey?

Why deal to one concession and to the other affront? — Why should pardon be sent here and the executioner there?

Why this difference where all things else are equal? — What use was the respite but to aggravate the torture? — Was some mystery involved? To what purpose has been consideration?

Things are whispered, sir, to which I dare not listen. No! it cannot be true. What! a voice, and that of the most obscure, if it be the voice of an exile, cannot ask pardon from an insignificant corner of Europe for a man about to die without being heard by M. Bonaparte, without M. Bonaparte’s interference. What, M. Bonaparte, who has the guillotine of Bellay, the guillotine of Draguignan and the guillotine of Montpellier, not satisfied with all these! Has he still an appetite left for a gallows in Guernsey.

What — in such a case could you have refused justice to the proscribed for fear of giving umbrage to the proscriber. If so, the man was hung to accommodate, and the gallows erected as an act of courtesy, and could you have done all this to strengthen your alliance. No, no; I do not, I cannot believe it. I cannot even admit the idea, although I shudder at it.

Before the great and generous English nation can your Queen have the right of pardon, and M. Bonaparte that of a veto. At the same time that there is an omnipotent in heaven, can there be an omnipotent on earth? No.

I merely say that it was not possible for the French journals to speak of Tapner. I state the fact, but I draw no conclusion from it. However this may be, you have determined to use the terms of the despatch, that justice should take its course, and all is over.

However this may be, Tapner, after having been three times respited, and had his case three times under consideration, was hung yesterday, the 10th of February, and if there be any truth in the conjectures, which for myself I utterly reject, I present you, sir, with the bulletin of the day. you may, if such be the case, transmit it to the Tuileries. These details cannot be offensive to the Empire of the 2nd of December. The Eagle will hover with delight over the field of this victory! He is a gallows Eagle!

A garden joined the prison. In this garden the scaffold was erected. A breach was made in the wall for the prisoner to pass through. At 8 o’clock in the morning the neighbouring streets were crowded with spectators, of whom 200 of the privileged were admitted into the garden. The man appeared in the breach. He walked erect and with a firm step; he was pale, the red circle caused by anxious wakefulness surrounded his eyes.

The month just passed had added twenty years to his age — a man thirty years of age appeared fifty.

“A cotton night-cap was drawn over his head and turned up in front (says an eye-witness); he was dressed in a brown coat, which he wore during the trial, and an old pair of slippers.”

He walked partly round the garden, in a walk gravelled expressly for the occasion. The javelin men, the sheriff, the under-sheriff, and the Queen’s solicitor surrounded him. His hands were tied loosely, as we shall presently see.

According to English custom, while the hands were crossed upon the breast, a cord bound the elbows behind the back.

Behind him, the chaplains, who had refused to sign the petition for mercy, followed weeping.

The gravel walk led to the ladder — the cord was swinging — Tapner ascended the ladder — the executioner trembled: inferior executioners are at times susceptible of pity. Tapner placed himself under the noose, and pressed it over his head, and his hands not being firmly tied, he desired the executioner, who seemed quite confused, to arrange the rope. Then, “as if he had had a presentiment of what was to follow,” says the same eye-witness, “he said, ‘Tie my hands tighter.’ ‘That is unnecessary,’ replied the executioner.” Tapner standing thus with the rope round his neck, and his feet on the trap, the executioner drew the night-cap over his eyes, and nothing more could be seen of that pale face but the mouth moving as in prayer.

After some moments, the man destined to this high office pressed a spring — the drop fell, and the body fell abruptly through — the cord tightened, the body turned, and the man was considered dead.

“It was thought (says the eye-witness) that Tapner was killed at once by the rupture of the spinal marrow, he having fallen 4 feet,” but the witness further adds, “the relief of our oppressed hearts did not last two minutes.” Suddenly the man not yet a corpse, but already a spectre, moved.

The legs were thrown convulsively about, as if seeking some stay in the empty space; what could be discovered of the face was horribly disfigured; and the hands, which had become loose, were clasped and relaxed, as if to implore assistance. The cord around the elbows had snapped in the fall. Amidst these convulsions the rope began to swing, the elbows of the poor wretch came in contact with the edge of the trap, he clung to it with his hands, rested his right knee upon it, raised his body, and seemed to lean towards the crowd. Again he fell; and twice, says the eye witness, was the same scene repeated. He then raised his cap, and the crowd gained a sight of his face. This, it seemed, was too much. It was necessary to close the scene. The executioner reascended the scaffold, and caused the sufferer (I still quote the eyewitness) to let go his hold. The executioner and the victim struggled for a moment; the executioner triumphed. Then this wretch, himself like one condemned, threw himself into the aperture where Tapner was hanging, straightened his knees, and hung to his feet. The rope oscillated for a moment, bearing the victim and the executioner, the crime and the law. At last the executioner himself relaxed his hold; all was over; the man was dead.


Also a prolific drawer, Victor Hugo produced this Ecce in 1854, and several other depictions of the gallows in the ensuing years — possibly inspired by his horror at Tapner’s fate. Ecce is also known as John Brown, although that American slavery abolitionist was not executed until 1859.

