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1741: John Hughson, Sarah Hughson and Peggy Kerry, “so abandoned to confederate with Slaves”

1 comment June 12th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1741, “John Hughson, Sarah his wife, and Margaret Kerry, were executed according to sentence” for the slave conspiracy to burn New York.

They were the first white people executed in the affair, and when their 16-year-old indentured servant Mary Burton first described a plot to fire the city hatched by thronging slave conclaves at the Hughsons’ tavern, the by the account of the court’s officer Daniel Horsmanden, it “was most astonishing to the Grand Jury … that any white People should become so abandoned to confederate with Slaves in such an execrable and detestable Purpose.”

Whether there ever really was an execrable and detestable Purpose or whether white New Yorkers convinced of the arson plot were just chasing ghosts, nobody can say with certainty. But the Hughsons most definitely did confederate with slaves. The keeper of a dockside tavern on the Hudson, Hughson catered to the colony’s lower strata: both blacks and poor whites frequented the place, and for the criminal element among them Hughson kept up a side business as a small-time fence of stolen goods.

Back in 1738, the Hughsons had moved to that location from the South Ward — driven, one infers, by complaints of a previous neighbor that they “kept a very disorderly House, and sold Liquor to, and entertained Negroes.” Three of those Negroes were the slaves Caesar, Prince and Cuffee, who in January of 1738 had been busted for breaking into another tavern in town and carrying away the gin … an incident that by 1741 their prosecutors were characterizing as the germ of a years-long plot to orchestrate the annihilation of New York.*

The keystone to the 1741 wave of prosecutions — the break in the case, from the standpoint of the court — occurred on April 22, when Burton provided the Grand Jury a damning description of her master and mistress as the kingpins of a murderous cabal. Burton swore

That Caesar, Prince, and Mr. Philipse’s Negro Man (Cuffee) used to meet frequently at her Master’s House, and that she has heard them (the Negroes) talk frequently of burning the Fort; and that they would go down to the Fly(d) and burn the whole Town: and that her Master and Mistress said, they would aid and assist them as much as they could.

That in their common Conversation they used to say, that when all this was done, Caesar should be Governor, and Hughson her Master should be King.

That Cuffee used to say, That a great many People had too much, and others too little; That his old Master had a great deal of Money, but that, in a short Time, he should have less, and that he (Cuffee) should have more.

That at the Meetings of the Three aforesaid Negroes, Caesar, Prince, and Cuffee, at her Master’s House, they used to say, in their Conversation, That when they set Fire to the Town, they would do it in the Night, and as the white People came to extinguish it, they would kill and destroy them.

Up until that point, the court had a suspicion of an arson campaign, based on a series of fires that looked like a pattern but might have been coincidental. Burton’s deposition gave that suspicion tangible shape, and structured all the proceedings to follow. And in her telling, it all started with Hughson, Hughson, and Kerry.

It was a story that fit what the judges would know or believe about them: besides the Hughsons’ underclass and criminal connections, the Hughsons’ Irish lodger Peggy Kerry was Caesar’s lover and the mother of his infant son. “She was a person of infamous character, a notorious prostitute, and also of the worst sort, a prostitute to negroes,” Horsmanden sneers in the introduction he wrote to his compendium of proceedings.

“Here is laid the foundation of the characters of Hughson and his family, which will afford frequent occasion of enlarging upon; and from such a hopeful earnest the reader may well expect a plentiful harvest.”

Peggy Kerry, that “Newfoundland Irish beauty,” now came under relentless pressure to corroborate Mary Burton. Prostitute to Negroes or no, she was badly needed to add credibility (and leal certainty) to Burton’s charge.

Jailed and facing the prospect of execution, she nevertheless stubbornly refused every blandishment to adhere to Mary Burton’s version of events — a version that would surely doom her friends the Hughsons and her lover Caesar.

She paid the last price or her obstinance. Arthur Price, the jailhouse snitch who eventually doomed Cuffee, entered the case by telling investigators that Peggy said to him all the stuff they wanted her to say to them.

[Price asked] What, Peggy; were you a going to set the Town on fire? And she made Answer, She was not; but said, by God, since I knew of it, they made me swear: Upon which the Deponent asked her, Was John and his Wife in it? (meaning John Hughson and his Wife) And she answered Yes, by God, they were both sworn as well as the rest. Then the Deponent asked her, if she was not afraid that the Negroes would discover her? And she said, No; for Prince, Cuff and Caesar, and Forck’s [Vaarck’s] Negro [Caesar] were all true-hearted Fellows.

And by the way, she added,

for your Life and Soul of you, you Son of a Bitch, don’t speak a Word of what I have told you.

Whether or not Peggy Kerry really did say all this incriminating stuff to her fellow dungeon denizen, Price’s report laid her in the magistrates’ trap. Now she was already the second witness, via Price — and without the benefit of leniency that she could have procured by talking herself. The pending conspiracy charge dangled over her head.

Finally, on May 7, she made a too-little, too-late grab at mercy by describing plotters meeting not at the Hughsons’, but at the house of a nearby cobbler, John Romme. Heartbreakingly, she put the father of her son into the scene: she had abandoned any hope of saving him.

This half-confession, as the magistrates saw it, only redounded against her for upon interrogation Elizabeth Romme denied everything (John Romme had left, or fled, town). Romme’s place was a dead end in the investigation but Kerry’s saying it confirmed that she was privy to something about the plot — something she might still be withholding. “From what had hitherto come to Light concerning this Mystery of Iniquity, it was scarce to be doubted, but Peggy had it in her Power to unfold a great deal more,” Horsmanden remarks in his entry for May 14. “Though what Peggy had already disclosed seemed to merit something; yet it was not altogether satisfactory; and ’twas thought proper she should be arraigned upon the Indictment for the Conspiracy, upon the Supposition that this Step might probably be a Means of bringing her to a Resolution of making a full Discovery of what she knew.”

For the next weeks, the court routed around the intransigence of its would-be star witness, and increasingly made her prospective evidence irrelevant. There was Arthur Price’s deposition, to begin with; to this crown’s evidence was added witnesses we have already met in the trials of the other other men: Sandy, Sarah, Fortune. There were the desperate “confessions” extorted from Quack and Cuffee at the stake.

John Hughson, who was being fitted for the halter, could see what was up. With his wife and now his daughter as well both in jail, Hughson asked on June 1 to see Daniel Horsmanden, “to open his Heart to them, and they should know more.” What deal was he hoping to cut? Could he extricate himself? Would he trade his own life to save his family?

We don’t know, because Horsmanden made it clear in their interview that not John Hughson nor Sarah Hughson nor Peggy Kerry had an ounce of leverage remaining.

