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.)
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.
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.
[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 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 don 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.
On this day in 1945, twenty-year-old Henry William Hagert died in Ohio’s electric chair for the murders of thirteen-year-old twins James and Charles Collins two years earlier.
Hagert, who was only seventeen at the time of the crime, had shot the boys in cold blood and for no reason at all.
The young murderer was from Lakewood, a suburb of Cleveland. He was a bit of a bad seed; those who knew him said he started to go bad when he was about seven years old, after a bout with double pneumonia and “brain fever.” After his recovery from the illness, he became unstable and aggressive. In 1942, after a high-speed police chase, he was arrested on multiple charges of auto theft and sent to the Boys’ Industrial School for a year.
Typically, this experience in reform school failed to reform him, and he returned home worse than ever.
Hagert’s mother, unable to handle him, had him committed to the psychiatric ward in Cleveland City Hospital in early July 1943. There he was diagnosed as having a “psychopathic personality” and released on August 9. (Just why is unclear; Hagert’s mother claims she begged the chief staff physician not to release him, and the doctor denied this and said, on the contrary, she had begged for him to let her son go.)
Just two days later, Hagert was driving his blue Chevy around when he picked up a nine-year-old boy, the son of a city aide. His plan had to been to sexually assault and murder the child, but he later claimed he was moved by the boy’s crying and pleas and decided to spare his life. This didn’t stop him from keeping his victim in the car overnight, torturing and sexually abusing him. The next day, Hagert drove the boy to a wooded area, tied him to a tree, and placed a series of anonymous calls to the child’s parents with clues as to his whereabouts. The police found the little boy where his abductor had left him.
The following afternoon, for reasons best known to himself, Hagert returned to the spot where he’d left the abduction victim and encountered a Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter and a photographer.
As Hagert made small talk with the photographer, the reporter became suspicious of his behavior and remembered the old cliché about the killer returning to the scene of his crime. He scribbled down a physical description of Hagert and took note of the license plate number on his Chevy. Later, he turned his notes over to the police.
A compliant Hagert was taken in for questioning. Unaccountably, two hours passed before anyone realized he had a loaded gun under his shirt. When an officer removed Hagert’s shirt, the gun fell to the floor. As the officer picked it up, the young man said casually, “The gun you have in your hand is the one I shot the other two with.”
James and Charles Collins had been missing since noon the previous day and law enforcement agents were frantically searching for them. They were last seen hitchhiking to their jobs as caddies at a local golf course. Hagert calmly confessed to killing the Collins twins and lead authorities to their bodies. The dead boys were about 300 feet apart and each had been shot at the base of the skull — that is, “execution style.”
If anyone doubted by now that Hagert was a monster, they would have been convinced by what he had to say about the double murder:
It’s pretty serious, you know. I kidnapped one kid and killed two others … I just felt like killing them, so I killed them. Now it all seems like a bad dream … I had the urge to kill before but I always managed to suppress it by running. I’d run down the street because I felt I had too much energy. The Collins boys were just victims of circumstance. I would have killed anyone at that time. It just happened to be them … I’m not especially sorry for any of those folks I have hurt … The whole thing is just like a smashed fender … When it’s done, it’s done — that’s all.
An initial panel of three psychiatrists unanimously agreed that Hagert was insane. This would not do: the state could not risk the possibility that this incredibly dangerous psychopath would be committed to a hospital, only to escape later on, or be released like before, to walk the streets again.
Five more psychiatrists were appointed to examine the defendant and this group said he was sane. In spite of this, the defense went with an insanity plea anyway. There wasn’t much of an alternative, given the evidence against their client.
Testifying before the jury, one of the doctors described Hagert as “a petulant, cruel, ruthless, determined, egotistical young man with no respect for God, man or the Devil.” Another said Hagert had told him that, if he were set free, the first thing he would do was track down and kill the newspaper reporter whose tip had led to his arrest.
The tearful testimony of his mother, who said Hagert had often complained of seeing “little midgets” who mocked him, carried little weight.
