This morning in 1900, Bury ironturner Joseph Holden was executed at Manchester’s Strangeways Prison for the murder of his grandson.
“The convict’s sanity had been in some doubt,” in the bloodless words of the next day’s London Times. To read it a century later is to see a man deeply in need of help.
It was his married daughter Mary Dawes who tried to give it to him by taking him in under her own roof after Holden was reduced to living in a workhouse.
In August of 1900 he took another of his grandchildren — not by Mary Dawes — to a quarry to cut tobacco, then hurled a stone that hit the child in the head. George Eldred was badly injured, but survived.
The mental deterioration betokened by such behavior must have put Mary Dawes or any other kin with an interest in the patriarch’s well-being into a terrible bind. What resources of state or charity could they have called upon, short of consigning him to the miasma of some gaol? At 57 years of age, Holden was already 10 years past the male life expectancy for the time and looked still older thanks to the ravages of alcoholism. Maybe Mary thought that having him at her hearth would stabilize him well enough to dignify whatever little measure of life remained to her father.
That is nothing but a speculative assessment of these bare and tragic facts: Mary Dawes took her father in; days later, on September 5, Mary’s father took Mary’s son John to a quarry and drowned him.
Hampshire Advertiser, September 12, 1900.
Holden’s only defense — practically the only one really available to him — was insanity. But Holden wasn’t starkers; his mind perambulated that foggy wilderness between lucidity and dementia and this was simply insufficient disturbance for the then-prevailing legal standard of madness, the M’Naghten Test. Basically, if he could understand what he’d done, he was sane enough to hang. Still to this day the basis of competency assessments in much of the English-speaking world, M’Naghten offers only a narrow ground for avoiding the full measure of criminal responsibility. And Holden was clearly competent enough by that test; indeed, he had complained of his treatment in Mary’s house, hinting at a real motive.
Although Holden’s death sentence was automatic upon the unhelpful sanity assessment of the doctors,* he was thought a prime candidate for a reprieve from the Home Secretary. This too did not materialize; Holden’s own contrition and resignation to his fate in the days leading up to the execution might have contributed to the judgment that he was in fact sane enough to die. That’s some catch: the best there is.
A murderer named Oscar Mattson — a Russian sailor who had slain a young English prostitute named Mary Ann Macguire in a rage over stolen money and rebuffed advances — did win a Home Secretary reprieve on the same day that Holden hanged.
* It was only necessary for doctors to find him competent enough to make his own plea. When they did so, he simply pleaded guilty.
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.
In the countryside, forced collectivization implemented in 1960 produced resistance all its own. Agricultural output plummeted (the knock-on effects of a 1959 drought helped too); according to Patrick Major’s Behind the Berlin Wall: East Germany and the Frontiers of Power, groceries and everyday household items became markedly more difficult to procure in the early 1960s, sapping productivity throughout the economy as city workers queued for hours and black-market exchanges proliferated.
Following the Soviet Union’s great tradition of attributing economic trouble to running-dog wreckers, East Germany introduced the death penalty for politically motivated economic sabotage* — for example, the 206 cases of arson it attributed among 862 rural fires in 1960. (Figures as per Major.)
Our figure today, Gottfried Strympe, fell foul of these laws. In reality, he was no cackling secret agent but a disturbed loner.
He lurked about the eastern city of Bautzen opportunistically by turns the petty thief or the peeping tom.
Unfortunately for Strympe, who did some spells in psychiatric wards, his deviance extended past the titillation of spying a Housefrau in her bustier to the much more menacing diversions of pyromania.
The poor man needed a social worker; what he got was the executioner. The charge sheet dramatically attributed his 28 acts of arson (crimes that each caused only minor property damage, and no human casualties) to the inspiration of “West German and American imperialists.”
Strympe, you see, had often visited a father (deceased in 1958) in West Berlin, back before the Wall sealed that city. Of course on those trips, Strympe picked over a Whitman’s sampler of western decadences, from pornography to Social Democracy. On this basis, the Stasi attributed his incendiarism to “terrorism” rooted in “an antisocial attitude strengthened by his stays in West Berlin.”
Strympe had a public show trial, the better that “the population of Bautzen will recognize the danger of communication and travel to West Berlin” (with props of said population — workers’ and civic groups — obligingly supplying the requisite demands for the traitor’s execution).
