On this date in 1884, a Louisiana man named Noah Jackson was hanged at Lake Providence for beating in the brains of his 15-year-old wife during a fit of jealousy. (She’d been only 13 years old when they married.)
Meanwhile, in Corsicana, Tx., Harrison Williams hanged for murdering his sister-in-law Ada Sallard.
“The particulars in the murder case,” reported the Dallas Weekly Herald on June 28, 1883, “are as follows:”
Munroe Sallard and Harrison Williams, two colored men living on adjoining farms about five miles from town, married sisters. Williams has been abusing his wife ever since their marriage; on Monday morning Williams beat his wife in a brutal manner, and on being remonstrated with by her sister, Mrs. Sallard, told her that if she said a word he would kill her. Mrs. Sallard started for town on horseback to have him arrested, and when near the fairgrounds on her way home was way-laid by Williams, who took her from her horse, tied a handkerchief around her throat and then mashed her head to a shapeless mass with his boot heel. He then secreted her body in the woods, and went to her house and occupied the same bed with her husband, leaving yesterday morning [meaning June 26]. Since then he has not been seen. Her body was discovered in the woods yesterday evening, and last night an armed posse of negroes went in search of the murderer. If caught he will certainly dangle.
SHREVEPORT, La., Apr. 9 — Tom Miles, a negro, aged 29, was hanged to a tree here and his body filled with bullets early today. He had been tried in police court yesterday on a charge of writing insulting notes to a white girl, employed in a department store, but was acquitted for lack of proof.
On this date in 1897, some 4,000 residents of Lafayette turned up to watch the hanging of two Parisian-born young men.
It had been nearly a full year since Martin Begnaud was discovered bound, gagged, and stabbed over 50 times in his general store at Scott, Louisiana, just outside Lafayette. That was on April 22, 1896.
The motive was self-evident: the prosperous late burgher had been plundered of several thousand dollars. But who did it?
The matter remained a mystery for many months, although two men were indicted for the deed — and blessedly never brought to trial.
But a few days after the murders, brothers Ernest and Alexis Blanc, teenage French orphans who were sharecropping on a plantation in April 1896 also abruptly disappeared without even bothering to sell their crop shares. This naturally raised suspicion as well, but their whereabouts were totally unknown and as months passed any hope of finding them had practically vanished.
Just after New Year’s 1897, the Blancs made a slight miscalculation: they turned up again in Scott and applied to work at their old plantation.
They were swiftly arrested and questioned separately. It did not take long for them to crack; indeed, full of guilt as they were, one might speculate whether these young Catholics didn’t return with the subconscious desire to purge themselves.
The older sibling Ernest explained that they had
secured the loan of a book treating of the daring deeds of Jesse James. From reading this book originated the idea and our plans for the murder. Seeing how poor we were, and how difficult to otherwise better our situation, we made up our minds to emulate the examples inculcated by the book.
The boys executed this plan with something less than the steel-hearted aplomb of a seasoned outlaw, however. Having gained access after hours to Begnaud and his store on the pretext of making a purchase, the brothers nervously bought tobacco … and then sardines … and then made small talk about mouse traps … all the while trying to screw up the nerve to do the deed, and get Begnaud to turn his back on them so they could have the advantage. When Ernest (as he claimed) finally murdered the shopkeep, “my hand trembled. The triangular instrument burned my hand. I shut my eyes.”
After that, they took off on a travel spree which ought to have carried them safely away from the scene of their crime for good. Instead they returned, like a dog to vomit, and gave up their lives to unburden their hearts. “We have talked too much,” Alexis said matter-of-factly to a reporter before their sentencing. “That is all. Had we kept the secret and not confessed, we would not be here.”
The fact that there was a sentencing at all was a bit of an achievement, and the Blancs have generally been considered the first legal hangings in Lafayette Parish. Actual or suspected malefactors were typically handled with more dispatch and fewer legal niceties previously (also making it something of a miracle that the original, wrongly-accused pair was still around to draw breath). Both Ernest and Alexis spent a good deal of their time jailed in New Orleans for their own protection.