[I] reproached him with his wicked Life and Practices, debauching and corrupting of Negroes, and encouraging them to steal and pilfer from their Masters and others; and for shewing his Children so wicked an Example, training them up in the High-Way to Hell: He further observed to him, that his Wife, and Peggy, then stood convicted of a Felony for receiving stolen Goods of Negroes; and that now nothing remained but to pass Sentence of Death upon them, and to appoint a Day for their Execution for that Fact; but that it was now determined, that he, his Wife and Daughter, and Peggy, should also be tried for being confederated in this most horrible Conspiracy; that the Evidence would appear so strong and clear against them in this Particular, that there was little doubt of their being all convicted upon that Head also; that it would appear undeniably that he was a Principal, and head Agent in this detestable Scheme of Villany; the chief Abettor, together with the rest of his Family, of this execrable and monstrous Contrivance for shedding the Blood of his Neighbours, and laying the whole City in Ashes, upon the Expectation of enriching himself by such an inhuman and execrable Undertaking: He therefore admonished him, if he would entertain the least Hopes of recommending himself to the Mercy of God Almighty, before whose Tribunal he must soon appear, that he would ingenuously tell the Truth, and lay open the whole Scene of this dark Tragedy, which had been brooding at his House; and discover the several Parties he knew to have been engaged in it; in doing which he would make some Attonement for his past Villanies, by preventing that Slaughter, Bloodshed and Devastation which he and his Confederates had intended.

Disabused of any hope, Hughson “put on a soft smiling Air of Innocence” and “declared, he knew Nothing at all of any Conspiracy; and called God to witness his Protestations, that he was as innocent with respect to that Charge as the Child unborn, and also his Wife, Daughter, and Peggy for aught he knew.” He would go to trial with those three on June 4.

That proceeding was a walkover, as Horsmanden had predicted. Mary Burton was the star witness against her former master and mistress, with Arthur Price’s account of Peggy Kerry’s confessions thrown in for good measure.

Following these came a litany of the Hughsons’ current and former white neighbors who damned the Hughson house as a regular haunt of the city’s black population — that “a Cabal of Negroes” was frequently entertained, that Peggy had been seen serving them and both the Hughson mother and daughter danced shamelessly with them, that “whole Companies of Negroes [were] playing at Dice there.”

The real evidence here still rested only upon Mary Burton’s allegation as supported by Arthur Price. But from the trial preceding the court had already fixed that story through the flesh of other men. That others who had hanged and burned already were known to congregate at the Hughsons’ did the necessary work to finish John Hughson, “whose Crimes have made him blacker than a Negro; the Scandal of his Complexion, and the Disgrace of human Nature!”

Such a Monster will this Hughson appear before you, that for sake of the Plunder he expected by setting in Flames the King’s House, and this whole City, and by the Effusion of the Blood of his Neighbours’ — He — Murderous and Remorseless He! — counselled and encouraged the Committing of all these most astonishing Deeds of Darkness, Cruelty, and Inhumanity. — Infamous Hughson! —

Gentlemen,

This is that Hughson! whose Name, and most detestable Conspiracies will no doubt be had in everlasting Remembrance, to his eternal Reproach; and stand recorded to latest Posterity, — This is the Man! — his, that Grand Incendiary! — That Arch Rebel against God, his King, and his Country! — That Devil Incarnate! and chief Agent of the old Abaddon of the infernal Pit, and Regions of Darkness.

These are the rhetorical fulminations of the prosecuting attorney, William Smith, who surely deserves a plaque in that profession’s hall of fame for bridging the distance from some NIMBYing neighbors to the logic and the rhetoric of a witch trial. Hell … just the fact that Hughson had the effrontery to show up and defend himself only went to show what a monster he was.

Was not this Hughson sunk below the Dignity of human Nature — Was he not abandoned to all Sense of Shame and Remorse! — To all Sense of Feeling the dreadful Calamities He has brought on this City, and his fellow Creatures; He would from a Consciousness of his own Guilt. — His monstrous Guilt! — be so confounded, as not able to look up, or stand without the greatest Confusion of Face, before this Court and Audience; but would openly confess his, and the Rest of his wretched Confederates Guilt, and humbly ask Pardon of God, the King, and his injured Country.

And so they died. Of course they died.

Sarah Hughson, the 17-year-old daughter, was spared her sentence. Over the next weeks her orphaned life would be a litany of execution dates imposed and then delayed, trading time for cooperation that Sarah was very reluctant to provide. In whatever combination her age, her sex, and her skin — for as a white person, her evidence had privilege over the allegations of “pagan Negroes” in trials yet to come — would eventually procure her pardon.

But on June 12, her parents and their misfortunate friend Peggy Kerry all went to the gallows. (Not to the pyre, the fate of the black slaves convicted for the conspiracy.) Horsmanden spares for these major trophies a longer narration of their Passion, though this turns out to consist in large measure of Horsmanden complaining one last time how Peggy Kerry didn’t spare any of her last moments to finally give him what he wanted.

The under-sheriff had often advised John Hughson, to make a cofession about the conspiracy, but he always denied he knew any thing of the matter; said he had deserved death for receiving stolen goods. The wife was ever sullen; said little or nothing, but denied all.

The sheriffs observed John Hughson, when he was brought out of jail to be carried to execution, to have a red spot on each cheek, about the bigness of a shilling, which at that time thought very remarkable, for he was always pale of visage: these spots continued all along to the gallows. Amongst other discourse it seems he had said, he did not doubt but some remarkable sign would happen to him, to show his innocence; concerning which more will be observed upon hereafter.** He stood up in the cart all the way, looking round about him as if expecting to be rescued, as was by many conjectured from the air he appeared in: one hand was lifted up as high as his pinion would admit of, and a finger pointing, as if intending to beckon.

At the gallows his wife stood like a lifeless trunk, with the rope about her neck, tied up to the tree; she said not a word, and had scarce any visible motion.

Peggy seemed much less resigned than the other two, or rather unwilling to encounter death; she was going to say something, but the old woman who hung next to her, gave her a shove with her hand, as was said by some, so Peggy was silent.

But they all died, having protested their innocence to the last, touching the conspiracy.

This old woman, as it has been generally reported, was bred a Papist; and Peggy was much suspected of the same persuasion, though perhaps it may seem to be of little significance what religion such vile wretches professed.

From the scanty room in the jail for the reception of so many prisoners, this miserable wretch, upon her conviction with the Hughsons for the conspiracy, was put in the same cell with them; which perhaps was an unfortunate incident; for though she had to the time of their trial screened them from the charge of the conspiracy; yet there was reason to expect, that upon the last pinch, when she found there was no hopes of saving her own life if she persisted, the truth as to this particular would have come out; and indeed it was upon this expectation, that she was brought upon trial for the conspiracy; for her several examinations before set forth, and what Arthur Price had sworn to have dropt from her in accidental talk in jail, had put it beyond doubt, that she was privy to many of the Hughsons’ secrets concerning this detestable confederacy; but when she was admitted to the Hughsons, under the circumstances of conviction and condemnation for the conspiracy, they most probably prevailed with her to persevere in her obstinacy, to the end to cover their own guilt, since they were determined to confess nothing themselves; and they might drive her to desperation by subtle insinuations, that the judges she saw after they had picked all they could but of her, whatever expectations she might have raised from her confessions, or hopes she flattered herself with of saving her life upon the merit of them; yet after all, she was brought to trial and condemned for the conspiracy, as well as they; and why should she expect pardon any more than they: and by such like artifices it is probable they might stop her mouth, and prevent her making further discovery; and not only so, but then of course prevail with her to recant, as to what she had confessed already.

