Posts filed under 'U.S. Federal'

1942: Six German saboteurs

Add comment August 8th, 2017 Headsman

Seventy-five years ago today, six German saboteurs were electrocuted in a Washington, D.C. jail … a failed World War II operation that bequeathed its target nation a controversial legal landmark.

On June 13 of 1942 — just eight weeks before they faced the electric chair — Herbert Hans Haupt, Heinrich Heinck, Edward Kerling, Herman Neubauer, Richard Quirin and Werner Thiel, all of them German nationals who had returned to the Fatherland after previous emigration to the U.S., were dropped by U-Boats along with two other men, Ernest Peter Burger and George John Dasch, in two quartets on the eastern fringe of Long Island and the Florida coast.

“Operation Pastorius” to sabotage war industries on the U.S. mainland would never even have time to get its land legs; spied in Long Island by a Coast Guard watchman whom they clumsily attempted to bribe, the agents scattered themselves to New York and Chicago. Burger and Dasch — who for this reason were not in the end electrocuted* — had their reservations about the Third Reich to begin with and guessed after the Coast Guard encounter where this fiasco was heading. They rang up the gobsmacked FBI to shop themselves and their comrades, enabling the feds to pick up the other six men in short order.

The eventual fate of the Nazi saboteurs is no surprise, but the means to obtain it was controversial then and remains so to this day.

On a substantive level, the Germans had landed in uniform for the explicit purpose of asserting POW status were they to be apprehended immediately; this didn’t cut much ice since all had then discarded their uniforms and attempted to melt away in the U.S. Attorney General Francis Biddle successfully cited the American Revolution precedent of John Andre, whom patriots hanged as a spy after detaining him out of uniform behind their lines. That they hadn’t yet done anything yet was a bit beside the point.**

Much thornier was U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s order to try the Germans using a seven-member military tribunal that he conjured for this purpose, and seemingly with the objective of assuring the harshest possible sentence. (Bear in mind that these events transpired only months after Pearl Harbor.) Such a commission is explicitly anticipated by the U.S. Articles of War† whose 81st and 82nd provisions the saboteurs were charged with violating:

ART. 81. RELIEVING, CORRESPONDENCE WITH, OR AIDING THE ENEMY. — Whosoever relieves or attempts to relieve the enemy with arms, ammunition, supplies, money, or other thing, or knowingly harbors or protects or holds correspondence with or gives intelligence to the enemy, either directly or indirectly, shall suffer death or such other punishment as a court-martial or military commission may direct.

ART. 82. SPIES. — Any person who in time of war shall be found lurking or acting as a spy in or about any of the fortifications, posts, quarters, or encampments of any of the armies of the United States, or elsewhere, shall be tried by a general court-martial or by a military commission, and shall, on conviction thereof, suffer death.

However, the military commission did not seem very well in keeping with the American preference for regular jurisdictions as expressed by Ex parte Milligan, the post-Civil War decision forbidding the use of military courts anywhere that civilian courts are functioning.‡ The signal Milligan precedent formed the basis of a furious objection by Army defense lawyer (and future Secretary of War) Kenneth Royall, who fought his clients’ hopeless corner so vigorously that the doomed men signed a letter praising his efforts. (“unbiased, better than we could expect and probably risking the indignation of public opinion.”)

Already recessed for the summer, the Supreme Court hastily reconvened to cut this Gordian knot: the only forum of judicial review the case would ever receive. Its decision, Ex parte Quirin — titled after one of the defendants — spurned Royall’s Milligan claim and upheld Roosevelt’s statutory authority to determine this case for a military tribunal by a unanimous vote.

The court’s common front concealed a variety of stances on the reach of executive authority. While the whole court agreed that “Congress has explicitly provided … that military tribunals shall have jurisdiction to try offenses against the law of war in appropriate cases,” a concurring memorandum by Justice Robert H. Jackson — later famous for his role prosecuting the Nuremberg trials — proposed to carry the argument well beyond this point. Jackson claimed in a concurrence that he would eventually withdraw that “the Court’s decision of the question whether it complied with the Articles of War is uncalled for … it is well within the war powers of the President to create a non-statutory military tribunal of the sort here in question.” This was by no means the consensus of his colleagues.

The later publication of a “Soliloquy” memorandum by one such colleague, Felix Frankfurter, throws a less than dispassionate light on deliberations. Writing to smooth over internal disputes between the blackrobes, Justice Frankfurter shows himself personally hostile to the Germans — “You’ve done enough mischief already without leaving the seeds of a bitter conflict involving the President, the courts and Congress after your bodies will be rotting in lime,” he chides them in his own voice. “That disposes of you scoundrels.” In the end, the court took his advice to sidestep the potentially deep jurisdictional question.

But that question has not been left rotting in footnotes (they never are). Quirin in general and Jackson’s expansive claims of executive power in particular have been relied upon by 21st century Presidents to justify muscular and controversial innovations like the Guantanamo Bay prison and the drone war.

A few books about Operation Pastorius and Ex parte Quirin

Pierce O’Donnell, author of In Time of War: Hitler’s Terrorist Attack on America, discussed his book on C-SPAN here.

