On this date in 1942, red-haired Robert S. James became the last man judicially hanged in the state of California. He’d earned the noose three times over. The press called him “the Diamondback Killer” or “Rattlesnake James”.
“Robert James,” records Robert Keller in his book 50 American Serial Killers You’ve Probably Never Heard Of, Volume Five, “must rank as one of the most creative killers in the annals of American crime. Not content with such mundane methods as shooting, stabbing or strangling, James resorted to such inventive devices as auto wrecks, drowning and rattlesnake bites.”
James’s cunning homicides and his proclivity for cross-country travel meant his crimes went unnoticed for years.
Born Major Raymond Lisenba in 1895, he seemed destined to a hardscrabble life of Alabama sharecropping like his parents until his brother-in-law paid for him to go to Birmingham and attend barbering school.
In 1921, at age 26, Lisenba married. His wife quickly left him, however, and filed for divorce, citing extreme cruelty. James moved to Kansas and married again, and began an affair with a young local girl. He made her pregnant, and after her father showed up at his barbershop with a shotgun, Lisenba skipped town and moved to Fargo, North Dakota, abandoning wife no. 2. He also changed his name.
From here on out, he goes by Robert S. James.
In 1932, “Robert” married Winona Wallace and took out a life insurance policy on her. After three months of wedded bliss, they went on an outing to climb Pike’s Peak. During the journey, though, the couple was in a single-car accident and Winona sustained a serious head injury, while her husband was completely unharmed: he had jumped out of the out-of-control vehicle just before impact.
The police who responded for some reason thought nothing of the bloodstained hammer they noted in the car’s back seat.
Although Winona’s head wound was grave, she pulled through, and was discharged from the hospital after two weeks, with no memory of the accident. She never recovered that memory because shortly after arriving home she drowned in her own bathtub. Her husband suggested she had still been suffering vertigo from the head injury.
James collected on Winona’s $14,000 life insurance policy, moved back to Alabama and married again. He found he was unable to take out a policy on the new wife, however, and filed for an annulment on the very day of their wedding.
Undaunted, James turned his attention to his nephew, Cornelius Wright. He insured the young man, with double indemnity in case of accidental death, then invited him over to visit. During the visit, James lent Cornelius his car. Cornelius drove it off a cliff and was killed.
The insurers paid.
Curiously, James sent a telegram to his sister informing her of her son’s death before it actually happened.
James moved to Los Angeles and married a fifth time. It was wife #5, Mary Busch, who proved to be his undoing.
In 1935, James conspired with an acquaintance named Charles Hope to murder Mary. They decided to use rattlesnakes, and Hope obtained two large large Colorado diamondbacks to do the job. The snakes had names: Lethal and Lightning. They performed well in field tests on chickens.
Mary was pregnant at the time, and James convinced her to get a home abortion. To this end, she allowed herself to be tied to a chair, blindfolded and gagged for the procedure. Her husband then forced whiskey down her throat to quiet her, and he and Hope shoved her bare foot into a box containing the rattlers.
They left her there to die, but when they returned later, Mary was still alive, although had been bitten three times. James dragged her into the bathroom and drowned her in the tub, then he and his accomplice threw her body into an ornamental fish pond on his property.
Then James called the police to report the tragic accident.
Authorities who arrived at the scene found Mary lying in very shallow water. Her grieving widower mentioned she had dizzy spells quite often and would fall down. The police speculated she might have been bitten by a rattlesnake and then, in shock, stumbled into the pond. They did a search of the property and did find something strange: a bottle containing black widow spiders, hidden in a corner of the garage. But what did that have to do with anything?
Mary’s death was ruled accidental and James collected yet another insurance payout.
He appeared to have gotten away with it again.
However, several months later, it came undone.
A sharp insurance investigator found out about James’s previous wives and the fact that one of them had drowned after being heavily insured. The investigator informed the police, who bugged James’s house and discovered he was committing incest with his niece.
This was a crime in California, although she was a legal adult. The police hauled him in for questioning. “Interrogation techniques,” remarks Keller, “were somewhat more brutal than they are today and under questioning, James let something slip about Mary’s death. Investigators immediately seized on this and eventually extracted a confession.”
Charles Hope’s role in the crime came out — he’d been paid $100 for his assistance in the murder — and he turned state’s evidence and was sentenced to life in prison. During the trial, Lethal and Lightning were presented as evidence, and Lethal caused a bit of a stir in the courtroom when it escaped during lunch.
The Los Angeles Times notes, “Columnist Walter Winchell dropped by the courtroom; so did actor Peter Lorre, who studied James’ impassive face and beady eyes for one of those psychotic killer roles he often played.”
James was inevitably convicted of Mary’s murder and sentenced to death, but prolonged his life with a few years of appeals. In Lisenba v. California, the Supreme Court upheld his confession in spite of the third-degree methods by which it was obtained.
The lag from trial to execution caused by Rattlesnake’s judicial review, however, made him by the time of his hanging the last convict whose death sentence predated California’s adoption of the gas chamber. California was executing in volume at this period, and almost all by gas: everyone knew as Robert James went to the gallows that he was to be the last to die on that anachronistic device.
And the executioner — who to be fair was probably out of practice — underscored the reason for that shift by botching the job, leaving his prey to strangle to death for ten ghastly minutes. San Quentin‘s warden, Clinton Duffy, an opponent of the death penalty described the hanging to reporters but his story was deemed too graphic to be printable. In this more permissive age we can use it with impunity … but it’s liable to put you off your appetite.
The man hit bottom, and I observed that he was fighting by pulling on the straps, wheezing, whistling, trying to get air, that blood was oozing through the black cap. I observed also that he urinated, defecated and the droppings fell on the floor, and the stench was terrible. I also saw witnesses pass out and have to be carried from the witness room. Some of them threw up. It took ten minutes for the condemned man to die.