You see, sir, how things were managed; the effect was completed; for the town, being built as an amphitheatre, everything was seen from the windows, all eyes were fixed on the garden. If it were the object to excite a feeling of horror, it was done: the crowd cried “Shame, shame,” and several females fainted.

During this time, Fouquet, who had been pardoned in 1851, is repeating. The executioner has converted Tapner into a corpse; Mercy, Fouquet into a man!

Between the time when Tapner fell into the trap, and that in which the executioner, no longer perceiving any motion, let go his feet, 12 minutes elapsed. Twelve minutes! Let that time be calculated, if any one knows by what clock to number the moments of suffering. Such, sir, was the mode of Tapner’s death.

The theory of example is satisfied; the philosopher alone mourns, and asks himself if this be what is called allowing justice to take its course? We must believe the philosopher to be wrong. The punishment has been frightful, but the crime was hideous. Must not society be defended? What will become of us if, &c. &c. The audacity of criminals would meet with no restraint. There would be nothing but atrocities and murders. A check is absolutely necessary. At least, it seems your opinion, Sir, that Tapners should be hung unless they be emperors. Let the will of statesmen be done!

Theorists, dreamers, those visionary spirits who have formed some notion of good and evil, cannot sound, without difficulty, certain depths of the problem of destiny.

Had Tapner, instead of killing one woman, destroyed 300, adding to the heap some hundreds of old men and children — had he instead of breaking a door, violated an oath — had he, instead of purloining a few shillings, stolen 25 millions — had he, instead of burning the house Saujon, overawed Paris by force of arms, he would have an ambassador at London.

It might, however, be as well to define a little more precisely the point at which Tapner ceases to be a robber, and Schinderhannes commences politician. Sir, this is horrible! We are members, you and I, of the infinitely small. I am only a refugee, you are only a minister — I am ashes, you are dust — Atom may surely speak freely to atom — where each is nothing, truth may be spoken. Well then, be assured, whatever may be the actual success of your policy, however glorious the alliance of M. Bonaparte, however honourable it may be for you to act in strict union with him, however far famed and magnificently may be your common triumph in Turkish affairs, this rope, which was fastened round a human sack, the trap which opened under his feet, the hope that, in falling, he would break his spine, the face become livid beneath the deep shadow of the gallows, the bloodshot eyes bursting from their sockets, the tongue lolling from the throat, that groan of anguish only stifled by the knot, the terrified soul which still clings to its tenement, the convulsed knees which seek some support, those bound hands mutely clasped and asking help — and that other man, that man of darkness, who throws himself upon these last struggles, who clings to the knees of the dying wretch, and himself hangs upon the hanging — Sir, these things are frightful!


Victor Hugo, The Hanged Man, c. 1855-1860.

And if haply the conjectures which I disavow be true, if the man who hung to the feet of Tapner were indeed M. Bonaparte, it would be monstrous. But, I repeat, I do not believe this. You have yielded to no influence; you simply said — let justice take its course; you gave this order, as you would have done any other, the prolonged discussions concerning capital punishment do not interest you. To hang a man, and to drink a glass of water are the same things in your estimation — you did not comprehend the importance of the act; it was the oversight of a statesman, nothing more. Sir, keep your blinders for earth, and do not offer them to eternity! Do not trifle with such deep interests, mix nothing of your own with them; it would be impudent. I can see more deeply into those interests than you — Beware! Exul sicul mortuus. I speak as from the tomb.

Bah! what matters it? A man is hung; and what more? a coil of rope to be wound up; some timber work to be taken to pieces a corpse to be buried. Certainly these are great matters! We will fire the cannon, a little smoke in the East, and all will be over. A microscope will be required to detect Guernsey and Tapner. Gentlemen, this rope, this beam, this corpse, this dreadful though invisible gallows, this suffering, carry us into immensity. They involve the social question, which is more important than the political; they do more — they carry us beyond earth. That, which is of little consequence, is your cannon, your politics, and your smoke. The assassin who to-morrow becomes the victim, as a soul which takes its flight holding the end of the gallows-rope — it is this which is frightful. Statesmen, who between two protocols, two dinners, and two smiles, carelessly press with white-gloved hand the spring of the gibbet, and the trap falls under the feet of the victim. Know you what you do? The infinite appears; the unfathomable and the unknown; the mighty shade which rises suddenly and terribly beneath your littleness.

Proceed! Let us observe the men of the old world at their work. Since the past still struggles let us examine it. Let us observe its successive phases.

At Tunis it is impaling; with the Czar the knout; with the Pope it is the garrot; in France the guillotine; in England the gallows; in Asia and America the slave market. All this will be swept away. We, the anarchists, the demagogues, the blood-drinkers, tell you, the protectors and saviours of the world, that human liberty is to be respected, human intelligence is holy, human life is sacred, and the human soul divine. Now go on hanging! But beware! The future opens. You think that living which is dead, and that dead which is living. The ancient form of society, but it is dead. You are deceived. You have stretched out your hand to the spectre of darkness, and chosen her for your bride. You turn your back upon life: it will soon arise behind you. When we pronounce the words Progress, Revolution, Liberty, Humanity, you smile, unhappy man, and point to the darkness in which we both are involved. Do you indeed know what that night is? Learn the truth; ere long the ideas will burst forth in all their strength and glory. Democracy yesterday took the name of France; to-morrow it will take that of Europe. The eclipse does but conceal the increasing magnitude of the star.

