Posts filed under 'Murder'

1819: Neyonibe and Naugechek

Add comment July 1st, 2015 Headsman

From the Northern Sentinel, June 18, 1819:

Extract of a letter, dated Danbury, (Ohio) May 6, 1819, addressed to a gentleman in Albany.

I thought it would be prudent to inform you of some unhappy circumstances which have recently occurred in our neighborhood, in order to save you from any groundless alarm, which common report might create about us.

Last Sunday, a week, (April 25,) we received the intelligence, that two of our neighbors, George Bishop and John Wood, had been found a little above the forks of Portage river, cruelly butchered by the Indians. We immediately armed ourselves, and proceeded to the river’s mouth, where the bodies had been brought.

An inquest was immediately held over them, and on examining them, found “they were murdered willfully, by persons unknown.” — I dare say, in your time, you have seen men sufficiently cut up, but never like them. On the head of Bishop alone, there were six strokes of a tomahawk, each of which let out the brain; his eyes ran out, &c. A page would not be sufficient to give you a description of one body.

The Indians in the neighborhood appeared much alarmed, and kept coming in all day. A number of them volunteered their services to go with us in pursuit of the murderers — some of them we accepted.

After we had buried the bodies, we held a council among ourselves, and agreed that we would parade all the Indians, and express to them what our determination was. The duty of addressing them was performed by me, through an interpreter, in which I set forth to them, our determination to have the murderers at all hazards — our ample abilities to take them, wherever they were — and it was their duty to have had Indians cut off to prevent future crimes.

After I had finished, Sasa, a young, bold and enterprising chief, (who with the other Indians, had listened with extreme attention, and great solemnity,) said in answer “that he with his party, would find the bad Indians, or never return again; he was thankful that the white men did not think them guilty, and they would show by their conduct, that our confidence in them was not misplaced.”

We organized them under a Mr. Tupper, and two other white men — gave them rations, and on Monday morning early they started. They left their squaws to whom we issued rations.

We then returned home, to act as circumstances should require.

On Wednesday, an express came to us, with the report that the murderers, with many of their tribe (Potowattomies,) had assembled near the place of the murder with hideous shrieks, yells, &c.

We immediately got together and I was chosen to command. Away we marched, or rather ran, and encamped at Portage, after sunset. Early in the morning we started — forded rivers, creeks, marshes and prairies, and crosses Toupoint river, before noon, (30 miles,) about two miles beyond this river we met Tupper & his party, with the three murderers, prisoners. These had taken them by the consent of their chiefs two nights before, near the forks of the Miami river — surprised them in their camp about midnight, in the midst of a large settlement of that powerful tribe, and travelled back, with all their strength for fear of being pursued and overpowered. We were still among them and in danger of a rescue.

I accordingly ordered our refreshments to be given them, and in fiteen [sic] minutes we marched again. Before dark we reached Portage again; and the next day at 4 o’clock we delivered them at Portland, or Sandusky city, to the sheriff.

The same night a legal examination of the prisoners took place, who made a full confession of the murder. They also told where they had secreted the plunder. A party was despatched to find it, who have returned it. Our circuit court sits the 18th of this month, and they will undoubtedly condemn them to be hung.

There is not in the annals of the United States, an instance of such a rapid pursuit and capture of Indian murderers, as the one I have now related. Our friendly Indians received handsome presents, and all is now in peace and quietness.*


From the Cleveland Register, June 8, 1819:

TRIAL FOR MURDER.

We have been politely favored with the trial of the three Indians, who were taken on suspicion of having murdered Messrs. Wood and Bishop, on Portage river, Huron county, Ohio.

At the court of Common Pleas, held at Norwalk, Huron county, Ohio, May term, 1819: three Indians by the names of Neyonibe, Naugechek, and Negossum, were indicted and tried for a murder committed a few weeks since on the bodies of two white men John Wood and George Bishop — Wood and Bishop were out hunting and taken lodgings for the night, in a small hut, a few rods from Carrying river, and 8 or 10 miles from its mouth, where the horrid deed was perpetrated.

The Indians could neither speak nor understand English; all communications with them was [sic] by means of an interpreter. Counsel were assigned them by the court, and on the indictment being read and interpreted to them, they elected to be tried by the court of common pleas, and severally plead not guilty, and the court proceeded to try them separately.

Neyonibe was first tried, who was informed of his privilege of peremptorily challenging twenty three jurors. This privilege, on the jurors being singly called and presented to his view and after a short but critical view of the jurors countenance, he exercised with much promptness and decision. He challenged nearly half that were called.

The evidence to support the charge was chiefly derived from the confession of the prisoner. From these, it appeared to have been a deliberately formed plan by Nangachek and Neyonibe, who knew where Wood and Bishop spent their nights, to murder them and pillage their property.

They accordingly accompanied by Negossum, and armed with hatchets, went in the night to the hut where Wood and Bishop were; and each took his man in a profound sleep, and by repeated strokes with their hatchets, upon the heads and breasts of their victims, they dispatched them, in a few moments and took what property they had with them a part of which they concealed near the place.

It was proved that the property was afterwards found in the place, where they acknowledged they had concealed it.

This case was so plain that the counsel, on both sides deemed it useless to argue it to the jury. Judge Todd, on submitting the cause to the jury, in a very concise and lucid manner instructed them, by what principles they were to be governed in forming their verdict; and the jury after retiring a short time, returned a verdict of Guilty.

Naugechek was next tried and convicted. This case did not differ in a material point from Neyonibe’s, and the circumstances attending their trials were similar.

The case of Negossum who was last tried excited much the most interests.

He is a lad about 16 years old, of good appearance, and as was proved had sustained a good character.

He also peremptorily challenged a number of jurors.

The principal evidence in this case was also derived from his confession, and his declarations accompanying them. From these it appeared, that the other two had taken him into their company without disclosing to him their plan, until they had approached near to the place of murder.

He then being partially intoxicated went on with them voluntarily, but carried no weapon to the hut where Wood and Bishop were; but it did not appear that he knew that to be the place where they lodged, until he entered it with his companions.

