Posts filed under 'USA'

1872: John Barclay

Add comment October 4th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1872, John Barclay hanged in Ohio for murder — and was almost reanimated for science.

Barclay was a late-twenties knockabout of the area whom the Cincinnati Enquirer judged “does not look the diabolical murderer he is charged to be.” (“except his eyes”: from the May 23, 1872 edition, as are the subsequent quotes in this section)

Charles Garner, his victim, was a livestock merchant who specialized in supplying the Columbus butchers. On November 28, 1871, Garner headed out of Columbus rich with cash from a successful business trip. Barclay knew both Garner and the butcher with whom he was transacting business, one J.B. Rusk, and had hung about with them during the day — even holding open the bank door as Garner entered to cash Rusk’s check.

In the evening, hearing that Garner was about to depart, Barclay ducked into a nearby general store, inquired about buying a hatchet, and not being able to find a suitable one, settled for buying a yellow-handled hammer instead. Then he apparently hopped on the back of Garner’s wagon just as it set out, where a great heap of merchandise obscured him from the driver’s view.

Four miles out of town, at a bridge over Alum Creek, Barclay presented himself to his unknowing chauffeur and bludgeoned him with the hammer, “crushing in the skull so that the brain was exposed” — then fled on foot, having relieved the victim of several hundred dollars. The mortally wounded Garner somehow managed to drive the wagon to a house two miles further down the road, where he died five days later. A surgeon who attended him later testified that “brain, matter and blood [were] issuing from head and nose … a portion of forehead was an open wound; a portion of the brain was broken in and a portion lost.” Barclay would eventually confess the crime.

A most unusual postscript was appended to the execution of the hanging sentence.

Barclay willed his body to the benefit of the Starling Medical College in town, and there a local high school teacher named Thomas Corwin Mendenhall subjected it to the Frankensteinish jolts of a galvanic battery.

The dream, of course, was to reanimate the corpse altogether — although a history mused that the Supreme Court judges who also took enough interest to attend the experiment “might have to pass upon the uncanny question of Barclay’s legal status as a living person who had already suffered the death penalty.”*

Barclay hanged at 11:49 a.m.; by 12:23 p.m., his flesh was on the table under Mendenhall’s probes. Notwithstanding the dispatch of the scientists they did not accomplish his resuscitation, although the Cincinnati Commercial (Oct. 5, 1872) reported some ghoulish simulations of life:

The first test was on the spine. This caused the eyes to open, the left hand to become elevated, and the fingers to move, as if grasping for something. The hand finally fell, resting on the breast. The battery was then applied to the nerves on the face and neck, which caused the muscles of the face to move as in life. The test was next applied to the phrenic nerve of the left arm, and afterward to the sciatic nerve.

The next year, Mendenhall was hired as a physics instructor by the new Ohio Agricultural and Mechanical College in Columbus: while he would go on to a varied and widely-traveled career in the sciences, Mendenhall has the distinction of being the very first faculty member at the institution known today as Ohio State University, and the namesake of its Mendenhall Laboratory building. (Starling Medical College, site of the galvanic experiments, would also be absorbed into OSU’s college of medicine.)

* It ain’t like they’d be the only ones to ever confront that difficulty.

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1850: Henry Leander Foote, sex crazed

Add comment October 2nd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1850, Henry Leander Foote was hanged in Connecticut.

Foote was an educated man who used his time languishing in jail — there was nearly a full year between his conviction and his execution — to bestow upon the world an autobiographical narrative of his peregrinations, which the reader can peruse in its entirety at the bottom of this post. Affected with wanderlust, he struck out from home as a teenager and began a rambling career that would take him all over America.

One of his first stops was the bustling and burgeoning metropolis that will become the hub of his narrative and, as Foote conceived it, the source of his ruin — New York city. There he was introduced to the city’s vast sexual marketplace.

At the end of two or three weeks, I found myself in the city of New York. What a place for a stranger, a young man of seventeen or eighteen years of age to visit alone, without any guardian to conduct him or advise him, and warn him against evil company! I had no acquaintances except three or four young men, whom I met on board the boat, who were also from Connecticut. They were in company, all belonging to one town, and then invited me to stop at the same public house with them. I had been informed that one of them was the son of a minister of the gospel, consequently I concluded that the company was good and safe to be with. But I found, to my astonishment, that this young man was the ring leader, the rudest and wildest of the crowd. The first night I was led to the Theater, from there to the brothel, and from there to the gambling house and drinking saloon. Here we must be fashionable and have a game of cards and a bottle or two of champane. [sic] … We played and drank till sometime past midnight, when we concluded it was time to retire.

Foote is coy here and suggests that his virginal young self repelled the subsequent invitation to a brothel. Whether or not this is so, he soon became by furtive subsequent visits whose purpose he was careful to conceal from his family an intimate of the city’s many whores.

These youthsome frolics are only foreshadowing for the excuses that Foote would be obliged to make many years later in the pall of the gallows. He spent the 1830s and 1840s bouncing around the growing republic — upstate New York, westward to Cleveland at St. Louis, south to Charleston where he married but lost his wife within a year to childbirth. (The son died, too.) After that, he enlisted in the cavalry and fought in the Seminole Wars.

Foote does not give us much of his sexual adventures on these trips, but between the lines it appears that the concupiscient fornicator and the New England prude ever travel side by side with him. He ships to Rio de Janeiro and does not fail to notice that “the dress of most of the women was not much better than none, being merely a short gown, all open in the neck and breast, and reaching only half way to the knee, fastened round the waist with a belt. They would make any civilized man blush from head to foot, but they were not at all particular as to what position they happened to be in.” Nevertheless, he affects shock when “a mixed-blood, half Spanish and half Indian publican” offers him a girl for the night. (According to Foote, he did not take the girl.)

