On this date in 1760,* silversmith and murderer John Bruleman (sometimes given as Bruelman or Bruellman) was hanged by his own wish. “Weary of life,” he “had committed the crime to escape from the toils and troubles of the world.”
The Boston Evening-Post of Nov. 3, 1760 records of the tragedy (line breaks have been added for readability):
PHILADELPHIA, Octob. 16.
John Bruleman, who was executed here the 8th inst. for the murder of Mr. Scull, had been an officer in the Royal American regiment; but being detected in counterfeiting, or uttering counterfeit money, was discharged: He then returned hither, and growing insupportable to himself, and yet being unwilling to put an end to his own life, he determined upon the commission of some crime, for which he might get hang’d by the law.
Having formed this design, he loaded his gun with a brace of balls, and ask’d his landlord to go a shooting with him, intending to murder him before his return, but his landlord not choosing to go escaped the danger.
He then went out alone, and on the way met a man, whom he was about to kill, but recollecting that there was no witnesses to prove him guilty, he let the man pass.
He then went to a public house, where he drank some liquor, and hearing people at play at billiards, in a room above stairs; he went up and sat with them, and was talkative, facetious, and good-humour’d; after some time, he called to the landlord, and desired him to hand up the gun. Mr Scull, who was at play, having struck his antagonist’s ball into one of the pockets, Bruleman said to him, — “Sir you are a good marks-man, — and now I’ll show you a fine stroke.”
He immediately levell’d his piece, and took aim at Mr. Scull (who imagined him in jest) and shot both balls thro’ his body. — He then went up to Mr. Scull (who did not expire nor lose his senses, till a considerable time after) and said to him, — “Sir, I had no malice nor ill-will against you, I never saw you before, but I was determined to kill somebody, that might be hanged, and you happen to be the man, and as you are a very likely young man, I am sorry for your misfortune.”
Advertisement in the Pennsylvania Journal, Oct. 2, 1760
Mr. Scull had time to send for his friends, and to make his will. He forgave his murderer, and if it could be done, desired he might be pardoned.
Bruleman did not think it worth his while to prepare for another world, notwithstanding sundry clergymen were continually soliciting him thereto; and would ot forgive his enemies, saying he left them to the mercy of the Almighty.
* Oct. 22 is a widely-cited date; however, it is unambiguously incorrect per the contemporary newspaper reports. It probably traces to the date (mis)reported in the Espy file of historical American executions.
On this date in 1998, Jonathan Nobles was executed in Texas for a double murder — choked off by the lethal drugs as he sang the words “…sweetmother and child” in the Christmas hymn “Silent Night”.
On parole for theft, the drug-addled former electrician Nobles broke into an Austin home on September 13, 1986 wielding a 5.5-inch knife and turned it into a scene of carnage.
Nobles knifed to death two young women, 21-year-old Mitzi Nalley and 24-year-old Kelly Farquhar; when Mitzi’s boyfriend, Ron Ross, attempted to come to their aid, Nobles stabbed him 19 times. Ross survived but lost an eye in the attack.
Nobles confessed and was convicted with ease. This is very obviously not a happy story (few are, on this here site) because two innocent humans were destroyed in the bloom of youth, and a third paid for the crime with his own life. But the journey of redemption and forgiveness undertaken thereafter by both Nobles and at least some of those whose lives he devastated cannot help but inspire.*
The Nobles of death row — the man who was finally executed, 12 years after the crime — was at the last a hard man to hate. He converted on death row to Catholicism, eventually becoming a lay preacher. Murder, of course, is such a great crime because in the end the loss is eternal and can never really be repaired or compensated. Nevertheless, it was clear to all those who knew him that Nobles’s remorse, his change, was deep and genuine.
“I don’t think I’m the monster who perpetrated these terrible acts,” Nobles said not long before his execution. “Nothing I can do for a thousand years can relieve me of my responsibility.”
Mitzi Nalley’s mother, Paula Kurland, made an even more dramatic journey from the other side of that horrible night in Austin. Kurland decided that she needed to forgive her daughter’s killer in order to release the bitterness of his crime.
“You forgive because it frees you,” she said. “Hopefully, one day, it will free the offender, but that’s not the reason you do it. You do it because it frees you.”
