Posts filed under 'Infamous'

1999: Gary Heidnik, serial kidnapper

Add comment July 6th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1999, Gary Heidnik was executed in Pennsylvania for a horrific spree that saw him kidnap five African-American women to a makeshift torture dungeon in his Philadelphia basement.

Intelligent but socially maladroit and diagnosed from his youthful U.S. Army service as mentally ill, Heidnik gave a preview of his later notoriety by signing his girlfriend’s sister out of a mental hospital in 1978 and locking her up in his basement to rape. He spent most of his resulting sentence in a mental institution of his own, refusing even to speak for two-plus years after claiming in 1980 that Satan had stopped up his throat.

Afflictions of the infernal and the criminal justice variety somehow failed to impede the growth of Heidnik’s personal sham church and tax dodge, the “United Church of the Ministers of God” from piling up a half-million in assets operating from the mid-1970s until Heidnik’s last arrest in 1987.

Heidnik got out of detention for the 1978 kidnap-rape in 1983. After a short mail-order marriage to a Filipina woman who ditched him in 1986 for beating and raping her, he finally went full Gary Heidnik.

On November 25, 1986, Heidnik authored the first of the abductions that would etch his name in serial killer lore, snatching Josefina Rivera and imprisoning her in the cellar of his house at 3520 North Marshall Street. (Rivera recently published an autobiographical account of her captivity.)

For the next five months, Heidnik’s underdark played host to its owner’s unspeakable depravities. Five women he kept there for various periods, shackled to pipes and subject to the gratifications of his violent sexual predilections. One woman, Sandra Lindsay, died of the maltreatment, leading to Heidnik’s closest accidental brush with the law: the stench of incinerating pieces of her dismembered corpse in his oven attracted the complaints of neighbors. Heidnik coolly shooed away the responding police officers with a story about burning the roast.

His prison’s most distinctive chilling feature was a tomblike hole handy for punishing resistance; a second woman, Deborah Dudley, died when Heidnik flooded and electrocuted this crevasse with her in it.

Considering the diabolically systematic nature of the torture dungeon, it’s actually a lucky job that it didn’t go on much, much longer. Remarkably, Heidnik’s last kidnap victim Agnes Adams was able to talk her way into a spot of temporary leave which she naturally used to summon disbelieving police and arrest Heidnik on March 23, 1987.

Once exposed to public view the Marshall Street monster could scarcely fail to leave a cultural impression. Among other things, Heidnik is one of several serial killers on whom Thomas Harris based the fictional murderer “Buffalo Bill” in his 1988 novel Silence of the Lambs.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Infamous,Kidnapping,Lethal Injection,Murder,Pennsylvania,Rape,Serial Killers,USA

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509 B.C.E.: The Sons of Brutus

Add comment August 21st, 2013 Headsman

August 21 is the harvest-time feast of Consualia, honoring the Roman god of grain storage, Consus.

We mark on this occasion the legendary capital punishment inflicted by Lucius Junius Brutus when he was consul of the ancient Roman Republic upon two rebels — his own sons, Titus and Tiberius.

The great Brutus had been one of the leaders of the revolt that expelled Rome’s last king, Lucius Tarquinius — reputedly after the king’s son raped Lucius’s kinswoman Lucretia. (Brutus was also Tarquin’s nephew.)

Upon completing his coup, Brutus immediately summoned the populace to swear an oath that no king would ever rule Rome again. So potent was the civic memory of this event that even centuries later when the Republic was well gone, Rome’s emperors dared not appropriate such an incendiary title as “King”.

But that was for a later time, after the winners wrote the history.

The exiled Etruscan king, subsequent Romans’ eternal watchword for tyranny, got the boot about 510 B.C.E., and in 509 was still hanging about looking for an opportunity to re-seat his dynasty. The plot he hatched is known as the Tarquinian conspiracy, and Brutus, to his grief, would discover that his own children had adhered to it. The statesman’s willingness to put his own flesh and blood to death for the security of Rome would long stand as a parable of manful patriotism.

Our account here is from Livy (line breaks have been added for readability), and the excuse to approximate this undated execution to summer’s harvest-time is bolded therein.

liberty was well nigh lost by treachery and fraud, a thing they had never apprehended. There were, among the Roman youth, several young men of no mean families, who, during the regal government, had pursued their pleasures without any restraint; being of the same age with, and companions of, the young Tarquins, and accustomed to live in princely style.

Longing for that licentiousness, now that the privileges of all were equalized, they complained that the liberty of others has been converted to their slavery: “that a king was a human being, from whom you can obtain, where right, or where wrong may be necessary; that there was room for favour and for kindness; that he could be angry, and could forgive; that he knew the difference between a friend and an enemy; that laws were a deaf, inexorable thing, more beneficial and advantageous for the poor than the rich; that they allowed of no relaxation or indulgence, if you transgress bounds; that it was a perilous state, amid so so many human errors, to live solely by one’s integrity.”

Whilst their minds were already thus discontented of their own accord, ambassadors from the royal family come unexpectedly, demanding restitution of their effects merely, without any mention of return. After their application was heard in the senate, the deliberation on it lasted for several days, (fearing) lest the non-restitution might be a pretext for war, and the restitution a fund and assistance for war. In the mean time the ambassadors were planning different schemes; openly demanding the property, they secretly concerted measures for recovering the throne, and soliciting them as if for the object which appeared to be under consideration, they sound their feelings; to those by whom their proposals were favourably received they give letters from the Tarquins, and confer with them about admitting the royal family into the city secretly by night.

The matter was first intrusted to brothers of the name of Vitellii and those of the name of Aquilii. A sister of the Vitellii had been married to Brutus the consul, and the issue of that marriage were young men, Titus and Tiberius; these also their uncles admit into a participation of the plot: several young noblemen also were taken in as associates, the memory of whose names has been lost from distance of time. In the mean time, when that opinion had prevailed in the senate, which recommended the giving back of the property, and the ambassadors made use of this as a pretext for delay in the city, because they had obtained from the consuls time to procure modes of conveyance, by which they might convey away the effects of the royal family; all this time they spend in consulting with the conspirators, and by pressing they succeed in having letters given to them for the Tarquins. For otherwise how were they to believe that the accounts brought by the ambassadors on matters of such importance were not idle?

The letters, given to be a pledge of their sincerity, discovered the plot; for when, the day before the ambassadors set out to the Tarquins, they had supped by chance at the house of the Vitellii, and the conspirators there in private discoursed much together concerning their new design, as is natural, one of the slaves, who had already perceived what was going on, overheard their conversation; but waited for the occasion when the letters should be given to the ambassadors, the detection of which would prove the transaction; when he perceived that they were given, he laid the whole affair before the consuls. The consuls, having left their home to seize the ambassadors and conspirators, crushed the whole affair without any tumult; particular care being taken of the letters, lest they should escape them.

The traitors being immediately thrown into chains, a little doubt was entertained respecting the ambassadors, and though they deserved to be considered as enemies, the law of nations however prevailed.

