Posts filed under 'Confederates'

1922: Henri Landru, French Bluebeard

Add comment February 25th, 2010 Headsman

“Widower with two children, aged 43, with comfortable income, serious and moving in good society, desires to meet widow with a view to matrimony.”

The personal ads sections of the Parisian papers were the stalking-grounds of French Bluebeard Henri Désiré Landru, guillotined in Versailles this date in 1922.

A former soldier himself, Landru trawled the Craigslists of World War I for their ample population of ample war widows.

His M.O.: enchant one into letting him get his hands on her huge … fortune.

(No, really. Her fortune.)

Then, kill her and incinerate the body in his kitchen stove.

Repeat x10 (plus one teenage son of one the widows), and you’ve got yourself your basic Bluebeard.

Landru’s story inspired the 1947 Charlie Chaplain flick Monsieur Verdoux.

And that’s not the only thing of Landru’s that made it to Hollywood. His severed dome is on exhibit at the Museum of Death.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Common Criminals,Confederates,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Murder,Pelf,Public Executions,Serial Killers,Sex,Theft

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1865: John Yates Beall, well-connected Confederate

56 comments February 24th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1865, Confederate John Yates Beall was hanged at Governors Island, New York, as a spy and saboteur.

This Virginian was knocked out of regular service through injuries early in the Civil War, but proceeded to a privateering career harassing Union shipping.

The pinpricks inflicted by Beall’s couple of ships was hardly calamitous for the North, but what he lacked in resources he made up in persistence.

Captured and exchanged midway through the war, he returned to his swashbuckling ways. But sneaking into New York from Canada in a bid to free rebel prisoners, Beall was caught again trying to derail trains — and secretly condemned by a military tribunal.

When the news of his impending execution got out, six Senators and 85 other members of Congress* appealed for leniency.

Despite Lincoln’s reputation for clemency, he did not grant it in this case.

“For days before the execution,” it was said, “the President closed the doors of the executive palace against all suppliants, male or female, and his ears against all appeals, whether with the tongue of men or angels in behalf of the unfortunate prisoner. From the first Mr. Lincoln had responded to all applications for his interposition — ‘Gen. Dix may dispose of the case as he pleases — I will not interfere.’ Gen. Dix on his part replied, ‘All now rests with the President — as far as my action rests there is not a gleam of hope.’ Thus they stood as the pillars of the gallows, on which Beall’s fate was suspended and between them he died.” (Source)

Here’s the capture-trial-and-execution portions of a homemade documentary on Beall (also check the preceding parts 1, 2, and 3)

There’s a strange tradition that the hanged man was a personal friend of John Wilkes Booth, and that the actor’s assassination of Honest Abe seven weeks after Beall’s hanging was partly motivated by personal revenge.

* One of Beall’s clemency supporters was future assassinated U.S. President James Garfield.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Confederates,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,New York,Pirates,Power,Soldiers,Spies,USA,War Crimes,Wartime Executions

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1862: An unknown Confederate deserter

1 comment December 19th, 2009 Headsman

From a letter written by one Private Thomas Warrick of Alabama, cited in The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy by Bell Irvin Wiley:

I saw a site today that made me feel mity Bad I saw a man shot for deserting there was twenty fore Guns shot at him thay shot him all to pease … he went home and thay Brote him Back and then he went home again and so they shot him for that Martha it was one site that I did hate to see it But I could not helpe my self I had to do Jest as thay sed for me to doo.

This unknown soldier shot “all to pease” had just run afoul of Gen. Braxton Bragg‘s draconian anti-desertion policy meant to crack down on soldiers going AWOL for casual leave, often to help the families they had left behind keep up the farm.

As Wiley points out, our letter-writer Private Warrick was himself planning to do just that.

Bragg’s little salutary bloodbath evidently had its effect, because he didn’t go AWOL. Wiley quotes Warrick, now in a more Joe Friday mode than when he had promised to “come home Eny how”, writing his parents in 1864,

I would be glad to see you all now but I recon that I have bin home my last time till this war closes.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Confederates,Death Penalty,Desertion,Execution,History,Known But To God,Military Crimes,Separatists,Shot,Soldiers,Tennessee,USA,Wartime Executions

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1864: Six of Mosby’s Rangers

5 comments September 23rd, 2009 Headsman

It was on this date in 1864* that an infamous Union war crime took place in Front Royal, Virginia.

