Posts filed under 'Missouri'

1900: James Nettles

Add comment May 7th, 2017 Headsman

From the St. Louis Republic, July 9, 1898

James Nettle has Partly Confessed.

Suspect in the Mann Murder Case Admits All but the Shooting.
Caused the Arrest of His Double in Order to Confuse the Several Witnesses.

James Nettle, the negro who is accused of the murder of Conductor Edward Mann of the Suburban Railway, on the night of July 4, after emphatically declaring his innocence and even going so far as to bring about the arrest of his “double,” Esbree Manley, a negro ventriloquist, as a suspect in the case, yesterday began to show signs of weakening, and at a late hour last night had confessed everything but the firing of the three shots which proved fatal to Mann.

The arrest of Manley on Nettle’s statement that he had overheard a conversation in the calaboose that a ventriloquist had a hand in the shooting, proved to be Nettle’s undoing. When confronted by Manley, Nettle was unable to carry out his well-laid plans. The striking similarity in the physique of the two negroes would have rendered it almost impossible to pick out the real culprit, but Manley met Nettle and the police with such a straight story of his whereabouts at the time of the tragedy that the former burst into tears and admitted after a little coaxing that he was in the street car fight in which Conductor Mann was slain.

He told his story between sobs, for he broke down completely under the strain. He declared that Mann had ordered him off the car and had returned his fare, in order to hasten his departure, when the fight started. He did not recall how they began fighting, but he said the conductor and motorman tackled him and forced him off the platform, threatening to do him violence.

Even after he had left the car, he said, the conductor followed him several steps. At this point the shooting was done, but all efforts to make the negro Nettle relate these further details have proven futile. In order to avoid the cross-fire of questions from Chief Desmond, the negro complained of being ill and had to be given medicine by the Dispensary physicians. Afterward he said he would not talk further on the murder until to-day.

The negro Manley was released last night after he had established an alibi.


From the St. Louis Republic, Dec. 16, 1898

Testimony Finished.

James Nettles’ Fate Will Be Decided To-Day.

To-day the fate of James Nettles, colored, charged with murder in the first degree, probably will be decided in Judge Tally’s court, after 10 hours’ argument by the attorneys for the State and the prosecution. At 11 a.m. yesterday the State rested and the defense was through at 6 p.m., having tried to establish an alibi.

Thomas L. Brown, the motorman of the car on which Conductor Samuel W. Mann was mortally wounded on the night of July 4 last, was the first witness for the State. He told how the negro boarded the St. Louis and Suburban car at Jefferson avenue, quarreled over car fare, and at Garrison avenue shot the conductor as he retreated from the car. He identified Nettles. Others testified that they were sure Nettles was the assassin.

For the defense, Michael White, a negro, with whom Nettles lived at No. 1321 Linden street, was the main witness. His testimony was that he and the defendant were together all day on July 4, and that Nettles was not at any time near the scene of the murder. He testified that they went to Kirkwood in the morning, returning to their home about 7 p.m., where there was an entertainment, at which both Nettles and White were present until 11:30 p.m. In corroboration of this testimony many witnesses were introduced.

In rebuttal, the State introduced Frederick Brunesman of No. 2641 East Prairie avenue, the motorman of the car which immediately preceded Conductor Mann’s car on the night of the killing. Brunesman identified Nettles as the negro who tried to board his car that night at Jefferson avenue, but was so drunk he fell off. Detective John Gallagher and Policeman Thomas Mahon told of an interview they had with Nettles on the day following his arrest. On that occasion, they testified, Nettles said he assaulted Conductor Mann because Mann rebuked him for misconduct.


From the St. Louis Republic, Dec. 17, 1898

Nettles Found Guilty

Jury Decides That the Negro Murderer Must Hang.

Had James Nettles, a negro, been informed that his dinner was ready, he could not have displayed less concern than when told the jury had found him guilty of murder in the first degree and that he must be hanged. Death seems to have no terrors for him and he smiled at his fate in the same indifferent manner with which he greeted the onslaught of the State’s witnesses. Never through the long trial has he ever manifested even a moderate interest in the proceedings. If he is guilty of the foul murder of Conductor Mann before his wife and children on July 4, he did not show it yesterday.

The cases on both sides were rested on Thursday evening and for four hours yesterday the attorneys for the State and the defense fought an oratorical battle before the jury. Finally, a few minutes before 2 o’clock, the case was given to the jury.

Then, for three hours the jurors debated the case, finally coming to a decision at 5 o’clock. Several of the jurors, it was learned, stood for a life sentence, but were converted to capital punishment on the ground that executive clemency might intervene to cut short the term.

The State had many witnesses who were on the car and identified Nettles as the assassin; while, on the other hand, the defense had nearly a score of negroes to establish an alibi. The State’s attorneys held that it was an alibi for the occasion and made efforts to break it down. One of the defense’s witnesses, who said he was with Nettles at a dance on the night of July 4, testified that there was a roaring fire in the parlor. Other similar statements served to weaken the alibi.

When the verdict had been rendered, Attorneys Van Patten and Morroll, for the defense, declared they would ask for a new trial, and in case it were refused, would appeal.


