Posts filed under 'Virginia'

1984: Linwood Briley, terror of Richmond

Add comment October 12th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1984, the eldest of Richmond’s still-notorious spree-killing Briley brothers went to Virginia’s electric hair.

Though they came from a respected and stable family, the Briley youths turned out to be such terrifyingly bad seeds that their father, James Sr., eventually kept his own bedroom door padlocked against them.

Our man Linwood Briley was the calculating leader, and the first of the Brileys to taste blood when he senselessly shot a 57-year-old neighbor hanging laundry in her backyard in 1971. As the shooter was only 16 at the time, he did a brief turn in reform school and returned to Richmond neither rehabilitated nor deterred.

In 1979, Linwood led his younger brothers James Jr. (J.B.) and Anthony on a seven-month rampage with a friend named Duncan Meekins. (Meekins would wisely turn state’s evidence against his accomplices.)

On March 12 of that year, Linwood and Anthony knocked on a door in Henrico County, pleading car trouble. No sooner did William and Virginia Bucher admit them then the Brileys trussed up the good samaritans, ransacked their house for valuables, and tossed a farewell match into the gasoline trails they had run through the rooms.

The Buchers managed to slip their bonds and escape their pyre, but few who met the Brileys in the weeks to come would be so fortunate.

Their attacks were marked by violent ferocity that terrified Richmonders, even though they were often driven by pecuniary motives.

In one killing, the murder that technically earned Linwood Briley his death sentence, the gang lay in wait in an alley behind a nightclub and randomly snatched the first person who stepped out for a breath of fresh air. That turned out to be the DJ, John Gallaher, who was forced into the trunk of his own car, driven to an abandoned factory on Mayo Island, and executed.

Two weeks later, they cornered a 62-year-old nurse at the door of her apartment and battered her to death with a baseball bat before they looted the apartment. Another victim was found with scissors and a fork still sticking out of his lifeless back; one man whom the Brileys suspected of trying to steal their car had his brains dashed out with a falling cinderblock while pinned screaming to the pavement.

Their last victim was a neighbor who had drawn their attention by nervously locking up his house when he saw the Briley gang. The young men intimidated him into opening up for him, raped his wife, and shot the lot, not excluding their five-year-old son.

The Brileys weren’t done alarming Virginians even after their death sentence: on May 31, 1984 — just a few months before Linwood’s electrocution — Linwood and James led a death row breakout and were on the loose for three more weeks, hiding out with an uncle before recapture.

James Briley, Jr. followed his brother to the electric chair on April 8, 1985. As of this writing, Anthony Briley remains incarcerated, as does Duncan Meekins.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Theft,USA,Virginia

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1793: The slave Nell

Add comment October 4th, 2016 Headsman

Original from the Calendar of Virginia State Papers and Otner Manuscripts:

Champion Travis to the Governor


Enclosed is a statement of the evidence which appeared against Daphne and Nell, two negroes convicted for the murder of Joel Garthright, which would have been sent sooner had the Attorney been in Town.

And am,
Your humble servant.

The evidence against Daphne and Nelly, two Slaves belonging to Col. Champion Travis, who were tried and convicted by the court of James City County in the month of June, for the murder of Joel Gathright, Col. Travis’s overseer, as well as my memory enables me to state it, was in substance follows:

It was proved in plain and positive terms by two negro boys, who were present and saw the greater part of the transaction, that Daphne and Nelly, the two criminals now under condemnation, were at work with ploughs on the day on which the overseer was killed, and the boys themselves leading the oxen to the ploughs.

Gathright, the overseer, came at his usual time to the field where these women were working, and blamed Nelly for suffering the fence to be left open, which had exposed the corn growing to be cropped by the sheep.

Nelly denied the charge and used some impertinent language, which provoked the overseer to strike her. This he did repeatedly with a small cane, till Nelly quitted her plough and ran; the overseer pursued and struck her on the ground after she had fallen.