Union forces in the Old Dominion were bedeviled by John Singleton Mosby, whose bold and legendary guerrilla tactics are commemorated in Herman Melville’s “The Scout Toward Aldie”:

All spake of him, but few had seen
Except the maimed ones or the low;
Yet rumor made him every thing–
A farmer–woodman–refugee–
The man who crossed the field but now;
A spell about his life did cling —
Who to the ground shall Mosby bring?

In 1864, the “Gray Ghost” haunted the Shenandoah Valley, and his spooky brand of warfare eventually goaded the Union into crossing the streams.

Allegedly raging from the murder by Mosby’s troops of a surrendering northern cavalryman, the blues rounded up six captured Mosby men — actually only five, plus one 17-year-old civilian who had opportunistically joined the fray — and summarily executed them.

David Jones, Lucien Love and Thomas Anderson were shot. So was the aforementioned civilian, Henry Rhodes, under the eyes of his shrieking mother.

Then, two last unfortunates were hanged. William Thomas Overton spurned an offer of clemency in exchange for information on Mosby’s hideouts with the memorable parting, “Mosby will hang 10 of you for every one of us.”

Not quite so … but not an empty threat, either. Weeks later, Mosby would order the retaliatory executions of a like number** of randomly-selected Union prisoners of war, and communicate this intelligence to his foes along with his (successful) suit to resume more gentlemanly methods of killing one another.

* Some sources (including some cited in this post) claim September 22nd. The consensus of authoritative sources appears to be clearly September 23rd. The Gray Ghost himself may be one source of the confusion; according to Custer and the Front Royal Executions, “In his memoirs, which were published over 50 years after the event, Mosby got the date wrong, apparently based upon one of the newspaper accounts … [which] stated that the Front Royal incident occurred on September 22, not September 23, the date upon which it actually did occur.”

** Seven were condemned in retaliation, for these six plus a separate execution that occurred Oct. 13.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Confederates,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Power,Separatists,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,USA,Virginia,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1862: William B. Mumford, flag desecrator

5 comments June 7th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1862, a 42-year-old gambler hanged at the New Orleans mint where, six weeks before, he had pulled down the Stars and Stripes of the arriving Union occupiers to the delight of a Confederate mob.

Moving to secure the Mississippi, Northern forces had the Big Easy encircled and about to surrender when, an advance team landed in the undefended city and pulled down the Stars and Bars over the mint on Esplanade Avenue.

William Bruce Mumford was among the Confederate loyalists who took exception to the Yankee flag, so he chopped it down and dragged it through the street (provoking a cannonade from a Union warship). The flag was little but tatters by the time he had through with it.

Although the city was not officially occupied at the time of this incident, the mint was a federal building. Army General Benjamin Butler resolved to make a salutary example out of the incident to quell any possible civil unrest.

I find the city under the dominion of a mob. They have insulted our flag — torn it down with indignity. This outrage will be punished in such a manner as in my judgment will caution both the perpetrators and abettors of the act, so that they will fear the stripes, if they do not reverence the stars of our banner.

Butler, it should be allowed, had some reason for this conclusion. The Picayune exulted the act as, well, a call to resistance.

The names of the party that distinguished themselves by gallantly tearing down the flag that had been surreptitiously hoisted, we learn, are W. B. Mumford, who cut it loose from the flag-staff amid the shower of grape. Lieutenant N. Holmes, Sergeant Burns and James Reed. They deserve great credit for their patriotic act. New Orleans, in this hour of adversity, by the calm dignity she displays in the presence of the enemy, by the proof she gives of her unflinching determination to sustain to the uttermost the righteous cause for which she has done so much and made such great sacrifices, by her serene endurance undismayed of the evil which afllicts her, and her abiding confidence in the not distant coming of better and brighter days — of speedy deliverance from the enemy’s toils — is showing a bright example to her sister cities, and proving herself, in all respects, worthy of the proud position she has achieved. We glory in being a citizen of this great metropolis.

