Posts filed under 'Racial and Ethnic Minorities'

1834: James Graves, Trail of Tears precursor

Add comment November 21st, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1834, the Cherokee James Graves was hanged in Spring Place, Georgia, for murder. He’s the only person ever executed in Georgia’s Murray County.

But he was also a sad waymarker on the way to a much larger tragedy.

It happened that in 1834 the state of Georgia’s long-simmering conflict with the indigenous Cherokee nation was coming to a nasty head. In the infancy of the American Republic, it had made a pact placing the Cherokee under the protection of the United States.

By the 1820s, however, Cherokee land had been nibbled away and the white citizens of Georgia started clamoring for a proper ethnic cleansing: forcibly expelling the Cherokee to the western frontier.

The immediate territorial conflict became joined to a conflict over federal jurisdiction, because the Cherokee had their treaty with the United States (not with Georgia) and its terms were supposed to be guaranteed by Washington (not Milledgeville). As the Georgia legislature enacted laws stripping the Cherokee of land and self-rule, the Cherokee appealed in federal courts.

The Cherokee notched a major win in the 1832 Worcester v. Georgia, when the U.S. Supreme Court held that Indian affairs were the domain of the federal government and individual states had nothing to say in the matter.

But to give a sense of where the wind was blowing, this is the very decision about which U.S. President (and notorious Indian-killer) Andrew Jackson is supposed to have remarked, “John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it.” The quote itself is probably apocryphal but the atmosphere of lawless confrontation was very real indeed.

James Graves was convicted by a Georgia jury in September 1834 of murdering a white man several years prior on Indian land … or rather, on what Georgia said was now no longer Indian land.

The Supreme Court directed Georgia to stay the hanging and appear at a January 1835 hearing.

Governor William Lumpkin* would have none of it. Grandstanding in a communique to an all but universally supportive legislature, he vowed to ignore the court’s order.

Any attempt to infringe the evident rights of the State, to govern its entire population, of whatever complexion, and punish all offences committed against its laws within those limits … I consider a direct usurpation of power. … Such attempts demand the determined resistance of the States … I shall wholly disregard all such unconstitutional requisitions, of whatever character or origin, and, to the utmost of my power, protect and defend the rights of the State, and use the means afforded me to maintain the laws and Constitution of the same. (Nov. 7, 1834)

Two weeks later, Georgia hung James Graves, stay or no stay. There would be no hearing in Washington that January.

“What is to be done with Georgia?” lamented the Nantucket Inquirer (Dec. 13, 1834). “Will another presidential proclamation, full of big words and bombastic threats, be issued against her, for having nullified the U.S. claim of sovereignty over the Indians, and for having hanged the copper-skinned citizen Graves, in defiance of the interdict of one of Gen. Jackson’s judges?”

They already knew the answer: “O, no! — Why? Van Buren counts upon the vote of Georgia at the next presidential election!” (Van Buren did not in fact carry Georgia.)

In 1835, the U.S. foisted a dubious new treaty on the Cherokee by getting a minority faction to sign off on Indian removal, and shortly thereafter forced the Cherokee west on the Trail of Tears.

* Lumpkin County, Georgia is named for him. That’s not too shabby, but he almost hit big-time when the city of Terminus proposed to rename itself Lumpkin. Lumpkin declined and the city is today known as Atlanta.

** Georgia conducted another execution, that of George Tassels, under similarly contested circumstances a few years before Graves.

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1829: The slaves of the Greenup revolt

Add comment November 20th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1829, the Kentucky town of Greenup strung up martyrs to the slave economy.

Our incident begins with a slaver by the name of Gordon who, with the aid of two assistants, was driving 60 blacks “including all sexes and ages” from the flesh markets of Maryland where he bought them west to the Mississippi — likely there to be “sold down the river” into barges bound for still harsher bondage deeper South. Melancholy slave coffles* like this one crisscrossed Kentucky’s highways routinely, columns of chattel lashed two by two to a long chain with a wagon train of provisions alongside. (Source) The awful migrations peaked in the summer months — timed to cotton plantations’ coming labor demands for the autumn harvest.

Despite the frequency and visibility of these transits, Kentucky remained an uneasy northern frontier of the Slave Power; in the coming Civil War it would become a literal battleground claimed by both North and South. Greenup was a river town, and just across the river lay Ohio, an abolitionist state. Kentucky’s proximity to free soil had invited bloody slave revolts in the past; here, the North-South nexus also helped to propagate the story of the Greenup incident.

An editor in nearby Portsmouth, Ohio, which was not merely free territory but a hub of the Underground Railroad, ran a story that soon volleyed around the Republic as newspaper after neighboring newspaper reprinted the remarkable bulletin copied ultimately from Portsmouth’s Western Tiller. This version of it (with line breaks added for readability) comes from the New-Hampshire Sentinel of Sept. 18, 1829. It’s verbatim from what the Western Tiller had reported almost a month before.

Affray and Murder!

A most shocking outrage was committed in Kentucky, about eight miles from this place, on the 14th inst. [14th of August, 1829] A negro driver, by the name of Gordon, who had purchased in Maryland about 60 negroes, including all sexes and ages, was taking them, assisted by an associated named Allen, and the wagoner who conveyed the baggage, to the Mississippi.

The men were handcuffed and chained together in the usual manner for driving those poor wretches, while the women and children were suffered to proceed without incumbrance.

