On this date in 1646, a black slave named Jan Creoli was executed in Manhattan, part of what was then called New Netherland and is now New York.
Creoli had been caught having carnal knowledge of a ten-year-old boy, another slave named Manuel Congo. Several of his own fellow Africans turned him in to the authorities. When Manuel Congo was brought face-to-face with Creoli, the boy “without being threatened in any way confessed to the deed in the presence of the prisoner.”
The statement that a ten-year-old child who had been raped might “confess to the deed” seems startling to modern eyes, but it is highly significant for understanding Dutch authorities’ actions. As far as New Netherland’s officials were concerned, Manuel Congo was not just a victim but also a participant in the crime of sodomy despite his age and the fact that he had been raped. Dutch officials in New Netherland and in the United Provinces regarded sodomy as one of the worst social crimes possible, every bit as serious as murder.
Confronted with his victim’s testimony, Creoli admitted his guilt and shamefacedly added that he’d also committed sodomy while in the Dutch Caribbean colony of Curacao.
He was accordingly executed: tied to stake, garrotted, and his body burned to ashes. Little Manuel got off lightly: he was only whipped.
Rulloff — also known as James Nelson, E. C. Howard, James Dalton, Edward Lieurio, etc. — had been a doctor, a lawyer, a schoolmaster, a photographer, a carpet designer, an inventor, and a phrenologist. Most notably, Rulloff was a philologist, who could speak Latin, Greek and six modern languages and in 1870, was working on a manuscript, Method in the Formation of Language, which he believed would revolutionize the field. But the real dichotomy of Edward Rulloff’s life was the fact that he financed his research by theft and did much of his philological work in prison.
Rulloff started both sides of his life early, working in a law firm and spending two years in the penitentiary for theft, both before age twenty. In 1844 his wife and daughter disappeared and Rulloff was charged with their murder. He handled his own defense and managed to beat the murder charge but was convicted of abduction and spent ten years in Auburn Prison.
After being released, Rulloff divided his time between is intellectual and criminal pursuits, and saw the inside of a jail more than once. In 1870 he was living in New York City, working on his book and running with a gang of petty thieves.
The morning of August 17, 1870, Rulloff and two others broke into Halbert’s dry goods store in Binghamton, New York. A gunfight ensued which left night watchman Fred A. Merrick dead. Rulloff was captured in the manhunt that followed.
Rulloff’s trial for the murder Fred Merrick was sensational, receiving national press coverage and attracting thousands of spectators. Once again Rulloff handled his own defense but this time he was found guilty of murder and sentenced to hang on March 3, 1871.
Unsuccessful appeals delayed the hanging by two and a half months. While awaiting execution, the case became a subject of national debate. Some said it was wrong to take the life of such a learned man who may be on the verge of a great intellectual breakthrough. Horace Greely, owner of the New York Tribune wrote: “In the prison in Binghamton there is a man awaiting death who is too curious an intellectual problem to be wasted on the gallows.”
Others however believed that Rulloff was an intellectual fraud, among them Mark Twain, who satirized Greely’s position saying: “If a life be offered up to the gallows to atone for the murder Rulloff did, will that suffice? If so … I will bring forward a man who, in the interest of learning and science, will take Rulloff’s crime upon himself and submit to be hanged in Rulloff’s place.”
Edward Rulloff was hanged on May 18, 1871. Before his execution, he confessed to killing his wife by smashing her skull with a pestle he used to grind medicine. Rulloff requested that his body be put in a vault so it would not be desecrated, but his request was not honored. Before his lawyer could claim the body, it was placed on public display and the owner of a local art gallery made a plaster death mask. His lawyer gave the body to Dr. George Burr of the Geneva Medical College who promised to bury the body in a private cemetery if he could keep the head for study. After the body was buried it was dug up and stolen by medical students. Edward Rulloff’s brain still exists as part of the Wilder Brain Collection at Cornell University.
On this date in 1883, Henry De Bosnys was hanged in Elizabethtown, New York, for murdering his wife.
De Bosnys was an immigrant near to 50 years old who turned up in 1881 in a little town on Lake Champlain as a farm hand. As we will see, this humble station contrasted sharply with the life De Bosnys claimed he had formerly led.
With him was “a colored woman who passed as his wife,” Eliza — but not for long. Soon after, De Bosnys took her away on his boat claiming that he had found work for her elsewhere on the lake. De Bosnys returned, but Eliza never did.
Whatever suspicions this might have aroused about the French farmhand did not suffice to deter another Eliza, the local widow Elizabeth Wells, from marrying De Bosnys only a few weeks later.
Their short union was characterized by terrible quarrels when the wife declined to place her small farm in the husband’s name. On August 1, 1882, she became the second Essex County woman to go for a ride with De Bosnys and fail to return.
