Samuel Wright and George Townley both murdered romantic partners late in 1863. Both were tried, convicted, and condemned to hang in very short order and both the subjects of intense pressure for a crown commutation of sentence.
Only one of those men hanged. It was 150 years ago today.
Townley lived near Manchester and was courting a young woman named Bessie Goodwin from Derbyshire. Described as a man from a respectable upper middle class family with “refined manners,” and an intelligent linguist* to boot, Townley was nevertheless a rung or two below Miss Goodwin on the wealth and status ladder.
He was, accordingly, frustrated of his designs when the young lady accepted a clergyman’s proposal and broke off her previous engagement to Townley. Despite being disinvited by ex-fiancee, Townley took a train to her village and pressed his company on her. The two went for a walk that evening, and Townley stabbed her in the throat — a fact which he confessed on the scene to the first person who responded to the commotion and found Miss Goodwin staggering towards her home with a fatal gash in her neck.
In the great tradition of weird stalkers everywhere, Townley then helped the Good Samaritan carry the dying woman home, and kissed her tenderly, all the while bemoaning to arriving gawkers his guilt. “She has deceived me, and the woman who deceives me must die,” he responded chillingly to the inquiries of his would-be father-in-law. “I told her I would kill her. She knew my temper.”
This is all a very bad hand to deal a defense barrister.
Having little to work with, his superstar attorney — remember, the family had money — went with an insanity defense, aided by the lunacy diagnosis of prominent psychiatrist Forbes Winslow.** There was some history of insanity in his family, and everyone seemed agreed on the point that Townley didn’t set out with the intent to commit murder, but impulsively — madly? — took that course as he realized during his interview that he would surely not be putting a ring on that.
The legal standard of the time gave no purchase to this sort of thing. Townley’s judge instructed the jury to find insanity only if he “was under delusions … [and] supposed a state of things to exist which did not exist, and whose diseased mind was in such a condition that he acted upon an imaginary existence of things as if those things were real.” This is the M’Naghten rule, a historically pivotal and also highly restrictive insanity definition dating to 1843.
On December 12, 1863 Townley was sentenced to death for the murder, with the hanging scheduled for the approaching New Year’s Day. According to the London Times report the next week (Dec. 18), the sentence “has not made the slightest alteration in his demeanour. He partakes of his meals heartily, sleeps well, and repeatedly asserts that he was perfectly justified in taking away his victim’s life, and that he feels no remorse for the deed.”
Nevertheless, Townley’s well-off family and friends had enough pull to pry open a previously little-known legal escape hatch.
Upon the judge’s own request, the crown empaneled a committee to adjudicate Townley’s sanity for his mercy petition. But a sloppily written law actually allowed any two doctors plus any two magistrates to issue a formal certification of madness which would compel the prisoner’s removal to the asylum. Townley’s own solicitor simply assembled himself a quartet so minded and presented their finding to the Home Secretary, forcing his hand — to a great deal of public outrage once the obscure mechanism became known.
“Good friends and abundant means may give a convicted criminal unexpected advantages over an ordinary offender,” the Times complained in an editorial. (Jan. 27, 1864) Plus ça change.
Samuel Wright was not a man of means or linguistic gifts, but a bricklayer who lived in a Waterloo Road public house in Surrey, on London’s southern outskirts.
On December 13, 1863, he slashed the throat of his live-in lover Maria Green after they’d both been on a drinking bout. On December 16, mere three days later, Wright voluntarily pleaded guilty and received a death sentence.
A hue and cry for Wright’s sentence to be abated soon arose among London’s working classes, especially in the wake of Townley’s commutation. Wright had a good reputation, while Green was known for her violent temper. Wright intimated that she had menaced him with a knife during a quarrel.
Was this not a case like George Townley’s, only more so?
The contrast in the fates between the two murderers did not flatter. The crimes were analogous even to the mode of slaying.† If anything, the rich man’s suggested a more egregious context: Townley’s victim appeared more sympathetic, and Townley had gone out of his way to track her down in order to kill. Why was Townley’s heat of passion “insanity” but Wright’s was motive and deliberation?
The Home Secretary offered his sympathy but not his mercy. After all, Wright himself agreed that he intentionally killed Green. “To commute the sentence on the grounds on which it has been pressed would, in fact, be to lay down a rule of law as to the distinction between murder and manslaughter contrary to that which is well established,” wrote a Home Office spokesman on Jan. 7 in response to three separate petitions submitted on Wright’s behalf. Maybe they thought the same thing about Townley … but that decision was out of their hands.
Friends, for me have persevered,
To save me from the gallows high;
Alas! for me there is no mercy,
Every boon they did deny,
While others who was tried for murder,
And doomed to die upon a tree,
Through friends and money has been pardon’d
who deserved to die as well as me.
But, oh! my friends, you must acknowledge
what I say has oft been said before.
Some laws are made to suit two classes,
One for the rich, one for the poor;
So it is with me and Townley,
A reprieve they quickly granted he,
He was rich, and I was poor, —
And I must face the fatal tree.