It appears that, by means of a file, the negroes, unobserved, had succeeded in separating the irons which bound their hands, in such a way as to be able to throw them off at any moment. About eight o’clock in the morning, while proceeding on the state road leading from Greenup to Vanceburg, two of them dropped their shackles and commenced a fight, when the wagoner, Petit, rushed in with his whip to compel them to desist. At this moment every negro was found perfectly at liberty; and one of them seizing a club, gave Petit a violent blow on the head, and laid him dead at his feet; and Allen, who had come to his assistance, met a similar fate, from the contents of a pistol fired by another of the gang.

Gordon was then attacked, seized and held by one of the negroes, whilst another fired twice at him with a pistol, the ball of which each time grazed his head, but not proving effectual, he was beaten with clubs and left for dead.

They then commenced pillaging the wagon, and with an axe split open the trunk of Gordon, rifled it of the money, about $2,400, sixteen of the negroes then took to the woods.

Gordon in the mean time, not being materially injured, was enabled by the assistance of one of the [slave] women, to mount his horse and flee; pursued however, by one of the gang, on another horse, with a drawn pistol. Fortunately he escaped with his life, barely arriving at a plantation as the negro came in sight; who then turned about and retreated.

The neighborhood was immediately rallied, and a hot pursuit given — which we understand has resulted in the capture of the whole gang, and the recovery of the greater part of the money.

Seven of the negro men and women, it is said, were engaged in the murders, and will be brought to trial at the next court in Greenupsburg.

There are various reports afoot of the precise number of hangings effected on this date. The Espy file offers five names, but the newspapers of the time give it as four — as in this version from the Essex Gazette of Haverhill, Mass. (Jan. 2, 1830), which is likewise an nth-generation copy of the Western Times‘s initial reportage. The doomed men, that paper remarked, “all maintained to the last, the utmost firmness and resignation to their fate”; in spite of the predictably harsh punishment, it is interesting that they were allowed that traditional privilege of the condemned to expostulate under their hanging-nooses, even here to the point of vindicating the justice of their rebellion which would really have been tantamount to inciting other slaves to follow their example too.**

They severally addressed the assembled multitude, in which they attempted to justify the deed they had committed, on the principle acknowledged by all wise men,

That it is lawful in the sight of God and a principle implanted in the breast of every man by nature, to fight for freedom, and slay the tyrant who dares to deprive them of it.

This only they had done, and having failed to accomplish the sole object for which they slew their merciless oppressors, traffickers in human flesh, it remained for them to pay the forfeit of that failure with their lives.

One of them while standing upon the cart, just ready to be launched into eternity, exclaimed, several times — “Death! — Death, any time, in preference to slavery!”

During the whole time they stood under the gallows, not a joint was seen to tremble, nor a sigh heard to escape from them.

David Walker, a free-born North Carolina black man who moved to Boston and became a prominent abolitionist, dwells at some length on the story in his magnum opus, Walker’s Appeal. Directed at his African-American fellows, the Appeal here does not pause to justify the self-evident righteousness of slaves revolting against their captors — instead, it addresses the putatively “humane” action of the enslaved woman, who in Walker’s estimation in effect props up slavery as a whole when she rescues the near-murdered slaver Gordon. Indeed, while the sketchy information that survives about this failed revolt does not offer us the particulars of what unfolded in the hours immediately following the slaves’ breakout, the proximity of potential refuge across the sectional border invites one to wonder whether that ounce of compassion was not the difference preventing the slaves from reaching the Ohio River. Walker, at any rate, has no patience for sentiment in this instance.

Here a notorious wretch, with two other confederates had SIXTY of them in a gang, driving them like brutes … [until] by the help of God [the slaves] got their chains and hand-cuffs thrown off, and caught two of the wretches and put them to death, and beat the other until they thought he was dead, and left him for dead; however, he deceived them, and rising from the ground, this servile woman helped him upon his horse, and he made his escape.

Brethren, what do you think of this? Was it the natural fine feelings of this woman, to save such a wretch alive? I know that the blacks, take them half enlightened and ignorant, are more humane and merciful than the most enlightened and refined European that can be found in all the earth … there is a solemn awe in the hearts of the blacks, as it respects murdering men: whereas the whites, (though they are great cowards) where they have the advantage, or think that there are any prospects of getting it, they murder all before them, in order to subject men to wretchedness and degradation under them. This is the natural result of pride and avarice.

But I declare, the actions of this black woman are really insupportable. For my own part, I cannot think it was any thing but servile deceit, combined with the most gross ignorance: for we must remember that humanity, kindness and the fear of the Lord, does not consist in protecting devils. Here is a set of wretches, who had SIXTY of them in a gang, driving them around the country like brutes, to dig up gold and silver for them, (which they will get enough of yet.) Should the lives of such creatures be spared? Are God and Mammon in league? … Any person who will save such wretches from destruction, is fighting against the Lord, and will receive his just recompense. The black men acted like blockheads. Why did they not make sure of the wretch? He would have made sure of them, if he could.

Walker died suddenly of tuberculosis a few months after his Appeal hit print. As he forecast elsewhere in that same document, his widow received scant indulgence on her mortgage debt once the husband was out of the picture and the white real estate mogul George Parkman soon compounded the woman’s grief by throwing her out of the house. It was one of the countless little coldnesses Parkman inflicted en route to stacking up his own fortune … and to his years-later star turn as the victim of one of Harvard University’s most sensational murder trials.

* The witness who described this earlier 1822 scene of a 40-strong slave coffle marching perversely under the stars and stripes quotes an apt stanza from popular 18th century poet William Cowper, an ardent hater of slavery:

Ah! me, what wish can prosper, or what prayer,
For merchants rich in cargoes of despair?
Who drive a loathsome traffic, gauge and span,
And buy the muscles and the bones of man!

