Posts filed under 'Common Criminals'

1736: Herry Moses, Jewish gangster

Add comment October 5th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1736, a Jewish gangster named Herry Moses was hanged as a highwayman at Vlaardingen, Netherlands.

Our source for Moses is Florike Egmond’s “Crime in Context: Jewish Involvement in Organized Crime in the Dutch Republic” from Jewish History, vol. 4, no. 1 (Spring 1989) — for whom Moses forms an window into the criminal life of Netherlands Jews. According to Egmond, Moses hailed from Frankfurt am Main, then an imperial Free City. He had no property or station, and spent the first decades of his life as a wandering beggar, a tinker, and one might guess a petty thief where the opportunity arose.

By 1723, when Moses was around 37 years old, he had washed up in the Dutch Republic — one of many Jews who had migrated to that more tolerant climate from Germany and points east.

In the Low Countries, these arrivistes filled many niches but one of the most noticeable was a burgeoning network of Jewish criminal gangs; per Egmond, in this period “between one-half and two-thirds of all Ashkenazim convicted of burglaries, theft, or robberies had been born outside the Dutch Republic.” The documentary record is far from thorough, but court cases suggest to Egmond the emergence of a small Jewish underground in the mid-17th century following the Thirty Years War, which was bolstered by subsequent immigration waves.

Jews filled plenty of more legitimate places too, of course — and we notice how diligently free of moral panic is the court that handles this minority outlaw. But the Dutch Republic endured in this period the decline of her former trading preeminence, and for the glut of new arrivals — who were sometimes legislated out of certain protected economic spheres — less legitimate occupations could not help but appeal.

Jewish gangs were accordingly quite prominent among the robbers and cutthroats prowling the roads; among other things, they were noteworthy for their willingness to raid churches, which Christian gangs tended to shy from attacking.

Similar “names, geographical background, occupation, travels, meeting places, and variable associations” populate the identifiable records of Jewish criminals, in Egmond’s words. They “were Ashkenazim, most of them poor, and a large majority were first-generation immigrants from Eastern and Central Europe.” Just as with Herry Moses.

So far as I have been able to tell, the annals do not supply us with the why in his strange story … which only deepens the intrigue of the what. Egmond:

In 1735 Herry Moses, alias Abraham Mordechai or Hessel Markus, confessed to a crime he did not commit. According to his version of the story, he murdered a Roman Catholic priest in his house in the Dutch town of Weesp and robbed him of aboug 3,000 guilders. The murder and theft were real enough, and a less scrupulous court than the schepenbank of Weesp (a high jurisdiction some twenty kilometers east of Amsterdam) might have sentenced Herry Moses to death on the strength of his confession alone. Adhering strictly to criminal procedure and confronted with some slight inconsistencies in Moses’ confession, the court tried to obtain more information. Could Moses have murdered the priest, as he declared, when standing behind the bedstead? (There was no room for a man to stand there.) Was he lying when he denounced several Jews and a Christian as his accomplices in both the murder and a burglary at The Hague? His descriptions proved accurate enough to track down some of these men and arrest them in different parts of the Netherlands, but they denied any involvement in the crimes and told the court that they did not even know their accuser. They were eventually released.

Herry Moses was interrogated a number of times during 1734 and most of 1735. Lengthy questioning yielded more detail and added more inconsistencies, but Moses continued to stand by his confession. The court, by now convinced of his innocence, saw no other solution than to torture him — not to obtain a confession but to have him retract it. Moses still did not oblige. The case was subsequently sent to a higher court (the Hof van Holland), which shared the doubts of the local court. Finally, at the end of 1735, Herry Moses was sentenced to whipping, branding, and banishment for life from the provinces of Holland and Zeeland, on account of his false accusations and his contempt for justice in general. Shortly before Herry’s sentencing — after he had been in prison for well over a year — the priest’s housekeeper and her husband confessed to having murdered the priest as well as the woman’s first husband. Both of them were sentenced to death.

As could be expected, Herry disappeared from sight after receiving his sentence, until September 1736, when he again stood trial in a Dutch criminal court. This time, there was no doubt about the indictment or the evidence. Passersby had caught him and his two accomplices in the act of attempting to strangle and rob a woman on a country road near Rotterdam. They arrived in time to save the woman’s life. Herry Moses was sentenced to death, and on 5 October 1736 was hanged at Vlaardingen.

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1872: John Barclay

Add comment October 4th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1872, John Barclay hanged in Ohio for murder — and was almost reanimated for science.

Barclay was a late-twenties knockabout of the area whom the Cincinnati Enquirer judged “does not look the diabolical murderer he is charged to be.” (“except his eyes”: from the May 23, 1872 edition, as are the subsequent quotes in this section)

Charles Garner, his victim, was a livestock merchant who specialized in supplying the Columbus butchers. On November 28, 1871, Garner headed out of Columbus rich with cash from a successful business trip. Barclay knew both Garner and the butcher with whom he was transacting business, one J.B. Rusk, and had hung about with them during the day — even holding open the bank door as Garner entered to cash Rusk’s check.

In the evening, hearing that Garner was about to depart, Barclay ducked into a nearby general store, inquired about buying a hatchet, and not being able to find a suitable one, settled for buying a yellow-handled hammer instead. Then he apparently hopped on the back of Garner’s wagon just as it set out, where a great heap of merchandise obscured him from the driver’s view.

Four miles out of town, at a bridge over Alum Creek, Barclay presented himself to his unknowing chauffeur and bludgeoned him with the hammer, “crushing in the skull so that the brain was exposed” — then fled on foot, having relieved the victim of several hundred dollars. The mortally wounded Garner somehow managed to drive the wagon to a house two miles further down the road, where he died five days later. A surgeon who attended him later testified that “brain, matter and blood [were] issuing from head and nose … a portion of forehead was an open wound; a portion of the brain was broken in and a portion lost.” Barclay would eventually confess the crime.

A most unusual postscript was appended to the execution of the hanging sentence.

Barclay willed his body to the benefit of the Starling Medical College in town, and there a local high school teacher named Thomas Corwin Mendenhall subjected it to the Frankensteinish jolts of a galvanic battery.

The dream, of course, was to reanimate the corpse altogether — although a history mused that the Supreme Court judges who also took enough interest to attend the experiment “might have to pass upon the uncanny question of Barclay’s legal status as a living person who had already suffered the death penalty.”*

Barclay hanged at 11:49 a.m.; by 12:23 p.m., his flesh was on the table under Mendenhall’s probes. Notwithstanding the dispatch of the scientists they did not accomplish his resuscitation, although the Cincinnati Commercial (Oct. 5, 1872) reported some ghoulish simulations of life:

The first test was on the spine. This caused the eyes to open, the left hand to become elevated, and the fingers to move, as if grasping for something. The hand finally fell, resting on the breast. The battery was then applied to the nerves on the face and neck, which caused the muscles of the face to move as in life. The test was next applied to the phrenic nerve of the left arm, and afterward to the sciatic nerve.

