(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. This post originally appeared on the Last Words blog here. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)
“I must make a statement in regard to this matter. I feel it my duty to God and to man to do so. I am guilty of killing the two men. My soul is stained with blood and my punishment is just. I hope all will forgive me. I pray God to guide and prosper this country. I am the murderer of William Spence. And George W. Sisney. That is all I have to say.”
Crain, a twenty-year-old hired assassin, murdered Sisney and Spence in 1876. The double murder, labeled by the press the “Williamson County Vendetta,” was part of a long- standing feud between the Bulliner and Henderson families of Carbondale, Illinois. Before Crain’s execution, he was remanded to a jail in Marion County in order to avoid a lynching at the hands of an angry mob.
The Chicago Tribune noted: “He was born, raised, educated, married, committed his crimes and was executed within a radius of 10 miles.”
On September 26, 1903, Johnson and another man, Louis Tedford, were being drunk and disorderly near the corner of 44th Street and Indiana Avenue. Fitzgerald told them to move along. In response, the two men beat him to a pulp and shot him with his own gun.
Fitzgerald was a strong man and he lingered for four months before he died on January 20, 1904. Authorities determined his death was a direct result of his wounds. He was buried in Mount Olivet Catholic Cemetery.
As for the two offenders, both were convicted of murder, but Tedford got off relatively easily with a fourteen-year sentence. The jury determined Johnson was the one most responsible for the officer’s death, and so he paid for it with his life, a year to the day after Fitzgerald died. “Please hurry things along,” were his last words.
It was a busy day with the rope around North America.
Savannah’s Wright Square got its haunt (and concomitant reputation as “the hanging square”) on this date in 1735 when domestic servant Alice Riley was executed for murdering her vicious master William Wise.
The Irish import with a truly misfortunate indenture to a tyrannical farmer with a predilection for using his fists, Riley and a fellow-servant named Richard White snapped at the abuse one day the previous March and stuffed Wise’s head in a bucket of water until he drowned.
As best this writer can discern, much of what else is said on various Riley biographies appears to be embroidery and conjecture; the circumstances invite the most lurid of inferences but we don’t really know much about the relationships among the two killers and their victim.
Whatever the case, other Savannah grandees thought little enough of Wise — but they also all had help of their own who ought not get any funny ideas from the example. The couple was tracked down and prosecuted, although Alice extended her lease on life by pleading her belly. A few weeks after delivering a little boy whom she named James, Alice Riley was hauled to Wright Square (then known as Percival Square) and publicly hanged as she protested her innocence and begged to see her child. The gibbet brandished her remains at passing servants there for three full days.
Although they finally took down the corpse, her spirit has never been at peace. Riley’s specter allegedly still appears around Wright Square as a frantic woman who accosts passersby about her lost child.
The “Werewolf of Dole” was a scavenging hermit resident on the outskirts of that Burgundian town when a little girl was strangled and partially eaten in October of 1572. Townsfolk feared a maneating wolf but a subsequent pattern of attacks would point at something even more frightful.
And a sure way to conflate the two was through a figure like Garnier (English Wikipedia entry | French), who, in a starving winter, monstrously ate the flesh of his victims. He would later confess — we can only guess through what combination of disordered mind and torturer’s suggestion — that as he foraged one day, wracked by hunger, a phantom appeared to him and offered him an ointment that would confer the lifesaving hunting prowess of the wolf.
Like any opportunistic carnivore, the loup-garou Garnier knew enough to prey upon the weakest.
Shortly after slaying that first victim, Garnier grabbed another little girl and was in the process of a bestial hands-and-teeth attack when some villagers came upon the scene. Garnier fled, but at least some of these accidental witnesses were convinced that they had seen a wolf attack — for what man tears into his still-dying quarry with his bare teeth?
