Posts filed under 'USA'

1800: The slave Abram, property of John Patterson

2 comments August 19th, 2019 Headsman

The hanging, and then posthumous beheading and head-spiking, of the Virginia slave Abram lacks any firmer primary date than the signature given this Richmond newspaper report that was later widely reprinted in the young United States. (Our text here hails from the Hartford, Conn. American Mercury, September 18, 1800.)


A HORRID MURDER.

Capt. John Patterson, Inspector at Horsley’s Warehouse in the town of Dinguidsville and county of Buckingham, was lately murdered in a cruel manner by Abram, a negro man slave, the property of the said Patterson.

The circumstances of this atrocious deed is in substance thus related by the wretch who perpetrated it; being his confession at the time he was apprehended — repeated immediately after his trial and condemnation, and on the morning of his execution.

Says he —

In consequence of some punishment inflicted on me by my master for some misdemeanor of which I was guilty, a considerable time prior to the fatal catastrophe, I ever after meditated his destruction: On the evening in which it was effected, my master directed me to set off home (about seven miles distant from the warehouse, where I generally attended) and carry a hoe which we used at the place, I sat [sic] off, and was determined to dispatch him that night, after proceeding some distance I concluded to way-lay him having the hoe in possession, accordingly, I lay on or behind a log, convenient to the road on which my master was to pass, and fell into a slumber; after waiting there a considerable time, I heard the trampling of horses’ feet; I concluded therefore my master was near; I got up and walked forwards; my master soon overtook me, and asked me [it being then dark] who I was; I answeredAbram; he said he thought I had been gone from town long enough to have been further advanced on the road; I said, I thought not, I spoke short to him, and did not care to irritate him; I walked on however; sometimes by the side of his horse, and sometimes before him.

In the course of our travelling an altercation ensued; I raised my hoe two different times to strike him; as the circumstances of thep laces suited my pupose, but was intimidated; when I came to the bridge (across a small stream) I thought that place favorable to my views, but seeing a light, and some people at a house a little distant from thence I resisted the impulse. When I came to the fatal spot, being most obscured by the loftiness of the trees, I turned to the side of the road; my master observed it, and stopped; I then turned suddenly round, lifted my hoe, and struck him across the breast: the stroke broke the handle of the hoe; he fel; I repeated my blows; the handle of the hoe broke a second time; I heard dogs bark, at a house which we passed, at a small distance; I was alarmed, and ran a little way, and stood behind a tree, ’till the barking ceased: in running, I stumbled and fell; I returned to finish the scene; I began, and on my way picked up a stone, which I hurl’d at his head, face, &c. again and again and again, until I thought he was certainly dead — and then I went home.

The body was found the next morning: the features so defaced, the body so mangled, that it was with difficulty his person could be recognized — a scene too shocking for human sight. Capt. Patterson was a man universally esteemed. He was a tender husband, an affectionate brother, a mild master, a kind neighbour, a faithful officer, in short, he possessed every quality that constitutes the good citizen, and an amiable member of society.

P.S. After the cruel monster, who sacrificed the life of so worthy a character to his revenge was hanged, his head was struck off and exhibited on a pole about 24 feet high, in view of the warehouse where he was usually employed.

Buckingham, 19th Aug. 1800.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Gibbeted,Hanged,Murder,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,Uncertain Dates,USA,Virginia

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1963: Eddie Lee Mays, the last executed in New York

Add comment August 15th, 2019 Headsman

The last execution in the state of New York occurred on this date in 1963 when Harlem murderer Eddie Lee Mays — who shot a woman dead in the course of a pub stickup — went to the mercy seat at Sing Sing prison.


It was also the last execution in Sing Sing’s notorious electric chair, here elevated to the artistic canon by Andy Warhol‘s 1960s series of electric chair images. Warhol based his arresting view of the apparatus on press photos circulated around the 1953 electrocution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in the same device.