From the St. Louis Republic, April 5, 1900

Respite for Nettles

Governor Grants the Condemned Man Another Thirty Days

Governor Stephens last night granted a thirty day’s respite to James Nettles, the negro who has been condemned to be hanged for the murder of Conductor Samuel W. Mann on a St. Louis and Suburban car, near Leffingwell avenue, on the night of July 4, 1898. He was to have been hanged a month ago, but a reprieve of thirty days was granted in order to give the Governor time to examine into the merits of the appeals for clemency.

The death watch was placed on Nettles yesterday morning at 6 o’clock and has not yet been removed, as Sheriff Pohlmann has not received official notification of the respite. He expects a letter from the Governor to-day.

Nettles was not in the least perturbed yesterday. When the Reverend Mr. Hurzburger of the German Evangelical Church called at the jail last night with Sheriff Pohlmann and notified the condemned man that the Governor had granted a respite of thirty days, the negro, without any apparent emotion, thanked him for what he had done in the matter and reiterated his assertion of innocence.


From the St. Louis Republic, April 26, 1900

A QUESTION OF WHISKERS — Another attempt is being made to get Governor Stephens to commute the death sentence of James Nettles, the negro who was convicted of the murder of Conductor Sam W. Mann on the night of July 4, 1898. Governor Stephens has granted two stays of execution to allow himself time to investigate the application and petitions. At the trial some of the witnesses testified that Mann’s assailant wore side whiskers. Attorney Maurer had several barbers examine Nettles’s face, and he says that they will make affidavit that he could not raise side whiskers.


From the St. Louis Republic, May 6, 1900

To Be Hanged To-Morrow

Death Watch Placed on the Negro James nettles.

Chief Deputy Sheriff Pohlman yesterday for the third time placed the death watch on James Nettles, the negro who is under sentence of death for the murder of Conductor Samuel W. Mann. Nettles will be hanged at 6 o’clock to-morrow morning unless Governor Stephens stays the execution. Twice Nettles has been within the shadow of the gallows, with the death watch set, when each time the Governor granted reprieves that he might look further into the applications for clemency.

Nettles has all but lost hope. When Deputy Sheriffs Parcel and Hoefer escorted him from his cell on the second tier to cell No. 46 on the round floor, he said he guessed this was the last time. The cell to which he was transferred is the one occupied by all St Louis murderers during the last hours before their execution. Nettles was restless Friday night, alternately reading the Scriptures, praying and singing. When the deputies came in he seemed somewhat relieved. He walked between them up and down the exercise yard until 7 o’clock, when he went into his new cell, where he ate a hearty breakfast. At dinner and supper it was the same way; he seemed to take a last pleasure in ordering what he wanted to eat. He still protests his innocence.

He was convicted of the murder of Conductor Sam W. Mann on the night of July 4, 1898. Nettles got on Mann’s car at Jefferson and Franklin avenues. He refused to pay his fare and Mann ordered him from the car. A scuffle followed and Nettles fired a shot which struck Mann in the abdomen, causing his death a few hours afterwards. Mrs. Mann and two little daughters of the conductor were on the car at the time and witnessed the killing.


From the St. Louis Republic, May 8, 1900

James Nettles, the negro convicted of the murder of Conductor Samuel W. Mann of the Suburban Street railway, was hanged yesterday morning. The drop fell at 6:07 o’clock, and nineteen minutes afterwards the doctors pronounced him dead. Nettles met his death bravely and declared his innocence with almost his last breath.

The execution was conducted with precision and dispatch, but without unnecessary haste. About 250 spectators were present, but they were more orderly than those present at previous hangings.

Nettles was restless throughout the night preceding his execution, and did not sleep any. A number of friends called to bid him good-by early in the night. The Reverend Mr. Sachs, Nettles’s spiritual adviser, the Deputy Sheriffs on the “death watch,” and a few newspaper men remained with him throughout the night. At 3 o’clock in the morning the Century Quartet called at the jail and sang several favorite hymns.

Early in the morning Nettles retired to his cell with the Reverend Mr. Sachs, where they read the Scriptures and prayed until the arrival of Sheriff Pohlman.

At 6 o’clock Sheriff Pohlman read the death warrant to Nettles. The prisoner’s arms were then bound and he was led to the scaffold. Nettles did not falter, although he was a trifle nervous. After his legs and arms had been securely bound Sheriff Pohlman asked him if he had anything to say before he died. In a clear, resonant voice he said,

I am about to die for another man’s crime. The Lord knows I am innocent, and I go to meet him with a clear conscience. I love you and I hope to meet you above. I am innocent!

Then the black cap was pulled down over his head, the noose adjusted and Chief Deputy Sheriff Pohlman sprung the lever. Nettles’s body, after the drop, hung perfectly still. Nineteen minutes later the physicians pronounced him dead and his body was cut down and taken into the morgue. An examination revealed that his neck was broken.

Nettles shot and killed Conductor Mann on his car in Franklin avenue near Leffingwell avenue on the night of July 4, 1898. The negro got on the car and refused to pay his fare. While Mann was ejecting him he pulled a revolver and fired. Mrs. Mann and two little children were on the car and witnessed the murder.

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

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1864: James Utz, St. Louis spy

1 comment December 26th, 2015 Headsman

Confederate agent James Morgan Utz had a blue Christmas indeed in 1864, awaiting his December 26 execution for espionage.

The Missourian had been captured traveling with a small band out of St. Louis disguised in Union uniforms and carrying supplies and ciphered messages for the invading Confederate army of General (and former governor) Sterling Price.

