Posts filed under 'Maryland'

1685: Rebecca Fowler, Chesapeake witch

3 comments October 9th, 2018 Headsman

From The Penguin Book of Witches concerning the milestone execution of the rare Maryland “witch” Rebecca Fowler on this date in 1685; italicized text is the modern writer’s commentary.


One of the rare Chesapeake witches, Fowler was accused of being led by the Devil to injure a man named Francis Sandsbury using witchcraft and sorcery. She was hanged. Usually Chesapeake witchcraft cases were milder than their New England equivalents, often limited to bad-mouthing and rumor. Accused witches in the South were fewer in number and were usually acquitted. Fowler is thought to be the only witch executed in the Maryland colony, though a man named John Cowman was accused of witchcraft, condemned, and then begged a stay of execution.

Court Records of Rebecca Fowler

At a meeting of the provincial court on the 29th day of September, 1685, Rebecca Fowler was indicted by a grand jury.

For that she, the said Rebecca Fowler, the last day of August in the year of our Lord, 1685, and at diverse other days and times, as well before and after, having not the fear of God before her eyes, but being led by the instigation of the Devil certain evil and diabolical arts, called witchcrafts, enchantments, charms, and sorceries, then wickedly, devilishly, and feloniously, at Mount Calvert Hundred and several other places in Calvert County of her malice forethought feloniously did use, practice, and exercise, in, upon, and against one Francis Sandsbury, late of Calvert County aforesaid, laborer, and several other persons of the said county, whereby the said Francis Sandsbury and several others, as aforesaid, the last day of August, in the year aforesaid and several other days and times as well before as after, at Mount Calvert Hundred and several other places in the said county, in his and their bodies were very much the worse, consumed, pined, and lamed again the peace, et cetera, and against the form of the statute in this case made and provided.

To this indictment Rebecca pleaded not guilty. She was tried before a jury who rendered the following verdict:

We find that Rebecca Fowler is guilty of the matters of fact charge din the indictment against her and if the court finds the matters contained in the indictment make her guilty of witchcraft, charms, and sorceries, et cetera, then they find her guilty. And if the court finds those matters contained in the indictment do not make her guilty of witchcraft, charms, sorceries, et cetera, then they find her not guilty.

In view of this finding of the jury, judgment was “respited” until the court had time to further consider the case. After the court reconvened a few days later, Rebecca was again brought to the bar and the judges having “advised themselves of and upon the premises, it is considered by the court that the said Rebecca Fowler be hanged by the neck until she be dead, which was performed the ninth day of October aforesaid.”

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Maryland,Milestones,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,USA,Witchcraft,Women

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2005: Wesley Baker, the last in Maryland

2 comments December 5th, 2017 Headsman

The U.S. state Maryland executed Wesley Baker on this date in 2005 — the last man ever put to death there.

Baker accosted* a 49-year-old woman named Jane Frances Tyson in the parking lot of a Catonsville shopping mall after she’d finished shoe-shopping, shooting her point-blank while two young grandkids looked on in order to grab her purse. Had Baker and his getaway driver/accomplice Gregory Lawrence not been captured almost immediately — a bystander noted the license plate and called it in — they’d have had $12 to share.

Baker’s life, too, was cheap, according to a Washington Post profile.

Born unwanted to a teenage mother, he was sexually abused by age 5 and was using heroin regularly by age 10, his attorneys wrote in the petition to the governor. By 14, Baker was living with a prostitute twice his age, trading sex for drugs. He became a father the next year.

Maryland was a halfhearted readopter of the death penalty in its late-20th century “modern” era in the U.S., and by the 2000s Baker’s execution was delayed for a moratorium to study racial inequity in the system. After concluding that, yes, racial bias was rife in the Maryland capital punishment system, the state went ahead and executed him anyway.

But this proved to be a throwback to a disappearing law-and-order era. The very next year, complications with the state’s lethal injection procedures led Maryland courts to suspend executions, a situation that transitioned into another moratorium and eventually, in 2013, outright abolition. Maryland today has no death penalty, and its last four pre-abolition condemned prisoners had their sentences commuted on December 31, 2014 by outgoing Governor Martin O’Malley.