The jury took only two hours to find Henry Hagert guilty without a recommendation of mercy. In his book, Bellamy opines, “Most of the jurors, one suspects, thought Henry was insane by any imaginable standard of common sense, but they knew not what else to do with such an incorrigible monster.”
Hagert’s conviction was overturned on a technicality in December 1944, but his second trial, held before a three-judge panel in March 1945, resulted in the same inevitable guilty verdict. Hagert himself didn’t seem to care much. His last words were, “Do a good job of it now. Give me a good dose — it’s good for what ails for me.” He did donate his corneas, possibly the only contribution he ever made to society.
Prior to Scott’s death, Ohio had carried out only that one execution of Berry in all the previous 48 years.
But it’s made up for lost time with another 45 executions in the eleven years since Scott died.
A paranoid schizophrenic and career criminal, Scott entered an East Cleveland deli in May 1983, ordered bologna and crackers, and then shot the 74-year-old proprietess at point-blank range after she served him. Then he went for the restaurant brace by gunning down a security guard at another restaurant. (That death sentence was eventually reversed; technically, Scott died for the first murder only.)
By the time he paid for the crimes, Scott had gotten to know the fledgling Ohio execution process pretty well.
Scheduled death dates on April 17 and May 15 had both been stayed at the last moment over legal appeals around his mental competency — on that latter date, he was three minutes from execution with the shunts that would carry the lethal chemicals already stuck in his arms.
Laborious as it was to finally consummate, Scott’s was the only Ohio execution in 2001.
But the state conducted three the next year — and it’s never carried out fewer than two in any year since then.
On some day in June 1318, a cat and a one-eared man called John Deydras or Dydras, also known as John of Powderham, were hung in Oxford for challenging the right of Edward II to rule; indeed, John had claimed he was Edward II himself.
It had all started earlier that year when he walked into the King’s Hall in Oxford and announced before everyone that he was the rightful king of England. It was true that he resembled King Edward’s father, Edward I, except that he was missing an ear.
According to Powderham, when he was a baby and playing in the castle yard, a pig bit his ear off. His nanny, fearing the wrath of his royal parents, substituted him for a changeling. Now he was back and wanted to claim his kingdom. He even offered to fight King Edward in single combat for the right to rule.
Edward’s first response was to laugh. He welcomed the pretender, the Chronicle of Lanercost records, with a derisive cry of “Welcome, my brother!” But for the queen, struggling to maintain her husband’s dignity (and, with it, her own), and acutely conscious of the threatening consequences of Edward’s failings, jokes did not come so easily. Proud Isabella was “unspeakably annoyed.”
Proud Isabella had a reason for being so displeased, for her husband was nothing like his father, who had been an accomplished soldier and a good king. Indeed, Edward was widely despised not only for his inept leadership but his unseemly relationships with othermen.
After his arrest, Deydras confessed that the story had been a lie. He blamed his pet cat, a servant of the devil, for putting him up to it.
Modern readers can only conclude that the man was crazy. Royal pretenders had remarkablyshort lifespans, and to become one was effectively to commit suicide. (And at the urgings of a cat! Cats are not, after all, noted for their political acumen.)
Deydras’s contemporaries probably also knew he was mad, and Edward wanted to keep him as a court jester, but according to well-established precedent he was hung — and the cat too.
On this date in 2008, Curtis Osborne suffered lethal injection in Georgia for a double murder.
In the words of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution report, “Osborne was executed for shooting Arthur Jones and Linda Lisa Seaborne on Aug. 7, 1990. Osborne allegedly killed Jones because Osborne didn’t want to give him the $400 he got for selling Jones’ motorcycle. Seaborne was killed because she was there.”
It’s very difficult to capture in individual cases the structural dimensions of the death penalty system, simply because individual cases are, well, individual. Themanyplausibleactualinnocencecasesareonething. Here what you’ve got is a guy who unquestionably shot dead two humans so that he could feed his cocaine habit: making some procedural argument for Curtis Osborne is going to sound like a lot of special pleading.
But those procedural arguments are the very guts of the animal. The U.S. death penalty proposes, as an institution, to attempt not the question, does Curtis Osborne deserve to die?, but the question, among hundreds of Curtis Osbornes, do we have the apparatus to justly distinguish the ones that deserve to die?