Upon entering the hut he went to the opposite side from where Wood and Bishop were, asleep, and there stayed until the murder was committed.

Then Naugechek, told him he should do something, and ordered him to come and strike but he did not move, Naugachek then reached forth his bloody hatchet, and in anger told him to come and strike, he then took the hatchet, and with the handle of it, struck several times across the legs of the dead body of Bishop.

He took none of the plunder, at the hut, but some of it was given to him, afterwards by the other Indians.

After hearing the testimony, the attorney for the state entered a Nolle Prosequi, and the prisoner was released.

Naugechek, and Neyonibe received their sentence, and are to be executed on the first day of July next, between the hours of ten and twelve o’clock. They are of the Potawatama tribe — Negossum is of the Ottowa tribe.

Naugechek, in attempting after he was taken to make his escape, was severely wounded by a shot from one of the keepers. Probably he never could recover from his wounds, and they may prove mortal before the time set for his execution.


From the Utica (N.Y.) Columbian Gazette, July 20, 1819:

Warren, (Ohio) July 8. — On Thursday last, agreeably to their sentence, Naugechek and Neyonibe were executed for the murder of John Wood and George Bishop, at Huron [county, specifically Norwalk -ed.].

They met their fate, we are informed by a gentleman who was present at the execution, with that stubborn impertinence and unconcern so characteristic of the savage tribes; regretting only that they could not be shot or tomahawked instead of being hung, stating the the Great Spirit would be angry with them for appearing before him with a halter about their necks.

One of them, however, a day or two previous to their execution, expressed a wish that he might live to kill six more white people to make up the number of twenty, saying that he had already killed fourteen — and then he would not care how he died. It was thought that there were upwards of two thousand spectators present; and among them but six Indians, who viewed the scene with apparent indifference.

* The reader will surely guess that no pleasant feelings from this or any other incident between the peoples would serve to protect the Potawatomi in the end from westward removal — which is why the name of this nation from the Great Lakes region adorns a creek in Kansas, and the pre-Civil War “Pottawatomie massacre” of John Brown‘s anti-slavery partisans that occurred near said creek.

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1900: Benjamin Snell, electricity in his head

Add comment June 29th, 2015 Robert Elder

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

As the rope was placed around his throat:

“Oh, I’ll smother with that on. I’ve got electricity in my head now.*”

– Benjamin Snell, convicted of murder, hanging,** Washington, DC.
Executed June 29, 1900

“A man of education and good family,” Snell was convicted of murder after breaking in to the house of child Lizzie Weisenberger and cutting her throat with a razor. Other prisoners shunned Snell, and when Frank Funk heard that he was to be executed on the same day and scaffold as Snell, he petitioned the courts to change the day. President McKinley reprieved Funk for several days, and Snell and Funk maintained “bitter hatred” until Snell’s death.


* Snell, who pursued an insanity defense that was not persuasive to the jury but was convincing enough to induce the entire Congressional delegation of his home state of Georgia to petition President McKinley for a commutation, regularly complained of electricity buzzing in his brain. “I told a physician about it and he laughed at me,” Snell complained (Washington Evening Star, June 28, 1900) of the incredulity this complaint elicited. -ed.

** A giant at two meters tall and a reported 17 stone on the day of his execution, Stone was nearly decapitated by the noose — presumably the consequence of the characteristic American practice of making an impressionistic guess at the right length of the drop, rather than scientifically calculating it.


San Jose (Calif.) Evening News, June 30, 1900.

The victim’s father had the goriest seat in the house for this, standing “directly at the foot of the scaffold, within a few feet of where the body swung after the fall” (Evening Star, June 29, 1900) at the private hanging. -ed.

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1886: John W. Kelliher lynched in Becker County, Minnesota

Add comment June 23rd, 2015 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1886, John W. Kelliher, known as “Reddy” or “Big Red”, was lynched by a mob of some five hundred people in Becker County, Minnesota.

Kelliher had gotten into a fight with a rival pimp and gambler and the village marshal of Detroit (today, Detroit Lakes), John Conway, tried to intervene. Conway was shot dead for his pains, shortly before his wedding day.

Marshal Conway had been very much liked in the village. Though his killer was instantly chased down and handed over to the constabulary,

little business was done in Detroit that day. Men were to be seen in small groups in every part of the town, upon the streets, in the stores, saloons and alley-ways earnestly discussing the tragedy, and the many threatening countenances were ample indications that further developments might be expected, while many appeared anxious, apprehensive and excited, as though waiting for and fearing some terrible event. At precisely ten o’clock in the evening, several taps were made upon the fire bell in quick succession, and the fierce yell, which immediately followed, breaking harshly upon the oppressive stillness, was ample evidence that this was the understood signal for an execution by Judge Lynch. Farmers for many miles around had been coming into town all day, and many men arrived by the evening train from points both east and west; the town was thronged with men and at the ringing of the bell a mass of humanity surged toward the court house; a sledge hammer was brought into use; the sheriff and jailer were overpowered and the keys to the jail taken from them, and Kelliher was quickly brought face to face with his unlawful but determined executioners; a rope was thrown over his head and the cry “go ahead” was given; with probably fifteen men having hold of the rope, and pulling with frenzied zeal the mob left the jail and ran wildly down the street leading west, to the house that had been occupied by Big Red as a bagnio, and in a twinkling the rope had been thrown over the limb of an oak tree, and the body of Big Red was swinging in the air; the victim was doubtless dead long before the tree was reached, or if not dead certainly unconscious.

The scene was one of wildest confusion, but all had been done so quickly and so effectually that the terrible affair could scarcely be realized, but the deed over, the excited crowds melted away and in a short time the village streets were practically deserted. (Original source)

According to John D. Bessler’s Legacy of Violence: Lynch Mobs and Executions in Minnesota, the Minneapolis Tribune took a vehement editorial line against this “barbarous and disgraceful act,” and urged that jails fit themselves out with “a Gatling gun, intended for business” as proof against Judge Lynch. However, the St. Paul Daily Globe demurred, editorializing that “Society owes it to itself to get rid of such tough characters as Kelliher” — and if attaining that end via lynch law was in principle less than ideal, “it was past all human endurance to have a defiant desperado walk the streets of a respectable town and shoot down its citizens in cold blood. Nobody is surprised that he was taken from jail by a mob and swung to the nearest tree. It would have been a surprise if it had not been so.”