The Lafayette Gazette scored a coup by securing a lengthy confessional from the hands of the doomed lads themselves, which ran on April 3 and reiterated the role of leisure reading in the crime spree.*
It was a life of tranquility, sweet and honest, which we regret having discarded to follow the evil promptings of ambition; the love of fortune, and the desire for gold which the devil suggested to us through the leaves of a book entitled the “James Boys.”** It was by reading this book we were lead to steal. Why work in the field? Why walk behind a plow? And at the end of the year receive not enough to buy clothes to put on our backs?
To rob one of his gold in a single night appeared to us much easier. The birds had eaten the crops and we were discouraged.
The murder itself, they said, had not been premeditated. But
[w]e were discussing the manner in which we would tie [Begnaud] so that he could not give the alarm before morning, when he said:
“Do not destroy my account books nor my private papers, without which I cannot make a living.”
In the silence of the night this sonorous voice appeared probably stronger than it really was and impressed us with a feeling impossible to express, and we rushed to his room and I (Ernest) stabbed Martin who was sitting on his bed. How many times I stabbed him I know not, nor did I ever know.
The Blancs logged some serious mileage in their months living on the Begnaud score. But Catholic guilt aside, it sounds as if their capture might really be attributed more to the country’s miserable economic situation.
After visiting Belgium and England we boarded a steamer for New York City arriving there on the 12th of July. We had already spent the greater portion of the $3,000 [stolen from Begnaud]. Then we commenced our journey across the United States, visiting Chicago, St. Paul, Helena, Portland, Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles, El Paso, Salt Lake City, Ogden, Omaha, Council Bluffs and St. Louis. In the latter city we spent the remainder of our money. Each one having ten dollars, we took the Frisco line on foot, passing through Missouri, Arkansas, Indiana Territory and Texas, and followed the Texas Pacific as far as Mexico, where we rested a few days. All along the route we tried to get work, but failed. There was nothing for strangers to do. It is in this manner that we reached Lafayette on January 2, 1897. Knowing so many people there we thought it would be easy to find employment. We knew that we were risking our necks, but being so miserable, did not care very much.
And this decision to risk returning in preference to starvation is, after all, nothing but the same calculation of risk and reward that people at the economic margins have always made: to descend a lethal mine to feed one’s family; to seek one’s fortune on the treacherous seas; or if it should come to that, not to walk behind the plow but to follow the lead of the James boys and make one’s bread by banditry.
* According to No Spark of Malice: The Murder of Martin Begnaud, the Gazette cleverly obtained the full rights to all the Blancs’ prison writings, and were able to turn them into a 23-page French pamphlet La Vie, le Crime et les Confessions d’Ernest et Alexis Blanc; ou, L’Histoire d’un Crime Horrible. This sold like hotcakes after the hangings and would now be in the public domain; sadly, it does not appear to be available online as of present writing.
** There were probably several books of this title then, just as there have been severalsince. This volume has a 1911 copyright, but if it is not a version of the same book the Blancs read, it’s surely not too far distant.
“Prior to the sugar boom,” writes Daniel Rasmussen in his well-received American Uprising, “New Orleans was a poor, multi-cultural city with very few social controls.”
The lines between slavery and freedom were not clearly drawn, and slaves frequently escaped into the swamps to form maroon colonies. There was a history of armed resistance in these areas that drew on French, Creole, and Kongolese traditions. These insurrectionary traditions shaped the lives of the slaves and represented an alternative political culture to that of the planters.
As testimony to that hazy line, Saint Malo had widespread support not only from the escaped slaves who joined him, but from those that remained on plantations. The communities were linked by blood and by trade; attempts to send creole militias out to hunt the maroons tended to founder on the draftees’ fear of retaliation by the kith and kin of their targets.
According to Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Saint Malo’s prosecutor complained that slaves would grumble, affront their masters, leave land uncultivated … and that owners dared but few disciplinary measures lest they disappear into the swamps.
“Malheur au blanc qui passera ces bornes” (“Woe to the white who would pass this boundary”), was the declaration attributed our man, burying an ax dramatically into a tree outside his largest village, Ville Gaillarde. (The maroons lived in permanent settlements.)