At 122 meters deep, Lake Champlain is an oblivion where a corpse might vanish without trace. This is less true of a pile of leaves along a country lane — which is where Mrs. De Bosnys turned up, shot twice in the head with 22 calibre bullets and her neck gashed all the way to her spine.
When arrested, De Bosnys had a .22 pistol with two shots discharged, and a bloody knife. His story was that the couple had run into a Scotsman they knew, got drunk together on whisky, and that he, Henry, had fallen right asleep and knew nothing of what became of the wife. “His story,” the New York Times observes almost unnecessarily (Aug. 6, 1882), “is regarded as very improbable, and he is thought to be an escaped criminal who is concealing his identity.”
De Bosnys initially said he had come to the New World at age 17. By the time he went to the gallows — still insisting on his innocence — he had improved his biography considerably. The Times, possibly short of column-inches that day (Apr. 28, 1883), freely narrated the murderer’s compounded embellishments.
His education was thorough and extensive, and he could write and speak English, French, Italian, Spanish, Greek, and Portuguese, and could less perfectly speak and understand several other languages. While yet a mere lad he sailed with a north polar expedition under Leclaire, and was gone nearly two years, from February, 1848, to October, 1850. [I am unsure if this corresponds to any actual known polar expedition. -ed.] In 1854, with his father and brother, he volunteered for the Crimean war, and served in the French army in the Crimea for a couple of years. A few years of peace followed, in which De Bosnys completed his education, but on the breaking out of the war with Austria, in 1859, he joined MacMahon‘s army, in which he saw a few months’ service, sailing in the Autumn to China with the French contingent. Returning to France he joined the French expedition to Mexico in 1861, and after a few months joined the Mexican side, becoming a Captain of guerrillas under Lopez. In this service he was severely wounded in an engagement. He came North, and, being cured of his wound, enlisted in the Fourth Pennsylvania Volunteers in 1863. He was wounded at the battle of Gettysburg and discharged from the army. Returning to France he was married, but after two months’ matrimonial experience sailed on another arctic expedition. After an absence of two years he returned to this country, where he led a roving life until the outbreak of the Franco German war. He entered the French Army, rising by successive promotions until he became a Colonel under Gen. Boubaki. He served all through the war with varying fortunes, at its close escaping to Marseilles, whence he shipped for America.
One would think a man with that history would have a vision wider than squeezing 15 acres out of a widow, or at least the perspicacity to clean up his murder weapons — but then again, he really did speak all those languages. Maybe this was the date Elizabethtown hanged the Most Interesting Man in the World. If so, history records that the man’s savoir faire extended so far as cannily inspecting the apparatus of his own execution a few hours before hanging on it, and offering the hangman a few engineering tips (De Bosnys thought the rope needed more soaping).
On this date in 1831, pirate Charles Gibbs hanged on Ellis Island.
This Rhode Island native followed his father’s trade in buccaneering and made an adventurously brutal life on the waves during the early 19th century’s brief piracy recrudescence.
Neither Gibbs himself nor subsequent writers fascinated by him shrank from embellishing his career, according to Dead Men Tell No Tales: The Life and Legends of the Pirate Charles Gibbs. Awaiting the gallows, Gibbs floated the story that he had first gone to sea under the Stars and Stripes during the War of 1812; that this turned out to be a fabrication has not prevented its repetition down the years.
His first corsair crew was the Maria, a privateer out of Colombia outfitted for the independence war against Spain. Gibbs — back when he was known by his birth name, James Jeffers — joined a mutiny that overthrew the irritating shackles of a letter of marque in favor of the pleasures of independent predation.
It was a fine time for such entrepreneurship; the recent upheaval of Europe’s Napoleonic Wars and the New World breakaway provinces had preoccupied the Spanish navy.
For the next several years, the raiders — “principally Spaniards and Americans” — preyed on commercial shipping in the Caribbean, cruelly murdering the entire crews of their captured prizes, whose booty they would then sell in Havana.
The voyages of the Maria and her successor ships with this band would suffice for a full pirate’s rollick, though they were only the first chapter of Gibbs’s career. For instance, by the time Gibbs had risen to leadership of the crew,
a Dutch ship from Curacao was captured, with a cargo of West India goods, and a quantity of silver plate. The passengers and crew, to the number of 30, were all destroyed, with the exception of a young female about 17, who fell upon her knees and implored Gibbs to save her life. The appeal was successful, and he promised to save her, though he knew it would lead to dangerous consequences among his crew. She was carried to Cape Antonio [Cuba], and kept there about two months; but the dissatisfaction increased until it broke out at last into open mutiny, and one of the pirates was shot by Gibbs for daring to lay hold of her with a view of beating out her brains. Gibbs was compelled in the end ot submit her fate to a council of war, at which it was decided that the preservation of their own lives made her sacrifice indispensable. He therefore acquiesced in the decision, and gave orders to have her destroyed by poison.