The federals handled Utz as a spy and a military court sentenced him to hang — a sentence that had already been carried out by the time President Lincoln’s grant of executed clemency arrived.

Tuesday morning last I was horrified at the announcement by a friend that Jas. Utz, Paul’s companion and leader in their attempt to go South, had been executed, being hung on Monday, the day after Christmas, in the jail yard.

It plunged me in a stupor or excitement from which my mind was not free for the entire day. The sentence barely issued and the punishment instantly carried out! The hurry, the suddenness was most revolting. No time given for taking leave of family, friends! No time for appealing for mercy or for a reprieve. No time allowed for composing himself for death!

-Diary of a family member of Paul Fusz, one of Utz’s secret party. (Fusz, only 17 when captured, was pardoned after serving six months at hard labor.)

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Confederates,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,Hanged,History,Last Minute Reprieve,Missouri,Pardons and Clemencies,Reprieved Too Late,Soldiers,Spies,USA,Wartime Executions

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1863: William Griffith, for the Marais des Cygnes massacre

1 comment October 30th, 2015 Headsman

One of the signal outrages of Bleeding Kansas was avenged with a hanging on this date in 1863.

“Bleeding Kansas” was the guerrilla war over slavery in the late 1850s that presaged the conflagration about to consume the Republic; here on the frontier, pro- and anti-slavery partisans traded atrocities in their respective campaigns to secure Kansas’s imminent entry to the Union as either a slave or a free state. The stakes, had America continued her antebellum course, were vital Congressional votes on which the continuance of the peculiar institution might one day hang.

The naked brutality of the conflict shocked its contemporaries; as one particularly notorious example, the sons of abolitionist crusader John Brown executed pro-slavery captives with broadswords.

The Marais des Cygnes massacre was one of the last major horrors of that conflict: a party of 30 or so pro-slavery men led by Charles Hamilton seized 11 Free-Staters. They were mostly people who knew Hamilton personally, and seem to have gone along without resistance not anticipating what he had in store for them.

But Hamilton had told his men that on this campaign, “we are coming up there to kill snakes, and will treat all we find there as snakes.” (Source)

Much to their chagrin, these “snakes” were driven into a narrow ravine and lined up before Hamilton’s men’s guns. The volleys they delivered before fleeing back over the porous border into equally restive Missouri “only” killed five of their hostages: the other six survived by playing dead.


(Via)

Five years later, one of those survivors, William Hairgrove, supplied the identification that damned William Griffith — whose claim that he only helped capture the Marais des Cygnes victims, and didn’t help shoot them was an especially lame offering at the height of the Civil War.

According to Legal Executions in Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma Including the Indian Territory: A Comprehensive History, Griffith paid the forfeit for his role in the massacre “in a wood west of [Mound City, Mo.] on the opposite bank of Little Sugar Creek” before a crowd of thousands. There,

[a] little after noon Griffith was conveyed to the wood where he stepped onto the wooden platform a few inches above the ground. His wrists, knees and ankles were bound and the noose was adjusted. The black cap was pulled over his face at 1:07 p.m., and in but a moment William Hairgrove, one of the survivors of the massacre, cut the restraining rope with a hatchet; the four hundred pound weight dropped, jerking Griffith upward. The body rebounded and hung motionless while the attending physicians monitored his vital signs, and in twenty-five minutes they pronounced him dead.

Today, the site of the massacre is a U.S. National Historic Landmark. Quaker abolitionist poet John Greenleaf Whittier also memorialized the blood that was shed there in a poem titled “Le Marais du Cygne”:

A blush as of roses
Where rose never grew!
Great drops on the bunch-grass,
But not of the dew!
A taint in the sweet air
For wild bees to shun!
A stain that shall never
Bleach out in the sun!

Back, steed of the prairies!
Sweet song-bird, fly back!
Wheel hither, bald vulture!
Gray wolf, call thy pack!
The foul human vultures
Have feasted and fled;
The wolves of the Border
Have crept from the dead.

From the hearths of their cabins,
The fields of their corn,
Unwarned and unweaponed,
The victims were torn,—
By the whirlwind of murder
Swooped up and swept on
To the low, reedy fen-lands,
The Marsh of the Swan.

With a vain plea for mercy
No stout knee was crooked;
In the mouths of the rifles
Right manly they looked.
How paled the May sunshine,
O Marais du Cygne!
On death for the strong life,
On red grass for green!

In the homes of their rearing,
Yet warm with their lives,
Ye wait the dead only,
Poor children and wives!
Put out the red forge-fire,
The smith shall not come;
Unyoke the brown oxen,
The ploughman lies dumb.

Wind slow from the Swan’s Marsh,
O dreary death-train,
With pressed lips as bloodless
As lips of the slain!
Kiss down the young eyelids,
Smooth down the gray hairs;
Let tears quench the curses
That burn through your prayers.

Strong man of the prairies,
Mourn bitter and wild!
Wail, desolate woman!
Weep, fatherless child!
But the grain of God springs up
From ashes beneath,
And the crown of his harvest
Is life out of death.

Not in vain on the dial
The shade moves along,
To point the great contrasts
Of right and of wrong:
Free homes and free altars,
Free prairie and flood,—
The reeds of the Swan’s Marsh,
Whose bloom is of blood!

