Posts filed under 'Women'

1851: Sarah Chesham, poisoner

Add comment March 25th, 2014 Headsman

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

On this date in 1851, 41-year-old Sarah Chesham was hanged before a crowd of six to seven thousand people in Chelmsford, England. She’d been convicted of a single count of attempted murder, but the evidence indicates, and the public certainly believed, that she was responsible for several deaths and had perhaps even taught her deadly craft to other women.

Sarah lived in the village of Clavering in Essex. In January 1845, two of her six children died suddenly, one after the other, and were buried in a single coffin. Their deaths were written off as cholera, a common and deadly disease in those times. Yet, according to later accounts, just about everyone in Clavering knew the boys had been murdered.

In fact, Sarah’s reputation as a poisoner had been well known long before her sons’ untimely deaths.

In spite of the rumors, no action was taken until later that year — when Sarah was arrested on the charge of poisoning a friend’s illegitimate baby, a boy named Solomon Taylor. Solomon had been born healthy and thrived for the first few months of his life, but in late June 1845 he became sick, rapidly wasted away and died. His mother accused Sarah of murder.

Suspicious, the authorities exhumed the bodies of ten-year-old Joseph and eight-year-old James Chesham.

The boys’ corpses turned out to be saturated with arsenic.

James C. Whorton, in his book The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain was Poisoned at Home, Work and Play, describes what happened next:

An inquest quickly led to Chesham being indicted for murder, and she was brought to trial in the spring of 1847. The evidence against her seemed conclusive: her sons had arsenic in their bodies, police had found “an assortment of poisons” in her house, and during the trial there were clear attempts to coerce witnesses not to testify against her. Sarah Chesham was nevertheless acquitted of all charges.

The jury’s foreman for Joseph’s case explained, “We have no doubt of the child having been poisoned, but we do not see any proof who administered it.” After all, no one had actually seen Sarah giving arsenic to her sons.

After her trials for the murders of James and Joseph Chesham, Sarah was tried for Solomon Taylor’s murder. Again she was acquitted; there was no evidence of poison in the infant’s body. Whorton records,

The verdict struck most observers as outrageous, but even if it was correct, something very disturbing was going on. The woman’s neighbors had believed her to be spreading poison for years, yet had uttered not a word to authorities. “What is to be said,” a newspaper asked, “of a district where cold-blooded murder meets with all the popular favor which is shown to smuggling in Sussex?”

One can’t help but think of the many incidents in modern times when “everyone knew” about the child abuse going on in some local household, but nobody bothered to report it until after a tragedy occurred.

Chesham was released from custody, went home and resumed her life. Then, in 1849, her husband died. He had much the same symptoms his dead sons had, but suffered a great deal longer: it took months for him to die.

During his illness, the solicitous Sarah was constantly by his side. She gave him milk thickened with rice or flour and wouldn’t let anyone else feed him anything.

After Richard Chesham’s death, authorities seized a sack of rice from Sarah’s kitchen. It was contaminated with sixteen grains of arsenic. (Two or three grains can kill a healthy adult.) Richard had arsenic in his body as well, but only in traces.

Although her latest alleged victim had died, Sarah was charged only with attempted murder: Richard suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis and it was unclear whether it was the arsenic or the lung disease that caused him to die. (It’s theorized that Sarah, having learned something from her earlier trials, had poisoned her husband slowly in small doses rather than in one dose all at once, as she allegedly did with her children.)

The punishment was the same either way: death. Sarah would be the last woman in Britain to be hanged for attempted murder.

Sarah Chesham may have wanted to rid herself of an inconvenient husband, perhaps reasoning that he would die of consumption anyway so she might as well speed him along. In some other fatal poisonings in Essex during that time period, however, it appears the motive was the deceased’s burial club money.

Club Dead

Many of England’s poor and working-class subscribed to burial clubs for themselves and their families. These were a form of life insurance and meant to provide money for the funeral if a member died, thus sparing the person from a pauper’s grave or worse, the anatomist’s dissecting table.

Some people, however, subscribed for different reasons, as Whorton noted:

Yet there were, inevitably, some subscribers who were not at all averse to a child or spouse receiving a pauper’s send-off, and if sufficient economies were adopted in their disposal, there would be enough money left over to make murder worthwhile … If done right, profits were not inconsiderable. First of all, club dues were affordable for virtually anyone … Second, benefits were relatively generous. Manchester clubs, for example, paid out £3 as a rule, but some paid £4 or even £5; a basic funeral for a child could be financed for only £1 or £2.

Provided they came up with the money for subscription fees, there was nothing stopping people from joining multiple burial clubs at the same time and getting a big fat payout upon their relative’s untimely death. Wharton mentions one child from Manchester who belonged to nineteen burial clubs at once.