Nelly recovered from her fall, and immediately engaged him. The woman Daphne, who was at a small distance off, as soon as she saw Nelly closely fighting with the overseer, ran to the place where they were engaged, and together they seized and threw him to the ground. They beat him on the ground with their fists and switches with great fury a considerable time.

The overseer made frequent efforts to raise himself up and get from them in vain, and demanded to know if they intended to kill him.

At length he ordered one of the boys, the witness, to go to a remote part of the field where the negro men were at work, and call one of them to his assistance; after some time, he sent the other boy.

The boys executed their orders, and soon returned to the place they had left; when they returned, the women, Daphne and Nelly, had fled, and an old negro man belonging to Col. Travis assisted to raise the overseer from the ground, who soon after expired.

It was proved by an old negro man, who kept a mill in the neighborhood of Col. Travis’s plantation, that these two women, Daphne and Nelly, in the afternoon of the same day on which they killed the overseer, passed the mill on their way to Williamsburg; and being asked by the old fellow where they were going, and what was the matter — seeing some disorder in their appearances, they replied that they had whipped their overseer, and were going to town to their master.

They were urged by the miller to go on, lest the overseer should overtake them; they observed that they had left him unable to move, and Daphne asked the old man if a woman could be hanged for killing a man.

Several white men who came to the place shortly after the scene was closed, and who were Jurors in the inquest held on his body, proved the violence committed on the body, and a fracture of the skull, which they imagined was made by a stone found a few feet from the head of the unfortunate man.

The Criminals, Daphne and Nelly, were tried separately, and the boys closely and rigidly examined; on each trial they delivered the same clear and unequivocal testimony. The criminals were undefended, but asked themselves many questions of the witnesses, which, as well as I remember, were answered strongly against them.

Ro. Sanders.
Attorney for James City County
July 26, 1793

Elsewhere in antebellum human chattelry: this from the Columbian Gazetteer, Oct. 28, 1793.

The full court record ensues in these same papers, demonstrating the same circumstances. Daphne was duly hanged on July 19, but “it being suggested to the court that the said Nelly is quick and big with child, it is commanded the Sheriff of this county that he cause execution of the above Judgement to be done on Friday the fourth day of October next. The Court also valued the said Nelly at fifty pounds Current money.”

(The timeline here implies that Nelly would have been about six to seven months pregnant when overseer Gathright began thrashing her for leaving the fence gate ajar.)

Nelly’s fate moved enough tender-hearted white neighbors to petition for her reprieve, a petition that was rebutted by a furious confutation with vastly more numerous signatories noting that “not a single circumstance appeared in alleviation of the horrid offence.” Can’t think of a one!

At any rate,

She has been delivered of her child some weeks, and now awaits the Execution of her sentence. We have heard with great emotion and concern that much Industry has been exerted to get signatures to a petition to your Excellency and the Hon’ble Board of Council to obtain a Pardon for the said negro woman, Nell; when we consider the alarming commotions which have lately existed among the negroes in this neighborhood, and the dangerous example of such a murder, we humbly conceive it necessary for the public peace that the course of the law should have its full effect in this instance.

And it did.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,USA,Virginia,Women

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1858: Preston Turley, drunkard preacher

Add comment September 17th, 2016 Headsman

The city of Charleston, Virginia — soon to become Charleston, West Virginia — hosted the unctuously ceremonious public hanging of a killer preacher on this date in 1858.

Perhaps your correspondent is merely cynical having seen in these pages a thousand small-minded murderers lay their misdeeds to liquor and claim their redemptive shortcut to heaven. After all, hypocrisies great and small light each one of us through our days; Preston Turley no less than any man is surely entitled to his.

But we do incline with the fellow in the posse who arrested Turley after his missing wife Mary Susan was discovered at the bottom of a river, a rope fixing her neck to a stone and bludgeon bruises visible about her head, who had this exchange with Mr. Turley:

Turley: Whisky has brought me to this.

