(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)
As the rope was placed around his throat:
“Oh, I’ll smother with that on. I’ve got electricity in my head now.*”
– Benjamin Snell, convicted of murder, hanging,** Washington, DC.
Executed June 29, 1900
“A man of education and good family,” Snell was convicted of murder after breaking in to the house of child Lizzie Weisenberger and cutting her throat with a razor. Other prisoners shunned Snell, and when Frank Funk heard that he was to be executed on the same day and scaffold as Snell, he petitioned the courts to change the day. President McKinley reprieved Funk for several days, and Snell and Funk maintained “bitter hatred” until Snell’s death.
* Snell, who pursued an insanity defense that was not persuasive to the jury but was convincing enough to induce the entire Congressional delegation of his home state of Georgia to petition President McKinley for a commutation, regularly complained of electricity buzzing in his brain. “I told a physician about it and he laughed at me,” Snell complained (Washington Evening Star, June 28, 1900) of the incredulity this complaint elicited. -ed.
** A giant at two meters tall and a reported 17 stone on the day of his execution, Stone was nearly decapitated by the noose — presumably the consequence of the characteristic American practice of making an impressionistic guess at the right length of the drop, rather than scientifically calculating it.
San Jose (Calif.) Evening News, June 30, 1900.
The victim’s father had the goriest seat in the house for this, standing “directly at the foot of the scaffold, within a few feet of where the body swung after the fall” (Evening Star, June 29, 1900) at the private hanging. -ed.
Minutes after midnight this date in 1912, a desexed preacher’s troubled concupiscence was at last abated by the Massachusetts mercy seat.
Some demon ruled Clarence Virgil Thompson Richeson‘s wayward footsteps through this life, and ere its last immolation saw Richeson alternate a serial pattern of abstinent betrothals with bouts of increasingly severe mental instability.
“Clarence had become deranged,” wrote one of the several theological seminaries he attended to his father, explaining why he couldn’t be kept.
Derangement for Clarence Richeson ranged from the merely embarrassing (wet dreams, three or four times a week) to the positively poltergeistian (bouts of raving, delirious lunacy). These foibles proved no obstacle to the charismatic Richeson’s repeated engagement — six or more young women by my count succumbed to his court — although he would later confess that these relationships, never consummated in matrimony, were almost never consummated in bed either. Richeson claimed to have remained a virgin until age 28, and then for most of the succeeding six years as well, even though a book of that period describes him as a “tall, handsome giant with the classic face of a Gibson hero.” On at least one occasion he besought a doctor to castrate him as he feared he could not keep his self-control around women.
Richeson’s strange proclivities kept interrupting the cursus honorum of Baptist pastorships that comprised his professional life: he had to resign from a church in Kansas City in 1904 after proposing to three different women, and a gig in El Paso was cut short when he fell into a spell of paranoid delusion.
1908 finds him a minister once again, now in Hyannis, Mass., and celebrating the birthday of 17-year-old Avis Linnell with an engagement ring. His “spells” or “fits” of madness were continuing as well, and numerous associates would later produce affidavits testifying to his violent outbursts. A doctor (who only quelled Rev. Richeson this night by morphine) recalled one incident:
I was called to see him at the residence of Mrs. Hallet, with whom he was boarding, and when I arrived I found there were with him two or three men whom I knew to be members of his church; he was acting violently and they were trying to control and quiet him both by words and by attempting to restrain him by physical force. He appeared at times to be partly conscious; then he would go into a state whereby he lost consciousness and was practically unconscious, apparently had no knowledge of what he was doing or saying. During this period of time he talked irrationally, raved incoherently, and physically manifested an abnormal degree of strength.
Parishioners decent enough to stand with their preacher would eventually find these private afflictions played out in lurid public detail. That was after Avis Linnell turned up dead at the Boston YWCA where she boarded while studing at the New England Conservatory of Music. It was 17 days before her scheduled Halloween, 1911 marriage to Clarence Richeson, and Miss Linnell was pregnant.
At first ruled a suicide, the case caught the eye of the Boston Post, whose swarm of reporters soon found a pharmacist who had sold Richeson cyanide days before the death of his betrothed. Richeson’s clemency petitions would eventually focus on his unbalanced mental state, but poison, of course, suggests the calculation of the pastor and not the outbursts of the madman within. (We’re getting ahead of ourselves, but doctors arguing for mercy also viewed Richeson as a prime research subject, whose maintenance behind bars could help to avert dangerous mental illnesses in others in the future.)
Matters went very quickly from this point.
Richeson resigned from his pastorship and, while lying in jail under indictment, slashed himself with a sharp piece of tin. Not his wrists, but his manhood — an attempted emasculation that was near enough successful that the physician responding to his shrieks was obliged to complete it in order to close up the wound. Richeson would later insist that he “shall think to my dying day that two men came in and did it” — apparitions of his mind’s creation.
The dying day was quick in coming. Two weeks after his self-mutilation, on January 5, 1912, Richeson withdrew his pretrial not guilty plea and simply copped to the murder. The death sentence was mandatory, but the plea also prevented any opportunity for a jury to rule on whether the killer’s instability lessened his criminal culpability. It was the opinion of some psychiatrists and not a few laymen that it was not simply a matter of Richeson’s state slipping between lucidity and delirium, but that his deterioration over the years had delivered him into a state of permanent derangement. Even Avis Linnell’s mother forgave her daughter’s killer “this dreadful thing” because “it is my belief he went to the electric chair an insane man and that he has been mentally irresponsible for some time past.”
