Posts filed under 'Where'

1963: Victor Feguer, by the feds

2 comments March 15th, 2013 Headsman

This date marks half a century since the hanging of Victor Feguer — the last man executed by the federal government in the 20th century. (And the last executed in the state of Iowa, period.)

A drifter holing up at a Dubuque, Iowa, boarding house, Feguer phoned up a random doctor claiming a woman needed medical attention.

Think about that the next time someone gets nostalgic for house calls.

Dr. Edward Bartels showed up only to be kidnapped by Feguer, and eventually murdered in Illinois. Feguer was picked up in Alabama, trying to sell the doctor’s stolen car; his motive for the whole affair was just to get whatever drugs the luckless physician had with him.

The cross-state crime spree put Feguer’s case in the hands of the feds. (It was not, however, a “Lindbergh Law” case, since Feguer was on the hook for capital murder independent of the kidnapping.)

Although Feguer spent his prison time at the federal lockup in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, he was transported back to Iowa for execution — because that state’s penitentiary had a gallows available.

Iowa still had a death penalty on the books at this time, but it had a death penalty abolitionist for a chief executive; just two years hence, that Gov. Harold Hughes set his pen to the Hawkeye State’s death penalty abolition bill. Iowa hasn’t hanged, shot, electrocuted, poisoned, or otherwise judicially executed anyone since.

It was U.S. President John F. Kennedy, however, who had Victor Feguer’s life in his hands. Despite Gov. Hughes’s support for clemency, Kennedy turned the kidnapper down flat.

Feguer’s last meal, oddly, was a single olive. He tucked the olive’s pit into the new suit he wore to his dawn hanging.

As the death penalty waned into a formal abeyance in the 1970s in the U.S., the federal government stopped executing people for a long, long time. (And stopped hanging people altogether.) The next time a human being was put to death under federal auspices was 38 years later: Oklahoma City bomber Tim McVeigh.

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1726: William “Vulcan” Gates, Black Act casualty

Add comment March 14th, 2013 Headsman

March 14, 1726, was the hanging date of five men* at the gallows of Tyburn.

We’ll come to the other four of them presently, but our featured case among the group is one Bill Gates — not the Microsoft billionaire, obviously; this fellow was, rather, a victim of the plutocracy.

William Gates was a blacksmith by trade, presumably the source of his outstanding nickname or alias “Vulcan”.

But he also liked to hunt, and that’s how he ended up having his neck pinched.

It was only logical in the early 18th century for hunters like Vulcan to take quarry from the common lands. But these longtime traditional rights were under long-term attack; just a few years before, the “Black Act” dramatically escalated penalties and enforcement mechanisms for “poaching”.

Among other things, the Black Act permitted a suspect to be accused by reading out charges “on two Market Days, and in two Market Towns in the County, where the Offence is committed.” If the named party failed to turn himself in within 40 days, he stood convicted — no trial necessary.

This was Vulcan’s situation exactly. He’d been accused of “being one of the Men that entered Enfield Chace, killed two Deer,” and took some potshots at the gamekeepers. Having not given himself up, the entirety of the short proceeding once Gates was taken was to establish his identity. (A potentially tricky affair in those days, but not in this instance.)

Frequent death-blog litterateur Charles Dickens glossed this story for the literary magazine he founded, All the Year Round, quoting in Vol. 18 the account of the Ordinary of Newgate when Gates and the four who were doomed to die with him “took it into their foolish heads that they would not be hanged.” (I’ve added line breaks to the Dickensian version, for readability.)

The day on which they were executed, when I [the Ordinary] came to Newgate to give them their last exhortations and prayers, they would not allow any person to come near them, having got an iron crow into the prison, with which they had forced out stones of a prodigious bigness, and had made the breach two feet deep in the wall.

They had built up the stones at the back of the door of the condemned hold, so that nobody could get at them. The keepers spoke to them through the door, but they were inflexible, and would by no entreaties yield. I spoke to them also, representing to them how that such foolish and impracticable projects interrupted their repentance, and the special care they should have taken in improving those few moments to the best advantage; but they seemed inexorable.

I said that I hoped they had no quarrel with me. They answered, ‘No, sir, God bless you; for you have been very careful of us.’ Bailey said, that they would not surrender till they either killed or were killed.

It was twelve at night before they began this enterprise; and, to conceal their purpose from the keepers, while part of them were working, the rest sung psalms, that the noise might not be heard.