Then again, as observed by Sabine Baring-Gould* — whose The Book of Were-Wolves makes for a goosefleshing Halloween read — there would even post-Garnier in 1573 be an edict promulgated against what Parlement suspected was continuing werewolfery in the vicinity, directing all and sundry “to assemble with pikes, halberts, arquebuses, and sticks, to chase and to pursue the said were-wolf in every place where they may find or seize him; to tie and to kill, without incurring any pains or penalties.” Lycanthropy is stirring deep within this society, authorities, onlookers and offender(s?) all suggestible to one another.
Garnier killed a little boy later that same November, perhaps his most gruesome as he not only cannibalized the fresh corpse but tore off the child’s leg to save for later.
His fourth known victim was his last and resulted in his capture when he was again surprised on the scene. (This time, the witnesses saw only the man — not the wolf.)
His trial, which was for all its fantastic content notably a secular one, was a monument to the fear that must have gripped Dole while children vanished only to turn up as carrion: some fifty witnesses were summoned, many to make connections between Gilles Garnier and canis lupus that one would strain to credit as speculative but were probably quite sincere. Everyone knew there was a werewolf, and then everyone knew Gilles Garnier was that werewolf.
Like the French peasantry, posterity has seen in Garnier what it hopes or expects to see. Do we witness the grim and commonplace effects of torture upon a bystander being scapegoated for the natural incursions of wolves? The predations of a “normal” serial killer refracted through his society’s superstitions? A mentally ill man truly convinced (as with the wendigo psychosis) of his own beastliness? An entirely false confession reflecting Garnier’s own complicity in the same evolving myth that captivated his neighbors?
From whatever cause this shape-shifting may arise, it is very certain by the common consent of all antiquity and all history, by the testimony of learned men, by experience and first-hand witness, that werewolfism which involves some change of form from man to animal is a very real and very terrible thing. (The Werewolf)
If you prefer your rending human flesh in podcast form, Stuff You Missed In History Class covered this story in a (graphic) Halloween episode.
On this date in 2014, Ohio very clumsily executed Dennis McGuire for raping and stabbing to death an eight-months pregnant woman in 1989.
For no reason better than chance, McGuire‘s was the execution scheduled to arrive when Ohio bowed to the growing scarcity of lethal injection drugs by innovating a new kill-cocktail comprising midazolam, a sedative, and hydromorphone, a painkiller.
McGuire’s attorneys fought this procedure on the plausible (quite plausible, as we will see) grounds that using an execution as a vehicle for nonconsensual human medical experimentation was liable to end badly.
It did. A Dayton Daily News staff reporter who attended the execution gave the disturbint account
Prison officials say the drugs — a combination never before used in an execution — were delivered at 10:28 a.m.
His daughter cried uncontrollably.
McGuire waved with his wrist, his body strapped down to the table. Then he suddenly yelled out “I love you. I love you,” before his head lay back, his eyes rolled back in his head and he appeared to fall asleep at 10:29 a.m.
Minutes went by without McGuire moving, his family cried as the priest patted them on the back and attempted to console them.
“Oh my god,” his daughter [Amber McGuire] said.
“Don’t watch,” [wife] Missie McGuire said.
At 10:35 a.m. I first noticed McGuire convulse, then gasp. He snorted for air — a sound like a violent snore, a guttural inhale — and then sat still. Then gasped again. Sometimes his mouth just opened soundlessly. At 10:39 a.m. he snorted so loud his daughter covered her ears.
His family cried. “How could this go on for so long?” one of them asked. There was some discussion with the priest that accompanied them saying they thought it would only take five minutes.
(Here’s another (more heavily editorializing) eyewitness account of the event, by McGuire’s priest.)
Predictably, more lawsuits followed, cases that are still working their way through the courts. Just two weeks ago as of this writing, a federal suit filed on behalf of Ohio’s other death row inmates brought a member of Dennis McGuire’s execution team to the stand. Behind an anonymizing cardboard screen, “Team Member No. 10″ characterized the McGuire execution as unlike any of the others he had worked, and said that he “was wondering what was going on” as the prisoner heaved and choked his way to death.
Iceland last used the death penalty on January 12, 1830 with the beheading of farm servants Agnes Magnusdottir and Fridrik Sigurdsson.