On Sunday, May 19, a day and a half before he became the 14th client of the Massachusetts electric chair, Rev. Richeson conducted his last service — not in the prison chapel (against regulations) but from his own cell. “This is Sunday my last on earth,” he reflected. “If I had lived a righteous life I should today be delivering a sermon from the pulpit of my church in Cambridge instead of being caged here awaiting a felon’s death.”
It had not been so long ago in those environs that any execution would be a prayerful service, condemned together with the congregation. Matters by now were disposed of behind prison bars, but the electrocution of a clergyman was far too rich a theme not to fill New England’s actual pulpits that same day with topical exhortations; indeed, since the Richeson case made national headlines, these were preached all over. (The Olympia, Wash., Daily Recorder of May 20 notes a Presbyterian baccalaureate address that Sunday touching on Richeson as a cautionary example; the Grand Rapids, Mich. Evening Press of May 27 had a preacher at the Calvary Baptist Church declaiming against Richeson’s execution as an instance of anti-clerical prejudice.)
With the witnesses all gathered in the death chamber and just as the last straps were being adjusted the Rev. Herbert S. Johnson stepped forward and asked Richeson the following questions which he answered in a clear voice:
“Would you like to confess Christ as your Savior before these witnesses?”
“I do confess Christ as my Savior.”
“Have you the peace of God in your heart in this hour?”
“I have the peace of God in this hour.”
“Does Christ give you the strength you need in this hour?”
“Christ gives me the strength I need.”
“Do you repent of your sins?”
“Have you the peace of God in your heart?”
“God will take care of my soul and I pray for all.”
“Are you willing to die for Jesus’ sake?”
“I am willing to die.”
Just as he uttered the word “die,” Warden Bridges tapped the stone floor with his gold headed black cane which had been used so many times as a signal to the executioner who switched on the electric current and at 12:17 Drs. McLaughlin, McGrath and Butler pronounced Richeson legally dead. The penalty exacted by the laws of Massachusetts had been paid and all hope of studying this abnormal man for the purpose of aborting criminal tendencies in others of his kind was wiped out in a few seconds.
A pitiless mother, that most unnaturally at one time murdered two of her own children, at Acton within six miles from London, upon Holy Thursday last 1616, the ninth of May. Being a gentlewoman named Margaret Vincent, wife of Mr. Jarvis Vincent of the same town. With her examination, confession and true discovery of all proceedings in the said bloody accident.
How easy are the ways unto evil, and how soon are our minds (by the Devil’s enticement) withdrawn from goodness. Leviathan, the archenemy of mankind, hath set such and so many bewitching snares to entrap us that unless we continually stand watching with careful diligence to shun them, we are like to cast the principal substance of our reputation upon the rack of his ensnaring engines. As for example, a gentlewoman, ere now fresh in memory, presents her own ruin amongst us, whose life’s overthrow may well serve for a clear looking-glass to see a woman’s weakness in, how soon and apt she is won unto wickedness, not only to the body’s overthrow but the soul’s danger. God of his mercy keep us all from the like wilfulness.
At Acton, some six miles westward from London, this unfortunate gentlewoman dwelled, named Margaret Vincent, the wife of Mr. Jarvis Vincent, gentleman, who by unhappy destiny marked to mischance I here now make the subject of my pen and publish her hard hap unto the world, that all others may shun the like occasions by which she was overthrown.
This Margaret Vincent before named, of good parentage, born in the county of Hertford at a town named Rickmansworth, her name from her parents Margaret Day, of good education, graced with good parts from her youth that promised succeeding virtues in her age, if good luck had served. For being discreet, civil, and of modest conversation, she was preferred in marriage to this gentleman Master Vincent, with whom she lived in good estimation, well beloved and much esteemed of all that knew her for her modesty and seemly carriage. And so might have continued to her old age, had not this bloody accident committed upon her own children blemished the glory of the same.
But now mark (gentle reader) the first entrance into her life’s overthrow, and consider with thyself how strangely the Devil here set in his foot and what cunning instruments he used in his assailments. The gentlewoman being witty and of a ripe understanding desired much conference in religion, and being careful, as it seemed, of her soul’s happiness, many times resorted to divines to have instructions to salvation, little thinking to fall into the hands of Roman wolves (as she did) and to have the sweet lamb, her soul, thus entangled by their persuasions.
Twelve or fourteen years had she lived in marriage with her husband well beloved, having for their comforts diverse pretty children between them with all other things in plenty, as health, riches, and such like, to increase concord and no necessity that might be hindrance to contentment. Yet at last there was such traps and engines set that her quet was caught and her discontent set at liberty. Her opinion of the true faith (by the subtle sophistry of some close Papists) was converted to a blind belief of bewitching heresy. For they have such charming persuasions that hardly the female kind can escape their enticements, of which weak sex they continually make prize of and by them lay plots to ensnare others, as they did by this deceived gentlewoman. For she, good soul, being made a bird of their own feather, desired to beget more of the same kind and from time to time made persuasive arguments to win her husband to the same opinion, and deemed it a meritorious deed to charge his conscience with that infectious burden of Romish opinions, affirming by many false reasons that his former life had been led in blindness, and that she was appointed by the Holy Church to shew him the light of true understanding. These and such like were the instructions she had given her to entangle her husband in and win him if she might to their blind heresies.