When he was finally dead enough to cut him down, “big hunks of flesh were torn off” James’s purple face; “his eyes were popped,” and his tongue “swollen and hanging from his mouth.” (source)
On this date in 1836, a troubled (ex-)family man named Isaac Young — latterly going by Isaac Heller — was publicly hanged in Liberty, Indiana for axing his entire family to death in a fit of madness.
Young hailed from Pennsylvania, and the reason he had changed his name and moved to Indiana was that he had done a similar thing in his native haunts.
As a teenager in the 1820s, Isaac Young had been seized strangely by the spiritual tremors abroad during America’s Second Great Awakening. A baptized zealot who fancied himself blessed with the power of prophesy, Young was also captive to an inescapable — and seemingly defeatist — impression of being forever pursued and haunted by the devil. Young’s religious thunderings tended to produce more interest in the utterer’s state of mind than in the listener’s state of soul, and the youth was known to succumb to “gusts of passion.”
Eventually, those gusts blew a hurricane.
Young lived with his brother, who had a wife and a 10-year-old orphan girl — and, little did they know, the devil watching over them all. One night in 1830, Young awoke with a start at a sound he perceived upon the stair, convinced that some entity had entered the room he shared with the little girl; his religious eccentricities jumbling him right into lunacy.
“The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” Young bellowed at the dragon from Revelations come to visit him in his nightshirt in Dauphin County. He tried to grapple with the phantom but missed it, and of a sudden he turned his frenzy on the girl, battering her furiously. Young would later say that he was “forcibly impelled” to the attack by an overwhelming “duty” to “destroy” the child; his brother and his sister-in-law attempted to intervene but Young seized a club and with a berserker rage chased them from the house — then returned to his cowering little roommate, and sawed off her head with his knife.
He was acquitted of this murder by reason of his manifest insanity, but this was not a time and place with resources to aid the mentally ill. All anyone could think to do was to keep him chained in the poor house until after a few months he appeared to return to reason — at which point he was finally released and blew town, now rechristened with his mother’s maiden name.
In the hamlet of Liberty, the new man Heller escaped the devil … for a few years. He opened a grocery store and married a woman named Elizabeth McCollam with whom he had a happy brood of three children.
Until one day the gusts returned to swirl his soul again.
“The first symptom of insanity noticed in this county was about three years ago [i.e., 1833], by a young man who was going home with him on a Sabbath evening,” the Connersville (Ind.) Watchman reported in a profile that was widely reprinted around the Republic.*
The young man noticed something very extraordinary in his manner, and was much affected. At length he asked him what was the matter. He replied in effect that a superhuman influence or inspiration was upon him. Soon after he became very much excited on religious subjects … Witnesses stated that for several days at a time, during the last two or three years, he would act like a wild man or a raving maniac. During that time he was twice taken into the care of the overseers of the poor and kept some time as an insane person.
Heller’s neglect of his work soon exhausted his family’s modest reserves and left wife and children surviving on the charity of neighbors, spiraling Heller even deeper into depression, and in his “great horror of the poor house” he owned “that he would rather die than be separated from his family.” One hears in these words a man with the walls closing in about him … or else, a man hammering out the rationale for the madness he has already determined to undertake. There was calculation in Heller’s fatal outburst; a neighbor visited on the morning of his hecatomb and found the family in good spirits and Heller cogent. The disturbed patriarch waited until the guest was well away before he
took his axe from under the bed, went to the fire, turned round [and] commenced rubbing the fingers of one hand over the edge. His wife asked him what he was going to do — he replied he was going to chop some wood. About this time the woman told the children to get some apples out from under the bed. the two little ones immediately crawled under the bed, and the little sister-in-law stood near the bed looking at Heller. She saw him raise the axe and strike his wife one full blow about the chin and neck. Seeing this she sprang to the door, threw it open and fled for the nearest neighbor’s between a quarter and a half a mile off, crying murder as she ran. After she had fled some two hundred yards, she saw Heller come round the end of the house and look after her. Heller states that after he had despatched his wife he went out of the house and looked after the little girl — that he then went back into the house — his little boy came towards him, when he split him down and chopped his head off. He then dragged his little daughter Sarah out from under the bed — placed his foot upon her breast — she raised her hands for protection, and at the first blow he cut off the fingers of one hand and nearly took off her head. He then went and rolled the mother off of the infant on which she had partly fallen, and cut its head off.
His spiritual torments and probable schizophrenia here are the framework — a cynic might say, the excuse — for a much more commonplace scourge: the murderer said “in justification of the act ‘that they were likely to become a county charge, and that he would rather see them in their present situation.'” (Connecticut Courant, Mar. 21, 1836) In the confession he willingly supplied later, he admitted having attempted to set his homicidal plan in motion several times prior, once even brandishing a butcher’s blade over his wife like the Psycho shower scene before she soothed him. Elizabeth Heller must have been a woman of remarkable calm under pressure; unfortunately for her, resources for abused spouses were about as plentiful as those for the mentally ill.
“Nearly all … who know any thing about the case, regard it as incomprehensibly mysterious,” the newspaper reports concluded. “Many who know the most about it, say they hardly know how or what to think of it. It is doubted whether the annals of crime can produce a parallel case, and it is devoutly hoped they never may!”
But the annals of crime hold many mansions, as readers of this here site surely know.
