Posts filed under 'New Hampshire'

1806: Josiah Burnham, despite Daniel Webster’s defense

Add comment August 12th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1806, 63-year-old Josiah Burnham hanged for murder in New Hampshire.

Eight days before Christmas in 1805, Burnham, a noted local churl “almost constantly engaged in litigation,” was languishing as a debtor in the Haverhill jail when he got into an argument with two cellmates. Burnham being merely a debtor and not a real criminal was apparently suffered to carry his own knife in his confinement, and he used it to savage effect. According to a graphic news report, Burnham

inhumanly stabbed Freeman in the bowels, which immediately began to gush out. At the noise occasioned by this, Starkweather endeavored to come to the assistance of his friend Freeman, when, horrid to relate, Burnham made a pass at him and stabbed him in his side and then endeavored to cut his throat, and the knife entered in the his collar bone. Burnham after this made a fresh attack on Starkweather and stabbed him four times more. By this time he had grown so weak that the monster left him and flew at Freeman, who all this time was sitting holding his bowels in his hands, and stabbed him three times more.

By this time the jailers were upon them as Burnham attempted to slash his own throat. His victims lived a few more hours in agony before both expired.

The irascible bankrupt was easily convicted; his greenhorn attorney had scarcely anything to leverage in defense of a known blackguard committing such a cold-blooded crime.

“Burnham had no witnesses. He could not bring past good character to his aid, nor ould we urge the plea of insanity in his behalf,” Daniel Webster remembered in 1851, then with a lifetime in law and rhetoric behind him. “I made my first and the only solitary argument of my whole life against capital punishment, and the proper time for a lawyer to urge this defence is when he is young and has no matters of fact or law upon which he can found a better defence.” Despite the legendary talent of his tongue to acquit the damned themselves, Webster couldn’t save Josiah Burnham.

We have of this event a lengthy sermon preached by the Rev. David Sutherland

It’s available free online here, in a pamphlet which is also the source of the other quotes in this post. (It does, however, misdate the execution for August 13. Contemporary news reports both before and after the hanging are categorical that it occurred on Tuesday, August 12.) There is also a halting biography purporting to have been communicated by the doomed man himself:

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

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1878: Joseph LaPage, murderer of Josie Langmaid

Add comment March 15th, 2014 Headsman

Joseph LaPage died on a gallows at Concord, N.H. on this date in 1878 for the horrific murder of Josie Langmaid more than two years before.

The 17-year-old Josie’s disappearance one October morn while walking to her classes at the Pembroke Academy shocked the town of Pembroke and the adjoining village of Suncook. Late that night, frantic search parties found Josie’s body by torchlight in a cluster of trees just off Academy Road — ravaged, mutilated, and headless. (The head turned up the next morning, half a mile away.)

The horror of her murder so shook* Pembroke that it put up a memorial obelisk that still stands today — right near the turn into present-day Three Rivers School. Additional inscriptions on the macabre monument direct the viewer to a little stone pillar 90 feet north at the exact spot her body was recovered … and yet another one 82 rods on where her head was recovered.

“As I pull out of the driveway of the school, leaving my daughter behind, the monument is a visible reminder of how quickly our lives can change,” one commenter mused in a detailed post on the excellent true-crime blog Murder By Gaslight.

All of New England thrilled to the horrific crime, in consequence of which — after a week’s worth of panicky arrests of random tramps and the town’s only African-American — it soon became known that an itinerant French woodcutter named Joseph LaPage who had been suspected of a similar slaying previously in St. Alban’s, Vermont, just so happened to be in the area.

And upon arrest, he was found to have a boot whose bloodied heel appeared to match the shape of a violent gouge found on Langmaid’s severed head.

This is not reliable forensic evidence in the modern sense. But evidence began to exclude nearly every other person who had fallen under early suspicion, and the circumstances implicating Joseph LaPage soon stood out damningly.

Perhaps the most powerful was a history of savage violence against women.

LaPage (born outside Montreal as Joseph Paget) had come to live in the United States by escaping over the Canadian border after raping his sister-in-law, Julianne Rousse. He had escaped the St. Alban’s prosecution in part thanks to alibis provided by his sons, who now recanted their testimony. LaPage was known to abuse his wife, and was thought to have outraged his own daughter.