But he, good gentleman, over-deeply grounded in the right faith of religion than to be thus so easily removed, grew regardless of her persuasions, accounting them vain and frivolous, and she undutiful to make so fond an attempt, many times snubbing her with some few unkind speeches, which bred in her heart a purpose of more extremity. For having learned this maxim of their religion that it was meritorious, yea, and pardonable, to take away the lives of any opposing Protestants were it of any degree whatsoever, in which resolution or bloody purpose she long stood upon and at last (only by the Devil’s temptation) resolved the ruin of her own children, affirming to her conscience these reasons: that they were brought up in blindness and darksome errors, hoodwinked (by her husband’s instructions) from the true light, and therefore to save their soul (as she vainly thought) she purposed to become a tigerous mother, and so wolfishly to commit the murder of her own flesh and blood. In which opinion she steadfastly continued, never relenting according to nature but casting about to find time and place for so wicked a deed, which unhappily fell out as after followed.
It so chanced that a discord arose between the two towns of Acton and Willesden about a certain common bordering between them, where the town of Acton, as it seems, having the more right unto it, by watching defended it a time from the other’s cattle. whereupon the women of the same town, having likewise a willingness to assist their husbands in the same defence, appointed a day for the like purpose, which was the Ascension Day last past, commonly called Holy Thursday, falling upon the 9th of the last past month of May. Which day (as ill chance would have it) was the fatal time appointed for her to act this bloody tragedy, whereon she made her husband fatherless of two as pretty children as ever came from woman’s womb.
Upon the Ascension Day aforesaid, after the time of divine service, the women of the town being gathered together about their promised business, some of them came to Mistress Vincent and according to promise desired her company. Who having a mind as then more settled on bloody purposes than country occasions, feigned an excuse of ill at ease and not half well, desired pardon of them, and offering her maid in her behalf, who being a good, apt, and willing servant was accepted of, and so the townswomen, misdoubting no such hard accident as after happened, proceeded in their aforesaid defences. The gentlewoman’s husband being also from home, in whose absence, by the fury and assistance of the Devil, she enacted this woeful accident in form and manner following.
This Mistress Vincent, now deserving no name of gentlewoman, being in her own house fast locked up only with her two small children, the one of the age of five years, the other hardly two years old, unhappily brought to that age to be made away by their own mother, who by nature should have cherished them with her own body, as the pelican that pecks her own breast to feed her young ones with her blood. But she, more cruel than the viper, the envenomed serpent, the snake, or any beast whatsoever, against all kind, takes away those lives to whom she first gave life.
Being alone (as I said before) assisted by the Devil, she took the youngest of the two, having a countenance so sweet that might have begged mercy at a tyrant’s hand, but she regarding neither the pretty smiles it made nor the dadling before the mother’s face, nor anything it could do, but like a fierce and bloody Medea she took it violently by the throat, and with a garter taken from her leg, making thereof a noose and putting the same about her child’s sweet neck, she in a wrathful manner drew the same so close together that in a moment she parted the soul and body. Without any terror of conscience she laid the lifeless infant, still remaining warm, upon her bed and with a relentless countenance looking thereon, thinking thereby she had done a deed of immortality. Oh, blinded ignorance! Oh, inhumane devotion! Purposing by this to merit Heaven, she hath deserved (without true repentance) the reward of damnation.
This creature not deserving mother’s name, as I said before, not yet glutted nor sufficed with these few drops of innocent blood, nay, her own dear blood bred in her own body, cherished in her own womb with much dearness full forty weeks. Not satisfied, I say, with this one murder but she would headlong run unto a second and to heap more vengeance upon her head. She came unto the elder child of that small age that it could hardly discern a mother’s cruelty nor understand the fatal destiny fallen upon the other before, which as it were seemed to smile upon her as though it begged for pity, but all in vain, for so tyrannous was her heart that without all motherly pity she made it drink of the same bitter cup as she had done the other. For with her garter she likewise pressed out the sweet air of life and laid it by the other upon the bed sleeping in death together, a sight that might have burst an iron heart asunder and made the very tiger to relent.
These two pretty children being thus murdered, without all hope of recovery, she began to grow desperate and still to desire more and more blood, which had been a third murder of her own babes, had it not been abroad at nurse and by that means could not be accomplished. Whereupon she fell into a violent rage, purposing as then to shew the like mischief upon herself, being of this strange opinion that she herself by that deed had made saints of her two children in Heaven. So taking the same garter that was the instrument of their deaths and putting the noose thereof about her own neck, she strove therewith to have strangled herself. But nature being weak and flesh frail, she was not able to do it. Whereupon in a more violent fury (still animated foreward by instigation of the Devil) she ran into the yard purposing there in a pond to have drowned herself, having not one good motion of salvation left within her.
But here, good reader, mark what a happy prevention chanced to preserve her in hope of repentance, which at that time stayed her from that desperate attempt. The maid, by great fortune, at the very instant of this deed of desperation returned from the field or common where she had left most of the neighbours. And coming in at the backside, perceiving her mistress by her ghastly countenance that all was not well and that some hard chance had happened her or hers, demanded how the children did.
