Posts filed under 'USA'

1865: William Corbett and Patrick Fleming

1 comment December 15th, 2014 Ramicles

(Thanks to Ramicles, the pseudonymous 19th century Chicago correspondent of the Providence Press, for this eyewitness account of a December 15, 1865 hanging off two hired assassins. It appeared under a December 16 dateline in that paper’s December 21, 1865 edition. -ed.)

I have promised the numerous readers of the EVENING PRESS a description of a death scene, and I will keep my word. But believe me, it is no welcome task; my heart is not in it. On my mind one solemn moral is impressed — one moral only: the terrible reality of crime, the terrible reality of punishment. One naturally follows the other, as night follows day.

At the hour of three, lacking ten minutes, on yesterday afternoon, I saw two men, William Corbett and Patrick Fleming, take a formal farewell of this world and enter an untried existence. Those who love to linger on the few hours which the wretched men passed, in the anticipation of that final scene, may do so. I will not. They knew that they had incurred the law’s extreme penalty, and must suffer that penalty. There is a disposition on the part of doomed men to “die game;” and much of the apparent heartlessness is bravado only.

As I have said in a former letter, Fleming has for several days seemed indifferent or defiant. Whether he had faint hopes of pardon, I know not; but there seemed to be something in his manner that showed his reliance to some extent on the mobid [sic] humanitarianism of the age, (as exhibited in the case of the Malden murderer Greene,) and had not finally made up his mind for death.

Those who had not made human nature a study, were therefore unprepared to see the difference in demeanor of the two men, on the scaffold. Corbett, who, since his sentence, has seemed to realize his solemn situation, and has been much depressed, because, as his last moments drew near, cheerful and even jubilant, and the gloomy Court House echoed his hilarious merriment, which was startlingly horrible, as wild laughter wakened in the throat of death. There is something grotesquely awful in hearing a man laugh while the rope is around his neck. (The Republican reporter styled that death “ecstacies!” [sic] I had always supposed that ecstacy was less boisterous; but I am ready at all times to receive new ideas and novel definitions. — Who ever knew a man in Chicago to be wrong? “If any, speak, for him have I offended.”) The conduct of Flemming [sic] was in striking contrast. He seemed chilled with the thought of death, and was so lost in contemplation that he scarcely heard the voice of the clergyman admonishing him to pray.

He indeed repeated the words of the prayer, but so unconsciously that it seemed only mechanical. His eyes were vacantly staring, and his countenance was ghastly in its expression of deadly fear. Was that gaze fixed on vacancy alone? Was it a retrospective vision of the soul gazing on itself, and with reversed sight recalling all the past — the hours of childhood — the fleeting moments of early manhood — the years whose only noteworthy incidents were damning deeds of midnight robbery — that night of blood — that death-cry of his victim — the fatal shot — the flight — the vision of justice and the avenging Nemises [sic] following his track — the arrest — the trial — the death sentence, and the lingering death of expectation preceding its infliction? Or was there one more torture? Was his the gift of prescience, and the power to look beyond the Shadow of the Dark Valley, and was it what he there saw that transfixed him into a statue of cold horror? Who shall say?

Those were my reflections when I looked on the miserable man; and I unconsciously repeated to myself the heartfelt words of the psalmist: “Cut me not off, O, my God, in the midst of my days!”

I shuddered as I thought that the doomed one might be silently repeating the same prayer, and II, by mesmeric rapport or sympathy, had caught up his inaudible petition. Then came another hideous laugh from the lips of Corbett — a few hasty words of farewell — a slight gliding sound as the well oiled bolts slid swiftly back — and two forms shrouded in white cloth were spasmodically struggling with death. The drop was located in the east wing of the Court House, the trap being constructed in the floor. After the two surgeons in attendance had pronounced them both dead, the bodies were lowered into the coffins, as usual, and a few had a curiosity to look at the faces. Singular as it may seem, Flemming had undoubtedly suffered the least pain of the two. The features were somewhat distorted and discolored. But Corbett’s face was a sight such as one would look on but once, and wish to efface [sic] the memory of that one look, and think of it no more forever. The tongue protruded fearfully from the mouth, and the teeth had bitten through it, in that last agony of dissolution. Truly is an execution a moral lesson which no one may witness without a thrill of horror whatever one may think of the theory of capital punishment.

