Posts filed under 'Women'

1811: Barbara Zdunk, the last witch (sort of)

Add comment August 21st, 2015 Headsman

Barbara Zdunk was executed on this date in 1811 in the Prussian city Rößel (today the Polish city Reszel).

Zdunk is the chronologically latest candidate for the elusive distinction of “the last witch execution in Europe”. Devastating fires that hit Reszel in 1806 and 1807 activated her neighbors’ suspicions of Zdunk witchery; however, enlightened Prussia had dispensed with its witch-burning laws long before the books in the 19th century so Zdunk must have been formally prosecuted simply as an arsonist — whatever the actuating superstitions behind that charge. The idea was that she caused the conflagration by torching the house of her faithless fiance.

Reszel Castle, the 14th century citadel whose dungeon entombed Ms. Zdunk for a couple of years prior to her execution, is today an atmospheric hotel, allegedly haunted by spirit of its famous former inhabitant.


Reszel Castle. (cc) image by Leszek Kozlowski.

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1895: Minnie Dean, the only woman hanged in New Zealand

Add comment August 12th, 2015 Headsman

On August 12, 1895, Willamina “Minnie” Dean became the only woman executed in New Zealand’s history.

An immigrant from Scotland, Dean married an innkeeper making bank in a gold rush boom town. If only the mines had not played out!

After they did, the Deans fell on hard times; Charles kept pigs instead of inns, and Minnie kept unwanted children. This “baby farming” industry carved out a curious niche in the Victorian heart of darkness — the domestic heart of darkness, not the colonial one.

Between the dearth of contraception and the stigma attached to unwed mothers, there was a ready market of unwilling parents hoping someone would whisk their little angels away. The “Winton baby-farmer” did just that — for a fee.

The question, then as now, is whether the many infants who died in Dean’s care perished because of calculated homicide, or because of the staggeringly high infant mortality rate of the era. Since baby farmers took one-time fees to take in children whom they would thereafter have to maintain, their incentives were to turn over the stock as quickly as possible — either by placing the child with an adoptive parent or … well …


This report (from the Aug. 14, 1895 Daily Telegraph) alludes to a fictitious lady-in-waiting of legend, whose shadowy inspiration in fact was a real-life Scottish expatriate beheaded for infanticide by Peter the Great.

Police surveilled and investigated Minnie Dean’s operation off and on for more than five years before her June 1895 capital trial: inquests after children’s deaths in 1889 and 1891 attributed them to natural causes but also noted deplorable sanitary conditions. Police found that she had attempted to take out life insurance policies on at least some of the kids.

Fearful of the attention (but still needing the income), Dean became more furtive, and this only made her look the more guilty. As greatly as the circumstances have changed, Dean’s case and others like it mirror the difficulty present-day judiciaries still have in drawing a bright line around childhood fatalities that can be convincingly attributed to abuse.

In the end it wasn’t the coroner who undid Dean, but an eagle-eyed railway attendant who noted the woman boarding a train with a baby and a hatbox … and later leaving the train with a hatbox but no baby. Now the investigation closed in on the Winton baby-farmer quickly: when Dean could not produce the infant granddaughter a woman claimed to have given up to her, police put a spade to her garden and turned up three corpses in the topsoil. The three-year-old boy had an undetermined cause of death, but the two infant girls had perished from suffocation and a laudanum overdose. One of them was the missing infant granddaughter. Murder charges ensued.

Her attorney was Alfred Charles Hanlon, who would go on to a brilliant career at the bar but was here defending his very first homicide — and was unable to interest the jury in an alternative configuration of the incriminating circumstances, namely that Dean had covered up accidental deaths fearing just that they would be taken for murders. (A 1985 TV series about this attorney, Hanlon, explored the case in its first episode, which can be seen online here.) Still less did that angle interest gawkers crowding the courtroom and the hustlers who sold them hatboxes carrying grotesque baby dolls.

Dean maintained her innocence on the scaffold (at least “as far as intention and forethought was concerned”)

As an appropriate postscript, a boy trying to eyeball the macabre proceedings from the roof of a building overlooking the gaol fell off of it, fracturing his skull.

