Posts filed under 'Murder'

1865: William Corbett and Patrick Fleming

1 comment December 15th, 2014 Ramicles

(Thanks to Ramicles, the pseudonymous 19th century Chicago correspondent of the Providence Press, for this eyewitness account of a December 15, 1865 hanging off two hired assassins. It appeared under a December 16 dateline in that paper’s December 21, 1865 edition. -ed.)

I have promised the numerous readers of the EVENING PRESS a description of a death scene, and I will keep my word. But believe me, it is no welcome task; my heart is not in it. On my mind one solemn moral is impressed — one moral only: the terrible reality of crime, the terrible reality of punishment. One naturally follows the other, as night follows day.

At the hour of three, lacking ten minutes, on yesterday afternoon, I saw two men, William Corbett and Patrick Fleming, take a formal farewell of this world and enter an untried existence. Those who love to linger on the few hours which the wretched men passed, in the anticipation of that final scene, may do so. I will not. They knew that they had incurred the law’s extreme penalty, and must suffer that penalty. There is a disposition on the part of doomed men to “die game;” and much of the apparent heartlessness is bravado only.

As I have said in a former letter, Fleming has for several days seemed indifferent or defiant. Whether he had faint hopes of pardon, I know not; but there seemed to be something in his manner that showed his reliance to some extent on the mobid [sic] humanitarianism of the age, (as exhibited in the case of the Malden murderer Greene,) and had not finally made up his mind for death.

Those who had not made human nature a study, were therefore unprepared to see the difference in demeanor of the two men, on the scaffold. Corbett, who, since his sentence, has seemed to realize his solemn situation, and has been much depressed, because, as his last moments drew near, cheerful and even jubilant, and the gloomy Court House echoed his hilarious merriment, which was startlingly horrible, as wild laughter wakened in the throat of death. There is something grotesquely awful in hearing a man laugh while the rope is around his neck. (The Republican reporter styled that death “ecstacies!” [sic] I had always supposed that ecstacy was less boisterous; but I am ready at all times to receive new ideas and novel definitions. — Who ever knew a man in Chicago to be wrong? “If any, speak, for him have I offended.”) The conduct of Flemming [sic] was in striking contrast. He seemed chilled with the thought of death, and was so lost in contemplation that he scarcely heard the voice of the clergyman admonishing him to pray.

He indeed repeated the words of the prayer, but so unconsciously that it seemed only mechanical. His eyes were vacantly staring, and his countenance was ghastly in its expression of deadly fear. Was that gaze fixed on vacancy alone? Was it a retrospective vision of the soul gazing on itself, and with reversed sight recalling all the past — the hours of childhood — the fleeting moments of early manhood — the years whose only noteworthy incidents were damning deeds of midnight robbery — that night of blood — that death-cry of his victim — the fatal shot — the flight — the vision of justice and the avenging Nemises [sic] following his track — the arrest — the trial — the death sentence, and the lingering death of expectation preceding its infliction? Or was there one more torture? Was his the gift of prescience, and the power to look beyond the Shadow of the Dark Valley, and was it what he there saw that transfixed him into a statue of cold horror? Who shall say?

Those were my reflections when I looked on the miserable man; and I unconsciously repeated to myself the heartfelt words of the psalmist: “Cut me not off, O, my God, in the midst of my days!”

I shuddered as I thought that the doomed one might be silently repeating the same prayer, and II, by mesmeric rapport or sympathy, had caught up his inaudible petition. Then came another hideous laugh from the lips of Corbett — a few hasty words of farewell — a slight gliding sound as the well oiled bolts slid swiftly back — and two forms shrouded in white cloth were spasmodically struggling with death. The drop was located in the east wing of the Court House, the trap being constructed in the floor. After the two surgeons in attendance had pronounced them both dead, the bodies were lowered into the coffins, as usual, and a few had a curiosity to look at the faces. Singular as it may seem, Flemming had undoubtedly suffered the least pain of the two. The features were somewhat distorted and discolored. But Corbett’s face was a sight such as one would look on but once, and wish to efface [sic] the memory of that one look, and think of it no more forever. The tongue protruded fearfully from the mouth, and the teeth had bitten through it, in that last agony of dissolution. Truly is an execution a moral lesson which no one may witness without a thrill of horror whatever one may think of the theory of capital punishment.