That’s from the “Confession of Gibbs the Pirate” elicited from the condemned raiders in the days before his execution, and widely reprinted in American papers. (My quotes are from the version that appeared on April 9, 1831, in the Baltimore Patriot.) In it, the title character struggles to recall the many ships he has hijacked over the years. “Brig Jane, of Liverpool” — “Brig (name forgotten) of New York” — “Two French Brigs, in the Gulf of Mexico” — “Bark Dido, of Bremen” — “Ship Earl of Moria, of London”. Over and over his entries end with the words vessel and crew destroyed.
There were some fortunate exceptions, but the pirates “knew that the principle inculcated by the old maxim that ‘dead men tell no tales’ was the only safe one for them.” Overall, his confessions involve him in “the robbery of more than forty vessels, and in the destruction of more than twenty, with their entire crews.” He might have gone to the gallows with literally hundreds of murders to his conscience.
What can be said for certain is that the USS Enterprise trashed Gibbs’s pirate fleet in 1821 and sent our man fleeing on foot into the Cuban mountains.
This incident aside, Americans’ naval presence was still not yet substantial enough to consistently trouble pirates. American ports, too, were quite ready to accept the coinage spent by pirates; the Spanish embassy would complain to Washington of the easy egress which Gibbs too availed. He even took a passenger ship from Boston to Liverpool where he dissipated a fortune in the vain pursuit of a respectable woman.
The late 1820s find him back in his familiar habit of seagoing carnage as a privateer for Argentina in its war against Brazil. The whole Atlantic was his home, and its many conflicts each offered the prospect of regular employment (or sudden, violent death).
When Argentina and Brazil made peace, Gibbs made for Algiers then under French blockade. He was, alas, unable himself to slip the blockade and thus frustrated of his design to seize Gallic prizes for the Barbary pirates.
Instead, he settled for joining the crew of a brig called the Vineyard — and promptly executing a mutiny. It was for this revolt, and the murder of the captain and first officer which it entailed, that Gibbs eventually swung: the mutineers scuttled the ship and struggled ashore in Long Island, where he and his fellow mutineer Thomas J. Wansley were seized and sentenced to death at a trial in New York City. While the Vineyard was the specific matter at hand in that case, and more than sufficient on its own to condemn them, the long and bloody career that preceded it became the talk of the nation. As the foregoing excerpts will indicate, they enjoyed at least a last consolation of celebrity, for they occupied the weeks approaching execution entertaining a slew of curious visitors.
For some reason, Gibbs’s skull wound up in New York’s John M. Mossman Lock Museum. (“Lock” isn’t part of the benefactor’s name. The museum exhibits locks, but also has a skull labeled “James D. Jefferson, known as Gibbs the Pirate”.)
On this date in 1963, hardened killer Frederick Charles Wood, 51, became the next-to-last prisoner to be executed at Sing Sing Prison in New York.
Although he came from a respectable, law-abiding family, Wood had a terrible temper and was very experienced at homicide. The man’s murderous career makes him the perfect poster child for the death penalty.
He committed his first murder while he was in his mid-teens, poisoning a girlfriend. He was out in only a few years, however, and fell back into crime: in 1933, he committed another horrific slaying. This time his victim, also female, was a stranger. Wood reportedly beat her with an iron bar and crushed her skull, and stabbed her over 140 times.
He served seven years and was paroled in 1940. In 1942, he killed again — for the third time. Wood attacked a man, hit him with a beer bottle, stomped on his head and slashed his throat. The victim, he said, was bothering his girlfriend.
This time he served almost twenty years before he was paroled again in 1960.
Mere weeks after his release from custody, in New York City, Wood beat and slashed a 62-year-old acquaintance to death, supposedly because his victim had made a pass at him. He then slaughtered the man’s 78-year-old sleeping roommate.
(When he was arrested the next day, Wood gave his occupation as “wine sampler.”)
Newspapers condemned the state parole board for letting him go so many times. Wood himself seemed to realize how stupid and pointless it all was, and refused any attempts to put off his much-deserved death sentence. He wrote that he wanted to “ride the lighting without further delay,” and added, “I do not welcome any intrusion into this stinking case of mine.”
Although Wood claimed he had schizophrenia and requested electroconvulsive therapy, three psychiatrists found him sane. A member of the Lunacy Commission asked him, “Is there any way we can help you?” Wood replied, “Let me burn.”
