Posts filed under 'Common Criminals'

1824: Johann Christian Woyzeck, non compos mentis?

Add comment August 27th, 2015 Headsman

Johann Christian Woyzeck was publicly beheaded on this date in 1824 for fatally daggering his lover in a jealous wrath.

An orphan to whom the Napoleonic Wars gifted to the rudderless youth the stopgap profession of soldiering, but once the fighting stopped, Woyzeck wandered back to his native Leipzig and gave rein to his many vices.

Suicidal, drinking heavily, and unable to hold down steady work, Woyzeck frequently abused his special lady friend, the widow Johanna Christiane Woost. He would later say that he was often urged by voices in his mind to slay her — and on the night of June 21, 1821, after she canceled a rendezvous, he did so at last.

A pathetic exit from life turned out to be an entrance into judicial and literary history.

There was no question but that Woyzeck’s hand had taken Woost’s life, but proceedings against the killer dragged on for three years as courts vacillated on his mental competence. Woyzeck had been wildly depressed and owned to hallucinations and unbalanced moods that his contemporaries could readily recognize as falling near the pall of madness.

Nevertheless, Woyzeck had initially been slated for execution in November 1822 based on the evaluation of celebrated Leipzig physician Johann Christian August Clarus, but another doctor — academics will recognize the irksome intervention of reviewer no. 2 here — horned in with a missive questioning the conclusion.

That stay invited an 11th-hour stay and five more examinations worth of billable hours for Dr. Clarus, who studied up his man again and came to the same conclusion: that Woyzeck, though disturbed, was cogent enough to bear responsibility for his actions. It was in the end by this verdict that the executioner’s sword-arm swung.

The lost soul’s end on a Leipzig scaffold on this date would eventually inspire the writer Georg Buchner to pen the play Woyzeck. Though left unfinished when Buchner died young, the play has been frequently staged down to the present day, and even adapted for the silver screen by Werner Herzog:

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1851: Samuel Whittaker and Robert McKenzie lynched in San Francisco

1 comment August 24th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1851 — mere hours after a similar exercise of summary justice took place in Sacramento — the San Francisco Vigilance Committee strung up two accused crooks.

This was the throes of the California Gold Rush — and San Francisco was its epicenter.

San Francisco entered the gold rush an unassuming port of perhaps a thousand souls … but she exited it as one of the American West’s leading cities.

It made an unruly adolescence for the boom town as penniless treasure-hunters poured in from every quarter of the globe. “Turbulent, gold-hungry men,” wrote Herbert Asbury in his The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld “transformed the once peaceful hamlet of San Francisco into a bawdy, bustling bedlam of mud-holes and shanties.” Suddenly, San Francisco had a huge crime problem — not to mention the conflagrations* that repeatedly devastated the fast-growing tangle of tinderworks shacks.


San Francisco in 1850

In an effort to sustain some measure of order, a number of the city’s respectable citizens banded together to create a famous or infamous Vigilance Committee.

Sworn in their published constitution of June 9, 1851 “to do and perform every lawful act for the maintenance of law and order,” the Committee declared itself “determined that no thief, burglar, incendiary or assassin shall escape punishment, either by the quibbles of the law, the insecurity of prisons, the carelessness or corruption o the Police, or a laxity of those who pretend to administer justice.”

Two days later, they proved their chops by hanging on no authority but their own emigre from Australia named John Jenkins for stealing a safe. A month later, James Stuart, also late of Sydney, was lynched at the Vigilance Committee’s hands, too.

Detail view (click for full image) of Whittaker and McKenzie’s lynching.

Though not the first Vigilance Committee hangings, Samuel Whittaker and Robert McKenzie might be the best-known.

Like their predecessors, Whittaker and McKenzie had arrived from Australia** — which had aptly bequeathed to gold rush San Francisco a criminal colony of its own in the form of a network known as the Sydney Ducks. Scrambling to save his own neck, Stuart had informed on a number of these confederates.

Whittaker and McKenzie were arrested based on Stuart’s information, as the Vigilance Committee tried to smash up the Ducks. Though extrajudicial, the Committee’s investigations were at least as meticulous as one might expect from the law at this moment in time, and the minutes of its witness interviews can be read here.