The next year, Mendenhall was hired as a physics instructor by the new Ohio Agricultural and Mechanical College in Columbus: while he would go on to a varied and widely-traveled career in the sciences, Mendenhall has the distinction of being the very first faculty member at the institution known today as Ohio State University, and the namesake of its Mendenhall Laboratory building. (Starling Medical College, site of the galvanic experiments, would also be absorbed into OSU’s college of medicine.)

* It ain’t like they’d be the only ones to ever confront that difficulty.

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1750: James Maclaine

Add comment October 3rd, 2015 Headsman

Gentleman highwayman James MacLaine hanged at Tyburn on this date in 1750.

The debauched son of a Presbyterian minister, MacLaine wasted first an inheritance and later a dowry on expensive clothes, gambling, and ladies of easy virtue; want, however, was his ticket to the immortality of the gallows when he joined fellow penniless gentleman William Plunkett to seek his revenue on the roads. (Inspiring the 1999 film Plunkett & Macleane — which uses one of several alternate spellings available for our man’s surname.)

For several months in 1749-1750 they prowled the environs of a lawless London, and notably Hyde Park, with the exaggerated courtesy demanded by romance of their profession. They found noteworthy prey: once, they stole a blunderbuss from the Earl of Eglington, though Eglington survived to suffer a noteworthy murder years later; in November 1749, they robbed M.P. Horace Walpole, even skimming his face with a pistol-ball that was inches wide from depriving posterity of the gothic novel.*

When caught** by mischance, the mannered† Maclaine became the object of public celebration, much to the bemusement of Walpole — who professed no ill will for his assailant but wondered that “there are as many prints and pamphlets about him as about the earthquake.”

Three thousand people are reported to have turned up on a sweltering summer Sunday to pay their admiration to the rogue, not excluding the very cream of society. Walpole teased his friends, court beauty Lady Caroline Fitzroy (wife of the Earl of Harrington) and her sidekick Miss Elizabeth Ashe, for presenting themselves among these masses to starfuck this latter-day Duval. “I call them Polly and Lucy,” he wrote, alluding to female conquests of the outlaw Macheath in The Beggar’s Opera, “and asked them if he did not sing,”

Thus I stand like the Turk with his doxies around.

(Via the British Museum)

Maclaine did not have to borrow Macheath’s ballads, for he was celebrated with verse dedicated all to him — like this “Jemmie Maclaine”, to the tune of Derry Down:

Ye Smarts and ye Jemmies, ye Ramillie Beaux,
With golden cocked hats, and with silver laced clothes,
Who by wit and invention your pockets maintain,
Come pity the fate of poor Jemmy Maclaine,

Derry down derry, etc.

He robb’d folks genteely, he robb’d with an air,
He robb’d them so well that he always took care
My lord was not hurt and my Lady not frighted,
And instead of being hanged he deserved to be knighted!

Derry down derry, etc.

William Hogarth‘s 1751 print cycle The Four Stages of Cruelty, one skeleton overseeing the operating theater where a hanged criminal is dissected is subtly labeled — Macleane.

* Walpole once remarked of the ubiquity of violent crime in London that “one is forced to travel, even at noon, as if one was going to battle.”

** Plunkett was never apprehended; it’s alleged that he ultimately escaped to North America.

† Although our man “has been called the gentleman highwayman,” the player-hating Ordinary of Newgate wrote, “and his dress and equipage very much affected the fine gentleman, yet to a man acquainted with good breeding, that can distinguish it from impudence and affectation, there was little in his address or behaviour, that could entitle him to that character.”

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1850: Henry Leander Foote, sex crazed

Add comment October 2nd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1850, Henry Leander Foote was hanged in Connecticut.

Foote was an educated man who used his time languishing in jail — there was nearly a full year between his conviction and his execution — to bestow upon the world an autobiographical narrative of his peregrinations, which the reader can peruse in its entirety at the bottom of this post. Affected with wanderlust, he struck out from home as a teenager and began a rambling career that would take him all over America.

One of his first stops was the bustling and burgeoning metropolis that will become the hub of his narrative and, as Foote conceived it, the source of his ruin — New York city. There he was introduced to the city’s vast sexual marketplace.

At the end of two or three weeks, I found myself in the city of New York. What a place for a stranger, a young man of seventeen or eighteen years of age to visit alone, without any guardian to conduct him or advise him, and warn him against evil company! I had no acquaintances except three or four young men, whom I met on board the boat, who were also from Connecticut. They were in company, all belonging to one town, and then invited me to stop at the same public house with them. I had been informed that one of them was the son of a minister of the gospel, consequently I concluded that the company was good and safe to be with. But I found, to my astonishment, that this young man was the ring leader, the rudest and wildest of the crowd. The first night I was led to the Theater, from there to the brothel, and from there to the gambling house and drinking saloon. Here we must be fashionable and have a game of cards and a bottle or two of champane. [sic] … We played and drank till sometime past midnight, when we concluded it was time to retire.

Foote is coy here and suggests that his virginal young self repelled the subsequent invitation to a brothel. Whether or not this is so, he soon became by furtive subsequent visits whose purpose he was careful to conceal from his family an intimate of the city’s many whores.

These youthsome frolics are only foreshadowing for the excuses that Foote would be obliged to make many years later in the pall of the gallows. He spent the 1830s and 1840s bouncing around the growing republic — upstate New York, westward to Cleveland at St. Louis, south to Charleston where he married but lost his wife within a year to childbirth. (The son died, too.) After that, he enlisted in the cavalry and fought in the Seminole Wars.

Foote does not give us much of his sexual adventures on these trips, but between the lines it appears that the concupiscient fornicator and the New England prude ever travel side by side with him. He ships to Rio de Janeiro and does not fail to notice that “the dress of most of the women was not much better than none, being merely a short gown, all open in the neck and breast, and reaching only half way to the knee, fastened round the waist with a belt. They would make any civilized man blush from head to foot, but they were not at all particular as to what position they happened to be in.” Nevertheless, he affects shock when “a mixed-blood, half Spanish and half Indian publican” offers him a girl for the night. (According to Foote, he did not take the girl.)

As for the army, well, it “is a most dangerous and destructive place to the morals of young men. It is a school of intemperance, profanity, licentiousness, obscene language, filthy communications, and all kinds of vile and lewd company” thanks to the degrading example of officers who “when at home, or where they are known, always assume the character of gentlemen, and presume to walk in respectable society, unite with the ‘upper ten,’ and [associate] with virtuous females, who, if they knew their true character, would turn from them with disgust.”

By 1849 we find the peripatetic Foote back in his native hamlet of Northford, Connecticut, 37 years old and again, or still, preoccupying himself with the diversions of the Tenderloin. To the best of my knowledge he is the subject of no biography save his own, and since we find that the diverse sojourns of the previous 20 years have ultimately changed neither his conduct nor even his locale, we might be excused for speculating how many adventures were contrived by the author’s hand.

Wherever it was that he had been, he was becoming a worldly denizen of the bagnio.

