Posts filed under 'California'

1896: Ivan Kovalev, Russian meddler

Add comment February 21st, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1896, Russian refugee Ivan Kovalev was hanged for a Sacramento double murder.

Kovalev and nine other Russian convicts had in 1893 fled from the most remote and dreaded of Russia’s Far East penal colonies, Sakhalin Island.

They might have met Anton Chekhov when he visited in Sakhalin in 1890 to compose the investigative articles that would become his book Sakhalin Island, one of the great pieces of journalism of his time. “Utter hell,” the great playwright mused of that brutal and befogged colony. “I feel that if I were a convict, I would escape immediately, whatever the consequences.”

Kovalev and nine mates felt exactly the same and they did it in the form of a downright suicidal flight from Sakhalin’s abyss in an open launch ventured into the Pacific in hopes of reaching Japan. They were on the brink of succumbing to their privations when they were miraculously picked up by a San Francisco-based whaler, the Charles W. Morgan.**

The convicts claimed that they were escaped political prisoners, a demographic that enjoyed western sympathy; there’s every chance that they were actually violent criminals but their tale of woe in the bowels of tsardom was persuasive and times being what they were a background check with the nearest consulate was not an option. The Sakhalin escapees were allowed to stay in California.

On December 30, 1894, about sixteen months after they drew their last moldy Sakhalin rations, Kovalev with two accomplices† bashed the brains out of the aged grocer F.H.L. Weber and his wife with an axe so that they could rob his store. Chekhov? Make that Dostoyevsky.

It took several months to zero in on the perpetrator but once the conviction was secured, indignant Sacramentans applied in record numbers for passes to attend the hanging, such “a spirit of enmity and hatred toward this son of far-away Russia” having been aroused by the horrid circumstances of the butchery that “it is evident that a spirit of satisfaction is abroad in the community at the thought that … Ivan Kovalev will expiate that crime with his life.”

* The New York Public Library hosts a digital collection of photos of the Sakhalin penal colony, here. Others can be browsed at the Sakhalin Regional Museum site.

** The Charles W. Morgan had an 80-year service history; it’s been restored and can be visited in Mystic, Connecticut.


1971 U.S. postage stamp commemorating the Charles W. Morgan‘s preservation.

† The accomplices don’t figure in the execution story: one was mortally wounded in an unrelated subsequent robbery, prior to Kovalev’s arrest; the other wound up serving time for burglary.

On this day..

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

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1948: Thomas Henry McGonigle, murder without a body

1 comment February 20th, 2018 Meaghan

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

The Latin legal term corpus delicti literally translates to “the body of the crime,” and many people are under the impression that it means the actual corpse of a murdered person and that no one may be convicted of murder without the victim’s body.

This is erroneous. Although it is true that no person can be convicted of murder without the corpus delicti, the term doesn’t mean the murdered person’s body but rather the body of evidence that proves a crime has been committed. Every criminal case must have the corpus delicti and, in most murder cases, that includes the victim’s body … but it doesn’t have to.

In the United States, murder-without-a-body prosecutions are not unheard of and happen with increasing frequency due to the advancement of forensic technologies like DNA analysis. Tad DiBiase, a former federal prosecutor, even wrote a book about them, titled No-Body Homicide Cases: A Practical Guide to Investigating, Prosecuting, and Winning Cases When the Victim Is Missing, which includes an appendix of over 400 cases.

On this day in 1948, Thomas Henry McGonigle was executed in California’s gas chamber in what was one of the earliest, perhaps THE earliest no-body homicide prosecution in the state. His victim was a fourteen-year-old high school sophomore named Thora Afton Chamberlain, and her body was never found and is believed to have been washed out to sea.

The prosecution would later call the case “one of the best organized and most intense investigations in the annals of the crime of kidnapping and murder.”

McGonigle, a married construction laborer with an arrest record for a variety of crimes including assault with intent to commit rape, was waiting in his car outside Campbell High School when classes ended for the day on November 2, 1945. Thora’s classmates saw her talking to him, and he offered her a job: he needed someone to babysit his sister’s children. It would only be for half an hour, he said.

For whatever reason, Thora trusted the stranger. Perhaps it was because he was dressed respectably in a Navy uniform with medals, including a Purple Heart. She didn’t know they weren’t his, that he’d never been in any branch of the military. He’d stolen the clothes and medals six weeks earlier.