** Perhaps matters would have been handled differently a couple of years later, after Nat Turner‘s rebellion scared the pantaloons off slaveowners.

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1944: Joseph Watson and Willie Wimberly Jr.

Add comment November 8th, 2015 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1944, Private Joseph Watson and Technician Fifth Grade Willie Wimberly Jr. of the U.S. Army were executed for a brutal attack on two French civilians.

They broke into a farmhouse only a few hundred yards from their company bivouac area, shot the elderly farmer and his unmarried daughter, and raped the woman. Their crimes and deaths are described in French L. MacLean’s book The Fifth Field: The Story of the 96 American Soldiers Sentenced to Death and Executed in Europe and North Africa in World War II.

At 8:00 p.m. on the evening of August 8, 1944, Watson and Wimberly, both of them already drunk, arrived at the farmhouse and bartered for a liter of apple cider. They spoke no French but were able to get their point across. The farmer and his daughter were wary of the inebriated pair and, after they left, barricaded the door.

Five minutes later, the two soldiers returned and battered it down.

Wimberly hit the man on the head with his Tommy gun and Watson forced the woman into a chair. Then, just like that, they left again. The two victims went upstairs, barricaded themselves into another room and double-locked it.

A few hours later the two soldiers returned and fired at least twenty .45 submachine gun rounds through the upstairs door, wounding both of the French civilians.

The farmer staggered downstairs and went to get help, but his daughter’s tibia was fractured and she was unable to flee. She was raped in turn by each of the men while the other held her at gunpoint.

At trial she couldn’t identify either of her attackers. The farmer identified Wimberly out of a lineup of six black soldiers, but wasn’t sure about Watson.

Their identification wasn’t really needed, however. Watson was found passed out at the crime scene in the morning, still wearing his bloodstained pants, with the fly unzipped. Wimberly had left, but he left his helmet liner (marked with a unique serial number) on the steps of the farmhouse.

When questioned, Wimberly blamed the entire thing on Watson. Watson made several contradictory statements about the night of the crime before pulling the old amnesia gag. He admitted he’d gone to the farmhouse with Wimberly and added, “I must have gotten drunk because the next thing I knew I was in the yard with a Colonel, two Lieutenants and two MPs.”

Given the circumstances, there wasn’t much either man could say to show why he should not be convicted and executed.

Justice was quick: they were hanged less than three months after their crime. Wimberly went first and was pronounced dead at 10:29 p.m. Watson followed and was dead by 10:48. Eight days later, General George S. Patton had a letter sent to the rape victim, apologizing for what she’d been through and for the soldiers’ part in it.

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1866: Frank Ferris, a Portuguese ax murderer in New York

4 comments October 19th, 2015 Headsman

New York Times, Oct. 19, 1866:

FRANK FERRIS, the unfortunate man who is condemned to be executed to-day for the murder of his wife, has been positively refused a further respite by GOV. FENTON. No efforts have been spared by the Portuguese Minister, or Mr. Kintzing, his counsel, to secure a commutation of sentence to imprisonment for life. Both these gentlemen have personally importuned the Governor, but without avail, as he yesterday declared, for the last time, that he could see no reason for clemency in this case.

The murder of which FERRIS was convicted was committed on the night of the 9th of September, 1964, and seems to have been as deliberate as it was horrible. After having announced his purpose, he went to the room occupied by his wife, and after breaking in the door with an ax, beat her brains out with the same instrument. He was arrested by the side of his victim, with the murderous weapon in his hand.

He was formally indicted, tried, and, on conviction, sentenced to be hanged in April last. The case was appealed, and after a review of the proceedings he was resentenced. A respite was granted form the 17th of August until to-day, when the execution will take place.

FERRIS has been a very troublesome prisoner during his incarceration, his querulous and jealous disposition occasioning the keepers much trouble. He found fault with everybody and everything that came near him — the physicians, the keepers, his counsel, his friends, his food and his accommodation, and even so late as yesterday, repeated to our reporter the long list of fictitious grievances which have troubled his mind so much. His nature seemed to be devoid of gratitude, and for all the favors gratuitously heaped upon him by the representatives of his country, his counsel and the prison officials, he has had no word of thanks, but rather of censure.

Although he has been carefully examined by experts in reference to his sanity, and pronounced a responsible person, there are certain points upon which his perverseness would seem to amount to insanity. He says that he has forgiven all his enemies and is prepared to die, yet speaks with great bitterness regarding some of the witnesses who testified against him, and persons who have been of service to him since his arrest.

Twice since his sentence was pronounced he has been deprived of the means of self-destruction. Once he made a great fuss because he had no looking glass. One was furnished him, and shortly afterward a quantity of strychnine was found concealed between the glass and the frame. Subsequently an apple was found in his cell stuck full of matches. Matches had been furnished him for lighting his pipe, and he had stuck the ends of these, which contained the phosphorous and brimstone, into an apple, doubtless intending, when a sufficient supply of the poison was obtained, to eat the apple.

FERRIS had been attended constantly of late by Fathers DURANQUET and MCKENNA, who have endeavored to prepare him for his fate. While he talks fairly upon religious subjects, it is evident from the manner in which he converses upon other subjects, that his thoughts are “of the world worldly.” He appears in good health, is strong and vigorous, and says he will walk manfully to his death. He did contemplate making a speech under the scaffold, but at the instance of his spiritual advisers has relinquished the idea.