There was one fact in connection with the affair, which I cannot understand. The widow of the murdered man repeatedly made application to the Sheriff for permission to see the hanging and it was refused. At an early hour I saw a lady dressed in deep mourning standing at the Court House gate and I was informed that it was Mrs. Maloney. After all was over, she still stood there, shivering in the intense cold, the bitter freezing cold. It appears some one had told her that the men who had murdered her husband and left her desolate, would be reprieved, and that only increased her anxiety to see the sentence of the law fulfilled.

Hour after hour she waited, while stout men, wrapping more closely their overcoats and mufflers around them, hurried on more rapidly as they felt the keen blast which swept across the square. Several times she was assured that the criminals were hanged; but she refused to believe it, till an acquaintance in whom she had confidence told her, and then with an expression of relief and satisfaction on her face, she suddenly left for home, and I saw her no more. Poor woman! the wrong done her and her child had been avenged. Justice had vindicated itself. Who shall say but half the sorrow of bereavement was lifted from her heart by the knowledge that the slayers of her husband had tasted the bitter waters of death, held to their unwilling lips by the hand of Retribution? Why was it that the satisfaction of witnessing the punishment was denied her? I may be wrong, but I only repeat the sentiments of many men here and elsewhere when I say: Hangings should be public.

I have heard and read many objections to public executions; but I am convinced that whatever may be said of the rude and brutal deportment of the crowd — the levity — the profanity, &c. &c., I am convinced that no man ever saw an infliction of the Death Penalty, and forgot it. Men may read the long accounts given by newspaper reporters, but the reality beggars description. The reader can get but a very poor idea from the most graphic account, and like any other item of news, it is not long remembered. If the grand object is to warn men, by impressing on their minds the terrible consequences of crime, then that warning should be given in the most public manner possible.

When I commenced this communication I had no thought of making a plea for the gallows; and I will only say, that until some more fearful mode of punishing the crime of murder can be invented, hanging commends itself to the approval of reflecting people. It is a severe remedy, but it is the only effectual one; and those individuals who oppose capital punishment so zealously, may easily find other ways to vent their sentimentalism. Sympathy for those whom crime has injured would be better placed than sympathy for criminals. You will hear from me on this subject no more until Jeff. Davis is hanged, and then I shall probably have some comments to make, as I shall endeavor to “be there to see.”

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1949: John Wilson and Benjamin Roberts, Syd Dernley’s first(s)

2 comments December 13th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1949, two young miners from northern England were hanged together at Durham prison for unrelated crimes of passion: one had ravaged and strangled another man’s wife when his attempts to seduce her were met with a demand for money; the other had murdered a local girl (and then botched his suicide) when he found himself on the third point of a love triangle.

Both crimes happened on the same weekend, just a few miles apart — so they were tried at the same assizes and advanced through the process from murder to hanging-date together. Double executions were already quite rare at this point: this date’s affair was among the last such events in UK history.*

However, it was the very first execution in which Syd Dernley participated.

Dernley was an assistant executioner for 20-odd hangings, and while he’s far from the most noteworthy man to tread the scaffold, his 1989-90 The Hangman’s Tale: Memoirs of a Public Executioner might interest the person who takes up the pen for a labor history of the modern death penalty.

Dernley, a Nottinghamshire pit welder by day, gives an inside look at the recruitment process and on-the-job operations for a minor-league hangman. Bored with his job, he wrote the Prison Commission cold in January 1947 offering his services (“I feel sure that I could do the job”), got a generic polite dismissal, and then was one of several rookie volunteers summoned in October 1948 for a training course — a rationalization of the qualification process to go with the rationalization of hangings themselves.

Dernley had to wait a full year and then some to actually get into the act.** The basic hanging protocol featured a lead executioner and an assistant who would together escort their man to the gallows platform and perform the hanging; since this was a double execution, there are two such pairs involved. Dernley here is the assistant of veteran hangman Steve Wade. The other pair has Henry Kirk as the lead hangman, assisted by Harry Allen.†

Britain didn’t have the volume of executions for anyone to be a full-time hangman, although some hangmen, like Kirk, were also prison officers.