Poisoner Mary May, who was convicted of killing her half-brother and hanged in 1849, had subscribed to multiple burial clubs without her victim’s knowledge. After she poisoned him she got £10 in all. Some people got double or triple that sum. And this at a time when an unskilled laborer could expect to earn only about £27 annually.

Cases like Sarah Chesham’s and Mary May’s set off a moral panic about poisonings in the 1840s and 1850s. As the London Medical Gazette noted, twopence could buy enough arsenic to kill one hundred people.

The press had everyone convinced that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people were poisoning others for profit. Newspapers devoted a great deal of space to poisoning trials and speculated that these cases were only a few of a “multitude” of murders that went unpunished — and that this multitude was growing. Jill Ainsley wrote about this at length and says,

According to the press, the bodies subjected to forensic examination represented the tip of the iceberg of poisoned corpses. Poison narratives routinely assumed that poisoners were caught only once their lethal practice was well established. Once a particular individual was suspected in one death, their pool of alleged victims automatically expanded to include anyone else they had contact with who subsequently died. The implications of references to large families “all of whom were dead” were clear to regular readers of crime reports.

Women in particular were liable to suspicion.

In fact, the papers alleged that in Essex there was a “secret society” of female poisoners who conspired together to murder people with arsenic, and that the general public was aware of the situation and accepted it. There is no actual evidence that such a conspiracy existed, never mind that it was condoned by the locals.

It is true that the number of prosecutions in poisoning cases rose during this time period, but that was probably because of the application of the Marsh test, invented in 1836 by chemist James Marsh.

The Marsh test was the first reliable test for arsenic in the human body and it was extremely sensitive. Before that, just about the only way to figure out if something was poisoned was to give some of the suspect substance to a dog and see if it died.

Arsenic during the nineteenth century was cheap, plentiful and used in a myriad of things, from wallpaper coloring to makeup to sheep dip. In small amounts it made a good rat poison, and that’s usually what it was used for.

Since it came in the form of a grainy white powder that could easily be mistaken for flour, salt or sugar, a lot of people got poisoned — not all of them intentionally, either.

There were not a few suicides and many, many accidents. Ainsley, who studied the Essex poisonings at length, believes it’s entirely on the cards that the arsenic that killed James and Joseph Chesham got into their systems accidentally.

It was partly due to the notoriety of Sarah Chesham’s crimes that the British parliament passed the Sale of Arsenic Regulation Bill in 1851. The law required arsenic sellers to record the name of each buyer and to sell it only to people they knew personally. It also required arsenic to by dyed some other color so people would no longer mistake it for food.

Getting back to Sarah: after her execution, her family was permitted to claim her body for burial in the local churchyard. But before the internment could take place, the body was stolen, probably for dissection, by a person or persons unknown. It was never recovered.

Part of the Themed Set: Arsenic.

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1873: Mary Ann Cotton, serial poisoner

Add comment March 24th, 2014 Headsman

Mary Ann Cotton
She’s dead and she’s rotten
She lies in her bed
With her eyes wide open
Sing, sing!
Oh what can I sing?
Mary Ann Cotton is tied up with string
Where, where?
Up in the air
Selling black pudding a penny a pair.

-Children’s nursery rhyme

On this date in 1873, prolific poisoner Mary Ann Cotton — whom some have tabbed Britain’s first serial killer for an arsenic murder spree claiming 21 or so souls — hanged at Durham County Gaol.

Her exact death toll remains somewhat conjectural since her method of choice — arsenic poisoning — so closely mirrored gastroenteritis. Vomiting, diarrhea, and dehydration were hallmark symptoms of both afflictions, and as Mary Ann’s many children succumbed in such conditions over the years, they were easily chalked up to just another childhood mortality among the vast ranks of working poor.

At age 20, she wed a coal miner (her father had been one too, but fell to his death in a mine shaft years before). In the twelve-plus years of their marriage, she bore William Mowbray at least four children. Three died in childhood of — so the death certificates read — gastric ailments. William himself died of one too in January 1865, and Mary banked 35 quid in life insurance on the occasion.

Mary’s own testimony would eventually indicate at least four other children by Mowbray from when they lived in Plymouth. These were the circumstances for a repeat killer to thrive: when a mother can be eight or nine bodies into her career, every one of them close family members, and nobody has bothered to notice. She was said to be a consummate actress in her grief.

With Mowbray and her ample brood — of whatever size — off her hands, Mary Ann now made a career of disposable short-term marriages to men who could support her for a while, and then would mysteriously drop dead of a gastric problem with life insurance policies naming Mary Ann.

An engineer named George Ward, married in 1865 and died in 1866.

A widower named James Robinson had the good fortune to throw Mary Ann out of the house in 1869 for stealing. But that was only after five children in the household mysteriously died (three by Robinson’s previous marriage, one of Mary Ann’s and Robinson’s, and the last surviving child of Mary Ann and William Mowbray). Mary Ann also dipped out of that household for a bit to care for her ailing mother, who also then died within days. Robinson would say after his former wife’s arrest that he had been suspicious of all the dead kids and her eagerness to insure him, but nothing so strong it would lead him to, say, call the police.