A few months before the murder, I spent one week in the city of crime and pollution, viz., New York. As usual on former occasions, I spent my evenings and nights in a theater, gambling house, or brothel. Also on a former visit I had attended an exhibition of nudes, or model artists, as they are termed. But at this time the company had gone to New Orleans; a few of them, however, remained in New York, with one of which I had the misfortune to become acquainted. She was an arrogant prostitute, residing in a house of the higher class. I found her at the Bowery Theater; she enticed me, and I consented to accompany her home. As we entered her room she locked the door, laid aside her upper garments, and invited me to take a glass of wine with her. She poured out two glasses, and took a phial from the drawer of her toilet, drew the cork, and pretended to drop some of the contents in her glass of wine, but not a drop did she let fall. She said it was Cream of the Valley, it would give the wine a delightful flavor, and then made a motion to drop some into my glass. But I was too wide awake for her. I knew it was some drug that might upset my ideas, so I told her to save her cream, I did not need any cream of that sort. She looked at me, and said, “you are not so green as you pretend. I gues syou understand a game or two.” I replied, “I understand enough to know the nature of your cream.” And said I, “what was your object in giving it to me?” “O,” she replied, “I was only going to give you a drop or two, to make you feel keen.” She was very proud of her perfect symmetry of form, and proceeded to make a model artist of herself again, that she might give me a clear view of her model, and also of the extra manoeuvres which she had learned in the model artist plays.

After passing the night with his model artist’s “extra manoeuvres,” Foote pinched the potion for himself thinking to deploy it for his own benefit. He first called on a prostitute who had previously robbed him, engaged her charms for the night, and administered the drug to her, thereby having leisure to rob back the lost funds (“with interest,” Foote admits) as well as to leave behind a taunting note. He also found that she, too, possessed a dose of this potent Cream of the Valley, and duly replenished his supply.

Our dissolute principal was much given to exploiting his moment of notoriety for moral grandstanding, and we again should treat his account with caution.* Another author who visited Foote and published his observations in a pamphlet titled Death Cell Scenes, Or, Notes, Sketches and Momorandums of the Last Sixteen Days and Last Night of Henry Leander Foote is my no means hostile to his subject but often notices his unbecoming worldly preoccupations when he ought to be attending his imminent death with due gravity: he “showed a singular disposition to make money even at the hazard of his soul” by cranking out paintings to sell to the gawkers come to gape at him through the prison-bars and on one occasion arrives only to be brushed off as Foote is “in the height of glory and ambition, vending pamphlets and pictures to persons surrounding his cell with as much gusto as though he had to live twenty years or more!”

He was a doomed man with a keen sense of his audience; Foote even took the trouble to pre-order his own inscribed marble tombstone. (The stone can still be seen at Northford Old Cemetery in New Haven.)

He had a gift for rationalizing and segmenting his hypocrisies, surely honed by his years alternating Puritan piety with opportunistic harlotry. At the end when it could no longer be denied, he surfaced the contradiction by way of attenuating his own guilt.

“By this and other means, the hags who keep brothels contrive to get many of their recruits,” Foote wrote of the drugs like Cream of the Valley — subtly conflating his own loss of self-control with white slavery. “And if an inexperienced young man allows himself to visit their houses once, perhaps for mere curiosity, when he is not aware of any danger, they will bewitch him in some way that will induce him to come again; and so he will continue to go until his ruin is completed. Beware, young man, and shun all such places! Once in, you insensibly lose self-command. It is not easy to resist such temptations when once poisoned. These female Satans use the very arts of old Satan himself, and some that he does not use. Once in their power, you are not your own keeper.”

Not your own keeper — even as he admits and bewails his own crime, Foote wants to convey to posterity the notion of a Jekyll-and-Hyde: that there is a Foote distinct from the murderer.

Back at Northford, “my thoughts were continually revolving upon the obscene views which I had witnessed in New York, particularly upon the model artist female … I seemed to have a bewitching anxiety to see the same again, or to see something of the same kind, and this base desire I could not overcome. A curiosity to see and examine some female in the same state of nudity was constantly haunting my mind.”

Although he’s taken the care to secret the prostitutes’ powerful draught in his trunk, it is not quite he who addresses himself to the “bewitching anxiety”: he gets drunk, and then “Satan himself was certainly busy with me, driving me on to ruin with all his power … [using] me as an instrument for the destruction of innocent life.” At length, “Satan” suggests him his young cousin Emily as the object to satisfy his base desire. Foote intercepted her on the way to school and, he said, lured her into the woods to snack on some tomatoes which he had dosed with the sleeping potion after which, you know, stuff happened. For a guy who carried out a premeditated plan to incapacitate and molest his underage kin, he sure expected to be given a lot of latitude.**

But with shame! shame! do I write it, I now proceeded to examine her person, which inflamed my baser passion to an unmanageable degree; and after my eyes were satisfied, I violated and robbed her of her virgin purity. She gave no signs of feeling except to draw one deep sigh. My brutish passion was now satisfied. I meditated upon what I had done, the criminal nature of the awfully wicked deed, the meanness of the act itself, and the base stratagem which I had employed to gratify my shameful curiosity. In the first place I had no intention of doing any thing more than to satisfy my eyes; but this created a passion so strong as to overrule all better feelings, honor, and decency. I stood over the wreck of beauty, innocence, and purity, and sincerely wished I had never seen the city of New York, or any of its bewitching female satans … my head was wild, and my heart felt as if it had turned into a great stone. I would have given half of the town had I possessed it, if I could have undone what I had done that morning. But that was impossible.

And having come this far, Foote realized if he should allow her to revive and be on her way, her story would send him to prison. “As if I almost heard an audible voice,” “something” suggested to him that he murder her. Foote floridly describes himself alternately resisting and impelled to the idea until “I acceeded [sic] to the horrible proposal, and Satan used me as an insensible instrument for his nefarious, bloody, and soul-destroying purpose.” Then Satan used him to slash Emily’s neck through the windpipe.

It’s a bit difficult to disentangle the actual or purpoted sequence of steps to the next murder; Foote writes of it as if he was hurled into despair by his crime and only paused from his intention of suicide to murder his mother when he reflected that the incestuous rape-murder imputed him might destroy her after he was gone. We get a somewhat different picture from the period’s newspaper accounts which suggest that he was no suspect at all when Emily first turned up missing and coolly played it as if shocked, before getting drunk and bashing mom’s head with a hammer. If you liked his story about how Satan made him rape Emily, you’ll love this.

I drank several times during the forepart of the afternoon, and about three o’clock I went to get another drunk, but the jug was missing — my mother had hid it, and it was not to be found by me. This enraged me … if she had let the liquor alone, it is possible, and not improbable, that I would have drank so much as to render me incapable of making any attempt upon her life; and thereby she might have escaped entirely. But she was often very unwise in provoking me, especially when I had liquor in my head. It was a wrong way to deal with me, to take liquor from me to prevent my drinking, for I was generally sure to go and get a larger quantity and drink so much the more. But she has many times done it, and thereby caused me to behave much worse than I should otherwise have done. Late years my mother has been very petulant towards me; whether I had been drinking or not, it seemed to be about the same. This I attributed to trouble, and the influence of opium, which induced her to pack the faults of others upon me, charge me with things of which I was entirely innocent, and find fault with me when I was not in the least to blame; and to complain of things which I knew were right.