The question concerning the restitution of the tyrants’ effects, which the senate had formerly voted, came again under consideration. The fathers, fired with indignation, expressly forbad them either to be restored or confiscated. They were given to be rifled by the people, that after being made participators in the royal plunder, they might lose for ever all hopes of a reconciliation with the Tarquins. A field belonging to them, which lay between the city and the Tiber, having been consecrated to Mars, has been called the Campus Martius. It happened that there was a crop of corn* upon it ready to be cut down, which produce of the field, as they thought it unlawful to use, after it was reaped, a great number of men carried the corn and straw in baskets, and threw them into the Tiber, which then flowed with shallow water, as is usual in the heat of summer; that thus the heaps of corn as it stuck in the shallows became settled when covered over with mud: by these and the afflux of other things, which the river happened to bring thither, an island was formed by degrees. Afterwards I believe that mounds were added, and that aid was afforded by art, that a surface so well raised might be firm enough for sustaining temples and porticoes.

After plundering the tyrants’ effects, the traitors were condemned and capital punishment inflicted. Their punishment was the more remarkable, because the consulship imposed on the father the office of punishing his own children, and him who should have been removed as a spectator, fortune assigned as the person to exact the punishment.

Young men of the highest quality stood tied to a stake; but the consul’s sons attracted the eyes of all the spectators from the rest of the criminals, as from persons unknown; nor did the people pity them more on account of the severity of the punishment, than the horrid crime by which they had deserved it.

“That they, in that year particularly, should have brought themselves to betray into the hands of Tarquin, formerly a proud tyrant, and now an exasperated exile, their country just delivered, their father its deliverer, the consulate which took its rise from the family of the Junii, the fathers, the people, and whatever belonged either to the gods or the citizens of Rome.”

The consuls seated themselves in their tribunal, and the lictors, being despatched to inflict punishment, strip them naked, beat them with rods, and strike off their heads. Whilst during all this time, the father, his looks and his countenance, presented a touching spectacle, the feelings of the father bursting forth occasionally during the office of superintending the public execution.


Bummer: Jacques-Louis David‘s 1784 painting, Lictors Bring Home the Sons of Brutus.

This Brutus was an ancestor of the Brutus who helped assassinate Julius Caesar, and that later et tu, Brutus is commonly represented as having been convinced to turn against his friend and patron by, in part, the example of his legendary namesake.

O, you and I have heard our fathers say,
There was a Brutus once that would have brooked
The eternal devil to keep his state in Rome
As easily as a king.

-Cassius to Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (Act 1, Scene 2)

* “Corn” meaning not American maize, of course — which was not available before the Columbian exchange — but the word’s earlier meaning of whatever was the local grain: wheat, barley, and millet in Rome’s case. (The word corn derives from the Latin granum.)

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Purim

2 comments February 24th, 2013 Headsman

February 24, 2013 is the Jewish festival of Purim. (Actually, it began at sundown last night.)

This holiday, corresponding to 14 Adar of the Hebrew calendar, falls on different dates of the Gregorian calendar (most often in March). It commemorates a bloody story from the Book of Esther. (The quotes in this post are from this translation of Esther.)

The factual historicity of Esther is pretty questionable, but that debate is a bit beside the point for purposes of the present post. As folklore or fact, the story of Esther and Mordecai, of their near-destruction and the consequent execution of their persecutor, is a staple of tradition and literature.


The thumbnail version of the Purim story has Esther (Hadassah), a Jew living in the Persian capital of Susa, plucked out of obscurity to become the (or a) queen of a “King Ahasverus”.

If Esther has a historical basis, this would be about the fourth or fifth century B.C.E., and “Ahasverus” could be Xerxes (the guy who invaded Greece and made Herodotus famous), or the much later Artaxerxes II.

Esther is an orphan being raised by her cousin Mordecai, and when Esther wins “Who Wants To Live In The Persian Harem?” Mordecai advises her to keep judiciously silent about her Hebrew lineage.

Mordecai doesn’t manage the same trick, however, and offends the king’s powerful minister Haman by refusing to bow to him. This gets the overweening Haman upset at not only Mordecai but at all Jews who share his anti-idolatry scruples, and Haman persuades King Ahasverus to authorize their indiscriminate slaughter:

“There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s laws, so that it is not for the king’s profit to tolerate them. If it please the king, let it be decreed that they be destroyed.”

13 Adar is the date fixed for the Jews’ destruction, by pur, a casting of lots — hence the festival’s eventual date and name. Haman, of course, does not realize that this policy makes Esther his enemy.

In order to save her cousin and her people, Esther must risk a death sentence of her own by approaching the king unbidden in his inner chambers. Mordecai charges her to her duty with a timeless moral force:

“Think not that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”

Esther pulls this dangerous maneuver off, and gains thereby a private audience with just the king and Haman. There, she springs her trap — revealing her Jewish identity.

The king again said to Esther, “What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.”

Then Queen Esther answered, “If I have found favor in your sight, O king, and if it please the king, let my life be given me at my petition, and my people at my request. For we are sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be slain, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; for our affliction is not to be compared with the loss to the king.”

Then King Ahasverus said to Queen Esther, “Who is he, and where is he, that would presume to do this?”

And Esther said, “A foe and enemy! This wicked Haman!” Then Haman was in terror before the king and the queen.

Word arrives at this inopportune juncture that Haman, who has been gleefully preparing his vengeance, has just had completed a 50-cubit (~20-meter) gallows to execute Mordecai upon. The enraged king instead orders Haman hung on it.

“Hanging” Haman on the “gallows” was traditionally interpreted in the ancient and medieval world as crucifixion,* or some analogously excrutiating way to die.

By any method of execution, though, the dramatic power of the scene — sudden reversal of fortune, virtue elevated over wickedness, the oppressed turning the tables on their oppressors, divine deliverance — is obvious.

Haman and his gallows have consequently stood as a potent literary device ever since: for perfidious council; for violent anti-Semitism; for unusually spectacular punishment (to be hung “as high as Haman”); for the concept of getting one’s comeuppance or being hoisted by one’s own petard.

At least the guy was remembered. Hands up if you can name any other ancient Persian courtier.


“The Punishment of Haman” is a corner of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.

However, this satisfying palace politics turnabout is not the end of the story, and punishment is not reserved only for the wicked minister.

Esther persuades the king not only to revoke Haman’s order, but to issue a new one — one that Esther and Mordecai will write tabula rasa over the king’s seal.

The writing was in the name of King Ahasverus and sealed with the king’s ring, and letters were sent by mounted couriers riding on swift horses that were used in the king’s service, bred from the royal stud. By these the king allowed the Jews who were in every city to gather and defend their lives, to destroy, to slay, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, with their children and women, and to plunder their goods, upon one day throughout all the provinces of King Ahasverus, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar

So the Jews smote all their enemies with the sword, slaughtering, and destroying them, and did as they pleased to those who hated them. In Susa the capital itself the Jews slew and destroyed five hundred men, and also slew Parshandatha and Dalphon and Aspatha and Poratha and Adalia and Aridatha and Parmashta and Arisai and Aridai and Vaizatha, the ten sons of Haman the son of Hammedatha, the enemy of the Jews; but they laid no hand on the plunder. That very day the number of those slain in Susa the capital was reported to the king.