New York’s once-robust death penalty statutes and habits disappeared along with the rest of America’s by the late 1960s; her last executioner, Dow B. Hover — the guy who threw the switch on Eddie Mays — committed suicide in 1990.

The Empire State ditched its death penalty laws in 1984, briefly reinstated them in 1995, but executed no prisoners before everything was ruled out constitutionally in 2004.

By coincidence, August 15, 1963 was also the date of the last execution in Scotland.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,Milestones,Murder,New York,Theft,USA

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2018: Carey Dean Moore

1 comment August 14th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 2018, Nebraska executed Carey Dean Moore for killing two cab drivers all the way back in 1979 — 39 years earlier.

It had been over 20 years since Nebraska carried out any execution, but Moore’s real milestone was in the ongoing drug supply breakdown of the U.S. lethal injection system. Moore was the first U.S. prisoner executed using the opiate fentanyl — in his case, in combination with diazepam, cisatracurium, and potassium chloride. Nebraska’s supply of the last two of these stood within weeks of its labeled expiration.

The German pharmaceutical firm that manufactured some of Wilson’s lethal cocktail sued the Cornhusker state for its intent to use its product as a mankiller. U.S. judge Richard G. Kopf — who formerly blogged bench life at his site Hercules and the Umpiretartly rejected this appeal, finding that after four decades on death row it had become curiously essential to the majesty of justice that Moore be executed right now: “Any delay now is tantamount to nullifying Nebraska law, particularly given the rapidly approaching expiration of two of the drugs and the total absence of any feasible alternatives.”

Although the execution went ahead, it did not go smoothly. According to the Lincoln Journal Star,

Members of the media who witnessed Moore’s death Tuesday by lethal injection described reactions of Moore to the drugs that included rapid and heaving breaths, coughing, gradual reddening of the face and hands, and then a purple cast to the skin. 

But about 15 minutes into the procedure, about a minute after Moore’s eyelids appeared to open slightly, Corrections Director Scott Frakes, who was in the room with the condemned prisoner, said something into his radio and the curtains closed for the media witnesses.

The curtains did not open again for 14 minutes, six minutes after Lancaster County Attorney Pat Condon pronounced Moore dead at 10:47 a.m., and 29 minutes after the first drug, diazepam, was administered at 10:24.

The curtain that shielded the four media witnesses from what happened during that time is significant, as they were not allowed to view everything that happened in the room. That hindered transparency and true reporting of the effects of the drugs, observers have said.

Don’t worry, we have the assurance of Frakes et al that everything worked fine and was done by the book while the curtain was down.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Lethal Injection,Milestones,Murder,Nebraska,Ripped from the Headlines,USA

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1819: Nathan Foster, wife-killer and patriot-killer

Add comment August 6th, 2019 Headsman

Two hundred years ago today, Nathan Foster hanged in Masonville, New York.

The crime on his charge sheet was poisoning his wife, Eleanor, to get with the pretty young maid she hired.

But little less damning in the eyes of his neighbors was the belief that he had taken the life of a patriot while fighting the pro-British side during the American Revolution.

Foster was a tory during the Revolution, and is reported to have been the identical person who inhumanly murdered Col. Alden, at the massacre of Cherry Valley, in 1777. Priest, in his narrative of the capture of David Ogden, who died a short time since in Franklin, Delaware County, thus refers: “This act of barbarity was perpetrated by a man named Foster, a tory at that time, and the same, who a few years since (1819) was hanged for the murder of his wife, by poison, in Delaware County, N.Y. at Delhi. That the same Foster did murder Colonel Alden, was ascertained by a certain James Campbell, another tory, who stated to David Ogden, that he had heard this Foster boast of the act, while they were both with the British at Niagara. He was at length overtaken by justice, and ended his miserable life on the gallows, although at the advanced age of __ years. He died without a confession of his guilt.