Foote insists that he tells us all this not “for the purpose of defending or screening myself from any blame” from the matricide he committed for mom’s own benefit. Just wanted to contribute to the historical record. And then he has the chutzpah to accuse a neighbor who came running to the battered woman’s shrieks of being a big old pussy for backing away and yelling for help when threatened with the bloody hammer. This is a man who required a more forceful minister, a good psychiatrist, or a better P.R. team. Even to the last, the killer’s self-awareness only amounted to his own narcissism.

“The last act of Foote in his cell,” writes the hanged man’s companion in Death Cell Scenes, “was to make use of a quantity of mus on his hair, six cents worth of which he had ordered the night previous, besides ‘two pleasant Spanish cigars.'”

* As pertains the potion specifically, Foote cites (and perhaps may be suspected of borrowing from) the story of temperance moralizer John Bartholomew Gough, who disappeared in New York for a week in 1845 and was discovered in a whorehouse, floating in an opiate daze.

** There was a witness who heard a scream, presumably by Emily. Foote’s account essentially renders the attack “non-violent” (he says, as if to complete his travesty of Eden, that at one point she shrieked when she caught sight of a snake). It really is entirely possible that he simply perpetrated an uncomplicated wilderness rape and subsequently concocted every other convenient detail. (“No intention of doing any thing more than to satisfy my eyes” indeed.)

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1970: Hilmar “Henry Stutzbach” Swinka

Add comment October 1st, 2015 Headsman

East Germany executed sociopath Hilmar Swinka* on this date in 1970 for three murders in Berlin.

Swinka’s trial and execution were conducted in great secrecy — the Communist bloc being oft lothe to acknowledge such bourgeois monsters as serial sex-killers. Hans Girod describes him in his German-language study of DDR criminals, Blutspuren (Bloodstains), using the pseudonym Henry Stutzbach.

Swinka/Stutzbach wasn’t the type where you say nobody could have seen it coming.

A disaffected loner abandoned by his violent father, he dropped out of his apprenticeship and rotated unskilled jobs through his twenties while passing his time with pugilism of both the sweet science and the barroom brawl varieties.

His last job, as an assistant at a pathology institute, creepily set up his crimes — where he made a nauseating mockery of dissection by strangling and then carving open two ex-lovers on February 13, 1969. The next day, Swinka honored St. Valentine by doing the same thing to his lawfully wedded wife.

Swinka was shot at a secret execution facility in Leipzig, by Hermann Lorenz — East Germany’s last executioner.

There’s a truncated version of this documentary about the Leipzig death chambers here.

* The surname means pig in Slavic languages.

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1891: Ed Leeper and James Powell

Add comment September 29th, 2015 Headsman

The Ballad of Leeper and Powell

Come all my friends and near relations;
Come and listen unto me.
I will sing about two men,
About two men that’s to be hung.

‘Twas on the eighteenth night of December,
In eighteen hundred ninety-five,*
‘Twas the night they did the murder
For which they had to give their lives.

One says, “Father and dear mother,
Won’t you both remember me,
When I’m dead and gone forever,
And my face no more you’ll see?”

“We were held long in this prison —
No one came to go our bail** —
God will aid and assist us
Now to break the Gatesville jail.”

And when started from that prison
And the guards surrounded them —
“I must die and I’m not guilty,”†
‘Twas the answer Jim made then.

Ed was tall and fair complected;
Jim was low and very neat.
They were pale and very silent,
And their lips did seem to meet.

One says, “Lord, oh, do have mercy
On those who swore my life away.”
They tied their wrists and their ankles,
Placed black caps upon their heads.

The trapdoor fell and left them hanging,
Between the earth and the sky.
It was for a dreadful murder
These two men were made to die.

They’s cut down, placed in their coffins,
Delivered over to their friends,
Who were there for that purpose,
To receive them at their end.

Come all young men, now take warning;
Live, oh, live a sober life.


* The crime(s) for which Leeper and Powell hanged actually occurred on the evening of December 17, in 1889. Two armed outlaws waylaid some farmers returning to the country after they sold their cotton in Gatesville; a J.T. Mathis was mortally wounded in the resulting firefights, lingering until December 18 before he finally succumbed. (Another man named W.H.H. Harvey was wounded, but survived.)

** Actually, Ed Leeper’s mother was a prosperous Tennessee matron who spent liberally on her son’s defense; the men’s appeals, even challenging the legality of the entire Texas penal code, went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court — quite unusual for the time. But it is correct that they did not have bail: the enormity of the crime, and the fear of inviting a lynch mob, saw them behind bars and under heavy guard from the time of their arrest hours after the robbery.

This is not to say that Mrs. Leeper’s efforts were wholly without effect:

Newspaper article describing the death of a prosecuting attorney who was injured returning by train from Austin 'on the Leeper and Powell business'.
From the Dallas Morning News, September 30, 1891.

† Since the attack took place under cover of darkness, nobody could positively identify the assailants. Leeper and Powell, well-known local ruffians, were suspected at once and the suspicion appeared circumstantially supported.

Both men did continue to assert their innocence on the scaffold: “I die innocent and I die game for the crime of some one else,” in Powell’s words. (Dallas Morning News, September 30, 1891)

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1794: Edmund Fortis, in the hands of God

Add comment September 25th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1794, Edmund Fortis was hanged in Dresden, Maine* — at the time still a part of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Fortis was born a slave in Virginia but escaped and slipped into the wage economy by hiring out as a seaman on a ship bound from Alexandria, Va., to England. According to his dying confession he was a habitual petty thief; by the time he had made his way to Maine, “my life was dreadful — Drinking, stealing and gaming.”

Fortis admitted to, and even pleaded guilty to, the rape-murder of a young girl named Pamela Tilton whom he saw by chance and waylaid on a country road on May 18. This confession “the evidence of credible witnesses on oath … abundantly confirmed.” That’s from the sentencing oration of Justice Robert Treat Paine, via The Oracle of the Day (Portsmouth, N.H.), July 26, 1794, which continues with flourishes of hellfire —

This sentence, when executed, will remove you from this world, where you have proved yourself so unworthy an inhabitant, to a state of existence where you must reap the fruits of your past life; where you must appear before the awful tribunal of that holy Being, who cannot be deceived and who will not be mocked, and who will judge you for this and all the other sins in your life …

you have cast off the fear of God from your eyes, and all restraint of reverence to him from your thoughts, words, and actions, till your unbridled lust and malicious disposition had arrived to full ripeness, and urged you to the commission of crimes, at your own relation of which, nature revolts and the human heart is rent with agony. To what a pitch of brutal lust must you have arrived, that a person of your nation, your age, having a wife and children in the neighborhood, should so inhumanly assault and violate the chastity of that young girl in spight of her intreaties and remonstrances, and then with all the savage cruelty of a ruffian and an assassin, deaf to those cries and supplications which would have melted any heart but one lost to every humane feeling, you barbarously strangled to death the inoffensive victim of your lustful crime; thus in a short space of time destroying life, the first right of all mankind, and chastity, the second right of woman.