Kurland eventually met Nobles face to face — “the hardest thing I ever did, second only to burying my child.”
I went against my whole family, but I knew that if I didn’t tell Jonathan I had forgiven him, I would be a prisoner for the rest of my life. And I couldn’t live with that. …
I never wanted to ask him why. That was never important to me. What was important was that I have the opportunity to give him back the responsibility for the devastation and pain and destruction that he brought into a lot of people’s lives.
The singer-songwriter (and longtime anti-death penalty activist) Steve Earle, who befriended Nobles, was one of the witnesses to his execution.** Earle quoted his friend’s last statement, addressing most of those present by name, thus:
I know some of you won’t believe me, but I am truly sorry for what I have done. I wish that I could undo what happened back then and bring back your loved ones, but I can’t. [to Paula Kurland] I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I wish I could bring her back to you. [to Ron Ross] And Ron … I took so much from you. I’m sorry. I know you probably don’t want my love, but you have it.
[to Steve Earle] Steve, I can’t believe that I had to go through all this to see you in a suit coat. Hey man, don’t worry about the phone number, bro. You’ve done so much. I love you. [to his own aunt] Dona, thank you for being here. I know it was hard for you. I love you. [to a British pen pal] Pam, thank you for coming from so far away. Thanks for all you have done. I love you. Bishop Carmody, thank you so much. Reverend Lopez and you, Father Walsh, I love you all. I have something I want to say. It comes from I Corinthians. …
Earle’s song “Over Yonder (Jonathan’s Song)” is inspired by Jonathan Nobles.
* These attempts by both offender and victim to alleviate the spiritual injury inflicted by the crime exemplify restorative justice, an approach to crime and justice that emphasizes healing over punishment.
** “I don’t think I’ll ever recover from [seeing Nobles executed]. I have absolute waking nightmares about it.” -Earle
On this date in 1922, Benny Swim suffered a double hanging for a double murder.
Benny Swim(m) grew up on a squalid backwoods farm in the New Brunswick “badlands” where violence and moonshine were as ubiquitous as poverty: “the poorest human beings I have ever met in a civilized country,” in the words of an English observer who chanced to meet the story’s principals on a hunting trip before they made the crime headlines.
According to a somewhat lurid 1981 Toronto Star profile, Benny was “a moody, difficult boy who didn’t get along at home” and left school at age 12 after attacking a crowd of bullying schoolmates with a knife.
His cruel life’s best comfort was an incestuous passion for his cousin Olive Swim(m).
Olive did not leave her cousin’s lust unrequited — Olive’s father said the two lived as de facto man and wife for a year and a half — but neither was she faithful to the jealous Benny. Our visiting hunting party discovered that firsthand when one of its number took Olive out for a drive and parked with her. Before they could get to steaming up the windshield, a gunshot ripped through it, fortuitously harming neither. “Benny, Benny, don’t shoot again!” Olive cried as she leapt out of the adulterous conveyance.
In February-March of 1922, 17-year-old Olive became so infatuated with a former soldier that she ran off and married him, moving away and refusing to receive her former paramour. Benny met in his customary way the turn of his fortunes: he got himself a revolver and went to see the newlyweds making no attempt to disguise his intentions.
Harvey Trenholm he surprised chopping woods in the snow and shot him dead in the face. A screaming Olive he met at the door of her new home as she attempted to flee, and shot her in the chest, and then, as she staggered away from her assailant, in the back. “It’s awful what a woman can bring a man to do,” the killer would later remark.
The only person on the scene whom he couldn’t manage to kill was himself. His suicide shot failed to penetrate his skull and lodged under the skin. The sheriff found him, following the trail of bloody snow from the crime scene, recuperating at a neighboring farm. “Sheriff, this is awful,” Swim said to him. “I suppose I will hang for it.”
Doyle, who claimed to have several hangings on his resume, conducted Benny to the scaffold and, at 5:06 a.m., dropped him as the the prisoner was in the midst of reciting the Lord’s Prayer. One eight-foot fall later, and it was another zipless kill for the cocksure Doyle. “Splendid job ain’t it?” Doyle boasted. “The man is as dead as a door-nail.”
What Doyle lacked in professional decorum, he also lacked in professional competence.