As he stood in the death chamber waiting to be strapped into the electric chair, he grinned at the witnesses and said, “Gents, this is an educational project. You are about to witness the damaging effect electricity has on Wood. Enjoy yourselves.”
In time William felt her a suitable enough helpmate to put a ring on it and make her Ida’s full-time mother.
Honestly, though, some kids are just better off in a single-parent household.
Martha’s aptitude as a nurturer really can’t have met Bill Place’s expectations. “She felt that her husband loved his daughter more than he did her, and her jealousy rapidly changed into hatred for the little girl,” opined the New York Times. (July 9, 1898) “As the child grew into a pretty young woman and became more and more of a contrast to her, her hatred began to take active form. Place tried to reconcile them, but in vain. For three years Ida and her stepmother rarely spoke to each other, and in her father’s absence the girl was generally away from home.”
On at least one occasion, Mr. Place summoned the police to deal with a death threat that landed Martha in the dock.
On February 7, 1898, there’d be no more need for threats.
William Place arrived home that day to find the vengeful termagant brandishing an axe in his direction, with which she clobbered him twice about the head. Only wounded when she walked away from him, Place managed to pry a door open and call for help. When the police arrived, they found Martha in a gas-filled room attempting suicide (or pretending to) … and they found Martha’s bete noir, the poor stepdaughter, stone dead on her bed with acid burns on her face and an axe-gash from her scalp to her neck.
Public opinion did not take kindly to this destruction of hearth and home by such an unlovely faux-mother. The Times (July 8, 1898, once again) judged her
rather tall and spare, with a pale, sharp face. Her nose is long and pointed, her chin sharp and prominent, her lips thin and her forehead retreating. There is something about her face that reminds one of a rat’s,* and the bright, but changeless eyes somehow strengthen the impression. She looks like a woman of great strength of mind and relentless determination. The only time her expression changed during the trial was when her husband, William W. Place, testified to the attack made upon him. Then her thin lips parted in a sardonic grin, and she fixed her eyes upon him. The smile hardly ever left her face while he was on the stand. He did not look at her.
A greater contrast than that between this husband and wife could not be imagined. He is a man of refined appearance, and speaks in a quiet, pleasant voice. He testified calmly, except once or twice, when the questions of the lawyers bore upon the persecution of Ida. Then his voice trembled with emotion, while, on the other hand, it was impossible to make one’s self believe that Mrs. Place was possessed of any other feeling than that of a mild curiosity.
The criminal conviction was simplicity itself, and if women are generally less exposed to the risk of execution, their most characteristic point of vulnerability will tend to be a violation of the demands of sacred motherhood. Envious rat-faced stepmom acid-burns blooming daughter of refined burgher? That’s as paradigmatic as a female execution gets.
There was, of course, no shortage of attention since executions of women aren’t exactly everyday affairs in American history … and this one in particular would be the very first since New York introduced the industrial age’s death penalty innovation, the electric chair. The Medico-Legal Society of New York had a contentious debate at its February 1899 meeting over whether women ought to be executed at all. (The lone female speaker, Ida Trafford Bell, earned applause from the women in attendance by insisting that the fairer sex should have “just as much right to be electrocuted as a man.” (NYT, Feb. 16, 1899) Probably so, but they were still a generation away from having just as much right to vote.
No more painful case can come before a Governor than an appeal to arrest the course of justice in order to save a woman from capital punishment, when that woman’s guilt has been clearly established, and when there are no circumstances whatever to mitigate the crime. If there were any reasonable doubt of the guilt — if there were any basis whatsoever for interference with the course of justice in this case — I should so interfere. But there is no ground for interference …
The only case of capital punishment which has occurred since the beginning of my term was for wife murder, and I refused to consider the appeals then made to me on behalf of the man who had killed his wife, after I became convinced that he had really done the deed and was sane.** In that case a woman was killed by a man; in this a woman was killed by another woman. The law makes no distinction of sex in such a crime.
This murder was one of peculiar deliberation and atrocity. To interfere with the course of the law in this case could be justified only on the ground that never hereafter, under any circumstances, should capital punishment be inflicted upon any murderess, even though the victim was herself a woman and even though that victim’s torture preceded her death.” (as quoted in the New York Times, March 16, 1899)
On this date in 1862, the American commercial shipper Nathaniel Gordon was hanged at the Tombs for slave trading.
Importing slaves to the U.S. had been nominally illegal for over half a century, but had never been strongly enforced. In 1820, slaving (regardless of destination) had even been defined as piracy, a capital crime.
Importation of kidnapped Africans into the United States did significantly abate during this period, and that was just fine with U.S. slaveowners everparanoid of servilerebellion.
