Posts filed under 'Common Criminals'

1644: Goodwife Cornish

2 comments December 2nd, 2013 Meaghan

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

Sometime in December 1644 in Maine, one Goodwife Cornish was executed for the murder of her husband, Richard Cornish. Her first name has been lost to history.

The couple had married in the town of Weymouth in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1634. It was a match made in hell.

According to Daniel Allen Hearn, writing of this case in his book Legal Executions in New England, 1623-1960, Richard Cornish was “a tireless worker” but his wife as “a woman of loose habits.”

The couple moved north to the settlement York in modern-day Maine in 1646, and “Goodwife Cornish wasted no time in reestablishing her notoriety.”

In 1644, Goodman Cornish’s body was found floating in the York River. He’d been killed in an unusual way: impaled on a stake, then placed in his canoe, which was weighted with stones. As Hearn records:

A cry of murder was raised. The sensational news swept the town and surrounding countryside. Had hostile Indians killed Richard Cornish? Probably not. Although the man’s skull had been crushed as if by a war club no one could imagine an Indian being so wasteful as to purposefully sink a good canoe. Such a craft would have been desirable plunder to an Indian. Moreover, what Indian, it was asked, would squander precious time by weighting down a canoe when he could be making good his escape? For these reasons it was determined that the murder of Richard Cornish was the work of some crafty white person. Suspicion fell upon the wife of the decedent. She had openly despised her husband. She was also rumored to have committed adultery.

Goodwife Cornish, when questioned, denied having murdered her husband.

But she admitted to multiple extramarital affairs and named her latest boyfriend as Edward Johnson. The authorities subjected both of them to “trial by touch,” acting on the old superstition that a murdered person’s corpse would bleed if the killer touched it.

When Goodwife Cornish and Goodman Johnson were brought before Richard Cornish’s body and made to touch it, blood supposedly oozed from his wounds. The ensuing trial, Hearn says, was “a farce.”

Much was made of Goodwife Cornish’s infidelity, but the only actual “evidence” against either her or Johnson was the fact that they’d both flunked the touch test. “It was reputation more than anything else,” Hearn notes, “that counted against Goodwife Cornish.”

Johnson was ultimately acquitted, but Goodwife Cornish was convicted of murder and condemned to die. Having maintained her innocence to the end, she was hanged in York.

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1922: James Mahoney, Seattle spouse slayer

Add comment December 1st, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1922, James Mahoney hanged in Washington’s Walla Walla penitentiary for one of Seattle’s most notorious crimes.

Two years prior, a 36-year-old Mahoney had been released from that same prison after serving time for assault and robbery, then moved into a Seattle boarding house with his mother and sister.

He soon struck up a romantic involvement with the house’s owner, Kate Mooers. She was 68 years young, but James Mahoney was broad-minded enough to admire her wealth.

On April 16, 1921, the night the two lovebirds were supposed to hop a train for their honeymoon in Minnesota, James Mahoney hired a company to move a steamer trunk to Lake Union, and load it into a rowboat. Kate Mooers was never seen again, but Mahoney resurfaced in Seattle ten days later claiming that she’d decided to extend her honeymoon with a long jaunt to Havana, Cuba. In the meantime, well, hubby would be looking after her affairs.

Alerted by the suspicious events by Mooers’s nieces, police kept Mahoney under surveillance for three weeks as he gobbled up his wife’s assets. He was finally arrested before he could skip town, but only on charges of forging documents during his embezzlement binge. For harder charges to stick, Kate Mooers had to be located.

According to a HistoryLink.org profile,

Captain [Charles] Tennant had a theory and ordered divers to begin searching the bottom of the northeast end of Lake Union near the University Bridge for a steamer trunk. Finally, having survived 11 week of criticism, the police found the trunk containing Kate Mahoney’s body. It bobbed to the surface on August 8, 1921, almost exactly where Captain Tennant said it would be. The autopsy revealed that Kate had been poisoned with 30 grains of morphine, stuffed in the trunk, then had her skull smashed with a heavy blunt instrument. Two days later, Jim Mahoney was charged with premeditated murder.