All the preparations for the execution are completed. The gallows — on which GONZALES and PELLICIER were hung last Friday — was erected yesterday, and the usual preliminaries arranged. During the erection of the gallows, FERRIS was removed from the condemned end of the first floor of the prison to one in the second corridor, where the sound of the carpenter’s hammer could not reach his ears. The execution will take place around 10 o’clock to-day.

New York Times, Oct. 20, 1866:

FRANK FERRIS, alias FRANCISCO FERREIRA, was executed yesterday morning at the Tombs for the murder of his wife, MARY FERRIS, on the night of Sept. 9, 1864. The murderer was a Portuguese, 36 years of age, and was a sea-faring man. His victim was an Irish woman, the mother of three children, two of them by a former husband. FERRIS was an intemperate man, of violent temper, and often had severe quarrels with his wife. Instead of contributing to the support of his wife and children, FERRIS squandered in drink the money earned by his wife by washing and ironing. He enlisted as a private soldier in a Massachusetts regiment early in 186, but after a few months’ service was discharged for disability. He returned to New York, resuming his old habits, and his wife refused to live with him. He became jealous, and in his drunken frenzy frequently threatened to take her life. Unfortunately those threats were not heeded, and the brutal murder was committed.


MARY FERRIS, the wife of FRANK FERRIS, occupied the top floor of the tenement-house, No. 31 James-street. She was living with her children apart from her husband. She is spoken of by some as a hard-working, industrious, patient woman. Others alleged, and her husband among their number, that she was a prostitute and a disorderly character. No evidence of this kind, however, was adduced at the trial, but a good character was given her.

Her husband had been striving to insinuate himself into her lodgings for weeks, and on her refusal to live with him, had beaten her repeatedly. But a short time before the murder he had assaulted her with an ax, and inflicted such wounds upon her that her life was despaired of. At the instance of her friends she procured the arrest of her husband, and on her complaint he was sentenced to the Penitentiary.

Upon the expiration of his sentence, FERRIS returned to New-York and commenced a search for his wife, but for two or three days he was unable to find her. He finally traced her to her lodgings, and on the 9th of September he called there. MRS. FERRIS was not in and he went away. He had been drinking freely, and while in the house where his wife lived he made terrible threats against her. At one place where he called on that afternoon to inquire for her, he knelt in the middle of the room and said: “I swear by the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ that I will kill her before 9 o’clock to-night …”

He also swore that he would kill himself.

When asked what would become of his children, he replied that they could go on the island. He was observed during the day sharpening a knife on the curbstone in front of the house in which his wife lived. When MRS. FERRIS returned from her work she was informed of the threats made by her husband, and, yielding to the entreaties of her friends, she removed her children and some of her things to the room of a neighbor on a lower floor of the building, where she gave the children supper and put them to bed, intending to remain there with them.

About 8 o’clock in the evening, FERRIS, armed with a heavy, dull ax, went to his wife’s room, and finding the door fastened broke it in with the ax. Disappointed at not finding his wife within, he commenced destroying the furniture. MRS. FERRIS hearing the noise, and hoping to save her furniture, rushed up to her room despite the warnings of her friends. She found the door shut, and a few words were exchanged by her on one side of the door and him on the other. The door then opened, and the woman passed into the room. A moment later she appeared at the window, screaming “Murder, watch!”


Yesterday morning about 200 persons gathered within the walls of the prison to witness the execution. Capt. JOURDAN, of the Sixth precinct, was in attendance with a force of 150 policemen, for the purpose of preserving order within and without the prison. The clergymen were saying the last prayers in company with the prisoner in his cell as the spectators were assembling. Sheriff KELLY was with him also most of the morning, and superintended his dressing for the scaffold. The fatal cord was adjusted about his neck, and the black cap was fitted to his head by Mr. GEORGE ISAACS, upon whom the duty of executioner devolves.

FERRIS then bade good bye to all present, and everything being in readiness the solemn procession moved toward the gallows, FERRIS walking between Sheriff KELLY and Mr. ISAACS, preceded by the clergymen. As they emerged from the cell the condemned man began singing, in a clear and distinct voice, a Portuguese hymn, usually sung by his countrymen when the holy sacrament is being given to a dying man. He continued singing as he walked through the line of spectators, concluding the hymn as he took his place beneath the gallows.

In his hand he carried an ebony crucifix, and as he ceased singing he kissed this several times. He then knelt down between the priests, the Sheriff and his assistants kneeling also, and the last prayers were said. He then rose to his feet, and on being asked if he wished to say anything, he replied that he did. In a clear voice, but in scarcely intelligible English, he spoke as follows:


My Dear Gentlemen: I am going to die, and I am innocent of the crime for which I suffer. I do not mean I did not do it, but, though my hand is guilty, my heart is innocent. But for Father DURANQUET and the good Sisters of Mercy, I would have had more to say, and give an account of some people. Good bye, my dear brothers — Amen.

He then thanked Sheriff KELLY for his kindness to him, and resumed his position under the rope. Mr. ISAACS then pulled the black cap over his face, adjusted the rope which was around his neck to that dangling from the beam and all was ready. The Sheriff, with his handkerchief, gave the signal, and with the fall of the heavy weights behind the screen, the body of FRANK FERRIS was drawn into the air. There were a few spasmodic twitchings of the limbs, a convulsive clutching of the hands, and then all was quiet. It was just 9 o’clock and 50 minutes when the weights fell, and in fifteen minutes pulsation had ceased. The body was partially lowered and examined by several physicians, and a few minutes later was taken down and deposited in a plain coffin.