As for the army, well, it “is a most dangerous and destructive place to the morals of young men. It is a school of intemperance, profanity, licentiousness, obscene language, filthy communications, and all kinds of vile and lewd company” thanks to the degrading example of officers who “when at home, or where they are known, always assume the character of gentlemen, and presume to walk in respectable society, unite with the ‘upper ten,’ and [associate] with virtuous females, who, if they knew their true character, would turn from them with disgust.”

By 1849 we find the peripatetic Foote back in his native hamlet of Northford, Connecticut, 37 years old and again, or still, preoccupying himself with the diversions of the Tenderloin. To the best of my knowledge he is the subject of no biography save his own, and since we find that the diverse sojourns of the previous 20 years have ultimately changed neither his conduct nor even his locale, we might be excused for speculating how many adventures were contrived by the author’s hand.

Wherever it was that he had been, he was becoming a worldly denizen of the bagnio.

A few months before the murder, I spent one week in the city of crime and pollution, viz., New York. As usual on former occasions, I spent my evenings and nights in a theater, gambling house, or brothel. Also on a former visit I had attended an exhibition of nudes, or model artists, as they are termed. But at this time the company had gone to New Orleans; a few of them, however, remained in New York, with one of which I had the misfortune to become acquainted. She was an arrogant prostitute, residing in a house of the higher class. I found her at the Bowery Theater; she enticed me, and I consented to accompany her home. As we entered her room she locked the door, laid aside her upper garments, and invited me to take a glass of wine with her. She poured out two glasses, and took a phial from the drawer of her toilet, drew the cork, and pretended to drop some of the contents in her glass of wine, but not a drop did she let fall. She said it was Cream of the Valley, it would give the wine a delightful flavor, and then made a motion to drop some into my glass. But I was too wide awake for her. I knew it was some drug that might upset my ideas, so I told her to save her cream, I did not need any cream of that sort. She looked at me, and said, “you are not so green as you pretend. I gues syou understand a game or two.” I replied, “I understand enough to know the nature of your cream.” And said I, “what was your object in giving it to me?” “O,” she replied, “I was only going to give you a drop or two, to make you feel keen.” She was very proud of her perfect symmetry of form, and proceeded to make a model artist of herself again, that she might give me a clear view of her model, and also of the extra manoeuvres which she had learned in the model artist plays.

After passing the night with his model artist’s “extra manoeuvres,” Foote pinched the potion for himself thinking to deploy it for his own benefit. He first called on a prostitute who had previously robbed him, engaged her charms for the night, and administered the drug to her, thereby having leisure to rob back the lost funds (“with interest,” Foote admits) as well as to leave behind a taunting note. He also found that she, too, possessed a dose of this potent Cream of the Valley, and duly replenished his supply.

Our dissolute principal was much given to exploiting his moment of notoriety for moral grandstanding, and we again should treat his account with caution.* Another author who visited Foote and published his observations in a pamphlet titled Death Cell Scenes, Or, Notes, Sketches and Momorandums of the Last Sixteen Days and Last Night of Henry Leander Foote is my no means hostile to his subject but often notices his unbecoming worldly preoccupations when he ought to be attending his imminent death with due gravity: he “showed a singular disposition to make money even at the hazard of his soul” by cranking out paintings to sell to the gawkers come to gape at him through the prison-bars and on one occasion arrives only to be brushed off as Foote is “in the height of glory and ambition, vending pamphlets and pictures to persons surrounding his cell with as much gusto as though he had to live twenty years or more!”

He was a doomed man with a keen sense of his audience; Foote even took the trouble to pre-order his own inscribed marble tombstone. (The stone can still be seen at Northford Old Cemetery in New Haven.)

He had a gift for rationalizing and segmenting his hypocrisies, surely honed by his years alternating Puritan piety with opportunistic harlotry. At the end when it could no longer be denied, he surfaced the contradiction by way of attenuating his own guilt.

“By this and other means, the hags who keep brothels contrive to get many of their recruits,” Foote wrote of the drugs like Cream of the Valley — subtly conflating his own loss of self-control with white slavery. “And if an inexperienced young man allows himself to visit their houses once, perhaps for mere curiosity, when he is not aware of any danger, they will bewitch him in some way that will induce him to come again; and so he will continue to go until his ruin is completed. Beware, young man, and shun all such places! Once in, you insensibly lose self-command. It is not easy to resist such temptations when once poisoned. These female Satans use the very arts of old Satan himself, and some that he does not use. Once in their power, you are not your own keeper.”

Not your own keeper — even as he admits and bewails his own crime, Foote wants to convey to posterity the notion of a Jekyll-and-Hyde: that there is a Foote distinct from the murderer.

Back at Northford, “my thoughts were continually revolving upon the obscene views which I had witnessed in New York, particularly upon the model artist female … I seemed to have a bewitching anxiety to see the same again, or to see something of the same kind, and this base desire I could not overcome. A curiosity to see and examine some female in the same state of nudity was constantly haunting my mind.”

Although he’s taken the care to secret the prostitutes’ powerful draught in his trunk, it is not quite he who addresses himself to the “bewitching anxiety”: he gets drunk, and then “Satan himself was certainly busy with me, driving me on to ruin with all his power … [using] me as an instrument for the destruction of innocent life.” At length, “Satan” suggests him his young cousin Emily as the object to satisfy his base desire. Foote intercepted her on the way to school and, he said, lured her into the woods to snack on some tomatoes which he had dosed with the sleeping potion after which, you know, stuff happened. For a guy who carried out a premeditated plan to incapacitate and molest his underage kin, he sure expected to be given a lot of latitude.**

But with shame! shame! do I write it, I now proceeded to examine her person, which inflamed my baser passion to an unmanageable degree; and after my eyes were satisfied, I violated and robbed her of her virgin purity. She gave no signs of feeling except to draw one deep sigh. My brutish passion was now satisfied. I meditated upon what I had done, the criminal nature of the awfully wicked deed, the meanness of the act itself, and the base stratagem which I had employed to gratify my shameful curiosity. In the first place I had no intention of doing any thing more than to satisfy my eyes; but this created a passion so strong as to overrule all better feelings, honor, and decency. I stood over the wreck of beauty, innocence, and purity, and sincerely wished I had never seen the city of New York, or any of its bewitching female satans … my head was wild, and my heart felt as if it had turned into a great stone. I would have given half of the town had I possessed it, if I could have undone what I had done that morning. But that was impossible.