… repent and live … so, although your aggravated crimes must bring you to an untimely and disgraceful death, yet that you may escape that weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth, that destruction from the face of the Lord, that bitterness of misery which cannot be discribed nor conceived, which will be inflicted on all the enemies of the holy Governour of the Universe, and that your soul may be happy forever in the heavenly world.

But Fortis did not need much convincing of his soul’s peril.

The bulk of his confession is taken up describing the transformative apparition of God’s grace as he awaited arraignment in prison — the appearance of which is precisely what induced him to plead guilty to the charge, lest he “lie against God.”

I could not rest, there was no comfort or peace for me: I tho’t no person was so bad as I, my whole life filled with sin, stealing, lying, whoring and drinking, and now murder. At length I got up, and endeavoured to pray, but my heart was hard as a stone, and it seemed bound up; still I thought I would keep praying to the Lord whether he had mercy on me or not.

On Saturday morning it seemed as if I had more desire to pray and plead with God than before; and in the afternoon it seemed as if my heart was in some degree melted, and there was some hope. I heard something like a voice, saying “verily, verily give him a new heart,” and it seemed as if a man was in me working downward, and clearing or cleaning my heart. I thought I could breathe out my heart to God, and could see a light shining from heaven, brighter than snow, and in the light it seemed as though a great many angels were singing, which drowned my groans and prayers; and I cried O Lord! and looked up, and I saw in a corner of the prison something red like fire, and thought it was the Devil. I found I had another feeling, and I cried to the Lord. I now felt relieved; but was doubtful whether it could be true that the Lord had mercy on me, and wanted to see the light again.

On Lord’s day morning I felt more contented; but could hardly believe what I saw, and felt. I looked out of the grates, and all things looked strange, as if in another place; the birds seemed to come near the Goal and sing. Putting myself in the same place where I first saw the light, I prayed, and said, O Lord, for thy dear Son Jesus’ sake, who died for sinners, have mercy on me! And immediately the same angels began to sing again; and I believed in the Lord, and loved every body. I felt cool and calm; all the dread and fear which I had suffered were gone.

When I was brought to the bar, a gentleman spoke to me, and advised me to plead not guilty: Oh! I thought he wanted me to lie against God; and I considered how dreadful it was for a man that could read to give such advice. When the indictment was read, and the judge asked me whether I was guilty or not guilty, I felt very calm, and answered, guilty. And when I was brought the next day to hear my sentence, I felt perfectly resigned and thankful to the court, God knows their sentence was just. I now wait for the last stroke of death. I can trust my soul in the hands of the Lord, and am willing to do, or suffer any thing God shall lay upon me; and if he should cast me off, it will be right for I deserve it.

However wondrous this gallows-foot conversion was for Edmund Fortis, it augured ill for some other residents of the Commonwealth.

A Henry McCausling (or McCaslane), whose own minister also tended to Fortis, took from this example the prospect of using the murder-repentance two-step as a back door into heaven.

It appears that M’Causling has lately become deluded in matters of religion. For some time he has principally associated himself with a party of baptists, living on a plantation back off Pittston, headed by one Stinson, and two or three others. In one of his paroxisms of religious insanity, he burnt an elegant church in the town of Pittston. He says that Stinson told him, that his brother Edmund Fortis, who was lately executed for the murder of Pamela Tilton, was certainly gone to heaven, and that the road to Heaven was marked with blood. M’Causling thought, that as Fortis had gone to heaven, he should go there too, provided he was to use the same means. (Boston Gazette and Weekly Republican Journal, Nov. 17, 1794)

Consequently, McCausling stalked a Mrs. Warren** “in a dark night, through woods and over rivers which were almost impassable by day” until he finally came upon her at her sick mother’s house, tending to her, and thereupon

he flung her back with his left hand, and with his right, drew a knife from his pocket, where he had concealed it, and instantly cut her throat, without her being able to say more than this — “M’Causling, are you going to murder me!” He immediately fled, but was soon arrested and committed to gaol, where he must remain for the sentence which awaits him.

Like his predecessor, McCausling also pleaded guilty to his crime; the court judging him quite mad, he was balked of his objective in this world at least: how he has fared in the next we dare not guess.

* The Pownalborough Court House, which doubled as a jail, can still be seen today. It’s where Fortis spent his last days, although he was not tried in that building.

** From the press accounts I have seen, she is identified only as “the wife of a Mr. Pelton Warren.”

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1589: Franz Seuboldt, broken parricide

Add comment September 22nd, 2015 Headsman

We have had occasion to profile the famous Nuremberg executioner (and diarist) Franz Schmidt, who is the subject of a recent book on his life and times.

This date in 1589 marked one of executioner Schmidt’s more high-profile appearances. The occasion was the execution of parricide Franz Seuboldt, who killed his own father by ambush while dad was setting bird traps.

For this transgression, Seuboldt was condemned to be drawn through Nuremberg and “nipped” by the executioner’s red-hot tongs. With these, Franz Schmidt ripped bloody chunks of the murderer’s flesh. When at last they reached the “raven stone” execution platform outside Nuremberg’s sturdy walls, Schmidt stretched out his patient and set about methodically smashing his limbs with a heavy wooden “Catherine wheel”: “only” two limbs in Seuboldt’s case, before administering the coup de grace.

This broadsheet illustration traces the case in a U shape from crime (upper left) to tongs (foreground) to execution (right) and finally the mounted wheel.

Although reserved for more exceptional crimes than the everyday thefts that merited hanging, breaking on the wheel was a fairly common form of execution in Germany, France, and elsewhere in continental Europe for many, many years. Indeed, while the wheel would fade from the Nuremberg scene during the 17th century, the horrible device remained in (increasingly rare) use in France right up to the French Revolution.

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1774: John Reid, James Boswell’s first client

Add comment September 21st, 2015 Headsman

Though best known as the familiar and biographer of English writer Samuel Johnson,* James Boswell was educated as a lawyer.

His very first client was a fellow named John Reid, accused in 1766 of rustling 120 sheep from a Peebleshire farm. Boswell, clever lad, beat the charge,** and John Reid lived to shear again.

In 1774, Reid was accused again — and this time, all Boswell’s rhetorical genius could not save him: the Edinburgh Advertiser (Aug. 2, 1774) saluted the “masterly and pathetic manner” of Boswell’s summation, “which did him great honour both as a lawyer and as one who wished for a free and impartial trial by jury.”

It did not do John Reid the honour of an acquittal.