On the lintels of Kansas
That blood shall not dry;
Henceforth the Bad Angel
Shall harmless go by;
Henceforth to the sunset,
Unchecked on her way,
Shall Liberty follow
The march of the day.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Missouri,Murder,Public Executions,Soldiers,Terrorists,USA,Wartime Executions

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1862: Ten Confederate hostages in the Palmyra Massacre

Add comment October 18th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1862, Union Gen. John McNeil had ten Confederate soldiers shot in what history has recorded as the Palmyra Massacre.

The Slave Power’s northern salient, Missouri was surrounded to the east, north, and west by free soil — which made it an antebellum flashpoint since the days of the Missouri Compromise.*

In the 1850s, the Missouri conflict spilled into neighboring Kansas as the enemy sides of the slavery question fought to determine whether Kansas would enter the Union as slave state or free. The Missouri borderlands of Bleeding Kansas was where the radical abolitionist martyr John Brown made his name, commanding free state militia in a guerrilla war that presaged the coming clash of North and South.

By the time we lay our scene in 1862, John Brown has exited courtesy of Virginia’s gallows, and the dragon’s teeth sown in Missouri and Kansas and everywhere else had sprung to horrible life. Missouri’s own civil war pitted neighbor against neighbor throughout the state in a bushwhacking conflict that extended locally for many years after Appomattox.**

The nastiness of the years to come is aptly suggested by this date’s events.

Like neighboring Kentucky, Missouri was a border state with a Union government, albeit one contested by a rival Confederate government. From the standpoint of the North, all Confederate activity there was behind its lines and the perpetrators therefore potentially subject to treatment (up to and including execution) as spies, saboteurs, and the like.†

Joseph Chrisman Porter, a Confederate officer, was one such possible client of this here site, tapped as he was for recruiting and raiding operations in northeast Missouri. His Union adversary Gen. John McNeil saw Porter as basically a terrorist. In August of 1862, Porter’s aide Frisby McCullough fell into McNeil’s hands: the Union general had McCullough shot.

On September 12, Porter raided the town of Palmyra, where McNeil held a number of Confederate prisoners. In the course of the raid, he kidnapped Andrew Allsman, a 60-year-old Palmyra resident. “It was said of him that he was able to inform the military authorities of certain movements of the enemy, and that he gave definitive information as to the homes and whereabouts of many men of Confederate leanings,” in the words of this pro-Confederate 1902 pamphlet on the incident. “Naturally, this placed him in disfavor with the Southern sympathizers and those who were fighting in that cause.”

What happened next — though it was not known to the Union at the time — was that Allsman was shot. The pamphlet just cited attempts to obfuscate this event into the fog of war and not really Porter’s fault. The bare fact is that his raiders had gone out of their way to seize an aged non-combatant and then summarily executed him.

Not knowing Allsman’s fate, McNeil responded with an ultimatum to his opposite number.

Palmyra, Mo., Oct. 8, 1862.

To Joseph C. Porter.

Sir: — Andrew Allsman, an aged citizen of Palmyra and a non-combatant, having been carried away from his home by a band of persons unlawfully arraigned against the peace and good order of the State of Missouri, and which band was under your control, this is to notify you that, unless Andrew Allsman is returned unharmed to his family within ten days from date, ten men, who have belonged to your band, and unlawfully sworn by you to carry arms against the government of the United States, and who are now in custody, will be shot as a meet reward for their crimes, amongst which is the illegal restraining of said Allsman of his liberty, and if not returned, of presumptively aiding in his murder. Your prompt attention to this will save much suffering.

Yours, etc.,

W.R. Strachan
Provost Marshal General Northeast District of Missouri
By order of Brigadier General commanding McNeil’s column

The Confederates, of course, could not produce Allsman.

So, on the evening of Oct. 17, five rebel prisoners in the Palmyra stockade plus five more held in Hannibal were informed that they would be shot the next afternoon, in ruthless enforcement of the threat.

The men who died this date in 1862 by a volley of musketry at the Palmyra fairgrounds were:

  • Captain Thomas Sidenor
  • William T. Baker
  • Thomas Humston
  • Morgan Bixler
  • John McPheeters
  • Hiram Smith
  • Herbert Hudson
  • John Wade
  • Marion Lair
  • Eleazer Lake

Their names adorn the base of a monument erected in Palmyra in 1907 commemorating the so-called “Palmyra Massacre”. The state of Missouri as a digital archive of original documents relating to the affair available here.

* Missouri was where the slave Dred Scott lived; his owner taking him to the neighboring free state of Illinois and thence points north occasioned the notorious Supreme Court case that bears his name.

** Frank and Jesse James were Confederate partisans for William Quantrill in the Missouri war; they segued directly into their more celebrated career in outlawry right after the war ended — robbing banks whilst settling scores with pro-Union men for the rest of the 1860s, before branching out to other points on the frontier.

† The Union might obviously have chosen to treat the entire Confederacy as a treasonable enterprise rather than a legitimate enemy belligerent. As a historical matter, it did not take this perspective.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Confederates,Cycle of Violence,Execution,Guerrillas,History,Hostages,Mass Executions,Missouri,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Shot,Soldiers,Terrorists,USA,Wartime Executions

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1899: John Headrick and Carroll Rice, Missourians

1 comment June 15th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1899, young John Headrick was hanged outside Cape Girardeau‘s courthouse for murdering James Lail.