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1906: Richard Ivens, hypnotized?

Add comment June 22nd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1906, “with terror stamped on his colorless face and almost in a state of collapse,” Richard Ivens hanged for a murder that remains to this day an unsettling indictment of witness reliability — even when it is his own crime the witness describes.

The tenor of the crime and of its consequent sensation — a Chicago society matron sexually assaulted by a young hoodlum who proceeds to garrot her with a wire — is readily apparent in the headlines of the day; editors from coast to coast plunged into their thesauruses to titillate their subscribers with the most bombastic invective


Baltimore American, Jan. 14, 1906.

As this image also indicates, Ivens confessed soon after he was detained. (He reported finding, or “finding”, the body to his father and the two of them went to the police; the police immediately detained the youth, separated from Ivens pere.)

Usually, a confession is the “and shut” part of an open-and-shut case. Indeed, for most of human history, given a paucity of useful forensic evidence, legal cases have come down to eyewitnesses and confessions: hence the formalization of torture as part of the investigative process courts of bygone years.* A perpetrator’s own testimony against himself is the evidentiary gold standard.

Today, this long-unquestioned bedrock of criminal justice is dissolving. A quarter or more of the wrongful-conviction exonerations from death row have been cases involving false confessions; witness testimony by victims or third parties has frequently been shown to be unreliable. Our behavioral models once implied that the brain stored memories like a faithful photograph, a view suggesting that witnesses could be either accurate or liars without much room in between. Today, it’s ever more widely understood that memories are constructed, and reconstructed, amid the interpolations of fragmentary data and the subtle feedback of others’ suggestion and influence.

But Ivens put this idea to the test more than a century ago. Backed by friendly alibi witnesses who placed him away from the scene of the murder, Ivens recanted his confession and “declared that the police locked him up in a room at the police station with a number of officers and that their questioning so confused him that he said ‘yes’ to everything they asked him.”**

Perhaps this was just the gambit of a desperate defense counsel with few cards to play. But it did briefly make the Ivens case a referendum on the reliability of the confession.

Ivens intimated that the circumstances of his interrogation might have intimidated him into confessing, but his subsequent claim to have no memory at all of those events led a defense “alienist”, J. Sanderson Christison, to argue that the whole story of the crime had been planted in his mind when he was in a hypnotic state.

According to Christison, this Chicago Tribune photo of the accused a few hours after his arrest “shows the hypnotic expression of face in passive attitude.”

Christon’s pamphlet excoriating the way the young man was handled makes interesting reading. Titled “The ‘Confessions’ of Ivens”, its core thesis that Ivens was “dominated by police statements” is a strikingly forward-thinking one.†

we find in the “confessions” a mixture of fact with “suggested” fiction … he was first forcefully charged with the crime in a brutal manner and after being confounded and subjugated, a current of leading questions were put to him on a stupid police hypothesis, so that the first “confession” is composed of a few vague and contradictory statements. And it is both evident and acknowledged that all the other official “confessions” are the products of question suggestions, almost entirely.

For Christison, Ivens was a dull and easily controlled personality; the doctor’s explication of “hypnosis” suggests to modern eyes a laughably Mephistophelean sleepy, verrrry sleeeeepy caricature. But maybe we would do better to view it as the best framework available in 1906 to grasp the incomprehensible circumstance of a person accusing himself of a crime: the most ready illustration of outside influences entering the mind. A century later, we are only just now developing an understanding of wrongful confessions that might be shared widely enough to speak with mutual understanding about disorientation, suggestibility, leading questions, confirmation bias, and the malleability of memory.

But by any name, the notion was not ridiculous to Christison’s peers.

Christison consulted with Hugo Munsterburg, the German-American psychologist credited with founding the field of forensic psychology: Munsterburg shared Christison’s opinion, and expounded on it (without mentioning Ivens by name) in his subsequent magnum opus On The Witness Stand:

the accused was hanged; yet, if scientific conviction has the right to stand frankly for the truth, I have to say again that he was hanged for a crime of which he was no more guilty than you or I, and the only difference which the last few months have brought about is the fact that, as I have been informed on good authority, the most sober-minded people of Chicago to-day share this sad opinion.

I felt sure from the first that no one was to be blamed. Court and jury had evidently done their best to find the facts and to weigh the evidence; they are not to be expected to be experts in the analysis of unusual mental states. The proof of the alibi seemed sufficient to some, but insufficient to others; most various facts allowed of different interpretation, but all hesitation had to be overcome by the one fundamental argument which excluded every doubt: there was a complete confesslon. And if the sensational press did not manifest a judicial temper, that seemed this time very excusable. The whole population had been at the highest nervous tension from the frequency of brutal murders in the streets of Chicago. Too often the human beast escaped justice: this time at last they had found the villain who confessed — he at least was not to escape the gallows.

For many years no murder case had so deeply excited the whole city. Truly, as long as a demand for further psychological inquiry appeared to the masses simply as “another way of possibly cheating justice” and as a method tending “towards emasculating court procedure and discouraging and disgusting every faithful officer of the law,” the newspapers were almost in duty bound to rush on in the tracks of popular prejudice.

[I]f I examine these endless reports for a real argument why the accused youth was guilty of the heinous crime, everything comes back after all to the statement constantly repeated that it would be “inconceivable that any man who was innocent of it should claim the infamy of guilt.” Months have passed since the neck of the young man was broken and “thousands of persons crowded Michigan Street, jamming that thoroughfare from Clark Street to Dearborn Avenue, waiting for the undertaker’s wagon to leave the jail yard.” The discussion is thus long since removed to the sphere of theoretical argument; and so the hour may be more favourable now for asking once more whether it is really “inconceivable” that an innocent man can confess to a crime of which he is wholly ignorant. Yet the theoretical question may perhaps demand no later than tomorrow a practical answer, when perhaps again a weak mind shall work itself into an untrue confession and the community again rely thereon satisfied, hypnotised by the spell of the dangerous belief that “murder will out.” The history of crime in Chicago has shown sufficiently that murder will not “out.”

