Posts filed under 'Known But To God'

1505: The Val Camonica witches

Add comment June 23rd, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1505, seven women and a man were burned in the town of Cemmo in Lombardy’s Val Camonica — the first victims of that region’s outbreak of witch-hunting that would claim over 100 lives all told.

This alpine valley fell in the remit of the city of Brescia which meant that (since the 1420s) it answered ultimately to the Most Serene Republic of Venice. But in the hinterlands of the fragmented Italian peninsula were

Remotenesses like Val Camonica are among the focal points for the fancy or hope that pockets of paganism held on from antiquity even in the heart of Christendom. Brescia lay in the belt spawning doctrinal and political challenges to the medieval church — the very zone that gave rise to the Inquisition.

During two distinct periods — 1505 to 1510, and again from 1518 to 1521 — that Inquisition fastened on folk in this region who constituted “a most pernicious kind of people … utterly damned by the stain of heresy, which was causing them to renounce the sacrament of the baptism they had received, denying their Lord and giving their bodies and souls to Satan whose advice was leading them astray.” (1521 communique of Pope Leo X, quoted here)

The circumstances for these purges can only be guessed at, as most of the primary documentation, particularly of the earlier episode, is lost. But the context of Papal-Venetian rivalry all but insists upon itself. Indeed, Venice’s ruling oligarchy is known during the 1518-1521 Inquisition to have interceded to prevent the Pope’s delegate from putting torch to flesh, provoking one of the innumerable jurisdictional imbroglios between the rival city-states.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Italy,Known But To God,Mass Executions,Public Executions,Venice,Witchcraft,Women

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1792: Three cadavers, to test the first guillotine

Add comment April 17th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1792, the French Revolution’s iconic execution machine made its quiet experimental debut on the grounds of a suburban Paris hospital.

For all the long and terrible shadow it would cast, the first guillotine was a ridiculous rush job — courtesy of a legislature too squeamish to deal in the particulars of the humane head-chopper it had insisted upon. A ghastly farce ensued, as detailed by Paul Friedland in his Seeing Justice Done: The Age of Spectacular Capital Punishment in France,* wherein during a matter of weeks in the spring of 1792 the thing was practically willed into existence by French physician Antoine Louis by virtue of being the one guy who was willing to get into the technical journals on the matter of crunching a heavy blade through a man’s spine.**

The invention would initially be known as a louisette or louison in his honor, before that moniker was supplanted by the surname of a different physician who had become known (derisively, at first) for proposing a mechanical beheading device: Joseph-Ignace Guillotin.

Lawmakers’ shyness stems as Friedland sees it from their ambivalence about the entire project of public executions with their unruly rabble, pornographically agape: in this courtly sketch of the proposed machine, even the executioner — and this behavior is explicit in its original caption — coyly averts his eyes as his sword-arm releases the blade.

It was on March 20, 1792 that Assembly’s Committee on Legislation authorized deploying the as-yet uninvented device and “almost immediately, there followed an urgent, almost frenzied effort to build a decapitating machine as quickly as possible.” Executions remained suspended in the interim but Louis worked with dispatch, and an efficient carpenter named Guidon,† and the device performed its first real execution a mere five weeks after the enabling legislation, on April 25.

This date was its dry run, courtesy of a few fresh cadavers at the Bicêtre Hospital, which the chief surgeon, one Cullerier, was very happy to make Dr. Louis’s arrangements.

Sir,

You will find at Bicetre all the facilities that you desire for the trial of a machine that humanity cannot see without shuddering, but which justice and the welfare of society make necessary. I will keep the corpses of those unfortunates who die between today and Monday. I will arrange the amphitheater … [and if] the ceiling does not accommodate the height of the machine, I can make use of a little isolated courtyard situated next to the amphitheater. The honor that you are bestowing on the House of Bicetre, Sir, is a very nice gift that you are giving me, but it would be even more so if you wished to accept a simple and frugal meal, such as a bachelor can offer.

Several more VIPs multiplied the honor. Rejoining Friedland’s narrative,

On April 17 the first trial of the guillotine took place. On hand to witness the event were: Sanson, the executioner of Paris, along with his son and an aide; the carpenter who built the machine and his aides; and several members of the medical establishment including Drs. Louis, Cullerier, and Pierre Jean George Cabanis, the prominent physician and friend of Mirabeau. Reportedly also in attendance that day were several members of the National Assembly and last, but certainly not least, an individual who was both a politician and a physician: Dr. Guillotin himself. By all accounts the trial was a wonderful success. As Dr. Louis enthused in his report to [politician and intellectual Pierre-Louis] Roederer, the machine decapitated three cadavers “so neatly that one was astonished by the force and celerity of its action.” Dr. Cabanis would later describe the blade’s descent as having “severed the heads faster than one could see, and the bones were cleanly cut.”

The reports ring with awe, and well they might. For an Enlightenment audience that theretofore had known beheadings only via the error-prone action of an executioner’s muscle, it must have been a wondrous spectacle, a triumph of ingenuity and philosophy for a humane new age.

* Executed Today long ago interviewed Dr. Friedland about this book.

** A rival proposal called for automating death via a sort of proto-gas chamber: the executioner to “attach the condemned by the neck, feet, and hands behind the back [to a post on the scaffold], all of which he would cover or enclose in a kind of booth, 5 feet square, equipped with panes of glass on all four sides and with a tight-fitting cap on top … charcoal, sulfur, and other materials that cause asphyxiation could be introduced into the booth by means of an inverted funnel in such a way that the condemned would suffocate and expire instantaneously.” Yet another proposal called for a strangling machine.