Jurisprudence is not the only artifact of the Nazi saboteurs’ failed infiltration.

Bizarrely, a tributary slab “in memory of agents of the German Abwehr” was discovered in 2006 illicitly placed on National Park Service land in southeast Washington DC, the same vicinity where the saboteurs had been secretly buried after their electrocution. There it had seemingly reposed some twenty-odd years, unknown but to its devotees … who if the stone’s carvings are to be credited must consist of the heirs of the (defunct since 1983) National Socialist White People’s Party, also known as the American Nazi Party.

* They would be condemned to death along with the rest, but Roosevelt commuted their sentences: a fine boon but far short of the outright pardons they had been promised for their cooperation. In 1948, President Truman had Burger and Dasch deported to Germany, where many saw them as traitors.

** After unsuccessfully attempting to trade Andre for Benedict Arnold, whose defection Andre had facilitated, and whom the American revolutionaries would have much preferred to Andre for a hanging.

† Enacted by Congress in 1920, these Articles of War are no longer operative in the U.S.: they were replaced by the Uniform Code of Military Justice in 1951.

‡ Haupt and Burger were also U.S. citizens, further complicating the commission’s suspension of their constitutional habeas corpus rights.

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1820: William Holmes, Edward Rosewaine, and Thomas Warrington, pirates

Add comment June 15th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1820, William Holmes, Edward Rosewain, and Thomas Warrington aka Warren Fawcett all hanged in Boston as pirates.

A Scotsman, an Englishman, and a Connecticut Yankee (respectively), the three numbered crewed a privateer bearing the flag of newly independent Argentina. Having captured a merchantman heavy with valuable cargo, they’d been put aboard it with a few others, to sail the prize home.

On July 4, 1818, following a drunken quarrel between one of their number and the mate of this skeleton crew, they stole below and agreed upon a mutiny whereupon that very evening they crept upon the sleeping mate and “Holmes and Warrington seized him by the heels and pitched him over the rail of the vessel.” Roused by the mate’s shrieking, the captain raced up to the deck where he too was overpowered and forced over the edge where he clung for dear life to a rope, until the trio cut it. (According to the testimony of one of the surviving crew, Salem Gazette, July 12, 1819)

The hijackers then trimmed sail for Baltimore which even those pre-Wire days was renowned as a haven for freebooters. Unfortunately they weren’t the best mariners, and overshot the Chesapeake all the way to Scituate, Massachusetts, where they clumsily ditched their ride and were rounded up in due course. A U.S. Circuit Court condemned them for “piratical and felonious homicide upon the high seas,” and the Supreme Court upheld the judgment. (A pdf of proceedings is here)

Heinousness aside, we are by this point in history well abroad in the period of fretful chin-wagging over the deleterious spectacle of public execution, and as church bells tolled the condemned out of jail on the morning of June 15 in 1820 right-thinking observers again wondered whether the whole scene wasn’t counterproductive to its purported objectives.

The Christian Watchman of June 17, 1820 — having observed with “regret” that “no satisfactory evidence of the genuine repentance of the sufferers has come to our knowledge” — approvingly reprinted another paper’s editorializing against the public execution:

The frequent recurrence of these scenes compels us to ask, whether the manner in which, in obedience to custom, they are now conducted, be such as promotes the great ends of this dreadful judicial infliction.

It scarcely need be said, that every thing which has a tendency to mislead the public feeling on these occasions, — to turn the reflections of the beholders from the enormity of the crime to the severity of the punishment — defeats the great objects, which the law has in view.

It is not from any want of humanity and tenderness toward the unhappy persons themselves, that we make this remark; but because we think the scene of a public execution, as it takes place among us, runs too far into a dramatic spectacle, and has the effect, first of exciting and occupying the curiosity, and then of making an untimely pity for those, whose dark and murderous passions have brought down upon them the righteous inflictions of the law.

The unreflecting spectator, who sees the Reverend priest in the party-coloured vestments of his church, pouring into the ears of the convicts those precious promises of Christianity, which it is scarce the right of the most tried faith and patience to claim, who sees them standing on the fatal scaffold in the arms of a Confessor, and receiving with the fatal doom of bloody crime in this world, the promises of eternal blessedness in the other; we say that the unreflecting spectator, who beholds this, if he do not conclude that the whole is a solemn mockery — will either be thrown wholly into confusion to his notion of judicial infliction, or he will be inclined to pity and sympathise with the sufferers. And either of these effects will defeat the order of justice.

The ceremony of execution should, in our opinion, be as short and simple as possible. The Warrant of Execution, in an abridged form, should be read; a short and solemn prayer, without purple surplices or embracings, or kissings, be made, and the last horrid moment hastened, as far as public decency admits.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Massachusetts,Murder,Piracy,Pirates,Public Executions,U.S. Federal,USA

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1883: Milton Yarberry, Marshal of Albuquerque

Add comment February 9th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1883,* Albuquerque hanged its Town Marshal.