John Hughson endured the posthumous indignity of being gibbeted in chains, on an island† alongside the already-rotting corpse of his former boon companion Caesar — who had hanged fully a month before.

As an unseasonably hot summer emerged in the weeks ahead, Horsmanden would later report how “Hughson’s Body drip’d and distill’d very much, as it needs must, from the great Fermentation and Abundance of Matter within him,” bloating to “Gigantick” proportions until at last “Hughson’s Corps unable to contain its Load, burst and discharged Pails full of Blood and Corruption” to the disgust of some nearby fishermen “to whom the Stench of it was very offensive.” The progress of this revolting fermentation was one reason guessed by “amused” New Yorkers for a queer phenomenon, that as they dangled in their manacles,

Hughson was turned Negro, and Vaarck’s Caesar a White; and when they came to put up York in Chains by Hughson (who was hung upon the Gibbet three Weeks before [and not yet exploded from his fermentation -ed.]) so much of him as was visible, viz. Face, Neck, Hands and Feet, were of a deep shining Black, rather blacker than the Negro placed by him, who was one of the darkest Hue of his Kind; and the Hair of Hughson’s Beard and Neck (his Head could not be seen, for he had a Cap on) was curling like the Wool of a Negro’s Beard and Head; and the Features of his Face were of the Symmetry of a Negro Beauty; the Nose broad and flat, the Nostrils open and extended, the Mouth wide, Lips full and thick, his Body, (which when living, was tall by the View upwards of six Feet, but very meagre) swell’d to a Gigantick Size; and as to Caesar (who, tho’ executed for a Robbery, was also one of the Head Negro Conspirators, had been hung up in Chains a Month before Hughson, and was also of the darkest Complexion) his Face was at the same Time somewhat bleach’d or turned whitish; insomuch that it occasion’d a Remark, That Hughson and he had changed Colours.

* In New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan, Jill Lepore — who believes that the “plot” was fictitious — unpacks a confusing part of the 1737-1738 backstory that might help us straddle the space between reality and fantasy in this strange case.

Lepore suggests that the city’s controversial Freemasons club, which was then prominent enough for active parody in the city’s press, led John Hughson to form a mock secret society at his cronies’ saturnalias whose joke “initiations” had downtrodden friends and even casual acquaintances boozily (but jestingly) vow to torch the city. During the (actual or perceived) arson wave of 1741, New York’s court would read a far more sinister intent to this sort of talk, and there are consequent references in the trial records to a “three-year conspiracy.”

** Much later in his narrative, Horsmanden gets around to an indeterminate speculation that the red spots on John Hughson’s cheeks might have been the product of his attempting to cheat the executioner with an insufficient poison. Evidently this was a rumor abroad in New York, though Horsmanden doubted the truth of it.

† The gibbet stood “near the powder-house,” which places it on a small island — long since gobbled up by the metropolis — within the marshes of Collect Pond. That’s around the present-day park named for Thomas Paine, which is just south of what’s now Collect Pond Park and at the time stood outside of the city’s main settlement.

Once an essential source of fresh water for Manhattanites, Collect Pond soon became overtaxed by the growing population and polluted by its use as a common sewer, devolving into a foetid slough. This public health hazard was destined for a grand future in New York’s crime annals, for once it was filled in the streets above it became New York’s legendary underworld nest, the Five Points. They were also the original site of The Tombs prison, which had structural problems from its outset due to land subsiding into the buried quagmire.


The Powder House, marked on a 1766 map of New York. (See large original version here.)

Part of Corpses Strewn: New York’s Slave Conspiracy of 1741.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arson,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,New York,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Terrorists,Treason,USA,Women,Wrongful Executions

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2004: Nick Berg, by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi

Add comment May 7th, 2016 Headsman

Twenty-six-year-old American communications contractor Nick Berg was beheaded a hostage in Iraq on this date in 2004 — allegedly by the personal hand of Al-Qaeda in Iraq chief Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

A veteran of the mujahideen who drove the Soviets out of Afghanistan in the 1980s, Zarqawi spent most of the 1990s in a Jordanian prison but was amnestied just in time to rejoin militant Islam before it became a post-9/11 boom industry.

Zarqawi’s Jordanian terrorist group Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, founded in 1999, transitioned with the American invasion of Iraq into the Al-Qaeda franchise in that country, a feared prosecutor of the sectarian civil war there, and the lineal forbear of the present-day Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL).

It also became a lusty early adopter of the emerging beheading-video genre: an ancient penalty perfectly adapted for the digital age.

This ferocious group was a severe mismatch for Berg, a Pennsylvanian freelance radio tower repairman (and pertinently, a Jew) who set up his Prometheus Methods Tower Service in the northern city of Mosul* in the months following the 2003 U.S. invasion. This was also around the time that American occupation forces’ abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib came to light — a powerful excuse for blood vengeance.

Berg vanished from Baghdad in April 2004, and was not seen in public again until the whole world saw him: the unwilling feature of a May 11 video titled Sheik Abu Musab al-Zarqawi slaughters an American infidel with his hands and promises Bush more.

“We tell you that the dignity of the Muslim men and women in Abu Ghraib and others is not redeemed except by blood and souls,” a voice says. “You will not receive anything from us but coffins after coffins … slaughtered in this way.”

Warning: Mature Content. This is both a political document of our time, and a horrifying snuff film. Notice that Berg appears in an orange jumpsuit, a seeming allusion to Muslim prisoners being held by the United States at Guantanamo Bay.

Twenty-five months later to the day, Zarqawi was assassinated by a U.S. Air Force bombing.

* As of this writing, Mosul is occupied by Zarqawi’s creation, the Islamic State.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Businessmen,Cycle of Violence,Execution,History,Iraq,Mature Content,No Formal Charge,Notable Participants,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Ripped from the Headlines,Summary Executions,USA,Wartime Executions

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1875: William Hole, family tragedy

Add comment April 26th, 2016 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1875, William Marwood* executed William Hole at Bristol Prison for the murder of his wife the previous summer.

Any murder story is a sad and brutal one, but William Hole strikes this writer as an especially pathetic and pitiful specimen of killer.

As told in Nicola Sly’s book Bristol Murders, William and his wife Alice had been married thirty years by the time of her death. What had initially been a happy relationship went downhill after their only child, a son named James, was killed in an accident. William in particular was inconsolable and attempted suicide.

Further misfortune befell him: three years after his son’s death, William was thrown from a horse-drawn cart and sustained a serious head injury. He was probably brain-damaged, and he definitely suffered from horribly painful, intractable headaches for the rest of his life. His sense of melancholy deepened and he regularly threatened to kill himself. The depression turned into paranoia and delusions. He started hearing voices.

The Baptist parents had been teetotalers through three decades of marriage, but after his head injury William took to alcohol to quiet his demons, and so did his wife. They were constantly quarreling and the more they drank they more they argued.