The 19-year-old Headrick was an embittered ex-farmhand of his victim, James Lail — who fired the youth for stealing a buggy.

In July of 1898, he turned up on the farm and found Lail in the barn. Lail’s wife and daughter both saw young Headrick arrive; they would testify that within half a minute of him entering the barn, they heard gunshots.

At trial, Headrick would claim that he shot in self-defense when Lail menaced him with a deadly currycomb (a brush used for horses), offering the prosecutor the opportunity for a bit of sport on the cross-ex:

Q: “You want the jury to understand that you are afraid of your life when a man assaults you with a curry comb?”

A: “Yes, sir, when I am in a place where I can’t get away.”

Q: “Especially if you are armed?”

A: “If I wasn’t armed I would have been killed.”

Q: “He aimed to curry you? He didn’t strike you with the curry comb?”

A: “No, sir, he did not. He struck at me mighty hard.”

Jokes aside, Lail’s surviving family had a terrifying ordeal still to come. As Headrick blasted away at his fallen boss, Lail’s wife Vernie arrived and threw herself over her husband protectively.

The young assailant shot her, too, then began beating her. By now, 19-year-old Jessie Lail was on the scene too. “John Headrick, what do you mean!” she shrieked. “You have wrecked my life forever! You have killed Papa, now you are killing Mother!”

In the ensuing chaos, Vernie Lail tried to make a run for it only for Headrick to chase her down and stab her — to death, or so he thought. Then the young assailant marched Jessie Lail off at gunpoint. Somehow, Vernie Lail survived a slashed throat, a shot through the back, and numerous other injuries to rise yet again and make it a quarter of a mile down the road to her mother-in-law’s house.

“By God, the old woman is gone, you can’t kill her, can you?” Headrick exclaimed to the daughter when they re-crossed the spot where mom’s body should have been. Headrick at this point wisely abandoned the scene of his carnage after trying and failing to extract a pledge from his hostage not to give evidence against him. A posse found him shortly afterwards, hiding in a barn.

The sturdy and surprisingly low-to-the-ground tree on which Headrick was hanged just outside the Cape Girardeau courthouse still stands, or did as of 2010 when it was endangered by a proposed traffic roundabout. Have a gander at the old gallows-tree in this post by Cape Girardeau journalist Ken Steinhoff, here.


Headrick’s hanging took place behind jail walls, but on the same date in Alton, Carroll Rice was hanged before a reported crowd of 5,000 for the murder of his wife.

“Just before the black cap was adjusted, and while his legs were being pinioned, the condemned man broke away form the sheriff and attempted to escape,” press reports ran.

It was worth a try.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Missouri,Murder,Public Executions,USA

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1864: Barney Gibbons, chance recognition

Add comment August 13th, 2014 Headsman

One hundred fifty years ago today, Barney Gibbons was executed by musketry by the Civil War Union army in St. Louis, Missouri.

Gibbons was among the many soldiers in that chaotic war who in the time before identity cards and omnipresent databases deserted the respective armies at their convenience. Whatever the fulminations of the right-thinking against such behavior, only a slight risk of capture and exemplary punishment attended such an act.

Gibbons’ own slip into the statistically improbable might be the slightest imaginable risk of them all.

The New York native was enlisted in the Seventh Infantry Regiment when it was sent at the outset of hostilities to the New Mexico theater of the war; there he slipped away from the march one day and re-enlisted in the Confederate army, serving against his former comrades in several battles — notably Glorieta Pass.

Then Gibbons deserted the Confederate army as well, turned up as a teamster in New Orleans, and eventually made his way to St. Louis.

And that was that, or at least it often would have been. By 1864, who could bother to search out an obscure private fallen off the march three years before?

One summer’s day in 1864, however, a former 7th Infantry sergeant named Richard Day chanced to pass Barney Gibbons on the street and somehow recognized him. “He has a cut upon his lip, and a peculiar manner of walking,” Day would later insist at the court-martial. “Capt. Jones of our company was always at him because he never could walk like a soldier, he would throw his head forward and his arms to the rear. He always walked with his hands open and fingers apart even when he had gloves on.”

Now, despite the certitude of our verbiage so far, the fact of the matter is that “Gibbons” denied all this all the way to the stake — and there were no better forensics on offer than Day’s personal recollection. That was pretty much state of the art, even if we now know that eyewitnesses are highly error-prone.

We pick up Gibbons’s horrifying last moments (following Catholic baptism) via the New York Times correspondent, as reprinted by the Cleveland Plain Dealer on August 23, 1864:

Although there is not at the post of St. Louis an officer who ever witnessed an execution, the preliminaries were conducted in a skillful, orderly and decent manner. — All the troops of the post were in attendance, and a hollow square having been formed with one side open toward the embankment of the for, the condemned man was placed beside a post, with a seat attached, his common pine coffin lying on the ground beside him. After making a brief statement, in which he denied having deserted, but said that he straggled and was overtaken by the rebels, he pronounced his sentence most unjust …

He was seated, and his arms tied behind the post, a white cap was drawn over his face, and six musketeers drawn up within fifteen feet of his breast. The command was given:

“Make ready.”

“Aim.”