Milton Yarberry was one of those belt-notching Wild West gunmen badass enough to be worth deputizing for a frontier town with a spiraling crime problem — which Albuquerque was experiencing as the just-completed railroad boomed its population. A number of crimes had been attributed to him in a career that took him from stage-robbing in his native Arkansas, to the Texas Rangers, to a Colorado saloon, to a New Mexico cathouse, a veritable bucket list of spaghetti western tropes packed into 34 roughhewn years with bodies planted at nigh every stop. Yarberry was even reputed to have fought alongside Billy the Kid.

The last of these tropes, of course, was as the bad hombre upon whom the townspeople foist a badge.

It will not surprise that even when minted as a peace officer, Marshal Yarberry continued his manslaying ways. Still, nobody in our present age of impunity could well imagine a lawman standing trial for murder twice in the space of a year.

Yarberry in early 1882 defeated a charge for wasting his lover’s paramour during a row in the street, as witnesses said Harry Brown shot first, just like Greedo.

There was no administrative leave or counseling after that, just straight back on the beat — and barely a month later, the copper gunned down a guy whom he was trying to stop for questioning. It was a confusing encounter in which the Marshal insisted that he fired when the victim, Charles Campbell, wheeled on him with a gun. A single state’s witness was able to establish in the court’s mind that there was no gun in Campbell’s possession.

Our hard-living triggerman would never waver from his self-defense story as his appeals were made;** he had many supporters who believed that he was being railroaded on account of the public relations hit the city was taking for employing a dude who had so liberally populated the Republic’s Boot Hills — and those advocates included the sheriff who recruited Yarberry as a Marshal, Perfecto Armijo, who was also the sheriff detailed to hang Yarberry in the end.

The local Albuquerque podcast City on the Edge has an episode dedicated to Yarberry here.

* In the anarchic game of telephone that was 19th century reporting, some editor somewhere mistakenly understood a story of Yarberry’s condemnation in 1882 as an actual report of his execution; as a result, there were news stories (themselves repeated by multiple papers) announcing Yarberry’s hanging in June 1882. In this business, once one wrong date is out there it’s bound to be echoed into eternity, so it’s still possible to find sources that misdate the execution to June 16, 1882. Past the question of the calendar, the fact that these stories actually expanded with details about the fictitious hanging scene strongly underscores the degree to which the hang-day bulletin had become colorfully but generically abstracted from any save accidental relationship to the actual scene at the gallows.


Cincinnati Daily Gazette, June 17, 1882, vividly peopling an imaginary scene.

** Because New Mexico was still just a territory — it was only admitted to the Union as a state in 1912 — Yarberry’s clemency decision went to the U.S. President, Chester A. Arthur.

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1884: Not Crow Dog, saved by an ex parte

Add comment January 14th, 2017 Headsman

January 14 was supposed to be the hanging day in 1884 for the Sioux Crow Dog — but instead of being executed he was busy making caselaw.

A sub-chief of the Brule Lakota, Crow Dog on August 5, 1881, met — intentionally? — the tribal chief Spotted Tail on a road in the Rosebud Reservation and shot him dead with a rifle.

The killing was adjudicated the very next day within the Brule community, at a council where the killer and the survivors of his victim agreed together on the appropriate compensation, and paid up.* But the U.S. Indian agent on the scene also arrested Crow Dog a few days later, and had him tried for murder in a non-Indian court in the the frontier town of Deadwood.

Sidney Harring, who would expand this review to book length with Crow Dog’s Murder: American Indian Sovereignty, Tribal Law, and United States Law in the Nineteenth Century, argued in a 1988/1989 paper** that the needless white court’s trial was staged from the outset as a test case by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, angling for new legal tools to break the doctrine of tribal sovereignty which dated back to Worcester v. Georgia (1832). Although that anti-sovereignty cause would suffer a tactical setback in this case, it would very soon carry the day.

Condemned to death early in 1882, Crow Dog had various appeals, respites, and delaying actions that stretched the case out for nearly two years until the U.S. Supreme Court at last stepped in ahead of a scheduled January 14, 1884 execution to adjudicate the question of whether a murder within a tribe, on that tribe’s own reservation, was within the proper jurisdiction of non-Indian courts like the one that tried Crow Dog. Its Ex parte Crow Dog resoundingly answered in the negative, a milestone in the legal framework around Indian sovereignty in the U.S. To execute Crow Dog under the white court’s verdict, the justices ruled, would require Anglo law to be

extended over aliens and strangers; over the members of a community, separated by race, by tradition, by the instincts of a free though savage life, from the authority and power which seeks to impose upon them the restraints of an external and unknown code, and to subject them to the responsibilities of civil conduct, according to rules and penalties of which they could have no previous warning; which judges them by a standard made by others, and not for them, which takes no account of the conditions which should except them from its exactions, and makes no allowance for their inability to understand it. It tries them not by their peers, nor by the customs of their people, nor the law of their land, but by superiors of a different race, according to the law of a social state of which they have an imperfect conception and which is opposed to the traditions of their history, to the habits of their lives, to the strongest prejudices of their savage nature; one which measures the red man’s revenge by the maxims of the white man’s morality.