Jobs were farmed out by the Prison Commission among its small roster of active executioners, and would begin for the hangman with the receipt of a package from the Commission with two copies of a Memorandum of Conditions for executioners’ employment — one for the executioner’s records, and one to return to the Commission when formally accepting the assignment.

The day before the hanging, the executioners traveled to the prison where the sentence was to be carried out. The hanging team would not leave the prison’s walls until the execution was complete: after their prep work on execution’s eve, they slept in the jail.

Although prisoners rarely realized this until the last moment, the gallows platform stood just steps outside the condemned cells, the better for the instant performance of the actual hanging. They waited until Wilson and Roberts were safely out of earshot at chapel or in the exercise yard to set up the ropes.

The lead executioner Wade “controlled and double-checked everything from the moment he opened the execution boxes and took out the three ropes. He examined each of them minutely before rejecting one of them which was immediately coiled up and returned to the box. He measured the drop along the rope and marked it with chalk. I was allowed to shackle the rope to one of the chains hanging down from the beam and I had to go up the steps to adjust the chain as we got the chalk mark to the height of the man’s head, but [Wade] went up the steps to check both the shackling and the chain when I had finished.”

Once both ropes had been prepped, they noosed two sandbags approximating the respective weights of the prisoners, summoned the prison governor, and performed an actual test hanging. Everything went off without a hitch.

They dined that night, and breakfasted the next morning, on prison mash — it was invariably eggs and bacon for breakfast, Dernley remembered later in his career. After stealing silently back into the execution chamber, practically in the shadow of the last devotions of their unwitting prey, they repositioned the ropes which had been (intentionally) stretched out by half an inch from being left dangling their sandbags overnight. The ropes, and their supporting chains, needed to be positioned such that the noose dangled at convenient head height — again, the efficiency of the actual hanging was paramount — and so that, when the trap was released, the rope provided a drop of the precise length necessary to break the neck.

The next forty-five minutes as we waited in our quarters for the call were about the worst of my life. Everything that needed to be said had been said and it was clearly no time for social chit-chat, so we sat there and waited. There was fear afoot in the prison; you could almost smell it. The whole place was silent, waiting.

The butterflies in my stomach, which had disappeared when we went to the execution chamber and had something to do, were back with a vengeance. A jumble of thoughts flitted through my mind. Questions: Would we do a good job? Would I put up a good showing? Would we be quick? There were fears too: Will he fight? How will I handle it if he does?

The door opened and a warder took a step into the room. Wade got to his feet. “It’s time,” he said simply. “Are you ready?” I nodded. I don’t think I could have said anything. Kirky looked across at me and smiled. “Make it a good job, young ‘un,” he said quietly.

In those last few moments I was most conscious of faces, faces turned towards us … screws standing quite still at strategic points, all staring at us … the people standing near the doors of the condemned cells watching us approach … the faces of the official party as they glanced over their shoulders … but above all the face of the clock hanging on the wall at the end of the wing. It was a gigantic thing, about three feet across, and the minute hand was now just a fraction away from nine o’clock.

We were halfway to the condemned cells when the silence was broken and my blood froze. The sound was faint to begin with but it rapidly swelled — singing!

I could not believe my ears. “Jesu … lover … of my soul,” croaked the quavering voice.

Another stronger voice joined in: “Let me to thy bosom fly.”

“Who the hell is that?” I asked one of the screws who was walking along beside me.

He looked shattered but he was not going to admit it. “It’s one of them you’re going to top in a minute,” he replied, trying to sound cool.

With that eerie sound ringing round the wing, we arrived outside the condemned cells. The singing was coming from number two cell, and for the next thirty seconds we stood listening to the doomed man and his priest singing in harmony. In other circumstances it might have been lovely. Here, now, it was weird and unreal.