And having come this far, Foote realized if he should allow her to revive and be on her way, her story would send him to prison. “As if I almost heard an audible voice,” “something” suggested to him that he murder her. Foote floridly describes himself alternately resisting and impelled to the idea until “I acceeded [sic] to the horrible proposal, and Satan used me as an insensible instrument for his nefarious, bloody, and soul-destroying purpose.” Then Satan used him to slash Emily’s neck through the windpipe.

It’s a bit difficult to disentangle the actual or purpoted sequence of steps to the next murder; Foote writes of it as if he was hurled into despair by his crime and only paused from his intention of suicide to murder his mother when he reflected that the incestuous rape-murder imputed him might destroy her after he was gone. We get a somewhat different picture from the period’s newspaper accounts which suggest that he was no suspect at all when Emily first turned up missing and coolly played it as if shocked, before getting drunk and bashing mom’s head with a hammer. If you liked his story about how Satan made him rape Emily, you’ll love this.

I drank several times during the forepart of the afternoon, and about three o’clock I went to get another drunk, but the jug was missing — my mother had hid it, and it was not to be found by me. This enraged me … if she had let the liquor alone, it is possible, and not improbable, that I would have drank so much as to render me incapable of making any attempt upon her life; and thereby she might have escaped entirely. But she was often very unwise in provoking me, especially when I had liquor in my head. It was a wrong way to deal with me, to take liquor from me to prevent my drinking, for I was generally sure to go and get a larger quantity and drink so much the more. But she has many times done it, and thereby caused me to behave much worse than I should otherwise have done. Late years my mother has been very petulant towards me; whether I had been drinking or not, it seemed to be about the same. This I attributed to trouble, and the influence of opium, which induced her to pack the faults of others upon me, charge me with things of which I was entirely innocent, and find fault with me when I was not in the least to blame; and to complain of things which I knew were right.

Foote insists that he tells us all this not “for the purpose of defending or screening myself from any blame” from the matricide he committed for mom’s own benefit. Just wanted to contribute to the historical record. And then he has the chutzpah to accuse a neighbor who came running to the battered woman’s shrieks of being a big old pussy for backing away and yelling for help when threatened with the bloody hammer. This is a man who required a more forceful minister, a good psychiatrist, or a better P.R. team. Even to the last, the killer’s self-awareness only amounted to his own narcissism.

“The last act of Foote in his cell,” writes the hanged man’s companion in Death Cell Scenes, “was to make use of a quantity of mus on his hair, six cents worth of which he had ordered the night previous, besides ‘two pleasant Spanish cigars.'”

* As pertains the potion specifically, Foote cites (and perhaps may be suspected of borrowing from) the story of temperance moralizer John Bartholomew Gough, who disappeared in New York for a week in 1845 and was discovered in a whorehouse, floating in an opiate daze.

** There was a witness who heard a scream, presumably by Emily. Foote’s account essentially renders the attack “non-violent” (he says, as if to complete his travesty of Eden, that at one point she shrieked when she caught sight of a snake). It really is entirely possible that he simply perpetrated an uncomplicated wilderness rape and subsequently concocted every other convenient detail. (“No intention of doing any thing more than to satisfy my eyes” indeed.)

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1891: Ed Leeper and James Powell

Add comment September 29th, 2015 Headsman

The Ballad of Leeper and Powell

Come all my friends and near relations;
Come and listen unto me.
I will sing about two men,
About two men that’s to be hung.

‘Twas on the eighteenth night of December,
In eighteen hundred ninety-five,*
‘Twas the night they did the murder
For which they had to give their lives.

One says, “Father and dear mother,
Won’t you both remember me,
When I’m dead and gone forever,
And my face no more you’ll see?”

“We were held long in this prison —
No one came to go our bail** —
God will aid and assist us
Now to break the Gatesville jail.”

And when started from that prison
And the guards surrounded them —
“I must die and I’m not guilty,”†
‘Twas the answer Jim made then.

Ed was tall and fair complected;
Jim was low and very neat.
They were pale and very silent,
And their lips did seem to meet.

One says, “Lord, oh, do have mercy
On those who swore my life away.”
They tied their wrists and their ankles,
Placed black caps upon their heads.

The trapdoor fell and left them hanging,
Between the earth and the sky.
It was for a dreadful murder
These two men were made to die.

They’s cut down, placed in their coffins,
Delivered over to their friends,
Who were there for that purpose,
To receive them at their end.

Come all young men, now take warning;
Live, oh, live a sober life.


* The crime(s) for which Leeper and Powell hanged actually occurred on the evening of December 17, in 1889. Two armed outlaws waylaid some farmers returning to the country after they sold their cotton in Gatesville; a J.T. Mathis was mortally wounded in the resulting firefights, lingering until December 18 before he finally succumbed. (Another man named W.H.H. Harvey was wounded, but survived.)

** Actually, Ed Leeper’s mother was a prosperous Tennessee matron who spent liberally on her son’s defense; the men’s appeals, even challenging the legality of the entire Texas penal code, went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court — quite unusual for the time. But it is correct that they did not have bail: the enormity of the crime, and the fear of inviting a lynch mob, saw them behind bars and under heavy guard from the time of their arrest hours after the robbery.

This is not to say that Mrs. Leeper’s efforts were wholly without effect:

Newspaper article describing the death of a prosecuting attorney who was injured returning by train from Austin 'on the Leeper and Powell business'.
From the Dallas Morning News, September 30, 1891.

† Since the attack took place under cover of darkness, nobody could positively identify the assailants. Leeper and Powell, well-known local ruffians, were suspected at once and the suspicion appeared circumstantially supported.