It is important that the court, instead of bringing out the guilty thought, shall not bring it “in” into an innocent consciousness. Of course in a criminal procedure there cannot be any better evidence than a confession, provided that it is reliable and well proved. If the accused acknowledges in express words the guilt in a criminal charge, the purpose of the procedure seems to have been reached; and yet at all times and in all nations experience has suggested a certain distrust of confessions.

Munsterburg wrote this under the heading of “Untrue Confessions” but he did not exempt himself from susceptibility to the hypnotic tricks of the mind: Munsterburg himself once found his house burgled, and realized that the evidence he subsequently gave about what he found was wildly inaccurate. “In spite of my best intentions, in spite of good memory and calm mood, a whole series of confusions, of illusions, of forgetting, of wrong conclusions, and of yielding to suggestions were mingled with what I had to report under oath, and my only consolation is the fact that in a thousand courts at a thousand places all over the world, witnesses every day affirm by oath in exactly the same way much worse mixtures of truth and untruth, combinations of memory and of illusion, of knowledge and of suggestion, of experience and wrong conclusions.”

We do know at a minimum that Ivens was being interrogated alone for a number of hours by officers who evidently presumed him to be guilty. Right down to the present day, any number of fully cogent adults (many still languishing in dungeons as I write this) have falsely implicated themselves in terrible crimes during similar confinements, under manipulative interrogation techniques evincing much more interest in getting to “yes” than probing truth. (Just one of many reasons we caution the reader against ever talking to the police.)


Lexington Herald, March 20, 1906.

The Richard Ivens case, needless to say, is impossibly cold. It is quite difficult from several generations’ distance to form a convincing affirmative confidence in Ivens’s innocence. But as all those involved for good or ill have gone to their own graves too, perhaps it is enough for us to leave that door open just crack — enough to let in the humility before we print a man’s epitaph.


Wilkes-Barre Times, June 22, 1906.

* Of relevance: a suspect tortured into a confession was usually required to repeat the confession free of torture in open court in order for it to count. Such people did sometimes refuse to do so and even blame the torture for having given a previous incriminating statement; the standard reward for such reticence was, naturally, more torture.

** Baltimore American, March 20, 1906. This is the Chicago Police Department we’re talking about.

† Christison is also noted for theories about the shapes of the ears as criminal indicators, and the pamphlet explicitly cites Ivens’s phrenological characteristics as exculpatory. We all have our hits and our misses.

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1816: Peter Lung, uxoricide

Add comment June 20th, 2015 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1816, middle-aged uxoricide Peter Lung was hanged in Middletown, Connecticut for the murder of his wife the previous year.

The facts of the case are simple: both Mr. and Mrs. Lung were alcoholics. Peter, a laborer, thought it was all right for him for drink as much as he wanted, but he was violently opposed to his wife Lucy doing any tippling of her own. But tipple she did, and she and her husband had frightful quarrels about it.

On July 15, 1815, Peter came home late. He found the front door wide open, no dinner on the table, and Lucy passed out cold in her bed and reeking of liquor. Her husband violently kicked her awake and then told her to make him some dinner. She told him to go fix his own food if he was so hungry.

Things went downhill from there and the argument ended with Peter punching his wife several times and then kicking her in the backside. He then went out to the garden and dug up some vegetables for the family dinner. The couple passed the rest of the night normally — for their argument, violent though it was, was typical for them.

A day or so later, Lucy began complaining that her right side was hurting her. Her side hurt too badly for her to lie down two days after the beating and she fell asleep in her rocking chair, and never woke up. The autopsy showed she’d died of internal injuries: evidently Peter’s kicks had ruptured something inside her.

He was charged with capital murder. He had a long-standing habit of mistreating his wife, and everyone knew it. The jury was decidedly unsympathetic to his protests that he’d never meant to kill her.

The Lung case is one of those miscarriages of justice that people often don’t think about: where a person is indeed culpable, but not necessarily guilty as charged. Peter obviously did not intend homicide when he and his wife had their last fight, and neither of them were aware that he’d seriously injured her until it was far too late. Certainly he was responsible for Lucy’s death, but was it manslaughter more than murder?

Connecticut’s judiciary was aware of this issue, and Lung’s original conviction in September 1815 was actually overturned as a result. But he was re-convicted of the same charge at his second trial in December. It was probably his bad reputation that ultimately doomed him.

He was hanged before “a multitude, amounting as was supposed to eleven or twelve thousand.” It was the third execution in Middlesex County.

Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser, July 1, 1816.

The deportment of the prisoner on this awful occasion, was such as to justify a strong hope that by a sincere and timely repentance, he had found the mercy of his Saviour equal to the greatness and enormity of his guilt. He conversed freely on his past life — declared that he believed his wife died in consequence of the wounds he gave her, but denied that he ever intended her death — He fully acquiesced in the justice of his sentence; — that his life was justly forfeited and that it was an atonement due from him to the offended laws of society.

During the religious solemnities previous to his execution, his deportment manifested resignation and composure. He marched with the guard to the fatal spot, ascended the Gallows, warned the silent and solemn auditory, against the evils of intemperance, and ungoverned passions; and a few minutes before four o’clock, was launched into eternity. The official duty of the execution was performed with great propriety and with such fatal exactness that the unfortunate sufferer sunk into the arms of Death without a single struggle, and almost in the same moment, was a tenant of both worlds. The day was pleasant, and few occasions of this kind we believe, have drawn together a greater concourse of spectators.

