Posts filed under 'Diminished Capacity'

1894: Patrick Prendergast, mayor-murderer

Add comment July 13th, 2020 Headsman

Patrick Eugene Joseph Prendergast, a madman who assassinated the mayor of Chicago, was hanged on this date in 1894.

Prendergast seems to have been a mentally unbalanced character from his early childhood; one might speculatively attribute it to a youthful head injury, or the very early death of his father, or the strains of an impecunious life that pushed his mother to migrate from Ireland to New York.

The year of our Lord 1893 finds him making his way as a newspaper distributor and fixated on the election of Carter Harrison, Sr.* to his fifth non-consecutive term as mayor. Harrison secured the win and was sworn in during the spring of that year, in time to preside paternally over the Chicago World’s Fair.

Prendergast was an ordinary Chicagoan who had extraordinary expectations from the Democratic machine. In a situation reminding of the nutter who murdered President James Garfield when he wasn’t appointed ambassador to France, Prendergrast anticipated from his political cause the boon of patronage vastly outstripping his rank. In Prendergast’s case, that meant an expected appointment as the city’s Corporation Counsel, which would have been as lucrative as it was unmerited.

When that didn’t happen, Prendergast did what any concerned citizen would do and called personally at the mayor’s house to shoot him dead.

The man’s lucidity was the only real question in the courts and — again like Garfield’s assassin — they decided he was sane enough for gallows. Notably, he was defended in a post-conviction sanity hearing (though not at trial) by 37-year-old Clarence Darrow. Not yet a legend, Darrow by this quixotic turn signals his life’s imminent pivot from established corporate lawyer — which was the job he held at the time of representing Prendergast — to populist crusader — which was the mission he embarked upon within a few weeks, resigning like a king from the railroad that employed him to represent the militant who was leading a strike against that railroad.

In his eventful life, Darrow was involved in some 50 murder cases, many of the headline variety. Prendergast was the only man ever represented by Darrow who swung.

He makes a brief and ranting appearance in the 1991 made-for-TV movie Darrow, seen below from about 8:30.

* Not to be confused with his son, Carter Harrison, Jr., who would also go on to win Chicago’s mayoralty.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Illinois,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Notable Participants,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1986: David Funchess, Vietnam War veteran

Add comment April 22nd, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1986, Vietnam War veteran David Livingston Funchess was electrocuted in Florida for a double stabbing committed in the course of robbing a liquor store.

A late casualty, with his victims, of America’s imperial exertions in Indochina, Funchess had returned from the Vietnam War with leg wounds that earned him the Purple Heart, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and eventually an addiction to self-medicating drug addiction.

“But for Vietnam, all indications were that he was well on his way to entering Florida’s middle class,” in the words of the late anti-death penalty attorney Michael Mello.*

In addition to the horrors of jungle combat, Funchess was exposed to the herbicide Agent Orange, which has since been linked to a wide range of serious health problems in Vietnam veterans. Among the common symptoms among many Vietnam veterans has been neuropsychological damage.

After his return from Vietnam, Funchess was a deeply disturbed and confused young man. Compounding these problems, the medication he was receiving for his painful leg wounds eventually led him onto a debilitating heroin habit.

Understanding of PTSD — within the clinical, juridical, and public realms — advanced significantly during the course of 11-plus years from Funchess’s crime in December 1974 until his execution. In one of those perverse technicalities of the U.S. death penalty system, this issue was so little understood that it was not litigated at all at the time of his initial conviction … and by the time his appeals had run his course, it could only be litigated in the court of public opinion because its irrelevance to the 1970s trial court had procedurally disbarred it.

By the end, the toll of PTSD upon Funchess was being taken up by Vietnam veteran advocacy organizations, but it cut no ice with Governor Bob Graham, whose unilateral power of executive clemency was the man’s best hope of avoiding the electric chair.

* Mello wrote the anti-death penalty book Dead Wrong: A Death Row Lawyer Speaks Out Against Capital Punishment

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,Florida,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Soldiers,USA

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1620: Michal Piekarski, warhammer wielder

Add comment November 27th, 2019 Headsman

Calvinist nobleman Michal Piekarski was spectacularly executed in Warsaw on this date in 1620 for attempting the life of the Polish-Lithuanian king.