I am, sir, your obedient servant,

VICTOR HUGO.
Marine-terrace, Feb. 11

* We read in the Jersey newspapers, of January 7, 1851:

James Fouquet — We are informed that James Fouquet, condemned to death by our Royal Court, for the murder of Derbyshire, and whose punishment was commuted by her Majesty into transportation for life, was removed, about six months ago, from the prison at Milbank, where he had hitherto remained, to Dartmoor. He is nearly cured of the wound in his neck, and his conduct has been such, while at Millbank, that the governor of that prison thinks it extremely possible, there will be a further commutation of his sentence into banishment from the English territories.

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2015: Liu Han, former tycoon

1 comment February 9th, 2016 Headsman

One year ago today, Chinese billionaire Liu Han was executed in Hubei province, along with his younger brother Liu Wei and thee other associates.

One of the prime catches in the anti-corruption hunt of current president Xi Jinping, Liu was a mining oligarch whose personal fortune was once valued at $6.4 billion.

He was also allegedly “an organized crime boss that no one dared provoke”. He was arrested early in 2014 for embezzlement, gun-running, and orchestrating a hit on a rival crime lord.

Liu’s fall was widely perceived as a strike against his close ally, the powerful former security minister Zhou Yongkang. After months — years even — of rumors about his impending fate, Zhou was arrested for corruption in December 2014; he has since been sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison.

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1721: William Spigget, after peine forte et dure

Add comment February 8th, 2016 Headsman

English courts during the Bloody Code were strewn with all manner of weird pre-modern juridical relics, among which one must surely number the peine forte et dure — the “hard and forceful penalty” applied by courts against a defendant who refused to submit a plea.

The jurisdiction of criminal courts that we take for granted today initially emerged opposite potentially rival legal mechanisms for dispute resolution: ecclesiastical courts, weregild, even trial by combat. In principle, a defendant entering a plea at the bar was submitting himself to the specific jurisdiction of the court … a submission that, in principle, he could decline.

The march from that point to the present — when refusing to plead means the court simply enters an automatic “not guilty” plea on your behalf — consisted of gradually making the principle impossible in practice by dint of physical violence to force open the prisoner’s lips. It doesn’t matter if you lift a finger to defend yourself at trial, Mack, but we need you to say “guilty” or “not guilty” first.

The French term itself dates to a statute of Edward I in 1275, under the heading “The Punishment of Felons refusing lawful Trial” — one of those situations where the existence of the legislation proves the existence of the phenomenon. “Notorious Felons, and which openly be of evil Name,” the text complains, “will not put themselves in Enquests of Felonies, that Men shall charge them with before the Justices at the King’s Suit, shall have strong and hard Imprisonment (la prisone forte et dure), as they which refuse to stand to the Common Law of the Land.”

The text’s language suggests close confinement, fetters and guards, crummy rat-gnawed rations in the dumpiest hole of the dungeon: probably the king who introduced hanging, drawing, and quartering could make “hard imprisonment” quite persuasively uncomfortable.

But by the time of Queen Elizabeth, the state saw the need to narrow this potential refuge from the law down to the size of a pinprick. From the 16th century, we find that a special form of torturing to death is designed for prisoners refusing to plead:

the Prisoner is laid in a low dark Room in the Prison, all naked but his Privy Members, his Back upon the bare Ground his Arms and Legs stretched with Cords, and fastned to the several Quarters of the Room. This done, he has a great Weight of Iron and Stone laid upon him. His Diet, till he dies, is of three Morsels of Barley bread without Drink the next Day.*

“Which grievous death some resolute Offenders have chosen,” we understand, “to save their Estates to their Children.” Even this potential pecuniary loophole — the one once sought by Salem witch trials victim Giles Corey when he preferred pressing to death to the certainty of condemnation as a warlock — had vanished, for “in case of High Treason, the Criminal’s Estate is forfeited to the Sovereign, as in all capital Crimes, notwithstanding his being pressed to Death.”

The crown was trying to open an impassable gap between theory and practice, and it was accomplishing that end: this stuff happened once in a blue moon.

People threatened to withhold their plea, sure. What would follow is that a judge would read out in chilling detail everything that was about to befall the fellow (it was usually a fellow, though not always), then a bailiff would seize him and painfully tie his thumbs together right there in court, then march him off to the staking-out room to get things ready. Just showing the instruments of torture was the first rung on the torture-ladder, and usually somewhere in this whole process the defendant — be he ever so hardened — would chicken out and agree to make a plea before the first weight was ever loaded onto his torso.

Usually.

A Tyburn hanging is the focus of this post: it’s a mass execution of seven souls on the 8th of February in 1721. So the peine forte et dure did indeed do its job, force its plea, and noose its man.

But even though William Spigget/Spiggot died at the end of a rope, he was the rare soul who did go so far as to force the awful pressing torture, and to endure it for a little while.

Spigget led a robber gang of eight or so men preying on the roads out of London; one of those men, Thomas Phillips aka Thomas Cross, hanged alongside his boss. They had been caught only days before their eventual trial on January 13, and Spigget bravely, stubbornly, or foolishly refused to submit his plea. (Cross at first refused too, but he was in the chicken-out camp.)

