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1721: Christiana Bell

Add comment November 21st, 2014 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

The story of Christiana Bell’s execution in Gloucester County in modern-day New Jersey on or shortly before November 21, 1721, begins in 1703. That was the first time she was accused of infanticide: they had found a dead baby and Christiana, a domestic servant who was probably only in her teens at the time, came under suspicion because she had been pregnant out of wedlock and was suddenly not pregnant but with no infant to show for it.

Her trial in 1703 was presided over by Edward Hyde, Lord Cornbury, 3rd Earl of Clarendon, governor of the New York and New Jersey colonies. She was convicted and sentenced to death. However, Lord Cornbury took pity on her — perhaps because of her youth, or maybe there were doubts about her guilt — and first commuted the death sentence, then issued a full pardon. Christiana returned home, having spent fourteen months behind bars but not stretched her neck.

She didn’t learn the lesson Lord Cornbury might have wanted her to learn from her fortuitous escape.

In 1720, she was rearrested for the exact same crime: she’d gotten pregnant out of wedlock again, delivered a live baby and did away with it.

Christiana very nearly got lucky again: her death sentence was suspended and she got a chance to plead her case before New Jersey Supreme Court on May 2, 1721. Today, appeals in capital cases are automatic; in Christiana’s time, this was an unusual and perhaps unprecedented legal maneuver.

Unfortunately, it backfired on her: the prosecution was ready with witnesses who testified about Christiana Bell’s notorious past and her prior conviction and death sentence. This time there would be no reprieve.

The exact date of her execution is not known for certain, but on November 21, 1721, the Gloucester County Board of Freeholders approved funds to reimburse the sheriff for expenses he’d incurred in hanging her.

See Legal Executions in New Jersey: A Comprehensive Registry, 1691-1963.

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1895: Jesus Vialpando and Feliciano Chavez, desperados

3 comments November 19th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1895, two outlaws hanged publicly at Las Vegas, New Mexico, for killing a rancher during a raid on his cattle earlier that year.

We will come soon enough to Jesus Vialpando and Feliciano Chavez, but their story and ours properly begins a bit earlier … with a gentleman named Vicente Silva.

From the San Francisco Call, July 3, 1898 (via)

Silva had struck silver and cashed his claim in for the proprietorship of a saloon in Las Vegas, NM where he tolled the vices of later prospectors and of the ranchers and herders who peopled the area.

In the 1880s the deposits were drying up and with them the tumblers at Silva’s well. Ever the enterprising businessman, he procured a remote ranch to use as the base for a fresh initiative: running by night a secretive gang that terrorized San Miguel county and neighboring Guadlupe, Mora, and Santa Fe counties, too. For a couple of years these villains had the run of unsettled territory’s rural places, and waylaid travelers or rustled livestock with near impunity — murdering when necessary and even brazenly “disappearing” some ranchers known to be too vigorous about defending themselves.

The Silva gang came unglued in the winter of 1892-93. Suspecting one of its number of preparing to expose him, Silva ordered the man done to death — and Pat Maes was efficiently lynched to a bridge in a driving snowstorm. Silva himself fled his legitimate persona in Las Vegas and embraced outlawry as a fugitive in the bush.

Having already proven his willingness to slay his own followers, Silva soon had to go even farther than that: in February 1893 he demanded that his cronies murder his (Silva’s) wife, and the wife’s brother — again for fear of betrayal. The men so tasked did carry out their orders, but, wary of the Robespierrian trend betokened by these purges, they also took the opportunity to murder Silva himself.

That scattered his associated desperadoes to the desert winds. Pursued by rewards on their heads — and no longer in mortal terror of the chief’s vengeance should they turn stool pigeon on their former mates to collect — many of the gangsters were rounded up in the years to come.

Our two characters, Vialpando and Chavez, numbered among Silva’s dispersed marauders and had managed to escape the most recent instance of a tattling comrade. Come the winter of 1894-95, two years on from Silva’s exit stage 6 feet under, these ex-henchmen still had their former liberty … and none of their former ease.