The lengthy reign of Sigismund III Vasa marks Poland’s downward slide out of her golden age, although how much of this trendline is personally attributable to Sigismund embarks scholarly debates well beyond this writer’s ken.

Sigismund III Vasa held both the Polish-Lithuanian and the Swedish thrones in a personal union but he lost the latter realm to rebellion; he meddled unsuccessfully in Russia’s Time of Troubles interregnum; and he faced a rebellion of nobility in 1606-1608 that, although it failed to overthrow him, permanently curtailed the power Polish monarchy.

That conflict with the aristocracy overlapped with a sectarian schism common throughout Europe in the train of the Protestant Reformation — for Sigismund was very Catholic and his nobility divided.

It’s the latter fissure that’s thought to have supplied the proximate motivation for our date’s principal. Piekarski (English Wikipedia entry | Polish), a petty noble, had long been noted as a moody, melancholic man too unstable even to be entrusted with the management of his own estates — the consequence of a childhood head injury.

He was also a staunch Calvinist, but broad-minded enough to find virtue in his opponents’ tactics. In 1610, Catholic ultra Francois Ravaillac had assassinated France’s Henri IV, and it’s thought that Ravaillac’s boldness put the bee into Piekarski’s bonnet.

A decade later, the Pole stung with cinematic flair: he jumped Sigismund in a narrow corridor while the latter was en route to Mass and dealt 1d8 bludgeoning damage by thumping the king in the back with a warhammer; after a second attempted blow only grazed the sovereign’s cheek, the royal entourage subdued Piekarski and started looking up chiropractors.


It’s only a model: replica of the would-be assassin’s instrument on display in Warsaw.

Torture failed to elucidate a coherent motivation from a muddled mind. Reports had him only babbling nonsense, so attribution of the attack to religious grievance remains no more than partially satisfying; there were rumors of other more determined instigators to steer Piekarski’s mind towards regicide for their own ends. (Although he didn’t get the king, he did confer upon the Polish tongue the idiom “plesc jak Piekarski na mekach” — “to mumble like Piekarski under torture”.)

In the end, for Ravaillac’s crime, he took Ravaillac’s suffering: the Sejm condemned him to an elaborate public execution which comprised having his flesh torn by red-hot pincers as he was carted around Warsaw, until reaching a place called Piekielko (“Devil’s Den”) where the hand he had dared to raise against the king was struck off, and then what was left of his ruined flesh was torn into quarters with the aid of four straining horses.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Assassins,Attempted Murder,By Animals,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Disfavored Minorities,Dismembered,Execution,God,Gruesome Methods,History,Nobility,Notable for their Victims,Poland,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Torture,Treason

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1913: Frederick Seekings, the last hanged in Cambridgeshire

Add comment November 4th, 2019 Headsman

The last man hanged in Cambridgeshire was Frederick Seekings on this date in 1913, for the drunken murder of his lover.

“Of limited intellect and a demon in drink,”* this Brampton laborer staggered out of Bell Inn on the 28 of July 28, 1913 with his eventual victim, Martha Beeby.** Both were deep in cups and argument, stumbling drunkenly to the ground as they vociferated until the innkeeper’s son helped steady them on their way.

Later that night, both were found sprawled out together alongside that same road: Frederick splayed over Martha, and Martha dead of a slashed throat. Frederick’s unconvincing claim that she’d done it to herself only confirmed his own guilty conscience; only the fact that he’d been drunk himself presented itself as a mitigating circumstance, but the Crown disputed his true degree of intoxication and the defence failed to persuade the jury to settle on mere manslaughter.

He was hanged by Thomas Pierrepoint in an execution shed at Cambridge County Gaol† in the city of Cambridge November 4, 1913, with little fanfare. There’s been no fanfare at all for 106 subsequent years, for neither city nor shire have since returned to the gallows in any capacity.

According to the Capital Punishment UK Facebook page (corroborated by its commenters), “The gallows from Cambridge was displayed in Madame Tussaud’s wax works in Blackpool in the 1980’s and consisted of two uprights with a crossbeam, bearing the Royal Coat of Arms, set over the double leaf trapdoors.” If there’s a photo of this relic available online, I have not been able to locate it.

* Quote is from the scholarly annotations to Malcolm Lowry‘s lost-then-rediscovered novel of Cambridge, In Ballast to the White Sea, which passingly alludes to the hanging.