The Ordinary of Newgate, plainly struck by the experience (and not a little aware of its potential to move copy), dwelt at greater length on Spigget’s 30 minutes under the stones than he did on the whole lives of some of the other February 8 hang-day compatriots.

Before he was Put into the Press, I went to Him, and endeavour’d to dissuade him, from being the Author and Occasion of his own Death; and from cutting Himself off from that Space and Time which the Law allowed Him, to repent in, for his vicious Course of Life: He then told me, that if I came to take Care of his Soul, he would regard Me, but if I came about his Body, he desired to be excused, he could not hear one Word. After a while, I left him, and when I saw him again, it was in the Vault, upon the bare Ground, with the Weights (viz. 350 pounds) upon his Breast. I there pray’d by him; and at Times ask’d him, why he would destroy his Soul as well as Body, by such an obstinate Kind of Self-Murder:** All his Answer was, Pray for Me; Pray for Me! In the Midst of his Groans, he sometimes lay silent, as if Insensible of Pain; then would fetch his Breath very quick and fast. Two or three Times, he complained that they had laid a cruel Weight on his Face; tho’ nothing was upon his Face, but a thin Cloth; That was however remov’d and laid more light and hollow; but he still complain’d of the prodigious Weight they had laid upon his Face; which might be occasion’d by the Blood being flush’d and forc’d up into his Face, and pressing as violently against the Veins and small Tendrills there, as if the Pressure upon them had been externally on his Face. When he had continu’d about half an Hour in the Torture, and 50 pound more of Weight had been laid on his Breast, he told the Justice of Peace who committed him, and myself, That he would Plead.

Having thus been awed by 400 pounds of the law’s majesty — and restored to something like sensibility with a splash of brandy, and several days’ rest during which Spigget’s post-ordeal health at times turned so precarious that he besought the last sacrament — both the apex robber and his henchman were easily convicted of several specific robberies upon the roads. One victim was able to identify the two as his assailants; in other cases, specific victims’ stolen goods were recovered from Spigget’s own lodgings, like Neal Sheldon’s valuable wig. Any one of these crimes would have been good enough to hang them.

Showing honor among thieves, the two men concentrated their few remarks on clearing a third confederate tried with them: the evidence against William Heater being circumstantial, and Spigget and Cross insisting that he was more incidental flunky than accomplice, his neck went un-stretched.

So why endure the hard and forceful penalty at all? By all appearances Spigget’s reason in the end resolved to pride: a violently exaggerated performance of the same criminal bravado that led so many of his peers to make a show of dying game at the gallows. “The Reasons, as far as I could learn from Him,” the Ordinary reported,

were, That he might preserve his Effects, for the use of his Family; That it might not be urged to his Children, that their Father was hanged; and that — Linsey should not tryumph over him, by saying he had sent him to Tyburn.

(Joseph Lin(d)sey was a former fellow-robber who saved his own life by turning crown’s evidence against his former mates. Spigget, we are told, was particularly galled by this betrayal “because Spigget had once rescued him [Lindsey] when he was nigh being taken, and in the defending him was wounded, and in danger of his Life.”)

As we have noted, Blighty’s seizure laws had already made the first objective a nonstarter, which leaves our man aspiring to a desperate exertion of masculine defiance. The Spigget of his own mind’s eye was a knight of the road so scornful of death that he would even let them slowly crush him to death. He fell short on that score, but dared much more than anyone had done in years, and no wonder: even the moments he endured as if hours might have been enough to shorten his years had he received an unlikely reprieve.

Sometimes he would say, that he wish’d he had dy’d in the Pressing, For that all sence of Pain was by the Pain taken from him, and he was fallen into a kind of Slumber. At other Times he express’d himself, that he was glad he did not cut himself off, by his Obstinacy, from that space the Law had allow’d him, for his Repentance, for the Sins of his whole Life.

On Monday, February 6, before the Execution, he receiv’d the Sacrament; and said that he desir’d not to Live, for he could be only a weak and unhealthy Man; and added that he could raise his Breath only in the lower Part of his Stomach

* This is not statutory language but that of a contemporary observer.

** The Ordinary really fixated on the suicide angle, just as if entering the trial were not an equally suicidal choice; the whole lot of the condemned got to hear as part of his sermon

That it was a False-Courage, for Malefactors assured that they shall dye, to lay violent Hands upon Themselves, to prevent the effects of the Law; and that if it was an Action fit for Socrates and Cato, and the greatest Heathens; it was yet too mean and indecent for the lowest Christian; as there is something Cowardly and Base, in cutting off our Lives, for fear of Pain and Shame. Nor would Sampson perhaps have obtain’d Licence from God, to Murder Himself, but that in his Person the Name of his God was mocked and ridiculed, and made a Jest for Dagon.

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1896: Benjamin Ratcliff, school shooter

Add comment February 7th, 2016 Headsman

While one might suppose that the plague of school shootings is a strictly recent phenomenon for our degenerated times, Benjamin Ratcliff hanged in Canon City, Colorado on this date in 1896 for gunning down the entire school board of Jefferson district, Park County.

