On this date in 1680, an unusual public execution took place in West Ham.
John Marketman (Manchetman) was a ship’s surgeon, which he spelled “chirurgeon” because it was olden days. Being away at sea gave him a lots of time to picture how his wife Mary Snerlin back home might be cuckolding him, and when he arrived back one time to apparent corroborating information, he went a little nutso.
According to the trial record from the spring 1680 Chelmsford Assizes,
the circumstances of the bloody Deed was sworn to as followeth, the Prisoner being newly come on Shore, having been at Sea for a considerable time, was informed that she had been over lavish of her Favours to a Neighbour of hers, being by profession a Shoemaker; he being newly come from Sea and coming home as it is said surprized her too familiar with the said Shoemaker, whereupon he in a Rage threatned [sic] her, yet notwithstanding the Rage of Jealousie, he seemed reconciled, but to the contrary retaining an inward hatred, which she perceiving, fled to a neighbours house, thinking to stay whilst his Anger was overpast, yet he with a seem’d Reconciliation, came to invite her home, and came up to her as if he would imbrace her, but with his bloody hands he stab’d her with a Knife under her Right Breast, about four inches deep,* of which Wound she in a little time died, only confessing her innocence, at his Trial he did not deny the Fact, and after his being convicted did confess his Rashness in proceeding on such Cruelty, without the least remorse, after he was found Guilty of wilful Murder and received Sentence of Death, he seemed exceeding Penitent, and did bewail his cruel Crime, shedding many Tears, that he had given himself over to the suggestions of the Prince of darkness, and so continued to the utmost.
There are somewhat different twists on the underlying facts of the case from different sources — like the profession of the alleged lover, and the question of whether Marketman caught them in flagrante delicto or merely heard town gossip, and the matter of whether he took revenge with cold calculation or in more of a drunken fury. Fill it out however you like; in outline we have one of the stock classics of homicide.
But at receiving his sentence, Marketman did something remarkable: he asked the judge to alter the sentence and be hung not at the usual execution spot in Chelmsford, but in West Ham — “the town where he did perpetrate the wicked act.”
Marketman, you could say, really went all-out from that very first moment to put on a full-dress, no-holds-barred scaffold performance par excellence. He should have been in the business of scripting deaths.
Besides hanging in West Ham, Marketman had his mother (“poor Soul drowned in Sorrow,” in the words of a pamphlet titled “True Narrative of the Execution of John Marketman”**) lead him personally to the gallows. There a minister preached on 2 Corinthians 7:9, “I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting” — demonstratively comforting Marketman that his imminent strangulation would stand “a monument to divine justice … in and thorow you, God sheweth the consequences of a sinful and wicked life.”
This was the evolving principle of executions as exemplary deterrence, and Marketman was ready to play the part in his final turn. He spoke for a long time, with the swooning mother right there as evidence, on how he
had been very disobedient to his too indulgent parents, and that he had spent his youthful days in profanation of the Sabbath and licentious evils of debaucheries beyond expression, and that he had been over penurious in his narrow observance of his wive’s ways, desirous that all should pray to the Eternal God for his everlasting welfare, and with many pious expressions ended this mortal life.
In focusing on the theatrical aspects of Marketman’s execution, we don’t mean to suggest that the sea-chirurgeon’s encounter with his death was in any way insincere: present-day executions too comprise a ritualized performance in which a good many dying prisoners are very willing to participate. (Modern American executions behind prison walls don’t map to the take-warning-from-my-fate discourse, but it’s quite common for those on the gurney to offer victims’ witnesses the “closure” shibboleth.)
The early-modern condemned were widely expected to give a pedagogical account of themselves before execution, and widely complied with the expectation. Marketman simply underscores the surprising extent to which a fellow will not only comply but actively assert his part in his own death. Marketman wanted his hanging to embody redemption, instruction, and the majesty of the law that hanged him. Maybe in his heart of hearts he even wanted that before he knifed poor Mary Snerlin.
The chirurgeon went so far as to write a prison letter to his supposed rival: “As for the injury you have done me, I freely from my heart forgive you, begging God to give you grace that you may unfeignedly repent of all your sins, that God may have mercy on your soul.”
