Posts filed under 'Diminished Capacity'

1837: The slave Julius, property of John and Rebecca Matthews

1 comment March 1st, 2014 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1837, a slave named Julius, property of John and Rebecca Matthews, was hanged for the attempted murder of his mistress. He was 20 years old. The story of his crime is told in detail in Lewis L. Laska’s Legal Executions in Tennessee: A Comprehensive Registry, 1782-2009.

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:

  1. The negro is shown to have had a most excellent character.
  2. He was quite young.
  3. He was proved to have but a very limited portion of intellect.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.”

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1864: Samuel Wright, by contrast

Add comment January 12th, 2014 Headsman

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.

George Townley

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

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.

In one of the period’s characteristic hanging broadsides, the balladeer has Wright lament,

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.”

Postscript

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.

* Of course, he could never hope to match the linguistic’s fields most famous English murderer.

** You might recognize this distinctive name from our Winslow’s son, L. Forbes Winslow, a figure in the Jack the Ripper investigation.

† 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.

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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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1648: Alice Bishop

Add comment October 4th, 2013 Meaghan

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

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.

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1814: John Ashton, Lord Wellington, at Horace Cotton’s first hanging

Add comment August 22nd, 2013 Headsman

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.

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1762: Crown Prince Sado, locked in a rice chest

1 comment July 4th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1762, the Korean king Yeongjo had his son and heir Crown Prince Sado immured in a rice chest — where he would die after eight excrutiating days.

This bizarre incident, attested by the memoirs of Sado’s widow Lady Hyegyeong, continues to perplex down to the present day.

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.

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1936: Arnold Sodeman, Schoolgirl Strangler

5 comments June 1st, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1936, Australia’s Arnold Karl Sodeman was hanged at Pentridge Prison in Coburg, Victoria.

The “Schoolgirl Strangler” used the same modus operandi on all of his four victims: strangled, gagged with their own clothing, the arms and legs tied after death, and their bodies dumped with little effort at concealment.

Born in 1899, Sodeman was raised in an unhappy home with a violently abusive father. He ran away at the first chance he got.

He went on to get in trouble with the law, for theft-related offenses and prison escape, and the authorities deemed him an “incorrigible rogue” — which was less charming than it sounds.

By his late twenties, Sodeman seemed to have settled down. He worked various laboring jobs, married in 1926 and had a daughter two years later. When sober he was a mild enough man, but under the influence of drink — which was often — he changed into a different person altogether.

However, his marriage was loving and happy, and he adored his little girl and his dog. Whatever else Sodeman might have done, he never mistreated his family.

His law-abiding life, however, didn’t last.

His first victim was twelve-year-old Mena Alexandra Griffiths, whom Sodeman kidnapped, raped and strangled on November 9, 1930. Her body wasn’t found for two days. She was the only victim who was sexually assaulted.

A month later the police arrested a suspect, a truck driver named Robert McMahon. Mena’s younger sister identified him, and he was committed for trial. Ultimately, after two and a half months in custody, he was released for lack of evidence.

But on January 10, 1931, while McMahon was still in jail, Sodeman struck again, abducting and strangling Hazel Wilson, a sixteen-year-old who suffered from tuberculosis. Hazel was last seen standing near her home, smoking a cigarette and horsing around with an unidentified young man. Her body turned up in a nearby vacant lot the next day.

The police put out appeals for the young man to come forward and “assist with their inquiries,” and even offered a reward for information leading to his identification, but their efforts came to nothing.

Hazel’s father, who reportedly had a violent temper, was looked at as a possible suspect in his daughter’s death, but he was cleared.

Although the police recognized the similarities in the Griffiths and Wilson crimes and realized it was probably the same perp in both cases, they had nothing concrete to go on. Both homicide investigations stagnated.

On January 1, 1935, after a four-year dry spell, Sodeman abducted Ethel Belshaw while she was out buying ice cream, and strangled her. She was twelve. He was her next-door neighbor and sometimes had tea with her family.

Sodeman was actually questioned by the police and admitted he had spoken to Ethel on the day she disappeared, but he said he’d left her alive, and nobody pressed him about it.

Instead, investigators focused on a teenage boy who had given contradictory statements about his movements on the day of the murder. He was arrested and charged with killing Ethel, but there was no evidence against him and the case was dismissed after a couple of days.

Left to right: Mena Griffiths, Ethel Belshaw, and June Rushmer. (Not pictured: Hazel Wilson.)

Exactly eleven months later, on December 1, he killed his last and youngest victim, six-year-old June Rushmer.

This victim he also knew slightly: she was a co-worker’s daughter, and Sodeman took it in his mind to kill her after she asked him for a ride on his bicycle.