The legal doctrine at work here holds that although conquered, native tribes still possess internal sovereignty. And with Ex parte Crow Dog it became clear and settled American jurisprudence that one attribute of that remaining sovereignty was plenary — that is, absolute — power over purely internal affairs.

At least, for a year.

White America was discomfited by the abrogation of its morality-maxims over the revengeful red man, and the situation invited moral panic around any malfeasance in Indian country. The Washington D.C. Evening Star would complain months later (June 5, 1884) that Ex parte Crow Dog “has had the effect of creating the idea among the Indians that there is no law to punish an Indian for a crime committed on a reservation.” And the Supreme Court itself had slyly noted that it was obliged to make such rulings absent “a clear expression of the intention of Congress” to take a bite out of Indian sovereignty — an intent “that we have not been able to find.”

So in 1885, the U.S. Congress decided to express that intent and voted the Major Crimes Act placing Indians under federal, not tribal, jurisdiction for seven major types of crimes — including, of course, murder. “We all feel that an Indian, when he commits a crime, should be recognized as a criminal,” Michigan Congressman Byron Cutcheon urged on the legislation’s behalf. “It is an infamy upon our civilization, a disgrace to this nation, that there should be anywhere within its boundaries a body of people who can, with absolute impunity, commit the crime of murder, there being no tribunal before which they can be brought for punishment.”

This briefest interim between Ex parte Crow Dog and the Major Crimes Act was in a sense the high water mark for tribal sovereignty. Following the Major Crimes bill, white politicians began almost systematically reaching onto the reservations to legislate, picking away at tribal sovereignty until another much more infamous case, Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock, disastrously declared that plenary power now resided in Congress.

Crow Dog went on to become a major figure in the ghost dance movement. Present-day American Indian Movement activist Leonard Crow Dog is a descendant; he’s written a book connecting back to his famous ancestor called Crow Dog: Four Generations of Sioux Medicine Men. Meanwhile, South Dakota’s Sinte Gleska University is named for Spotted Tail.

* The price was $600, eight horses, and a blanket.

** Sidney Harring in “Crow Dog’s Case: A Chapter in the Legal History of Tribal Sovereignty,” American Indian Law Review, Vol. 14, No. 2 (1988/1989) — also the source of the preceding footnote.

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1835: Francisco Ruiz, prostrated pirate

Add comment September 12th, 2016 Headsman

From the Lowell (Mass.) Patriot, September 18, 1835 — channeling, as the headling indicates, the Boston Morning Post. In addition to a wanton overuse of commas, this article’s casual alternation between the interchangeable spellings of “Marshal” and “Marshall” is [sic]. The piracy at issue was the subject of a previous Executed Today post.

Francisco Ruiz, the carpenter of the Spanish piratical schooner Panda, who was distinguished above his brother buccaneers, by his pre-eminence in guilt, and violence, in the robbery of the Mexican, and yet had succeeded outliving them a few months, and prolonging a miserable existence in jail, by counterfeiting madness, in which, however, there was altogether too much method, was executed on Saturday morning in the jail yard.

At the trial of the Pirates, last December,* Ruiz was more positively identified than the others, on account of the prominent part which he took in the proceedings on board of the Mexican: he was pointed out as the man, who, with a drawn sword, drove the crew below, and as keeping guard over the hatchway while the vessel was pillaged of her specie; he was also singled out by the steward as the individual who beat him with a baton to compel him to disclose where he had secreted his private property.

Under his direction the sails were slashed, the combustables collected in the camboose, and the arrangements completed, for the setting fire to the sails and rigging of the plundered brig, which was happily arrested by her crew who escaped from below, by an aperture, which the pirates, in their haste to abandon her, fortunately omitted to secure.

Had the crew remained below an other [sic] minute, the brig would have been enveloped in one general conflagration, and not a man could have survived to recount the fate of his vessel and companions.

In the river Nazareth too, when the Panda, closely pressed by the British boats, was abandoned by her officers and crew, to Ruiz was assigned the dangerous duty of securing the ship’s papers, and then blowing her up, but his attempt to explode her magazine proved as unsuccessful as his infernal endeavor to wrap the Mexican in flames, in the middle of the ocean.

Since the expiration of Ruiz’s second respite, Mr. Marshall Sibley had procured the attendance, at the jail, of two experienced physicians, belonging to the U.S. Service, and who, being acquainted, with the Spanish language, were able to converse freely with him.

They had continued access to him, during the past month, and, as the result of their observations, reported to the Marshall in writing, that they had visited Ruiz several times for the purpose of ascertaining whether he was, or was not insane; and from their opportunities of observing him, they expressed their belief, that he was not insane.

This opinion being corroborated by other physicians, unacquainted with the Spanish language, but judging only from Ruiz’s conduct, induced the Marshal to forbear urging the Executive for a further respite; and for the first time, on Saturday morning, in an interview with the Spanish Interpreter and Priest, he was made sensible, that longer evasion of the sentence of the law was impracticable, and that he must surely die.