Foster’s prosecution had the aid at the very bar of New York’s Attorney General — the future United States President Martin Van Buren. There’s a #longreads piece on the man and the case available from New York History Review.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Murder,New York,Notable Participants,Public Executions,USA

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1678: Thomas Hellier, “Groans and Sighs”

1 comment August 5th, 2019 Headsman

Thomas Hellier, a miserable New World indentured servant who murdered his master and mistress along with another servant to escape his Virginia plantation, was hanged on this date in 1678.

Desperate in London after frittering away the £12 he stole from his parents without successfully getting his barbering/surgeon business off the ground, Hellier was talked into signing into an indenture. To his recruiter, the skeptical Hellier remembered (in his gallows confession),

I replied, I had heard so bad a character of that Country, that I dreaded going thither, in regard I abhorred the Ax and the Haw. He told me, he would promise I should be onely employ’d in Merchants Accompts, and such Employments to which I had been bred, if they were here used.

Just get them to sign on the line which is dotted. Promises to the contrary, Hellier upon arrival got sold straightaway to a farm that calloused his surgeon’s hands with all the abhorrent tools. The place was literally named the Hard Labour Plantation.

Friend of the site Anthony Vaver (author of Bound with an Iron Chain and Early American Criminals) has a nice profile of this small bit of chum for the emerging Atlantic economy on his site Early American Crime.

It seems that after trying and failing to escape his farm once, Hellier loosed himself by busting into the master’s bedchamber with an axe and bashing to death Mr. Cutbeard Williamson — right hand to God, that’s the name — and his wife, plus the maid who also resided in the house. Although he fled the grounds, neighbors suspicious of his close-cropped hair — a scarlet letter imposed after his previous escape to mark him as a runaway — detained him and the law soon caught up.

Hellier took the opportunity of his execution to sting the Virginia planter class for its abuse of employees, although to some readers eyes it might equally appear a manifesto for laziness.

How much more consonant and agreeable were it to common Policy, Self-interest, as well as true Christian Charity, for all Masters in Virginia, Planters as well as others, to consider first their own Ability, and the Capacity of the Servants whom they designe to purchase, before they deal for them; sincerely at the same time imparting to them, What their Work must be, and what their Usage? And if, by enquiry into their former Condition, they discover them improper persons for their purpose; How much a wiser course were it, that such should seasonably pitch their choice on some others, more useful for them? Or if they will chuse no others, Conscience and Christianity sure ought to oblige them to use such Servants as their Christian Brethren, with Gentleness and Courtesie, content with their honest endeavours, not Tyrannizing over Christians, as Turks do over Galley-slaves, compelling them unmercifully beyond their strength.

For though Masters justly do expect and require Fidelity and painful Industry from their Christian Servants, and such Servants ought to put themselves forth to their utmost power for their Masters Benefit: Yet, the merciful Man exerciseth Mercy towards his Beast, much more toward a Christian Servant. And let cruel, tyrannical, Egyptian Task-masters know, that their Master is also in Heaven, whose Omniscience beholds and knows all persons dealings, and will judge according to Equity, without respect of persons, in his own due time, and listen to the Groans and Sighs of poor oppressed Wretches, vindicating the cause of injur’d Innocents, retributing crosses, vexations and troubles to all Wrong-doers.

And whereas this poor Penitent Wretch declar’d, That the bitterness of his ill-tongued Mistress was the main immediate provocation prompting and exciting him to give way to Satan’s suggestions, while he tempted him to perpetrate this horrid, execrable Outrage: I suppose, all will grant, that Bitterness in any case (especially to morigerous Servants of a gentle Temper, obediently willing to do their endeavours) is no way Christian-like nor commendable, but rather Patience and kinde usage … Also you that are Masters of Servants in this Country, have respect to them, to let them have that which is necessary for them, with good words, and not (Dam you dog, do such a thing, or such a thing.) They are not Dogs, who are professed Christians, and bear God’s Image; happily they are as good Christians as your selves, and as well bred and educated, though through Poverty they are forced to seek Christianity under thy roof; where they usually find nothing but Tyranny. Be good to your Servants, as you would have God be good to you. Servants, in all things obey your Masters according to the flesh, not with eye-service as man-pleasers, but with singleness of heart, fearing God. Masters, give to your Servants what is right and equal; know that you also have a Master in Heaven.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,USA,Virginia