As an impoverished drug addict, Osborne was represented at trial by a since-deceased public defender named Johnny Mostiler.
If you search this case, the thing you’ll find immediately is that another defendant being represented at the same time by Mostiler would later swear that Mostiler told him, speaking of Osborne, “that little nigger deserves the chair.” And the context of the conversation was about how Mostiler had just received a plea offer that Mostiler didn’t plan even to relay to Osborne, for the aforementioned reason.
This sort of thing is hard to substantiate: the allegation comes from a man serving a murder sentence of his own, and Mostiler isn’t around to defend himself. But on its own, it’s a shocking claim and a reminder of how profoundly the trial attorney’s performance shapes the entire legal experience. As Time magazine put it, what if your lawyer wants you executed?
Whether Mostiler really dropped an N-bomb on Osborne’s case, we really don’t know. But it’s been said that capital punishment means those without capital get the punishment, and the fact of the matter is that not many of any race who have recourse to indigent defense are served at the bar by Atticus Finch.
Leave aside even that shocking racism allegation, one that no court saw fit to adjudicate. (Prosecutors called the racism claim “outlandish”; appellate court ruled it procedurally out of bounds.) Just reckon the structural situation.
The American Prospect profiled the blinged-out, fast-living Mostiler after his death — breathing not a word about Osborne’s case, which was nowhere on anybody’s radar — and described, essentially, the neoliberal project in action for public defenders.
Mostiler represented not only Osborne, but virtually every poor defendant in Spalding County, Georgia … because, in 1990, he’d pitched the county on a fixed annual contract. Mostiler argued that the county was
wasting money paying as many as 20 court-appointed attorneys $50 an hour to handle indigent cases without knowing exactly how many hours those attorneys would bill during any given year. Mostiler proposed instead that the commissioners pay him a flat fee to handle all of the county’s indigent cases, regardless of the number. That way the county would have to deal with only one lawyer, and it would know its final bill at the start of the fiscal year rather than at the end.
Let justice be done though the heavens fallwithin the confines of fiscal probity. This grift was going to be worth a good deal more than $400 … and come with its own body count, too.
Mostiler bragged about saving the county a good million bucks over the course of the nineties. That’s a new definition of the adversarial judicial process, fresh-minted for the race-to-the-bottom era: every exertion by a defense attorney on his client’s behalf costs him part of his own paycheck.
Small wonder that Mostiler hardly ever tried cases — no more than seven a year, he said, out of as many as 900 felonies. Most were dispatched within minutes in shotgun plea deals and no small number of those momentary clients remain on the inside of a Georgia penitentiary as we speak. Did we mention that Mostiler did all this “lawyering” in only 60% of his lawyer time? He kept up a lively private civil practice, too, one where he probably averaged more than 100 minutes per case.
Death sentences, of course, don’t result from plea bargains — but at Mostiler’s zero-sum rates he also wasn’t going to prep this like the Dream Team. Slate reported that
Mostiler never hired a psychiatrist to examine evidence that Osborne was a victim of childhood abuse, and was borderline retarded, despite a court-ordered sanity evaluation that had found “indications of depression, paranoia, and suicidal ideation.” He never examined the history of mental illness in Osborne’s family because, he said, he didn’t know how to conduct that kind of investigation. Mostiler called no expert witnesses to testify for his client and didn’t bother to interview the state’s experts before they appeared at trial. And he rejected appointment of a second attorney to help with Osborne’s defense, which the American Bar Association and all serious death penalty litigators say is essential if a capital murder defendant is to receive a fair trial.
Pretty damn awful.
Once Osborne’s conviction was in the books at the trial level, no appellate court could intervene without clearing a very high bar: would the evidence un-investigated and the argument un-made likely have made a difference? Could anyone prove that Mostiler described his client with a racial slur? Nobody could really say so. End of story.
It was 18 years between the time Osborne laid those two souls in the ground and the time he himself lay down on the gurney. The irony is that all that time, all those exhaustive appeals, left the most salient and troubling questions in his case un-examined. There were substantive questions here, but Georgia prevailed in a procedural argument that those questions remain closed.