In spite of the couple’s fights, however, and William’s alcoholism and chronic headaches, he wasn’t a complete basket case. He was, for example, able to run his own successful barge business, employing several men. He was well-liked in the area and didn’t have a reputation for violence or criminality.

Until, that is, the night of August 28, 1874, when sometime after 10:30 p.m. the entire neighborhood was roused by screams of “Murder!”

William, it seems, had come home blind drunk and suffering from another of his headaches. He found Alice slumped on the doorstep, also drunk. He knocked her to the ground, went inside and locked her out. Some time later he asked her, twice, to come indoors. Both times she refused. The second time her husband went out into the street, hit Alice again and went back inside. When he re-emerged he was carrying a knife.

A neighbor witnessed all of this and she watched the bloody events that followed. In Sly’s words,

William lunged at his wife, sending her sprawling to the ground. He then bent over her and made two quick slashes with the carving knife across Alice’s throat… Illuminated by a streetlamp was a ghastly scene. Alice Hole was slumped against the kerb, her arms waving, with blood pumping from her throat. William had once again retreated to his own house and was sitting calmly on his windowsill.

Two female neighbors asked William to help them carry Alice into the house and he refused, saying, “She shan’t come in. Take her anywhere; I have killed her and I shall be hung.” Somehow the women got Alice inside her house by themselves and laid her out on the living room rug. She bled out before the doctor arrived.

When the police showed up, William was ready and waiting for them. He told one officer, “Here I am. I did it. I shall not run away. Take me if you like.” He did, however, ask for one last drink of brandy, since he wouldn’t be having another for a long time. This was refused.

At the police station he said, “This is all through a drunken wife,” and confessed in great detail, even going so far as to mime the murder in front of the police. Then he begged to be allowed to drown himself. Request denied, of course, so he tried and failed to strangle himself with his own handkerchief. Denied alcohol in prison, this habitual drunkard began suffering the symptoms of delirium tremens.

He would later claim he had no memory of the murder, although he never denied having done it.

At trial, Hole’s two attorneys used the defense of insanity, pointing out his prior head injury, his prior suicide attempts, his alcoholism, and the fact that he had been dead drunk at the time of the murder. But, summing up the case, the judge told the jury that if William Hole knew what he was doing and knew it was wrong, he had to be found guilty. Given that he had confessed freely and anticipated the likelihood that he “shall be hung,” it would to be hard to argue he didn’t realize the nature and consequences of his actions.

A successful bargeman turned employer and local philanthropist, our troubled soul attracted an energetic campaign for reprieve — but the Home Secretary denied a petition of 30,000 to stay the execution.

* Marwood’s command of the scientific hanging craft was on display as usual. The next morning’s York Herald reported that “Marwood, the executioner, provided a drop of five feet, and Hole being a heavy man, weighing 16 stone, death was instantaneous”

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Murder,Other Voices

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2015: Liu Han, former tycoon

1 comment February 9th, 2016 Headsman

One year ago today, Chinese billionaire Liu Han was executed in Hubei province, along with his younger brother Liu Wei and thee other associates.

One of the prime catches in the anti-corruption hunt of current president Xi Jinping, Liu was a mining oligarch whose personal fortune was once valued at $6.4 billion.

He was also allegedly “an organized crime boss that no one dared provoke”. He was arrested early in 2014 for embezzlement, gun-running, and orchestrating a hit on a rival crime lord.

Liu’s fall was widely perceived as a strike against his close ally, the powerful former security minister Zhou Yongkang. After months — years even — of rumors about his impending fate, Zhou was arrested for corruption in December 2014; he has since been sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,China,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Lethal Injection,Mass Executions,Murder,Organized Crime,Ripped from the Headlines

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1573: Lippold ben Chluchim, scapegoat

Add comment January 28th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1573, the Jewish courtier Lippold ben Chluchim was broken on the wheel and cut into quarters.

Most of the readily available information about poor Lippold is in German; his was a fate similar to the 18th century “Jud Süß”, minus the worldwide notoriety conferred by a Nazi propaganda film.

Though born in Prague, Lippold would live a life, and die a death, in the orbit of the Elector of Brandenburg — a principality where Jews endured precipitous reversals of fortune over the centuries.

Elector Joachim I had actually expelled Jews from the territory in 1510* after riots incited by rumors of desecrating the Host; Lippold and his family would benefit when Joachim’s son, also named Joachim, rescinded some of the old man’s harsh ordinances and invited Jews to return. Lippold was about 12 years old when his family took advantage of the liberalization and relocated to Berlin in 1542.

By adulthood, the able Lippold had plugged into Joachim II’s court and become a trusted favorite. While Joachim’s dad must have been turning in the grave, one imagines the son appreciated the loyalty of an aide whose prestige depended entirely upon the prince himself.

Events would underscore painfully Lippold’s vulnerability to the turning wheel of fortune.

As Brandenburg’s master of the mint, it fell to Lippold to implement a wide-ranging currency debasement program required by Joachim to finance his spendthrift government — basically passing on the cost to merchants who were required by edict to accept the local coinage at its fanciful face value.

Despite this hated policy, plus additions to the state’s rounds of direct taxation, Joachim was 2.5 million guilders in debt when he died suddenly during a hunting trip on the third of January in 1571. Things immediately turned grim for Brandenburg’s Jewry after the liberal Joachim fils was in the earth; a pogrom sacked Berlin’s synagogue and rampaged through the Jewish quarter.

Joachim’s son and successor Johann Georg likewise found in his father’s Jewish henchman — a man who had naturally waxed very wealthy and very unpopular doing the previous sovereign’s dirty work — a ready scapegoat for Brandenburg’s financial woes. Johann Georg accused Lippold of using black magic and poison to assassinate his benefactor and persuaded Lippold in the usual way to confirm it. Jews beheld the reinstatement of that old proscription, little more than 30 years after Joachim II had canceled it — and they were once again expelled from Berlin en masse.

* Complete with a mass execution.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Dismembered,Execution,Germany,Gruesome Methods,History,Jews,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Political Expedience,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Witchcraft,Wrongful Executions

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1889: Abushiri, German East Africa rebel

Add comment December 15th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1889, the Germans hanged Abushiri as a rebel.

European empires arriving to East Africa naturally entered a going history of local conflicts and accommodations. In the case of the region at hand, the archipelago of Zanzibar lying just off the coast had been absorbed by, and then spun off from, the domain of the sultan of Oman. As we lay our scene in the late 19th century, it is an independent Sultanate of Zanzibar whose dominion extended to the adjacent Swahili coast and inland, an area also known as the Zanj.

Zanzibar was a British interest here, but the islands themselves do not quite enter this fray directly; the sultanate based there actually survived until 1964.

But in the 1880s, Germans scrambling for Africa arrived to gobble up the sultanate’s mainland possessions. Germany, truth be told, was a little bit late to this game, and although it secured some noteworthy footholds like Cameroon and Namibia, the Second Reich suffered a distinct little imperial brother complex vis-a-vis the British and the French — both of whom had more extensive holdings in Africa, to say nothing of everywhere else in the world.

