On this date in 1921, Great Britain hanged one of its own paramilitaries in Ireland. William Mitchell was, in fact, the only member of the reviled Black and Tans executed during the Irish War of Independence.*
Was Mitchell hanged for political expediency? Did he even commit the murder for which he stood condemned?
Kelly was kind enough to talk with Executed Today about exhuming a dead soul.
ET: What led you to take an interest in this hanging?
DJK: A third cousin of mine, who shares my interest in family history research, asked me to help her verify her late father’s claim that they were related to a Black and Tan who had been hanged for murder.
I knew that the ‘Tans’ were temporary policemen recruited in England from ex-combatants of The Great War and sent to Ireland to bolster the ranks of the beleaguered Royal Irish Constabulary during the Irish War of Independence. It took me no time at all to discovered that only one Black and Tan — indeed only one member of the entire British Crown Forces — had been executed during that conflict, and that indeed he shared a surname with my cousin.
However, I could find only the briefest of mentions of him in any accounts of that bitter struggle for Ireland’s freedom. It took me and my cousin two years to track down the elusive official case papers, to establish exactly who Mitchell was, and to tell his hitherto untold story. To date however, we still have not established a firm link with my cousin’s family.
The Black and Tans are of course still notorious in Ireland and elsewhere. In this book you’re complicating their story quite a bit, making at least this one Tan a sympathetic character. What sort of audience reception has Running with Crows had? Do you find there’s a lot of resistance to the story you have to tell? For that matter, did you have any misgivings to overcome in writing it?
You are right about their notoriety. The ‘Tans’ were bored, drunk and indisciplined during the short period of their service in Ireland. They were also poorly managed and allowed to run amok, robbing and assaulting the Irish population. There is no evidence however to support the popular myth that they included a greater number of criminals than has any police force before or since. They were disillusioned and battle-hardened men who were unable to find employment back in the ‘land fit for heroes’.
Ironically, one lone reviewer of my book has accused me of not making Mitchell sympathetic enough. It was not my intention though to create sympathy for this flawed and tragic man or to turn him into a folk hero. However, whilst I do not think he was the most honourable of men, I am not persuaded he deserved to hang.
I was indeed wary of uncovering this controversial case, especially as folks in Ireland, my own relatives included, are still sensitive and emotional about the events of the 1920s. The accepted view is that the old IRA were the heroes and the ‘Tans’ were the baddies. Few people realise however that at least a quarter of the Black and Tans were Irishmen, as indeed was Mitchell. However, I am delighted to have received highly positive reviews, from ‘both sides of the divide’, that is from an IRA re-enactment group as well as from supporters and historians of the Royal Irish Constabulary. Moreover, a theatrical production company, based in the town where the murder took place, and where people still remember and sympathise with the murdered magistrate’s family, has adapted my book to a stage play, which will debut there on 15 June at the Dunlavin Arts Festival. They have also kindly invited me to hold an author talk at the festival on the 16th June.
William Mitchell was hanged for killing a magistrate named Robert Dixon. Who was Robert Dixon and why was he a target during the war?
Robert Gilbert Dixon was an Anglo-Irish gentleman; a gentleman farmer who acted as an auctioneer at the local livestock auctions and who served as a district magistrate on the local circuit. He and his wife were descended from noble and philanthropic English forebears, and indeed Robert Dixon was respected in his community for his generosity shown both to his neighbours and to the police.
During the conflict though, both magistrates and police were viewed by the Nationalists as instruments of the occupying power (the British) and as such were prime targets for assassination by the IRA. Dixon’s murder was not a political killing however. He was shot dead, and his war hero son seriously wounded, during the course of a robbery at his home.
This post-war era saw the erosion of the class system and marked the beginning of the end for ‘the old order’. Socialism was gaining popularity and the working classes were shrugging off the idea that they should ‘know their place’. The awful loss of life, mainly through mis-management of the war, meant that many had lost respect for, and indeed were resentful of, the privileged classes. A truce was now imminent in Ireland and so the ‘Tans’, who were being paid per day what the regular Irish constables earned in a week, saw their lucrative employment coming to an end, and meanwhile, in Dunlavin, the Dixon family were conspicuously wealthy …
Coming at last to the main character here, who was William Mitchell? Why was he serving in the Black and Tans, and why did he end up at the end of a noose?
Contrary to what some commentators on the conflict have written, Mitchell was not English but Irish. He was a Dublin-born former professional soldier, who had served King and Empire, both in India and in the trenches of the Western Front. He was the son of Joseph Mitchell, a London-born soldier; a respectable man who had fought in the Boer War and who had married a Dublin Protestant girl.
Another myth, that of the privileged position of those in the ‘Protestant ascendancy’ in Ireland, is dispelled by William Mitchell’s impoverished upbringing in Dublin’s Monto district, which was not only Ireland’s, but indeed Europe’s, biggest slum and red-light district. William Mitchell was a man who did not respect authority — some might say, with good reason. When two masked intruders forced their way into the Dixon household and killed the magistrate during a bungled robbery, and when one of the ‘Tans’ shot himself dead at the local barracks the following day, it was believed the dead ‘Tan’ was the shooter, and so Mitchell was then arrested as his accomplice.
This hanging occurred just as London was determining to wind things down in Ireland; later that June, Prime Minister Lloyd George proposed peace talks. As a political sop, how important domestically within Ireland was William Mitchell’s execution in June 1921? Did it even register? Had he been spared, would that have affected at all the progress towards a truce?
Ah, you have put your finger on the nub of the issue.
As ill-disciplined and unruly as the temporary constables were, there was another arm of the Black and Tans which was far more undisciplined. The Auxiliaries were demobilised officers who had been engaged ostensibly to act as an officer cadre for the temporary constables but who had instead formed themselves into hit squads and set about abducting, torturing and killing suspects without due process of law. It was the Auxiliaries who were identified with some of the worst atrocities of the conflict, including the destruction of whole villages and towns and even of the murder of the mayor of Cork.
Several Auxiliaries had been tried for murder but acquitted, usually because crucial prosecution witnesses had ‘disappeared’. One indicted auxiliary, who was a decorated war hero, but most likely also a psychopath, and was head of the self-designated ‘murder squad’ based in Dublin Castle, was facing his second murder trial. By April 1921, the world’s press were united in condemning the British administration in Ireland for letting loose this uncontrolled ‘pseudo gendarmerie’ upon the Irish population. The number of Republicans who would be executed would run to two dozen, yet thus far, no member of the British Crown Forces had been convicted for any atrocity.
The Americans and the heads of the Commonwealth nations were demanding fair play. The British public were revolted by the way the conflict was being managed and now no less a personage than King George V stepped into the arena and demanded that Lloyd George‘s government show even handedness in the way it dealt with both rebel and law enforcer. Another acquittal was fully expected in the trial of the twice-tried Auxiliary, who had carried out his grisly and murderous duty on behalf of his government, but then along came the hapless Constable Mitchell, a ‘difficult’ Irishman who had allegedly killed, not an Irish rebel, but a magistrate; an Englishman and a representative of the establishment.