In the end, the two were basically convicted not so much for any individual crime as for their lengthy careers of robbery, often violent — for “divers offences, whereby the safety of Lives and property have been endangered” (as read the executive report on Whittaker) that rendered each “a hardened offender, and dangerous to this community … it would be unsafe to hand him over to the Authorities or mete out to him a less Penalty than Death” (as read the report on McKenzie).

Such an arrangement of juridical powers, exercised in lieu of “unsafe” Authorities, can scarcely persist long-term. Here, the governor of California, John McDougall determined to intervene in order that the fracturing of the Australians’ vertebrae would also vindicate the majesty of the law.

McDougal arrived to San Francisco and secured a writ to seize the suspects from the Vigilance Committee’s hands, tucking them away in the county jail.

Although in principle this orderly and lawful prosecution of malefactors was exactly what the Committee wanted to see happen, Gov. McDougal’s intervention when they were on the brink of consummating their own process left everyone with a frustrating sensation of justice interruptus.

And so that next Sunday — August 24, 1851 — when prisoners were removed from their cells to a chapel for the salvation of their souls and the jail’s guard detail was reduced by the proportion of gendarmes attending services of their own, a party of 36 Vigilance Committee men barged into the jail, overpowered all concerned, and seized their prey.

“Never before was San Francisco so excited,” editorialized the Steamer Alta California (Sept. 1, 1851).

Through every street, in all directions, the hurrying crowd of humanity rushed with the utmost precipitation — no one knew whither, no one knew for what. The bell of the Vigilance Committee had sounded its alarum note — and instantly the streets were living, swaying masses of human beings — uncertainty and conflicting fears and hopes ruled the hour … with a sweep like the rushing of a torrent of lava they bend their course towards the Rooms of the Vigilance Committee. Almost instantly California street, Battery street, and all their approaches, are filled with one dense mass of human beings. From lip to lip the news flies that the two criminals, Mackenzie and Whittaker, have been taken by force from the jail, by an armed posse of the Vigilance Committee. On the eager and excited multitude press toward the Rooms. On, on, on — the crowd becomes denser and broader. Wonder is stamped on every face — a solemn, almost awful silence pervades the thousands who are anxiously gazing up at the building, when quickly the doors are opened — a moment of preparation — and the numberless multitude holds its breath as the two malefactors are seen suspended by the neck — a struggle or two, a spasmodic heaving of the chest — and each spectator feels a thrill of terror coursing his veins as he involuntarily utters — dead, dead, dead!

Yes, they were dead! The two men — Whittaker and Mackenzie — who were taken from the hands of the Vigilance Committee a few nights since, by virtue of a write of habeas corpus, had been torn from the ail by force, in the middle of the day, and at the risk of life, hurried to the Committee rooms, and executed without scarcely a moment’s preparation. It is a most terrible tragedy! Well, indeed, might one exclaim, “I have supped full with horrors!”

Such are the terrible effects of misrule — these are the fruits of maladministered laws — these the results of official corruption, neglect and malfeasance. Well may the patriotic and the good turn in sadness and grief from the contemplation of such horrors. The timid may shrink from beholding them — the quiet desire an end to them; but neither fear, regret, nor desire will accomplish our security. It must go abroad over the land that this community possesses the power and the will to protect itself against every species of wrong, and that it is resolved to do it at all hazards.

Whilst we regret that the Vigilance Committee have by this act, been brought into direct collision with the constituted authorities, we cannot but approve their course in executing the two criminals. This condition of affairs was not sought by the committee; it was rather forced upon them by the action of the authorities. True, the authorities acted rightly in rescuing the men; but the course they took has proved to be unnecessary and injudicious. No one doubts the guilt of the men executed, and no one believes but that they deserved the punishment they received. The Vigilance Committee felt this, and believing that the public welfare would be promoted by the act, they had resolved to execute Whittaker and Mackenzie. But the officers of the law, with unusual adroitness, prevented the decision from being carried into effect. The Vigilance Committee have now redeemed their honor, and carried out their original determination, by recapturing the prisoners and executing them. The line of division between the legitimate civil power and the Vigilance Committee is therefore plain, broad and unmistakable.

And what is to result? We see nothing disheartening or dispiriting in the prospect. On the contrary, we think we perceive that settled determination on the part of the body politic to have justice done, which is to be the great lever of our salvation. When crime is convinced, as it must now be, that nothing is capable of preserving it from speedy and avenging punishment — when the abandoned feel, as they will now feel, that there is no safety for them here — when all bad men shall understand, as they may now understand, that their unworthy acts will surely be visited with condign reward — then will the country rise above its tribulations and its sorrows.