Certainly the German public, flush with the boom of industrialization and having only just shown the French what-for on the battlefield, clamored for its rightful share of overseas acquisition. The popular thirst for expansion dragged along reluctant chancellor Otto von Bismarck into an adventure so inimical to the good order he prized.

One such German dreaming big dreams of bigger maps was a cocksure 29-year-old doctor of history, Carl Peters. Fresh off a few post-academic years knocking about in a London astir with the white man’s burden, Peters co-founded the German East Africa Company and then put that colonial corporation literally on the map with a bold expedition to Zanzibar. Within a few weeks of arriving in November 1884, and despite the explicit dissuasion of the German consulate there, Peters had obtained via just the right mixture of largesse and menace treaty rights to 155,400 square kilometers conferred by a number of coastal chiefs in the mainland ambit of the Sultan of Zanzibar.

When Peters returned in glory to Germany brandishing these concessions, Chancellor Bismarck was practically forced to accept them as a German protectorate … and charter Peters’s corporation to start exploiting it. The mid-1880s saw a minor local race between Peters and rival British explorers to establish their respective colonial presences on the Swahili coast,* resulting in an 1886 Anglo-German agreement formally dividing the region’s spheres of influence: British to the north, German to the south. Today this line, shooting near-straight to the southeast from Lake Victoria to the Indian Ocean with a slight bend round Mount Kilimanjaro, forms the border between Kenya and Tanzania.

We are, at length, arriving at the unfortunate party whose execution occasions this post.

The problem for young Master Peters with his personal agglomeration of the fatherland was nothing but that familiar difficulty for invaders from time immemorial — and Peters was ultimately an invader, no matter what treaties he could wrangle. For his short spell as the commercial governor of this distant land, Peters earned of his Bantu subjects the sobriquet Milkono wa Damu: the man with blood on his hands.

Diplomats could partition the land in Berlin, and could even compel the supine sultan to acknowledge their arrangements. But no edict could command legitimacy for the man with blood on his hands.

Beginning in September 1888, rebels comprising both Arabs and Swahili tribesmen sacked German East Africa Company assets up and down the coast Peters had so diligently won for Germany. Rousted from most of its towns and trading posts, the Company hunkered down in its territorial capital of Bagamoyo and cabled Berlin for help. Bismarck paternally relieved the in-over-its-head company with the aid of mercenaries hired from Egypt and Mozambique, crushed the uprising with customary roughness, and ushered Peters’s firm out of the colonial administration business in favor of adult supervision. The little protectorate soon became German East Africa, administered as a proper colonial appendage of the German Empire.

This Abushiri revolt (English Wikipedia entry | German) is named for its most prominent leader, a mixed-race Arab-Oromo coastal planter named Abushiri ibh Salim al-Harthi (English Wikipedia entry | German). He would be betrayed to German hands trying to escape and promptly executed; however, resistance by others continued to 1890.


(Via)
They struck down
The flag of Islam
And now proposed
To raise their own.

They came to Pangani
Full of wrath,
They fitted up the house
And laid cannon.

And the ship at Maziwe
The whole town was humbled
And the Europeans
Strode about the streets.

The town was silent,
No one spoke,
Not a free man
Said a word.

-Swahili poet Hemedi al-Buhriy†

This new disturbance, whose suppression Britain also aided, helped lead London and Berlin back to the negotiating table for the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty of 1890 — a comprehensive African arrangement to settle up spheres of influence not only on the Swahili coast but touching Namibia and Togoland, too. Meanwhile, Germany gave up remaining claims north of the Swahili coast dividing line and ceded Zanzibar itself to British authority; in exchange, she obtained the islands of Heligoland off her northwest shoulder — closing a potential security vulnerability.**

Among the many curiosities of the years to follow for the great imperial powers concerned, few are more vexing than just why it was that England and Germany went to war in 1914. Profitable as that bloody effusion has been for these grim annals, it posed as antagonists two countries that had long been thought by keen observers to be natural allies — a belief shared by numerous British and German statesmen. Otto von Bismarck was certainly one of these; his desire for an English alliance (against France and Russia) was a pole star of the Iron Chancellor’s foreign policy. Indeed, he worked amicably with his British opposite number Lord Salisbury; Bismarck once opined of his unwillingly adopted East African holdings that they were “admirably suited to become the sacrificial ram on the altar of friendship” with Great Britain.

But that isn’t what happened.

The failure of these great powers’ flirtation with one another, and the arrangements they ultimately made with other powers instead, defined the belligerents of the Great War. And while we would scarcely propose to lay the charnel houses of Verdun and Gallipoli at the shores of Zanzibar, it has sometimes been postulated that the fatal obstacle to Britain’s arrangement with Germany might have been the paucity of horses to swap.

Thanks to far-flung colonial expansion, Britain had many borders with France all over the globe, and accordingly had frequent need to collaborate and an ample store of chips to trade. With Germany, she had but a few intersections, in Africa — and these were settled almost too comprehensively (pdf) after the Abushiri revolt.

* It goes without saying that the sultan was none too happy about this development, but he was made to get used to the idea. (Germany sent warships, and Great Britain declined to back the sultan.)

The Anglo-German agreement accordingly limited the sultan’s authority on the coast to a 10-mile strip. Although the European powers commanded whatever leases they desired from this zone, Zanzibar’s anomalous territorial claims on the mainland would not be extinguished until the post-colonial era. When that day came, the 10-mile strip made for quite a sticky wicket during negotiations for Kenyan independence in the 1960s. The whole situation lies very far from the scope of this post, but the connosseur of diplomatic Gordian knots should pause to enjoy this pdf exploring the whole mess.

** Each party valued the thing it received quite a bit more than the thing it traded away in this treaty. From Britain’s perspective, Heligoland would be nigh-indefensible in the event of war with Germany; from Germany’s perspective, the claims it gave up outside of German East Africa were little better than phantasmal.

† via Charles Pike’s “History and Imagination: Swahili Literature and Resistance to German Language Imperialism in Tanzania, 1885-1910,” The International Journal of African Historical Studies, Vol. 19, No. 2 (1986)

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1919: Not Joseph Cohen

Add comment December 10th, 2015 dogboy

This day in 1919 was the closest Joseph Cohen came to the electric chair in Sing Sing. His walk may have been 7 minutes, or possibly 11 minutes, away, but Cohen was not to die this day at the hands of the State of New York, nor at the hands of any state on any day. Instead, he would be gunned down 13 years later as a free man.

Cohen was a wealthy, influential poultry merchant in New York City, and he had a bone to pick with fellow poultryman Barnet Baff, also known as the “Poultry King”. Baff had repeatedly rebuffed other poultry merchants in their efforts to fix prices and charge an exorbitant per-truck fee for poultry handling. That was probably because Baff was making this kind of bonus cash by feeding starving chickens sand and gravel immediately before slaughter. His shady practice was great for sale and terrible for resale.

This did him no favors among other poulters of the city.