Resigned to his fate as his appeals dwindled away, Mahoney was reported to be in excellent spirits in his last days. He also made a written confession on the eve of his execution, forestalling his sister’s desperate attempt to claim the murder as her own in order to stay the hangman’s hand. (The sister still caught a jail term for forging Kate’s signatures.)

Now you must be brave and forget me. My whole life has been a torture to those who love me, and even as a little boy I used to dream of dying this way, and my dream has at last come true.

… If my soul can do you any good in the next world I will always be watching over you. Good-bye and God bless you all.

-Jimmie

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2000: Kiyotaka Katsuta, Japan’s “most evil” killer

Add comment November 30th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 2000, Japan hanged three fifty-something murderers.

While Takashi Miyawaki and Kunikatsu Oishi were rather garden-variety criminals who killed family members over private vendettas, Kiyotaka Katsuta had been impressively dignified by one of his judges as the “most maliciously evil criminal in Japanese history.”

The former firefighter was convicted of eight murders but twice or even thrice that number might lie upon his soul.

He got started in 1972, strangling and robbing a Kyoto bar hostess.

Having found a workable m.o., Katsuta murdered and stole from (police suspected rapes, too, but couldn’t prove it) another four women over the 1970s. Then he moved on to armed robbery of men, stealing a gun from a policeman and killing at least three (with others wounded) in his various stickups — deeply shocking in Japan where guns are hard to own and firearm crime vanishingly rare.

Katsuta was so notorious after his 1983 arrest that a movie came out based on his crime spree.

In the will scribbled out during the few minutes he had left after being informed of his imminent execution, Katsuta professed that he had “managed to lead myself to a spiritual state of resignation.”

One of his victims’ family expressed a different form of closure — that Katsuta’s hanging “has made us feel we at long last have become able to close a chapter in our anguish, although we still feel never able to forgive the perpetrator.”

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1933: Thomas Thurmond and John Holmes lynched in St. James Park

2 comments November 26th, 2013 Headsman


This still-notorious lynching — America’s seminal lynching for the broadcast media era — has been portrayed several times on the silver screen.

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1881: Four Black Friday hangings

Add comment November 25th, 2013 Headsman

November 25, 1881, was the day after Thanksgiving. And that date was a true “Black Friday” on the American gallows: four distinct murderers, all African-American men, were hanged in four different cities on this date in 1881.

We’re cadging entirely from the New York Herald of Nov. 26, and all quotes (as well as the pictured headline) source to that journal.

Richard James (South Carolina)

Richard James hanged in Marion, South Carolina for the previous year’s murder of a local shopkeep, David M. Harrell.

James insisted on his innocence, and even “turned upon the preacher with indignation” at in his cell on his last day when importuned to unburden himself of his sin. He “swore by all that was holy that he knew nothing of the crime, and was ready to face his Maker with this oath on his lips.”

James, “a light colored negro about thirty two years old” who “looked capable of committing any crime” and had a bad reputation in town, had been tried with his two brothers, Benjamin and Lewis for having waylaid the Harrell on his way home from closing the store.

A mixed-race jury (nine whites, three blacks) convicted the first two but acquitted Lewis. Benjamin had already been executed some weeks previously.

Henry Johnson (South Carolina)

Shortly afternoon that same day, Henry Johnson hanged in the jail in Sumter while “the housetops and fences near the jailyard were crowded with negroes, who heightened the scene by melancholy exclamations.”

Johnson, who converted to Catholicism the week before his death, occupied his last morning writing to a sweetheart in Port Royal, S.C. (He sent her some wooden buttons to remember him by, and demanded that she never marry.)

While he went mildly, his crime was “one of the most cold-blooded and unparalleled murders ever known in South Carolina.” (Of course, newspapers say this about every crime.)

John Davis, a good and hard working colored man was going through Hope Swamp on his way to the forest, where he was employed to cut cross ties for the railroad [but] he was followed by one Henry Johnson, also colored, who shrouded himself from view by the thick undergrowth. Thus, Indian like, he thirsted for his victim’s blood, and followed David step for step with the greed of a hungry panther until they arrived at a point where the depth and loneliness of the swamp was best suited for the tragedy that was enacted. The desired spot having been reached, Johnson, without uttering a word, raised his gun and fired, shooting John Davis in the middle of the back. Davis dropped dead in his tracks instantly. Johnson then caught him by his heels and dragged him to a hollow log, in which he placed Davis and then covered the log all over with … straw and leaves.