Mr. Webb: Don’t lay it all to whisky, as a man might have a deed in his breast, but not the courage to perform it, until he drank whisky.

Turley: That is about the fact.

Betweentimes Turley had posted a phony reward for his “missing” wife, slated her for unfaithfulness by way of palliating his crime, and briefly escaped his cell a few weeks before the execution. All of this is no more than any murderer might do to avoid the terrors of execution, but also does seem a bit difficult to square with the lamblike sacrificial Turley who presented on the scaffold September 17, preaching his last sermon to a throng five thousand strong or larger. Turley on this occasion was able to report that he had but a few days prior undergone a third and this time definitive conversion and that now, now, he had conquered death in Christ and become entitled to harangue the crowd and lead it in hymns. (And also that whisky was still the culprit.) He even got the murdered woman’s brothers to come out of the crowd and give him a tearful parting; “the whole scene was more that of an excited protracted [revival] meeting, than that of an execution.” If nothing else we have a compelling instance of the continuation of that ancient spirit of public execution reconciling the criminal to his community through his sacrifice.

We’ve been quoting from one of those books someone churned out to monetize all that pathos, suitably entitled “The trial, conviction, sentence, confession, and execution of Preston S. Turley: for the murder of his wife, Mary Susan Turley, in Kanawha County, Virginia.” We present it here for whomever might judge Turley’s character:

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

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1876: Hillary Page, the Chesterfield fire fiend

Add comment September 1st, 2016 Headsman

Hillary Page, “the Chesterfield fire fiend”, went to Virginia’s gallows on this date in 1876.

Born a slave, Page by 1874 was a mere servant at the Ruffin family’s “Summer Hill” estate off the Richmond and Petersburg Turnpike. He had lived there all his life. That year, a series of attempted arsons ravaged the area, including one that devastated Summer Hill.

Eventually, a black youth named Wesley betrayed Page as their author, though contemporaries thought the spree, which claimed no fatalities, arose less from viciousness than simpleminded pyromania.

“The Richmond correspondent of the Petersburg Index” (as quoted by the Alexandria Gazette, Feb. 7, 1876), ventured a bit of compassion for the young man.

I think he ought to be sent to the penitentiary for life [rather than hanged]. He is too dangerous to be allowed to go at liberty, and justice wil be satisfied without taking his life. He is only 19 or 20; he lived on the place with his mother and father, and had no great malice in his misdeeds. He merely kindled the fire to see it burning. Sometimes he was the first to give the alarm; he always helped to put it out. He either did the firing to see the houses burn, or compel his parents to remove to Richmond, which he desired and they refused to do. A few years ago a young lady, who was being educated at a Richmond boarding school, fired the house a dozen times. Once it came near burning down. It was said she had a mania on the subject. Nobody is so charitable to Hillary.

Perhaps there was a bit of charity after all in the air, for it took an inordinate (for the time) 19 months for the case to proceed from arrest to gallows: Page’s first death sentence was overturned on appeal and his eventual hanging-date was pushed back by the governor so that the condemned could be examined for lunacy.

By the end of it the fire fiend was quite a celebrity. At a stopover in the courthouse jail en route to a gallows,* Page was besieged by journalists shouting questions at him until his ministers arrived and shooed them away.

“Hillary, do you feel any better prepared to die than you did yesterday?”

“Yes, sir. I feel a heap better.”

“Do you acknowledge yourself guilty of everything that has been charged against you?”

“Yes, sir, all but one thing, and that is young Mr. Ruffin’s house. I didn’t burn that. It caught fire by itself. I didn’t burn that.”

“Hillary, why did you say that Colonel Ruffin and his son came to you and desired you to make statements implicating other parties?”

“All that was false. I just said so because I thought it would do me good. I was put up to it. It’s natural that I should try to save my life.”