Among the immense crowd assembled in this place to witness the execution last week, a regular company of pick-pockets was present, which must have enriched their finds very considerably, as a number of gentlemen were deprived of their Pocket Books, containing money and notes to a large amount, with a dexterity which would do honor to the most regular bred gentry in the streets of London. A very valuable horse was also taken from a stable in this city, the night succeeding.

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1857: George Sharpe and John Johnson, Edwardsville murderers

Add comment June 19th, 2015 Headsman

From the Alton Weekly Courier, June 25, 1857, under a June 20 dateline.

Yesterday being the day appointed for the execution of the murderers of Jacob Barth, we dispatched one of our Assistants to Edwardsville, in order that from personal observation we might be able to correctly report the proceedings of this melancholy occasion at the earliest moment. The following is as full and concise a sketch as could be prepared after his return late yesterday evening, and contains, we believe, all the particulars in which our readers would likely feel an interest.

The Day and The Crowd

The weather was very favorable, the day being mild and pleasant. The sun shone clear and warm, but not oppressively so; the recent rains had settled the dust, but had not made any mud, and the roads were consequently in good traveling condition. The rarity of capital executions in this part of the country, together with the recent and very exciting history of this case, conspired to draw out a tremendous crowd of people to witness this the last and severest penalty of the law. It was estimated that there were between seven and eight thousand persons present, some of whom had come from a distance of fifty miles. They were of all ages, sexes, conditions and complexions. A large portion of them were Germans* — friends, relatives and countrymen of the murdered man. Very much to our surprise, mortification and sorrow, we observed a large number of females among the spectators — we say “females,” for we scarcely feel at liberty to designate them as either women or ladies, for we have always thought, and had good reason to think, that every feeling and attribute of a true woman’s nature would generate in her bosom an unconquerable repugnance to voluntarily witnessing any such revolting scenes under any circumstances in the world. Many of the females who were at the place of execution yesterday, and who witnessed the infliction of the dreadful death penalty with the same coolness and indifference as the men generally manifested, were young, and would have been pretty anywhere else and under ordinary circumstances. Why they attended, or what could have induced them to be present at all, we cannot possibly conceive; and in recording the fact that they were there, we feel that their loving, and noble, and gentle sex is by that fact disgraced.

The Prisoners

It is already known to our readers that Robert Sharpe, the younger of the two brothers condemned, has been sent to the State’s Prison for life, under commutation of sentence by Gov. Bissell. The other two – George W. Sharpe, tried and condemned under the name of George Gibson, and John Johnson, who, until after his trial bore the false name of Edward Barber — have been closely attended by Rev. E. M. West and other clergymen, and have appeared to be truly penitent for their crimes. For several days before their execution, they both seemed fully resigned to their fate, and prepared to meet and try the dread realities of eternity; but yesterday morning Sharpe yielded to despondent and despairing feelings, and seemed to suffer dreadfully with fear and terror during the last few hours of his life. The prisoners were both young, heavy set, and rather good-looking men. They evidently had been possessed of healthy and vigorous frames, capable of performing much labor. In preparation for the last scene of their lives. Sheriff Job had arrayed the unfortunate men in very neat suits of clothing, of the ordinary style and fashion, and of perfect snowy whiteness in every particular; they were also cleanly shaved and looked extremely well. Sharpe had two sisters and two brothers, including the one now in the Penitentiary; Johnson had four sisters and four brothers; the parents of both are all living yet; but no relative or even acquaintance who knew them before they committed the murder was beside them in their last trying hour.

The Procession

At half past one o’clock the Sheriff placed the prisoners in a neat and comfortable hack which had been provided, and in which they were conveyed at a slow pace to the place of execution. The carriage was escorted by a portion of the Madison Guards, under command of Captain J. Sloss, fully armed and equipped. A large concourse of spectators followed, but observed good order and decorum. The procession passed along the main street of the town, through its entire length. The prisoners occupied themselves in singing and prayer all the time after they left the prison.

The Scaffold

The spot chosen for the execution was in a ravine east of town, and on the County Poor House Grounds. The scaffold was a neat and substantial structure, as perfectly adapted to its use as anything could be. It was surrounded by rising ground in every direction, so that every person in the vast assemblage could obtain a perfect and near view of the awful tragedy. An area had been laid off by a temporary enclosure, which was guarded by a detachment of the Madison Guards, under command of Lieut. J. G. Robinson, no one being allowed to enter without the permission of the Sheriff.

The Scene at the Scaffold

After those whose duty or privilege it was had ascended to the platform of the scaffold, Sheriff Jon briefly addressed the assembled multitude. He said he was there in his official capacity to perform an unpleasant duty, in executing upon two of his fellow men the severest penalty provided by our laws for the violation of its enactments. Exceedingly unpleasant as was this duty, it was yet a duty, and should be faithfully performed. The example thus set ought not to be lost upon those who had come to witness it. The persons — and specially the youth — of that vast assemblage should take warning from the terrible fate of the two young men so soon to be hurried to the dread presence of an offended God, and avoid the crimes that so justly and so certainly lead to this terrible end. Rev. E. M. West then spoke at some length in explanation of the manner in which and the reasons why the commutation of the sentence of Robert Sharpe had been petitioned for and granted. We cannot possibly give even a skeleton of his remarks in this issue; perhaps we may do so tomorrow. Mr. West then closed with a brief and earnest admonitory exhortation suited to the occasion. The Sheriff then extended a permission — even an invitation — to the prisoners to address the audience, of which Johnson immediately availed himself. He said he stood before his hearers a cold-blooded murderer, of which crime he had been found guilty, and for which he was soon to be so terribly yet so justly punished. In a few minutes, he and one of his companions in guilt would be suddenly launched into eternity, and sent into the presence of the great God whose laws they had violated, with the blood of their victim yet red upon their hands. But he had a humble hope that he had made his peace with God, and that although his crime had been great, his salvation was sure. His soul was at peace; he had no malice in his heart, and he was ready and willing to meet the Judge of all the earth. His punishment although terrible was just, and he was prepared to meet it. If he had remained at home during his early youth and obeyed the pious instructions of his mother, he would not now have been on the scaffold a condemned murderer. He hoped all the youth who heard him would take warning by his example, he influenced by the counsels of their good and pious mothers, keep out of bad company and bad habits and thus avoid the terrible fate that had so soon overtaken him Johnson spoke with much feeling and earnestness and manifested deep emotion while speaking. His remarks were very appropriate to the occasion, and were listened to with respectful attention. Sharpe seemed to desire to speak but was so overcome with the horrors of his situation he was unable to do so. Rev. J. B. Corrington then addressed to the audience a few very appropriate remarks. He had once thought that a saving repentance in view of the certainty of death was almost if not quite an impossibility, but in the two interviews he had had with the condemned in prison, he had received grounds for hope that their repentance was thorough and sincere, and of course acceptable. He hoped, however, none of his hearers would trust their salvation to a death-pending repentance. We have positive evidence of the efficacy of but one such; and God had placed this one case on record in His Holy Word that none might despair, and but the one that none should presume. Mr. Corrington closed with a brief but earnest and heart stirring prayer, in which the prisoners, standing and with clasped hands, joined audibly.