It took several years, several tries, and more than several casualties for Louisiana planters to finally bring Saint Malo’s maroons to heel. And when they did — well, the dirge recorded from a fellow maroon (as related in Creole New Orleans: Race and Americanization) describes Malo’s fate.
Alas, young men, come make lament,
For poor St. Malo in distress!
They chased, they hunted him with dogs,
They fired a rifle at him.
They dragged him from the cypress swamp.
His arms they tied behind his back.
They tied his hands in front of him.
They tied him to a horse’s tail.
They dragged him up into the town.
Before those grand Cabildo men.
They charged that he had made a plot
To cut the throats of all the whites.
They asked him who his comrades were.
Poor St. Malo said not a word!
The judge his sentence read to him,
And then they raised the gallows tree.
They drew the horse — the cart moved off
And left St. Malo hanging there.
The sun was up an hour high
When on the levee he was hung.
They left his body swinging there
For carrion crows to feed upon.
* Coincidentally, June 19 would later become Juneteenth, marking the end of slavery in the United States at the conclusion of the Civil War.
On this date in 1941, the U.S. state of Louisiana joined the 20th century (or at least the late 19th) with its first electrocution.
Louisiana’s electric chair did debut very late in the game. The great surge of adoption for this uniquely American way of death was the 1910s and 1920s. Louisiana was the last state to begin electrocuting prisoners save one — West Virginia.
But in 1940, the state legislature had finally joined the trend sweeping the South and voted for voltage.
Eugene Johnson, the next to die, has no purchase on death penalty annals but his accidental milestone as the first to die seated: a black man condemned for killing a white farmer is just about your standard-issue condemned man in the interwar South. (The more things change …)
Johnson’s death this date would inaugurate the nickel-and-dime execution solution that Baton Rouge came up with to keep its various parishes right in the thick of the retribution business: the portable electric chair soon christened Gruesome Gertie, which trucked around to the local jails and courthouses meting out motorized justice.
This particular chair, though a latecomer and a modest overall contributor by the standards of Louisiana’s neighbors, would make itself the subject of highest jurisprudence a few years later by not merely botching but failing the execution of one Willie Francis — and then again in the 1980s as the subject of another man’s near-miss legal challenge to the constitutionality of electrocution.
Having always found five friends on the high court, the illustrious furniture retired in 1991 with 87 souls to its electrodes (including that of Willie Francis the second time around: he lost his appeal). Gertie lives on adorning the set of the Angola Prison Museum — and the Academy Award-winning film Monster’s Ball.
On this date in 1769, five French Creoles were shot in New Orleans for a revolt the previous year against a Spanish takeover.
This date’s story begins with the French King Louis XV getting his French clock cleaned in the French and Indian War. This conflict blew an ill wind all over Francophone North America, much of which was taken by the British. Result: a quarter-millennium later, this blog is in English.
Even what France kept, she did not keep. In a secret pact, France ceded to wartime ally Spain “the country known as Louisiana, as well as New Orleans and the island in which the city is situated.”
This projection onto New World colonists of Old World diplomatic horse-trading was rife with potential hostility among the traded horses. In this instance, Louisianans were widely dismayed when they were finally informed that they’d become Spaniards.
These weren’t mere rabble who showed Ulloa “insubordination … a sense of liberty and independence,” but elites of French New Orleans. Nicolas de Lafreniere was the attorney general.
“The name of Lafreniere deserves rank with those of foremost American patriots,” Americans later reckoned. O’Reilly’s reputation did not fare as well in the patriotic literature, but he perhaps had the best of the law.
Between a rock and a hard place, the leftover French adjutant Charles-Philippe Aubry refused to support the rebels, but also refused to fire on fellow Frenchmen. Meanwhile, Ulloa refused to provide his credentials to the uppity colonists. Louis XV refused to receive the delegations sent to implore him to keep Louisiana.
All these refuseniks found the matter adjudicated by immigrant Irish officer Alejandro O’Reilly, plucked out of Cuba to replace Ulloa and lay down the law. He spoke softly when he landed, but the amnesty he offered was followed a few months later by the surprise arrest of the chief rebels.