* Baker argued deep into his appeals that Lawrence was, or at least might have been, the gunman; the Fourth Circuit federal court of appeal agreed that proof that Baker fired the shot “was not overwhelming,” but did not mitigate the sentence.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Lethal Injection,Maryland,Milestones,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Theft,USA

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1893: A day in the death penalty around the U.S.

Add comment June 30th, 2017 Headsman


This headline tally from the Kalamazoo (Mich.) Gazette of July 1, 1893 omits an additional Georgia hanging on the same day (also overlooked by the Espy File index of U.S. historical executions), but mistakenly attributes the June 29 execution of Pietro Buccieri in Pennsylvania to the 30th; between the two contrary errors, it arrives at the correct total of noosings. A sixth execution occurred by musketry in the Indian Territory on the same day.

Indian Territory (Oklahoma): Joe Bird


Dallas Morning News, July 1, 1893

Maryland: Daniel Barber and William Pinkney


Baltimore Sun, July 1, 1893

Louisiana: Gus Albers


New Orleans Times-Picayune, June 30, 1893

Georgia: Sam Thorpe…


Macon Telegraph, July 1, 1893

… and George Summer Rachen


Macon Telegraph, July 1, 1893

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Georgia,Hanged,History,Louisiana,Maryland,Murder,Oklahoma,Pennsylvania,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot,USA

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1773: Four convict labor escapees in Maryland

Add comment October 22nd, 2015 Headsman

We owe this date’s post, as with a number of others on this site, to Anthony Vaver, proprietor of the superb (albeit recently dormant) Early American Crime blog.

Vaver wrote the book on pre-Revolutionary War convict transportation to the Americas, and we were directed to the men featured today in a post Vaver ran on one of the most common resistance strategies — running away.

Being shipped out of Britain to the American colonies where they faced years of involuntary labor and the prospect of being bought and sold like slaves, convicts could hardly fail to ponder the advantages of escape.

Many did more than ponder: colonial newspapers are rife with adverts for absconded convict laborers, whose descriptions of the fugitives also make for a rich source on the everyday accoutrements of the 18th century working class. Pictured here are a very few arbitrarily chosen samples of the genre:

Such self-liberation did not always entail slipping away in an unsupervised moment: more direct means were occasionally employed, a fantasy that many surely entertained counterpoised by the threat of violent state reprisal. The four men who hanged together at Frederick, Maryland, made bold to put the dream into bloody actuality.

These men had been purchased by a merchant specializing in the convict labor trade — part of “a parcel of convicts” as the New York Gazetteer matter-of-factly described it (Aug. 5, 1773) which Archibald Moffman obtained “in order to dispose of them again to advantage.”

Instead it was Moffman who was disposed of. As Moffman and his nonplussed workingman retinue traveled through Maryland,

about two or three miles on the other side of Frederick-Town, one of the servants told his master that he was too much fatigued to go any further; they therefore all rested themselves on an old tree by the side of the main road. After some time, Moffman told them they must proceed on their journey, but they refused and immediately threw him backwards over the tree, dragged him about five steps into the woods, and then cut his throat from ear to ear; took his pocket book and then went over the mountain, calling at every tavern on the road.

But while the proximity of wilderness and the mutability of identity in the 18th century potentially facilitated escape, the colonies’ sparse habitation also made it harder to disappear into the obscurity of plain sight. Maryland was one of the most populous of the New World jurisdictions with barely 200,000 souls in 1770. It wasn’t that everybody knew everybody, but at such scales one could only go so long without engaging by chance the recognition of some acquaintance or busybody.

Seen in this light, the decision of our murderous fellows to call at every tavern on the road looks a mightily ill-considered course of action for men who ought to have felt the scourge of desperation at their backs. At one of these watering-holes, someone who had noticed these convict laborers on the road recently as they accompanied the yet-unkilled Moffman now ran into them sans oversight, and made inquiries — justifiably skeptical of the “parcel’s” story that their owner was following a few leisurely clicks behind. Failing to find Moffman on his way down the road, he sent up an alarm and the cutthroat tipplers were soon detained. Confession, conviction, and execution all followed within a matter of weeks.