Heller’s final, “successful” outburst was actually just one of a number of grisly mass-murders by family fathers who through the closely intimate exertion of a bloody blade drenched their domestic idylls with the gore of their loved ones — enough even to form a discernible pattern. Struggling to come to grips with this “homicidal insanity” or “monomanie-homicide”, the early American psychologist Isaac Raylamented the “painful frequency” of cases “where the individual, without provocation or any other rational motive, apparently in the full possession of his reason, and oftentimes in spite of his most strenuous efforts to the contrary, imbrues his hands in the blood of others, — oftener than otherwise, of the partner of his bosom, of the children of his affections.” Incomprehensible perhaps, but scarcely unparalleled: what could make sense of this “horrid phenomenon”?
Pious family men turning Middle America domiciles into charnel houses was the going postal of settler-era America, and maybe Ray even had the Young/Heller-style addled religiosity in mind when he noted that absent some rational accounting the mind would default “to that time-honored solution of all the mysteries of human delinquency, the instigation of the devil.”
In a review of the period’s “familicide” cases, Daniel Cohen (“Homicidal Compulsion and the Conditions of Freedom: The Social and Psychological Origins of Familicide in America’s Early Republic,” Journal of Social History, Summer, 1995) speculates that the revolutionary grant of personal autonomy exacted a dangerous emotional toll upon men who felt themselves failures or simply could not pay “the high psychic costs of economic freedom, particularly for men prone to anxiety and depression.” Isaac was surely prone.
The efforts of those men to submit to supernatural authority were less single-minded pursuits of spiritual perfection than desperate attempts to evade seemingly irresolvable personal conflicts, most importantly between moral demands (or social obligations) and destructive urges or desires. It was ultimately less important for them to avoid sin than to resolve dilemmas or evade choice. When the breathless individual freedom of the early republic collided with the relentless responsibilities of paternal stewardship, the result was an implosion of self-destructive violence … the beginning not the end of a disturbing national tradition …
Many social barriers had fallen in post-Revolutionary America, but several unhappy men could still not control the rain, or the currency, or their own darker impulses. Where others may have perceived boundless opportunities, they experienced gnawing fears and terrifying compulsions. Situations of free choice did not inspire them with a “heady feeling of command” or a “sense of marvelous potential,” to use Robert Wiebe’s expansive phrases, but drove them instead to desperation. Physical unsettlement, economic insecurities, and religious speculations all combined to baffle and torment them. Unable to cope with the perplexities of life in a free society, they constructed internal imperatives to evade and annul that very freedom. By their actions, each tacitly endorsed John Cowan’s conclusion in prison: “Liberty would be more horrible to me than death.” Thus did a handful of troubled Americans confront freedoms profound enough to transform sober Christians into deluded visionaries, loving husbands into axe-wielding assassins, and tidy republican households into slaughterhouses.
Where Pennsylvania acquitted, Indiana convicted — but within even a few years the cooling of passions stirred by the slaughter led many to regret the judgment. According to this volume, even the judge later acknowledged that he ought to have set aside the verdict owing to Heller’s state of mind.
* We’re channeling this via the Gloucester (Mass.) Telegraph of May 4, 1836.
(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.)
Thanks for a million things. Thanks for a million things. I’ve got a son, six foot three inches, one hundred and seventy pounds. He’s married, got two kids. He’s in the service overseas right now. … So I’ve left something good—one decent thing out of a dirty life …
— Lloyd Edison Sampsell (aka “the Yacht Bandit”), convicted of robbery and murder, gas chamber, California.
Executed April 25, 1952
Sampsell and an accomplice plundered Pacific Coast banks before stealing away in his yacht. He pilfered a total of $200,000 in his career but died with only $5.27 to his name. Sampsell, age fifty-two, was convicted of killing Arthur W. Smith in a San Diego finance company robbery.
Before the gas took its effect, he turned to the nearly one hundred witnesses gathered and winked.
It is said on the 7th of last May, the day before the execution of Mose Caton, [Robert] Fowler danced a jig on the gallows and said:
“Well, within twenty-four hours Caton will be in hell,” and a short time after the execution remarked: “Who in the hell will be the next one?”
-St. Louis Globe-Democrat, April 24, 1886
You know what they say: if you have to ask …
Robert Fowler was an irascible Union County, Ky. man who had gone to work on a farm, fallen for the farmer’s beautiful daughter, been spurned, and pulled the old Humbert Humbert by instead marrying her 49-year-old widowed aunt.
But Fowler continued to nurse an unrequited lust for 18-year-old beauty Lida Burnett, and it would eventually prove fatal to them both. Fowler ditched her aunt at one point to take another run at the girl, failed, returned to the aunt, and finally jealously threatened Burnett that he would kill her should she make an engagement with anyone but himself.
So Fowler was the natural suspect* when Miss Burnett — having defiantly pledged someone her troth — set out on horseback from her cousin’s house one evening and never made it home.
The ensuing search turned up the poor young lady’s remains, nearly headless from two deep gashes in her throat. News reports from the period are oddly mixed on the question of whether she had been ravished, too.
Fowler’s residence yielded up bloody clothes, still wet from the killer’s attempt to wash them out. “It is thought,” reported the Globe-Democrat blandly on Aug. 19, 1885, “that he will be lynched to-night.”
Contrary to expectations, Fowler survived long enough to let the law take its course. He acknowledged his guilt on the scaffold before a reported crowd of 5,000 or more in Morganfield, who got two hangings for the price of one after Fowler snapped the rope and fell to the ground the first time he was dropped.
* Actually, he was the third suspect: two black men who’d been seen in the vicinity were investigated first.
Containing many incidents of his life and conduct not before made public. Faithfully written from his own words, while under sentence of death in prison.
LIFE and CONFESSION &c.
In offering to the public the following narrative I feel no other interest than the good of mankind, nor have I any other object in view than to caution the careless and unwary against pursuing that vicious course which has been the means of plunging me at this early period of life into that dreadful dilemma in which I am now involved.