† “Who charged 5,500 francs for it,” report the memoirs of the Sansons, which also notes that by way of experimentation, two of the cadavers were beheaded with the familiar-to-us oblique knife, and the third less satisfactorily with a crescent-shaped alternative.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",France,Guillotine,History,Innocent Bystanders,Known But To God,Milestones,Posthumous Executions

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1900: William Pepo, the first hanged in Teton County, Montana

Add comment April 7th, 2017 Headsman

Today’s entry of the mystery man who was the maiden execution in Teton County, Montana unfolds via the period reportage of the Anaconda Standard.


Anaconda Standard, June 5, 1899

Great Falls, June 4. — William Pepo is guilty of the murder of Julius Plath. So the jury in Teton county has decided, but as his lawyers have decided to appeal the case, William may escape paying the penalty which a verdict of guilty of murder in the first degree is supposed to carry.

All of the evidence was of the circumstantial kind, but it points clearly to the guilt of Pepo.

The facts of the crime, whose story has been told before in this column, are these:

One day during the last summer a ranch hand rode into the town of Choteau and sought the office of the sheriff. He said that the body of an unknown man had been found in a deserted cabin on the Muddy, with all the earmarks of foul play surrounding it.

No one knew the name of the dead man, and there was nothing to give a direct clue to it.

Several people had seen two men pass their places and one of them tallied in description with the dead man. One woman, at whose house the pair had stayed overnight, remembered that they came from Canada, and were evidently Germans.

William Hagen, the sheriff of Teton county, went to work on the case, and, following up slight clues, and helped perhaps a trifle by chance, came to the conclusion that the victim was Julius Plath of Pembroke, Ontario, who had been working on the Crows’ Nest Pass railway.

Then came the search for his companion, and after many months he was found working under an assumed name as a ranch hand near Spokane. He was arrested and brought back.

Then came some steady painstaking work, which followed the course of the two men up to where the body was found, and so thoroughly was this chain of evidence established that the denials of Pepo as to acquaintance with Plath, with the crime or with the neighborhood were not credited by the jury, although they debated the case all night before agreement.

Charles Simons, charged with having shot and killed Charles Buckley in a barroom row, was found guilty of manslaughter and the jury fixed the punishment at the minimum — one year in the penitentiary.


Anaconda Standard, Jan. 23, 1900

Special Dispatch to the Standard.

Helena, Jan. 22. — William Pepo, convicted in Teton county for the murder of Julius Plath, in the summer of 1898, will have to pay the penalty of his crime upon the gallows, unless the governor interferes, which is hardly possible, as the supreme court to-day affirmed the judgment of the lower court.

“We find no error in the record, and must affirm the judgment and order appealed from,” says the supreme court in concluding a decision by Associate Justice Hunt. The opinion deals with the various points raised by Pepo’s counsel, but finds none of them of sufficient merit to warrant an interference with the action of the lower court.

One of the errors assigned by Pepo’s counsel was the alleged misconduct of the jury, it being claimed that while the jury was deliberating on the case, the bailiff entered the jury room and remained several hours.

One of jurors, by the name of Dehass, made affidavit to that effect. The bailiff made counter affidavit to the effect that early one morning he entered the jury room, taking some lunch and bedding. All but four of the jurors were asleep. The four who were awake were talking in the other end of the room, but not about the case.

The bailiff took a two-hour nap in the room and then left. He swore positively that he heard not one word of the conversation. Some of the jurors made affidavit to the same effect.

“From the foregoing affidavits, we think it is fair to say that there was no misconduct on the part of the jury, which tended in any way to prejudice the substantial rights of this defendant,” says the court, in disposing of this contention.

Another alleged error was the action of the lower court in allowing a witness to relate a conversation between Plath and the witness, when it was claimed the defendant was not present. The decision find no error in this, since the same witness subsequently testified Pepo was present. The action of the lower court in refusing to give an instruction that a witness having a casual acquaintance with a party is not entitled to much evidence is sustained.

“We are also asked to reverse the judgment because the verdict is not sustained by the evidence,” continues the opinion. “To this assignment, we have given the most attentive consideration, and our judgment is that it is very seldom that a case presents itself which so entirely fulfills the exact requirements of the law in relation to the measure of proof demanded to sustain a conviction of murder, where the state relies upon circumstantial evidence.

Under this assignment the argument is advanced that the evidence as to the identity of the body is unreliable and unsatisfactory. Counsel makes the point that there was no direct evidence to identify the body found as that of Julius Plath, who was alleged to have been killed by the defendant, Pepo.

Section 358 of the penal code provides that ‘No person can be convicted of murder or manslaughter unless the death of the person alleged to have been killed, and the fact of the killing by the defendant as alleged, are established as independent facts: the former by direct proof and the latter beyond a reasonable doubt.’

This statute is taken from the New York code, which is identical in its language, with this exception, that the New York code provides that the death of the person alleged to have been killed and the fact of the killing of the defendant as alleged, shall each have been established as independent facts. But we think that the same rules of interpretation should be applied to the Montana statute that controls in New York. The evidence in all respects sustains the verdict of murder.

The murder of Plath was one of the mysteries of Northern Montana and a crime that was not explained for some time. In an abandoned claim on the Muddy river to the northwest of Great Falls, the body in a bad state of decomposition was found in June, 1898, by a farm hand, who went into the place to get a mower sickle

A piece of iron, covered with blood, showed the weapon used.

The body was dressed in clothing that afterwards assisted in the identification, although for the time being nothing was found to show who this murdered man was.

A locket lying on the floor and a memorandum book in the pocket of an overcoat hanging on the wall also assisted in the identification. One proved to be the property of Plath and the other of Pepo.

Pepo and his victim, it was subsequently learned, came to Montana together from the Northwest Territory.

Both left the railroad at Shelby. Plath is known to have had $120 in his possession, and this is supposed to have furnished the motive for the crime.

During the trial it developed that several persons had seen two men corresponding to Pepo and Plath. They said they were going to Choteau. A farmer directed them to the cabin where the body was found as a good place to sleep on the way.

Others remembered them by such identifications as the charm on Plath’s watch, the photographs of him sent from Canada, his clothing and other articles.