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1834: Eliza Joyce, confessed poisoner

9 comments August 2nd, 2015 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1844, Eliza Joyce was hanged on the roof of Cobb Hall at Lincoln Castle for the murders by poison of her two daughters and her stepson.

She was the fifth and last woman to be publicly hanged at the castle during the 19th century, and she remains the last woman in England to be hanged for a crime she’s pleaded guilty to.

Eliza had married William Joyce, a gardener, in 1840. He had two children by his prior marriage, Emma and William Jr., and he and Eliza went on to have a daughter together, Ann.

However, Emma died suddenly in October 1841 and William took sick the following year. In September 1842 he was visited by a doctor, who prescribed medicine for him. Eliza went to the chemist’s … where she picked not that medication, but arsenic.

Her husband found out and took the poison back to the chemist’s, where they realized some of it was missing. By then William Jr.’s condition had worsened considerably and he was showing symptoms of arsenic poisoning. Before his death at Christmastime he gave a statement, confirming his stepmother had given him the arsenic. He was fifteen years old.

Early in 1843, Eliza’s baby daughter Ann also died. Eliza was charged with William Jr.’s murder, but the indictment was thrown out on a technicality. She was then re-charged with attempted murder, which at the time carried the same penalty: death. But at her trial she claimed William Jr.’s poisoning was accidental: she’d spilled some of the arsenic powder on the floor, she said, and picked it up with a spoon, and later without washing it she used the same spoon to give William his medication.

The jury bought the story and Eliza was freed in the summer of 1843.

However, in light of what had happened, her husband cast her out and she had to move into the workhouse.

Eventually, her conscience began to trouble her and she confessed she’d been guilty all along of William Jr.’s murder, and that she had also poisoned both Emma and Ann with laudanum.

When asked why she’d done such terrible things, she plaintively replied, “I don’t know, except I thought it was such a troublesome thing to bring a family of children into this troublesome world.”

By now fully resigned to her punishment, she offered no defense to the court and pleaded guilty to both girls’ murders. (She couldn’t be charged with her stepson’s murder a second time.) William Calcraft handled her execution, and (for once) he didn’t botch it; she died quickly and quietly.

The prisoner walked with tolerable firmness, being only occasionally supported; and once, when about midway on the platform, she paused for a second, and turned to take a parting glance at the sunny scenery by which she was surrounded, and, as if to bed a lingering farewell to the bright and glorious world which she had sacrificed: her face and features wore an aspect of ghastly agony which none can forget who gazed upon her. Having ascended to the top of the tower on which the scaffold was erected, her bonnet was removed, her arms pinioned, and the cap placed over her face. She then ascended the step of the gallows. The effect of her appearance on the immense crowd was awfully striking. In an instant, the hootings, bellowings, and imprecations, which ever distinguish such enormous assemblages, were hushed, and a profound stillness reigned throughout the living mass.

-The Hull Packet and East Riding Times, Aug. 9, 1844

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1701: Esther Rodgers, repentant

Add comment July 31st, 2015 Headsman

O my dear Friends — Take Warning by me. Here I come to Dy, and if God be not Merciful to my Soul, I shall be undone to all Eternity — If I do not turn by Repentance. I Bless God, I have found more Comfort in Prison, than ever before. O Turn to God now. O how hard it is to Repent; If you go on in Sin, God may give you up to a hard Heart. Oh! Turn whilst the Day of Grace lasts.

These, shouted to a crowd of thousands, were the last uttered by repentant sex worker and infanticide Esther Rodgers at her hanging in Ipswich, Mass., on this date in 1701. Esther Rodgers’s life story and jailhouse conversion in New England are richly explored by author and sometime Executed Today guest blogger Anthony Vaver on his site, Early American Crime. Take a look here.

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1722: Marie-Jeanne Roger, “la Grande-Jeanneton”

Add comment July 24th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1722, Cartouche’s redoubtable lover “Big Jenny” was executed on Paris’s Place de Greve.