Only threadbare details survive to posterity about their crime: one night in 1828, Agnes roused a neighboring farm to give the alarm that Natan Ketilsson’s farmhouse, where she worked, was afire. Neighbors were able to quench the blaze quickly enough to realize that Ketilsson himself had not died because he was trapped in the flame — but because he had been stabbed to death, along with another man known as a criminal, Petur Jonsson.
Agnes, 33, and teenager Fridrik were arrested for murder and eventually beheaded on a desolate hill on the frozen northern coast where a mossed-over stone still silently marks the spot.*
(cc) photo taken by Jennifer Boyer on the walking path to be found at the site of crime.
Why were these men killed? The trial record attributes it to Fridrik’s “hatred of Natan, and a desire to steal,” which are answers that ask their own questions. If the stones remember, they aren’t telling and in the scantiness of documentation the job has fallen to literature instead, for there is something to be said for an mysterious double murder in the ashes of a half-burned farm and the novelty of a woman being the very last human to have her head chopped off in Iceland. (On execution day, Fridrik went first.)
Agnes was Natan’s lover, but the farmer had a reputation for womanizing and, so all suspect, eyes for Fridrik’s young girlfriend;** the inference of a jealous domestic psychodrama cast on the fringe of the Arctic Sea, of chilly twilit tables gathering furtive eyes above with wandering hands below, seems hard to resist. One of Natan’s other paramours was the poet Skald-Rosa, who addressed an anguished quatrain to Agnes in the weeks after the murder, helping to fix the latter’s place in national lore as the wicked moving spirit behind the whole disaster.
Don’t be surprised by the sorrow in my eyes
Nor at the bitter pangs of pain that I feel:
For you have stolen with your scheming he who gave my life meaning,
And thrown your life to the Devil to deal.
And then there was the strange coda, while verdicts were sent to Denmark for confirmation,† of the condemned simply living and working among the community waiting to execute them. Nineteenth century rural Iceland was a little short on jail cells and surplus provisions.
After studying on an exchange program in Iceland, Australian Hannah Kent found this speculative environment a rich source for her well-received first novel, Burial Rites. (There’s a lengthy and interesting podcast interview with her by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation here.)
Kent’s drama has made headway in Hollywood, with Jennifer Lawrence said to be keen on playing the tragic lead; if it someday does hit the silver screen, however, it won’t even be the first on its subject matter — witness the 1995 film Agnes.
As of this writing, the full movie can also be searched on YouTube…
The criminals Fridrik Sigurdsson and Agnes Magnusdottir were today moved out of custody to the place of execution, and following them to the execution site were the priests Reverend Tomasson and Reverend Thorvardur Jonsson, an assistant priest. The criminals had wished that the latter two help them prepare for their deaths. After the priest Johann Tomasson completed a speech of admonition to the convict Fridrik Sigurdsson, Fridrik’s head was taken off with one blow of the axe. The farmer Gudmundur Ketilsson,‡ who had been ordered to be executioner, committed the work that he had been asked to do with dexterity and fearlessness. The criminal Agnes Magnusdottir, who, while this was taking place, had been kept at a remote station where she could not see the site of execution, was then fetched. After the Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jonsson had appropriately prepared her for death, the same executioner cut off her head, and with the same craftsmanship as before. The lifeless heads were then set upon two stakes at the site of execution, and their bodies put in two coffins of untreated boards, and buried before the men were dismissed. While the deed took place, and there until it was finished, everything was appropriately quiet and well-ordered, and it was concluded by a short address by Reverend Magnus Arnason to those that were there.
Actum ut supra.
B. Blondal, R. Olsen, A. Arnason
(From the Magistrate’s Book of Hunavatn District, 1830 — as quoted in the epilogue of Kent’s Burial Rites)
* The milestone murderers, or at least their heads, rest in Tjörn.
** This young woman, Sigridur Gudmundsdottir, was condemned to death with the other two but got to keep her head in the end.