Both men did continue to assert their innocence on the scaffold: “I die innocent and I die game for the crime of some one else,” in Powell’s words. (Dallas Morning News, September 30, 1891)

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1965: Kenneth Roraback and Rocky Versace, Vietnam War POWs

Add comment September 26th, 2015 Headsman

According to a UPI wire story from Saigon which ran in American newspapers beginning Monday, September 27,

The Viet Cong said they executed two American prisoners Sunday … Although the broadcast did not say so, the executions apparently were in retaliation for the deaths Thursday of three anti-American demonstrators. The demonstrators were convicted by a military tribunal of engaging in terrorist activities and put before a firing squad in a soccer stadium at Da Nang.

An earlier execution of a Viet Cong terrorist by the government June 24 brought an announcement from the Communists that they had executed Sgt. Harold G. Bennet[t], a captive from Arkansas.

The two men shot on September 26 — whose names are garbled in the initial news report, since “the names were received phonetically” — were Sgt. Kenneth Mills Roraback and Capt. Humbert Roque “Rocky” Versace.

In 2002, Versace would be posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor — the first Vietnam War soldier so decorated on grounds of unwavering defiance as a POW.

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1794: Edmund Fortis, in the hands of God

Add comment September 25th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1794, Edmund Fortis was hanged in Dresden, Maine* — at the time still a part of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Fortis was born a slave in Virginia but escaped and slipped into the wage economy by hiring out as a seaman on a ship bound from Alexandria, Va., to England. According to his dying confession he was a habitual petty thief; by the time he had made his way to Maine, “my life was dreadful — Drinking, stealing and gaming.”

Fortis admitted to, and even pleaded guilty to, the rape-murder of a young girl named Pamela Tilton whom he saw by chance and waylaid on a country road on May 18. This confession “the evidence of credible witnesses on oath … abundantly confirmed.” That’s from the sentencing oration of Justice Robert Treat Paine, via The Oracle of the Day (Portsmouth, N.H.), July 26, 1794, which continues with flourishes of hellfire —

This sentence, when executed, will remove you from this world, where you have proved yourself so unworthy an inhabitant, to a state of existence where you must reap the fruits of your past life; where you must appear before the awful tribunal of that holy Being, who cannot be deceived and who will not be mocked, and who will judge you for this and all the other sins in your life …

you have cast off the fear of God from your eyes, and all restraint of reverence to him from your thoughts, words, and actions, till your unbridled lust and malicious disposition had arrived to full ripeness, and urged you to the commission of crimes, at your own relation of which, nature revolts and the human heart is rent with agony. To what a pitch of brutal lust must you have arrived, that a person of your nation, your age, having a wife and children in the neighborhood, should so inhumanly assault and violate the chastity of that young girl in spight of her intreaties and remonstrances, and then with all the savage cruelty of a ruffian and an assassin, deaf to those cries and supplications which would have melted any heart but one lost to every humane feeling, you barbarously strangled to death the inoffensive victim of your lustful crime; thus in a short space of time destroying life, the first right of all mankind, and chastity, the second right of woman.

… repent and live … so, although your aggravated crimes must bring you to an untimely and disgraceful death, yet that you may escape that weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth, that destruction from the face of the Lord, that bitterness of misery which cannot be discribed nor conceived, which will be inflicted on all the enemies of the holy Governour of the Universe, and that your soul may be happy forever in the heavenly world.

But Fortis did not need much convincing of his soul’s peril.

The bulk of his confession is taken up describing the transformative apparition of God’s grace as he awaited arraignment in prison — the appearance of which is precisely what induced him to plead guilty to the charge, lest he “lie against God.”

I could not rest, there was no comfort or peace for me: I tho’t no person was so bad as I, my whole life filled with sin, stealing, lying, whoring and drinking, and now murder. At length I got up, and endeavoured to pray, but my heart was hard as a stone, and it seemed bound up; still I thought I would keep praying to the Lord whether he had mercy on me or not.

On Saturday morning it seemed as if I had more desire to pray and plead with God than before; and in the afternoon it seemed as if my heart was in some degree melted, and there was some hope. I heard something like a voice, saying “verily, verily give him a new heart,” and it seemed as if a man was in me working downward, and clearing or cleaning my heart. I thought I could breathe out my heart to God, and could see a light shining from heaven, brighter than snow, and in the light it seemed as though a great many angels were singing, which drowned my groans and prayers; and I cried O Lord! and looked up, and I saw in a corner of the prison something red like fire, and thought it was the Devil. I found I had another feeling, and I cried to the Lord. I now felt relieved; but was doubtful whether it could be true that the Lord had mercy on me, and wanted to see the light again.

On Lord’s day morning I felt more contented; but could hardly believe what I saw, and felt. I looked out of the grates, and all things looked strange, as if in another place; the birds seemed to come near the Goal and sing. Putting myself in the same place where I first saw the light, I prayed, and said, O Lord, for thy dear Son Jesus’ sake, who died for sinners, have mercy on me! And immediately the same angels began to sing again; and I believed in the Lord, and loved every body. I felt cool and calm; all the dread and fear which I had suffered were gone.

When I was brought to the bar, a gentleman spoke to me, and advised me to plead not guilty: Oh! I thought he wanted me to lie against God; and I considered how dreadful it was for a man that could read to give such advice. When the indictment was read, and the judge asked me whether I was guilty or not guilty, I felt very calm, and answered, guilty. And when I was brought the next day to hear my sentence, I felt perfectly resigned and thankful to the court, God knows their sentence was just. I now wait for the last stroke of death. I can trust my soul in the hands of the Lord, and am willing to do, or suffer any thing God shall lay upon me; and if he should cast me off, it will be right for I deserve it.

However wondrous this gallows-foot conversion was for Edmund Fortis, it augured ill for some other residents of the Commonwealth.