An “aged and eccentric ranchman,” Ratcliff had his homestead in the Tarryall Creek area which he maintained with a son and two daughters — motherless ever since his wife Elizabeth passed away in 1882.

One of the daughters had suffered a crippling injury that left one leg shorter than the other. She walked with a permanent limp.

Among the many woes this imposed upon her was an extreme difficulty reaching the Michigan Creek school, which sat on another ranch seven miles away from the Ratcliff home. Ratcliff petitioned unsuccessfully for some manner of accommodation but so far was the school board from consenting that he caught wind of a rumor allegedly being circulated by one of its number to the effect that Ratcliff pere had incestuously impregnated his own 18-year-old daughter.

Spitting mad, Ratcliff stopped by the schoolhouse on election day — May 6, 1895 — to air his grievances. When the school board arrived to open the polls he picked a fight that ended with Ratcliff gunning down all three members of the board with his Winchester rifle: Samuel Taylor, Lincoln McCurdy, and George Wyatt.


Archival sketch via Park County (Images of America).

Four years before Ratcliff hanged, another settler who lived about 30 miles from the Ratcliff ranch had disappeared. Gottlieb Fluhmann was never accounted for in his own time, but his apparent remains were accidentally discovered in 1944; Ratcliff has sometimes been speculatively credited with that murder, too — though Ratcliff descendants reject that imputation as so much rehashed gossip.

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1557: Martin Bucer and Paulus Phagius, already in their coffins

Add comment February 6th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1557,* the long-dead bones of the Protestant theologians Martin Bucer and Paulus Phagius (Fagius) were sent to the stake during the Tudor era’s brief Catholic recrudescence under Mary I.


18th century engraving (via the British Museum) shows a procession through the streets of Cambridge, with a separate scene depicting men burning both books and the two scholars in their coffins.

Both were Rhenish eminences of the reform movement, such early adopters that they embarked on their heresies from personally attending one of Luther’s earliest disputations, before his doctrines were officially excommunicate.

Bucer was a leading figure in the 1530s and 1540s struggle to keep unity among the competing strains of German Protestantism, and maintained an active correspondence with both Luther and Zwingli. The price of disunity was starkly underscored by the military rollback the Church achieved in the Schmalkaldic War of the late 1540s — and under growing pressure, both men accepted the invitations of Thomas Cranmer to cross the sea and reform the English liturgy.

Their labors there were but brief.** Each appointed to the Cambridge faculty, Phagius promptly died of the plague in 1549; Bucer outlived him, but he was in his late fifties and his health was failing. Before he too died in February of 1551, he produced a treatise to the young king Edward VI on government both ecclesiastical and secular, as well as recommended liturgical revisions that helped shape Cranmer’s 1552 version of the Book of Common Prayer.

If Bucer was fortunate to predecease Edward VI, his bones and Phagius’s would not be spared the Catholics’ wrath. In 1556, heresy proceedings (recounted at admiring length in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs) were opened against them by a deputation sent to cleanse Cambridge of its theological novelties. The Bishop of Chester conceived it a merciful example to be made:

If we had desired revengement, we might have showed cruelty upon them that are alive: of the which (alas! more the pity,) there are too many that embrace this doctrine. If we thirsted for blood, it was not so to be sought in withered carcases and dry bones. Therefore ye may well perceive, it was no part of our wills that we now came hither … but especially for the care and regard we have of your health and salvation, which we covet by all means to preserve. For you yourselves are the cause of this business; you gave occasion of this confession, among whom this day ought to be a notable example, to remain as a memorial to them that shall come after …

[I]f God, as he is slow to wrath and vengeance, will wink at it for a time, yet notwithstanding if we, upon whom the charge of the Lord’s flock leaneth, should permit so execrable crimes to escape unpunished, we should not live in quiet one hour.

Their condemnation was reversed a few years later, when Mary’s Protestant half-sister Elizabeth I succeeded the throne.

* 1557 by our present reckoning; England at the time recognized the new year in March, so it was 1556 to contemporaries.

** Though they hardly had time to make the impact on the English Reformation that they might have aspired to, Bucer had already influenced it in an important way: tracts of Bucer’s from years prior supporting more liberal divorce options, which had made Luther think the man a sybarite, had been fixed upon in the young Cranmer’s effort to construct a respectable theological framework for Henry VIII’s pursuit of Anne Boleyn.

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1886: Dennis Dilda

Add comment February 5th, 2016 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1886, 37-­year­-old Dennis W. Dilda was hanged at the Yavapai County Jail in the then­-territory of Arizona. He was convicted of two murders but may well have committed others, as R. Michael Wilson records in his book, More Frontier Justice in the Wild West: Bungled, Bizarre, and Fascinating Executions:

Dennis W. Dilda was born on a farm near Rome, Georgia, in 1849. In his twenties he left home to avoid arrest after he stabbed a Negro to death for his money. He traveled to Texas, where he was soon charged with murdering a white man. Dilda fled and pursued, captured, tried, and acquitted, but there appears to be no record of either the crime or his trial. After being freed in Texas, he met and married his wife, Georgia, and soon followed her family from Texas to the Salt River Valley in the Arizona Territory. Over the next several years, Dilda got into several shooting scrapes in Phoenix, although no one was injured, but when his brother­-in­-law began to object to his sister’s choice of husband, the brother-­in­-law disappeared under suspicious circumstances. His body was never found and the family never heard from him again.