The newspaper stories about this quartet do not so much as mention their names.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Known But To God,Maryland,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,USA

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1899: Armstead Taylor and John Alfred Brown, horribly

Add comment August 18th, 2015 Headsman

From the Wilkes-Barre (Pa.) Times, Aug. 18, 1899:

ROCKVILLE, Md., Aug. 18 — Armstead Taylor and John Alfred Brown, negroes, were hanged here this morning for the murder of Mr. and Mrs. Rosenstein at Slidelle in March last.

The drop fell at 10:15[?]. The hanging was a horrible botch. the knot did not slip but the drop was long enough. The men writhed, groaned and uttered inarticualate [sic] sounds for nearly ten minutes.

The murders for which they were convicted and sentenced to be hanged were committed at Slidelle, a little station two miles north of Boyds, Md. on March 13 last.

Louis Rosenstein, the postmaster of the hamlet[,] lived with his aged parents in the rear of the post office. They were said to have plenty of money. Early one morning they were attacked and the man’s skull was crushed and the woman’s head pounded with some blunt instrument.

The store was ransacked and a little over $3,000, a pair of shoes and several articles were taken.

Louis Rosenstein died the day after of his injuries and Mrs. Rosenstein lingered until May when she succumbed in a hospital at Baltimore.

Taylor went to Washington and soon attracted attention by spending money in a lavish manner in Georgetown. Suspicious neighbors gave the police the information that led to his capture.

Before Taylor was arrested, however, Sergeant Fritz Bassau of the Washington police force gave up his life. Taylor shot him down as he was climbing the stairs to arrest him, where he was concealed in the house at Georgetown. He also shot Officer Gowon in the hand.

Taylor was taken back to Montgomery county, but did not stand trial for injuring the policemen. His trial was begun at Frederick on July [?] and Brown’s a week later. Both were convicted and sentenced to be hanged August 18.

Strong efforts were made to have Brown respited, it being believed by many that he was only an accessory after the fact.

The men mounted the scaffold at 10:15. They were both calm and exhibited nerve. As they were placed on the door the sheriff asked if they had anything to say. Taylor made a rambling statement in an almost inaudible voice. He appeared weak and swayed upon his feet. He said:

Gentlemen, I done both the killings myself. My Uncle Brown is not guilty. I am the guilty man, but I expect to go to heaven.

Brown refused to make any statement beyond that he had forgiven his enemies and had found salvation.

The deputies then adjusted the rope, before placing the black caps on their heads. Both men smiled and Brown said good-bye to some friends in the crowd who spoke to him.

Sheriff Thompson tok [sic] a board about six feet in length, walked over to the side of the scaffold, reached down and inserted the end of a plank in the wire ring and sprung the trap.

The bodies fell through simultaneously and began to writhe and sway in a horrible manner. Taylor seemed to be conscious and appeared to be trying to speak.

The priests pronounced it the most horrible execution they had ever seen.

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

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1746: Three Catholic servants

Add comment May 16th, 2015 Headsman

All stories from issues of the Maryland Gazette, datelined Annapolis. (via) Though not explicit in any of these stories, the attack by Catholic servants upon their master while the Jacobite rising was still afoot must have been read by Maryland’s grandees as more menacing than your everyday domestic crime.


Tuesday, April 22, 1746

The following Particulars of the murder of Richard Waters, in Kent Co., on the 5th inst., having been transmitted to us, are here inserted:

About two months ago Hector Grant, a Highland Papist, and James Horney, an Irish one, both Servants to Mr. Waters, communicated to a West Co. convict woman (servant to Mr. Waters, and of the same communion with the other two), and an orphan apprentice girl, their intention to murder their Master; to which the women agreeing, they all swore on a Bible not to make any discovery.