And then Johnson went to Davis’s house, where he knew he would get a good reception since Davis’s wife fancied him.

Explaining that Davis had had to go into town on business and would not be back for a day or three, Johnson made himself “not only lord of Davis’ house, but his much beloved wife.” He tried to lay the blame on a local fellow named Orange Isaacs whom Johnson by all appearances sincerely believed to be a sorcerer.

Joseph Harris (Tennesee)

In Rogersville, Tenn., Joseph Harris hanged for slaying two men in November 1880 in a crime that aroused so much local hatred that he was stashed away in Nashville until two days prior to the execution to prevent the appearance of lynch law.

Unlike the South Carolina condemned, Harris’s hanging was fully public, and a fair concourse of onlookers braved freezing temperatures to satisfy themselves with the course of justice.

Harris had targeted the outgoing proprietor of a country farm called Marble Hall. John Brown, having sold the estate, had sent his family on to their next lodgings in Bristol while he remained at Marble Hall with a 17-year-old stable hand named Heck to sell off the remaining livestock and close up affairs.

Those affairs were closed for good on November 23, when the room that Brown and Heck occupied was discovered on fire, its inhabitants having had their brains bashed in. $500 Brown had recently pocketed from the sale of his hogs was missing.

Sang Armor (Georgia)

Sang Armor not only had the most unusual name of November 25′s grim harvest, but was distinguished as the first-ever public execution (or execution of any kind) in Taliaferro county, Georgia. Taliaferro is currently (circa 2010 census) the least populous county east of the Mississippi with a population of just 1,717.

Armor was egged on by the crowd at his gallows to give up the names of accomplices whom he had previously implied had aided him in the murder of an elderly white man, but he remained “sullenly silent on the subject and talked only on religious matters.” The scaffold was erected in Ellington meadow, on the land of his victim, Amos Ellington.

“The feeling against Armor was very strong,” concludes the report, “especially among the colored men, several of whom he tried to implicate in the crime.”

Not Squire Clark (South Carolina)

It wasn’t all doom and gloom. Squire Clark, who was supposed to hang in Lexington, S.C., was respited until December 23.

Clark, sentenced to be die in a strange case where a body was found on a railroad tracks, mutilated by passing trains, had been convicted circumstantially for having killed the fellow before dumping his remains on the tracks. Convicted, overturned on appeal, convicted again, and ultimately commuted to a penal sentence, Clark never made it into the executioners annals.

The estate of his victim later sued the railroad for negligence in having run over the remains of W.S. Hook no fewer than three times.

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1903: Peter Mortensen, divinely accused

Add comment November 20th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1903, Peter Mortensen was shot over a lumber bill.

The evidence against Peter Mortensen was circumstantial: a moonlight witness, some unexplained cash, and a perceived insufficiency of vigor in insisting upon his innocence when suspicion fell upon him.

Though this much sounds pretty speculative, Mortensen’s very direct pecuniary interest in Hay’s death was harder to wave away. Mortensen, a Salt Lake contractor, owed money to George Ernest Romney’s* Pacific Lumber company. On the evening of December 16, 1901, he summoned Romney’s employee James R. Hay — who was also Mortensen’s friend, neighbor, and fellow-teacher at a Mormon Sunday school — to pay up.

Hay never made it home.

The next day, Mortensen had a receipt for the payment in Hay’s hand, and Hay had a cashless grave and a bullet hole in his head. Rarely have means, motive, and opportunity converged so exactly.

Public sentiment against Mortensen was so overwhelming** that selecting an impartial-ish jury proceeded at a weeks-long crawl as Mortensen’s attorney met prospect after prospect by bluntly asking whether they had formed an opinion as to his man’s guilt. Prospect after prospect confirmed that they had done. By the end, the court had been reduced to issuing “open venires” bypassing the regular jury summons process and authorizing anyone handy to be inducted into the jury pool. Deputies scoured Salt Lake City like press gangs, hunting for possible jurymen.

