Johann Christian Woyzeck was publicly beheaded on this date in 1824 for fatally daggering his lover in a jealous wrath.
An orphan to whom the Napoleonic Wars gifted to the rudderless youth the stopgap profession of soldiering, but once the fighting stopped, Woyzeck wandered back to his native Leipzig and gave rein to his many vices.
Suicidal, drinking heavily, and unable to hold down steady work, Woyzeck frequently abused his special lady friend, the widow Johanna Christiane Woost. He would later say that he was often urged by voices in his mind to slay her — and on the night of June 21, 1821, after she canceled a rendezvous, he did so at last.
A pathetic exit from life turned out to be an entrance into judicial and literary history.
There was no question but that Woyzeck’s hand had taken Woost’s life, but proceedings against the killer dragged on for three years as courts vacillated on his mental competence. Woyzeck had been wildly depressed and owned to hallucinations and unbalanced moods that his contemporaries could readily recognize as falling near the pall of madness.
Nevertheless, Woyzeck had initially been slated for execution in November 1822 based on the evaluation of celebrated Leipzig physician Johann Christian August Clarus, but another doctor — academics will recognize the irksome intervention of reviewer no. 2 here — horned in with a missive questioning the conclusion.
That stay invited an 11th-hour stay and five more examinations worth of billable hours for Dr. Clarus, who studied up his man again and came to the same conclusion: that Woyzeck, though disturbed, was cogent enough to bear responsibility for his actions. It was in the end by this verdict that the executioner’s sword-arm swung.
The lost soul’s end on a Leipzig scaffold on this date would eventually inspire the writer Georg Buchner to pen the play Woyzeck. Though left unfinished when Buchner died young, the play has been frequently staged down to the present day, and even adapted for the silver screen by Werner Herzog:
ROCKVILLE, Md., Aug. 18 — Armstead Taylor and John Alfred Brown, negroes, were hanged here this morning for the murder of Mr. and Mrs. Rosenstein at Slidelle in March last.
The drop fell at 10:15[?]. The hanging was a horrible botch. the knot did not slip but the drop was long enough. The men writhed, groaned and uttered inarticualate [sic] sounds for nearly ten minutes.
The murders for which they were convicted and sentenced to be hanged were committed at Slidelle, a little station two miles north of Boyds, Md. on March 13 last.
Louis Rosenstein, the postmaster of the hamlet[,] lived with his aged parents in the rear of the post office. They were said to have plenty of money. Early one morning they were attacked and the man’s skull was crushed and the woman’s head pounded with some blunt instrument.
The store was ransacked and a little over $3,000, a pair of shoes and several articles were taken.
Louis Rosenstein died the day after of his injuries and Mrs. Rosenstein lingered until May when she succumbed in a hospital at Baltimore.
Taylor went to Washington and soon attracted attention by spending money in a lavish manner in Georgetown. Suspicious neighbors gave the police the information that led to his capture.
Before Taylor was arrested, however, Sergeant Fritz Bassau of the Washington police force gave up his life. Taylor shot him down as he was climbing the stairs to arrest him, where he was concealed in the house at Georgetown. He also shot Officer Gowon in the hand.
Taylor was taken back to Montgomery county, but did not stand trial for injuring the policemen. His trial was begun at Frederick on July [?] and Brown’s a week later. Both were convicted and sentenced to be hanged August 18.
Strong efforts were made to have Brown respited, it being believed by many that he was only an accessory after the fact.
The men mounted the scaffold at 10:15. They were both calm and exhibited nerve. As they were placed on the door the sheriff asked if they had anything to say. Taylor made a rambling statement in an almost inaudible voice. He appeared weak and swayed upon his feet. He said:
Gentlemen, I done both the killings myself. My Uncle Brown is not guilty. I am the guilty man, but I expect to go to heaven.
Brown refused to make any statement beyond that he had forgiven his enemies and had found salvation.
The deputies then adjusted the rope, before placing the black caps on their heads. Both men smiled and Brown said good-bye to some friends in the crowd who spoke to him.
Sheriff Thompson tok [sic] a board about six feet in length, walked over to the side of the scaffold, reached down and inserted the end of a plank in the wire ring and sprung the trap.
The bodies fell through simultaneously and began to writhe and sway in a horrible manner. Taylor seemed to be conscious and appeared to be trying to speak.
The priests pronounced it the most horrible execution they had ever seen.
One hundred years ago today, Leo M. Franks was lynched to an oak tree at Marietta — one of the most notorious mob murders in American history.
Methodically extracted hours before from the Midgeville State Penitentiary by an Ocean’s Eleven-style team of coordinated professionals, Frank’s murder was as shocking in 1915 as it reads in retrospect.
The well-heeled Jewish Yankee was factory superintendent at the National Pencil Company in Atlanta when a 13-year-old girl in his employ was discovered in the factory’s basement — throttled and apparently raped. That was in 1913; for the ensuing two years, the prosecution of Mary Phagan’s boss as her murderer would play out in sensational press coverage.
