Posts filed under 'Women'

1883: Margaret Harris

Add comment October 19th, 2016 Robert Elder

(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. This post originally appeared on the Last Words blog. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)

“I am going to tell the truth before God. I am innocent of the charge…My kin people brought me to this, and I want them to pray to meet me in heaven. I have heard they said hanging was too good for me, that I ought to be burned…I hope this poor man will be released, as he is innocent before God.”

(Turning to her sister on the scaffold:)

“I want to be buried by the side of my mother, but they will not allow it. They don’t care what becomes of my body. Good-bye! Sister, good-bye!”

— Margaret Harris, convicted of murder, hanging, Georgia.
Executed October 19, 1883

Servant Harris, age eighteen, was accused of poisoning the family she worked for in order to leave and live with David Dukes, her alleged accomplice, whom she referred to as “this poor man.” Prosecutors said she first added the poison to coffee, which only sickened her mistress, widow Nancy Barnwell, and Barnwell’s two grandchildren. She then added poison, procured from Duke, to rice, killing one of the grandchildren. A commutation was requested from the governor, but it was refused “as there has lately been a perfect avalanche of poisoning cases and an example needed to be made of it,” according to the Chicago Daily Tribune. At the hanging, “In the Sweet By-and-By” was sung by the four clergymen attending. The condemned and spectators joined in the song.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Georgia,Hanged,Murder,Other Voices,Public Executions,USA,Women

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1937: Panfiliya Tanailidi, Azerbaijani actress

Add comment October 15th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1937, Azerbaijani actress Panfiliya Tanailidi (various other transliterations are possible) was purged during Stalin’s terror.

Born in a tsarist governorate to Greek emigres, Tanailidi (English Wikipedia entry | Azerbaijani) was treading the Caucasus boards as a teenager in the pregnant century’s first decade.

She became an accomplished stage and screen actress, starring in 1930s silents Ismet and Almaz.

Come the Stalin years when any pretext was enough to destroy a body, the pretext against Tanailidi was apparently her affiliations with an Iran then taking a concerted anti-Soviet line: the actress had toured Iran in 1917 and had friends like Govhar Aliyeva who had fled the Soviet Union for Iran. This was more than enough to cast the pall of espionage about her.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Azerbaijan,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,History,Russia,Shot,USSR,Women

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1793: The slave Nell

Add comment October 4th, 2016 Headsman

Original from the Calendar of Virginia State Papers and Otner Manuscripts:

Champion Travis to the Governor


Enclosed is a statement of the evidence which appeared against Daphne and Nell, two negroes convicted for the murder of Joel Garthright, which would have been sent sooner had the Attorney been in Town.

And am,
Your humble servant.

The evidence against Daphne and Nelly, two Slaves belonging to Col. Champion Travis, who were tried and convicted by the court of James City County in the month of June, for the murder of Joel Gathright, Col. Travis’s overseer, as well as my memory enables me to state it, was in substance follows:

It was proved in plain and positive terms by two negro boys, who were present and saw the greater part of the transaction, that Daphne and Nelly, the two criminals now under condemnation, were at work with ploughs on the day on which the overseer was killed, and the boys themselves leading the oxen to the ploughs.

Gathright, the overseer, came at his usual time to the field where these women were working, and blamed Nelly for suffering the fence to be left open, which had exposed the corn growing to be cropped by the sheep.

Nelly denied the charge and used some impertinent language, which provoked the overseer to strike her. This he did repeatedly with a small cane, till Nelly quitted her plough and ran; the overseer pursued and struck her on the ground after she had fallen.

Nelly recovered from her fall, and immediately engaged him. The woman Daphne, who was at a small distance off, as soon as she saw Nelly closely fighting with the overseer, ran to the place where they were engaged, and together they seized and threw him to the ground. They beat him on the ground with their fists and switches with great fury a considerable time.

The overseer made frequent efforts to raise himself up and get from them in vain, and demanded to know if they intended to kill him.

At length he ordered one of the boys, the witness, to go to a remote part of the field where the negro men were at work, and call one of them to his assistance; after some time, he sent the other boy.

The boys executed their orders, and soon returned to the place they had left; when they returned, the women, Daphne and Nelly, had fled, and an old negro man belonging to Col. Travis assisted to raise the overseer from the ground, who soon after expired.