Thora Chamberlain was never seen again after she got into the strange man’s car. McGonigle was an immediate suspect because of his record, and several witnesses identified him from a photo lineup, but in the immediate aftermath of Thora’s disappearance he skipped town.


Murderer and victim.

McGonigle told his wife he was taking a bus to Los Angeles, but in fact he hitchhiked to Illinois where his father lived. The FBI kept on his trail as he drifted across the country, registering in hotels under alias names. Finally he took an overdose of sleeping pills while on a bus bound for San Francisco, and was semiconscious on arrival. The Feds were waiting for him, but instead of jail they had to take him to the hospital for treatment. He was arrested upon discharge.

In custody, McGonigle gave a series of statements admitting culpability but providing wildly differing details as to what happened. He’d stabbed Thora. He’d shot her. He’d strangled her. She’d jumped from his car and was fatally injured. Her death was an accident. He hadn’t killed her at all; she was alive and well and working as a prostitute.

Although the entire truth about what happened is only known to Thora and her killer, the shooting story has the most evidence to support it.

McGonigle said he had shot Thora in his car and the bullet passed through her and got stuck in his car door. He said he’d removed the bullet and buried it under a certain tree in his yard, and also ripped out the vehicle’s bloodstained padding and upholstery and buried it near the construction site where he worked. There was a bullet hole in the door of McGonigle’s car, police recovered the bullet from under the tree where he said it would be, and ballistics later proved it had been fired from a .32 caliber revolver he owned. The police also found the ripped car upholstery at the indicated spot, and it was stained with human blood.

McGonigle lead the authorities to a coastal cliff in San Mateo County known as the Devil’s Slide. He said he’d thrown Thora’s body off the cliff, 350 feet down into the ocean. An extensive search revealed important, chilling evidence that may well have been the clincher: on the day of her abduction, Thora was dressed in her school colors of red and blue, including one pair of red socks and one pair of blue socks, one on top of the other. Searchers found both pairs wedged in separate crevices on the cliff face, and Thora’s parents identified them.

At the trial, prosecutor John McCarthy told the jury how it might have happened, painting a word picture of McGonigle killing Thora in a rape or attempted rape, then lifting her from his car by her armpits and dragging her along the ground to the edge of the Devil’s Slide. In the process her loafers come off and her socks are pulled down her feet. As she falls, they come off entirely and get stuck in the crevices of the cliff.

“In finding the socks,” McCarthy concluded, “the crime was solved.”

Given McGonigle’s string of confessions — which continued even at his trial — and the eyewitnesses who identified him, and the physical evidence that backed it all up, it’s no wonder the jury only deliberated half an hour. He was convicted on March 1, 1946.

While his conviction was under appeal he retracted his previous statements and denied everything. It was a frame-up, he said, all of it: he’d never confessed to anything and the FBI had planted all the evidence and the witnesses had lied. The police, meanwhile, stated he’d also confessed (over and over again…) to the murder of an unnamed “Negro waitress” from San Francisco and the only reason they weren’t going to charge him was because he was already under sentence of death.

The day he was executed, McGonigle wrote down a statement in longhand and left it with the warden:

I, Thomas Henry McGonigle, in this last testimony to the people declares [sic] that I did not shoot Thora Chamberlain and did not throw her body over a cliff and I have never made any such confession that I shot Thora Chamberlain in Santa Cruz County.

Santa Cruz County Sheriff Wallace P. “Bud” Hendrick didn’t agree. He witnessed the execution and later told reporters, “He threw his head back and gasped three times. Every time he gasped with that look of pain and death about him, I smiled. He was the most despicable … that ever walked the face of the earth. I only wish it could have taken longer.”

(Robert E. Cornish, a mad scientist and former child prodigy who made various Frankensteinian attempts to raise dead animals, wanted to try reviving a death row inmate after an execution. McGonigle volunteered himself for the experiment, but permission was denied.)

As for Thora, her body is presumed to have washed out to sea. She remains listed in missing persons databases, however, in the unlikely event that it turns up.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Gassed,Guest Writers,Murder,Other Voices,Rape,USA

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1874: Marshall Martin, “an innocent man compared to that woman”

Add comment January 23rd, 2018 Robert Elder

(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. This post originally appeared on the Last Words blog. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)

Gentlemen, I am here to die, but I am an innocent man compared to that woman. She deserves death ten times more than I do.