They informed him, that he had but half an hour to live, and retired, when he requested that he might not be disturbed during the brief space that remained to him, and turning his back to the open entrance of his cell, he unrolled some fragments of printed prayers, and commenced reading them to himself.

During this interval he neither spoke, nor heeded those who were watching him; but undoubtedly sufferred ]sic] extreme mental agony. At one minute he would [obscure] his chin on his bosom, and stand motionless; at another he would press his brow to the wall of his cell, or wave his body from side to side, as if wrung with unutterable anguish.

Suddenly, he would throw himself upon his knees on his mattress, and prostrate himself on his face as if in prayer; then throwing his prayers from him, he would clutch his rug in his fingers, and like a child try to double it up, or pick it to pieces.

After snatching up his rug and throwing it away again and again, he would suddenly resume his prayers, and erect posture, and stand mute, gazing through the aperture that admitted the light of day, for upwards of a minute.

This scene of imbecility and indecision — of horrible prostration of mind — eased in some degree when the Catholic clergyman re-entered his cell.

Precisely at 10 o’clock, the prisoner was removed from the prison, and, during his process to the scaffold, though the palor of death was spread over his countenance, and he trembled n every joint with fear, he chanted with a powerful voice an appropriate service from the Catholic ritual.

Several times he turned half round to survey the heavens, which at that moment were clear and bright above him, and when he ascended the platform, after concluding his last audible prayer, he took one long and steadfast gaze at the sun, and waited, in silence, his fate.

Unlike his comrades who had preceded him, he uttered no exclamations of innocence — his mind never appeared to revert to his crime.

His powers, mental and physical, had been suddenly crushed with the appalling reality that surrounded him; his whole soul was absorbed with one master feeling — the dread of a speedy and violent death.

Misunderstanding the lenity of the government, and the humanity of the officers, he had deluded himself with the hope of eluding his fate, and not having steeled his heart for the trying ordeal, it quailed in the presence of the dreadful paraphernalia of his punishment, as much as if he had been a stranger to deeds of blood, and never dealt death to his fellow man, as he ploughed the deep under the black flag of piracy, with the motto of “Rob, Kill, and Burn.”

He appeared entirely unconscious — dead, as it were — to all that was passing around him, when Deputy Marshal Bass coolly and securely adjusted the fatal cap, and, at the Marshall’s signal, which soon followed, adroitly cut the rope, which held down the latches of the platform.

The body dropoped heavily, and the harsh, abrupt shock must have instantly deprived him of all sensation, as there was no voluntary action of the hands afterwards. The body hung motionless half a minute, when a violent spasmodic action took place, occasioned simply by muscular contraction, but confined chiefly to the trunk of the body, which seemed to draw up the lower extremities into itself. The muscles of the heart continued to act nearly half an hour, but no pulsation was perceptible in a very few minutes after the fall.

Thus terminated his career of crime, in a foreign land, without one friend to recognize or cheer him, or a single being to regret his death — dying in very truth “unwept, unhonored.”

The skull of Delgrado, the suicide, who held the knife to Capt. Butman’s throat, was thought by the phrenologists to favor their supposed science; but they will find in the head of Ruiz a still more extraordinary development of the destructive, and other animal propensities, if we were not deceived in the alleged localities of these organs.

The execution took place in one of the most secluded situations in the City — not a hundred persons could witness it from within the yard; and very few, excepting professional persons, having business there, and the officers, were admitted inside.

Great credit is due to the U.S. Marshall for the privacy with which he caused the execution to be performed, and for not interrupting, by exhibiting a public, and exciting through barbarous spectacle, the business of the community.

* The long interval which has elapsed since the conviction of Capt. Gilbert and his crew, has afforded the most ample time to bring to light facts tending to establish their innocence, if any had been in existence; and the non-production of such facts, under the circumstances, must remove every possible shadow of a doubt of their guilt.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Attempted Murder,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Massachusetts,Murder,Pelf,Piracy,Pirates,U.S. Federal,USA

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1827: Three Spanish pirates in Richmond, states’ rights cause

1 comment August 17th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1827, a “Carnival of Death” in Richmond saw the hanging of three Spanish pirates who had but recently perpetrated an infamous slaughter all their own.

These men had shipped aboard the brig Crawford out of Matanzas, Cuba. The Crawford was bound for New York, but these Spaniards and a French-born American with the unfortunate name Tardy had a different idea: they had brought aboard a set of Spanish papers for the vessel that would show her under their command, sailing for Hamburg.

One night on the seas, the four rose up and murdered most of the rest of the crew. A cook and a French passenger were spared, as was the mate Edmund Dobson who convinced the hijackers that he could be of service navigating their prize.

The ship’s original papers vanished into the waves, along with Captain Henry Brightman of Troy, Mass., and eight other crew and passengers whose deaths make pitiable reading. Oliver Potter scampered up a mast to escape the mutineers, but having been gashed by their blades he eventually became “exhausted by the loss of his blood, [and] fell to the deck and expired.” Two other men lept overboard and begged for their tormenters to allow them some piece of debris that would keep them afloat, “but the demons regarded [them] not.” (both quotes from the North Carolina Sentinel, June 30, 1827).