In all, the court dismissed some 600 prospective jurors for bias (which was quite a lot for the time), and ran through $4,500 in that process alone (likewise).

Those finally seated had to weigh, along with the more conventional indicia of guilt, the inflammatory witness testimony of James Hay’s father … who said he didn’t just have a pretty strong suspicion about the defendant, but that he actually knew Mortensen did it. “God revealed it to me,” the elder Hay said with “tears streaming down his cheeks” according to a report in the Idaho Daily Statesman of June 6, 1902.

He appeared to me by the Holy Ghost and put the words of His Spirit into my mouth. I had to utter them, for I knew they were true. I cannot and will not deny it here, neither will I deny it when I meet my God on the last day.

This is not the only manifestation I received. On Tuesday noon I saw the trail of blood leading from the railroad tracks to where my son-in-law was buried. I saw it in a vision just as plainly as when I afterwards visited the spot.

Again, this is judicial testimony in an American courtroom in the 20th century.

The fact that it appeared — and that the trial court refused a defense demand to instruct the jury not to consider supernatural visions in the light of real evidence — formed the central argument of Mortensen’s appeal. In the end, Utah’s Supreme Court refused to vacate the sentence. Still, the weird appearance of “divine revelation evidence” in a Utah courtroom led the Mormon patriarch Joseph F. Smith to issue a finding distancing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints from any embarrassing mummery:

[N]o member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints should, for one moment, regard such testimony as admissible in a court of law, and to make the case perfectly clear it may be further stated that such evidence would not be permissible even in a Church court, where rules of evidence, though not so technical, are founded largely upon the same principles that govern the rules of evidence in a court of law. Any attempt, therefore, to make it appear that such evidence is in keeping with the tenets of the “Mormon” faith is wholly unjustified

About six weeks before Mortensen’s execution, a prison break took place at the penitentiary. It’s been given out latterly that the arrogant Mortensen was so unpopular even with his fellow-prisoners that they intentionally left him stuck in his cell. 1903 press accounts appear to indicate otherwise — that he was not the only convict left stuck in his cell, and that Mortensen’s particular rum luck wasn’t a social lack but a digital one: somebody dropped the necessary set of keys. Either way, there was no way out, and neither when Utah’s governor interviewed Mortensen personally to see about his mercy application. Never mind his popularity with prisoners; Mortensen’s continued insistence on innocence while pleading for his life was the real diplomatic failure.

Mortensen selected shooting rather than hanging as his method of death, and went to it “firm as a rock.” He left only a last statement repeating his vociferous and widely disbelieved denial of Hay’s murder.

To the world I want to say and swear by the heavens above, by the earth beneath, and by all I hold near and dear to me on this earth, that I am not guilty of that cowardly murder of my dearest friend. I ask therefore no man’s pardon for aught that I may have done in life. I am confident that my life is an example to most people. I lay no claim — please strike out the last two words — I do not say that I am better or more worthy of respect of the world than the average man, but I have done my duty to my father and mother, my brothers and sister, and to other near relatives. I have done my absolute duty toward my wife and my five little babies. May God keep and care for those sweet darlings.


Salt Lake Telegram, Nov. 20, 1903.

* Yes, those Romneys. George Ernest Romney‘s significantly younger first cousin George Wilcken Romney became Governor of Michigan, and was in turn the father of the 2012 Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney. The mutual grandfather of George E. and George W. designed the St. George Tabernacle.

** Even Mortensen’s wife thought him guilty, for he had gone out that fatal evening of the 16th with Hay, and returned an hour later “deathly pale.” However, while God’s hearsay to Mr. Hay was available in open court, Mrs. Mortensen’s evidence was not: Utah law prohibited wives testifying against their husbands.

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1720: Edward Hunt, the first counterfeiter executed in colonial Pennsylvania

Add comment November 19th, 2013 Headsman

On November 19, 1720, Edward Hunt was hanged in Philadelphia. He was the only Pennsylvanian executed for treason prior to the American Revolution — that treason being not the betrayal of the state (in the sense we might think of it today), but counterfeiting.