He was beheaded by Fallbeil at Leipzig on June 21, 1962.
* See Politische Strafjustiz in der Ära Ulbricht: Vom bekennenden Terror zur verdeckten Repression by Falco Werkentin.
On this day in 1962, 30-year-old Henry Adolph Busch went to the gas chamber at San Quentin State Prison in California.
Condemned for the murder of his aunt, he had in fact slaughtered three Hollywood women and nearly killed a fourth.
Busch’s childhood was about what you would expect for a multiple murderer. Born Charles C. Hutchinson, he spent the first six years of his life being passed around to various foster homes before he was adopted by his much older half-sister, Mae E. Busch, and her husband Henry.
He emerged from those first six years emotionally scarred, and physically too: emaciated and with a deformed jaw. (En route to his adult “rat-like” face, enormous ears, and scrawny physique “like a string bean.”)
Years six through adulthood were no treat, either. Schoolmates teased young Henry about his appearance, and he had serious problems with his adoptive mother: one evaluation noted that Mae was a cold parent and “usual maternal feeling between mother and son seemed totally lacking.”
The youth also had difficulty maintaining concentration and suffered from terrible headaches, so it’s no wonder he did badly at school. He joined the Army but was dishonorably discharged; after that he became an optical technician and was viewed as “an excellent lens polisher” and a good employee.
Busch blurs the line between “spree killer” and “serial killer” (the former being itself a poorly defined medium between serial killer and mass murderer). He knew all of his victims, which isn’t typical for a serial murderer. Four months passed between his first and his second murders, but he went on to kill two women and attack a third within the space of three days.
That first victim was 72-year-old woman named Elmira Myrtle Miller, whom Henry had known since he was a child. On May 2, 1960, he dropped by her house and they watched The Ed Sullivan Show together. According to Busch, during the TV program he began to have irresistible thoughts of killing the old woman.
So he did. When Miller turned around to cover up her birdcages for the night, Busch seized her and strangled her to death. He pulled her housecoat up over her waist and tore her underclothes in an attempt to make the murder look like a sex crime, but made no attempt to molest her body.
Elmira’s murder baffled the police; months passed, without any solid leads.
On September 4, the 29-year-old Busch was in his adopted mother’s apartment building when he encountered 65-year-old Shirley Payne, who also lived there. He asked her out on a date to see the hot new film Psycho.
They watched the movie, went to his apartment and had sex. As Payne was getting ready to leave, Busch, again, jumped her from behind and strangled her. He wrapped the body in a sheet and stowed it under the sink temporarily. Fluid was oozing from Shirley’s eyes and nose, so the next day he bought a waterproof sleeping bag and put the body inside it.
Now getting the hang of this murder thing, Busch drank the draught deeply. The very next evening, he went to visit his favorite aunt, Margaret Briggs … and brought along a knife and a pair of handcuffs. They watched television until the early morning hours. He wanted to tell Margaret about Shirley’s murder and ask for advice, but when he started to confide in her she told him that, whatever his problem was, she was too tired to talk about it tonight.
So he strangled her too. After her death, he cut the clothing off her body. The police would subsequently discover numerous bruises and some cigarette burns on the corpse, something Busch never explained.
Henry went to sleep in Aunt Margaret’s bed. The next day he drove her car to work, where he asked a co-worker, 49-year-old Magdalena A. Parra, if she’d like to grab a coffee with him before their shift started. She agreed and got in his car, and immediately he tried to throttle her.
Magdalena was able to fight him off, however, and her screams caught the attention of two truck drivers. Busch bolted from the car; the truckers gave chase. He only went around the corner before he gave up and allowed them to catch him. The police initially thought Busch had just been trying to steal Mrs. Parra’s purse, but, he immediately confessed to the attempted homicide as well as the murders he’d committed during the previous 48 hours. He would eventually cop to Elmira’s slaying too.
In the aftermath of his arrest, predictably, the newspapers suggested Psycho might have given Busch the idea to attack Mrs. Payne. But it’s hard to reconcile the blame-the-movie idea with the inconvenient fact that he had killed before the movie was even released. When asked for comment, Psycho‘s director Alfred Hitchcock said violence was ubiquitous in cinema and his movie wasn’t any more likely to cause someone to commit murder than any other film.
