On this date in 1928, seventeen-year-old Floyd Hewitt was executed in Ohio’s electric chair for the horrific murder of a farmer’s wife and five-year-old son.
Floyd grew up in rural area outside Conneaut, Ohio. Although at 6’4″ he had the body of a grown man, he was mentally disabled, callously described by his defense attorneys as “a moron with a ten-year-old’s intellect.” One newspaper portrayed him thus:
He is not considered of normal intellect, his drooping mouth, dull eyes and appearances contributing to the opinion. He was not bright in his classes at school.
On the evening of February 14, 1927, he visited a local farm belonging to the Brown family. He was a frequent visitor there; he loved listening to jazz music on the radio and the Browns were the only family in the area who had a set at home. Celia Brown’s husband, Fred, was away in town and she was home alone with their son Freddie.
This news column and this article describe what happened in detail. Floyd got “stirred up inside” by the music. Feeling “an overpowering love,” he made sexual overtures towards Celia, who slapped him. He hit back, and she grabbed the fireplace poker to defend herself, but he tore it from her hands. In the ensuing fight Floyd hurled Celia down the stairs and struck her repeatedly with the poker until she was dead. Then, afraid the little boy would tell on him, Floyd chased Freddie into the basement and beat him to death with a baseball bat, too.
Then he went back upstairs, washed his hands, walked the short distance home and sat down to read the newspaper.
Fred Brown got home a little after midnight, found his wife’s body on the porch. There was blood everywhere. Fred summoned neighbors and the police. After searching the rest of the house, the neighbors found little Freddie’s body in the basement.
Floyd rapidly came under suspicion; he literally left a trail of footprints right to his front door. The next morning he was arrested, wearing the same bloodstained sweater he’d worn the night before. One of the buttons had been torn off and was left at the crime scene.
Within hours, Hewitt had made a full confession. He even went so far as to take the police on a tour of the Brown house to point out what had occurred and where. The next day, however, he retracted his statements and would maintain his innocence until his death.
The press bluntly christened him “the boy clubber.”
On the first day of his trial, as he was taken into the courtroom, Floyd remarked, “This is certainly a beautiful day, isn’t it?” One reporter described him as “like a big overgrown boy, who did not realize the seriousness of the crimes with which he is charged.”
He was indeed an overgrown boy, only sixteen years old at the time of his crime, but the prosecution demanded the death penalty.
Although indicted for two first degree murders (mother and son), he was tried only for the first degree murder of the five-year-old boy.
During the three week trial, the state relied heavily upon Hewitt’s signed confession while the defense stressed Hewitt’s mental disabilities. On April 26, the jury returned a verdict of guilty without a recommendation of mercy.
Hewitt appealed, and his execution was postponed for a time, but the appeals process wore down in less than a year and the board of clemency refused to recommend a commutation to the governor …
Hewitt’s chronological age at execution was seventeen, but his mental age remained forever fixed at ten.
Floyd Hewitt might have been the youngest person ever executed by the state of Ohio, and he was the first from Ashtabula County. A “bedraggled figure … with his long black hair hanging low over his face,” and clutching a photo of his family, he died in the electric chair at the Ohio State Penitentiary Annex at 7:43 p.m.
From the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Dec. 13, 1924:
Shreveport, La., Dec. 12 — Alfred Sharpe, about 25 years old, a negro, was hanged here today at 12:16 p.m. for the murder of Tom Askew, a white man, veteran of the World war and manager of a plantation near Keithville, which occurred last September 9.
Sharpe, in a statement just before going to the gallows blamed liquor for his trouble. He admitted since his captured two days after the killing that he was guilty.
The negro, who was unable to read or write, and did noot know his exact age, said as he mounted the scaffld: “I know I violated the law and that the law must be fulfilled.”
From the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Dec. 11, 1924:
COUMBUS, O., Dec. 11. — Alexander Kuszik, 20, of Akron, must die in the electric chair at the state penitentiary shortly after 1 a.m. tomorrow for the murder of his thirteen-year-old cousin, Elizabeth Nagy, who spurned his proffered love.
Gov. A.V. Donahey late today denied a last minute appeal by Kuszi’s counsel that the death sentence be commuted to life imprisonment. This plea, supplemented by the testimony of three alienists [psychologists — ed.] to the effect that Kuszik was not mentally responsible for his acts at the time of the crime’s commission, failed to convince the governor, however, that he should exercise his powers to extend clemency
Even Kuszik’s counsel, C.G. Roetzel, former prosecutor of Summit county, admitted the crime for which Kuszik was convicted was one of the most brutal on record, and made no claim the prisoner was insane. Roetzel based his plea for clemency on the theory, supported by alienists, that Kuszik was mentally irresponsible although he did know the difference between right and wrong.