It was proved by an old negro man, who kept a mill in the neighborhood of Col. Travis’s plantation, that these two women, Daphne and Nelly, in the afternoon of the same day on which they killed the overseer, passed the mill on their way to Williamsburg; and being asked by the old fellow where they were going, and what was the matter — seeing some disorder in their appearances, they replied that they had whipped their overseer, and were going to town to their master.

They were urged by the miller to go on, lest the overseer should overtake them; they observed that they had left him unable to move, and Daphne asked the old man if a woman could be hanged for killing a man.

Several white men who came to the place shortly after the scene was closed, and who were Jurors in the inquest held on his body, proved the violence committed on the body, and a fracture of the skull, which they imagined was made by a stone found a few feet from the head of the unfortunate man.

The Criminals, Daphne and Nelly, were tried separately, and the boys closely and rigidly examined; on each trial they delivered the same clear and unequivocal testimony. The criminals were undefended, but asked themselves many questions of the witnesses, which, as well as I remember, were answered strongly against them.

Ro. Sanders.
Attorney for James City County
July 26, 1793

Elsewhere in antebellum human chattelry: this from the Columbian Gazetteer, Oct. 28, 1793.

The full court record ensues in these same papers, demonstrating the same circumstances. Daphne was duly hanged on July 19, but “it being suggested to the court that the said Nelly is quick and big with child, it is commanded the Sheriff of this county that he cause execution of the above Judgement to be done on Friday the fourth day of October next. The Court also valued the said Nelly at fifty pounds Current money.”

(The timeline here implies that Nelly would have been about six to seven months pregnant when overseer Gathright began thrashing her for leaving the fence gate ajar.)

Nelly’s fate moved enough tender-hearted white neighbors to petition for her reprieve, a petition that was rebutted by a furious confutation with vastly more numerous signatories noting that “not a single circumstance appeared in alleviation of the horrid offence.” Can’t think of a one!

At any rate,

She has been delivered of her child some weeks, and now awaits the Execution of her sentence. We have heard with great emotion and concern that much Industry has been exerted to get signatures to a petition to your Excellency and the Hon’ble Board of Council to obtain a Pardon for the said negro woman, Nell; when we consider the alarming commotions which have lately existed among the negroes in this neighborhood, and the dangerous example of such a murder, we humbly conceive it necessary for the public peace that the course of the law should have its full effect in this instance.

And it did.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,USA,Virginia,Women

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1568: Leonor de Cisneros, chastised wife

Add comment September 26th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1568, Leonor de Cisneros was burned as a heretic in Valladolid — nine years late, by her reckoning.

Leonor de Cisneros (English Wikipedia entry | a token Spanish Wikipedia entry | the much more detailed German) and her much older husband Antonio Herrezuelo* were among the first converts to the Lutheran circle in Valladolid funded by Don Carlos de Seso. The Inquisition got its hands on these wrongthinkers in the late 1550s and the result was an auto de fe on October 8, 1559 at which King Philip personally witnessed the Christlike suffering of Don Carlos and 12 of his adherents.

However, while 13 died, dozens of others succumbed to the Inquisition’s pressure to recant, and live. Leonor de Cisneros was one of them.

The monstrous spectacle of the auto de fe featured an elaborate symbolic language encoded for the spectators in the ritual sanbenitos in which the accused were made to parade, such as the example pictured at right.** Different patterns denoted which heretics were bound for the stake, and which had reconciled to a wary Church … and it is said that when Antonio, en route to his pyre draped in illustrations of hellfire to represent his fatal obduracy, beheld his wife in the colors of a penitent, he savagely reproached her cowardice.

Obviously shaken, Leonor returned to her prison with a prayer in her soul and a flea in her ear. Soon enough she had relapsed into her heresy, and this time no punishment or exhortation could move her — knowing as she well did that in her stubbornness she solicited her martyrdom.

* Leonor was born in the mid-1530s, so would have married and converted to Protestantism around the age of 18. Antonio was born about 1513.

** Source: this public-domain volume on the notorious Inquisitor Torquemada.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,God,Heresy,History,Martyrs,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Spain,Women

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1675: Katharina Paldauff, the Flower Witch

Add comment September 23rd, 2016 Headsman

It was likely on, and certainly about, this date in 1675 that the Riegersburg Castle keeper’s wife was burned as the “flower witch”.