And the king said to Queen Esther, “In Susa the capital the Jews have slain five hundred men and also the ten sons of Haman. What then have they done in the rest of the king’s provinces! Now what is your petition? It shall be granted you. And what further is your request? It shall be fulfilled.”

And Esther said, “If it please the king, let the Jews who are in Susa be allowed tomorrow also to do according to this day’s edict. And let the ten sons of Haman be hanged on the gallows.”

So the king commanded this to be done; a decree was issued in Susa, and the ten sons of Haman were hanged. The Jews who were in Susa gathered also on the fourteenth day of the month of Adar and they slew three hundred men in Susa; but they laid no hands on the plunder.

Now the other Jews who were in the king’s provinces also gathered to defend their lives, and got relief from their enemies, and slew seventy-five thousand of those who hated them; but they laid no hands on the plunder.


This bloodbath is obviously a bit more ethically problematic than Haman’s individual fate.

Now, sure, this is an event of questionable authenticity situated in Iron Age tribal mores and exaggerated by the ubiquitous ancient inflation of head counts. The subtext (“defend their lives” … “relief from their enemies”) also implies something like civil strife, blows exchanged rather than merely blows delivered. The overt text says that the victims were people who intended to do exactly the same thing to the Jews.

Still, the plain words on the page says 75,000 humans were slaughtered by a mobilized ethno-nationalist group, “children and women” among them. Just imagine the same parable about a Serb in a Bosnian king’s court, and say a little thanksgiving that the Book of Esther doesn’t identify these 75,000 as constituents of any specific demographic group that remains a going concern today.

Purim is a beloved holiday among its celebrants, but most any explication of it on the Internet comes with a comment thread agonizing over (or rationalizing) the body count. (For example.)

That part of the narrative has unsurprisingly invited highly prejudicial interpretations, especially among hostile Christian interlocutors (pdf).

American pastor Washington Gladden called the first Purim “a fiendish outbreak of fanatical cruelty.”

The fact that the story was told, and that it gained great popularity among the Jews, and by some of those in later ages came to be regarded as one of the most sacred books of their canon is, however, a revelation to us of the extent to which the most baleful and horrible passions may be cherished in the name of religion … it is not merely true that these atrocities are here recited; they are clearly indorsed.

The Nazis promoted the Jews-as-mass-murderers version, too; there’s even an instance where the Zdunska Wola ghetto was required to provide ten Jews to hang for the ten hanged sons of Haman. The frothing anti-Semitic propagandist Julius Streicher, being positioned on the trap for execution after the Nuremberg trials, reportedly bellowed “Purim Fest 1946!” to the witnesses.

Blessedly Purim Fest is not ultimately defined by the likes of Streicher, nor by the bloodthirstiness that is this site’s regrettable stock in trade. For most observants it’s simply one of the most joyous holidays of the year, a time for gifts and feasting and dress-up and carnivals and celebration sometimes thought of as the “Jewish Mardi Gras” or “Jewish Halloween”. Adherents have even been encouraged in all religious solemnity to drink in celebration until they can no longer tell “blessed be Mordecai” from “cursed be Haman.”

Deliverance indeed. L’chaim.

* The concept of Haman crucified in turn encouraged Jews under Christendom to use the figure of Haman (who once upon a time, could be subject to Guy Fawkes-like effigy-burning on Purim) as a veiled stand-in for the current oppressor Christ, and/or encouraged Judeophobic Christians to impute this intention to Purim observances.

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1804: Little Harpe and Peter Alston, Mississippi pirates

2 comments February 8th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1804, two known as John Setton/Sutton and James May were hanged at Greenville, Mississippi.

They were, in fact, Wiley “Little” Harpe and his outlaw partner Peter Alston — the survivors (well, up until then) of a notorious gang of Mississippi River pirates and frontier highwaymen.

Their villainous coterie had plagued the Mississippi (river) and the proximate byways from Kentucky down to Mississippi (state), making a couple of spots on the great river legendary pirate hideouts in the process.

With a price on the head of the notorious leader Samuel Mason, “Sutton” and “May” coldly murdered their captain to turn in his head for the reward.

They got their reward alright. They were recognized as Mason’s own fellow-bandits, and themselves put on trial for piracy.


The Harpe Brothers

This date’s hanging was not only the end of the Mason gang — it was the end of the Harpe Brothers.

Micajah Harpe (“Big Harpe”) and Wiley Harpe were brothers or cousins who cut a bloody swathe through the early American Republic, such that some have acclaimed the Harpes that young nation’s first serial killers. They were, in one historian’s words, “the most brutal monsters of the human race.”

Heading west out of North Carolina after Revolutionary War service as Tory irregulars, the Harpes made for Knoxville, Tennessee, kidnapping wives for themselves along the way. When they were rousted out of their cabin on accusations of livestock-rustling in 1797, their notorious careers really began in earnest.

This was, then, the extreme western frontier of the United States, and the Harpes were consequently able to plunder in wilderness impunity.

And they slew with a frequency and savagery far in excess of the professional demands of a bush robber.

Big Harp confessed before dying in 1798 to 20 murders, probably not counting the babies. Estimates are as high as 40, but usually around 30. After two killings, one in Knox County and one on the Wilderness Trail, the Harps left Tennessee in December 1798 for Kentucky, where they killed two traveling men from Maryland…

The final stretch of slaughter took place soon after this, in July 1798, when the Harps returned to Eastern Tennessee. The victims included a farmer named Bradbury; a man named Hardin; a boy named Coffey; William Ballard, who was cut open, filled with stones, and dumped in the Holston River; James Brassel, with his throat ripped apart on Brassel’s Knob; John Tully, father of eight. On the Marrowbone Creek in south central Kentucky, John Graves and his teenaged son, out planting crops, had their heads axed. Moving toward Logan County, the Harps came upon a little girl, whom they killed, as they did a young slave on his way to the mill. Once in Logan County, near today’s Adairville, near the Whippoorwill River, they butchered an entire migrating family asleep in their camp, but for one son who survived. (Source)

TruTV also has an account of them sending a hijacked flatboat passenger over a cliff, and bashing a little girl’s head in against the side of a bridge.

“They murdered all classes and sexes, without distinction,” a Knoxville man* recounted years later, “not for plunder but for the love of shedding human blood.” We don’t have Little Harpe’s conscience on the record, but Big Harpe would only express remorse for one of his dozens of homicides: smashing his own infant child against a tree to make it stop crying.

That sentiment would come at the end, when Big Harpe had been cornered by a posse after murdering a frontier woman. The widower in that posse halved the Harpe menace by hewing Big Harpe’s head from his shoulders.

For generations after the subsequent roosting-spot of this deathly visage — presented to a justice of the peace to verify the man’s death (and pocket the price on his literal head), then hung up for public display by the intersection of Morgenfield, Henderson, and Maidensville Roads in Union County — was known as Harpe’s Head.

Little Harpe’s subsequent career with Sam Mason and his own violent demise capped the Harpe brothers’ nefarious legacy.

Their name was so infamous that many of their family changed it … including, according to rumor, the ancestors of legendary Wild West lawman Wyatt Earp.