As befits a thief intrepid enough to grace the execution playing cards, the great French outlaw Cartouche boasted a veritable harem of mistresses whose offices were no less valuable for their contributions to Cartouche’s criminal enterprises: “‘La Catin,’ ‘La Bel-Air,’ ‘La Galette,’ ‘La Petite Poulailliere,’ ‘La Mion,’ ‘La Belle-Laitiere,’ ‘Margot-Monsieur,’ ‘La Religieuse,’ ‘La Bonne,’ ‘La Blanche,’ “Tape-dru,’ &c. &c. But far beyond them all stands out, in rich relief, the name of that most celebrated, most accomplished, most devoted of all the (titular) wives of Cartouche — Big Jenny!” (Source)

Under the guise of an innocent fruit-pedlar, Marie-Jeanne Roger, alias La Grande-Jeanneton “flitt[ed] about from place to place, spying, plotting, drinking, fighting, robbing, and being robbed — the terror and admiration (according to the spectator’s point of view) of every one that approached her.” And she and the robber prince had by accounts that might admittedly be colored by sentimental projection a passionate romance. (Parlement’s published condemnation traduces her as a “debauched woman, concubine” of a number of disreputable characters. Our doomed principal tartly replied that Paris would halve her vices if only greedy innkeepers were not so eager to play procurer.)

La Grande-Jeanneton‘s well-known dalliance with Cartouche made her a prime target after authorities started rolling up that brigand’s gang, and they were mean enough to deny her request to go to the scaffold with her man.

Her sex did not spare her the horrible torture of the Brodequin; posterity has not seen fit to blame her overmuch for succumbing to the leg-crusher to the extent of yielding 52 names, especially since she at least salvaged the opportunity to embarrass many distinguished merchants.

Depuis un an logeait, vers le Palais-Royal,
Une fille de bien qui se gouvernait mal.
Cartouche fréquentait cette tendre poulette;
Salope, s’il en fut, d’ailleurs assez bien faite.
Oeil fripon, petit nez retroussé, teint fleuri,
Friande d’un amant, bien plus que d’un mari,
Fourbe au dernier degré, mutine jusqu’à battre,
Son coeur fut captivé par ce jeune tendron,
Que chacun appelait ta Grande Jeanneton.

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1908: Grete Beier, who wanted the fairy tale

Add comment July 23rd, 2015 Headsman

Marie Margarethe (Grete) Beier, the daughter of the late Mayor of Brand-Erbisdorf, was beheaded on the fallbeil on this date in 1908 for murdering her fiance. While her crime was banal, the consequent spectacle lit up newswires all the globe ’round.


Despite the marquee half of this contradictory headline in the Adelaide, Australia Advertiser (Aug. 26, 1908), the execution occurred behind prison walls. About two hundred tickets were distributed to members of the public (all men), but thousands of applicants (which included many women) were denied them. These “ticket holders rushed in pell mell in their eagerness to get the best places. Men fell and fought wildly.”

Secretly carrying on with a lover named Johannes Merker, Beier (German Wikipedia link was forced by her parents — a working-class couple made good — into pledging her troth to a respectable engineer named Heinrich Pressler.

With “the face of an angel and the heart of a fiend”* the charming Beier contrived a plan to truly have it all: on May 13, 1907, she visited her would-be husband and spiked his drink with potassium cyanide — then to be sure of her project, had him close his eyes and open his mouth on her flirty promise of a sweet surprise. Then she shoved his own revolver between his lips and fired, abandoning at the scene of her crime a forged will to her benefit, a forged suicide note lamenting a purported affair with a vengeful Italian woman, and forged love letters corroborating the latter, fictional, relationship.

She was some weeks on towards her way to getting away with it — the coroner did indeed take Herr Pressler for a suicide — before suspicions as to the dead man’s testament led police to set a watch on her and unravel the web. Grete Beier confessed, in an unsuccessful gambit to secure mercy.

She reportedly died bravely, albeit slightly appalled by the size of the audience that had been admitted to gawk at her disgraceful finale.


Detail view (click for the full image) of the courthouse yard at Freiburg being readied for Grete Beier’s beheading. Image via the invaluable Bois de Justice.