A Henry McCausling (or McCaslane), whose own minister also tended to Fortis, took from this example the prospect of using the murder-repentance two-step as a back door into heaven.

It appears that M’Causling has lately become deluded in matters of religion. For some time he has principally associated himself with a party of baptists, living on a plantation back off Pittston, headed by one Stinson, and two or three others. In one of his paroxisms of religious insanity, he burnt an elegant church in the town of Pittston. He says that Stinson told him, that his brother Edmund Fortis, who was lately executed for the murder of Pamela Tilton, was certainly gone to heaven, and that the road to Heaven was marked with blood. M’Causling thought, that as Fortis had gone to heaven, he should go there too, provided he was to use the same means. (Boston Gazette and Weekly Republican Journal, Nov. 17, 1794)

Consequently, McCausling stalked a Mrs. Warren** “in a dark night, through woods and over rivers which were almost impassable by day” until he finally came upon her at her sick mother’s house, tending to her, and thereupon

he flung her back with his left hand, and with his right, drew a knife from his pocket, where he had concealed it, and instantly cut her throat, without her being able to say more than this — “M’Causling, are you going to murder me!” He immediately fled, but was soon arrested and committed to gaol, where he must remain for the sentence which awaits him.

Like his predecessor, McCausling also pleaded guilty to his crime; the court judging him quite mad, he was balked of his objective in this world at least: how he has fared in the next we dare not guess.

* The Pownalborough Court House, which doubled as a jail, can still be seen today. It’s where Fortis spent his last days, although he was not tried in that building.

** From the press accounts I have seen, she is identified only as “the wife of a Mr. Pelton Warren.”

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1889: Thomas Brown, Fargo-Moorhead outlaw

Add comment September 20th, 2015 Headsman

At 4 a.m. on this date in 1889, Clay County, Minnesota hosted its only execution.

This affair began, as such things do, when “a bunch of drunken hoboes got into a fight near Hillsboro, ND” in the autumn of 1888. One of them was killed, and a farmer who saw it happen identified Brown as the suspect. What little is known of Brown* indicates that he was a hardened outlaw; he broke out of prison in Wisconsin, and did time in the Dakota territories, too. While awaiting his fate he would solve a frontier sporting mystery by admitting that he murdered the tramp who had killed bareknuckles pugilist George Fulljames.

So police had their eyes peeled for Brown 40 miles down the way in the border settlement of Fargo-Moorhead. (Fargo is on the North Dakota side of the river, Moorhead on the Minnesota side.)

One night in October, an off-duty Fargo cop spotted Brown a few blocks into the Minnesota side of town, and alerted Moorhead policeman John Thompson. But Brown had noticed them, noticing him, and drew on the Moorhead officer. While Brown was demanding to know what the two had spoken about, another Moorhead policeman approached.

This Patrolman Peter Poull’s appearance set off the gunplay: Brown wheeled and felled Poull with a shot through the heart, but the distraction allowed Patrolman Thompson to draw and wound he fleeing desperado. Brown was captured, his revolver empty, collapsed on the train tracks with shots through his shoulder and leg. It was only because the quick-thinking Clay County sheriff whisked Brown out of jail under cover of darkness by forcing a night train to Minneapolis to make an unscheduled stop that a lynching was averted.

“Unless I get a change of venue I guess I shall have to swing,” Brown observed, with preternatural coolness.

He did not get a change of venue.

Brown’s execution was one of the first (to state it more exactly: it was the second) to occur under the state’s new “midnight assassination” law, which not only shamefacedly stashed hangings behind prison walls under cover of darkness, but also prohibited newspapers from publishing the particulars of the event.

Those lingeringly detailed descriptions — of the hardihood of the dead man and the conduct of the onlookers and the ceremony upon the gallows and whether the victim confessed and if he died fast or died hard — have been a staple of print media practically since its birth, and certainly an indispensable font for these grim annals. But the legislature had been persuaded that their circulation constituted a moral degradation to the consumers who eagerly read them. This directive was at best unevenly complied with: a number of newspapers did publish such accounts, and they were not punished for it. And of course the law did not reach across the Dakota border at all, so the Fargo Argus was able to insinuate an editor into the death chamber, who later described the killer’s last moments thus:

When the spectators reached the gallows, Brown was standing on the drop, on either side being a priest, all engaged in half audible prayer … Sheriff Jensen then tied Brown’s feet, and adjusted the noose about his neck, the knot being behind his right ear … In a weak and trembling** voice, almost inaudible he bade the jailor, Sheriff and priests goodbye, shaking hands with them and wishing them well. He then turned to the spectators, half smiled and nodded a farewell. The black cap was then pulled over his head and fastened under the chin, he with the priests praying meanwhile.

The drop fell at exactly 4:30 o’clock and the murderer of Officer Poull was launched into eternity. Brown’s neck was broken by the fall … In twelve and a half minutes his pulse ceased to beat, and in fifteen his heart had ceased action.

* Even to the end he refused to reveal his real identity or background, so as not to shame his family.

** Other published accounts speak of the hanged man’s unusual nerve. Between the moralizing interests of the interlocutors and the circulation of bogus information facilitated by the midnight assassination law, we here profess agnosticism as to Brown’s actual behavior.

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1851: Aaron Stookey, clemency denied

Add comment September 19th, 2015 Headsman

State of New York, Executive Department
Albany, Sept. 4, 1851.

To Thomas Carnley, Esq., Sheriff of the City and County of New York

Sir: — I have carefully considered the application for a commutation of the sentence of death pronounced upon Aaron B. Stookey, to be executed on the 19th inst., for the murder of Zeddy Moore.

I have weighed the evidence with an anxious desire to give him the benefit of every circumstance which tends to extenuate his guilt; but after a mature deliberation I am clearly of opinion that his conviction was merited, and that the ends of public justice require the execution of the sentence.