* J.W.M. Breazeale was part of the posse that hunted down Big Harpe, and a witness to Big Harpe’s death, and gives the outlaw the (possibly tall-tale) last words directed to his slaughterer in mid-beheading: “You are a God damned rough butcher, but cut on and be damned.”

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2010: Chemical Ali

Add comment January 25th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 2010, American-occupied Iraq hanged Ali Hassan al-Majid — Saddam Hussein‘s cousin and longtime aide, better known as Chemical Ali.

Ali Hassan al-Majid as the King of Spades in the U.S. invasion force’s playing-card deck of wanted Iraqis.

Al-Majid acquired his chilling nickname for the notorious March 1988 attack on the Kurdish city of Halabja.

That day, after an appetizer of conventional bombing, Iraqi jets dropped a cocktail of multiple chemical weapons — mustard gas, sarin, tabun, and VX, give or take — killing up to 5,000 people.

“It was life frozen. Life had stopped, like watching a film and suddenly it hangs on one frame,” wrote the ethnically Iranian BBC correspondent Kaveh Golestan,* who arrived on the scene after the bombardment.

“It was a new kind of death to me. You went into a room, a kitchen and you saw the body of a woman holding a knife where she had been cutting a carrot. (…) The aftermath was worse. Victims were still being brought in. Some villagers came to our chopper. They had 15 or 16 beautiful children, begging us to take them to hospital. So all the press sat there and we were each handed a child to carry. As we took off, fluid came out of my little girl’s mouth and she died in my arms.”

It was the most emblematically ghastly event in a running ethnic cleansing campaign of the late 1980s, also headed by al-Majid.

The Halabja attack was the last of four separate death sentences Chemical Ali racked up after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and it was handed down just a week before he stood on the gallows. The larger Kurdish genocide campaign as a whole was a separate death sentence from Halabja; there were also two others for his brutal suppressions of Shia uprisings in the 1990s.

He met all his tribunals defiantly, refusing to enter a plea and then openly embracing the atrocities imputed him. “I am the one who gave orders to the army to demolish villages and relocate villagers,” he once spat in court. “I am not defending myself, I am not apologizing. I did not make a mistake.”

* Himself a casualty of the Iraq War: Golestan was killed when he stepped on a landmine in 2003.

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1017: Eadric Streona, traitorous

2 comments December 25th, 2012 Headsman

On Christmas 1017, England’s King Cnut had the ealdorman Eadric Streona summarily axed.

While legend has it that Eadric Streona (“Grasping Eadric” or “Eadric the Acquisitor”) irritated the monarch by beating him in a game of chess, Middle Ages chroniclers attributed his fate to the just deserts of inveterate treachery.

A couple centuries of Viking raids and conquests had just culminated with the Northmen’s outright capture of the English throne, fifty years before the better-remembered Norman invasion.

Notwithstanding his best efforts at resistance, the Anglo-Saxon king Aethelred the Unready had been briefly driven into exile by Cnut’s father, Sweyn Forkbeard, and his house then decisively dispossessed by Cnut at the Battle of Assandun. (All kings had cooler names in the Anglo-Saxon period.)

Eadric figured into this period in the timeworn role of duplicitous nobleman. The BBC named him the worst Briton of the 11th century.

Though not of the highest pedigree himself, “his smooth tongue gained him wealth and high rank, and gifted with a subtle genius and persuasive eloquence he surpassed all his contemporaries in malice and perfidy, as well as in pride and cruelty.” (Florence of Worcester, whose chronicle dates to a century later.) Eadric maneuvered himself into a union with Aethelred’s daughter, but he didn’t exactly follow Corleone rules where the family was concerned.*

Plenty of lords were playing both sides of the Anglo-Saxon/Danish conflict, but Eadric did it as well as anyone. He was an exponent of the policy of appeasing the Northmen with the Danegeld tribute, rather than resisting by arms. (Eadric might have been helping himself to a rake of the Danegeld that passed through his own hands.) He’s slated with, on one occasion, dissuading Aethelred from falling upon a crippled Danish force that might have been destroyed.

His nemesis on the policy front was Aethelred’s combative son and heir Edmund Ironside. (Seriously: cooler names.)

Anyway, in 1015, when Aethelred and Cnut were pressing rival claims at arms, Eadric “seduced forty ships from the king, and they went over to Cnut.” Early the next year, he defected back.

By this time, Aethelred had died and Eadric’s old rival Edmund Ironside inherited leadership. What terms these two old foes came to when Eadric returned are a matter of speculation, but it can be no surprise that Eadric switched sides back to Cnut yet again at Assandun. Some chronicles like to attribute the whole fall of England to this backstab, but it’s more than likely the guy just recognized the balance of forces (the English got routed) and tacked to the wind.

And Eadric sure could tack. He even helpfully cleared out his and Cnut’s mutual rival Edmund Ironside, allowing Cnut to claim all the lands he’d just recently agreed to leave to Edmund. The most flinch-inducingly scabrous version of the assassination story goes that Eadric’s guys shot Edmund up the backside from a privy-hole. Guess that side wasn’t so iron.

But Eadric’s belief that he’d ingratiated himself with Cnut was as sorely mistaken as Edmund Ironside’s confidence in the loo. Kings tend to look askance upon traitors, and not a few usurpers have been known to extend that opprobrium to the very people who betrayed their predecessors. Cnut valued loyalty, and it was pretty clear he couldn’t rely upon Eadric in that department.

After tolerating this underhanded underling for a decent year or so,

[a]t the Lord’s Nativity, when [Cnut] was in London, he gave orders for the perfidious ealdorman Eadric to be killed in the palace, because he feared to be at some time deceived by his treachery, as his former lords Ethelred and Edmund had frequently been deceived; and he ordered his body to be thrown over the wall of the city and left unburied.

-Florence of Worcester (via)

The rich English-history podcast environment has various offerings touching this period, including …

* It needs to be said that Eadric is known through the testimony of hostile chronicles; given the dearth of primary documentation, his reputation lies at their mercy. One 20th century historian remarked that he takes on a bogeyman character in the texts, an all-purpose villain “to whom unknown crimes may be safely attributed.”

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1629: Jeronimus Cornelisz and other Batavia mutineers

1 comment October 2nd, 2012 dogboy

It was 2 Oct 1629, Dutchman Jeronimus Cornelisz was noosed along with 15 other men by the Dutch East Indies Company for a reign of terror that included mutiny and murder off the coast of Australia.* Six others would eventually hang in the infamous affair, two marooned on the Australian mainland, and many more punished for the gruesome atrocities committed on the Southern Ocean.

Cornelisz was not such an assuming character when he boarded the vessel Batavia in 1628.

This definitive history of the Batavia mutiny is by one of the web’s best history bloggers, Mike Dash. He reprinted an interview largely about this book here.

Rather, he was a marginally failed merchant, someone who could buy his way on board as an under-merchant** and sail to the southern seas for the prospect of a new life. It has been speculated (here, for instance) that his move to Indonesia was motivated by a desire to put oceanic distances between himself — an apothecary who couldn’t make it in Haarlem — and prosecutors pursuing Anabaptists and other heretics. It didn’t help, either, that his infant child had recently died of the disgracing condition of syphilis. All that is enough to send a man to Indonesia, apparently.