-Marshall Martin, convicted of murder, hanging, California. Executed January 23, 1874

Martin’s work supervisor was Valentine Eischler, whose marriage with wife Elizabeth was in the course of unraveling. According to Martin’s testimony, Elizabeth seduced him and urged him to murder her husband. Eventually, Eischler died in an attack with an ax, with both parties claiming responsibility at different times. Elizabeth pleaded insanity and was sent to an asylum. Martin was convicted of first-degree murder. It’s worth noting that the Chicago Daily Tribune recorded slightly different last words: “Gentlemen: I want you all to understand that I am here to die; but I am an innocent man; I don’t deserve this. The woman that caused me to do this deserves death a thousand more times than I do. That’s all I have to say.” Martin’s hanging was particularly gruesome, as recorded by the newspaper Alta California: “Although there was a drop of only six feet, the body dropped headless to the ground. His head rebounded a distance of six feet.”

(Also see a 2011 feature on the crime and the hanging in the San Jose Mercury News: Part 1 | Part 2 -ed.)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Murder,Other Voices,Sex,USA

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1898: George Clark, fratricide

Add comment October 21st, 2017 Headsman

From the San Diego Union, January 25, 1898:

Napa, Cal., Jan. 24. — In the presence of the sheriff and district attorney of Napa county, and of six other witnesses, George Willard Clark has confessed that he was the murderer of his brother, W.A. Clark, at St. Helena on last Thursday.

Mrs. Levina Clark was married to William A. Clark more more [sic] than twenty years ago in Clay county, Illinois. She is 46 years old and the mother of seven children. George W. Clark, the murderer, became intimate with her thirteen or fourteen years ago. Their relations continued while the husband was in California making a home for her, and during that time a child was born of which George Clark was the father.

After coming to California to live at and near St. Helena, Napa county, Mrs. Clark professed Christianity, and attempted to break off relations with her brother-in-law, but he persisted in his attentions. At times he asked her if she would live with him in case of her husband’s death. Last month he put strychnine in his brother’s coffee on two occasions, but the brother detected the poison and had the coffee analyzed by a druggist. Then, on Thursday morning George Clark lay in wait for his brother and shot him, while he was preparing breakfast in the kitchen of his St. Helena home.

The murderer was brought to Napa. On Saturday Mrs. Clark told at the inquest the story of her relations with her brother-in-law, but George Clark continued to declare his innocence of t[h]e murder, until he was finally induced to make a full confess, the details of which do not differ materially from the facts of the crime already reported and confirmed by the statement of Mrs. Clark.


From the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, January 26, 1898:

The pretty little city of St. Helena nestling in the picturesque Napa valley just a few miles from the Sonoma county line is now shocked and dismayed over one of the most hideous crimes, bristling with the darkest sense of horror, frightful in its details.

The circumstances attending the cruel murder of William A. Clark in the gray dawn of last Thursday morning at St. Helena, as told by the murdered man’s wife at the inquest held Saturday, and on Sunday in the confession of the accused brother of the deceased, were such as to cause stout men’s hearts to quail and to paralyze the better feelings of the women of St. Helena who know Mrs. Clark, not, however, to respect her for many of them had known of her character long before the awful story of the crime.

A PRESS DEMOCRAT reporter spent several hours at St. Helena Sunday and visited the scene of the tragedy. Everything around the town seemed gloomy. A pall seemed to have enveloped the vicinity of the little homestead where the cruel bullet fulfilled its ghastly mission and robbed W.A. Clark of his life.

A glimpse was caught of Mrs. Clark’s face. To say the least of it, it was repulsive. The pictures of her which have appeared in the metropolitan dailies, if anything, flatter her. She is big, ungainly in figure, and not the least bit pretty. What surprises the people of St. Helena and everyone else who knows her, whether by sight or by description, is that any man, especially the brother of him who had taken her to be his wife, could have become infatuated with such a creature as to commit a foul murder in order to marry her, coupled with almost certain discovery of the crime, and the accompanying reward of capital punishment for the offense.

By the people of St. Helena Mrs. Clark is not pitied. How could she be after the revolting story of the double life led by her with the self confessed murderer at the inquest? No. Vina Clark is left alone in her “sorrow.”