Theory of Alienists.
The alienists advancing this theory were Dr. J.C. Hassall, superintendent of Fair aks sanitorium, Cuyahoga Falls; Dr. Arthur G. Hyde, superintendent of the Massillon State hospital, and Dr. D.H. Morgan of Akron.
Drs. Hassall and Hyde had made their observations of Kuszik within twenty-four hours after the crime had been committed. Dr. Morgan made his observations about a month later.
These specialists made their examinations at the request of Prosecutor Arthur W. Doyle, but their testimny was not used at the time of the trial, Dr. Doyle explained, because he reached his own conclusion that Kuszik was responsible for his acts.
Countering the views of this group of alienists was the testimony of three others who, after making an examination of Kuszik at the governor’s request, reported that the youth not only was not insane but that he was mentally responsible.
These alienists were Dr. Charles F. Clark, superintendent of the Lima State hospital; Dr. H.H. Pritchard, superintendent of the Columbus State hospital, and Dr. Guy Williams, superintendent of the Cleveland State hospital. They all said Kuszik had no mental disorders. All the alienists had agreed that Kuszik’s mentality was sub-normal — that it represented the mentality of a child of about 11.
Prosecutor Doyle told the governor that, in his opinion, so long as the state recognizes capital punishment Kuszik’s case was one in which it should be used.
Kuszik exhibited no concern when told his appeal had been denied and that he was to die.
In complete control of his faculties, he walked even jauntily to the death cell to spend his few remaining hours.
“The youth has shown more spirit today than at any time since confined,” Warden P.E. Thomas said.
Two consecutive stories from the Portland (Ore.) Oregonian, Dec. 13, 1924:
WALLA WALLA, Wash., Dec. 12. — Thomas Walton, convicted of the murder of S.P. Burt, a fellow convict, in the state penitentiary here October 7, 1923, was hanged at the penitentiary this morning. The trap was sprung at 5:06 A.M. and the prison physicians pronounced him dead 10 minutes later.
Walking to his death with the same fearlessness that he has displayed since the beginning of his prison career, Walton refused to make any final statement and even declined to talk with Rev. A.R. Liverett, prison chaplain, or Father Buckley, Catholic priest, in his cell prior to the execution.
His body will be sent to relatives in Montague, Cal.
Although Walton paid the penalty for killing Burt, he has of official record killed two other men. The first was in 1915 in California, for which he was sentenced to life imprisonment in San Quentin prison. The other was that of George McDonald, cellmate of Burt, whom he stabbed following his attack on Burt.
Walton and Burt were life termers in San Quentin and made their escape together in a prison automobile in January, 1923.
FOLSOM, Cal., Dec. 12 — Robert Matthews, negro, convicted of the murder of Coleman Stone, a grocer near Los Angeles, was hanged at the state prison here this morning. [Joe] Sinuel will be hanged next Friday.
As it was put by the sadly defunct Shot At Dawn site (still preserved at the Wayback Machine), “The cemetery register of Poperinghe New Military Cemetery states that Lt. Eric Skeffington Poole died of wounds on 10 December 1916. Tactfully, it omits to record also that his death was caused by a British Army firing squad.”
A Canadian-born engineer, Poole had enlisted in the very first weeks of the war and been commissioned an officer by May 1915.
In July of 1916, a falling artillery shell struck so close that its concussion knocked Poole down, spattering him with earth. He was hospitalized for shellshock but returned to duty in September — still complaining of rheumatism and feeling “damned bad.”
One night in October as his unit moved up to a forward trench, Poole disappeared from it — nobody knows how or when, but he wasn’t there when it mustered at its new position at midnight. He was detained two days later, wandering well west of the trenches, a leather jacket hiding his private’s tunic … “in a very dazed condition,” an officer who interviewed him would later remember. “From conversation which I had with him I came to the conclusion he was not responsible for his actions. He was very confused indeed.”
Evidence collected in Poole’s desertion trial pointed to a man taxed beyond his capacities by command responsibility and the strain of two years at war. His division commander recommended against the court martial, for Poole was “not really accountable for his actions. He is of nervous temperament, useless in action, and dangerous as an example to the men” — but still “could [be] usefully employed at home in instructional duties or in any minor administrative work, not involving severe strain of the nerves.” Another captain in his battalion described him as “somewhat eccentric, and markedly lacking in decision” and liable under pressure to “become so mentally confused that he would not be responsible for his actions.”