The outcome in the April trial of the Auxiliary, whose defence costs (equating in today’s values to £17,600) were met from the personal funds of Hamar Greenwood, Chief Secretary for Ireland, was an acquittal, as expected.
Mitchell’s swift trial a couple of days later, by court martial (so no right of appeal) attracted little publicity. He went stoically to the scaffold, leaving behind him a 23-year-old widow and a seven-week-old baby daughter.
Political events moved fairly swiftly thereafter, so it is hard to judge whether his execution had much effect on the progress of Ireland’s achieving independence. The focus of public attention was taken up next with the internal struggles leading up to the Civil War. It seems Mitchell’s execution had little effect in the grand scheme of things.
So, did Mitchell kill the magistrate? Was he even present at the crime scene or was he a sacrificial lamb, slaughtered to offset criticism of Lloyd George’s administration in Ireland? I have presented all there is to know of this man’s life and death, as found in his military and police records, trial transcripts etcetera, and whether or not he killed the magistrate for whose murder he was hanged, or whether this was an awful miscarriage of justice, I leave for the reader to judge.
What happened to Mitchell’s family afterwards? And all these years later, what do the descendants think about their ancestor’s execution, and about the work you did with it?
I felt I could not let Mitchell’s story end with his execution. Since this is a novel closely based on a true and tragic story, I felt the reader would want to know what happened next. I know I certainly did, so I continued my research, and my narrative, to recount what had happened to many of the players in the story, and this may be found in the book’s epilogue.
Mitchell’s baby daughter lived into her nineties, always believing her father had died a hero in the course of his police service. Her respectable and courageous widowed mother did not want her little girl to grow up with any sort of stigma. Other family members knew of Mitchell’s fate however. When I tracked down his living descendants, I was cautious of the sensitivities surrounding my exposing Mitchell’s history. However, the family were keen for the full story to come out, and moreover they provided me with photographs of Mitchell, for which I am most grateful, as they enabled me to put a face to a man who hitherto had been simply a statistic.
This is not the end of the Mitchell story, however. His mortal remains (which are amongst the few still buried within the precincts of Dublin’s Mountjoy Gaol) will one day be exhumed when planned re-development of the gaol is commenced. When that day comes, my cousin and I will press for his re-interment in a local cemetery. Mitchell may not warrant the hero’s funeral accorded the Republicans who have all be disinterred from Mountjoy, but I believe he deserves at least a Christian burial.
The “Greely expedition” — so called after its commander, Adolphus Greely — was dispatched from Washington in the enthusiasm of the First International Polar Year. This was a multinational collaborative to gather scientific data about the globe’s frigid polar reaches; technically, this first IPY spanned 1882 to 1883, but the ill-starred Greely mission set out in 1881.
The mission laid down for the 25 men of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition in 1881 was to establish a weather station, and to collect astronomical and geomagnetic data.
But long before the starving remnants of that crew put Private Henry to sudden death, they had supplanted that noble endeavor with the classic objective of polar adventure: mere survival.
Matters started promisingly enough: the ship that ferried these men to their ordeal dropped them without incident at a natural harbor in Lady Franklin Bay, where the intrepid men built Fort Conger — a sturdy frame house 65′ x 21′ x 14′. They would spend the next two years making scientific measurements, exploring, and awaiting planned resupply ships in the summers.
Ice-choked waters, however, do not open reliably to this location. The resupply missions in both 1882 and 1883 failed — and left the mission with a life-or-death choice.
Per prearranged contingency, the supply ships, should they not be able to reach Camp Conger, were to drop their provisions at a backup location. Much against his men’s will, Greely gave up Camp Conger to chase this hypothetical cache. Camp Conger was more difficult for any future ships to reach but was secure, warm enough, and blessed with seal-hunting enough to keep the team in good health.
Camp Sabine was reached only after a terrifying and near-fatal float down the coast in an ice floe (!) and it proved when they reached it a much less congenial spot for wilderness survival. The resupply missions that hadn’t reached Camp Conger had failed so thoroughly that only a very small drop had even made it to Camp Sabine. Conditions prevented the party from returning to Camp Conger or from crossing the water to another inhabited Arctic station: instead, they wintered in the mouth of hell; seal-hunting here was not favorable, and most days they were only able to supplement their dwindling cache of life-giving calories with a few shrimp and scraps of lichen peeled off the frozen rocks.
Not only ravenous hunger afflicted the party, but scurvy too, and still worse a morale collapse among party members who regarded Lieutenant Greely’s leadership very lightly. Huddled in a makeshift stone hut, three years gone from hearth and home, bored and helpless and stretching out less-than-subsistence rations as far as possible and farther, nerves began to fray … and party members began to succumb to conditions.
Charles Buck Henry did not wear well on this desperate party.
“Henry” was actually the new alias of a German immigrant formerly known as Charles Henry Buck. Buck had served time for embezzling whiskey money from a frontier cavalry company, then escaped and slew a Chinese man in a Deadwood, S.D. brawl. Henry stole from the expedition’s small store of food: he was not the only one, but he was perhaps the baldest thief and the one with the fewest redeeming features that would balance this behavior. He’d been confined in March to his sleeping bag as the closest thing to punishment that Greely could visit on him. Still, Henry stole more. Resentful comrades ostracized him, while silently sizing up the discomfiting likelihood that the hulking German would be odds-on to kill any man among them in a fair scrap.
Notwithstanding promises given by Pvt C.B. Henry yesterday [to stop stealing] he has since as acknowledged to me tampered with seal thongs if not other food … This pertinacity and audacity is the destruction of this party if not at once ended. Pvt Henry will be Shot today all care being taken to prevent his injuring any one as his physical strength is greater than that of any two men. Decide the manner of death by two ball and one blank cartridge. This order is imperative & absolutely necessary for any chance of life.
That order Greely issued to his able assistant, Sgt. David L. Brainard. Brainard proceeded to gather two other men who contrived to “execute” Henry by a stratagem of approaching Henry armed, but casual, and distracting the unrestrained condemned man long enough to get the drop on him. They shot him dead just as Henry recognized his danger and started to lunge for a nearby axe — an incredibly chancy engagement that could easily have turned the whole expedition into a hyperboreal edition of “The Most Dangerous Game” had the mountainous Henry avoided or survived that gunshot.
Instead, his body with its fatal bullet wound was discovered by accident when the Greely party was at long last rescued later that June, and returned along with just seven** (barely) living souls out of the 25 who set sail in 1881. Those fortunate survivors — the relief mission’s commander reported them “crying like children, hugging each other, frantic with joy”† as their rescue vessel pulled into view — would be forever defined by their participation in the LFBE: toasted for their survival story while also dogged by dark rumors of cannibalism.