A reward by the authorities and diligent work on the part of the Teton county authorities, assisted by relatives and acquaintances of the murdered man in Canada, finally fixed Pepo as the murderer and Plath as the victim.

The murderer was arrested in Washington. This was nine months after the discovery of the body. Pepo, when arrested, was living under an assumed name. He carried the very watch that Plath was known to have owned. Pepo’s trial and conviction followed.

Judge Smith of Kalispell will probably sentence him to be hanged at Choteau in a few weeks.


Anaconda Standard, Apr. 4, 1900

Special Dispatch to the Standard.

Helena, April 3. — An appeal to Governor Smith in behalf of executive clemency for another murderer was turned down to-day, when the governor announced that he could not see his way clear to interfere with the judgment of the courts in the case of William Pepo, under sentence of death to hang at Choteau next Saturday, April 7. Pepo was convicted of killing Julius Plath in a cabin on the banks of the Muddy river, in Teton county, a few miles north of Great Falls.

The murder was committed June 14 or 15, 1898. The decomposed body of Plath was not found until several days after the crime was committed. A farm hand who had occasion to enter the cabin to procure a mowing machine sickle came across the body lying upon a bunk in a sickening state of decomposition.

There appeared to be no clew to the murderer and it was several months afterward before suspicion was attached to Pepo. He was brought back to Montana, tried and convicted. The supreme court refused to grant him a new trial and he was sentenced to expiate his crime upon the gallows.

J.G. Bair, his attorney, appealed to the governor for a commutation of sentence to life imprisonment on the ground of lack of evidence to connect Pepo with the crime. The governor has been examining the record in the case for several days and this afternoon he sent a letter to Mr. Bair stating that he could not interfere. The letter was very brief. It follows:

I have finished reading the transcript in the matter of the application for executive clemency for William Pepo. In this case the evidence is so convincing and clear the jury could not have reached any other conclusion. It shows a most cold-blooded murder and there is no doubt Pepo was the murderer. I must absolutely refuse to interfere with the sentence of the court.

Pepo is said to be without a friend in the world save the Choteau attorney who sought to save his neck. His execution will be the first legal hanging that ever took place in Teton county.


Anaconda Standard, Apr. 8, 1900

Special Dispatch to the Standard.

Great Falls, April 7. — In the yard of the county jail in Choteau this morning at 6:09 o’clock William Pepo was hanged for the murder of Julius Plath. He exhibited no nervousness or fear and his last words were:

Gentlemen, I have nothing to say, only that I am about to be hanged an innocent man.

It was the first legal execution in Teton county, and from start to finish went without the slightest hitch of any kind.

There were about 50 spectators. The only outside officer of the law present was Sheriff Hubbard of Kalispell.

After all visitors had left last night the condemned man employed his time in writing, playing cards and conversation with the death watch until 3 o’clock this morning, when he went to bed and dropped off to sleep at once.

At 5:15 a.m., when he was aroused by Deputy McDonald, he was sleeping so soundly it was necessary to call several times to awaken him. After getting up he greeted the guards pleasantly and ordered breakfast, but later countermanded the order with the remark that his time was too short to waste any of it in eating.

At his request Father Snell was admitted and talked with him alone for some time, after which he asked that Attorney Bair, who has defended him throughout, be admitted to his cell, and in a few moments’ conversation he bade him goodbye and reiterated his innocence. Rev. Cunningham next conversed with him and Pepo listened to him very attentively and answered him earnestly.

At 6 o’clock the death warrant was read to him in his cell by Under Sheriff Haggerty and he was led out into the corridor, where he bade an earnest goodbye to the officers who had been his keepers for the past 18 months, and spoke a pleasant word to each.

His arms were strapped down and the walk to the scaffold began, the condemned man walking firmly and without assistance between Deputies Devlin and Armstrong, followed by Sheriff Hagen and Under Sheriff Haggerty and Rev. Cunningham.


To the Gallows.

As they walked down the north side of the jail in the alleyway formed by the high board fence erected about the yard, the morning air was crisp and chill, and the condemned man, turning to one of the officers, said jokingly: “It’s a little cool out here; this must be like the weather they tell about in North Dakota,” and smiled pleasantly.

Some of the guards had previously been talking of North Dakota weather to him, and his last earthly joke referred to the conversation.

As he turned the angle of the building and stepped under the gallows, he faced the silent, uncovered crowd, who had been admitted a few minutes before, calmly and quietly, by far the most self-possessed man present, and looking them over, he bowed pleasantly three or four times to parties he knew and said in a low voice, though clearly and distinctly:

Gentlemen, I have nothing to say, only that I am about to be hanged an innocent man.

Sheriff Hagen placed the strap about his knees and the condemned looked down with apparent interest and carefully placed his feet together so as to assist the sheriff.

The noose was placed about his neck, but he never flinched a hair’s breadth.

Rev. Cunningham, in a low tone, recited the prayers for the dead. For a moment, Pepo closed his eyes, as if listening.

A meadow lark in the field outside the prison walls whistled its morning note loud and clear; the condemned man opened his eyes again and looked out upon the crowd of awe struck faces and uncovered heads and the early morning sunlight which he never again would see.

The voice of the minister, broken and low, sounded monotonously.

Pepo glanced up inquiringly and Sheriff Hagen dropped down over his head and face the terrible black cap, shutting out all view of the world and sunlight from William Pepo forever.

Instantly the sheriff sprang away and gave the signal to the unknown man in the box alongside the gallows; the 400 pound weight fell to the ground like a plummet and the body shot up in the air four feet and settled down again without a perceptible tremor or more sign of life than if a block of wood. His neck was broken instantly.

Drs. Brooks and Cooper watched the pulse that in 10 minutes was forever stilled, and in 20 minutes the body was cut down and placed in a coffin, and the long strain upon all the officials connected with the case was over.