The facts disclosed on his trial were sufficient beyond all doubt, to constitute the crime of wilful murder. It is contended that most of the material witnesses for the prosecution were persons of infamous character and unworthy credit. Making all due allowance for this objection, the proof of his guilt is so complete and overwhelming as to preclude any doubt, and in fact no material fact alleged by any of the witnesses have been called in question by the convict or his friends.

It appears that Stookey met his unfortunate victim casually in one of the public streets of your city. He was armed with deadly weapons, which he usually carried about his person. Upon provocation which, if not wholly imaginary, was too trivial to justify even momentary resentment, and apparently with no other motive than the indulgence of wanton and brutal passion, after first instigating his comrade to commit violence upon Moore, he declared his own intention to kill him and instantly stabbed him to the heart.

To palliate the enormity of this offence, it has been alleged that Stookey was laboring under temporary alteration of intellect, and was morally incapable of an intentional and deliberate crime. [i.e., he was drunk on rum -ed.] Several affidavits have been placed before me intended to sustain this hypothesis. Deeming it my duty to obtain satisfactory evidence on so material a point before coming to a final decision, I have caused an investigation to be made of all the facts bearing upon the question of insanity, and the result proves that there are no sufficient grounds for such an assumption.

It is shown that Stookey, for some years past, had led a life of dissipation and debauchery, that his moral nature was depraved, and his mental faculties impaired, by a long course of vicious indulgence; and in this general degradation of character consists the only reason that has been adduced for doubting that he was conscious of evil, and still retained those powers of moral perception which are given to discern between virtue and crime. All the usual phenomena of insanity and lunacy are wanting. There was nothing in his conduct to indicate that destitution of reason which absolves men from moral and legal responsibility.

My sympathies have been deeply moved by the earnest appeals made in behalf of your prisoner by his worthy relatives and friends. The petitions presented to me bear the names of many influential and respected citizens, whose opinions deserve the highest deference and regard. It is a painful office to be compelled to resist these urgent and affecting solicitations. But all must remember it is the voice of the law which condemns the murderer to death. This penalty, the most dreadful which human power can inflict, is imposed not in a spirit of retaliation or of vengeance, but from conviction of its necessity, for the protection of society and the security of mankind. The severity of the law in this respect has its source in the sacred regard for human life which pervades all civilized communities.

It proclaims in advance, to all whose evil passions may prompt to deeds of blood and vengeance, the impressive warning, that whosoever shall take the life of his fellow being shall thereby forfeit his own. This stern mandate is conceived not in cruelty but in humanity; in compassion for the innocent rather than a willingness to destroy the guilty; it originates in the obligation which society owes to all its members to protect them from unlawful violence, and its true aim is to prevent both crimes and punishments by restraining those who can only be deterred from the worst of offences by the most terrible penalties.

I am aware that serious differences of opinion exist among enlightened legislators in respect to the justice and tendency of a penal code which forfeits the life of the offender in case of murder. It does not come within my province to discuss this principle in the discharge of my executive duties. The law as it stands must be my guide, so long as it remains in force. It is among the first and highest of my obligations to see that it is faithfully executed.

The penalty which the State has prescribed, as a punishment for the crime of wilful murder, must be enforced in all cases where the offence is established by clear and sufficient proofs. This responsibility, weighty and difficult at all times, derives unusual force from the alarming increase of crime in some portions of our State, and especially in your city. The destruction of life by criminal violence has become an event of almost daily occurrence. My reflections upon this subject have produced a firm conviction that this deplorable evil is to be checked, and the lives of our peaceful citizens effectually shielded from danger only by an efficient, faithful and unswerving execution of the law. The peace and safety of society are too sacred to be hazarded by the indulgence of those generous sympathies which the fate of the convict is so well calculated to excite. The demands of justice, and an enlightened regard for the public security, must prevail over the pleadings of compassion.

It remains for you to discharge the most trying duty of your office as I now do mine.

Very respectfully,

Washington Hunt

P.S. — I intended to have remarked that Stookey’s crime may be traced directly to the habit he had adopted of carrying a dangerous weapon concealed about his person. His fate should be a warning to all who indulge in this reprehensible practice. It cannot be too strongly impressed upon their minds that persons who choose to carry concealed arms, will be held to a rigid responsibility for the use they may make of them, and for all consequences that may ensue.

(Clemency denial and execution order as printed in the New York Spectator, September 11, 1851.)

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1879: Pocket, on the Hallettsville hanging tree

Add comment September 12th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1879, a half-blooded Native American named Pocket died in Hallettsville on an oak tree.

The son of a French Canadian father and a Blackfoot Sioux mother, Pocket had been befriended by a cattleman named Lou Allen. They met by chance in the early 1870s; Pocket was a half-caste child, maybe not even into adolescence, with broken English, doing odd jobs to scrape by.

Of Pocket we have only glimpses of the moments where he comes into the view of white men. His rancher-friend took him until “becoming tired of civilized life, and pining for the freedom of his native wilds,” Pocket vanished on a horse that Mr. Allen willingly gave him. (The quote comes from the Galveston Weekly News of September 18, 1879; it’s also the source for the other quotes in this post.)

That was in 1874. For the next several years Pocket’s activities are mostly unknown, save for the few times he popped back into Mr. Allen’s life — once to bum a suit of clothes; another time when they met by accident in Wichita, Pocket destitute after gambling everything away; and finally when Pocket reappeared in Lavaca County only to be refused aid by his benefactor in a possible gesture of tough love. Pocket found work on a nearby farm instead.

On Valentine’s Day 1878, Pocket was seen in the county seat of Hallettsville getting roaring drunk on whiskey. He left town for the countryside carrying another bottle and proceeded to stop at several farms to accost their residents.

At the Smith house, he barged in, stole a pistol, and forced his way into the family dinner. He stumbled into the home of a former slave named Frank Edwards, ripped up bed clothes, and started swinging an axe around until Edwards punched out the unwanted visitor.