When a doctor, William J. Bryan, examined him prior to his trial, Henry Busch said he’d been wanting to kill someone for years, but had always kept the urges in check, except for one time in the Army when he killed a POW. He said he probably would have kept killing people if he hadn’t been caught in the act with Mrs. Parra, and that he’d had his eye on his landlady for his next victim.
Dr. Bryan (who, it should be noted, was an expert hypnotist but not a psychiatrist) diagnosed the defendant with a schizoid personality and said he didn’t think Busch was capable of forming the intent to commit murder. Bryan suggested Busch’s murders, all of women significantly older than he, were inspired by Henry’s mommy issues: “The killings themselves seem to represent an attempt to possess the desired maternal object, at the same time destroying the power of the object to hurt.”
The state argued that Busch knew exactly what he was doing and was motivated not by mental illness but by pure and simple sadism. The prosecution suggested Shirley Payne had been raped before her death, a contention unsupported by the medical evidence.
In the end he was convicted of attempted murder of Mrs. Parra, second-degree murder in the Miller and Payne cases, and first-degree murder in the case of his aunt. The sentence was death.
Dispute about Henry Busch’s mental state continued as he waited to die. His mother, who testified that he had never been normal, appealed on his behalf. Even his fellow denizens of death row sent a petition to Governor Edmund “Pat” Brown, saying they thought Henry’s life should be spared because it was obvious to them he was mentally ill. But the governor decided to let the law take its course.
Julius was the Matthews family’s only slave and was apparently mentally disabled; Rebecca said he had “but half sense” and John said he “had just sense enough to be a good negro.”
Both John and Rebecca emphasized that Julius was docile, obedient and apparently quite attached to his owners, who had three small children. They were baffled when he brutally assault Rebecca and tried to kill her.
On the day of the attack, John was absent. Julius went out corn-shucking with Littlebury Fallin and his uncle William Fallin, both of them white men. He came home at 6:00 p.m., drunk, did some household chores and made a large fire in the fireplace.
At 7:00, Rebecca heard some whistles outside the house and asked Julius what was going on. He said he didn’t know. He went outside and returned with an ax, saying he would use it to defend Rebecca if they were attacked. Rebecca locked the doors and windows, then sat at her spinning wheel for awhile.
When she bent over to pick something up, Julius grabbed her by the throat and said he was going to kill her, take all the money in the house and run away to a free state. He tried to throw her into the fireplace, saying he’d made the fire to burn her body.
There followed a fierce struggle and Rebecca put up a good fight. She was able to wrestle the ax away from her attacker, unlock the door and run outside. Julius tried to brain her with a large rock but he dropped it when she grabbed his arm. He then tried to stab her with a pocketknife but wound up accidentally cutting his own throat instead. Rebecca wrapped her hands around his neck and choked him until she felt him lapse into unconsciousness.
Then she grabbed her youngest daughter, age three, and legged it for a neighbor’s house. As she ran she noticed Littlebury and William Fallin right behind her.
In the state of Tennessee, even a slave was entitled to a lawyer at a criminal trial. John Matthews refused to appoint counsel for Julius, so the state appointed two lawyers to defend him. (One of them, Alfred O. P. Nicholson, would later serve two terms in the Senate and, after that, on the Tennessee Supreme Court.)
Julius expressed great remorse for his crime, saying he would never have done it sober and he wished Rebecca had killed him. At his trial, he confessed everything and implicated the Fallins, saying that they’d gotten him drunk during the corn-shucking and urged him to rob and kill his mistress.
William, who lived in Kentucky, promised to help him get to a free state. The whistles, Julius explained, had been signals from the Fallins that they were outside the cabin waiting for him to kill Rebecca.
Littlebury testified and denied everything. William did not testify. Neither man ever faced charges for their alleged role in the crime.
The jury convicted Julius after deliberating overnight, but they recommended mercy on account of his youth, his prior good character and the suspicion that he had been lead astray by others. Nevertheless, the sentence was death.
As Julius was awaiting his execution date, help came from an unlikely source: John Matthews, his owner and the husband of the victim. He wrote to the governor, Newton Cannon, asking that the errant slave be pardoned so Matthews could sell him. He listed the following reasons:
The negro is shown to have had a most excellent character.