Altho nature had doomed me to a state of obscurity and degradation, I might have remained happy in this unenviable situation, had not the vicious habits I had contracted in the earlier stages of my youth driven me into excesses which have proved my ruin. Pursued by the hand of justice, I have thus early been arrested in my vicious career: drawn from the deep & solitary recesses of obscurity and debasement, to the bar of justice, I am condemned to recieve [sic] the punishment which my guilt has so justly merited, as a warning and example to those I leave behind. It may be somewhat interesting to those I am about to leave to be informed of the causes which have produced those (to me) dreadful effects.
The following pages contain a brief history of my short and wicked life, and such reflections as have been produced in my mind by a retrospective view of my conduct; they are submitted to the public as the last words of a dying sinner.
I am this day seventeen years and five weeks old. I was born of African parents; slaves to Mr. Benjamin Ward of Middlesex county State of New-Jersey, in whose family I lived until about four years ago, previous to which my parents purchased their freedom, and left my master’s family.
My master was a man of very corrupt and immoral habits, subject to habitual intoxication, and most of the vices which flow from that fertile scource [sic] of human depravity. Among other things he almost totally neglected his family concerns, the consequence was that I and my brothers and sisters were left to govern ourselves, and form such habits and principles as our inclinations led us to pursue.
We were not only neglected as to our morals and habits, but were badly provided for with the necessaries of life, our table was but illy supplyed [sic], our cloathing [sic] would scarcely cover our nakedness, much less protect us against the inclemency of the seasons. Thus were we permitted to spend our time in idleness and want, which produced in us an inclination, and afforded us liesure [sic] and opportunities to practise almost all kinds of evil.
I was thus in a manner abandoned by my master and only guardian, in a hopeless state of slavery, with no prospect before me to stimulate my ambition, or direct the youthful ardor that glowed in my breast to the pursuit of any laudable object, I sunk even below the degraded station which nature had assigned me.
I formed connection with such as were willing to associate with me, those were of course a motly tribe of the most abandoned of the human race, among whom it was my chief ambition to become famous, and it may readily be conjectured what was the measure of fame in a society where wickedness was the standard of merit, and lewdness and profanity esteemed the higest [sic] accomplishments of its members.
Hence I became extremely wicked, and subject to almost every vice my tender years were susceptable [sic] of, such as cursing, profane swearing, lying and sabath-breaking [sic; he will repeat this word several times more with the same spelling], with a number of other lewd practice, all which I indulged without restraint, and all my vicious habits increased with my age. My master occasionally chastised me, but this was generally so indiscreetly done, that, instead of a reformation it produced the contrary effect, and I became obstinate and headstrong.
In this situation I lived until I was about thirteen years of age, during which time tho’ I indulged in almost all kinds of wickedness which my tender age was capable of, I do not recollect of having committed any thing legally criminal, except, that I once stole a shilling out of a bakers drawer, with which I bought some cake and shared it with my companions, but being detected, I confessed the fact, and was severely chastised for it.
At length my master dying, his estate fell into the hands of his heirs, who found it so involved that they were under the necessity of selling the personal property. Among the rest I was sold to Mr. Elijah Mount, who then lived in New-Jersey, but afterwards moved to Charlestown, Montgomery county, state of New-York.
I now found my situation entirely changed, my new master was quite the reverse from my old one, he was moral, sober, industrious and frugal, paid great attention to the comfortable support and instruction of his family, nor did he neglect to extend his benevolence to me. He soon laid me under such restraints as in a great measure reformed my external deportment. He totally prohibited my profaneness and instructed me in the principles of christianity, [sic] but, alas! the inbred vicious habits I had contracted in the earlier part of my life, had made such a deep impression on my mind that, altho I found myself under the necessity of complying with his regulations in my conduct, they were far from producing a radical reformation in my principles. On the contrary, I found, that, tho I was constrained to abandon the vicious habits of cursing, profane swearing and sabath=breaking at least publicy, the corrupt principles I had imbibed daily acquired strength as I grew up and became capable of carrying them into effect.
I became lewd to that degree that my lasciviousness overleaped all bounds of discretion, and I indulged it in the most wanton and abominable excesses, so that not even the brutal part of the creation escaped the rage of my unruly passions, the innocent lamb and the loathsome swine indiscriminately became its victims.
I also extended my lewd desires, to those whom nature had placed above me, I however found the gratification of those desires so obstructed by my debased situation, that I could not flatter myself with a hope of indulging them as a favour. I was therefore impelled by their impetuosity to endeavour to obtain by violence what I could not effect by solicitation, I was rash and inconsiderate, destitute of fortitude and circumspection by which I was soon led into the error that now terminates my existence.
The first attempt I made to gratify these lewd desires, was on the body of a young woman in the town of Charlestown whose name for her sake I chuse to with-hold from the public. The circumstances of this nefarious attempt were as follows. It was on a sabath day. I together with some young men of the neighbourhood, who I likewise do not chuse to expose at this time, by publishing their names to the world, were together in an orchard, when this young woman came in. She had by some means or other become obnoxious to them, and soon after she appeared they proposed to me to make an attempt on her chastity, they offering me a small pecuniary compensation, and promised to withdraw to afford me an opportunity, which they accordingly did, while I made the attempt, but I did not succeed, for before I could effect my purpose two of her brothers (small boys) came in sight, and I fled.
This transaction was not disclosed, it is probable the young woman who was the subject of it, from motives of modestly declined complaining, or pursuing measures to bring me to justice; and those who were concerned with me and who ought rather to have protected her agianst any violence offered by me, than to have encouraged me in such an abominable attempt,) could have no motive in divulging a crime in which they themselves were so deeply implicated, and by these means I evaded the punishment which I so justly deserved.