According to polar and maritime historian Glenn Stein, FRGS, who spent several years researching this jaw-dropping case,‡ they also closely husbanded the story of their one-time mate’s execution. Mr. Stein is also U.S. Liaison a present-day polar journey, the South 2014 Expedition, and he was gracious enough to speak with Executed Today about the LFBE’s execution.
ET: The Lady Franklin Bay Expedition was a U.S. expedition launched as part of the first International Polar Year. Could you situate the LFBE in the context of polar expeditions at this time?
GS: In the years following the 1875-76 British Arctic Expedition, it was suggested that nations should stop competing for geographical discoveries and instead dispatch a series of coordinated expeditions dedicated to scientific research. Eleven nations took part in the first International Polar Year (IPY) 1882-83, and the United States contributed two components to its first participation in an international scientific effort. In 1881, it was decided that the U.S. Army Signal Corps would establish one scientific station 500 miles from the North Pole, at Lady Franklin Bay, Grinnell Land. The other station was at Point Barrow, Alaska.
The executed man in this instance is Charles Henry, formerly known as Charles Buck. This man had a pretty disreputable history. How was he able to get on this expedition? – And, how did he become the Chicago Times correspondent for this journey? Did he actually file any stories?
Buck enlisted in the Fifth Cavalry under the alias Charles B. Henry, and wrote to Lieutenant Greely from Fort Sidney, Nebraska, in April 1881, volunteering for the expedition. Henry had the strong recommendation of his company commander, Captain George T. Price, to back him up. Greely and Price were friends, so Greely leaned toward taking Henry (who repeatedly telegraphed Greely with reminders of his availability). Another story is that Henry joined from Fort Sidney when one of the original expedition members deserted just before it was to leave. However, as far as I’m aware, there was only one desertion from the LFBE, and that person was replaced by Private Roderick R. Schneider, First Artillery.
Supposedly, since Henry was the only volunteer from the Fifth Cavalry, with a strong recommendation from post commander Lieutenant Colonel Compton, Greely decided to take him.
According to A.L. Todd’s Abandoned (1961), before joining the expedition back East, Henry “got permission to stop off in Chicago to visit relatives, and managed to make an arrangement with the Chicago Times to act as that paper’s special correspondent with the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition.” In his Ghosts of Cape Sabine, Len Guttridge (2000) made references to Henry’s newspaper articles: “One or two eventually published in the Chicago Times attested to an effective if florid command of the English language.”
This expedition lasted three years, 1881-1884, and it came to a considerable amount of grief. Could you sketch out what happened to the LFBE, and how it found itself in such a perilous situation in its last months?
By the end of August 1881, a frame house was constructed at Lady Franklin Bay and named Fort Conger. Over the next two years scientific data was collected and sledging parties were sent out, discovering many new geographic features, and setting north, east, and west “farthest” records. Because of the mismanagement of resupply expeditions from the United States, expedition members initiated a planned retreat by boat to Cape Sabine in August 1883 — but the journey turned into a nightmare. The party eventually ended up at Cape Sabine, where the men constructed a stone house for the winter, with an upturned boat for a roof. It was christened Camp Clay. Throughout the following months, the men’s spirits and energy dwindled, and constant hunger was now their companion. Worse, food was being stolen from the commissary storehouse. More than once, angry accusations flew back and forth within the party. The daily ration for each type of food was measured out to hundredths of an ounce.
The first death occurred on Jan. 18, 1884, when Sergeant William H. Cross died of starvation. In spite of the privations, only one man died that winter, even though scurvy was also present. In the spring Death returned with a vengeance.
So by the end, there’s a party near to starvation, just scraping by on a starvation diet. Naturally there’s a temptation for people to steal from the camp rations.
Henry wasn’t the only person to have stolen, but it seems from your description like he was the most distinctly resented by the rest of the party. Why was that?
During his time at Fort Conger, Henry was the originator of many profane remarks, misdeeds, and lies, so Greely and others had learned not to trust him.
Until the publication of my article, “An Arctic Execution,” LFBE historians consistently wrote that no one on the expedition knew of Henry’s criminal history as a forger, thief and accused murderer. However, I discovered within Sergeant Brainard’s unpublished daily notes that he definitely knew of Henry’s past — so who else knew as well? In consequence, although others also stole food, Henry would have been treated with less tolerance.
The specific details of the execution, and the variations on the story that are given later, are quite fascinating. The execution was ordered by the camp commander, but Henry was not confined and had no idea what was coming, because the shooting party could have been in some danger as well. Given the rough and ready circumstances, why then, does the execution party go to such elaborate ends to anonymize the shooter? There’s the “three guns, two balls” order, and then they can’t comply with that since there’s only one usable rifle, so they swear an oath among themselves never to tell.
Firing squad duty obviously preys upon the conscious and subconscious mind. It’s possible that passing the rifle around and swearing an oath replaced the anonymity provided by the “three guns, two balls” order. Keep in mind that, if the three men survived their Arctic ordeal, their participation could impact them for the rest of their lives — in and out of the Army.
This was particularly true of Sergeant Brainard, who was promised a commission by Greely. Decades after the execution, Brainard declared that “no matter what the provocation, the family of a man doesn’t want to think of him as an executioner.”
As a factual matter, it was either Brainard or Francis Long who pulled the trigger, since Frederick distracted Henry and lured Henry into the trap.
Charles Henry (left), and his two potential executioners: David Brainard (center) and Francis Long (right).
What’s left of Henry is buried in New York. If you really wanted to find out what happened, you would have to exhume the remains. Henry’s sister, Dora Buck, did request the exhumation and autopsy of his body, but these were never allowed to take place. Officially, as my article notes, Henry’s remains were buried with full military honors. What we are left with today are cemetery records, which state that Charles Henry “Died of Starvation.”
And you think Brainard carefully managed the way the dangerous execution story got out.
Brainard is like a historian’s dream. Not only was he there, not only was he a very intelligent individual — but he made a record of many things, keeping daily notes that go from start to finish.
I hand-copied each page, three years of field notes, and I referenced these in my article. Those notes represent his impressions at the time they were written, not edited versions. One crucial thing Brainard recorded about Henry was that he “is a born thief as his 7th Cavalry name will show — a perfect fiend.” That’s significant, because it doesn’t appear in Brainard’s published writings. Why omit that piece of information? There’s one reason: Brainard knew beforehand that Henry was a criminal, and if it was known Brainard possessed this information, then he may appear prejudicial regarding the decision to shoot Henry.
It starts to add up, because who had control of the expedition members’ journals on the passage home? Brainard.
Who wrote up an incomplete journal on the way home — and then, many months later, turned in writings covering several more months — but ending in March 1884? Brainard.
I’ve examined the three volumes of his original journal. Everything was very carefully written, and Brainard made sure the story he wanted told got into these journals.
And what transpired afterward?