Sir Jeremiah Morden, one of the present sheriffs of London and Middlesex, came with proper attendance, and, desiring them to open the door, they refused it; upon which they [not the prisoners, but the sheriff and his men] were obliged to go up to the room over the hold, where there is a little place that opens, which is made in case of such disturbances.

This shutter they opened, but the prisoners continuing obstinate, they [the sheriff’s assistants] fired fifteen pistols with small shot among them, not to kill, but to wound and disable them. They retired to the remotest part of the room where the shot could not reach them, yet Barton and Gates, the deer-stealer, were slightly wounded in the arm.

At last Sir Jeremiah Morden spoke seriously to them through the little hole above, desiring them to surrender. Barton asked, ‘Who are you?’ Sir Jeremiah answered, ‘I am one of the principal sheriffs.’

‘Show me your chain,’ says Barton. Sir Jeremiah was so good as to show him his gold chain through the little hole, upon which they consulted, and agreed to surrender.

After this they removed the stones for the back [of the] door, and, the keepers entering, Barton snapped a steel tobacco–box in the face of one of them, which made a little noise like the snapping of a pocket-pistol, and then gave him the box” [saying ‘D-me, you was afraid.’ -Dickens omits this taunting clincher (ed.)]

After this the unctuous Ordinary tried to dog the intended escapees out of any parting sacrament on the grounds that their souls were not adequately prepared, to which the mutineers justly replied that they “been busied otherwise; they said it was only out of a desire of self Preservation … upon which account they desired to be excused.”

The Ordinary is vague on whether he excused them so far as to grant a last absolution. They were never to be excused from the rope.

While we’ve mentioned the singular case of Vulcan Gates, the other four were a more prosaic bunch of convicted burglars. Three of the four denied their guilt to the last. And while it’s nigh-impossible to judge credibility from the few second-hand words of an interlocutor religiously convinced of their culpability, it’s quite an affecting testimony to the scant circumstances needed to doom a fellow under the Bloody Code.

More than likely we’re a little skeptical of Benjamin Jones, who said that he chanced to stumble upon some silver plate in the darkness when stumbling out drunk from his tavern to pick up a whore. Was it just a bit of mutual aid among thieves that Jones accused a different prisoner, one Frazier, who was sick on his deathbed? The Ordinary said that he “ask’d Frazier, if this account was true? who said that it was, and that he had written the full Narrative thereof to Persons of the highest Quality.”

Hmm.

Francis Baily was doomed by the detailed testimony of a fellow-inmate in his same boarding house. He did admit to being a professional robber whose real crimes were quite enough to stretch his neck, but that his particular condemnation was thanks to the perjury of “one of the most infamous, wicked Women in the World who had sworn away his life, as she had the Life of some others, besides several there whom she had got transported and whipp’d &c. Baily pointed the finger at the absconded landlord of the house, the aptly named Matthew Wildman, who was his frequent burglarious partner.

Maybe.

The saddest of the self-proclaimed innocents was William Swift. He was accused along with another man, Lawrence Simpson, of having been part of a gang of highway robbers who committed a couple of muggings one evening. Although it was dark, one woman claimed to have been able to recognize Swift’s face by the light of “a Lamp about 6 Yards off,” and this was enough to seal his fate. Simpson hadn’t been glimpsed so clearly, so he was acquitted.

As for the last fellow at Tyburn that March 14, John Barton didn’t claim any species of innocence at all. Instead, he announced at the scaffold, “I am the Man, who in Company with two or three others, whom he named, particularly one Capel [Bob Cable], who committed the Robbery for which Swift dies.” (Barton had been set to testify at the Swift-Simpson trial, but was disallowed on account of his own pending burglary charges.)

* Seven were originally condemned to die this date; two petty thieves received the crown’s mercy.

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1996: Thomas Reckley, the first in Bahamas in 12 years

1 comment March 13th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1996, Thomas Reckley was hanged in the Bahamas for a 1989 Nassau drug murder.

This execution was noteworthy as the first in 12 years in the Bahamas.*

It was also notable as the first since the British Privy Council’s 1993 Pratt and Morgan ruling. That decision held that keeping a condemned prisoner awaiting the gallows for more than five years constituted “cruel and inhumane treatment” sufficient to invalidate the death sentence.

In an uncomfortable holdover from the Empire, the Privy Council was then and still remains today the court of last resort for Commonwealth countries in the region. Therefore, Pratt and Morgan had the effect of making death sentences extremely difficult to carry out: the Privy Council itself dilated appeals (or at least, this was what irritated tough-on-crime types said), and also asserted a human rights standard requiring expedited appeals. In 1994, Trinidad & Tobago squared the hemp circle by hanging Glenn Ashby six days before the deadline even though his last Privy Council appeal was still pending. (It was granted … but too late.)