Riegersburg Castle. (cc) image from Tobias Abel.

This dramatic keep roosting atop a volcanic crag in southeast Austria today hosts a Witch Museum exhibiting the treatment meted out to those infernal agents.

This castle had perhaps become identified as a hostelry of sorceresses by dint of its long management under the Countess Katharina Elisabeth Freifrau von Galler, an iron-willed noblewoman who did not fear to assert prerogatives of power more commonly reserved for male hands — not least of which from the standpoint of posterity’s tourism industry was much of the castle construction one beholds there today.

“The bad Liesl” — one of her chiding nicknames — died in 1672 and coincidentally or not a witch hunt swept the surrounding region of Styria from 1673 to 1675.

The best-remembered of the accused was the commoner who almost literally personified the Bad Liesl’s fortress: Katharina Paldauf (English Wikipedia entry | German), the wife of Riegersburg Castle’s chief administrator.

She was ensnared in the usual way, when accusations from other defendants, who were being tortured for the identities of their witches’ sabbath affiliates, compounded against her. These charges credited Paldauf with the power to conjure foul weather from the depths of hell, as well as murdering children and pitching them into the castle well. In a more grandmotherly vein (Paldauf was 50; older women appear to have been disproportionately vulnerable to witch charges) she’s said to have had the power to pluck blooming flowers even in the dead of winter — the source of her Blumenhexe repute, although this legend, er, stems from folklore rather than anything in the documentary record.

Torture broke her.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Austria,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Habsburg Realm,History,Public Executions,Torture,Witchcraft,Women

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1893: Two women lynched in Quincy, Mississippi

Add comment September 10th, 2016 Meaghan

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

On this date in September 10, 1893, the same day that they admitted to their roles in a murder conspiracy, Mehaley (or Mahaley) Jackson and Louisa Carter were lynched in the town of Quincy in eastern Mississippi, 137 miles east of Memphis.

The two black women’s slayings were only part part of a grisly tragedy that resulted in the deaths of six people, perhaps more.

What little that is now known about the case is reported in cultural historian Kerry Segrave’s Lynching of Women in the United States: Recorded Cases, 1851­1946.

In late August or early September 1893, a white gentleman named Thomas Woodruff fell ill along with his entire family. Two of his five children died. Two weeks later, what was left of the Woodruff family were all still languishing in the hospital, and there was little hope that any of them would recover. Neighbors who nursed the sick family also became ill.

A search of the Woodruff property turned up three packages of Rough-­on-Rats, an arsenic-­based poison, in the well.

Suspicion fell on Ben Woodruff, a local black man. The previous fall, Ben had “entered Woodruff’s house violently, and so excited his wife, who was in a delicate condition from childbirth, that she died in a few hours.” Ben had faced criminal charges in connection with the incident, and Woodruff was one of the witnesses against him, which, it was thought, provided motive to for Ben to kill him. (The news report below prefers a stolen wagon as the source of the friction.)

New Orleans Times-Picayune, September 10, 1893.

On September 9, during the inquest following Ben Jackson’s arrest, a group of unmasked men dragged him away from the police who had custody of him and hanged him. The murder inquiry continued without the suspect and, a day later, his widow, Mehaley Jackson, and mother-­in­-law, Louisa Carter, testified before the jury. They admitted they had known of Ben’s plan to poison the Woodruffs’ well. The two women were not arrested, but it would have been better for them if they had been: when they left the courthouse, an armed mob was waiting for them and hanged them as well.

Vigilante justice wasn’t finished yet: Mehaley and Louisa had said a neighborhood man named Rufus Broyles had given Ben Jackson the money to buy the poison. Broyles fled the area after Ben’s death and went into hiding in a nearby town.

On September 14, he was caught there, and strung up like the others.

Circuit court judge Newman Cayce made a “forcible and peremptory” order to the grand jury to identify and indict the lynchers. Predictably, there’s no record of any charges being brought against anyone.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Innocent Bystanders,Lynching,Mississippi,Murder,No Formal Charge,Other Voices,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Summary Executions,USA,Women

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1721: Janet Hutchie, repentant infanticide

Add comment August 30th, 2016 Headsman

The reader can peruse only the first page of the two-page Edinburgh gallows broadside that comprises this post here; the full pamphlet appears to be available only in proprietary databases.