Everyone was in position as the hands of the huge clock moved the last fraction of an inch to nine o’clock: Wade and I outside the number one cell; Harry and Kirky a few steps away across the landing outside the number two cell …

From the instant the cell door cracked open, the prisoner should have just a few seconds left to live — although the prisoner wouldn’t realize that fact since his guards were under strict orders to brush off the doomed fellow’s inevitable questions about procedure. The two executioners would walk to the center of the cell, stand the prisoner up, and each taking an arm, efficiently pinion them behind his back. Then they whisked him out a secondary door which opened directly to the execution chamber, where they’d glide right into the waiting head-height noose. The name of the game for the hangmen was calm and firmness: don’t scare the man unnecessarily, just enter with professional inevitability and have the man on his noose in less time than it would take him to find the wit for panic or swoon or fight.

The double job complicated matters, but only slightly. The plan was for Wade and Dernley to enter cell number one only moments before Kirky and Allen entered cell number two. That way, both Wilson and Roberts would enter the scaffold singly and the respective hanging teams wouldn’t be in one another’s way — but it would only entail an extra second or two on the traps for the dead men as they were positioned in rapid sequence. It didn’t quite work out that way.

Wade moved straight through the door and I followed him into the cell. It seemed quite crowded with the two warders backing clear and the white-faced priest sitting on the other side of the table looking up at us. The condemned man was positioned as per the book, sitting at the table with his back to the door.

By the time I got to him, he was on his feet and Wade was bringing his left arm behind his back. There was no resistance as I caught hold of his right arm. He just let me bring it behind his back and Wade was waiting for it.

Things were moving incredibly quickly, there was hardly time to take anything in. Wade was walking through the yellow doors. Our man had turned to watch him but had not moved so I just put my hand on his shoulder and, with only the gentlest of pressure, he started to follow. A warder either side of him, we walked through and on to the trap. Wade stopped him and I slipped the legstrap out of my pocket, bobbed down and fastened it round his ankles.‡ I doubt I had ever done it so quickly but by the time I stood up and took a pace off the trap, Wade had finished and the man was standing with his head hidden under the bag and the noose round his neck.

Just the way they drew it up … except the Kirky-Allen team was nowhere to be found.

They should have been on the trap by now and there was no sign of them!

They were having some sort of trouble, but what? As the seconds ticked away, I strained to hear what was going on, but there was not a sound coming from the other side of the landing. That at least was reassuring because whatever was going wrong it was not some massive fight. We would have heard that.

I looked around the cell. Wade was staring through the open door, brow creased in a frown, with wide, worried eyes. By God, he looked worried. The governor and the under-sheriff looked as white as a pair of sheets.

In the centre of all this, the hooded and noosed figure of our man — who should have been dead by now — stood waiting patiently without a sound.

I looked back through the door. Still nothing. I felt so helpless; I wanted to run through and help or do something, but I knew I had to stand just where I was.

A double hanging should take around fifteen seconds from start to finish; we had now been standing with our man ready to go for at least forty-five seconds, although it felt like hours.

A sound to my right brought my eyes back from the door into the execution chamber. One of the screws seemed about to take a pace towards our man, a look almost of horror on his face. The hooded figure was starting to sway. He was going to faint!

At that moment Kirky rushed through the door followed by the lover and Harry. Kirky, looking red-faced and flustered, immediately peeled off to the left and Wade in a blur of motion was stopping the man on the chalk T. In what seemed almost one motion, he whipped the white hood over the man’s head and flicked the noose on. I didn’t even see Harry get the legstrap on before Wade was hurling himself off the trap. The lever went over and away the whole lot went with that massive boom.

Allen later told Dernley that their man, the singing one, “just wasn’t ready” and while he didn’t fight the executioners he also didn’t comply with them as they tried to get his arms into their straps. “In the end we just had to force him.”

His nerves none the worse for the off-script debut, Dernley would remain an assistant executioner — he was never the head man — until another one of his hobbies came embarrassingly to light.


From the April 28, 1954 London Times.