Fuming, Pocket proceeded to yet another farm, the Petersons, where he contrived to get the family hunting rifle by representing the presence of a drove of turkeys nearby. A young Brit named Leonard Hyde worked for the Petersons, and he went along with Pocket “to see the fun.” As ominously as this reads, Hyde had no reason to suspect trouble; the Galveston Weekly News would note that Hyde and Pocket “were both under twenty-one years of age, friendly with one another up to the last moment, and both strangers in the land which has given to each of them a grave.” Two kids out on a turkey-shooting lark.

Hyde trotted along on foot after Pockett, and soon another of Hyde’s friends joined the supposed hunting foray. Suddenly, their intoxicated leader stopped and cursed Hyde for following him — then shot him dead through the forehead with his pistol. The killer’s mind was obviously disordered and impulsive, but it’s possible that Hyde died in place of Frank Edwards, or if not Edwards then whomever Pocket might have crossed paths with next that night.

Now with blood on his hands, Pocket did not pause to revenge any other slights but galloped off into the wilderness. He was eventually captured in Bosque County.

(Source, which also preserves a sad letter from Hyde’s father written in March 1878 upon learning of his son’s murder.)

Perhaps three thousand souls turned out to see a repentant Pocket die in Hallettsville on September 12, 1879 — “every road entering this town became alive with people of all ages, sexes and colors, without regard to previous condition, coming to witness the first legal execution in this county.” Pocket had spent his last weeks in religious devotion and struck those who saw him as a profoundly changed man.

The great hanging-tree can still be seen today, shading a picnic-table in City Park, next to the Hallettsville Golf Association clubhouse.

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1990: Charles Coleman, the first lethal injection in Oklahoma

1 comment September 10th, 2015 Headsman

Despite our occasional predilection for the odd “literally executed today” post, this macabre chronicle has never really aspired to focus on our subject matter’s breaking-news beat.

Nonetheless, the landscape of the death penalty has evolved noticeably in the years since we launched on Halloween 2007. Executions are down in China, but up in Saudi Arabia and Iran; India has ended a long death penalty hiatus; Pakistan began, sustained, and dramatically repudiated a death penalty moratorium.

And in the United States, the prevailing execution method, lethal injection, has fallen under a barrage of legal and political challenges.

Like the guillotine, the electric chair, the gas chamber, and weirder contraptions, the prick of the needle had once been sold as a Solomonic compromise between the executioner and his critics: you still get to kill a guy, but now he doesn’t feel a thing. This time we really mean it!

Lethal injection got some run in the Nazi T-4 euthanasia program but was first approved for regular judicial executions by Oklahoma in 1977, and first used by Texas in 1982. Where gas and electricity transferred industrial technology to the death chamber, with great metal chairs and huge switches like Dr. Frankenstein’s lab, injection analogized medicine: silent and light, and so sterile that the technicians would hygienically swab the skin before they pushed in the death-dealing needle.

Most of all it was sterile for the viewers, who had occasionally been subjected under the other processes to nauseating botches: men who were supposed to be dying instantly instead thrashing wildly away, catching fire, gushing blood, or requiring jolt after jolt to finish off. The electric chair surely owes its iconic cultural position in part to its reputation for spectacular failures.

When capital punishment got its 1970s reboot, it only seemed natural to think about cleaning up the how along with the why. Nearly everyone now had the experience of anaesthetic; it was natural to think that you could just put a man down like the family dog and not have any mess to clean up afterwards.

“Being a former farmer and horse raiser, I know what it’s like to try to eliminate an injured horse by shooting him,” future president Ronald Reagan had said in proposing the technology while he was still governor of California in 1973. “Now you call the veterinarian and the vet gives it a shot and the horse goes to sleep. That’s it.”

As executions surged in the 1990s, lethal injection was thoroughly displacing America’s previous humane technologies to become the overwhelmingly predominant method.

Data via the Death Penalty Information Center’s executions database.

And the state of Oklahoma, which had been first with a lethal injection law back in ’77, finally started rolling out gurneys — when it put murder Charles Troy Coleman to death with the needle on September 10, 1990. It was Oklahoma’s first execution in 24 years.*

It was Oklahoma’s medical examiner Jay Chapman who had formulated the three-drug cocktail that for a long time comprised the definitive lethal injection protocol: the short-acting barbiturate sodium thiopental, followed by the paralytic drug pancuronium bromide, capped with potassium chloride to stop the heart. Why three drugs, Human Rights Watch later asked him? “Why not?” Chapman was not a pharmacologist and had little expertise with the drugs in question.

Nevertheless, his process “could not be construed as cruel and unusual punishment since it is merely the extreme of procedures done daily around the world for surgical procedures,” Chapman insisted when he proposed it. “It’s simply an extreme form of anesthesia.”

Extreme anaesthesia. Was it really?

Even at Coleman’s death, observers saw it differently.

“I saw him choke and gasp and struggle for air,” said Joe Ward, an investigator in the public defender’s office. “It looked like he was choking to death. He looked over … and mouthed the words, ‘I love you.’ Then he looked straight back up and started choking.” Reporter Art Cox, by contrast, viewed it as “a very easy death … a very cold death, very antiseptic.”

Oklahoma has executed well over 100 people since Charles Coleman but if anything the uncertainty about that “easy” and “antiseptic” death has only grown — in the Sooner state and elsewhere.

And the question has become quite urgent during the lifetime of this blog as political pressure on manufacturers has dried up the supply of sodium thiopental, forcing the many states using lethal injection to scramble for a variety of new drug sequences that are basically being invented on the fly and sussed out with live experimentation on the next death row prisoner in the queue.

Oklahoma’s version was to switch from sodium thiopental to pentobarbital; in January 2014, a man being executed with pentobarbital exclaimed, “I feel my whole body burning.”. Months later, the manufacturer of that drug also cut off the supply, unwilling to be party to the executions it facilitated.

So Oklahoma switched to a third anaesthetic, midazolam, a drug whose execution debut took place in Florida in 2013. The state has also tried to shield its suppliers from anti-death penalty campaigners with a secrecy law.