There was one fact in connection with the affair, which I cannot understand. The widow of the murdered man repeatedly made application to the Sheriff for permission to see the hanging and it was refused. At an early hour I saw a lady dressed in deep mourning standing at the Court House gate and I was informed that it was Mrs. Maloney. After all was over, she still stood there, shivering in the intense cold, the bitter freezing cold. It appears some one had told her that the men who had murdered her husband and left her desolate, would be reprieved, and that only increased her anxiety to see the sentence of the law fulfilled.

Hour after hour she waited, while stout men, wrapping more closely their overcoats and mufflers around them, hurried on more rapidly as they felt the keen blast which swept across the square. Several times she was assured that the criminals were hanged; but she refused to believe it, till an acquaintance in whom she had confidence told her, and then with an expression of relief and satisfaction on her face, she suddenly left for home, and I saw her no more. Poor woman! the wrong done her and her child had been avenged. Justice had vindicated itself. Who shall say but half the sorrow of bereavement was lifted from her heart by the knowledge that the slayers of her husband had tasted the bitter waters of death, held to their unwilling lips by the hand of Retribution? Why was it that the satisfaction of witnessing the punishment was denied her? I may be wrong, but I only repeat the sentiments of many men here and elsewhere when I say: Hangings should be public.

I have heard and read many objections to public executions; but I am convinced that whatever may be said of the rude and brutal deportment of the crowd — the levity — the profanity, &c. &c., I am convinced that no man ever saw an infliction of the Death Penalty, and forgot it. Men may read the long accounts given by newspaper reporters, but the reality beggars description. The reader can get but a very poor idea from the most graphic account, and like any other item of news, it is not long remembered. If the grand object is to warn men, by impressing on their minds the terrible consequences of crime, then that warning should be given in the most public manner possible.

When I commenced this communication I had no thought of making a plea for the gallows; and I will only say, that until some more fearful mode of punishing the crime of murder can be invented, hanging commends itself to the approval of reflecting people. It is a severe remedy, but it is the only effectual one; and those individuals who oppose capital punishment so zealously, may easily find other ways to vent their sentimentalism. Sympathy for those whom crime has injured would be better placed than sympathy for criminals. You will hear from me on this subject no more until Jeff. Davis is hanged, and then I shall probably have some comments to make, as I shall endeavor to “be there to see.”

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1895: Harry Hayward, the Minneapolis Svengali

Add comment December 11th, 2014 Headsman

Minnesota executed Harry Hayward shortly after midnight on this date in 1895.

Dubbed the “Minneapolis Svengali” by the press for his perceived similarity to the sinister hypnotist of that year’s hit literary release, the prodigal rake Hayward cast his spell over a New York emigre with the name of Kitty Ging and a pocketbook every bit as alluring.

On December 3, 1895, Kitty rented a horsey from a livery stable, but the ride returned to the stable alone. What terrible fate befell her? And how did the Mesmer of Minneapolis work her murder from his innocuous booth at a theater that night?

Our oft-endorsed friends at Murder by Gaslight unwind this terrible tale here.

He fixed me with his eyes. I couldn’t say no when he looked at me that way — nobody could.

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1965: Andrew Pixley

Add comment December 10th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1965, Andrew Pixley was gassed in Wyoming for butchering the two young daughters of a vacationing Illinois judge.

A 21-year-old high school dropout with a few petty thefts to his name, Pixley on the night of August 5-6, 1964 broken into the Jackson hotel room occupied by 12-year-old Debbie McAuliffe, her 8-year-old sister Cindy, and 6-year-old Susan.

Their parents were relaxing in the hotel lounge at the time, but would return to a nightmare scene: Debbie dead in her bed, beaten to death with a rock; Cindy, strangled; and this slight stranger drunk or insensible lying on the floor of their room covered in their daughters’ gore. Both girls also appeared to have been sexually assaulted. (Somehow, the youngest daughter was not attacked.)

