Whatever might be said, from a state’s perspective, for the virtues of making a public spectacle of capital punishment, the scaffold could also double as a subversive rostrum.
Religious martyrs, vaunting outlaws, courageous dissidents — all these sometimes sought to speak their own dangerous voices through the sermon of their deaths. If most such displays are usually better remembered by rhetoricians than historians, it is still true that public executions carried the potential to whipsaw against the authorities conducting them. In these pages, we have seen the commoners who are supposed to be the spectacle’s audience force their way into proceedings by rescuing a woman at the block (murdering the executioner), tearing down the breaking-wheel and carrying away its prospective victim in triumph, rampaging through Edinburgh and lynching a brutal gendarme in the hanging party, and eerily refusing to attend a Italian execution in a show of silent menace.
And apart from high drama when the place of execution is put to its usual function, the site itself has underappreciated potential for popular expropriation.
That brings us to this date’s subject, courtesy of the Anne Boleyn Files: a grisly and caustic comment left on the gallows by some unknown Protestant in the first year of Queen Mary‘s Catholic reign. To situate this event in time and context, the Protestant rebellion of Thomas Wyatt had been crushed just two months before, leading to the precautionary beheading of potential Protestant rival Lady Jane Grey. Three days after the events here, on April 11, 1554, Wyatt himself went to the block.
The same 8. of April, being then Sunday, a cat with hir head shorn and the likenes of a vestment cast ouer hir, with hir fore feet tied togither, and a round peece of paper like a singing cake [communion wafer] betwirt them, was hanged on a gallowes in Cheape, neere to the crosse, in the parish of S. Mathew, which cat being taken downe, was caried to the Bish. of London, and he caused the same to be shewed at Pauls crosse, by the preacher D. Pendleton.
Edison was a proponent of direct current (DC), where the electricity flows in one direction from source to receiver. Westinghouse, one the other hand, favored AC, alternating current, where the electrical current will reverse direction from time to time and electricity doesn’t flow from the source to the receiver so much as in between them.
In the late 1800s, as electrical systems were spreading all over America, Westinghouse’s company and Edison’s company were duking it out as to which system would prevail over the other. Westinghouse’s AC, being far more efficient, was usually the system of choice for providing electricity to houses, businesses and streetlights, which was where most of the profits lay. (DC was better for things like batteries.)
Desperate to hold onto eroding market share, Edison saw an opportunity to do Westinghouse dirty when New York State adopted the electric chair as their means of execution. Some notable botches had rendered hanging unpalatable, but industrial electrification was still such a newfangled concept that at the time the law was passed, the chair had yet to be built. Edison figured that a propaganda blitz to make sure the device used AC would help convince the public that the rival current was too deadly to be used in private homes and city streets.
In private experiments, Brown and his assistant, Arthur E. Kennelly, “attached electrodes to dozens of stray dogs and tried various combinations of volts and amperes before announcing that it took only 300 volts of alternating current to kill a dog, but 1,000 volts of direct current.”
Satisfied that they were ready to go public, Brown scheduled a demonstration at Columbia on July 30, inviting electricians, scientists and the press to watch. Kennelly and Dr. Frederick Peterson, a member of the Medico-Legal Society of New York, assisted him.
Brown opened his demonstration by insisting that he had been drawn into the controversy not out of any self-interest but because of his concern that alternating current was too dangerous to be used on city streets. He denied charges that he was in the pay of any electric light company and had “no financial or commercial interest” in the results of his experiments. Of course, the fact that he was using Edison’s equipment and was assisted by Edison’s chief of research spoke of itself.
Brown then brought in the first experimental subject: a 76-pound Newfoundland dog in a metal cage. The dog had been muzzled and had electrodes attached to one foreleg and one hind leg.
Brown connected the dog to the DC generator that Edison had loaned him and starting with 300 volts gradually increased the voltage to 1,000 volts. As the voltage increased, the observers noted, the dog’s yelping increased but it remained alive.