Having thus escaped with impunity, I felt encouraged to pursue my wicked inclinations, my obscurity however prevented my having many opportunities of indulging my passions.
At length however, my attention was attracted by that unfortunate victim of my inordinate passion, who fell a sacrifice to my wantoness, [sic] and ferocity, for which I am now to suffer the just punishment of the law.
Her name was Mary Akins, daughter of Mr. Samuel Akins, of Charlestown, in the county of Montgomery. She was a girl of about twelve years of age, her father lived on a part of my master’s farm, she came to my master’s house on the morning of Sunday the thirteenth day of February last, for the purpose of attending public worship, having heard that a minister was to preach there that day, but being disappointed in her object, and the weather stormy, she remained there til the sun about half an hour high in the afternoon, her father lived about half a mile from my master’s, the road leading across the fields, I had formed a design of making an attempt on her chastity and watched an opportunity to follow her undiscovered, which soon offered, and I as readily embraced, I soon overtook her in an obscure place, where we could not be discovered from either house, with a determination of carrying my nefarious purpose into effect, I passed by her, she appearing offended at my presence, accosted me saying “who wants to keep your company you black devil” I replied I was not going to keep her company, upon which she again accosted me in the same manner adding “you black son of a bitch” to which I made the same reply as before and immediately assaulted her, threw her down, and attempted a violation of her chastity but not effecting it I permitted her to rise, as soon as she found herself disengaged she attempted to escape towards my master’s, threatening to have me brought to justice, upon which my guilt beginning to operate on my mind, and dreading the consequences of a discovery, I determined to prevent it by committing a crime still more heinous, and in an instant determined to deprive her of the power of exposing me, by depriving her of her life I had no sooner come to this resolution than I siezed [sic] a small stone which lay in my way, and I could conveniently hold in one hand, by this time she had advanced about ten or twelve yards from the place where I had made the first attempt upon her towards my master’s, I again assaulted and threw her down, struck her with the stone I held in my hand, on the crown of her head with such force as stunned her and blood issued from her mouth and [obscure], in this situation I again attempted to carry my first design into effect, but was again baffled by her incompetency, I then disengaged from her, blood on my feet and threw the same stone with which I had before struck her on the head, this I repeated twice, and then left her in the agonies of death, and expiring, finding some blood on my hands, I washed them and retired towards home, my conscience had however by this time awakened, and the horrors of my guilt began to agitate my mind, but I endeavoured to sooth my waring [sic] conscience with reflections that I had not been discovered, and that the only one privy to this horrid scene had been deprived of the power of discovering it by the very act that now filled my mind with remorse, under those reflections I had [obscure] some distance, when I began to apprehend, that she might perhaps recover, and have strength enough to reach home, or at least to communicate the transaction and discover its agent, to some one who might pass that way, I therefore returned to the place where I had been engaged in this sanguinary scene, and where its subject lay breathing her last (for she yet breathed.) to remove the apprehensions I had entertained of her revival, I placed two rails crosswise on her neck, and the one end of each under the fence by the side of which she lay, having thus secured her against all possibility of recovering, I retired a second time.
I now returned home, it being about sunset, and no one having noticed my absence, I went about my work as usual, and in about fifteen minutes her brother came in search of her, I heard him making enquiry for her, and passing by him into the house I familiarly asked him what he would think if he should find her dead? to which he replied that he would be much frightened, little thinking that those words carelessly spoken were to be the means of betraying me, they however made a deeper impression on the mind of the young man than I expected; & in searching for the author of this melancholy event, afforded a clue to discover its author, and fixed the suspicion on me.
Soon after the departure of the young man his mother came to my master’s, and informed him that she feared some misfortune had befallen her daughter as her bonnet had been found and she was missing; this excited great consternation, and my master and others went with her in search of her daughter; whom they soon found & carried home. The next morning Mr. Akins came to my master’s and charged me with the crime, informing my master of the grounds of his suspicion: I denied it, but by threats and promises was prevailed upon to confess it at last.
I was immediately bound and carried before Benjamin Van Veghten Esq. for examination, where I made the like confession; as I also did before the Coroner’s inquest. I was then committed to jail for my trial which I had on the 24th of March last, a conviction was a matter of course, my sentence was pathetically delivered by the presiding judge, during which awful scene I remained insensible.
I have since been benevolently attended by the reverend clergy of different denominations, who merit my warmest acknowledgments for their solicitude for my future happiness, I cannot however flatter myself with a hope of mercy; my approaching dissolution exites dreadful sensations in my mind, which I am unable to suppress; my sentence is just but [obscure] reconcile myself to my fate.
The foregoing narrative contains a faithful history of the chief incidents and material transactions of my life, as far as I recollect them; I have no motives to conceal anything; whatever else has been laid to my charge I deny.
Hence let masters learn the necessity of paying due attention to the instruction of their servants, had I not been neglected in my youth, I might have escaped this tragical end.
Let servants learn obedience and resignation, for had I paid due respect to the admonitions of my late master, and contented myself in my late situation, I might yet have been happy; let them also learn to shun the company of that worthless class of citizens, who being despised by their own society seek that of slaves, these are sure guides to destruction, such were those who offered me a reward to commit a rape.
Hence also let parents who profess christianity, (as the parents of these young men did) learn the danger of letting their children stroll about in idleness in such company, especially on sabbath days; and let profaners of that day remark that my worst crimes have been the effects of that sin.
In short let every description of sinners learn the danger of deferring repentance to the cross, if they have one favourable instance, they have a cloud of melancholy examples. I feel the necessity of a Saviour, but my heart is a rock at the door of the sepulcher which I am not able to remove, and I stand on the brink of eternity under the gloomy apprehensions of everlasting misery and despair.
Johnston Jail, April 22d 1803.