Judge Robert McAuliffe seized the stranger, while police — and soon behind them, an angry mob calling for Judge Lynch — followed his wife’s screams to the scene.

“It was the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen,” Teton County attorney Floyd King later said. Pixley claimed that the night’s events were a blank in his mind.

Remembered for this one night of madness as one of Wyoming’s most brutal criminals, Andrew Pixley reputedly still haunts Wyoming’s Old Frontier Prison, and gives tour guides at facility (it’s a museum now) the heebie-jeebies.

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1985: Carroll Edward Cole

Add comment December 6th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1985, serial killer Carroll Edward “Eddie” Cole was executed in Nevada.

A smart and troubled Iowa boy, Cole‘s earliest memories were of his mother’s thrashings to scare him into keeping quiet about the affairs she had while dad was away fighting World War II.

One never knows how trauma will work its way with this or that child. In Cole’s case, it twisted him early on: he nursed a deepening hatred for women and a callousness to his fellows that would one day be diagnosed as psychopathy. Cole’s final body count is not known for sure, but while in prison he would claim that the first of them was a bullying schoolmate named Duane whom he drowned. Duane’s death had been ruled by examiners as an accident.

Carroll tested with a genius-level I.Q., but his criminal career was not one of devious brilliance. Alcoholism and petty crime — soon not so petty at all — consumed him in his adolescence and put him on his way to a rootless, lonely life alternating dead end jobs, catastrophic relationships, jail terms, and mental institutions.

The latter two did not acquit themselves well for their frequent contact with the budding butcher. Over and over, Cole was discharged without the benefit of either treatment or restraint even though Cole himself sought help on several occasions. In 1963, a psychiatrist at Stockton State Hospital in California observed that Cole “seems to be afraid of the female figure and cannot have intercourse with her first but must kill her before he can do it.” Then, that doctor approved Cole’s release. It happened again in 1970 when he checked into a Reno facility begging doctors to help him control his fantasies of misogynist violence. The doctors didn’t buy his act and sent him on his way.

Self-medicating from the bottle, Cole drifted to Texas; he married an alcoholic stripper* there, then ended it by torching in a jealous rage the hotel where she resided. Then on to Missouri and a five-year sentence for trying to strangle a little girl there — then Nevada — then back to California. In San Diego in 1971 he finally embarked on his career in homicide, Duane notwithstanding. He picked up a woman in a bar and strangled her to death. Later he would explain that Essie Buck had proven herself faithless to her real partner: vicarious revenge against his adulterous mother.

Again, an institutional failure: Cole was questioned in this murder, but released uncharged.

And thanks to that police misstep, Eddie Cole drifted through the 1970s in a drunken fog, detained several times for the minor crimes he had been committing since his teens, but murdering often without repercussion. Soon enough he experimented with necrophilia and cannibalism, too. “In the case of a woman he murdered in Oklahoma City,” according to Charlotte Greig, “he claims he came out of an alcoholic blackout to find slices of his victim’s buttocks cooking on a skillet.”

Crime Library has a detailed biography of Cole and his murders. “Spree”, with its undertones of passion and energy, doesn’t feel like quite the right word to use for this man’s self-loathing crimes. Few serial killers better exemplify the ease with which one preys on people on the fringe, the police lethargy in investigating a suspicious death that nobody cares about.

In San Diego in 1979, he strangled one woman at his own workplace, then murdered his latest alcoholic wife Diana a few weeks later. Cole was arrested digging his wife’s grave: they still ruled the death accidental. How much simpler just to close the file on the “drunken tramp”?

Cole left California after that and returned to Dallas (pausing long enough in Las Vegas for one of the two murders that would supply him his death sentence). There he slaughtered three women in the span of 11 days and was once again on the verge of being cleared as a suspect when he simply confessed to the police. His existential scream was lost in America’s trackless underbelly; in the end, he had to beg for someone, anyone, to catch and kill him. He would claim to have killed about 35 women but even then investigators, ever skeptical, would chalk more than half that tally up to bravado.