For the Epworth league was left a long letter of thanks for their services to him. To Rev. Cunningham was left a letter with the superscription, “Not to be opened until after my death.” In this letter he said in part:

“I Am Not Guilty.”

I am not guilty and consequently should not be held responsible for the crime. If this crime is really and truly atoned for by the ator in this world while you live, I hope you will tell those that have been instrumental in fastening it on me that they have my forgiveness as I have been forgiven. When you read this I will stand before the throne of God, whose grace passes all understanding. Amen.

Those are his last written words, and from them can be seen how strongly he urged his innocence and how far from any such thing as an admission he stood.

Since the action of Rev. Warman in the matter of Hurst‘s confession he has been particularly anxious to impress upon every one his innocence and feared lest some one should allege some such thing of him after his death.

He was buried this afternoon, Rev. Cunningham conducting the services.

With the hanging of William Pepo, the man of mystery, was closed a chapter in the book of one man’s life which will never be read by mortal eye, for just as sure as was his taking off, his name was not Pepo, and some time in the past he has trod walks of life other than those which he has during the time that the evidence in his case has been traced to him.

Looking at him last night calmly smoking and chatting cheerfully with those about him it was hard to recognize about him any of the accepted tributes of the common murderer. Pleasant faced, intelligent, well read, iron nerved and ready witted, he showed by every action the man of education and good raising. He refused at all times to give any chance for his photograph being taken, even by a kodak, and his last statement to Attorney Bair, the one man nearer to him in the effort to save his life than any other, was,

They do not know my name, nor do you. I shall not bring disgrace upon my family by letting them know that I have died a felon’s death. I will carry it with me out of the world.

A Man of Mystery.

Absolutely nothing has been learned of his past life further than six years back except what he himself has told and that, when investigated, was found not to be true.

He has not asked that one human being be sent for, nor had he ever mentioned the name of a person whom he wished to know of his terrible position.

Of his past life he has been as silent as the tomb except as to the indefinite stories mentioned.

That a man of his age, intelligence, ability and strong personality should not have in the wanderings of a lifetime one single friend or relative to come forward at such an hour, if called upon, seems incredible. In speaking with Under Sheriff Haggerty yesterday he referred to the Hurst and to the Calder cases. Of Rev. Mr. Warman he spoke very bitterly for giving publicity to the Hurst confession, and said Hurst’s wife and family would curse him for his action in the case until their dying day.

Speaking of Calder, he said:

I had made up my mind to go out of the world as Calder did, cursing God and man, but Rev. Mr. Rogers’, Rev. Mr. Cunningham’s and Father Snell’s talks to me have changed my mind, and I forgive every one connected with my trial. I firmly believe there is a God and I will go to Him expecting to receive the justice in the other world which has been denied in this world.

He expressed thanks for the favors which the sheriff’s office had shown him, breaking down for a few moments and shedding tears. Yesterday, Rev. Mr. Cunningham and members of the Epworth league had services in the corridor, as they have had every day for the past week, and at his request sang certain hymns.

Not once since a week after his sentence has his appetite failed him, and his sleep has been as regular and peaceful as a child’s.

His Iron Nerve.

His favorite pastime when no visitors were present has been playing cards with the death watch, and when he won he laughed as heartily as if he never had a care in the world.

Yesterday his beard was trimmed up and he was dressed in a new suit of clothes, and when the Standard reporter visited him he was received as courteously as though an invited guest.

Pepo was smoking and politely passed a package of cigars out through the iron bars, urging acceptance with the uncanny remark that there was more than enough to last him until 7 o’clock a.m. and after that he wouldn’t need any.

In the corridor with the death watch were many who came to visit him, and as Pepo recognized each one he shook hands heartily and expressed his pleasure at his meeting them and talked pleasantly on the topics of the day, alluding every little while to his own case as though it were an incident which he did not care to have those present feel any embarrassment in commenting on.

To one of the death watch he laughingly related the fact that “Tom” was to be one of the watchers.

“Did you think of it?” he continued. “You and Tom were the death watches the first night of my sentence, and now you will be with me my last night.”

The incident did not appear to strike the death watch addressed as at all humorous, but Pepo laughed softly again at the recollection.

At first he was disinclined to speak of his case for publication, as he believed the newspapers had not treated him fairly, but later he talked quite freely. He asked his attorney, who was present, to write a contradiction of a statement which appeared in a Dupuyer paper, in which he was quoted as saying that certain men in Washington would testify that he was working in that state June 15, 1898, which was the supposed date of the murder of Plath.

He dictated the writing, took the sheet of paper and read it with satisfaction and signed his name without a tremor, asking that Under Sheriff Haggerty and the Standard men sign it as witnesses. The statement reads:

His statement.

In an interview published in your paper some time since you quoted me as having said that I could obtain evidence from Washington showing I was there, in Washington, on or about June 15, 1898. This is a mistake; I meant to say I could get witnesses there who would testify that I was in Washington at work on the date that James Hannan testified to having seen me trying to cross the mountains, namely, on July 29, 1898.

In explaining this, Pepo said:

I don’t wish any injustice done my attorney; had I been able to secure such evidence I would have told him and I would not now be here with but six or eight hours to live; such evidence would have cleared me. Men would testify I commenced work there on July 4, but that would not do. I don’t know when I commenced to work there myself, as I was drunk for a long time. When the sheriff arrested me in Washington for murder I was never so surprised in my life. They say I was seen here after the murder. I never was in Choteau in my life until brought back by the sheriff. On June 14, when I am said to have done this thing, I expressed a package in Lethbridge at the express office there. The newspapers did not treat me fairly. They condemned me before I was tried and branded me a low-browed murderer. Had I friends to call upon, and state my side, the case might have been different. I am innocent and God knows it. But it is all over now, and I don’t want to make you people sick of listening to my troubles. They will soon be over, anyhow; let what is gone by go: it can make no difference now and talking of it does no good.