In 1870, she found a Northumberland miner name of Frederick Cotton, who gave her the name by which history knows her. Only after Cotton dropped dead — and her lover Joseph Nattrass dropped dead — and a stepson and her own son by Cotton both dropped dead — did the black widow finally come to official attention. That happened when the mother, desperate to fob off her inconvenient last child, incautiously implied to a village overseer in Walbottle, Northumberland where she had moved to wed Frederick Cotton that young Charles Edward Cotton was likely to die soon.*

When he did so, that official had the death certificate held up to examine the boy’s body. Though arsenic’s symptoms were difficult to distinguish from less sinister medical conditions, the mid-19th century had seen the advent of an effective scientific test for toxin: the Marsh test. The end of the arsenic era would be the ensuing decades’ march towards ever more powerful forensic tests that could put the lie to the “gastroenteritis” diagnosis.

The Marsh test easily did so when applied to Charles Edward Cotton. All it had taken these twenty years was for someone at last to suspect something. Her trial of the “West Auckland poisoner” over a few days in early March — delayed because she was pregnant with one last child when arrested — saw intense public interest, and an easy conviction.

She only dropped her pretense of innocence, partially, on the morning of the hanging itself, under the persistent questioning of her Wesleyan minister “when, after some hesitancy, she said, ‘I believe that I poisoned the boy.’ She was also minutely questioned about the other cases of poisoning, and when it was urged that they could not have been accidental, she made no reply, but turned aside, leaving it to be inferred that she had been the cause of the other deaths.” (Huddersfield Daily Chronicle, March 25, 1873)

A fuller account of Mary Ann Cotton’s biography with a handy graphic of her suspected victims can be found in this article by the author of a recent book about the poisoner.

* She was remarking on the difficulty that care of Cotton’s son posed for her intended next marriage/victim. “T’won’t matter, I won’t be troubled long,” she said … which looks foolishly self-incriminating in print, but she had probably said such knowing-wink nothings to others before without trouble, seeing as even the wholesale deaths of several men’s entire progenies had not formerly sufficed to attract an inquiry.

Part of the Themed Set: Arsenic.

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1860: Ann Bilansky

Add comment March 23rd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1860, Ann Bilansky was hanged in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Bilansky — her Christian name is given as Ann, Anne, or Anna in various reports — was condemned for poisoning her husband, an immigrant Polish saloonkeeper named Stanislaus, so that she could get with her bit on the side.

Just a couple of weeks before Stanislaus’s unexpected March 1860 demise, Ann had gone with a friend to a local drug store and picked up a bit of the deadly powder, allegedly to deal with vermin. (This was arsenic’s very common, legitimate use.) She suspiciously tried to get her friend to put the purchase in her name.

The community suspected Ann a murderess as soon as Stanislaus dropped dead. She showed far less evident grief about her spouse than could possibly suffice for decency, and one local snoop peeped on her being a very merry widow indeed with her suspected paramour … on the very day after the funeral. Call it one for the road: the late husband’s stomach, when autopsied, had revealed that suspicious rat poison. She was soon behind bars, and would be convicted with ease.

(In July 1859, she escaped through a window of the barely-secure jail, rendezvoused with her old lover, and fled to the countryside. It was a week before the law collared her.)

Ann Bilansky continued to maintain her innocence at trial, in jail, and all the way to the scaffold. She reveled in the attention her case garnered and plied numerous visitors with claims of innocence and minute supposed errors in her trial. “She was a complete pettifogger,” said a newspaperman, “and had imbibed an opinion, which is common among better informed people, that technicalities could defeat justice in every case.”

But the versions of events she pushed on her many callers stood so starkly at odds with the evidence and the popular sense of her guilt that she even found her way into the local idiom for a time: a St. Paul resident could drolly call b.s. on someone by remarking, “You have been to see Mrs. Bilansky.”

Still, she was a condemned woman — and from the sound of it a rather appealing one — who asserted her innocence, and this meant she did not want for supporters. Legislators were among her jailhouse social circle, and she had enough sympathetic lawmakers that both the House and Senate actually passed a private bill for commutation of her sentence. Gov. Alexander Ramsey vetoed it.

Other visitors arrived bearing more forceful means of liberation: one slipped her chloroform, to disable the guards; a female visitor got caught in the act of trying to swap clothes with the doomed woman. Ann Bilansky even copped to having a specific family that she had arranged to hide out with if she could get out.

She just never quite managed the trick.

Ann Bilansky’s death was accounted a good one by the metrics of gallows-conduct: she did not faint or quail at the sight of the rope, or beg unbecomingly for mercy. But her last words plainly indicate that although she may have reconciled herself to death, she was not in the end at peace with the events that had brought about her end. (Many observers thought she entertained hope for the dramatic arrival of a last-second pardon.)