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1775: Not Richard Carpenter, strong swimmer

Add comment July 21st, 2019 Headsman

20th [July 1775]. Mr. Carpenter was taken by the night Patrole — upon examination he had swum over to Dorchester and back again, was tried here that day and sentence passed on him to be executed the next day, — his coffin bro’t into the Goal-yard, his halter [noose] brought and he dressed as criminals are before execution. Sentence was respited and a few days after was pardoned.

-from the diary of Boston selectman Timothy Newell

On or around this date in 1775, an immigrant wig-maker was faux-executed by the British garrisoned in a besieged Boston.

Richard Carpenter was not a figure of decisive importance to the onrushing American Revolution but the excellent and venerable blog Boston 1775 by J.L. Bell has made a wonderful little microhistory of the man by cobbling together his appearances across different sources from his first 1769 business advert until his 1781 death in a British prison hulk.

Carpenter swam across Boston harbor to escape to patriot lines, then swam back into Boston; the Brits who captured him naturally took him for an enemy agent who could have been hanged … but from multiple reports (sometimes with muddled dates) this fate was “merely” visibly prepared for him only to be abated shortly before execution. In Bell’s speculation, hostilities were still not yet fully matured and “neither side had the stomach for such fatal measures. The executions of Thomas Hickey and Nathan Hale were still several months away.”

For an extraordinary snapshot of this revolutionary everyman, click through the full series:

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,England,Espionage,Hanged,History,Massachusetts,Mock Executions,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Spies,USA,Wartime Executions

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1931: Charles Simpson, “make it snappy”

Add comment July 17th, 2019 Robert Elder

(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. This post originally appeared on the Last Words blog. 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.)

Make it snappy.

— Charles H. Simpson, convicted of murder, hanging, California. Executed July 17, 1931

Known as “the Torch Slayer,” Simpson was already a convicted car thief and burglar when he entered Albina Voorhies’s grocery store. Simpson had known Voorhies because she rented the building from his father. Recognizing him, Voorhies turned her back to get him some cookies. That’s when Simpson struck her in the back of the head with a police club. Simpson eventually tied her to a chair, hit her again, and poured coal oil on her clothes, which he then set on fire. Simpson’s nerve faltered — he tried to take Voorhies to the bathroom to put the fire out — but by then the fire had spread. Panicking, Simpson left her in the store to bury the club and burn the clothes he wore.

Simpson could give no reason for his actions other than robbery. He had taken three dollars from the cash register.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Gallows Humor,Guest Writers,Hanged,Murder,Other Voices,USA

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1928: Seven electrocuted in Kentucky

Add comment July 13th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1928 — Friday the 13th — the Bluegrass State tied a terrible record that still stands to this day by sending seven men to the electric chair on a single day. (New York, the electric chair pioneer, had carried out a sevenfold electrocution in 1912.)

The prolific history writer/blogger Mike Dash fielded a Reddit question with some detail about this event, here; Dash notes that Kentucky habitually carried out (smaller) multiple-execution batches during this period, likely for reasons of administrative convenience moreso than record-hunting.

For additional particulars, we excerpt a summary of their cases from the Owensboro (Kentucky) Messenger of the same date.

Milford Lawson

Milford Lawson was convicted in the Whitley circuit court at Corbin, in 1926, for the killing of John Stansberry. Stansberry, who lived with his wife and daughter on Main street in Corbin was awakened by an alarm at his door at midnight. He was shot to death by Lawson when he opened the door to answer the alarm. The sixteen year old daughter of Stansberry witnessed the shooting. Stansberry was killed instantly.