Staggering through another blizzard like the one that had fallen on poor Pat Maes so many moons before, they* came upon Lorenzo Martinez’s land and trespassed with famished gusto. They had soon made of one of Martinez’s cows a much-needed repast, but as they huddled around a fire to devour it in warmth, the rancher’s son Tomas arrived on the scene. Who knows but with what suspicion these parties eyed one another, and what guarded words they exchanged. Later Vialpando would explain through an interpreter that, catching glimpse of the man’s cartridge belt “I became afraid of him that he might be the owner of that animal that we had killed there,” and with familiar glances to Feliciano made a silent impromptu pact to kill Martinez before the rancher got a drop on them.

Four days later, Martinez’s faithful dog Gallardo — whom the raiders had also shot, but not managed to kill — turned up back at the family homestead half-frozen and matted in its own blood and all but dragged Martinez’s brother to the spot where Tomas’s cremated remains mingled with the carcass of the dead cow. The discovery was quick enough to put authorities on the right track, and they had Vialpando and Chavez in custody within a fortnight.

They offered only a feeble attempt at spinning the admitted homicide as “self-defense”. At the prisoners’ request, Governor William Thornton met personally with them in jail a few days before their hanging, where the doomed men begged for mercy “without pretending to give any reason why he should” grant it. (New Mexican, Nov. 14, 1895)

Around 6 o’clock on the morning of November 19, Vialpando was escorted alone to a one-man public gallows at an arroyo north of town. Wan and terrified, Vialpando had all he could do to keep his composure and made no statement before he was efficiently executed.

By 7 o’clock the sheriff’s party had returned to the jail for Chavez. Less unmanned by the occasion, Chavez had a rambling 18-minute address to the crowd from the gallows, translated on the fly from his Spanish by a handy interpreter, the substance of which was to vaguely distribute among the rest of his party enough responsibility for Martinez’s murder that he could complain about taking the punishment for it. At last, with the parting cry of “Adios, todos!”, Chavez too was hanged at 8 o’clock.

The men’s bodies were shipped a few miles down the way to their families in Romeroville, along with a few dollars in nickels they had accumulated from well-wishers while awaiting execution. A public subscription covered the cost of their burial.

* The party was four in all. Zenobia Trujillo and Emilio Encinias were present when Martinez found their party but were sent away before he was murdered; they were charged as accessories after the fact.

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1939: Nelson Charles

Add comment November 10th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1939, Nelson Charles hanged for stabbing his mother-in-law to death in a drunken altercation.

Charles, an indigenous man and World War I veteran, was described by a retired U.S. Marshal who knew him as ” quiet, peaceful and polite person and I have never known him to even have an argument or get into trouble of any kind” — that is, when not drinking. Alas, both he and the victim, 58-year-old Cecilia Johnson, had an affinity for the stuff.

Though Charles committed this murder in “Indian Town” of segregated Ketchikan, Alaska, he hanged in the territorial capital of Juneau.

This was Juneau’s very first execution (previous Alaskan executions had occurred in Nome, Sitka, and Fairbanks), and the improvised gallows arrangement tucked into a stairwell pit under the outside staircase of the town prison is something to read about. One can do that in this here article of the Alaska Justice Forum.

The University of Alaska Anchorage also has a very moving essay written by the then-21-year-old cub reporter who was one of the dozen official witnesses:

Men have been stricken with fatal diseases and we have known they would die. We have held our buddies in our arms at the front and watched the last breaths spend themselves. But even then there had been hope, and when not hope, the awareness that death might stay away awhile. But none of that now; nothing less than a miracle could save this fellow and there are no miracles in this life. Soon he would be a stone.

From under his vest the marshal brought out the black hood. With the deputy standing on the other side, assisting him, he began to draw the thing onto the man’s head. I had not felt too bad until the priest had appeared in his long, black robes; I had seen those robes and tears had come. Nothing like tears came now, but still I hated the black, hated the hood. Take it easy now, you fool, I thought to myself. Look away for a few seconds. So I dropped my eyes and looked into the pit; then up again. They were having trouble with the hood. It was too small. Halfway on, its edge caught onto the man’s right ear.

“Fix my ear,” he said quietly. His last words. Like a small boy who is about to be punished and, with a half-sob, begs his parent to be careful not to break the toy in his pocket.

Read the rest of it here.