Despite what one might think about Texas’s suitability for culminating a career in self-destruction, Cole caught only a life sentence there. Fortunately for him, his wandering ways made possible a bit of venue-shopping for the death sentence he sought.

In 1984, after his own mother died, he waived extradition and voluntarily went to face two murder charges in Nevada. There he simply pleaded guilty to capital murder.

The careworn killer rocketed from conviction in October 1984 to execution in a today-unthinkable 14 months, steadfastly repelling the attempts of outside advocates to intervene on his behalf or convince him to pick up his appeals. “I just messed up my life so bad that I just don’t care to go on,” he said.

At 1:43 a.m. this date, Cole entered Nevada’s brand-new lethal injection theater. He was not the first executed in Nevada’s (post-Gary Gilmore) “modern” era: Jesse Bishop had earned that distinction in 1979. But he was the first to die in Nevada by that modernized killing technology, lethal injection. Nevada had cribbed the idea from Texas after the Silver State’s last cutting-edge killing apparatus, the gas chamber, started leaking.

It took Cole about five minutes to finally achieve his death wish … 47 years, six months, 27 days, and those five minutes.

Emerging from the spectacle, Cole’s Nevada prosecutor enthused, “It is enjoyable to see the system work.”

* Billy Whitworth worked at a club owned by Jack Ruby, the man who shot Lee Harvey Oswald.

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1806: Jesse Wood, filicide

Add comment December 5th, 2014 Headsman

On July 9, 1806, Jesse Wood was returning from a hard day’s work on the farm with his sons Joseph and Hezekiah. All of them being somewhat in their cups, they fell to arguing and the father went to his home and retrieved a musket — “loaded with a heavy charge of slug shot” according to the Sherburne, N.Y. Olive Branch of July 30.

Wood pere‘s wife soon heard the report of the gun. Running out of the house, she found Jesse and Hezekaih, upright, and Joseph Wood and the discharged musket, at rest.

“His conduct at the place of execution, was deliberate and calm,” ran a report from Poughkeepsie that ran in many New York papers that December. “He died solemnly denying his built.”

The concourse of spectators was great, and they seemed deeply impressed with the solemnity of the scene, and greatly shocked at the hardened iniquiry of the criminal, in persisting to declare his innocence, when he was convicted on the clearest testimony. There is something inexpressibly awful in the idea that a rational creature has rushed into the presence of his God, with deliberate falsehood on his lips!

In a fine instance of history’s running game of “telephone”, this story was written up in the late 19th century featuring Joseph and the father as co-murderers of the brother … and as such parables demand, Joseph in the end makes good his father’s shocking scaffold denial by confessing on his own deathbed many years later.

1806 sources are absolutely unambiguous that Joseph was the murder victim. I have not found any indication that Hezekiah ever copped to the crime that hung his father.

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1917: Lation Scott lynched

2 comments December 2nd, 2014 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1917, 24-year-old black farmhand Lation (or Ligon) Scott died a horrible death in Dyersburg, Tennessee.

For the two years prior to his extrajudicial “execution” by a lynch mob, Scott had worked as a farmhand for a white family, doing the farm chores while the husband worked at his job in Dyersburg.

He got on well with the family and was fond of the two children. He seemed like an ordinary enough man and a good worker, according to the NAACP journal The Crisis:

Accounts as to his intelligence vary widely. One report asserts that he was almost half-witted. Others attribute to him the intelligence of the average country Negro… He had the reputation of being a splendid hand at doing general housework, or “spring-cleaning,” and…had done this sort of work for a prominent woman of Dyersburg. She states that she was alone in the house with him for two days.

No trouble resulted.

In addition to farming and the doing of odd jobs, he was a preacher. On November 22, 1917, however, he allegedly raped the farmer’s wife while her husband was at work. He threatened to kill her if she reported what he had done. He then fled, leaving his victim bound and gagged inside the farmhouse.

The woman was able to free herself and identify her attacker, and the community took swift action, searching extensively for Scott and offering a $200 reward for his apprehension. Scott was able to elude capture for ten days, though, making his way fifty miles to Madison County. There, a railroad worker recognized him and he was arrested.