† Iceland did not become independent of Denmark until 1944.
Texas today conducted the first U.S. execution of 2017 with the lethal injection of droll drug murderer Christopher Wilkins.
Wilkins wouldn’t quite qualify for our “volunteers” tag and he fired away at his available appeals all the way to the end. But he also went out of his way not to throw up any barriers, legal or psychological, against putting him into the death penalty system. It has been well said that wretches hang that jurymen may dine, but in Wilkins’s case he mouthed friendly reassurances to teary-eyed jurors who had just condemned him to die.
“You’ve got a job to do. You tell the judge ‘get a rope’ or not,” he had said to them during his sentencing hearing, when a few well-chosen syllables might have made his life worth keeping in their eyes. “Look, it is no big deal. It is no big deal.”
There is — was — a disarming want of pretense in the man, “candid to a degree you don’t see” in the rueful words of his defense attorney. He chatted in that hearing openly about his white supremacist tattoos — just prison swag from his recent stint in the federal pen, he said — and his short temper — explicitly discouraging jurors from cutting him state-of-mind slack for his drug habit — and his dim future course in life. Would he ever change?, prosecutors asked him. “I believe it’s a little late,” the 39-year-old answered, justly.
Wilkins had shot Willie Freeman and Mike Silva dead after Freeman tricked him into buying “crack cocaine” that turned out just to be gravel. He’d continued using with Freeman for some weeks after this offense, but Freeman pissed him off by laughing to his face about the con. (Silva just happened to be with them at the time.) As he warned: a short fuse. It transpired that he had also murdered someone in a dispute over a pay phone.
“I know they are bad decisions,” the too-incisive Mr. Wilkins said, again to his jury. “I make them anyway.”
However, Horton says, “Hangings that carried on in private [at Kirkdale Gaol] were so near the walls that it was said by those outside that a thud could be heard when the trapdoor opened.”
Between 1870 and 1892, the year Kirkdale Gaol closed, 29 condemned prisoners were hanged privately there. “Most of those condemned,” Horton says,
were from slum properties and lived lives of squalor where drink seemed their only escape, fueling angry misjudgments which would ultimately lead to them standing on the scaffold. Just under half of the killings … involved a man or woman killing their spouse or partner. The majority were following drinking bouts …
The very first case, that of John Gregson, fit this description very well.
Gregson was a collier at Wigan. (Over sixty years later, George Orwell would write a book about the miners there.) He had married his wife Ellen in 1863. John was an alcoholic who habitually abused his wife, even after the births of their two children, and the marriage was miserable. Throughout the 1860s he appeared in court a whopping 24 times for drunken, disorderly conduct, once spending a six-month term in jail.
On October 18, 1969, John Gregson was once again in court for drunkenness. Ellen paid his fine and they went home together, stopping at a few pubs along the way. The couple lived with a lodger, who was looking after their children while they were out that day. Once the Gregsons returned, Ellen began breastfeeding the baby and two neighbors dropped by to visit.
John removed his jacket and asked one of the neighbors, Mrs. Littler, to pawn it for him. She promised to do it the next day, but he didn’t want to wait and said he’d take it to the pawnshop himself. Ellen told him if he would wait a few minutes, she’d take it there for him. John then took the baby and told her to go out, pawn the jacket and come back with a pint of beer or he would kick her.
Ellen told him the children were hungry and she was willing to pawn the jacket for food, but not drink, and John became enraged, tripped her, and began kicking her back, side and chest as she lay on the floor.
The second guest, a man named Hilton, tried to intervene and forced John into a chair, but John stood up, kicked Hilton and then began kicking Ellen again, striking her on the back of the head.
Blood began leaking from Ellen’s ears and mouth and Hilton said, horrified, “You’ve killed her.”
“If I haven’t, I ought to,” John snapped.
Ellen wasn’t dead, though, and she was put to bed, where she lay moaning while John went to sleep next to her. The next day he got some brandy and tried to give it to her, but her teeth were clenched tightly and she wasn’t able to swallow anything. Finally beginning to feel ashamed of himself, he pawned the jacket for ten shillings and used the money to pay for a doctor.