The mood of the populace for the hanging at Horsemonger Lane Gaol this date in 1864‡ was decidedly ugly. On the night of the 11th, when it became clear that the many last-ditch bids for commutation — directed not only at the Home Secretary but even to Queen Victoria and even to the Prince of Wales appealing for a boon on the occasion of his first son‘s January 8 birth§ — a handbill circulated in the prison’s neighborhood entreating its denizens to protest the execution by shuttering all windows. “Let Calcraft and Co. do their work this time with none but the eye of Heaven to look upon their crime.”
Indeed this summons was widely obeyed.
A small crowd only turned out for the occasion, and shouted their disgust for the proceedings: “Shame!” and “Judicial murder!” and “Where’s Townley?” Even many months later, at the controversial August 10 hanging of Richard Thomas Parker, the crowd chanted Townley’s name, now the emblem of the unequal justice of the law.
One diarist’s entry for the day recalled that “[t]he blinds were down in all the neighbouring streets and the military were called out in case of an attempted rescue. When the unfortunate man appeared on the scaffold, loud cries of ‘Take him, take him down’ were heard in every direction, to which the unhappy man responded by repeated bows to the multitude, he still continued bowing and was actually bowing when the drop fell.”
The language of the law that permitted Townley his backdoor commutation was revised by Parliament within weeks.
As to Townley himself, another panel appointed by the Home Office found him fully cogent, which meant that officially, he had become insane after his death sentence and the insanity abated thereafter. While this finding theoretically reinstated the death penalty, actually hanging him after these circumstances was thought to be inhumane, and he was reprieved. One supposes there must have been some thought for the potential disturbance Townley’s hanging would have occasioned.
On February 12, 1865 — a year and change after escaping the noose that claimed Samuel Wright — George Townley hurled himself headlong off a high staircase onto a stone floor in Pentonville Prison, where he had been transferred as an ordinary inmate. He died on the spot.
† An additional unflatterering comparison point to Derbyshire contemporaries: a proletarian named Richard Thorley had been hanged in Derby in 1862 for a very similar crime: he slashed his girlfriend’s throat when she tried to break up with him.
‡ Among the very last public hangings at Horsemonger Lane Gaol. All UK hangings were conducted behind prison walls by 1868.
§ This infant, Prince Albert Victor, is the royal eventually identified with Jack the Ripper by a particularly inventive hypothesis.
Warning: Graphic severed head pictures await at the bottom of this post.
On this date in 1909, the guillotine returned France after an absence of more than three years.
The sitting president was a staunch death penalty opponent and had blocked all executions since his term began in 1906. That was about the same span of time that the Pollet gang had, in the words of a New York Times wire report,* “infested the Belgian-French frontier, robbing churches, houses, and inns, holding up stage coaches and belated travelers, and torturing and slaying their victims according to the old piratical adage that dead men tell no tales.”
Abel Pollet had been a smuggler who put his native gift for leadership to good use organizing his fellow traffickers into a more lucratively violent line of work. Thanks, presumably, to the syndicate’s pre-existing professional aptitude for evasion, it persisted for years and authored a quantity of robberies and murders that authorities could only guess at. (The official homicide estimation ran north of 50.) It was a spree so atrocious that it helped force the end of the whole death penalty moratorium since sentiment was so strong against the Hazebrouck gang .
“At midnight there were 2,000 watchers in the square,” one report ran. “The main street of the town was crowded as on the eve of a fete. Soon after midnight men brought ladders and benches to the square and mounted them to obtain an uninterrupted view. Others climbed into the branches of trees, where their presence was revealed by the glow of cigarettes and pipes in the dark among the branches.”
Undeterred by the steady winter’s drizzle, they would wait all the night through, their numbers continually augmented as road-trippers arrived by train.
At four in the morning the dread traveling executioner Anton Diebler, who had already plied this trade for a generation and more and would continue in the role for another 30 years, arrived with four assistants to set up the guillotine. It was only with difficulty that police restrained the pawing mob.
By half-past five the public prosecutor officially informed the condemned men what they surely already knew — that there would be no mercy. The crowd on the square would have its prey.
As the first robber, Theophile Deroo, emerged at 7:25 a.m., “there was a painful silence, and then an outbreak of hoots and curses from the crowd.” A wilting Deroo had to be hustled to the board amid the jeers. “A mort! A mort!” came the howls.
Three times in the next eight minutes the executioners furiously scrubbed the apparatus clean while guards (per the Times) “held the crowd back with main force.”
Canut Vromant followed coolly; Auguste Pollet was third, fighting and shouting. His brother, the leader Abel Pollet, went under a rain of curses that he answered with the words “Down with the priests! Long live the Republic!”
People are ghoulish. Far be it from us to deny them.
After the quadruple executions, the heads are cleaned up. (Source)
Perhaps, dear reader, you find the public exhibition of these severed heads objectionable. If so, you have an ally in the French state that did the severing.