(The Belshaws and the Rushmers couldn’t afford tombstones for their daughters. It wasn’t until more than seventy-five years later that the Australian Funeral Directors Association donated bronze plaques to mark their graves.)

It should be noted that Sodeman was drunk at the time of all four murders. “When in this state,” he reflected later, “thoughts would go through my mind concerning men, women and children whom I disliked … I would feel the desire to even it up, not caring what happened to them, but I would shake it off. As soon as the liquor wore off I could reason properly and would wipe it all off.”

At the time of the Rushmer homicide, Sodeman was part of a laboring crew repairing roadways.

Shortly after June’s murder, one of his coworkers joked that he’d seen Sodeman near the crime scene. Sodeman became so angry and defensive that the others got suspicious and went to the police. The cops hauled him away from his work site for questioning.

This time the police had finally got the right man. After twelve hours of interrogation, Sodeman confessed to everything in great detail, describing how he would link his thumbs together to get a better grip on the throats of his victims. He correctly identified the exact type of candy he’d used to lure the girls. He also admitted to the attempted murders of two other children.

At trial, Sodeman’s attorney had little choice but to go with an insanity defense. Sodeman certainly had the genetic background for it:

  • His great-grandfather died of “inflammation of the brain.”
  • His grandfather died in a mental hospital.
  • So did his father.
  • Annnnnd his mother suffered from serious short-term memory loss.

Sodeman himself had bouts of depression throughout his life, and he sustained a serious brain injury years before the murders started when he fell off a horse.

According to author Ivan Chapman, at Sodeman’s trial,

Three doctors — two of them Government medical officers — examined Sodeman and gave their individual opinions. One thought he had a brain disorder that flared when he drank alcohol; another decided he was neither conscious of, nor understood, what he was doing; the third believed Sodeman was not responsible for what he did. All three doctors backed down, however, when Sodeman’s confession was produced in court. They agreed that if it accurately described the facts of the crime, then Sodeman must have appreciated the nature and quality of his acts; none of them was prepared to declare him certifiably insane.

The verdict was, inevitably, sane and guilty as charged.

Although he did appeal his conviction, that went nowhere and Sodeman himself seems to have welcomed death. He said he felt it was necessary for him to die, because if he lived he believed he would kill again.

Sodeman spent the last afternoon of his life playing draughts with another condemned man, then slept soundly during the night. On the scaffold the next morning, when asked if he had anything to say for himself, Sodeman replied simply, “No, sir.” He died without any fuss.

His widow reverted to her maiden name after his death, hoping to escape the notoriety, and raised their daughter alone. She never remarried, and died in the 1980s.

The autopsy did uncover something interesting: it turned out Sodeman had suffered from leptomeningitis, a degenerative disease of the brain. When a person with this condition abuses alcohol, their brain can become seriously inflamed, which can cause irrational behavior among other symptoms.

Needless to say, the finding casts serious doubts on Sodeman’s ability to control his actions at the time of the murders. In fact, according to one criminal psychologist, Sodeman wouldn’t have even been found fit to stand trial if his crimes had occurred today.

But it was too late to do anything about it.

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2005: Glen James Ocha, poorly endowed

Add comment April 5th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 2005, Glen James Ocha took a lethal injection on account of his tiny penis.

It’s true. Ocha on Ocober 5, 1999 picked up a Kissimmee, Fla., barmaid named Carol Skjerva and got her (consensually) into bed.

But Skjerva sent his manhood meter to half mast by busting on Ocha’s unimpressive junk and threatening to tell her boyfriend, who was probably the kind of guy who wouldn’t stand for another man rogering his girl with a mere gherkin.

It’s sad but true that we can’t all wear magnums, and probably most on the hung-like-a-mouse side of the spectrum would prefer not to broadcast the fact to the wide world. But here’s a tip it might have done Glen Ocha well to reflect upon: one good way of keeping strangers in the dark about the paltry dimensions of your John Thomas is not to get yourself arrested for strangling and beheading a woman who makes fun of the paltry dimensions of your John Thomas.

Adolescent chortling aside, this was obviously quite a horrible tragedy for Carol Skjerva, as well as the boyfriend (actually her fiance). Nor was genitalia the only compromised characteristic of the murderer, who was high on ecstasy at the time this all happened and had a history of psychiatric problems and suicidal ideation, all circumstances that comport well with Ocha’s decision to sit his victim’s decapitated head in his lap for a little post-mortem conversation.