Lafreniere, Joseph Milhet, Jean-Baptiste Noyan, Pierre Caresse, and Pierre Marquis were ordered hanged on this date. Noyan, nephew of the city’s founder and a young man just married, was offered his pardon, but melodramatically refused.
It was found that there was no hangman in the colony, so the condemned prisoners were ordered to be shot. When the day of execution came, hundreds of people left the city. Those who could not leave went into their houses, closed the doors and windows and waited in an agony of sickening dread to hear the fatal shots. Only the tramping of soldiers broke the deathlike stillness which brooded over the crushed and helpless city. At three o’clock on a perfect October afternoon in 1769, the condemned men were led to the Spanish barracks. Lafreniere, it is said, gave the order to fire. A volley of muskets broke out on the still air, and five patriots went to their death, — the first Louisianians to give their blood for the cause of freedom.
* Ulloa was also a scientist and gave his name to the Ulloa Halo, a “physical illusion consisting of a white luminous ring or arch that can sometimes be seen in mountainous regions, typically in foggy weather, while facing an area opposite the Sun.”
Just after midnight this date in 1990, Dalton Prejean was electrocuted in Louisiana for murdering state trooper Donald Cleveland.
A 17-year-old (at the time of the crime) black youth who tested just this side of mentally disabled, Prejean shot Cleveland during a traffic stop. (He was, at the time, just seven months out of a reform school stint he had served for murdering a taxi driver at the tender age of 14.)
It was a three-day trial with an all-white jury, and not much question as to Prejean’s culpability.
But as he neared the execution of that sentence, his youth and his limited candlepower loomed ever larger. They would generate worldwide attention with some heated rhetoric like this one from Amnesty International’s southern regional director:
“I doubt that in documented recent world history there is an execution” with “such a pile of reasons not to do it.”
Dalton Prejean’s was the first execution of a juvenile offender in the United States since the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of that practice in the 1989 decision Stanford v. Kentucky. That decision was reversed in 2005, and minors are no longer eligible for death-sentencing in the U.S.
One is attracted most readily to the firing-squad execution of murderer Wallace Wilkerson in Utah.
Wilkerson appealed the constitutionality of this method of execution, and in 1879’s Wilkerson v. Utah, the U.S. Supreme Court held that “the punishment of shooting as a mode of executing the death penalty for the crime of murder in the first degree is not” cruel and unusual punishment.
This legal precedent has actually been cited* by the present-day Supreme Court in rejecting legal challenges to lethal injection. Which is ironic, because a couple of months after the high court issued Wilkerson v. Utah, Wilkerson suffered a very cruel execution indeed.
The doomed man talked the officials conducting his execution into allowing him to die without being strapped down. With the resultant range of motion, Wilkerson at the last breath before the fusillade hit him drew his shoulders up as he braced for the impact — and pulled the white target pinned to his shirt above his heart.
The volley didn’t kill him — it just knocked him out of his chair to the ground, screaming “Oh, my God! My God! They have missed!”
He bled to death in 27 minutes, prompting the tongue-in-cheek observation by the Ogden Junction that “the French guillotine never fails.”
Meanwhile, on the very same day in Missouri …
ST. LOUIS, Mo., May 16.–A special dispatch from Booneville, Mo., says: “John I. West, who murdered a tramp last October, was to-day hanged at the Old Fair Ground near this city. When the trap was sprung, at 11:41 A.M., the rope broke, and the culprit fell to the ground on his back, but was too weak to rise. His groans and the gurgling sounds of strangulation were terrible to hear. He was picked up and speedily raised to the trap again, and, while being held by four or five men, was dropped a second time. This time he swung, and in 11 minutes was pronounced dead.
After reaching the platform of the gallows, West spoke nearly half an hour to the crowd present, reiterating his confession of the murder of Shinn, reviewing his past life, and appealing to young men and women to take his fate as a warning. There were about 8,000 people present, among whom was the father of West, who had come from Chapin, Ill.
(There’s a great deal more about West’s crime in the Times article, but it’s pretty dull reading for all the column-inches. He was a tramp who committed a semi-random murder, seemingly activating all the crime-freakout circuits so familiar to cable news programmers.)