He was quite young.
He was proved to have but a very limited portion of intellect.
He was shown to be in liquor and the circumstances raised a strong presumption that he was induced by white men to drink for the very purpose of being instigated to commit the murder.
The circumstances rendered it certain that he was instigated by white men, and with his limited
sense, and in liquor, that he was almost a passive instrument in their hands.
He was the only slave of his master.
That last might have been the nub of it. Matthews emphasized that if Julius were hanged and his owners got no compensation — and the state of Tennessee never compensated an executed slave’s owner for the economic loss — the family would suffer greatly. This created an odd confluence of interest between the condemned slave and the one-slave family whose matron he had attempted.
John Matthews expressed confidence that Julius “was not himself when he did the act” and added that it seemed unreasonable “to take away a life when no murder had been committed.”
Going against Matthews’s letter was a petition from the citizens of Maury County, asking that justice take its course and Julius be executed. Julius had had a fair trial, the petition said. Sparing his life and merely selling him on would not only endanger public safety but would also set a bad example for other slaves: “For what is to restrain the slave from imbuing his hands on his masters’ blood, with whom he is incensed, if he had good reason to believe that his punishment, if caught, is to only be a change of masters, and a chance that the may be for the better?”
The governor ignored John Matthews’s plea and upheld the rule of law: Julius was hanged at 2:30 p.m. on March 1, and his master was not reimbursed. On the scaffold, the young slave “confessed his guilt, and deplored his error; spoke of his mistress with much tenderness and warned the colored persons present to remember his fate.”
Samuel Wright and George Townley both murdered romantic partners late in 1863. Both were tried, convicted, and condemned to hang in very short order and both the subjects of intense pressure for a crown commutation of sentence.
Only one of those men hanged. It was 150 years ago today.
Townley lived near Manchester and was courting a young woman named Bessie Goodwin from Derbyshire. Described as a man from a respectable upper middle class family with “refined manners,” and an intelligent linguist* to boot, Townley was nevertheless a rung or two below Miss Goodwin on the wealth and status ladder.
He was, accordingly, frustrated of his designs when the young lady accepted a clergyman’s proposal and broke off her previous engagement to Townley. Despite being disinvited by ex-fiancee, Townley took a train to her village and pressed his company on her. The two went for a walk that evening, and Townley stabbed her in the throat — a fact which he confessed on the scene to the first person who responded to the commotion and found Miss Goodwin staggering towards her home with a fatal gash in her neck.
In the great tradition of weird stalkers everywhere, Townley then helped the Good Samaritan carry the dying woman home, and kissed her tenderly, all the while bemoaning to arriving gawkers his guilt. “She has deceived me, and the woman who deceives me must die,” he responded chillingly to the inquiries of his would-be father-in-law. “I told her I would kill her. She knew my temper.”
This is all a very bad hand to deal a defense barrister.
Having little to work with, his superstar attorney — remember, the family had money — went with an insanity defense, aided by the lunacy diagnosis of prominent psychiatrist Forbes Winslow.** There was some history of insanity in his family, and everyone seemed agreed on the point that Townley didn’t set out with the intent to commit murder, but impulsively — madly? — took that course as he realized during his interview that he would surely not be putting a ring on that.
The legal standard of the time gave no purchase to this sort of thing. Townley’s judge instructed the jury to find insanity only if he “was under delusions … [and] supposed a state of things to exist which did not exist, and whose diseased mind was in such a condition that he acted upon an imaginary existence of things as if those things were real.” This is the M’Naghten rule, a historically pivotal and also highly restrictive insanity definition dating to 1843.
On December 12, 1863 Townley was sentenced to death for the murder, with the hanging scheduled for the approaching New Year’s Day. According to the London Times report the next week (Dec. 18), the sentence “has not made the slightest alteration in his demeanour. He partakes of his meals heartily, sleeps well, and repeatedly asserts that he was perfectly justified in taking away his victim’s life, and that he feels no remorse for the deed.”
Nevertheless, Townley’s well-off family and friends had enough pull to pry open a previously little-known legal escape hatch.