Dernley published his book in 1989, by which time the British hangman was almost as archaic as the smut bust. (The poor lech died in 1994, just short of the Internet revolution.) But Dernley, unlike Pierrepoint, never evinced any second thoughts about his career on the gallows and had an unabashed pro-capital punishment position.§

“I have no regrets about what I did and I sleep pretty soundly in my bed,” he sums up. “I do not believe that my career as a hangman has had any ill-effect on me. Not that you ever get away from it so far as people are concerned — once a hangman always a hangman, it seems. Even after all these years I am still pointed out to people and I have a little chuckle to myself when I find somebody in a pub staring at me in that familiar way and I wonder who has been talking to them.” The inference from his lines, and the photos of Dernley jovially showing off his private model gallows, is that the old hangman made it a point to keep the talk going.

* Per the extremely useful Capital Punishment UK page, there was a double execution in 1950, another in 1951, another in 1952, and the last in 1954.

** Dernley did avail himself of an opportunity to witness personally the March 29, 1949, hanging of James Farrell.

† A man named Harry Allen, from Manchester, would one day be dignified Britain’s Last Executioner. In the 1960s, Allen literally did conduct one of the two simultaneous last hangings in England, as well as the last in Scotland. However, Dernley’s counterpart in this execution is a different Harry Allen, from Birmingham.

‡ “As assistant your job will be to strap [the prisoner’s] ankles and get yourself off the trap; the number one will do everything else,” Dernley had been told at his training the year before. “If you’re still mucking about when he’s ready, the number one will tap you on the shoulder and then you don’t bugger about … you get off or go down — and it’s a nasty drop even if you haven’t got a rope round your neck.”

§ Dernley was Pierrepoint’s assistant for the hanging of Timothy Evans, for a murder that, three years later, would be imputed to a serial killer living in his building. Dernley’s autobiography backs the government’s whitewash conclusion that Evans was probably guilty too on the weak grounds that Evans didn’t declared his innocence at his hanging.

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1888: Tsimequor, indigenous Snuneymuxw

Add comment December 12th, 2014 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1888, Tsimequor, a member of the Snuneymuxw First Nation, was executed in Nanaimo, British Columbia for a bizarre murder that clashed Aboriginal and white Canadian cultures.

What happened is explained in Jeffrey Pfeifer and Ken Leyton-Brown’s book Death By Rope: An Anthology of Canadian Executions:

The matter that brought Tsimequor to public attention arose out of a tribal custom designed to help members of the community better deal with grief following the death of a child. The custom dictated that when a child died, it was the practice for all other persons in the tribe who bore the same name to immediately change their names. In this way, relatives of the deceased child would be less likely to be reminded of their loss.

Tsimequor’s son Moses died in 1888 and, as per custom, all the Snuneymuxw who were named “Moses” changed their names to something else.

But there was one little boy in the community whose name was Moïse — “Moses” in French — and Tsimequor demanded that he change his name as well. The four-year-old’s parents refused, and days later somebody killed their son.

Had it been solely in the hands of the Snuneymuxw, the crime might have been forgiven. But to the Canadian legal authorities killing a four-year-old because of his name was unambiguously capital murder, and so Tsimequor was arrested and brought to trial. He maintained his innocence, but was convicted on November 7, 1888 and sentenced to death.

Pfeifer and Leyton-Brown record:

Surprisingly, there was considerable sympathy for Tsimequor expressed in the local newspaper, which pointed out that the crime had been committed “through superstition” and noting that Tsimequor had had no legal counsel to defend him at the trial. According to one newspaper report, “a sentence designed to educate Aboriginal people would be more appropriate.” There was however no doubt which tradition would be followed in this case.

Tsimequor was hanged in the Nanaimo Gaol five weeks after his trial.


Privy Council minutes determining that ‘law should be allowed to take its course’ with the hanging of the indigenous man Tsimequor in 1888

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1895: Harry Hayward, the Minneapolis Svengali

Add comment December 11th, 2014 Headsman

Minnesota executed Harry Hayward shortly after midnight on this date in 1895.

Dubbed the “Minneapolis Svengali” by the press for his perceived similarity to the sinister hypnotist of that year’s hit literary release, the prodigal rake Hayward cast his spell over a New York emigre with the name of Kitty Ging and a pocketbook every bit as alluring.

