Posts filed under 'USA'

1982: Charles Brooks, Jr., the first by lethal injection

Add comment December 7th, 2018 Headsman

Besides being Pearl Harbor Day and Noam Chomsky Day, December 7 is a black-letter anniversary for capital punishment as the date in 1982 when the United States first executed a prisoner by means of lethal injection.

Charles Brooks, Jr. — who had by the time of his death converted to Islam and started going by Shareef Ahmad Abdul-Rahim — suffered the punishment in Texas for abducting and murdering a car lot mechanic. With an accomplice,* he had feigned interest in a test drive in order to steal the car, stuffing the mechanic in the trunk and then shooting him dead in a hotel room.

The “modern” U.S. death penalty era had just dawned with 1976’s Gregg v. Georgia decision affirming new procedures meant to reduce systemic arbitrariness — and the machinery was reawakening after a decade’s abeyance.

In the wake of the circus atmosphere surrounding the January 1977 firing squad execution of Gary Gilmore, the laboratories of democracy started casting about for killing technologies that were a little bit less … appalling.

“We had discussed what happened to Gary Gilmore,” former Oklahoma chief medical examiner Jay Chapman later recalled. “At that time we put animals to death more humanely than we did human beings — so the idea of using medical drugs seemed a much better alternative.”

This was not actually a new idea: proposals for a medicalized execution process had been floated as far back as the 1880s, when New York instead opted for a more Frankenstein vibe by inventing the electric chair. And the Third Reich ran a wholesale euthanasia program based on lethal injections.

But 1977 was the year that lethal injection was officially adopted as the lynchpin method for regular judicial executions. It happened in Oklahoma, and Chapman’s three-drug protocol — sodium thiopental (an anaesthetic), followed by pancuronium bromide (to stop breathing) and potassium chloride (to stop the heart) — became the standard execution procedure swiftly taken up by numerous other U.S. states in the ensuing years. As years have gone by, Chapman’s procedure has come under fire and supply bottlenecks have led various states to experiment with different drug cocktails; all the same, nearly 90% of modern U.S. executions have run through the needle.*

Texas was one early adopter, rolling in the gurney to displace its half-century-old electric chair. Its debut with Charlie Brooks was also Texas’s debut on the modern execution scene, and both novelties have had a lot of staying power since: every one of Texas’s many executions in the years since — 557 executions over 36 years as of this writing — has employed lethal injection.

* For up-to-date figures, check the Death Penalty Information Center’s executions database.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Lethal Injection,Milestones,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Texas,Theft,USA

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1787: John Bly and Charles Rose, Shaysites

Add comment December 6th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1787, the only two men to hang for the infant American republic’s seminal post-independence rebellion went to the gallows at Lenox, Massachusetts.

The newborn United States emerged from the American Revolution (1776-1783) in a parlous financial condition. Forever short of gold and credit, it had paid George Washington’s Continental Army in worthless scrip* and promises of goodwill. Instead, many a Cincinnatus returned from Yorktown to discover his debtor farm dunned by creditors and taxmen, as desperate as he for hard currency.

Come 1786, protests against unpayable taxes verged into an outright rural insurrection in western Massachusetts. Known for one of its principals, Daniel Shays — who like so many of his fellows was a Continental Army veteran turned penniless farmer — this rebellion continued for several months and took earnest aim at the hated Massachusetts merchant elites. Some 4,000 “Shaysites” would eventually admit to** taking the field as rebel guerrillas. They mounted an attack on a federal armory, and seized weapons where they could for their own use.

A few books about Shays’s Rebellion

It was this last act which occasions our men’s hangings.

The new American authorities, who had not so many years ago been beckoning this same populace to take up their muskets in revolution, exercised in this moment a brittle authority and they would calculate that the proper balance of due regard for their power without unnecessary resentment entailed only a circumscribed approach.

Instead of charging Shaysites wholesale, most were waved away with a free pardon. And instead of charging treason, the Bay State made its demonstration cases with regular criminal offenses — for burglary when our men John Bly and Charles Rose followed some Shaysite militiaman’s order to confiscate guns and powder from nearby houses. In 1787, that was still a potential hanging offense.