Sgt. Brainard had been promised a commission by Greely for his leadership on the LFBE. That’s a huge deal — to get commissioned from the ranks for gallant and meritorious service, and not even in wartime, but peacetime. At that time, and for many years thereafter, he was the only living officer of the Army, active or retired, holding a commission awarded for specific distinguished services. I believe Brainard was a “good guy” and a stand-up guy, but at the same time, would he really chance ruining his opportunity to get that commission? The whole execution business could have made things really difficult for him.
When they evacuated Fort Conger, and later on were literally floating south on a piece of ice, there was almost a mutiny. The mutineers went to Brainard, saying Greely had to be relieved of command, that he was going to get everyone killed. But Brainard wouldn’t go along with it — in part, he probably realized it would destroy his future.
You have to start looking at these motivations; and it’s not an entirely unsympathetic view, because people in these positions had jobs to do.
It took a lot of pushing to get Brainard’s commission to Second Lieutenant approved, and this didn’t happen until October 1886. In 1917, when he was near the end of his career, he was actually appointed Brigadier General. Brainard went from buck private to Brigadier General!
After the LFBE’s rescue later in 1884, how was the matter of the execution handled? I’m reading between the lines here, but it seems to me that, while it was not a secret, it was also downplayed as a public matter in the immediate aftermath — Henry buried with full military honors, that sort of thing. As it emerged more publicly thereafter, was there ever any controversy or a significant sentiment that Greely had handled the situation improperly? Was there ever a question about the legality of his order?
Greely made a verbal report regarding the execution to his departmental superiors several days before Henry’s burial. He then wrote to Adjutant General of the Army R.C. Drum in August 1884, to report Henry’s execution and request that a court of inquiry be ordered or a court martial convened regarding the matter. Drum responded in November 1884 that after examining the expedition’s records, “the Secretary of War entertains no doubt of the necessity, and the entire propriety of your action in ordering the execution of Private Henry, under the circumstances and in the manner set forth in your report.”
It was understood that any military officer operating in the field possesses a fair degree of discretion in carrying out orders, and Greely had Henry executed in order to preserve lives.
Newspaper articles certainly featured Henry’s execution, but stories of cannibalism (including the condition of Henry’s remains) and the political scandal related to the mishandling of the attempted relief of Greely prior to his rescue were much more high profile stories.
You have a professional interest in polar exploration, and obviously starvation risks are endemic to these situations when matters go awry. Have you encountered any similar instances of a polar party executing one of its members for the sake of maintaining discipline?
A somewhat similar execution scenario, also an attempt to preserve the lives of starving men, had played out during Sir John Franklin’s 1819-22 Arctic Land Expedition. A detachment of four men from the expedition, including Surgeon John Richardson, discovered that their comrade, Midshipman Robert Hood, had been murdered by an Iroquois voyageur named Michel Teroahauté (also known as Ferohaite).
Under the circumstances, Richardson shot Michel to save their own lives.
How did you come to find out about this story and why did you decide to research it in such depth? Over a century on from the events themselves, what does the fate of Charles Henry have to tell us today?
I can trace back my knowledge of the execution to at least September 1988, when I bought a copy of The Polar Passion, by Farley Mowat (1967). Several years later, I acquired a large collection of items once belonging to General Brainard, which included most of his medals and orders, photographs, books, and a bone knife he brought back from the Arctic. Brainard is a fascinating historical figure and human being (I like to call him the quintessential American), and I spent a good deal of time researching and writing about his life. In the process I discovered there were many contradictory details about the execution.
On July 13, 2005, I was sitting at an outside bar in Jamaica, when it dawned on me that if I dug deep enough, I just might be able to figure out what really happened during the execution of Private Henry.
So, I began jotting down notes on three 4″ x 5″ pieces of paper — “1. Primary Question: Who was the shooter?” Of the three men involved, the evidence dictates the trigger man must have been either Brainard or Long — but in the absence of conclusive evidence we’ll probably never know which one. And I ultimately decided that’s okay, because it’s the way the three wretched souls wanted it to be on that fateful summer day in 1884, and I needed to respect their wishes.
The events during the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition, especially Charles Henry’s fate, are reminders of how crises bring out the best — and worst — in human nature. At various times in our lives we’re all confronted with personal crises: how we deal with them is what counts. Writing “An Arctic Execution” forced me to stretch my mind beyond what I thought were its limits to attempt to understand defining moments in the lives of human beings who were at the brink of oblivion.
A few books about the Greely expedition
* This expedition established a “farthest north” record: it was for the next several years the most northerly latitude that any explorer could document ever attaining.
** One of the seven retrieved by the Thetis, Sgt. Joseph Elison, was at death’s door. Wasted to 78 pounds and stricken with frostbite and gangrene that required his rescuers to amputate both hands and both legs, Elison died at sea — leaving just six survivors of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition who would ever again set foot on American soil.
On this date in 1573, 19-year-old Frantz Schmidt — heretofore only an apprentice to his father’s craft — conducted his first solo hanging. As the body of the thief hung there, his father or perhaps another established Scharfrichter stepped forward and ritually slapped the teenage hangman three times, announcing his successful passage into the ranks of Germany’s master executioners.
“Leinhardt Russ of Zeyern, a thief. Executed with the rope at the city of Steinach. Was my first execution.” Those words begin Meister Frantz’s remarkable diary* of 361 hangings, beheadings, breakings-on-the-wheel, drownings, and burnings — as well as many other sub-capital punishments, primarily as the executioner of Nuremberg from 1578 to 1617.
Nuremberg executioner Frantz Schmidt at work in 1584.
Executioners occupied a strange outcast social niche, with charge not only of death sentences but of other dishonorable public tasks. Either as cause or consequence of this, the profession carried its own stigma for underworld less-than-respectable behavior; it was not unheard-of for a shady executioner to wind up climbing the scaffold as patient rather than hangman.
But in his 45-year career, the sober Meister Frantz operated with ahead-of-his-time dignity and sobriety, so much so that Schmidt was granted citizenship in Nuremberg and eventually had his civic honor officially restored. He freed himself and his heirs from the social pollution inherent to his life’s work.
ET: Your book is built around a sort of life’s mission by Frantz Schmidt to return himself and his family to respectable-ness. Certainly he accomplished this marvelously in the end, but I’m curious how firm do you feel is the inference that this was his specific intent from the start?
JH: I have no doubts that as a child, Frantz Schmidt was repeatedly told the tale of his family’s fall from grace, especially since he can still remember so many details even as an old man. We also know from his own words in his appeal to the emperor to restore that lost honor that his grandfather, father, and his own children all felt the sting of this stigma. Finally, the late-in-life struggles to assert that regain honor — against the challenges of his bitter successor — further underscore the centrality of this mission in Frantz Schmidt’s life.