The Execution

The prisoners then shook hands with and took an affectionate leave of each other, the Sheriff and his deputies and the attending clergymen. Johnson seemed perfectly composed and met his fate without exhibiting the least symptom of fear or even regret. He stood erect and without trembling, retained the ruddy natural glow of health in his face, and as much firmness and calmness of mind as in an ordinary business transaction. Often he would clasp his hands, and a smile of apparently perfect happiness would overspread his features. He seemed perfectly willing — even anxious, for his last moment to come. When the Sheriff told them to step on the drop, he turned to his companion and said, “George, which side would you rather stand on?” Sharpe was terribly affected, and was really a pitiable object to behold. His eyes seemed to have almost lost all expression, and exhibited nothing but a glassy, death-like stare; his face was ashy pale, and showed no color save a livid purple hue; his hands were alternately and convulsively clasped and raised in supplication, and he constantly gave utterance to heart-rending moans or incoherent prayers. When requested to step forward upon the drop, he obeyed, exclaiming, “O Lord! have mercy on me! I dare not die! I’m afraid I’m not prepared!” The ropes were adjusted round their necks, their arms were pinioned together across their backs, their hands tied, white muslin caps were drawn over their heads, and when all was ready, at a single stroke, Sheriff Jon severed the cord which held the supporters of the drop, and in an instant the unfortunate murderers were suspended in mid air in the agonies of death. They both struggled very much for more than a minute. In about two minutes after, they fell, Johnson ceased to manifest any signs of life. Sharpe continued to struggle, though less and less, for full five minutes. The knot of the noose had slipped round to the back of his head, and the fall had failed to break his neck; he therefore lived until he was literally choked to death. They both fell about five feet, and if the knot had remained in the right position, his neck would have been instantly broken, of course. After having hung full thirty minutes, the bodies were taken down, placed in handsome walnut coffins, and decently buried. Too much praise cannot be awarded to Sheriff Jon for the kind and considerate, yet firm and prompt manner in which he discharged the unpleasant duty that devolved upon him. The independent, manly and conscientious course he has pursued during the exciting and trying scenes that have occurred at our county seat during the past few weeks has won for him a still greater share of the popular favor of his constituents of which he before enjoyed so much.

* The victim was German; the young men, deep in their cups, murdered him because they took umbrage at Barth’s refusing them a ride. According to the New York Daily Tribune (May 29, 1857), a mob of some 400 lynch-minded Germans assembled in Edwardsville when the accused were granted a change of venue to a more “American” county — and even went so far as to throw up a gibbet before the Sheriff Job who eventually conducted the legal execution dissuaded his immigrant neighbors from effecting an extrajudicial one.

** Bissell was the first Republican governor of Illinois: in fact, one of the first Republican elected officials anywhere. He had previously distinguished a term in Congress (he was elected as a Democrat, before the 1854 founding of the GOP) with his naked contempt for the South’s delegates. For having the temerity to rebut exaggerated claims of Mississippian valor in the Mexican-American War, Bissell at one point prompted the future Confederate president Jefferson Davis to challenge him to a duel: surprisingly (to Davis) Bissell accepted, but word of the affair circulated in Washington and the sectional hotheads were made to cancel their rendezvous.

Here’s an 1858 letter to Bissell by Abraham Lincoln seeking (successfully) the pardon of two Logan County men convicted of stealing a few hogs.

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2014: Thirteen Xinjiang terrorists

Add comment June 16th, 2015 Headsman

One year ago today, China executed as terrorists 13 separatist militants.

According to Xinhua, the 13 were condemned in 7 different cases from Aksu, Turpan and Hotan — all prefectures of the western Xinjiang region.


Xinjiang. By TUBS [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Muslim Uighurs comprise a near-majority of that province’s population, and although Xinjiang is formally an “autonomous region” many Uighurs find it not nearly autonomous enough. Going tension has fomented a separatist movement that has appeared to gain strength — or at least visibility — during the past decade, including multiple spectacular and deadly terrorist attacks as well as several riots.

“The execution of criminals involved in terrorist attacks and violent crimes answers the calls of all ethnic groups, deters criminal activities, and demonstrates the resolve of the Communist Party of China and the government in cracking down on terrorism,” a Chinese court spokesman said, speaking of three of this date’s condemned who were sentenced together for a series of attacks in Lukqun (Turpan prefecture) that slew 24 police officers.

The executions on this day were surely coordinated for their demonstrative effect, days after Chinese authorities announced a “one-year crackdown” in Xinjiang one day after two SUVs bombed a market in Ürümqi, killing 43 people and injuring over 90 others.

Notwithstanding China’s strenuous attempt to frame the “crackdown” as one targeting only terrorists, security measures have bled insensibly into a crackdown on Muslims, targeting conservative Islamic cultural markers like veiled faces. It’s a sure bet that we haven’t heard the last of this flashpoint.