Of course, everyone understood well enough the real offense. On the eve of their executions, someone got the condemned men to sign onto a “Last Words & Dying Speeches” broadsheet with a lesson addressed “To the good People of Massachusetts, more especially to Daniel Shays, and other Officers of the Militia, and the Select men of Towns who have been instrumental in raising the Opposition to the Government of this Commonwealth:”

Our fate is a loud and solemn lesson to you who have excited the people to rise against the Government … Advert to those things — live peaceably with all men — be not too jealous of your Rulers — remember that Government is absolutely necessary to restrain the corrupt passions of men — obey your Honest Governors — be not allured by designing men — pay your honest debts and your reasonable taxes — use your utmost endeavours to give peace to your divided, distracted country …

There was another legacy: the outbreak of Shays’s Rebellion — and the federal government’s impotence to respond to it (it was haltingly suppressed by state militia, with the insurgents at points escaping into New York for breathing room) — helped catalyze the Constitutional Convention from May to September of 1787, and informed its creation of a stronger federal state and of the system of checks upon democratic action that a rebellious populace might wish to undertake.

There’s a podcast episode about Shays’s Rebellion here.

* So widely shunned was the depreciated paper Continental currency issued during the Revolution that the phrase “not worth a Continental” entered the parlance of the times; it was these notes that had been given to revolutionary soldiers by way of aspirational salary like so many stock options from a foundering Silicon Valley startup. In 1791, these Continentals were bought out by the new federal government at one cent on the dollar.

** This census arrives via applications for the free amnesty eventually offered to the Shaysite rank and file.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Massachusetts,Milestones,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Soldiers,Theft,Treason,USA

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1856: Six Tennessee slaves, election panic casualties

Add comment December 4th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1856, the white citixens of Dover, Tennessee hanged at least six black slaves in the midst of a regional panic.

They could well sense, as could all Americans, the hollowing authority of slavery in the 1850s with the Civil War looming ahead in 1861. Conflict over the issue had split the country sectionally over the disposition of the huge territory annexed in the Mexican-American War; the matter came to literal blows on the western frontier in the “Bleeding Kansas” bush war.

On the cultural plane, these are the years that germinated the definitive anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852); on the legal plane, they produced the the notorious pro-slavery Dred Scott Supreme Court case (1857).

And on the political plane, the slavery issue tore apart the old Whig Party — and so the 1856 presidential election for the first time featured the new anti-slavery Republican Party as the chief opposition. The very first Republican presidential nominee, John Fremont, carried 11 states on November 4, 1856: not enough to capture the White House, but enough to put the Slave Power in fear for its human chattel and catalyze, in the weeks surrounding the vote, paranoid reactions in various southerly locales to the effect that Fremont-inspired blacks would be coming to dispossess all the masters.

Now it only takes a glance at Twitter to evidence the capacity of a presidential ballot to dominate the public mind, so there can hardly be doubt that seditious rumors of liberty fell from black lips which had never been so close to tasting emancipation. “Wait till Fremont is elected, and den I guess as how, missess, you will have to dew de pots yourself,” a Memphis kitchen-slave supposedly told her mistress on the eve of the election. (New York Herald, December 11, 1856) The masters too would have spoken of the same topic, but with trepidation; nobody knew but what the future could hold, and words overheard would have worked their way to and fro across the color line to shape hope, terror, anticipation. The newspapers from the last weeks of 1856 have reports of rumored insurrections and white vigilance committees in Missouri, in Texas, in Arkansas, in Louisiana.

As is usual in slave rising panics no firm evidence exists that black plots consisted in this moment of anything more substantial than whispered hopes. Whites in scattered localities saw Nat Turner everywhere — and nowhere was this more the case than in western Tennessee. There, slaves around the Cumberland River were believed to be organizing a Christmas Day rising* to cut their masters’ throats, run amok, and rendezvous with an imagined army of Fremont liberators. One correspondent described for northern papers how

the credulity of these poor people is such that, in the belief of the whites who excite them, they imagine that Col. Fremont, with a large army is awaiting at the mouth of the river Cumberland … Certain slaves are so greatly imbued with this fable, that I have seen them smile while they are being whipped, and have heard them say that ‘Fremont and his men can bear the blows they receive.’ (via the Barre (Mass.) Gazette, Dec. 19, 1956)

Against such hope — more blows. A truly horrifying and widely republished editorial in the Clarksville (Tenn.) Jeffersonian that Dec. 3 proposed an overwhelming bloodletting to crush this prospective jacquerie.

It is useless to shut our eyes and deny the facts, or sneer at the developments which have been made. Every hour multiplies the proof and corroborates previous discoveries. It is no Titus Oates affair, but a solemn, fearful and startling reality, and must be dealt with accordingly.