In September 1885, Dilda got a job helping to manage William Hamilton Williscraft’s farm. The farmhouse came along with the job and Dilda and his wife and children moved in. Williscraft went to live elsewhere but kept one room in the farmhouse for himself. The room was always securely locked and inside was a locked trunk.

Dilda was supposed to have worked alongside the farm’s general caretaker, “General Grant” Jenkins. By December, however, Jenkins had disappeared, and Williscraft noticed the lock had been pried off the door of his reserved room, the trunk had been opened and a gold watch and two pistols were missing. Dilda told his boss that his coworker had hated the job and complained all the time, and one morning he simply left. He denied knowing anything about the theft and suggested Jenkins had done it.

Williscraft, however, knew and trusted Jenkins, who had worked for him for twenty years. He didn’t believe his faithful employee would have stolen from him and then left without giving notice.

So he rode to town and swore out a warrant with the Yavapai County Sheriff, William J. Mulvenon, charging Dilda with the theft.

Deputy Sheriff John W. Murphy went to serve the warrant, stopping at rancher Charley Behm’s house on the way. He went to Dilda’s house several times on December 20, but each time Georgia Dilda told him her husband was out hunting.

Murphy borrowed Behm’s needle gun and tried one more time after dark. The sky was clear and there was full moon. Again, Dilda’s wife said he wasn’t home. In fact, he was hiding behind a fence, armed and waiting for his quarry, something Georgia was well aware of. When Murphy started to leave, Dilda shot him in the back. The deputy sheriff was able to fire the needle gun once before he collapsed and bled to death. Dennis and Georgia Dilda dragged his body inside the farmhouse and down into the cellar, and Dilda buried it there.

The next day, alarmed that Murphy hadn’t returned, Williscraft went to the farmhouse himself and found Murphy’s horse tied up just twenty feet from the house, and pools of blood in that yard. He gathered a posse of men, but Dilda had already left on foot and he was armed to the teeth, with Behm’s needle gun, his own .30 caliber Remington rifle, and Murphy’s .44 caliber revolver and cartridge belt.

Searchers found the corpse of “General Grant” Jenkins buried in the garden, concealed beneath a bed of replanted sunflowers. He had been shot in the head and had been dead for weeks. The searchers found Murphy’s body a short time afterwards.

A search party went looking for the fugitive and found him two days later, asleep under a tree. He did not resist when Sheriff Mulvenon arrested him. “You know it would be natural for a man in my position, if he could tell anything that would benefit him, he would do so,” Dilda replied simply when pressed for a confession. “But I have nothing to say.”

Dilda’s last night on earth, Wilson notes, “was restless, as he would doze only to awaken suddenly with a startled scream.” In the morning they took him to his favorite Chinese restaurant for breakfast and he ate heartily. At eleven o’clock, Dilda had one final photograph taken with his wife and two small children, Fern and John.

The hanging was at 2:00 p.m.

While Dilda was standing on the scaffold, Sheriff Mulvenon asked, “Is there anything you want?”

“A drink,” Dilda replied. Mulvenon let him take a long draw from a bottle of whiskey.

Some eight hundred men, as well as a dozen women, watched the hanging. Dilda went to his death quietly. The only commotion came from the audience: a reporter sent to cover the execution fainted as the trap was sprung.

The condemned man’s last words were, “Goodbye, boys!”

Georgia Dilda did not face charges for her role in Deputy Sheriff Murphy’s death. She returned to her family in Phoenix after the execution and never bothered to send for her husband’s body.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arizona,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Murder,Other Voices,Public Executions,Theft,Uncategorized,USA

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1784: James Andrews, the last to hang in the Grassmarket

Add comment February 4th, 2016 Headsman

This date in 1784 was the last occasion Edinburgh’s Grassmarket hosted a public execution.

One of 15 marketplaces in Edinburgh by 15th century royal decree, the Grassmarket was then and remains today a rectangular plaza flattened between the imposing Edinburgh Castle to the north, and George Heriot’s School for orphans to the south.


Edinburgh Castle seen from the western edge of the Grassmarket.
(cc) image from Jan Brünemann.

(In 1783, teenage outlaw James Hay had managed to escape from prison shortly before his hanging and hide out in the environs of Heriot’s school — of which he was an alumnus. Puckish schoolboys secretly brought morsels to their fugitive chum for six weeks, until the heat had died down enough for Hay to successfully escape Scotland.)

For more than a century, since the Restoration, the Grassmarket’s east end had doubled as a public execution theater — although other executions also continued to take place at different Edinburgh venues such as Mercat Cross. But the Grassmarket came online for the gallows just in time to lodge that site in the nation’s memory for martyring an hundred or more Covenanters during the Killing Time. The Duke of Rothes would crack of one such believer who preferred death to reconciliation, “Then let him glorify God in the Grassmarket.” Many did so.


Covenanters Memorial at the onetime site of the Grassmarket’s gallows. (cc) image from Kim Traynor. Just to the right (north) of this view one would find overlooking the memorial the pub named for Half-Hangit Maggie Dickson, who survived her execution in the Grassmarket in 1724.