Orlando Seymour

Orlando Seymour was indicted jointly with William Huddleston for the killing of Will Schanzenbacher in Louisville. Huddleston was given a life sentence and Seymour, who actually did the killing, was given a death sentence. Mr. Schanzenbacher had charge of a coal yard in Louisville. It was known to the two defendants that he was in the habit of carrying the receipts of each day home with him in the afternoon in a tin box. Huddleston and Seymour planned to hold him up and rob him. It fell to the lot of Seymour to do the actual holding up, while Huddleston waited in the car. When demanded by Seymour to give up his money, Mr. Schanzenbacher, instead of acceding to his demands, started to run away and was shot down by Seymour.

Hasque Dockery

Hasque Dockery was tried in the Harlan circuit court in 1926 and given the death penalty for killing Mrs. Elizabeth Howard. Dockery was guilty of a triple murder, having killed Mrs. Howard, Joe Jenkins and Mrs. Jenkins at the same time. He appears to have been estranged from his wife, who was living with Bradley Howard and his wife and the Jenkins family. It appears that Dockery went to that house on the night of the killing search for his wife and without provacation [sic] shot and killed Mrs. Howard, Joe Jenkins and his wife. Charles Howard, a young boy, escaped only by running. Dockery also fired one shot at him.

Charles P. Miltra

Charles P. Miltra was indicted jointly with Carl Hord in the Jefferson circuit court for the murder of Marion A. George in 1926. George opera[t]ed a grocery store at First and Magazine streets in Louisville. This murder was committed in pursuit of a plan which the two defendants had entered into to rob Mr. George. It was agreed that Hord should go into the store and call for cigarettes and that Miltra was to follow, and while Mr. George was getting the cigarettes he was to cover him with the pistol and demand the money. That part of the program was carried out, but Mr. George grabbed a meat cleaver and struck Miltra with it. Miltra then fired two shots, the first missing George but the second piercing his abdomen. Miltra escaped and went to St. Louis where he was arrested a few days after the tragedy and upon his return to Louisville made a voluntary confession. The peculiar defense was interposed for Miltra, that he should not be held responsible for the shooting of George because he was rendered unconscious by the lick which George inflicted upon him with the meat cleaver and did not know that [sic] he was doing when he shot Mr. George. This contention, however, was overruled by the court on the idea that malice is not necessarily confined to specific intention to take the life of the person killed, but it may include an intention to do an unlawful act whose result will probaably [sic] deprive another person’s life.

James Howard

James Howard, negro, was given the extreme penalty in the Jefferson circuit court for the murder of his common law wife, Lucy Buckner. He stabbed his victim to death with a knife. This killing took place April 17, 1926. It is disclosed by the evidence that Howard ran his victim down and stabbed her to death while she was trying to escape from him. Howard was jealous of another negro, which appears to have incited the killing.

Clarence McQueen

Clarence McQueen, negro, was indicted in the Harrison circuit court and given the death penalty for the murder of Louis Williams, another negro. McQueen is a negro about forty years of age. He and Williams were neighbors and had been friends for a long time. On April 25, 1927, while under the influence of liquor, McQueen, who had a shotgun, came upon Williams on the river bank where they became involved in a difficulty and McQueen shot Williams to death. He then escaped and was not apprehended until September, 1927, when he was returned to Cynthiana and placed on trial.

William Moore

William Moore, negro, was indicted and tried in the Jefferson [… omitted text …] Anna Eslick, who appears to have been his sweetheart, and who was the wife of another negro. This killing took place in the absence of any eye witness, but while the evidence against Moore was largely circumstantial, at the same time it was practically conclusive that Moore killed the woman, by beating her to death with a beer bottle.

The state of Georgia supplemented the day’s grim toll with a “mere” double electrocution of Sam Gower and Preddis Taylor, while two men more, Will Burdo and Greene Kirk, hanged in separate executions by two Mississippi counties.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,Kentucky,Mass Executions,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1896: The Rufus Buck Gang, heaven-dream’t

Add comment July 1st, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1896, the Rufus Buck Gang was hanged at Fort Smith, Arkansas for a two-week spree of violence against white Oklahoma settlers.