I die without having had any mercy shown me, or justice. I die for the good of my soul, and not for murder. May you all profit by my death. Your courts of justice are not courts of justice — but I will yet get justice in Heaven. I am a guilty woman I know, but not of this murder, which was committed by another. I forgive everybody who did me wrong. I die a sacrifice to the law. I hope you all may be judged better than I have been, and by a more righteous judge. I die prepared to meet my God.

Bilansky was the first woman executed in the state of Minnesota. (Minnesota had just become a state in 1858.) She remains to this date the last, and since Minnesota has no death penalty at present, she figures to keep the distinction for the foreseeable future.

Source: April 3, 1860 New York Herald

Part of the Themed Set: Arsenic.

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1819: Hannah Bocking, 16-year-old poisoner

Add comment March 22nd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1819, 16-year-old Hannah Bocking was hanged outside the Derby Gaol for murdering a friend with an arsenic-laced spice cake. She appears to be the youngest girl executed in 19th century England.

Bocking had been turned down for a household servant’s position on account of “her unamiable temper and disposition,” but her friend Jane Grant had been hired.

Instead of tightening up her job-interview game, the seething Bocking plotted her revenge on Jane, with whom she maintained a feigned comity. One day while out for a walk past the clanking remains of Anthony Lingard, who had been hanged four years before and left on display to strike terror into the hearts of malefactors, the un-deterred Bocking gave Jane her little pastry. Jane ate it, and died in agony, but not so much agony that she wasn’t able to tell what happened.

It was an easy conviction, and the sentence executed just four days later. Still, “at the moment, when she [Hannah Bocking] was launched into eternity,” one observer reported, “an involuntary shuddering pervaded the assembled crowd, and although she excited little sympathy, a general feeling of horror was expressed that one so young should have been so guilty, and so insensible.”

We have this lovely hanging broadsheet of Hannah’s execution (transcribed below) via Harvard University library.


Hannah Bocking, though of so young an age, appears to have had a mind greatly darkened and depraved, for it seems that she was instigated to the dreadful crime that she committed, solely from envy and hatred to the young woman (Jane Grant) because she lived in the family of her Grandfather-in-law, as servant, where she had herself formerly lived, and been turned away.

She procured arsnic [sic] at a surgeon’s in the neighbourhood, by saying, that it was for her Grandfather, for the purpose of killing Rats, and she prevailed on a young man to go with her, saying, that they would not sell it alone to her.

This mortal poison she put into a spice cake, and gave it the young woman, who thanked her, and unsuspectedly eat it, but was soon after seized with dreadful pains and agonies. In her illness she was attended by her relations, and being about to expire, her dying declaration was taken, that the cake she had eaten was the cause of the torments she suffered, which dying declaration was produced at the trial, and which, connected with other strong circumstances, was satisfactory to the minds of the jury and to every person in court.

So senseless and hardened in sin was this wretched creature, that she shewed no signs of remorse, nor appeared at all sensible of her awful situation when he solemn sentence of death was passed on her by the Learned Judge, but it seems that she felt severely afterwards on her return in the Caravan to the Gaol she shed many bitter tears, and continued crying for hours.

It was in this situation that she confessed her crime to a Lady, distinguished for her humanity; and entirely cleared her Brother and Sister in law from any participation in her crime. She declared that she alone was guilty.

On the Jury returning their verdict of Guilty, the learned Judge rose and passed sentence of death upon her, that her body should be given to the surgeons to be dissected and anatomized; at the same time most solemnly expatiating upon the enormity of the unnatural crime she had committed, and the horrid light she must appear before her divine Maker, recommending a sincere repentance and a full confession of her guilt.

Since her condemnation she has been attended by the Chaplain of the Gaol, and the Rev. Mr. Leech and others; and we hope their instructions have proved beneficial to her soul Between twelve and one o’clock she was brought in front of the county Gaol, and having spent a shot time in prayer, she was launched into eternity, amidst a vast concourse of spectators, a dreadful example for all such as indulge the sin of envy, hatred, or malice. From envy, hatred, and malice may the Lord in his grace deliver us. Amen.

Sin has a thousand treach’rous arts,
 To practice on the mind;
With flatt’ring looks she tempts our hearts,
 BUt leaves a sting behind.

With names of virtue she deceives
 The aged and the young;
And while the heedless wretch believes,
 She makes his fetters strong.

She pleads for all the joys she brings,
 And gives a fair pretence;
But cheats the soul of heav’nly things,
 And chains it down to sense.

Part of the Themed Set: Arsenic.

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1899: Martha Place, the first woman electrocuted

Add comment March 20th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1899, Martha Place became the first woman to die in the electric chair.

William Place, a widowed insurance adjuster at 598 Hancock Street in Brooklyn, had taken Martha Garretson on as a housekeeper.