To these souls of these saints was attached a more profane passion in 1736 when a mob incited by an unjust execution rampaged through the Grassmarket and lynched the captain of the city guard who fired on the populace — the real-life events recalled in Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian.

As was the case with London’s nearly simultaneous retirement of the Tyburn tree, the milestone occasion dignified the sufferer far more than the other way around. James Andrews was a forgettable minor criminal who hanged for a robbery in the Meadows.

The city’s next execution was fully 14 months later. It took place outside the western facade of the Tolbooth prison, which now took over from the Grassmarket as Edinburgh’s definitive public execution site.

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Entry Filed under: Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Scotland,Theft

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2016: Brandon Astor Jones

3 comments February 3rd, 2016 Headsman

Forty-six minutes after midnight this morning, the U.S. state of Georgia executed its oldest death row inmate, Brandon Astor Jones.

Jones was a prolific penpal correspondent who had won a worldwide following as he fought his death sentence over half a lifetime.

His accomplice Van Roosevelt Solomon was electrocuted all the way back in 1985 for the same convenience store robbery-murder;* as Liliana Segura recently noted in The Intercept, Jones’s case is heavy with the arbitrariness of capital cases — not only that Jones outlived Solomon by three decades, but also that in that span many other Georgians have committed homicides equal to his in tragic banality, served a term of years for it, and been released. It needs hardly even be said that Jones, like 54 of the other 60 people executed by Georgia since the 1970s, had a white victim: that’s a disparity that courts have washed their hands of even though it was one of the constitutional concerns that led a former incarnation of the U.S. Supreme Court to invalidate death penalty statutes in 1972.

While Jones’s death is headline news, his case dates to the earliest years of what is dignified the “modern” death penalty period and as such might more closely resemble the preceding era than the one we inhabit today.

It’s almost a time capsule of the jurisprudence — and sociology — touching capital punishment, even including Jones’s unluckily-timed appeal victory that led to a new sentencing hearing during the gung-ho-to-execute 1990s. Even if the distance of time is extreme, more typical death penalty lags of 8, 10, 15 years mean that most present-day executions are ripples of receding public policy sensibilities — “zombie cases” in the words of Southern Center for Human Rights director Stephen Bright. People like Brandon Jones “almost certainly would not be sentenced to death today,” when prosecutors, judges, and juries all show growing reluctance to don the black cap. But it’s a very different story for those is already tangled in the coils of the system.

* A policeman happened to be arriving right to the same store on a coincidental errand when the crime went down, so the culprits were arrested before they made it off the parking lot.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Georgia,Lethal Injection,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Ripped from the Headlines,Theft,USA

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1940: Mikhail Koltsov, Soviet journalist

Add comment February 2nd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1940, Soviet writer Mikhail Koltsov was shot at Lubyanka Prison.

Maybe the premier journalist of the early Bolshevik state, Koltsov (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) founded several magazines in the 1920s — including the still-extant Ogoniok.* His stylistic flair set him apart in an age oppressed by leaden, censorious prose. “If Pravda featured a readable piece in the 1930s, Koltsov was probably the author,” Donald Rayfield puts it in Stalin and His Hangmen. And the man’s charisma didn’t end with pen; he was the lover of (among others) the wife of security chief Nikolai Yezhov.

A convinced communist who had participated in the revolution, his reliability led Stalin to dispatch him to the Spanish Civil War — as a Pravda correspondent but also, of course, a Soviet agent. His role and his many fraught relationships are treated at some length in We Saw Spain Die; one officer of an international brigade wrote that Koltsov and his fellows seemed to breathe freer amid the wild danger of the front — “Here there was none of the slavish terror of the Moscow intellectual. Under the hail of Fascist bullets they forgot the bullet in the back of the neck, the secret executions of the GPU. Their talk was relaxed, uncharged with double meanings, un-Asiatic.”

Be that as it may, Koltsov as Kremlin vizier to a dirty war was on the other end of the death warrant often enough; he also cultivated Ernest Hemingway, and was rewarded with a thinly veiled role in For Whom The Bell Tolls (the character Karkov). His memoir Spanish Diary is a sort of team-Soviet counterpart to Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.

But Koltsov lived ever in the shadow of Stalin’s terror, and to hear his friend, English correspondent Claud Cockburn tell it, Koltsov too knew it very well: a man for his time who could be a true believer by day and by night crack gallows humor at the creeping purges among friends. “I cannot say I was surprised” by his fall, Cockburn wrote when his onetime comrade disappeared. “And, oddly, I doubt if he was much surprised either. He had lived — and talked and joked — very dangerously, and he had absolutely no illusions so far as I know about the nature of the dangers … He would not, I thought, have been otherwise than satirically amused by some of the almost hysterically sentimental outcries which greeted his removal.” Though difficult to establish with certainty, it is thought that Stalin and Beria broadly suspected their Spanish Civil War emissaries of exposure to Trotskyite machinations, western spies, and other indulgences characteristic of men too far removed from that bullet in the back of the neck. Veterans of this conflict who retured to the USSR were a heavily purged demographic.**

Arrested as a Trotskyite at the end of 1938, he had a year to savor the terrors of interrogation and was made to denounce as western agents former friends like director Vsevolod Meyerhold — who was eventually executed on the same Feb. 1-2 night as Koltsov himself.