Even beaten in court, our libertine diarist went to extraordinary lengths to defend Reid; his personal passion for saving Reid’s life bleeds out of lengthy diary entries — 70-odd pages’ worth over the seven weeks from conviction to execution, quoted here from Boswell for the Defence. He strongly believed Reid innocent of the crime — that he had received the sheep apparently legitimately from a man named William Gardner, who was the real thief. (Gardner was transported for theft before Reid’s execution.)

Boswell worried at the Earl of Rochford, the Earl of Pembroke, the Earl of Suffolk, and the Duke of Queensberry with imprecations to intervene for a royal pardon. He found himself checked by the judge, equally determined to hang Reid: “The King was certainly disposed to transport, but the judge’s report was too strong,” Lord Pembroke wrote him afterwards. “Indeed, I never read anything more so, or so positive.”

Balked of royal mercy, Boswell even went so far as to lay plans to snatch Reid’s body immediately after hanging and have it whisked away for an attempted resuscitation. As a client, you can’t ask for more zealous representation than that. (Boswell was talked off the scheme only the day before the hanging.)

It is still true today that many death row attorneys give much more of themselves to their clients than mere legal scholarship, as they find themselves shepherding in the valley of death. Boswell met often with Reid, and Reid’s wife; he solicited family history, had Reid sit for a portrait, and bore the delicate burden of keeping Reid’s spirits up even while apprising him day by day of his ever darkening situation. When they spoke of making ready for death, Boswell found Reid much better possessed than was he himself.

The barrister’s diary entries for these days are among the longest and most anguished that Boswell ever wrote. (I have here elided from the September 20 entry a good deal of Boswell’s logistical preparations for, discussions with potential collaborators about, and grudging final resolution against, the mooted resurrection attempt.)

TUESDAY 20 SEPTEMBER. I was now more firmly impressed with a belief of John Reid’s innocence … I really believed he was condemned on insufficient evidence, and, from his solemn averments of his innocence, thought him not guilty of the crime for which he was condemned; such averments being in my opinion an overbalance not for positive, or even strong circumstantial, evidence, but for such evidence as was brought against him, which I thought could produce no more than suspicion.

When I came to the prison I found that John Reid’s wife and children were with him. The door of the iron room was now left open and they were allowed to go and come as they pleased. He was very composed. His daughter Janet was a girl about fifteen, his eldest son Benjamin about ten, his youngest son Daniel between two and three. It was a striking scene to see John on the last night of his life surrounded by his family. His wife and two eldest children behaved very quietly. It was really curious to see the young child Daniel, who knew nothing of the melancholy situation of his father, jumping upon him with great fondness, laughing and calling to him with vivacity. The contrast was remarkable between the father in chains and in gloom and the child quite free and frolicsome. John took him on his knee with affection.

WEDNESDAY 21 SEPTEMBER. John Reid’s wife called on me before breakfast and told me that Mrs. Walker said she was welcome to the best room in her house for the corpse; but that afterwards her landlord had sent to her that she must quit his house if she allowed such a thing. I said that there would be no occasion for any place. The mob would not trouble the corpse; and it might be put directly on the cart that she expected was to come for it. After breakfast Mr. Nasmith came, and was pleased to find that the scheme of recovery was given up … We walked backwards and forwards in the Grassmarket, looking at the gallows and talking of John Reid. Mr. Nasmith said he imagined he would yet confess; for his wife had said this morning that he had something to tell me which he had as yet told to no mortal.

We went to the prison about half an hour after twelve. He was now released from the iron about his leg. The Reverend Dr. Webster and Mr. Ritchie were with him. We waited in the hall along with his wife, who had white linen clothes with black ribbons in a bundle, ready to put on him before he should go out to execution. There was a deep settled grief in her countenance. She was resolved to attend him to the last; but Richard whispered me that the Magistrates had given orders that she should be detained in the prison till the execution was over. I dissuaded her from going and she agreed to take my advice; and then Richard told her the orders of the Magistrates. I said aloud I was glad to hear of it. The Reverend Dr. Macqueen, who afterwards came in, told her it would be a tempting of Providence to go; that it might affect her so as to render her incapable to take care of her fatherless children; and Mr. Ritchie said that the best thing she could do was to remain in the prison and pray for her husband. Dr. Macqueen said to me he was so much impressed with the poor man’s innocence that he had some difficulty whether he ought to attend the execution and authorize it by his presence. I said he certainly should attend, for it was legal; and, besides, supposing it ever so unjust, it was humane to attend an unhappy man in his last moments.

“But,” said Dr. Macqueen, “I will not pray for him as a guilty man.”

“You would be very much in the wrong to do so,” said I, “if you think him not guilty.” Dr. Webster and I had no conversation as he passed through the hall except inquiring at each other how we did.

John’s wife then went up to him for a little, having been told both by me and Mr. Nasmith that she could not hope for the blessing of Providence on her and her children if by her advice John went out of the world with a lie in his mouth. I followed in a little, and found him in his usual dress, standing at the window. I told him I understood he had something to mention to me. He said he would mention it. He had since his trial in 1766 stolen a few sheep (I think five), of which he never was suspected.

“John,” said I, “it gives me concern to find that even such a warning as you got then did not prevent you from stealing. I really imagine that if you had now got off you might again have been guilty, such influence has Satan over you.” He said he did not know but he might. Then I observed that his untimely death might be a mercy to him, as he had time for repentance. He seemed to admit that it might be so. He said that what he had now told me he had not mentioned even to his wife; and I might let it rest. I called up Mr. Nasmith, with whom came Mr. Ritchie. I said he might acknowledge this fact to them, which he did. I asked him, if I saw it proper to mention it as making his denial of the theft for which he was condemned more probable, I might be at liberty to do so? He said I might dispose of it as I thought proper. But he persisted in denying the theft for which he was condemned. He now began to put on his white dress, and we left him.

Some time after, his wife came down and begged that we would go up to him, that he might not be alone. Dress has a wonderful impression on the fancy. I was not much affected when I saw him this morning in his usual dress. But now he was all in white, with a high nightcap on, and he appeared much taller, and upon the whole struck me with a kind of tremor. He was praying; but stopped when we came in. I bid him not be disturbed, but go on with his devotions. He did so, and prayed with decent fervency, while his wife, Mr. Nasmith, and I stood close around him.

He prayed in particular, “Grant, Lord, through the merits of my Saviour, that this the day of my death may be the day of my birth unto life eternal.” Poor man, I felt now a kind of regard for him. He said calmly, “I think I’ll be in eternity in about an hour.” His wife said something from which he saw that she was not to attend him to his execution; and he said, “So you’re no to be wi’ me.” I satisfied him that it was right she should not go.

I said, “I suppose, John, you know that the executioner is down in the hall.” He said no. I told him that he was there and would tie his arms before he went out.

“Ay,” said his wife, “to keep him from catching at the tow [rope].”

“Yes,” said I, “that it may he easier for him.” John said he would submit to everything.