In time William felt her a suitable enough helpmate to put a ring on it and make her Ida’s full-time mother.

Honestly, though, some kids are just better off in a single-parent household.

Martha’s aptitude as a nurturer really can’t have met Bill Place’s expectations. “She felt that her husband loved his daughter more than he did her, and her jealousy rapidly changed into hatred for the little girl,” opined the New York Times. (July 9, 1898) “As the child grew into a pretty young woman and became more and more of a contrast to her, her hatred began to take active form. Place tried to reconcile them, but in vain. For three years Ida and her stepmother rarely spoke to each other, and in her father’s absence the girl was generally away from home.”

On at least one occasion, Mr. Place summoned the police to deal with a death threat that landed Martha in the dock.

On February 7, 1898, there’d be no more need for threats.

William Place arrived home that day to find the vengeful termagant brandishing an axe in his direction, with which she clobbered him twice about the head. Only wounded when she walked away from him, Place managed to pry a door open and call for help. When the police arrived, they found Martha in a gas-filled room attempting suicide (or pretending to) … and they found Martha’s bete noir, the poor stepdaughter, stone dead on her bed with acid burns on her face and an axe-gash from her scalp to her neck.

There’s a reason the “Wicked Stepmother” is such a venerable trope.

Public opinion did not take kindly to this destruction of hearth and home by such an unlovely faux-mother. The Times (July 8, 1898, once again) judged her

rather tall and spare, with a pale, sharp face. Her nose is long and pointed, her chin sharp and prominent, her lips thin and her forehead retreating. There is something about her face that reminds one of a rat’s,* and the bright, but changeless eyes somehow strengthen the impression. She looks like a woman of great strength of mind and relentless determination. The only time her expression changed during the trial was when her husband, William W. Place, testified to the attack made upon him. Then her thin lips parted in a sardonic grin, and she fixed her eyes upon him. The smile hardly ever left her face while he was on the stand. He did not look at her.

A greater contrast than that between this husband and wife could not be imagined. He is a man of refined appearance, and speaks in a quiet, pleasant voice. He testified calmly, except once or twice, when the questions of the lawyers bore upon the persecution of Ida. Then his voice trembled with emotion, while, on the other hand, it was impossible to make one’s self believe that Mrs. Place was possessed of any other feeling than that of a mild curiosity.

The criminal conviction was simplicity itself, and if women are generally less exposed to the risk of execution, their most characteristic point of vulnerability will tend to be a violation of the demands of sacred motherhood. Envious rat-faced stepmom acid-burns blooming daughter of refined burgher? That’s as paradigmatic as a female execution gets.

There was, of course, no shortage of attention since executions of women aren’t exactly everyday affairs in American history … and this one in particular would be the very first since New York introduced the industrial age’s death penalty innovation, the electric chair. The Medico-Legal Society of New York had a contentious debate at its February 1899 meeting over whether women ought to be executed at all. (The lone female speaker, Ida Trafford Bell, earned applause from the women in attendance by insisting that the fairer sex should have “just as much right to be electrocuted as a man.” (NYT, Feb. 16, 1899) Probably so, but they were still a generation away from having just as much right to vote.

Anyway, the governor of the state — Theodore Roosevelt, who was just a couple of years from becoming U.S. president thanks to another New York murderer — had the final say in the matter. Martha Place’s presence in these annals naturally discloses the outcome of his deliberations.

No more painful case can come before a Governor than an appeal to arrest the course of justice in order to save a woman from capital punishment, when that woman’s guilt has been clearly established, and when there are no circumstances whatever to mitigate the crime. If there were any reasonable doubt of the guilt — if there were any basis whatsoever for interference with the course of justice in this case — I should so interfere. But there is no ground for interference …

The only case of capital punishment which has occurred since the beginning of my term was for wife murder, and I refused to consider the appeals then made to me on behalf of the man who had killed his wife, after I became convinced that he had really done the deed and was sane.** In that case a woman was killed by a man; in this a woman was killed by another woman. The law makes no distinction of sex in such a crime.

This murder was one of peculiar deliberation and atrocity. To interfere with the course of the law in this case could be justified only on the ground that never hereafter, under any circumstances, should capital punishment be inflicted upon any murderess, even though the victim was herself a woman and even though that victim’s torture preceded her death.” (as quoted in the New York Times, March 16, 1899)

Happily the Sing Sing electric chair performed its duty smoothly with, per the March 21 Times, “no revolting feature” in evidence. It was, boasted the prison doctor, “the best execution that has ever occurred here.”

* As we’ve often seen, observers of women in the dock have a knack for perceiving a correlation of physical beauty to virtue, and the reverse.