In the bitterness of his scaffold speech, which disdains the customary acknowledge-my-guilt, pray-for-my-soul form of the genre to complain about his case, Hunt made plain that he was not reconciled to the justice men had rendered him.

The American Weekly Mercury of Thursday, November 24 published “this extraordinary Piece” only with a preface complaining that “it is evident, that the following Speech was intended to misrepresent the Administration and Justice of this Government, as well as to infuse both ill Principles and Practices into the Minds of the People.”

The Dying Speech of Edward Hunt, formerly taken in Rebellion at Preston, and transported a bound Servant to the Island of Antigua, before his Execution upon the 19th Instant, at Philadelphia, where he had been legally convicted of High Treason, and most justly condemn’d for his Counterfeiting Spanish Silver Coin, made current* by Act of Parliament within all his Majesties Colonies in America.

It may be expected, that I should say some thing now concerning my Life and Conversation, which i must with Sorrow own to God and the Word has not been according to the Precepts and Principles of the Church, in which I was bred and educated: But with a sincere repentance and hearty Sorrow I do lament all the Errors of my past Life, firmly believing in my Saviour Jesus Christ, in whose Merits and ever flowing Mercy I do only trust for Salvation and Pardon, who has promised Eternal Life on no other Terms to the most Righteous upon Earth.

As to the Crime that now I suffer for in particular, I must own it is an Offence against the Laws, which I hope God will pardon me since he knows that I did not do it with any Design to cheat or defraud any one, or to make a Practice of Coining; but being ignorant of the Breach of any Laws of God or Man, I thought I might cut those Impressions as innocently as any other, or the Stamps that the Gentlemen of this place imploy’d me about, to make Farthings.** I am an English Subject, and desired to have the Privilege of the Laws of England, but it was not granted in any Point, except in Condemning me.

I am the first unhappy Instance of this kind that ever suffered in the King’s Dominions, pray God it may be a Warning to all, not to offend wilfully in the same that I did through Ignorance: For if I had known it, I would not have taken all the World to have done it. God give me a patient Resignation to submit to his blessed Will, in whatsoever he please.

I do heartily ask Forgiveness of all that I have offended in any manner of way, and do sincerely forgive all that have injured or offended me; particularly Mr. John Moore and Morris Birchfield, and the Evidence that swore against me in that Tryal. I do solemnly declare, That I know not any thing, or have been guilty of any one thing laid to my Charge in that Matter, or any of the other things laid to my Charge, by John Butler, either in England or Ireland.

I did petition the Honourable Governor for a Reprieve, until the King’s Pleasure was known concerning me, being I could not be tried by the Laws of England in all Points, as a Church of England Man ought to be: But it was a Privilege too great for me to obtain. Pray God to forgive them all, and every one that has a hand in taking away my Life any manner of way, and that my Blood be not required at their Hands, for they know not what they do. I am on Earth judged and condemned to die for the Breach of a Law of Man that was not duly published, which for that Reason I transgress’d it ignorantly, though the first that suffers for the Transgression of unknown Laws, or that was sentenced according to the Laws of England, without the Privilege of a Subject, which I desired of the Judge, which I know was not qualified by the same Laws to try me.

I do not know what Advantage there can be to any in my Death, and that I could not appeal to my King, neither before nor after my Tryal. I do not speak this because I am not in Charity with all the World, I do, from the Bottom of my Heart, forgive all in Obedience to my Saviour’s Command and Example, who suffered more for me, being innocent, and had not only done no Harm, but Good, and pray’d even for is cruel Persecutors and Murderers, and promised, That those that follow his Examples in this World by patiently enduring the Cross, shall reign with him to all Eternity: To Him therefore I commit all, an my poor Wife, beseeching him to help her, and be her Support and Comfort, and preserve her poor Soul free from the Polutions [sic] of the World, that through his precious Merits we may meet where we shall be both happy to all Eternity, in the merciful Arms of our dear Lord and Saviour Jesus, who I do beseech to receive my poor Soul.