By the book the man’s irresolute midnight ramble was a clear instance of abdicating duty, but Poole’s weakness was apparent enough to trouble the court that tried him for desertion — not only to solicit this and other testimony from his comrades about the lieutenant’s state of mind but even to remark from its own observation that his “mental powers [were] less than average. He appears dull under cross examination, and his perception is slow.” Perhaps this was fellow-feeling by other officers that would not have been extended to a mere grunt; if so, what was a mitigating consideration for the court made Poole’s execution a in the eyes of Field Marshal Haig: “Such a case is more serious in the case of an officer than a man, and it is also highly important that all ranks should realise the law is the same for an officer as a private.” Two years in, and somehow not one officer had suffered such a punishment; Shot At Dawn speculated that military courts’ recent shocking verdict excusing Captain John Bowen-Colthurst on grounds of insanity for an atrocity in Ireland had also raised pressure on the armed forces to show that British officers stood not above the law.*
The British army executed 306 of its own soldiers during World War I. Among them, Poole was the first of only three officers.
* The War Office’s decision not to publicize his fate (and the euphemistic reference in the cemetery register) would seem sharply at odds with any intended demonstrative effect.
Out on probation for an armed robbery conviction, this avatar of the classic middle name robbed a convenience store at gunpoint, then shot and killed a deputy who pursued him.
Georgia somehow didn’t have a state public defender system until 2003, a system presenting to the counties who were supposed to appoint indigent defense counsel on a local and ad hoc basis a fine opportunity for callous graft dovetailing the interests of the prosecutor’s office in winning its cases with court’s interest in pinching its pennies.
Accordingly, Baldwin County stuck Holsey with a man to test appellate courts’ standards for minimal representation, an alcoholic attorney named Andy Prince* who was rock-bottoming during the trial to the gobsmacking reported tune of a quart of vodka every night. Prince was disbarred shortly after Holsey’s conviction for robbing another client of $100,000.
According to a tragic Mother Jones profile, Prince, who was white, also happened to get in a dispute around this same time with a black neighbor and hurled some racist invective, which doesn’t seem ideal when your day job consists of trying to keep a black defendant off death row.
The late Prince — he died in 2011 — told an appeals court in 2006 that he “shouldn’t have been representing anyone,” but appeals courts, which must generally find that such “shoulds” clearly “would” have changed the trial outcome, have much less scope to act on the determination.
It’s a massive systemic cheat still in widespread use, albeit not always in such egregious fashion: use some underhanded means to get a death sentence on the books, then argue to every higher court that the deficiency can’t be proven certainly decisive vis-a-vis what might have happened in a fair fight. Do you know Holsey wouldn’t have received a death sentence? He did shoot a cop in the course of committing a violent felony, after all.
There are many general reasons why a robust defense might mitigate a sentence, but the specific reason of interest in Holsey’s case — a reason not litigated by Prince, an omission that likewise foreclosed appeals avenues — was that Holsey was severely mentally disabled.
With a testing IQ around 70, just at the border of the conventional definition for so-called “mental retardation,” Holsey had at the minimum a very strong card for the mitigation phase of the trial — if not an outright bar to execution.** Prince failed to play that card … and as of this date in 2014, American jurisprudence and the state of Georgia determined themselves content to leave it permanently face-down.
* The Guardian article cited in this post calls him Andy Price. As all other media citations I find call him Prince, I’m going with that — but as it’s likely that everyone is copying from the last story instead of doing original reportage, I’m not completely confident that it isn’t Price after all.
** Georgia was actually among the first states to bar the execution of mentally disabled prisoners — although paradoxically its early standard thereafter became one of the nation’s weakest as other states implemented their own over the years. The Supreme Court theoretically bars executing the mentally disabled, but as it has enforced no coherent standard the executing states themselves generally get to decide who qualifies.
On this day in 1743, John Breads met his fate on the gallows in the small Sussex town of Rye, on the south coast of England. The spectacle of his hanging was compounded by the subsequent use of the gibbet, a cage in which Breads’s body was left exposed to the elements in Gibbets Marsh for more than 20 years.
Although the murder itself is a small part of Monod’s book, he nonetheless outlines two aspects of the Breads story which make it worth a look by readers of Executed Today:
the issue of fairness in the handling of the trial and execution; and
the killer’s attempt to assert “mental distraction”
The facts of the murder itself seem fairly straightforward, although a little quirky, since the whole affair was apparently a case of mistaken identity: James Lamb, the then-mayor of Rye, was invited to dinner on March 16, 1743, to celebrate the appointment of his son John to the customs service. Lamb was feeling ill that day and asked his brother-in- law, Allen Grebell, to attend the dinner in his place. As Grebell was returning home after the event, he was attacked and stabbed in the churchyard by John Breads; although Grebell was able to make it back to his home, he died that night from his wounds.