Though Swim was unconscious, the fall had not broken his neck — and the hangmen then proceeded to blithely cut the “dead” man down without leaving him to dangle long enough to ensure death. When the body was laid out back in its cell as prison staff set about attending to the posthumous necessaries, the doctor designated to certify death discovered a pulse. And breathing. He soon enough, coughing and choking sounds. The pulse was growing stronger — the doctor believed he could bring Benny back around.
A hushed argument then followed in the little cell over the essence of the judicial sentence “hanged by the neck until dead.”* The sheriff, possibly considering the enormously embarrassing fallout no less than the letter of the law, carried the day. Two ministers, who had been singing hymns with Benny Swim minutes beforehand, helped the assistant hangman, a fellow named Gill, carry the still-insensible man back to the gallows and propped him up for a second noosing. (Doyle, whose indecorous remarks had been overheard by the general public peeping at the hanging over the jailyard walls,** was spirited away within the jail for fear that he might stand to join the ranks of lynched executioners. He remained in protective custody for much of the day, and was at last secretly escorted back to a train station and sent home to Montreal.)
Public fury at the affair, and the scandalous word-of-mouth reports of hangman Doyle’s behavior, conspired to make the late double murderer into an object of pity. Benny’s funeral, noted The Press (Oct. 17, 1922), was “very largely attended. There were 150 teams in the procession. The large number of people attending … testified to the disgust of the community against hanging, a relic of the dark ages.”
* “It is clear that if, upon judgment to be hanged by the neck until he is dead, the criminal be not thoroughly killed, but revives, the sheriff must hang him again. For the former hanging was no execution of the sentence.” -Blackstone
** Woodstock’s jail was hardly constructed with steady gallows-traffic in mind. “The yard is small, bordering on the street and there is nothing to obstruct the view of the public from what takes place therein,” ran one report at the time. “The Swim hanging would have been hardly more public if the scaffold had been erected on the street.”
On this date in 1829, George Swearingen, late the sheriff of Washington County, Md., was hanged for murder.
Swearingen murdered his wife after he became infatuated with a woman of ill repute. To savor this tawdry tale, we’re going to reprise our periodic endorsements of our friend (and occasional guest-blogger) Robert Wilhelm at Murder by Gaslight.
Here are a few morsels from the fall of George Swearingen to whet the appetite:
Mary was away from her marital duties for at least six months and George had to find other ways to meet his needs. In his words, “I occasionally visited those houses of libertinism and chambering, which, Solomon declares to be ‘the way to hell leading down to the chambers of death.’“
One night he caught her in an amorous embrace with another young man, a Mr. G—. As a result, the two men fought a duel. Orlando Haverley was killed, and Rachel went to live with the victor.
And then there’s this Huck Finn interlude.
George and Rachel both fled Maryland; first travelling together, then separating, planning to meet in New Orleans. Rachel, travelling by steamboat, probably passed George who, travelling under the name Martin, was floating down the Mississippi in a flatboat.
And competing interpretations of troubling forensic evidence.
Swearingen’s defense attorney, John L. M’Mahon explained that Mary had suffered from “leuco phlegmatic temperament” which made her liable to spontaneous uterine hemorrhaging. Her doctor had advised her to refrain from sex — explaining why George strayed in the first place. The condition also explained why she appeared to have been raped before death. For good measure, he speculated that Charity Johnson had attacked the body with a broomstick to implicate Swearingen as a rapist.
On this date in 1881, a mob of 5,000 shouting imprecations against the courts spent two hours breaking open the jail in Bloomington, Illinois, then hauled out a horse thief named Charlie Pierce* and lynched him to an elm tree at the corner of Market and Center.
Pierce’s offense wasn’t so much the horse-and-buggy theft from a weeks prior — the crime for which he was arrested — as making an impulsive and extraordinarily foolish escape attempt that entailed grabbing the sidearm of a well-liked jailer named Teddy Frank and shooting him dead. Rushing to the scene, the sheriff disarmed an unresisting Pierce who perhaps was already beginning to apprehend the possible consequences his rashness would visit on him that very night.
Now, murdering a lawman was typically just about the best way to appear before the bar of Judge Lynch this side of sexual assault. And it may have been that folks in McLean County were just spoiling for a bout of vigilante justice anyway; the local paper Pantagraph had reported that June that such “excitement prevails” against two other criminals that “it is not improbable they will be lynched.”