But a voracious demand for conscript labor persisted elsewhere whatever the legal situation. About 3 million slaves arrived to Brazil and Cuba, the principal slave shipment destinations, between 1790 and 1860 — even though the traffic was formally illicit for most of this time.
Great Britain was endeavoring to strangle the Atlantic slave trade, but the diplomatic weight she had to throw around Europe didn’t play in the U.S. Washington’s adamant refusal to permit the Royal Navy to board and search U.S.-flagged ships made the stars and stripes the banner of choice for human traffickers profitably plying the African coast. “As late as 1859 there were seven slavers regularly fitted out in New York, and many more in all the larger ports,” one history avers.
Hanging crime? No slave-runner had ever gone to the gallows as a “pirate” — not until Nathaniel Gordon.
The U.S. Navy did mount its own anti-slaving patrols, but the odd seizure of human cargo was more in the line of costs of doing business than a legal terror for merchants.
So Gordon, a veteran of several known slaving runs, didn’t necessarily think much of it on August 8, 1860, when the Mohican brought Gordon’s ship to bear 50 miles from the Congo with 897 naked Africans stuffed in the hold, bound for Havana. Half of his slaves were children.
“The stench from the hold was fearful, and the filth and dirt upon their persons indescribably offensive,” Harpers reported.
Gordon chilled in very loose confinement in the Tombs, even enjoying family leave furloughs as he readied for the customary slap on the wrist.
But with Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860, Gordon was promoted to demonstration case.
After a hung jury in June 1861, the feds won a conviction and death sentence on those long-unused piracy laws in November 1861.
Many New Yorkers were shocked at the prospect of such draconian punishment.
Abraham Lincoln found himself besieged by appeals public and private against the unprecedented judgment. “For more than forty years the statute under which he has been convicted has been a dead letter, because the moral sense of the community revolted at the penalty of death imposed on an act when done between Africa and Cuba which the law sanctioned between Maryland and Carolina,” Gordon’s counsel Judge Gilbert Dean wrote in an open letter to the President* — an argument that could hardly be more poorly calibrated to impress in 1862.
Despite Lincoln’s famous proclivity for the humanitarian pardon, he stood absolutely firm on the precedent Gordon’s hanging would set — especially in the midst of a bloody civil war driven by the very legal sanction Dean had cited so approvingly. As Lincoln wrote on February 4, 1862,
I think I would personally prefer to let this man live in confinement and let him meditate on his deeds, yet in the name of justice and the majesty of law, there ought to be one case, at least one specific instance, of a professional slave-trader, a Northern white man, given the exact penalty of death because of the incalculable number of deaths he and his kind inflicted upon black men amid the horror of the sea-voyage from Africa.
Gordon’s hanging was the one case — the only one ever.
This was the great boom time for machine politics, corrupt political patronage networks doling “spoils” like jobs and benefits to members who in turn maintained a party’s stranglehold on an electorate. These flourished in an industrializing America’s burgeoning cities; Troy, N.Y., at 60,000-plus in the 1890s (it has fewer than that today), was one of upstate New York’s prime industrial centers, and home to a municipal machine rooted in Irish Catholic immigrants and bossed by Democratic U.S. Senator Edward Murphy.
Machine politics were a major bone of contention in the Progressive Era, and certainly in the Troy elections of 1894. The ballot that year would decide Troy’s mayor, and as per usual the Murphy machine meant to stuff the box for its handpicked candidate.
On March 6, 1894, a group of Murphy “repeaters” (so called for their intent to vote repeatedly) including “Bat” Shea and (he’ll figure momentarily) John McGough approached a Thirteenth Ward polling place.
Republican poll watchers Robert and William Ross awaited them — armed, and expecting trouble. They had sparred with the Murphy machine at the ward caucus a few days previous.
“In a twinkling,” went a press report, “clubs and revolvers were flourished. Many shots were fired and when the fight closed it was found that Robert Ross had been fatally shot, that his brother, William, received a bullet in the neck and that Shea and McGough, who fled from the scene, had each been slightly wounded.”
This bloodshed, profaning as it seemed a sacred pillar of the polis, aroused a passionate if opportunistic response from Republicans, anti-machine reformers, and Troy’s Protestants. The killer(s) “were guilty of a crime against the Republic and against republican institutions,” as the resulting Committee of Public Safety put it, deep into the appeals process. (NYT, Jan. 15, 1896) “If such a crime is to go unpunished, ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people,’ must perish from the earth.”
“In this case there is something dearer than a single life,” said a prosecutor.*
It is the question of American citizenship, a question which comes home to us all, Democrats and Republicans, rich and poor. The question is whether it is the good citizen with the ballot, or the thug with his revolver, who shall control our nation.