Sentenced to death on November 7, 1990, Reckley was clearly past the five-year pole when the Bahamas decided to hang him. (He’d received five stays of execution in his time.) This execution appears to be the first in the Caribbean that would fail to meet the Pratt and Morgan test.

* The last previous was William Armbrister on April 10, 1984, capping a period in the 1970s and early 1980s when the Bahamas saw routine hangings every year or two.

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1421: The last Viennese Jews

Add comment March 12th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1421, a months-long campaign to purge Vienna of her Jews culminated with over 200 burned — and the rest of the once-thriving community either driven into exile or forced to convert.

Vienna had had a Jewish presence for centuries, centered on the Judenplatz.

The religious wars unleashed between Catholics and followers of the Czech reformer Jan Hus complicated the Jewish position. While not an unblemished relationship, Hussites were generally seen to be more sympathetic to Jews, and vice versa. Fellow-victims of Catholic persecution, Hussites recast the Biblical Antichrist with Papist rather than Jewish associations. Hussites openly looked to the Torah and Jewish divines like Rabbi Avigdor Kara for inspiration.*

That’s all well and good, but Vienna was emerging as one of the principal cities of the very Catholic Habsburg empire. (It was not yet the official seat: that would come later in the 15th century.)

To the perceived Hussite-Jewish alliance one must add consideration of Duke Albert V — later the Holy Roman Emperor Albert II — and his considerable debts, no small part of them held by Vienna’s Jewish moneylenders.

On Easter 1420, Albert pumped up a rumor that Jews had desecrated the Eucharist and ordered mass-arrests and -expulsions of Jews, complete with handy asset forfeiture. This was the onset of the Wiener Gesera, the Viennese persecution — as it was remembered later by remnants of the shattered Jewish community scattered abroad.

Pogroms attacking the Jews in Vienna (and elsewhere in Austria) ensued, culminating with the dramatic three-day siege of Vienna’s Or-Saura synagogue. That ended Masada-style when 300 trapped denizens committed suicide to escape forced baptism, and the last living among them torched the building from the inside. Its blasted remains were razed to the ground by the besiegers.**

Albert at that point finished off Vienna’s Jews by sending its final hardy (or foolhardy) members — 120 men and 92 women, it says here; different figures in the same neighborhood can be had elsewhere — to the stake.

“As the waters of the River Jordan cleansed the souls of the baptized, so did the flames which rose up in the year 1421 rid the city of all injustice,” read a Latin plaque erected on the site.

Jews were not permitted to return to Austria for centuries.

* “The Hussites pioneered a uniquely Czech form of philo-Semitism … the fascination, among a persecuted, dissident group, with the Jewish people and religion,” writes Eli Valley. “The Hussites were perhaps the first religious group in Christian European history to argue against the ban on Jews in craftsmaking and farming” and “unlike Martin Luther’s similar program in the sixteenth century, the Hussite movement did not predicate its kindness to Jews on the condition that they would be baptized.”

** The synagogue’s foundations have been only recently rediscovered, as part of the excavation for a Museum Judenplatz at the site. That museum has not necessarily been welcomed by the Viennese Jewish community it’s supposed to represent.

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1872: Sher Ali Afridi, assassin of the viceroy

Add comment March 11th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1872, Sher Ali Afridi was hanged at Viper Island for knifing to death the British Viceroy of India 32 days before.

Richard Bourke, the 6th Earl of Mayo, had stopped off to visit the convict settlement at the Andaman Islands.

Little remembered today, Great Britain shipped tens of thousands of Indian convicts to that Bay of Bengal archipelago in the latter half of the 19th century (and continuing into the 1930s).

One of them was Sher Ali.

This former cavalryman in the UK’s Indian military forces had murdered a relative in a private feud, and was dispatched to the prison colony for his trouble. Evidently he nursed a terrible grudge at being judicially punished for what, in his opinion, was no crime at all. The standard story* is that he dreamed of wreaking revenge on the person of “some high British official.”

They don’t come much higher than the Viceroy to India.

So despite his sterling conduct record as a prisoner, Sher Ali was ready with an opportunistic blade when Lord Mayo took the wrong pause at the wrong spot.

Notwithstanding the enormity of the blow — the Viceroy of India was literally one of the most powerful figures in the British Empire — the incident was relatively downplayed, perhaps to avoid stoking any wider sectarian martyr-making or conveying the impression of colonies in turmoil. Arrested on the spot, Sher Ali was condemned quickly and hanged with little fanfare.