Executioners often had a family trade at this point, but the Schmidts — specifically the father, Heinrich Schmidt — had a bizarre path into this business via the German nobility’s old prerogatives. Could you explicate the “ancient custom” that allowed Albrecht Alcibiades to force Frantz’s father Heinrich, who was not an executioner, to become one? And for that matter, the social customs that then led Heinrich’s neighbors in Hof to treat him as a dishonored untouchable after he was forced to carry out these three executions — rather than viewing him, as we might today, as himself a victim who ought to be helped to get back to his real life?
Most European laws in the early sixteenth century were customary and highly localized. Legal codification throughout jurisdictions was just getting underway. This meant that two villages only a few miles apart might have very different traditions regarding something like execution. In the larger cities, such as Nuremberg, and well organized territorial states, such as the prince-bishopric of Bamberg, standing executioners on salary were the norm. But in many of the hundreds of tiny German states during this period, execution by the victim’s oldest male relative or by another local male was still practiced.
In the case of Hof, the margrave intentionally invoked an ancient and outdated tradition because he was in a hurry to get the job done. The stigma around the job of executioner in general was, by contrast, nearly universal. There seems to have been a little less hostility in southern German states but nobody would have openly socialized with an executioner or his family. As I describe in the book, the severity of this stigma — like all social prejudices — would depend on the individual or occasion in question. So, while some people clearly had sympathy for Meister Frantz, there were still stark boundaries of propriety as to how they might express that sympathy.
Executioners had charge of a variety of disreputable tasks and spheres of civil live: refuse, prostitutes, lepers, torture, and so forth. I’m struck by the importance of Schmidt’s Nuremberg assistant, “the Lion”, in allowing the faithful executioner to (somewhat) separate some of the most visibly dishonorable tasks from Schmdit’s direct purview. Just as a realistic matter, could Frantz Schmidt have reached respectability had he himself had to handle everything personally?
You’re right, the Lion played a key role in this respect. The broader evolution of the job was also significant, from a kind of catch-all for various unpleasant tasks to a civic professional focused on interrogation and punishment. You can also see this in the clothing that executioners start to wear in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, usually either colorful bourgeois outfits or military garb.
Frantz Schmidt’s later entries have a great deal of detail, and you use that to tease out the executioner’s psychology, and the way he thinks about crime, sin, choice, and misfortune in his mature adulthood. It’s quite intriguing. Why, however, did Schmidt begin his journal in the first place? Is there something his shorter, earlier entries tell us about the younger man and the evolution of his views of the “poor sinners” he handled?
After a long time — and especially after I found the oldest version of the journal — I figured out that he started the journal upon his 1578 appointment in Nuremberg. This means that he reconstructed the executions of the previous five years from memory (and without dates).
Why then? The timing strongly suggested to me that he was already thinking about using the journal as a supporting document in his eventual appeal to have his honor restored.
As for changes over time, the most obvious ones are that his passages become much longer, more detailed, and more concerned with motivations and explanations than the earlier, bare-bones accounts. The main evolution in his thinking about poor sinners shows both harsher judgments of those who squandered countless chances to reform and greater pity for those who simply make a bad decision in the heat of the moment.
You have a fascinating chapter devoted to Schmidt’s sidelight as a healer, and to the important ways this practice intersected with executioners’ expertise in [harming] the body. I was amazed that Frantz Schmidt himself also took part in the era’s dissection trend. If one were a regular Nuremberger at this time, would one have any compunctions about a medical consultation with the executioner, a man one might otherwise shun? If a non-executioner physician were available too, would there be any intrinsic preference for the physician as a more respectable figure?
Yes, it’s quite a paradox. You would think that most people would be squeamish or embarrassed about consulting an executioner on medical matters, but by his own estimate Frantz Schmidt saw 15,000 patients over the course of 45 years — fifty times the number of individuals he executed. So he must have been doing something right.
This journal was (re-)discovered at an interesting point, at the beginning of the 19th century when public executions are ending but romantic German nationalism is beginning. How has “Frantz Schmidt” the present-day cultural figure been used and misused by we moderns? What’s the most important misapprehension that reading his diary ought to dispel for us?
This is really the focus of my epilogue, which discusses how “medieval” executioners have been used for the purposes of “enlightened” penal reform, nineteenth-century gothic fantasies, and in modern tourism to elicit disgust, amusement, or even the glorification of pain and suffering. My chief goal in writing the book was to get closer to understanding one such man in his own terms and in the context of his own society. To the degree that the book succeeds, parts of his world will look bizarre and alien, while other aspects (especially how people treat each other) will be strikingly familiar.
* Print-on-demand editions of Schmidt’s original diary are on the market. Although these derive from what I believe to be public domain translations, I have not been able to locate a free English copy online; German speakers can read it here.
There he became involved in the Strasserite anti-Hitler “Black Front”. To Hirsch’s grief, this organization had been thoroughly penetrated by pro-Hitler spies.
In December 1936, Hirsch embarked on a train. His mission was to bomb something in Germany. The details of the plan remain murky to this day; Hirsch’s subsequent trial was held in secret and his worried family only learned the whereabouts of their son three months missing when they heard a radio broadcast in March announcing his condemnation for “preparation of high treason and criminal use of explosives endangering the public.”
It seems that Hirsch was supposed to have disembarked in Nuremberg and there picked up some left luggage deposited by a fellow conspirator; he may have been meant to deliver this payload Nazi party headquarters in Nuremberg, or perhaps to the offices of Julius Streicher’s propaganda sheet Der Stürmer.
The young would-be terrorist would tell his family in prison letters that he had instead bypassed Nuremberg and kept going all the way to Stuttgart to meet a friend, hoping the latter would talk him out of his wavering commitment to the plot. Instead, he was arrested that night by the Gestapo.
This case made news in the United States during the spring of ’37 because Hirsch’s father, Siegfried, was a naturalized American. That made Helmut a U.S. citizen, too, even though the son had never set foot in the United States.* U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull and the American ambassador to Germany William Dodd lobbied the Nazi government to spare Hirsch** — but to no avail.
Hirsch’s sister Kaete Hirsch Sugarman later donated her brother’s papers — letters, photos, architectural drawings — to Brandeis University, which maintains them as the Helmut Hirsch Collection. They include this touching final letter the young man wrote to his family on the eve of his execution.
Dear Mother, dear Father,
I have just been told that my appeal for clemency was turned down. I must die then.
We need not say anything any more to each other. You know that in these last months I have really found the way to myself and to life. Real beauty must stand before unswerving honesty. You know that I have lived every moment fervently and that I have remained true to myself until the end. You must live on. There can be no giving up for you. No becoming soft or sentimental. In these days I have learned to say “yes” to life. Not only to endure it but to love life as it is. It is our own inner gravity, the force by which we have entered life.
It must help you in some way that I know I have finally reached my own inner image and feel complete. And in this feeling is much of our time and our world.
The only way I know how to thank you is by showing you until the last moment that I have used all your love and goodness towards becoming a whole being of my time and my heritage. Do not think of the unused possibilities, but take my life as a whole. A great search, a foolish error, but on its path to finding of final truth, final peace.