Having been several Times disappointed in their Design to way-lay him on the Road, in order to perpetrate their Villainy, it happened that on Saturday the 5th Instant, Mr. Waters being at a Muster, and having drank too freely; he was conducted home by two of his Neighbours, who had put him to Bed, and left him about an Hour within the Night: When the Woman, having put his two Children to Bed with him, persuaded the Orphan Girl to go over with her to a Neighbour’s.

In the meantime the two Men murder’d the poor Man, overcome with Liquor and Sleep, by giving him a desperate Blow on the Head with an Axe; after which they dragg’d him out of Bed upon the Floor, repeating their Blows, tho’ any one of them would have proved mortal: The Children sleeping sound all the While; it is thought prevented their undergoing the same Fate; tho’ the Highlander proposed setting the House on fire, and burning the Children therein.

The Girls returning, found the Fellows rejoicing in their Villany, who then put the Deceased’s Cloaths on him, and throwing his Body across a Horse carried it to a Branch about half a Mile from the House, and there buried it; They afterwards burnt the bloody Sheets, clean’d away the Blood, and the next Morning gave out, that their Master set out for Annapolis by Day-break. Nobody had any Suspicion of what had been transacted ’til about the Middle of the Week, when one of the Deceased’s Shoes and Buckles were found; and their carousing, buying Rum, and idling about, and the Horse’s being seen at home, gave the Neigbours reason to suspect the Matter; whereupon the Men were apprehended, and a bloody Shirt found, but no further Discovery made ’til Sunday; when the Orphan Girl, after she had at a solemn Examination denied she knew anything of the Fact, privately confess’d that she had been sworn to the Secresy: On being told that her Oath, being extorted by the Fellows, could not be binding, she related all she knew of it.

The same Evening, the Irishman, finding the Girl had made a Discovery, confess’d every Circumstance told; as also where the body was buried, and where he had concealed his Master’s Watch, Ring, Clasps, &c. which were all accordingly found. The two Men and the Woman, were brought in, by the Coroner’s Inquest, guilty of Wilful Murder.

The Highlander received the Sacrament at Mass, the Sunday before this tragic scene was executed; and, notwithstanding his most obstinate denial of knowing anything of the fact, appears to have been the first proposer and principal actor in this tragedy.


Tuesday, May 6, 1746

Friday last was held, at Chester in Kenty County, a Special Court of Oyer and Terminer, for trying the Murderers of Richard Waters; when the two Men and the Woman were found guilty of the Indictment, and received Sentence of Death; Grant and Horney are to hang’d and the Woman (Esther Anderson is to be burnt.)


Tuesday, May 20, 1746

On Friday last, Hector Grant, James Horney, and Esther Anderson, were Executed at Chester in Kent County, pursuant to their Sentence, for the Murder of their late Master. The Men were Hang’d, the Woman Burn’d. They died penitent, acknowleging their Crimes, and the Justice of their Punishment.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Maryland,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,USA,Women

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1859: Baltimore’s Plug Uglies

Add comment April 8th, 2015 Headsman

This date in 1859 saw the joint hanging of youths from a notorious Baltimore gang, and in honor of the occasion thousands upon thousands of curiosity-seekers packed Charm City from “all parts of the State, the District of Columbia, Virginia and Pennsylvania, and even New York city and Buffalo” to throng the hills and high points overlooking the Baltimore City Jail, where a fine view could be had of the nominally private gallows.

“The housetops, windows, trees and all other places from whence a more enlarged view could be obtained, were crowded with human beings,” reported the Baltimore Sun (Apr. 9, 1859). “A sea of faces met the eye far and near — men, women and children — old age and infancy — white and black — swelled up the vast multitude, drawn to witness the horrible spectacle.”

The doomed quartet were four men named Henry Gambrill, Marion Crop, Peter Corrie, and John Cryphus. Cryphus was a black man condemned for a knife murder committed under the name John Stephens, and he vainly protested all the way to the gallows that Stephens was not he.