Having proven the safety of DC current, Brown disconnected the suffering animal from the DC generator and connected it to the AC generator with the remark, “We shall make him feel better.” (No word on whether he was twirling his mustache as he said so.)
Brown turned the voltage to 330, and the dog collapsed and died instantly.
The viewers were impressed, but Brown wasn’t done yet and brought in another dog. He said he was going to connect this one to the AC generator first. This, he said, would prove that the animal didn’t die because the shocks from the DC generator had weakened it.
Before he could accomplish this, however, an agent from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals arrived and asked Brown to stop the experiment and spare the poor dog’s life. It took some convincing, but in the end Brown agreed to stay of execution. The second dog would die another day.
Although the regular newspapers loved this bit of theater, the trade magazine The Electrical Engineer claimed the experiment was unscientific. The magazine offered a terrible little poem about the proceedings:
The dog stood in the lattice box,
The wires around him led,
He knew not that electric shocks
So soon would strike him dead…
At last there came a deadly bolt,
The dog, O where was he?
Three hundred alternating volts,
Had burst his vicerae
Although the ASPCA might have brought his first experiment to a premature end, Brown was not deterred. He toured New York State for months, giving dog and pony shows before fascinated crowds, where he would electrocute cats, cows, calves, and well, dogs and ponies, using both direct and alternating currents. He paid young boys twenty-five cents apiece to round up stray animals to get fried.
The public watched — but wasn’t fooled, and continued to use alternating currents. Even the 1890 execution of William Kemmler in New York’s brand-spanking new AC electric chair failed to convince anyone that they were going to drop dead if they installed AC electricity in their homes. (Brown helped design the chair.) AC won the War of Currents hands-down.
The poor Newfoundland, having laid down its small life for the greater prosperity of Edison’s investors, died, unmourned, in vain.
* This shock-a-dog diagram is from “Death-Current Experiments at the Edison Laboratory,” an article that Harold Brown published in the New York Medico-Legal Journal, vol. 6, issue 4. He remarks therein, just by the by, on alternating current’s “life-destroying qualities,” and how the august committee carrying out these electrocutions “were not a little startled when I told of them results of recent tests for leakage made by me not long since on the circuit of one of the alternating current stations in this city.” Brown was, he said, indebted to “Mr. Thos. A. Edison, through whose kindness I was allowed the use of apparatus.”
As noted, the thorough Brown put said apparatus to use on a variety of fauna. In the interest of science, he also includes in this same article diagrams on the electrocution of a calf and a horse; we enclose them here for your edification.
There exists a receipt for January 9, 1386, in which the executioner of Falaise, France, acknowledges payment of ten sous and ten deniers
for his efforts and salary for having dragged and then hanged at the [place of] Justice in Falaise a sow of approximately three years of age who had eaten the face of the child of Jonnet le Macon, who was in his crib & who was approximately three months old, in such a way that the said infant died from [the injuries], and [an additional] ten s. tournoise for a new glove when the Hangman performed the said execution: this receipt is given to Regnaud Rigaut, Vicomte de Falaise; the Hangman declares that he is well satisfied with this sum and that he makes no further claims on the King our Sire and the said Vicomte.
From this tiny kernel of primary documentation — the only primary source that exists — an impressive legend has grown up around the “Sow of Falaise”. It’s been alleged by subsequent interlocuters that the condemned sow was dressed up as a person for execution, that other pigs were made to attend in order to take warning by their swinish sister’s fate, and even that the incident became so famous as to merit depiction in a church fresco.
The supposed fresco has been whitewashed, but Arthur Mangin’s L’Homme et la Bete (1872) took a stab at reconstructing it.
This bizarre scenario can’t help but raise the question for we later observers — just what was the objective in trying and “executing” a farm animal? Did the human supporting cast to this scene not feel itself ridiculous?