It would afterward emerge that Alexander Tardy was a veteran terror of the Atlantic lanes, and had been in the words of a Philadelphia Gazette report widely reprinted around the republic

many years on our coast, and in our cities, planning and executing his black and hellish deeds with all the coolness of a demon, and after having been suffered by the mildness of our laws to escape the gallows, and repeat his murders, when in many other Christian countries he would long since have hung in gibbets … his early execution would have saved hundreds of lives, and certainly the eight lives on board the brig Crawford.

“Hundreds” seems quite a bit on the exaggerated side, but by accounts Tardy had committed several seaborne murders and escaped from hard prison time in Virginia and South Carolina.

The Gazette gives us sneaky murders by poison, rather than slaughterous main-force ship seizures, and it appears that for all his accomplishments in the field of homicide, Tardy seems to have rarely or never actually managed to commandeer a prize: perhaps this was the margin that kept him off the gibbets all those years.

He was not destined for the gallows in this instance, either.

Since our quartet purposed to reroute the Crawford from a run up the coast to a cross-Atlantic voyage, they needed to augment her provisions. To this effect, at the suggestion of the heroic and unusually persuasive mate Dobson,* the Crawford put in at Old Point Comfort on the Virginia capes. There, Dobson was able to slip the pirates and row to shore. By the time he returned with authorities, the Spaniards had put ashore in a vain attempt to flee, while Tardy had cut his own throat.

It was the eventual understanding of the federal (not Virginia) court that tried them before a standing-room crowd that the Galician Felix Barbeto was Tardy’s equal in the plot, and that Barbeto and Tardy had hired the other two Spaniards: Couro (aka Jose Morando) and Pepe (aka Jose Hilario Casaris) both addressed their comrade as “Don Felix”.

Hanging in chains having fallen well out of favor by this date, Tardy “was buried at the low water mark near Old Point Comfort, with his face downward, and every mark of ignominy.” (Alexandria Gazette, July 24, 1827) A few hours later, someone thought to obtain his specimen for the quack science of the day and “he was disinterred, his head taken off, and dispatched to Baltimore, for the inspection of the Galls and Spurzheims of that city. They will probably find the organ of distructiveness [sic], finely developed.”

This was not the last of the Frankenstein stuff, either in medicine or in law. After the Spanish were conducted through Richmond to a public gallows before a vast throng of curious Virginians,* their three corpses were given over to the mania for galvanic experimentation.

“I happened to be in Richmond the day on which the Pirates were hung,” an anonymous correspondent wrote to the National Intelligencer a few days later.

In an attempt to obtain their bodies for galvanic experiments, &c. a very ludicrous evidence was given of the mania prevailing about State rights. Doct. — who had prepared the galvanic battery, was unapprised that the act of Congress, relative to criminals, authorised the court in certain cases, to consign the bodies for dissection; he, of course, omitted to make the necessary application for the Pirates. But, on the day of execution, finding that the Marshall had no authority to permit the bodies to be taken from the gallows before interment, the Doctor was advised to apply to Governor Giles for permission to take them. He concluded to do so, and knowing there was some difficulty in the case, deemed it advisable to approach his Excellency delicately, and if practicable, get him mounted on his hobby. To that end the Doctor broached the subject of State Rights, and suggested a doubt whether the authority of the Federal Court extended to the right of burying. The Governor caught at the idea, and, without hesitation, told the Doctor that there was no doubt in his mind but that, without permission of the State authority, the Marshal, acting under the authority of the Union, had no right to turn an inch of the soil; he therefore saw no difficulty in the Doctor’s taking possession of the bodies the moment they were cut from the gallows. — This the Doctor felt as sufficient authority, and proceeded to the place of execution.

* The ropes hanging Pepe and Couro broke.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Pelf,Piracy,Pirates,Public Executions,U.S. Federal,USA,Virginia

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1860: Albert Hicks, the last pirate hanged by the US?

Add comment July 13th, 2016 Headsman

The hanging of Albert Hicks on Bedloe’s Island on this date in 1860 marked perhaps the last execution for piracy in U.S. history.*

This was a century and more past the Golden Age of Piracy. By the mid-19th century, the picaresque buccaneer had long ago hornswaggled his last doubloons and retired from Atlantic sea lanes into literary nostalgia. According to the Espy file, there had been only a single piracy death case, a double execution in Virginia in 1852, over the preceding quarter-century.

Hicks, who alternately went by William Johnson, wasn’t exactly Captain Kidd: think less freebooter, and more hijacker.

Shipping out of New York on the sloop E.A. Johnson, Hicks — urged on by the devil, he later claimed — seized the vessel by murdering two crewmates, Oliver and Smith Watts, and the captain, George Burr. As that was the entirety of his company, that gave him the ship too. He didn’t mean to raise the Jolly Roger and go a-plundering with his prize: he simply stripped his victims of portable valuables, pitched their bodies into the drink 50 miles off Sandy Hook, and abandoned ship. Eventually the creepy hulk of the E.A. Johnson drifted back into New York’s harbor.