I once more conjured him to tell the truth. “John,” said I, “you must excuse me for still entertaining some doubt, as you know you have formerly deceived me in some particulars. I have done more for you in this world than ever was done for any man in your circumstances. I beseech you let me be of some use to you for the next world. Consider what a shocking thing it is to go out of the world with a lie in your mouth. How can you expect mercy, if you are in rebellion against the GOD of truth?” I thus pressed him; and while he stood in his dead clothes, on the very brink of the grave, with his knees knocking together, partly from the cold occasioned by his linen clothes, partly from an awful apprehension of death, he most solemnly averred that what he had told concerning the present alleged crime was the truth. Before this, I had at Mr. Ritchie’s desire read over his last speech to him, which was rather an irksome task as it was very long; and he said it was all right except some immaterial circumstance about his meeting Wilson with the six score of sheep. Vulgar minds, and indeed all minds, will be more struck with some unusual thought than with the most awful consideration which they have often heard.

I tried John thus: “We are all mortal. Our life is uncertain. I may perhaps die in a week hence. Now, John, consider how terrible it would be if I should come into the other world and find” (looking him steadfastly in the face) “that you have been imposing on me.” He was roused by this, but still persisted. “Then,” said I, “John, I shall trouble you no more upon this head. I believe you. GOD forbid that I should not believe the word of a fellow man in your awful situation, when there is no strong evidence against it, as I should hope to be believed myself in the same situation. But remember, John, it is trusting to you that I believe. It is between GOD and your own conscience if you have told the truth; and you should not allow me to believe if it is not true.” He adhered.

I asked him if he had anything more to tell. He said he had been guilty of one other act of sheep-stealing. I think he said of seven sheep; but I think he did not mention precisely when. As he shivered, his wife took off her green cloth cloak and threw it about his shoulders. It was curious to see such care taken to keep from a little cold one who was so soon to be violently put to death. He desired she might think no more of him, and let his children push their way in the world.

“The eldest boy,” said he, “is reading very well. Take care that he reads the word of GOD.” He desired her to keep a New Testament and a psalm-book which he had got in a present from Mr. Ritchie and which he was to take with him to the scaffold. He was quite sensible and judicious. He had written a kind of circular letter to all his friends on whom he could depend, begging them to be kind to his family.

Two o’clock struck.

I said, with a solemn tone, “There’s two o’clock.” In a little Richard came up. The sound of his feet on the stair struck me. He said calmly, “Will you come awa now?” This was a striking period. John said yes, and readily prepared to go down. Mr. Nasmith and I went down a little before him. A pretty, well-dressed young woman and her maid were in a small closet off the hall; and a number of prisoners formed a kind of audience, being placed as spectators in a sort of loft looking down to the hall.

There was a dead silence, all waiting to see the dying man appear. The sound of his steps coming down the stair affected me like what one fancies to be the impression of a supernatural grave noise before any solemn event.

When he stepped into the hall, it was quite the appearance of a ghost. The hangman, who was in a small room off the hall, then came forth. He took off his hat and made a low bow to the prisoner. John bowed his head towards him. They stood looking at each other with an awkward uneasy attention. I interfered, and said, “John, you are to have no resentment against this poor man. He only does his duty.” “I only do my duty,” repeated the hangman. “I have no resentment against him,” said John. “I desire to forgive all mankind.” “Well, John,” said I, “you are leaving the world with a very proper disposition: forgiving as you hope to be forgiven.” I forgot to mention that before he left the iron room Mr. Ritchie said to him, “Our merciful King was hindered from pardoning you by a representation against you; but you are going before the King of Heaven, who knows all things and whose mercy cannot be prevented by any representation.”

The hangman advanced and pinioned him, as the phrase is; that is, tied his arms with a small cord. John stood quiet and undisturbed. I said, “Richard, give him another glass of wine.” Captain Fraser, the gaoler, had sent him the night before a bottle of claret, part of which Richard had given him, warmed with sugar, early in the morning, two glasses of it in the forenoon, and now he gave him another. John drank to us.

He then paused a little, then kissed his wife with a sad adieu, then Mr. Ritchie kissed him. I then took him by the hand with both mine, saying, “John, it is not yet too late. If you have any thing to acknowledge, do it at the last to the reverend gentlemen, Dr. Macqueen and Dr. Dick, to whom you are much obliged. Farewell, and I pray GOD may be merciful to you.” He seemed faint and deep in thought. The prison door then opened and he stepped away with the hangman behind him, and the door was instantly shut His wife then cried, “O Richard, let me up,” and got to the window and looked earnestly out till he was out of sight. Mr. Nasmith and I went to a window more to the west, and saw him stalking forward in the gloomy procession.

I then desired his wife to retire and pray that he might be supported in this his hour of trial. Captain Fraser gave her four shillings. It was very agreeable to see such humanity in the gaoler, and indeed the tenderness with which the last hours of a convict were soothed pleased me much.

The mob were gone from the prison door in a moment. Mr. Nasmith and I walked through the Parliament Close, down the Back Stairs and up the Cowgate, both of us satisfied of John Reid’s innocence, and Mr. Nasmith observing the littleness of human justice, that could not reach a man for the crimes which he committed but punished him for what he did not commit.

We got to the place of execution about the time that the procession did. We would not go upon the scaffold nor be seen by John, lest it should be thought that we prevented him from confessing. It was a fine day. The sun shone bright. We stood close to the scaffold on the south side between two of the Town Guard. There were fewer people present than upon any such occasion that I ever saw. He behaved with great calmness and piety. Just as he was going to mount the ladder, he desired to see his wife and children; but was told they were taken care of. There was his sister and his daughter near to the gibbet, but they were removed. Dr. Dick asked him if what he had said was the truth. He said it was. Just as he was going off, he made an attempt to speak. Somebody on the scaffold called, “Pull up his cap.” The executioner did so. He then said, “Take warning. Mine is an unjust sentence.” Then his cap was pulled down and he went off. He catched the ladder; but soon quitted his hold. To me it sounded as if he said, “just sentence”; and the people were divided, some crying, “He says his sentence is just.” Some: “No. He says unjust.” Mr. Laing, clerk to Mr. Tait, one of the town clerks, put me out of doubt, by telling me he had asked the executioner, who said it was unjust. I was not at all shocked with this execution at the time. John died seemingly without much pain. He was effectually hanged, the rope having fixed upon his neck very firmly, and he was allowed to hang near three quarters of an hour; so that any attempt to recover him would have been in vain. I comforted myself in thinking that by giving up the scheme I had avoided much anxiety and uneasiness.

We waited till he was cut down; and then walked to the Greyfriars Churchyard, in the office of which his corpse was deposited by porters whom Mr. Nasmith and I paid, no cart having come for his body. A considerable mob gathered about the office. Mr. Nasmith went to Hutchinson’s to bespeak some dinner and write a note to The Courant that there would be a paragraph tonight giving an account of the execution; for we agreed that a recent account would make a strong impression.

I walked seriously backwards and forwards a considerable time in the churchyard waiting for John Reid’s wife coming, that I might resign the corpse to her charge. I at last wearied, and then went to the office of the prison. There I asked the executioner myself what had passed. He told me that John first spoke to him on the ladder and said he suffered wrongfully; and then called to the people that his sentence was unjust. John’s sister came here, and returned me many thanks for what I had done for her brother. She was for burying him in the Greyfriars Churchyard, since no cart had come. “No,” said I, “the will of the dead shall be fulfilled. He was anxious to be laid in his own burying-place, and it shall be done.”