For years, French elites had been fretting the indecorous behavior of the crowd at what was supposed to be a solemn occasion. The advent of photography only made matters worse, for now the discomfiting head-chopping exercise could be shared with those indisposed to sitting up all night smoking pipes in trees.
But as the moratorium gave way, the rising media form of cinema promised even more debased exhibitions. Enterprising cinematographers were already staging execution re-creations; now there was the prospect for film audiences to be incited to countless bloodlust frenzies by on-the-scene deathporn footage of hated criminals going under the blade. It was in response to just this fear that France a bit later in 1909 promulgated (French link) its first film censorship rules — forbidding in this case the public display of film liable to disturb the public tranquility.
* Jan. 16, 1909 … under the excited headline “THIRST FOR BLOOD AMONG THE FRENCH”,
One year ago today, 57-year-old Zhang Yongming was executed in China, just six months after a court in the province of Yunnan convicted him of murder. Zhang, a farmer, was modern China’s answer to Fritz Haarmann: authorities believe he killed young men and boys, cannibalized parts of their bodies and sold the leftover flesh at the village market.
Convicted of eleven murders, he’s suspected of six more.
When young people started disappearing in the neighborhood, the police initially assumed they’d been kidnapped and sold for slave labor, a sad situation that’s all too common in present-day China.
Witnesses reported that Yongming began selling meat at the local market, which he had never done before, after 1997. The meat, which he sold as ostrich meat, was cured and dried.
When police finally searched Yongming’s house, they found strips of human flesh that were hung up to dry around his house. He kept dozens of human eyeballs preserved in alcohol in bottles, which police said looked like “snake wine.” Investigators said Yongming likely fed human remains to his dogs. In a nearby vegetable garden, police found bones believed to be human.
This wasn’t the first time Zhang had faced the death penalty, either: in 1979, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to death, but the sentence was reduced and he was released from prison in 1997. The government even helped him get back on his feet by giving him a bit of land and a monthly allowance.
But Zhang simply couldn’t stay on the straight and narrow: by the spring of 2008, he’d started killing again, and the murders didn’t stop until his arrest four years later.
Following his conviction in July 2012, he confessed to his crimes and didn’t bother to file any appeals. He reportedly showed no remorse and didn’t offer any apologies for his victims’ families or any explanation for his conduct.
A year ago today, a blindfolded, white-clad Rizana Nafeek had her head chopped off in public in Dawadmy, near the Saudi capital of Riyadh.
Rizana Nafeek, a Sri Lankan, was among the numerous foreign laborers routinely imported to Saudi Arabia for domestic work. There are an estimated 1.5 million migrant domestic workers in Saudi Arabia from South Asia (especially Sri Lanka), Nepal, Indonesia, East Africa, and the Philippines. Most are employed via the kafala (“sponsorship”) system that places their host in an almost lord-like position of authority.
Such workers are excluded from Saudi Arabia’s labor protections, and as a result stand vulnerable to horrifying abuse.* Household heads often confiscate these workers’ passports, and in some cases have subjected their domestic employees to rape, beatings, wage confiscation, and work weeks of 100-plus hours. One Sri Lankan woman had nails driven into her hands when she complained about overwork.
Rizana Nafeek hardly had time to find out whether any of these perquisites were in store for her. Not long after she arrived in Saudi Arabia in 2005 hoping to make enough money as a domestic drudge to move her impoverished family into a house, she had bottle-feeding duties for her host family’s infant foisted upon her. Nafeek had no training in caring for infants.
In May 2005, that child began choking while in Rizana’s care, and her panicked shouts summoned the mother. By the time the mother arrived, the infant had fallen unconscious, and the upset family immediately handed over their maid to the police, accusing her of strangling the baby.
This was the victim for whom Nafeek was decapitated, and also perhaps an illustration of tunnel vision in law enforcement. It’s quite doubtful whether there was ever any objective basis for supposing a homicide, but the fact that this was the color the family gave to events in the horror of the moment set in motion all the ensuing events.
During the investigation leading up to her 2007 trial and condemnation, Nafeek confessed to smothering the child — but she would later claim this confession was tortured out of her, and that the baby simply started choking on its bottle. (There was never a post-mortem on the dead baby.)
Opaque as the Saudi Arabian criminal justice system is, it’s got ample reputation for obtaining confessions by violence, and for mistreating migrant workers. And the accused had scant legal representation and no translator when she was tried for her life in a Saudi court.
After her conviction, it would also emerge that, order to land her the gig, Nafeek’s Sri Lankan recruiting agency falsified her papers to bump her age up past the legal minimum of 21. Rizana Nafeek arrived in Saudi Arabia carrying a passport that said she was born in 1982, making her 23 years old when she committed the supposed murder … but her birth certificate said that she was born in 1988, and was still a minor when the “murder” took place.