* Her feminine fiendishness was greatly exacerbated to contemporaries by stories that she had also aborted three bastard children.

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1799: Elizabeth Lavender, teenage Fairlight infanticide

Add comment July 22nd, 2015 Headsman

London Chronicle, Feb. 2-5, 1799

On Sunday se’nnight the body of a new-born male infant, with its throat cut, was discovered, concealed in a small tub, among some cordwood, in a cellar at Fairlight in the county of Sussex. The fact appearing to have been recently committed, and suspicion falling on a young woman, resident in an adjoining apartment, named Lavender, she was taken into custody and a surgeon sent for, who declared she had been very lately in travail; and the Coroner’s Jury having on view of the body, returned a verdict of wilful murder against the said Lavender, she was committed to Horsham gaol. The wretched girl hath scarcely attained her eighteenth year.

London Oracle and Daily Advertiser, July 19, 1799

LEWES. — At our Assizes, which commence here on Friday morning next, before Lord Chief Justice Buller,* we have the satisfaction to say, there are but seven prisoners for trial, viz.

Elizabeth Lavender, aged 19 years, charged with the wilful murder of her male bastard child at Fairlight.

James Medhurst, alias Miles, aged 24 years, for feloniously stealing one barrow hog, the property of Thomas Davis.

Daniel Noyell, aged 20 years; John Gardiner, 21 years; and John Twiney, 22 years, for divers felonies in the town of Brighton.

William Jackson, aged 23 years, for feloniously entering the dwelling-house of Henry Karn, of Tillington, in June last, and stealing therein to the amount of twelve shillings in money, a silver watch, some wearing apparel, and other articles, the property of the said Henry Karns.

William Hodson, otherwise Powell, aged 28 years, charged with having stolen on Westbourn Common, a black gelding, the property of William Churcher; also with having stolen and rode away from a lane, in the parish of New Fishbourn, a grey poney gelding, the property of John Hardham.

Should the business at nisi prius prove as light as that on the Crown side, we shall have a very short Assize.

London Sun, July 25, 1799

LEWES, July 22

At the Assizes for this County, which ended here on Saturday morning last, seven prisoners were tried, five of whom were capitally convicted, and received sentence of death, viz.

Elizabeth Lavender, for the wilful murder of her male bastard child, at Fairlight. — John Gardiner and John Twiney, for felonies in the town of Brighton. — William Jackson, for a felony in the dwelling house of Henry Karn, at Tillington. — And William Hodson, otherwise Powell, for horse-stealing.

The four men were reprieved before the Judges left the town; but the unhappy woman was left for execution, and is this day to suffer at Horsham, after which her body is to be dissected and anatomized.

True Briton, Aug. 2, 1799

LEWES, July 29

Last Monday Elizabeth Lavender was executed at Horsham, pursuant to her sentence at our late Assizes, for the murder of her male bastard child. Her behaviour at the gallows was such as became one in her unhappy situation. She trembled and wept much, but nevertheless seemed to listen to the Clergyman who attended her, and having expressed a hope that all other females would take warning by her untimely fate, she was turned off about half past twelve, and expired without any apparent agony.

* Buller is most (in)famous now for allegedly issuing the judicial standard permitting a man to beat his wife with a rod, provided it was no thicker than his thumb. It’s quite dubious whether he ever did so rule, and indeed whether any such rule has ever existed; nevertheless, Buller was lampooned in his own day as “Judge Thumb”.

More historically verifiable is his role on the judicial panel upholding the right of the slaveship Zong to throw all its cargo into the sea.

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1762: Sarah Metyard and Sally Metyard, mother and daughter

Add comment July 19th, 2015 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1762, Sarah Metyard and her daughter, Sarah Morgan “Sally” Metyard, were hanged at Tyburn for the horrible murder of their apprentice girl.

Sarah, a milliner, and Sally, her assistant, had taken on several female apprentices. One of those, a thirteen-year-old workhouse orphan named Anne Naylor or Nailor, was cruelly treated by the Metyards, who beat her, confined her to the attic and fed her nothing but bread and water. Twice she escaped and asked for help and twice she was dragged back by her mistresses to be tortured all over again.