“Oh Nan,” quoth she, “never, oh never, shalt thou see thy Tom more,” and withal gave the maid a box upon the ear. At which she laid hold upon her mistress, calling out for help into the town. whereat diverse came running in and after them her husband, within a while after, who finding what had happened were all so amazed together that they knew not what to do. some wrung their hands, some wept, some called out for neighbours; so general a fear was struck amongst them all that they knew not whether to go nor run.
Especially the good gentleman her husband, that seeing his own children slain, murdered by his wife and their own mother, a deed beyond nature and humanity, in which ecstasy of grief at last he broke out in these speeches: “Oh Margaret, Margaret, how often have I persuaded thee from this damned opinion, this damned opinion that hath undone us all.”
Whereupon with a ghastly look and fearful eye she replied thus, “Oh Jarvis, this had never been done if thou hadst been ruled and by me converted. But what is done is past, for they are saints in Heaven, and I nothing at all repent it.”
These and such like words passed betwixt them till such time as the constable and others of the townsmen came in and according to law carried her before a justice of the peace, which is a gentleman named Master Roberts of Willesden, who, understanding these heinous offences, rightly according to law and course of justice made a mittimus for her conveyance to Newgate in London, there to remain till the Sessions of her trial. Yet this is to be remembered that by examination she voluntarily confessed the fact how she murdered them to save their souls and to make them saints in Heaven, that they might not be brought up in blindness to their own damnation. Oh, wilful heresy, that ever Christian should in conscience be thus miscarried. But to be short, she proved herself to be an obstinate papist, for there was found about her neck a crucifix with other relics which she then wore about her, that by the justice was commanded to be taken away and an English Bible to be delivered her to read, the which she with great stubbornness threw from her, not willing as once to look thereupon, nor to hear any divine comforts delivered thereout for the succour of her soul.
But now again to her conveyance towards prison. It being Ascension Day and near the closing of the evening, too late as then to be sent to London she was by commandment put to the constable’s keeping for that night, who with a strong watch lodged her in his own house till morning, which was at the Bell in Acton where he dwelled. Shewing the part and duty of a good Christian, with diverse other of his neighbours, all that same night they plied her with good admonitions, tending to repentance, and seeking with great pains to convert her from those erroneous opinions which she so stubbornly stood in. But it little availed, for she seemed in outward shew so obstinate in arguments that she made small reckoning of repentance, nor was a whit sorrowful for the murder committed upon her children but maintained the deed to be meritorious and of high desert.
Oh, that the blood of her own body should have no more power to pierce remorse into her iron natured heart, when pagan women that know not God nor have any feeling of his deity will shun to commit bloodshed, much more of their own seed. The cannibals that eat one another will spare the fruits of their own bodies; the savages will do the like; yea, every beast and fowl hath a feeling of nature, and according to kind will cherish their young ones. And shall woman, nay, a Christian woman, God’s own image, be more unnatural than pagan, cannibal, savage, beast, or fowl? It even now makes a trembling fear to best me to think what an error this unhappy gentlewoman was bewitched with, a witchcraft begot by Hell and nursed by the Romish sect, from which enchantment God of Heaven defend us.
But now again to our purpose. The next day being Friday and the tenth of May, by the Constable Master Dighton of the Bell in Acton, with other of his neighbours, she was conveyed to Newgate in London. Where lodging, in the master’s side, many people resorted to her, as well of her acquaintance as others and as before, with sweet and comfortable persuasions practised to beget repentance and to be sorry for that which she had committed. But blindness so prevailed that she continued still in her former stubbornness, affirming (contrary to all persuasive reasons) that she had done a deed of charity in making them saints in Heaven that otherwise might have lived to destruction in Hell, and likewise refused to look upon any Protestant book as Bible, meditation, prayer book, and such like, affirming them to be erroneous and dangerous for any Romish Catholic to look in. Such were the violent opinions she had been instructed in, and with such fervencies therein she continued that no dissuasions could withdraw her from them, no, not death itself, being here possessed with such bewitching wilfulness.
In this danger of mind continued she all Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. The Sessions drawing near, there came certain godly preachers unto her, who prevailed with her by celestial consolations, that her heart by degrees became a little mollified and in nature somewhat repentant for these her most heinous offences. Her soul, a little leaning to salvation, encouraged these good men to persevere and go forward in so godly a labour, who at last brought her to this opinion, as it was justified by one that came from her in Newgate upon the Monday before the Sessions: that she earnestly believed she had eternally deserved hellfire for the murder of her children, and that she so earnestly repented the deed, saying that if they were alive again not all the world should procure her to do it. Thus was she truly repentant, to which (no doubt) but by the good means of these preachers she was wrought unto.
And now to come to a conclusion, as well of the discourse as of her life, she deserved death, and both law and justice hath awarded her the same. For her examination and free confession needed no jury: her own tongue proved a sufficient evidence, and her conscience a witness that condemned her. Her judgment and execution she received with a patient mind, her soul no doubt hath got a true penitent desire to be in Heaven, and the blood of her two innocent children so wilfully shed (according to all charitable judgements) is washed away by the mercies of God. Forgive and forget her, good gentlewomen. She is not the first that hath been blemished with blood nor the last that will make a husband wifeless. Her offence was begot by a strange occasion but buried, I hope, with true repentance.