Noting that the dead infant’s family refused repeated blandishments of “blood money” to exercise its right to grant clemency, Riyadh officially “deplore[d] the statements made” by Rizana’s supporters “over the execution of a Sri Lankan maid who had plotted and killed an infant by suffocating him to death, one week after she arrived in the kingdom.”
More sympathetic Saudis, undoubtedly meaning well, offered Rizana Nafeek’s family cash compensation after the young woman was beheaded. That money, too, was angrily refused.
“I will not accept any gifts from the Saudis or the Saudi government which murdered my daughter,” mother Saiyadu Farina told a Sri Lankan newspaper. That anger was widely shared in Sri Lanka; Colombo even recalled its Saudi ambassador in protest.
That’s as may be, but money is sure to carry the argument at the end of the day. Wage remittances by overseas laborers are a massive boon to the island nation, amounting to $6.3 billion in 2012 — 8.8% of the Sri Lankan economy. And Saudi Arabia remains the single largest employer (pdf) of Sri Lankans abroad.
As of the time of Rizana Nafeek’s execution, at least 45 other foreign domestics, most of them Indonesians, were also awaiting execution on Saudi Arabia’s death row.
On this date in 1690, the Russian stolnik (an administrative office in the Russian court) Andrei Ilyich Bezobrazov was put to death with the magicians he allegedly contracted to bewitch Tsar Peter the Great.
Whatever its other sins, Russia enjoys a reputation for having largely steered clear of the frightful witch-hunts that broke out elsewhere in Europe. Certainly tsars issued many decrees against witchcraft and even prescribed the death penalty in law. But unlike courts in western Europe, Russia does not seem ever to have folded the entire swath of extra-Christian folk beliefs and everyday peasant “magic” together into a juridical theory of omnipresent diabolical terrorism stretching from the neighborhood midwife to the Prince of Darkness himself. Perhaps for that reason, its historical record of witch persecutions presents fewer and more scattered data points.
Elites, write Valerie Kivelson and Jonathan Shaheen,* “demonstrated no interest in formulating a systematized or theorized framework for explaining the uncanny power of magic [and] they also made no effort in their courtrooms to unearth evidence of such a framework … Instead of pursuing connections to the devil, Muscovite judges exerted themselves to track the lineages and results of magic: Who taught you? Whom have you taught? Whom have you bewitched? The judges’ concerns were concrete and this-worldly: who were the victims and who were the victimizers?”
Unfortunately for Bezobrazov, his victim was the tsar himself.
Bezobrazov allegedly obtained the service of “sorcerers and witches” who worked magic “on bones, on money and on water” to enspell the new 17-year-old sovereign during the uncertain period after Peter threw off the regency of his older sister Sophia. Despite Peter’s ultimate reputation as Russia’s great westernizer, the immediate effect of this transition was an oppressive interregnum wherein conservative religious interests took advantage of the new sovereign’s distraction from internal Russian politics to reassert themselves violently.
For Bezobrazov, political turnover augured personal uncertainty. The innocent explanation for his “witchcraft” was invoking a little ritual in hopes of catching a favorable assignment in Peter the Great’s new Russia. It didn’t work.
Bezobrazov was beheaded on Red Square on this date at the same time two folk healers went to the stake with their magic talismans and healing herbs at a swamp across the Moskva from the Kremlin. An essay in this Festschrift describes what it’s like to be a peasant folk healer suddenly under investigation for regicide.
Dorofei Prokofiev … had treated animals belonging to the Bezobrazov household. But when arrested and interrogated, Dorofei did not identify himself as a “sorcerer,” but rather as a posadskii chelovek (artisan), specifically a horse-trainer (konoval) and a blood-letter (rudomet’). He admitted to practicing bean divination and palm reading in addition to treating the illnesses of children and adults with herbs and incantations. His bag contained beans, incense (for protecting brides and grooms from sorcerers, Dorofei said), and a variety of herbs. The herb bogoroditskaia (= royal fern) he gathered himself on St. John’s Day, while reciting the charm “whatever you, herb, are good for, be good for that.” But he denied ever casting a spell to harm the sovereign, and he claimed not to be acquainted with Andrei Bezobrazov — a lie that was quickly uncovered when Dorofei was subjected to torture. At that point Dorofei changed his story: Bezobrazov had asked him to cast a spell on the tsar, but only to make him feel favorably towards Bezobrazov, not to damage the sovereign’s health. Dorofei gave his interrogators examples of the incantations that he used in fortune-telling, all intertwined invocations of Christian figures with sympathetic magic. In short, Dorofei tried to rescue himself by claiming that his healing and fortune-telling activities were all well-intentioned. But the investigators, and Peter himself, were convinced of Bezobrazov’s guilt, which meant Dorofei was guilty as well. Bezobrazov was beheaded, and Dorofei was burned at the stake as a witch.
For everyday folks like Dorofei Prokovie, the author notes, “well-positioned patrons could be either a source of protection or of danger.”
According to Crime and Punishment in Early Modern Russia, which is also the source of the January 8 date, Bezobrazov’s wife was punitively tonsured for not reporting the “plot” and several other of Bezobrazov’s peasants were knouted and sent to Siberia.