When Breads was arrested for the murder, he claimed he had intended to kill Lamb, not Grebell. Monod points out that, since Lamb was related (albeit by marriage) to the victim, normal procedure would have been to move any hearing or trial to another jurisdiction, or at least allow an independent jurist to preside over the case. Breads’s assertion that Lamb was the intended victim should have given the Mayor even more reason not to be involved.
Instead, he insisted on keeping the trial in Rye and compounded the irregularity by acting as both prosecutor for the grand jury and as judge for the trial, thus ignoring judicial standards relating to conflict of interest. Additionally, one description of the trial claims that Lamb testified during the trial itself; if this is true, Monod says, such testimony was a breach of common law, which dictated that judges could not testify in cases over which they were presiding.
Monod introduces a commentary by Rye resident and lawyer Henry Dodson, who questioned whether Breads had received a fair trial in light of Lamb’s actions:
How fair a Tryal, the Prisoner had, I leave the Reader, to determine after he is informed, the above Mr. Lamb, was Mayor, Coroner, Party Prosecuting, Judge, Witness and Sheriff, in Presenting, Trying and Executing the said John Breads.
I suppose, he was Mayor, Coroner, and Sheriff, as essentiall, to the office of Mayoralty; Party and prosecutor, as Brother in Law to the Unfortunate good Gentleman, that was Killed; and Judge, and Witness out of Zeal, in getting the Prisoner proved Sane …
Dodson seemed to feel that Lambs involvement in the case was just a little too personal, and the fact that Breads was gibbeted after his execution might lend some credence to that idea. Gibbeting, Monod points out, was not usually a punishment imposed by a judge, but rather by royal order, and it was generally reserved for the most serious of killers.
But Monod puts the trial into a larger social context, suggesting that
the trial of John Breads bears a message about how the law operated in the 18th century [and] stands as an example of how authority might assert itself aggressively and unrestrainedly. The last word belonged to the judge … a kind of paternalism based on the social (and hence moral) inequality between defendant and judge. It was the opinion of the magistrate that counted.
[This] system reflected a social and political structure in which authority had been concentrated in a few hands, usually by inheritance … Breads had little chance of escaping the most extreme form of retribution.
The second point of interest in the Breads trial was that it stood at the cusp of a new understanding of insanity in the commission of crimes.
This is a mere replica of the Breads gibbet on display at the Rye Museum, but the town council still has possession of the original, skull and all. It’s reported to be a highly sought gawk, but it can only be seen by special arrangement.
Although Breads originally claimed his plan was to kill the mayor, he changed his tune at the trial, where he was reported as having said that “if he had committed the Fact, he knew nothing of it, for it was done when he was in Distraction … In short, he affected Madness …” (Kentish Post, June 1-4, 1743)
Insanity had been a legitimate defense for years, but the definition of insanity was very much in flux at this time. Doctors suggested that madness was due to a mental defect rather than possession by an evil spirit and lawyers were pushing the idea that homicide required “malice aforethought,” while many average citizens still believed that those who were mad were in the grip of the devil.
Monod proposes yet another possibility by putting the question into a sociological context: “Insanity does not operate randomly,” he writes. “It cannot separate a sufferer from the social context in which he or she exists.”
For Breads, whose upbringing had been closely tied to his church, that context included unsuccessful attempts in the late 1600s by religious purists to wrest control of Rye’s government and economy from the wealthy secular class, and the antagonistic feelings that remained from the abject failure of that effort and the perceived religious persecution that followed it. Breads was no doubt influenced by that antagonism, Monod suggests, and those feelings “may have alienated him from the way the town was governed … [He] wanted to vent his rage on the oligarchs.” As a result, “Even in his madness, Breads was trapped by his own history and that of his native town.”
Whatever the source of Breads’ “distraction,” it did him no good. But it did become one piece of a serious conversation about the issue — a conversation which has continued for centuries.
On this date in 2013, serial child molester turned murderer Elmer Carroll was executed by lethal injection in Florida.
Paroled to a halfway house in 1990 from his child molestation sentence, Carroll within months attacked a fifth-grader who lived in a nearby house — in Carroll’s description to another halfway house resident, the girl was “sweet, cute, and liked to watch him make boats.”
One night while Christine McGowen’s mother was working and her stepfather sleeping in the next room, Carroll crept into their Apopka home, stopped the little girl’s mouth with his hand as he raped her, then strangled her to death. Robert Rank found the girl the next morning when he went to wake her for school … and also found missing the truck that Carroll had stolen to escape. One could hardly commit a crime more suited to the studied melodrama of a state’s attorney:
By your vote, tell Elmer Carroll you do not deserve to live. There is nothing good about you. There is nothing but evil in you and you must die.