And all this without the slightest attempt at bravado or whine. One of the guards offered him a whiskey cocktail, but he refused it and said, smilingly:

No; I have had one and that is enough now; I don’t want you to think I need or wish courage to meet the end.

All the evening of the many who visited him he was the most calm and unembarrassed. His voice was clear and even and at no time did he evince the slightest excitement or nervousness, and, though he referred quite frequently to his coming death, it was without regret or a semblance of more interest than if it were the getting of his morning meal.

A little white kitten romped upon the floor of his cell and he expressed concern as to what would be its fate after the morning, when he would be taken away and he could feet it no longer. One of the officials promised to look after the kitten and he seemed much relieved.

For quiet, unostentatious iron nerve and calm placidity in the face of death upon the gallows, Pepo’s every word and movement last night and also this morning must stand alone.

Either he went to death innocent, which the evidence flatly disproves, or his career in crime has sent more men than Julius Plath out of the world unshriven.

He was not in the class of most moral degenerates and must go down, if guilty, as an iron-nerved prince of criminals, who played his last card, and losing, paid the forfeit with his life without the quiver of an eyelash.

The crime for which William Pepo to-day suffered the death penalty was the murder of Julius Plath in a cabin on the Muddy river, about 20 miles from Choteau, in Teton county, about the 15th of June, 1898. The case throughout was circumstantial and most remarkably illustrates that “murder will out,” no matter how carefully guarded.

Pepo and Julius Plath were acquainted in Canada, and early in June, 1898, left Lethbridge together to come to the United States, Plath having $120 in currency on his person.

They came in over the narrow guage [sic] and beat their way over the railroad as far as Pondera, where they left the railway and started together for Choteau.

The last seen of them was June 14, when they were directed to the cabin where the murder was committed.

On June 29, parties finding the cabin door fastened forced it open and found the body of a man who the evidence afterwards tended to show was Plath. The dead man had been killed while asleep by having his skull crushed by a large iron bolt, which was found lying near.

All the dead man’s clothes were taken charge of by the authorities and afterwards identified as belonging to Plath. Near the body was found an overcoat, in the pocket of which was a memorandum book belonging to and written in by Pepo.

The dead man was unidentified and was buried unknown.

Months after, when the murder had almost been forgotten, a letter came from Plath’s brother in Toronto, Canada, asking for the whereabouts of Julius, and by chance it fell into the hands of some one who thought it worth while to refer it to the authorities.

Further inquiry brought a photograph of the dead man, and this photograph was the first link in the chain which brought William Pepo to the gallows to-day and gave Sheriff Hagen the first ray of light upon a murder whose darkness seemed impenetrable.

The dead man when found was too badly decomposed for identification, but a man who had seen Pepo and Plath traveling together identified the photograph as being that of the smaller of the two men.

The clothing shown in the photograph also corresponded exactly with that found upon the dead man. The photograph was taken by Neapole, Pembroke, Canada, and is marked “exhibit D.” Later Plath’s brother came from Canada and identified the clothing as that of his brother Julius.

Then began the search for Pepo, who had disappeared as completely as though the earth had swallowed him up. Search was unavailing, until one day a letter came from a young lady to friends in Canada, who stated that she had met Pepo, but that he was going under the name of William Ferris and did not wish her to say anything about it.

The letter was from Davenport, Wash., and the young lady was unaware that Pepo was wanted on any charge; and again the hand of fate pointed out the murderer when all chances of discovery seemed buried forever.

The information was correct. Pepo was found in Davenport under the name of William Ferris, and was promptly arrested in May last and brought to Choteau, where link by link the evidence was forged against him, and last June he was found guilty of the murder of Julius Plath and sentenced to hang on July 17.

John G. Bair of Choteau was appointed to the defense of Pepo and County Attorney Erickson prosecuted. On both sides the battle was a stubborn one and well contested, but the evidence for the prosecution was too strong to overcome.

After the sentence Pepo’s attorney continued the fight and carried the case to the supreme court on appeal, and the doomed man was given a brief respite, but the judgment of the lower court was sustained, and on the 6th of last month Pepo was again called before Judge Smith in the court room at Choteau and for the second time listened to the death sentence, which was carried out to-day.

During the trial and after Pepo refused to allow his picture to be taken and in going to and from the court house pulled his coat collar above his neck to baffle any chance for snap shots. The accompanying pictures is a very good one and is from a pen sketch done by W.H. Clinkerbread, the Choteau artist. [Unfortunately the picture alluded to does not in fact appear in the paper. -ed.]

Pepo was a German and had not a friend, relative or acquaintance in the United States. He was a man of large frame, weighing about 180 pounds, and being 5 foot 10. He was 40 years of age.

After his second sentence for a while he refused to eat and expressed the intention of starving himself, but his fortitude was unequal to the task and he gave the trial up.

Although without money, his case was fought by his attorney to a finish just the same, and 10 days ago Mr. Bair went to Helena and personally appeared before Governor Smith and made a plea for life imprisonment for his client on the grounds of the evidence being circumstantial throughout and that there was a chance for a reasonable doubt.

When Mr. Bair appeared before the governor the case of Hurst, who was hanged at Glendive, had just been presented, with petitions containing 7,000 names, asking for clemency. For Pepo the case was different. He was unknown, without a dollar and had not a relative or friend in the state but his attorney to speak for him; but the result was the same.