All this unsalved death and sorrow, and all for what? So Curtis Osborne could have another hit. So Spalding County, Georgia wouldn’t have to trouble the property levies with billable hours. For nothing but a little bit of money.
Forty-five years ago today, Luis Monge was gassed in Colorado for murder — the last execution in the United States before a decade-long lull in capital punishment in the U.S.
Monge, an insurance salesman with no prior history of violence, had a hearty brood of 10 children, but when his wife found out he was having an incestuous relationship with one of them, Monge bludgeoned the wife to death, and killed three of the young children just for good measure.
Monge pleaded insanity, and then when doctors found him sane enough to stand trial, just pleaded guilty — eventually dropping all appeals and asking to be hanged in public at the Denver City and County Building.
Despite the culprit’s preferences, his execution was stayed for all of 1966 while Colorado voters weighed a referendum on continuing the death penalty. They ultimately voted 3-1 in favor. (See this detailed history of the death penalty in the Columbine State.)
Even though Monge himself embraced execution willingly, his seven remaining children (also the children of, and siblings of, his victims: surely a difficult position) still fought for clemency, and shared Monge’s last meal with him.
Had Monge maintained his appeals, he — like four other Colorado inmates whose death dates were also on hold in 1966 — would likely have made it into the nationwide unofficial moratorium on executions that settled in while courts sorted out death penalty standards in the late 1960s and early-to-mid 1970s.* That period led into 1972′s landmark Supreme Court decision Furman v. Georgia, invalidating all existing death sentences in the country and sparing men much more nefarious than Luis Monge.
Instead, this date’s principal went to his death clutching a black rosary (and allegedly, and one must suspect apocryphally, asking if the gas would trouble his asthma)** and became a nigh-forgotten denouement from a closed chapter of death penalty jurisprudence, and the last man put to death in America until Gary Gilmore almost ten years later.
Apart from his milestone status vis-a-vis capital punishment nationwide, Monge is also the last person to die in the Colorado gas chamber.
In fact, Monge is currently still the second-last put to death in Colorado, period. It would be fully 30 years before Colorado executed again — in 1997, by lethal injection. As of this writing, it hasn’t done so again since.
* If Monge had avoided execution, the “last pre-Furman execution” milestone would be held instead by California’s Aaron Mitchell, the only man executed on the authority of California governor (and future U.S. president) Ronald Reagan.
** The man who pulled the lever for Monge’s execution, Canon City penitentiary warden Wayne Patterson, was not enthusiastic about the job. He describes his experience here, saying that “Monge was a guilt-ridden man who was nearly suicidal before he was executed. Those were the [kind of] guys who were executed — not the people I thought belonged in the chamber.”
Two centuries ago today, the only man to assassinate a British Prime Minister was hanged for his trouble.
The man at the end of the rope, John Bellingham, was a Liverpool businessman who had gone to Archangel, Russia to do some export/import trade and there been spuriously accused a debtor and slapped in prison for five years.
His target, Spencer Perceval, was the pious Tory heir to the late William Pitt, and famous (or infamous) for his evangelical personal rectitude and an accompanying status-quo smallness. (He was physically short, too.) “He has looked at human nature from the top of Hampstead Hill,” snorted his contemporary Sydney Smith, “and has not a thought beyond the little sphere of his own vision.”*
Though others judge more generously of him, Perceval’s overall reputation is that of the prim caretaker, violently anti-Bonaparte, anti-Catholic, anti-adultery, anti-worker, anti-egalitarian, anti-democratic, anti-slavery. Anti- a lot of things.
Anti-cluttering up his schedule was the thing that did him in.
John Bellingham returned from his sojourn in the Romanovs’ dungeons in 1809, understandably embittered over his ordeal and the bankruptcy it had driven him into. He then besieged the government with demands for compensation, but met a cold reception all over and got no reply at all for his request to meet with Spencer Perceval.
So Bellingham did what anyone would do: he walked up to Perceval at Westminster on May 11, 1812, and shot him dead.