(Source: Richmond Dispatch report in the very topical Public Executions in Richmond, Virginia: A History, 1782-1907)

The road, our correspondent noted, “was lined with vehicles of all descriptions” for “it seemed that all the whites and blacks of the county were going to witness the saddest act of a poor unfortunate career.”

* “It was by a general verdict accorded to be as mean a scaffold as was ever erected for the execution of a human being,” the Dispatch reported (again, via Ward’s Public Executions in Richmond, Virginia). “The sheriff of the county was even more nervous than the condemned.”

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

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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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1875: Jesse Fouks, for murdering the Herndon family

Add comment March 19th, 2016 Headsman

Sunderland (U.K.) Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, April 6, 1875.

A despatch from Brentville, Prince William County, Va., dated March 19, says: —

Jesse Fouks, the negro who murdered the Herndon family, consisting of Jeremiah Herndon, his wife, and a coloured boy named Addison Russell, near Cedar Run, in the lower part of this county, on the 4th of last December, was hanged this morning.

The circumstances of this murder were very horrible. Mr. Herndon, a well-to-do farmer, was about 70 years of age, his wife was a few years younger, and the coloured boy about 18 years old.

On the morning after the murder, Mr. Summerfield Herndon, a son of the venerable couple, who resided not far from their farm, went to pay a visit to his parents. Entering their yard, he saw bloody footprints, which led to the door of the dwelling. Passing into the house, a ghastly spectacle was presented to his view. Upon a pallet on the floor the coloured boy Russell lay cold in death, with his head split open. Upon the bed lay Mrs. Herndon, weltering in blood. A little later Mr. Herndon was found lying in a field about 400 yards from the house, barefooted and bareheaded, with his head and face cut and bleeding in many places.

On being asked who had done this deed, Mr. Herndon, who seemed bewildered, said he did not know who had done it; that he had been walking about all night, and felt cold when he went into the water.

He was taken to his house, and there told a clearer story to Justices Horton and Woodyard of a quarrel with Jesse Fouks, who had been hauling wood for him.

It was ascertained, on searching the house, that 235 dols. had been taken by the murderer. Fouks was arrested on suspicion at the house of a neighbour the day after the murder.

Both Mr. and Mrs. Herndon lingered some days, Mrs. Herndon dying on the Wednesday following, and Mr. Herndon on the succeeding Friday. Fouks was tried, found guilty, and duly sentenced to be hanged.

On the 31st of last January he made an attempt to escape from gaol. He burned a hole through the partition of his cell, and got out into the passage, where there was nothing to prevent his escape except an iron-grated door, which was unlocked, and the outer door.

On his appearance at the outer door, he was met by the gaoler’s wife, who, with great presence of mind, seized him and called for help, but he managed to get free and got away.

He was captured on the following day in a straw rick, about six miles from Brentsville.

He acknowledged his guilt, and said that on the evening of the murder he took some meat, and that Mr. Herndon threatened to prosecute him; that he went into the house to try to induce the old man not to prosecute him; that he refused to retract, and that they then began quarrelling, and Mr. Herndon took up the axe and threatened to knock his brains out.

Fouks retreated to the door (the door being open), seized the axe handle, and to use his own words, “Old Satan was in me. I struck Mr. Herndon; took da axe from him, and den struck de old woman twice wid de axe. I did’nt strike her wid nuffin else, and den I struck Add (the coloured boy) twice wid de axe also.”

About 1,000 persons were present at the execution. The prisoner exhibited the utmost self-composure, and warned his hearers to escape the effects of bad passion.

Last Tuesday Fouks gave his body to a physician of Fauquier County, saying that the doctors would get it anyhow.

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

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1732: Pompey, poisoner of James Madison’s grandfather

Add comment September 7th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1732, a Virginia slave entered American presidential lore at the end of a noose.

The Madisons were “planters, and among the respectable though not the most opulent class”* resident in Virginia from the 1650s or so — and would in time bequeath the new American Republic its fourth president, James Madison.