Though Cornelisz was not a successful businessman, he was an energetic protagonist from his own station in life and could, eventually, win over any suggestible person with his intelligence and wit. It didn’t take long to do just that to the ship’s skipper, Ariaen Jacobsz — who already held a grudge against the Batavia‘s upper-merchant (and fleet commander), Francisco Pelsaert.

In due time their thoughts turned to the ship’s valuable cargo — silver and trade goods headed for the Mughal Empire. As night follows day, the next thoughts turned to mutiny.

Cornelisz pulled in people from each of the major groups onboard† to help with his mutiny without attracting the attention of the Pelsaert. All the plot needed was a kickstart to turn enough people against the commander.

In the part where the villain reveals his plot, Cornelisz’s goes like this: A group of hooded mutineers assaults the mostly widely lusted-after woman among the socialite passengers, Lucretia (Creesje) Jans; once the assault is reported, the commander must respond; but if the assailants are well-hidden, he must make an example arbitrarily, which pushes his men towards mutiny.

And, like a movie villain’s evil plot, Cornelisz’s didn’t come off.

The captain punished nobody for the assault, as Creesje could not identify the assailants. The shipboard mutiny withered on the vine. But lucky for Cornelisz, the captain had no inkling that the ship’s under-merchant was involved — though he was pretty sure the skipper and boatswain had something to do with it.

In the midst of those days of planned insurrection, the Batavia hit a slightly larger speed bump. On June 4, the vessel ran aground on Morning Reef.

There were few casualties from the initial crash, and the remainder escaped in groups, crammed onto small coral islands in the remote but plausibly survivable Houtman Abrolhos chain off the west coast of Australia.

The ship’s complement was eventually transferred to Beacon Island and Traitors Island — with limited water (but plenty of silver!), it was clear to Pelsaert there would be few people left if they didn’t get some help. Off went the captain with 47 crew and passengers in a longboat, leaving more than 250 behind to fend for themselves on the isles.

Two months later, Pelsaert found himself in the colonial city Batavia (today, the Indonesian capital Jakarta) appealing to the local authorities at the Dutch East Indies Company for a ship to rescue his stranded crew and passengers. He was quickly given the Sardam — another vessel in his fleet — with a skeleton crew to pick up the passengers (oh, and all that silver).

But he wasn’t going to need all those passenger quarters.

Cornelisz, as under-merchant, had technical rank in the emergency, and he had taken over the situation at the islands when the commander left. The refugee pharmacist reveled in the power, certainly amplified by the dozen chests of treasure the Batavia carried.

So here’s your motivation: a fortune in booty and the South Seas as your playground. This is the stuff of rum wishes and buccaneer dreams.

And Lord of the Flies nightmares.

Sensing the the time was ripe to lighten the group’s victual needs, Cornelisz‡ sent 15 men to search a larger island visible to the west for water. This journey, Cornelisz was convinced, would be fruitless, so any possible power rivals he could find went off. As well, Cornelisz shipped a larger group to Long Island to get more space.

And then began the killing.


Detail view (click for the full image) of a 1647 engraving of the carnage on Beacon Island. Cornelisz had a good 110 homicides on his soul’s account by the time it was all said and done.

Some 20 mutineers formed a tight inner circle with fantasies of having their way on the island until the rescue boat could be commandeered for piracy. The purpose of the killings was simply to knock the number of residents down closer to 40 or 45 so that the mutineers would be overwhelmingly dominant when the rescue boat came. That’s a tough task when starting with almost 200 people.

At first, killings proceeded under faux-juridical cover: theft and slander were enough to endanger everyone in these cramped quarters, so Cornelisz would have his men claim illegal activities were afoot and kill one or more of the people he considered either threats or non-entities among the group.

A few loyal footsoldiers did most of the killing, along with some pressed into service with the threat of violence; pretty soon the numbers on the island had dwindled noticeably.

With vague ideas of riches and a growing bloodlust, killing essentially became sport. Families were done to death wholesale, by whatever means were available — drowning, slitting throats, bludgeoning. Those liable to fight back might be jumped by a group at the beach, sometimes getting all of the above.

And before you go thinking murder was the only thing the mutineers had on their minds, they retained at least a few women (including Creesje) as private consorts.


Now is the time to mention that Cornelisz was personally acquainted with notorious (and then-imprisoned) degenerate artist Johannes van der Beeck. This is van der Beeck’s Faun and Nymphs.

But remember those doomed guys searching for water two islands over?

Turns out they found it, along with ample food, and they were now occupying the largest island in the chain.

They, along with 30 or so who escaped Cornelisz’s clutches over the course of two months, were the Resistance, and they were full of incriminating knowledge about what had been going down over on psycho isle.

One of the original group, Wiebbe Hayes, had taken charge of the island’s affairs, and he had done quite well. Those living on what is now known as West Wallabi Island were far better off than their Beacon counterparts.

Back on Beacon, Cornelisz was forced to ration water — even to his favorites — and had thoughts that the High Islanders might scupper his search party takeover plot. So late in July, he sent an amphibious landing team to attack High Island. Cornelisz’s men were met with a line of opposition at the beach, armed with pikes made of driftwood with nails. The mutineers retreated.

Weeks later, Assault II began; like most sequels, it fell on its face. Assault III, Cornelisz decided, should include cunning, cunning like an ostensible negotiation to trade the clothing Cornelisz had hoarded for water and food.

Hayes was even a little more cunning that that, and when Cornelisz and his four top lieutenants came ashore and began sweet-talking, he and his men seized four of them. (The fifth, Wouter Loos, escaped.)

Knowing that having mutineers on his island would be trouble, Hayes convened his council, which swiftly decided to dispatch any prisoner not named Jeronimus: that one was tossed in a pit and given birds to pluck for Hayes’ army.

Two weeks went by before the mutineers (now led by Loos) got up the courage to attack again, but by the time they took to the channels and began a long-range gun assault, the Sardam was in the archipelago. Hayes got to Pelsaert first and informed him of the planned mutiny. Pelsaert trained all his weapons on the mutineers’ boat until they decided to disarm.

The trials were done in the Dutch way, including some amount of torture. Pelsaert finally decided he had enough evidence against the mutineers, and his small tribunal passed 16 death sentences. (One was commuted to exile.) That included a half dozen who had one or more hands lopped off before their passage to the gallows.


Detail view (click for the full image) of the mutineers’ execution.

Three weeks later, when the Sardam returned to Batavia, five more of the rescued mutineers were executed, and a sixth — the boatswain involved in the assault on Creesje — was put to death while Pelsaert was out.

Once word got out, Cornelisz’s heinous crimes were known around the world and Southern sailors heard the tales for hundreds of years to come.

Pelsaert, meanwhile, was partly blamed for the incident and saw the Company seize his assets: he was dead within a year. As for Hayes, he was promoted, but his further adventures are unknown.