“Punishment may be about many things, but in the last instance, we citizens of the modern world have an almost visceral need to believe that it is primarily about one thing: deterrence,” Friedland opines.
“The punishment of a pig for murder violates our modern understanding of the essential purpose of punishment because it punishes an animal, which we ordinarily do not believe to be capable of criminal intent, and because it does not lend itself very well to the principle of exemplary deterrence.” The tale’s evolution in later centuries “allowed an incomprehensible anecdote from the past to fit neatly into the modern paradigm of penal deterrence.”
Seeing Justice Donesituates that murderous pig within an unfolding saga of penal theory and practice stretching from the Roman Empire to the 20th century. And while Friedland’s study focuses on France in particular, the historical threads he teases out will look familiar much further afield.
We had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Frieldand about his book recently, and we’re pleased to present it here not in our customary Q&A form, but as Executed Today‘s debut podcast. The mediocre sound quality is on me, but Dr. Friedland’s insights are more than worth it. (Unlike your host, Friedland is a podcasting natural; catch him in a July 2012 episode of the New Books In Human Rights podcast.)
Trouble seeing the podcast player? Access the interview on podbean.
On June 6, 1662, at New Haven, there was a most unparalleled wretch (one Potter, by name, about sixty years of age) executed for damnable bestialities, although this wretch had been for now twenty years a member of the church in that place, and kept up among the holy people of God there a reputation for serious Christianity. It seems that the unclean devil which had the possession of this monster had carried all his lusts with so much fury into this one channel of wickedness that there was no notice taken of his being wicked in any other. Hence ’twas that he was devout in worship, gifted in prayer, forward in edifying discourse among the religious, and zealous in reproving the sins of the other people. Everyone counted him a saint, and he enjoyed such a peace in his own mind that in several fits of sickness wherein he seemed “nigh unto death,” he seemed “willing to die”; yea, “death,” he said, “smiled on him.”
Nevertheless, this diabolical creature had lived in most infandous buggeries for no less than fifty years together; and now at the gallows there were killed before his eyes a cow, two heifers, three sheep, and two sows, with all of which he had committed his brutalities. His wife had seen him confounding himself with a bitch ten years before; and he then excused his filthiness as well as he could unto her, but conjured her to keep it secret. He afterwards hanged that bitch himself, and then returned unto his former villainies, until at last his son saw him hideously conversing with a sow. By these means the burning jealousy of the Lord Jesus Christ at length made the churches to know that he had all this while seen the covered filthiness of this hellish hypocrite, and exposed him also to the just judgment of death from the civil court of judicature.
Very remarkable had been the warnings which this hellhound had received from heaven to repent of his impieties. Many years before this he had a daughter who dreamt a dream which caused her in her sleep to cry out most bitterly. And her father than, with much ado, obtaining of her to tell her dream, she told him she dreamt that she was among a great multitude of people to see an execution, and it proved her own father that was to be hanged, at whose turning over she thus cried out. This happened before the time that any of his cursed practices were known unto her.
On some day in June 1318, a cat and a one-eared man called John Deydras or Dydras, also known as John of Powderham, were hung in Oxford for challenging the right of Edward II to rule; indeed, John had claimed he was Edward II himself.
It had all started earlier that year when he walked into the King’s Hall in Oxford and announced before everyone that he was the rightful king of England. It was true that he resembled King Edward’s father, Edward I, except that he was missing an ear.
According to Powderham, when he was a baby and playing in the castle yard, a pig bit his ear off. His nanny, fearing the wrath of his royal parents, substituted him for a changeling. Now he was back and wanted to claim his kingdom. He even offered to fight King Edward in single combat for the right to rule.
Edward’s first response was to laugh. He welcomed the pretender, the Chronicle of Lanercost records, with a derisive cry of “Welcome, my brother!” But for the queen, struggling to maintain her husband’s dignity (and, with it, her own), and acutely conscious of the threatening consequences of Edward’s failings, jokes did not come so easily. Proud Isabella was “unspeakably annoyed.”