By then it was too late. In fact, it was probably too late the moment John’s heavy, iron-soled clogs connected with his wife’s head. Ellen died in the hospital on October 21; the autopsy showed a fracture at the base of her skull.
At his trial in December, John wept while the evidence was presented. His defense attorney argued by way of mitigation(!) that he regularly beat his wife and that day had been no different, and as there had been no intent to kill he was only guilty of manslaughter. But the judge, Baron Martin, told the jury that if they believed the testimony of the witnesses present during the attack, this was a case of a murder.
The jury convicted John Gregson of murder, but recommended mercy. However, Judge Martin told Gregson not to hold out any hope for a reprieve and said he, personally, had no more doubt that this was a murder than he had in his own existence.
Gregson’s drunken fatal kicking of his wife near Liverpool produced … not only a murder conviction, but his execution. Gregson could not successfully claim that his wife had herself been drunk or otherwise grievously provoking; furthermore, his case displayed a tightening in judicial interpretation of “malicious intent.” When his counsel argued that from mere drunken kicking itself one could not find an intent to kill, or even do serious bodily injury, Baron Martin immediately interjected to say that this statement about the law was “not so”: “if a man does an unlawful act, and death ensues, he is guilty of murder.” The hesitant jury’s recommendation of mercy as well as a petition campaign for reprieve that followed (joined by the coroner who had conducted the original inquest) were of no avail, since in addition the Home Office believed that he did in fact intend to kill her.
As all murder convictions came as a matter of course to be considered for reprieve, the Home Office’s role in the punishment of spousal killings expanded, while at the same time its line on such cases was hardening.
In prison John regularly met with the chaplain, saying he repented of his actions and believed his sentence was just, although he swore he had never meant to kill Ellen. Many of his fellow prisoners were there for alcohol-related offenses, and John asked the chaplain to share his story with them, so they might learn from his mistakes before it was too late.
In the last week of his life he was visited by Ellen’s father, his own mother, and his two about-to-be-orphaned children.
The execution took place on Monday morning. Horton says:
The Daily Post reported how the private nature of the execution, free of unruly crowds, gave it a much more solemn air, with people speaking in no more than a whisper. Outside there were none of the ‘denizens of the lowest purlieus of Liverpool’, instead just half a dozen policemen and a few interested onlookers waiting for the black flag to be hoisted.
At 8:00 a.m., executioner William Calcraft slipped the rope around John Gregson’s neck. The condemned man was pale and shaky, but he quietly submitted to the hangman’s ministrations. Calcraft drew the bolt, and after “three or four slight writings” the killer was dead.
They cut his throat from ear to ear,
His head they battered in.
His name was Mr William Weare,
He lived in Lyons Inn.
At noon this date in 1824, upon a fresh-built black gallows adjoining Hertford Prison, John Thurtell hanged for one of regency England’s most infamous crimes.
Son of the Norwich mayor, John Thurtell was rubbish with money and had twice crashed his bombazine business into insolvency while stiffing his creditors. (John’s brother Tom served time for defrauding an insurance company with a suspicious warehouse fire.)
But these were merely business matters.
When Thurtell fell into a £300 gambling debt to thanks to Weare’s cheating at cards, maybe it was a matter of honor. Thurtell invited the Lyon’s Inn barrister to a gaming piss-up at Thurtell’s cottage in the village of Radlett. They’d be joined by Thurtell’s mates Joseph Hunt and William Probert, “Turpin lads” in Thurtell’s estimation.
Just short of their destination, on a street later to be known as “Murder Lane”, Thurtell shot Weare in the face. The shot scored only a glancing hit against his victim’s cheekbone, but Thurtell was in for a penny, in for a pound: he tackled the fleeing Weare, opened his throat from ear to ear, and pistol-whipped his skull into bloody-brained bits.