We are concerned for today’s post with President Madison’s paternal grandfather, Ambrose Madison. Alas, concern will not necessarily translate to elucidation, for most of the Madison family’s records and correspondence were destroyed in the 19th century: the first Madison generations are shadowy historical figures. Ann Miller has pieced together the fragments in the short book “The Short Life and Strange Death of Ambrose Madison”, published by the Orange County (Va.) Historical Society, and that is the primary source for this post.**

Ambrose Madison was a local grandee of King and Queen County, with landholdings elsewhere in Virginia; it was Ambrose Martin who in the 1720s acquired (via his father-in-law, a land surveyor) the Orange County grounds that would become the great Madison estate Montpelier.

In 1732, Madison moved his family to the Montpelier property. By that time, he controlled 10,000 acres in present-day Orange and Greene Counties, and was gobbling up land elsewhere — like the new frontier of westward settlement, the Piedmont.

And of course, Madison owned human beings, too. The inventory of his estate from 1732 lists 29 black slaves by their first (sole) names: ten adult men, five women, and 14 children.

In the summer of 1732, Ambrose Madison took ill and started wasting away towards death. The fact was apparent to Madison and those around him; the last weeks of his life were taken up in settling affairs. (He made out a will on July 31.)

Shortly before Madison’s death on August 27, two of his slaves — a man named Turk and a woman named Dido — along with another slave, Pompey, property of a neighboring plantation, were arrested on suspicion of having poisoned Madison. No record survives to indicate how or why they would have done so.

If grievances can only be guessed-at, they are not difficult to guess. At the same time, for aught we know the trio might have been falsely accused: there had never been a murder in the vicinity, but Madison’s death came just months after a gang of slaves committed a series of armed robberies and shot at three white people.† As we have seen from later and better-documented slave resistance, southern whites were prone to great paranoia where the prospect of servile rebellion was concerned. And as Madison was a healthy fellow in his mid-thirties, attributing his unexpected death to poison was a natural move.‡

As Miller notes,

It is likely that Ambrose Madison’s case sent ripples of fear — even panic — through the region … the court [appeared] eager to have a quick trial (and, perhaps, to make quick examples of those found guilty and hopefully deter any other slave rebellions).

All three slaves were convicted together on September 6 of “feloniously Conspiring the Death” of Ambrose Madison. Pompey hanged the next day — after he’d been appraised (at £30) to compensate his owner for the destruction of property. Turk and Dido were only found to be “concerned in the said felony but not in such a degree as to be punished by death but … by Whipping.” They suffered 29 lashes apiece “on their bare backs at the Common Whipping post, and thereafter to be discharged”.

We must deny the fact, that slaves are considered merely as property, and in no respect whatever as persons. The true state of the case is, that they partake of both these qualities: being considered by our laws, in some respects, as persons, and in other respects as property … Let the compromising expedient of the Constitution be mutually adopted, which regards them as inhabitants, but as debased by servitude below the equal level of free inhabitants, which regards the slave as divested of two fifths of the man.

-(Future President) James Madison awkwardly defending the three-fifths compromise in the Federalist #54

Madison’s principal heir was his only son, James — a nine-year-old boy at the time of the events in this post.

The family brush with slave revolt did not deter this future Col. Madison from resuming (once he came of age) the family trade in land acquisition. He had 108 slaves of his own by the time that he died in 1801.

Col. Madison’s more famous son, the U.S. “founding father” and eventual president also named James, had slaves in the White House but was deeply conflicted about the horrid institution.

“He talked more on the subject of slavery than on any other, acknowledging without limitation or hesitation all the evils with which it has ever been charged,” a slavery abolitionist who visited Madison (post-presidency) reported of the evening’s tete-a-tete. “Mr. Madison spoke strongly of the helplessness of all countries cursed with a servile population, in a conflict with a people wholly free.” Madison eventually came to support the fantastical solution of resettling U.S. slaves to an African colony; still, beset by debts, he never quite saw his way to manumitting his own slaves — not even in his will.