The other three who hanged with him — our principal focus today — were entirely unconnected to him. Gambrill, Crop, and Corrie were all stalwarts of the “Plug Uglies”, who were at once a street gang and a political goon squad, involved (with several similar entities) in a number of election day poll riots in the 1850s. Baltimore was at this point America’s third-largest city, having boomed to 200,000 souls rather faster than its civic institutions could cope.

The city veered near to mob rule (for which it earned the sobriquet “Mobtown”): rival gangs of toughs like the Plug Uglies regularly fought deadly street battles involving hundreds of participants — especially around municipal elections which they shamelessly rigged with armed bullying and prodigious vote-stuffing.* The anti-Know Nothing mayoral candidate in 1858 simply conceded the election rather than invite “loss of life and the general disorder of the city.”


Plug Ugly ruffians boss a ward. (Via)

Affiliated with the nativist, anti-Catholic “Know-Nothing” movement,** the Plug Uglies’ nickname underscores the brutal tenor of their times:

[Baltimore’s gangs] carried pugnacious and frequently obscene banners and often brandished weapons. The awl was seen as a workingman’s weapon, and many were made and handed out at rallies. They were used to “plug” Democrats “ugly” and to prevent them from voting. (Source)

Not long before that peacekeeping 1858 mayoral concession, alliterative policemen Benjamin Benton and Robert Rigdon had arrested a Plug Ugly crony for disorderly conduct, when Henry Gambrill raced up to the grappling trio and shot Officer Benton in the head.

Officer Rigdon, who knew Gambrill well, testified against the goon in the resulting murder trial. So incensed were Gambrill’s pals that they contrived to assassinate Officer Rigdon in revenge: covered by a lookout, Marion Crop in the dark of night shot Rigdon through a window as the cop stood at his mantelpiece chatting with his wife. Both Crop and the lookout, Peter Corrie, were chased down and condemned for first degree murder at separate, and sensational, trials in January 1859.

Despite the power of the Know-Nothings, this outrage proved to fall well outside the range of the Plug Uglies’ impunity. If they could do this, then what institutional pillar of the city would remain standing?

No small sentiment went abroad to skip the assassins’ trials and proceed directly to the hanging — perhaps a problematic means by which to stave off anarchy. In a more promising vein, the affair catalyzed some long-sought political reform measures from the legislature to rein in political violence. And on a chilly, overcast morning in April, Marion Crop stood on the gallows and belted out a hymn for the nation’s gawkers, joined with varying enthusiasms by the other three doomed men.

Former friends, we now must leave you
All our earthly hopes are o’er
But in heaven we hope to greet you
There to meet to part no more.

When a few more moments wasted
And this dying scene is o’er
When this last dread grief we’ve tasted
We shall rise to fall no more.

Fast our sun of life’s declining
Soon it will set in endless night
But our hopes pure and reviving
Rise to fairer worlds of light.

Cease this mourning, trembling, sighing,
Death shall burst this sudden gloom
Then our spirits fluttering, flying
Shall be borne beyond the tomb.

Corrie and Crop were buried privately. Gambrill enjoyed a solem public funeral with a procession of a hundred or so carriages through the center of town. An estimated eight to ten thousand Know-Nothing sympathizers attended it.

* Full marks for period color to the gangs of that time, which included the Rip Raps, Black Snakes, Blood Tub, Regulators, Rough Skins, Double Pumps, and Calithumpians. The successful Plug Uglies, who spread to other cities than Baltimore, were the ones destined to give their name to the language as a synonym for a an urban rowdy. (It’s also the name of some bars.)

** Shortly after the events in this post, Baltimore would be distinguished by a massive, and deadly, riot against a column of federal troops being dispatched to Virginia in the immediate aftermath of Fort Sumter. Since the Battle of Fort Sumter itself had not resulted in any combat fatalities, it was this riot that laid in the ground the first bodies of America’s bloody Civil War.