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1864: Four Confederate soldiers, under Burbridge’s Order 59

1 comment November 5th, 2014 Headsman

The Martyrs Monument of Midway, Ky., honors four Confederates publicly executed by the Union one hundred fifty years ago today.

A brutally contested frontier zone between North and South, Kentucky at this point was under martial law, governed by General Stephen Burbridge — but nearly anarchic on the ground in some areas.

In an effort to quell the activities of Confederate guerrillas-slash-outlaws, Burbridge issued a still-notorious directive called Order 59: Citing the “rapid increase in this district of lawless bands of armed men,” the order threatened to expel Southern sympathizers and seize their property. Moreover, it warned: “Whenever an unarmed Union citizen is murdered, four guerrillas will be selected from the prison and publicly shot to death at the most convenient place near the scene of the outrages.”

The outrages in question for this occasion were raids on Midway horse farms* (allegedly led by “Sue Mundy”) that, on November 1, resulted in a shootout fatal to one Adam Harper Jr.

Agreeably to Order 59, Burbridge had four of his prisoners — men with no specific connection to Harper’s death — shot on the town’s commons, forcing the local populace to attend the scene.

Rest
Soldiers
Rest
Thy
Warfare
Oe’r [sic?]

M. Jackson
J. Jackson
C. Rigsner
N. Adams

Shot by order of
Genl. Burbridge
Nov. 5 1864
In retaliation

Our Confederate Dead

Burbridge would be dismissed, and his Order 59 revoked, early the next year. “Thank God and President Lincoln,” was the reaction of the Louisville Journal.

Three other similar monuments in Kentucky (in Eminence, Jeffersontown, and St. Joseph) honor other soldiers executed under Burbridge’s retaliation policy.

* Midway knows from horses.

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1881: A day in the death penalty around the U.S.

1 comment November 4th, 2014 Headsman

Three murderers’ coincidental hanging dates on November 4, 1881, were reported by the next day’s issue of the New York Herald. We reproduce all three bulletins below, verbatim save added line breaks to aid readability.

Whiteville, N.C., Nov. 4, 1881

Henry Lovett, colored, to-day suffered the extreme penalty of the law for the murder of Archelaus P. Williams, who was also colored.

The doomed man slept quietly last night and ate a hearty breakfast this morning. The Rev. H. Gore, colored, of the Missionary Baptist Church, who had attended the malefactor on several occasions and officiated with him to the last moment, states that Lovett professed himself as willing to die. His demeanor this morning was calm and collected and he bade goodby to the sheriff, jailer and others in attendance with perfect composure.

At half-past eleven o’clock this forenoon he was taken from the jail to the gallows, which was erected in the jail yard. He mounted the scaffold with a firm step, attended by the jailer, sheriff and clergyman.

PRAYING ON THE SCAFFOLD.

The execution being public, the yard and surrounding grounds were packed with an eager populace anxious to witness a spectacle seldom seen in the county of Columbus.

Religious services were held upon the scaffold, in which Lovett joined with fervor.

At the conclusion of the devotions the Sheriff adjusted the rope, and at ten minutes past twelve the drop fell. At the expiration of fifteen minutes the physicians in attendance pronounced Lovett dead. He died with scarcely a struggle, the neck being dislocated by the fall. After remaining suspended for twenty minutes the body was cut down and taken to the public burial ground for interment.

STORY OF THE CRIME.

The murder of Williams by Lovett was committed at a place known at Williamson’s Cross Roads, in Tatums township, in this county, on the 19th of July, 1880.

The parties had always been on friendly terms, but upon the day of the murder, both men being intoxicated, some misunderstanding had arisen between them, during which Williams picked up a rock to throw it at Lovett, who had drawn a pocket knife. High words and threats passed between them, but finally apparent peace was restored and Williams threw down the rock in token of amity.

Lovett then approached him, and putting his arm around Williams’ neck said, “There is no trouble, Ned (a name by which the latter was usually known), between us,” and they walked off together in seeming good friendship, when a blow was heard and Williams exclaimed, “I’m a dead man without a cause!”

At the same instant Lovett was seen by one of the bystanders to draw a knife from the neck of his victim.

Some of those present immediately secured Lovett, while others hastened to the assistance of the wounded man. The former made no effort to escape, nor did he attempt to resist arrest.