Whatever malice aforethought had moved Thurtell to this vengeful crime did not contain near enough calculation. “The whole history of the murder, and the scenes which ensued, are strange pictures of desperate and short-sighted wickedness,” Sir Walter Scott marveled.
Abandoning the gun at the scene — it was one of a paired set of which Thurtell owned the other — the killer and his friends hauled the corpse to a nearby pond, then proceeded unperturbed to the night’s revelry fresh from homicide, even donning Weare’s own clothes in subsequent days.
Worst of all from the perfect-crime standpoint, Thurtell had undertaken the crime himself (openly popping off, per the subsequent court record, “if Weare comes down, I will do him, for he has done me out of several hundred pounds”) and his companions turned on him when the investigation inevitably bore down on them. Probert went crown’s evidence immediately in exchange for immunity, even leading authorities to the body; Hunt stalled and lied for a while, but cracked soon enough.
To the nationwide outrage at this shocking callousness among obnoxious society rakes was added the whiff of scandal about Thurtell’s involvement in “the Fancy” — the semi-illicit sport of amateur boxing.
Frequented then as now both by underworld elements and society gentlemen, boxing was officially illegal but widely celebrated and openly advertised without much fear of police intervention. At the same time, the burgeoning sport — with its naked brutality, more-than-occasional fatalities, multiracial proletarian cast, and associations with various unsavory characters, had ample moral-panic potential. The Fancy, said a judge in 1803,
draws industrious people away from the subject of their industry; and when great multitudes are so collected, they are likely enough to be engaged in broils. It affords an opportunity for people of the most mischievous disposition to assemble, under the colour of seeing this exhibition, and to do a great deal of mischief; in short, it is a practice that is extremely injurious in every respect and must be repressed.
But many of his peers were there in the audience, laying their own mischievous wagers.
As magistrates it may have been their duty to discountenance, but as county gentleman it was their privilege to support, the noble champions of the art, especially when they had their money on the event.
Thurtell, briefly an amateur pugilist himself, was a trainer and promoter on the boxing circuit.
Detail view (click for full image) of “A correct view of the execution, taken on the spot by an eminent artist.” (Source)
Thurtell was anatomized after execution; a wax likeliness of the hated murderer stood in Madame Tussaud’s until the 1970s.
As for Thurtell’s confederates: Joseph Hunt’s cooperation was sufficient to cop a last-second commutation of his death sentence; he was transported to Australia instead. William Probert completely avoided prosecution thanks to his expeditious turn to crown’s evidence, but the career criminal (now practically disbarred from honest labor by dint of his nationwide infamy) found himself in hangman Foxen‘s hands not long thereafter for stealing a horse.
And Thurtell’s victim Weare did his own posthumous bit for the annals of English publishing when a printer multiplied its customary revenue stream on a Thurtell gallows broadsheet with a second edition headed “WE ARE alive”. Printed in such a way to intentionally make the first two words appear to read “WEARE”, its handsome sales to the gullible allegedly originated the term “catchpenny”.
There are a number of 19th century accounts of this case available in the public domain, including here, here and here.
If he was real at all, or even if he wasn’t, Antonio Mamerto Gil Nunez was an freelance ranchhand gaucho who ditched his conscription into the Argentine Civil Wars for life as an outlaw — flourishing in the classic social bandit guise as a friend to the put-upon peasantry with beneficence extending all the way to saintly healing powers.
Ambushed and captured at last, Gil’s last charity was reserved for the policeman who decided to have him summarily executed — whom Gil warned was about to receive an en-route pardon. The cop didn’t buy this obvious dilatory gambit and slit the bandit’s throat, only to return and find the promised clemency riding on up. As Gil had also prophesied, the policeman’s son had fallen quite ill and now he prayed to the brigand he had just put to death, who posthumously secured the boy a miraculous recovery.
The reports of the duly impressed executioner proliferated and soon fathered a flourishing popular veneration. Although Gauchito Gil is of course entirely unrecognized by the institutional Catholic Church, many devout pilgrims visit his site to pray for, or to offer thanks for, a favorable intercession in life.