Two other men were actually implicated in Robert Ross’s death before “Bat” Shea. John Boland, a fellow ballot-watcher, was the first arrested, but outcry against the apparent bid by the Murphy machine to fix the homicide on the victimized party soon freed him.
John McGough of the “repeater” party was also taken into custody, and accused at first of having fired the fatal shot.
Eyewitnesses soon pinned the murder on “Bat” Shea, and a conviction was speedily secured on this basis — with McGough subsequently receiving a long prison sentence for attempted murder, his shot having come within centimeters of taking William Ross’s life, too.
But many of those whom the Murphy machine benefited never believed the evidence against Shea and certainly never thought him capitally liable. Eyewitnesses hewing to their own party affiliation, pushing their own political agenda aided by convenient certainty upon the triggerman of this or that specific bullet in a general firefight. (The Rosses were shooting, too.)
The evidence could certainly be disputed, and over nearly two years Shea’s advocates did just that in courts and clemency petitions — a remarkable (for the time) odyssey to save Shea from the gallows.
Days prior to Shea’s January 1896 execution, his fellow repeater McGough sent a letter to Republican Gov. Levi Morton,** claiming that he, not Shea, shot Ross.
Interviewed directly by the governor’s agents, McGough stuck to his story. This wasn’t enough to convince Morton to spare Shea. For one thing, it would invite the suspicion that the Murphy people were conniving to weasel each other out of the debt that someone owed for Ross’s blood — McGough having already been convicted for his part in the skirmish, and thus safely out of the executioner’s potential grasp.
So much for Republican New York, Protestant New York, respectable New York. Shea’s many supporters who could never secure a legal toehold received his remains in honor at Troy, crowding a train platform where the coffin arrived in at 2:30 a.m. the morning after the electrocution. All that Wednesday, February 12, throngs of supporters paid their respects as the electrocuted man lay in state at his family’s River Street home.
At funeral services at St. Patrick’s Church on February 13, the officiating Father Swift averred uncertainty as to Shea’s guilt.
“If he was guilty,” said Swift (NYT, Feb. 14, 1896), “I do not believe he was conscious of it.”
For the reported 10,000 who turned out to lay the “murderer” to rest, the sentiment was quite a bit less ambivalent. Countless floral arrangements crowded into the Shea home. “Innocent,” read the cards upon many of them. Or, “Murdered.” (With a similar sympathy but perhaps much less taste, someone else sent flowers shaped like the electric chair.)
** Morton had been U.S. Vice President from 1889 to 1893. More interestingly for this blog, Morton was U.S. President James Garfield’s 1881 appointee as ambassador to France. This was the very diplomatic post for which Charles Guiteau had petitioned Garfield, and being passed over (on account of being a whackadoodle obscurity) caused Guiteau to assassinate Garfield. Morton was succeeded as governor by Frank Swett Black … a Troy clean-elections crusader who had gone into politics after sitting at the prosecution’s bar in the case of “Bat” Shea.
Edison was a proponent of direct current (DC), where the electricity flows in one direction from source to receiver. Westinghouse, one the other hand, favored AC, alternating current, where the electrical current will reverse direction from time to time and electricity doesn’t flow from the source to the receiver so much as in between them.
In the late 1800s, as electrical systems were spreading all over America, Westinghouse’s company and Edison’s company were duking it out as to which system would prevail over the other. Westinghouse’s AC, being far more efficient, was usually the system of choice for providing electricity to houses, businesses and streetlights, which was where most of the profits lay. (DC was better for things like batteries.)
Desperate to hold onto eroding market share, Edison saw an opportunity to do Westinghouse dirty when New York State adopted the electric chair as their means of execution. Some notable botches had rendered hanging unpalatable, but industrial electrification was still such a newfangled concept that at the time the law was passed, the chair had yet to be built. Edison figured that a propaganda blitz to make sure the device used AC would help convince the public that the rival current was too deadly to be used in private homes and city streets.
In private experiments, Brown and his assistant, Arthur E. Kennelly, “attached electrodes to dozens of stray dogs and tried various combinations of volts and amperes before announcing that it took only 300 volts of alternating current to kill a dog, but 1,000 volts of direct current.”
Satisfied that they were ready to go public, Brown scheduled a demonstration at Columbia on July 30, inviting electricians, scientists and the press to watch. Kennelly and Dr. Frederick Peterson, a member of the Medico-Legal Society of New York, assisted him.
Brown opened his demonstration by insisting that he had been drawn into the controversy not out of any self-interest but because of his concern that alternating current was too dangerous to be used on city streets. He denied charges that he was in the pay of any electric light company and had “no financial or commercial interest” in the results of his experiments. Of course, the fact that he was using Edison’s equipment and was assisted by Edison’s chief of research spoke of itself.