After the second escape attempt, according to the entry in the Newgate Calendar, the Metyards

…put [Anne] into a back room on the second storey, tied a cord round her waist, and her hands behind her, and fastened her to the door in such a manner that it was impossible for her either to sit or lie down. She was compelled to remain in this situation for three successive days; but they permitted her to go to bed at the usual hours at night. Having received no kind of nutriment for three days and two nights, her strength was so exhausted that, being unable to walk upstairs, she crept to the garret, where she lay on her hands and feet.

While she remained tied up on the second floor the other apprentices were ordered to work in an adjoining apartment, that they might be deterred from disobedience by being witnesses to the unhappy girl’s sufferings; but they were enjoined, on the penalty of being subjected to equal severity, against affording her any kind of relief.

On the fourth day she faltered in speech, and presently afterwards expired. The other girls, seeing the whole weight of her body supported by the strings which confined her to the door, were greatly alarmed, and called out: “Miss Sally! Miss Sally! Nanny does not move.” The daughter then came upstairs, saying: “If she does not move, I will make her move”; and then beat the deceased on the head with the heel of a shoe.

This is a sad epitome of what will appear at large in too many dreadful examples on the great day of account, when all those who have counteracted, or ill discharged their relative duties of parent and child, ruler and subject, pastor and people, or any other of the superior and inferior relations in this state of trial, will look aghast at each other, in frantic despair, charging the neglect of duty, of relaxed discipline, of disobedience, and evil example to each other’s account; when all that seduce and betray each other into sin, will fill up the dire and dreadful number.

Learn hence ye parents and children of every rank, the force and importance of that admonition, preparative to a general reformation of life and manners, the neglect of which is a sure presage of a general corruption and impending destruction.

-the Newgate Ordinary

Anne died a short time afterwards, and Sarah and Sally hid this fact and told everyone she had run away. They hid her body in a box in the garret for two months until the smell became too offensive, then dismembered the corpse and dumped it in a gully-hole in Chick Lane. Two watchmen found the remains on December 5, 1758.

The crime went undiscovered for years, and Sally eventually moved out of the house and in with a Mr. Rooker. Sarah, however, was afraid her daughter might tell someone what happened, and began stalking her and threatening her life. Her attempts to frighten Sally into silence backfired when Sally confronted her and alluded to the murder in front of Mr. Rooker.

Once Sarah was gone, Rooker demanded to know what they’d been talking about, and Sally spilled the beans. He went straight to the cops. (Or more precisely, to “the officers of the parish of Tottenham High Cross.”)

Sally backed up everything he told them.

Cate Ludlow and Graham Jackson record in their Grim Almanac of Georgian London,

the Metyards had to be separated in prison lest they attack each other, and would always blame the other if asked about the crimes. Unbeknownst to the gaolers, the mother had been starving herself (a fitting fate) in an attempt to cheat the gallows; a few days before the due date she fell into a fit and swooned away. She never spoke again. On 19 July 1762, before 9:00 a.m., the women were put into the cart. The ordinary had to fight to get them through the enormous crowds, and found the mother stretched out like a statue, not even seeming to breathe, though her chest twitched convulsively now and then. The daughter begged for prayers from the crowd (over the jeers and boos*), and looked about for Mr. Rooker. She added that ‘she died a martyr to her innocence.’

After they were hanged, their bodies were displayed before the public at the Surgeons’ Hall, then dissected.

* The populace reserved a special hatred for mistresses who abused their serving-girls.

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1936: Charlotte Bryant

3 comments July 15th, 2015 Meaghan

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

At around 8:00 a.m. on this day in 1936, Charlotte Bryant was hanged at Teeter Prison by Thomas Pierrepoint for poisoning her husband with arsenic the previous year.