The sheriff’s deputy for Dyer County, along with some other men (including, presciently, an undertaker), picked up the accused man and started off back to Dyersburg by car in the wee hours of the morning. They didn’t bother taking an indirect route for the purpose of their journey.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people gathered along the road and waited for their quarry.

And when he appeared, they forced the car off the road and made the officers turn over their prisoner.

These people were not typical of the average lynch mob: rather than stringing him up on the spot, they drew up a list of twelve “jurors” and, at noon, after church let out, drove Scott to the county courthouse for a “trial.”

Scott was ordered to stand up and asked, “Are you guilty or not guilty?”

Scott admitted he was guilty, and the “jury” voted for conviction.

Although one “prominent citizen” asked the people not to be barbaric, because it was Sunday and because “the reputation of the county was at stake,” both the rape victim and her husband wanted Scott to be burned alive rather than merely hanged.

The Crisis‘s description of what happened is not for the faint-hearted.

The Negro was seated on the ground and a buggy-axle driven into the ground between his legs. His feet were chained together, with logging chains, and he was tied with wire. A fire was built. Pokers and flat-irons were procured and heated in the fire… Reports of the torturing, which have been generally accepted and have not been contradicted, are that the Negro’s clothes and skin were ripped from his body simultaneously with a knife. His self-appointed executioners burned his eye-balls with red-hot irons. When he opened his mouth to cry for mercy a red-hot poker was rammed down his gullet. In the same subtle way he was robbed of his sexual organs. Red-hot irons were placed on his feet, back and body, until a hideous stench of burning flesh filled the Sabbath air of Dyersburg, Tenn.

Thousands of people witnessed this scene. They had to be pushed back from the stake to which the Negro was chained. Roof-tops, second-story windows, and porch-tops were filled with spectators. Children were lifted to shoulders, that they might behold the agony of the victim.

It took three and a half hours for the man to die.

Margaret Vandiver wrote in Lethal Punishment: Lynchings and Legal Executions in the South, “The lynching of Lation Scott was the most ghastly of all those I researched.”

This spectacle of horror took place in broad daylight, and no one in the mob wore masks.

Nevertheless, no one was ever prosecuted.

According to The Crisis,

Public opinion in Dyersburg and Dyer County seems to be divided into two groups. One group considers that the Negro got what he deserved. The other group feels that he should have had a “decent lynching.”

A “decent lynching” was defined as “a quick, quiet hanging, with no display or torturing.”

One local citizen remarked that he thought the people who tortured and killed Lation Scott were no better than the rapist himself. Another simply commented, “It was the biggest thing since the Ringling Brothers’ Circus came to town.”

Lation Scott’s was the last lynching in Dyer County history.


Wire report in the Salt Lake Telegram, Dec. 3, 1917.

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1865: The Jacksonville Mutineers

Add comment December 1st, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1865, six African-American infantrymen were shot in Fernandina, Florida, for the Jacksonville Mutiny.

Formed in 1863, the 3rd Infantry Regiment, United States Colored Troops served in the trenchworks around Fort Wagner — the grinding siege in the summer of 1863 that followed the bloody attempt to storm the fort immortalized in the 1989 film Glory.

The Third was subsequently transferred to Union-occupied Jacksonville, Florida for duty garrisoning a conquered town of the Confederacy whose white citizens chafed doubly at their presence. But the unit had weathered both the boredom of the garrison and the hostility of white Floridians, and was set to muster out and return home on Halloween of 1865.

All U.S. Colored Troop regiments were officered by white men, putting an inevitable racial tinge on the inherent potential tension between enlistees and their commanders — the triggering event in our story. Heading the Third was a fellow named John L. Brower, Lieutenant Colonel by rank courtesy of his political connections but of nearly no actual military experience.

Ohio National Guard Judge Advocate General Kevin Bennett, in his 1992 article about the mutiny,* calls Brower a “martinet”; elevated to command of the Third on September 12 for what should have been a mostly ceremonial interim, Brower delighted in enforcing stringent wartime discipline months after Appomattox. While no man welcomes the taste of the lash when he’s one foot out the door back to civilian life, excess discipline meted out by cruel white overseers was particularly bad form for Colored Troop regiments.