“Fire” and two bullets entered the abdomen. And now succeeded a few seconds in which transpired a scene which shook the stoutest heart, and made every human creature present shudder. From beneath the ghastly cap came a wail of agony which pierced every ear, and as the utterance “Oh! oh! too low,” escaped from the lips of the quivering form writhing in the throes of a horrible death, every one seemed paralyzed with horror. With a quick motion the officer of the squad waved the six muskets aside and four others took their place. “Make ready.” “Aim” — but mercifully before the third command was given, the four pieces were discharged, three leaden messengers of death entering the sternum, and a mighty convulsive shudder ended the being of the poor deserter. What an eternity of woe in those intervening few seconds! What a crowding of events from infancy, hallowed by a mother’s love and prayers to the dreadful details of the present scene! Yet, all passed before the mind’s eye of the dying man, and the wonderful palimpsest of his brain touched by the consciousness of instant death, gave him to see in a second all that had been for years forgotten, ere he entered upon the unknown.

The error in firing arose from the fact, discovered too late for remedy, that the sights of the muskets were set for long range.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Desertion,Execution,History,Military Crimes,Missouri,Shot,Soldiers,U.S. Military,USA,Wartime Executions

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1838: The slave Mary, the youngest executed by Missouri

1 comment August 11th, 2014 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1838, a teenage slave girl named Mary was hanged in Crawford County, Missouri. She had murdered Vienna Jane Brinker, a white child two weeks short of her second birthday.

Mary’s original owner was Abraham Brinker, Vienna Jane’s grandfather. Abraham was murdered by Indians southwest of Potosi in Washington County, Missouri in 1833. He died without a will and his widow, Fanny, and son, John, became administrators of his estate. John appropriated Mary for himself and eventually made her the babysitter for Vienna Jane, his daughter.

Mary, described as “shrewd” and “remarkably fond of children,” was “about thirteen” at the time she killed the toddler on May 14, 1837. That day Vienna Jane’s body was found in a stream on the Brinkers’ property. She’d been struck on the head and flung into the water, where she drowned.

Just why Mary committed the murder may never be known,* but she readily admitted killing Vienna Jane — at least, once Mary “was tied to a log” and interrogated with the sheriff, who “began to act as though he were going to whip Mary” — and her guilt was taken as given throughout her surprisingly protracted 15-month legal odyssey. The judge instructed Mary’s trial jury:

If the Jury shall find from the evidence that Mary, the accused person was under fourteen years when she committed the offense alleged in the indictment, then, unless they shall also find from the evidence that at the time when said offense was committed the said Mary had sufficient mind to know what act would be a crime or otherwise, they shall find for the defendant.

The jury found against her and sentenced her to death.

Mary’s lawyers — there were three of them — appealed on several grounds, but her age was not one of them. The appellate court granted her a second trial on a technicality, but she was convicted again and did not appeal further.

Writing of this case in her book Death Sentences in Missouri, 1803-2005, author Harriet Frazier remarks that “Mary remains the youngest known person ever put to death by the authority of the state of Missouri. It is no accident that she was a female and a slave.”

Willard Rand turned her case into a two-act play, The Trial of Mary, a Slave, which was performed in the Crawford County courthouse in 1990.

* This page on Brinker family history mentions speculation that Mary was revenging her own prospective sale, and/or that she might have had an illegitimate child by her master whom the family sold against Mary’s will.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Missouri,Murder,Other Voices,Public Executions,Slaves,USA,Women

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1875: Henry Brown, Skinker assassin

Add comment October 22nd, 2013 Headsman

Cincinnati Daily Gazette, May 27, 1875.

ST. LOUIS, May 26. — Philip Pfarr, a German, living on what is known as the Skinker road, several miles from this city, was murdered about half-past 9 o’clock last night, by a negro, name unknown, and his wife, who was about to become a mother, ravished. It appears that a negro man, about twenty-five years old, called at Pfarr’s house, about 5 o’clock last evening, and asked for work.

Mrs. Pfarr told him they wanted no help.

He called again about 7 o’clock, after Mr. Pfarr had returned from his labor in the field, and was again told no help was wanted.

About half-past 9 at night Pfarr and his family were aroused by a noise in the yard, and by the barking of their dog.

Pfarr went out to see what was the matter, and was met by the negro who visited the house in the evening, and struck a violent blow on the head, apparently with some blunt instrument, and his skull fractured.

Mrs. Pfarr, who followed her husband to the door, was then savagely seized by the negro, forced to give up what money was in the house, and afterward brutally ravished.

After the negro had fled, Mrs. Pfarr dragged her insensible husband to the house and aroused her neighbors, and everything possible was done for him, but he remained unconscious until noon to-day, when he died.

Intense excitement prevails in the neighborhood, and twenty mounted policemen have been scouring the woods and fields all day, but at last accounts had found no trace of the fiendish murderer.


Cincinnati Daily Gazette, May 29, 1875.

ST. LOUIS, May 28. — Mrs. Pfarr, whose husband was murdered last Tuesday night at her home, a few miles from this city, was brought to town, to-day, by the police authorities, and promptly and fully identified the negro, Henry Brown, who was arrested last evening, as the man who killed her husband and violated her own person.

Aside from this identification, Capt. Fox, of the mounted police force, has worked the case up to such a point that there is no doubt whatever but that the man under arrest is the one who committed the atrocious deed.