A small child sometimes will cry out in the night frightened by a shadow or a piece of wallpaper that looks like a monster and its parents will come in and say it’s okay, you don’t have to be afraid. There’s no monsters under the bed. There is no boogie man. There is no creature which stalks the night searching out children. It doesn’t exist. Well, ladies and gentlemen, those parents lie because, ladies and gentlemen, that is the boogie man right there. That is the creature that stalked the night and murdered a ten year old girl and he must die.
The other things in Carroll besides evil were organic brain damage and a gamut of mental illness symptoms that Carroll’s appellate team would unsuccessfully argue had not been sufficiently explored at his trial. Estranged from most of his family for many years before the murder, Carroll had no visits from relatives before his execution.
On this date in 1836, a troubled (ex-)family man named Isaac Young — latterly going by Isaac Heller — was publicly hanged in Liberty, Indiana for axing his entire family to death in a fit of madness.
Young hailed from Pennsylvania, and the reason he had changed his name and moved to Indiana was that he had done a similar thing in his native haunts.
As a teenager in the 1820s, Isaac Young had been seized strangely by the spiritual tremors abroad during America’s Second Great Awakening. A baptized zealot who fancied himself blessed with the power of prophesy, Young was also captive to an inescapable — and seemingly defeatist — impression of being forever pursued and haunted by the devil. Young’s religious thunderings tended to produce more interest in the utterer’s state of mind than in the listener’s state of soul, and the youth was known to succumb to “gusts of passion.”
Eventually, those gusts blew a hurricane.
Young lived with his brother, who had a wife and a 10-year-old orphan girl — and, little did they know, the devil watching over them all. One night in 1830, Young awoke with a start at a sound he perceived upon the stair, convinced that some entity had entered the room he shared with the little girl; his religious eccentricities jumbling him right into lunacy.
“The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” Young bellowed at the dragon from Revelations come to visit him in his nightshirt in Dauphin County. He tried to grapple with the phantom but missed it, and of a sudden he turned his frenzy on the girl, battering her furiously. Young would later say that he was “forcibly impelled” to the attack by an overwhelming “duty” to “destroy” the child; his brother and his sister-in-law attempted to intervene but Young seized a club and with a berserker rage chased them from the house — then returned to his cowering little roommate, and sawed off her head with his knife.
He was acquitted of this murder by reason of his manifest insanity, but this was not a time and place with resources to aid the mentally ill. All anyone could think to do was to keep him chained in the poor house until after a few months he appeared to return to reason — at which point he was finally released and blew town, now rechristened with his mother’s maiden name.
In the hamlet of Liberty, the new man Heller escaped the devil … for a few years. He opened a grocery store and married a woman named Elizabeth McCollam with whom he had a happy brood of three children.
Until one day the gusts returned to swirl his soul again.
“The first symptom of insanity noticed in this county was about three years ago [i.e., 1833], by a young man who was going home with him on a Sabbath evening,” the Connersville (Ind.) Watchman reported in a profile that was widely reprinted around the Republic.*
The young man noticed something very extraordinary in his manner, and was much affected. At length he asked him what was the matter. He replied in effect that a superhuman influence or inspiration was upon him. Soon after he became very much excited on religious subjects … Witnesses stated that for several days at a time, during the last two or three years, he would act like a wild man or a raving maniac. During that time he was twice taken into the care of the overseers of the poor and kept some time as an insane person.
Heller’s neglect of his work soon exhausted his family’s modest reserves and left wife and children surviving on the charity of neighbors, spiraling Heller even deeper into depression, and in his “great horror of the poor house” he owned “that he would rather die than be separated from his family.” One hears in these words a man with the walls closing in about him … or else, a man hammering out the rationale for the madness he has already determined to undertake. There was calculation in Heller’s fatal outburst; a neighbor visited on the morning of his hecatomb and found the family in good spirits and Heller cogent. The disturbed patriarch waited until the guest was well away before he
took his axe from under the bed, went to the fire, turned round [and] commenced rubbing the fingers of one hand over the edge. His wife asked him what he was going to do — he replied he was going to chop some wood. About this time the woman told the children to get some apples out from under the bed. the two little ones immediately crawled under the bed, and the little sister-in-law stood near the bed looking at Heller. She saw him raise the axe and strike his wife one full blow about the chin and neck. Seeing this she sprang to the door, threw it open and fled for the nearest neighbor’s between a quarter and a half a mile off, crying murder as she ran. After she had fled some two hundred yards, she saw Heller come round the end of the house and look after her. Heller states that after he had despatched his wife he went out of the house and looked after the little girl — that he then went back into the house — his little boy came towards him, when he split him down and chopped his head off. He then dragged his little daughter Sarah out from under the bed — placed his foot upon her breast — she raised her hands for protection, and at the first blow he cut off the fingers of one hand and nearly took off her head. He then went and rolled the mother off of the infant on which she had partly fallen, and cut its head off.