The governor refused to commute the sentence of either man — the one with relatives and thousands of friends petitioning, the other without a friend save his faithful attorney. Hurst was hanged on March 30 and Pepo to-day. In refusing to commute the death sentence in Pepo’s case Governor Smith wrote his attorney Tuesday:

Mr. J.B. Bair, Choteau, Mont. —

Dear Sir: I have finished reading the transcript in th ematter of the application for executive clemency for William Pepo. In this case the evidence is so convincing and clear the jury could not have reached any other conclusion. It shows a most cold-blooded murder, and there is no doubt Pepo was the murder. I must absolutely refuse to interfere with the sentence of the court. I am, very respectfully,

ROBERT B. SMITH, Governor.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Known But To God,Montana,Murder,Theft,USA

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1942: The massacre at the Pit

Add comment March 2nd, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1942, the start of Purim,* Nazi forces occupying Minsk massacred approximately 5,000 Jews from the Minsk Ghetto at a site known simply as Yama, “the Pit”.

The site, which hosts memorial events every March 2, was marked with a somber obelisk in the immediate postwar years; unusually for a Stalin-era monument, it is overt about the Jewish character of the victims — for Soviet propaganda often obfuscated this with a technically-correct formulation such as “Russian citizens”. In this case, the 1940s memorial obelisk remarkably had a Yiddish inscription to mirror its Russian one. (The sculpture of a column of faceless people tragically descending the slope into the pit was added in the post-Soviet period.)


All images (cc) Dennis Jarvis.

Minsk’s pre-war Jewish population of more than 50,000 was almost entirely annihilated during World War II.

* It was not the only place in the Reich’s occupation to mark Purim with blood.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Belarus,Borderline "Executions",Children,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Germany,History,Jews,Known But To God,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Russia,Shot,Summary Executions,USSR,Wartime Executions,Women

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2012: An unknown organ donor, executed at a hospital

Add comment December 6th, 2016 Headsman

Four years ago today, Chinese lawyer Han Bing revealed a shocking execution further to China’s shadowy trade in harvested organs, with a post on the microblogging service Weibo.

The Epoch Times translates this post — which was widely shared, but deleted within days — thus:

This morning witnessed a horrifying practice of execution. The Supreme Court this week contacted the Provincial High Court to re-examine a determined death penalty case. However, the Intermediate People’s Court had the prisoner promptly executed without notifying the relatives for a last farewell visit. The reason for the prompt execution was that the death penalty prisoner had ‘willingly’ signed an organ donation release. To ensure the quality of the organs, the execution was carried out at the hospital. These judges and doctors without conscience turn a hospital into a place of execution and a market for organ trading!

If there has been any subsequent public explication of the details about this event — the identity of the prisoner, the particulars of the transplant — I have not been able to locate it.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,Known But To God,Lethal Injection,Ripped from the Headlines

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1738: False Tsarevich Alexei

1 comment November 14th, 2016 Headsman

From the memoirs of Cristof Hermann von Mannstein, a Prussian officer who served in Russia from 1727 to 1744. As Manstein has this report by second hand, he has no precise dates.

Execution of the false Czarewitz.

In the month of November, there was a terrible execution in the Ukrain[e]. The son of a peasant in that country had given himself out for the Czarewitz, son of Peter I deceased, in the year 1718.

He had come into a village on the frontiers, where he had declared himself as such to three soldiers, who were on guard near the pyramidal beacons fixed along the limits. These had done homage to him, as also the inhabitants of the village. The priest had caused the bells to be rung, and said a mass in his favor.

At length the people of the village assembled, and perhaps the matter would have gone farther, if it had not been for a Sotnick, or Cossack captain, who, hearing of it, acquainted general Romanzow, then in the neighbourhood.

This pretended Prince and his adherents, who were not very numerous, were easily seized, and conveyed to Petersburgh, where they had their trial in the secret chancery; after which they were sent back to the Ukrain[e]. There the major-general Schipow had an order to see them executed.

The self-made Prince was impaled; the priest and the three soldiers were put to different kinds of deaths.

The Empress forgave the peasants, but the village was razed to the ground, and the inhabitants were removed to other places.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Impaled,Known But To God,Power,Pretenders to the Throne,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Russia,Soldiers,Treason,Ukraine,Uncertain Dates

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1554: A false coiner and a masked dummy

Add comment September 29th, 2016 Headsman

From the diary of Felix Platter, a Swiss youth studying in Montpellier, France. It is not completely evident from context (“afterwards …”) whether the masked dummy was “executed” on the same occasion as the coiner, or whether that effigy was punished on a different day.

On the next day [after a September 28 execution] a false coiner was hanged in the same place. The gibbet was not vety high and had only one arm.

Afterwards a masked dummy was brought on a hurdle, and was laid on the cross and its limbs broken, as I have described. This dummy represented a Greek who had studied at Montpellier and had been accounted one of the keenest blades of the town. He had married Gillette d’Andrieu, a girl of doubtful reputation, who had neither beauty nor fortune. She had a very long nose, and her lover could scarcely manage to kiss her on the lips, especially since he too had a nose of respectable size.

The Greek was insulted by a canon, Pierre Saint-Ravy, who taunted him, at the moment when he was about to relieve himself, of having had intercourse with his wife. The husband at once stabbed the canon and fled; he could therefore be executed only in effigy. His wife continued to live in Montpellier, and was often in Rondelet’s house she was a relative of his.*

She often came there to dance, and one day I danced with her, all booted and spurred, on my return from Vendargues. As I turned, my spurs entangled themselves in her dress, and I fell full length on the floor. Some tablets I had in a breast pocket were broken into pieces, and I was so stunned that I had to be helped up.

* Guillaume Rondelet was one of Platter’s instructors, a professor of medicine. He had been friends with Rabelais and has the distinction of appearing in Gargantua and Pantagruel under the name Rondibilis.

Part of the Daily Double: Felix Platter’s Diary.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Counterfeiting,Crime,Death Penalty,Executed in Effigy,Execution,France,Gruesome Methods,Hanged,History,Known But To God,Murder,Not Executed,Pelf,Public Executions

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1554: A handsome young man from Montpellier

Add comment September 28th, 2016 Headsman

From the diary of Felix Platter, a Swiss youth studying in Montpellier, France:

On the 28th [of September, 1554] the Provost came to Montpellier, and there were several executions.