Cincinnati Enquirer, Oct. 23, 1875.

ST. LOUIS, MO., October 22. — About 2,500 specators were present at the execution of Henry Brown, who was hanged to-day in the jail-yard of this country, for the murder of Philip Pfarr, and the rape and robbery of Mrs. Pfarr.

All the forenoon the doomed man was melancholy and uncommunicative. At 11 a.m. his two sisters called on him and bade him farewell.

At 1 p.m. he was led to the scaffold, which he mounted with a ready, fearless step, It was evident that he had been liberally plied with whisky.

He made a rambling speech, twenty minutes long, and was so tedious in its delivery that he had to be reminded that his time was up. His harangue was incoherent and disconnected, such as any drunken man would make. He persistently denied the rape of Mrs. Pfarr, and asserted that he only struck Pfarr in self-defense.

His death was almost instantaneous, the neck having been broken. Eight minutes after the drop fell he was pronounced dead. His body was lowered into a rude coffin and carted off to the bone-yard.

BROWN’S CRIME

Was of a peculiarly atrocious character, involving, as it did, murder, rape and robbery. The scene of this triple deed was a small farm in this county, three miles from the city limits, on which lived a well-known German farmer named Philip Pfarr and his wife. The place is somewhat secluded, no one living nearer than one-quarter of a mile.

According to Mrs. Pfarr’s statement, a negro man, who was subsequently identified as Henry Brown, came to the house on the afternoon of May 26th and asked for work. Mr. Pfarr informed him that he had no work to give him.

The negro continued to loiter around the gate, and Mrs. Pfarr was so suspicious of danger that she would not permit her husband to return to the field to work that afternoon.

About nine o’clock that night Mr. and Mrs. Pfarr were awakened by the loud barking of their dogs. Pfarr went outside to ascertain the cause, and Mrs. Pfarr got up and stood in the doorway.

She heard her husband ask, “What do you want?” and immediately thereafter she heard a heavy blow struck, and saw her husband stagger and fall.

Before she had time to get out of the doorway the assassin, who was none other than Brown, rushed upon her, and throwing her violently upon the floor ravished her before she recovered from the stunning shock of the fall.

To complete his brutality, he struck her a severe blow on the head and demanded what money she had in the house. She delivered her purse, which contained only seventy-fie cents. Taking this he disappeared in the darkness.

The unfortunate woman was at that time in the last stages of pregnancy, and her injuries were so serious that she could scarcely walk. But she managed to go to her husband, whom she found lying at the gate breathing heavily. He was still able to move, and with her assistance reached the door.

She laid him down upon the floor, placing a pillow under his head and covering him with a quilt.

He immediately became insensible, and did not speak again. His skull had been crushed in with a heavy piece of wagon timber, which was found at the gate.

After thus caring for her husband Mrs. Pfarr alarmed the neighbors, who gathered in crowds. When she told her pitiful story the excitement became intense.

Old man Pfarr died at midnight.

By daylight next morning numerous parties had been organized, and the country for miles around was scoured.

More than twenty negroes were arrested and carried into the presence of Mrs. Pfarr, but she failed to identify any of them as the criminal who assaulted her. The excited populace came near lynching two or three suspected individuals, in spite of the declaration of the outraged woman that the right man had not yet been caught.

THE FATAL BELT.

The detection of Brown was brought about by one little circumstance.

In retreating from the room, the ravisher dropped a leather belt from his waist. A police officer took this belt and showed it to a number of people, among whom was a colored woman living near by, who instantly recognized it as the property of her son, Henry Brown.

The entire police and detective force were put on the watch for Brown, who had suddenly and mysteriously disappeared.

The next day his arrest was effected and Mrs. Pfarr was brought to the jail for the purpose of

IDENTIFYING THE ACCUSED.

She had previously failed to identify at least twenty-five colored men, promptly exculpating each as they were produced, but as soon as Brown was brought into her presence she exclaimed, in broken English, that he was the man who had killed her husband, and ravished and robbed her.

In reply to her reproaches, the prisoner hung his head and confusedly said that he did not know what the woman was talking about.

Brown at first bitterly denied all connection with the crime, and alleged that he was not in the neighborhood on the fatal night. The next day, however,

HE CONFESSED

That he was walking past Pfarr’s place on the night in question when Praff came out and set his dog on him, at the same time throwing a heavy stick at him.

He caught the stick in his hands and threw it back, striking Pfarr and knocking him down. He persistently denied the assault upon Mrs. Pfarr.

He was tried September 15th, the jury, on the testimony of Mrs. Pfarr, promptly finding him guilty of murder in the first degree.

His attorneys were untiring in their efforts to save his neck. The Supreme Court refused a writ of supersedeas and the Governor declined to interfere. There was nothing left for the doomed African but the halter and the cap.

AN INTERVIEW WITH BROWN.

Your correspondent called upon the doomed man Wednesday afternoon.

At first he refused to talk, answering questions in profane and vituperative monosyllables.

After a brief time, however, he became more communicative. He bitterly denied the assault on Mrs. Pfarr and alleged that the blow he struck Pfarr was in self-defense.

He made a special request that his body should not be given to the dissectors, and asked his attorney to make a speech for him on the scaffold. His attorney promised him that both requests should be complied with.