Proceeding on a mad catch-as-can basis, Oklahoma proceeded to horribly botch its midazolam executions, throwing its new procedure right back to the courts. Just this past June, a divided U.S. Supreme Court narrowly approved the continued use of its midazolam cocktail, which a dissenting justice savaged as “the chemical equivalent of being burned alive.”

It’s a story still being written before our eyes — a long quarter-century after Charles Coleman premiered Oklahoma’s modern era of executions on this date in 1990.

* The last previous execution in Oklahoma was that of James French in 1966.

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1902: John C. Best

1 comment September 9th, 2015 Headsman

From the Boston Morning Journal, Sept. 9, 1902.


Bailey’s Murderer Executed Just After Midnight.

Assisted the Guards and Uttered Never a Word.

Dreadful Current Did Work Swiftly and Surely.

John C. Best was put to death by electricity this morning at Charlestown State Prison at 12.22 o’clock, paying the supreme penalty of the law for the murder of George E. Bailey of Saugus on Oct. 8, 1900. He maintained the air of coolness, and even indifference, which has marked his conduct since his arrest, to the the [sic] last. He walked to the chair unassisted and without even being held by the guards in attendance; sat down composedly, as one would waiting for a train at a station; assisted the guards even in the operations of confining his hands and legs, and awaited the shock of the current in perfect composure.

He had no word to say at the end, uttered no groan, and was pronounced dead by the attending physicians at 12.27. The witnesses were Dr. Joseph F. McLaughlin, prison physician; Dr. Robert A. Blood, Surgeon General of the State; Dr. George Stedman, Associate Medical Examiner of the District; Deputy Sheriff William Cronin, the presence of whom is prescribed by the Statutes; Rev. I. Murray Mellish of Salem, attending to the spiritual wants of the prisoner, and a representative of the press.

The Crime of Best.

The crime for which Best was executed was the murder of George E. Bailey, the caretaker of Breakheart Farm, Saugus. The murder took place in October, 1900, and Best was condemned by the Superior Court sitting at Salem June 14, 1901.

In the early part of October, 1900, Bailey was missed. Best was employed on the farm, and his replies as to the whereabouts of Bailey gave the impression that the missing man had gone to Maine. Inquiry failed to locate him, and until the morning of Oct. 17 nothing definite was known of his whereabouts.

On that morning the dismembered body of a man was found in Floating Bridge Pond, the mutilated torso encased in a sack. Later the arms, legs and head were found and the body was identified as that of George E. Bailey.

Suspicion pointed toward Best, and he was arrested Oct. 18, the day after the gruesome find at the pond. He appeared in the Lynn Police Court Oct. 20, and was remanded to Salem Jail, pending the hearing, which was held Nov. 8.

Judge Berry of the Lynn Police Court after a prolonged hearing, found “probable cause,” and Best was sent to jail to await the action of the Grand Jury which, on Jan. 25 following, indicted him for murder.

In Superior Court.

Best was arraigned in the Superior Court Jan. 30, and entered a plea of not guilty. The trial began March 18, and continued until March 29, when a verdict of murder in the first degree was rendered. The prosecution was conducted by Attorney General Knowlton, District Attorney Peters and his assistant, Roland H. Sherman. Best was represented by James H. Sisk and N. D. A. Clark of Lynn.

The day after the verdict was returned, counsel for Best filed exceptions and offered a motion for a new trial. Oct. 18 counsel conferred with Presiding Justices Sherman and Fox, and on Nov. 23 the exceptions were approved and allowed to go to the Supreme Court.

A hearing was given in the Supreme Court Jan. 6, 1902, and on Feb. 27, a rescript overruling the exceptions was filed. March 29 other exceptions were taken to a denial of amotion for a new trial, and the Supreme Court heard the arguments on May 19.

On June 3, in a rescript, the Court said:

After the exceptions in this case were disposed of a motion for a new trial was made upon the ground that one of the jurors was deaf. Evidence was put in on the subject before the Judges who had taken part in the trial, a portion of the evidence being an examination of the juror himself. The motion was denied, the Judges stating that they were satisfied that the juror heard substantially all the evidence. The argument addressed to us is a pure argument of fact as to what the proper finding would have been, a question with which we have nothing to do, and upon which the Judges considered not merely the testimony reported but what they saw at the time, as it was proper that they should. Assuming every proposition of law that could be urged in favor of the defendant, there is no ground for an exception.

After the first motion had been overruled another motion was made that the hearing be reopened and the defendant be allowed to introduce further evidence, cumulative in character, being the testimony of a doctor who had been consulted by the juror a little more than three months before the trial. The Judges refused this motion on the ground that the doctor’s statement did not change their opinion. The defendant’s counsel again attempted to save an exception. Apart from what else might be said, the same answer may be made to this as to the other exception. It is perfectly plain that the defendant had no ground for bringing his case here a second time. Exceptions overruled.

Counsel’s Great Fight.

All that could be done by devoted counsel to save Best from death sentence has been done, save an appeal to the Governor for a commutation of the final decree of the Court this forenoon, and it is understood that this will be made.

Of late Best has had frequent conferences with his spiritual adviser, Rev. Isaac M. Mellish of Salem. He steadfastly maintained his innocence of the crime.*

* In a last letter to his parents that later hit the presses, Best maintained his innocence: “One thing I would like to impress on the mind of you, my father and mother, is that it is not God’s will that I lose this life that he has given me, but through the vengeance and ignorance of men … I am not afraid to die, but I would like to live. I don’t compare myself to Christ, our Savior, but my condemnation is on the same line as His, and I will meet death as calmly as he did. If these lines, my dear father and mother, will give you any comfort, I am well paid for writing them.”

This excerpt is from The Evening Times (Pawtucket, R.I.), Sept. 20, 1902 — which also reported that Best felt out the prison physicians as to the prospect of their attempting a post-electric chair reanimation experiment. (The doctors turned him down.)

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