An Indian paper quoted by the April 15 London Times reported the assassin’s last hours thus:

I had a long interview with the prisoner the evening previous to his execution. He talked quite freely, and appeared to think he had done a fine thing. He had been told about an hour before I saw him that he was to be hanged next morning. We got up steam early next morning and went to Chatham, passing him with his police guard in a boat on the way. As soon as we were moored we got over to Viper Island, where the gaol is. There was no unusual preparation for the affair, and the convicts were at work as usual. Indeed, it was not generally known that it was to be. There were from 30 to 40 Europeans present, no natives except the police and sepoys, and no European soldiers. About a quarter to 8 the fellow was led out. He was smiling and quite collected. The police officer who came down to investigate the affair, as he ascended the steps leading up to the scaffold, asked him a question. He shook his head with a smile, as he said nahin sahib. As soon as he got up he asked the hangman to turn his face towards Mecca, and then began to pray very loudly and quickly. He said two prayers, and kept on repeating the Mussulman’s creed. The drop fell at seven minutes to 8 o’clock exactly. The knot slipped round to the back of his neck, and although he had nearly seven feet of a drop, his neck was not broken, so he died very hard. He was hanging about ten minutes before he ceased to struggle. As he was scantily clothed, and his legs and most of his body naked, his struggles were distinctly visible. We were quite close to the scaffold. After he was dead we adjourned, and returned to see him cut down at 9. His face was not distorted in the least, but wore an expression of pain. We afterwards went to see the post mortem examination. There were only eight persons present. The prisoner’s lungs, liver, heart, &c., were taken out and weighed. The top of his head was cut off, and his brain taken out: the latter weighed 47 ounces.

Despite not making a particularly big deal about Lord Mayo’s murder, the Empire did favor its Indian subjects with a Calcutta equestrian statue of the assassinated viceroy.


This monument and other former public memorials from the British imperial period now squirreled out of view in independent India can be found on a fun Flickr gallery, Forgotten Statuary of the British Raj. Brits can find the Earl of Mayo in marble closer to home in Cockermouth.

Mayo was also the namesake of the Mayo School of Arts in Lahore, present-day Pakistan (it’s now known as the National College of Arts). The school’s first principal was Lockwood Kipling, and this man was able to hook his 16-year-old son up with an assistant-editorship at a Lahore newspaper … from which young Rudyard Kipling launched his literary career.

* The “lone nut with a grudge” version has been latterly disputed with attempts to reconstruct Sher Ali as an Islamic revolutionary.

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1777: James Aitken, aka John the Painter, terrorist of the American Revolution

Add comment March 10th, 2013 Headsman

This date in 1777 saw the public execution of “John the Painter” — a Scotsman who had been christened “James Aitken” at his birth less than 25 years before, but who had run through countless aliases in his adult life as a (mostly) petty thief.

But this man was not a hapless victim of England’s Bloody Code, although he often enough offended the capital statutes against petty property crime.

Rather, the scraggly redhead with the thick Scottish brogue was the author of a stunning act of domestic terrorism, in England, in freelance support of the rebellious American colonies an ocean away.

“So dangerous an individual to the kingdom as this man perhaps never existed,” in the judgment of the Newgate Calendar, who knew him as “John Hill” — just one of Aitken’s many aliases. “and whose confession and repentence can hardly soften the abhorrence felt on the contemplation of the extent of his crimes.”

James Aitken, aka John Hill, aka John the Painter — for this last was, unfortunately, the unprofitable occupation of his apprenticeship training — fired the Portsmouth dockyards on December 7, 1776, then followed that up with an attack on the Bristol dock and city shortly after the New Year, as well as an unsuccessful attempt to ignite the Plymouth quay.

There are ready reasons we imagine men to undertake terrorist activities. James Aitken did not have them, according to Jessica Warner’s John the Painter: Terrorist of the American Revolution (review).

Although he was well-read for his class, he was not ideological, not a zealot of any creed religious or secular.

He was not American himself even in the loose sense that term could hold for the immigrant proto-nation. His only brush with that land was brief and unedifying: fearing his many thefts had made London a bit too hot for him, he signed on as an indentured servant and shipped out to the colonies in 1773 and slave-like labor in the fields. He escaped his master in 1775 and immediately shipped back to Europe, leaving no evidence of any revolutionary contacts.