But this is a dreadful storm! If we did not know the ship, the crew and the passengers, we might despair of our reaching port. As it is, we speak confidently. We feel that there is gloom around us, but there is nothing to alarm the honest and patriotic. The guilty may, and ought to, flee before the gale of popular indignation; but it is through such trials that our voyage is ultimately to become a prosperous and fortunate one. Through the watches of the night of darkness which now surrounds us, there is a gentle voice whispering “Be firm, be calm, be just, and the welcome daylight will soon come!”

The Vigilance Committee disbanded itself a few weeks later. Its last act in 1851† was to prevent the lynching of a sea captain by sailors angered at his brutality, an expression of class solidarity in the definition and punishment of crime as timeless as America herself. (Source)

* These fires were widely feared to be the product of arson motivated by the opportunity to loot. This is likely a reversal of cause and effect. One inclines here to reckon with Tolstoy that cities have a natural tendency to kindling fire, and those fires are liable to blaze out of control in inverse proportion to the city’s administrative faculties.

The late San Francisco police officer and amateur historian Kevin Mullen puts together an argument here that merchants opportunistically torching excess stock to sustain gold rush price gouging was also a contributing factor.

** Both men were born in England; many of the Sydney Ducks hailed originally from the British Isles.

† Like Batman, the Vigilance Committee later emerged from retirement to fight crime again, in 1856.

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1899: Armstead Taylor and John Alfred Brown, horribly

Add comment August 18th, 2015 Headsman

From the Wilkes-Barre (Pa.) Times, Aug. 18, 1899:

ROCKVILLE, Md., Aug. 18 — Armstead Taylor and John Alfred Brown, negroes, were hanged here this morning for the murder of Mr. and Mrs. Rosenstein at Slidelle in March last.

The drop fell at 10:15[?]. The hanging was a horrible botch. the knot did not slip but the drop was long enough. The men writhed, groaned and uttered inarticualate [sic] sounds for nearly ten minutes.

The murders for which they were convicted and sentenced to be hanged were committed at Slidelle, a little station two miles north of Boyds, Md. on March 13 last.

Louis Rosenstein, the postmaster of the hamlet[,] lived with his aged parents in the rear of the post office. They were said to have plenty of money. Early one morning they were attacked and the man’s skull was crushed and the woman’s head pounded with some blunt instrument.

The store was ransacked and a little over $3,000, a pair of shoes and several articles were taken.

Louis Rosenstein died the day after of his injuries and Mrs. Rosenstein lingered until May when she succumbed in a hospital at Baltimore.

Taylor went to Washington and soon attracted attention by spending money in a lavish manner in Georgetown. Suspicious neighbors gave the police the information that led to his capture.

Before Taylor was arrested, however, Sergeant Fritz Bassau of the Washington police force gave up his life. Taylor shot him down as he was climbing the stairs to arrest him, where he was concealed in the house at Georgetown. He also shot Officer Gowon in the hand.

Taylor was taken back to Montgomery county, but did not stand trial for injuring the policemen. His trial was begun at Frederick on July [?] and Brown’s a week later. Both were convicted and sentenced to be hanged August 18.

Strong efforts were made to have Brown respited, it being believed by many that he was only an accessory after the fact.

The men mounted the scaffold at 10:15. They were both calm and exhibited nerve. As they were placed on the door the sheriff asked if they had anything to say. Taylor made a rambling statement in an almost inaudible voice. He appeared weak and swayed upon his feet. He said:

Gentlemen, I done both the killings myself. My Uncle Brown is not guilty. I am the guilty man, but I expect to go to heaven.

Brown refused to make any statement beyond that he had forgiven his enemies and had found salvation.

The deputies then adjusted the rope, before placing the black caps on their heads. Both men smiled and Brown said good-bye to some friends in the crowd who spoke to him.

Sheriff Thompson tok [sic] a board about six feet in length, walked over to the side of the scaffold, reached down and inserted the end of a plank in the wire ring and sprung the trap.

The bodies fell through simultaneously and began to writhe and sway in a horrible manner. Taylor seemed to be conscious and appeared to be trying to speak.

The priests pronounced it the most horrible execution they had ever seen.