Please care for Vally [his girlfriend, Valerie Petrova] as for a child. I embrace you, dear mother and you, my father, once more for a long, long time. Only now have I realized how much I love you.
* Siegfried Hirsch was a naturalized American who had lived in the U.S. for a decade prior to World War I. Siegfried’s U.S. citizenship had been revoked in 1926 because he had left to live abroad, but when the matter came to prominence in 1937 it was reinstated and Helmut Hirsch explicitly acknowledged as a U.S. national.
** The shoe has been on the other foot for death-sentenced German nationals in the present-day U.S.
On this date in 1886, thirteen Catholic men and boys, as well as nine Anglican Christians, were burned alive in Buganda, a kingdom in modern-day Uganda. Most of them pages at the royal court, they had been martyred for their faith.
The kingdom of Buganda came in contact with Europeans in the 1860s; Arab traders had been doing business there a few decades before that. Christian missionaries arrived in Buganda in 1879. In the next few years many court officials converted.
King Muteesa I tolerated Muslims, Catholics and Protestants and played them off against other for political gain, but his sixteen-year-old son, Mwanga II, who ascended the throne in 1884, was a different story altogether. He saw Christianity as a serious threat to his authority and cracked down on its influence.
Mwanga expelled many missionaries ordered converts to renounce their faith on pain of death. He had James Hannington, the Anglican Bishop of Eastern Equatorial Africa, executed in October 1885.
Between 1885 and 1887, Mwanga ordered the deaths of 45 Christian men (22 Catholics and 23 Anglicans). Collectively they are known as the Martyrs of Uganda. Most of them were young. (One of the boys who would die on this day was all of fourteen years old.)
Joseph Mukasa was the first of the Martyrs to die. A page and personal attendant to King Muteesa, he became majordomo after Mwanga took the throne, and had permission to criticize the king. He had converted to Roman Catholicism in 1882. Mukasa had strongly urged Mwanga to spare Bishop Hannington’s life.
For his pains, Mukasa was himself executed and his body burned only two weeks after Hannington. The chief page, Charles Lwanga, became majordomo in his place.
The following day, the king assembled all the pages and demanded under pain of death that they confess their Christian allegiance. All of them, Catholic and Anglican, except for three, did so. Mwanga was baffled by the solidarity and constancy of the young Christians, but hesitated to carry out his threat to kill them all. Several times in early December the king attempted to intimidate his pages, in spite of visits from the Catholic and Anglican missionaries. On one occasion, Lwanga exclaimed that, so far from helping the white men to take over the kingdom, he was ready to lay down his life for the king.
After the fire in the royal palace on February 22, 1886, Mwanga moved the court temporarily to his hunting lodge at Munyonyo on the shore of Lake Victoria. Here Lwanga continued to protect the pages … and to prepare them for possible martyrdom. By this time, Mwanga had obtained the consent of his chiefs for a massacre of the Christians. Meanwhile, Lwanga himself baptized five of the most promising catechumens. On May 26 … the pages entered the royal courtyard to receive judgement. Once again, they were called upon to confess their faith. This they did, declaring that they were ready to die rather than to deny it. Mwanga ordered them all, sixteen Catholics and ten Anglicans, to be burnt alive at Namugongo.
Several of the condemned were killed before the main event. The oldest, Matthias Kalema, aged about fifty, was dismembered alive and pieces of him were roasted before his eyes. He died slowly and horribly over the course of three days, finally expiring on May 30. Three others collapsed during the march to the execution site in Namugongo and were killed on the spot.
One of them, however, was inexplicably spared at the last possible moment. Denis Kamyuka was pulled away from the fire by some of the soldiers. It’s worth noting that Kamyuka appears to have been among the youngest of the group, around thirteen or fourteen; perhaps his executioners took pity on him for this reason. It is from his testimony that we know the details of what happened to his friends.
Everyone prayed and recited the catechism on the way to their deaths. Each of the pages were bound and wrapped up in reeds before being placed alive in the bonfire. The exception was Mbaaga Tuzinde, the son of the chief executioner; his father, who had pleaded for him to renounce his religion and offered to hide him, ordered that he be clubbed to death before being put into the flames.
Charles Lwanga, their leader, was burned separately from the others and was allowed to arrange his own pyre. As the executioners taunted him he said, “It is as if you are pouring water on me.”
In 1888, Christian and Muslim converts deposed King Mwanga in a British-backed uprising and put his brother on the throne in his place. Mwanga got his crown back in 1889 after he agreed to turn partial control of Buganda to the British East Africa Company. In 1897, however, he declared war on the British and attacked them. Trounced within weeks, Mwanga fled the country and was deposed in absentia. He returned with an army, but was defeated again, this time for good, and exiled to the Seychelles. In the final years of his short life he converted to Anglicanism. He died in 1903, aged 35.
The 22 Catholic converts who were martyred in Uganda during Mwanga II’s reign were beatified in 1920. Denis Kamyuka was present at the ceremony.
The site where the Uganda Martyrs were burned is now a holy shrine, a 33-acre site marked by a distinctive conical building. Every year on this date, pilgrims come there to commemorate Uganda Martyrs Day.
On this date in 1810, Ohio’s Wyandot (aka Huron) tribe executed Leatherlips by tomahawk.
This evocative name,* and his proper Wyandot name of Chief Shateyaronyah, appears among the signatories of the Treaty of Greenville — a pact secured after military action ceding Ohio to white settlers. It’s just an early installment of the rolling continental conquest with its familiar Hobson’s choice for natives: resist or accommodate?
Leatherlips was a leader of the accommodationist strand, advocating peacable relations with neighboring whites.
And in a few years, this would become a very big problem for the leader of the resistance camp — Tecumseh. This soon-to-be-renowned Shawnee would shortly raise a broad confederation up in arms against whites.
To do this, Tecumseh felt it necessary to eliminate the go-along, get-along types.
On June 1, 1810, six Wyandot warriors showed up at the historic Black Horse Tavern, a regular Leatherlips haunt at the Sells Settlement. This germ of present-day Dublin, Ohio, was the Scioto River property of the settler John Sells,** a friend of Leatherlips.
Sells heard about this unsettling visit the next morning, and immediately set out on horseback to find the party. He came upon them in a lodge, with Leatherlips bound, being tried for witchcraft — a charge that was all the vogue after the recent death of a Lenape chief who was thought to have been enspelled. Leatherlips was pushing 80 years of age.
Sells’s attempts to save the elderly Wyandot’s life were in vain. That afternoon, Leatherlips painted his face, sang a war chant, and knelt by his own grave, where one of the braves slew him by tomahawking his head. The Wyandot warriors allegedly drew the Sells party’s attention to Leatherlips’s sweating face as he died, viewing this phenomenon as an indicium of guilt.
* As much as it sounds like the poor guy needed some lip balm, “Leatherlips” was actually a nickname conferred (by whites) for his trustworthiness … as in, any promise that passes his lips is strong as leather, just like RUN-DMC.