Many people are ready to accuse the wretched woman of being a party to the crime. The trend of her dreadful story regarding her illicit relations with her dead husband’s brother, coupled with the repeated declarations of George Clark that she had many times promised to marry him if her husband should die, would seem to prove that she is morally, if not legally an accessory to the terrible crime.

On Saturday night and Sunday, after the revelations made at the inquest, the guilt of George Clark was firmly established in the minds of every resident of St. Helena. Ask everybody you met on the streets of that city as to what their opinion was of the murder and they would reply: “The most cold blooded affair ever perpetrated and beyond doubt the brother did the deed.”

The circumstances of the killing are familiar to the readers of the PRESS DEMOCRAT. Last Thursday morning W.A. Clark was shot down at his home at St. Helena. George W. Colgan was the first person to bring the news to Santa Rosa, and the PRESS DEMOCRAT was the first paper north of San Francisco to publish the report.

Soon after the crime the officers suspected George Clark of the murder. Why? Because it had been rumored in the community that it was George Clark who had on two occasions tried to poison his brother by putting strychnine in his coffee. The officers knew this.

The officers went to George Clark’s house. They found him in bed. He was apparently asleep. He was awakened and told of the murder. He expressed great surprise and consternation at the news.

The officers espied under the bed the suspects’ shoes. Those shoes were wet with fresh mud. A few minutes later those shoes corresponded with the prints in the mud at the murdered man’s house. Little by little the yoke was clasped upon the brother’s shoulders, and he is now awaiting trial in Napa county jail.


From the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, October 8, 1898

San Quentin, Oct. 5. — George W. Clark, who is to be hanged at San Quentin Friday of next week, has made formal confession that he, and he alone, is responsible for the death of his brother.

Clark, it will be remembered, is the man who was enamored of his brother’s wife, and with whom he had sustained forbidden relations.

He imagined that if his brother were put out of the way the woman would marry him.

Detection quickly followed the commission of the crime, and for a time Mrs. Clark was believed to be implicated.

The confession of the condemned man is made with a view of clearing her, as he had previously intimated that she had been aware of his intention to commit murder. The confession is as follows:

San Quentin state prison, Cal., October 4, A.D. 1898. — To whom it may concern: I, George W. Clark, incarcerate, believing that I am about to die, and sincerely desiring in these, my last days on earth, that the truth with reference to the specific crime with which I stand charged, shall be known, do hereby solemnly state that I, and I alone, am guilty of the same. That no one save myself alone was in any wise implicated in the same either before or after the fact, and the same was wholly plotted, planned, arranged and executed by myself with the knowledge or consent directly or indirectly of no one save myself only. I make this my last statement, more particularly to and to exhonerate [sic] one Mrs. Lavina Clark, then wife and present widow of William A. Clark, now deceased. I positively aver that she was not implicated therein in any shape or form, and so far as my knowledge goes had no knowledge or suspicion thereof.

(Signed)
G.W. Clark.

Witness: F.L. Abrogast, B.J. O’Neil.


From the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, October 22, 1898

San Quentin, Oct. 21. — George W. Clark of St. Helena, who murdered his brother because he loved the brother’s wife, was executed this morning at the penitentiary here. Coward though nature made the man, religion was able to transform him. Even Durrant was not more cool than Clark when he stepped on the death trap. The officers of the prison, knowing the mental and moral weakness of the fratricide, were prepared for what they most dread, a “scene” at the gallows. Until recently Clark shrank with most pitiable terror from the fate that the sentence had set upon him. Within the past few days, however, Chaplain Drahm the prison [sic] converted the condemned man and filled him with fortitude and resignation. Clark’s guards thought it was merely a temporary exultation of spirit that would depart when the prisoner stood on the brink of death. They erred.

An hour before his execution Clark said to a press representative that he would die like a brave man.

I am ready. The grave has no terrors for me; death has lost its sting. The Lord has been very good to me and I bear up bravely through this aid. My hope is in God. His strength and not my own supports me today.

Beyond acknowledging my gratitude to God I have no statement to make. In the next life I shall receive my just due. I bear malice to no man, have no complaint to make, and will spend my last hour in pious exercises. The prison officials have been very kind. They could not have done more for me than they have done.