And he wasn’t a madman. Just lonely, as evidenced, Warner says, by the “sad and always desperate invitations” to drink with which he plied the newest of acquaintances, to their discomfort. “He asked complete strangers to drink with him because he was lonely, and loneliness overrode his reason. His invitations always came too quickly, and his conversation and his manner always just a little off.” He even invited this indiscreet attention when on the incendiary job.

James Aitken reads like an Enlightenment version of the disaffected loser “going postal” on a world that could barely see him to tread upon him. His fondest desire from childhood was that classic Scots aspiration, the army commission. The closest he came was a series of short-term army enlistments to pocket the enrollment bonus, each of which he deserted as soon as practicable. (He did dream that his terrorism spree would earn him an appointment in the Americans’ Continental Army.)


Back in Britain after his unsuccessful foray in the colonies, Aitken conceived a disordered affinity for the burgeoning patriotic cause of the colonies he had recently fled. (Warner thinks he read Thomas Paine‘s Common Sense.) Only accidentally, when he overheard boozers at an Oxford pub chatting about the importance of the dockyards to the British Navy, did the heretofore aimless Aitken animate his wanderings with a new revolutionary purpose: he, scorned nobody, could win the War of Independence by crippling these facilities.

I spent two days in the contemplation of this malicious design, and promised myself immortal honour in the accomplishment of it. I beheld it in the light of a truly heroic enterprise, such as never would have been equalled to the end of time. I was persuaded it would entitle me to the first rank in America, and flattered myself with the ambition of becoming the admiration of the world! (Source)

Aitken was not a criminal mastermind, but there was a plausibility to the plot that fluttered the Admiralty’s heart once the details emerged. The dockyards were critical. They were also — Aitken readily perceived this as he began to case them — scarcely guarded; at Portsmouth, Aitken came and went as he pleased, freely schlepping his materiel in and out. (His attempt at Portsmouth set the subsequent facilities more on guard; the man’s initial plan to hit five different dockyards in sequence would ultimately have been as self-defeating as the 9/11 hijackers planning to commandeer a different plane on five consecutive days … but this was the way Aitken had to conceive it since he lacked the charisma or leadership aptitude to form a cell of fellow-travelers for a coordinated attack.)

Before launching himself into history, Aitken made an autumn 1776 visit to Paris to call upon the American representative there, Silas Deane.

Deane’s own recounting says he was struck by the wildness of Aitken’s scheme. But he was sufficiently taken with the prospective payoff to lend it his blessing, and “sponsor” it to the extent of giving the Scotsman a little pocket money to make his way back to England. He would later defend himself against “respectable persons,” presumably British ones, who “[regard] me equally criminal with the actor.”

[S]upposing me to be the liege subject, not of Great Brittain, but of a foreign independant Nation, at the Time at War with Great Brittain, and that imagining that I had found a favorable opportunity, & met with a proper Agent to destroy, at one blow, the Fleet & armaments preparing to carry, and to spread devastation, and bloodshed in my Country, and that I improved the favorable moment, and attempted through this agency, to effect this great object; on this view of the case I am confident that every one of common sense & impartiality must acquit me, nay more though they rejoice at the defeat of the enterprize they must approve of the motives, which influenced me to engage in it, motives no less than a desire to weaken a declared Enemy, and to preserve my Country, by every means in my power, from the horrors, and distress of Fire and desolation.

… if it was a noble, and most honorable Action in Lord Rodney to defeat the Count de Grasse, would not the Man who at equal hazard of his Life, had set fire to the Count’s Squadron in Brest, & thereby have equally defeated his expedition, been entitled (at least in the Court of Common sense) to the same Honors?

This was certainly good enough to convince Aitken that he torched in the name of Liberty, and he made his way back to set his plan in motion.


After botching his first attempt at Portsmouth and getting locked in the rope house — he pounded on the door until he got someone to open up, then bluffed his way out of the situation — Aitken got the least mileage possible from a superficially successful attack.

At about 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, December 7, Aitken fired three homemade incendiaries in the rope house and slipped away in what witnesses would later reconstruct as an evident state of agitation. The flames soon gutted the brick building (the damage would eventually reckon to £20,000) but he was this close to an exponentially more impressive bit of sabotage.

To begin with, many of his matches failed to start up Aitken’s jerry-built fuses. (This is also what caused his initial arson attempt to abort.) Having been once bitten by finding himself locked into the rope house at night, Aitken made his next trip earlier in the afternoon: that ensured that plenty of dockhands would still be in the vicinity to contain the fire to the one building. It also meant that the tide was in, and the nearby brig swollen with two thousand pounds of gunpowder could be easily put out to sea and away from danger as soon as the alarm went up.*

Admiralty investigators weren’t even sure at first that it was arson. Yards in the era of wood ships and wood buildings had a lot of flammable materials lying around. Fires happened.