This gentleman went right onto suicide watch in the prison, but they needn’t have worried: Ocha was more than ready to work within the system. He confessed to the murder, pled guilty at trial, and dropped all appeals past the minimum required by law, hastening his trip to Florida’s gurney. (Along the way he legally changed his name to Raven Raven.)

His final statement:

I would like to say I apologize to Carol Skjerva, the girl that I murdered, her family and her friends. This is the punishment that I deserve. I’m taking responsibility for my actions. I want everybody to know I’m not a volunteer but this is my responsibility I have to take.

(Meanwhile, he released a last written statement, reading “I unjustly took the life of Carol Skjerva. I have made my peace with my God and go now to face His judgment.”)

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a Catholic just as Ocha was, said he was actually prepared to delay the execution out of respect to the April 2 passing of Pope John Paul II. Ocha, the determined volunteer, had no interest in any delay.

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1836: Abraham Prescott, homicidal somnabulist

Add comment January 6th, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1836, Abraham Prescott was hanged in Hopkinton, New Hampshire.

His crime was sensational at the time; the trial record can be viewed here. The slaying was horrifying in and of itself, and there was the added element of betrayal: Prescott had turned on the people who had treated him like kin.

A gentleman farmer, Chauncey Cochran, had taken Abraham Prescott in during his mid-teens and given him a place to stay on his farm in Pembroke, New Hampshire. In return, Prescott worked for Cochran on the farm.

This relationship continued amicably for three years, and Abraham grew very close to Chauncey and his wife, Sally. They trusted him and treated him like a son.

Our story begins on January 6, 1833, three years to the day before Prescott swung. During the early morning hours, Prescott took an ax and struck Chauncey and Sally in the head as they slept. Either he didn’t mean to kill them or he didn’t know how to aim, because he delivered glancing blows that merely caused considerable bruising and bleeding.

Abraham told them he’d been sleepwalking, and he hadn’t even realized he’d attacked his master and mistress until he saw Chauncey rising up from the bed, covered in blood. He wasn’t the first person on these pages to use the sleepwalking defense, but Abraham’s wild story actually worked — that time, anyway.

Perhaps the Cochrans were blinded by their affection for their employee. Perhaps they simply had no common sense. In any case, they accepted Prescott’s explanation and didn’t summon the police or even dismiss him. After he axed them both in bed. Most bosses would probably consider that a one-strike offense.

A report of this “unhappy and and almost unheard-of occurrence of somnambulism” was actually published in the New Hampshire Patriot several days later. Even after subsequent events cast the incident in a very sinister light, Chauncey still referred to it as “the accident.”

Several months passed and Prescott behaved normally, diligently working on the farm and causing no trouble. Then, on June 23, Sally asked him to go with her on a berry-picking expedition.

They set off together, and several hours later he came home alone and visibly agitated.

When asked what was wrong, Abraham said he’d been bothered by a toothache and lay down against a tree to rest. He evidently fell asleep, and when he woke up Sally was lying prone. Abraham had been sleepwalking again, and had clubbed her with a three-foot wooden stake, and he thought he’d killed her.

This time Chauncey didn’t give Prescott the benefit of doubt. The eighteen-year-old found himself jailed and charged with capital murder.

Abraham Prescott’s lawyer went for the insanity defense, focusing on his culpability rather than his actions. Prescott was not terribly bright and may have actually been developmentally disabled. Various witnesses testified that there was mental illness in his family. Abraham’s mother said he’d had hydrocephalus as an infant and had sleepwalked frequently during his childhood. Several doctors testified about somnambulism and insanity, and how the defendant could be a good example of both, although they were all speaking theoretically as none of them had examined him.

(Fun fact: one of the expert witnesses was George Parkman, who was himself the victim of a homicide sixteen years later and is featured elsewhere on these pages.)

The prosecution had a much easier time of it: they had a very good case that Prescott had murdered his mistress deliberately. His attempt to conceal her body suggested he knew the wrongfulness of his actions. He was under the impression that he stood to inherit everything if the Cochrans died (since they said he was “like family”).

Vis-à-vis the sleepwalking, Abraham’s own statements contradicted each other. When questioned right after his arrest, he had provided a much more straightforward account of what happened, one that didn’t involve somnambulism: Abraham said that while he and Sally were picking berries, he had done or said something “improper” to her and she threatened to tell her husband. He killed her because he was afraid he would be sent to prison if Chauncey found out about it.

(Prescott subsequently retracted that statement and went back to the sleepwalking story.)