Then Clark began to pray with Chaplain Drahm. With hymns and prayer they passed the speeding minutes until at 10:25 o’clock Warden Hale interrupted the devotions. The fratricide waived the reading of the death warrant. Guards fastened straps to his wrists and ankles and the little procession formed and [ … ] to the slate-colored gallows in the next room.

Clark climbed the thirteen steps of the scaffold with firm tread. Of the fifty spectators a number were from Napa county. From the death trap Clark recognized a number of acquaintances to whom he nodded and smiled, as though he were passing them on the street.

Quickly the knot was adjusted behind his ear, the black cap was drawn over his face, Amos Lunt, the hangman, lifted his hand as a signal, three concealed men cut three ropes, one of which released the trap, and the body of the fratricide dropped and hung quite still.

Prison Surgeon Lawler, assisted by Dr. Mish of San Francisco and Dr. Jones of San Rafael, felt for the pulses and for respiratory movements. It was 10:32 o’clock when the body dropped. Ten minutes later the pulses ceased to beat and the lungs to expand. The corpse was cut down and laid in a coffin.

Mindful of the ghastly incident of last Friday, when the rope nearly pulled Miller’s head from the trunk, Warden Hale was cautious that Clark should not be cut. The rope was given only five feet of slack, and after the execution the head of the corpse swung in the very aperture left by the opened trap door. It was a nice calculation, well made. The stiff, new hemp caused a slight abrasion from which blood trickled, but the flesh was not torn.

Clark murdered his brother that he might be free to marry his brother’s widow. He had been unlawfully intimate with the woman during thirteen years.

Very early one morning Clark went to his brother’s hom and found the man whom he was about to murder lighting the kitchen fire. Clark crept to a window and shot his brother from the rear. The victim died instantly.

Clark was arrested on suspicion, and in the county jail at Napa broke down and confessed. He was convicted on March 23 of murder in the first degree. He was the twenty-first man hanged at San Quentin penitentiary.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Sex,USA

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1815: St. Peter the Aleut, the martyr of San Francisco

Add comment September 24th, 2017 Headsman

September 24 is the feast date in the Orthodox Christian tradition of Peter the Aleut.

As one might infer from his sobriquet, Peter the Aleut* — Chukagnak, to call him by the name of his birth — was a North American indigene whose canonization story features cultural collision all the way down.

Originally from Kodiak Island, Peter’s soul was won for Christ via the Russian Empire’s eastward expansion across the Bering Strait to Alaska.

Come the early 19th century the Russian-American Company that was Moscow’s chartered vehicle in the colonization game had pressed south seeking more favorable climes** with a fort in northern California supplying a network of outposts that stretched far south as Bodega Bay,† near the present-day San Francisco area.

Russia’s southerly excursions would collide with Spanish exploration pressing north: in their intersection lies the context for Peter the Aleut’s martyrdom.

The story in a nutshell is that a party of Alaskan natives in California under Russian colors was caught out hunting seals or otters by Spanish soldiers who took them captive. Peter and another Alaskan native convert called Ivan Kiglay were eventually left imprisoned together in a Spanish mission and ordered to convert to Catholicism on pain of death. When they refused, Peter was indeed slain — horribly tortured to death by having his extremities cut away while living, before finally being disemboweled.

Ivan Kiglay is the eyewitness source of this information, spared from sharing Peter’s chalice for unclear reasons. The blog OrthodoxHistory.org has done yeoman coverage of this controversial event or “event” and its overview post “Is the St. Peter the Aleut Story True?” is well worth exploring.‡ In 2011, the same site posted a rare English translation of the original Russian-language Ivan Kiglay deposition, excerpted (lightly tidied) below:

Missioners and the leader of the named above mission (whose name he does not remember) made a request to all the Kodiak dwellers to convert to the Catholic religion, to which they replied that they have already converted to a Christian religion on Kodiak, and they do not want to convert to any other religion. In a short time, Tarasov and other Kodiak dwellers [i.e., all the other Alaskans] were transferred to Saint Barbara. Though he (Kiglay Ivan) and wounded Chukagnak, were left in the mentioned mission, were kept with Indian criminals in the prison for several days, without food and water.