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1915: Leo Frank lynched

1 comment August 17th, 2015 Headsman

One hundred years ago today, Leo M. Franks 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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1817: Four arsonists in the rain

1 comment August 15th, 2015 Headsman

Account from the Derby Mercury, Aug. 21, 1817:

THE EXECUTION OF
John Brown, Thos. Jackson, Geo. Booth & John King.

The above unfortunate men were arraigned at our late Assizes for setting fire to certain hay and corn stacks, the property of Winfield Halton, Esq. of Southwingfield, in this county, and after a long and impartial trial were found guilty on the most satisfactory evidence, by a very respectable jury of their fellow countrymen. The awful sentence of the law was passed upon them in the most impressive manner by the Judge, who endeavoured to prepare them for the fate which awaited them by assuring them that the heinous nature of their offence precluded all hopes of mercy.

For some days after their condemnation, however, they cherished a hope that pardon or at least a mitigation of their sentence might be extended to them. Under this impression they persisted in asserting their innocence of the crime for which they were about to suffer, and even when this delusion could no longer influence their conduct, their denial of all participation in the offence of which they had been convicted was repeatedly made in the most solemn manner. The faithful exhortations of the Chaplain, and also of a Dissenting Minister, who at their own request attended Brown and Booth, failed to draw a confession of the fact from them. Still they did not appear unimpressed by certain religious convictions which might have been expected to lead to contrition. But in the midst of their profession of forgiveness towards their prosecutor and the witnesses who appeared against them, there was a manifest irritation of mind and a vindictive expression of feeling which justified a doubt of the sincerity of their repentance.

This was particularly the case with Brown and Booth, who were confined together. Jackson exhibited a calmer state of spirit, but still protested that he was not guilty. King shewed the most absolute submission to the fate which awaited him, and his assertions of innocence seemed to be made more in deference to the wishes of his fellow criminals, than to arise from another cause. Indeed he had made a confession of the offence before his trial, but was led subsequently to retract what he had admitted.

It was vainly hoped that at the place of execution they would prove by their confession that their general professions of contrition were sincere. But they had previously stated that they should die with the protestations of innocence on their lips, and not even the dread prospect of that eternity on which they were about to enter was able to produce a charge in this determination.

They were brought out upon the scaffold about a quarter before one o’clock, and seemed but little affected by the sad solemnities by which they were surrounded. After the Chaplain had concluded his devotions, in which they appeared to unite with some degree of fervour, they sang a hymn, all joining in it except King, whose manner expressed a firmness bordering on indifference, and a high disdain of the enthusiastic fervours by which the others seemed to be sustained. Booth and Brown addressed the immense multitudes who were assembled before them; the former expressing himself in unwarrantable terms against individuals whom he named, and the latter exhorting the croud to religious faith and practice.

They, as well as Jackson spoke familiarly to their acquaintances who came to witness their tragical end, and their whole behaviour betrayed an insensibility to their real situation which it was painful to observe, and would be difficult to account for, were not their previous abandoned characters sufficient to furnish the solution. The drop fell from under them about five minutes after one o’clock, and they seemed to die almost without a struggle.

Such was the deportment of these wretched men; even in the closing scene of their lives, aggravating the heavy criminality of their former conduct, by their continued protestations of innocence. Many circumstances tended to produce this. The state of the prison in which they were confined did not, unfortunately, admit of their being in solitary cells, and their intercourse with each other seems to have given them hardihood to deny what had been so clearly proved against them, by evidence which has not been in the slightest degree affected by any circumstances that have subsequently transpired. Indiscreet communications from their friends, by which they were assured that their innocence was believed by their neighbours, farther tended to make them persevere in their first protestations. They seemed unwilling to destroy the sympathy which they believed they had succeeded in exciting.

Still it appears incredible to many that guilt should be so bold, and the professions of religion loudly made by two of the criminals are thought by some to be greatly in favour of their sincerity. Nothing however is more common than protestations of innocence even at the place and hour of execution; nor is it wonderful, where all moral feeling has been outraged during a long course of years that it should not be displayed in a nice regard to truth even in the most awful moments.

The professions of religion made by men who have not been brought by penitence to confession, may well be regarded with suspicion, and such conduct would be inconceivable were we not aware that a species of fanaticism is abroad in the world which separates religion from morals, and substitutes mere profession in the place of practice.