The crimes contemplated should be atoned for precisely as though those crimes had been attmpted and consummated. Fearful and terrible examples should be made, and if need be, the fagot and the flame should be brought into requisition to show these deluded maniacs the fierceness and the vigor, the swiftness and completeness of the white man’s vengeance. Let a terrible example be made in every neighborhood where the crime can be established, and if necessary let every tree in the country bend with negro meat. Temporizing in such cases as this is utter madness. We must strike terror, and make a lasting impression, for only in such a course can we find the guaranties of future security …

The path of future safety must be wet with the blood of those who have meditated these awful crimes. Misplaced clemency, and we believe that any clemency would be misplaced, may at no distant day bring upon this people, the horrors and the inexpressible crimes which marked the enfranchisement of St. Domingo. While retributive justice, sternly and unbendingly enforced, will certainly remove the cause of the evils we now suffer and prove our sure protection against their repetition in all time to come.

So far as this writer can establish it is not certain how many people overall in Tennessee and throughout the Slave Power met the guns and nooses of white vigilantes, but some of the best-established are a sextet hanged at Dover on December 4, 1856. This town on the Cumberland was roiled by rumors that slaves from nearby communities intended to march, armed, on Dover itself, an idea that seems not much less fanciful than that of deliverance by Fremont; it became thereby an epicenter of the suppression, and favors us from a sea of unreliable timelines and misstated figures with a concrete eyewitness description.

Tuesday morning [sic — the writer means Thursday, Dec. 4, having narrated Wednesday, Dec. 3 immediately prior], I went to Dover, and arrived there about 2 o’clock. The people had hung four negroes at 11 o’clock that morning, and two more then in town to be hung. I got to the place of execution in time to see the last one go off. Of the six that were hung, three had been preachers. They were all proved to be ring-leaders. I learned that the men at the forge were at work whipping the truth out of their negroes, so I rode out there that night, and was up with them all night. I never had such feelings in my life. I saw a list of negroes that had been whipped, and was told what they all had stated, and then I heard the balance examined — some taking five and six hundred lashes before they would tell the tale … One of the negroes at the forge died from whipping that night, several hours after the operation.

We are at work here to-day. We have one negro in chains, and will hang him I think, certain; if the committee will not the community are determined to do it. I think we will have quite an exciting time here before we get through. I have no doubt but that it is a universal thing all over the Southern States, and that every negro fifteen years old, either knows of it or is into it … (Louisville Daily Courier, Dec. 29, 1856)

Two key academic sources on this affair are:

  • Harvey Wish, “The Slave Insurrection Panic of 1856,” The Journal of Southern History, May, 1939
  • Charles Dew, “Black Ironworkers and the Slave Insurrection Panic of 1856,” The Journal of Southern History, August 1975

* Shades of Jamaica.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Lynching,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Power,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,Summary Executions,Tennessee,Torture,Treason,USA

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2009: Bobby Wayne Woods

1 comment December 3rd, 2018 Headsman

Bobby Wayne Woods was executed by lethal injection in Texas on this date in 2009.

A proud bearer of the classic middle name, Woods in 1997 broke into his ex-girlfriend’s home and kidnapped her two children, both of whom he did to what he thought was death. (11-year-old daughter Sarah Patterson, whom Woods also raped, did die; nine-year-old son Cody Patterson survived a savage beating, barely.)*

What distinguished Woods from a run-of-the-mill capital murder was his disputed competency — a product of what Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald aptly termed a “legal grey area.” A landmark 2002 U.S. Supreme Court case, Atkins v. Virginia, bars the execution of mentally disabled prisoners … but punts the definition of this protected class to the very states that are trying to execute them. Ah, federalism.

Woods was a barely-literate middle school dropout with I.Q. test scores ranging from 68 to 80; the commonplace threshold for mental disability is about I.Q. 70. He definitely did the crime, but was he entitled to protection under Atkins?

The case stuck in the judicial craw, scratching a scheduled 2008 execution and resulting in appeals that resolved only half an hour before Woods received the needle. The whole thing was essentially stalemated by dueling experts on retainer who made the arguments you’d expect them to make for their sides. And since the legal standard is whatever Texas feels like enforcing, that means the guy is not disabled.