And it was found that in Pembroke, LaPage had been making unnervingly personal inquiries after the habits of his employer’s pretty young daughter — a Pembroke Academy student herself who customarily walked to school along Academy Road with Josie Langmaid. She might have been LaPage’s intended target, but on the fateful morning she chanced to catch a carriage ride instead.

Though LaPage fought his sentence for two years and even won an appeal overturning the first verdict against him, he was condemned a second time. He confessed on the eve of his hanging to both Langmaid’s murder, and that of Marietta Ball in St. Alban’s — complete with hand-drawn maps for both crimes indicating how he had gone about committing them, and where he had disposed of the remains.

However, because LaPage was not forthcoming with such a confession at the point of trial, and because evidence such as Julianne Rousse’s rape testimony and the suspicions against him from St. Alban’s was excluded as irrelevant, it had been necessary to develop the strongest possible evidentiary case in the Langmaid murder without depending overmuch on the accused’s brutish reputation.

To that end, the LaPage prosecutions also became a bit of a minor forensics laboratory: there had been bloodstains found on some of his clothes, but of course, this could be blood from butchering an animal or from injuring himself in the course of woodcutting, or anything else.

Could one say more than that in the 1870s? A significant subplot of LaPage’s trials consisted of scientists expert in “blood microscopy” explaining their tests on Langmaid’s and LaPage’s clothing, and in particular their suggestion of a tentative match between some of the samples based on restoring with a simulated serum the dried corpuscules to something resembling their living state and examining the dimensions of the corpuscules. The blood on Josie Langmaid’s clothes “resembled in every respect that found upon the clothing of LaPage,” one doctor testified. (St. Albans (Vt.) Messenger — which newspaper heavily reported the course of LaPage’s trial, for obvious reasons — January 10, 1876.)

LaPage’s defense naturally attempted to repel such evidence by arguing against the method of “restoring” corpuscules, against the reliability of their post-mortem characteristics, and against the dependability of the alleged matches between samples. LaPage’s last-minute confession led the St. Alban’s Messenger (March 22, 1878) to exult that

[i]t must be exceedingly gratifying to Drs. Richardson, Treadwell and Chase, to have this confirmation by voluntary confession of the revelations of crime by the microscope. It will no longer do for flippant attorneys to scout** the revelations which modern science gives, at the hands of intelligent, patient, skillful and thoughtful manipulators in microscopy and photography; and the conviction and punishment of such a monster as LaPage, largely by the testimony of blood experts secures another triumph for modern science.

* In addition to the obelisk, a “Suncook Town Tragedy Ballad” (lyrics here) preserves the terrible tale.

** “To scout” has a little-used meaning of “to scorn; dismiss”. This meaning has a completely different etymology from the more usual meaning of searching or reconnoitering.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,New Hampshire,Notable Sleuthing,Rape,USA

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1836: Abraham Prescott, homicidal somnabulist

Add comment January 6th, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1836, Abraham Prescott was hanged in Hopkinton, New Hampshire.

His crime was sensational at the time; the trial record can be viewed here. The slaying was horrifying in and of itself, and there was the added element of betrayal: Prescott had turned on the people who had treated him like kin.

A gentleman farmer, Chauncey Cochran, had taken Abraham Prescott in during his mid-teens and given him a place to stay on his farm in Pembroke, New Hampshire. In return, Prescott worked for Cochran on the farm.

This relationship continued amicably for three years, and Abraham grew very close to Chauncey and his wife, Sally. They trusted him and treated him like a son.

Our story begins on January 6, 1833, three years to the day before Prescott swung. During the early morning hours, Prescott took an ax and struck Chauncey and Sally in the head as they slept. Either he didn’t mean to kill them or he didn’t know how to aim, because he delivered glancing blows that merely caused considerable bruising and bleeding.

Abraham told them he’d been sleepwalking, and he hadn’t even realized he’d attacked his master and mistress until he saw Chauncey rising up from the bed, covered in blood. He wasn’t the first person on these pages to use the sleepwalking defense, but Abraham’s wild story actually worked — that time, anyway.

Perhaps the Cochrans were blinded by their affection for their employee. Perhaps they simply had no common sense. In any case, they accepted Prescott’s explanation and didn’t summon the police or even dismiss him. After he axed them both in bed. Most bosses would probably consider that a one-strike offense.

A report of this “unhappy and and almost unheard-of occurrence of somnambulism” was actually published in the New Hampshire Patriot several days later. Even after subsequent events cast the incident in a very sinister light, Chauncey still referred to it as “the accident.”