Whether the fate befalling his grandfather ever entered into President Madison’s considerations on the subject is left to posterity’s imagination; the documents surviving in his hand never mention anything about grandpa Ambrose.

* Per James Madison, Sr., Ambrose Madison’s son and the U.S. president’s father.

** Since the primary sources available are so scarce, there seems to be little that can be said with confidence of Ambrose Madison’s personality. Miller suspects him a skinflint, on the basis of a merchant’s exasperated correspondence: “I am sorry to find you complain of the cost of the Goods I sent you” … and the same man again two years later: “have Ship’d the Goods you ordered … I don’t expect that you’ll like the Cotton, you order the Cheapest.”

† A slave named Jack, owned by Mildred Howell, was hanged on May 2, 1732 for this affair. The fate of his seven compatriots history passes over in silence.

‡ Miller notes in an appendix several other trials of slaves for poisoning in 18th century Virginia, including some that resulted in acquittal — possibly militating against the railroading hypothesis.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,USA,Virginia

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1873: A day in the death penalty around the U.S., courtesy of the New York Herald

Add comment June 13th, 2015 Headsman

Dispatches to the New York Herald from 1873 give us today’s post: a little portrait of public hangings in Reconstruction Dixie.

Isham Belton O’Neill, 32 at his death, hanged in Atlanta on this date in 1873; the Herald reported it in the next day’s edition.

O’Neill grew up on a farm outside Atlanta but was taken to the city by service in the Confederate army.

Postwar, he started a short-lived painting business with a fellow veteran, John Little: short-lived, because within a few months the courts were sorting out the partnership’s dissolution. Little, evidently, felt hard done by their rulings and “met O’Neill on the street several times after the snit, and even visited him at his shop, always urging him to let him have a sash, which he claimed to be his own property.”

On September 5th, 1871, they bumped into each other again by accident and after a few pleasantriles, Little started in on the sash again. “You got it be swearing a damned lie,” he insisted.

The testimony is that O’Neill then struck him in the face, and [Little] seized O’Neill first by the collar and then by his hands, which he endeavored to hold firmly; but O’Neill, by turning and exerting himself, wrenched his right hand from Little’s grasp, put it behind him and drew from under his coat a large Bowie Knife and quickly stabbed Little in the abdomen, the knife penetrating six inches deep, making a surface cut of two inches long, the sides of which were jagged, as if the sharp, two-edged knife, after having been plunged in, had been twisted round and drawn out.

Enough about the sash, okay?

O’Neill was a respectable fellow in the community (apart from the unpleasantness), and he stuck to a shaky “self-defense” story long enough that he might have started to believe it himself. So even though Little gurgled his last that night with five feet of bowel hanging out of the jagged fissure O’Neill had carved, the killer felt inordinately confident of an executive reprieve.

O’Neill even eschewed the opportunity to escape during a general jailbreak in February 1872, obediently remaining in his spot even with the cell door popped wide open in front of him. Several fellow prisoners successfully absconded on this occasion and avoided recapture.

O’Neill only received word of the governor’s final rejection of his petition at 1 in the morning on the date of his hanging, when “he was awakened out of a sound sleep to receive it.”

Up to that moment he had been confident in the belief that his life would be spared by the Governor, and had refused to listen to the advice of his counsel and spiritual advisers to prepare for death. When he was told that the last hope was gone he felt very bad and was convinced. For the first time he seemed to realize the awful situation, broke down and gave way to piercing cries and lamentations — “Oh! is it all over with me? My God! it is terrible. Does the Governor refuse even a respite? O merciful God, is there no other chance!” and he ended with long heartrending, choking sobs.

We turn now to the Herald‘s June 17 report of a public execution from Lebanon, Virginia.