His brother, the cartoonist Boris Yefimov,† tried to inquire about him in March 1940 and was told that Koltsov had been interned in the gulag for ten years “without right of correspondence” … a secret police euphemism for a man who would in fact never correspond with anyone again.

* In 1923; this was a re-founding of a periodical dating to 1899, and the magazine naturally claims the earlier vintage for itself.

** Koltsov’s fall also corresponds to Moscow’s pre-World War II rapprochement with Berlin; one of the people his tortured denunciations helped bring down was the Jewish pro-western foreign minister Maxim Litvinov, for whom an anti-fascist alliance had been the policy. Litvinov was succeeded by Molotov — he of the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany.

† Their surname by birth was Fridlyand; their father was a Jewish cobbler in Kiev.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,History,Notably Survived By,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,Torture,Treason,USSR

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1871: John Hanlon, guilty but framed

Add comment February 1st, 2016 Headsman


Harrisburg Patriot, Feb. 2, 1871

On this date in 1871, John Hanlon expiated a cold-case Philadelphia murder.

Back in September of 1868, a young girl named Mary Mohrmann vanished while playing outside — her outraged corpse to be discovered days later dumped on a vacant lot a few blocks away at Sixth and Susquehanna.

The crime had every hallmark of a neighborhood perpetrator, someone who would have had the ability to hide away the kidnapped or dead girl in his own home before disposing of her body nearby.

John Hanlon, a nearby barber who knew Mary’s mother, numbered among the several men suspected of the crime and even detained for it. But it was frustratingly impossible to pin a solid accusation on him or anyone else. There were a few witnesses who had seen Mary led off, and a few others who saw someone abandon a bulky encumbrance where Mary was found, but among them all nobody was prepared to venture an identification.

So there the matter rested, and little Mary Mohrmann’s file might to this day reside in the dusty back rooms of the Philadelphia police cold case lockers had Hanlon restraint enough to lay off the predation following his lucky escape.

He did have the wisdom to move (within Philadelphia), and even to change his name to “Charles Harris”, but some detectives who investigated the original case still had him in view. In December 1869, “Harris” caught a fire-year sentence for attempting to molest a 10-year-old girl — and this naturally strengthened the suspicion against him in the Mohrmann case to (as the Cincinnati Enquirer put it on Dec. 30, 1869) “morally certain” despite the “lack of legal evidence to place him on trial.”

Now sure of their mark — indeed, seemingly tunnel-visioned in a fashion highly conducive to a wrongful conviction — police resumed their efforts to remedy that want of legal evidence.

To this end, they provided the suspect a cellmate in the person of a thief named Michael Dunn, whose detail was to elicit from “Harris” particulars of his criminal career. Sure enough, this stool pigeon soon had a self-reported confession in hand.

This distasteful strategem made possible the case that hanged John Hanlon: with it, the state could situate its moral certainty in a coherent narrative of the crime that Dunn read into the court transcripts as issuing straight from the mouth of the accused.

While Hanlon denied to the last that he ever confessed anything to the convenient jailhouse snitch, posterity might comfort itself (as did contemporaries)* by the culprit’s conspicuous caginess when it came to his actual culpability. His refusal even to remark on his own guilt or innocence appeared to speak volumes.

So it is hardly a surprise that few other Philadelphians besides Hanlon’s own mother, sisters, and 16-year-old wife** were at all troubled by the cheat necessary to noose the man. The New York Herald, whose bulletins on the case ran towards sensationalism, reported “a general sense of relief” in the City of Brotherly love post-execution.

When it was found that … Hanlon had really been hung people began to breathe freer — they feel that now their innocents are safe. The influence exerted by Hanlon’s deeds on the minds of every one having helpless children in their family has been something wonderful … no sympathy has been manifested for the guilty wretch.†

He died firmly, having immersed himself in prayer in his last days, and pronounced himself at peace with the world and with his mortal fate.


Editorial from the Feb. 3, 1871 New York Tribune.

* Hanlon, understandably, did not share this equanimity and at sentencing subjected the court to a bitter rant against the prosecutors who stitched him up. “I will die by murder!” he cried. “If ever another such case should come to light, lay before the jury John Hanlon’s last words, and let no more blood be spilled by perjury.” (Harrisburg Patriot, Dec. 12, 1870) Towards the end, in an interview with one of the detectives responsible, a more resigned Hanlon peacably reproached the lawman, “You and I know how it was done, and I don’t want to talk about it.” (New York Tribune, Feb. 2, 1871) By this time, Hanlon had a dying man’s thirst for reconciliation, and he apologized to the detective for the sharp tone he had taken in court.

In his last statement on the gallows, he generically sought forgiveness from “all whom I have injured in any way whatsoever.” (Harrisburg Patriot, Feb. 2, 1871)

** She was 13 when they married.

† New York Herald, Feb. 2, 1871. This author admitted that “it was necessary to use Dunn as a witness … the end will justify the means; yet it is a bad precedent to establish.”

On this day..

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

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