* “Prosaic Witchcraft and Semiotic Totalitarianism: Muscovite Magic Reconsidered” in Slavic Review, vol. 70, no. 1 (Spring 2011)
In Constance’s entourage came the enchanting Ines, the daughter, albeit illegitimate, of a Galician nobleman.
Peter was entirely smitten by entirely the wrong woman. Vainly did the Portuguese sovereign Afonso IV strive to conform his indiscreet son to the demands of conjugal propriety. At last, the put-upon Constance died after bearing Peter his heir in 1345 and left the field to her rival.
Afonso steadfastly refused to let his lovestruck son marry Ines, and even tried banishing her to Castile, but the two carried on their forbidden passion secretly like they were in poetry, which would soon be the case.
One of 20-plus operas and ballets about Ines de Castro. She also turns up in the Portuguese national epic The Lusíadas, the French play La Reine Morte, and Ezra Pound’s Cantos (“Ignez da Castro murdered, and a wall / Here stripped, here made to stand”) … among many other literary appearances.
But beyond any qualms of prudery, Peter’s obsession made dad sweat the politics.
Peter refused to marry anyone else, and got tight with Ines’s brothers. These guys were Castilian exiles with their own axes to grind. Was the whole fortune of his house and his realm to fall under the sway of this unpredictable faction just because Peter couldn’t keep it in his codpiece? The affair had already made a dog’s breakfast of the alliance Peter was supposed to contract with his scorned wife’s family; now that Peter was having kids** with his mistress, there was the potential for a contested succession, and the brothers were goading Peter to pretend to the throne of their native Castile.
Afonso figured that this was about where his son’s right to romantic love ended. Peter had proven many times that only the most drastic of steps could separate him from Ines.
On the 7th of January 1355, Afonso and his own advisors met in secret and declared Ines’s death. Then three of the king’s emissaries, Pêro Coelho, Álvaro Gonçalves and Diogo Lopes Pacheco, rode out to find the irksome mistress at Coimbra, and chopped off her head right in front of her children.†
It was only with difficulty that a sufficient reconciliation between father and son was effected to manage a stable transition once Afonso kicked off in 1357. Finally in charge, Peter set about earning that “the Cruel” sobriquet by hunting down the retainers who had slain his wife and having them all put to terrible deaths in their turn, like their hearts ripped out of their chests. Just like had happened to Peter, see.
Peter also announced that he had been secretly married to Ines, posthumously legitimizing her. Legend, probably apocryphal, has it that he even exhumed her body and set her up on the throne in regal finery like the cadaver synod, so that his courtiers could pay their respects to the putrefying flesh of “the queen who was crowned after death”. But she wasn’t coming back for real: in the still-extant Portuguese idiom, “Agora é tarde; Inês é morta” — “It’s too late, Ines is dead.”
Couronnement d’Inés de Castro en 1361 (c. 1849), by Pierre-Charles Comte.
In death at this hour, Ines de Castro reigns in a gorgeous carved tomb in the Alcobaca Monastery … right next to her lover, King Peter I.
* The Peter-Constance marriage was itself an alliance of marital castaways. Constance had been the child bride of Castilian King Alfonso XI, but was put aside by Alfonso so that he could realign his bedroom politics by instead marrying Peter’s own elder sister. But Alfonso neglected her, too — causing a love triangle that would in time end with an execution.
When Peter’s humiliated sister fled the Castilian court, the Portuguese royal family allied with Constance’s family against Alfonso, by marrying the spurned Constance to the spurned-in-law Peter.
** High noble titles were bestowed on the three children of Peter and Ines who survived into adulthood. Two of them, John and Denis, unsuccessfully attempted to claim the throne during the chaotic interregnum of Portugal’s 1383-1385 Crisis.
† Ines’s execution/murder is associated with Quinta das Lagrimas, the Estate of Tears, even though that’s not where it actually occurred. A fountain there is said to have sprung from the tears she said as she was slain, and its red stones stained by her blood.
Felix Platter is our narrator for Guillaume Dalencon’s death at the stake on this date in 1554.
This book portrays the 16th century through the remarkable Platter family.
Platter (English Wikipedia entry | German) was a 16-year-old Swiss student, and we find him on the midpoint of his family’s upward arc in the world. His father, Thomas, had as a child been put out of the house by his impoverished mother and made his way for a time as a beggar; by dint of lifelong struggle and application, he had gained a precarious foothold among the bourgeoisie of Basel. Thomas Platter but had still greater ambitions for his son.
Accordingly, the very genial Felix, who had never before traveled, set out in 1552 on the 400-mile journey to the city of Montpellier in southern France. Young Platter was an energetic diarist, and his impressions of the journey and of Montpellier were published in English as Beloved Son Felix. (That’s how Felix’s father addressed him in letters.) Though the book is out of print, it’s available online at archive.org.