Upon the judge’s own request, the crown empaneled a committee to adjudicate Townley’s sanity for his mercy petition. But a sloppily written law actually allowed any two doctors plus any two magistrates to issue a formal certification of madness which would compel the prisoner’s removal to the asylum. Townley’s own solicitor simply assembled himself a quartet so minded and presented their finding to the Home Secretary, forcing his hand — to a great deal of public outrage once the obscure mechanism became known.
“Good friends and abundant means may give a convicted criminal unexpected advantages over an ordinary offender,” the Times complained in an editorial. (Jan. 27, 1864) Plus ça change.
Samuel Wright was not a man of means or linguistic gifts, but a bricklayer who lived in a Waterloo Road public house in Surrey, on London’s southern outskirts.
On December 13, 1863, he slashed the throat of his live-in lover Maria Green after they’d both been on a drinking bout. On December 16, mere three days later, Wright voluntarily pleaded guilty and received a death sentence.
A hue and cry for Wright’s sentence to be abated soon arose among London’s working classes, especially in the wake of Townley’s commutation. Wright had a good reputation, while Green was known for her violent temper. Wright intimated that she had menaced him with a knife during a quarrel.
Was this not a case like George Townley’s, only more so?
The contrast in the fates between the two murderers did not flatter. The crimes were analogous even to the mode of slaying.† If anything, the rich man’s suggested a more egregious context: Townley’s victim appeared more sympathetic, and Townley had gone out of his way to track her down in order to kill. Why was Townley’s heat of passion “insanity” but Wright’s was motive and deliberation?
The Home Secretary offered his sympathy but not his mercy. After all, Wright himself agreed that he intentionally killed Green. “To commute the sentence on the grounds on which it has been pressed would, in fact, be to lay down a rule of law as to the distinction between murder and manslaughter contrary to that which is well established,” wrote a Home Office spokesman on Jan. 7 in response to three separate petitions submitted on Wright’s behalf. Maybe they thought the same thing about Townley … but that decision was out of their hands.
Friends, for me have persevered,
To save me from the gallows high;
Alas! for me there is no mercy,
Every boon they did deny,
While others who was tried for murder,
And doomed to die upon a tree,
Through friends and money has been pardon’d
who deserved to die as well as me.
But, oh! my friends, you must acknowledge
what I say has oft been said before.
Some laws are made to suit two classes,
One for the rich, one for the poor;
So it is with me and Townley,
A reprieve they quickly granted he,
He was rich, and I was poor, —
And I must face the fatal tree.
The mood of the populace for the hanging at Horsemonger Gaol this date in 1864‡ was decidedly ugly. On the night of the 11th, when it became clear that the many last-ditch bids for commutation — directed not only at the Home Secretary but even to Queen Victoria and even to the Prince of Wales appealing for a boon on the occasion of his first son‘s January 8 birth§ — a handbill circulated in the prison’s neighborhood entreating its denizens to protest the execution by shuttering all windows. “Let Calcraft and Co. do their work this time with none but the eye of Heaven to look upon their crime.”
Indeed this summons was widely obeyed.
A small crowd only turned out for the occasion, and shouted their disgust for the proceedings: “Shame!” and “Judicial murder!” and “Where’s Townley?” Even many months later, at the controversial August 10 hanging of Richard Thomas Parker, the crowd chanted Townley’s name, now the emblem of the unequal justice of the law.
One diarist’s entry for the day recalled that “[t]he blinds were down in all the neighbouring streets and the military were called out in case of an attempted rescue. When the unfortunate man appeared on the scaffold, loud cries of ‘Take him, take him down’ were heard in every direction, to which the unhappy man responded by repeated bows to the multitude, he still continued bowing and was actually bowing when the drop fell.”
The language of the law that permitted Townley his backdoor commutation was revised by Parliament within weeks.
As to Townley himself, another panel appointed by the Home Office found him fully cogent, which meant that officially, he had become insane after his death sentence and the insanity abated thereafter. While this finding theoretically reinstated the death penalty, actually hanging him after these circumstances was thought to be inhumane, and he was reprieved. One supposes there must have been some thought for the potential disturbance Townley’s hanging would have occasioned.
On February 12, 1865 — a year and change after escaping the noose that claimed Samuel Wright — George Townley hurled himself headlong off a high staircase onto a stone floor in Pentonville Prison, where he had been transferred as an ordinary inmate. He died on the spot.