Hicks was tracked down in Providence, R.I. and arrested a few days later — the only survivor of a bloodstained mystery ship who happened to have a large quantity of coins he couldn’t quite account for.


1860 ballad, set to the tune of “The Rose Tree”.

As pieces fell into place, it emerged that Hicks had some previous experience as a seaborne desperado. Indeed, he published a confession admitting to quite an extensive career in. The life, trial, confession and execution of Albert W. Hicks, the pirate and murderer, executed on Bedloe’s Island, New York Bay on the 13th of July 1860 for the murder of Capt. Burr, Smith and Oliver Watts on board the oyster sloop E.A. Johnson: containing the history of his life is available free online and details a bloody life’s adventure from Peru to gold rush California that might even qualify as a swashbuckle — if it’s true.

Newsmen meeting him during his incarceration not infrequently express skepticism of Hicks’s veracity and motivations as he attaches himself to new outrages; in particular, Hicks might have been interested to create sensational gallows copy in order to support the family he would soon leave behind. One report shortly after Hicks’s arrest (Boston Courier, March 29, 1860) has his soon-to-be-widow visiting Hick’s cell where “she broke out upon him in the most vituperative language, charging him with being a bloody villain. She held her child up in front of the cell door, and exclaimed, ‘Look at your offspring, you rascal, and think what you have brought on us. If I could get in at you I would pull your bloody heart out.'”


Execution report from the July 14, 1860 New York Herald.

* The U.S. also enforced — loosely — its anti-slaving provisions under piracy statutes, so the 1862 execution of slave trader Nathaniel Gordon occurred under an anti-piracy law. Whether that makes him pirate enough for the milestone, the reader may judge.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,New York,Pelf,Piracy,Pirates,Public Executions,U.S. Federal,USA

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1800: Three Canadian pirates in Philadelphia

Add comment May 9th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1800, French Canadiens Joseph Baker (anglicized from Joseph Boulanger), Peter Peterson (LeCroix), and Joseph Berouse hanged in Philadelphia for a murderous mutiny.

That trio had seized control of their schooner Eliza, slaying three men in the process. They had a view to selling off the cargo but none of the three knew how to navigate the vessel — so they were obliged to bargain with the deposed captain William Wheland to sail them to Spanish territory. Eventually Wheland was able to get the drop on his mutineers, locking up LaCroix and Berouse in the hold while Baker was at the helm, then surprising the Canadian ringleader to get his ship back.


Norwith Courier, July 30, 1800

Whelan turned the naughty help over to a U.S. Navy ship, and in the consequent trial back at Philadelphia “his narrative alone was sufficient to carry conviction with it. The facts were too strong to admit a doubt of the commitment of the horrid crime with which the prisoners stood charged, and the jury, with very little hesitation, gave in their verdict guilty.” (Maryland Herald, May 1, 1800.)

The men died, penitent, at an execution island in the city harbor, “in the view of an immense concourse of spectators, who crouded the wharfs and the shipping.” A sorrowful confession purportedly taken down from Baker himself survives and can be read in full online.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Pennsylvania,Piracy,Public Executions,U.S. Federal,USA

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1777: James Molesworth, in the words of the Founding Fathers

Add comment March 31st, 2016 Headsman

John Adams to Abigail Adams

Philadelphia
March 31, 1777

I know not the Time, when I have omitted to write you, so long. I have received but three Letters from you, since We parted, and these were short ones. Do you write by the Post? If you do there must have been some Legerdemain. The Post comes now constantly once a Week, and brings me News Papers, but no Letters. I have ventured to write by the Post, but whether my Letters are received or not, I dont know. If you distrust the Post, the Speaker or your Unkle Smith will find frequent Opportunities of conveying Letters.

I never was more desirous of hearing frequently from Home, and never before heard so seldom. We have Reports here, not very favourable to the Town of Boston. It is said that Dissipation prevails and that Toryism abounds, and is openly avowed at the Coffee Houses. I hope the Reports are false. Apostacies in Boston are more abominable than in any other Place. Toryism finds worse Quarter here. A poor fellow, detected here as a Spy, employed as he confesses by Lord Howe and Mr. Galloway to procure Pilots for Delaware River, and for other Purposes, was this day at Noon, executed on the Gallows in the Presence of an immense Crowd of Spectators. His Name was James Molesworth. He has been Mayors Clerk to three or four Mayors.

I believe you will think my Letters, very trifling. Indeed they are. I write in Trammells. Accidents have thrown so many Letters into the Hands of the Enemy, and they take such a malicious Pleasure, in exposing them, that I choose they should have nothing but Trifles from me to expose. For this Reason I never write any Thing of Consequence from Europe, from Philadelphia, from Camp, or any where else. If I could write freely I would lay open to you, the whole system of Politicks and War, and would delineate all the Characters in Either Drama, as minutely, altho I could not do it, so elegantly, as Tully did in his Letters to Atticus.

We have Letters however from France by a Vessell in at Portsmouth — of her important Cargo you have heard. There is News of very great Importance in the Letters, but I am not at Liberty. The News, however, is very agreable.