A steady, sharp stroke of a hatchet, a rope is cut, the crash of a falling drop follows, another rope is stretched to its utmost tension, there is a rebound and the body of Archie Johnson, a negro, is swinging in the air, a solemn warning to an immense multitude of spectators that “he that sheddeth man’s blood by man shall his blood be shed.”

Archie Johnson, “a copper-colored negro, about twenty-eight years of age” with a countenance “regular and well cut for a negro” was the former slave of a local Russell County gentleman.

Upon liberation, the correspondent charges, he “began a career of dissipation and vice,” driving away a wife with his wantonness before he “totally abandoned himself to all that was degraded, vicious and criminal.” At last, he murdered a man named Hunt.

This story is particularly intriguing for the writer’s detailed — often editorializing — reportage of the hanging details.

Not only all Russell county were on the grounds, but from Washington, Scott and other surrounding counties many thousands came to behold the death struggles of a condemned felon. The number of females in the vast throng was somewhat astonishing, and their complexions were as varied as the costumes they wore. Some were as black as a traditional ace of spaces, others as fair as the whitest lily, while the intermediate embraced every imaginable shade between the two. A large number of these came on horseback, their long, dark riding skirts forming a happy contrast with the innumerable bright and gaudy colors worn by the pedestrians. As to horses, all the available racks, trees and fences in town were thickly lined with them, and then it seemed that the surrounding woods were densely picketed with them. The prevailing costumes of the men were blue and gray jeans. The valleys, the knobs, the peaks and plains, the huts and houses, seemed to have poured themselves out to-day, all actuated by the same common, morbid curiosity, and it can safely be said that scarcely a score of them were solemnly impressed by the terrible scene they witnessed. The number present was estimated at six thousand people.

Turning from sociology to engineering, our observer sketches the construction of the lethal apparatus:


was a very ordinary, rude affair, consisting of the usual two main uprights, a narrow platform in the rear, in front of which was the drop, supported by a rope. This ran through the crossbeam near the centre, and was secured to a peg driven in one of the uprights, about four feet from the ground. It allowed of a fall of six feet, and was in all respects as thorough and effective as a majority of the clumsy, murderous machines* generally used in such instances in the South. The structure was situated in the old field to the north of the town and about half a mile distant from the jail.

As for Johnson himself, he signed off on a written confession blaming for his downfall those usual suspects: liquor, cards, loose women. Then he puffed a nonchalant cigar as he rode on his coffin to the gallows, “neatly and tastefully attired in a suit of entire black cloth, black cap, with gloves and gaiters”; he sat on a chair beside his noose for two different sermons (Methodist and Baptist), then a hymn which Johnson “joined with great spirit and religious zeal,” asked one last cigar which he puffed happily for ten minutes in which “his coolness just at this time excited the wonder of many and the admiration of more,” and finally at 2:24 p.m. — 48 minutes after he arrived at the gallows — submitted to his fate.

There was a third U.S. hanging on June 13, 1873: Joseph Duncan, in a public execution at Paris, Ky., for murder. All I have been able to learn in particular of Duncan’s hanging was that his first rope broke, necessitating the ol’ do-over.

* Presumably the Yankee’s judgment of the gallows here is informed by New York’s having “progressed” to upward-jerking hangings.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Georgia,Hanged,History,Kentucky,Murder,Public Executions,USA,Virginia

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1886: Tabby Banks and Tom Honesty, for election rejection

Add comment June 4th, 2015 Headsman

This date in 1886 gives us the double execution of two men named Banks and Honesty — words we don’t hear in the same sentence every day, amirite?

Baltimore Sun, June 5, 1886: the source of all newspaper quotes in this post.