As every fact which may tend to illustrate the principles of human action deserves notice, it is worth observing, that a heavy shower happening, whilst the men were singing the hymn, two of them deliberately retreated to the shelter of an umbrella which was expanded on the drop, and a third placed himself under cover of the door way. The inconvenicne of being wet was felt and avoided by men who knew they had not five minutes longer to live!! The whole of the scene now recorded was one of great horror, increased by the conduct of the criminals themselves. The many thousands of spectators behaved with great decorum, but retired from the spectacle apparently little impressed with sympathy towards men who had evinced so much insensibility to the real nature of their own unhappy condition.

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1895: Minnie Dean, the only woman hanged in New Zealand

Add comment August 12th, 2015 Headsman

On August 12, 1895, Willamina “Minnie” Dean became the only woman executed in New Zealand’s history.

An immigrant from Scotland, Dean married an innkeeper making bank in a gold rush boom town. If only the mines had not played out!

After they did, the Deans fell on hard times; Charles kept pigs instead of inns, and Minnie kept unwanted children. This “baby farming” industry carved out a curious niche in the Victorian heart of darkness — the domestic heart of darkness, not the colonial one.

Between the dearth of contraception and the stigma attached to unwed mothers, there was a ready market of unwilling parents hoping someone would whisk their little angels away. The “Winton baby-farmer” did just that — for a fee.

The question, then as now, is whether the many infants who died in Dean’s care perished because of calculated homicide, or because of the staggeringly high infant mortality rate of the era. Since baby farmers took one-time fees to take in children whom they would thereafter have to maintain, their incentives were to turn over the stock as quickly as possible — either by placing the child with an adoptive parent or … well …


This report (from the Aug. 14, 1895 Daily Telegraph) alludes to a fictitious lady-in-waiting of legend, whose shadowy inspiration in fact was a real-life Scottish expatriate beheaded for infanticide by Peter the Great.

Police surveilled and investigated Minnie Dean’s operation off and on for more than five years before her June 1895 capital trial: inquests after children’s deaths in 1889 and 1891 attributed them to natural causes but also noted deplorable sanitary conditions. Police found that she had attempted to take out life insurance policies on at least some of the kids.

Fearful of the attention (but still needing the income), Dean became more furtive, and this only made her look the more guilty. As greatly as the circumstances have changed, Dean’s case and others like it mirror the difficulty present-day judiciaries still have in drawing a bright line around childhood fatalities that can be convincingly attributed to abuse.

In the end it wasn’t the coroner who undid Dean, but an eagle-eyed railway attendant who noted the woman boarding a train with a baby and a hatbox … and later leaving the train with a hatbox but no baby. Now the investigation closed in on the Winton baby-farmer quickly: when Dean could not produce the infant granddaughter a woman claimed to have given up to her, police put a spade to her garden and turned up three corpses in the topsoil. The three-year-old boy had an undetermined cause of death, but the two infant girls had perished from suffocation and a laudanum overdose. One of them was the missing infant granddaughter. Murder charges ensued.

Her attorney was Alfred Charles Hanlon, who would go on to a brilliant career at the bar but was here defending his very first homicide — and was unable to interest the jury in an alternative configuration of the incriminating circumstances, namely that Dean had covered up accidental deaths fearing just that they would be taken for murders. (A 1985 TV series about this attorney, Hanlon, explored the case in its first episode, which can be seen online here.) Still less did that angle interest gawkers crowding the courtroom and the hustlers who sold them hatboxes carrying grotesque baby dolls.

Dean maintained her innocence on the scaffold (at least “as far as intention and forethought was concerned”)

As an appropriate postscript, a boy trying to eyeball the macabre proceedings from the roof of a building overlooking the gaol fell off of it, fracturing his skull.

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2000: Brian Roberson, “Y’all kiss my black ass”

Add comment August 9th, 2015 Robert Elder

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

“To all of the racist white folks in America that hate black folks and to all of the black folks in America that hate themselves: in the infamous words of my famous legendary brother, Nat Turner, ‘Y’all kiss my black ass.’ Let’s do it.”

—Brian Roberson, convicted of murder, lethal injection, Texas.
Executed August 9, 2000

Roberson was convicted in the stabbing death of James Boots, seventy-nine, and his wife, Lillian, seventy-five, who lived across the street from him in Dallas. Roberson was African-American and his victims were Caucasian. Amnesty International issued a memo before the execution urging action and “expressing concern at the prosecutor’s systematic exclusion of African-Americans from the trial jury.” Roberson claimed he was “juiced up” on PCP and liquor during the crime. His last words were alternately recorded as “You ain’t got what you want.”