The body of FERRIS is to be buried in Calvary Cemetery, the Portuguese Consul having made arrangements to that effect, and defraying the expenses of burial.


The orphan children of FRANK FERRIS and his murdered wife have been cared for by the Catholic charitable institutions of the City. The Sisters of Mercy have taken the two girls, and the Brothers of Mercy the little crippled boy. The injury to this child was received after the incarceration of the father, and while in the care of Mrs. FERRIS’ sister. The father manifested much affection for the boy, and not till recently, if ever, forgave his sister-in-law for her carelessness in permitting the child to fall out of a window.

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1794: Edmund Fortis, in the hands of God

Add comment September 25th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1794, Edmund Fortis was hanged in Dresden, Maine* — at the time still a part of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Fortis was born a slave in Virginia but escaped and slipped into the wage economy by hiring out as a seaman on a ship bound from Alexandria, Va., to England. According to his dying confession he was a habitual petty thief; by the time he had made his way to Maine, “my life was dreadful — Drinking, stealing and gaming.”

Fortis admitted to, and even pleaded guilty to, the rape-murder of a young girl named Pamela Tilton whom he saw by chance and waylaid on a country road on May 18. This confession “the evidence of credible witnesses on oath … abundantly confirmed.” That’s from the sentencing oration of Justice Robert Treat Paine, via The Oracle of the Day (Portsmouth, N.H.), July 26, 1794, which continues with flourishes of hellfire —

This sentence, when executed, will remove you from this world, where you have proved yourself so unworthy an inhabitant, to a state of existence where you must reap the fruits of your past life; where you must appear before the awful tribunal of that holy Being, who cannot be deceived and who will not be mocked, and who will judge you for this and all the other sins in your life …

you have cast off the fear of God from your eyes, and all restraint of reverence to him from your thoughts, words, and actions, till your unbridled lust and malicious disposition had arrived to full ripeness, and urged you to the commission of crimes, at your own relation of which, nature revolts and the human heart is rent with agony. To what a pitch of brutal lust must you have arrived, that a person of your nation, your age, having a wife and children in the neighborhood, should so inhumanly assault and violate the chastity of that young girl in spight of her intreaties and remonstrances, and then with all the savage cruelty of a ruffian and an assassin, deaf to those cries and supplications which would have melted any heart but one lost to every humane feeling, you barbarously strangled to death the inoffensive victim of your lustful crime; thus in a short space of time destroying life, the first right of all mankind, and chastity, the second right of woman.

… repent and live … so, although your aggravated crimes must bring you to an untimely and disgraceful death, yet that you may escape that weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth, that destruction from the face of the Lord, that bitterness of misery which cannot be discribed nor conceived, which will be inflicted on all the enemies of the holy Governour of the Universe, and that your soul may be happy forever in the heavenly world.

But Fortis did not need much convincing of his soul’s peril.

The bulk of his confession is taken up describing the transformative apparition of God’s grace as he awaited arraignment in prison — the appearance of which is precisely what induced him to plead guilty to the charge, lest he “lie against God.”

I could not rest, there was no comfort or peace for me: I tho’t no person was so bad as I, my whole life filled with sin, stealing, lying, whoring and drinking, and now murder. At length I got up, and endeavoured to pray, but my heart was hard as a stone, and it seemed bound up; still I thought I would keep praying to the Lord whether he had mercy on me or not.

On Saturday morning it seemed as if I had more desire to pray and plead with God than before; and in the afternoon it seemed as if my heart was in some degree melted, and there was some hope. I heard something like a voice, saying “verily, verily give him a new heart,” and it seemed as if a man was in me working downward, and clearing or cleaning my heart. I thought I could breathe out my heart to God, and could see a light shining from heaven, brighter than snow, and in the light it seemed as though a great many angels were singing, which drowned my groans and prayers; and I cried O Lord! and looked up, and I saw in a corner of the prison something red like fire, and thought it was the Devil. I found I had another feeling, and I cried to the Lord. I now felt relieved; but was doubtful whether it could be true that the Lord had mercy on me, and wanted to see the light again.

On Lord’s day morning I felt more contented; but could hardly believe what I saw, and felt. I looked out of the grates, and all things looked strange, as if in another place; the birds seemed to come near the Goal and sing. Putting myself in the same place where I first saw the light, I prayed, and said, O Lord, for thy dear Son Jesus’ sake, who died for sinners, have mercy on me! And immediately the same angels began to sing again; and I believed in the Lord, and loved every body. I felt cool and calm; all the dread and fear which I had suffered were gone.

When I was brought to the bar, a gentleman spoke to me, and advised me to plead not guilty: Oh! I thought he wanted me to lie against God; and I considered how dreadful it was for a man that could read to give such advice. When the indictment was read, and the judge asked me whether I was guilty or not guilty, I felt very calm, and answered, guilty. And when I was brought the next day to hear my sentence, I felt perfectly resigned and thankful to the court, God knows their sentence was just. I now wait for the last stroke of death. I can trust my soul in the hands of the Lord, and am willing to do, or suffer any thing God shall lay upon me; and if he should cast me off, it will be right for I deserve it.

However wondrous this gallows-foot conversion was for Edmund Fortis, it augured ill for some other residents of the Commonwealth.

A Henry McCausling (or McCaslane), whose own minister also tended to Fortis, took from this example the prospect of using the murder-repentance two-step as a back door into heaven.