** Roosevelt rejected Bailer Decker’s appeal for mercy on January 3, 1899 — his very first day in office.

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1789: Not Mary Wade, 11-year-old thief

Add comment March 16th, 2014 Headsman

Thanks to Aaron Molyneux for the guestpost. It’s just an excerpt of a much more detailed treatment Molyneux first made of this case on PrisonVoices.org. I’ve made a handful of minor edits to compress this excerpt, and added or moved some links. -ed.

On Wednesday the 14th of January 1789 Mary Wade stood in court at the age of just 11 years old and received the verdict that her life was to be cut short. For the robbery of one cotton frock, a linen tippet and a linen cap she was found guilty and sentenced to hang. Judged to have committed an adult’s crime, she would face an adult’s punishment.

Although in modern Britain theft may seem a quite unremarkable crime, in Mary Wade’s age robbery was dealt with by extreme punishment. The court suggested that Mary’s theft was equal to “holding a pistol to the breast of a grown person”. Whether or not Mary Wade was aware of the hard-lined punishments given to those who stole remains unknown but having committed a very similar crime at the age of eight, only to get away with it because of her young age, she did know it was a crime and therefore it would seem that there was an air of desperation about Mary’s actions.

Sentenced to die by hanging Mary was taken away from her mother and marched out of the Old Bailey. For a girl of Mary’s age this situation must’ve been a frightening ordeal. Being sent to Newgate prison was not for the faint hearted. It was a vile place deemed so unhealthy that Physicians often refused to go in. By the time Mary entered, Newgate was London’s main jail and Mary joined many others waiting to be hanged before huge crowds outside the prison doors. Arriving in irons Mary would have been faced with open sewage, disease and lack of water. It would be a shock to the system for anybody never mind an eleven year old girl. If those entering had enough money they would enter the Master’s side or the press yard where they would have beds, heat and have their irons removed. But those who could not afford would be thrown into the Common Felons side. These would go without bedding or proper clothing and be forced to slum in the overcrowded, rat-infested cells. Mary almost certainly would have been with the fellow women convicts in the Common Felons side.

More than likely alone, vulnerable and scared Mary would spent a total of ninety three days waiting to be marched out in front of the baying crowds which gathered outside the prison walls to watch convicts hang for their crimes. Ninety three days in which she would wait for her death.

Then, on the 16th of March 1789, in celebration of King George III‘s recovery from madness, Mary Wade’s death sentence was respited along with all other condemned women. Instead of hanging, she would be transported to New South Wales on the convict ship Lady Juliana.

Read on at Prison Voices for more on Mary Wade’s offense, and for her story as a transported convict — where she became the ancestor of a huge number of latter-day Australians.

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1865: Amy Spain, liberation anticipation

1 comment March 10th, 2014 Headsman

This date in 1865, just weeks before the final collapse of the Confederacy, a slave named Amy was hanged on a sycamore tree before the courthouse of Darlingon, S.C., for anticipating her liberty a little too exuberantly.

Mopping up after his march to the sea, Union Gen. William T. Sherman proceeded to South Carolina. After occuping the capital, Columbia, Sherman’s army made a northerly progression towards North Carolina.

In early March, Union Cavalry appeared in Darlington. Our 17-year-old principal, the domestic of a local lawyer named A.C. Spain,* exulted at this arrival.

“Bless the Lord, the Yankees have come!” Harper’s Weekly** would later report her to have exclaimed.

The long night of darkness which had bound her in slavery was about to break away. It was impossible to repress the exuberance of her feelings; and although powerless to aid the advancing deliverers of her caste, or to injure her oppressors, the simple expression of satisfaction at the event sealed her doom.

But the Union men were not long for the town. It was just a scout party; constrained by strategic objectives, and hindered by swollen early-spring rivers, the main body of Union forces passed Darlington by.

Anticipating an occupation that was not about to occur, Amy recklessly declared herself free and took some of the Spain household’s possessions — the fruit of her own involuntary labor. Whatever her exact actions in those days, they were frightfully punished — over the objection of A.C. Spain himself, who reportedly served as her advocate at the rebel military trial that condemned her.


This illustration of Amy Spain’s execution appeared with the Harper’s Weekly article quoted above.

Her persecutors will pass away and be forgotten, but Amy Spain’s name is now hallowed among the Africans, who, emancipated and free, dare, with the starry folds of the flag of the free floating over them, speak her name with holy reverence.

-Harper’s Weekly

* Spain was also a Confederate commissioner to Arkansas at the start of the Civil War, in which capacity he successfully urged Arkansas into the rebel camp.

** Septemer 30, 1865.

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1782: The Gnadenhutten Massacre

3 comments March 8th, 2014 Headsman

You recall the time when the Jesus Indians of the Delawares lived near the Americans, and had confidence in their promises of friendship, and thought they were secure, yet the Americans murdered all the men, women, and children, even as they prayed to Jesus?

-Tecumseh, to William Henry Harrison in 1810

This date in 1782 marks one of the more appalling single atrocities in the United States’s long destruction of indigenous Native Americans — the Gnadenhutten Massacre.