The Last Speech and Dying Words

Of Janet Hutchie, who was Execute in the Grass-market of Edinburgh, upon the 30th of August 1721, for the Murder of her own Child.

JUSTLY now may I to my sad Experience append my Seal with the Holy Man, Job 14.1. Man that is Born of a Woman, is of few Days, and full of Troubles, Psalm 51.5. I was conceived in Sin, and brought forth in Iniquity, and from that Mass of Original Guilt has arrived to such an Height and Pitch of actual Transgressions, that I am hardly to be reckoned among the Society of Christians, but am sentenced and adjudged justly to be cut off from the Body thereof, as an Infectious Member, least it should endanger the whole Body, and justly with the Holy Psalmist to my Bitter Experience, cry out, Iniquities, Iniquities have prevailed, but O purge away my Sin, Psalm 65.3. And as a Bullock unaccustomed to the Yoke, ran on in a Course of Sin, not thinking that God would lay them before my Face, for Reprove me therefore; till at last that Holy Judge of Heaven and Earth, before whom all Things are naked and bare, has in his Holy Providence found me out at last in this my Brutal Wickedness, and am now in a little to lay down my Life for the Unnatural Crime of taking away the Life of the Innocent Fruit of my own Body, and now stands a Monument to Men and Angels upon a Gibbet, ready Erect for that Effect, to receive the Fatal Blow as a Visible Judgment of the Divine Displeasure and Indignation of the Almighty God, against such a Monstruous and Horrid Crime as I have been Guilty of. Oh that now I may be made a singular Monument of the unsearchable Riches and Free Mercy, and Grace of God, through Jesus Chris his only Son my Lord; not having my own Righteousness, which is nothing, but that of his imputed to me, which yet can make me clean before that great Tribunal, for as black as the Devil, Hell and my own Corruptions have made me.

It would be expected I should give some Account of my self, and satisfie the World, as to several Aspersions that passed upon me , and as I am a dying Woman, I shall declare to the World the naked Truth, and it only, so far as my Memory can serve me, and do Justice to Peter Vallance whom I horridly wronged by leasing making on him.

I was Born in the Weems, my Parents coming over to Preston grange while I was a Child, where they lived till they died, which was several Years agoe, and were not wanting to me in my Education, conform to (rather beyond) their Station and Abilities.

I am now going in 30 Years of Age, and declares, I never knew a Man in the World but John Williamson to whom the Child was, alace a married Man, his Wife being my own Commerad while she was unmarried. I intirely free him of the Act of Murder it self, as was alledged; But acknowledges, it was by his Advice and Direction,and he desired me earnestly to do it; and when it was done to put it in some Hole or another, that it might be hid from the Eyes of the World. But Oh! who can hide from the Eye of an All-seeing God, to whom all Things are naked and bare.

I likewise further own, I never knew the said Williamson but once in an Morning, when my Brother and Family were at the Coal-pit, but he has frequently attempted it, but never got his Design perpetuate but that Time, by which I was got with Child by him, and when I found my self with Child, I told him, and he gave me several Things to Cause me Miscarry, but I never took them. I did not Reveal my being with Child to any but to him and one Isobel Guthry, who in a little after died in Child-bed.

I truly own my Guilt in destroying the Child, but not directly, for it was alive when I was delivered, but for want of Help and my Unnaturality in the Birth it soon died, which if it had not, I was resolved to have strangled it, which makes me equally Guilty in the Sight of GOD, as if I had actually done it, and thereafter tyed it in a Codwair, and keeped it three Days in my Chest, into which Codwair I put an big Stone, and threw it in a Mill-dam, where it lay 18 Days before it was found, and knows nothing of its having a Cord about its Neck, as the Witnesses declared, unless it had been the Knitting of the said Codwair, and what Stories Janet Ritchie and Isobel Vint said of my having a Child before is intirely false. I own I was among the Crowd when an Highland Boy found the Child when the Dam was run out, by seing the white Codwair, as I told before; and upon its being found, The Minister and Elders made search through the Town, and I was found to have Milk in my Breast, and said I had lately parted with Child before Mr. Horsburgh and an other Minister, and said it was to Peter Vallance. God forgive me for wronging him, for I never knew him, only he convoyed me one night from Tramant Home, from which I took Occasion to say the Child was to him, and owned it in his Face before the two Ministers aforsaid. I beg God Pardon for that Sin, for I added one Sin to cover another. Oh that I was so brutally Blind-folded.