John Hancock to George Washington

Philada
April 4[-8], 1777

Sir,

The enclosed Resolves of Congress, which I have the Honour of transmitting, will naturally claim your Attention from their great Importance.

The Regulations relative to the Payment of the Troops and the Department of the Paymaster General, will I hope be the Means of introducing Order and Regularity into that Part of the Army; where, it must be confessed, they were extremely wanted.

General Gates having laid before Congress the Proceedings and Sentence of a Court Martial on a certain James Molesworth who was accused and found guilty of being a Spy, they immediately approved the same. He has since suffered the Punishment due to his Crime. From his repeated Confession, it appears, that Mr Galloway was extremely active in engaging him to undertake this infamous Business, and was the Person employed to make the Bargain with him. He says indeed, Lord Howe was present: but from the Description he gave of his Person, it is supposed he must be mistaken.

The Congress have directed Genl Gates to take Genl Fermoy with him to Ticonderoga, and such other french Officers as he may think proper. Genl St Clair being ordered to Ticonderoga, but previously to repair to this City to wait the further Order of Congress, you will please to direct him to repair here accordingly as soon as possible. I have the Honour to be with the most perfect Esteem & Respect Sir Your most obed. & very hble Serv.

John Hancock Presidt

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Espionage,Execution,Hanged,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Pennsylvania,Public Executions,Spies,U.S. Federal,USA,Wartime Executions

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1948: Sam Shockley and Miran Thompson, for the Battle of Alcatraz

Add comment December 3rd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1948, Sam Shockley and Miran Edgar Thompson were gassed at San Quentin Prison for the failed prison break that led to the Battle of Alcatraz.

One of the bloodiest events to mar the history of that storied penal island, the “battle” began as an attempt by prisoners to break out of C and D Blocks and seize an an imminent afternoon prison ferry.

And like many prison breaks, preparations at once diligent, desperate, and ingenious were foiled by mischance … leaving only a hopeless, deadly shootout.

The revolt, which is narrated blow by blow here, began on May 2, 1946 in C Block, when two prisoners overpowered a guard. One of them, Bernard Coy — destined to die in the following days’ siege — had spent his last weeks on this earth fasting for this very moment: now, he disrobed and, with the help of a contraband bar-spreading gadget, squeezed his emaciated frame through some bars to gain access to a gallery connecting to D Block. The prisoners had the patrol patterns of the guards in the vicinity down to a “T”; the man walking this gallery was in his turn surprised and disarmed by Bernard Coy, who proceeded to lower the guard’s keys and a number of weapons to his accomplices.

Now armed, Coy was able to force his way into D Block where he released more prisoners from locked cells, including accomplices — and the eventual subjects of this day’s post — Shockley and Thompson.

So far, things couldn’t have gone much better. Only one obstacle remained: a locked door to access the yard that would take them to the Alcatraz launch and a rendezvous with their unsuspecting ride to freedom. And this, of course, is where it all went wrong.

Despite capturing a number of guards during the course of their progress, the aspiring escapees realized that they didn’t have the key for the cell house door. The escape siren went up while they were still stuck.

Having taken the trouble to come this far, the inmates did not abandon the enterprise but devolved it into futile violence, firing out of their locked-up redoubt for no better reason than that they had the guns. Patrol boats began to arrive; word soon got around the city — the gunfire was audible to Golden Gate Bridge motorists — and ordinary San Franciscans congregated near the shore to watch while “thousands of rounds of ammunition and tracer bullets split the night sky as thousands watched from hilltops and piers on both sides of the bay.” (From the San Francisco Chronicle‘s coverage; after an initial fusillade, prison officials waited until dark fell on the evening of May 2 to resume the attack.)


Press get as close as they can to the riots.

For Thompson, at least, this was familiar territory: he’d wound up in Alcatraz because, while being transported to jail on a federal kidnapping charge, he had slain an Amarillo, Texas officer making an unsuccessful bid for freedom.

Marines recently hardened in the Pacific theater helped orchestrate the plan of attack: after re-taking the cell blocks — which were found, contrary to worst fears — in relative calm, the trapped escapees were driven by grenades into a corridor where troopers could fire at them. By the morning of May 4, the lifeless bodies of Coy and two others were stretched out in that hall.


From left: Clarence Carnes, Sam Shockley, and Miran Thompson.

Shockley, Thompson, and a 19-year-old Choctaw named Clarence Carnes survived to face capital charges for the two guards killed in the fray. Carnes, already serving a life sentence for murder, enjoyed the mercy of an additional life sentence in this case, owing to his youth, and to testimony that he had disobeyed the orders of his confederates to execute captured guards.* Shockley and Thompson were not so fortunate.

This affair is dramatized in the 1987 TV movie Six Against the Rock.

* Carnes’s burial on Choctaw land after he died in Massachusetts of AIDS in 1988 was financed by crime lord Whitey Bulger, who served time in Alcatraz from 1959 and grew close to Carnes.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Gassed,History,Murder,U.S. Federal,USA

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