On December 3, 1895, Kitty rented a horsey from a livery stable, but the ride returned to the stable alone. What terrible fate befell her? And how did the Mesmer of Minneapolis work her murder from his innocuous booth at a theater that night?

Our oft-endorsed friends at Murder by Gaslight unwind this terrible tale here.

He fixed me with his eyes. I couldn’t say no when he looked at me that way — nobody could.

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1965: Andrew Pixley

Add comment December 10th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1965, Andrew Pixley was gassed in Wyoming for butchering the two young daughters of a vacationing Illinois judge.

A 21-year-old high school dropout with a few petty thefts to his name, Pixley on the night of August 5-6, 1964 broken into the Jackson hotel room occupied by 12-year-old Debbie McAuliffe, her 8-year-old sister Cindy, and 6-year-old Susan.

Their parents were relaxing in the hotel lounge at the time, but would return to a nightmare scene: Debbie dead in her bed, beaten to death with a rock; Cindy, strangled; and this slight stranger drunk or insensible lying on the floor of their room covered in their daughters’ gore. Both girls also appeared to have been sexually assaulted. (Somehow, the youngest daughter was not attacked.)

Judge Robert McAuliffe seized the stranger, while police — and soon behind them, an angry mob calling for Judge Lynch — followed his wife’s screams to the scene.

“It was the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen,” Teton County attorney Floyd King later said. Pixley claimed that the night’s events were a blank in his mind.

Remembered for this one night of madness as one of Wyoming’s most brutal criminals, Andrew Pixley reputedly still haunts Wyoming’s Old Frontier Prison, and gives tour guides at facility (it’s a museum now) the heebie-jeebies.

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1985: Carroll Edward Cole

Add comment December 6th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1985, serial killer Carroll Edward “Eddie” Cole was executed in Nevada.

A smart and troubled Iowa boy, Cole‘s earliest memories were of his mother’s thrashings to scare him into keeping quiet about the affairs she had while dad was away fighting World War II.

One never knows how trauma will work its way with this or that child. In Cole’s case, it twisted him early on: he nursed a deepening hatred for women and a callousness to his fellows that would one day be diagnosed as psychopathy. Cole’s final body count is not known for sure, but while in prison he would claim that the first of them was a bullying schoolmate named Duane whom he drowned. Duane’s death had been ruled by examiners as an accident.

Carroll tested with a genius-level I.Q., but his criminal career was not one of devious brilliance. Alcoholism and petty crime — soon not so petty at all — consumed him in his adolescence and put him on his way to a rootless, lonely life alternating dead end jobs, catastrophic relationships, jail terms, and mental institutions.

The latter two did not acquit themselves well for their frequent contact with the budding butcher. Over and over, Cole was discharged without the benefit of either treatment or restraint even though Cole himself sought help on several occasions. In 1963, a psychiatrist at Stockton State Hospital in California observed that Cole “seems to be afraid of the female figure and cannot have intercourse with her first but must kill her before he can do it.” Then, that doctor approved Cole’s release. It happened again in 1970 when he checked into a Reno facility begging doctors to help him control his fantasies of misogynist violence. The doctors didn’t buy his act and sent him on his way.

Self-medicating from the bottle, Cole drifted to Texas; he married an alcoholic stripper* there, then ended it by torching in a jealous rage the hotel where she resided. Then on to Missouri and a five-year sentence for trying to strangle a little girl there — then Nevada — then back to California. In San Diego in 1971 he finally embarked on his career in homicide, Duane notwithstanding. He picked up a woman in a bar and strangled her to death. Later he would explain that Essie Buck had proven herself faithless to her real partner: vicarious revenge against his adulterous mother.

Again, an institutional failure: Cole was questioned in this murder, but released uncharged.

And thanks to that police misstep, Eddie Cole drifted through the 1970s in a drunken fog, detained several times for the minor crimes he had been committing since his teens, but murdering often without repercussion. Soon enough he experimented with necrophilia and cannibalism, too. “In the case of a woman he murdered in Oklahoma City,” according to Charlotte Greig, “he claims he came out of an alcoholic blackout to find slices of his victim’s buttocks cooking on a skillet.”