This incident during the American Revolution took place in the Ohio River basin, a vast and fertile flashpoint whose part in not only the revolution but the antecedent French and Indian War perhaps entitles it to claim the midwifery of the coming American empire.

After victory in the French and Indian War, the British closed the area west of the Appalachian mountains to European settlement. This proclamation:

  • Made good a wartime pact Britain had made to secure the support of the Iroquois, Lenape (Delaware) and Shawnee tribes; and
  • Trailed facts on the ground the moment it was issued.

European settlements and land claims already existed in the supposed Indian Reserve, and land-hungry settlers did not let the supposed frontier deter them from advancing new ones. Confrontations between these arriving claimants and the native inhabitants not infrequently came to atrocious resolutions.

By 1768, a new treaty pushed the line further west, effectively ceding to the colonists everything south of the Ohio River — present-day Kentucky and West Virginia.*


Map of the disputed area: the frontier moved from the yellow line along the Applachians to the orange line along the Ohio.

Ohio Country, the remaining territory in dark green shading north of the Ohio River, lay at the time of the American Revolution between the British garrison at Fort Detroit and colonial outposts along the nascent United States’s western marches, such as Fort Pitt (Pittsburgh).

The Lenape Indians in Ohio Country had a difficult calculation to make as to which side (if any) and how to support during the British-American fighting. The question split the Lenape internally.

In this cauldron, a strange morsel: Lenape who were Moravian** Christian converts had established a little missionary village. “Gnadenhutten” literally means “huts of grace”.

As one might imagine, Gnadenhutten and its sister settlements of pacifistic, Christian Lenape stood in a terribly ambiguous position in the brutal irregular war going on around them. Their fellow Lenape distrusted them because they were Christians; their fellow Christians, because they were Lenape.

Suspected by the British of being friendly enough with the American colonists to pass intelligence to their eventual murderers, these converts were in 1781 forced out of Gnadenhutten by British-allied Lenape to a new settlement aptly named “Captive Town”.

Starving there in the ensuing winter, the Moravians dispatched nearly 100 of their number back to Gnadenhutten to retrieve food abandoned at that settlement.

The Moravians were still at their village when a raiding party of Pennsylvanians descended on the town. Under no authority but the militiamen’s own festering grievances from the ongoing dirty war, the Pennsylvanians rounded up the Delaware and heartlessly declared their deaths.

Here were Indians who would pay for the violence Indians had done. And they were the best kind: the kind who didn’t fight back.

After spending a night praying and preparing for the end, the Moravian Lenape were systematically butchered on the morning of March 8† with mallet blows and scalpings.

Depending on your source, there were either 90 or 96 scalps to take that morning – women, men, and children in nearly equal proportions. At least one young boy survived the death squad and reported the massacre. Nor were all the militia themselves at peace with their deed.

one Nathan Rollins & brother had had a father & uncle killed took the lead in murdering the Indians, & Williamson was opposed to it; & Nathan Rollins had tomahawked nineteen of the poor Moravians, & after it was over he sat down & cried, & said it was no satisfaction for the loss of his father & uncle after all. — So related Holmes Jr. who was there — who was out on both Moravian campaigns, & Crawford’s. (Source)

Ah, Crawford’s campaign.

Later in 1782, another expedition of frontiersmen under Col. William Crawford set out “to destroy with fire and sword” a different Lenape settlement in Ohio. Instead, the Lenape met and routed the expedition, taking Crawford prisoner. He and the other captives from that misadventure would be burned to death, in part to avenge Gnadenhutten.

This, and whatever like tit for tat could be exacted in the field, was all the justice the Lenape could ever hope to have for the hecatomb of Gnadenhutten. American authorities declined to prosecute or sanction any members of the militia.


“Here triumphed in death ninety Christian Indians March 8, 1782″: inscription at the base of a memorial obelisk in Gnadenhutten. (cc) image from Mike Drabik.

* This might have been a nice solution, except that said treaty was made by the Iroquois — and only the Iroquois. For the Shawnee who actually lived and hunted in this cessation, this was two outside powers bartering their land. They didn’t mean to give it up on the say-so of the Iroquois. Another nasty frontier war followed, and even when that was won by Virginian militia, dissatisfied Shawnee continued targeting settlements in Kentucky; it’s partly for this reason that the Declaration of Independence slates King George III with having “endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

For more on the long and tragic Shawnee struggle in this period, see “‘We Have Always Been the Frontier’: The American Revolution in Shawnee Country” by Colin G. Calloway in American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Winter 1992).

** The Moravian Church‘s name harkens to its Czech origins. It’s a successor to the reform tradition of Jan Hus.

† There are a few cites out there for the day before or the day after March 8.

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1864: Bizoton Affair executions

Add comment February 13th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1864, a bustling market Saturday in Port-au-Prince, Haiti was enlivened with the public executions of eight Haitians for cannibalistic murder.