They weren’t, but according to a 2010 recap of the still-notorious Pierce hanging written by a McLean County Museum of History archivist, matters were exacerbated by the autumn by an Illinois Supreme Court ruling reversing the conviction of another Bloomington murderer.** And Pierce’s end came just two weeks after the U.S. President finally succumbed to the bullet that a madman had pumped into him months before.
A flash mob of infuriated citizenry had the jail surrounded by 8 o’clock, 90 minutes or so after Pierce shot Frank.
“Special despatches from Bloomington, Ill., give graphic details,” ran wire copy that generally expressed special shock at the participation of “the best citizens … in the front ranks of the lynchers. Leading business men cheered and encouraged the lynchers, and women waved their handkerchiefs in approbation.” (Philadelphia Inquirer, Oct. 3, 1881)
These bloodthirsty local grandees ran up against — and in this instance prevailed over — the growing sentiment among respectable elites that such carnivals tarnished the majesty of the law. In some cases, that was pretty near the very point of them; hooting onlookers were reported to have shouted things like “Justice and the courts are a farce!” and “We have seen too much of court quibblings!” For any observer in his wits it was manifest that such hot blood would bend towards anarchy if given free rein.
A police officer managed to cut down Pierce as the three-quarter-inch manila hemp gouged into his neck, but the miscreant was strung up a second time and “upon [the officer’s] attempting to repeat this act of bravery he came near being killed.” The fire department was summoned to disperse the mob with hoses but was also forced to retreat. And the area’s delegate to the U.S. Senate as well as a state’s attorney pleaded with the mob to let the courts handle Mr. Pierce.
By way, maybe, of retort, a placard appeared the following day on the late Charlie Pierce’s lynch tree reading
McLean, Illinois — Ax-man, ax-man, spare this tree, and never touch a single bough; and may God spare this elm tree forever to grow to mark where the first justice to a murder ever was done in McLean County, and may the good people stand by the boys that did it. (The Daily Inter Ocean (Chicago, Ill.), October 3, 1881)
It’s the only lynching in McLean County’s history.
* It transpired that Pierce’s actual surname was Howlett. He hailed from Mount Pleasant, Iowa.
** Patrick “Patsey” Devine, the beneficiary of that ruling, would be convicted again and hanged in 1882. He was feared in danger of joining Pierce on the lynch tree this night, but the mob gave him a miss.
In Arequipa, there is active devotion to Victor Apaza Quispe, who was born in the Miraflores district in 1932. Apaza led a vagrant life supported by odd jobs after fleeing his abusive father. In a variant version that he related to inmates, he was sold by his father into farm labor. Apaza married in 1953, continued a life of transient jobs and petty crime, drank heavily, and physically abused his wife and daughter until he finally abandoned the home. When he returned ten years later, the marriage was beyond repair. In January 1969, Apaza dreamed that his wife was unfaithful to him. He went to the location revealed in the dream and saw the shadowy figure of a man escaping. His wife, also there, was not as fortunate. Apaza beat her to death with a rock.
It was later revealed that the crime was premeditated and carefully planned. Apaza originally denied responsibility but confessed his guilt once the evidence mounted against him. Later, during appeals for clemency, he again declared his innocence. He was convicted partially on the evidence of his two daughters, who wittingly or unwittingly offered testimony that supported the death penalty. Apaza did not understand the sentence until his lawyer translated it for him into Quechua. He hugged his lawyer, the two of them crying, and then collapsed into his chair.
People in the courtroom were shocked by the death sentence. The rarity of the event — this would be the first execution in Arequipa — resulted in extensive press coverage. Apaza suddenly gained a celebrity derived less from his crime than from the punishment. The press represented him as a poor, simple man and a good Christian. According to Apaza’s defense attorney, “the very foundation of society was shaken” when the public learned that Apaza had been sentenced to death. Horror and indignation were aroused because the imminent execution was “an unjust action of human justice.” Divine justice would make amends.
Apaza faced the firing squad in prison on September 17, 1971. (The drama is intensified in some folkloric versions by locating the execution in Arequipa’s main plaza.) Arequipa’s residents were outraged, even traumatized, and some fifteen hundred attended Apaza’s funeral. They organized themselves into squads, taking turns to carry the coffin.