Although it sounds as if Cato (or the confessor who obviously composed his testimonial) was pessimistic about the prospects for his everlasting soul, we have firmer information on the unedifying disposition of the youth’s mortal flesh: a Dr. John Ball of Franklinton, Ohio (a settlement today absorbed into the city of Columbus) secured it and kept it in his closet “in order to keep his personal effects secure from the prying eyes of servants. The skeleton was so suspended that should the closet door be opened by one not acquainted with the secret, Cato’s jaws would gnash together and his head would wag in a manner calculated to strike terror into inquisitive female hearts.”
On this date in 1895, three black women and two black men were lynched in Greenville, Alabama for the murder of Watts Murphy, white.
Watts was a “young man of great prominence” who was said to be the nephew of Alabama’s former governor, Thomas H. Watts. He was killed on April 17, aged about thirty. When he failed to arrive home, his family began looking for him. Finally, one of the family servants confessed to what he knew: Watts had been working in the field with six black people, three men and three women, and one of the men hit him on the head with a tree limb. The others beat him unconscious and carried his body to a secluded area, where the women gathered loose brush, piled it on top of Watts’s body, and set the heap ablaze.
Newspapers reported grisly details about the crime, saying that the murderers kept piling wood on the fire until there was nothing left but the victim’s teeth, his heart and his liver, which “for some unknown reason failed to burn.”
Just why the murder happened has been lost to history, and various contradictory rumors floated around. According to one story, one of the men planned to kill him in revenge for “an imaginary wrong of a trivial nature.” In another account, it was an impulsive act of violence, the result of an argument.
Daily Inter Ocean (Chicago, Ill.), April 22, 1895
Zeb Caley or Calley, Martha Greene, Alice Greene, Mary Deane, and John Rattler were arrested on April 20 near Butler Springs, Alabama, and charged with murder. (The third man who was implicated, left unnamed in press reports, got away.) A group of men was charged with transporting the five prisoners sixteen miles to the security of jail in Greenville. They set off at 11:00 p.m. At 3:00 a.m., while the party was en route, a mob of approximately 100 men brandishing Winchester rifles surprised the party on the road, surrounded them and took the prisoners away.
The members of the mob tied each person’s hands, lead them one by one to the side of the road, and hanged them from trees. Later that day the bodies were seen by people passing by on their way to church.
On April 29, the sixth suspect in the crimes, who has never been identified, was found hanging from a tree in the same general area as the other ones. He had been dead for about a day.
On this date in 1841, Peter Robinson hanged for a New Jersey murder. Little could he have imagined that he was on his way to the literary canon.
A wealthy merchant and banker named Abraham Suydam had disappeared, and suspicion quickly settled on Robinson — one of his debtors, who suddenly seemed to be a little bit flush with cash and a timepiece too rich for his station in life.
Robinson was arrested and examined before the Mayor of New Brunswick, and from his confused manner and contradictory statements, it was determined that his house should be searched. Accordingly the Mayor, accompanied by several constables, and a number of citizens, proceeded to Robinson’s house for the purpose of searching it. Every room, nook and corner in the upper stories of the house were searched, but without success. At last one of the constables proposed to adjourn to the cellar and see what could be discovered there. This proposition caused the greatest trepidation on the part of Robinson, who strongly remonstrated against it.
He stated that if the floor of his cellar was removed, it would endanger the safety of the building, and there was no telling what would be the consequences. This only made the party feel the more convinced of Robinson’s guilt, and they immediately commenced operations removing the plank of the cellar. A few boards and the earth underneath only had been removed, when the dead body of the unfortunate Mr. Suydam, to the astonishment of all present, was found. His skull was found to be dreadfully fractured, and his head was horribly disfigured by the marks of blows which had been inflicted on it. From the state of his body, it is supposed that he was murdered eight or nine days ago. (New York Commercial Advertiser (Dec. 15, 1840.)
It is commonly thought — thought there does not appear to be any direct evidence for it — that this nationally infamous body-under-the-floorboards murder helped to inspire Edgar Allan Poe‘s classic short story “The Tell-Tale Heart”.*
Published in January 1843, “The Tell-Tale Heart” features a young man who murders an old man, stashes his body under the floor, then pleasantly dissipates the suspicions of the police until a sensation of the victim’s heart noisily throbbing overwhelms him into a confession:
Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God! — no, no! They heard! — they suspected! — they knew! — they were making a mockery of my horror! — this I thought, and this I think. But anything better than this agony! Anything was more tolerable than this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die! — and now — again! — hark! louder! louder! louder! louder! —
“Villains!” I shrieked, “dissemble no more! I admit the deed! — tear up the planks! — here, here! — it is the beating of his hideous heart!”
Poe’s nameless character denies a motive for the crime, attributing it only to the victim’s “eye” — a mythologizing device which has surely aided the story’s longevity.
Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! — yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture — a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so, by degrees — very gradually — I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.
But if Robinson was the source material, the occult power of the old man’s “eye” was nothing but the oldest motive in the world: plain old luchre.
In 1839, Robinson had borrowed $400 from Abraham Suydam to buy a lot and begin construction of a home upon it, but soon found himself (to use a familiar but anachronistic parlance) underwater.
“Every one to whom I owed a few dollars was after me to sue or get me to give my furniture for the debt,” Robinson recounted in a tearful confession 48 hours before his hanging. (We excerpt it here from the April 17, 1841 Baltimore Sun.) “I did so; I did all that I could; I was driven nearly crazy by these debts … I let them take my furniture until there was scarcely any thing left in the house; and I was ashamed to let any one come into it to see how very poor we really was, and how bad off.”
The harrying of creditors and the passion of the crime seem to have left the murderer’s mind awash in dollars and cents.