This free book argues that Butler’s clemency a few days before to a group of condemned southern enlisted men made mercy politically impossible in the Mumford case, lest the citizenry interpret executive weakness as an invitation to lawlessness.

If that was Butler’s calculus, Confederate die-hards did not appreciate it.

Accordingly, when Mumford was “hung … from a flag-staff projecting from one of the windows under the front portico” of the mint, he won promotion into the pantheon of southern martyrs.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis issued an order condemning General Butler, and even his officers, to death, along with some outsized bluster about embargoing prisoner exchanges that the Confederacy had not the manpower to seriously intend:

William B. Mumford, a citizen of this Confederacy, was actually and publicly executed in cold blood by hanging alter the occupation of the city of New Orleans by the forces under the command of General Benjamin F. Butler when said Mumford was an unresisting and non-combatant captive, and for no offense even alleged to have been committed by him subsequent to the date of the capture of the said city …

the silence of the Government of the United States and its maintaining of said Butler in high office under its authority for many months after his commission of an act that can be viewed in no other light than as a deliberate murder, as well as of numerous other outrages and atrocities hereafter to be mentioned, afford evidence only too conclusive that the said Government sanctions the conduct of said Butler and is determined that he shall remain unpunished for his crimes:

Now therefore I, Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America, and in their name do pronounce and declare the said Benjamin F. Butler to be a felon deserving of capital punishment. I do order that he be no longer considered or treated simply as a public enemy of the Confederate States of America but as an outlaw and common enemy of mankind, and that in the event of his capture the officer in command of the capturing force do cause him to be immediately executed by hanging; and I do further order that no commissioned officer of the United States taken captive shall be released on parole before exchange until the said Butler shall have met with due punishment for his crimes.

And whereas the hostilities waged against this Confederacy by the forces of the United States under the command of said Benjamin F. Butler have borne no resemblance to such warfare as is alone permissible by the rules of international law or the usages of civilization but have been characterized by repeated atrocities and outrages

… (examples of atrocities omitted) …

I, Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America and acting by their authority, appealing to the Divine Judge in attestation that their conduct is not guided by the passion of revenge but that they reluctantly yield to the solemn duty of repressing by necessary severity crimes of which their citizens are the victims, do issue this my proclamation, and by virtue of my authority as Commander-in-Chief of the Armies of the Confederate States do order-

1. That all commissioned officers in the command of said Benjamin F. Butler be declared not entitled to be considered as soldiers engaged in honorable warfare but as robbers and criminals deserving death, and that they and each of them be whenever captured reserved for execution.

2. That the private soldiers and non-commissioned officers in the army of said Butler be considered as only the instruments used for the commission of the crimes perpetrated by his orders and not as free agents; that they therefore be treated when captured as prisoners of war with kindness and humanity and be sent home on the usual parole that they will in no manner aid or serve the United States in any capacity during the continuance of this war unless duly exchanged.

3. That all negro slaves captured in arms be at once delivered over to the executive authorities of the respective States to which they belong to be dealt with according to the laws of said States.

4. That the like orders be executed in all cases with respect to all commissioned officers of the United States when found serving in company with armed slaves in insurrection against the authorities of the different States of this Confederacy.

The Confederates never got a chance to enforce the order; he resumed his colorful political career and died in 1893 hailed as Massachusetts’ greatest citizen-soldier. Complain (pdf) as they might of his iron-heeled rule, the residents of New Orleans had good cause to appreciate the relatively early and orderly occupation of their city, which spared it the flames visited on more recalcitrant rebel strongholds.

For the South, the loss of its largest city and the gateway to the Mississippi was a severe blow. As the rebel position crumbled in the months to come, Jefferson Davis must have had a worry for his own neck.