See J.A. Sharpe, “Last Dying Speeches: Religion, Ideology and Public Execution in Seventeenth-Century England,” Past & Present, May 1985.
On this date in 1865, tens of thousands crowded Glasgow Green to send off the murderous Dr. Edward William Pritchard … and with him, the era of public hangings in that city.
Pritchard died for poisoning his wife and his mother-in-law earlier that same year, but he might have first killed in 1863. That’s when his 25-year-old servant suspiciously burned to death in a home fire she suspiciously didn’t try to escape. Despite how it looked, Pritchard’s insurance paid up for the incident.
Murder or no, that used up all his escaping-justice karma: there’d be scant deniability next time.
After knocking up another servant in 1864, Pritchard performed an illegal abortion to dispose of the unwanted progeny with the understanding that he’d marry the girl.
Pritchard then found that his increasingly inconvenient wife had taken suddenly and strangely ill. When her mother came to care for her, mom caught the exact same symptoms — vomiting, dizziness. They checked out within three weeks of each other in early 1865, having suffered months of patient, systematic dosing by the medical man of the house.
An anonymous letter, conceivably supplied by an attending physician who naturally had suspicions about these incredibly suspicious deaths, led to the bodies’ exhumation and the ready discovery therein of antimony in lethal quantities. Servants’ testimony affirming the proclivity of others in the household to get sick when they tasted the victims’ food easily nailed down the conviction.
Asked if he had any last remarks on his way to the scaffold, Pritchard replied, “in a firm and clear, but sepulchral, tone of voice, ‘Simply to acknowledge the justice of my sentence.'” (London Times, July 29, 1865)
His posthumous notoriety in Victorian crime pulp is attested by Sherlock Holmes’ tribute in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”, published full 27 years after our man’s death: “When a doctor does go wrong he is the first of criminals. He has nerve and he has knowledge. Palmer and Pritchard were among the heads of their profession.”
On this date in 1433, Pavel Kravar — known in the place of his death as Paul Craw — was, “found an obstinate heretic, he was convicted, condemned, put to the fire and burned to ashes”* at St. Andrews, Scotland.
Kravar was a Czech (probably) physician who entered that hotbed of religious reform, the University of Prague, the very year after Jan Hus burned at the stake.
Adopting the burgeoning Hussite creed with gusto, Kravar spent the 1420s proselytizing in Poland as a side gig to a medical practice. (He was the court physician to the King of Poland, who was briefly friendly with the Hussite cause.)
In the early 1430s, perhaps as part of an aggressive, Europe-wide Hussite propaganda campaign, Kravar turned up in evangelizing in Scotland.
Lest this strike the latter-day reader as bizarre — a Bohemian church seeking converts in the Highlands — it bears remembering that Hus himself took inspiration from a Briton, Englishman John Wycliffe; one of Wycliffe’s followers, James Resby, had become the first documented Christian reformer martyred at the stake in Scotland in 1408. There are other traces of anti-Lollard legislation in the first decades of the 15th century that hint at some level of heretical ferment abroad.** And in the widest sense, the Hussite movement had, until its imminent military destruction, a legitimate shot at mounting the sort of continent-wide challenge to ecclesiastical orthodoxy that the Reformation accomplished a century later.
That events didn’t quite work out that way was hard luck for Kravar, who had headed straight to the country’s only university town where his reformist ideas (and Latin lingua franca) might have some currency. There he may also have run into the realm’s most implacable Inquisitor: Kravar’s actual activities,his objectives, his specific doctrines, and the circumstances of his capture and condemnation — these are all most obscure. The best we have is a hostile chronicler allowing that the Hussite was “fluent and skilled in divinity and in biblical argument.”†
Tudor-era Scottish cleric John Knox filled in the dubious detail that Kravar had been gagged en route to the stake with a large brass ball, to prevent his exhorting the crowd; more contemporary-to-Kravar sources unfortunately did not think to notice this picturesque expedient.
* From Walter Bower in Book XVI of the Scotichronicon (1440s), via Paul Vysny, “A Hussite in Scotland: The Mission of Pavel Krava? to St Andrews in 1433″ in The Scottish Historical Review, April 2003. It’s not clear from the primary source whether events proceeded from trial to execution all in the same day, but July 23 is the date typically given for Kravar’s death and certainly the last date of his life distinctly in the historical record.