** Frederick and Martha cohabited and she commonly went by his surname, Seekings — but they never married, and Martha actually had a never-annulled marriage to a different man.

† Tangentially, Cambridge-curious readers might enjoy this tour of the prison’s early 19th century executions.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder

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1983: Waldemar Krakos, Dekalog inspiration

Add comment October 10th, 2019 Headsman

Polish murderer Waldemar Krakos was hanged on this date in 1983 in Warsaw’s Mokotow Prison.

With a partner, Wiktor Maliszewski, he’d bludgeoned and strangled a female taxi driver to death on New Year’s Eve 1982/83, yielding a few thousand zlotys to drink away before their arrest on New Year’s Day.

Both initially caught a term of years when judge (and the future President of the post-Communist Supreme Court) Lech Paprzycki found that Krakos’s traumatic childhood rendered him mentally unfit to hang; but amid public clamor the sentence against Krakos was upgraded in June by the Supreme Court. (Although his was not a political crime, Krakos’s treatment was facilitated by Poland’s early 80s martial law.)

Prior to his execution the killer met cinema director Krzysztof Kieslowski. Five years later, Kieslowski’s acclaimed Dekalog drama series explores, in Dekalog: Five, a capital punishment case very much like Krakos’s own.

That film’s portrayal of violent lumpen “Jacek Lazar” brutally murdering a taxi driver and suffering a brutal hanging in retribution has been credited with helping bring about the abolition of the death penalty in Poland. Krakos, as a result, is among the very last to suffer that punishment in Polish history.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Poland

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1844: John Knatchbull, moral madman

Add comment February 13th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1844, John Knatchbull hanged before an orderly crowd of 10,000 at Taylor Square in Sydney, Australia.

Knatchbull was among 20 children of a prolific baronet. The youngster fought at sea in the Napoleonic Wars but found himself in financial straits after demobilization and spiraled into a criminality.

Transported to Australia for an armed robbery, he there cultivated an extensive rap sheet — mutiny, forgery, poisoning his guards. It was a comprehensive Jekyll-to-Hyde heel turn: “all traces of a gentleman had long disappeared, he exhibited no evidence that he had been in a higher social position,” wrote a clergyman who visited him. “[H]e appeared to be in his natural place.”

So you couldn’t say that nobody saw it coming in early 1844 when Knatchbull, out on a ticket of leave, went

into the shop of a poor widow, named Ellen Jamieson, and asked for some trifling article. While Mrs. Jamieson was serving him, the ruffian raised a tomahawk, which he held in his hand, and clove the unfortunate woman’s head in a savage manner. She lingered for a few days, and died, leaving two orphan children … though an attempt was made to set up a plea of insanity, a barrister being employed by the agent for the suppression of capital punishment, so foul a villain could not be saved from the gallows. (Source)

This insanity defense was a then-novel “moral insanity” claim contending “a form of mental derangement in which the intellectual faculties were unaffected, but the affects or emotions were damaged, causing patients to be carried away by some kind of furious instinct.” That is, Knatchbull knew that he did wrong when he struck the luckless shopkeep, but he had no power to restrain himself. The court took a pass.


Sketch of the scene at Knatchbull’s hanging.

More fortunate of birth and temperament, John’s brother Edward Knatchbull, who was not only the sitting baronet but the UK’s Paymaster General, made good his vocation by arranging a donative to Ellen Jamieson’s orphaned children.

This family — the donors, not the orphans — remains among the peers of the realm, its vintage baronetcy of Mersham Hatch having been upgraded to a baronage in 1880. It’s currently held by Norton Knatchbull, who is also Earl Mountbatten (he’s the maternal grandson of the Mountbatten who led British forces in Southeast Asia, took down the Union Jack in India, and was assassinated by the IRA).

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Australia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Nobility,Notably Survived By,Public Executions

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2009: Bobby Wayne Woods

1 comment December 3rd, 2018 Headsman

Bobby Wayne Woods was executed by lethal injection in Texas on this date in 2009.

A proud bearer of the classic middle name, Woods in 1997 broke into his ex-girlfriend’s home and kidnapped her two children, both of whom he did to what he thought was death. (11-year-old daughter Sarah Patterson, whom Woods also raped, did die; nine-year-old son Cody Patterson survived a savage beating, barely.)*

What distinguished Woods from a run-of-the-mill capital murder was his disputed competency — a product of what Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald aptly termed a “legal grey area.” A landmark 2002 U.S. Supreme Court case, Atkins v. Virginia, bars the execution of mentally disabled prisoners … but punts the definition of this protected class to the very states that are trying to execute them. Ah, federalism.