Somehow, he and every other Southerner escaped execution for their treasonable design, which leaves William Bruce Mumford, the riverboat gambler who tore down Old Glory, as the only American since at least the War of 1812 to be put to death for treason against the United States.*

* Anti-slavery rebel John Brown was hanged for treason in 1859, but it was treason against the state of Virginia — not against the U.S. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were electrocuted for espionage, not treason.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Confederates,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Louisiana,Martyrs,Milestones,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Separatists,Treason,USA,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1864: Two Dodds, as two spies, in two states, and twice botched

2 comments January 8th, 2009 Headsman

On January 8, 1864, young David Owen Dodd was hanged in Little Rock for spying on federal troops … and cavalryman Ephraim Dodd (no known relation) suffered the same fate for the same crime in Knoxville.

Just one of those strange coincidences.

Ephraim Dodd

Ephraim Shelby Dodd is the subject of an outstanding HistoryNet profile whose contents this blog can not so much improve upon as summarize.

A member of Terry’s Texas Rangers (“men who ride like Arabs and fight like devils”) Dodd was captured in December 1863 and convicted by his diary — a particularly harsh reading of his diary in which a reference to having passed himself off as a Yankee was interpreted as evidence of espionage. (The diary is available online and as part of a book on Terry’s Rangers.)

Knoxville worthies rallied to save him and Ephraim Dodd insisted upon his innocence, but not so vociferously that he displayed any terror of his fate.

Do not grieve for me, my dear parents, for I am leaving a world full of crime and sin for one of perfect bliss.

The hanging itself wasn’t bliss, exactly, despite a well-planned soundtrack.

From the “Death March” the music gradually slid into “Mary’s Dream,” and then we were carried back by the magic of the plaintive notes to juvenile days; to visions of “Sandy far at Sea,” and to the sad cadence of that fading refrain,

“When, soft and low, a voice she heard
Saying, Mary, weep no more for me.”

The solemn march, the wailing notes of the fife, and perhaps above all the calm, unmoved, manly bearing of the prisoner — so we thought — produced a mournful impression upon the spectators.

Points earned on artistic merit, however, were deducted for technique.

At a signal the bolt was now withdrawn, the culprit fell, but the cotton rope broke by the sudden tension, and the man lay stretched and stunned upon the frozen ground below. A mummer of horror, mingled with expressions of pity, ran through the assembled crowd. Recovering for an instant from the shock — for his neck was not broken — he said — perhaps incoherently: “Release me quick, if you please.” For some ten minutes the unfortunate man lay thus upon his back, without moving a muscle. Meantime the officers and men, whose painful duty it was to see to the execution of the law, adjusted this time two parts of the same rope instead of one, and the half-conscious man was borne up the fatal steps a second time, being partly supported upon the drop until the double noose had been adjusted. Not a word or sign of suffering all this time escaped his lips. In another moment the drop fell, and prisoner’s form now hung by the neck — the knot behind the head. Death finally ensued by strangulation. In ten minutes, Dr. Cogswell, the officiating surgeon, pronounced life extinct, and the body was taken down and buried.

David Owen Dodd

A few hours later and 500 miles down the way, the entirely unrelated hanging of David Owen Dodd proceeded in Little Rock, Ark.

David Dodd’s final resting place at Mount Holly cemetery. Image courtesy of Richard Theilig.

Only 17 at his hanging and not physically robust enough to get his brains blown out at Gettysburg, Dodd was sent by his father on a business trip across Union lines — everything legit, and carrying a pass — but got busted with morse code notations of Union troop strength in the city.

Unlike Ephraim, who was basically a normal soldier thrust into incriminating-looking circumstances by the chance of war, young David Dodd was rightly accused.

He didn’t bother protesting his innocence, but he also kept mum about his contacts. (Suggestively, a teenage girl and her father were whisked out of town and kept under guard in Vermont for the rest of the war.) That proud silence has won him quite a reputation in Arkansas as the Boy Hero of the Confederacy.

But similarities between the condemned men extended beyond their names. David’s parting filial reassurance could pass for a paraphrase of Ephraim’s.

[D]o not weep for me for I will be better off in heaven. I will soon be out of this world of sorrow and trouble.

And the hanging itself, conducted in a tense atmosphere, was likewise a botched job. In this case, the slight young man didn’t fall hard enough to break his neck, but did fall far enough to get his tiptoes on the ground, initiating an agonizingly protracted strangulation which the soldiers on detail expedited by (accounts differ) pulling on David Dodd’s legs and/or pulling up on the rope.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arkansas,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Children,Confederates,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,Famous,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Separatists,Soldiers,Spies,Tennessee,U.S. Military,USA,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1862: Nueces Massacre

August 10th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1862, German immigrants fleeing Confederate conscription were caught near Texas’ Nueces River and slain to a man.