Aitken soon dispelled any possible confusion.

Finding the Royal Navy dockyards at Plymouth too vigilant for his machinations, Aitken settled on an ambitious, and again somewhat plausible, scheme to engulf the densely-populated port of Bristol — dockyard and city alike. Repeatedly his blazes petered out or were suppressed. They did little consequential damage, but raised a rapidly-escalating panic at revolutionary incendiaries abroad, and it did not take long to link them to Portsmouth. (Copycat attempts and crackpot anonymous letters threatening same also started popping up elsewhere in the realm.)

I have not the least doubt that the late fires have been the effects of premeditated malice,” wrote Bristol’s M.P. — the political philosopher Edmund Burke. Naturally this only had the effect of silencing potentially considerable pro-American sentiment in Bristol and throughout the realm. Lord Germain exploited the terrorist panic to push through a February 1777 Treason Act aimed at the American colonies. It authorized detention of suspected rebels without habeas corpus protection at His Majesty’s pleasure.

Aitken himself, though, was at the end of his own fuse. At Sir John Fielding‘s urging, the Admiralty posted an eye-popping £1,000 reward for the terrorists’ (multiple attackers were presumed, owing to the quantity of fires) capture. The arsonist was in irons with a week; a gaoler had noticed him and recognized Aitken’s fit to the description of the unknown Scotsman who had been seen in the vicinity of some of these blazes which Fielding had published in his crime clearinghouse periodical, Hue and Cry.** That man rode off after the suspect and overtook him in the village of Odiham,† where an exhausted and by now fatalistic Aitken surrendered without a fight.


The mizzenmast of the docked HMS Arethusa was removed and set up on land to hang this enemy of the navy outside the walls of the damaged Portsmouth dockyard.

Upon it, they would hang their man as high as Haman: after being turned off, a team of workmen hoisted Aitken’s still-strangling body 60 feet into the air. It’s reportedly the highest gallows ever known to be erected in England, and for the benefit of anyone who didn’t get a good enough look at the spectacle, his body remained conspicuously suspended in chains for years thereafter at Fort Blockhouse, overlooking the Portsmouth harbor as it rotted away.

One might expect that a man who had turned his face against king and country to such an extent would make his end defiantly. James Aitken, once again, defies expectations here, sounding submissive and contrite in the officially reported last words.

I asked John the Painter author Jessica Warner what it was that the state hoped a prisoner like Aitken would say from the scaffold. How did condemned prisoners typically come to shape their last words in (usual) conformity to the expected models? Was it usually necessary for somebody to convince them to do so?

JW: I can only speak for eighteenth-century England. The so-called “dying speeches” of the condemned follow a pretty predictable pattern: the condemned man expresses contrition for his crime, warns others against following his example, and says, in so many words, that he is reconciled with his Creator. That’s the official version, and really two things are going on here: the prisoner is in effect upholding the state’s right to take his life while also upholding the moral order of the Ancien Regime, its laws as much as its religious teachings. I say “official” because just about all dying speeches were penned by other people, the most notorious being the succession of chaplains (ordinaries) who presided over the condemned prisoners at Newgate. It was a bit of a standing joke that dying speeches were printed before they were delivered. The irony is that shorthand was used in the eighteenth century, and so theoretically it was possible to take down exactly what prisoners said.

Popular expectations, to the extent that they can be penetrated, also expected the condemned to make a good end, a good end being measured in terms of bravery bordering on contemptuous indifference to one’s fate. It’s hard to reconcile this indifference with the regret the prisoner was supposed to express.

ET: Did the fact that Aitken was a hated state criminal, rather than an everyday felon, alter anything about the role he was expected to play in the execution ritual?

JW: I don’t think so. The various accounts of his last moments read suspiciously like those you find in other dying speeches. Given the fact that he was a Scot who had poor social skills and who was also more than a little off his head, it beggars belief that he would have performed his part so well and in so conventional a fashion. I don’t doubt, though, that he made a brave end of it.

* The original Portsmouth plan was to start with a diversionary fire in the city itself, and then burn the dockyard while fire engines were occupied with the previous blaze. Again, his imagination outstripped his reach as a lone wolf: the attempt to kindle this preliminary fire just got him run out of his boarding-house and made the landlady a later witness against him.