Medical attendance was very promptly on hand, and it was found that the jugular vein was partially severed and the throat and windpipe badly cut. Williams, however, lived twenty-four hours after receiving the fatal wound.

He was about fifty-five years of age, and left a wife and several children. He was generally a peacable man, but at times, especially when partially intoxicated, was inclined to be quarrelsome.

TRIAL AND CONVICTION.

At the fall term of the Superior Court of Columbus county last year the Grand Jury found a true bill against Lovett, and he was duly arraigned for trial.

As the prisoner was entirely without means the Court assigned counsel to defend him. Upon affidavit being made that the prisoner was not prepared for trial the case was continued until the spring term of 1881, at which the prisoner’s counsel asked for a further continuance to enable them to secure important witnesses, and upon affidavit made to that effect the request was granted.

At the fall term, which convened at Whiteville, September 19, 1881, Judge Jesse F. Graves, presiding, Lovett was brought to trial, and after a fair and impartial hearing, an able defence by his counsel and an exhaustive charge by the court, the jury rendered a verdict of “guilty of murder in the first degree.”

A motion was made for a new trial upon the ground that no malice had been shown upon the part of the defendant, but it was overruled. The court then pronounced sentence of death upon the prisoner.

INDIFFERENCE TO HIS FATE.

Lovett received the sentence with stolid indifference, apparently without remorse for the fearful crime he had committed or solicitude for the awful fate which awaited him.

This utter disregard of the past or future he has as a rule maintained ever since. Spiritual consolation has been offered him through the ministrations of a Baptist (white) clergyman and also by two colored ministers of the same denomination, but he paid little attention to any of them, although his conduct has been quiet, peacable and orderly during his long confinement.

He claimed to be but twenty-one years of age, although his appearance would indicate that he was at least four years old. He also claimed to have had no recollection of the events of that fatal day.

Lovett was a full black, about five feet and five inches in height, and his status as a colored man was considerably below the average of intelligence among those people. He was unmarried.


Plattsburg, N.Y., Nov. 4, 1881

Henry King was executed here to-day for the murder of Michael Hamilton at the State Prison, at Clinton, on July 13, in which both men were convicts.

Both were New York burglars, who had been drafted from Sing Sing Prison. King was serving a life term for killing Police Sergeant McGiven, of New York. He had been very quiet and penitent in the jail and attended strictly to the religious advice given him by Father Walsh.

The arrangements for the execution were carefully made by Sheriff Mooney, the gallows being placed in the rear yard of the jail.

At thirty-six minutes after eleven o’clock the Sheriff and deputies, two medical men and representatives of the press took their places.

The warrant had been previously read in the cell. The condemned man walked unpinioned, with a determined air to his fate, behind Fathers Walsh and Carroll, who were reciting the offices of the Church. King spoke briefly, thanking the Sheriff and his deputies for their kindness, and saying that he had hopes of God’s forgiveness.

DEATH BY STRANGULATION.

The rope and cap having been adjusted by Sheriff Mooney, that official stepped behind a screen, and at seventeen minutes to twelve the body of King sprang upward and was dangling in the air four feet from the ground.

The knot having slipped to the front the neck was not broke and death ensued by strangulation.

After a lapse of three minutes no pulse could be felt at the wrist, but it was still eighty at the heart. At twelve o’clock it was gone and he was declared dead by the doctors. Seven minutes later the body was lowered, placed in a coffin and given to his mother and brother, who had come up from New York last Tuesday for that purpose.

The remains were taken to St. John’s Church, where a funeral mass was recited, and at two o’clock they were buried in the village cemetery.

DETAILS OF THE TRAGEDY.

On the 10th of August, 1876, Henry King was sentenced to serve a life term in Dannemora Prion for murdering Sergeant James McGiven, of New York.

A short time after the shooting of President Garfield, King and another convict named Hamilton, got into a quarrel regarding the character of Vice President Arthur and his fitness to administer the affairs of the nation in the event of President Garfield’s death and Arthur’s succession to the Presidency.

Hamilton made some remark which was not complimentary to Arthur, whereupon King struck his brother convict two blows on the head with an axe, killing him instantly.

King was tried on the charge of murder, at the Circuit Court in session at Plattsburgh, on September 14, Judge Landon presiding.