“Dying of arsenical poisoning,” writes Stephen Wade in his book Notorious Murders of the Twentieth Century: Famous and Forgotten British Cases,

…has got to be one of the most agonizing exits from the world we can imagine… Its effects are horrific… The sensations experienced have been described as the sense of having a burning ball of hot metal in the gut; on top of that, the victim has vicious diarrhea, vomiting and spasms in the joints, dizziness and consequent depression.

Frederick Bryant was to die that way.

Charlotte was born and raised in Ireland. She and Frederick met there in 1922, where he was serving with the military police. Charlotte, who was only about nineteen at the time, had the reputation as a girl who would sleep with anyone. Frederick didn’t seem to mind her reputation, though, and they so they married and moved to a tiny, rural village in Dorset, and he sought work as a farm laborer.

Charlotte’s open promiscuity continued, and soon evolved into prostitution. Everyone in the neighborhood knew her for her gallantries. It was said that, when someone asked Frederick how he felt about this, he pointed out he was earning less than said £2 a week as a cowman and said, “Four pounds a week is better than thirty bob [shillings]. I don’t care a damn what she does.”

Charlotte ultimately bore five children, some of whom may have been Frederick’s.

This situation continued until 1933, when Charlotte met Leonard Edward Parsons, a man who was himself married, and fell in love. Not only did the easygoing Frederick accept this relationship, he actually invited Parsons to live with them. Parsons did, and things actually went quite well for some time. Parsons paid the Bryants room and board, which made Frederick happy. Parsons and Charlotte got to have sex all the time, which made them happy. Win-win.

But finally Frederick asked Parsons to move out.

Frederick Bryant became inexplicably ill in May 1935 after eating tea Charlotte had prepared for him. He recovered within a few days and he and his doctor shrugged and passed it off as gastroenteritis. In August he got sick again with the same symptoms as before, and as before, he soon recovered.

In November, Leonard Parsons told Charlotte he was going to leave her and find another job somewhere else. She was devastated.

By the time the Christmas season rolled around, Frederick was sick again. This time his symptoms were serious and he writhed in agony, “saying there was something inside him like a red-hot poker that was driving him mad.” He was sent to Sherbourne Hospital for treatment, but died a few days before Christmas.

Frederick’s doctor, who had treated him through these mysterious bouts of gastric illness, was suspicious: the symptoms the dead man had complained of corresponded exactly to arsenic poisoning, and like everyone else in the area he knew Charlotte as something less than the good wife. The doctor refused to sign a death certificate and notified the police of his suspicions.

A very thorough investigation began. A chemistry expert from Scotland Yard was given

complete organs, including the stomach and contents, small and large intestines, urine in the bladder, vomit and excreta, complete lungs, portions of skin and hair, brain and nails. In addition, these were taken from the area around the body: samples of soil from above the coffin, below the coffin and from the adjacent ground, sawdust from the coffin, and a portion of the shroud.

Sure enough: the results showed that Frederick’s flesh and the environs of his corpse were positively dripping with arsensic. Altogether 4.09 grains were discovered. Anywhere between 2 and 4 grains comprises a fatal dose.

While the chemist was at work analyzing his myriad of evidence, the police were questioning Charlotte. She denied having harmed her husband and said she had not recently purchased arsenic or anything containing it. However, a friend of the couple had some interesting things to say: Charlotte had a tin of arsenic-laced Eureka brand weed killer and said “I must get rid of this … If nothing is found, they can’t put a rope round your neck!”

After a search, the police found a partially burned tin of Eureka weed killer. Dirt and ash samples from the rubbish heap where it had been discarded tested positive for elevated levels of arsenic.

But they still had to prove Charlotte bought that tin of weed killer.

The Scotland Yard analyst had a look at Charlotte’s coat and found arsenic dust in the right-hand pocket at a staggering 58,000 parts per million. (By comparison, the average amount of arsenic found in ordinary soil is about 18 parts per million.)

Records showed that someone had purchased Eureka weed killer from a local chemist’s shop at around the right date, signing their name on the poison register with only an X. Charlotte was illiterate and could not have signed her name, but would have used her mark instead. The chemist said he knew the woman who came in to buy the poison but claimed that in spite of this, he would be unable to identify her now. He was probably trying cover his own tracks: it was illegal for a chemist to sell arsenic to anyone they didn’t know.