It appears that M’Causling has lately become deluded in matters of religion. For some time he has principally associated himself with a party of baptists, living on a plantation back off Pittston, headed by one Stinson, and two or three others. In one of his paroxisms of religious insanity, he burnt an elegant church in the town of Pittston. He says that Stinson told him, that his brother Edmund Fortis, who was lately executed for the murder of Pamela Tilton, was certainly gone to heaven, and that the road to Heaven was marked with blood. M’Causling thought, that as Fortis had gone to heaven, he should go there too, provided he was to use the same means. (Boston Gazette and Weekly Republican Journal, Nov. 17, 1794)

Consequently, McCausling stalked a Mrs. Warren** “in a dark night, through woods and over rivers which were almost impassable by day” until he finally came upon her at her sick mother’s house, tending to her, and thereupon

he flung her back with his left hand, and with his right, drew a knife from his pocket, where he had concealed it, and instantly cut her throat, without her being able to say more than this — “M’Causling, are you going to murder me!” He immediately fled, but was soon arrested and committed to gaol, where he must remain for the sentence which awaits him.

Like his predecessor, McCausling also pleaded guilty to his crime; the court judging him quite mad, he was balked of his objective in this world at least: how he has fared in the next we dare not guess.

* The Pownalborough Court House, which doubled as a jail, can still be seen today. It’s where Fortis spent his last days, although he was not tried in that building.

** From the press accounts I have seen, she is identified only as “the wife of a Mr. Pelton Warren.”

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1879: Pocket, on the Hallettsville hanging tree

Add comment September 12th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1879, a half-blooded Native American named Pocket died in Hallettsville on an oak tree.

The son of a French Canadian father and a Blackfoot Sioux mother, Pocket had been befriended by a cattleman named Lou Allen. They met by chance in the early 1870s; Pocket was a half-caste child, maybe not even into adolescence, with broken English, doing odd jobs to scrape by.

Of Pocket we have only glimpses of the moments where he comes into the view of white men. His rancher-friend took him until “becoming tired of civilized life, and pining for the freedom of his native wilds,” Pocket vanished on a horse that Mr. Allen willingly gave him. (The quote comes from the Galveston Weekly News of September 18, 1879; it’s also the source for the other quotes in this post.)

That was in 1874. For the next several years Pocket’s activities are mostly unknown, save for the few times he popped back into Mr. Allen’s life — once to bum a suit of clothes; another time when they met by accident in Wichita, Pocket destitute after gambling everything away; and finally when Pocket reappeared in Lavaca County only to be refused aid by his benefactor in a possible gesture of tough love. Pocket found work on a nearby farm instead.

On Valentine’s Day 1878, Pocket was seen in the county seat of Hallettsville getting roaring drunk on whiskey. He left town for the countryside carrying another bottle and proceeded to stop at several farms to accost their residents.

At the Smith house, he barged in, stole a pistol, and forced his way into the family dinner. He stumbled into the home of a former slave named Frank Edwards, ripped up bed clothes, and started swinging an axe around until Edwards punched out the unwanted visitor.

Fuming, Pocket proceeded to yet another farm, the Petersons, where he contrived to get the family hunting rifle by representing the presence of a drove of turkeys nearby. A young Brit named Leonard Hyde worked for the Petersons, and he went along with Pocket “to see the fun.” As ominously as this reads, Hyde had no reason to suspect trouble; the Galveston Weekly News would note that Hyde and Pocket “were both under twenty-one years of age, friendly with one another up to the last moment, and both strangers in the land which has given to each of them a grave.” Two kids out on a turkey-shooting lark.

Hyde trotted along on foot after Pockett, and soon another of Hyde’s friends joined the supposed hunting foray. Suddenly, their intoxicated leader stopped and cursed Hyde for following him — then shot him dead through the forehead with his pistol. The killer’s mind was obviously disordered and impulsive, but it’s possible that Hyde died in place of Frank Edwards, or if not Edwards then whomever Pocket might have crossed paths with next that night.

Now with blood on his hands, Pocket did not pause to revenge any other slights but galloped off into the wilderness. He was eventually captured in Bosque County.

(Source, which also preserves a sad letter from Hyde’s father written in March 1878 upon learning of his son’s murder.)

Perhaps three thousand souls turned out to see a repentant Pocket die in Hallettsville on September 12, 1879 — “every road entering this town became alive with people of all ages, sexes and colors, without regard to previous condition, coming to witness the first legal execution in this county.” Pocket had spent his last weeks in religious devotion and struck those who saw him as a profoundly changed man.

The great hanging-tree can still be seen today, shading a picnic-table in City Park, next to the Hallettsville Golf Association clubhouse.

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1732: Pompey, poisoner of James Madison’s grandfather

Add comment September 7th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1732, a Virginia slave entered American presidential lore at the end of a noose.

The Madisons were “planters, and among the respectable though not the most opulent class”* resident in Virginia from the 1650s or so — and would in time bequeath the new American Republic its fourth president, James Madison.

We are concerned for today’s post with President Madison’s paternal grandfather, Ambrose Madison. Alas, concern will not necessarily translate to elucidation, for most of the Madison family’s records and correspondence were destroyed in the 19th century: the first Madison generations are shadowy historical figures. Ann Miller has pieced together the fragments in the short book “The Short Life and Strange Death of Ambrose Madison”, published by the Orange County (Va.) Historical Society, and that is the primary source for this post.**

Ambrose Madison was a local grandee of King and Queen County, with landholdings elsewhere in Virginia; it was Ambrose Martin who in the 1720s acquired (via his father-in-law, a land surveyor) the Orange County grounds that would become the great Madison estate Montpelier.

In 1732, Madison moved his family to the Montpelier property. By that time, he controlled 10,000 acres in present-day Orange and Greene Counties, and was gobbling up land elsewhere — like the new frontier of westward settlement, the Piedmont.