Proud Isabella had a reason for being so displeased, for her husband was nothing like his father, who had been an accomplished soldier and a good king. Indeed, Edward was widely despised not only for his inept leadership but his unseemly relationships with othermen.
After his arrest, Deydras confessed that the story had been a lie. He blamed his pet cat, a servant of the devil, for putting him up to it.
Modern readers can only conclude that the man was crazy. Royal pretenders had remarkablyshort lifespans, and to become one was effectively to commit suicide. (And at the urgings of a cat! Cats are not, after all, noted for their political acumen.)
Deydras’s contemporaries probably also knew he was mad, and Edward wanted to keep him as a court jester, but according to well-established precedent he was hung — and the cat too.
Unfortunately, this valuable asset was placed in the temporary stewardship of an inexperienced “under keeper” whom the circus had had to scoop up at a recent stop to cover staff turnover. Between shows on September 12, that fellow somehow (accounts conflict) enraged Mary, and (again according to one version among several) she
“collided its trunk vice-like [sic] about [the under keeper’s] body, lifted him 10 feet in the air, then dashed him with fury to the ground … and with the full force of her biestly [sic] fury is said to have sunk her giant tusks entirely through his body. The animal then trampled the dying form of Eldridge as if seeking a murderous triumph, then with a sudden … swing of her massive foot hurled his body into the crowd.”
It’s apparent in this report that the facts of an already-sensational event almost instantly began disappearing into its spectacle. See the largest land animal on earth! See it maul its handler to death! But what happened next lifted Mary all the way to legend.
The owners knew they had to euthanize the “mankiller,” or if they didn’t know they were soon persuaded by mushrooming press attention and towns threatening to ban the Sparks circus.
But how? They couldn’t shoot Mary to death — she apparently survived gunshots from the vengeful crowd in the immediate aftermath of the trampling; firearms just didn’t pack the wallop to put down a pachyderm in 1916. The area didn’t have the sort of electrical juice available that Thomas Edison had once used to drop a circus elephant during his weird campaign for the electric chair.
The choice for the baleful logistical task of killing a 10,000-pound evildoer was hanging, selected over “crushing it between railroad cars.”
And for stringing up “Murderous Mary”, you need no ordinary gallows. No, for this job, you’re using the hoist on a train derrick and an industrial-strength chain for a noose.
The actual train derrick that hanged Mary the elephant. The leftmost man, seated on the machine, is the “executioner” who worked the controls, according toThe Day They Hung the Elephant.
The railroad was game for the operation, provided the circus would come to it. So on this date, the circus train cars loaded up for the nearest usable train derrickscaffold at Erwin, Tennessee.
There, a procession of all five Sparks elephants — the routine was supposed to keep Mary compliant, and it did the trick even though some observers later remembered the condemned creature behaving unusually skittishly — marched to the railyard.
There Mary was noosed with a 7/8″ chain and hoisted up. The chain broke, and the animal shattered its hip crashing to the ground; another, still larger, chain, did the trick on the second try.
There’s something about this event abidingly piteous, even shameful. It may be for that reason that it’s also abidingly mysterious. The particulars about what happened on the day they hanged the elephant and what became of the body (a steamshovel dug a grave, but the exact location was never marked and there’s a wild story that it was dug up later for ivory) are the topics of conflicting, nth-hand rumors. Some in Erwin don’t to this day want to discuss the matter. Others, just the opposite.
The farm’s early cooperative elan soon shatters, with a pig bearing the unsubtle name of Napoleon becoming the revolution’s autocrat, and fostering a paranoid security climate against phantasmal plots by his fellow swine and onetime comrade, the exiled Snowball.