Thus, countrymen of England, have you heard the ruin of a gentlewoman who, if Popish persuasions had not been, the world could not have spotted her with the smallest mark of infamy but had carried the name of virtue even unto her grave. And for a warning unto you all, by her example, take heed how you put confidence unto that dangerous sect, for they surely will deceive you.
On the night of the crime, Hopper and four other soldiers were hanging out in a cafe in the town of Welkenraedt, Belgium, just outside of Liege. Just after midnight, Hopper got into an argument with one of his companions, Private Randolph Jackson Jr.
The two men argued frequently and the other three in the group were used to it, and didn’t take them seriously when they started threatening to shoot each other. Finally Private Jackson handed Hopper his gun, presumably daring him to shoot. Hopper shot him dead, then told the witnesses, “You didn’t see nothing.”
At his court-martial, he did not testify and there was no defense. Hopper protested about this later, saying he didn’t get a fair trial: “My Defense Counsel said he was going to tell them. Told me to stay silent. So, he got up and told them I wasn’t guilty. He didn’t say much else.”
Unlike many military men sentenced to death during World War II, Hopper showed remorse for what he had done. Still he asked for leniency and penned a letter to General Eisenhower beginning:
Dear Sir, I was tried for mudder and the court find me guilty and sences me to be hong Sir. And Sir I am asking you to please Sir look in to this mader close Sir for me because I have made a great mucstake Sir and wont you give me another chanch in the armey.
Hopper’s IQ tested at 50, putting him in the moderately mentally retarded range, and a psychiatrist who evaluated him stated he had a mental age of about nine, “bordering on mental deficiency.” Someone with that degree of mental disability would not be permitted to be executed today.
Some people argued that the death sentence should be commuted to life in prison, citing Hopper’s intellectual impairment and the lack of premeditation. Weighing against that was his prior recorded offenses of going AWOL and being in Liege without an official pass. The Brigadier General who reviewed the case recommended that the death sentence stand, and Eisenhower agreed.
Hopper died on a clear, warm morning in Le Mans, France. At 11:00 a.m., his hands and ankles were bound and he said his last words to the chaplain: “Father, I would like you to write to my mother.” The trap sprung at 11:01 and Hopper was pronounced dead at 11:24.
The first legal hanging in Alberta, Canada, took place on this date in 1879. Generations later, it’s still remembered as one of the province’s worst, and strangest, crimes.
The hanged man was a native Cree known as Swift Runner (Ka-Ki-Si-Kutchin) — a tall and muscular character with “as ugly and evil-looking a face as I have ever seen,” in the words of an Anglo Fort Saskatchewan officer. Whatever his comeliness, Swift Runner was on good terms with the frontier authorities, who trusted him as a guide for the North West Mounted Police. That is, until the Cree’s violent whiskey benders unbalanced him so much that the police sent him back to his tribe … and then his tribe kicked him out, too.
He took to the wilderness to shift as he could with his family in the winter of 1878-79: a wife, mother, brother, and six children.
But only Swift Runner himself would return from that camp.
When police were alerted to the suspicious absence of Swift Runner’s party, the former guide himself escorted investigators to the scene.
One child had died of natural causes, and was buried there.
The eight other humans had been reduced to bones, strewn around the camp like the set of a slasher film.*
They had all been gobbled up by a wendigo.
The wendigo (various alternate spellings, such as windigo and witiko, are also available) is a frightful supernatural half-beast of Algonquin mythology, so ravenous it is said to devour its own lips — and human flesh too. For some quick nightmare fuel,* try an image search.
The revolting wendigo was mythically associated with cannibalism, so closely that humans who resort to anthropophagy could also be called wendigos. According to Swift Runner, the ferocious spirit entered into him and bid him slaughter and eat all his relations.
Swift Runner is the poster child for the “Wendigo Psychosis”, a mental disorder particular to the Northern Algonquin peoples. In the psychosis, diagnosed by the early 1900s but hotly disputed in psychological literature, people are said to have experienced themselves possessed by the wendigo and wracked by violent dreams and a compulsion to cannibalism. It’s importantly distinguished from famine cannibalism: though it was the wilderness during winter, Swift Runner had access to other food when he turned wendigo. The author of a 1916 report on the phenomenon said he had “known a few instances of this deplorable turn of mind, and not one instance could plead hunger, much less famine as an excuse of it.”**
The disorder, whatever it was, was nevertheless surely bound to the precariousness of life in the bush; wendigo cases vanish in the 20th century as grows afflicted populations’ contact with the encroaching sedentary civilization.
For Canadian authorities in 1879, however, there was no X-File case or philosophical puzzle: there was a man who had shot, bludgeoned, and/or throttled his whole family and snapped open long bones to suckle on their marrow.
But if the verdict and sentence were clear, the logistics were less so: hangings were virgin territory for the Fort Saskatchewan bugler put in charge of orchestrating the event. Swift Runner, by this time repentant, had to wait in the cold on the frigid morning of his hanging while the old pensioner hired to hang him retrieved the straps he’d forgotten, to pinion his man, and fixed the gallows trap. “I could kill myself with a tomahawk, and save the hangman further trouble,” Swift Runner joked
* In the Stephen King novel Pet Sematary (but not in its cinematic adaptation) the master adversary behind the reanimation of murderous household pets is a wendigo. For a classical horror-lit interpretation, Algernon Blackwood’s 1910 The Wendigo is freely available in the public domain.