Crime Library has a detailed biography of Cole and his murders. “Spree”, with its undertones of passion and energy, doesn’t feel like quite the right word to use for this man’s self-loathing crimes. Few serial killers better exemplify the ease with which one preys on people on the fringe, the police lethargy in investigating a suspicious death that nobody cares about.

In San Diego in 1979, he strangled one woman at his own workplace, then murdered his latest alcoholic wife Diana a few weeks later. Cole was arrested digging his wife’s grave: they still ruled the death accidental. How much simpler just to close the file on the “drunken tramp”?

Cole left California after that and returned to Dallas (pausing long enough in Las Vegas for one of the two murders that would supply him his death sentence). There he slaughtered three women in the span of 11 days and was once again on the verge of being cleared as a suspect when he simply confessed to the police. His existential scream was lost in America’s trackless underbelly; in the end, he had to beg for someone, anyone, to catch and kill him. He would claim to have killed about 35 women but even then investigators, ever skeptical, would chalk more than half that tally up to bravado.

Despite what one might think about Texas’s suitability for culminating a career in self-destruction, Cole caught only a life sentence there. Fortunately for him, his wandering ways made possible a bit of venue-shopping for the death sentence he sought.

In 1984, after his own mother died, he waived extradition and voluntarily went to face two murder charges in Nevada. There he simply pleaded guilty to capital murder.

The careworn killer rocketed from conviction in October 1984 to execution in a today-unthinkable 14 months, steadfastly repelling the attempts of outside advocates to intervene on his behalf or convince him to pick up his appeals. “I just messed up my life so bad that I just don’t care to go on,” he said.

At 1:43 a.m. this date, Cole entered Nevada’s brand-new lethal injection theater. He was not the first executed in Nevada’s (post-Gary Gilmore) “modern” era: Jesse Bishop had earned that distinction in 1979. But he was the first to die in Nevada by that modernized killing technology, lethal injection. Nevada had cribbed the idea from Texas after the Silver State’s last cutting-edge killing apparatus, the gas chamber, started leaking.

It took Cole about five minutes to finally achieve his death wish … 47 years, six months, 27 days, and those five minutes.

Emerging from the spectacle, Cole’s Nevada prosecutor enthused, “It is enjoyable to see the system work.”

* Billy Whitworth worked at a club owned by Jack Ruby, the man who shot Lee Harvey Oswald.

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1806: Jesse Wood, filicide

Add comment December 5th, 2014 Headsman

On July 9, 1806, Jesse Wood was returning from a hard day’s work on the farm with his sons Joseph and Hezekiah. All of them being somewhat in their cups, they fell to arguing and the father went to his home and retrieved a musket — “loaded with a heavy charge of slug shot” according to the Sherburne, N.Y. Olive Branch of July 30.

Wood pere‘s wife soon heard the report of the gun. Running out of the house, she found Jesse and Hezekaih, upright, and Joseph Wood and the discharged musket, at rest.

“His conduct at the place of execution, was deliberate and calm,” ran a report from Poughkeepsie that ran in many New York papers that December. “He died solemnly denying his built.”

The concourse of spectators was great, and they seemed deeply impressed with the solemnity of the scene, and greatly shocked at the hardened iniquiry of the criminal, in persisting to declare his innocence, when he was convicted on the clearest testimony. There is something inexpressibly awful in the idea that a rational creature has rushed into the presence of his God, with deliberate falsehood on his lips!

In a fine instance of history’s running game of “telephone”, this story was written up in the late 19th century featuring Joseph and the father as co-murderers of the brother … and as such parables demand, Joseph in the end makes good his father’s shocking scaffold denial by confessing on his own deathbed many years later.

1806 sources are absolutely unambiguous that Joseph was the murder victim. I have not found any indication that Hezekiah ever copped to the crime that hung his father.

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1900: Joseph Holden, killer of his own grandson

Add comment December 4th, 2014 Headsman

This morning in 1900, Bury ironturner Joseph Holden was executed at Manchester’s Strangeways Prison for the murder of his grandson.