† An additional unflatterering comparison point to Derbyshire contemporaries: a proletarian named Richard Thorley had been hanged in Derby in 1862 for a very similar crime: he slashed his girlfriend’s throat when she tried to break up with him.
‡ Among the very last public hangings at Horsemonger Gaol. All UK hangings were conducted behind prison walls by 1868.
§ This infant, Prince Albert Victor, is the royal eventually identified with Jack the Ripper by a particularly inventive hypothesis.
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.
On this date in 1648, 32-year-old Alice Bishop was hanged on the gallows in Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts for the murder of her young daughter — an apparently motiveless crime which must have shocked her fellow settlers.
Almost nothing is known about Alice’s early life. She probably, although not definitely, came over on the Mayflower. The prevailing theory is that her parents were Mayflower passengers Christopher Martin and Marie Prower. They died within a week of each other in January 1621, before the actual settlement of Plymouth even began.
If that’s the case, Alice had been an orphan for the better part of a year by the time the first Thanksgiving rolled around. She was presumably raised by one of the other families. She would marry twice and have three daughters: Abigail, Martha and Damaris.
By 1648, Alice was living with her second husband, the Plymouth newcomer Richard Bishop, who was Damaris’s father. The family seems to have been unexceptional, just another household trying to eke out a living in a harsh and unforgiving environment.
Somewhere along the line, something went very wrong.
On July 22, 1648, while Richard Bishop was away from home, family friend Rachel Ramsden dropped by the Bishops’ residence and spent some time with Alice. Alice’s four-year-old middle child, Martha Clark, was asleep in bed in the loft, which was accessible by ladder. (Where the other two children were has not been recorded.)
At some point, Alice gave Rachel a kettle and asked her to go fetch some buttermilk from a neighbor’s house.
When Rachel returned, she noticed blood on the floor beneath the ladder. Alice was “sad and dumpish,” and when Rachel asked her what was going on, she wordlessly pointed up at the loft.
Rachel climbed up to have a look: there was blood everywhere; Martha’s mattress was drenched in it.
Rachel fled the house in a panic, found her parents and told them she thought Alice had murdered her daughter. Her father rushed to find the colonial governor. A posse of twelve armed men assembled and went to the Bishop house. By the time the men arrived, Alice was in hysterics.
Ascending to the loft, they found Martha’s body. The child was lying on her left side, “with her throat cut with divers gashes crose wayes, the wind pipe cut and stuke into the throat downward, and the bloody knife lying by the side.” Nothing could be done for her.
Alice freely admitted she had murdered her daughter and said she was sorry for it, but she claimed she had no recollection of the crime. When they asked her why she’d done it, she had no answer for them.
She was the fifth person hanged in the Plymouth Colony, and the first woman.
We will never know why Alice Bishop killed her daughter Martha, and why she did it in such a ferocious manner. One of her descendants has a website about her that attempts to answer that question.
Severe mental illness, perhaps post-partum psychosis, is an obvious answer, but not the only one. The site notes another potentially significant fact: both of Alice’s parents died when she was four years old, and she killed her daughter at the same age.
Richard Bishop survived his wife by nearly a quarter-century. As for the children: youngest child Damaris Bishop grew up, married and had three sons, but Abigail Clark, Alice’s oldest child, vanishes from history after her mother’s execution.
This isn’t exactly the most historically important execution, but as the Newgate Calendar says, “The circumstance which attended the execution of this unfortunate man alone entitles him to a place in our pages, for otherwise his case is void of interest.”
What follows is the Calendar’s entry, which comes verbatim from the Aug. 23 London Times.