Hillsboro, North Carolina, held a first-ever triple hanging — of the “Chapel Hill burglars”. As you might guess, these gentlemen burgled, and said burgling occurred in Chapel Hill. It was for housebreaking, not murder, that they were condemned, with the help of a confederate who turned state’s-evidence against them as soon as the lot was arrested.
Each of the culprits proclaimed his innocence to the last moment. [Lewis] Carlton spoke for an hour, and said his salvation was sure. The parting between [Henry] Andrews and his sister on the scaffold was most affecting, and moved the crowd of witnesses to tears. All the doomed men bore themselves firmly, and showed no signs of wavering. The hanging took place at 2:30 P.M., and was very badly conducted. The ropes around the necks of [Henry Alphonso] Davis and Carlton were too long, and their feet rested on the ground. They were raised up and the ropes retied, causing death by strangulation.
(According to this “history of the University of North Carolina” page, one of the burglars’ victims was writer Cornelia Phillips Spencer. Famous as the woman who rang the bell re-opening UNC in 1875, her role in closing the university in the first place in 1870 and her retrograde racial politics have recently been in Tar Heel news. The linked article suggests that her brush with the Chapel Hill burglars might have given Spencer an appreciation for the Ku Klux Klan’s version of order. After all, a white supremacist vigilante is just a liberal who’s been burgled.)
The St. Louis Globe-Democrat of May 17, 1879 adds of our men’s exit (in an addendum to a report primarily about the aforementioned West) that
[t]he execution was romantic in the extreme. Just as the doomed men ascended the platform a murky cloud, which had been drifting around, hung over the crowd and the instrument of death. Alfonso Davis began to speak, and as he opened his mouth the thunder began to peal, and the rain came down in torrents. Not a man, woman or child in the vast crowd moved or seemed to be aware that the rain was falling, so wrapped up in the death scene were they. At times the cloud threw such a dense shadow over the scene that it seemed as though night had enveloped the place. Then the lightning, vivid and intense, lit up the field of blood and cast forward, in bold and statuesque relief, the figures of the doomed and their executor as he stood like an artilleryman, lanyard in hand, ready to send the signal of death forward … the souls of three burglars went out and beyond, forked lightning illuminating their way and the wildest of thunder pealing their requiem.
The Bayou State redeemed this black day for the executioner’s craft by the uneventful hanging one Robert Cheney (black, of course) “for ravishing Amelia Voight in June, 1878.”
All told, four states killed six men on May 16, 1879, but only two of them died “cleanly.”
* The author of the New York Times opinion piece cited here, Gilbert King, has guest-blogged on this site:
Eddie managed, as he said, to “give it back” on the grounds that Patrick was the one who did the shooting.
Once Eddie was clear of the death penalty, he tried to cop to the shooting after all, in order to save his little brother.
The appellate life of this case involved unedifying revisions of the “who shot whom” story. Ultimately, Eddie’s later claim to have been the triggerman, though quite possibly true, is not likely to win very much sympathy for his brother. It didn’t help him in the courts, either.
Just the 17th person executed since reinstatement of the death penalty, Sonnier learned that his longshot bid for clemency had been denied straight from the man who denied it — colorful, corrupt Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards, who personally phoned Sonnier to give him the bad news.
Little did Sonnier know that he had equally famous company meeting him in his cell.
Sonnier was the first condemned inmate to receive the spiritual ministration of Sister Helen Prejean.
The then-obscure Louisiana nun would later write the bestseller Dead Man Walking about her experiences with Sonnier and a second death row prisoner, Robert Lee Willie. Prejean remains among the most well-known death penalty opponents in the world today.
While the book Dead Man Walking treats Sonnier and Willie in a nonfiction vein, the film adaptation (review) amalgamated those people into a single character, the fictional “Matthew Poncelet”. It’s apparent from the flashbacks in Dead Man Walking‘s execution scene, however, that Sonnier is the predominant influence on “Poncelet”.
Dead Man Walking is an interesting movie. Though its principals were all vocal death penalty opponents, the film itself is much better art than propaganda. Arguably, the doomed criminal attains a sort of personal redemption — finally admitting responsibility for a crime he had denied for much of the film; seeking the forgiveness of his victims’ surviving family — only because the death penalty awaits him.