Woods was a barely-literate middle school dropout with I.Q. test scores ranging from 68 to 80; the commonplace threshold for mental disability is about I.Q. 70. He definitely did the crime, but was he entitled to protection under Atkins?

The case stuck in the judicial craw, scratching a scheduled 2008 execution and resulting in appeals that resolved only half an hour before Woods received the needle. The whole thing was essentially stalemated by dueling experts on retainer who made the arguments you’d expect them to make for their sides. And since the legal standard is whatever Texas feels like enforcing, that means the guy is not disabled.

* The victims’ mother, Schwana Patterson, was convicted of felony child neglect for failing to intervene in the abduction, out of fear of the assailant; she served eight years in prison for this.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Execution,Kidnapping,Lethal Injection,Murder,Rape,Texas,USA

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2005: Kenneth Boyd, the 1,000th modern execution in the U.S.

Add comment December 2nd, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 2005, Kenneth Lee Boyd died to lethal injection in Florida. His was the 1,000th execution conducted in the so-called “modern” death penalty era in the United States.

“I’d hate to be remembered as that,” Boyd said of his prospective milestone distinction. “I don’t like the idea of being picked as a number.”

He’d not needed a number to fight in Vietnam thirty-odd years before: he volunteered, and worked heavy equipment under fire, which his attorneys would later argue made him a PTSD victim.

The victims of the PTSD victim were his estranged wife Julie Curry Boyd and Julie’s father Thomas Dillard Curry, both of whom he gunned down with a .357 magnum in the presence of his and Julie’s three children back in 1988. Then he called 911 with the report, “I’ve shot my wife and her father — come on and get me.” In his voluntary confession upon surrender to the responding officers, he invoked the ghost of his youth’s imperial war.

It was just like I was in Vietnam. I pulled the gun out and started shooting. I think I shot Dillard one time and he fell. Then I walked past him and into the kitchen and living room area. The whole time I was pointing and shooting. Then I saw another silhouette that I believe was Julie come out of the bedroom. I shot again, probably several times. Then I reloaded my gun. I dropped the empty shell casings onto the floor. As I reloaded, I heard someone groan, Julie I guess. I turned and aimed, shooting again. My only thoughts were to shoot my way out of the house. I kept pointing and shooting at anything that moved.

The press comments from people linked by kinship to this horror make heartbreaking reading. This excerpt is from the New York Times report:

As to the provision of justice, Marie Curry, who lost her husband and her daughter when Mr. Boyd shot them 17 years ago, said she was at a loss to provide any answers. “I really don’t know,” she said.

Mrs. Curry raised Mr. Boyd’s three sons, Christopher, Jamie, and Daniel, after their father was sent to prison for their mother’s murder. “It’s just a sad day. The bible says to forgive anyone that asks you, and I did,” she said, “But I can’t ever forget.”

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Execution,Lethal Injection,Milestones,Murder,North Carolina,USA

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1726: Franz Laubler, Hermann Joachim Hahn’s murderer

Add comment July 18th, 2018 Headsman

Franz Laubler was broken on the wheel in Dresden on this date for assassinating Protestant deacon Hermann Joachim Hahn.

Hahn was a well-connected pastor who had been plying his trade in the Lutheran Kreuzkirche for nigh 20 years. That trade consisted heavily in the evangelization of Catholics in a confessionally split city;* indeed, his murderer, a Catholic-reared butcher and mercenary, had himself once upon a time been converted by Deacon Hahn.

Said Franz Laubler had in time returned his soul to the Roman fold but the unsettled mind suggested by his sectarian vacillation is supported by Laubler’s strange conviction that a communion wafer taken in 1720 had lodged permanently in his gullet. “Schlaget mir den Kopt ab, und ihr werdet noch die Hostie in meinem Halse finden!” he exclaimed: “Cut off my head, and you’ll still find the Host in my throat!”


Not to be confused with the Ghost to the Post.