I had several Offers of Marriage even beyond my Station, and did in a solemn Manner Promise to one William Stewart, but basely broke, and was disingenous, he is now Abroad, and sent me several Tokens, and that even since I came to the Tolbooth of Edinburgh. God Bless him, and forgive me for so rashly making, and thereafter basely breaking such a solemn Vow, as I ingaged my self with to him.

I own the Justness of my sentence, and the Return of the Verdict, and the Witnesses Depositions, only they wronged me as to the Cord being about its Neck, as aforsaid, the Reflection of which makes me now Shrink and Tremble, to think I could hide from an All-seeing God, to whom being the very inward Thoughts and Imaginations of the Heart ly naked and bare, and that one of his Prerogatives, To search the Heart, and try the Reins, and Jerusalem as with light Candles.

I likewise ow, I was much addicted to the horrid Sin of Lying and Profanation of the Lord’s Holy Day, and neglect of his Ordinances, letting light of them and the Offers of Peace and Salvation through Jesus Christ made to them therein, the Contempt of which, and neglect thereof, now lyes Heavy on me and Grieves me, now to the Soul to think how light I left of that which now I see to be so valuable and precious, and that I then trampled upon, now to be the only Sanctuary and City of Refuge, that I must run unto, least the Avenger of Blood overtake me in the Way, and I perish, which Blood, and whose Offers, if rightly applied, can yet make me clean from all my others Sins, and even from that of Blood Guiltiness. O! monstrous Wickedness, not to be named; and I believe scarcely known to the Heathen World it self.

I likewise own, I was adicted to the Sin of Tipling and Drunkenness, which is an inlet to all Vice, for what Sin is in a Drunk Man, yea rather in a Woman, capable of Refuse, yea ready to fall into. The Head full of Fumes Nature overcharged, and out of its ordinary Course, and the Hands ready to commit. But alace! I cannot say that of my self, for what I did was deliberate, and of a long Time premeditate, and resolved upon by the Advice of that Wretch Williamson, to whose Measures I too too easily condescended unto. God forgive him for advising, and me for consenting to that Unnatural, yea worse than Brutal Wickedness, for the Brutes themselves endanger their own Lives for the Preservation of their own young, as we daily see. Oh that I should be more Brutish than a Brute; I whom God has created a Rational Creature after his own Image, and indowed with a reasonable Soul to Act, as if I had no Soul at all, and to be Guilty of a Crime, that the Brutes themselves are not Guilty of, who are under no Law or Government, and knows nothing of a future State or a World to come.

I likewise own, very much Ignorance of God and the Way of Salvation, through Jesus Christ his Son, who came to save that which was lost, which yet I think intitles and gives me Ground to apply to him and his Righteousness, that the Shame of my Nakedness may not appear in that Day.

I own, I have been much obliged to the Ministers of Edinburgh, who were not wanting to me in their Visits, their praying with me and for me, shewing me the dreadful Nature of Sin and Way of Salvation. God reward them for their Pains.

I desire the Help of the Prayers of all the Spectators here, to join with me in this my last and greatest Extremity, now when I am ready to drop into a World of Spirits, from whence there is no returning, and as the Tree falls so it must ly; let me be a Warning to you all to take Care of Sin, and the fatal Consequences thereof, and Dedicate and Devote your selves to God in your younger Days, which is a noble Season, and give not louse Reins to your selves, but Check Sin in its Bud, least it break forth to a Cockatrice, and be much in Prayer, to the Exercise of which I have been an intire Stranger, hardly knowing what it was to Bow an Knee, and beware of Sabbath-breaking, the Contempt of God’s Holy Ordinances, the Sin of Lying and Drunkenness, and that of Uncleanness, which has at last crowned the Work with me to all, which I have been too much adicted. I die in Peace with all Men, and forgives as I Expect to be forgiven at the Hands of a Merciful God, who Rejoices in Mercy, and whose Mercies are above all his other Works; God Sanctifie this Dispensation to my Poor afflicted Brother and his Family, and support them under it, and grant them Grace to improve it to the best Advantage, and unto that Trinity in Unity, Unity in Trinity. God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, I recommend my Spirit.

O Save me my Redeemer.