On this date in 1945, Japanese forces occupying Indonesia cut off Dr. Achmad Mochtar’s head for a medical experiment gone horribly awry.
Officially, Dr. Mochtar had been responsible for a supposed vaccine whose administration killed hundreds of Indonesian foced laborers.
Latter-day research, however, indicates that it was the Japanese military who administered the vaccine (Indonesian link), an experimental tetanus-cholera-typhoid-dysentery combination shot, getting a trial run before it was administered to Japan’s own soldiers. When this drug proved lethal to most of its recipients, Mochtar and his staff at the Eijkman Institute were arrested in 1944 and subjected to harrowing torture.
According to Jakarta-based British researcher Kevin Baird, Mochtar agreed to take the fall for the experiment in exchange for the release of his colleagues.
“We think of this sort of heroism as the reserve of military men and not learned intellectuals,” Baird told the Guardian. “Achmad Mochtar was not only a hero of Indonesia, but a hero of science and humanity.”
This doctor made his Nazi bones by forging a relationship with Heinrich Himmler (he married Himmler’s ex-mistress), and joining Himmler’s SS.
Rascher was doing cancer-cure experiments on animals, but once he had Himmler in his Rolodex he graduated to research on homo sapiens.
From 1941 to 1944, Rascher conducted some of the textbook ethical trespasses of Berlin’s human experimentation regime, using Dachau prisoners in:
high-altitude experiments to help fighter pilots, tested by subjecting prisoners to rapid de- and re-pressurization;
freezing experiments, tested by subjecting prisoners to freezing water or outdoor exposure, and then attempting by various methods to restore body warmth;
blood clotting experiments, tested by giving prisoners major gunshot wounds or other grievous bodily injuries, then monitoring how well a new drug slowed the bleeding.
Class act all the way. Rascher did publish some papers and deliver some conference presentations on aspects of his horrifying science, but in one of those little contradictions of the evil security state, the man was foiled in his bid for an advanced academic credential because much of the research was too secret for his peers to review.
In the end it was a much more mundane breach of ethics that did him in: Rascher and wife were arrested in 1944 for having actually kidnapped the children they claimed were their own.
They were stashed away in separate camps. For unclear reasons — perhaps because Rascher connected all this atrocious research back to Himmler, who was vainly trying to cut a peace deal with the West at this point, or maybe simply because Himmler was annoyed at the embarrassment his protege’s misconduct had given him — the bad doctor was summarily shot in his cell as the Allies bore down on Dachau.
(We will note in passing this argument, and this, disputing that story as well as this execution date. Executed Today is not in a position to contribute to that conversation.)
Caption: Polish and Russian forced laborers shot by the SS after they had collapsed from exhaustion during a death march. Wisenfeld, Germany, April 26, 1945.
On this date in 1903, the wife-poisoner George Chapman was hanged at Wandsworth Prison in the United Kingdom.
He had at least three deaths on his record … and, if you fancy, possibly quite a few more.
Chapman was born Severin Antoniovich Klosowski in the village of Nargornak, Poland on December 14, 1865, the son of a carpenter. At the age of fifteen he was apprenticed to a surgeon, and five years later he ended his medical studies in Warsaw. Just how much medical training he actually had is hard to determine, but the fact is that after he moved to the UK in 1887 or 1888, he worked not in the medical field but as a hairdresser’s assistant and later in his own barbershop.
In 1890, Chapman (still going by his birth name) married Lucy Baderski, having conveniently forgotten all about the wife he’d left back in Poland. His Polish wife found out about Lucy, however, and went to Britain to settle things. Bizarrely, for a short time the three of them all lived together, before Klosowski’s first wife threw up her hands and returned to Poland.
Klosowski’s relationship with Lucy Baderski was very troubled, and Klosowski was abusive. In one incident, he attacked her with a knife and threatened to cut her head off. Lucy was saved only because a customer suddenly came into the barbershop and Klosowski had to tend to him.