Brown then brought in the first experimental subject: a 76-pound Newfoundland dog in a metal cage. The dog had been muzzled and had electrodes attached to one foreleg and one hind leg.
Brown connected the dog to the DC generator that Edison had loaned him and starting with 300 volts gradually increased the voltage to 1,000 volts. As the voltage increased, the observers noted, the dog’s yelping increased but it remained alive.
Having proven the safety of DC current, Brown disconnected the suffering animal from the DC generator and connected it to the AC generator with the remark, “We shall make him feel better.” (No word on whether he was twirling his mustache as he said so.)
Brown turned the voltage to 330, and the dog collapsed and died instantly.
The viewers were impressed, but Brown wasn’t done yet and brought in another dog. He said he was going to connect this one to the AC generator first. This, he said, would prove that the animal didn’t die because the shocks from the DC generator had weakened it.
Before he could accomplish this, however, an agent from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals arrived and asked Brown to stop the experiment and spare the poor dog’s life. It took some convincing, but in the end Brown agreed to stay of execution. The second dog would die another day.
Although the regular newspapers loved this bit of theater, the trade magazine The Electrical Engineer claimed the experiment was unscientific. The magazine offered a terrible little poem about the proceedings:
The dog stood in the lattice box,
The wires around him led,
He knew not that electric shocks
So soon would strike him dead…
At last there came a deadly bolt,
The dog, O where was he?
Three hundred alternating volts,
Had burst his vicerae
Although the ASPCA might have brought his first experiment to a premature end, Brown was not deterred. He toured New York State for months, giving dog and pony shows before fascinated crowds, where he would electrocute cats, cows, calves, and well, dogs and ponies, using both direct and alternating currents. He paid young boys twenty-five cents apiece to round up stray animals to get fried.
The public watched — but wasn’t fooled, and continued to use alternating currents. Even the 1890 execution of William Kemmler in New York’s brand-spanking new AC electric chair failed to convince anyone that they were going to drop dead if they installed AC electricity in their homes. (Brown helped design the chair.) AC won the War of Currents hands-down.
The poor Newfoundland, having laid down its small life for the greater prosperity of Edison’s investors, died, unmourned, in vain.
* This shock-a-dog diagram is from “Death-Current Experiments at the Edison Laboratory,” an article that Harold Brown published in the New York Medico-Legal Journal, vol. 6, issue 4. He remarks therein, just by the by, on alternating current’s “life-destroying qualities,” and how the august committee carrying out these electrocutions “were not a little startled when I told of them results of recent tests for leakage made by me not long since on the circuit of one of the alternating current stations in this city.” Brown was, he said, indebted to “Mr. Thos. A. Edison, through whose kindness I was allowed the use of apparatus.”
As noted, the thorough Brown put said apparatus to use on a variety of fauna. In the interest of science, he also includes in this same article diagrams on the electrocution of a calf and a horse; we enclose them here for your edification.
“A most infernal plot has lately been discovered here, which, had it been put into execution, would have made America tremble, and been as fatal a stroke to us, this Country, as Gun Powder Treason would to England, had it succeeded.”
On this date in 1776, Continental Army soldier Thomas Hickey was hanged before “a vast concourse of people” for a plot that might have strangled the American Revolution in its crib.
That revolution was a highly uncertain venture at this moment, and in a different timeline Thomas Hickey might have been a British hero for squelching it. “These are the times that try men’s souls,” revolutionary firebrand Thomas Painewrote late in 1776. Hickey had to face his trial in the flesh.
George Washington had holed up in New York City in the spring to fortify it against an expected British invasion — an invasion that did indeed arrive and eventually drove the Continental Army all the way to Philadelphia.* As Paine beheld, the wrong turn of events here could have been decisive. The Continental Army was badly outnumbered and afflicted by desertion. The Continental Congress itself had to abandon Philadelphia not long after boldly declaring independence on July 4.
Whatever one might say of the great-man historiographical mood, you’d have to think that knocking out the rebel army’s top general at this juncture would have been a coup for the British.
In June of 1776, New York was tense ahead of the fighting. A British ship of the line sat forebodingly in the harbor, and even as she awaited the coming British force, her crew members rowed freely ashore for provisions. Plots went abroad among the mixed population of “Patriot” and “Loyalist” citizens. Nathan Hale would soon earn his martyr’s laurels in New York, trying to reconnoiter behind enemy lines as Washington staged a series of losing battles and a gradual retreat.
Somewhat below this plane of world-shaping combat and statecraft, a guy named Isaac Ketcham (or Ketchum) found himself clapped in gaol for counterfeiting the easily-counterfeited colonial paper currency. There, Ketcham caught jailhouse scuttlebutt of Loyalist plots afoot in New York. Realizing this could be his ticket out prison, Ketcham wrote New York’s Provincial Congress informing on the schemes.