The remains of the shipwreck that commenced this hecatomb are still visible at Houtman Abrolhos, from cannons off the original Batavia to the fort built by Wiebbe Hayes and his men — everyday monuments to a hellish ordeal.

* Technically the first European settlers in Australia.

** Dutch merchant vessels were headed by an upper-merchant, who had control over decisions on the ship and represented the overriding interest of the Dutch United East India Company. In addition, an under-merchant was taken aboard as his second-in-command Company man. The skipper was considered head of the crew and placed in charge of navigational concerns, but his role was subordinate to the upper-merchant.

† Like all Dutch merchant vessels, the Batavia featured four major classes of people on board:

  • a standard crew to run the vessel;
  • a complement of soldiers who were generally kept below-decks but could be recruited to maintain order and would disembark at the destination;
  • a group which tended to shipboard needs (surgeon, cook, and so on);
  • and merchants and passengers, who had social standing over the rest.

‡ Technically, Cornelisz was part of a three-member council in charge of the shipwrecked. The initial council was selected from among the socially significant survivors, but Cornelisz used his rank to quickly dissolve that group and appoint two of his own future mutineers as his cohorts. Needless to say, the judiciary wasn’t independent after that.

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1789: Joseph-Francois Foulon, corrupt financier, lynched

Add comment July 22nd, 2012 Headsman

On this date, just days after the Bastille fell, so did the head of widely-loathed ancien regime pol Joseph-Francois Foulon (or Foullon) de Doue.

“This is that same Foulon,” says Carlyle, “named ame damnee du Parlement; a man grown gray in treachery, in griping, projecting, intriguing and iniquity: who once when it was objected, to some finance-scheme of his, ‘What will the people do?’ — made answer, in the fire of discussion, ‘The people may eat grass:’ hasty words, which fly abroad irrevocable, — and will send back tidings!”

Marie Antoinette, eat your cake out.

Foulon’s grass tidings would arrive courtesy of the king‘s July 11, 1789 dismissal of Finance Minister Jacques Necker and attempt to rule through an ultra-royalist government. It was fury over this apparent reactionary coup that led to the storming of the Bastille and catalyzed the French Revolution.

Foulon, now the Controller-General of Finances — and as Carlyle puts it, “a scoundrel; but of unmeasured wealth,” who had gorged himself at the public trough while the kingdom’s finances grew thin, and who was widely suspected of having manipulated the food supply out of cruel rapacity — apprehended the danger and fled town. He even staged a lavish funeral to put about word that he had died suddenly.

But “some living domestic or dependant, for none loves Foulon,” betrayed him (Carlyle’s version) — or by whatever means, the Parisian mob sniffed him out. Then it quickly did to him what the Parisian mob would soon become famous for. “His old head, which seventy-four years have bleached, is bare; they have tied an emblematic bundle of grass on his back; a garland of nettles and thistles is round his neck: in this manner; led with ropes; goaded on with curses and menaces, must he, with his old limbs, sprawl forward; the pitiablest, most unpitied of all old men.”

Carlyle spares little but the most animal pity for Foulon, but the mob did not even muster that. Summoned to be judged at the Hotel de Ville — the Marquis de Lafayette and the new mayor of Paris, Bailly, unsuccessfully attempted to intercede for proper procedure — Foulon found himself instead subject to the revolutionary judgment of the masses.

For Dickens, in A Tale of Two Cities, this incident forms one of the mileposts of the Revolution, when the waiting sans-culottes of Saint Antoine are transfigured, and leads the fictional long-time revolutionary conspirator Defarge to sigh to his even more implacable wife, “At last it is come, my dear!”

“Does everybody here recall old Foulon, who told the famished people that they might eat grass, and who died, and went to Hell?”

“Everybody!” from all throats.

“The news is of him. He is among us!”

“Among us!” from the universal throat again. “And dead?”

“Not dead! He feared us so much—and with reason—that he caused himself to be represented as dead, and had a grand mock-funeral. But they have found him alive, hiding in the country, and have brought him in. I have seen him but now, on his way to the Hotel de Ville, a prisoner. I have said that he had reason to fear us. Say all! Had he reason?”

Wretched old sinner of more than threescore years and ten, if he had never known it yet, he would have known it in his heart of hearts if he could have heard the answering cry.

A moment of profound silence followed. Defarge and his wife looked steadfastly at one another. The Vengeance stooped, and the jar of a drum was heard as she moved it at her feet behind the counter.

“Patriots!” said Defarge, in a determined voice, “are we ready?”

Instantly Madame Defarge’s knife was in her girdle; the drum was beating in the streets, as if it and a drummer had flown together by magic; and The Vengeance, uttering terrific shrieks, and flinging her arms about her head like all the forty Furies at once, was tearing from house to house, rousing the women.

The men were terrible, in the bloody-minded anger with which they looked from windows, caught up what arms they had, and came pouring down into the streets; but, the women were a sight to chill the boldest. From such household occupations as their bare poverty yielded, from their children, from their aged and their sick crouching on the bare ground famished and naked, they ran out with streaming hair, urging one another, and themselves, to madness with the wildest cries and actions. Villain Foulon taken, my sister! Old Foulon taken, my mother! Miscreant Foulon taken, my daughter! Then, a score of others ran into the midst of these, beating their breasts, tearing their hair, and screaming, Foulon alive! Foulon who told the starving people they might eat grass! Foulon who told my old father that he might eat grass, when I had no bread to give him! Foulon who told my baby it might suck grass, when these breasts were dry with want! O mother of God, this Foulon! O Heaven our suffering! Hear me, my dead baby and my withered father: I swear on my knees, on these stones, to avenge you on Foulon! Husbands, and brothers, and young men, Give us the blood of Foulon, Give us the head of Foulon, Give us the heart of Foulon, Give us the body and soul of Foulon, Rend Foulon to pieces, and dig him into the ground, that grass may grow from him! With these cries, numbers of the women, lashed into blind frenzy, whirled about, striking and tearing at their own friends until they dropped into a passionate swoon, and were only saved by the men belonging to them from being trampled under foot.

Nevertheless, not a moment was lost; not a moment! This Foulon was at the Hotel de Ville, and might be loosed. Never, if Saint Antoine knew his own sufferings, insults, and wrongs! Armed men and women flocked out of the Quarter so fast, and drew even these last dregs after them with such a force of suction, that within a quarter of an hour there was not a human creature in Saint Antoine’s bosom but a few old crones and the wailing children.

No. They were all by that time choking the Hall of Examination where this old man, ugly and wicked, was, and overflowing into the adjacent open space and streets. The Defarges, husband and wife, The Vengeance, and Jacques Three, were in the first press, and at no great distance from him in the Hall.

“See!” cried madame, pointing with her knife. “See the old villain bound with ropes. That was well done to tie a bunch of grass upon his back. Ha, ha! That was well done. Let him eat it now!” Madame put her knife under her arm, and clapped her hands as at a play.

The people immediately behind Madame Defarge, explaining the cause of her satisfaction to those behind them, and those again explaining to others, and those to others, the neighbouring streets resounded with the clapping of hands. Similarly, during two or three hours of drawl, and the winnowing of many bushels of words, Madame Defarge’s frequent expressions of impatience were taken up, with marvellous quickness, at a distance: the more readily, because certain men who had by some wonderful exercise of agility climbed up the external architecture to look in from the windows, knew Madame Defarge well, and acted as a telegraph between her and the crowd outside the building.