Then the strange perpetrator with the private grievance re-seated himself comfortably by the fireplace (rather than exploiting the hubbub to fly), where he was promptly arrested. They didn’t mess around back then: John Bellingham was on trial for his life four days after pulling the trigger.
Nevertheless, as the rumor first spread there were fears — or in some cases, hopes — of Jacobin intrigues afoot. And it’s safe to say that the nation’s magnates had better cause than its underclasses to mourn Perceval. “Among the multitude,” one parliamentarian remembered of those days, “the most savage expressions of joy and exultation were heard: accompanied with regret that others, and particularly the attorney-general, had not shared the same fate.”
Clearly something less than fully rational, Bellingham was also more than lucid enough for the hemp. A minister who visited him in the hours before his execution found him unsettlingly unrepentant, and attributed to “the perverse inflexibility of his character” Bellingham’s delusional “self-vindication. He had accordingly taken his ground, and there he obstinately stood; and the weakness of his allegations only increased the firmness by which he was determined to maintain them.”
He had, indeed, maintained them openly at trial, bizarrely casting his homicide as a blow for better government to remind ministers of state to keep longer office hours.
Finding myself thus bereft of all hopes of redress, my affairs ruined by my long imprisonment in Russia through the fault of the British minister, my property all dispersed for want of my own attention, my family driven into tribulation and want, my wife and child claiming support, which I was unable to give them, myself involved in difficulties, and pressed on all sides by claims I could not answer; and that justice refused to me which is the duty of government to give, not as a matter of favour, but of right; and Mr. Perceval obstinately refusing to sanction my claims in Parliament; and I trust this fatal catastrophe will be warning to other ministers. If they had listened to my case this court would not have been engaged in this case, but Mr. Perceval obstinately refusing to sanction my claim in Parliament I was driven to despair, and under these agonizing feelings I was impelled to that desperate alternative which I unfortunately adopted. My arm was the instrument that shot Mr. Perceval, but, gentlemen, ought I not to be redressed; instead of that Mr. Ryder referred me to the Treasury, and after several weeks the Treasury sent me to the Secretary of State’s office; Mr. Hill informed me that it would be useless to apply to government any more; Mr. Beckitt added, Mr. Perceval has been consulted, he would not let my petition come forward.
Gentlemen, A refusal of justice was the sole cause of this fatal catastrophe; his Majesty’s ministers have now to reflect upon their conduct for what has happened. Lord Gower is now in court, I call on him to contradict, if he can, the statement I have made, and, gentlemen, if he does not, I hope you will then take my statement to be correct. Mr. Perceval has unfortunately fallen the victim of my desperate resolution. No man, I am sure, laments the calamitous event more than I do. If I had met Lord Gower he would have received the ball, and not Mr. Perceval. As to death, if it were to be suffered five hundred times, I should prefer it to the injuries and indignities which I have experienced in Russia, I should consider it as the wearied traveller does the inn which affords him an asylum for repose, but government, in the injustice they have done me, were infinitely more criminal than the wretch, who, for depriving the traveller of a few shillings on the highway, forfeits his life to the law. What is the comparison of this man’s offence to government? or, gentlemen, what is my crime to the crime of government itself? It is no more than a mite to a mountain, unless it was proved that I had malice propense towards the unfortunate gentleman for whose death I am now upon my trial. I disclaim all personal or intentional malice against Mr. Perceval.
According to a Frenchman in England at the time, the still-sympathetic public raised for Bellingham’s widow and orphan a subscription “ten times greater than they could ever have expected in any other circumstances.”
A few topical books
* In Peter Plymley’s Letters, which is full of vituperation for Perceval’s harsh Irish policy … words that could go just as readily for many a reputed statesman in many a time and circumstance over the two centuries elapsed since.