The nomenclature of the “Nueces Massacre” is controversial since this party of Union loyalists making a leisurely pace* for Mexico got its shots off as it was gunned down in a gully by Texas Partisan Rangers in the predawn hours.

But the incident becomes a clear candidate for these pages with the summary execution of the surviving captured and wounded men later this day. Here’s the account of an obviously upset member of the Confederate party:

[S]ome of the more humane of us did what we could to ease the sufferings of the wounded Germans. They had fought a good fight, and bore themselves so pluckily I felt sorry I had taken my part against them. We bound up their wounds, and gave them water, and laid them as comfortably as we could in the shade. Poor creatures, how grateful they were!

He then pauses for breakfast and helps gather up the scattered German horses; we rejoin the narration after 4 o’clock in the afternoon.

I hurried over to where we had left the German wounded to see how they were getting on, and was surprised to find them gone. Asking what had become of them, I was told they had been moved to a better shade a short distance away. With this answer I was quite satisfied, and never dreamed the brutes with whom I served would be guilty of foul play, especially after the gallant fight the enemy had made.

Just then one of our wounded called for water, and I brought him some from the cool spring. As I was giving it to him, the sound of firing was heard a little way off. I thought at first they were burying some of the dead with the honors of war; but it didn’t sound like that either. Then, possibly it might be an attack on the camp; so I seized my rifle and ran in the direction of the firing. Presently I met a man coming from it who, when he saw me running, said, “You needn’t be in a hurry, it’s all done; they shot the poor devils, and finished them off.”

“It can’t possibly be they have murdered the prisoners in cold blood!” I said, not believing that even Luck [a villainous — to the diarist’s mind — lieutenant] would be guilty of such an atrocious crime. “Oh, yes; they’re all dead, sure enough — and a good job too!” Feeling sick at heart, though I hardly even then credited his report, I ran on, and found it only too true.

It seems they were asked if they wouldn’t like to be moved a little way off into better shade. The poor creatures willingly agreed, thanking their murderers for their kindness. They were carried away, but it was to the shade and shadow of death, for a party of cowardly wretches went over and shot them in cold blood.

More summary justice followed in the weeks ahead against members of the party who had escaped** and others, and Confederate Haengerbande would plague Texas Germans of insufficient southern enthusiasm for the remainder of the war.

Fred Shon Powers offers this detailed account of the affair; there’s another here.

This day’s victims are honored by the Treue der Union obelisk, the only Union monument in Confederate territory, a prominent distinction that (as with all things in the Civil War) invites political football. This conservative article throws cold water on the “Germans-as-antislavery-Unionists” trope, and academic papers from a 1990’s conference gathered in this volume treat Nueces among other topics of “disloyalty” in the Confederacy.


The photo is taken by Steve & Marion Daughtry In Comfort, Texas. Image used with permission.

* An escapee recounted decades later by way of explanation for the party’s fatal inattention to either haste or defense, “Having read a proclamation from the Confederate government announcing that all persons not friendly to it might leave the country, we believed we had a right to do so in large or small bodies, as best suited our convenience, to the border and there cross over into Mexico.”

** About half the group had separated from the main body just before the Confederates engaged them. From this number come the “escapees,” many of them later killed in the hills or while crossing into Mexico. Those who stayed put all died this day.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Confederates,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot,Summary Executions,Texas,USA,Wartime Executions

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1865: Four for Abraham Lincoln’s assassination

July 7th, 2008 Headsman

On a sweltering July 7, 1865, a mere 12 weeks after Abraham Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theater, four of his assassin’s accomplices were hanged in the courtyard of the District of Columbia’s Washington Arsenal — present-day Fort McNair, and specifically its tennis courts.

Booth, on the far left, playing Marc Antony in Julius Caesar opposite his brothers. He had Brutus’ example in mind, as he wrote in his diary while on the run: “with every man’s hand against me, I am here in despair. And why? For doing what Brutus was honored for.”