EDINBURGH: Printed by Robert Brown in the middle of Forrester’s-Wynd. 1721.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions,Scotland,Women

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1983: 26 in Tehran

Add comment August 20th, 2016 Headsman

London Times, Aug. 21, 1983:

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Drugs,Execution,Hanged,Iran,Mass Executions,Women

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1943: Marie-Louise Giraud, Vichy abortionist

Add comment July 30th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1943, the French executioner Jules-Henri Desfourneaux guillotined Marie-Louise Giraud as an abortionist.

Born in defeat, the Vichy regime had a program of renewing an enervated nation by restoring its values — families and proper sexual mores foremost among them. Marshal Petain famously diagnosed the reasons for France’s quick collapse under German guns: “Too few children, too few arms, too few allies.”

Interest in the fertility rate was not a Vichy innovation; worries about depopulation had become acute following the bloodbath of the First World War, and birth rates in the interwar years fell conspicuously too low for regenerating the cannon fodder. France’s scolds saw her as decadent, and eventually as deserving prey to the neighboring power that had regenerated both hearth and national purpose through fascism.

Petain placed a similar regeneration at the center of his broken nation’s agenda, and designed policy around cultivating traditional families with fecund and obedient wives.

One remarkable plank in that platform was to ramp abortion up to the stature of capital crime. Even though abortion was technically illegal before Vichy, it had long been winked at in practice.

No longer.

During the war years, the Vichy state plucked our principal Giraud from the seaside Norman village of Barneville-Cateret to prove they were serious about never again letting France get caught out with too few children.

Giraud had performed 27 illegal home abortions for hire, under hygienic conditions perfectly compatible with death by septicemia, which one of her patients suffered in January of 1942. Since the legitimate part of her economic life was as a hosteler to prostitutes, she was way out of strikes with the morals police.

The last woman ever guillotined in France, Marie-Louise Giraud is the subject of the wrenching 1988 Claude Charbol film Une Affaire de Femmes.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Milestones,Murder,Wartime Executions,Women

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1741: Not Sarah Hughson, “stubborn deportment”

Add comment July 29th, 2016 Headsman

Supreme Court: WEDNESDAY, 29th JULY.

PRESENT, The Chief Justice, The Second and Third Justices.

The KING, against Sarah Hughson, the Daughter.

THIS Criminal Convict being set to the Bar, the Court demanded of her, What she had to say, why Execution of her former Sentence should not be awarded against her? She thereupon produced and pleaded His Majesty’s most gracious Pardon; and the same being read, was allow’d of.

-Daniel Horsmanden‘s The New York conspiracy: or A History of the Negro plot

On this date in 1741, Sarah Hughson finally bought her life.

Sarah was the daughter of John Hughson, the white supposed mastermind of the supposed slave plot to fire New York, and she had originally been condemned to death along with both her parents.

Her father and her mother (the mother’s name was also Sarah) hanged on June 12, but the girl, “this miserable Creature” in Horsmanden’s recollection, got a stay. “The Judges wished that she would have furnish’d them with some Colour or Pretence for recommending her as an Object of Mercy; but they waited for it hitherto in vain,” he complained. But still her short lease on life was extended by a week, “in Hopes, that after her Father and Mother had suffered, she might be molified to a Confession of her own Guilt, and raise some Merit by making a further Discovery; or at least, confirming what had hitherto been unfolded concerning this accursed Scheme.”

One week later, she was respited again: “a mere Act of Mercy; for she yet remained inflexible.” But mercy was not a predominant characteristic of Horsmanden’s court: it wanted Sarah Hughson’s evidence.

A single white accuser — the Hughsons’ servant Mary Burton — was the keystone to the entire succession of cases alleging a slave insurrection plotted at John Hughson’s tavern and (as prosecutions unfolded) elsewhere. It was Burton whose claims had hanged Sarah Hughson’s parents.

The court took evidence from slaves, a number of whom turned witness for the crown and bought their own lives by denouncing others. But the evidence of “pagan Negroes” was controversial in its own time, and for courts was officially second-class relative to what a white person said.

This was the racial privilege that Mary Burton wielded against luckless black men and women throughout the spring and summer of 1741.

But for Sarah Hughson, that privilege was worth her life. The court figured it could use the death sentence dangling over her to force her to join Mary Burton as a star white witness.