According to Kenneth Scott’s Counterfeiting in Colonial America, Edward Hunt’s wife, Martha, got a £500 fine and a lifetime prison sentence for misprision of treason. (If that book is up your alley, Scott has an even more specific Counterfeiting in Colonial Pennsylvania.)

* Early colonial American commerce was severely hampered by a shortage of English/British currency. As a result, coins minted in Spain’s lucrative southern territories served as the colonies’ primary currency in the 17th and 18th centuries, particularly the iconic eight-real silver “pieces of eight”.

This is the reason why the currency of the present-day U.S. isn’t an “American pound sterling” but the almighty dollar: Dutch colonists had brought a coin called the leeuwendaalder to their former New Amsterdam (New York) province, the name deriving from the German thaler. As the pieces of eight corresponded to the thaler/daalder, it inherited the same name. Indeed, the “Spanish Dollar” remained legal tender in the post-colonial United States until 1857.

This is also the reason for reckoning of the eight constituent bits that comprised the dollar, and hence of the American colloquialism “two bits” to denote $0.25 … and, later, the adjective “two-bit” to man something cheap, mean, or small-time.

** They may have been Spain’s coins, but it’s wildly implausible that any Englishman could think he could counterfeit “innocently.”

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2011: Reginald Brooks, flipping the bird

Add comment November 15th, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this day in 2011, multi-filicide Reginald Brooks was executed in the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio.* He was the fifth man executed that year and, at 66, the oldest since 1999.


Brooks (top) and the children he murdered.

Although his guilt was never in question, he had spent close to thirty years on death row while his appeals wound their way through the system.

On March 6, 1982, just days after his wife filed for divorce, Brooks shot their three sleeping sons: Reginald Jr., 17, Vaughn, 15, and Niarchos, 11. He then bought a bus ticket to Las Vegas, taking the gun with him in his suitcase, as well as his birth certificate and high school diploma. The police caught up with him in Utah.

Brooks had some history of domestic violence, but his only prior arrest had been for grand theft. His aunt, when asking the appeals board for clemency, said he had a normal, loving relationship with his children. Before shooting them all in their sleep, that is.

His attorneys argued that his crimes were motivated by mental illness, namely paranoid schizophrenia. Brooks had a normal childhood and young adulthood, but started to fall apart in the years prior to the murders. He quit his job in the 1970s because he thought his coworkers were trying to poison him. (He never worked again and his wife had to support their family.)

Beginning around 1980, he began isolating himself from friends and family, and accused his wife of committing incest with Reginald Jr. The family tried to get psychiatric help for him, to no avail.

In spite of overwhelming evidence, Brooks never admitted to his crime and suggested various bizarre theories as to what had really happened. A psychiatrist who evaluated him in 2010 and 2011 believed Brooks genuinely could not remember shooting his sons.

There was, however, clear evidence of premeditation: Brooks had purchased the murder weapon nine days before the murders, lying on his application form where it asked if he’d ever been convicted of a felony. He also turned on the stereo in his apartment and left the music blaring loudly, presumably to drown out the sound of the gunshots. Then, after the murders, Brooks immediately left town, taking documents he would need to start a new life — clearly suggesting cognizance of guilt.

The prosecution conceded Brooks did have schizophrenia, but argued that his illness was not so severe as to make him incompetent or legally insane, and that he was lying when he said he couldn’t remember committing the murders. Attorneys for the state suggested he murdered his children to spite his wife, “through a twisted sense of jealousy, hatred, or despair.”

Brooks’s ex-wife, Beverly, witnessed his execution. He had no last words, but he did give a message: glaring at the glass behind which the witnesses were standing, he stuck out the middle fingers of both hands. And as he slowly lost consciousness and breathed his last, his middle fingers still stood erect.

* The Texas of the North when it comes to capital punishment.

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1888: William Showers, “pathetic soul”

Add comment November 14th, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1888, after a hearty breakfast of beefsteak, eggs, sweet potatoes and coffee, William Showers became the eighth man judicially hanged in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania.

He had been condemned for the murder of his grandson, William “Willie” Kahler. An account of his trial and death, assembled by the Lebanon County Historical Society, describes the condemned man as he appeared on the day of his execution: “The aged Bill Showers [he was sixty-two] looked like what he was, a pathetic soul. He was only five feet two inches in height and weighed less than one hundred twenty-five pounds.”