** For more on Fielding’s criminal investigation reforms, see this post.

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1981: Steven T. Judy, Hoosier rapist

Add comment March 9th, 2013 Robert Elder

(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post on the anniversary of what was then the first execution in Indiana for nearly 20 years. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)

“I don’t hold no grudges. I’m sorry it happened. I know what I’m doing.”

— Steven T. Judy, convicted of rape and murder, electric chair, Indiana.
Executed March 9, 1981

A serial rapist, Judy openly courted capital punishment. At his trial for killing a woman and her three children (ages five, four, and two), Judy told a jury to condemn him or else he might kill them, their children, and the judge. He showed no remorse for the murders, telling reporters, “I don’t lose sleep over it.” Judy asked for death. “I’ve lived my hell,” he said. “So [what waits for me] has to be better.”

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1945: Karl Hulten, for the Cleft Chin Murder

Add comment March 8th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1945, Karl (or Carl) Hulten, a 22-year-old American paratrooper, hanged in Pentonville Prison for murdering an English taxi driver for £8.

The “cleft chin murder” — so dubbed because the victim had this feature — is explored as extensively as anyone need know about it in George Orwell’s curmudgeonly 1946 essay “Decline of the English Murder”.

Orwell posited the passing of “our great period in murder, our Elizabethan period, so to speak … roughly 1850 and 1925″ featuring magnetic, literary-quality criminals whose misdeeds had “stood the test of time”: “Dr. Palmer of Rugely, Jack the Ripper, Neill Cream, Mrs. Maybrick, Dr. Crippen, Seddon, Joseph Smith, Armstrong, and Bywaters and Thompson.”

For Orwell, the “great period” elapsed in part because the 20th century’s monumental destruction of human life dwarfed the meaning of individual homicides, and in part because the crimes themselves (and even their frequent medium, arsenic) connected to frustrated (usually domestic) Victorian passions and imbued “dramatic and even tragic qualities which make [them] memorable and excite pity for both victim and murderer.”

But that was then. Orwell wants these newfangled atavistic hoodlums and their crummy American films to get off his damn terrace.


Sure, but where’s the heart? (London Times, Jan. 24, 1945)

Now compare the Cleft Chin Murder. There is no depth of feeling in it. It was almost chance that the two people concerned committed that particular murder, and it was only by good luck that they did not commit several others. The background was not domesticity, but the anonymous life of the dance-halls and the false values of the American film. The two culprits were an eighteen-year-old ex-waitress named Elizabeth Jones, and an American army deserter, posing as an officer, named Karl Hulten. They were only together for six days, and it seems doubtful whether, until they were arrested, they even learned one another’s true names. They met casually in a teashop, and that night went out for a ride in a stolen army truck. Jones described herself as a strip-tease artist, which was not strictly true (she had given one unsuccessful performance in this line); and declared that she wanted to do something dangerous, “like being a gun-moll.” Hulten described himself as a big-time Chicago gangster, which was also untrue. They met a girl bicycling along the road, and to show how tough he was Hulten ran over her with his truck, after which the pair robbed her of the few shillings that were on her. On another occasion they knocked out a girl to whom they had offered a lift, took her coat and handbag and threw her into a river. Finally, in the most wanton way, they murdered a taxi-driver who happened to have £8 in his pocket. Soon afterwards they parted. Hulten was caught because he had foolishly kept the dead man’s car, and Jones made spontaneous confessions to the police. In court each prisoner incriminated the other. In between crimes, both of them seem to have behaved with the utmost callousness: they spent the dead taxi-driver’s £8 at the dog races.

Judging from her letters, the girl’s case has a certain amount of psychological interest, but this murder probably captured the headlines because it provided distraction amid the doodle-bugs and the anxieties of the Battle of France. Jones and Hulten committed their murder to the tune of V1, and were convicted to the tune of V2. There was also considerable excitement because — as has become usual in England — the man was sentenced to death and the girl to imprisonment. According to Mr. Raymond, the reprieving of Jones caused widespread indignation and streams of telegrams to the Home Secretary: in her native town, “SHE SHOULD HANG” was chalked on the walls beside pictures of a figure dangling from a gallows. Considering that only ten women have been hanged in Britain this century, and that the practice has gone out largely because of popular feeling against it, it is difficult not to feel that this clamour to hang an eighteen-year-old girl was due partly to the brutalizing effects of war. Indeed, the whole meaningless story, with its atmosphere of dance-halls, movie-palaces, cheap perfume, false names and stolen cars, belongs essentially to a war period.