Later that same year, Roberson’s twin brother, Bruce, was arrested for allegedly threatening then President-elect George W. Bush. In a New York Times article, officers reported that Bruce wanted “to take him down.” The piece continued: “Mr. Roberson told them that Mr. Bush ‘stole the election and he’s not going to get away with it.'” Bush had been governor at the time of Brian’s execution.

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1883: James Burton, William Marwood’s last

Add comment August 6th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1883, the illustrious hanging career of executioner William Marwood came to an inglorious conclusion.

The Billy Beane of the Victorian gallows, Marwood brought metrics — that is, calculated drop distances designed for killing precision — to a craft long characterized by clumsy amateurism.

James Burton, 33, had killed his 18-year-old wife in a violent quarrel earlier that same year; according to his confession, after she jabbed him with an umbrella and threatened to swear his life away,

my temper got the best of me, and I struck her, and we both fell. She got up first to check me not to hit her any more. At that time I could not see out of my own eyes for tears, and she cried out, ‘Oh, Jim Burton, I am only trying you don’t hit me any more,’ and I said it was too late now, for I have not a home for myself. I was blind at the time with passion, and I picked up a stone and hit her with it, and she fell down in the same place where her body was picked up. Then she said, ‘Jim, don’t, for that is my last; do come with me, Jim.’ (Glasgow Herald, Aug. 8, 1883)

Hardly a criminal mastermind, Burton proceeded to wander the town of Tunstall for several furtive days trying to screw up the nerve to commit suicide.

Instead, William Marwood ended up with the task.

The 174th and last client of the great executioner surely didn’t present any difficulties in the Mass * Acceleration department, but even for Marwood there’s more to a hanging than striking force. By some last-moment faint, stumble, or twist Burton fell through the trap wrong, dinging the side of it and getting the long slack of the noose caught under his arm.

Marwood, who was an aging man of declining strength at this point, had to haul poor Jim Burton up through the trap. “When drawn up Burton presented a shocking appearance,” one reporter on-site put it.

As Burton moaned “Oh Lord, help me!” Marwood readied for an inelegant do-over: not bothering to reset the trap, he hurriedly unwound the rope and positioned it as it ought while Burton stood heaving on the platform. When all was in readiness, Marwood simply shoved the uxoricide back into the hole.

This time, Burton died. But Marwood himself had not long to outlive him: he passed away four weeks later, on September 4, at the age of 65.

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2008: Jose Medellin, precedent

4 comments August 5th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 2008, Mexican national Jose Medellin was executed by Texas, pleasurably sticking its thumb in the eye of the International Court of Justice.

U.S. state and local officials have often displayed the ugly-American tendency to view binding treaty obligations as a Washington thing of no moment to the likes of a Harris County prosecutor. So when Medellin was arrested for the 1993 rape-murder of two teenage girls in a Houston park, the idea of putting him right in touch with Mexican diplomats to assist his defense was, we may safely suppose, the very farthest thing from anyone’s mind.

Yet under the Vienna Convention, that is exactly what ought to have occurred. The idea is that consular officials can help a fellow on foreign soil to understand his unfamiliar legal circumstances and assist with any measures for his defense — and by common reciprocity, every state is enabled to look after the interests of its nationals abroad.

A widespread failure to do this, in death cases and others, has involved the United States in a number of international spats over the years.

Jose Medellin was among more than 50 Mexican prisoners named in one of the most noteworthy of these: the Avena case, a suit by Mexico* against the United States in the International Court of Justice.

In its March 31, 2004 Avena decision, the ICJ found that U.S. authorities had “breached the obligations incumbent upon” them by failing in these instances to advise the Mexican nationals it arrested of their Vienna Convention rights, and of failing in almost all those cases likewise to advise Mexican representatives that a Mexican citizen had been taken into custody.

“The appropriate reparation in this case,” the 15-judge panel directed, “consists in the obligation of the United States of America to provide, by means of its own choosing, review and reconsideration of the convictions and sentences of the Mexican nationals.”

If you think the Lone Star State’s duly constituted authorities jumped right on that “obligation,” you must be new around here.

Several years before, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions visited the United States and filed a report complaining “that there is a generalized perception that human rights are a prerogative of international affairs, and not a domestic issue.”