At length the sun rose so high that it struck a kindly ray as of hope or protection, directly down upon the old prisoner’s head. The favour was too much to bear; in an instant the barrier of dust and chaff that had stood surprisingly long, went to the winds, and Saint Antoine had got him!

It was known directly, to the furthest confines of the crowd. Defarge had but sprung over a railing and a table, and folded the miserable wretch in a deadly embrace—Madame Defarge had but followed and turned her hand in one of the ropes with which he was tied—The Vengeance and Jacques Three were not yet up with them, and the men at the windows had not yet swooped into the Hall, like birds of prey from their high perches—when the cry seemed to go up, all over the city, “Bring him out! Bring him to the lamp!”

Down, and up, and head foremost on the steps of the building; now, on his knees; now, on his feet; now, on his back; dragged, and struck at, and stifled by the bunches of grass and straw that were thrust into his face by hundreds of hands; torn, bruised, panting, bleeding, yet always entreating and beseeching for mercy; now full of vehement agony of action, with a small clear space about him as the people drew one another back that they might see; now, a log of dead wood drawn through a forest of legs; he was hauled to the nearest street corner where one of the fatal lamps swung, and there Madame Defarge let him go—as a cat might have done to a mouse—and silently and composedly looked at him while they made ready, and while he besought her: the women passionately screeching at him all the time, and the men sternly calling out to have him killed with grass in his mouth. Once, he went aloft, and the rope broke, and they caught him shrieking; twice, he went aloft, and the rope broke, and they caught him shrieking; then, the rope was merciful, and held him, and his head was soon upon a pike, with grass enough in the mouth for all Saint Antoine to dance at the sight of.

That grass-stuffed head on a pike was there waiting later that evening when the bloody banquet’s digestif arrived later that day in the form of Foulon’s son-in-law Louis-Jean Bertier de Sauvigny: another government official arrested that day and drug to the same place, for the same fate.


Bertier de Sauvignon, Intendant of Paris, Is Led to His Punishment (Source, specifically image 25)

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1931: Peter Kürten, the Vampire of Düsseldorf

5 comments July 2nd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1931, the “Vampire of Düsseldorf” was beheaded for that city’s most infamous serial murder binge.

It was, perhaps, the logical end of a terrible journey.

A factory moulder and World War I deserter in his late forties, Peter Kürten commenced a series of uncommonly bestial rape-murders in early 1929 … the harvest of a lifetime’s twisted brutality.

He’d been the oldest of 11 children stuffed in a hellish one-room apartment with a violent drunk of a father who battered the children and openly raped their mother. Well, “if they hadn’t been married, it would have been rape,” in Peter’s words.

The future vampire took his refuge turning his own abuse on younger siblings and, with the help of a degenerate dogcatcher in the neighborhood, on obliging animals he could lay his hands on — which creatures he was soon learning to torture, and to rape, alongside more conventional human delinquencies like arson and burglary.

Kürten is known to have strangled at least one ten-year-old prior to World War I (he would also claim to have surreptitiously drowned a couple of school chums in his boyhood) but it was on the far side of the Great War — which he’d spent mostly in miserable prisons, nursing increasingly twisted fantasies of vengeance — that the beast truly emerged.

The spree that carried him to these pages began in Febuary 1929, when he slew an eight-year-old, attacked a middle-aged woman, stabbed a mechanic to death. Kürten’s crimes were irregular, but distinguished by a fiendish wrath: he abducted one young woman and hammered her to death in the woods outside town; he stabbed a five-year-old to death with scissors as he achieved his orgasm; he asked a teenager to run off and get him some cigarettes, so he could use her absence to slit her younger sister’s throat; he stabbed strangers randomly.

“I derived the sort of pleasure from these visions” of mayhem and cruelty, he said, “that other people would get from thinking about a naked woman.”

Düsseldorf endured a year of terror, finally aborted when Kürten’s own wife — whom he seems to have loved genuinely — turned him in, at Kürten’s own request, for the reward money.

At a packed trial, the accused’s accumulated hatred for the sadistic world poured out in words just as it had done in deeds over the months preceding.

I said to myself in my youthful way ‘You just wait, you pack of scoundrels!’ That was more or less the kind of retaliation or revenge idea. For example, I kill someone who is innocent and not responsible for the fact that I had been badly treated, but if there really is such a thing on this earth as compensating justice, then my tormentors must feel it, even if they do not know that I have done it …

Never have I felt any misgiving in my soul; never did I think to myself that what I did was bad, even though human society condemns it. My blood and the blood of my victims will be on the heads of my torturers. There must be a Higher Being who gave in the first place the first vital spark to life. That Higher Being would deem my actions good since I revenged injustice. The punishments I have suffered have destroyed all my feelings as a human being. That was why I had no pity for my victims.

-Kürten

Amateurs though we are, we incline to doubt the sufficiency of the tit-for-tat explanation. Kürten might well have believed that about himself, but the “vampire” moniker gets at an essential, organic sensuality about his crimes whose roots go quite a bit deeper than revenge.

“Tell me,” the doomed murderer is supposed to have asked a prison doctor shortly before facing the guillotine, “after my head has been chopped off will I still be able to hear; at least for a moment, the sound of my own blood gushing from the stump of my neck?”

The doctor indeed thought it possible the head might survive a few seconds.

“That,” mused the killer, “would be the pleasure to end all pleasures.”

Kürten is one of several predatory sex-slayers — also see the likes of Fritz Haarman and Carl Grossman — who prospered in interwar Germany, and helped to inspire Fritz Lang’s cinematic classic M. (Kürten is often thought the most direct model for that movie’s murderer. Lang denied that was the case, but in some countries’ releases it went out under the title not of M, but of The Vampire of Düsseldorf.)

Sources:

Murderpedia

TruTV

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1896: Amelia Dyer, baby farmer

3 comments June 10th, 2012 Headsman

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

On this date in 1896, Amelia Elizabeth Dyer was hanged at Newgate Prison in London. At 58 years old, she was the oldest woman hung in Great Britain between 1844 and 1955.

Amelia was a baby farmer, one of many from that time and place. Baby farmers would, for a fee, take an infant or toddler if its mother was unable or unwilling to care for it. The idea was that the baby farmer would either become the baby’s foster parent, or find someone else to foster or adopt the child.

In the days when illegitimacy carried a heavy social stigma, this was an attractive option — indeed, often the only option — for single or impoverished mothers, and likewise for communities facing the burden of an orphaned newborn. Young Oliver in Charles Dickens’s novel Oliver Twist grew up on a baby farm after his mother died in childbirth and his father disappeared.

In many cases, everyone benefited from the transaction: the mother would go back to her life knowing her baby was all right, a childless couple would have a baby to love, and the baby itself would grow up in a secure home.