Three witneses were sworn for the prosecution — the prison physician, a cook and one of the keepers. No evidence was introduced on behalf of the prisoner. The taking of testimony occupied about one hour and a half, when the jury retired. After an absence of about two hours it returned and requested the Judge to explain the legal difference between murder in the first and second degrees.

EXTRAORDINARY SCENE IN COURT.

Judge Landon was about to reply, when the prisoner arose to his feet and said: — “Your Honor and gentlemen of the jury, this was not a murder in the second degree. It was a deliberate and premeditated murder. I know that I have done wrong, that I ought to confess the truth and that I ought to be hanged.”

Here the prisoner’ counsel tried in vain to silence him.

“No,” continued King.

I have done wrong. It is my duty to confess it, and I cannot help doing so. I cannot keep still. I plead guilty to murder in the first degree. It was fifteen minutes from the time I struck the first blow with the axe until I struck him the second time, and all this time I kept thinking, ‘I will finish this man.’ If this is not premeditated murder what is it? I have already killed two men. What is my life to me? The life of either of these two men whom I have killed is worth a dozen of mine.

THE DEATH SENTENCE.

The prisoner then sat down, whereupon the Judge informed the jury that in view of the prisoner’s admission that the murder was premeditated there was no necessity for any further explanation of the law upon his part.

The jury thereupon retired and very soon came back with a verdict of guilty. In reply to the question as to whether he had anything to say why the sentence of death should not be passed upon him King replied: — “Nothing, sir; the sentence is a just one. I ought to be hanged.”

KING’S RECORD IN NEW YORK.

Policeman Patrick Kennedy, of the City Hall police, said yesterday: —

I arrested King immediately after his stabbing poor McGiven. King had a watch and chain in one hand and an open knife in the other.

As soon as McGiven was wounded he released his hold of the thief, who had thus become a murderer, and cried out ‘I am stabbed!’ Just as this occurred I arrived at the scene and seized the murderer.

McGiven said, ‘Look out for him; he has a knife.’ With some difficulty I succeeded in disarming King, not, however, before he informed me that if he had his pistol with him he would ‘fix’ me.

I subsequently learned that King was one of the worst characters in a locality notorious for crime — viz., from Twelfth to Forty-Second Street, east of First Avenue. He was always ready, for anything in the way of crime, being what is known as a ‘general thief,’ having no particular specialty, but adopting sneak thieving, burglary or highway robbery as occasion offered.

He lived with his mother and brother in Nineteenth street, between First Avenue and Avenue A, and was well known to the police as one of the most desperate characters in the Eighteenth Ward.

He had the most violent temper that ever man was cursed with. He would stop at nothing to injure any one who interfered with or thwarted him.

Since he has been in prison I have ascertained that he wrote letters to this city, in which he expressed the intention, if ever he got out, to put an end to my life. Some idea of the man may be formed from his statement only a day or two ago that he does not want to live, as if he were to obtain his liberty he might commit other murders.


Jonesborough, Ga., Nov. 4, 1881

Tom Betts, colored, was hanged here to-day for the murder of Judge H. Moore, last fall.

Betts was taken from jail at 12 o’clock by the Sheriff under a guard of seventy men and carried to the gallows, which was erected a mile from the town.

The condemned man made a speech confessing his crime and expressing the belief that he would be saved. The drop fell at 1:01 o’clock and death resulted in seven minutes from strangulation.

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1817: Maggie Houghtaling

Add comment October 17th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1817, Maggie Houghtaling (alias Peggy Densmore) was hanged in Hudson, N.Y. for infanticide.

Houghtaling lived with the mother of 15-month-old Lewis Spencer. One awful day in August — just eight weeks before the consequent execution — the mother popped out of the house a few moments and left Lewis gnawing on a piece of bread under her roommate’s care.

When the mother returned, she found the child “apparently in convulsions, its tongue protruded from the mouth, and covered with erosions — the inside of the mouth corrugated, and all the shocking symptons which may be supposed to follow from a potion so horrid.” The potion referred to in this account of the New York Evening Post (September 23, 1817): vitriol, also known as sulfuric acid. It’ll do a number on you.