[One night] the chief of the mission brought the order to convert but they did not comply, despite the critical situation that they faced. On the sunrise of the next day a religious clerk came to the prison, accompanied by betrayed Indians, and called them out of the prison; Indians surrounded them, and by order started to cut (chop) Chukagnak’s fingers by articulations, from both hands and [after that] arms, and in the end cut his stomach (abdomen), by that time, he was already dead. That should have happened also to Kiglay, but at that time to the priest was brought a paper (he does not know from where and from whom). After reading that, [the priest] ordered to bury the body of the dead Chukagnak from Kasguiatskovo in the same place, and he [Kiglay] was sent back to prison.

Ivan Kiglay himself only delivered this information in 1819, four years after the alleged events, because he had ultimately to escape from a period of Spanish enslavement. In 1820 the Russian-American Company official Symeon Ivanovich Yanovsky forwarded the same report to a monastery in the motherland along with his endorsement of Ivan’s credibility (“He is not the type who could think up things”).

Unless you’re cocking an eyebrow at the convenient and mysterious last-second reprieve, there’s no particular reason to doubt the sincerity of the original deposition or of Yanovsky as interlocutor. However, there’s also no apparent corroboration of the incident known from Catholic records and the forced conversion backed by such an outlandish murder seems at odds with Spanish behavior on this particular frontier. A much later sentimental embroidery by Yanovsky from 1865 blurs the Peter story into outright hagiography. The documentary trail is so thin and questionable that everything about Peter the Aleut down to his actual existence has been hotly debated since.

Russia’s probes of California came to naught, of course — and Spain’s too for that matter, considering the Mexican War of Independence already in progress in this decade. All this land, and Alaska too, were marked for a different empire rising on the far side of the continent … and Russia’s Alaskan evangels would not in the end extend the Third Rome into the New World, but instead form the germ of the Orthodox Church in America. Today, St. Peter the Aleut is honored by Orthodox communities throughout the United States as the “martyr of San Francisco” (although this proximity for the martyrdom is also uncertain).


Shrine to Peter the Aleut in Kodiak, Alaska. (cc) image by Jesuit anthropologist Raymond Bucko, SJ.

* The descriptor “Aleut” was applied indiscriminately here, but by now it has the blessing of tradition. A more discriminating ethnography would reckon Peter and his Kodiak origins not an Aleut (from the Aleutian Islands) but an Alutiiq.

** Apart from the events narrated in this post, the Russian-American Company also dropped a fortress on Hawaii and even attempted an ill-considered takeover.

† Arriving there long before Alfred Hitchcock.

Our grim site does not pretend an opinion on whether and how religions ought to enshrine their saints … but for those curious about how St. Peter’s questionable historicity plays vis-a-vis his canonization, OrthodoxHistory.org has you covered.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Alaska,Borderline "Executions",California,Disfavored Minorities,Dismembered,Execution,God,Gruesome Methods,History,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Religious Figures,Russia,Spain,Torture,USA

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1888: Alexander Goldenson, San Francisco obsessive

Add comment September 14th, 2017 Headsman

Alexander Goldenson, an emigre “young, hot-tempered fellow [who] affects the style of dress adopted by the hoodlum element of the rising generation,” was hanged in San Francisco on this date in 1888 for gunning down 14-year-old Mamie Kelly, with whom he had apparently become obsessed. He went to the gallows clutching a photo of his victim — hoping he was about to join her in paradise.*

The story has a timeless quality to it: a smart but disturbed adolescent careening into sexual derangement; a young girl whose first crush became her budding stalker.

It also has a distinct 19th century throwback feel: implausibly esteemed “the first of the Hebrew race who has in this country committed the crime of murder,” Goldenson was the target of a lynching attempt — a would-be revival of a San Francisco tradition from gold rush days. When they finally noosed him under color of law 22 months after the murder, the sheriff issued too many invitations and “the capacity of the jail was overtaxed, many with tickets were unable to get in, and the crowd was one of the noisiest and most turbulent that ever thronged Broadway in front of the old jail.”

Goldenson is the subject of at least two very fine profiles already existing in this vast World Wide Web with ample primary research which we can scarcely hope to improve upon.

  • Our longtime friends at Murder by Gaslight profile “The School-girl Murder” here

  • Shades of the Departed found an intriguing artifact of the crime in an online auction and followed the threads to produce this great three-parter: Part I | Part II | Part III

* He converted to Catholicism hours before his execution, perhaps with this very object in mind. It didn’t work as far as the mortal remains went, anyway: pissed about the conversion, his Russian Jewish mother refused to release his body to the priest for a Catholic burial; and, pissed about the conversion, the Jewish cemetery wouldn’t take him either. He had to settle for the Odd Fellow’s Cemetery.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Jews,Murder,Sex,USA

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1960: George Scott

Add comment September 7th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1960, a goon went to the San Quentin gas chamber for his violent retort.