† While the Know-Nothings’ national impact was limited, they essentially took over Maryland’s political apparatus in the 1850s and made it the party bastion. Know-Nothing nominee (and former U.S. President) Millard Fillmore carried only one state in the 1856 presidential election won by James Buchanan: Maryland.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Maryland,Murder,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1829: George Swearingen, Maryland sheriff

Add comment October 2nd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1829, George Swearingen, late the sheriff of Washington County, Md., was hanged for murder.

Swearingen murdered his wife after he became infatuated with a woman of ill repute. To savor this tawdry tale, we’re going to reprise our periodic endorsements of our friend (and occasional guest-blogger) Robert Wilhelm at Murder by Gaslight.

Here are a few morsels from the fall of George Swearingen to whet the appetite:

Mary was away from her marital duties for at least six months and George had to find other ways to meet his needs. In his words, “I occasionally visited those houses of libertinism and chambering, which, Solomon declares to be ‘the way to hell leading down to the chambers of death.’

Hmm.

One night he caught her in an amorous embrace with another young man, a Mr. G—. As a result, the two men fought a duel. Orlando Haverley was killed, and Rachel went to live with the victor.

And then there’s this Huck Finn interlude.

George and Rachel both fled Maryland; first travelling together, then separating, planning to meet in New Orleans. Rachel, travelling by steamboat, probably passed George who, travelling under the name Martin, was floating down the Mississippi in a flatboat.

And competing interpretations of troubling forensic evidence.

Swearingen’s defense attorney, John L. M’Mahon explained that Mary had suffered from “leuco phlegmatic temperament” which made her liable to spontaneous uterine hemorrhaging. Her doctor had advised her to refrain from sex — explaining why George strayed in the first place. The condition also explained why she appeared to have been raped before death. For good measure, he speculated that Charity Johnson had attacked the body with a broomstick to implicate Swearingen as a rapist.

Read the whole thing here.

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1814: Not William Beanes, anthem enabler

Add comment September 14th, 2014 Headsman

On this date two centuries ago, a man on a mission of mercy found his accidental entry into history.

The mercy in question was required for a Maryland fellow named William Beanes. During the War of 1812, the British had seized this 65-year-old doctor on their march back from torching the White House, on grounds of his role jailing British soldiers who were doing some freelance plundering around his beloved Upper Marlboro.

They were making worrying (possibly empty) threats about hanging the man for infringing the laws of war as they held Dr. Beanes in the Chesapeake Bay aboard the H.M.S. Tonnant.* Beanes’s friends recruited a respected lawyer (and amateur poet) to get the venerable gentleman out of the soup.

This was accomplished easily enough. Approaching the British warship under a flag of truce, the lawyer and a buddy who was the government’s designated prisoner exchange agent managed to convince Gen. Robert Ross to parole his “war criminal” by producing a packet of testimonials from previous British POWs affirming the honorable treatment Dr. Beanes had accorded them. Problem solved.

There was one minor hitch.

Because the British were preparing to attack Baltimore, and the visiting envoys had perforce become privy to some of the forthcoming operational details whose exposure might complicate matters, the hosts detained the whole party at sea pending the encounter’s conclusion.

There the Americans looked on, helplessly entranced, as the Battle of Baltimore unfolded. On September 12, there was a land battle (the munificent Gen. Ross was slain by an American sharpshooter as he directed troops in this affair). Then at dawn on September 13, the British fleet commenced a withering bombardment of Baltimore’s principal harbor bulwark, Fort McHenry. Safely out of range of the fort’s guns, British cannons rained ordnance on the fort throughout the day, 1,500 bombs in all. At one point a missile ripped a white star from the fort’s gigantic American flag.

The firing continued into the night. The American bystanders now saw nothing of the fort save by the fleeting illumination of exploding shells. Could it possibly weather the assault? As morning approached, the fleet’s firing came to a virtual stop. The Americans could only surmise that this abatement might indicate Fort McHenry’s capture by the British. The suspense over the course of the long, dark night must have been near unbearable.

Dawn’s early light on September 14, 1814 brought for the Yankees a wondrous sight: the tattered American banner somehow still fluttered over the fort, where they had watched it all the day before.