The self-evident inference was that his babysitter had poisoned the kid — an inference the mother made immediately and that Maggie Houghtaling vainly sought to repel all the way to the rope.*

Hudson’s Northern Whig reported a heavily-attended (five to ten to even fifteen thousand souls, by various estimates) but orderly scene and “the ceremonies of the day … conducted with great propriety.” Houghtaling herself was composed and even indifferent** riding a horse-drawn cart with a halter around her neck to a scaffold erected on the pastures north of State Street.†

Houghtaling made one last assertion of her innocence under the gallows, despite the overwhelming confidence her contemporaries had in her guilt. “Such declarations,” sniffed the Otsego Herald (Oct. 30, 1817) “after a fair and impartial trial, and from her incredibility of character, were not entitled to consideration, and made but little impression in her favor.”

Then she swung.


Many, many years later, as the Empire State prepared to execute Roxalana Druse — the very last woman put to death by hanging in New York — one of the numerous pamphlets published in the hope of sparing Ms. Druse curiously resuscitated the Houghtaling hanging.

Mrs. Druse’s case and Maggie Houghtaling: An innocent woman hanged claims that the secret of the crime was revealed to its writer by “a tall, handsome lady of middle age and most refined manner” who had “befriended Peggy, when that unfortunate young woman was being tried and she was the last one who prayed in her cell with her before she was led out for execution.” Since Roxalana Druse was hanged seventy years after our Ms. Houghtaling, this refined Samaritan must have discovered the font of middle age.

There is no evidence I have been able to locate of the manipulative story purportedly related surfacing in any official fashion to exonerate Maggie Houghtaling (or “Peggy Houghtaling”, here). But doubts aside — and we must allow that the incendiary domestic murder of a child has been known to railroad a body now and again — this qualifies at the very least as intriguing folklore: the young woman publicly executed over her protestations of innocence still maintained a purchase on the public conscience seven decades after her death.

In agony she [Houghtaling] begged for her life to be at least spared till she had an opportunity to prove her innocence. But, no, there was no mercy for her as the case was a most revoltingly brutal one, and the wretched woman was strung up like a dog six weeks [sic] after the murder, protesting with her last breath:

God forgive you all for hanging me; but I am innocent, and my only prayer is that some day it may be proved and the black spot taken off my name and memory.

That some day did not come for seveal years, and then the real murderess was found. She had been a rival of poor Peggy’s in the affections of the same man, and was “cut out” as she called it, by Peggy. In her disappointment and rage she resolved on revenge, but buried it in her heart, and appeared very friendly and indifferent on the surface. At last she got her opportunity, and she cold-bloodedly murdered Peggy’s child. [sic] Her devilish plot had been laid with the most consummat skill, in such a way that suspicion was thrown upon the mother, who accordingly was arrested. The public mind was aroused to the highest point of excitement, most especially by the testimony of this very witness, given on the stand amidst a flow of crocodile tears, and apparently with great reluctance. Her revenge was thus complete; but as he always does, the devil sowed in her bosom the little black seed of remorse, and it sprouted and grew, and spread, until she was the most unhappy wretch in existence. At night the ghosts of her two victims came to her in her sleep, and she would wake up screaming with terror and in daytime her imagination brought them before her, at times so vividly that she would fall in fits.

After enduring a lifetime’s pangs of remorse, the “real murderess” (never named) at last expires

in convulsions on the bed, screaming, clasping her hands, tearing at her throat, and crying out:

“I am lost! I’m lost, forever! There is no forgiveness! none! none!”

In the midst of one of these awful paroxysms the guilty wretch suddenly expired, and her soul stood in the presence of her Maker, to answer for the hideous crime she had committed on earth.

* Maggie Houghtaling was prosecuted by District Attorney Moses I. Cantine with the assistance of his brother-in-law, who just happened to be the state Attorney General: future U.S. President Martin Van Buren. (Evening Post, Sept. 23, 1817)

** By the conventions of the execution bulletin, condemned prisoners are remarked “indifferent” when their composure exceeds the reporter’s own.

† I have no idea whether it actually relates to this date’s events but one would be remiss not to mention that the next lane north of State Street in Hudson is something called Rope Alley.