Apaza had been in prison for two years before he was executed. Like Ubilberto Vasquez Bautista in Cajamarca, he became a model prisoner and something of a populist. Fellow inmates described Apaza as a good, hardworking, honest man. In 1971, the 531 men incracerated with him sent a letter to the court petitioning clemency, in part because Apaza had proven himself to be “an honorable man and dedicated to his work.” The prison chaplain, a Jesuit, found Apaza to be pious and God-fearing, and the warden thought he was a “completely good” man. Later, retrospective press accounts described Apaza and Ubilberto together as “innocent men crushed by the Kafkaesque and labyrinthine cruelties of the administration of justice in Peru.”
The devotees with whom I spoke in Arequipa knew little about Apaza. Even the official rezador, a man who prays for tips at the shrine, did not have the story clear. Many devotees had a vague idea that Apaza had been executed under circumstances that suggested injustice, however, and the key word offered by all was “innocent.” Some believed that the true killer confessed the crime after Apaza was executed.
When I asked devotees how they knew that Apaza was innocent, one woman astonished me with her answer: “because a sinner cannot work miracles.” I later encountered this same response in other devotions. Once a folk saint’s fame for miracles is accepted as true, then this truth — this evidence — revises backward to create the conditions necessary for the production of miracles. Miracles make Apaza’s apparent guilt impossible, so the verdict is reversed. Innocence causes miracles, and miracles cause innocence. Miracles occur within the circularity defined by these parameters.
Apaza is miraculous, like all folk saints of this prototype, because “he died innocent and is beside Our Lord.” “You were shot, you suffered,” people said when they requested the first miracles, because these misfortunes qualified Apaza for sainthood.
Daryl Holton went to the Tennessee electric chair.
Holton was an depressive Gulf War veteran with an acrid relationship with his ex-wife Crystle.
Bitter at being kept from his children for weeks on end, Holton picked up his three kids and their half-sister on November 30, 1997 and told them they’d be going Christmas shopping.
According to the confession that he gave when he turned himself in later that night, he instead drove them to an auto repair shop in Shelbyville, where he shot them in two pairs by having first Stephen and Brent (aged 12 and 10) and then Eric and Kayla (aged 6 and 4) stand front-to-back facing away from him, then efficiently shot them unawares through the back with an SKS. (Eric and Kayla played elsewhere while the older boys were murdered. Eric was hearing-impaired.)
“They didn’t suffer,” Holton would tell his shocked interrogators that night. “There was no enjoyment to it at all.”
The original plan was to complete a family hecatomb by proceeding to murder Crystle and her boyfriend, and then commit suicide. But on the drive over, Holton lost his zest for the enterprise, smoked a joint, and just went straight to the police where he announced that he was there to report “homicide times four.”
Holton had a light trial defense focused on disputing his rationality and competence at the time of the murders — a theme that appellate lawyers would attempt to return to, hindered significantly by Holton’s refusal to aid them or to participate in legal maneuvers that would prevent his execution. A spiritual advisor reported him at peace with his impending death: “He’s very clear, very focused.”
Holton’s was Tennesee’s first electrocution in 47 years and, as of this writing, its last. The Volunteer State subsequently removed electrocution from its statutes altogether — but in 2014 it re-adopted the electric chair as a backup option in view of the nationwide shortage of lethal injection drugs.
Eighty-five years ago today, the state of Georgia executed a gentleman whose most remarkable characteristic to his contemporaries was that he was the onetime Chief of Police of Cleveland, Tenn. — and most remarkable characteristic to posterity is that his name was Homer Simpson.
Despite the inevitable cartoonish riffs in this here post, the Homer Simpson case was a shocking and controversial one. When Simpson was returned to his native Cleveland four days after he died in Georgia’s electric chair, a reported 10,000 souls crowded the funeral, predominantly sharing the sentiment that Simpson’s own father expressed in a subsequent book, The Life and Fate Of Homer C. Simpson: The Man Who Was Electrocuted for a Crime He Did Not Commit.
That father, Jake Simpson, had been a Tennessee legislator who had the opportunity during his single term to cast the decisive vote* cementing not only Tennessee’s ratification, but also nationwide constitutional adoption, of women’s suffrage.
Homer’s vision was not as sharp as his dad’s.