That’s Tabby Banks and Tom Honesty, to be exact, “two full-grown and powerful negroes” who to nobody’s satisfaction denied all the way to the gallows that they had murdered a white 18-year-old, Joseph McFaul, outside the (still-extant) Taylor Hotel on November 14, 1884. The sources I have located do not explicate any beef specifically known to have existed between these individuals; they do, however, situate the conflict squarely within America’s political environment in that electoral year. It is not only in passing that we have noted the parties’ racial identities.

Days before McFaul died, former hangman Grover Cleveland was elected President — the first Democrat to win the office since before the Civil War.

It might be better to say that Cleveland was the first Democrat to hold the office. The tossup 1876 presidential election was more-or-less won by New York Democrat Samuel Tilden, but he was bilked of the prize in an electoral college bargain that exchanged another Republican presidency for the end of Reconstruction.

In the 1870s and 1880s, northern whites were steadily coming around towards Southern whites’ distaste for the ongoing rigor necessary to enforce the putative equality of ex-slaves with their former masters.

Recognizing that such lethargy among white elites in effect amounted to abandoning the field to the violent reassertion of white supremacy, blacks were deeply apprehensive about 1884. Some even feared that chattel slavery might be restored outright. For all the growing indifference of the Republicans, the potential election of the Democrat Cleveland, T. Thomas Fortune wrote during the campaign, “would be a cold afternoon for this country and especially for the Negro and the laboring classes.” (Via)

This is presumably why McFaul, a Democrat taking part in a celebratory parade for Cleveland’s election, would have been hateful to Banks and Honesty. According to the Baltimore Sun, those latter two had previously “traversed the [march] route, threatening to kill some democrat.” Later, McFaul chanced to nominate himself their target by stepping into an alley, where the two churls “immediately attacked him.” Some passing Samaritan saw what was happening and managed to pull McFaul out of the alley and onto the street; still, his assailants did not disdain to press the assault in public view and clobbered the young man with a rock.

Everyone parted and went their separate ways, but young McFaul was a dead man walking. His skull fractured by the stone, he died that night in his sleep.

President Cleveland, of course, did not restore slavery. He took little interest in the situation of black Americans and did nothing to check the onset of Jim Crow, but in this he was not so different from his Republican contemporaries. Nobody among the nation’s white elite had a belly for the fight any longer.

Frederick Douglass had to concede in a Washington, D.C. speech of 1886 that “as far as the colored people of the country are concerned, their condition seems no better and not much worse than under previous administrations.”

Lynch law, violence, and murder have gone on about the same as formerly, and without the least show of Federal interference or popular rebuke. The Constitution has been openly violated with the usual impunity, and the colored vote has been as completely nullified, suppressed, and scouted as if the fifteenth amendment formed no part of the Constitution, and as if every colored citizen of the South had been struck dead by lightning or blown to atoms by dynamite. There have also been the usual number of outrages committed against the civil rights of colored citizens on highways and by-ways, by land and by water, and the courts of the country, under the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States, have shown the same disposition to punish the innocent and shield the guilty, as during the presidency of Mr. Arthur.

On this day..

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

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1864: Thomas Dawson, manhood sealed

1 comment April 25th, 2015 Robert Elder

(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. This post originally appeared on the Last Words blog here. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)

“You may break my neck, but you won’t break the seal of manhood.”

-Thomas R. Dawson, convicted of desertion and rape, hanging, Virginia.
Executed April 25, 1864

An Englishman who had served in the Crimean War, Dawson was already the recipient of both the Victoria Cross and the Cross of Honor. [but see this post’s comments -ed.] He had been serving in Company H, Twentieth Massachusetts Infantry, when he was convicted. “He was an excellent soldier,” according to the infantry record, “intelligent and obedient.” On the gallows, a misjudgment of rope length caused Dawson to hit the ground standing when he fell through the trapdoor.

Panicking, the executioner grabbed the end of the rope “and jerked the prisoner upwards until death slowly came.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Desertion,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Military Crimes,Other Voices,Rape,Soldiers,U.S. Military,USA,Virginia,Wartime Executions

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