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1935: George Criner, “anything can happen to anybody”

3 comments October 16th, 2014 Robert Elder

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

“A few minutes before this happened if anyone had told me that I would be here, I would have said they were crazy. But remember, anything can happen to anybody. You can walk out on the street and die of heart trouble. Or you can go out on the street and get run over. I think that will be all.”

-George Criner, convicted of murder, hanging, Montana. Executed October 16, 1935

Criner came home very drunk one night and tried to take his girlfriend’s diamond ring. She refused to let him, and he beat her with an iron poker and cut her with a pocketknife, then shot the police officer who tried to intervene. At the preliminary hearing, Criner said that he very much wished he hadn’t been there.

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1760: John Bruleman, weary of life

Add comment October 8th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1760,* silversmith and murderer John Bruleman (sometimes given as Bruelman or Bruellman) was hanged by his own wish. “Weary of life,” he “had committed the crime to escape from the toils and troubles of the world.”

The Boston Evening-Post of Nov. 3, 1760 records of the tragedy (line breaks have been added for readability):

PHILADELPHIA, Octob. 16.

John Bruleman, who was executed here the 8th inst. for the murder of Mr. Scull, had been an officer in the Royal American regiment; but being detected in counterfeiting, or uttering counterfeit money, was discharged: He then returned hither, and growing insupportable to himself, and yet being unwilling to put an end to his own life, he determined upon the commission of some crime, for which he might get hang’d by the law.

Having formed this design, he loaded his gun with a brace of balls, and ask’d his landlord to go a shooting with him, intending to murder him before his return, but his landlord not choosing to go escaped the danger.

He then went out alone, and on the way met a man, whom he was about to kill, but recollecting that there was no witnesses to prove him guilty, he let the man pass.

He then went to a public house, where he drank some liquor, and hearing people at play at billiards, in a room above stairs; he went up and sat with them, and was talkative, facetious, and good-humour’d; after some time, he called to the landlord, and desired him to hand up the gun. Mr Scull, who was at play, having struck his antagonist’s ball into one of the pockets, Bruleman said to him, — “Sir you are a good marks-man, — and now I’ll show you a fine stroke.”

He immediately levell’d his piece, and took aim at Mr. Scull (who imagined him in jest) and shot both balls thro’ his body. — He then went up to Mr. Scull (who did not expire nor lose his senses, till a considerable time after) and said to him, — “Sir, I had no malice nor ill-will against you, I never saw you before, but I was determined to kill somebody, that might be hanged, and you happen to be the man, and as you are a very likely young man, I am sorry for your misfortune.”

Advertisement in the Pennsylvania Journal, Oct. 2, 1760

Mr. Scull had time to send for his friends, and to make his will. He forgave his murderer, and if it could be done, desired he might be pardoned.

Bruleman did not think it worth his while to prepare for another world, notwithstanding sundry clergymen were continually soliciting him thereto; and would ot forgive his enemies, saying he left them to the mercy of the Almighty.

* Oct. 22 is a widely-cited date; however, it is unambiguously incorrect per the contemporary newspaper reports. It probably traces to the date (mis)reported in the Espy file of historical American executions.

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1998: Jonathan Wayne Nobles

2 comments October 7th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1998, Jonathan Nobles was executed in Texas for a double murder — choked off by the lethal drugs as he sang the words “…sweetmother and child” in the Christmas hymn “Silent Night”.

On parole for theft, the drug-addled former electrician Nobles broke into an Austin home on September 13, 1986 wielding a 5.5-inch knife and turned it into a scene of carnage.

Nobles knifed to death two young women, 21-year-old Mitzi Nalley and 24-year-old Kelly Farquhar; when Mitzi’s boyfriend, Ron Ross, attempted to come to their aid, Nobles stabbed him 19 times. Ross survived but lost an eye in the attack.

Nobles confessed and was convicted with ease. This is very obviously not a happy story (few are, on this here site) because two innocent humans were destroyed in the bloom of youth, and a third paid for the crime with his own life. But the journey of redemption and forgiveness undertaken thereafter by both Nobles and at least some of those whose lives he devastated cannot help but inspire.*

The Nobles of death row — the man who was finally executed, 12 years after the crime — was at the last a hard man to hate. He converted on death row to Catholicism, eventually becoming a lay preacher. Murder, of course, is such a great crime because in the end the loss is eternal and can never really be repaired or compensated. Nevertheless, it was clear to all those who knew him that Nobles’s remorse, his change, was deep and genuine.