In 1892 she left him, although she was pregnant; they had emigrated to New Jersey by this time, and the beleaguered wife returned to England, where she had his daughter in May of that year.
Klosowski followed her back to England a few weeks later, but they separated for a final time not long afterward.
The following year, Klosowski took up with an Englishwoman named Annie Chapman. This, too, ran aground on Kloslowski’s violence and unfaithfulness, but he left her with daughter (whom he refused to support) and she left him with a surname (probably to assimilate and to escape his previous relationship entanglements).
From here on in, he goes by George Chapman.
Sometime after Annie left him, Chapman took up with Mary Isabella Spink, a woman who lived in the same boardinghouse. She was married and had a son, but her husband had deserted her.
They entered into a false marriage, like Chapman had done before with Lucy, and set up a successful barbershop with “musical shaves.” Mary would play the piano while Chapman did the barbering. For awhile they got a lot of money from the shop, but that didn’t stop Chapman from brutally beating Mary on a regular basis and even trying to strangle her. Eventually their barbershop failed and Chapman became a pub manager, living in the apartment upstairs.
Late in the year in 1897, Mary began suffering nausea and crippling stomach pains. Her husband stayed at her side constantly, tending to her needs and paying for a doctor, but Mary just got worse and worse and wasted to a skeleton. She finally died on Christmas Day. That morning Chapman found her dead, cried a little and went downstairs to open the pub.
The cause of death was listed as phthisis, or pulmonary tuberculosis. A few months later, Chapman sent Mary’s orphaned son to the workhouse.
Chapman needed help with the pub, so he hired Bessie Taylor, a former restaurant manager. What follows is familiar: a love affair, a fake marriage, and domestic violence. Then Bessie became sick, showing the same symptoms Mary Spink had. To avoid curious stares, Chapman moved them into London and leased another pub. Bessie was operated on but her condition didn’t improve.
Like Mary, she died on a holiday: Valentine’s Day in 1901. The cause of death was exhaustion from diarrhea and vomiting, secondary to an intestinal obstruction. Chapman made Bessie’s family pay for the funeral.
In August 1901, he hired the teenage Maud Eliza Marsh for a barmaid. They had another bogus marriage, but Chapman quickly grew tired of her. Maud got sick the same way his previous two wives had. Chapman got a doctor for her and mixed her medication himself. Her parents insisted that she be hospitalized.
Maud showed great improvement there and was released after a few weeks, only to become sick again once back at home with Chapman.
Her father, who had gotten suspicious, called in another doctor for a second opinion, but then Maud died quite suddenly. The doctor insisted on an autopsy, and found 693 milligrams of antimony in her body. The doctor determined that the final dose of poison had been more than 600 milligrams, an enormous amount — evidently Chapman had panicked when he realized Maud’s family suspected him.
Chapman was arrested and charged with murder.
Antimony is an almost perfect poison: odorless, colorless and nearly tasteless. However, it also acts as a preservative. When the authorities exhumed Mary Spink and Bessie Taylor, they saw both bodies were in much better condition than they ought to have been.
Mary had been in the ground five years, but one witness said her face was “perfect” and it looked like she’d been dead for less than a year. Bessie looked positively fresh.
Chapman was convicted of Maud Marsh’s murder in March 1903; the jury deliberated only eleven minutes.
He died without ever admitting his guilt. He never even admitted to being Severin Klosowski, although Lucy Baderski visited him after the trial.
He liked money as much as anyone else, it’s true, and would stoop to crime to get it. (Once he torched his pub for the insurance money, but the police became suspicious when they found out all the furniture had been removed from the premises before the fire started. The insurance company refused to pay, and Chapman had to move, but for some reason he was not prosecuted.)
Still, he really didn’t gain financially from his wives’ deaths. Mary Spink gave him £500, but he let her live for a few years after that. Maud Marsh and Bessie Taylor left him nothing.
Chapman may simply have wanted the women out of the way so he could take up with someone else.
But in that case, he could have chosen better for a quick, clean murder. When a person is given antimony in a single large dose, they usually to expel it by vomiting, and are left relatively unharmed.
The way to murder someone using antimony is give it to them slowly and patiently in small doses over a period of weeks or months. It is a lingering, painful death — but it also taxes the discipline of the poisoner. Chapman wasn’t the slow-and-steady type.