Brown’s personal appearance was extremely brutal.

His forehead was low and narrow, his nose flat and his lips thick and projecting. His color was of that black and shiny hue so peculiar to the pale African. His look was diabolic. Nature seems to have stamped him as an assassin and cut-throat. His muscular development was something wonderful, and his strength must have been prodigious. Despite his protestations of justification and innocence, the community feels that his fate was just and well deserved.

(Line breaks have been added to all the above stories for readability relative to their solid-wall-of-text 19th century originals.)

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

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1888: Hugh Mottram Brooks, for the Trunk Murder

2 comments August 10th, 2011 Headsman

Entomb your mate in a trunk and the Show-Me State will hoist your neck on a rope: Hugh Mottram Brooks found that out on this date in 1888.

This story had made worldwide headlines within hours of the time an employee at St. Louis’s Southern Hotel had opened the door to a guest bedroom emitting a horrible stench and discovered a corpse stuffed in a trunk.


Headline of the St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat, April 15, 1885. The story occupied the entire front page.

The remains, in life, had belonged to Charles Arthur Preller, an English traveling salesman who had been hanging about the hotel with his impecunious countryman, Brooks.

Those two had been understood on the premises to have been involved, in the Oscar Wilde sense. But the spark for homicide was mere avarice.

The dramatic note left pinned to the late Preller — “so perish all traitors to the great cause” — was almost immediately deemed a red herring, and suspicion descended on Preller’s recent companion, who had absconded with our dead salesman’s money.

A global manhunt pursued the fugitive, who was found to have fled to San Francisco and thence overseas; he was soon arrested in Auckland and extradited back to face a sensational trial — which, by the by, entailed disinterring the corpse to search it for evidence that it had been catheterized. (It hadn’t, and this rubbished the defendant’s alibi that he’d accidentally killed the guy while consensually chloroforming him in the course of a bit of home medicine.)

The wonderful 19th century crime site Murder by Gaslight covers this case and Brooks’s futile defense in meticulous detail. Aptly enough, the Trunk Murderer didn’t have a leg to stand on.

Brooks hanged along with another murderer, Henry Landgraff. The British government did make diplomatic representations on its citizen’s behalf, but they were ignored — prosecutors retorting that London had recently given short shrift to American citizen Patrick O’Donnell.

Part of the Themed Set: Branded.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Homosexuals,Missouri,Murder,Pelf,USA

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1879: John Blan, panicked

1 comment June 6th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1879, there was a public hanging in St. Charles, Missouri.

John Blan or Bland had murdered his brother-in-law in a log cabin following a dispute about money: Blan clobbered him with a club, then fled into the surrounding woods, only to return after his victim’s family had patched the poor fellow up and put him to bed and finish the guy off with a shotgun. It’s a murder that smacks of irresolution; Blan would later say that he was “scared and did not know what [he] was scared about” and that, afflicted by “the haunts,” he fancied the victim he had just shot pursuing him through the darkened forest. (Blan was also drunk.)

We’re attracted to this story because of the humanizing glimpse of a weak man terrified under the shadow of death that the newspaper reports of his hanging provide. On the scaffold or otherwise, we don’t all check out with a haughty disdain for the reaper.

The story below comes from the June 7, 1879 St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat, which source had previously (March 6, 1879) reported the prisoner’s unsteady conduct “during the days the evidence was being taken, manifested a great deal of bravado, but after the jury had gone out yesterday evening he grew solemn and seemed to realize his terrible danger. When he came into Court this morning to hear the verdict, he had a haggard expression, as if he had passed a night of intense anxiety. When the verdict was read perfect quiet pervaded the Court-room, and the prisoner turned very pale and supported himself by holding to the arms of his chair. He had evidently not expected such a verdict.”

The doomed man’s nerves had not improved in the interim.

By 6 o’clock Blan began to weaken and frequently shed tears. … At 7:30 o’clock Blan with sobs, told the Sheriff he was afraid he could not stand it. At 7:35 there was a sudden call for the guards at the outside door of the jail and quite a commotion inside. It was soon ascertained that Blan had made a desperate break for liberty. Rev. Mr. Morton and the Jailer were in the cell with him, and just as Dr. Johns, the County Physician, opened the cell door with a drink for Blan, he pushed the Jailer and minister aside, rushed to the door, struck at the Doctor, hitting him on the shoulder and knocking him out of the way, passed through the entry into the Jailer’s kitchen (the only way out) and there ran into the arms of Sheriffs Rienzi and Cook and a number of his deputies, who secured him after a hard struggle …

In a very few minutes Blan was taken on to the scaffold, and there, supported by several Deputy Sheriffs, the death warrant was read to him by Sheriff Rienzi.

Blan was much agitated, was very pale, and his legs seemed too weak to support him … after a short prayer … Blan then asked, “How much time have I got? Can I live till 9 o’clock?” He was told to step on the trap, which he did, and his feet were bound. He asked for water, and when it was given him said to those assembled: “I wish everybody well. May the good stay good, and the bad get better. I have no bad feeling against anybody. I did the deed.” The Sheriff then placed the black cap, and Blan cried out: “Farewell to everybody. Whisky [sic] and trouble got me into this scrape. I don’t deserve hanging.” The rope was adjusted and the trap sprung at 7:52 o’clock.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Missouri,Murder,Public Executions,USA

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