“I don’t think I’m the monster who perpetrated these terrible acts,” Nobles said not long before his execution. “Nothing I can do for a thousand years can relieve me of my responsibility.”

Mitzi Nalley’s mother, Paula Kurland, made an even more dramatic journey from the other side of that horrible night in Austin. Kurland decided that she needed to forgive her daughter’s killer in order to release the bitterness of his crime.

“You forgive because it frees you,” she said. “Hopefully, one day, it will free the offender, but that’s not the reason you do it. You do it because it frees you.”

Kurland eventually met Nobles face to face — “the hardest thing I ever did, second only to burying my child.”

I went against my whole family, but I knew that if I didn’t tell Jonathan I had forgiven him, I would be a prisoner for the rest of my life. And I couldn’t live with that. …

I never wanted to ask him why. That was never important to me. What was important was that I have the opportunity to give him back the responsibility for the devastation and pain and destruction that he brought into a lot of people’s lives.

The singer-songwriter (and longtime anti-death penalty activist) Steve Earle, who befriended Nobles, was one of the witnesses to his execution.** Earle quoted his friend’s last statement, addressing most of those present by name, thus:

I know some of you won’t believe me, but I am truly sorry for what I have done. I wish that I could undo what happened back then and bring back your loved ones, but I can’t. [to Paula Kurland] I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I wish I could bring her back to you. [to Ron Ross] And Ron … I took so much from you. I’m sorry. I know you probably don’t want my love, but you have it.

[to Steve Earle] Steve, I can’t believe that I had to go through all this to see you in a suit coat. Hey man, don’t worry about the phone number, bro. You’ve done so much. I love you. [to his own aunt] Dona, thank you for being here. I know it was hard for you. I love you. [to a British pen pal] Pam, thank you for coming from so far away. Thanks for all you have done. I love you. Bishop Carmody, thank you so much. Reverend Lopez and you, Father Walsh, I love you all. I have something I want to say. It comes from I Corinthians. …

The verse he then recited from memory, the “love is …” passage of 1 Corinthians 13, is all that’s reported on Texas’s “last statements” website.

Earle’s song “Over Yonder (Jonathan’s Song)” is inspired by Jonathan Nobles.

* These attempts by both offender and victim to alleviate the spiritual injury inflicted by the crime exemplify restorative justice, an approach to crime and justice that emphasizes healing over punishment.

** “I don’t think I’ll ever recover from [seeing Nobles executed]. I have absolute waking nightmares about it.” -Earle

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1829: George Swearingen, Maryland sheriff

Add comment October 2nd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1829, George Swearingen, late the sheriff of Washington County, Md., was hanged for murder.

Swearingen murdered his wife after he became infatuated with a woman of ill repute. To savor this tawdry tale, we’re going to reprise our periodic endorsements of our friend (and occasional guest-blogger) Robert Wilhelm at Murder by Gaslight.

Here are a few morsels from the fall of George Swearingen to whet the appetite:

Mary was away from her marital duties for at least six months and George had to find other ways to meet his needs. In his words, “I occasionally visited those houses of libertinism and chambering, which, Solomon declares to be ‘the way to hell leading down to the chambers of death.’

Hmm.

One night he caught her in an amorous embrace with another young man, a Mr. G—. As a result, the two men fought a duel. Orlando Haverley was killed, and Rachel went to live with the victor.

And then there’s this Huck Finn interlude.

George and Rachel both fled Maryland; first travelling together, then separating, planning to meet in New Orleans. Rachel, travelling by steamboat, probably passed George who, travelling under the name Martin, was floating down the Mississippi in a flatboat.

And competing interpretations of troubling forensic evidence.

Swearingen’s defense attorney, John L. M’Mahon explained that Mary had suffered from “leuco phlegmatic temperament” which made her liable to spontaneous uterine hemorrhaging. Her doctor had advised her to refrain from sex — explaining why George strayed in the first place. The condition also explained why she appeared to have been raped before death. For good measure, he speculated that Charity Johnson had attacked the body with a broomstick to implicate Swearingen as a rapist.

Read the whole thing here.

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