On September 14, 1814, Francis Scott Key beholds the American flag still flying over Baltimore, just as it had at the previous twilight’s last gleaming. (1912 painting by Edward Moran.)

Overjoyed now, Beanes’s deliverer Francis Scott Key put his poetic gifts to patriotic use and dashed off a verse celebrating Baltimore’s fortitude. “The Defence of Fort McHenry” is better known today (when set to the tune of a British drinking song) as “The Star-Spangled Banner” — the American national anthem. We owe it all to Williams Beanes’s capture and prospective hanging.

* A French-built ship captured in Egypt by Horatio Nelson. (Cool painting.) She would go on to fight in the naval prelude to the Battle of New Orleans.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Doctors,England,Hanged,History,Innocent Bystanders,Maryland,No Formal Charge,Not Executed,Notable Participants,Occupation and Colonialism,USA,Wartime Executions

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1926: Richard Whittemore, Mencken subject

Add comment August 13th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1926, Richard Whittemore — the chieftain of a notorious armed-robbery syndicate in Prohibition New York and Maryland — was hanged at Baltimore’s Maryland Penitentiary for murdering a prison guard during an escape the year before.

Whittemore, known as the “Candy Kid” — it’s not clear to me whether this throwback nickname alludes to his gang’s prodigious heroin addiction — was national news for a brief twelvemonth during Prohibition.

In 1925, he busted out of prison in Maryland, killing a guard. It was for this crime that he ultimately hanged, but it was for his months on the lam that he made his blackened name.

Whittemore recruited a coterie of cold-blooded toughs and commenced a series of brazenly public violent robberies. (He also wifed up someone called Tiger Girl.)

After heisting a few payrolls — back when such things were delivered in armored cars instead of by digital funds transfer — the Candy Kid’s gang made for New York, where they proceeded to stick up several jewelry stores and eventually (in Buffalo) to hijack a Federal Reserve truck.

For all their momentary success, their candle burned at every possible end. Stickups followed each other with just a few weeks in between to squander the proceeds and, as alluded, the gang indulged a judgment-impairing drug habit.

The end, when it came, was swift.

In March 1926, barely a year after blasting his way out of prison, Whittemore was caught. Within the next five months, he beat charges in New York (pdf), was extradited to Maryland, found himself convicted of murder there, and expeditiously hanged.


Years later, the death of this professional blackguard is probably most noteworthy to posterity for the attendance among the select circle of witnesses of professional crank (and son of Baltimore) H.L. Mencken.

That irascible pundit was no foe of the death penalty (although the nature of his support veered idiosyncratic). He scarcely felt the hanging’s participants to have been degraded or brutalized by the ritual of hanging Whittemore, and held forth on the subject in a subsequent essay later reprinted in A Mencken Chrestomathy:

It is unpleasant, I grant you, to see a man put to death, but the brutality of it is immensely overestimated by those who have never enjoyed that honor. They forget this technical skill that can make even killing painless and humane. And they forget that the victim himself is almost always a brute with little more sensitiveness than an ox. I witnessed recently. He went to his death with a swagger, and obviously full of an imbecile delight in the attention he was attracting. His occupations in his last days were those of a happy half-wit, and his final message, delivered through the tabloid newspaper, the Baltimore Post, was precisely the sort of defiant rubbish that such a moron would be expected to formulate and delight in. The whole thing, to him, was a gaudy show, and it was quite impossible for any rational man, observing him at the end, to have any very active sympathy for him.

A new State law has got rid of the obscene crowds that used to flock to hangings, and of the bungling that once made them revolting. The gallows at the Penitentiary is admirably designed. Whittemore dropped at least ten feet, and he was unconscious instantly. Save for one brief drawing up of the legs as he died he didn’t move an inch. The old-time jail yard gallows was a wooden structure with a high step, and the condemned had to climb up that step. It was a dreadful ordeal. He could see the noose a long way off. But Whittemore, stepping out of a second-story door on to a high platform, was on the trap before he saw the rope at all. If he had not delayed the proceedings to bawl a nonsensical farewell he would have been dead in less than a minute after he emerged. As it was, he dropped in less than two minutes. Was the thing horrible as a spectacle? No more than the most trivial surgery. One does not see a man hanged. One sees a black bag.