The exact nature of the conspiracy against the man who had seen the North to victory in the Civil War has been debated ever since actor John Wilkes Booth lodged a ball from his one-shot Derringer behind Honest Abe’s ear. But it was a conspiracy — an astoundingly bold one.

Simultaneous with Booth’s successful attack upon Lincoln, there was an unsuccessful attempt to kill Secretary of State William Seward; it would emerge in the investigation that another man had been detailed to murder Vice President Andrew Johnson, but got drunk and chickened out. The apparent upshot: with the President and Vice President dead, new national elections would be required to replace the Senator who would become acting president — and with the Secretary of State dead too, there’d be nobody to implement them. Booth was trying to paralyze the North with its own constitutional machinery in some desperate hope of reviving the defeated South.

Ten Against D.C.

Hundreds were detained in the stunning assassination’s immediate aftermath, but ten would ultimately be the federals’ targets. A massive manhunt pursued Booth through southern Maryland and into Virginia, where he was killed in a shootout. John Surratt, who had conspired with Booth in an earlier plot to kidnap the president — that failed plot had been reconfigured into the assassination — escaped from the country.

The other eight were rounded up and stashed at the Arsenal to face a military tribunal. It was a highly controversial arrangement: the war had entered a gray area — Robert E. Lee’s surrender just days before the murder had effectively ended the war, but when the trial opened in May Confederate President Jefferson Davis was still at large, and the last Southern general wouldn’t lay down his arms until late June. The District of Columbia was still technically under martial law … so would it do to use a military court?

Military Tribunal

So the government asked itself: government, would you rather have looser evidentiary rules and a lower bar of conviction than you would have in civil court? The government duly produced for the government an opinion that the military characteristic of the assassination — that is, to help whatever southern war effort still obtained — licensed the government to use the military courts.

That didn’t sit well with everyone. One former Attorney General griped:

If the offenders are done to death by that tribunal, however truly guilty, they will pass for martyrs with half the world.

Indeed, a year later, the Supreme Court’s landmark ex parte Milligan ruling would forbid the use of military courts where civilian courts are open — which they were in Washington, D.C.

That, of course, was too late to help Booth’s comrades. It would be a military trial, with a majority vote needed for conviction and no right of appeal but to the president for the most infamous crime of the Republic. Everyone had a pretty good idea what the results would be.

A cartoon depicting the defendants as Gallow's (sic) Birds.

Rogues’ Gallery

Two of the four today were doomed from the outset under any juridical arrangement imaginable: Lewis Powell (also known as Lewis Paine or Lewis Payne) had made the attempt on Secretary of State Seward; David Herold had guided him there with the getaway horse, and later escaped along with Booth. They were in way past their eyeballs. George Atzerodt, the schmo who couldn’t rise to the occasion of popping Andrew Johnson, looks a bit more peripheral from the distance of a century and a half, but in the weeks following the assassination he was much too close to the action to have any hope. All received death sentences.

Two others — Michael O’Laughlen and Samuel Arnold — had been involved in Booth’s earlier scheme to kidnap the president, but didn’t seem to have much to do with the murder. Still another two — Ned Spangler and Dr. Samuel Mudd* — were lesser participants. They all received long prison sentences for their pains, and the three of them still surviving were pardoned by Andrew Johnson as he left the presidency in 1869.

That left Mary Surratt, mother of the fugitive John and the only woman in the dock, the focus of attention and controversy. The 42-year-old widow owned a downtown boardinghouse, plus a tavern of sufficient importance at a Prince George’s County, Maryland, crossroads, that its community was called Surrattsville.**

The conspirators met frequently in her lodgings; Surratt maintained her innocence beyond that, but evidence and witness testimony began to pile up heavily against her … especially when Seward assailant Lewis Powell wandered into her place looking for refuge right while the police were questioning her. Booth and Herold turned out to have made a pit stop at her Surrattsville tavern to pick up a package of guns that Mary had prepared for them.