The “Schoolgirl Strangler” used the same modus operandi on all of his four victims: strangled, gagged with their own clothing, the arms and legs tied after death, and their bodies dumped with little effort at concealment.
Born in 1899, Sodeman was raised in an unhappy home with a violently abusive father. He ran away at the first chance he got.
He went on to get in trouble with the law, for theft-related offenses and prison escape, and the authorities deemed him an “incorrigible rogue” — which was less charming than it sounds.
By his late twenties, Sodeman seemed to have settled down. He worked various laboring jobs, married in 1926 and had a daughter two years later. When sober he was a mild enough man, but under the influence of drink — which was often — he changed into a different person altogether.
However, his marriage was loving and happy, and he adored his little girl and his dog. Whatever else Sodeman might have done, he never mistreated his family.
His law-abiding life, however, didn’t last.
His first victim was twelve-year-old Mena Alexandra Griffiths, whom Sodeman kidnapped, raped and strangled on November 9, 1930. Her body wasn’t found for two days. She was the only victim who was sexually assaulted.
A month later the police arrested a suspect, a truck driver named Robert McMahon. Mena’s younger sister identified him, and he was committed for trial. Ultimately, after two and a half months in custody, he was released for lack of evidence.
But on January 10, 1931, while McMahon was still in jail, Sodeman struck again, abducting and strangling Hazel Wilson, a sixteen-year-old who suffered from tuberculosis. Hazel was last seen standing near her home, smoking a cigarette and horsing around with an unidentified young man. Her body turned up in a nearby vacant lot the next day.
The police put out appeals for the young man to come forward and “assist with their inquiries,” and even offered a reward for information leading to his identification, but their efforts came to nothing.
Hazel’s father, who reportedly had a violent temper, was looked at as a possible suspect in his daughter’s death, but he was cleared.
Although the police recognized the similarities in the Griffiths and Wilson crimes and realized it was probably the same perp in both cases, they had nothing concrete to go on. Both homicide investigations stagnated.
On January 1, 1935, after a four-year dry spell, Sodeman abducted Ethel Belshaw while she was out buying ice cream, and strangled her. She was twelve. He was her next-door neighbor and sometimes had tea with her family.
Sodeman was actually questioned by the police and admitted he had spoken to Ethel on the day she disappeared, but he said he’d left her alive, and nobody pressed him about it.
Instead, investigators focused on a teenage boy who had given contradictory statements about his movements on the day of the murder. He was arrested and charged with killing Ethel, but there was no evidence against him and the case was dismissed after a couple of days.
Left to right: Mena Griffiths, Ethel Belshaw, and June Rushmer. (Not pictured: Hazel Wilson.)
Exactly eleven months later, on December 1, he killed his last and youngest victim, six-year-old June Rushmer.
This victim he also knew slightly: she was a co-worker’s daughter, and Sodeman took it in his mind to kill her after she asked him for a ride on his bicycle.
(The Belshaws and the Rushmers couldn’t afford tombstones for their daughters. It wasn’t until more than seventy-five years later that the Australian Funeral Directors Association donated bronze plaques to mark their graves.)
It should be noted that Sodeman was drunk at the time of all four murders. “When in this state,” he reflected later, “thoughts would go through my mind concerning men, women and children whom I disliked … I would feel the desire to even it up, not caring what happened to them, but I would shake it off. As soon as the liquor wore off I could reason properly and would wipe it all off.”
At the time of the Rushmer homicide, Sodeman was part of a laboring crew repairing roadways.
Shortly after June’s murder, one of his coworkers joked that he’d seen Sodeman near the crime scene. Sodeman became so angry and defensive that the others got suspicious and went to the police. The cops hauled him away from his work site for questioning.
This time the police had finally got the right man. After twelve hours of interrogation, Sodeman confessed to everything in great detail, describing how he would link his thumbs together to get a better grip on the throats of his victims. He correctly identified the exact type of candy he’d used to lure the girls. He also admitted to the attempted murders of two other children.
At trial, Sodeman’s attorney had little choice but to go with an insanity defense. Sodeman certainly had the genetic background for it:
His great-grandfather died of “inflammation of the brain.”
His grandfather died in a mental hospital.
So did his father.
Annnnnd his mother suffered from serious short-term memory loss.
Sodeman himself had bouts of depression throughout his life, and he sustained a serious brain injury years before the murders started when he fell off a horse.
According to author Ivan Chapman, at Sodeman’s trial,
Three doctors — two of them Government medical officers — examined Sodeman and gave their individual opinions. One thought he had a brain disorder that flared when he drank alcohol; another decided he was neither conscious of, nor understood, what he was doing; the third believed Sodeman was not responsible for what he did. All three doctors backed down, however, when Sodeman’s confession was produced in court. They agreed that if it accurately described the facts of the crime, then Sodeman must have appreciated the nature and quality of his acts; none of them was prepared to declare him certifiably insane.
The verdict was, inevitably, sane and guilty as charged.
Although he did appeal his conviction, that went nowhere and Sodeman himself seems to have welcomed death. He said he felt it was necessary for him to die, because if he lived he believed he would kill again.
Sodeman spent the last afternoon of his life playing draughts with another condemned man, then slept soundly during the night. On the scaffold the next morning, when asked if he had anything to say for himself, Sodeman replied simply, “No, sir.” He died without any fuss.
His widow reverted to her maiden name after his death, hoping to escape the notoriety, and raised their daughter alone. She never remarried, and died in the 1980s.
The autopsy did uncover something interesting: it turned out Sodeman had suffered from leptomeningitis, a degenerative disease of the brain. When a person with this condition abuses alcohol, their brain can become seriously inflamed, which can cause irrational behavior among other symptoms.
Needless to say, the finding casts serious doubts on Sodeman’s ability to control his actions at the time of the murders. In fact, according to one criminal psychologist, Sodeman wouldn’t have even been found fit to stand trial if his crimes had occurred today.
The July 13, 1793 Wyndham (Conn.) Heraldquotes the last dying words of Ezra Mead, hanged May 31 at Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
I, Ezra Mead, aged forty years, was born at Stamford in the State of Connecticut, of honest and credible parents, with whom I lived until I was about ten years of age; when I was bound as an apprentice to learn the Cooper’s trade. After having served the time of my apprenticeship, I went to Fish Kill and married my wife Catherine Rogers; since which time I have been in several parts of the World working at my trade, in order to get something in an honest way by my industry for the support of my wife and children, who resided in the town of Fish Kill. Having returned to my family, I resided with them, but being afflicted by a certain neighbor of mine, in words and actions, was driven by turns to drinking to excess; and in one of these fits of insanity, I committed the crime for which I suffer. But I declare to the world, that I was not willfully guilty of the crime aforesaid; at that present moment I might have suspected he had injured me, but not being master of my reason, have been guilty of what I never intended to have done, as appeared in the course of my trial. And I do further declare that I never have been guilty of any other crime deserving such punishment, as has been represented or reported by many evil minded persons since my imprisonment. And that I forgive all mankind, and hope the Lord and they will forgive me, and that they will take warning by my untimely end. Farewell. Ezra Mead.