I then desired Richard to see if he could get a cart to hire, and bid him bring John’s wife to Hutchinson’s. Mr. Nasmith and I eat some cold beef and cold fowl and drank some port, and then I wrote a paragraph to be inserted in the newspapers. Mr. Nasmith threw in a few words. I made two copies of it, and, both to the printer of The Courant and Mercury, subjoined my name to be kept as the authority. Richard brought John’s wife and daughter. “Well,” said I, “Mrs. Reid, I have the satisfaction to tell you that your husband behaved as well as we could wish.” “And that is a great satisfaction,” said she. We made her eat a little and take a glass, but she was, though not violently or very tenderly affected, in a kind of dull grief. The girl did not seem moved. She eat heartily.

I told Mrs. Reid that I insisted that John should be buried at home; and as I found that as yet no carter would undertake to go but at an extravagant price, the corpse might lie till tomorrow night, and then perhaps a reasonable carter might be had.

Mr. Nasmith went to The Courant with the paragraph, and I to The Mercury. I sat till it was printed. It was liberal in Robertson, who was himself one of the jury, to admit it; and he corrected the press.

It was now about eight in the evening, and gloom came upon me. I went home and found my wife no comforter, as she thought I had carried my zeal for John too far, might hurt my own character and interest by it, and as she thought him guilty.† I was so affrighted that I started every now and then and durst hardly rise from my chair at the fireside. I sent for Grange, but he was not at home. I however got Dr. Webster, who came and supped, and he and I drank a bottle of claret. But still I was quite dismal.

Boswell spent several days more in tying up affairs, and in a sense reconciling both his own self to the reality of what has occurred, and regaining an equilibrium with friends and colleagues who doubted Reid’s innocence (and/or played some part in Reid’s conviction).

Boswell was around the midpoint of his manhood at 33 years of age, with two more decades ahead to make a glorious mark. But on September 21, 1774, John Reid’s story was done.

“After this defeat, though he would labor at the law for many years more, Boswell made a critical emotional swerve,” writes Gordon Turnbull — away from law and towards the literary exertions that define him for posterity. “Part of Boswell died with Reid: it was defeat in this cause which, in Frank Brady’s words, ‘crystallized his distaste for the Scottish bar’ and ‘destroyed his momentum as a lawyer.'”

* Among other things, Dr. Johnson bequeathed us the aphorism that “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concenrates his mind wonderfully.” When Johnson said it, it concerned a real person whose hanging was really imminent … and it was a 100% bullshit cover story for a faked enhancement of mental faculties said man had not, in fact, evinced.

** Boswell’s friend and fellow Scottish Enlightenment big wheel Andrew Crosbie helped in the 1766 Reid case … but not the 1774 one.

† With a defter feel for the diplomatic considerations Boswell had ignored in his exertions, the barrister’s wife reminded him a few days afterwards “that John Reid was now gone, but that his jury, fifteen men upon oath, were alive. By my speaking strongly of the injustice of the sentence, I did John no good and in some measure attacked them.” She quoted him a passage from John Home’s tragedy Douglas:

The living claim some duty; vainly thou
Bestow’st thy care upon the silent dead.

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1889: Thomas Brown, Fargo-Moorhead outlaw

Add comment September 20th, 2015 Headsman

At 4 a.m. on this date in 1889, Clay County, Minnesota hosted its only execution.

This affair began, as such things do, when “a bunch of drunken hoboes got into a fight near Hillsboro, ND” in the autumn of 1888. One of them was killed, and a farmer who saw it happen identified Brown as the suspect. What little is known of Brown* indicates that he was a hardened outlaw; he broke out of prison in Wisconsin, and did time in the Dakota territories, too. While awaiting his fate he would solve a frontier sporting mystery by admitting that he murdered the tramp who had killed bareknuckles pugilist George Fulljames.

So police had their eyes peeled for Brown 40 miles down the way in the border settlement of Fargo-Moorhead. (Fargo is on the North Dakota side of the river, Moorhead on the Minnesota side.)

One night in October, an off-duty Fargo cop spotted Brown a few blocks into the Minnesota side of town, and alerted Moorhead policeman John Thompson. But Brown had noticed them, noticing him, and drew on the Moorhead officer. While Brown was demanding to know what the two had spoken about, another Moorhead policeman approached.

This Patrolman Peter Poull’s appearance set off the gunplay: Brown wheeled and felled Poull with a shot through the heart, but the distraction allowed Patrolman Thompson to draw and wound he fleeing desperado. Brown was captured, his revolver empty, collapsed on the train tracks with shots through his shoulder and leg. It was only because the quick-thinking Clay County sheriff whisked Brown out of jail under cover of darkness by forcing a night train to Minneapolis to make an unscheduled stop that a lynching was averted.

“Unless I get a change of venue I guess I shall have to swing,” Brown observed, with preternatural coolness.

He did not get a change of venue.

Brown’s execution was one of the first (to state it more exactly: it was the second) to occur under the state’s new “midnight assassination” law, which not only shamefacedly stashed hangings behind prison walls under cover of darkness, but also prohibited newspapers from publishing the particulars of the event.

Those lingeringly detailed descriptions — of the hardihood of the dead man and the conduct of the onlookers and the ceremony upon the gallows and whether the victim confessed and if he died fast or died hard — have been a staple of print media practically since its birth, and certainly an indispensable font for these grim annals. But the legislature had been persuaded that their circulation constituted a moral degradation to the consumers who eagerly read them. This directive was at best unevenly complied with: a number of newspapers did publish such accounts, and they were not punished for it. And of course the law did not reach across the Dakota border at all, so the Fargo Argus was able to insinuate an editor into the death chamber, who later described the killer’s last moments thus:

When the spectators reached the gallows, Brown was standing on the drop, on either side being a priest, all engaged in half audible prayer … Sheriff Jensen then tied Brown’s feet, and adjusted the noose about his neck, the knot being behind his right ear … In a weak and trembling** voice, almost inaudible he bade the jailor, Sheriff and priests goodbye, shaking hands with them and wishing them well. He then turned to the spectators, half smiled and nodded a farewell. The black cap was then pulled over his head and fastened under the chin, he with the priests praying meanwhile.

The drop fell at exactly 4:30 o’clock and the murderer of Officer Poull was launched into eternity. Brown’s neck was broken by the fall … In twelve and a half minutes his pulse ceased to beat, and in fifteen his heart had ceased action.

* Even to the end he refused to reveal his real identity or background, so as not to shame his family.

** Other published accounts speak of the hanged man’s unusual nerve. Between the moralizing interests of the interlocutors and the circulation of bogus information facilitated by the midnight assassination law, we here profess agnosticism as to Brown’s actual behavior.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Minnesota,Murder,USA

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