And of course, Madison owned human beings, too. The inventory of his estate from 1732 lists 29 black slaves by their first (sole) names: ten adult men, five women, and 14 children.

In the summer of 1732, Ambrose Madison took ill and started wasting away towards death. The fact was apparent to Madison and those around him; the last weeks of his life were taken up in settling affairs. (He made out a will on July 31.)

Shortly before Madison’s death on August 27, two of his slaves — a man named Turk and a woman named Dido — along with another slave, Pompey, property of a neighboring plantation, were arrested on suspicion of having poisoned Madison. No record survives to indicate how or why they would have done so.

If grievances can only be guessed-at, they are not difficult to guess. At the same time, for aught we know the trio might have been falsely accused: there had never been a murder in the vicinity, but Madison’s death came just months after a gang of slaves committed a series of armed robberies and shot at three white people.† As we have seen from later and better-documented slave resistance, southern whites were prone to great paranoia where the prospect of servile rebellion was concerned. And as Madison was a healthy fellow in his mid-thirties, attributing his unexpected death to poison was a natural move.‡

As Miller notes,

It is likely that Ambrose Madison’s case sent ripples of fear — even panic — through the region … the court [appeared] eager to have a quick trial (and, perhaps, to make quick examples of those found guilty and hopefully deter any other slave rebellions).

All three slaves were convicted together on September 6 of “feloniously Conspiring the Death” of Ambrose Madison. Pompey hanged the next day — after he’d been appraised (at £30) to compensate his owner for the destruction of property. Turk and Dido were only found to be “concerned in the said felony but not in such a degree as to be punished by death but … by Whipping.” They suffered 29 lashes apiece “on their bare backs at the Common Whipping post, and thereafter to be discharged”.

We must deny the fact, that slaves are considered merely as property, and in no respect whatever as persons. The true state of the case is, that they partake of both these qualities: being considered by our laws, in some respects, as persons, and in other respects as property … Let the compromising expedient of the Constitution be mutually adopted, which regards them as inhabitants, but as debased by servitude below the equal level of free inhabitants, which regards the slave as divested of two fifths of the man.

-(Future President) James Madison awkwardly defending the three-fifths compromise in the Federalist #54

Madison’s principal heir was his only son, James — a nine-year-old boy at the time of the events in this post.

The family brush with slave revolt did not deter this future Col. Madison from resuming (once he came of age) the family trade in land acquisition. He had 108 slaves of his own by the time that he died in 1801.

Col. Madison’s more famous son, the U.S. “founding father” and eventual president also named James, had slaves in the White House but was deeply conflicted about the horrid institution.

“He talked more on the subject of slavery than on any other, acknowledging without limitation or hesitation all the evils with which it has ever been charged,” a slavery abolitionist who visited Madison (post-presidency) reported of the evening’s tete-a-tete. “Mr. Madison spoke strongly of the helplessness of all countries cursed with a servile population, in a conflict with a people wholly free.” Madison eventually came to support the fantastical solution of resettling U.S. slaves to an African colony; still, beset by debts, he never quite saw his way to manumitting his own slaves — not even in his will.

Whether the fate befalling his grandfather ever entered into President Madison’s considerations on the subject is left to posterity’s imagination; the documents surviving in his hand never mention anything about grandpa Ambrose.

* Per James Madison, Sr., Ambrose Madison’s son and the U.S. president’s father.

** Since the primary sources available are so scarce, there seems to be little that can be said with confidence of Ambrose Madison’s personality. Miller suspects him a skinflint, on the basis of a merchant’s exasperated correspondence: “I am sorry to find you complain of the cost of the Goods I sent you” … and the same man again two years later: “have Ship’d the Goods you ordered … I don’t expect that you’ll like the Cotton, you order the Cheapest.”

† A slave named Jack, owned by Mildred Howell, was hanged on May 2, 1732 for this affair. The fate of his seven cmopatriots history passes over in silence.

‡ Miller notes in an appendix several other trials of slaves for poisoning in 18th century Virginia, including some that resulted in acquittal — possibly militating against the railroading hypothesis.

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1899: Armstead Taylor and John Alfred Brown, horribly

Add comment August 18th, 2015 Headsman

From the Wilkes-Barre (Pa.) Times, Aug. 18, 1899:

ROCKVILLE, Md., Aug. 18 — Armstead Taylor and John Alfred Brown, negroes, were hanged here this morning for the murder of Mr. and Mrs. Rosenstein at Slidelle in March last.

The drop fell at 10:15[?]. The hanging was a horrible botch. the knot did not slip but the drop was long enough. The men writhed, groaned and uttered inarticualate [sic] sounds for nearly ten minutes.

The murders for which they were convicted and sentenced to be hanged were committed at Slidelle, a little station two miles north of Boyds, Md. on March 13 last.

Louis Rosenstein, the postmaster of the hamlet[,] lived with his aged parents in the rear of the post office. They were said to have plenty of money. Early one morning they were attacked and the man’s skull was crushed and the woman’s head pounded with some blunt instrument.

The store was ransacked and a little over $3,000, a pair of shoes and several articles were taken.

Louis Rosenstein died the day after of his injuries and Mrs. Rosenstein lingered until May when she succumbed in a hospital at Baltimore.

Taylor went to Washington and soon attracted attention by spending money in a lavish manner in Georgetown. Suspicious neighbors gave the police the information that led to his capture.