By 1913, Baff had become the target of the collective ire of several people in the poultry industry, including Cohen, Ippolito Greco, Tony Zaffarano, and Antonio Cardinale — and possibly still more rivals in the New York Live Poultry Dealers’ Association. That year, a cadre of poultry merchants took up a collection to either frighten or kill Baff.*

Initially, a bomb was placed at his home, allegedly only to “frighten” him. In August of the following year, with Baff insufficiently frightened, the group actively sought to kill their target. At least one attempt was foiled, but on November 24, Baff was gunned down at the West Washington Market in Harlem.**

(c.f. this book for information.)

The murder nearly ended in a trio of executions and several long prison sentences. Instead, it cost just two men modest prison terms and uncovered the sordid underbelly of New York poultry sales.

Details about what actually happened are muddled significantly by various parties coaching witnesses in testimony.† As the story unfolded in the press, several investigators were accused of trying to push blame from Italians to Jews. Ultimately, the New York Attorney General managed to build up a case against several major players in the New York poultry scene and the then-lightweight New York mob scene.

The first break came in 1916 when Carmine diPaolo was arrested for an assault in the Bronx. He mentioned to police that he had been approached by Greco about carrying out the murder, but had backed out before it could be finished. DiPaolo then saw Giuseppe Archiello get paid by Greco after the killing. Archiello’s interrogation implicated Frank Ferrara, Cardinale, Zaffarano, Greco, and Greco’s brother, but it did not point to a source of the estimated $4,500 that was dispersed among the participants in the murder. Archiello was tagged as one of the gunmen and sentenced to death.

Ferrara was next on the docket, charged with driving the getaway car for the two killers. This was when Gaetano Reina was fingered as the other gunman. Ferrara’s story changed repeatedly and significantly, though, and he later insisted that Reina’s name had been fed to him. Ferrara’s conviction led to a death sentence that the state hoped to use to get Ferrara to name names at the top of the food chain.

The breakthrough witness was Cardinale, who had joined the Italian Army during World War I but was involved in the plots against Baff from the start. He was taken to New York by way of a somewhat shaky international agreement that circumvented the American/Italian extradition treaty, and his lawyer — not coincidentally the same as the lawyer for Ferrara and Archiello — convinced him to give up the big names: Joseph D. Cohen, brother of Chief Chicken Inspector Harry Cohen (aka “Kid Griffo”); his brother Jacob Cohen; Moses “Chicken Moe” Rosenstein; David Jacobs; William Simon; and Abe Graff. (Cardinale smartly moved back to Italy after giving testimony.)

Ferrara also decided to “come clean”, telling investigators that Ignazio “Jack” Dragna and Ben “Tita” Rizzotta were in his getaway vehicle. He also noted that he had left this duo out of his original story for fear of reprisal, going with the state-fed names of the gunmen instead.

The six conspirators were brought into court, with the court leaning on testimony of Cardinale, Ferrara, and Joseph Sorro, whom Cardinale said was also involved in several attempts to intimidate Baff. Simon’s indictment was thrown out, while Jacob Cohen and Jacobs were acquitted. Rosenstein pled guilty and helped New York gain a death sentence for Cohen and 10-20 years for Graff.

The convicted Cohen went after the state repeatedly, pointing out the massive inconsistencies in the witness testimony that led to his indictment and conviction. Indeed, Cardinale — who dragged Cohen into this in the first place — claimed two gunmen, neither of whom was currently in Sing Sing. Sorro, meanwhile, was brought up on multiple perjury charges.

Cohen’s execution was postponed seven times, then commuted to life in prison on February 4, 1920, by Governor Al Smith. Cohen was released on November 24, 1921. Officially, he could have been retried, but the state refused.

Archiello’s lawyer‡ insisted that, thanks to Sorro’s perjury, it was no longer clear that Archiello was a gunman. The court agreed to a second trial, and Archiello — who had significant connections in the Harlem mob — pled guilty to manslaughter, receiving a suspended sentence instead of death.

Meawhile, Dragna, Rizzotta, and Reina all walked. Dragna moved to Los Angeles and headed the Los Angeles crime family until the 1950s; he may have had a hand in former leader Joseph Ardizzone’s disappearance. Reina became kingpin of the Lucchese crime family in Brooklyn, and got killed by Lucky Luciano.

The Baff murder was atypical in the mob world, in that it featured Italian families doing their dirty work in the traditionally non-Italian field of poultry. The unusual arrangement made the murder an awkward affair that uncomfortably exposed a lot of powerful people. Organized crime was significantly more, well, organized by the time that Prohibition rolled around, and future gangland business murders were handled with a more diligent eye toward shielding bankrollers from blame.

Cohen and Jacob opened up a tailor shop in Manhattan, which put them right in the Italian mafia’s business wheelhouse. He and brother Barney were both shot to death in 1932, and their killers have never been identified.

* In an unusual twist to this already twisted case, Baff may have even partially paid for his own murder.

** Baff was killed just weeks after 18 members of Cohen’s Live Poultry Dealers’ Protective Association were indicted on fraud and racketeering charges.

† The state even employed one Philip Musica, a sort of proto-Barry Minkow with his own zany criminal story. His first foray into business was attempting to sell $250 of human hair to the tune of some $370,000. It’s not clear what the link between “Step 1: Get Hair” and “Step 3: Profit” was, but his misrepresentation of the goods was enough to earn him a federal sentence. Musica spent little time in prison, turning instead into a paid investigator in New York State’s employ during the Baff affair.

He jumped straight to Step 3 for his services and retired around 1916. Musica changed his name to Frank Donald Coster and in 1920 started Girard & Co. — a hair tonic company that was likely a front for a bootlegging operation. Right around the time the old Musica was indicted for perjury in the Baff case, F. Donald Coster bought the pharmaceutical company McKesson & Robbins. Musica expanded its drug enterprise but also did side business of building up paper assets and phantom sales to bolster the company’s apparent value by about $18m. It came crashing down when the company’s treasurer tried to find out why McKesson & Robbins didn’t insure their drug warehouse (turns out “it doesn’t exist” isn’t a good reason to give your accountant).

Musica committed suicide in 1938 as federal agents closed in, and the episode spawned new accounting regulations. McKesson is now the 14th-largest business in the U.S.

‡ The lawyer for Archiello and Cardinale, Walter Rogers Deuel, was brought up by the New York State Bar Association for suborning perjury, but he continued to practice law. And Deputy Attorney General Alfred Becker, who, according to one article, “was conspicuous during the war for uncovering German and Red plots,” was also accused of misconduct, though nothing appears to have come of that charge.

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1781: Benjamin Loveday and John Burke, “for the detestable Crime of Sodomy”

1 comment October 12th, 2015 Headsman

October 12, 1781 saw the hanging at Saint Michael’s Hill in Bristol of Benjamin Loveday and John Burke — “for the detestable Crime of Sodomy; they were both capitally convicted on the clearest Evidence, which is shocking to Human Nature to describe.”

The newspaper reporting, both slight and heartbreaking, can be perused at the website of gay history expert Rictor Norton, here. Between the lines, it suggests Loveday as the proprietor of a molly house or something very like it — an establishment catering to the underground market in same-sex desire, the like of which periodically surfaced in moral panic episodes in the 1700s and early 1800s. (See Norton’s topical Mother Claps Molly House: Gay Subculture in England 1700-1830.)