His spiritual torments and probable schizophrenia here are the framework — a cynic might say, the excuse — for a much more commonplace scourge: the murderer said “in justification of the act ‘that they were likely to become a county charge, and that he would rather see them in their present situation.'” (Connecticut Courant, Mar. 21, 1836) In the confession he willingly supplied later, he admitted having attempted to set his homicidal plan in motion several times prior, once even brandishing a butcher’s blade over his wife like the Psycho shower scene before she soothed him. Elizabeth Heller must have been a woman of remarkable calm under pressure; unfortunately for her, resources for abused spouses were about as plentiful as those for the mentally ill.
“Nearly all … who know any thing about the case, regard it as incomprehensibly mysterious,” the newspaper reports concluded. “Many who know the most about it, say they hardly know how or what to think of it. It is doubted whether the annals of crime can produce a parallel case, and it is devoutly hoped they never may!”
But the annals of crime hold many mansions, as readers of this here site surely know.
Heller’s final, “successful” outburst was actually just one of a number of grisly mass-murders by family fathers who through the closely intimate exertion of a bloody blade drenched their domestic idylls with the gore of their loved ones — enough even to form a discernible pattern. Struggling to come to grips with this “homicidal insanity” or “monomanie-homicide”, the early American psychologist Isaac Raylamented the “painful frequency” of cases “where the individual, without provocation or any other rational motive, apparently in the full possession of his reason, and oftentimes in spite of his most strenuous efforts to the contrary, imbrues his hands in the blood of others, — oftener than otherwise, of the partner of his bosom, of the children of his affections.” Incomprehensible perhaps, but scarcely unparalleled: what could make sense of this “horrid phenomenon”?
Pious family men turning Middle America domiciles into charnel houses was the going postal of settler-era America, and maybe Ray even had the Young/Heller-style addled religiosity in mind when he noted that absent some rational accounting the mind would default “to that time-honored solution of all the mysteries of human delinquency, the instigation of the devil.”
In a review of the period’s “familicide” cases, Daniel Cohen (“Homicidal Compulsion and the Conditions of Freedom: The Social and Psychological Origins of Familicide in America’s Early Republic,” Journal of Social History, Summer, 1995) speculates that the revolutionary grant of personal autonomy exacted a dangerous emotional toll upon men who felt themselves failures or simply could not pay “the high psychic costs of economic freedom, particularly for men prone to anxiety and depression.” Isaac was surely prone.
The efforts of those men to submit to supernatural authority were less single-minded pursuits of spiritual perfection than desperate attempts to evade seemingly irresolvable personal conflicts, most importantly between moral demands (or social obligations) and destructive urges or desires. It was ultimately less important for them to avoid sin than to resolve dilemmas or evade choice. When the breathless individual freedom of the early republic collided with the relentless responsibilities of paternal stewardship, the result was an implosion of self-destructive violence … the beginning not the end of a disturbing national tradition …
Many social barriers had fallen in post-Revolutionary America, but several unhappy men could still not control the rain, or the currency, or their own darker impulses. Where others may have perceived boundless opportunities, they experienced gnawing fears and terrifying compulsions. Situations of free choice did not inspire them with a “heady feeling of command” or a “sense of marvelous potential,” to use Robert Wiebe’s expansive phrases, but drove them instead to desperation. Physical unsettlement, economic insecurities, and religious speculations all combined to baffle and torment them. Unable to cope with the perplexities of life in a free society, they constructed internal imperatives to evade and annul that very freedom. By their actions, each tacitly endorsed John Cowan’s conclusion in prison: “Liberty would be more horrible to me than death.” Thus did a handful of troubled Americans confront freedoms profound enough to transform sober Christians into deluded visionaries, loving husbands into axe-wielding assassins, and tidy republican households into slaughterhouses.
Where Pennsylvania acquitted, Indiana convicted — but within even a few years the cooling of passions stirred by the slaughter led many to regret the judgment. According to this volume, even the judge later acknowledged that he ought to have set aside the verdict owing to Heller’s state of mind.
* We’re channeling this via the Gloucester (Mass.) Telegraph of May 4, 1836.
Any murder story is a sad and brutal one, but William Hole strikes this writer as an especially pathetic and pitiful specimen of killer.
As told in Nicola Sly’s book Bristol Murders, William and his wife Alice had been married thirty years by the time of her death. What had initially been a happy relationship went downhill after their only child, a son named James, was killed in an accident. William in particular was inconsolable and attempted suicide.
Further misfortune befell him: three years after his son’s death, William was thrown from a horse-drawn cart and sustained a serious head injury. He was probably brain-damaged, and he definitely suffered from horribly painful, intractable headaches for the rest of his life. His sense of melancholy deepened and he regularly threatened to kill himself. The depression turned into paranoia and delusions. He started hearing voices.