Perhaps it is significant that the most talked-of English murder of recent years should have been committed by an American and an English girl who had become partly Americanized. But it is difficult to believe that this case will be so long remembered as the old domestic poisoning dramas, product of a stable society where the all-prevailing hypocrisy did at least ensure that crimes as serious as murder should have strong emotions behind them.

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1968: Veyusile Qoba, the last of the Langa Six

Add comment March 7th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1968, the black South African revolutionary Veyusile Qoba was hanged for his role in the murder of a policeman six years before.

Four men before him had gone to the gallows the previous Halloween for this crime; a fifth hanged separately for a different policeman’s killing late in 1967. Together with Qoba, they constituted the “Langa Six”.

The color line, of course, was the beef of the Six — and not only that, but the divide within the anti-resistance movement between the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC).

The Langa Six belonged to the latter entity’s military wing, Poqo (later to develop into the Azania People’s Liberation Army, but we’ll use the period-appropriate original nomenclature here). After police response to a PAC-organized 1960 protest against South Africa’s notorious racial passes turned into the Sharpeville Massacre,* Poqo girded for violent struggle against a violent state.

With the alleged slogan “one settler, one bullet,”** Poqo mounted an aggressive terrorist campaign that did not scruple to target white civilians, or black civilians perceived as collaborators. (The ANC’s simultaneous Nelson-Mandela led terrorist campaign had a more selective attitude.)

And this, in turn, spurred a further crackdown, as Pretoria banned both the ANC and PAC, and enacted a Sabotage Act — the law under which Nelson Mandea was jailed for life.

Poqo and PAC operatives were likewise arrested by the thousands in the troubled 1960s.

In March 1962, five of the Langa Six attacked police vehicles in the Cape Town suburb, killing a police Sgt. Moyi.

According to [policeman] Basson, some 50 Bantu attacked his vehicle when he tried to start the engine … he found that one of the petrol bombs set the vehicle alight and they were compelled to jump out — they were dragged out of the vehicle. It was at this stage that Sgt Moyi was set upon, pulled to the ground, and stabbed to death. Det-Sgt Josiah Moss was also injured and knocked unconscious but owing to that he fortunately escaped with his life. (Source)

(South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth & Reconciliation Commission found that this event was an impromptu, local ambush, rather than a centrally-planned operation.)

* The date of that massacre, March 21, is now honored as Human Rights Day in South Africa; it’s also the United Nations’ International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

** As Sartre put it in his notes to Fanon’s 1961 Wretched of the Earth, “to shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone, to destroy an oppressor and the man he oppresses at the same time: there remain a dead man, and a free man.” PAC spokespeople have denied that “one settler, one bullet” was an actual party slogan or policy, however.

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1673: The effigy of Charles Alexis dit Dessessards

Add comment March 6th, 2013 Headsman

According to this registry of events in French Quebec before the English conquest, one Charles Alexis dit Dessessards was ordered broken on the wheel by Quebec’s high executioner on this date in 1673.

He had been convicted of murdering a fur-trapping buddy named Herme, and plundering his pelts.

In the terrifying words of the sentence, he was at 3 p.m. to have “arms and legs broken with four blows, then be strangled and thrown on a wheel to remain there until seven o’clock in the evening. His body will then be brought to the gallows, there to remain until entirely consumed” by the elements. On top of everything, he had a 200-livre fine to pay.

There was just one bit of good news for the murderer Charles Alexis dit Dessessards:

“Until the said Charles Alexis is apprehended, the aforesaid sentence will be executed upon his effigy.”

MARS

Le 6. — “Charles Alexis dit Dessessards, convaincu d avoir tué de guet-à-pens le nommé Herme, son camarade de voyage, et d’avoir volé ses hardes et pelleteries, sera conduit sur la grande place de cette vile (Québec), par l;exécuteur de la haute justice, un lundi, à trois heures après-midi, et là, sur un échafaud qui y sera dressé à cet effet, y aura les bras et les jambes rompues de quatre coups qu’il recevra vif; sera ensuite étranglé et jeté sur une roue pour y demeurer jusqu’à sept heures du soir. Son corps sera porté sur les fourches patibulaires pour y demeurer jusqu’à parfaite consommation. Condamne en outre à deux cents livres d’amende envers le Roy, à la restitution des choses volées et le surplus de ses biens confisqué. Et en attendant que le dit Charles Alexis soit appréhendé, sera exécuté en effigie aux fourches patibulaires, un lundi, à l’heure que dessus.

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