One of its immediately striking features is the omnipresence of danger and death. Platter luckily left Basel just ahead of a plague outbreak, but he nearly lost his life in the frightening Jurthen forest. Taking shelter from the rain there in “a wretched inn” at a squalid hamlet called Mezieres, Platter and his companion found the place full of aggressive Savoyard peasants, and having no choice but to stay overnight they blockaded their door with a bed and kept a waking vigil all night with weapons at the ready. Three hours before dawn, they crept through the snoring mass of drunken thugs and slipped away, and a good thing it was too: the boys’ French guide told them as they set out that he had overheard the brutes plotting to murder the hapless travelers that morning.
The bandit “Long Peter”, who was then active in this forest, was eventually caught and executed on the breaking-wheel in Berne. Only in his old age did Platter learn that the brigand’s confession included a declaration that he had planned, but failed, to kill some students in Mezieres.
They had escaped by the skin of the teeth, but seemingly every page of the journal finds others who succumbed to the many paths to abrupt death the 16th century had to offer. (Not a few of them are corpses that Platter stole from their graves with fellow-students in order to anatomize.) This was, too, the age of spectacular public execution: the travelers’ road on October 18th, 1552, passed numerous “bodies of men hanging from the trees” and as darkness fell Platter gave himself a fright when he nearly rode into one. By the 20th they approached Lyons, where they beheld “several men hanging from gibbets and others exposed on wheels.” As they entered that city, they passed a Protestant “being led out to be burnt outside the gate; he was in his shirt with a truss of straw fastened on his back.”
Platter makes no further comment on this sight, but it must have touched him with pity — if not fear. Platter had been born in Basel about the same time that John Calvin, fleeing French persecution, arrived there; it was in Basel that Calvin first published his seminal theology Institutio Christianae religionis. To this faith, predominant in Swiss cities but illicit in France, Platter too subscribed. The French Wars of Religion loomed around the corner in the next decade, and Montpellier would become a Huguenot stronghold during that conflict. While Platter was there, an uneasy peace prevailed between growing ranks of Protestants and the official religion. The University of Montpellier attracted numerous Protestant students (the city lay in the heart of the Languedoc, a center of resistance to the papacy from longbefore the Reformation), and Platter’s own mentor, the brilliant doctor Guillaume Rondelet, had ambiguous religious affiliations.
Day to day, these students kept their heads down in matters religious and went about mostly unmolested. Taking a vocal stand on theological controversies here would be to embark upon a different path than Thomas Platter had in mind for his son, for heretics were among the many executions Platter recounts in his journal.
Guillaume Dalencon, the boy learned, was a former priest of Mountauban, “unfrocked on the 16th of October” when it was discovered that he had gone Protestant and brought back heretical books from Geneva. “Dressed in his priestly robes, he was brought on to a platform before the bishop” for his defrocking. “After protracted ceremonies in Latin he was divested of his chasuble and the rest, and given secular clothing. Hishead was then shaved, and two fingers were cut off his hand. After this he was delivered to the civil justice and once more thrown into prison.” The secular power took it from there.
On the 6th of January Guillaume Dalencon, unfrocked eleven weeks before, and since then held in prison, was condemned to death. In the afternoon a man carried him on his shoulders out of the town towards the monastery, to the place of execution. A pyre had already been built there. Beind the condemned man two other prisoners walked, one a cloth shearer, in his shirt, with a bale of straw fastened to his back; the other of good appearance, and well dressed. Both of them had recanted and denied the true faith. [i.e., both had recanted Protestantism under the threat of execution. -ed.] Dalencon, however, sang psalms all the way. At he pyre, he sat down on a log and himself took off his clothes as far as his shirt, and arranged them beside him tidily, as though he would be putting them on again. He exhorted the other two, who were about to apostasize, so touchingly that the sweat stood out in great drops, as big as peas, on the forehead of the man in the shirt. When the monks, formed in a curve around him, and mounted on horseback, told him that it was time to make an end, he leapt joyously on to the pyre and sat down at the foot of the stake that rose in the center of it. This stake was pierced by a hole, through which ran a cord with a running noose. The executioner put the cord round Dalencon’s neck, tied his hands across his breast, and placed near him the religious books he had brought from Geneva. Then he set fire to the pyre. The martyr remained seated, calm and resigned, with his eyes raised towards heaven. When the fire reached the books the executioner pulled on the cord and strangled him; his head dropped to his breast and he made no further movement. Little by little the body was reduced to cinders. His two companions stood at the foot of the fire, where they were made to watch his sufferings, and could feel the heat of the flame.
After the execution they were both taken to the Hotel de Ville. Near there, in front of the church of Notre-Dame, a platform had been set up, with a statue of the Virgin on it, before which they would have to recant. The crowd had to wait for them for a long time. At last only one of the two men was brought out. The cloth shearer had refused to abjure and demanded that he should be executed without mercy for having failed his beliefs. He was therefore taken back to prison. The other man, who seemed to be a man of substance, was placed on his knees before the statue of the Virgin, with a lighted candle in his hand. A clerk read out various charges, to which he had to reply. In this way he saved his life, but he was sent to the galleys and there put in chains.