Showers had been dealt a hard hand in life, and he didn’t have a good reputation among his neighbors in the village of Annville. Much to the shame of the family, his only daughter Sara had borne six children out of wedlock. Sara died young in 1886, and her father was left in charge of two of her children: six-year-old Willie Kahler and his brother, Samuel “Sammy” Speraw, age four. (What happened to the other four children has not been recorded.)

Bill Showers was a widower by then. For about six months, with the help of his son and his daughter-in-law, Showers did the best he could to provide a home for his grandsons.

But in April 1887, Showers’s son and his wife stopped helping him care for Willie and Sammy. Bill had never wanted the boys in the first place, and he couldn’t afford to feed them on his own.

For about a month the three of them lived alone and Bill tried to get someone to take the children off his hands. He tried a few different foster homes, but he couldn’t afford to pay the foster parents for the boys’ keep. He took them to an orphanage, but they were refused admission. The county almshouse rejected them also.

Bitter and desperate, Bill complained to a friend, “If no one will take them, I have one place to put them. I won’t be a damned fool and raise other people’s children.”

In mid-May, however, Showers’s normally sulky and reclusive attitude suddenly changed and he went to the neighbors and cheerfully announced that he had finally found another home for the children. Two brothers in Schuylkill County were willing to adopt them and take them to Texas to start a new life, and they would be out of Bill’s hair forever. Showers asked his daughter-in-law to mend the boys’ clothing in preparation for their journey.

Then, on May 17, he borrowed the local minister’s buggy and set off over the mountains to Sammy and Willie’s new adoptive home. A few of the neighbors noticed Showers riding out of town that morning. They also noticed that he was alone.

By May 30, the good citizens of Annville were suspicious enough to go to the local constable, Joseph Fegan. When Fegan questioned Showers as to the whereabouts of his grandchildren, Bill told them a most extraordinary story: on the way to Schuykill County, he said, he’d encountered two black men and asked them for directions.

He then stopped to water his horses, letting the children out of the buggy as he did so. When he returned to the wagon, Willie and Sammy were gone. He believed they’d been abducted by the two black men. But he never reported their disappearances, he said, because he was “too upset.”

No one believed this wild story, and the people of Annville organized search parties to look for the two children, whom they were sure had been murdered. They found their tiny, nearly naked bodies that very same day, in a ditch only about 70 yards from Showers’s house. They had both been beaten and strangled to death.

Showers was arrested, charged with murder and lodged in the county jail. Which was just as well for him, because his neighbors were inclined to lynch him. His son hired a very able local attorney, Frank Seltzer, to defend him. Seltzer selected Frank Lanz, a former state senator, as co-counsel.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania charged the defendant only with the murder of Willie. The idea was that if they lost that case, they could go forward and try Showers for the murder of Sammy.

The trial date was in mid-June, and the first thing Showers’s attorneys did was move that it be delayed. As the Lebanon County Historial Society puts it:

Seltzer…had a different view of the situation. He rose and objected to the call of the case with a voice that could be heard in the county jail one-half block away. Promptly and resignedly, his tone of voice changed. As if explaining a baptismal font to a heathen, he told the judges that he and Senator Lantz had been retained for less than a week. Their request for a continuance was not made :in the spirit of vexatious delay” but rather for lack of time to prepare the case for trial and, of prime importance, the inability to have a fair trial in the county at the time in light of the prevailing rumors. Adverse pretrial publicity, pleaded Seltzer, rendered a fair trial impossible at this time.

[The prosecutor] Ehrgood replied to Seltzer that he had been given prompt notice he was going to press for immediate trial and Seltzer would have ample time to prepare, since it was only Monday and he would not be ready for trial until the following Thursday. This was a concession which Seltzer and Lantz hardly appreciated.

The judge agreed with the defense, and set a new trial date for September. This would give time for his lawyers to prepare, and maybe for the rumor mill to stop spinning. These were some of the stories floating around:

  • Seltzer murdered his wife in 1886.
  • He also killed his daughter Sara, Willie and Sammy’s mother.
  • He was in love with a local seamstress, Elizabeth Sargent, and killed his family members to get them out of the way so he could marry her.