Curiously, Sarah took a belligerent attitude towards the court and the witness that had hanged her mother and father. We have only the faintest impression from Horsmanden’s journal of his battle of wills this young woman demanded, but she appears to have given her persecutors nothing for nearly a month and in so doing to have risked at least four hanging dates. The court in its “mercy” kept kicking the can down the road.

Was it grief or pride or bitterness that led the condemned orphan to risk following her mother and father to the scaffold? Was she calculating and cool enough to bargain with her life in the balance?

On July 5, Mary Burton’s accusations finally forced another white person, an Irish soldier named Kane, to turn crown’s evidence. This, perhaps, was finally it — for now Sarah Hughson’s currency was devalued, and Kane himself was accusing her an active participant in the plot. On July 8, Horsmanden records

THE Sentence of Sarah Hughson the Daughter, having been respited for upwards of three Weeks since the Execution of her Father and Mother, and she in that Time often importun’d to confess what she knew of the Conspi|racy, did always peremptorily deny she knew any Thing of the Matter, and made Use of many wicked Impreca|tions, in order to move Compassion in those that mov’d it to her, after the Manner of her Parents, whose constant Practice it was, whenever spoke to about the Plot: And this being the Day appointed for Sarah’s Execution, she was this Morning brought up to Mr. Pemberton, who came to pray by her, and after all his Admonitions, still denied her Guilt.

She had steel in her heart for sure. But July 8 was the day it finally cracked.

A condemned slave in the dungeon whose name was also Sarah reported that Sarah Hughson had blabbed the whole plot to her. The slave Sarah saved her own life with this revelation and finally forced Sarah into a terse and token confession of her own.

“This Confession was so scanty, and came from her after much Difficulty, with great Reluctance, that it gave little or no Satisfaction; and notwithstanding, (it was said, after she return’d to Jail) she retracted the little said, and denied she had any Knowledge of a Conspiracy,” Horsmanden wrote. “So that after all, the judges thought themselves under a Necessity, of Ordering her Execution, as the last Experiment, to bring her to a Disposition to unfold this Infernal Secret; at least, so much of it, as might be thought deserving a Recommendation of her, as an Object of Mercy.”

Throughout June, Sarah Hughson had survived hanging date after hanging date by refusing to confess. Now in July, she would navigate them by bartering her confession. “From her stubborn deportment, it must be owned, very small service was expected of her,” Horsmanden allowed. “For she discovered so irresolute untractable a temper, that it was to be expected she would recal again and again, as she had done already, what she seemed to deliver at times.”

Only a heartless observer could complain of Sarah’s shifting stories in these weeks, as she is repeatedly brought to the brink of death. Two days later, on the eve of her “last Experiment” hanging, Sarah confessed to Horsmanden; the next day, before the other judges of the court, she attempted to repudiate that confession until the judges “exhorted [her] to speak the Truth” whereupon she retracted the retraction. This bought her another week.

Finally, after two additional postponements, Sarah Hughson’s story and her part to play in this tragedy had been fixed: to accuse the man in the story’s last installment, a Catholic priest named John Ury.

Her evidence really ought to have been useless. In a footnote, Horsmanden concedes that “from the untoward behaviour of this wretch upon her examinations, the reader will be apt to conclude there could be little or no dependence on her veracity, or her evidence at best would deserve but very slender credit.” Ah, but the reader would be forgetting that Sarah was still white — and that her shifting narrative had now settled on the one favored by the court, “corroborated by many other witnesses to the same facts, and concurring circumstances attending them.”

Though he was no slave, John Ury was the man whose prosecution would finally conclude the slave-hunts. Bringing Sarah Hughson out of her long confinement into open court would help to cinch the case against him … while also relieving the city of its most frustrating prisoner without any appearance of wrongdoing. “If she could be affected with a Sense of Gratitude for saving her Life upon so small Merit, and kept to her History concerning John Ury then in Custody, and soon to be tried as an Accomplice in the Plot, and also as a Roman Catholick Priest, they thought she would be a very material Evidence against him; On these Considerations they thought fit this Day to recommend her to his Honour for a Pardon, as an Object of Mercy.” Win-win! (Except for Ury.)

And so on July 29, Sarah Hughson was finally pardoned at the bar of the court, first thing in the morning.

The second thing that morning was the amazing trial of John Ury, now with a new star witness.

But that is a story for a different post.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Last Minute Reprieve,New York,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Power,Public Executions,Treason,USA,Women

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