Even facing a far more considerable penalty than bankruptcy, Robinson’s confession is obsessed with the winnowing margins of his former debts; scarcely a paragraph elapses without citation of a meticulous mental ledger-book. Robinson recalled the bills incurred to construct his home (“I bought about $250 worth of lumber … The mason work was done for me by Mr. Chessman; for this I was to pay Mr. C. $210. I paid him $110 in cash, and gave him a mortgage for $100 … I had bought some sash frames for my house of a man, and they came to $22.25″ …). He dwelt on his negotiations with Suydam and complained of the lender’s tightfistedness; he recalled the precise value of what he was able to steal from Suydam’s body (“$10 in money, not a cent more … [in] his pantaloons pockets … only two shillings and a penknife”) and the expenses incurred to evade justice (he offered his brother $50 to burn his house down for the insurance, then took a bath unloading Suydam’s gold watch — it “was worth double what I got for it”); yet even so, he was still a little proud of his diligence assailing his debt, in contrast with “Thorne who bought a lot close by mine” and with whom “Mr. Suydam got out of patience.” The killer even had the brass to pat himself on the back for not destroying the papers Suydam had on him: thus, “the relations of Suydam, and his friends, can’t say that they lose any money by the murder.”
At this time I took up a mallet, which I had placed in the basement ready to knock him over with. I then went into the front basement, Mr. Suydam in front of me. I followed behind with the mallet in my hand, he not noticing the same. My intention then was to murder him in the front basement — but my heart failed me. We then went up stairs again in the back room, I carrying the mallet against the palm of my hand. We stood by the fire talking about the house. He was there nearly fifteen minutes. I stated that my wife staid a long time.
He told me that he would go out and take a wall, and return again. He started to go, and I followed, until he got just through the doorway of the back room, which is within three or four feet of the back door, in the entry. I then knocked him down on his knees with the mallet, by striking him n the back of his head, through his hat. He undertook to rise, when I struck him again on the head, and he fell over, and laid still and senseless. I then supposed he was dead, and laid the mallet down; I then went and turned the button of the front door, which all this time was unfastened; and I went down into the front basement. I then went to work and began to dig a small hole; after I had been digging for two minutes, I thought I would not leave the body up stairs; so I went up stairs to bring him down. I saw him on his hands and knees, with his face and hands all bloody. He cried out, “Oh! Peter!” once or twice. Had he begged for his life then, I believe I should have let him off; but I did not want to drag him down stairs alive, and I didn’t want to see him linger there in misery; so I seized the mallet, and again struck him on the head, which knocked him perfectly dead, as I supposed. …
I discovered a chain hanging out of his pocket, and drew from it his gold watch, and put it in my own pocket. I then dug the hole larger, and in throwing out the dirt I threw about half a load of it on his body and head, which completely covered it. He then groaned a little, but I shuddered to hear him, and so I got out and stood upon the dirt and on his head to smother him! He then groaned so hard that I got off from him and struck him with the edge of the spade upon the head, which sunk completely to the brain, and which killed him instantly! …
I now felt as if my heart was completely black, and I was so hardened and callous, and yet so cool and deliberate, that I could have murdered many more. I could, without flinching or hesitating, have killed twenty men if they had come on me one by one.
I don’t believe that I was over a half hour doing the whole exercises of the whole thing! For I had a kind of knack of doing work somehow that others hadn’t. And why, sir, I’ve took hold of floor plank before now, and done forty-five of them in one day, that is, planed and ploughed and grooved them; whereas from sixteen to eighteen is a day’s work for some men.**
As if to complete the American Gothic quality of the crime, Robinson fell through the rope on the first attempt to hang him, then painfully strangled to death on the second try.
* Poe took up a very similar theme — the criminal psychology of a domestic murder concealed by subterranean immurement — later that year in “The Black Cat” (published in August 1843).
** His last wish in this confession: “whatever you do, don’t let the doctors get hold of me and make medicine of me.”
The hanging of Richard Burleson as interpreted by oe’s Crab Shack.
The image was adorned by a dreadful word bubble in which the doomed man exclaims, “All I said was, ‘I don’t like the gumbo!'” perhaps suggesting that uninspired dishes are best not returned at this establishment.
Here’s now the New Orleans Daily Picayune of April 13, 1895 described the actual, gumbo-less event.
For the Murder of J.G. McKinnon.
Groesbeck, Tex., April 12. — (Special.) — Richard Burleson slept all night, arose this morning, ate a hearty breakfast and was quite cheerful. At 10:30 Sheriff Gresham read the death warrant to him and told him to prepare for death. His spiritual advisers, J.H. Linn, of Mexia, and J. Beckham and J.M. Jackson, of Groesbeck, were with him several hours, but he refused to accept Christ or acknowledge his guilt. At 11:50 a.m. he ate a light dinner and prepared to arrange his toilet. At 2 o’clock he bade his brother good-by, who was in an adjoining cell, charged with aggravated assault. He walked up the steps leading to the gallows as though the end was not so near. The trap did not work at first and necessitated some three minutes’ delay. He became impatient, and told the officers that he could hang three or four niggers in that length of time himself. He never shed a tear or seemed to dread death in the least. At 2:05 he shot through the trap. His neck was broken; he never quivered nor moved a muscle. At 2:20 he was pronounced dead. When his body was sent down such a crowd had gathered on the platform to see him that the platform fell with a crash, but, fortunately, no one was hurt. He sold his body to Dr. W. M. Brown for $5. He was 21 years old at the time of his death, and lived in Limestone county, at Tehuacana, where his mother and wife, whom he married three months before hw as arrested for this crime, reside. He spoke in high terms of the officers. The crowd was estimated at 4000, and everything passed off very quietly.