** Cited by Robert A. Brightman in “On Windigo Psychosis,” Current Anthropology, February 1983.
This morning in 1900, Bury ironturner Joseph Holden was executed at Manchester’s Strangeways Prison for the murder of his grandson.
“The convict’s sanity had been in some doubt,” in the bloodless words of the next day’s London Times. To read it a century later is to see a man deeply in need of help.
It was his married daughter Mary Dawes who tried to give it to him by taking him in under her own roof after Holden was reduced to living in a workhouse.
In August of 1900 he took another of his grandchildren — not by Mary Dawes — to a quarry to cut tobacco, then hurled a stone that hit the child in the head. George Eldred was badly injured, but survived.
The mental deterioration betokened by such behavior must have put Mary Dawes or any other kin with an interest in the patriarch’s well-being into a terrible bind. What resources of state or charity could they have called upon, short of consigning him to the miasma of some gaol? At 57 years of age, Holden was already 10 years past the male life expectancy for the time and looked still older thanks to the ravages of alcoholism. Maybe Mary thought that having him at her hearth would stabilize him well enough to dignify whatever little measure of life remained to her father.
That is nothing but a speculative assessment of these bare and tragic facts: Mary Dawes took her father in; days later, on September 5, Mary’s father took Mary’s son John to a quarry and drowned him.
Hampshire Advertiser, September 12, 1900.
Holden’s only defense — practically the only one really available to him — was insanity. But Holden wasn’t starkers; his mind perambulated that foggy wilderness between lucidity and dementia and this was simply insufficient disturbance for the then-prevailing legal standard of madness, the M’Naghten Test. Basically, if he could understand what he’d done, he was sane enough to hang. Still to this day the basis of competency assessments in much of the English-speaking world, M’Naghten offers only a narrow ground for avoiding the full measure of criminal responsibility. And Holden was clearly competent enough by that test; indeed, he had complained of his treatment in Mary’s house, hinting at a real motive.
Although Holden’s death sentence was automatic upon the unhelpful sanity assessment of the doctors,* he was thought a prime candidate for a reprieve from the Home Secretary. This too did not materialize; Holden’s own contrition and resignation to his fate in the days leading up to the execution might have contributed to the judgment that he was in fact sane enough to die. That’s some catch: the best there is.
A murderer named Oscar Mattson — a Russian sailor who had slain a young English prostitute named Mary Ann Macguire in a rage over stolen money and rebuffed advances — did win a Home Secretary reprieve on the same day that Holden hanged.
* It was only necessary for doctors to find him competent enough to make his own plea. When they did so, he simply pleaded guilty.
Daryl Holton went to the Tennessee electric chair.
Holton was an depressive Gulf War veteran with an acrid relationship with his ex-wife Crystle.
Bitter at being kept from his children for weeks on end, Holton picked up his three kids and their half-sister on November 30, 1997 and told them they’d be going Christmas shopping.
According to the confession that he gave when he turned himself in later that night, he instead drove them to an auto repair shop in Shelbyville, where he shot them in two pairs by having first Stephen and Brent (aged 12 and 10) and then Eric and Kayla (aged 6 and 4) stand front-to-back facing away from him, then efficiently shot them unawares through the back with an SKS. (Eric and Kayla played elsewhere while the older boys were murdered. Eric was hearing-impaired.)
“They didn’t suffer,” Holton would tell his shocked interrogators that night. “There was no enjoyment to it at all.”
The original plan was to complete a family hecatomb by proceeding to murder Crystle and her boyfriend, and then commit suicide. But on the drive over, Holton lost his zest for the enterprise, smoked a joint, and just went straight to the police where he announced that he was there to report “homicide times four.”
Holton had a light trial defense focused on disputing his rationality and competence at the time of the murders — a theme that appellate lawyers would attempt to return to, hindered significantly by Holton’s refusal to aid them or to participate in legal maneuvers that would prevent his execution. A spiritual advisor reported him at peace with his impending death: “He’s very clear, very focused.”
Holton’s was Tennesee’s first electrocution in 47 years and, as of this writing, its last. The Volunteer State subsequently removed electrocution from its statutes altogether — but in 2014 it re-adopted the electric chair as a backup option in view of the nationwide shortage of lethal injection drugs.
In the countryside, forced collectivization implemented in 1960 produced resistance all its own. Agricultural output plummeted (the knock-on effects of a 1959 drought helped too); according to Patrick Major’s Behind the Berlin Wall: East Germany and the Frontiers of Power, groceries and everyday household items became markedly more difficult to procure in the early 1960s, sapping productivity throughout the economy as city workers queued for hours and black-market exchanges proliferated.
Following the Soviet Union’s great tradition of attributing economic trouble to running-dog wreckers, East Germany introduced the death penalty for politically motivated economic sabotage* — for example, the 206 cases of arson it attributed among 862 rural fires in 1960. (Figures as per Major.)
Our figure today, Gottfried Strympe, fell foul of these laws. In reality, he was no cackling secret agent but a disturbed loner.
He lurked about the eastern city of Bautzen opportunistically by turns the petty thief or the peeping tom.
Unfortunately for Strympe, who did some spells in psychiatric wards, his deviance extended past the titillation of spying a Hausfrau in her bustier to the much more menacing diversions of pyromania.