* The victims’ mother, Schwana Patterson, was convicted of felony child neglect for failing to intervene in the abduction, out of fear of the assailant; she served eight years in prison for this.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Execution,Kidnapping,Lethal Injection,Murder,Rape,Texas,USA

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1884: Howard Sullivan, too leisurely about escaping

Add comment December 2nd, 2018 Headsman

The moral of this story is that when you have the opportunity to break out of death row, don’t dawdle.


Philadelphia Inquirer, Dec. 1, 1884


New York Herald, Dec. 3, 1884

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,Murder,New Jersey,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1857: Two surviving members of the Aiken Party

Add comment November 28th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1857, the Utah Territory finished the extrajudicial executions it had botched three days before.

As we have detailed, Utah’s Mormon authorities had during these months of near-war against federal authorities taken prisoner a party of Californians crossing their territory — the Aiken (or Aikin) Party.

On November 25, four members of that party were murdered by the Mormon guards escorting them out of the state — killings that were quite extrajudicial, but also quite deliberately orchestrated by the stated.

Except, they had only killed two of the four.

Although outnumbered by their attackers and miles from the nearest settlement, somehow two men — perhaps John Aiken and John “Colonel” Eichard or Achard, although we cannot be certain of their identities — survived the bludgeons and staggered, wounded, back to the town of Nephi whose residents could not but take them in: an awkward situation since they still had to be done to death and could not very well be gunned down right there in the town.

We excerpt at length here from J.H. Beadle’s explanatory appendix in the autobiography of frontiersman and confessed Brigham Young hit man Wild Bill Hickman. Beadle was a vituperative anti-Mormon propagandist and his prose runs to the purple, but the core facts of the case are historically well-supported; see David Bigler, “The Aiken Party Executions and the Utah War, 1857-1858,” The Western Historical Quarterly, Winter 2007.

Two died without a struggle. But John Aikin bounded to his feet, but slightly wounded, and sprang into the brush. A shot from the pistol of John Kink laid him senseless. “Colonel” also reached the brush, receiving a shot in the shoulder from Port Rockwell, and believing the whole party had been attacked by banditti, he made his way back to Nephi. “With almost superhuman strength he held out during the twenty-five miles, and the first bright rays of a Utah sun showed the man, who twenty-four hours before had left them handsome and vigorous in the pride of manhood, now ghastly pale and drenched with his own blood, staggering feebly along the streets of Nephi. He reached Bishop Foote’s, and his story elicited a well-feigned horror.

Meanwhile the murderers had gathered up the other three and thrown them into the river, supposing all to be dead. But John Aikin revived and crawled out on the same side, and hiding in the brush, heard these terrible words:

“Are the damned Gentiles all dead, Port?”

“All but one — the son of a b– ran.”

Supposing himself to be meant, Aikin lay still till the Danites left, then, without hat, coat, or boots, on a November night, the ground covered with snow, he set out for Nephi. Who can imagine the feelings of the man? Unlike “Colonel” he knew too well who the murderers were, and believed himself the only survivor. To return to Nephi offered but slight hope, but it was the only hope, and incredible as it may appear he reached it next day. He sank helpless at the door of the first house he reached, but the words he heard infused new life into him. The woman, afterwards a witness, said to him, “Why, another of you ones got away from the robbers, and is at Brother Foote’s.” “Thank God; it is my brother,” he said, and started on. The citizens tell with wonder that he ran the whole distance, his hair clotted with blood, reeling like a drunken man all the way. It was not his brother, but “Colonel.” The meeting of the two at Foote’s was too affecting for language to describe. They fell upon each other’s necks, clasped their blood-spattered arms around each other, and with mingled tears and sobs kissed and embraced as only men can who together have passed through death …

[But] the murderers had returned, and a new plan was concocted. “Colonel” had saved his pistol and Aikin his watch, a gold one, worth at least $250. When ready to leave they asked the bill, and were informed it was $30. They promised to send it from the city, and were told that “would not do.” Aikin then said, “Here is my watch and my partner’s pistol — take your choice.” Foote took the pistol. When he handed it to him, Aikin said, “There, take my best friend. But God knows it will do us no good.” Then to his partner, with tears streaming from his eyes, “Prepare for death. Colonel, we will never get out of this valley alive.”

According to the main witness, a woman of Nephi, all regarded them as doomed. They had got four miles on the road, when their driver, a Mormon named [Absalom] Woolf,* stopped the wagon near an old cabin; informed them he must water his horses; unhitched them, and moved away. Two men then stepped from the cabin, and fired with double-barreled guns; Aiken and “Colonel” were both shot through the head, and fell dead from the wagon. Their bodies were then loaded with stone and put in one of those “bottomless springs” — so called — common in that part of Utah.