On the evening of December 30, 1958, George Albert Scott was exiting a Melrose cafe with his partner in crime Curtis Lichtenwalter, having profitably held up the joint with a sawed-off shotgun.

A Samuel Goldwyn Studio executive with very poor timing named Kenneth Savoy just happened to be walking in the door as the robbers were walking out, and Scott decided to augment their takings en passant.

“Just a minute, mister,” Scott hailed Savoy (according to this Los Angeles Times blog retrospective). “Give your wallet.”

Savoy upped the ante with a bravado that he might have regretted seconds later when Scott’s shotgun blasted him in the stomach: “I’m single and have no responsibilities — no one will miss me. If you want my wallet, you will have to shoot me first.”

This was the first casualty in the course of several Los Angeles stickups the pair had perpetrated that December. Lichtenwalter, who had no previous criminal record, bailed out of the duo’s Jesse James act after this but the parolee Scott went on to knock over a couple more places before he was cornered in a hotel with a woman named Barbara White, picturesquely described via a lax Eisenhower-era Times copyeditor as “a former woman wrestler.”

Scott made multiple suicide attempts during his death row stint, ranging from a gory throat-slashing at his sanity hearing to (according to the Associated Press wire dispatch*) three tries on the more desperate end of the spectrum on the literal eve of his execution:

First he smashed a light globe and stuffed glass in his mouth. A doctor said he was not harmed seriously.

Two hours later, guards reported, he stood on his cot and dived against the wall with his head.

Restrained, he eluded guards and began ramming his head against the cell wall.

He went to his death calmly, and with a skull-splitting headache.

* Quoted here from the Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle of September 9, 1960.

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

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1852: Nathaniel Bowman, William Ide inspiration

Add comment April 24th, 2017 Headsman

This date’s anecdote, from a public domain local history, concerns the April 24, 1852 hanging of Nathaniel Bowman. Bowman has the minor distinction of being the first person executed in California’s Colusa County.

Bowman would not escape his execution but his attempt to do so summoned the offices of William B. Ide, a pioneer who had led a revolt in Mexico’s Alta California and thereafter headed the very short-lived California Republic — an affair sometimes remembered as the “Bear Flag Revolt” for the sigil still used today by the state.


The present-day California flag.

The service Ide would render his countrymen in this post was among the last of his life: he died of smallpox later in 1852.

The first legal execution in Colusa County occurred in the spring of 1852. Nathaniel Bowman was convicted of murder in the first degree for killing Levi Seigler by beating him over the head with a bottle.*

There was no jail then, and during the trial Bowman was placed under guard at Monroeville. After his conviction he nearly made good his escape. In some manner he eluded the vigilance of his guard and, still shackled, hobbled to the home of Jesse Sheppard, where he begged piteously to have his irons filed off. Sheppard, however, took him back and turned him over to the authorities at Monroeville, where he was executed soon afterwards.

This episode clearly showed the necessity of having some safe place of detention for prisoners.

With his characteristic resourcefulness in emergencies, William B. Ide met this situation also. He obtained some bar iron and bolts from San Francisco and fashioned a cage. This he placed in the shade of a great oak in front of the hotel in Monroeville, which did duty at that time as the county courthouse also. This simple expedient solved the problem until the seat of government was transferred to Colusa in 1854, whereupon Ide’s cage was removed also, to continue duty as a cell in the county jail in Colusa.

* The Sacramento News (April 27, 1852) advises that Bowman “addressed the assembled crowd, from the scaffold, and stated that it was not his intention to kill Seigler, but to beat him badly.”

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,California,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Milestones,Murder,Public Executions,USA

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1888: Leong Sing

Add comment December 28th, 2016 Headsman

From the San Francisco Bulletin, Dec. 28 1888:

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

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1924: A day in the death penalty around the U.S.

Add comment December 12th, 2016 Headsman

From the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Dec. 13, 1924:

Shreveport, La., Dec. 12 — Alfred Sharpe, about 25 years old, a negro, was hanged here today at 12:16 p.m. for the murder of Tom Askew, a white man, veteran of the World war and manager of a plantation near Keithville, which occurred last September 9.