The poor man needed a social worker; what he got was the executioner. The charge sheet dramatically attributed his 28 acts of arson (crimes that each caused only minor property damage, and no human casualties) to the inspiration of “West German and American imperialists.”
Strympe, you see, had often visited a father (deceased in 1958) in West Berlin, back before the Wall sealed that city. Of course on those trips, Strympe picked over a Whitman’s sampler of western decadences, from pornography to Social Democracy. On this basis, the Stasi attributed his incendiarism to “terrorism” rooted in “an antisocial attitude strengthened by his stays in West Berlin.”
Strympe had a public show trial, the better that “the population of Bautzen will recognize the danger of communication and travel to West Berlin” (with props of said population — workers’ and civic groups — obligingly supplying the requisite demands for the traitor’s execution).
He was beheaded by Fallbeil at Leipzig on June 21, 1962.
* See Politische Strafjustiz in der Ära Ulbricht: Vom bekennenden Terror zur verdeckten Repression by Falco Werkentin.
On this day in 1962, 30-year-old Henry Adolph Busch went to the gas chamber at San Quentin State Prison in California.
Condemned for the murder of his aunt, he had in fact slaughtered three Hollywood women and nearly killed a fourth.
Busch’s childhood was about what you would expect for a multiple murderer. Born Charles C. Hutchinson, he spent the first six years of his life being passed around to various foster homes before he was adopted by his much older half-sister, Mae E. Busch, and her husband Henry.
He emerged from those first six years emotionally scarred, and physically too: emaciated and with a deformed jaw. (En route to his adult “rat-like” face, enormous ears, and scrawny physique “like a string bean.”)
Years six through adulthood were no treat, either. Schoolmates teased young Henry about his appearance, and he had serious problems with his adoptive mother: one evaluation noted that Mae was a cold parent and “usual maternal feeling between mother and son seemed totally lacking.”
The youth also had difficulty maintaining concentration and suffered from terrible headaches, so it’s no wonder he did badly at school. He joined the Army but was dishonorably discharged; after that he became an optical technician and was viewed as “an excellent lens polisher” and a good employee.
Busch blurs the line between “spree killer” and “serial killer” (the former being itself a poorly defined medium between serial killer and mass murderer). He knew all of his victims, which isn’t typical for a serial murderer. Four months passed between his first and his second murders, but he went on to kill two women and attack a third within the space of three days.
That first victim was 72-year-old woman named Elmira Myrtle Miller, whom Henry had known since he was a child. On May 2, 1960, he dropped by her house and they watched The Ed Sullivan Show together. According to Busch, during the TV program he began to have irresistible thoughts of killing the old woman.
So he did. When Miller turned around to cover up her birdcages for the night, Busch seized her and strangled her to death. He pulled her housecoat up over her waist and tore her underclothes in an attempt to make the murder look like a sex crime, but made no attempt to molest her body.
Elmira’s murder baffled the police; months passed, without any solid leads.
On September 4, the 29-year-old Busch was in his adopted mother’s apartment building when he encountered 65-year-old Shirley Payne, who also lived there. He asked her out on a date to see the hot new film Psycho.
They watched the movie, went to his apartment and had sex. As Payne was getting ready to leave, Busch, again, jumped her from behind and strangled her. He wrapped the body in a sheet and stowed it under the sink temporarily. Fluid was oozing from Shirley’s eyes and nose, so the next day he bought a waterproof sleeping bag and put the body inside it.
Now getting the hang of this murder thing, Busch drank the draught deeply. The very next evening, he went to visit his favorite aunt, Margaret Briggs … and brought along a knife and a pair of handcuffs. They watched television until the early morning hours. He wanted to tell Margaret about Shirley’s murder and ask for advice, but when he started to confide in her she told him that, whatever his problem was, she was too tired to talk about it tonight.
So he strangled her too. After her death, he cut the clothing off her body. The police would subsequently discover numerous bruises and some cigarette burns on the corpse, something Busch never explained.
Henry went to sleep in Aunt Margaret’s bed. The next day he drove her car to work, where he asked a co-worker, 49-year-old Magdalena A. Parra, if she’d like to grab a coffee with him before their shift started. She agreed and got in his car, and immediately he tried to throttle her.
Magdalena was able to fight him off, however, and her screams caught the attention of two truck drivers. Busch bolted from the car; the truckers gave chase. He only went around the corner before he gave up and allowed them to catch him. The police initially thought Busch had just been trying to steal Mrs. Parra’s purse, but, he immediately confessed to the attempted homicide as well as the murders he’d committed during the previous 48 hours. He would eventually cop to Elmira’s slaying too.
In the aftermath of his arrest, predictably, the newspapers suggested Psycho might have given Busch the idea to attack Mrs. Payne. But it’s hard to reconcile the blame-the-movie idea with the inconvenient fact that he had killed before the movie was even released. When asked for comment, Psycho‘s director Alfred Hitchcock said violence was ubiquitous in cinema and his movie wasn’t any more likely to cause someone to commit murder than any other film.
When a doctor, William J. Bryan, examined him prior to his trial, Henry Busch said he’d been wanting to kill someone for years, but had always kept the urges in check, except for one time in the Army when he killed a POW. He said he probably would have kept killing people if he hadn’t been caught in the act with Mrs. Parra, and that he’d had his eye on his landlady for his next victim.