Parsons was questioned about Frederick’s murder. He had an alibi and was cleared of suspicion, but the police decided they’d accumulated enough against Charlotte, and arrested her for murder.

At her trial in May 1936, her attorney stressed the circumstantial nature of the evidence and warned the jury not to take Charlotte’s promiscuity into account. After all, she was on trial for murder, not for sleeping around. No one had seen Charlotte poison any food or give poisoned food to her husband, and the chemist still couldn’t or wouldn’t identify her as the woman who bought the weed killer at his shop.

Nonetheless, the verdict was guilty. Desperate efforts were made on her behalf to get her a new trial; some people believed the chemistry expert’s evidence had been faulty. These efforts came to nothing. Charlotte wrote a letter to the King, begging for a royal pardon, but this was ignored. She died protesting her innocence.

A footnote to this sad and sordid story: Charlotte left a pitiful estate worth 5 shillings, 8½ pence and willed it all to her five children. (She’d learned to write her name in jail; her will was the first legal document she signed with her name rather than her mark.) Her children were trucked off to an orphanage. Mrs. Violet van der Elst, a noted anti-death penalty activist, heard of their plight and vowed to make sure they were cared for. (Van der Elst featured this case among numerous others in her 1937 tract On the Gallows.)

She also started a charitable fund for the children of executed convicts. The first donation to the fund, from van der Elst herself, was £50,000. As for the Bryant children, nothing further is known of them.

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1948: Tessie Hutchinson, Lottery winner

Add comment June 27th, 2015 Headsman

June 27 — of 1948, implicitly — was the setting for Shirley Jackson‘s classic short story “The Lottery”.

Less an “execution” than a human sacrifice — the village old feller’s folksy “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon,” evokes a primal flash of blood trickling off a maize-god’s altar — the titular event is an annual tradition for a tiny American town. Though unnamed, the town and some of its denizens were patterned on North Bennington, Vermont, where Jackson was living as the wife of a professor at Bennington College.

The setting was entirely contemporary to the story’s publication, right down to the day: it hit print in the June 26, 1948 edition of The New Yorker magazine. And what took Jackson two hours to write has continued to disturb and perplex generations of readers.

In “The Lottery” (available online here (pdf)), friendly townsfolk gather “in the square, between the post office and the bank” to enact a curious civic ritual dating to a time and purpose they no longer even remember.

We see each household’s father draw a slip of paper from a battered old box and although we do not understand the reason we soon feel there is something ominous about it.

After the last slip is drawn,

there was a long pause, a breathless pause, until Mr. Summers. holding his slip of paper in the air, said, “All right, fellows.” For a minute, no one moved, and then all the slips of paper were opened. Suddenly, all the women began to speak at once, saving. “Who is it?,” “Who’s got it?,” “Is it the Dunbars?,” “Is it the Watsons?” Then the voices began to say, “It’s Hutchinson. It’s Bill,” “Bill Hutchinson’s got it.”

“Go tell your father,” Mrs. Dunbar said to her older son.

People began to look around to see the Hutchinsons. Bill Hutchinson was standing quiet, staring down at the paper in his hand. Suddenly. Tessie Hutchinson shouted to Mr. Summers. “You didn’t give him time enough to take any paper he wanted. I saw you. It wasn’t fair!”

“Be a good sport, Tessie.” Mrs. Delacroix called, and Mrs. Graves said, “All of us took the same chance.”

“Shut up, Tessie,” Bill Hutchinson said.

Tessie has good cause to fear. A second drawing now ensues among the five members of the Hutchinson family — Tessie and Bill, plus their three children.

And as soon as Tessie reveals the slip of paper with the black spot, her friends and even her family (“someone gave little Davy Hutchinson a few pebbles”) immediately turn on her and stone her to death.

“I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village to shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives,” Jackson explained.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Chosen by Lot,Fictional,Gruesome Methods,Innocent Bystanders,No Formal Charge,Public Executions,Stoned,Summary Executions,USA,Vermont,Women

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