Several months passed and Prescott behaved normally, diligently working on the farm and causing no trouble. Then, on June 23, Sally asked him to go with her on a berry-picking expedition.

They set off together, and several hours later he came home alone and visibly agitated.

When asked what was wrong, Abraham said he’d been bothered by a toothache and lay down against a tree to rest. He evidently fell asleep, and when he woke up Sally was lying prone. Abraham had been sleepwalking again, and had clubbed her with a three-foot wooden stake, and he thought he’d killed her.

This time Chauncey didn’t give Prescott the benefit of doubt. The eighteen-year-old found himself jailed and charged with capital murder.

Abraham Prescott’s lawyer went for the insanity defense, focusing on his culpability rather than his actions. Prescott was not terribly bright and may have actually been developmentally disabled. Various witnesses testified that there was mental illness in his family. Abraham’s mother said he’d had hydrocephalus as an infant and had sleepwalked frequently during his childhood. Several doctors testified about somnambulism and insanity, and how the defendant could be a good example of both, although they were all speaking theoretically as none of them had examined him.

(Fun fact: one of the expert witnesses was George Parkman, who was himself the victim of a homicide sixteen years later and is featured elsewhere on these pages.)

The prosecution had a much easier time of it: they had a very good case that Prescott had murdered his mistress deliberately. His attempt to conceal her body suggested he knew the wrongfulness of his actions. He was under the impression that he stood to inherit everything if the Cochrans died (since they said he was “like family”).

Vis-à-vis the sleepwalking, Abraham’s own statements contradicted each other. When questioned right after his arrest, he had provided a much more straightforward account of what happened, one that didn’t involve somnambulism: Abraham said that while he and Sally were picking berries, he had done or said something “improper” to her and she threatened to tell her husband. He killed her because he was afraid he would be sent to prison if Chauncey found out about it.

(Prescott subsequently retracted that statement and went back to the sleepwalking story.)

Even after conviction, however, questions remained. Several reprieves were issued while the state tried to figure out whether or not he was crazy and, if so, how crazy. He copped a retrial because the first jury that convicted him had been improperly exposed to the popular belief in Prescott’s guilt by virtue of being barracked at a local pub. The sentencing judge at his last trial remarked on the court’s meticulous solicitation of “the most experienced witnesses, in our own and neighboring States, to throw upon the secret operations and sudden derangements of the mind, and all the evidence which the highest records of the history of man could furnish.”

Prescott spent in all two years awaiting execution, a very long time in those days. In the end, however, the law decided that Prescott knew what he was doing that day in the strawberry patch, and he had to die.

We will never know for sure why he killed Sally Cochran. The only thing that can be said with certainty is that Abraham Prescott was a very troubled young man.

A large crowd braved a snowstorm to watch him die.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Murder,New Hampshire,Other Voices,Public Executions,USA

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1939: Howard Long, New Hampshire’s most recent hanging

1 comment July 14th, 2009 Headsman

As of today, it’s been 70 years since the U.S. state of New Hampshire carried out an execution, despite maintaining a death penalty statute almost continuously since.

“Craving for boys,” Long was condemned for molesting and beating to death a 10-year-old in 1937, evidently his second molestation/murder: in the first, he reportedly drove around for 10 hours with his prisoner before plucking up the heart to do the thing, the sort of mental picture to cast a child murder victim of a wannabe-serial killer in the unexpected aspect of boredom.

Long’s execution in the bicentennial of New Hampshire’s first legal hangings was itself the first in 21 years in the Granite State. Although a handful of cases since have potentially fit the steadily narrowing set of death penalty circumstances, none has actually come so far as the gallows (or, today, theoretically, lethal injection) before taking one of the many possible exits — plea bargain, sentence reduction, premature death — from the capital punishment system.

New Hampshire’s present-day death row consists of only one person, and earlier this year its legislature actually voted to abolish the death penalty, a measure spearheaded by State Rep. Renny Cushing, who is the son of a murder victim.* The measure was vetoed by Gov. John Lynch.

* Full disclosure: also a personal friend. Cushing founded Murder Victims Families for Human Rights (MVFHR).

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Milestones,Murder,New Hampshire,Ripped from the Headlines,Sex,USA

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1739: Penelope Kenny and Sarah Simpson

6 comments December 27th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1739, Penelope Kenny and Sarah Simpson were publicly hanged in colonial New Hampshire for “feloniously concealing the death of a[n] … infant bastard child.”