Loveday, “about 41 years of age … was formerly waiter at a principal inn in Bristol, but had lately kept a public-house in Tower Lane.” The younger Burke “had acted as a midshipman in the impress service, and he was the unlucky one. Three other men, Joseph Giles, James Lane, and William Ward, also faced potentially lethal charges of committing sodomy with Loveday at the same assizes; Giles and Lane got off with misdemeanor convictions and Ward was acquitted outright.

About Twelve o’Clock they were brought out of Newgate, and being placed in a Cart, moved in slow Procession to the fatal Tree, preceded by the Under-Sheriff on Horse-back, and other proper Offices; and attended in a Chariot by the Rev. Mr. Easterbrooke and two other Clergymen, who have frequently visited them since their Conviction, and earnestly laboured to bring them to a due Sense of their Crime, and a Confession of their Guilt. To and at the Place of Execution, their Behaviour was decent, and becoming their awful Situation; and though their Convicted was founded on clear and positive Evidence, yet with their last Breath, they both, in the most solemn Manner, protested their Innocence respecting the Crime for which they were doomed to suffer; but at the same Time acknowledged themselves to have been guilty of many heinous Offences. (Oxford Journal, Oct. 20, 1781)

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1783: William Wynne Ryland, court engraver

Add comment August 29th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1783, British engraver William Wynne Ryland hanged at Tyburn* before a throng of gallows-voyeurs such as “had not been seen on a like occasion since the execution of Dr. Dodd.” (Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser, Aug. 30, 1783)

“[H]is evil genius prompted him, for gold, to debase his talents in engraving,” the Newgate Calendar opined. “By one fatal act, he entirely ruined his reputation as a man: but his name as an artist will ever stand in the highest estimation.”

French- and Italian-trained, Ryland was a premier court artist in his day, noted for importing stipple engraving from the continent to England. He earned a royal pension for his portraits of Hanoverian elites.


Some Ryland portraiture, from the National Portrait Gallery: King George III and his queen, Sophia Charlotte.

Although Ryland’s first attempt to parlay his draftsmanship into a print-selling business had gone bankrupt in 1771, he does not seem to have been entirely neglected by the muse of business acumen, either. Over the subsequent decade he had discharged all his previous debts and stockpiled assets to the amount of £10,000. “I am rich beyond temptation,” he protested to the jurors who tried him for his life. The Crown could produce little in the way of an immediate motive for the forgery. (“It is impossible for us to penetrate so far into the heart of man as to know what his inducements are.”)

But lucre is its own motivation, and the facts of the case weighed heavily against Ryland.

He had come into (legitimate) possession of £200 bill of exchange issued by the East India Company and dated October 5, 1780. Somehow it transpired that Ryland then exchanged two copies of this bill — one on September 19, 1782 with the banker Sir Charles Asgill, and then once again on November 4, 1782 to a banking firm with the Dickensian name of Ransom & Co.

Both bills were identical to every inspection, with the same amount, date, and cheque number, and Ryland the expert engraver could give no convincing account of the second note’s provenance. In the public’s mind, the fact that he had fled the indictment and then dramatically attempted suicide when his capture was imminent surely cinched the case.

Ryland’s attempts to inspire in the jurors a sufficient doubt as to whether the East India Company might not have accidentally circulated two identical bills was fatally undone when it turned out that a difference between the two bills could be found after all — by the paper manufacturer, who proved to the court that the second bill was inscribed on paper whose watermark established that did not exist on its purported date of issue.

this sheet of paper was made at the mill, on that particular mould, it has a defect on it; on the 21st of January, 1782, of the same mould of which this note is now shewn me, I made this sheet of paper; there is a defect of the mould, either by an injury it has received, or in consequence of the quantity of paper made on it, the bill has the same defect; and there is likewise a defect which the bill has not, so that the sheet of paper on which the bill was written, was made from that mould. This could not happen in the same places, and situations in any two moulds.

The jury needed only half an hour to convict him.

By the Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser‘s account, he was London’s star attraction on his hanging day.

At half past nine a man on the steps of newgate called out, “Mr. Ryland’s coach,” upon which a mourning-coach, that was standing opposite the Sessions-house, drew up to the door of the prison, and in about two minutes after the unhappy man walked down the steps at a brisk pace, and entered the vehicle; presently after which [fellow condemned prisoner John] Lloyd went into another mourning coach. The Ordinary of Newgate, another clergyman, a gentleman in mourning, (said to be a relation of he convict’s) and a sheriff’s Officer, went in the coach with Mr. Ryland …

These coaches, which immediately followed the Sheriffs’ carriages, having drawn a few yards from the door of the prison, two carts were drawn up; [James] Brown, [Thomas] Burgess, and [John] Edwards were tied in the first, as was [James] Rivers in the last cart …

The gallows was fixed about 50 yards nearer the park wall than usual. About five minutes before 11 o’clock, Ryland’s coach drew on the right of the gallows, as did Lloyd’s on the left; and between them the cart; soon after which a violent storm of thunder, lightning, and rain came on, when the Sheriffs gave orders for a delay of the execution. When the storm had subsided, and some time had been employed in prayer, Rivers was lifted from one into the other cart, which backing to Lloyd’s coach, he alighted therefrom, and entered the vehicle, and after the ropes had been fixed about the necks of these unfortunate men, Ryland stepped from the coach to join his unhappy fellow sufferers. After a conversation of at least ten minutes between Ryland and Mr. Villette, Ordinary of Newgate, and the same time employed in an earnest discourse between Lloyd and Burgess, all the malefactors joined in singing the hymn, called, “The Sinners Lamentation”


Editor’s note: I’m not certain whether this is the hymn alluded to.

Ryland was the object that attracted the general attention, from Newgate to Tyburn, the sound that reverberated from every quarter, amidst the immense multitude was, “Which is ryland? There, that is Ryland in the first coach!” Exclusive of the usual accommodations, a vast number of temporary stages were erected; and gentlemens and hired carriages were innumerable. Some rooms, for accommodating private companies, were actually let at the enormous rate of from six to ten guineas.

Notwithstanding the vast press of the crowd, amidst the astonishing number of horsemen, carriages, and people on foot, we have not heard that any body was materially hurt, though many were forced down and trod on.

Ryland was in mourning, and wore a tail wig … Through the whole of this trying scene [he] conducted himself with remarkable serenity and fortitude, strongly indicating that he was prepared for, and perfectly reconciled to his fate.

The wheel of fortune turning against the mighty — especially when they should hazard their lives for a needless pittance — being irresistible to other artists, Ryland is the title character of a a comedic play.

* One of the very last hangings at Tyburn.

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1915: Leo Frank lynched

4 comments August 17th, 2015 Headsman

One hundred years ago today, Leo M. Frank was lynched to an oak tree at Marietta — one of the most notorious mob murders in American history.

Methodically extracted hours before from the Midgeville State Penitentiary by an Ocean’s Eleven-style team of coordinated professionals, Frank’s murder was as shocking in 1915 as it reads in retrospect.