“Domestic laws appear de facto to prevail over international law, even if they could contradict the international obligations of the United States,” the Special Rapporteur noted.

Texas, famed for not being messed with, took a dim view indeed to being bossed about from The Hague. Indeed, the very concept of foreign law and international courts is a gleefully-thrashed political pinata among that state’s predominant conservative electorate.

U.S. President George W. Bush — a former Texas governor who in his day had no time at all for appeals based on consular notification snafus — in this instance appealed to Texas to enact the ICJ’s proposed review.† In fact, he asserted the authority to order Texas to do so.

Texas scoffed.

“The World Court has no standing in Texas and Texas is not bound by a ruling or edict from a foreign court,” a spokesman of Gov. Rick Perry retorted.

This notion that America’s federalist governance structure could insulate each of her constituent jurisdictions from treaty obligations undertaken by the nation as a whole naturally seems preposterous from the outside. But in the U.S., this dispute between Washington and Austin was resolved by the Supreme Court — and the vehicle for doing so was an appeal lodged by our man, Medellin v. Texas.

The question at stake in Medellin was whether the treaty obligation was binding domestic law on its own — or if, by contrast, such a treaty required American legislative bodies to enact corresponding domestic statutes before it could be enforced. The high court ruled for the latter interpretation, effectively striking down Avena since there was zero chance of either Texas or the U.S. Congress enacting such a statute.

Medellin, the decision, spelled the end for Medellin, the man — and, at least for now, the end of any prospect of effectual intervention in American death penalty cases by international tribunals.

* Mexico, which no longer has the death penalty itself, has the heavy preponderance of foreign nationals on United States death rows at any given time.

** The Texas Attorney General’s press release announcing Medellin’s execution included a detailed appellate history of the case which pointedly excluded anything that happened in the ICJ.

† The Bush administration did take one effective step to avoid a similarly embarrassing situation in the future: it withdrew the U.S. from the consular notification convention.

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2015: Shafqat Hussain

2 comments August 4th, 2015 Headsman

Minutes before dawn prayers today, Pakistan hanged Shafqat Hussain in Karachi Central Jail.*

He’s the latest casualty of Pakistan’s wild death penalty resurgence following last December’s bloody terrorist attack on a Peshawar school — leading Islamabad to break a moratorium on carrying out the death sentences that it was continuing to hand down.

And how! According to the BBC, today’s hanging brings to 193 the total of people put to death in the little more than half-year since; Pakistan could stop hanging today (it won’t) and easily rank among 2015’s execution leaders by the end of the year.

Though the first victims of the new policy were people previously death-sentenced for terrorism, and thereby at least thematically linked to the Peshawar massacre, Pakistan by March had dropped the distinction and commenced hanging prisoners by the fistful for ordinary crimes, too.

Shafqat Hussain’s name has repeatedly entered the news cycle during that time, as he has faced and then avoided multiple execution dates, most recently this past June 9. Some have gone to the very brink, and seen the young man reprieved moments from donning his hanging-shroud.

Hussain denied committing the crime laid at his door — the abduction and murder of a 7-year-old boy in the area where he worked as a watchman — but a confession “allegedly” obtained by torture doomed him. Guilt aside, the matter garnered worldwide headlines (and advocacy) largely on account of his youth: Hussain and his advocates say he was a minor of age 14 or 15 when arrested; Pakistani courts have found him to have been 23. (!) It is this dispute about the age that has been at the center of Shafqat Hussain’s recent heart-stopping cycle of appeals and stays.

Shortly before his execution, Shafqat Hussain put his byline to a compelling first-person testimonial for CNN about life on Pakistan’s death row and the experience of nearing an imminent execution date.

When the jailer tells me that my execution date has been set, he separates me immediately from the other prisoners. I spend all seven days by myself in a cell in the barracks for prisoners about to be executed. They conduct a physical exam every one of those seven days. They weigh me every day, take my blood pressure and temperature as well.

On the last two days they also measure my height, my neck and my body for the clothes I am to wear when they hang me.

One day before my hanging, they tell me about my final visit with my family and that I need to execute my will. I cannot really say what I am thinking in those last seven days. My brain is thinking all sorts of things.

* According to a brother, who told AFP that “there is a cut mark on his neck and half of his neck is separated from his body,” they did not hang him very well.

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