Adrift after a Republican electoral wave swept him out of the sheriff’s office, Homer accepted the invitation of a World War I buddy to hop a train to Jacksonville, Fla. for a dubious “job” just over the Georgia border.
The “job” for Homer was to pose as a wealthy land-buyer in order to lure a local banker off to a lonely property where he could be trussed up while the conspirators emptied his vaults. It was supposed to be a bloodless robbery, but the victim, Carl Arp Perry, energetically fought back when they pulled a gun on him and that army buddy Malcolm Morrow shot him three times.
The bleeding Perry was loaded back into the “buyer’s” car to raid the bank to the tune of $4,600. This was supposed to be the easy part — nobody had a plan B for a mortally wounded man bleeding out in the back. Panicking, they fled back to their safehouse in Jacksonville with Perry still in tow but wrecked one of the two getaway cars. Homer — and again, this man is a former police chief — pulled Perry out and deposited him in the brush near the accident, bustling with his two confederates past a Good Samaritan who had pulled over to find out what was wrong.
The three fled the scene. The Samaritan brought the expiring Carl Perry to a hospital and summoned the police. Perry was a goner but he held on long enough to give John Law a detailed description of that night’s events and of his assailants.
We can see already that former Rep. Jake Simpson’s book implies a far surer claim on innocence than the bare facts might permit for a disinterested observer.
The core argument Simpson pere et fils advanced by way of mitigation was that Homer had no intention of hurting anyone, did not shoot Carl Perry himself, and indeed pled with Morrow at the critical moment to stop firing at their prisoner.
This point does not lack moral weight; in its time, it helped to support a push for a new trial or executive clemency.
As a legal matter, however, Simpson’s fate was determined by the felony murder rule which made all parties to the bank robbery scheme jointly culpable for the homicide that arose out of it. This standard has made a fair few non-triggerman accomplices with even lesser participation than our man here eligible for execution in the U.S. right down to the present day.
And there’s an anti-Simpson case to make as well, beginning with the part where he comes from several states away (bringing guns along with him) and continuing to the part where however sincerely he desired Perry not be shot, he utterly failed to aid Perry once the shooting had occurred. For the state, the acme was dumping the injured man out of the wrecked automobile, presumably to die. (Simpson’s angle was that they were removing him from a dangerous spot and with other drivers stopping Perry was sure to receive aid. So actually, see, they helped him.)
Days before they were to die, Malcolm Morrow unexpectedly confessed to being the sole triggerman in a vain attempt to save his old friend. “I shot Perry and I am willing to take the blame. If Simpson dies for the crime for which I, alone, am responsible, he will be getting a tough break at the hands of the law.” And the governor even took a personal meeting with both men’s mothers hours before the execution.
But there was no relief for either prisoner.
On the day that both Morrow and Simpson were electrocuted, Simpson’s hometown paper The Banner published a last goodbye.
To my dear friends at dear old Cleveland who have been faithful in your efforts to help me: I want to thank each one of you for your kindness in all that has been done both in your petitions and letters, and your faithful prayers. But dear ones it looks like that all is in vain and there seems to be no mercy for me.
After the good jury signed the petition for me and also wrote personal letters in my behalf, and the Chief Justice and his associate justice wrote letters and also went in person to the governor, and said I did not have a fair trial, and also said that according to the laws of the state of Georgia that I did not deserve the death penalty, after all this was done, with the good petitions and letters, and good prayers, I felt encouraged. But after all it looks like I will have to say goodbye to you dear ones.
Now dear kind friends I love you all and appreciate your kindness, but it seems that the time has come when you can do no more for me, and now my last request of you is that please do what you can to comfort and cheer my dear kind old Dad, and my precious darling mother, my sweet sisters and dear brothers, who have been so faithful and done everything that they can do.
Homer Simpson’s case has enjoyed a bit of present-day rediscovery. There’s an online book dedicated it; titled The Grave: Murder in the Deep South, it traces Carl Perry’s story and that of his family. A Simpson descendant was also recently reported to be working on a book titled Homer Simpson Must Die.
* Tennessee was the 36th and final state necessary to ratify the 19th Amendment, and the measure carried in Tennessee by one vote: every vote was by definition decisive. The decisivest, though, was that of Harry Burns, who switched his vote at the 11th hour under pressure from his mother.