He and his wife Josephine had recently moved to the hamlet of Canaan just this side of the Massachusetts border. With them was a twelve-year-old daughter.
On the night of December 5, 1867, they left little Angie in their basement rental and called on neighbors for the evening — and the house went up in flames. Neighbors rushing to the emergency had to force their way through the doors to extinguish the blaze, and discovered the Angie’s scorched remains amid several bushels of suspiciously flammable rubbish. Some neighbors thought the Browns had not hurried to the scene as they ought, and found their expressions of grief unconvincing.
These dubious circumstances could hardly help but lift an eyebrow, but in the end there was little for it and a coroner ruled the death accidental, perhaps caused by the unattended child attempting to fill a lighted kerosene lamp.
However, the fate of “poor little Angie” took on a decidedly more sinister cast when the Browns turned around and filed for a $5,000 life insurance benefit on Angie’s bones — a short-term, three-month policy due to expire in two weeks. A suspiciously dead child was one thing, but now there was money at stake. Travelers Insurance — the present-day corporate conglomerate then in its infancy, carving out its titular niche with innovative policies insuring against once-dangerous rail travel — put some real investigative muscle into the situation before it paid up.
The facts as developed by Travelers made a damning circumstantial case against the couple that was soon taken over by the criminal authorities: “a reflected glow of guilt,” in the summing-up of the state’s attorney who prosecuted Joseph.
Angie turned out not to be the couple’s own child at all, but a loaner from a woman in their hometown of Dayton, Ohio. She had given permission for her daughter to accompany the couple on a trip to Connecticut. (A weird arrangement in which the child was to call them “mother” and “father”, but one made innocently by the victim’s natural mother so far as anyone could determine.)
En route, Joe and Jo insured the life of this child who was not their own. And by the time they got to Canaan, Joseph had indiscreetly negotiated to purchase some property, intimating an ability in no way justified by his pre-fire resources to pay several thousand dollars cash on the nail.
To cinch Joseph’s conviction, physicians hired by Travelers testified that Angie had not inhaled smoke … meaning that she was dead before the fire started at all.
“I have told the insurance company that I would give them the policy if they would let me go,” a desperate Joseph at one point said in a police interview. He should have thought of that sooner.
But he was, as he said on the scaffold, “not an accomplished man” and he could only complain confusedly about minor points of the trial he considered prejudicial while maintaining a general insistence upon his innocence that persuaded nobody.
At the time of this hanging, Josephine Brown still lay in the Columbia County jail awaiting her turn at the bar in the same affair. But despite the sense among many participants in the case that it was she who instigated her cloddish husband to the lucrative homicide, the prosecution couldn’t assemble a satisfactory case and dropped charges later that year.
On this date in 1818, Abraham Casler was hanged in Schoharie, N.Y. for escaping an ill-advised marriage by means of an illicit powder.
Casler had got young Catherine (Caty) Sprecker pregnant and was only induced to change her name in 1812 by threat of prosecution. Even at the wedding he told the bride’s own brother that he didn’t intend to live with the poor girl.
Casler immediately regretted committing himself to wedlock in any form whatsoever (his alternative would have been to pay a fine, much the bargain as compared to an unpromising marriage — particularly so in those benighted days before no-fault divorce). So he promptly enlisted in the army then fighting the War of 1812 so as “not to live with his wife that he wished … was out of the land of the living,” as he said to another recruit.
If wishes were fishes, they’d have arsenic inside. (n.b.: they do!)
When he finally had to return, Casler preferred to spend his time paying court to a widowed Albany innkeeper, and generally had a manifestly unhappy time of it with Caty. The latter’s epileptic fits probably only exacerbated the unwilling husband’s ire.
At last, while traveling, Caty Casler took ill with “a burning heat at her stomach & breast … cold chills by spells accompanied with sweat.” She “said her whole body was in pain; she was alernately [sic] cold and hot; would throw off the bed clothes, and then cover herself again.” After a couple of miserable bedridden days, all the while being personally treated by an attentive Abraham Casler who also shooed away attempts by other guests to assist or to summon medical aid,* Caty Casler succumbed, and “looked blue round the mouth and eyes” and “her hair came out.”
Doctors who conducted the post-mortem found what they were certain was arsenic and opium in Caty’s stomach. The trial record features a number of these medical men describing the exact tests they used to establish the presence of this deadly mineral; for instance, a Dr. James W. Miller described finding “particles … of a vitrious appearance” in the stomach.
Some of those particles were placed on a heated iron; a dense white fume arose from their combustion. Some of them were likewise placed between two plates of polished copper prepared for the purpose; those coppers were bound by an iron wire and placed into the fire until they were brought to red heat; they were then removed and after they were cold they were separated, the interior of the plates were whitened towards the edges of the plate in the form of a circle.
Last, taking two teaspoons of stomach fluid containing these suspicious particles,
He diluted it with a pint of water, then took the nitrate of silver and dissolved it and put into a separate glass; took pure ammonia into another glass; then took two glass rods, wet the end of one of them in the solution of the nitrate of silver, and dipped the end of the other in the pure ammonia, then brought the two ends of the rods in contact on the surface of the water in the vessel containing the contents of the stomach, and passed them down into the fluid; there was a precipitate from the point of contact, that precipitate was of an orange colour. He repeated that experiment several times, and also with arsenic dissolved in water. The results of the experiment were similar; the same precipitate in the one as in the other, tho’ it was more distinct in the solution made of arsenic, that being coulourless.
There was, in Dr. Miller’s opinion, “arsenic in the stomach; [he] has no doubt of it; considers the test made by him infallible; does not know that any thing except arsenic, will produce the same effect on copper, as was produced by those particles in the experiment.”
The court record merely summarizes the testimony witness by witness rather than providing a literal transcription, but one gets a sense of the thing merely leafing through it: it has 16 pages of prosecution testimony, from Casler’s Albany crush and family members catching him in suspicious circumstances, plus six different physicians, one of whom was a Professor of Chemistry at Fairfield Medical Academy.
The defense has one-half of one page, consisting of a flat denial by Casler and the observations of one former boarder with nothing useful to say.
That admonition had to be repeated: less than a year later, the crossbeam that had once supported Casler’s dying throes was tested again to dispatch a farmer from Sharon Springs who had bludgeoned a deputy sheriff to death.
* “It would only make a bill of expense,” Casler said of the prospect of summoning a physician for his wife. This was also the same disquieting answer he gave when asked if he would be taking the body to bury with her family; instead, he unsentimentally buried it at the nearest available spot, where it was soon exhumed by suspicious locals. The guy hung himself with skinflintedness.