The first people — male or female — executed in New Hampshire history had separately disposed in August 1739 of their respective newborns. Unluckily for them, some never-discovered third woman did the same thing around the same time much less adroitly … and her dead infant was found in a well.

The ensuing investigation uncovered (in one case by the forcible ministrations of a midwife team) the recent pregnancies of this day’s victims, and though Simpson claimed her child was miscarried, she still fell under a law making a capital crime of covering up the death of a baby.

Today, Executed Today interviews New Hampshire historian Christopher Benedetto, whose research situates Kenny and Simpson in the context of their times:

In provincial New Hampshire, as was common across colonial America, the punishment of fornication and bastardy was harsh, and the stigma that followed could cost a working class woman her livelihood. When Penelope Kenny and Sarah Simpson gave birth in August 1739, they both knew that the physical product of their sexual improprieties must be concealed. It was an awful decision to have to make, but in their minds “infanticide might have seemed a matter of survival.” The discarding of illegitimate children, however, seems to have been an issue in New Hampshire long before 1739. In 1714, the General Assembly passed “An Act to Prevent the Destroying and Murdering of Bastard Children,” which declared

Whereas many lewd women that have been delivered of Bastard children, to avoid shame and escape punishment, do secretly bury or conceal the death of their children…Be it therefore enacted…that if any woman be delivered of any Issue of her body, male or female, which if it were born alive should by law be a Bastard; and that she endeavor privately either by drowning or secret burying thereof…so to conceal the death thereof that it may not come to light, whether it were born alive or not but be concealed. In every such case the Mother soe offending shall suffer Death…except such Mother cann make proof by one witness at least, the Child whose death was by her so intended to be concealed was born dead.

Executed Today: The first hanging in New Hampshire didn’t happen until 1739?!

Christopher Benedetto: There were plenty of capital laws and there definitely were cases where people were tried for their lives, but why it took so long … they had crossed some sort of a boundary. I’m sure the loss of so many children only a few years before [in a diphtheria epidemic] made these crimes that much more shocking.

ET: You’re working on a book on crime in New Hampshire.*

CB: The criminal history of Massachusetts has been studied for so long, but there’s really nothing like this for New Hampshire at all. And there’s so much there. There’s a whole chapter in the book on infanticide and child murder.

ET: What’s the perspective you get working deeply in a local milieu?

CB: I think having grown up here, my own family I’ve been able to trace back to the 1650’s in Massachusetts … it’s always been a big part of my life.

I like being able to go to different sites where these things actually happened. I think that’s true for any historian — you’re drawn to the specific places. The town I grew up in, Ipswich, they have plaques of people who lived there. Anne Bradstreet‘s house is still there.

I could walk on a lot of the streets or at least go to some of the places where these things took place.

But to me, history is about people. It’s about passions. To me, these people are so much like us today. Human nature has not changed a lot over the years.

ET: Does that lead to any conclusions on the death penalty in general?

CB: It’s one of the few things that’s as controversial now as it was two, three hundred years ago. I don’t think capital punishment prevents crime. I do think there are certain instances where the crime is so heinous, so bad — I don’t know, I’m sort of in the middle on it. I think we should reserve the right to do it, but does it improve our society at all?

ET: What advice would you have for a young person about being a historian? What’s the historical method for you?

CB: I would say, just be curious. You’ve got to be relentless. You’ve got to go after what you’re passionate about — nobody wants to do research about something they’re just not interested in.

To me, I love writing, but I think one of the most thrilling parts can be when you’re sort of on the hunt. I kind of see being a historian — and not just professionally; anyone who’s researching a family history — you’re almost like a quilter. You’re taking all these little pieces of fabric and just trying to create a whole picture. That might be my favorite part, taking all those pieces of information and just putting them together.

It’s not that nobody had ever written about that execution [of Kenny and Simpson] before, but maybe nobody had taken all that information and just kind of put it together in that way. You’re not always going to have something 100% new to say, but you might present it in a way that casts a new light or makes somebody think about it differently.

* Tentatively titled Gruesome Stories from the Granite State with an anticipated release in 2009 through regional press Commonwealth Editions.

Part of the Themed Set: The Spectacle of Public Hanging in America.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Interviews,Milestones,New Hampshire,Notable Jurisprudence,Other Voices,Public Executions,Sex,USA,Women

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