It was perhaps the signal event in a long-running campaign against vodou (voodoo, vaudoux) in whose service the murder was supposedly committed. The charge sheet had it that a man intent on an occult rite to propitiate the spirit world had slaughtered his own young niece and with several friends and family devoured her remains.

It made for some great copy.

“The eye of the law has penetrated into the midst of the bloody mysteries of this religious cannibalism, against which all the teachings of Catholicism have remained powerless,” breathed the world press in salacious revelry.


Sketch of the Bizoton Affair accused from Harper’s Weekly.

Within Haiti and without, vodou itself stood in the dock alongside its adherents. This was quite likely the very point of the trial.

The popular syncretic religion, heavily derived from Haitian slaves’ African roots, represented to Haitian elites and European observers alike all that was most barbarous about the one place that had run white slavers off. Just a few years ago as I write this, the U.S. televagelist Pat Robertson claimed that Haiti had come by its liberty due to a long-ago pact with the devil. That “pact” was a secret vodou ceremony launching the rebellion that became the Haitian Revolution.

Vodou persisted throughout the 19th century — it still persists today — among Haiti’s underclasses. Though frequently persecuted, vodou enjoyed the support and personal devotion of Emperor Faustin Soulouque, a former slave who ruled Haiti in the 1850s. When Soulouque was overthrown by Fabre Geffrard in a coup backed by Haiti’s elites, dissociating from vodou was one of his principal tasks.

As the history blogger Mike Dash explains in a detailed exploration of the case’s background, the deeply Catholic Geffrard had come to an arrangement with the Vatican that

committed the president to making Catholicism Haiti’s state religion — and the executions of February 1864, which so clearly demonstrated Christian “orthodoxy,” took place just weeks before the priests of the first mission to the country arrived from Rome. The trial was followed up, moreover, by a redrafting of Haiti’s Code Pénal, which increased the fines levied for “sorcery” sevenfold and added that “all dances and other practices that … maintain the spirit of fetishism and superstition in the population will be considered spells and punished with the same penalties.”

The original records of the trial are long lost, meaning the surviving accounts are typically the very partisan ones already convinced that pagan vodou cannibalism was rampant in Haiti. The British charge d’affaires Spenser St. John* has one of the best-known and most influential from his 1887 memoir of Haiti. (St. John attended the trial personally with other European dignitaries.)

St. John considered the case self-evident, and dwelt on its lurid revelations of the cannibalism scene — the flaying of little Claircine’s body, the palm of the hand savored by one cannibal as the choicest morsel. Cannibal testimony was St. John’s own choice morsel; in his view, Haitians extremely “sensitive to foreign public opinion” obstinately threw up a collective wall of silence on a practice that “every foreigner in Hayti” just knew was everywhere around him. But even when St. John published, after another 20-odd years past the Bizoton trial to gather evidence of anthropophagism, all that he managed to produce were two highly dubious second-hand accounts of white men allegedly sneaking into vodou ceremonies under cover of blackface and reporting the sacrifice of children. In the hands of Victorian writers prone to still further embroidery these few sketchy dispatches — and the notorious Bizoton case — would help to cement vodou’s sinister reputation.

St. John’s American counterpart was less impressed with the show trial, its moral panic scenario, and the thrashings administered to the accused to force their confessions.

It was not a fair trial; the evidence was extracted by torture. There was a report in circulation. It caused great excitement. Government took it up, and was determined to convict, because it was a seeming stain on their race. The verdict was forced.

Per St. John, the execution itself was badly botched. “The prisoners, tied in pairs” were “fired [at] with such inaccuracy” by their respective shooting teams “that only six fell wounded on the first discharge.” It took half an hour and much reloading to complete the executions, “and the incidents were so painful, that the horror at the prisoners’ crimes was almost turned into pity at witnessing their unnecessary sufferings.”

* As a consular official in a previous post on the opposite side of the globe, St. John accompanied two of the earliest ascents of Mount Kinabalu in Borneo; as a consequence, one of that mountain’s peaks bears his name.

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1943: France Bloch-Serazin, bombmaker

Add comment February 12th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1943, French resistance heroine France Bloch-Serazin was executed by the Germans in Hamburg.

Bloch-Serazin English Wikipedia entry | French) was a Jewish Communist who had supported the Spanish Republican cause, so she was right in line for some official persecution after the Germans blitzed France.

No longer employable as a chemist, she put her training to good use manufacturing explosives in her apartment. (Today, a plaque in the 19th arrondissement marks the building.)

Arrested by French police on May 16, 1942, she was condemned to death by a German military court but deported to Germany to suffer that punishment. Her husband, Fredo Serazin, was subsequently murdered by the Gestapo in prison.

As France Bloch-Serazin was born in 1913, she has recently enjoyed a renewed appreciation around the centennial of her birth, including the homage (French link) of her native city of Poitiers.

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