Napoleon ordered all the animals to assemble in the yard. When they were all gathered together, Napoleon emerged from the farmhouse, wearing both his medals (for he had recently awarded himself “Animal Hero, First Class”, and “Animal Hero, Second Class”), with his nine huge dogs frisking round him and uttering growls that sent shivers down all the animals’ spines. They all cowered silently in their places, seeming to know in advance that some terrible thing was about to happen.
Napoleon stood sternly surveying his audience; then he uttered a high-pitched whimper. Immediately the dogs bounded forward, seized four of the pigs by the ear and dragged them, squealing with pain and terror, to Napoleon’s feet.0 …
The four pigs waited, trembling, with guilt written on every line of their countenances. Napoleon now called upon them to confess their crimes. … Without any further prompting they confessed that they had been secretly in touch with Snowball ever since his expulsion, that they had collaborated with him in destroying the windmill, and that they had entered into an agreement with him to hand over Animal Farm to Mr. Frederick. They added that Snowball had privately admitted to them that he had been Jones’s secret agent for years past. When they had finished their confession, the dogs promptly tore their throats out, and in a terrible voice Napoleon demanded whether any other animal had anything to confess.
The three hens who had been the ringleaders in the attempted rebellion over the eggs now came forward and stated that Snowball had appeared to them in a dream and incited them to disobey Napoleon’s orders. They, too, were slaughtered. Then a goose came forward and confessed to having secreted six ears of corn during the last year’s harvest and eaten them in the night. Then a sheep confessed to having urinated in the drinking pool — urged to do this, so she said, by Snowball — and two other sheep confessed to having murdered an old ram, an especially devoted follower of Napoleon, by chasing him round and round a bonfire when he was suffering from a cough. They were all slain on the spot. And so the tale of confessions and executions went on, until there was a pile of corpses lying before Napoleon’s feet and the air was heavy with the smell of blood, which had been unknown there since the expulsion of Jones.
When it was all over, the remaining animals, except for the pigs and dogs, crept away in a body. They were shaken and miserable. They did not know which was more shocking — the treachery of the animals who had leagued themselves with Snowball, or the cruel retribution they had just witnessed. In the old days there had often been scenes of bloodshed equally terrible, but it seemed to all of them that it was far worse now that it was happening among themselves. Since Jones had left the farm, until today, no animal had killed another animal.
Animal Farm was published in 1945. In this 1954 British animated feature, the downer of an ending — with the corrupt pig rulers becoming literally indistinguishable from people — was dumped in favor of an ending where the animals revolt again.
“On the Thursday before St. Lawrence’s Day,” writes Gross in his Kurtze Basler Kronik, “they burned a cock on the Kolenberg, together with an egg which he had laid,* for they feared that a dragon might be hatched therefrom. The executioner cut open the cock and found three more eggs in him. For, as Vicentius saith in the sixth book of his Speculum Naturale, it hath always been held that a cock in his old age may lay an egg, whence ariseth a basilisk, if it be hatched out on a dungheap by the serpent called coluber. Wherefore the basilisk is half cock and half serpent. He saith also that certain persons declare they have seen basilisks hatched from such eggs. (Source)
* “The cock,” George Ives reassures, “was possibly an hermaphrodite or, more likely, a crowing hen.”
SAN QUENTIN, March 19 . (AP) A runt pig* died today in a slow-motion test of San Quentin’s lethal gas chamber.
The test required thirty-five minutes before the pig was formally pronounced dead, but prison officials said “nowhere near that time” would be necessary for execution of a condemned convict in the gas chamber.
The trial execution was conducted in slow motion to enable prison officials and guards to learn details of the operation. The test was conducted by representatives of the manufacturers of the chamber.