On the following Tuesday, the 9th of January, it was the turn of the cloth shearer again. He was strangled and burnt as the priest had been. He showed great courage, and no less repentance for having come so near to denying his faith. It had rained on that day, and the fire would not burn. The victim, who was not completely strangled, endured great suffering. At last the monks of the neighbouring monastery brought some straw, and the executioner took it and sent for oil of terebinth from my master’s pharmacy to ignite the fire. Afterwards I reproached the assistants who had given it to him, but they advised me to hold my tongue, for the same fate could befall me also, as a heretic.
During these affairs an extraordinary phenomenon occurred. On the 6th of January, immediately after the execution of the first man, it began to thunder violently. I heard it plainly and so did many others with me; but the priests deried us and said that it was the smoke from the burning of heretics that produced that effect.
At the Admiralty sessions, held at the Old Bailey, on the 17th of December, 1770, David Ferguson, master of the merchant-ship Betsey, was tried for the murder of his cabin-boy, a lad about thirteen years of age, during his voyage from Virginia to Antigua.
It appeared that four of Captain Ferguson’s crew died, and he was charged with the murder of them all. On one of these alleged crimes he was tried in Virginia, and acquitted.
Lord Botetourt, the then governor of that colony, transmitted the proceedings of the Court to the secretary of state for foreign affairs in London, with a favourable opinion thereon.
Though we have had too frequent occasion, in the course of this work, to state the wanton exercise of that power necessarily given to commanders at sea, yet we also know that the crew are too often ready to construe necessary correction into cruelty; and, should any of the hands corrected by the captain die, even by accident, or the common course of nature, they are sure to aggravate the affair, and persecute their commander.
The ship Betsey sailed from the Capes of Virginia in the depth of winter, when the cold is intense to a degree, of which Englishmen have hardly a conception. Heavy gales of wind and long falls of snow succeed each other, day after day. The shrouds and rigging are incrusted with ice, and they often snap from the tension thereby occasioned. The masts, thus deprived of their principal support, are often ready to fall by the board, while the deck is deeply covered with snow.
(Note: A shocking instance of the sad effects of these sudden snow storms, on the coast of America, happened to the officers of the Assistance man-of-war, lying off Sandy Hook, near New York, in the year 1784. Six seamen of that ship confederated to desert, jumped into the yawl, and pushed off from the ship towards the shore. Another boat was got ready for a pursuit, and was manned by the first lieutenant, eleven other officers, and one seaman. Before they could come up with the deserters, a snow storm came on, which, as is often the case, so overpowered them, and so darkened the horizon, that they lost sight both of the yawl and the ship, and were all, except one, next morning found dead on the beach, near Middleton Point, in New Jersey, most of them sticking in the mud.)
In such cases seamen do their duty with much reluctance; and, when their extravagance in harbour has deprived them of the means of laying in an allowance of brandy and tobacco, they grow clamorous to their captain for those indispensable articles, with which he is not bound to supply them; in fact, he generally provides little more than may serve himself.
Captain Ferguson’s crew, thus situated, were often remiss in their duty; and, on several occasions, his utmost exertions were called upon for the safety of his ship; but that he exceeded the bounds of moderation must be admitted, from his conviction by an English jury of the murder of his cabin-boy.
Perhaps the severity of the season, the crew being unprovided with liquor, and also without sufficient warm clothing, contributed more to the death of the remaining three that perished than correction. The survivors imputed the murder of them all to the cruelty of their captain.
To come to the charge on which he was convicted: it was proved that he had frequently beat the boy in a manner far too severe for his tender years to bear; and that he had knocked him down, and then stamped upon him. After this barbarous usage he confined him almost an hour upon deck, to the weather-side of his long- boat, when the weather was so severe that snow covered the deck, and the shrouds were snapping. That he again pushed him down, and trod upon him with both his feet.
The seamen said that the boy provoked this punishment by coming upon deck with only one stocking on. The sufferer did not make complaint of the effects of his usage until eleven o’clock at night; and the next day he fell into the hold, and was missing five hours. He was found dead upon the ballast.
In his defence Captain Ferguson proved the distress his ship was in from the weather, and the refractory spirit of the crew, several of whom he was obliged to force to their duty.
On the passage of the Betsey home to England, Major Watson and Captain Lilly, who were passengers, proved that she was wrecked on the coast of Sussex; and that it was owing to the resolution and good conduct of Captain Ferguson that they, together with the crew, were saved. It also appeared that many vessels at sea with the Betsey, on the coast of America, had several of their crews frost-bitten, which turning to gangrene, they died. The inference attempted to be made was that the frost had killed the cabin-boy.
Several respectable merchants gave the prisoner a good character for integrity and humanity; but the jury found him guilty, and sentence of death was passed upon him accordingly.