Even after conviction, however, questions remained. Several reprieves were issued while the state tried to figure out whether or not he was crazy and, if so, how crazy. He copped a retrial because the first jury that convicted him had been improperly exposed to the popular belief in Prescott’s guilt by virtue of being barracked at a local pub. The sentencing judge at his last trial remarked on the court’s meticulous solicitation of “the most experienced witnesses, in our own and neighboring States, to throw upon the secret operations and sudden derangements of the mind, and all the evidence which the highest records of the history of man could furnish.”

Prescott spent in all two years awaiting execution, a very long time in those days. In the end, however, the law decided that Prescott knew what he was doing that day in the strawberry patch, and he had to die.

We will never know for sure why he killed Sally Cochran. The only thing that can be said with certainty is that Abraham Prescott was a very troubled young man.

A large crowd braved a snowstorm to watch him die.

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1929: Myles Fukunaga

Add comment November 19th, 2012 Headsman

This date in 1929 saw the hanging of a Shakespeare-quoting, suicidal kidnapper for “the most brutal murder in the history of Hawaii”. It was among the last civil executions in Hawaii.

As detailed in the 1991 essay “A Short History of Hawaiian Executions, 1826-1947″ (pdf) by Joseph Theroux, a resource we’ve touched on before and which also includes a full list of 75 known legal executions in Hawaii during that period:*

[I]n the death of Gil Jamieson, who had been kidnapped by a mad youth who filled his ransom letters with quotations from the Shakespearen play [Macbeth]: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / that struts and frets his hour upon the stage / and then is heard no more …”

The victim had his skull chiseled in and was strangled and left near Seaside Avenue in Waikiki.

The murderer and author of the letters was captured some days later, tried, convicted, and sentenced to hang, all within three weeks. This feat was facilitated because his lawyers, Beebe and Huber, offered no defense and called no witnesses. The jury included members who were part of the search party and the victim’s bodyguard and gravedigger. A Navy psychiatrist offered to testify for the defense but was rebuffed. The medical examiner was also the prosecution psychiatrist, Doctor Robert Faus. He testified that past suicide attempts by Miles Fukunaga were “normal.” Despite protests and appeals, Fukunaga was hanged.

Ten years earlier, a well-known local haole athlete, David Buick, found himself down on his luck. He ordered a taxi driver, one Ito Suzuki, to drive out of Honolulu proper to a place called Red Hill. He ordered the man to stop the car and get out. He pointed a gun at the driver and robbed him of one dollar. When Suzuki turned to flee, Buick shot him in the back. Before he died, the taxi driver identified Buick a the gunman. The charge was eventually reduced to second degree murder, and Buick is said to have returned to the Mainland following his jail time.

In both cases, there was premeditation, kidnapping, murder, and flight. Fukunaga willingly confessed and indeed showed extreme remorse. Buick never confessed or showed the slightest regret over his actions. But Fukunaga had murdered a fine boy of a prominent haole family.** Buick had only murdered a middle-aged Japanese taxi driver.

This shocking crime — Fukunaga openly cited the notorious Leopold and Loeb murder and the more recent Hickman kidnapping as his models — ratcheted up ethnic tensions in Hawaii between whites, especially elite whites, and Japanese.

The Japanese community’s newspaper Hochi mounted a vigorous clemency campaign emphasizing sentencing differences like that vis-a-vis Buick. “If Myles Fukunaga is hanged it will not be because he killed a human being,” the paper editorialized. (pdf) “It will be because he killed the son of the vice-president of one of our big trust companies and because his victim was a white boy.”

* Ethnic data of those 75 executed: 24 Hawaiian; 24 Filipino; 9 Japanese; 6 Korean; 5 Chinese; 3 Puerto Rican; 3 unknown; 1 Caucasian.

** Gill Jamieson’s father, Frederick Jamieson, was a vice president of the Hawaiian Trust Company (since folded into the Bank of Hawaii). According to Kokugo Gakko in, the targeting of a bankster family by a frustrated working-class youth (Fukunaga was reportedly logging 80-hour weeks in menial jobs, having been forced to quit school in his teens to support his family) was no coincidence at all.

In terms of his motives he said that revenge had been foremost in his mind. In 1928 his parents had been unable to meet monthly rental payments. The Hawaiian Trust company served as the collecting agent for their landlord and had sent a rent collector to the Fukunaga family to demand full payment of back rent. Humiliated and ashamed, Fukunaga bitterly resented the bank’s action and, on learning that Vice President Frederick W. Jamieson had a son, he decided to seek revenge … by kidnapping and murdering the boy. Fukunaga also confessed to another motive. As the eldest son of seven children, Fukunaga stated that he had felt a filial obligation to help his poor parents … he had hoped to accomplish this filial act with the ransom money.

All this might tend to militate against the “insanity” defense, which Fukunaga himself energetically rejected.

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