The press didn’t help matters.

Headlines in the local papers included shockers like “Annville the Scene of a Murder Most Foul!” and “William Showers Dyes His Hands with His Grandchildren’s Blood!”

During the summer of 1887, Showers’s attorney, Seltzer, fell ill and was confined to bed, unable to assist with the defense. It seemed unlikely that the trial would really take place in September. Perhaps Showers couldn’t stand the suspense anymore, for on September 23 he summoned his sons Stephen and William Jr. to the jail, along with the lawyer Luther F. Houck.

Showers made an oral confession to all of them, speaking in his native German, and Houck wrote it down and translated it into English.

The substance of Showers’s confession was that Elizabeth Sargent had agreed to marry him on the condition that he got rid of the boys, and they had agreed to kill them. Elizabeth, he said, helped him strangle Willie and Sammy and dump their bodies in a pre-dug grave.

In court later that day, Showers pleaded guilty to both murders, and his confession was read out for everyone to hear. Elizabeth Sargent was in the audience and she leaped up and shouted, “That’s a lie!” The judge had her removed from the courtroom. The next day she and her parents took a train out of town. Because Showers had implicated her and the police weren’t sure as to whether she was involved in the children’s deaths, the court issued a bench warrant for her arrest.

The townspeople, however, didn’t believe Showers’s second story any more than they had his first one. They were convinced of Elizabeth’s innocence. She subsequently reappeared and presented an alibi, proving she had not been with Showers on the dates he specified in his statement.

When he heard the news about his client, Selzer rose from his sickbed and rushed to court to try to undo the damage. He begged the judge not to accept the guilty plea. In private, Showers told his attorney the confession was completely untrue and he made up the story because he’d been sick and weak, and people who visited him in jail told him he would be hanged if he didn’t own up to what he did.

Selzer’s argument persuaded the judge: Showers’s guilty plea was withdrawn. He finally went to trial on December 15, 1887.

He testified on his own behalf and gave yet another bizarre story, this time implicating a local man named George Matterness and his dead daughter Sara’s husband, a man named Huffnagle. He said Matterness and Hufnagle, along with two other men in blackface, had visited Showers’s home on the night of May 17 and lead Willie and Sammy out of the house. Matterness, Showers said, had later told him the children were buried in the ditch. Showers had told no one about this before because Hufnagle had repeatedly threatened his life.

The prosecution immediately called George Matterness as a rebuttal witness. Matterness, a teacher, freely admitted he knew Showers slightly, but said the whole story was a lie and he was baffled as to why the old man would have implicated him.

Given the circumstances, it’s surprising the jury actually deliberated till midnight and then on to 8:00 a.m. the next morning before pronouncing Showers guilty.

He told Seltzer, “I’m glad they didn’t find me innocent so they can’t go ahead and try me on the indictment for the murder of Sammy.” He expressed hope that he would prevail on appeal, but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied him and the governor quickly issued a death warrant.

Three hundred people were allowed into the prison courtyard to witness the execution. Thousands more clogged the streets around the jail into a “solid mass of morbid minded humanity bent on seeing Bill Showers tripped into endless time.”

The morbid mass got its wish. The small, slight man fell only three feet, and his neck was not broken. He strangled slowly for seventeen minutes.

As Showers’s sons all refused to take custody of the body, he was buried on the grounds of the county almshouse. This was the same institution that had refused to accept his grandsons, an act that would have saved their lives.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Murder,Other Voices,Pennsylvania,USA

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2010: Farid Baghlani, womanslayer

1 comment November 13th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 2010, Farid Baghlani was hanged in Ahvaz for a 2004-2008 serial murder spree that claimed the lives of six women.

At trial, Baghlani openly attributed his crimes to his hatred for women, probably not a defense calculated to maximize his prospects of acquittal. Those who lost loved ones to Baghlani returned the sentiment, and celebrated his execution by handing out sweets.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Iran,Murder,Ripped from the Headlines,Serial Killers

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