I cannot describe the horror and disgust which I felt at hearing Mr. Perceval call upon the then Ministry for measures of vigour in Ireland. If I lived at Hampstead upon stewed meats and claret; if I walked to church every Sunday before eleven young gentlemen of my own begetting, with their faces washed, and their hair pleasingly combed; if the Almighty had blessed me with every earthly comfort — how awfully would I pause before I sent forth the flame and the sword over the cabins of the poor, brave, generous, open-hearted peasants of Ireland! How easy it is to shed human blood; how easy it is to persuade ourselves that it is our duty to do so, and that the decision has cost us a severe struggle; how much in all ages have wounds and shrieks and tears been the cheap and vulgar resources of the rulers of mankind; how difficult and how noble it is to govern in kindness and to found an empire upon the everlasting basis of justice and affection! But what do men call vigour? To let loose hussars and to bring up artillery, to govern with lighted matches, and to cut, and push, and prime; I call this not vigour, but the SLOTH OF CRUELTY AND IGNORANCE. The vigour I love consists in finding out wherein subjects are aggrieved, in relieving them, in studying the temper and genius of a people, in consulting their prejudices, in selecting proper persons to lead and manage them, in the laborious, watchful, and difficult task of increasing public happiness by allaying each particular discontent. In this way Hoche pacified La Vendee — and in this way only will Ireland ever be subdued. But this, in the eyes of Mr. Perceval, is imbecility and meanness. Houses are not broken open, women are not insulted, the people seem all to be happy; they are not rode over by horses, and cut by whips. Do you call this vigour? Is this government?
A violent-tempered man — madness was said to run in the family, and this was in fact the Earl’s defense at this trial — Ferrers’ nastiness ran his wife right out of the house. Consider this was the 18th century, he must have been some kind of intolerable.
Though it was directed at another member of the household, this anecdote from the Newgate Calendar may prove illustrative of the sort of fellow we’re dealing with:
Some oysters had been sent from London, which not proving good, his lordship directed one of the servants to swear that the carrier had changed them; but the servant declining to take such an oath, the earl flew on him in a rage, stabbed him in the breast with a knife, cut his head with a candlestick and kicked him on the groin with such severity, that he was incapable of a retention of urine for several years afterwards.
We’ve seen in these pages how a certain sort of ill-humored man would sooner go to the scaffold than subsidize his ex. Ferrers was this sort.
The arrangement for the Ferrers spouses (they weren’t divorced, just separated) was that Ferrers would pay her support via his old household steward. Chafing at the payments and resenting the middleman, Ferrers one day in January summoned him to his, theatrically accused him of breaking faith, and shot him through the chest.
The Earl was tried before the House of Lords (a jury of his peers, and Peers!),* but his sentence was straight from the Old Bailey: not just hanging, but anatomization.
Most noticeably, perhaps, was the fact that Ferrers was allegedly hanged with a rope of silk, rather than hemp. For only the softest coiling around noble throats, you see.
The other, and in hindsight more consequential, was that he didn’t get the low-rent treatment of being shoved off a cart. Instead, the scaffold was surmounted with a small platform supporting a set of trap doors whose opening would suspend the malefactor for his asphyxiatory journey to the hereafter.
This, one of many illustrations of the hanging, suggests this novel feature:
This innovation presents us an obvious forebear of the now-familiar “drop” method of hanging which evolved over the subsequent centuries. Though the drop was not repeated at Tyburn, it became wholesale practice when hangings moved to Newgate Gaol; the drop itself thereafter became the very art of the hanging when it was lengthened and scientifically measured to snap the neck of the condemned on the fall instead of strangling him or her.
And you could trace it all back to May 5, 1760.
To judge from other engravings, this red-letter day did not want for witnesses.
Perhaps stage-frightened by all these eyeballs on their noteworthy prey, the executioners put on an amateur-hour show. They openly fought over the £5 tip Ferrers gave (he accidentally handed it to an assistant), and likewise again over the rope that conducted the sentence.
When next in London, wet your whistle at Streatham’s The Earl Ferrers, a local pub.
* Ferrers defended himself: a norm for the time, but to latter-day eyes rather hard to square with his insanity defense. You’ve got a lucid defendant relying upon his wits to save him in a juridical proceeding inquiring of his own witnesses, “Was I generally reputed a Madman?” (Ferrers’s defense, specifically, was “I’m periodically insane.” But when the wind is southerly, he knows a hawk from a handsaw.)