From the standpoint of black Americans, the war had been all about destroying slavery; they had practically had to force this objective, and their own presence,** into the conflict. Being strung up by the thumbs for petty theft — Brower’s decreed punishment for one of his charges on October 29 — was far too evocative of the hated Slave Power.

“Inexperienced officers often assumed that because these men had been slaves before enlistment, they would bear to be treated as such afterwards,” one white Colored Troop commander later remembered. “Experience proved to the contrary. Any punishment resembling that meted out by the overseers caused irreparable damage.”†


The inclination of black troops to reject servile treatment and the anxiety that this provoked among their officers and the larger white community must surely be read in view of the perplexing new conditions following the Civil War.

Even among whites who supported it in principle, slavery abolition meant an unsettling and uncertain rearrangement of civilization — or at least, it potentially meant that. Would the economy continue to function without slavery? Would the daily conventions and assumptions that had sustained whites north and south have to be entirely renegotiated?

“Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letter, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship,” Frederick Douglass had proclaimed. Now that the war had finished, what else did those musket-toting sable fellows think they had earned the right to?

Press reports over the course of 1865 show a continuing theme of “Negro mutinies”: it is for wiser studies than this post to determine whether the trend such stories represent is disturbances among the black soldiery, or an exaggerated preoccupation among their white countrymen. In either event, Jacksonville was very far from unique even if the punishments were exemplary.


From the June 16, 1865 Cleveland Plain Dealer, concerning black soldiers on a steamer bound for Texas calling at Fort Monroe who, chagrined at the assignment, refused to permit the steamer’s resuming its journey.


From the June 19, 1865 Philadelphia Inquirer, concerning a company refusing to embark for Texas. “Certain evil disposed persons put it into the heads of these credulous colored soldiers that they were to be sent to Texas as servants for the white troops,” runs the report. “Doubtless some secret enemies of the Government instilled similar subtle falsehoods into the simple minds of the blacks who were disarmed at Fortress Monroe a few days ago.”


From the September 30, 1865 Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.), concerning a mutiny reported near Hilton, N.C.


From the Oct. 1, 1865 Daily Constitutionalist (Augusta, Ga.), reporting a disturbance begun when a black regiment demonstrated against a court-martial for one of their comrades accused (and acquitted) of stealing a hat.

In the midst of all of this — right about the time of the incident in this post, in fact — bulletins reached American shores of the Morant Bay Rebellion, a bloody rebellion of black laborers in British-controlled Jamaica. Slavery had been abolished on that Caribbean island more than 30 years prior: what did that uprising augur for the races in these United States?


Subtext becomes text: the Norwich (Conn.) Aurora, December 23, 1865. “The African released from restraint, and the passion of the savage provoked, will realize the scenes formerly witnessed in Hayti.” (The full article (pdf))

For our case, the name of the man punished like a slave is lost, but we do know what he did: steal some molasses from the kitchen. That’s how six of his comrades ultimately wound up looking down the barrels of their executioners.

A Lt. Greybill caught the greedy nosher and decreed a rough summary punishment, which the arriving Brower arrived helped to enforce on the resisting prisoner. “Tying up by the thumbs” was a brutal and humiliating treatment that lifted the man by those digits (often dislocated in the process) until only his toes remained on the ground, barely supporting his weight, and left him there for hours. In the film 12 Years a Slave, we see a man subjected to this sort of tiptoeing, but with a rope about the neck instead of about the thumbs.

Other enlisted men gathered around this pitiful scene, complaining about what they saw. A Private Jacob Plowden, who will eventually number among our day’s six executees, cried out that “it was a damn shame for a man to be tied up like that, white soldiers were not tied up that way nor other colored soldiers, only in our regiment.”