Dr. Bryan (who, it should be noted, was an expert hypnotist but not a psychiatrist) diagnosed the defendant with a schizoid personality and said he didn’t think Busch was capable of forming the intent to commit murder. Bryan suggested Busch’s murders, all of women significantly older than he, were inspired by Henry’s mommy issues: “The killings themselves seem to represent an attempt to possess the desired maternal object, at the same time destroying the power of the object to hurt.”
The state argued that Busch knew exactly what he was doing and was motivated not by mental illness but by pure and simple sadism. The prosecution suggested Shirley Payne had been raped before her death, a contention unsupported by the medical evidence.
In the end he was convicted of attempted murder of Mrs. Parra, second-degree murder in the Miller and Payne cases, and first-degree murder in the case of his aunt. The sentence was death.
Dispute about Henry Busch’s mental state continued as he waited to die. His mother, who testified that he had never been normal, appealed on his behalf. Even his fellow denizens of death row sent a petition to Governor Edmund “Pat” Brown, saying they thought Henry’s life should be spared because it was obvious to them he was mentally ill. But the governor decided to let the law take its course.
Julius was the Matthews family’s only slave and was apparently mentally disabled; Rebecca said he had “but half sense” and John said he “had just sense enough to be a good negro.”
Both John and Rebecca emphasized that Julius was docile, obedient and apparently quite attached to his owners, who had three small children. They were baffled when he brutally assault Rebecca and tried to kill her.
On the day of the attack, John was absent. Julius went out corn-shucking with Littlebury Fallin and his uncle William Fallin, both of them white men. He came home at 6:00 p.m., drunk, did some household chores and made a large fire in the fireplace.
At 7:00, Rebecca heard some whistles outside the house and asked Julius what was going on. He said he didn’t know. He went outside and returned with an ax, saying he would use it to defend Rebecca if they were attacked. Rebecca locked the doors and windows, then sat at her spinning wheel for awhile.
When she bent over to pick something up, Julius grabbed her by the throat and said he was going to kill her, take all the money in the house and run away to a free state. He tried to throw her into the fireplace, saying he’d made the fire to burn her body.
There followed a fierce struggle and Rebecca put up a good fight. She was able to wrestle the ax away from her attacker, unlock the door and run outside. Julius tried to brain her with a large rock but he dropped it when she grabbed his arm. He then tried to stab her with a pocketknife but wound up accidentally cutting his own throat instead. Rebecca wrapped her hands around his neck and choked him until she felt him lapse into unconsciousness.
Then she grabbed her youngest daughter, age three, and legged it for a neighbor’s house. As she ran she noticed Littlebury and William Fallin right behind her.
In the state of Tennessee, even a slave was entitled to a lawyer at a criminal trial. John Matthews refused to appoint counsel for Julius, so the state appointed two lawyers to defend him. (One of them, Alfred O. P. Nicholson, would later serve two terms in the Senate and, after that, on the Tennessee Supreme Court.)
Julius expressed great remorse for his crime, saying he would never have done it sober and he wished Rebecca had killed him. At his trial, he confessed everything and implicated the Fallins, saying that they’d gotten him drunk during the corn-shucking and urged him to rob and kill his mistress.
William, who lived in Kentucky, promised to help him get to a free state. The whistles, Julius explained, had been signals from the Fallins that they were outside the cabin waiting for him to kill Rebecca.
Littlebury testified and denied everything. William did not testify. Neither man ever faced charges for their alleged role in the crime.
The jury convicted Julius after deliberating overnight, but they recommended mercy on account of his youth, his prior good character and the suspicion that he had been lead astray by others. Nevertheless, the sentence was death.
As Julius was awaiting his execution date, help came from an unlikely source: John Matthews, his owner and the husband of the victim. He wrote to the governor, Newton Cannon, asking that the errant slave be pardoned so Matthews could sell him. He listed the following reasons:
The negro is shown to have had a most excellent character.
He was quite young.
He was proved to have but a very limited portion of intellect.
He was shown to be in liquor and the circumstances raised a strong presumption that he was induced by white men to drink for the very purpose of being instigated to commit the murder.
The circumstances rendered it certain that he was instigated by white men, and with his limited
sense, and in liquor, that he was almost a passive instrument in their hands.
He was the only slave of his master.
That last might have been the nub of it. Matthews emphasized that if Julius were hanged and his owners got no compensation — and the state of Tennessee never compensated an executed slave’s owner for the economic loss — the family would suffer greatly. This created an odd confluence of interest between the condemned slave and the one-slave family whose matron he had attempted.
John Matthews expressed confidence that Julius “was not himself when he did the act” and added that it seemed unreasonable “to take away a life when no murder had been committed.”
Going against Matthews’s letter was a petition from the citizens of Maury County, asking that justice take its course and Julius be executed. Julius had had a fair trial, the petition said. Sparing his life and merely selling him on would not only endanger public safety but would also set a bad example for other slaves: “For what is to restrain the slave from imbuing his hands on his masters’ blood, with whom he is incensed, if he had good reason to believe that his punishment, if caught, is to only be a change of masters, and a chance that the may be for the better?”
The governor ignored John Matthews’s plea and upheld the rule of law: Julius was hanged at 2:30 p.m. on March 1, and his master was not reimbursed. On the scaffold, the young slave “confessed his guilt, and deplored his error; spoke of his mistress with much tenderness and warned the colored persons present to remember his fate.”