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1899: John Headrick and Carroll Rice, Missourians

1 comment June 15th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1899, young John Headrick was hanged outside Cape Girardeau‘s courthouse for murdering James Lail.

The 19-year-old Headrick was an embittered ex-farmhand of his victim, James Lail — who fired the youth for stealing a buggy.

In July of 1898, he turned up on the farm and found Lail in the barn. Lail’s wife and daughter both saw young Headrick arrive; they would testify that within half a minute of him entering the barn, they heard gunshots.

At trial, Headrick would claim that he shot in self-defense when Lail menaced him with a deadly currycomb (a brush used for horses), offering the prosecutor the opportunity for a bit of sport on the cross-ex:

Q: “You want the jury to understand that you are afraid of your life when a man assaults you with a curry comb?”

A: “Yes, sir, when I am in a place where I can’t get away.”

Q: “Especially if you are armed?”

A: “If I wasn’t armed I would have been killed.”

Q: “He aimed to curry you? He didn’t strike you with the curry comb?”

A: “No, sir, he did not. He struck at me mighty hard.”

Jokes aside, Lail’s surviving family had a terrifying ordeal still to come. As Headrick blasted away at his fallen boss, Lail’s wife Vernie arrived and threw herself over her husband protectively.

The young assailant shot her, too, then began beating her. By now, 19-year-old Jessie Lail was on the scene too. “John Headrick, what do you mean!” she shrieked. “You have wrecked my life forever! You have killed Papa, now you are killing Mother!”

In the ensuing chaos, Vernie Lail tried to make a run for it only for Headrick to chase her down and stab her — to death, or so he thought. Then the young assailant marched Jessie Lail off at gunpoint. Somehow, Vernie Lail survived a slashed throat, a shot through the back, and numerous other injuries to rise yet again and make it a quarter of a mile down the road to her mother-in-law’s house.

“By God, the old woman is gone, you can’t kill her, can you?” Headrick exclaimed to the daughter when they re-crossed the spot where mom’s body should have been. Headrick at this point wisely abandoned the scene of his carnage after trying and failing to extract a pledge from his hostage not to give evidence against him. A posse found him shortly afterwards, hiding in a barn.

The sturdy and surprisingly low-to-the-ground tree on which Headrick was hanged just outside the Cape Girardeau courthouse still stands, or did as of 2010 when it was endangered by a proposed traffic roundabout. Have a gander at the old gallows-tree in this post by Cape Girardeau journalist Ken Steinhoff, here.


Headrick’s hanging took place behind jail walls, but on the same date in Alton, Carroll Rice was hanged before a reported crowd of 5,000 for the murder of his wife.

“Just before the black cap was adjusted, and while his legs were being pinioned, the condemned man broke away form the sheriff and attempted to escape,” press reports ran.

It was worth a try.

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1873: A day in the death penalty around the U.S., courtesy of the New York Herald

Add comment June 13th, 2015 Headsman

Dispatches to the New York Herald from 1873 give us today’s post: a little portrait of public hangings in Reconstruction Dixie.

Isham Belton O’Neill, 32 at his death, hanged in Atlanta on this date in 1873; the Herald reported it in the next day’s edition.

O’Neill grew up on a farm outside Atlanta but was taken to the city by service in the Confederate army.

Postwar, he started a short-lived painting business with a fellow veteran, John Little: short-lived, because within a few months the courts were sorting out the partnership’s dissolution. Little, evidently, felt hard done by their rulings and “met O’Neill on the street several times after the snit, and even visited him at his shop, always urging him to let him have a sash, which he claimed to be his own property.”

On September 5th, 1871, they bumped into each other again by accident and after a few pleasantriles, Little started in on the sash again. “You got it be swearing a damned lie,” he insisted.

The testimony is that O’Neill then struck him in the face, and [Little] seized O’Neill first by the collar and then by his hands, which he endeavored to hold firmly; but O’Neill, by turning and exerting himself, wrenched his right hand from Little’s grasp, put it behind him and drew from under his coat a large Bowie Knife and quickly stabbed Little in the abdomen, the knife penetrating six inches deep, making a surface cut of two inches long, the sides of which were jagged, as if the sharp, two-edged knife, after having been plunged in, had been twisted round and drawn out.

Enough about the sash, okay?

O’Neill was a respectable fellow in the community (apart from the unpleasantness), and he stuck to a shaky “self-defense” story long enough that he might have started to believe it himself. So even though Little gurgled his last that night with five feet of bowel hanging out of the jagged fissure O’Neill had carved, the killer felt inordinately confident of an executive reprieve.

O’Neill even eschewed the opportunity to escape during a general jailbreak in February 1872, obediently remaining in his spot even with the cell door popped wide open in front of him. Several fellow prisoners successfully absconded on this occasion and avoided recapture.

O’Neill only received word of the governor’s final rejection of his petition at 1 in the morning on the date of his hanging, when “he was awakened out of a sound sleep to receive it.”

Up to that moment he had been confident in the belief that his life would be spared by the Governor, and had refused to listen to the advice of his counsel and spiritual advisers to prepare for death. When he was told that the last hope was gone he felt very bad and was convinced. For the first time he seemed to realize the awful situation, broke down and gave way to piercing cries and lamentations — “Oh! is it all over with me? My God! it is terrible. Does the Governor refuse even a respite? O merciful God, is there no other chance!” and he ended with long heartrending, choking sobs.

We turn now to the Herald‘s June 17 report of a public execution from Lebanon, Virginia.

A steady, sharp stroke of a hatchet, a rope is cut, the crash of a falling drop follows, another rope is stretched to its utmost tension, there is a rebound and the body of Archie Johnson, a negro, is swinging in the air, a solemn warning to an immense multitude of spectators that “he that sheddeth man’s blood by man shall his blood be shed.”

Archie Johnson, “a copper-colored negro, about twenty-eight years of age” with a countenance “regular and well cut for a negro” was the former slave of a local Russell County gentleman.

Upon liberation, the correspondent charges, he “began a career of dissipation and vice,” driving away a wife with his wantonness before he “totally abandoned himself to all that was degraded, vicious and criminal.” At last, he murdered a man named Hunt.