He was apprehended for a highway robbery, and convicted at the Old Bailey, when he received sentence of death. From the time of his conviction, he either affected, or suffered, complete insanity; but this did not release him from the consequence of his sentence; and, on Monday, August 22d, 1814, he was executed in front of Newgate, along with William Henry Lye, for burglary; John Mitchell, for forgery; Francis Sturgess, and Michael Mahoney, for highway robbery; and John Field, alias Jonathan Wild [not that one -ed.], for burglary. By half past six o’clock the Old Bailey, and houses adjacent, were crowded to great excess. At half past seven Mahoney was brought forward, for the purpose of being disencumbered of his irons. While his irons were knocking off, it was found necessary to search for a knife to cut some part of the cordage, which confined the irons. Mahoney, seeing this, stooped, and, with an Herculean effort, tore it asunder. This being the only Catholic, the Rev. Mr. Devereux attended him in constant prayer, in which he joined most fervently. Sturgess, Field, and Mitchell, conducted themselves with great propriety. The unfortunate Ashton had been in a state of insanity since the receipt of the awful warrant for his execution. In the Press Yard he distorted his countenance horribly. He was the fifth who mounted the scaffold, and ran up the steps with great rapidity; and, having gained the summit of the platform, began to kick and dance, and often exclaimed, ‘I’m Lord Wellington!’ The Rev. Mr. Cotton, who officiated for the first time as Ordinary, enjoined him to prayer, to which he paid little attention, and continued to clap his hands as far as he was permitted by the extent of the cord. Mitchell often invited him to prayer. All that could be done was ineffectual, and it was necessary to have two men to hold him during the awful ceremony. When they released him for the purpose of the Lord’s Prayer being said, he turned round, and began to dance, and vociferated, Look at me; ‘I am Lord Wellington!’ At twenty minutes past eight o’clock the signal was given, and the platform fell. Scarcely, however, had the sufferers dropped, before, to the awe and astonishment of every beholder, Ashton rebounded from the rope, and was instantaneously seen dancing near the Ordinary, and crying out very loudly, and apparently unhurt, ‘What do ye think of me? Am I not Lord Wellington now?’ then danced, clapped his hands, and huzzaed. At length the executioner was compelled to get up the scaffold, and to push him forcibly from the place which he stood.
Quite a baptism for the Rev. Horace Salusbury Cotton’s very first gig as the Ordinary. Cotton noted Ashton’s remarkable behavior in his execution diary; the relevant pages can be seen here.
Nothing daunted, Cotton enjoyed a 25-year run in the position (he was the cleric Charles Dickens saw at work when the writer visited Newgate in 1835), and “enjoyed” really does seem like the right word. “He was a robust, rosy, well-fed, unctuous individual, whose picture may be seen in Cruikshank‘s plate of the Press yard in Pierce Egan‘s ‘Life in London,'” wrote Horace Bleackley. “His condemned sermons were more terrific than those of any of his predecessors, and he was censured by the authorities for ‘harrowing the prisoner’s feelings unnecessarily’ in the case of Henry Fauntleroy, the banker.”
Dr Cotton, Ordinary of Newgate, Announcing the Death Warrant, by a prisoner named W. Thomson. This 1826 watercolor is at the Tate gallery.
In Lady Hyegyeong’s telling, the tyrannical father warped the sensitive son, sending the latter into a destructive spiral of madness. As the 1750s unfolded, Sado’s behavior grew erratic, violent, and delusional. He was prone to sudden fits of rage, stalked and raped court ladies, and wandered Seoul streets in disguise. He eventually murdered numerous servants, eunuchs, and miscellaneous commoners — even his own concubine. The court lived in terror of the mad prince’s impunity; the ruling dynasty itself stood in peril.
Many years later, the prince’s desperate wife in her autobiography remembered Sado’s own mother finally appealing to the king to do the necessary, unthinkable thing:
“Since the prince’s illness has become quite critical and his case is hopeless, it is only proper that you should protect yourself and the royal grandson, in order to keep the kingdom at peace. I request that you eliminate the prince, even though such a suggestion is outrageous and a sin against humanity.
“It would be terrible for a father to do this in view of the bond of affection between father and son; but it is his illness which is to be blamed for this disaster, and not the prince himself. Though you eliminate him, please exert your benevolence to save the royal grandson, and allow him and his mother to live in peace.
Perhaps to avoid spilling the prince’s blood, the royal lunatic was that very day forced into a sturdy chest in a palace courtyard. The ferocious prince entered it placidly, and his living eyes never again beheld the outside of that box: it was nailed shut and buried. (A recently discovered inscription, however, perhaps implies that the king didn’t actually mean for eight days locked in a box to be fatal. If so, it certainly lends credence to the idea that Sado’s mistreatment in childhood lies behind the later psychotic breaks.)
The royal grandson was indeed spared. When that child, Jeongjo of Joseon, finally succeeded to the throne upon his grandfather’s death in 1776, he wasted little time restoring the honor of his dead father.