Before Taylor was arrested, however, Sergeant Fritz Bassau of the Washington police force gave up his life. Taylor shot him down as he was climbing the stairs to arrest him, where he was concealed in the house at Georgetown. He also shot Officer Gowon in the hand.

Taylor was taken back to Montgomery county, but did not stand trial for injuring the policemen. His trial was begun at Frederick on July [?] and Brown’s a week later. Both were convicted and sentenced to be hanged August 18.

Strong efforts were made to have Brown respited, it being believed by many that he was only an accessory after the fact.

The men mounted the scaffold at 10:15. They were both calm and exhibited nerve. As they were placed on the door the sheriff asked if they had anything to say. Taylor made a rambling statement in an almost inaudible voice. He appeared weak and swayed upon his feet. He said:

Gentlemen, I done both the killings myself. My Uncle Brown is not guilty. I am the guilty man, but I expect to go to heaven.

Brown refused to make any statement beyond that he had forgiven his enemies and had found salvation.

The deputies then adjusted the rope, before placing the black caps on their heads. Both men smiled and Brown said good-bye to some friends in the crowd who spoke to him.

Sheriff Thompson tok [sic] a board about six feet in length, walked over to the side of the scaffold, reached down and inserted the end of a plank in the wire ring and sprung the trap.

The bodies fell through simultaneously and began to writhe and sway in a horrible manner. Taylor seemed to be conscious and appeared to be trying to speak.

The priests pronounced it the most horrible execution they had ever seen.

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2000: Brian Roberson, “Y’all kiss my black ass”

Add comment August 9th, 2015 Robert Elder

(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.)

“To all of the racist white folks in America that hate black folks and to all of the black folks in America that hate themselves: in the infamous words of my famous legendary brother, Nat Turner, ‘Y’all kiss my black ass.’ Let’s do it.”

—Brian Roberson, convicted of murder, lethal injection, Texas.
Executed August 9, 2000

Roberson was convicted in the stabbing death of James Boots, seventy-nine, and his wife, Lillian, seventy-five, who lived across the street from him in Dallas. Roberson was African-American and his victims were Caucasian. Amnesty International issued a memo before the execution urging action and “expressing concern at the prosecutor’s systematic exclusion of African-Americans from the trial jury.” Roberson claimed he was “juiced up” on PCP and liquor during the crime. His last words were alternately recorded as “You ain’t got what you want.”

Later that same year, Roberson’s twin brother, Bruce, was arrested for allegedly threatening then President-elect George W. Bush. In a New York Times article, officers reported that Bruce wanted “to take him down.” The piece continued: “Mr. Roberson told them that Mr. Bush ‘stole the election and he’s not going to get away with it.'” Bush had been governor at the time of Brian’s execution.

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1933: The Simele Massacre of Iraq’s Assyrians begins

1 comment August 7th, 2015 Headsman


August 7 is Assyrian Martyrs’ Day, in remembrance of the Simele Massacre that began this date in 1933.

A Mesopotamian Christian people* whom the past century has hard pressed, Assyrians were in the post-World War I aftermath of the Ottoman Empire angling for some form of a self-governing enclave in the British Mandate, and were highly alarmed at being consigned to the tender mercies of an independent Iraq after 1932.

The Assyrian Nation which is temporarily living in Iraq, having placed before their eyes the dark future, and the miserable conditions which are undoubtedly awaiting them in Iraq, after the lifting of the mandate, have unanimously held a Conference with me in Mosul … At the conclusion of lengthy deliberations, it was unanimously decided by all those present that it is quite impossible for us to live in Iraq.

WE ARE POSITIVELY SURE THAT IF WE REMAIN IN IRAQ, we shall be exterminated in the course of a few years.

WE THEREFORE IMPLORE YOUR MERCY TO TAKE CARE OF US, and arrange our emigration to one of the countries under the rule of one of the Western Nations whom you may deem fit. And should this be impossible, we beg you to request the French Government to accept us in Syria and give us shelter under her responsibility FOR WE CAN NO LONGER LIVE IN IRAQ AND WE SHALL LEAVE.

-A (disregarded) 1931 petition by the Assyrian patriarch to Great Britain (via this topical book)

Assyrians have a tragically voluminous register of atrocities endured; the one in question for this date perhaps resonated deeply enough to emblazon the date on the calendar because it ground up Assyrian bodies and national aspirations alike during the formation of the modern Middle East.

WE SHALL LEAVE, the petition said; in July 1933, 600-plus Assyrians crossed into French Mandate Syria, seeking asylum. They were refused, and sent back to Iraq — and encountered a hostile Iraqi army unit, resulting in a firefight with 33 Iraqi casualties.

This date’s massacre was the army’s revenge — or rather the start of a five-day bloodbath featuring numerous summary executions of Assyrian civilians. And not only that, but for the army and for Iraqis, even a unifying communal experience to strengthen adherence to the unfamiliar new state of Iraq. “The Assyrian pogrom,” Kanan Makiya opined, “was the first genuine expression of national independence in a former Arab province of the Ottoman Empire.”

For those on the receiving end of the incipient national consciousness, the experience was quite different. One observer described Assyrian refugees he met later in August as “utterly panic-stricken … their spirit was completely broken.”

Simele was also among the major inspirations for jurist Raphael Lemkin, who later in 1933 — and citing the Assyrian experience as well as the earlier Ottoman slaughter of Armenians — presented to the League of Nations his concept of the Crime of Barbarity. This idea Lemkin would eventually develop into the concept of genocide (he’s the guy who coined the term).

* Saddam Hussein‘s ex-Foreign Minister, the late Tariq Aziz, was an Assyrian.

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