Public interest in Chapman didn’t die with him and remains alive and well, because of the Jack the Ripper case.
This infamous and never-identified killer strangled and mutilated five prostitutes in London’s East End during 1888, and many hobbyists think Chapman and the Ripper may have been the same man.
Frederick George Abberline, who headed the Ripper investigation, had strong suspicions against him, summarized in an interview with the Pall Mall Gazette:
As I say, there are a score of things which make one believe that Chapman is the man; and you must understand that we have never believed all those stories about Jack the Ripper being dead, or that he was a lunatic, or anything of that kind. For instance, the date of the arrival in England coincides with the beginning of the series of murders in Whitechapel; there is a coincidence also in the fact that the murders ceased in London when Chapman went to America, while similar murders began to be perpetrated in America after he landed there.* The fact that he studied medicine and surgery in Russia before he came over here is well established, and it is curious to note that the first series of murders was the work of an expert surgeon, while the recent poisoning cases were proved to be done by a man with more than an elementary knowledge of medicine. The story told by Chapman’s wife of the attempt to murder her with a long knife while in America is not to be ignored.
Chapman was definitely living in London during the time of the Ripper killings, which cannot be said of other suspects such as Frederick Deeming or Michael Ostrog.
Chapman’s youthful medical apprenticeship would seem to supply him with the grisly surgical expertise the Ripper displayed.
Chapman approximately matched witness descriptions of the Whitechapel fiend.
Also, curiously enough, one of the Ripper victims was named Annie Chapman — the same name as his estranged lover.
Perhaps most importantly, Sugden points out, Chapman was not only violent and a misogynist but also a known killer: “There must have been few men, even in late Victorian London, capable of multiple murder. The Ripper was one. Chapman was another.”
Sugden thought Chapman was a much better Ripper candidate than any of the other suspects he discussed in his book, but that didn’t mean he was definitely or even probably the real Ripper: “That Chapman committed crimes of which we have no present knowledge I can well believe. That he was Jack the Ripper is another matter.”
The main problem with the Chapman-Ripper theory is the fact that he poisoned his wives, rather than use some more demonstratively violent method of homicide.
Serial killers’ methods do evolve and adapt, but rarely change that drastically. “To exchange knife for hammer, gun or rope, weapons of violence all, is one thing,” Sugden observes. “To forsake violence in favor of subterfuge, as is alleged of Chapman, is quite another.”
* This is not strictly accurate. There was one Ripper-type murder, of a prostitute named Carrie Brown, in a New Jersey hotel in 1891. Whether the Ripper actually committed the crime is open to speculation.
On this date in 1942, on the first day of Purim, Jakub Lemberg was executed together with his family in the Nazi ghetto in Zdunska Wola, Poland.
Lemburg, a 43-year-old internist and pediatrician, was head of the Judenrat in Zdunska Wola and thus it was his task to do the Nazis’ dirty work, such as putting together lists of his fellow-Jews for deportation.
The Gestapo chief ordered Dr. Lemberg to deliver ten Jews to be hanged for the ten hanged sons of Haman. Dr. Lemberg replied that he could deliver only four Jews: himself, his wife and their two children. Hans Biebow, “the Butcher of Lodz,” seized Dr. Lemberg and turned him over to the executioners, who killed him in the cemetery.
The Zdunska Wola ghetto was liquidated five months later. And in 1947, Biebow got his.
Here’s an image of Lemberg testimony (in Hebrew) from the Yad Vashem database.
Graf was a conscientious Catholic whose disaffinity for Naziism manifested in an early refusal to join the Hitler Youth: he did a short stint in prison in 1938 for having continued associating with a banned Catholic youth league.
This subversive fellow might have been destined for the chop regardless in the black years to come, but for a thoroughgoing radicalization, he was drafted into the army as a medic and got a front-row seat on the Holocaust and the horrors of the eastern front.
He was arrested within months and condemned on April 19, 1943 to die as a traitor — though actual execution of the sentence waited several months on the Gestapo’s vain exertions to extract from their prey actionable information on other collaborators.
A number of schools around Germany are named in Graf’s honor.