Though Surratt’s avowal of ignorance was not widely believed, a gesture of presidential mercy was anticipated — many thought (and think) she went on trial as a virtual hostage for her absconded son, who declined to take the bait. Strangely, five members of the nine-judge panel who condemned Mary Surratt turned around and asked President Johnson for clemency. Johnson claimed never to have seen the memo, but his mind seemed pretty made up — when Surratt won a habeas corpus stay on the morning of her scheduled hanging, he promptly “specially-suspended” the writ specifically to hang her:

I, Andrew Johnson, President of the United States do hereby declare that the writ of habeas corpus had been heretofore suspended in such cases as this; and I do hereby specially-suspend this writ, and direct that you proceed to execute the order heretofore given upon the judgment of the Military Commission.

Harsh treatment, and possibly well-deserved, for the first woman executed by the U.S. government. Even so, it does seem a curious thing when all is said and done that the mother of “the nest that hatched the egg” was worth a special suspension of the Great Writ, and even the stagehand who just held Booth’s horse for him caught six years, but old Jeff Davis — who apart from having figureheaded a treasonous four-year insurrection was implicated for giving Booth’s kidnapping plot official Confederate sanction — got to retire to write his memoirs.

Fine pages on the Lincoln assassination are here, here and here. There are also contemporary newspaper accounts posted online as filed for The Boston Post and The New York Herald.

The Surratt houses, by the way, are still standing. The Maryland tavern is kept as the Surratt House Museum by the Surratt Society. The downtown boarding house is a Chinese restaurant … marked with a plaque remembering more momentous doings than bubble tea.

The Chinatown restaurant where Mary Surratt had her boarding house ...

... as marked by plaque ...

... and how it looked back then.

* The panel voted 5-4 to hang Mudd, a Maryland doctor who not only set the leg Booth broke when he leaped onto the stage after shooting Lincoln, but then misdirected Booth’s pursuers. However, the rules for the trial said a two-thirds majority was required for execution.

** They changed the name after the unpleasantness. Today, it’s Clinton, Maryland.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Confederates,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Infamous,Maryland,Milestones,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Notable Jurisprudence,Notably Survived By,Popular Culture,Power,Scandal,Separatists,Treason,U.S. Federal,U.S. Military,USA,Wartime Executions,Washington DC,Women

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1864: William Johnson, a bad example

17 comments June 20th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1864, the Union army in the American Civil War hanged a black deserter outside Petersburg, Va., for — in the delicate words of the army dispatch — “an attempt to outrage the person of a young lady at the New-Kent Court-house.”

The Union army was just taking up position for the coming monthslong siege of the Confederate capital, Richmond. Johnson, who confessed to deserting another unit, offered savvy blue commanders a win-hearts-and-minds opportunity: a public reassurance that the Old Dominion’s dim view of Negro outrages upon young ladies would be honored by its soon-to-be occupiers.

Not bad in theory. The execution left something to be desired.

The field of public relations being very much in its infancy, the upshot of this salutary demonstration seems not to have been conveyed to its target audience; so, when a defending Confederate battery caught sight of the gallows being thrown up in brazen view of its own lines, it jumped to the not-unreasonable conclusion that the Yanks were about to make an example of a southern spy. Rebel guns promptly made the Union detachment their “target audience.” An artillery shot struck one Sgt. Maj. G. F. Polley (or Polly) and “tore him all to pieces” before

[a] flag of truce was sent out to inform the enemy that a negro was to be hung who had insulted a white woman the day before; they stopped firing. We then marched back and saw the negro hung.

The return on investment for the souls of Johnson and the misfortunate NCO was altogether unsatisfactory:

The incident was cleverly turned to advantage by the Confederates, who had been losing hundreds of Negro laborers by desertion. The Rebels marched Negroes past the spot, pointing out to them the perils of fleeing their lines, saying that the Yankees hanged all ‘Contrabands.’ For weeks nocturnal escapes of Negroes ceased on that front. (Source)

It wasn’t a total loss, however. The Library of Congress ended up with some striking archival photos.

(There’s a better touch-up of this last photograph of Johnson’s body being cut down here.)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Confederates,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Mature Content,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Political Expedience,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Soldiers,U.S. Military,USA,Virginia,Wartime Executions

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