On the first day he appeared on horseback, preceded by several horsemen and followed by the town trumpeter sounding his trumpet. Behind him walked a criminal, with some monks. He was a handsome young man and had been an accomplice in a murder He was brought to a scaffold that had been erected in front of the Hotel de Ville. There a Saint Andrew’s cross had been made with two hollowed-out balks of timber; in this his limbs were to be broken.

The condemned man stood and recounted in rhyme the crime he had committed, and at the end he added: ‘Pray to Holy Mary that she may intercede with her Son to take me into Paradise.’

The executioner then undressed him and tied him by the limbs to the cross, as those are tied, with us, who are to be broken on the wheel. Then he took a heavy bar of iron, called a massa, sharpened a little on one side, and broke the man’s limbs with it. This punishment resembles our punishment of the wheel, and is called here massarrer. The last blow was struck on the chest, and this killed the victim.

Part of the Daily Double: Felix Platter’s Diary.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Gruesome Methods,History,Known But To God,Murder,Public Executions

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9: The Battle of Teutoburg Forest

Add comment September 11th, 2016 Headsman


Zum Kampf! Zum Kampf! from Max Bruch‘s 1877 oratorio about Teutoburg Forest victor Arminius. Also be sure to check out the Handel opera.

September 11 in the year 9 AD marked the bloody conclusion of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest — the engagement that permanently scared the Romans off Germany.

One of history’s true turning-point battles, Teutoberg Forest abruptly stanched decades of expansion that had seen Roman arms ascendant from Britain to the Levant. Indeed, the Roman commander who had the dishonor of falling on his sword at this legendary defeat, Publius Quinctilius Varus, was an experienced imperial patrician as well-traveled as the Roman standards who has been seen in these very pages collaborating with the Judean King Herod to execute Herod’s former heir.

But it was in the shadows and bogs of Germany’s primeval forests that Varus made his legacy to the world, which was to have his name famously bemoaned by facepalming Emperor Augustus once news of the disaster made its way back to the Eternal City.

Prior to this cataclysm, the empire had been working a years-long plan to annex fringe chunks of the vast Magna Germania beyond the Rhine and Danube rivers with its customary view towards eventually bossing the whole place. “Upper Germania” and “Lower Germania” to the west of Magna Germania already answered to Rome, testament to recent campaigns launched from neighboring Gaul;* the vast frontier beyond peopled by fractious warring barbarian tribes, with whom Rome cut strategic divide-and-conquer alliances, appeared to promise a future march of Roman glories all the way to the Baltic Sea.

This imperial hubris was shattered at a blow by the Cheruscan chief Arminius, who thereby made his name immortal to Germany.**

He had the element of surprise on his side, because his family had been such loyal Roman allies that Arminius had been trained up in the Roman army as a youth, and even held Roman citizenship. Whatever it was he experienced seems to have nurtured an implacable desire him to keep it away form his homeland. When the time came his familiarity with Roman military orders would be a high card in his hand, too.

Back in Germania, Arminius maintained his overt affiliation with Rome but started sending out feelers to assemble a confederation against the legions. He played this double game so adroitly that Varus still trusted his “ally” implicitly when Arminius reported a Germanic uprising that wanted Roman chastisement. Blind to his danger, Varus duly (and with casual discipline that would read very culpably in retrospect) marched his 17th, 18th, and 19th legions out through the unfamiliar glooms of the Teutoburg Forest.

It was a right massacre.

Their column broken up by rough terrain and pounding autumn rains, the Romans were ripe pickings for German sorties beginning on September 9. Harried by the Germans over two days’ panicked marching, the Romans were pressed into a dead end where palisades trapped the desperate legions at the edge of a slough and put them to slaughter. A bare handful escaped to tell the tale, and no future legion would bear the numerals of those annihilated on this day.


Varusschlacht, by Otto Albert Koch (1909).

The scale of the defeat, by rude tribesmen the empire always counted on being able to bully, beggared the Roman imagination.

“An army unexcelled in bravery, the first of Roman armies in discipline, in energy, and in experience in the field, through the negligence of its general, the perfidy of the enemy, and the unkindness of fortune was surrounded,” Paterculus lamented. “Hemmed in by forests and marshes and ambuscades, it was exterminated almost to a man by the very enemy whom it had always slaughtered like cattle, whose life or death had depended solely upon the wrath or the pity of the Romans.”

To judge by Roman reports — and what gives this event a purchase on the annals of Executed Today — the battlefield rout transitioned directly to the ceremonial butchery of captives. (As well as the posthumous beheading of the suicide Varus.) While some suffered torture and execution, others were offered as ritual sacrifices to the Germanic gods who had so magnificently delivered the day.

Several years later, a Roman force out to re-capture the lost standards of the Teutoburg legions reached the site of the empire’s humiliation. Tacitus describes the scene as a horror.

In the center of the field were the whitening bones of men, as they had fled, or stood their ground, strewn everywhere or piled in heaps. Near lay fragments of weapons and limbs of horses, and also human heads, prominently nailed to trunks of trees. In the adjacent groves were the barbarous altars, on which they had immolated tribunes and first-rank centurions.

Some survivors of the disaster who had escaped from the battle or from captivity, described how this was the spot where the officers fell, how yonder the eagles were captured, where Varus was pierced by his first wound, where too by the stroke of his own ill-starred hand he found for himself death. They pointed out too the raised ground from which Arminius had harangued his army, the number of gibbets for the captives, the pits for the living, and how in his exultation he insulted the standards and eagles.

And so the Roman army now on the spot, six years after the disaster, in grief and anger, began to bury the bones of the three legions, not a soldier knowing whether he was interring the relics of a relative or a stranger, but looking on all as kinsfolk and of their own blood, while their wrath rose higher than ever against the foe.