More about this novelization is available on this companion website.

After doing a 90-day turn in Judge Isaac Parker‘s jail for selling liquor, the half-Creek, half-Black teenager Rufus Buck emerged violently politicized — “enraged by what he considered the theft of Indian lands. He decided it was his duty to rid the land of those who, in his eyes, did not belong”

If his theory of resistance was naive, the grievance was real enough. Earlier that century the Creeks of the American Southeast had been made to quaff humiliation by the emerging United States, and expelled with many other indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands to present-day Oklahoma; in Buck’s own lifetime, this remnant Indian Territory was itself being positioned for takeover by white settlement.

Buck gathered four other youngsters to his banner and from July 28, 1895 — when they slew a U.S. marshal — until their capture on August 10 they gave vent to rage and despair in a spree of robberies, murders, and rapes consciously directed at white settlers. This hopeless paroxysm of violence, almost precisely contemporary with suppression of the Ghost Dance movement and the official closing of the American frontier, marks the passage of an era; even the famous Judge Parker was in his dotage and would pass away a few months after the Buck gang’s own execution.

After the young men went to the gallows for rape on July 1, 1896, a poem was discovered in Buck’s cell, scribbled on the back of a photograph of his mother.

Mi dreAM —
i, dremP’T i, wAs, in, HeAven,
Among, THe Angels, FAir:
i, d, neAr, seen, none, so HAndsome,
THAT TWine, in goLden, HAir:
TheY, Looked, so, neAT,
And; sAng, so, sweeT
And, Play, d, THe, THe, golden, harp
i, was, ABouT, To, Pick, An Angel ouT,
And, TAke, Her, To, mY HeaRT:
BuT, THe, momenT, i, BegAn
To PLea,
i, THougHT, oF, You, mY, Love,
THere, Was, none, I, d seen
so, BeAuTiFul,
On, eArTH, or, HeAven, ABove.
gooD! By, My Dear, Wife..anD MoTHer
All. so. My SisTers.
Rufus, Buck
Youse Truley

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arkansas,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Oklahoma,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,U.S. Federal,USA

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1779: Manuel, burned for witchcraft in the USA?

Add comment June 15th, 2019 Clarence Alvord

(Thanks to the late University of Illinois history professor Clarence Walworth Alvord for the guest post, which originally appeared in an essay he wrote for the centennial of the Land of Lincoln‘s 1818 statehood. For context to this 1779 execution, the area comprising the future U.S. state of Illinois had been attached by the British crown to its own recently annexed province of Quebec, formerly French and Catholic. Illinois had then been seized during the Revolutionary War by Virginia, which at this moment (and only a few years thereafter) maintained it as Virginia’s own “Illinois County”. Notwithstanding Dr. Alvord’s rebuttal, the slave Manuel is still frequently described down to the present day as having been burned for witchcraft. -ed.)

The secret of writing true history depends upon the collection of all the contemporary evidence bearing on the case. The reason that people complain of the changing interpretations of history is that new material is found as society demands a broader and broader interpretation of the phenomena of the past. There was a time when history consisted in what we call to-day the drum and fife history; the doings of the great political leaders, events of military glory; and almost no other phenomena of changing society were noted. To-day the task of the historian, however, is far greater; and he is obliged to cast his net far afield in order to collect the material for the social development of the past …

“it must be remembered that the Creoles were very ignorant and superstitious, and that they one and all, including, apparently, even their priests, firmly believed in witchcraft and sorcery. Some of their negro slaves had been born in Africa, the others had come from the Lower Mississippi or the West Indies; they practised the strange rites of voudooism, and a few were adepts in the art of poisoning. Accordingly the French were always on the look-out lest their slaves should, by spell or poison, take their lives …