Ther was a youth whose name was Thomas Granger; he was servant to an honest man of Duxbery, being aboute 16 or 17 years of age. (His father and mother lived at the same time at Sityate.) He was this year detected of buggery (and indicted for the same) with a mare, a cowe, tow goats, five sheep, 2 calves, and a turkey. Horrible it is to mention, but the truth of the historie requires it. He was first discovered by one that accidentally saw his lewd practise towards the mare. (I forbear perticulers.) Being upon it examined and committed, in the end he not only confest the fact with that beast at that time, but sundrie times before, and at severall times with all the rest of the forenamed in his indictmente; and this his free-confession was not only in private to the magistrates, (though at first he strived to deney it,) but to sundrie, both ministers and others, and afterwards, upon his indictemente, to the whole court and jury; and confirmed it at his execution. And whereas some of the sheep could not so well be knowne by his description of them, others with them were brought before him, and he declared which were they, and which were not. And accordingly he was cast by the jury, and condemned, and after executed about the 8 of Sept 1642. A very sade spectakle it was; for first the mare, and then the cowe, and the rest of the lesser catle, were kild before his face, according to the law, Levit: 20.15 and then he him selfe was executed.* The catle were all cast into a great and large pitte that was digged of purposs for them, and no use made of any part of them.
Granger is the first juvenile known to be executed in the territory of the modern United States — if you like, you could read it as the start of a pattern, even though almost a century would pass before the next such execution. “Juvenile” is a relative term, of course, since we see our day’s victim across a historical redefinition (arguably, outright creation) of “childhood” in the centuries to come: Granger left a wife and daughter.
“Sodomy, rapes, buggery,” were one of the five classes of crimes punishable by death according to the Plymouth Colony’s 1636 statutes. Still, Granger’s is the only one of ten recorded Plymouth Colony executions not imposed for murder (Source, via.) — not that other hot-blooded Puritans, including later zoophiles, didn’t get themselves into hot water.
From the beginning, SIN
and the reason, note, known from the start
says Mr. Bradford: As it is with waters when
their streames are stopped or damed up, wickednes
(Morton, Morton, Morton)
here by strict laws as in no more,
or so much, that I have known or heard of,
and ye same nerly looked unto
so, as it cannot rune in a comone road of liberty
as it would, and is inclined,
it searches every wher (everywhere)
and breaks out wher it getts vente, says he
Rest, Tom, in your pit where they put you
a great & large pitte digged of purposs for them
of Duxbery, servant, being aboute 16. or 17. years of age
his father & mother living at the time at Sityate
espetially drunkennes & unclainnes
incontinencie betweene persons unmaried
but some maried persons allso
And that which is worse
(things fearfull to name)
HAVE BROAK FORTH OFTENER THAN ONCE
IN THIS LAND
indicated for ye same) with
a mare, a cowe, tow goats, five sheep, 2. calves
and a turkey (Plymouth Plantation)
Now follows ye ministers answers
Mr Charles Channcys a reverend, godly, very larned man
who shortly thereafter, due to a difference aboute baptising
he holding it ought only to be by diping
that sprinkling was unlawful, removed him selfe
to the same Sityate, a minister to ye church ther
in this case proved, by reference to ye judicials of Moyses
& see: Luther, Calvin, Hen: Bulin:. Theo: Beza. Zanch:
what greevous sin in ye sight of God,
by ye instigation of burning lusts, set on fire of hell,
to procede to contactum & fricationem ad emissionem seminis,
& yt contra naturam, or to attempt ye grosse acts of
Mr Bradford: I forbear perticulers.
And accordingly he was cast by ye jury,
It being demanded of him
the youth confessed he had it of another
who had long used it in old England,
and they kept cattle together.
And after executed about ye 8. Of Septr, 1642.
A very sade spectakle it was; for first the mare,
and then ye cowe, and ye rest of ye lesser catle,
were kild before his face, according to ye law
and then he him selfe
and no use made of any part of them
* The hangman, John Holmes — no, not that one — claimed a fee “for x weeks dyett for Granger £1., and for executing Granger and viij beasts, £2.10.0.” His count of executed beasts falls short of the total (12) enumerated by Bradford, presumably accounted by the difficulty in identifying the sheep.