“The convict’s sanity had been in some doubt,” in the bloodless words of the next day’s London Times. To read it a century later is to see a man deeply in need of help.

It was his married daughter Mary Dawes who tried to give it to him by taking him in under her own roof after Holden was reduced to living in a workhouse.

In August of 1900 he took another of his grandchildren — not by Mary Dawes — to a quarry to cut tobacco, then hurled a stone that hit the child in the head. George Eldred was badly injured, but survived.

The mental deterioration betokened by such behavior must have put Mary Dawes or any other kin with an interest in the patriarch’s well-being into a terrible bind. What resources of state or charity could they have called upon, short of consigning him to the miasma of some gaol? At 57 years of age, Holden was already 10 years past the male life expectancy for the time and looked still older thanks to the ravages of alcoholism. Maybe Mary thought that having him at her hearth would stabilize him well enough to dignify whatever little measure of life remained to her father.

That is nothing but a speculative assessment of these bare and tragic facts: Mary Dawes took her father in; days later, on September 5, Mary’s father took Mary’s son John to a quarry and drowned him.


Hampshire Advertiser, September 12, 1900.

Holden’s only defense — practically the only one really available to him — was insanity. But Holden wasn’t starkers; his mind perambulated that foggy wilderness between lucidity and dementia and this was simply insufficient disturbance for the then-prevailing legal standard of madness, the M’Naghten Test. Basically, if he could understand what he’d done, he was sane enough to hang. Still to this day the basis of competency assessments in much of the English-speaking world, M’Naghten offers only a narrow ground for avoiding the full measure of criminal responsibility. And Holden was clearly competent enough by that test; indeed, he had complained of his treatment in Mary’s house, hinting at a real motive.

Although Holden’s death sentence was automatic upon the unhelpful sanity assessment of the doctors,* he was thought a prime candidate for a reprieve from the Home Secretary. This too did not materialize; Holden’s own contrition and resignation to his fate in the days leading up to the execution might have contributed to the judgment that he was in fact sane enough to die. That’s some catch: the best there is.

A murderer named Oscar Mattson — a Russian sailor who had slain a young English prostitute named Mary Ann Macguire in a rage over stolen money and rebuffed advances — did win a Home Secretary reprieve on the same day that Holden hanged.

* It was only necessary for doctors to find him competent enough to make his own plea. When they did so, he simply pleaded guilty.

Part of the Themed Set: Filicide.

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1556: Beatrice, a servant

1 comment December 3rd, 2014 Headsman

An everyday execution in 16th century Montpellier, from the diary of Swiss medical student Felix Platter — whom we have already had cause to notice in these pages:

Beatrice, Catalan’s former servant girl, who had drawn off my boots when I had first arrived in Montpellier, was executed on the 3rd of December. She was hanged in the square, on a little gibbet that had only one arm. She had left us a year before to go into service in the house of a priest. She became pregnant, and when her child was born, she threw it into the latrine, where it was found dead. Beatrice’s body was taken to the anatomy theatre, and it remained several days in the College. The womb was still swollen, for the birth of the child had occurred no more than eight days before. Afterwards the hangman came to collect the pieces, wrapped them in a sheet, and hung them on a gibbet outside the town.

Part of the Themed Set: Filicide.

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2006: Sanjaya Rowan Kumara, with “signs of life”

Add comment November 28th, 2014 Headsman

Sri Lankan national Sanjaya Rowan Kumara was hanged on this date in 2006 at Kuwait’s Central Prison for murdering a woman while robbing her house.

He was pronounced dead and cut down within eight minutes. But …

medics who transported his body to a morgue said they noticed he was still moving, Al-Qabas daily reported.

Forensic experts were immediately called to examine the body and they confirmed that “there was some weak pulse in his heart,” the daily said.

The examination was repeated several times and each time “the dead body showed some signs of life,” Al-Qabas quoted unnamed medical sources as saying.

“They eventually pronounced him completely dead at 1400 hours local time,” five hours after his hanging, the sources said.

The justice ministry refused to comment on the report but head of the criminal execution department, Najeeb al-Mulla, who supervised the hanging, told Al-Watan newspaper the report was “baseless.”

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