At this time the Creoles were smitten by a sudden epidemic of fear that their negro slaves were trying to bewitch and poison them. Several of the negroes were seized and tried, and in June two were condemned to death. One, named Moreau, was sentenced to be hung outside Cahokia. The other, a Kaskaskian slave named Manuel, suffered a worse fate. He was sentenced “to be chained to a post at the water-side, and there to be burnt alive and his ashes scattered.” These two sentences, and the directions for their immediate execution, reveal a dark chapter in the early history of Illinois. It seems a strange thing that, in the United States, three years after the declaration of independence, men should have been burnt and hung for witchcraft, in accordance with the laws and with the decision of the proper court. The fact that the victim, before being burned, was forced to make “honorable fine” at the door of the Catholic church, shows that the priest at least acquiesced in the decision. The blame justly resting on the Puritans of seventeenth-century New England must likewise fall on the Catholic French of eighteenth-century Illinois.

-Theodore Roosevelt, The Winning of the West

An example of how easy it is to misinterpret a past event, provided all the material available is not collected, and how easy is that interpretation after the material has been found, has come under my observation … About forty years ago Edward G. Mason, at that time secretary of the Chicago Histori[c]al Society, found the record book kept by the county Lieutenant, John Todd,* in the year 1779, when Todd came to govern the territory that had been occupied by George Rogers Clark and his Virginians during the Revolutionary War. In this record book Mason found the copy of a warrant for the death of a negro, named Manuel, by burning at the stake, which burning was to take place after consolation to the criminal had been given by the parish priest. The copy of the warrant had been crossed out by drawing lines through it. Please bear this fact in mind, since it should have suggested a correct interpretation. Naturally this warrant aroused the imagination of Mr. Mason, and he vegan to search for an explanation and discovered that about this time there was an outbreak of voodooism among the Illinois slaves and that two slaves had been put to death. He drew the natural conclusion therefore that Manuel had been burned at the stake for the practice of witchcraft. Basing his interpretation upon Mr. Mason’s find, a well-known ex-president, Theodore Roosevelt, who among other occupations has dabbled in history, wrote at some length upon this episode and drew a comparison between eighteenth century Catholic Illinois, where for the practice of witchcraft men were burned at the stake with the sancttion [sic] of the parish priest and in accordance with French Catholic law, with a similar episode in the history of Puritan Massachusetts in the seventeenth century.

Fortunately there has come into my hands a full record of the court’s proceedings by which Manuel was condemned; and I find that the judges in the case, although they were obliged to listen to the superstitious accusations of negro slaves, were careful to determine the fact that Manuel and another negro had been guilty of murder by poisoning their master and mistress, Mr. and Mrs. Nicolle, and that it was for this act the two negroes were condemned to death. I then looked up the law of the land. Naturally it might be supposed as Roosevelt did that this was French law, but there was another possibility, namely that Virginia law in criminal cases would be used by a Virginian magistrate, such as John Todd. I found that the Virginia law in the case of murder of a master by a slave was death by burning at the stake so that in the case of Manuel you see that the condemnation was strictly in accordance with Virginia law and not with French law. Another document of even greater interest in the case also came to my hands. It certainly was a surprise. This was another warrant for the death of Manuel, issued at a later hour in the day, but by this later warrant the death penalty was changed from burning at the stake to hanging by the neck. To summarize then: Manuel was not condemned for witchcraft but for murder; he was not condemned to be burned at the stake in accordance with French law, but in accordance with Virginia law; and finally he was not burned at the stake at all, but was hung by the neck. This is an excellent example of the danger of drawing inferences in regard to historic events upon too narrow information. There was one fact which both Mr. Mason and Mr. Roosevelt ignored in their interpretation of the warrant. The copy of the warrant was found in a carefully kept record book, and was crossed out by lines being drawn through it. That fact should have made them suspicious of their own interpretation. Records such as this condemnation to death would not be lightly erased by the keeper of a record book. An historical Sherlock Holmes would not have been misled.

* Todd’s brother Levi was grandfather to eventual U.S. First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. -ed.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Illinois,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,USA,Virginia,Witchcraft

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Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!