On this date in 1882, George Henry Lamson was hanged at England’s Wandsworth Prison for poisoning his brother-in-law in pursuit of an inheritance.
Once decorated for his volunteer medical practicioning in the benighted lands of eastern Europe, Dr. Lamson fell prey upon his return to England to morphine addiction which cleaned out his assets.
Desperate to resolve his debts, he administered a lethal aconitine dose to the paraplegic 18-year-old Percy John.
Apparently, the good doctor had learned all about this efficacious chemical at the knee of Queen Victoria’s own physician, Robert Christison.
Unfortunately, Lamson hadn’t been keeping up with his technical journals in the meantime: Christison had taught him that aconitine poisoning was undetectable, but a forensic technique to identify it had subsequently been developed.
(Minor-league milestone: Lamson’s was the first recorded criminal defense that attempted to blame ptomaine poisoning, a now-discredited theory that death can be induced by alkaloid toxins from decomposing food. But the lawyer making that defense would later write that he not only believed his client guilty, he also thought Lamson had iced his wife’s older brother, Herbert.)
The particulars of Lamson’s trial are recounted at length in this free book, from which we excerpt the interesting description of executioner William Marwood’s craft in arranging the scene.
Lamson was a more powerfully built man than he appeared, weighing upwards of 11 stone 12 Ibs., and the executioner, evidently fearing that hie strength would operate somewhat against a sharp and quick fall, fastened back his shoulders in a manner which precluded all possibility of the culprit resisting the action of the drop …
When the convict was pinioned the procession moved on, the clergyman the meanwhile reading the service of the Church appointed for the burial of the dead, the doomed man respondnig almost inaudibly to the words as they were uttered by the chaplain. It was with great difficulty now that he could walk at all; indeed, it is certain that had he not been supported by the two warders who stood on either side of him, he would have fallen to the earth. Suddenly he came in sight of the gallows, a black structure, about 30 yards distant. The grave, newly dug, was close at hand. The new and terrible spectacle here acted once more with painful effect upon the condemned man, for again he almost halted and fell. But the warders, never leaving hold of him, moved on, while Marwood came behind. At last the gallows was reached, and here the clergyman bade farewell to the prisoner, while Marwood began his preparations with the rope and the beam overhead. With a view to meet any accretion of fear which might now befall the culprit, a wise provision had been made. The drop was so arranged as to part in the middle, after the fashion of two folding doors ; but, lest the doomed man might not be able to stand upon the scaffold without assistance, two planks of deal had been placed over the drop, one on either side of the rope, so that up to the latest moment the two warders supporting the convict might stand securely and hold him up, without danger to themselves or inconvenience to the machinery of the gallows. In this way Lamson was now kept erect while Marwood fastened his legs and put the cap over his eyes. He must have fallen had the arrangement been otherwise, for his effort to appear composed had by this time failed. Indeed, from what now occurred it is evident that the convict yet hoped for a few moments more of life, for, as Marwood proceeded to pull the cap down over his face he pitifully begged that one more prayer might be recited by the chaplain. Willing as the executioner possibly might have been to listen to this request, he had, of course, no power to alter the progress of the service, and was obliged to disregard this last demand of the dying man. Signalling to the warders to withdraw their arms, he drew the lever, which released the bolt under the drop, and so launched the prisoner into eternity, [the] clergyman finished the Lord’s Prayer, in the midst of which he found himself when the lever had been pulled, and then, pronouncing the benediction, moved slowly back to the prison.
Though aconitine poisoning dates back to antiquity (the Greeks figured that the original dog from hell, Cerberus, drooled aconitine) and has been used as a literary device by Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, and J.K. Rowling, Dr. Lamson’s was long the last known case of criminal homicide by aconitine — until the 2009 conviction of a west London woman for slipping this illustrious mickey to her paramour in his chicken curry.
On this date in 1865, Henry Wirz was hanged in Washington, D.C. for running a notorious Confederate prison camp.
A Swiss-born doctor (“Henrich” was the real handle) whom time and tide found practicing in Louisiana at the onset of the Civil War, Wirz apparently got into the prison-guarding ranks when a war injury left him unfit for the front lines.