I passed the place in 1869, and heard from a native the whispered rumors about “some bad men that were sunk in that spring.” The scenery would seem to shut out all idea of crime, and irresistibly awaken thoughts of heaven. The soft air of Utah is around; above the blue sky smiles as if it were impossible there could be such things as sin or crime; and the neat village of Nephi brightens the plain, as innocently fair as if it had not witnessed a crime as black and dastardly as ever disgraced the annals of the civilized world.

* Grandfather of jockey George Woolf, who rode Seabiscuit to a famous victory over Triple Crown winner War Admiral in 1938.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",Businessmen,Espionage,Execution,Executions Survived,History,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Shot,Summary Executions,USA,Utah

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1943: Floyd McKinney

Add comment November 27th, 2018 Headsman

Nevada executed Floyd McKinney in its gas chamber on this date in 1943.

McKinney had caught a ride westward across the state on Highway 50 with 2nd Lt. Raymond Fisher and his wife.

Somewhere around Sand Springs, McKinney murdered Lt. Kinney with some sort of bludgeon, like a car jack, and shot Mrs. Fisher.

No motive was ever established, it might have been pecuniary since McKinney subsequently sold the Fishers’ car in Reno for $650.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Gassed,Murder,Nevada,USA

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1857: Two members of the Aiken Party

Add comment November 25th, 2018 Headsman

The first “executions” meted out by Mormon captors to the Aiken or Aikin Party men who were attempting to cross the war-footing territory eastward from California took place on November 25, 1857, and were as clumsy as they were brutal.

Under the pretext of escorting them out of the state, Thomas Aiken, John Aiken, John “Colonel” Eichard, and Andrew Jackson “Honesty” Jones reached the small settlement of Salt Creek, Utah, on November 24. They had their least peaceful sleep there that night while their guides, acting on orders from the top of the state’s hierarchy, planned their murders.

Four toughs dispatched by Bishop Jacob Bigler slipped out of Nephi before dawn the next day. They’d ride on ahead, and later that evening “accidentally” meet the southbound Aiken men and their escorts, presenting themselves as a chance encounter on the trails to share a camp that night. These toughs plus the escorts gave the Mormons an 8-to-4 advantage on their prisoners, which was still only good enough to kill 2-of-4 when the time came:

David Bigler’s 2007 Western Historical Quarterly article, “The Aiken Party Executions and the Utah War, 1857-1858.”

After supper, the newcomers sat around the fire singing. “Each assassin had selected his man. At a signal from [Porter] Rockwell, [the] four men drew a bar of iron each from his sleeve and struck his victim on the head. Collett did not stun his man and was getting worsted. Rockwell fired across the camp fire and wounded the man in the back. Two escaped and got back to Salt Creek.”

We don’t actually know which two died at the camp and which two made it back to Salt Creek. Bigler suspects Thomas Aiken and John Eichard were the victims to die on the 25th; the editors of Mormon assassin Bill Hickman‘s confessional autobiography make it Thomas Aiken and Honesty Jones.

The doomed men were stopping at T. B. Foote’s, and some persons in the family afterwards testified to having heard the council that condemned them. The selected murderers, at 11 p.m., started from the Tithing House and got ahead of the Aikins, who did not start till dayhght. The latter reached the Sevier River, when Rockwell informed them they could find no other camp that day; they halted, when the other party approached and asked to camp with them, for which permission was granted. The weary men removed their arms and heavy clothing, and were soon lost in sleep — that sleep which for two of them was to have no waking on earth. All seemed fit for their damnable purpose, and yet the murderers hesitated. As near as can be determined, they still feared that all could not be done with perfect secrecy, and determined to use no firearms. With this view the escort and the party from Nephi attacked the sleeping men with clubs and the kingbolts of the wagons. Two died without a struggle.

As for the two survivors … that’s a tale for another day.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Bludgeoned,Borderline "Executions",Botched Executions,Businessmen,Espionage,Execution,Executions Survived,History,Lucky to be Alive,No Formal Charge,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,USA,Utah,Wartime Executions

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1840: Zachariah Freeman

Add comment November 19th, 2018 John O'Sullivan

(Thanks for the guest post to American newsman and reformer John L. O’Sullivan. Best-known as the fellow who coined that potent brand for American empire, “manifest destiny,” O’Sullivan was also a vigorous advocate for abolishing capital punishment as a New York legislator in the 1840s, and made several proposals to that effect. The summary here is one of many reported in O’Sullivan’s appendix to his Report in favor of the abolition of punishment of death, by law, made to the legislature of the state of New York, April 14, 1841. The report did not achieve its objective. -ed.)