The well-heeled Jewish Yankee was factory superintendent at the National Pencil Company in Atlanta when a 13-year-old girl in his employ was discovered in the factory’s basement — throttled and apparently raped. That was in 1913; for the ensuing two years, the prosecution of Mary Phagan’s boss as her murderer would play out in sensational press coverage.

Frank is today widely thought innocent of the crime, although the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles has balked at issuing an unconditional pardon since so little of the original evidence survives. (A 1986 pardon came down “without attempting to address the question of guilt or innocence” in recognition of the slanted trial and the failure to protect Frank from lynchers.) But this was much more than a courtroom drama; the Frank affair crackles with the social tensions of early 20th century America. Industry and labor; integration; sexual violation; sectional politics; race and class and power.

Populist Party politician Thomas E. Watson, whose magazines made a dishonorable intervention by openly agitating for (and then celebrating) Frank’s lynching, captures the Zeitgeist for us as he fulminates against the nationwide campaign to grant the convicted murderer a new trial: “Frank belongs to the Jewish aristocracy, and it was determined by the rich Jews that no aristocrat of their race should die for the death of a working-class Gentile.” Frank came to enjoy (if that’s the right word) the editorial support of most of the country’s major papers, but the meddling of northern publishers, and of fellow Jews in solidarity,* arguably led Georgians to circle wagons in response. Present-day Muslims called upon to disavow every bad act by every other Muslim would surely recognize this no-win position.

But then we must also add that Watson himself, a lawyer, had been approached by Frank’s defense team hoping to enlist his bombast to defend their man at trial. The white supremacist demagogue would have been perfect for the job, for the legal battle pitted the credibility of a black janitor named Jim Conley against that of Frank.

Here amid the nadir of American race relations Frank’s team made its own ugly and unsuccessful pitch for racial solidarity with his neighbors. When formulaically asked by the court that had convicted him for any statement to mitigate the impending sentence, Frank replied that

my execution will make the advent of a new era in Georgia, where a good name and stainless honor count for naught against the word of a vile criminal; where the testimony of Southern white women of unimpeachable character is branded as false by the prosecution, disregarded by the jury and the perjured vaporings of a black brute alone accepted as the whole truth.

This violent collision of two vulnerable minorities each with the keen sense that one or the other of them was being outfitted for WASP America’s nooses makes for riveting and sometimes bizarre reading. Newspapers could hardly fail to note that the all-white jury (Leo Frank’s defense team struck all the blacks) had, as Frank complained, privileged the account of just the sort of “black brute” that Southern courts were accustomed to scorn, or railroad. Thus we have the NAACP organ The Crisis taking umbrage that “Atlanta tried to lynch a Negro for the alleged murder of a young white girl” but “a white degenerate has now been indicted for the crime.” It was likewise reasoned by some that since Conley was a young black man with a criminal record who was a potential suspect in the Deep South in the murderous sexual assault of a little white girl, “the mere fact that Conley did not long ago make his exit from this terrestrial sphere, via a chariot of fire is convincing proof that he, at least, is not the man who committed the deed.”** (New York Age, Oct. 29, 1914.)

In the end it was a zero-sum game between Jim Conley and Leo Frank: one of them was the murderer; each accused the other. Their respective desperate interests permeated to their respective communities. (After Frank’s lynching, hundreds of Jews left Georgia; many who remained took pains to downplay their Jewishness.)

By whatever circumstance police zeroed on Frank and the white community’s passion followed — tunnel vision that would eventually manifest itself in a circus courtroom atmosphere where the prosecuting attorney was cheered and defense witnesses hooted at and the ultimate outcome more demanded than anticipated. The judge feared that an acquittal would result in the summary lynching of not only Frank but his defenders.


Mary Phagan was killed on Confederate Memorial Day, the “holiday” this ballad alludes to.

Unusually for the time, appeals on the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court which declined to intervene — although two justices filed a dissent citing the egregious trial atmosphere.

Mob law does not become due process of law by securing the assent of a terrorized jury …

This is not a matter for polite presumptions; we must look facts in the face. Any judge who has sat with juries knows that in spite of forms they are extremely likely to be impregnated by the environing atmosphere … we think the presumption overwhelming that the jury responded to the passions of the mob …

lynch law [is] as little valid when practiced by a regularly drawn jury as when administered by one elected by a mob intent on death.

But that mob would still have its say. On the eve of Frank’s scheduled June 22, 1915 hanging, outgoing governor John Slaton commuted the sentence.

“Feeling as I do about this case, I would be a murderer if I allowed this man to hang,” the governor said. “It may mean that I must live in obscurity the rest of my days, but I would rather be plowing in a field than feel for the rest of my days that I had this man’s blood on my hands.”†

Frank was spirited away to the penitentiary under cover of darkness; it was hoped that the remote and reinforced edifice would deter any reprisal. It turned out that the furies who hunted Franks could not be dissuaded by mere inconvenience: a committee calling itself the Knights of Mary Phagan formed with the open object of organizing the intended mob vengeance — and indeed it was almost superseded in July of that year by a fellow-prisoner who slashed Frank’s throat as he slept.

Frank survived that murder attempt only to await the next one. Who knows what fancies frequented him in those weeks when he ducked from the shadow of the gallows to that of the lynching-tree, object of pity or hatred. He had time on the last day to savor his impending fate when the Knights methodically cut their way into the penitentiary — snipping the phone wires and disabling the vehicles — and marched their man out with nary a shot fired. Then, a convoy of automobiles “sped” (at 18 miles per hour) all the way back to a prepared execution-site at Marietta. The drive took seven or eight hours over unpaved country lanes, and for every moment of it Frank surely knew how it would end.

* Frank was a chapter president of the Jewish fraternal organization B’nai B’rith; the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith was founded in 1913 as a direct outgrowth of the Frank campaign.

As a contrasting response, the American Jewish Committee declined to participate in the Frank campaign for fear of lending counterproductive credence to charges such as those voiced by the New York Sun (Oct. 12, 1913):

The anti-Semitic feeling was the natural result of the belief that the Jews had banded to free Frank, innocent or guilty. The supposed solidarity of the Jews for Frank, even if he was guilty, caused a Gentile solidarity against him.

** Maurianne Davis’s Strangers and Neighbors: Relations between Blacks and Jews in the United States has a trove of interesting editorial comment from Frank’s contemporaries in the black press, and the Jewish press. Conley was actually the confessed accessory, and served a year in prison for it: he said that he complied with Frank’s order to hide the body for fear that his “white” boss could easily get Conley lynched for the crime. Conley also wrote (under Frank’s directive, he said) the preposterous “murder notes” found with the body that purported to be Mary Phagan’s dying indictment of Newt Lee, the African-American night watchman.

† The allusion to political suicide suggests Slaton’s mind was on the precedent of Illinois Gov. John Altgeld, whose career was destroyed by pardoning some of the Haymarket anarchists. If so, Slaton was quite correct; he actually had to flee Georgia altogether and could not return to the state for more than a decade.

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