Susan Sarandon won an Oscar for Best Actress for her turn as Sister Helen. Note that while Sonnier was in fact put to death in the electric chair (as was Robert Lee Willie), director Tim Robbins opted to portray a lethal injection because, as Helen Prejean herself put it,
we don’t want to give people the moral out whereby people could say ‘oh well, we used to do electrocution but that’s too barbaric so now we are humane and inject them’
* The murder that led to this date’s execution took place in the same area where Willie Francis survived a trip to the electric chair: the very chair that killed Patrick Sonnier.
On this date in 1987, Jimmy L. Glass died in Louisiana’s electric chair — having come one vote short of having the device declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
The 20-year-old Glass escaped from a parish jail with fellow inmate Jimmy Wingo on Christmas Eve, 1982, robbing and murdering an elderly couple in the process. Each blamed the other; both got the chair.*
By a 5-4 decision, the high court held that electrocution, still at that point the country’s prevailing method of execution despite its medieval reputation for grisly botches, remained a constitutional method of inflicting death.
Liberal Justice William Brennan‘s vigorous dissent from that judgment is not for the squeamish. (For readability, I’ve added emphasis and removed the many citations in the original.)
[E]vidence suggests that death by electrical current is extremely violent and inflicts pain and indignities far beyond the “mere extinguishment of life.” Witnesses routinely report that, when the switch is thrown, the condemned prisoner “cringes,” “leaps,” and ” ‘fights the straps with amazing strength.’ ” “The hands turn red, then white, and the cords of the neck stand out like steel bands.” The prisoner’s limbs, fingers, toes, and face are severely contorted. The force of the electrical current is so powerful that the prisoner’s eyeballs sometimes pop out and “rest on [his] cheeks.” The prisoner often defecates, urinates, and vomits blood and drool.
“The body turns bright red as its temperature rises,” and the prisoner’s “flesh swells and his skin stretches to the point of breaking.” Sometimes the prisoner catches on fire, particularly “if [he] perspires excessively.” Witnesses hear a loud and sustained sound ” like bacon frying,” and “the sickly sweet smell of burning flesh” permeates the chamber. This “smell of frying human flesh in the immediate neighbourhood of the chair is sometimes bad enough to nauseate even the Press representatives who are present.” In the meantime, the prisoner almost literally boils: “the temperature in the brain itself approaches the boiling point of water,” and when the postelectrocution autopsy is performed “the liver is so hot that doctors have said that it cannot be touched by the human hand.” The body frequently is badly burned and disfigured.
The violence of killing prisoners through electrical current is frequently explained away by the assumption that death in these circumstances is instantaneous and painless. This assumption, however, in fact “is open to serious question” and is “a matter of sharp conflict of expert opinion.” Throughout the 20th century a number of distinguished electrical scientists and medical doctors have argued that the available evidence strongly suggests that electrocution causes unspeakable pain and suffering. Because ” ‘[t]he current flows along a restricted path into the body, and destroys all the tissue confronted in this path . . . [i]n the meantime the vital organs may be preserved; and pain, too great for us to imagine, is induced. . . . For the sufferer, time stands still; and this excruciating torture seems to last for an eternity.‘ ” L.G.V. Rota, a renowned French electrical scientist, concluded after extensive research that
“[i]n every case of electrocution, . . . death inevitably supervenes but it may be very long, and above all, excruciatingly painful . . . . [T]he space of time before death supervenes varies according to the subject. Some have a greater physiological resistance than others. I do not believe that anyone killed by electrocution dies instantly, no matter how weak the subject may be. In certain cases death will not have come about even though the point of contact of the electrode with the body shows distinct burns. Thus, in particular cases, the condemned person may be alive and even conscious for several minutes without it being possible for a doctor to say whether the victim is dead or not. . . . This method of execution is a form of torture.”
At least neither the juridical near miss nor Brennan’s graphic description of his impending manner of death dented Jimmy’s sense of humor. Asked for his last words, the “swaggering” inmate, already strapped in the chair, replied