A fith-column plot against the patriot position in New York, with Loyalist-inclined soldiers set to desert back to the arriving British army.
A plot against the person of George Washington himself.
Ketcham was eagerly interrogated by the Provincial Congress on these matters, and returned to his dungeon in the capacity of an informant. There, he made the acquaintance of the Irish-born Thomas Hickey, a member of George Washington‘s personal guards who had on June 15th been committed for doing his own bit of private currency-printing.
Representing himself as a Tory loyalist, Ketcham apparently induced Hickey to boast about something quite a bit more serious than counterfeiting.
“In different conversations he informed me that the Army was become damnably corrupted,” Ketcham told the court-martial that tried Hickey. “That the fleet was soon expected; and that he and a number of others were in a band to turn against the American Army when the King’s troops should arrive.”
The whole scheme went under the pay of Loyalist New York mayor David Mathews, who was also arrested by patriot troops — although Mathews, whose execution might have turned the British very nasty in the various diplomatic conferences ongoing during the New York campaign, was never even tried.** He escaped to British protection shortly after capture.
No kid gloves were available to the treacherous Irishman Hickey, however. Word of the conspiracy against the patriots had also been obtained from a businessman, William Leary, who reported the attempt of his former employee to recruit him into it. The sheer quantity of highly indiscreet men blabbing about it in taverns and jails and the like makes the whole thing seem crazy in retrospect, but if it had succeeded in, say, destroying Kingsbridge, it might have trapped the Continental Army on Manhattan where they would have been easy pickings for the vastly superior British. Someone surely had to pay for this.
Several of Hickey’s accomplices provided evidence against him, and the speedy conclusion of the military commission that tried him was that Hickey should hang in order to, as Washington wrote the Continental Congress, “produce many salutary consequences, and deter others from entering into like traitorous practices.” So far as is known, however, Hickey was the only person to suffer this extremity.
The unhappy fate of Thomas Hickey, executed this day for mutiny, sedition, and treachery, the General hopes will be a warning to every soldier in the Army to avoid those crimes, and all others, so disgraceful to the character of a soldier, and pernicious to his country, whose pay he receives and bread he eats. And in order to avoid those crimes, the most certain method is to keep out of the temptation of them, and particularly to avoid lewd women, who, by the dying confession of this poor criminal, first led him into practices which ended in an untimely and ignominious death.
Physician William Eustis (eventually the U.S. Secretary of War), who was among the 20,000 to see Hickey hanged, wrote a friend that afternoon of the execution.
Their design was, upon the first engagement which took place, to have murdered (with trembling I say it) the best man on earth: Genl Washington was to have been the first subject of their unheard of Sacricide: our magazines which, as you know, are very capacious, were to have been blown up: every General Officer and every other who was active in serving his country in the field was to have been assassinated: our cannon were to be spiked up: and in short every the most accursed scheme was laid to give us into the hands of the enemy, and to ruin us. (Source)
The scarcity of original documentation makes it very difficult to say with confidence just how impressive this accursed scheme really was. One can see from Eustis’s letter that it was understood immediately to have compassed the murder of George Washington. This prospective “Sacricide” of America’s founding father par excellence has been worth a good bit of embellishment; one bit of utterly insupportable folklore congenial to vegetable-hating schoolchildren is that Hickey arranged to have General Washington’s peas poisoned with arsenic, but the faithful housekeeper exposed the scheme in the nick of time.
Only a bit more fantastical is the video game Assassins Creed III, whose representation of the death of Thomas Hickey — this version of Hickey is a Templar agent — uses a wacky sequence that begins with the public execution of the game player’s own assassin character, complete with first-person, inside-the-hood perspective.
It might well be that Hickey had been engaged in a plot not to murder but to kidnap the rebel general. David Mathews, the New York mayor, would later tell a royal commission in London autopsying Britain’s Revolutionary War defeat, “I formed a plan for the taking of Mr. Washington and his Guard prisoners but which was not effected.” It’s been speculated that the Continental Army itself chose to play up the “murder” angle for public consumption in preference to “kidnap” — perhaps because the notion that the Tories had the strength to contemplate the more complex objective of snatching Washington away from his own army, and were in a position to use his very own guards to accomplish it, implied a weakness in the revolutionary cause far too grave to acknowledge openly.
* It’s from this position that Washington would [re-]cross the Delaware amid December ice floes to conduct a morale-salvaging raid on Hessian troops in New Jersey after many long months of reversals. The British, for their part, held New York for the balance of the war, and this helped make adjacent New Jersey a battleground between pro-British and pro-American militias.
** Mathews administered New York until 1783, when the British ceded it to the victorious colonists.