This story is particularly intriguing for the writer’s detailed — often editorializing — reportage of the hanging details.

Not only all Russell county were on the grounds, but from Washington, Scott and other surrounding counties many thousands came to behold the death struggles of a condemned felon. The number of females in the vast throng was somewhat astonishing, and their complexions were as varied as the costumes they wore. Some were as black as a traditional ace of spaces, others as fair as the whitest lily, while the intermediate embraced every imaginable shade between the two. A large number of these came on horseback, their long, dark riding skirts forming a happy contrast with the innumerable bright and gaudy colors worn by the pedestrians. As to horses, all the available racks, trees and fences in town were thickly lined with them, and then it seemed that the surrounding woods were densely picketed with them. The prevailing costumes of the men were blue and gray jeans. The valleys, the knobs, the peaks and plains, the huts and houses, seemed to have poured themselves out to-day, all actuated by the same common, morbid curiosity, and it can safely be said that scarcely a score of them were solemnly impressed by the terrible scene they witnessed. The number present was estimated at six thousand people.

Turning from sociology to engineering, our observer sketches the construction of the lethal apparatus:

THE SCAFFOLD

was a very ordinary, rude affair, consisting of the usual two main uprights, a narrow platform in the rear, in front of which was the drop, supported by a rope. This ran through the crossbeam near the centre, and was secured to a peg driven in one of the uprights, about four feet from the ground. It allowed of a fall of six feet, and was in all respects as thorough and effective as a majority of the clumsy, murderous machines* generally used in such instances in the South. The structure was situated in the old field to the north of the town and about half a mile distant from the jail.

As for Johnson himself, he signed off on a written confession blaming for his downfall those usual suspects: liquor, cards, loose women. Then he puffed a nonchalant cigar as he rode on his coffin to the gallows, “neatly and tastefully attired in a suit of entire black cloth, black cap, with gloves and gaiters”; he sat on a chair beside his noose for two different sermons (Methodist and Baptist), then a hymn which Johnson “joined with great spirit and religious zeal,” asked one last cigar which he puffed happily for ten minutes in which “his coolness just at this time excited the wonder of many and the admiration of more,” and finally at 2:24 p.m. — 48 minutes after he arrived at the gallows — submitted to his fate.


There was a third U.S. hanging on June 13, 1873: Joseph Duncan, in a public execution at Paris, Ky., for murder. All I have been able to learn in particular of Duncan’s hanging was that his first rope broke, necessitating the ol’ do-over.

* Presumably the Yankee’s judgment of the gallows here is informed by New York’s having “progressed” to upward-jerking hangings.

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1886: Tabby Banks and Tom Honesty, for election rejection

Add comment June 4th, 2015 Headsman

This date in 1886 gives us the double execution of two men named Banks and Honesty — words we don’t hear in the same sentence every day, amirite?


Baltimore Sun, June 5, 1886: the source of all newspaper quotes in this post.

That’s Tabby Banks and Tom Honesty, to be exact, “two full-grown and powerful negroes” who to nobody’s satisfaction denied all the way to the gallows that they had murdered a white 18-year-old, Joseph McFaul, outside the (still-extant) Taylor Hotel on November 14, 1884. The sources I have located do not explicate any beef specifically known to have existed between these individuals; they do, however, situate the conflict squarely within America’s political environment in that electoral year. It is not only in passing that we have noted the parties’ racial identities.

Days before McFaul died, former hangman Grover Cleveland was elected President — the first Democrat to win the office since before the Civil War.

It might be better to say that Cleveland was the first Democrat to hold the office. The tossup 1876 presidential election was more-or-less won by New York Democrat Samuel Tilden, but he was bilked of the prize in an electoral college bargain that exchanged another Republican presidency for the end of Reconstruction.

In the 1870s and 1880s, northern whites were steadily coming around towards Southern whites’ distaste for the ongoing rigor necessary to enforce the putative equality of ex-slaves with their former masters.

Recognizing that such lethargy among white elites in effect amounted to abandoning the field to the violent reassertion of white supremacy, blacks were deeply apprehensive about 1884. Some even feared that chattel slavery might be restored outright. For all the growing indifference of the Republicans, the potential election of the Democrat Cleveland, T. Thomas Fortune wrote during the campaign, “would be a cold afternoon for this country and especially for the Negro and the laboring classes.” (Via)

This is presumably why McFaul, a Democrat taking part in a celebratory parade for Cleveland’s election, would have been hateful to Banks and Honesty. According to the Baltimore Sun, those latter two had previously “traversed the [march] route, threatening to kill some democrat.” Later, McFaul chanced to nominate himself their target by stepping into an alley, where the two churls “immediately attacked him.” Some passing Samaritan saw what was happening and managed to pull McFaul out of the alley and onto the street; still, his assailants did not disdain to press the assault in public view and clobbered the young man with a rock.

Everyone parted and went their separate ways, but young McFaul was a dead man walking. His skull fractured by the stone, he died that night in his sleep.

President Cleveland, of course, did not restore slavery. He took little interest in the situation of black Americans and did nothing to check the onset of Jim Crow, but in this he was not so different from his Republican contemporaries. Nobody among the nation’s white elite had a belly for the fight any longer.

Frederick Douglass had to concede in a Washington, D.C. speech of 1886 that “as far as the colored people of the country are concerned, their condition seems no better and not much worse than under previous administrations.”

Lynch law, violence, and murder have gone on about the same as formerly, and without the least show of Federal interference or popular rebuke. The Constitution has been openly violated with the usual impunity, and the colored vote has been as completely nullified, suppressed, and scouted as if the fifteenth amendment formed no part of the Constitution, and as if every colored citizen of the South had been struck dead by lightning or blown to atoms by dynamite. There have also been the usual number of outrages committed against the civil rights of colored citizens on highways and by-ways, by land and by water, and the courts of the country, under the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States, have shown the same disposition to punish the innocent and shield the guilty, as during the presidency of Mr. Arthur.

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