The Baptist parents had been teetotalers through three decades of marriage, but after his head injury William took to alcohol to quiet his demons, and so did his wife. They were constantly quarreling and the more they drank they more they argued.
In spite of the couple’s fights, however, and William’s alcoholism and chronic headaches, he wasn’t a complete basket case. He was, for example, able to run his own successful barge business, employing several men. He was well-liked in the area and didn’t have a reputation for violence or criminality.
Until, that is, the night of August 28, 1874, when sometime after 10:30 p.m. the entire neighborhood was roused by screams of “Murder!”
William, it seems, had come home blind drunk and suffering from another of his headaches. He found Alice slumped on the doorstep, also drunk. He knocked her to the ground, went inside and locked her out. Some time later he asked her, twice, to come indoors. Both times she refused. The second time her husband went out into the street, hit Alice again and went back inside. When he re-emerged he was carrying a knife.
A neighbor witnessed all of this and she watched the bloody events that followed. In Sly’s words,
William lunged at his wife, sending her sprawling to the ground. He then bent over her and made two quick slashes with the carving knife across Alice’s throat… Illuminated by a streetlamp was a ghastly scene. Alice Hole was slumped against the kerb, her arms waving, with blood pumping from her throat. William had once again retreated to his own house and was sitting calmly on his windowsill.
Two female neighbors asked William to help them carry Alice into the house and he refused, saying, “She shan’t come in. Take her anywhere; I have killed her and I shall be hung.” Somehow the women got Alice inside her house by themselves and laid her out on the living room rug. She bled out before the doctor arrived.
When the police showed up, William was ready and waiting for them. He told one officer, “Here I am. I did it. I shall not run away. Take me if you like.” He did, however, ask for one last drink of brandy, since he wouldn’t be having another for a long time. This was refused.
At the police station he said, “This is all through a drunken wife,” and confessed in great detail, even going so far as to mime the murder in front of the police. Then he begged to be allowed to drown himself. Request denied, of course, so he tried and failed to strangle himself with his own handkerchief. Denied alcohol in prison, this habitual drunkard began suffering the symptoms of delirium tremens.
He would later claim he had no memory of the murder, although he never denied having done it.
At trial, Hole’s two attorneys used the defense of insanity, pointing out his prior head injury, his prior suicide attempts, his alcoholism, and the fact that he had been dead drunk at the time of the murder. But, summing up the case, the judge told the jury that if William Hole knew what he was doing and knew it was wrong, he had to be found guilty. Given that he had confessed freely and anticipated the likelihood that he “shall be hung,” it would to be hard to argue he didn’t realize the nature and consequences of his actions.
A successful bargeman turned employer and local philanthropist, our troubled soul attracted an energetic campaign for reprieve — but the Home Secretary denied a petition of 30,000 to stay the execution.
* Marwood’s command of the scientific hanging craft was on display as usual. The next morning’s York Herald reported that “Marwood, the executioner, provided a drop of five feet, and Hole being a heavy man, weighing 16 stone, death was instantaneous”
State of New York, Executive Department
Albany, Sept. 4, 1851.
To Thomas Carnley, Esq., Sheriff of the City and County of New York
Sir: — I have carefully considered the application for a commutation of the sentence of death pronounced upon Aaron B. Stookey, to be executed on the 19th inst., for the murder of Zeddy Moore.
I have weighed the evidence with an anxious desire to give him the benefit of every circumstance which tends to extenuate his guilt; but after a mature deliberation I am clearly of opinion that his conviction was merited, and that the ends of public justice require the execution of the sentence.
The facts disclosed on his trial were sufficient beyond all doubt, to constitute the crime of wilful murder. It is contended that most of the material witnesses for the prosecution were persons of infamous character and unworthy credit. Making all due allowance for this objection, the proof of his guilt is so complete and overwhelming as to preclude any doubt, and in fact no material fact alleged by any of the witnesses have been called in question by the convict or his friends.
It appears that Stookey met his unfortunate victim casually in one of the public streets of your city. He was armed with deadly weapons, which he usually carried about his person. Upon provocation which, if not wholly imaginary, was too trivial to justify even momentary resentment, and apparently with no other motive than the indulgence of wanton and brutal passion, after first instigating his comrade to commit violence upon Moore, he declared his own intention to kill him and instantly stabbed him to the heart.
To palliate the enormity of this offence, it has been alleged that Stookey was laboring under temporary alteration of intellect, and was morally incapable of an intentional and deliberate crime. [i.e., he was drunk on rum -ed.] Several affidavits have been placed before me intended to sustain this hypothesis. Deeming it my duty to obtain satisfactory evidence on so material a point before coming to a final decision, I have caused an investigation to be made of all the facts bearing upon the question of insanity, and the result proves that there are no sufficient grounds for such an assumption.