Tried in September, 1840, for the murder of Sarah Boyd, his quasiwife, in the town of Lysander, Onondaga county, on the 18th of May, 1840.

Both were negroes. They lived in the same house with his father, 80 years of age, his brother Elihu, and a woman who lived with his brother as his wife. Zachariah was much attached to Sarah, and had taken some steps toward making arrangements for a legal marriage with her.

Jealousy was the motive to the murder — or a combination of jealousy and insanity. They had some trifling dispute, in which she refused to comply with some domestic order of her husband, when he raised a chair, and struck her across the arm, knocking her down. On recovering herself, she declared she would never live with him again. He thereupon went to some woods at a short distance, and made an attempt to hang himself — whether in earnest, or to frighten them, does not appear clear. He was stopped with the rope round his neck, and brought back to the house.

While he was away she expressed great dread of his returning, saying, that if he did, she should be a corpse before morning — that though he had not threatened her, she saw it in his eye. While he was out, before returning to the house, he was praying and singing hymns. He entreated a reconciliation with her, which she refused; — he was willing to go down on his knees to her. She consented to leave it to the rest to decide the next morning, if he would now behave himself.

On this arrangement the rest went to bed — he remained up, smoking a pipe. He had insisted on smoking her pipe, refusing any other. According to his confession of what followed, he after a time leaned his head on the bed, and she kicked him. He then got the knife with which he committed the act, and went to some distance from the house for the purpose of killing himself; but while whetting it, determined to go back to see her once more. She was sitting up in bed. He placed his left hand on her shoulder, and attempted to kiss her. He had no thought of injuring her — “she was young, handsome, and everything that was nice, and it had not occurred to his mind to damage her at all.”

She refused to receive him, and slapped him on the face. He then gave her a stab, which was in a few moments fatal, immediately cutting his own throat also. Though a severe wound, this did not prove fatal.

The family were immediately roused, and eventually he was cured of his wound. He expressed much grief and repentance. He was jealous of his brother Elihu, whom he believed to have criminal intercourse with her. Zachariah had wished her to remove with him to another house, but she had refused. He said, after the affair, that “if she would not lie any more with him, he would not let her with any other man” — “he thought she should never sleep with another man, and he never with another woman.”

He said, he expected to be hanged, but added: “I shall go to the gallows in as good a cause as ever a man went.” His previous general character was good. He was hung November 19th, 1840.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,Murder,New York,Other Voices,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1888: Not Sarah J. Robinson

Add comment November 16th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1888, Massachusetts almost hanged Sarah J. Robinson.

The reader will easily infer from press appellations such as the “Massachusetts Borgia” or “Sommerville Borgia” that Mrs. Robinson was a prolific poisoner.

The true toll of Robinson’s career remains uncertain to this day but they monstrously included her own son and daughter — the victims that brought her within the shadow of the gallows.

An Irish immigrant, she had discovered the capacity of arsenic for relieving the financial burdens that, then as now, weighed upon the poor. In 1881, her landlord suspiciously died in her care, abating a debt of rent; a few years later, her husband did likewise, leaving her an insurance windfall, and then her sister too.

Still the maintenance of five children — four of her own, plus a nephew — harried her. To keep the wolves at bay she moved frequently, sold off furniture. And last, she enrolled two children in a working-class insurance fraternal and collected so speedily to attract the wrong attention. Her many murders afforded multiple bites at the legal apple, so when a jury hung on a charge of murdering her kids, they just turned around and got her for a nephew instead.

Mrs. Robinson was escorted to the court room … A large rocking chair was provided for her comfort in the rear of the court room outside the prisoner’s iron cage. She languidly sank into it, and as soon as seated requested a drink of water, which was brought her by Sheriff Tidd. Her hands trembled like leaves as she eagerly held the tumbler to her lips. (Boston Journal, June 29, 1888)

Notwithstanding her many victims, the prospect of noosing this trembling-hand, rocking-chair mother discomfited the public. The governor commuted her sentence to solitary imprisonment four days before her scheduled November 16, 1888 hanging.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Massachusetts,Murder,Not Executed,USA,Women

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