On May 21 of that same year of our Lord 1726, the Host-throatened Laubler presented himself at the divine’s residence under the guise of seeking spiritual counsel, but instead sent Hahn straight to his maker with a hidden blade.** He’d thrown down Dresden’s Lucifer, he explained to the gendarmes who took him into custody — and made his heavy heart light.

The murder triggered a massive Protestant pogrom against Catholics which required several days to quell.

There’s a public domain volume from 1826 about these events available free here, as well as a 2009 book Die Hostie im Hals. (The Host in the Throat | here’s a review) Both titles are in German. Hahn’s Wikipedia page itemizes a number of other German pamphlets about his murder dating to the 1720s.

Hahn’s tomb can be found in the Trinitatiskirche Cemetery, where it was transferred in the mid-19th century from the old Johanniskirchof.

* Dresden, and Saxony in general, were predominantly Protestant. However, Catholics enjoyed a broad grant of tolerance thanks in part to the Elector of Saxony, Augustus the Strong, who converted to Catholicism in 1697 in order to become King of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

** Okay, it wasn’t straight to his maker: Laubler started by trying to strangle Hahn with a rope, and resorted to the knife as his victim resisted him.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Assassins,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Germany,God,Gruesome Methods,History,Holy Roman Empire,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Public Executions

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1715: Jeremiah Meacham, “mightily distressed”

Add comment April 12th, 2018 Headsman

Jeremiah Meacham was hanged in Rhode Island on this date in 1715 for a double murder committed during a disturbing psychotic break.

In the execution sermon below by Newport Rev. Nathaniel Clap, he attributes what we would today take as clear mental health problems to the man’s disinterest in attending church — for, “while, he was generally esteemed exemplarily exact in his Dealings, and punctual to his Promises, about his Worldy affairs … he seldom or never seemed altogether free from some terrible reflections upon his Conscience, for his Apostasy from God. And it hath been thought that his Convictions about some Concerns of his Soul, mixed with some vexations about his Affairs in the World, brought him into a grievous hurry, which by degrees boil’d up into a sort of a raging fury: And keeping out of the way of suitable directions for his Soul, his troubles of mind grew so intolerable, that he told some, that he was weary of his life.”

Things grew so uncomfortable with him, that he loved not Home; he thought that all his Neighbours looked strangely upon him; he pretended that he feared some body designed mischief against him, and that he should be slain. Every day seemed unto him as if it would be the last day of his life: And he asked of others, if they knew of no contrivance against him.

The Day before he committed his Murders, he appeared mightily distressed, walking about in a very great agony, a great part of that day, chusing to be at the Neighborbours. But on the said day of his Murders (22 d., 1 m.) he got and sat upon his House, with a Penknife in his hand, for several hours, if discoursing sometimes with those that came near him, seeming afraid some or other would hurt him; Others feared more that he would hurt himself; none seemed much to fear that he intended any hurt to any body else. And he declar’d, that he would hurt neither Man, Woman nor Child, if they would let him alone.

After he came down from his House top into his Chamber, he kept there most part of the Afternoon of that day, until after Sun set; and then his Wife, and her Sister, upon his invitation, going up to him, urging of him to go down with them, or striving with him to keep him from hurting of himself; it seems that then he struck his Wife in her throat with his Pen-knife: and then struck her and her Sister down with an Ax (that he had carried up, and he had also Charged his Gun; but made no use of that, in his Murders) how many blows he gave them is not known: But the dreadful marks of several remained on their miserably mangled Bodies.

When he had murdered them, he stood watchfully upon his Guard, with his Ax in hand, threatning all that offered to come up Stairs; knock’d one man down with his bloody Ax. Others endeavouring to apprehend him, by breaking up the Chamber Floor under him, & the Roof over him; he laboured to defend himself, as if against the worst Enemies. And when they carried some Fire, flaming to light their way before them, he snatch’d away the Fire, and laid it among some combustible matter, and got ready more, and quickly kindled a great Fire in the midst of the Chamber, as if he chose rather to Burn himself alive, and the dead Bodies with him than to be taken …

At some time or other, in these hurries it seems, he had cut his own throat; but fearing that death would not come soon enough that way, and finding that he could not bear burning to death; it was thought, he was willing to try, if he could dash himself to pieces, by throwing himself out at the Window; by which he also hurt his head, if no other part of his Body; but his Wounds were near healed, before he came to Dye.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Public Executions,Rhode Island,USA

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