I was born near Goshen, in the state of Connecticut, about the year 1793. My father was a show-man, and his business leading him much from home, I was neglected, and suffered to follow my own inclinations … I chose for my companions the most vicious boys, and spent most of my time in quarrelling, fighting, sabbath-breaking, and other vices. I was indeed sent to school a short time; but, disliking restraint and study, made but little progress in learning. Thus by parental neglect on the one hand, and bad example on the other, were sown those seeds of vice, which, as will be seen in my narrative, produced such a dreadful harvest of crimes.
-From the Narrative of the life of James Lane: who was executed at Gallipolis (Ohio), September 9, 1817, for the murder of William Dowell, with some observations on his behaviour under condemnation : to which is added the address of the court, on pronouncing sentence of death upon the prisoner.
The gallows narrative commenced thereby will arrive on this date in 1817 at a hangman’s tree in Ohio. But it begins, as is customary, delving into the miscreant’s youthful forays into theft, through which he soon “stifled the voice of conscience, which cried against it.” He suffered 10 lashes at the public whipping-post of Litchfield for robbing a schoolhouse of books, and had a couple of close brushes for his habit of walking into unattended farm houses and making off with clothes.
The War of 1812 gave Lane the opportunity to mend his ways, or at least collect enlistment bonuses, which he did on at least three occasions. Being caught in desertion attempts one time, Lane was “sentenced to be cobbed two mornings, fifteen strokes each time. This mode of punishment is very severe. It is performed by laying the offender across a barrel, and whipping him with rods. Five or six others suffered the same punishment with me, some of them much worse than I.”
At last, following more successful desertions, he found his way up the Hudson to
Catskill, [where] I fell in with one Church, as hardened as desperate as myself. We formed an acquaintance with each other, and travelled together to a place near the city of New York. Here we went into a store to buy some small article; and the store keeper suspecting our money to be bad, I flew into a violent passion, snatched the watch from his pocket, and stamped it under my feet. Church then seized a scythe and drove him out of the door. We then locked ourselves in and in spite of the danger which threatened us, ate and drank our fill of the good things we found. By this time, a number of people had assembled in the chamber over our heads, and were making their way down the trap door to take us. Hardened, insensible, and enraged with liquor and passion as we then were, it would have been no wonder if we had put fire to some barrels of powder there. This we might easily have done; but either did not think of it at the time, or were prevented by some other circumstance. I thank God for preventing this dreadful crime; for preserving my life and the lives of so many people as would have been thus destroyed, and giving me a space for repentance.
But it seems so idyllic in Thomas Cole’s 1833 “Catskill Scenery”.
They got a three-year sentence in the penitentiary for this brazen raid, and Lane piously averred that “the time spent there was the happiest of my life.”
“But such deep rooted habits as ours are not to be cured by a few years of confinement,” the narrator continues, rubbishing the penitentiary movement without which he might have been hanged already. “No sooner were we at liberty, than we betook ourselves to our old course of life.”
The old confederates burgled in Albany, then wandered to New York, and Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh, separating along the way. Lane lived hand to mouth, moving town to town, working a day or two here and there, stealing when the opportunity arose, and wasting whatever money he laid hands upon “in drinking, carousing, and every other species of vice.”
Following the Ohio River, he made his last call at the river hamlet of Gallipolis, Ohio where he “first met with Dowell, removing from Virginia, for whose murder I am so justly condemned to suffer death.”
The next morning I went to his house, or shed, about six miles from Gallipolis, on my way to Chillicothe, entered, sat down, and talked in a friendly manner with him and a female slave, his house keeper. I then walked on to Mr. Ryan’s, about a quarter of a mile from Dowell’s, where the latter soon came in to buy some meat. We were both asked to breakfast, and accepted the invitation. When Dowell had paid for the meat, I perceived that he had about forty dollars left. To possess myself of this, I resolved to commit the horrid crime of murder! and this on a man who had never done me any injury, whose house I had entered an hour or two before as a friend, and been treated as such, and with whom I had just partaken at the table of the bounties of Providence; and not only on him, but on the woman also, and her four children, and then set fire to the home. Astonishing and incredible wickedness!!! Six human beings were to be sent to their final account, in a sudden and awful manner, and perhaps unprepared — and for what? That I might have a few dollars to throw away, or worse than throw away, as I had done with all my former ill gotten money!!? I can plead no excuse. I was able to work, and not ashamed to beg, till I could find employment. — Shall I say I was urged on by the devil? No doubt I was; but his temptation could have been of no avail, if I had not lent a willing ear to him. I had never resisted him. I was completely his slave! Just, I repeat it, is the sentence of death pronounced against me!!