The crime for which Burleson was sentenced to be hanged was a most horrible one, and one which stirred the community as it had not been stirred in many years.
The evidence was circumstantial, but no evidence could be found more closely linked together than was that on which he was convicted.
May 2, 1894, the murderer followed the venerable Mr. J.G. McKinnon out of Mexia and asked permission to ride in his wagon, which was readily granted him; he assaulted the helpless old man shortly after he had gotten into the wagon and with some heavy object tied up in a jacket beat him over the head until life had been crushed out of his victim. He then robbed the dead body and leaving the scene of the crime fled to Tehuacana, where he was living.
A few hours later he was arrested at his home. In order to give him a legal trial the sheriff slipped across country and put him in jail at Corsicana, where he has been kept ever since, with the exception of the time when he was on trial at this place.
This was the first legal hanging in Limestone county in seventeen years.
After news of the Crab Shack’s tasteless appropriation of this picture got all over the Internet and triggered public protests, the restaurant found a less risible inanity upon which to plate crustaceans.
Louise Peete died in the Caliornia gas chamber on this date in 1947.
Stock of “cultured, educated people” — her words — she turned teenage delinquent, got kicked out of her private school, and commenced a colorful career as an itinerant prostitute and scam artist. Her gallantries — and larcenies — are supposed to have driven two early husbands to suicide, though given her subsequent career one can’t help but wonder.
Lofie Louise Preslar (as she was born) or Louise Gould (as she came to style herself) got the surname by which she is best known from a Denver salesman named Richard Peete. Though this pair fought wantonly and soon separated, Louise still bore his name when her wealthy lover Jacob Denton mysteriously went missing, days after Louise moved into his Los Angeles mansion. Eventually, he turned up … under the floorboards. Louise had been signing checks in his name, and when her bad forgeries were noticed concocted a cockamamie alibi about a “Spanish woman” who had got the man’s arm amputated.
This wasn’t even the murder that Ms. Peete was executed for, but it made her a national celebrity: a black widow who had preyed on a magnate from the shadow of yellow journalism’s newbuilt Xanadu.
American Newspapers (Hearst and otherwise) from sea to sea ran breathless updates from the trial of the “Tiger Woman”, and local interest in Tinseltown — well, it was intense.
Olympia (Wash.) Daily Recorder, Jan. 19, 1921.
In a 2½-week trial, Peete was convicted of Denton’s murder, but the all-male jury declined to hang her and ordered a life sentenced instead. While she served it, a despondent Richard Peete — who continued to profess his absconded wife’s innocence — shot himself. She just had some way with men.
Paroled for good behavior in 1939, Louise proved that prison had not sapped her gift for attracting convenient deaths to her proximity.
The notorious Tiger Woman, now nearing 60, was a sensation of the past but Peete still had advocates who believed in her innocence, worked for her release, and took her in when she was paroled. Peete went to work for one of those advocates as her housekeeper (until the advocate died), and then got the same gig for her parole officer (until the officer died), and then moved in as the live-in caregiver for two more of her jailyears advocates, Arthur and Margaret Logan.
This couple had actually taken in Peete’s daughter for a time during her prison sentence, and in gratitude, Peete reprised for them all her greatest hits.
In June 1944, Margaret Logan disappeared (just like Mr. Denton had); then, posing as his sister, Peete had the dementia-addled Arthur committed.
Living now in the victims’ house (as with Denton’s), Peete began plundering their assets (as with Denton’s). Eventually (as with Denton) someone noticed the forged signature, and when that happened the inquiry brought Tiger Woman into the light yet again: Margaret Logan’s corpse was mouldering away in the back yard.
First as tragedy, then as farce. Even her new lover when all this stuff broke proceeded to commit suicide.
She still claimed innocence — sans “Spanish woman” this time — but the evidence at hand coupled with the suspicious pall of violent death that had always seemed to shadow her career made that an impossible sell. A jury of mostly women sent her to death row.
She was the second (of four) women gassed in California.
This date in 1859 saw the first hanging in Denver — then a nascent mining town known as Denver City.
Denver in 1859 was clinging to end of a long western extrusion of the Kansas Territory, but had John Stoefel managed to refrain from murder just two years longer he might have had the privilege to be the first to hang in Colorado Territory instead.
Massachusetts Spy (Worcester, Mass.), April 6, 1859
On a New York to San Francisco overland odyssey, newsman Horace “Go West Young Man” Greeley arrived in Denver in June, missing our milestone hanging by weeks; his annals (being dispatched east for publication) describe a hardscrabble* place that “can boast of no antiquity beyond September or October last.”
Prone to deep drinking, soured in temper, always armed, bristling at a word, ready with the rifle, revolver, or bowie-knife, they give law and set fashions which, in a country where the regular administration of justice is yet a matter of prophecy, it seems difficult to overrule or disregard. I apprehend that there have been, during my two weeks sojourn, more brawls, more pistol shots with criminal intent in this log city of 150 dwellings, not three-fourths of them completed, nor two-thirds of them inhabited, nor one-third fit to be, than in any community of equal numbers on earth.
No surprise, the first outright murder case to blot the infant city implicated two prospectors: our villain John Stoefel, one of a party of German emigres, shot his brother-in-law Thomas Biencroff on April 7 for his gold dust. From that point, Stoefel had 48 hours to live; standing on only the barest pretense of legal nicety, a “people’s court” convened to try and condemn Stoefel on the basis of his own confession, then immediately hanged him to an obliging tree.
The affair was reported in the very first issue of the Rocky Mountain News, a newspaper that debuted two weeks after Stoefel’s execution/lynching and was destined to survive until 2009.
* Greeley: “It is likely to be some time yet before our fashionable American spas, and summer resorts for idlers will be located among the Rocky Mountains.” You’ve come a long way, Colorado.