But it was front-line fitness in the northern army that would set the scene for his controversial hanging.
[Grant] said that I would agree with him that by the exchange of prisoners we get no men fit to go into our army, and every soldier we gave the Confederates went immediately into theirs, so that the exchange was virtually so much aid to them and none to us.
As designed, then, the South began piling up more and more POWs to maintain with its ever-straitened resources late in the war. And if exchange was out, that really only left one form of “release”.
Andersonville — officially, Camp Sumter, located near the tiny Georgia town of Andersonville — was only established in 1864, but acquired considerable notoriety in northern propaganda for the year and change that Wirz ran it. The prisoners didn’t enjoy it much, either.
Wuld that I was an artist & had the material to paint this camp & all its horors or the tounge of some eloquent Statesman and had the privleage of expresing my mind to our hon. rulers at Washington, I should gloery to describe this hell on earth where it takes 7 of its ocupiants to make a shadow.
Out of some 45,000 prisoners held at Andersonville during its existence (not all at one time), nearly 13,000 succumbed to disease and malnutrition.* After the war, photos of wasted survivors inflamed (northern) public opinion, already tetchy over Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Walt Whitman wrote of Andersonville,
There are deeds, crimes that may be forgiven but this is not among them. It steeps its perpetrators in blackest, escapeless, endless damnation.
Damnation is up to higher powers, of course, but the North wanted somebody to answer for Andersonville on this mortal coil. Lincoln’s successor Andrew Johnson overruled mooted charges against Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his Secretary of War James Seddon, leaving — in that great American tradition — Heinrich Wirz holding the bag.**
The trial had an undeniable aspect of victor’s justice.† Even at the gallows, the Union guards chanted, “Wirz, remember Andersonville!” as the condemned man was readied for the noose, and then dropped. The hanging failed to break the man’s neck, and he strangled as the chant continued.
So long as Southern leaders continue to distort history (and rekindle embers in order to make the opportunity for distorting it), so long will there rise up defenders of the truth of history … To deny the horrors of Andersonville is to deny there was a rebellion. Both are historic facts placed beyond the realm of doubt.
But of course, it does not require denying the horrors of Andersonville to notice the circumstances — the privation of the entire South late in the war — and to wonder that Wirz and Wirz alone was held to account. Plenty of people think he got a bum rap.
Pro-Wirz marker in Andersonville, Ga. (Click for easier-on-the-eyes version, reading in part, “Had he been an angel from heaven, he could not have changed the pitiful tale of privation and hunger unless he had possessed the power to repeat the miracle of the loaves and fishes”). (cc) image from Mark D L.
Recommended for general reading: the UMKC Famous Trials page on this case, several of whose pages have been linked in this entry. A number of nineteenth-century texts by (or citing) Andersonville survivors are available from Google books, including:
Since this is a controversy of the Civil War — and one that can be engaged without having to get into that whole slavery thing — there have been thousands of published pages written about it, with many more sure to come in future years.
A few books about Henry Wirz and Andersonville
As an interesting aside, Civil War POW camps including Andersonville (but not only Andersonville) gave us the term “deadline,” which had a more startlingly literal definition in the 1860s — a perimeter beyond which prisoners would be shot on sight, which policy could make a handy stand-in for walls. Gratuitously killing an insane prisoner who crossed Camp Sumter’s “dead line” was one of the atrocities laid to Wirz, who we take it would not have been at home to the word’s decreasingly urgent appropriation in the wider culture.
* Wirz’s defense showed, to no avail, that the prisoners and the guards received the same rations, with similarly deleterious effects among both, and that the commandant was on record pleading with his superiors for more.
** Wirz’s attorney claimed that his man was offered (and refused to take) a last-minute pardon on November 9 in exchange for implicating Jefferson Davis.
† Wirz and borderlands guerrilla Champ Ferguson were the only Confederates executed for their “war crimes”. There was at least one other prison guard who faced similar charges of prisoner maltreatment, John Henry Gee; Gee was acquitted and released in 1866. (For more on the latter, see “A Little-known Case from the American Civil War: The War Crimes Trial of Major General John H. Gee” by Guénaël Mettraux in the Journal of International Criminal Justice, 2010.)