Plowden announced that “there was not going to be any more of it, that he would die on the spot but he would be damned if he wasn’t the man to cut him down.” Another private, Jonathan Miller, joined the incitement — “Let’s take him down, we are not going to have any more of tying men up by the thumbs.” A number of the black soldiers, 25 to 35 or so, began advancing on Brower and the hanging molasses-thief. Brower drew his sidearm and fired into them, wounding a man and sending the soldiers scurrying — some dispersing, but other dashing off to tents to arm themselves.

Several non-lethal fights now occurred in various spots around the camp between soldiers and officers, and eventually between the disaffected soldiers and arriving brethren from Company K, who had been summoned to calm the situation.

Lt. Col. Brower exchanged shots with several of the men who armed themselves, and in a bit of symmetry with the distasteful punishment that had started the whole mess, he had his thumb shot off in the process. One of the privates who had been heard complaining of the thumb-hanging, now playing peacemaker, grabbed the injured officer and escorted him to a safe building, warning some men who tried to pursue them to “stop their damn foolishness.”

Elsewhere, a Lt. Fenno sabered a protestor, and got bashed over the head with a fence-post in response. Neither injury was life-threatening to its recipient. Some shots were exchanged elsewhere in camp and/or fired demonstratively into the air, again to no fatal effect. And a Private James Thomas cut down the post where the source of all the disturbance, the fellow who just wanted an extra ration of molasses, was hanging.

This was the whole of the commotion, which Company K reinforcements soon quelled.

In a speedy series of court-martials lasting from Oct. 31 to Nov. 3, thirteen men were convicted of mutiny in this affair, and a fourteenth of conduct prejudicial to good order (his offense: not during the mutiny but after all was over, saying of Brower, “the God-damned son of a bitch, he shot my cousin. Where is he? Let me see him.”) A fifteenth man was acquitted. All 15 accused mounted their own defense, without counsel or aid — generally endeavoring to show that they had either not armed themselves or (and this was the decisive factor for the six whose conviction carried a death sentence) not fired their weapon.

The trial itself posed interesting procedural dilemmas, which Bennett explores at length in his article: first, because it was a mutiny case, the white officers of the Third who comprised the jurors were also, awkwardly, the brother-officers of the witnesses who testified against the mutineers.

And second, although the Civil War was over, Florida still technically remained in a state of rebellion, and this enabled the unit to convene a general court-martial, issue death sentences, and even carry them out without allowing any appeal to Washington. General John Foster gave the final approval to the sentences and transmitted case files to Washington after the fact; that was all the six condemned had by way of legal or executive review.

On December 10, he received a telegraph ordering him to suspend one of the death sentences in response to an inquiry raised by U.S. Senator Edgar Cowan: Cowan had been contacted by one of his constituents, who represented that Private David Craig, whom the constituent had raised from childhood, had written him complaining of his wrongful conviction. According to Sen. Cowan, the allegation was that Craig had been directed to collect arms from the mutineers as the disturbance came to an end, but was thereafter arrested in the confusion for being armed with the weapons he collected. But December 10 was nine days too late, and the late Private Craig’s case file disturbingly seems to have been lost from the National Archives.

The other five shot by musketry this date were:

  • Joseph Green
  • James Allen
  • Jacob Plowden
  • Joseph Nathaniel
  • Thomas Howard

Lt. Col. Brower only testified at one of the courts-martial, and was sent home almost immediately afterwards. He’d lost his thumb for his adventure as an officer and a gentleman, but between the original provocative punishment that he helped enforce, and then inflaming a tense situation by shooting at his soldiers, the brass was probably just as pleased to see him go as were his subordinates.

The non-executed mutineers who received prison terms (up to 15 years) had their sentences commuted following a review in 1866. The rest of the regiment mustered out as scheduled at the end of October, two days after the Jacksonville Mutiny.

* B. Kevin Bennett, “The Jacksonville Mutiny”, Civil War History, Volume 38, Number 1, March 1992. Bennett’s article is the source of all of the quotes in this post not otherwise cited.

** See I Freed Myself, or this podcast interview with its author, David Williams.

† See here for a fascinating instance of this at sea in June 1865, by the author of Becoming American under Fire: Irish Americans, African Americans, and the Politics of Citizenship during the Civil War Era

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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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