Unhappily, however, many other cases produced horrendous results: the baby was not necessarily safe once the mother had handed it over and paid money in advance for its care. Unscrupulous and greedy women realized that, once they got the lump sum payment, they could make a profit if the baby died, the sooner the better.

Victorian Britain was rife with baby farmers who would quietly do away with their helpless charges, or simply starve and neglect the infants until they expired. Authorities made unavailing, ill-enforced attempts to control the problem by, for example, requiring women who adopted or fostered more than one infant at a time to register. (And by doling out a few sporadic, but high-profile, executions.)

It was a widespread and well-known problem, as Alison Rattle and Allison Vale note in their biography, Amelia Dyer: Angel Maker:

It was impossible for newspapers of the day to keep count of the numbers of bodies found strewn about the towns and cities. Scarcely a day passed without yet another report of the corpse of some young innocent being found abandoned beneath the seat of a railway carriage, under an archway, in a sewer grating or just carelessly dumped in one of the open spaces of a city suburb. Many cases were not even reported …

Amelia Dyer was the worst of the worst.

She was convicted of a single murder, but they’d found the bodies of half a dozen more, and by the time she was caught she’d been operating for for twenty years or more. Her victims may well have numbered in the hundreds, making her a mass killer of Harold Shipman-like proportions.

Amelia was born in Bristol to a respectable working-class family. Unlike most children of the time, she was able to attend school until age fourteen, and her four siblings. But there was tragedy in her family: her mother went insane (apparently brain-damaged by the effects of typhus), and died when Amelia was eleven years old.

In 1861, at age 24, Amelia married George Thomas, a 57-year-old widower. They had a daughter together before his death in 1869. Three years later, she married William Dyer and they had a daughter and a son, as well as several children who didn’t survive infancy. Eventually she left him.

She was a qualified nurse and did work in that field off and on for several years, but for most of her life after her first husband’s death, her primary occupation was baby farming. At first, Amelia acted only as an intermediary, taking babies from their mothers for a fee and, for another fee, handing them over to other baby farmers who, often as not, let them die. She also kept pregnant women in her home and nursed them until delivery, and the newborns were reported stillborn as often as they survived.

It isn’t known just when she started murdering the infants herself, but by 1879 she came to the attention of the authorities: four nurse-children in her care had died within two weeks of each other.

They wanted to get her for manslaughter, but there was insufficient evidence. Amelia was found guilty of criminal neglect and served the maximum, six months at hard labor. She tried to go straight, working a variety of low-paying jobs.

Inevitably, however, she returned to what she was best at.

She had learned an important lesson from her previous brush with the law: don’t bring in a doctor to sign the death certificate, don’t leave a paper trail. Instead, she started disposing of the bodies herself.

Like her colleagues she put out notices in the newspapers, advertising herself as a respectable married woman who wanted to adopt or foster a baby in exchange for money. Sometimes there was an understanding that the mother would be permitted to visit the child, or take it back once she was in a position to care for it.

However, a mother usually never saw either Amelia or child again after handing over her infant.

Amelia kept herself constantly on the move and used a number of alias names to avoid attention. At times she was receiving as many as six babies a day. Her youngest daughter, Polly, grew up helping her mother take care of the babies; for her, it was a way of life.

When she married and moved away from home, she and her husband, Arthur Palmer, ultimately set themselves up as baby farmers too, sometimes working alongside Amelia. The Palmers habitually neglected and abandoned their charges, and at least two of their babies died.

Amelia started showing signs of mental illness after her release from prison: she had violent fits, claimed to hear voices, made at least one serious suicide attempt and ultimately was admitted four times to three different asylums. Her mental illness may have genuine, possibly caused or exacerbated by her substance abuse (she was addicted to both laudanum and alcohol), or she may have been malingering: her breakdowns tended to happen after the authorities or parents seeking to reclaim their babies started poking their noses around in her business.

The end came on March 30, 1896, when a bargeman pulled the body of fifteen-month-old Helena Fry out of the River Thames. She’d been strangled with dressmaking tape, which was still tied around her neck. When the police closely examined the paper she was wrapped in, they were able to make out an address: 26 Piggotts Road, Reading.

When the authorities searched that home, they found numerous items of interest including more dressmaking tape, piles of baby clothes and pawn tickets for more clothes, and letters from mothers asking about their children. The house reeked of human decomposition.

The police set up a sting to catch Dyer, using a young woman to act as a decoy. But on April 4, the day they were supposed to meet to talk business, she found herself arrested instead and charged with the murder of Helena Fry. Shortly thereafter, her daughter and son-in-law, Arthur and Polly Palmer, were charged as accessories.

Investigators dragged the Thames and found four more bodies, three boys and one girl. All of them had white dressmaking tape knotted around their throats. Two of the victims were later identified as Harry Simmons, thirteen months, and Doris Marmon, four months. They had been killed only a few days before Amelia’s arrest, stuffed into a carpetbag together and thrown off a dock. Later, two more bodies turned up: another girl and another boy.

The investigation determined that at least 20 children had been given over to Amelia Dyer’s care in the few months prior to her being caught. During the previous year, between thirty and forty bodies had been pulled from the Thames. Almost all of them were of infants and authorities suspected most of the deaths were the work of one person.

Within a few days, Amelia had confessed everything, but denied that Polly and Arthur had any guilty knowledge of the murders, and the Palmers also maintained their innocence. Amelia confirmed that she’d dumped most of the babies’ bodies in the river. “You’ll know mine,” she said, “by the tape around their necks.”

The charges against Arthur Palmer were dropped for lack of evidence just before Amelia went to trial. Polly, anxious to save herself, became the main witness against her mother and claimed she had had no inkling of the murders of Doris Harmon and Harry Simmons, although they’d been killed in her house within a day of each other and she’d been present at the time. Her statements were contradicted by other witnesses.

Amelia was first tried for the murder of little Doris; the idea was that if she was acquitted, they could try her in the other cases one by one. She pleaded insanity, emphasizing her own mother’s madness and her own stays in insane asylums — but two of the three doctors who examined Amelia did not believe she was mentally unsound.

The jury deliberated four and a half minutes before finding her guilty.

Polly’s trial was supposed to take place on June 16, and her mother was summonsed to testify, in spite of the fact that she was due to be executed a week beforehand. Amelia appears to have really loved her daughter and was focused solely on saving her from suffering the same fate. In a letter she wrote on June 5, she said,

I was glad to see her looking so well dear child. God only knows how grieved I am to know she is suffering for no fault of her own. She did nothing, she knew nothing.

If only Amelia’s concern for her own child had extended to other people’s, too.

On the eve of her mother’s execution, the case against Polly was dropped. Amelia expressed great relief about this in her final letter to her daughter. But Polly and Arthur didn’t give up baby farming and in 1898 they were caught after they abandoned a (living) baby girl on a train.

On the scaffold, when asked for a last statement, Amelia answered, “I have nothing to say.” She was hanged at 9:00 a.m.

In the aftermath of her trial and execution, Parliament enacted more laws in order to protect helpless infants from suffering the same fate as Amelia’s nurse-children. Nevertheless, during the next ten years, three more baby farmers would suffer the ultimate penalty for infanticide.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Infamous,Murder,Other Voices,Women

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