It is shown that Stookey, for some years past, had led a life of dissipation and debauchery, that his moral nature was depraved, and his mental faculties impaired, by a long course of vicious indulgence; and in this general degradation of character consists the only reason that has been adduced for doubting that he was conscious of evil, and still retained those powers of moral perception which are given to discern between virtue and crime. All the usual phenomena of insanity and lunacy are wanting. There was nothing in his conduct to indicate that destitution of reason which absolves men from moral and legal responsibility.
My sympathies have been deeply moved by the earnest appeals made in behalf of your prisoner by his worthy relatives and friends. The petitions presented to me bear the names of many influential and respected citizens, whose opinions deserve the highest deference and regard. It is a painful office to be compelled to resist these urgent and affecting solicitations. But all must remember it is the voice of the law which condemns the murderer to death. This penalty, the most dreadful which human power can inflict, is imposed not in a spirit of retaliation or of vengeance, but from conviction of its necessity, for the protection of society and the security of mankind. The severity of the law in this respect has its source in the sacred regard for human life which pervades all civilized communities.
It proclaims in advance, to all whose evil passions may prompt to deeds of blood and vengeance, the impressive warning, that whosoever shall take the life of his fellow being shall thereby forfeit his own. This stern mandate is conceived not in cruelty but in humanity; in compassion for the innocent rather than a willingness to destroy the guilty; it originates in the obligation which society owes to all its members to protect them from unlawful violence, and its true aim is to prevent both crimes and punishments by restraining those who can only be deterred from the worst of offences by the most terrible penalties.
I am aware that serious differences of opinion exist among enlightened legislators in respect to the justice and tendency of a penal code which forfeits the life of the offender in case of murder. It does not come within my province to discuss this principle in the discharge of my executive duties. The law as it stands must be my guide, so long as it remains in force. It is among the first and highest of my obligations to see that it is faithfully executed.
The penalty which the State has prescribed, as a punishment for the crime of wilful murder, must be enforced in all cases where the offence is established by clear and sufficient proofs. This responsibility, weighty and difficult at all times, derives unusual force from the alarming increase of crime in some portions of our State, and especially in your city. The destruction of life by criminal violence has become an event of almost daily occurrence. My reflections upon this subject have produced a firm conviction that this deplorable evil is to be checked, and the lives of our peaceful citizens effectually shielded from danger only by an efficient, faithful and unswerving execution of the law. The peace and safety of society are too sacred to be hazarded by the indulgence of those generous sympathies which the fate of the convict is so well calculated to excite. The demands of justice, and an enlightened regard for the public security, must prevail over the pleadings of compassion.
It remains for you to discharge the most trying duty of your office as I now do mine.
P.S. — I intended to have remarked that Stookey’s crime may be traced directly to the habit he had adopted of carrying a dangerous weapon concealed about his person. His fate should be a warning to all who indulge in this reprehensible practice. It cannot be too strongly impressed upon their minds that persons who choose to carry concealed arms, will be held to a rigid responsibility for the use they may make of them, and for all consequences that may ensue.
(Clemency denial and execution order as printed in the New York Spectator, September 11, 1851.)
Suicidal, drinking heavily, and unable to hold down steady work, Woyzeck frequently abused his special lady friend, the widow Johanna Christiane Woost. He would later say that he was often urged by voices in his mind to slay her — and on the night of June 21, 1821, after she canceled a rendezvous, he did so at last.
A pathetic exit from life turned out to be an entrance into judicial and literary history.
There was no question but that Woyzeck’s hand had taken Woost’s life, but proceedings against the killer dragged on for three years as courts vacillated on his mental competence. Woyzeck had been wildly depressed and owned to hallucinations and unbalanced moods that his contemporaries could readily recognize as falling near the pall of madness.
Nevertheless, Woyzeck had initially been slated for execution in November 1822 based on the evaluation of celebrated Leipzig physician Johann Christian August Clarus, but another doctor — academics will recognize the irksome intervention of reviewer no. 2 here — horned in with a missive questioning the conclusion.
That stay invited an 11th-hour stay and five more examinations worth of billable hours for Dr. Clarus, who studied up his man again and came to the same conclusion: that Woyzeck, though disturbed, was cogent enough to bear responsibility for his actions. It was in the end by this verdict that the executioner’s sword-arm swung.
The lost soul’s end on a Leipzig scaffold on this date would eventually inspire the writer Georg Buchner to pen the play Woyzeck. Though left unfinished when Buchner died young, the play has been frequently staged down to the present day, and even adapted for the silver screen by Werner Herzog: