On this date in 1699, Madame Angelique-Nicole Tiquet lost her beautiful head … eventually.
The talk of every Parisian in the spring of 1699 for attempting the life of her husband, Angelique-Nicole Carlier had been well-known in Paris circles since the 1670s; coincidentally or not, that was a period when a perceived boom in “husband-killing” burgeoned the phenomenon into an outright moralpanic.
In those bygone days, Mademoiselle Carlier did her manslaying metaphorically, wielding only her limitless charms (not excluding a wealthy inheritance left by her industrious albeit untitled late father). This reputed “masterpiece of nature,” alas, exchanged her magnum opus for deniers on the livre when she succumbed to the suit of Claude Tiquet, a respected councilor of the Parlement of Paris so bedazzled by the young woman that he did not pause to consider her liberalities. Although quite past her in age, Tiquet won her hand with the promise of wealth so capacious that he wooed his intended with a bouquet of flowers studded with 15,000 l. worth of diamonds — and plied her aunt with still more largesse to advance his case.
But actually, Monsieur Tiquet was not wealthy. He stretched his fortune to acquire these amorous bribes as, let us say, investments in a happy future.
“Thus they united their fortunes for life, equally blinded as to each other,” George Henry Borrow wrote. “Such are the steps that lead to the most unhappy destinies.”
The wife’s prodigality — and her belated discovery as she blew through the putative family fortune that it was he who had married the money, and not she — soon brought domestic relations to a frosty pass.
Madame kindled a more edifying romance with a young captain of the guards; Monsieur strove in vain to check her moves with locked doors and snooping skulks. They separated to distinct wings of the family house, seeing one another only rarely — and in deathly silence — while each schemed his or her embittered schemes. Years they wasted at this intolerable impasse.
Despairing at last of being rid of either her horrible husband or his horrible debts, Madame Tiquet took her plotting far enough to compass her spouse’s death. “It is impossible,” she cried in one unguarded moment to a friend, “for me to have any enjoyment of myself while my husband lives, who is in too good health for me to look for such a quick revolution of fortune.”
So she engaged the services of her porter and of a freelance villain, and on the evening of April 8, 1699, these two assassins ambushed Claude Tiquet as he returned from a friend’s house and shot him three times. One ball only barely missed the heart. Tiquet survived, and he demanded those who came to his aid take him not to his own house but back to his friend’s. Of enemies, he said, “I have none but my own wife.”
This scenario speedily became the talk of Paris, and it did not take long for sentiment to coalesce against the wife. The hired assassins implicated Madame Tiquet in a years-long conspiracy to murder her husband whose previous installments — a missed ambush; a failed poisoning — had come to naught. Both Madame Tiquet and the porter, Jacques Moura, received a sentence of death, each appropriate to their respective stations: she to lose her neck, and he to swing from his.
There nevertheless remained some ambiguity about her real guilt, for the evidence was mostly circumstance and inference and colored by the purely titillating qualities of the public scandal. And then there was the fact that she was an attractive woman.
Angelique’s brother, a guardsman like the condemned woman’s lover, organized a petition for pardon. Surprisingly, even Monsieur Tiquet threw himself at Louis XIV‘s feet to plead for the life of his would-be murderess and the mother of his children. But it is said that when the Sun King wavered in his firmness, the Archbishop of Paris himself insisted upon the sentence. That prelate’s warning that save Madame Tiquet’s head should drop, no man could feel safe in his house must have fallen very ominously from the lips of the executive manager of the city’s confessionals.
Madame Tiquet heard the final failure of her appeals this day from an official who in the springtime of life had himself numbered among Mademoiselle Carlier’s suitors. And because the condemned would still not consent to confess the plot, that admirer was further obliged to order her to the cruel water torture to extract her statement.
In this procedure, the poor sinner is stretched out as on the rack, and eight pots of water painfully forced down the gullet. Madame Tiquet endured only a single pot before she calculated her inability to withstand the procedure and admitted all. Even so she continued to insist on the innocence of her lover: “I took care not to let him into the secret, else I had lost his esteem forever!”
These justice-satisfying preliminaries dispensed with, the condemned were conducted to the Place de Greve to suffer the penalty of the law. Thousands crowded the streets and windows, as was becoming the style for the execution spectacle of the era. Genuinely contrite or else wanting to play the part, she conversed humbly with her confessor and her condemned porter, exchanging absolutions and exhortations to die with Christian firmness.
Proceedings were delayed by a thunderstorm, although Madame Tiquet showed nothing but equanimity to wait at the foot of the scaffold while the weather passed. Jacques Moura hanged first: the undercard attraction.
Then the talk of all the town mounted those beams to give her own final performance, one remarked upon by all observers for its poise and stagecraft. The later memoirs of the Sanson family, written after that name inscribed itself on the guillotine during the French Revolution, dramatized the scene. It includes the regrettable inability of their own ancestor Charles Sanson de Longval* to equal the doomed woman’s grace under pressure.
When Angelique’s turn was come, she advanced, gracefully bowing to my ancestor, and holding out her hand, that he might help her to ascend the steps. He took with respect the fingers which were soon to be stiffened by death. Mdme. Tiquet then mounted on the scaffold with the imposing and majestic step which had always been admired in her. She knelt on the platform, said a short prayer, and, turning to her confessor,
“I thank you for your consolations and kind words; I shall bear them to the Lord.”
She arranged her head-dress and long hair; and, after kissing the block, she looked at my ancestor, and said:
“Sir, will you be good enough to show me the position. I am to take?”
Sanson de Longval, impressed by her look, had but just the strength to answer that she had only to put her head on the block.
Angelique obeyed, and said again:
“Am I well thus?”
A cloud passed before my ancestor’s eyes; he raised with both hands the heavy two-edged sword which was used for the purpose of decapitation, described with it a kind of semicircle, and let the blade fall with its full weight on the neck of the handsome victim.
The blood spurted out, but the head did not fall. A cry of horror rose from the crowd.
Sanson de Longval struck again; again the hissing of the sword was heard, but the head was not separated from the body. The cries of the crowd were becoming threatening.
Blinded by the blood which spurted at every stroke, Sanson brandished his weapon a third time with a kind of frenzy. At last the head rolled at his feet. His assistants picked it up and placed it on the block, where it remained for some time; and several witnesses asserted that even in death it retained its former calmness and beauty.
For an interesting consideration of the Tiquet affair, including her posthumous use in polemical melodrama either critiquing or celebrating her repentance of a life of iniquity, there’s a freely downloadable academic paper here. It’s by the author of this wild true-crime mystery unfolding elsewhere in France at just about the same time.
* Charles Sanson de Longval was the first Sanson executioner, the founder of the dynasty of headsmen. He had fallen into the dishonorable profession from a much more respectable social station and had been transplanted to Paris from Rouen only a few years before.
On this day in Kentucky in 1827, a plainly guilty murderer who was on to his third trial received an unconditional pardon. His name was Isaac Desha and his father, Joseph, was the state governor.
The murder was committed in 1824. Isaac Desha had separated from his wife, who was reportedly “terrified” of him, and was staying in Richard Dogget’s roadside tavern/inn on the border of Fleming County. On November 2 of that year, Francis Baker showed up and checked himself into the inn. A newspaperman from Mississippi, he was en route to New Jersey where he planned to get married. He was well-dressed and had a lot of luggage with him.
Baker wanted to visit a local man whom Desha also happened to know, and Desha volunteered to take him there. The two men set off together, Desha riding his bay horse and Baker on a gray mare, carrying two saddlebags.
They never arrived at their mutual acquaintance’s home.
Two hours later, a neighbor named Milton Ball noticed a gray mare, with saddle and bridle but no rider, wandering aimlessly on the highway. He caught it and was trying to find the owner when he encountered another riderless horse. This one he recognized as Desha’s. It had a saddle but no bridle.
Milton Ball got his brother, who took the horse to Desha’s residence. No one was home and he left it there.
As Ball was still trying to identify the gray horse’s owner, he came upon Isaac Desha walking down the road carrying two saddlebags. Desha identified the mare as his own property and took it from Ball, and they parted ways.
Awhile later, Francis Baker’s saddlebags were found empty and abandoned. The man never returned to the inn. The locals put two and two together and looked warily at Desha, but there was no hard evidence of foul play and he was the governor’s son, after all, so they said nothing.
That hard evidence turned up within a week, in the form of Francis Baker’s brutalized corpse — partially stripped, and hidden behind a fallen tree only yards from where Desha had been seen carrying the saddlebags. He’d been beaten with some blunt object and his throat was slit, and he had unusual stab wounds that were “four-square” shaped.
Fragments of a horse bridle and a whip were recovered from the scene; Desha owned a horse whip with a heavy handle that could have inflicted the injuries that killed Baker. Desha also owned a dagger that, it turned out, precisely matched the oddly shaped stab holes in Baker’s shirt.
The circumstantial evidence continued to pile up: the mare Desha had claimed as his own turned out to be Baker’s horse, and he also had Baker’s gold watch and the clothing and money that had been packed in Baker’s saddlebags. Desha claimed he’d randomly encountered two unknown men who’d sold the horse to him, and that he didn’t recognize it as stolen property, even though he’d been riding with Francis Baker only hours beforehand.
As for the watch, money and clothes, Desha didn’t even try to account for those.
He was arrested, and tried for murder in January 1825. The case was sensational and they had to move the trial elsewhere because the court determined Desha couldn’t get a fair trial locally. His father hired the finest defense attorney that there was, but the jury took only an hour to convict and recommended a death sentence.
Desha’s attorneys immediately appealed the verdict and sentence. One of the issues was that the sheriff had stayed with the jury during their deliberations, something Desha’s defense said was improper. The sheriff had presumably watched over the jury because a number of them got anonymous notes threatening to burn them in effigy if they voted to convict.
(Not threats to burn the jurors, mind. Threats to burn their effigies.)
The appeals court judge, one George “Peg Leg” Shannon, agreed with the defense and overturned the verdict. The fact that he was good friends with Desha’s father the governor had nothing to do with it, he said, and the outrage among the citizenry and angry editorials in the newspapers would never make him admit otherwise.
Desha got his second trial in September 1825 and got convicted and sentenced to death again. Once again the case was overturned on appeal, this time because the prosecution had not proved Francis Baker’s murder took place in Fleming County like the indictment said.
The local papers called the trial a “farce” and ranted about corruption within the judiciary. The Winchester Gazette editorialized, “It would seem that justice has either bade adieu to Kentucky, or that her judges are the most corrupt and desperate men living.”
But there was nothing to be done about it: Desha would have to be tried a third time. He was, in February 1826, well over a year after the murder, and the third jury convicted him too.
Desha despaired over his third conviction and attempted suicide in July of that year, slitting his throat in his cell. He very nearly succeeded, and the surgeon who brought him back from the brink had to put in a silver tube to reinforce his severed windpipe. For the rest of his life he could speak only in a whisper. The tube needed to be removed regularly for cleaning, and every time this happened Desha endured a terrible feeling of suffocation.
whereas the whole of the evidence against the said Isaac B. Desha being circumstantial, and from much of it being irreconcileable, I have no doubt of his being innocent of the foul charge; therefore is an object worthy of executive clemency.
Now, know ye, that in consideration of the premises, and by virtue of the power vested in me by the constitution, I have thought proper, and do hereby grant to the said Isaac B. Desha a full and free pardon for the supposed offence, as alleged against him in the bill of indictment …
Given under my hand at Frankfort, on the 18th day of June, A.D. 1827, and in the 36th year of the Commonwealth.
By the Governor.
Desha’s murder conviction was once more under appeal, but his suicide attempt had left him in such poor health that a sympathetic doctor signed an order saying keeping him in jail was endangering his life. He was released on bond pending the outcome of his appeal.
In March 1827, his lawyers tried to get the murder case dismissed on procedural grounds. Request denied. In June they filed for dismissal again, because the court had failed to seat a full panel of impartial jurors. (Desha used all his juror challenges to help keep the count down.)
Request denied again, and what’s worse, the court decided Isaac Desha’s health had improved enough that he could withstand the rigors of jail. He was remanded into custody.
Governor Desha still had one last card up his sleeve, and it was a trump. On June 18, the same day Isaac was ordered back behind bars, his father rose in court and issued him an unconditional pardon on the spot.
Joseph Desha committed political suicide when he pardoned his son. Isaac’s crime, and the obvious favors afforded him by the justice system, severely damaged the governor’s reputation.
Contrary to popular belief, Joseph didn’t resign after pardoning his son. He quietly finished out his term, retired to his farm and never entered politics again. He died in 1842.
As for Isaac Desha, there’s a legend that he moved to Honduras or Hawaii and has descendants still living there. In fact, although he did head west after his release from jail, he never made it further than Texas.
Like a lot of pioneers, he surely hoped he could put his former troubles behind him. But Isaac Desha carried trouble with him: in Texas, he allegedly robbed and killed a fellow traveler in a crime remarkably similar to Francis Parker’s murder. He was charged with murder yet again and this time he didn’t have an influential father to protect him.
Desha escaped the death penalty one last time, though, by dying of a fever on August 13, 1828, the day before his murder trial was supposed to start. He was twenty-six.
On this date in 1923, Daniel Cooper was hanged in Wellington, New Zealand for murder.
Cooper and his second wife — his first died under suspicious circumstances; many people suspected Cooper of poisoning her — had a racket as a “health specialist” in the Wellington suburb of Newlands. Their “rest care home” attracted police surveillance as a front for baby-farming/infanticide.
Baby-farming involved taking a payment from a new mother to give up her child with the wink-wink understanding that the child would be placed for “adoption.” Occasionally, this adoption might even happen; in general, however, the mother’s fee would not be enough to maintain the child for any length of time, and the newborn would either be murdered outright or kept in such meager care as to succumb to neglect.
Representative instance from Daniel Cooper’s case: a pregnant woman named Mary McLeod paid £50 for Cooper to arrange her child’s adoption by an unnamed couple from Palmerston North. McLeod delivered the child on October 12, 1922, at the Coopers’ farm, where both mother and daughter were cared for for a few days. On October 20, Cooper told McLeod that the Palmerston North family had collected the infant. Nobody ever saw it again. Cooper also had two children with a lover named Beatrice Beadle, and these were also “adopted” to parts unknown.
Daniel was finally arrested on December 30, 1922 for performing an abortion (completely illegal in New Zealand at the time), and the ensuing investigation turned up evidence of 10 additional abortions and, eventually, three children’s bodies on the couple’s property. Prosecutors would eventually argue that Mary McLeod’s child was one of these.
While Daniel Cooper was easily convicted of murder, his wife Martha Cooper was adroitly defended by former Liberal M.P. T.M. Wilford — who characterized the wife as “a soulless household drudge without a mind of her own,” and won her acquittal on that basis.
At 8 a.m. on June 16 (shortly after releasing a confession which likewise exonerated Martha), Daniel Cooper was walked with his eyes tight shut to the gallows at Terrace Gaol,* hooded, and hanged.
Original newspaper coverage of this case can be perused freely at New Zealand’s Papers Past database of pre-1945 clippings.
On this day in 1897, Choka Ebin (Eben), a full-blooded Creek Indian, was executed in Perry, Oklahoma for the murder of Laura Anthony. He’d killed her just three weeks before, on May 23, and was arrested that same day. The law required Ebin’s own tribe to try and sentence him, and his own nearest kin to perform the execution — a precaution against the execution initiating a blood feud.
Ebin remained free between his conviction and his execution. He was supposed to die on June 4, but sent word that he was too sick to ride to town, and got a ten-day reprieve. On June 14 he dutifully appeared and turned himself in to the authorities.
He was placed on his knees on a chair, and his father and brother, Riley and Palko, took positions twelve paces back and fired their Winchester rifles.
She became a housekeeper for William Thomson, a man almost twice her age.
Unsurprisingly, they ended up in matrimony.
Unsurprisingly, that May-December match ended in grief.
Ellen’s relationship with the younger marine John Harrison brought the conflict to a head; the husband was murdered in October of 1886. On the eve of the hanging, Harrison attempted to protect his paramour by claiming sole responsibility for the crime … but it was too little, too late. Both were hanged at Boggo Road Gaol.
This killer’s strange m.o. was to entice young women with the promise of divining their fortune in a magic mirror.
His victims were two young women unwise enough to accede to his request to bind their hands on the pretext that the wrong gesture would ruin the spell. With such lamblike naivete, what could Bichel do but clobber the poor maids over the head, strip them down, and butcher them still-living — slicing open their bowels, and cracking their breastbones open with a wedge.
Torture having recently been outlawed with the Napoleonic conquest, Bichel was pressured into coming clean by the novel expedient of moving his questioning ever-closer to the scenes of his crimes — to the Regendorf town hall, at first, and thence to his own home where the two exhumed bodies were stretched out before him.
Visibly affected, Bichel admitted all.
“I opened her breast and with a knife cut through the fleshy parts of the body,” Bichel said. “Then I arranged the body as a butcher does beef, and hacked it with an axe into pieces of a size to fit the hole which I had dug up in the mountain for burying it. I may say that while opening the body I was so greedy that I trembled, and could have cut out a piece and eaten it.”
It was not cannibalism but cupidity that cut Bichel’s spree short: he was foolish enough to sell the women’s distinctive stolen clothes. (An occasional petty thief before he turned Ripper, Bichel said he’d been seduced into homicide by the fine clothes of his first victim.)
The sentence of breaking on the wheel from the feet upwards, which had been pronounced in accordance with the laws still in force, was commuted to beheading. This was done, not for the sake of sparing the criminal, whose crimes deserved the extremest punishment, but out of regard to the moral dignity of the state, which ought not, as it were, to vie with a murderer in cruelty.
On this date in 1866, mass murderer Anton Probst (sometimes called “Antoine”) was hanged in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He made national headlines in its time, but today he is forgotten except among serious students of violent crime.
Probst was a native of Germany, the son of a carpenter. He later claimed he had a normal childhood and “never did anything wrong” until after he had left his home country.
He moved to the United States in 1863, in the middle of the Civil War, and became a professional “bounty jumper”: he would join up with a Union Army regiment, collect the $300 enlistment bonus, desert as soon as he could, then enlist with another regiment and start the cycle over again. He made a tidy living for himself this way until 1865, when he accidentally shot his thumb off and was discharged from the military for good.
Probst squandered his enlistment bounties on liquor and and rapidly fell into post-discharge penury. This was why, in the fall of 1865, he hired himself out as a farmhand to Christopher Deering, an Irish immigrant who lived in a rural part of Philadelphia with his wife and five children.
Deering offered Probst a salary of $15 a month plus room and board. Probst quit after only a few weeks, though, not being accustomed to honest labor.
He soon fell ill and, without a source of income, wound up in the workhouse. In dire straits, he returned to the Deering farm on February 2, 1866 and begged for his job back. And, although Probst’s behavior from before had given Christopher’s wife the creeps, the farmer took pity on him and re-hired old Thumbless.
Things went well for the next two months. But unbeknownst to his employer, Probst had thought of another way to get money.
Christopher’s nearest neighbor, Abraham Everett, lived a quarter of a mile away. Everett subscribed to several local weekly newspapers and, every weekend, Christopher would send his son to borrow the previous week’s editions.
One Saturday, the boy never showed up.
Nor did he arrive on Sunday.
Or for the next several days after.
By Wednesday, Everett was getting worried and decided to go to the Deering place and see if they were all right. He found the farm deserted and the horses inside the barn, nearly dead of thirst and starvation. After giving food and water to the distressed animals, he went and looked through the window into the Deering family’s house and saw it had been ransacked.
Seriously alarmed now, Everett forced the window open and climbed inside, and found every room in the house in a state of disarray. In the bedrooms, the beds had been torn and flipped upside down, dresser drawers had been rifled through and clothes were scattered everywhere. There was not a soul to be seen.
At this point, Abraham Everett went off to get help, summoning another neighbor and then the police. Inside the barn they found something Everett had missed while he was helping the horses: Christopher Deering’s body, partially covered in hay, alongside the body of a cousin visiting from New Jersey.
“His head,” crime historian Harold Schechter reports in his book Psycho USA: Famous American Killers You Never Heard Of, “was crushed to pieces, almost to powdered bone, and his throat was cut … from ear to ear.” Christopher’s cousin had similar injuries. A search of the barn turned up the bodies of Christopher’s wife, Julia, and four of the couple’s five children, stacked in the corncrib.
All of them had their throats cut and their skulls bashed in.
The only survivor in the family was the oldest child, ten-year-old William Deering, who had been staying with his grandparents at the time of the murders. And so the family line did not die out: according to this Philadelphia Inquirer article, William has 60 descendants.
The murder weapons were lying around bloodstained and in plain sight on the property: a hammer, a small hatchet and a full-sized ax. Hours later, the police found the last body hidden in a haystack a few hundred yards from the barn: seventeen-year-old Cornelius Carey, one of the Deerings’ farmhands.
The other farmhand was missing and, under the circumstances, had to be viewed as the prime suspect in this massacre. Nobody knew much about him, but the neighbors recalled that missing right thumb, spoke poor English with an accent, and was called something like “Anthony.”
Fortunately, he would not prove hard to find. “It might be supposed,” Harold Schechter says,
that a man who had methodically slaughtered eight people, including three prepubescent children and a fourteen-month-old infant, would lose no time in putting as much distance between himself and the crime scene as possible. For all his low cunning, however, Anton Probst was incapable of prudent calculation. Indeed, from all available evidence, he thought of nothing beyond the gratification of his immediate physical needs.
Hours after the murders, Probst was no further away than a house of ill repute on Front Street in Philadelphia, where he spent the night with a $3 prostitute. For the next few days he hung around his favorite bars drinking, making occasional excursions to pawn items he’d stolen from the Deering farm. He was in no hurry to leave.
Only the day after Probst’s grisly crimes were discovered, a police officer named James Dorsey spotted him strolling around near Market Street. Something about his bearing, and the way his hat was pulled low over his eyes, made the lawman suspicious. He walked up to him and noticed the stranger’s right thumb was missing.
Dorsey pulled Probst’s hat off to have a look at his face and said, “Good evening.” Probst mumbled a reply and Dorsey, noting the accent, said, “You’re a Dutchman?”
“No,” Probst answered. “Me a Frenchman.”
“You are, are you? Take a walk with me.” Dorsey grabbed the murderer’s arm and hauled him off to the nearest station house. There the police searched him and determined he was wearing Christopher Deering’s clothes, and carrying the farmer’s snuffbox and pistol. Probst had left Elizabeth Dolan’s carpetbag at a tavern earlier that day; it contained a number of small items, including cheap children’s toys, all of which were from the Deering farm.
The police had to transfer Probst from the Philadelphia City Jail to Moyamensing State Prison for his own safety, after a would-be lynch mob stormed the jail. Probst claimed he had only killed Cornelius Carey and tried to blame the other murders on an imaginary accomplice; at his trial (which began on April 25, less than three weeks after the murders) his lawyers argued that the case against him was strictly circumstantial and not proved beyond a reasonable doubt. But the trial’s outcome was clear from the beginning. The jury deliberated for only twenty minutes before convicting.
Death row agreed with Probst; he seemed at ease and actually gained twelve pounds in the five weeks between his trial and execution. On the morning of May 7, exactly one month after the murders, he finally confessed that his accomplice didn’t exist and he’d acted alone. He was “quiet, undemonstrative, cool and unembarrassed” as he told his story, “without the least trace of shame or remorse.”
You can read it all here in his very own words, or below, in mine. At first his intention had just been to rob the family of everything they had, then flee. But he found himself unable to accomplish this because there were always too many people around.
About a week before the murders, it occurred to Probst that perhaps murder might be necessary to facilitate the robbery. At first he thought he could just kill Christopher Deering, but as he mulled the matter over he decided the rest of the household would have to die as well.
First to go was Cornelius Carey as they were working together in the field. Then Probst went into the barn and lured the others in one by one, killing them as they each came inside: eight-year-old John Deering, then the mother, Julia, then the rest of the children: six-year-old Thomas, then four-year-old Annie, and finally the baby, Emma. Probst estimated that it all took about half an hour.
Christopher Deering was off picking up that visiting cousin from the ferry, and they didn’t arrive back at the farm until the afternoon. Probst was waiting for them. While the guest Elizabeth Dolan went into the house, Probst told Christopher one of the animals was sick and he had to go inside the barn. There he killed him like the others, then called Miss Dolan to the stable. She was the last one to die.
If we are to believe the killer’s account, the victims all died quickly and quietly, and did not suffer. None of them, he said, so much as cried out after the first blow.
Once finished, Probst tore the house upside down looking for things to steal, washed, shaved, changed out of his bloody clothes and put on some of Christopher’s, and had himself a snack of bread and butter. At sunset he headed off to town.
When asked by Chief Franklin why on earth he had perpetrated such an atrocity, Probst gave a little shrug. “I only wanted the money,” he said. “I killed the boy Cornelius first so that he could not tell on me. I killed the two oldest children so they would not afterwards identify me. I killed the two youngest as I did not wish to leave them in the house alone without someone to care for them. I had no ill feeling to anyone in the family. They always treated me well.”
Probst submitted meekly to his execution, which went off without a hitch. The public understandably rejoiced at his death and the New York Times, in its report of how Probst “shuffled off his mortal and disreputable coil,” called him “the greatest criminal of the nineteenth century.”
Probst was permitted to write to his family in Germany. He told them of “the terrible fate which has befallen me,” admitted to the eight slayings, and blamed his bad behavior on his experiences in the Union Army, where he “heard nothing but cursing and swearing, and soon became a sharer in every wickedness.”
After his death, Probst’s body was handed over to the physicians at Jefferson Medical College, who subjected it to a series of bizarre experiments with electricity. When they finished with their fun they performed an autopsy. Probst’s brain turned out to be unusually small, almost a full pound lighter than average. What, if anything, this has to do with his apparent psychopathy is anyone’s guess. His head and arm were later displayed in the Jefferson Medical College museum.
On this date in 1921, Great Britain hanged one of its own paramilitaries in Ireland. William Mitchell was, in fact, the only member of the reviled Black and Tans executed during the Irish War of Independence.*
Was Mitchell hanged for political expediency? Did he even commit the murder for which he stood condemned?
Kelly was kind enough to talk with Executed Today about exhuming a dead soul.
ET: What led you to take an interest in this hanging?
DJK: A third cousin of mine, who shares my interest in family history research, asked me to help her verify her late father’s claim that they were related to a Black and Tan who had been hanged for murder.
I knew that the ‘Tans’ were temporary policemen recruited in England from ex-combatants of The Great War and sent to Ireland to bolster the ranks of the beleaguered Royal Irish Constabulary during the Irish War of Independence. It took me no time at all to discovered that only one Black and Tan — indeed only one member of the entire British Crown Forces — had been executed during that conflict, and that indeed he shared a surname with my cousin.
However, I could find only the briefest of mentions of him in any accounts of that bitter struggle for Ireland’s freedom. It took me and my cousin two years to track down the elusive official case papers, to establish exactly who Mitchell was, and to tell his hitherto untold story. To date however, we still have not established a firm link with my cousin’s family.
The Black and Tans are of course still notorious in Ireland and elsewhere. In this book you’re complicating their story quite a bit, making at least this one Tan a sympathetic character. What sort of audience reception has Running with Crows had? Do you find there’s a lot of resistance to the story you have to tell? For that matter, did you have any misgivings to overcome in writing it?
You are right about their notoriety. The ‘Tans’ were bored, drunk and indisciplined during the short period of their service in Ireland. They were also poorly managed and allowed to run amok, robbing and assaulting the Irish population. There is no evidence however to support the popular myth that they included a greater number of criminals than has any police force before or since. They were disillusioned and battle-hardened men who were unable to find employment back in the ‘land fit for heroes’.
Ironically, one lone reviewer of my book has accused me of not making Mitchell sympathetic enough. It was not my intention though to create sympathy for this flawed and tragic man or to turn him into a folk hero. However, whilst I do not think he was the most honourable of men, I am not persuaded he deserved to hang.
I was indeed wary of uncovering this controversial case, especially as folks in Ireland, my own relatives included, are still sensitive and emotional about the events of the 1920s. The accepted view is that the old IRA were the heroes and the ‘Tans’ were the baddies. Few people realise however that at least a quarter of the Black and Tans were Irishmen, as indeed was Mitchell. However, I am delighted to have received highly positive reviews, from ‘both sides of the divide’, that is from an IRA re-enactment group as well as from supporters and historians of the Royal Irish Constabulary. Moreover, a theatrical production company, based in the town where the murder took place, and where people still remember and sympathise with the murdered magistrate’s family, has adapted my book to a stage play, which will debut there on 15 June at the Dunlavin Arts Festival. They have also kindly invited me to hold an author talk at the festival on the 16th June.
William Mitchell was hanged for killing a magistrate named Robert Dixon. Who was Robert Dixon and why was he a target during the war?
Robert Gilbert Dixon was an Anglo-Irish gentleman; a gentleman farmer who acted as an auctioneer at the local livestock auctions and who served as a district magistrate on the local circuit. He and his wife were descended from noble and philanthropic English forebears, and indeed Robert Dixon was respected in his community for his generosity shown both to his neighbours and to the police.
During the conflict though, both magistrates and police were viewed by the Nationalists as instruments of the occupying power (the British) and as such were prime targets for assassination by the IRA. Dixon’s murder was not a political killing however. He was shot dead, and his war hero son seriously wounded, during the course of a robbery at his home.
This post-war era saw the erosion of the class system and marked the beginning of the end for ‘the old order’. Socialism was gaining popularity and the working classes were shrugging off the idea that they should ‘know their place’. The awful loss of life, mainly through mis-management of the war, meant that many had lost respect for, and indeed were resentful of, the privileged classes. A truce was now imminent in Ireland and so the ‘Tans’, who were being paid per day what the regular Irish constables earned in a week, saw their lucrative employment coming to an end, and meanwhile, in Dunlavin, the Dixon family were conspicuously wealthy …
Coming at last to the main character here, who was William Mitchell? Why was he serving in the Black and Tans, and why did he end up at the end of a noose?
Contrary to what some commentators on the conflict have written, Mitchell was not English but Irish. He was a Dublin-born former professional soldier, who had served King and Empire, both in India and in the trenches of the Western Front. He was the son of Joseph Mitchell, a London-born soldier; a respectable man who had fought in the Boer War and who had married a Dublin Protestant girl.
Another myth, that of the privileged position of those in the ‘Protestant ascendancy’ in Ireland, is dispelled by William Mitchell’s impoverished upbringing in Dublin’s Monto district, which was not only Ireland’s, but indeed Europe’s, biggest slum and red-light district. William Mitchell was a man who did not respect authority — some might say, with good reason. When two masked intruders forced their way into the Dixon household and killed the magistrate during a bungled robbery, and when one of the ‘Tans’ shot himself dead at the local barracks the following day, it was believed the dead ‘Tan’ was the shooter, and so Mitchell was then arrested as his accomplice.
This hanging occurred just as London was determining to wind things down in Ireland; later that June, Prime Minister Lloyd George proposed peace talks. As a political sop, how important domestically within Ireland was William Mitchell’s execution in June 1921? Did it even register? Had he been spared, would that have affected at all the progress towards a truce?
Ah, you have put your finger on the nub of the issue.
As ill-disciplined and unruly as the temporary constables were, there was another arm of the Black and Tans which was far more undisciplined. The Auxiliaries were demobilised officers who had been engaged ostensibly to act as an officer cadre for the temporary constables but who had instead formed themselves into hit squads and set about abducting, torturing and killing suspects without due process of law. It was the Auxiliaries who were identified with some of the worst atrocities of the conflict, including the destruction of whole villages and towns and even of the murder of the mayor of Cork.
Several Auxiliaries had been tried for murder but acquitted, usually because crucial prosecution witnesses had ‘disappeared’. One indicted auxiliary, who was a decorated war hero, but most likely also a psychopath, and was head of the self-designated ‘murder squad’ based in Dublin Castle, was facing his second murder trial. By April 1921, the world’s press were united in condemning the British administration in Ireland for letting loose this uncontrolled ‘pseudo gendarmerie’ upon the Irish population. The number of Republicans who would be executed would run to two dozen, yet thus far, no member of the British Crown Forces had been convicted for any atrocity.
The Americans and the heads of the Commonwealth nations were demanding fair play. The British public were revolted by the way the conflict was being managed and now no less a personage than King George V stepped into the arena and demanded that Lloyd George‘s government show even handedness in the way it dealt with both rebel and law enforcer. Another acquittal was fully expected in the trial of the twice-tried Auxiliary, who had carried out his grisly and murderous duty on behalf of his government, but then along came the hapless Constable Mitchell, a ‘difficult’ Irishman who had allegedly killed, not an Irish rebel, but a magistrate; an Englishman and a representative of the establishment.
The outcome in the April trial of the Auxiliary, whose defence costs (equating in today’s values to £17,600) were met from the personal funds of Hamar Greenwood, Chief Secretary for Ireland, was an acquittal, as expected.
Mitchell’s swift trial a couple of days later, by court martial (so no right of appeal) attracted little publicity. He went stoically to the scaffold, leaving behind him a 23-year-old widow and a seven-week-old baby daughter.
Political events moved fairly swiftly thereafter, so it is hard to judge whether his execution had much effect on the progress of Ireland’s achieving independence. The focus of public attention was taken up next with the internal struggles leading up to the Civil War. It seems Mitchell’s execution had little effect in the grand scheme of things.
So, did Mitchell kill the magistrate? Was he even present at the crime scene or was he a sacrificial lamb, slaughtered to offset criticism of Lloyd George’s administration in Ireland? I have presented all there is to know of this man’s life and death, as found in his military and police records, trial transcripts etcetera, and whether or not he killed the magistrate for whose murder he was hanged, or whether this was an awful miscarriage of justice, I leave for the reader to judge.
What happened to Mitchell’s family afterwards? And all these years later, what do the descendants think about their ancestor’s execution, and about the work you did with it?
I felt I could not let Mitchell’s story end with his execution. Since this is a novel closely based on a true and tragic story, I felt the reader would want to know what happened next. I know I certainly did, so I continued my research, and my narrative, to recount what had happened to many of the players in the story, and this may be found in the book’s epilogue.
Mitchell’s baby daughter lived into her nineties, always believing her father had died a hero in the course of his police service. Her respectable and courageous widowed mother did not want her little girl to grow up with any sort of stigma. Other family members knew of Mitchell’s fate however. When I tracked down his living descendants, I was cautious of the sensitivities surrounding my exposing Mitchell’s history. However, the family were keen for the full story to come out, and moreover they provided me with photographs of Mitchell, for which I am most grateful, as they enabled me to put a face to a man who hitherto had been simply a statistic.
This is not the end of the Mitchell story, however. His mortal remains (which are amongst the few still buried within the precincts of Dublin’s Mountjoy Gaol) will one day be exhumed when planned re-development of the gaol is commenced. When that day comes, my cousin and I will press for his re-interment in a local cemetery. Mitchell may not warrant the hero’s funeral accorded the Republicans who have all be disinterred from Mountjoy, but I believe he deserves at least a Christian burial.
The “Schoolgirl Strangler” used the same modus operandi on all of his four victims: strangled, gagged with their own clothing, the arms and legs tied after death, and their bodies dumped with little effort at concealment.
Born in 1899, Sodeman was raised in an unhappy home with a violently abusive father. He ran away at the first chance he got.
He went on to get in trouble with the law, for theft-related offenses and prison escape, and the authorities deemed him an “incorrigible rogue” — which was less charming than it sounds.
By his late twenties, Sodeman seemed to have settled down. He worked various laboring jobs, married in 1926 and had a daughter two years later. When sober he was a mild enough man, but under the influence of drink — which was often — he changed into a different person altogether.
However, his marriage was loving and happy, and he adored his little girl and his dog. Whatever else Sodeman might have done, he never mistreated his family.
His law-abiding life, however, didn’t last.
His first victim was twelve-year-old Mena Alexandra Griffiths, whom Sodeman kidnapped, raped and strangled on November 9, 1930. Her body wasn’t found for two days. She was the only victim who was sexually assaulted.
A month later the police arrested a suspect, a truck driver named Robert McMahon. Mena’s younger sister identified him, and he was committed for trial. Ultimately, after two and a half months in custody, he was released for lack of evidence.
But on January 10, 1931, while McMahon was still in jail, Sodeman struck again, abducting and strangling Hazel Wilson, a sixteen-year-old who suffered from tuberculosis. Hazel was last seen standing near her home, smoking a cigarette and horsing around with an unidentified young man. Her body turned up in a nearby vacant lot the next day.
The police put out appeals for the young man to come forward and “assist with their inquiries,” and even offered a reward for information leading to his identification, but their efforts came to nothing.
Hazel’s father, who reportedly had a violent temper, was looked at as a possible suspect in his daughter’s death, but he was cleared.
Although the police recognized the similarities in the Griffiths and Wilson crimes and realized it was probably the same perp in both cases, they had nothing concrete to go on. Both homicide investigations stagnated.
On January 1, 1935, after a four-year dry spell, Sodeman abducted Ethel Bradshaw while she was out buying ice cream, and strangled her. She was twelve. He was her next-door neighbor and sometimes had tea with her family.
Sodeman was actually questioned by the police and admitted he had spoken to Ethel on the day she disappeared, but he said he’d left her alive, and nobody pressed him about it.
Instead, investigators focused on a teenage boy who had given contradictory statements about his movements on the day of the murder. He was arrested and charged with killing Ethel, but there was no evidence against him and the case was dismissed after a couple of days.
Left to right: Mena Griffiths, Ethel Bradshaw, and June Rushmer. (Not pictured: Hazel Wilson.)
Exactly eleven months later, on December 1, he killed his last and youngest victim, six-year-old June Rushmer.
This victim he also knew slightly: she was a co-worker’s daughter, and Sodeman took it in his mind to kill her after she asked him for a ride on his bicycle.
(The Bradshaws and the Rushmers couldn’t afford tombstones for their daughters. It wasn’t until more than seventy-five years later that the Australian Funeral Directors Association donated bronze plaques to mark their graves.)
It should be noted that Sodeman was drunk at the time of all four murders. “When in this state,” he reflected later, “thoughts would go through my mind concerning men, women and children whom I disliked … I would feel the desire to even it up, not caring what happened to them, but I would shake it off. As soon as the liquor wore off I could reason properly and would wipe it all off.”
At the time of the Rushmer homicide, Sodeman was part of a laboring crew repairing roadways.
Shortly after June’s murder, one of his coworkers joked that he’d seen Sodeman near the crime scene. Sodeman became so angry and defensive that the others got suspicious and went to the police. The cops hauled him away from his work site for questioning.
This time the police had finally got the right man. After twelve hours of interrogation, Sodeman confessed to everything in great detail, describing how he would link his thumbs together to get a better grip on the throats of his victims. He correctly identified the exact type of candy he’d used to lure the girls. He also admitted to the attempted murders of two other children.
At trial, Sodeman’s attorney had little choice but to go with an insanity defense. Sodeman certainly had the genetic background for it:
His great-grandfather died of “inflammation of the brain.”
His grandfather died in a mental hospital.
So did his father.
Annnnnd his mother suffered from serious short-term memory loss.
Sodeman himself had bouts of depression throughout his life, and he sustained a serious brain injury years before the murders started when he fell off a horse.
According to author Ivan Chapman, at Sodeman’s trial,
Three doctors — two of them Government medical officers — examined Sodeman and gave their individual opinions. One thought he had a brain disorder that flared when he drank alcohol; another decided he was neither conscious of, nor understood, what he was doing; the third believed Sodeman was not responsible for what he did. All three doctors backed down, however, when Sodeman’s confession was produced in court. They agreed that if it accurately described the facts of the crime, then Sodeman must have appreciated the nature and quality of his acts; none of them was prepared to declare him certifiably insane.
The verdict was, inevitably, sane and guilty as charged.
Although he did appeal his conviction, that went nowhere and Sodeman himself seems to have welcomed death. He said he felt it was necessary for him to die, because if he lived he believed he would kill again.
Sodeman spent the last afternoon of his life playing draughts with another condemned man, then slept soundly during the night. On the scaffold the next morning, when asked if he had anything to say for himself, Sodeman replied simply, “No, sir.” He died without any fuss.
His widow reverted to her maiden name after his death, hoping to escape the notoriety, and raised their daughter alone. She never remarried, and died in the 1980s.
The autopsy did uncover something interesting: it turned out Sodeman had suffered from leptomeningitis, a degenerative disease of the brain. When a person with this condition abuses alcohol, their brain can become seriously inflamed, which can cause irrational behavior among other symptoms.
Needless to say, the finding casts serious doubts on Sodeman’s ability to control his actions at the time of the murders. In fact, according to one criminal psychologist, Sodeman wouldn’t have even been found fit to stand trial if his crimes had occurred today.
The July 13, 1793 Wyndham (Conn.) Heraldquotes the last dying words of Ezra Mead, hanged May 31 at Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
I, Ezra Mead, aged forty years, was born at Stamford in the State of Connecticut, of honest and credible parents, with whom I lived until I was about ten years of age; when I was bound as an apprentice to learn the Cooper’s trade. After having served the time of my apprenticeship, I went to Fish Kill and married my wife Catherine Rogers; since which time I have been in several parts of the World working at my trade, in order to get something in an honest way by my industry for the support of my wife and children, who resided in the town of Fish Kill. Having returned to my family, I resided with them, but being afflicted by a certain neighbor of mine, in words and actions, was driven by turns to drinking to excess; and in one of these fits of insanity, I committed the crime for which I suffer. But I declare to the world, that I was not willfully guilty of the crime aforesaid; at that present moment I might have suspected he had injured me, but not being master of my reason, have been guilty of what I never intended to have done, as appeared in the course of my trial. And I do further declare that I never have been guilty of any other crime deserving such punishment, as has been represented or reported by many evil minded persons since my imprisonment. And that I forgive all mankind, and hope the Lord and they will forgive me, and that they will take warning by my untimely end. Farewell. Ezra Mead.