Considerable interest was made to obtain the royal mercy, and (a circumstance seldom granted to murderers, and then only when some doubts arise in the minds of the privy council on the case) he received a respite.
On the 4th of January, 1771, eighteen days after conviction, the warrant arrived for his execution; and the next day, attended by the marshal of the Admiralty, carrying a silver oar, he was carried from Newgate to Execution Dock, and there hanged.
His body was hung in chains upon the marshes of the river Thames.
Thus perished Captain David Ferguson, a victim to his ungovernable passion, in the twenty-sixth year of his age.
LONDON, Jan. 4 (U.P.) — The Morocco radio tonight quoted an announcement from General Henri Honore Giraud’s headquarters that an unspecified number of “native” parachutists, dropped in North Africa from German planes, had been executed for trying to swing local populations to the Axis cause. [Vichy North Africa had only recently gone over to the Allies -ed.]
The “fifth column” chutists found “only rare complicity,” the announcement said.
“The natives and their accomplices have all been arrested and executed immediately after court-martial,” it continued. “Military authorities contributed efficiently to the arrest of these enemy agents.
“Large rewards have been distributed to all those who helped capture the culprits.”
As legions of America’s many unemployed set out in hopes of striking it rich in the frigid north, interest in the vast and underexplored interior of next-door Alaska naturally followed. After all, there had been gold finds in Alaska before.
The putative reasons justifying the spread of the Klondike fever to Copper River were some combination of these:
That the Copper River promised a shortcut into the Klondike easier than the route over Canadian soil;
That the Copper River itself had gold — and that it could be prospected under less extreme climate, and exempt from 20 percent royalties that Canada imposed on Klondike gold
Passenger steamers, whose operators were later suspected of flogging interest in this route as the “All-American trail,” brought several thousand bonanza-seekers from west coast cities to the tent-city port of Valdez, Alaska. From there, miners could tromp over a treacherous mountain-and-glacier path to the unspeakable riches of the Copper River.
“It was one of the greatest hoaxes in Alaska’s history,” write Jim and Nancy Lethcoe. “The prospectors arrived to find a glacier trail twice as long and steep as reported.”
An estimated two hundred people died, slipping off glaciers or frozen to death on the mountain or, as we’ll see, by acts of violence. By the summer of 1898, there was another rush — 3,000 or so busted prospectors pouring out of Copper River country back for Valdez. The U.S. government had to show up with provisions to avert mass starvation.
“Last winter papers of the country contained stories of the fabulous riches of the Copper river country, Alaska, the accessibility of the gold-laden land, cheapness of transportation, and in other ways lauded to the skies the country in which one had but to scrape the earth to secure a fortune,” ran a bitter report in the Aug. 27, 1898 Jackson (Mich.) Daily Citizen. The occasion was the empty-handed return of one of that city’s native sons, A.A. Jankowsky, from the Alaskan interior. “These stories, published in good faith, no doubt, had the effect of arousing in the minds of the more adventurous a desire to search for gold in the far-away land. Last spring there was a perfect exodus to the Copper river.”
Boston Journal, Jan. 7, 1898
Baltimore Sun, Sept. 6, 1898
Jankowsky, like many others, survived the treacherous journey into the interior only to find the Copper River region entirely destitute of gold. After supporting himself for a bit running a canteen, he joined a veritable stampede of thousands of duped prospectors fleeing back from the interior to Valdez. By his telling to the Citizen, “All along the trail were seen immense stores of provisions, representing in many instances, the savings of many years of prospectors, which were abandoned. Some of these contained cards marked, ‘Boys, help yourselves, I’ve gone home!’ Some of the men in their eagerness to get out had left their tents standing, containing clothing, bedding, stoves, firearms and everything else.”
Our date’s principal, Doc Tanner, at least had the comfort of never experiencing this disappointment ubiquitous to his fellow-adventurers.
The Kentucky native joined a party bound for Copper River that sailed from Seattle on November 20. Each had “grub-staked” $250 up-front with the understanding that they would be discharged from their ship with six months’ provisions … but when they were let out, they received only three months’ worth.
Oddly, Tanner seems to have been the only one incensed by this. When the leaders of the expedition refused to provide him an itemized account, Tanner turned into the cantankerous black sheep of the party as they drug their undersized packs over the dangerous Valdez glacier.
Matters came to such a pass that as dark fell on January 2, several of the other prospectors met in a tent to discuss turning Tanner out of the party full stop. Overhearing them, the enraged Tanner burst into the tent with the cool action hero words, “I’m here for business now,” then started firing. He killed two of the men; a third only owed his life to a lamp’s timely extinguishing during the affray. (1898 newspaper reporting also indicated that the tragedy redoubled for one of the victims, William Call: his wife upon hearing news of the murder fell into madness and was committed to an asylum, and lost the family’s indebted farm.)
Tanner immediately gave himself up to other miners of the camp and at dawn the next day faced an extra-legal drumhead tribunal that judged him guilty of murder and promptly hanged him.