Sharpe, in a statement just before going to the gallows blamed liquor for his trouble. He admitted since his captured two days after the killing that he was guilty.

The negro, who was unable to read or write, and did noot know his exact age, said as he mounted the scaffld: “I know I violated the law and that the law must be fulfilled.”

From the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Dec. 11, 1924:

COUMBUS, O., Dec. 11. — Alexander Kuszik, 20, of Akron, must die in the electric chair at the state penitentiary shortly after 1 a.m. tomorrow for the murder of his thirteen-year-old cousin, Elizabeth Nagy, who spurned his proffered love.

Gov. A.V. Donahey late today denied a last minute appeal by Kuszi’s counsel that the death sentence be commuted to life imprisonment. This plea, supplemented by the testimony of three alienists [psychologists — ed.] to the effect that Kuszik was not mentally responsible for his acts at the time of the crime’s commission, failed to convince the governor, however, that he should exercise his powers to extend clemency

Even Kuszik’s counsel, C.G. Roetzel, former prosecutor of Summit county, admitted the crime for which Kuszik was convicted was one of the most brutal on record, and made no claim the prisoner was insane. Roetzel based his plea for clemency on the theory, supported by alienists, that Kuszik was mentally irresponsible although he did know the difference between right and wrong.

Theory of Alienists.

The alienists advancing this theory were Dr. J.C. Hassall, superintendent of Fair aks sanitorium, Cuyahoga Falls; Dr. Arthur G. Hyde, superintendent of the Massillon State hospital, and Dr. D.H. Morgan of Akron.

Drs. Hassall and Hyde had made their observations of Kuszik within twenty-four hours after the crime had been committed. Dr. Morgan made his observations about a month later.

These specialists made their examinations at the request of Prosecutor Arthur W. Doyle, but their testimny was not used at the time of the trial, Dr. Doyle explained, because he reached his own conclusion that Kuszik was responsible for his acts.

Countering the views of this group of alienists was the testimony of three others who, after making an examination of Kuszik at the governor’s request, reported that the youth not only was not insane but that he was mentally responsible.

Mentality Subnormal.

These alienists were Dr. Charles F. Clark, superintendent of the Lima State hospital; Dr. H.H. Pritchard, superintendent of the Columbus State hospital, and Dr. Guy Williams, superintendent of the Cleveland State hospital. They all said Kuszik had no mental disorders. All the alienists had agreed that Kuszik’s mentality was sub-normal — that it represented the mentality of a child of about 11.

Prosecutor Doyle told the governor that, in his opinion, so long as the state recognizes capital punishment Kuszik’s case was one in which it should be used.

Kuszik exhibited no concern when told his appeal had been denied and that he was to die.

In complete control of his faculties, he walked even jauntily to the death cell to spend his few remaining hours.

“The youth has shown more spirit today than at any time since confined,” Warden P.E. Thomas said.

Two consecutive stories from the Portland (Ore.) Oregonian, Dec. 13, 1924:

WALLA WALLA, Wash., Dec. 12. — Thomas Walton, convicted of the murder of S.P. Burt, a fellow convict, in the state penitentiary here October 7, 1923, was hanged at the penitentiary this morning. The trap was sprung at 5:06 A.M. and the prison physicians pronounced him dead 10 minutes later.

Walking to his death with the same fearlessness that he has displayed since the beginning of his prison career, Walton refused to make any final statement and even declined to talk with Rev. A.R. Liverett, prison chaplain, or Father Buckley, Catholic priest, in his cell prior to the execution.

His body will be sent to relatives in Montague, Cal.

Although Walton paid the penalty for killing Burt, he has of official record killed two other men. The first was in 1915 in California, for which he was sentenced to life imprisonment in San Quentin prison. The other was that of George McDonald, cellmate of Burt, whom he stabbed following his attack on Burt.

Walton and Burt were life termers in San Quentin and made their escape together in a prison automobile in January, 1923.

FOLSOM, Cal., Dec. 12 — Robert Matthews, negro, convicted of the murder of Coleman Stone, a grocer near Los Angeles, was hanged at the state prison here this morning. [Joe] Sinuel will be hanged next Friday.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,Hanged,Louisiana,Murder,Ohio,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA,Washington

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