Despite the devastation, Teutoburg Forest was no extinction-level event for the Roman Empire. The Rhine and Danube frontiers remained an ongoing source of action for the many centuries to come, but despite raids and incursions here or there Rome never more seriously aspired to Magna Germania.

A few books about the Battle of Teutoburg Forest

* The future emperor Tiberius campaigned heavily in Germania, the last of which was post-Varus operations from 10 to 12 AD sufficient to permit the Romans to declare an honorably victorious conclusion to the project. (Tiberius celebrated a Triumph afterwards.)

** Arminius — whose name has been held equivalent with “Hermann” — has been the subject of many literary celebratins in a nationalist vein, great business especially in the 19th century.


The Hermannsdenkmal nomument in the Teutoburg Forest, the life’s labor of sculptor Ernst von Bandel who was able to finish it thanks to a mood of national exultation after the triumph of the Franco-Prussian War. For some reason it has a sister in Minnesota. ((cc) image by Hubert Berberich.)

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Cycle of Violence,Execution,Germany,History,Known But To God,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Put to the Sword,Roman Empire,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Torture,Uncertain Dates,Wartime Executions

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1549: The Clyst Heath massacre, during the Prayer Book Rebellion

1 comment August 5th, 2016 Headsman

This date in 1549 was disgraced in England by one of the bloodiest battlefield atrocities in that realm’s history: the Clyst Heath massacre.

On Whitsunday of that year, two-plus years after the Catholic-except-for-the-Pope king Henry VIII had taken to the grave his restraining orthodoxy, the late king’s reformist archbishop Thomas Cranmer introduced to English churches his magnum opus: the Book of Common Prayer.

Rudely replacing the hodgepodge of old services consecrated by tradition, not to mention the Latin tongue in which they were conducted, with the novel vernacular composition of Anne Boleyn‘s house vicar was not wildly popular in the pews — nowhere less so than in Britain’s western extrusion of Devon and Cornwall, which were as cantankerous as they were Catholic.

Peasants at church that Sunday in those provinces were gobsmacked by the alien English service they heard, and disturbances began almost immediately.

“We wyll have the masse in Latten, as was before,” congregants in the Devon village of Sampford Courtenay petitioned their priest on Whitmonday.

We wyll have … images set up again in every church, and all other ancient olde Ceremonyes used heretofore, by our mother the holy Church.

We wyll not receyve the newe servyce because it is but lyke a Christmas game, but we wyll have oure old service of Mattens, masse, Evensong and procession in Latten as it was before.

When authorities showed up to enforce the Christmas games, there was a riot that saw someone run through with a pitchfork on the steps of the church. The Prayer Book Rebellion was on.

That summer of 1549, Common Prayer resisters in Devon and Cornwall linked up in a rude army, one with no chance at all against the larger and better-armed crown force under Lord Russell — which was reinforced as if to prove the rebels’ fears of foreign doctrinal innovations by Italian arquebusiers and German landsnecht mercenaries.*

At dawn on August 4, rebels mounted an unsuccessful attack on Lord Russell’s encampment near a windmill on Woodbury Common. We turn here to the open-source The Western Rebellion of 1549:

A fierce combat ensued, raging hottest near the windmill. Their first attack repulsed, the rebels renewed their efforts again and again, but —

notwithstanding they were of very stout stomachs and very valiantly did stand to their tackles, yet in the end they were overthrown and the most part of them slain. (Hooker)

Lord Russell’s trained men and his horsemen, at last of real service in the open field, again proved conquerors, though not without loss, for “to the strength, force, and resolution of these commons (the archers especially)” witness was borne by some that felt them. At last the insurgents were forced back on Clyst St. Mary, leaving behind many comrades either dead, dying, or prisoners.

As the insurgents retired from the hill leaving the Royal troops victorious, orders were issued for the assembly to unite in prayer and praise for the God-given victory, and the rough moor became the setting for a strange scene.

Clustering in their companies, their weapons still red with the blood of their opponents, was the mixed multitude: gentlemen with their servants and tenants levied in the surrounding country, recently devout adherents of the faith they were now called upon to exterminate: dark-browed mercenaries, still nominally papists, who later sought absolution for fighting on the behalf of heretics; heavy-jowled “almayns,” countrymen of Luther, whose protestantism varied much from the newly founded English forms; all these surrounded by the dead and dying of the recent fight.

The rebels fell back to Clyst Heath, and on the 5th, Russell’s force again advanced upon them, overcoming only with difficulty a stubborn resistance at the village of Clyst St. Mary. Though victorious in each instance, Russell’s men had had two hard days’ fighting and were sore conscious that they were invaders in hostile country. They had faced potshots from the cover of hedge rows, forays from the rear at their baggage train, and that dawn attack at the windmill. And the two days’ fighting had put some 900 prisoners in their hands.

As twilight fell on August 5, Lord Russell began thinking along the lines of Henry V at Agincourt — that these prisoners were at best an encumbrance for a troop already managing a difficult slog, and at worst a menace who might start butchering their guards should one of these rebel raids scramble his army.

And so Russell issued the expedient, conscience-curdling order.

Ere darkness fell the cries for mercy and the screams of those being murdered rang through the fields and lanes, as each soldier butchered his victim — nor age nor youth was regarded, and the shambles thus created made a terrible blot upon the scutcheon of the Royal forces.

The next day saw the Battle of Clyst Heath, at which the Cornish — having heard of the previous night’s outrage — fought furiously to the last man in a hopeless, savage affray that all but broke the rebellion. By August 16, Russell destroyed their cause for good … back where it all started, at the Battle of Sampford Courtenay. Reprisal raids continued well after the truculent country had been pacified, and some rebel leaders were only hunted down for execution months later.

* England had scads of continental soldiers of fortune knocking about at this moment because it had been hiring to whale on Scotland.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Borderline "Executions",England,Execution,God,History,Known But To God,Mass Executions,Put to the Sword,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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