I have spoken of Whittemore as a moron. The term is probably flattering. His farewell message in the Post and his philosophical autobiography in the same instructive paper, published a few months ago, showed the mentality of a somrwhat backward boy of ten. Such professional killers, I believe, are nearly all on the same level: a Gerald Chapman is very rare among them, as a man of honor is rare in Congress. The sentimentalists, observing the fact, employ it as an argument against capital punishment. It is immoral, they contend, for the State to take the life of a creature so palpably stupid, and hence so little capable of sound judgment and decent behavior. But all this, it seems to me, is full of bad logic. The State of Maryland did not kill Whittemore because he was a moron: it killed him because he had demonstrated conclusively that his continued existence was incompatible with the reasonable safety of the rest of us. What difference did it make whether his criminality was due to lack of intelligence, or, as in the case of Chapman, to intelligence gone rancid? The only important thing was that he was engaged habitually, and apparently incorrigibly, in gross and intolerable attacks upon the public security. What was to be done about it? He had been sent to prison without effect. He had actually committed a murder in prison. There remained only the device of taking his life, and so getting rid of a dangerous and demoralizing nuisance.

To argue that society, confronted by such a rogue, has no right to take his life is to argue that it has no rights at all — that it cannot even levy a tax or command a service without committing a crime. There are, to be sure, men who so argue, and some of their arguments are very ingenious. But they have not converted any considerable body of reflective men and women. The overwhelming majority of people believe that, when a man adopts murder as his trade, society is justified in putting him to death. They have believed it in all ages and under all forms of government, and I am convinced that they still believe it today. The execution of Whittemore was almost unanimously approved in Maryland. If he had escaped the gallows there would have been an uproar, and it would have been justified.

The opponents of capital punishment have firmer ground under them when they object to the infliction of the death penalty upon criminals other than professional murderers. The public opinion of Christendom long ago revolted against its employment to put down minor crimes: for example, theft. There has been of late a revolt against its use even in certain varieties of murder, and that revolt, I believe, is largely responsible for the increasing difficulty of getting convictions in capital cases, and the increasing tendency of the courts to upset convictions by legal quackery. The truth is that our criminal codes need a thorough overhauling. The old categories of crime are only too often archaic and irrational. It is absurd to hang an aggrieved husband for killing his wife and her lover, and let a professional murderer live because, in a given case, the State is unable to prove premeditation. The test should be, not he instant intention, but the antecedent circumstances. Every one of us, under easily imaginable conditions, may commit a premeditated murder. But that possibility does not make us professional criminals, and it does not necessarily justify the death penalty in case we succumb. Juries obviously have felt that way, for many a murderer has escaped under the so-called unwritten law.

Judge Frederick Bausman, of the State of Washington, a very intelligent jurist, once suggested a way out. All crimes, he said, should be divided into two new categories; those which a reasonable and otherwise reputable man, under the circumstances confronting the accused, might be imagined as committing, and those showing only deliberate and gratuitous criminality. Under the first heading would fall many crimes of passion and many ordinary thefts. Under the second would fall the doings of the Chapmans and Whittemores. The man who commits the former is now often used too harshly; the man who commits the latter is almost always used too softly. What sense is there in the old rule of evidence that the record of an accused, save he go on the stand himself, may not be brought against him on his trial? It is hypocritical and vain, for juries consider it notwithstanding. It is unjust, for the record often contributes to a sound judgment, as it did in the Whittemore case. The important thing is not to play a game according to a set of tight and stupid rules but to punish and put down crime. The way to do that is to proceed swiftly and harshly against professional criminals. I believe that every gunman should be hanged after his first shot, whether it kills or not. To stop short of that is to put the rights that he has deliberately forfeited above the public security. In other words, it is to convert the judicial process into a scheme for protecting and fostering crime.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Maryland,Murder,Organized Crime,Theft,USA

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