Lane executed his exclamation-mark plan that night, stealing a cudgel from yet another farm and slipping back to ol’ Moneybags Dowell’s. When the house was asleep, he crept into the house and to Dowell’s very bedside, and slew him unawares with a mighty two-handed smash.
The blow woke Dowell’s slave — who is never referred to by name in this narrative — and after a struggle she managed to escape out the door and elude her murderous pursuer, and we presume her four children did likewise since they were also not murdered. When Lane returned to the emptied Dowell house, he could find no money — “for it since appears he had left it with Mr. Ryan.” He fled over the river into Virginia (today West Virginia), but was captured a few miles away, and as will be readily perceived, was thoroughly worked over before his execution by the local divine.
Since a small town like Gallipolis (population as of the 1850 census: 1,686) didn’t exactly have regular traffic to the gallows, this was a big occasion for the ministers as well. To Lane’s confession, the Rev. Gould appends a two-page summary modestly reviewing his soul-saving offices. Lane’s own biography traces the classic gallows narrative, from sabbath-breaking to the noose; the like formula for Gould’s review ought to be taking Lane from his initial condition, “destitute of all religious knowledge, insensible of his sinfulness, and unconcerned about futurity” to the hope of eternal salvation.
Gould, however, remained skeptical of Lane’s histrionics of religiosity. After the prisoner was sentenced, he “broke off profane swearing, acknowledged his guilt, and became sober,” but as Gallipolis’s pious citizens held prayer meetings in the jail or read the Bible to him, Gould thinks it was his narcissism as much as his conscience that was excited and “the increasing attention which he received from every kind of character, elated him, and did much to divert his mind from the thoughts of death.” Although sometimes “under lively representations of his situation and of the mercy of God in Christ Jesus, his feelings were softened into tears,” these interludes “lasted but a few moments” and “he showed no pleasing signs of repentance, no attachment to the Saviour.”
The evening before execution, like careless sinners, he was unwilling to be disturbed with the thoughts of his unpreparedness and danger. He said he had left off swearing, and had prayed a good deal; and therefore believed that God would pardon him. This appeared to be the foundation of his hope to the last. On the day of execution, his sensibility nearly or quite left him. He appeared not to realize his situation. When he was first placed upon his coffin, at divine service, however, he was affected … [but] on the gallows, he expressed his willingness to die, saying he had made his peace with God; but manifested little sense of the importance of death and of eternity.
Dubbed “the most dangerous criminal of this decade” even though the Seventies were barely underway “Doctor” Oyenusi — as he liked to style himself — sprang out of the wreckage of the 1967-1970 Nigerian Civil War, a charismatic, cocksure gangster whose lordly disdain for the law cast the terrifying portent of social breakdown.
Beyond Oyenusi loomed a systematic breakdown in social order that would long outlive him. In years to come, other celebrity crime lords would follow him; eventually, armed robbery would proliferate into a frightfully ubiquitous feature of life in Lagos. Maybe the Doctor smiled at the stake because he foresaw his legacy.
Disturbingly unable to combat the plague systematically, authorities would resort to occasional high-profile executions instead, provided, of course, that the culprit’s misappropriations were of the retail street-crime variety, rather than the fruits of wholesale corruption.
Oyenusi was never in the same universe with such exalted impunity. He got into the robbery business back in 1959, boosting a car (and murdering its owner into the bargain) to make it rain for his broke girlfriend. While he eventually expanded his operations into a brutal syndicate, he was still just a hoodlum; the infamy that packed the Bar Beach with 30,000 fellow humans who booed and jeered Oyenusi to the stake was merely enough to make him worth the quashing. (He was condemned to death specifically for a raid on the WAHUM factory in March 1971 that also claimed the life of a police constable.)
Six members of Oyenusi’s crime ring went with him to the stake on the same occasion. An eighth man was also shot in the batch for an unrelated armed carjacking.