Frank is today widely thought innocent of the crime, although the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles has balked at issuing an unconditional pardon since so little of the original evidence survives. (A 1986 pardon came down “without attempting to address the question of guilt or innocence” in recognition of the slanted trial and the failure to protect Frank from lynchers.) But this was much more than a courtroom drama; the Frank affair crackles with the social tensions of early 20th century America. Industry and labor; integration; sexual violation; sectional politics; race and class and power.
Populist Party politician Thomas E. Watson, whose magazines made a dishonorable intervention by openly agitating for (and then celebrating) Frank’s lynching, captures the Zeitgeist for us as he fulminates against the nationwide campaign to grant the convicted murderer a new trial: “Frank belongs to the Jewish aristocracy, and it was determined by the rich Jews that no aristocrat of their race should die for the death of a working-class Gentile.” Frank came to enjoy (if that’s the right word) the editorial support of most of the country’s major papers, but the meddling of northern publishers, and of fellow Jews in solidarity,* arguably led Georgians to circle wagons in response. Present-day Muslims called upon to disavow every bad act by every other Muslim would surely recognize this no-win position.
But then we must also add that Watson himself, a lawyer, had been approached by Frank’s defense team hoping to enlist his bombast to defend their man at trial. The white supremacist demagogue would have been perfect for the job, for the legal battle pitted the credibility of a black janitor named Jim Conley against that of Frank.
Here amid the nadir of American race relations Frank’s team made its own ugly and unsuccessful pitch for racial solidarity with his neighbors. When formulaically asked by the court that had convicted him for any statement to mitigate the impending sentence, Frank replied that
my execution will make the advent of a new era in Georgia, where a good name and stainless honor count for naught against the word of a vile criminal; where the testimony of Southern white women of unimpeachable character is branded as false by the prosecution, disregarded by the jury and the perjured vaporings of a black brute alone accepted as the whole truth.
This violent collision of two vulnerable minorities each with the keen sense that one or the other of them was being outfitted for WASP America’s nooses makes for riveting and sometimes bizarre reading. Newspapers could hardly fail to note that the all-white jury (Leo Frank’s defense team struck all the blacks) had, as Frank complained, privileged the account of just the sort of “black brute” that Southern courts were accustomed to scorn, or railroad. Thus we have the NAACP organ The Crisis taking umbrage that “Atlanta tried to lynch a Negro for the alleged murder of a young white girl” but “a white degenerate has now been indicted for the crime.” It was likewise reasoned by some that since Conley was a young black man with a criminal record who was a potential suspect in the Deep South in the murderous sexual assault of a little white girl, “the mere fact that Conley did not long ago make his exit from this terrestrial sphere, via a chariot of fire is convincing proof that he, at least, is not the man who committed the deed.”** (New York Age, Oct. 29, 1914.)
In the end it was a zero-sum game between Jim Conley and Leo Frank: one of them was the murderer; each accused the other. Their respective desperate interests permeated to their respective communities. (After Frank’s lynching, hundreds of Jews left Georgia; many who remained took pains to downplay their Jewishness.)
By whatever circumstance police zeroed on Frank and the white community’s passion followed — tunnel vision that would eventually manifest itself in a circus courtroom atmosphere where the prosecuting attorney was cheered and defense witnesses hooted at and the ultimate outcome more demanded than anticipated. The judge feared that an acquittal would result in the summary lynching of not only Frank but his defenders.
Unusually for the time, appeals on the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court which declined to intervene — although two justices filed a dissent citing the egregious trial atmosphere.
Mob law does not become due process of law by securing the assent of a terrorized jury …
This is not a matter for polite presumptions; we must look facts in the face. Any judge who has sat with juries knows that in spite of forms they are extremely likely to be impregnated by the environing atmosphere … we think the presumption overwhelming that the jury responded to the passions of the mob …
lynch law [is] as little valid when practiced by a regularly drawn jury as when administered by one elected by a mob intent on death.
“Feeling as I do about this case, I would be a murderer if I allowed this man to hang,” the governor said. “It may mean that I must live in obscurity the rest of my days, but I would rather be plowing in a field than feel for the rest of my days that I had this man’s blood on my hands.”†
Frank was spirited away to the penitentiary under cover of darkness; it was hoped that the remote and reinforced edifice would deter any reprisal. It turned out that the furies who hunted Franks could not be dissuaded by mere inconvenience: a committee calling itself the Knights of Mary Phagan formed with the open object of organizing the intended mob vengeance — and indeed it was almost superseded in July of that year by a fellow-prisoner who slashed Frank’s throat as he slept.
Frank survived that murder attempt only to await the next one. Who knows what fancies frequented him in those weeks when he ducked from the shadow of the gallows to that of the lynching-tree, object of pity or hatred. He had time on the last day to savor his impending fate when the Knights methodically cut their way into the penitentiary — snipping the phone wires and disabling the vehicles — and marched their man out with nary a shot fired. Then, a convoy of automobiles “sped” (at 18 miles per hour) all the way back to a prepared execution-site at Marietta. The drive took seven or eight hours over unpaved country lanes, and for every moment of it Frank surely knew how it would end.
As a contrasting response, the American Jewish Committee declined to participate in the Frank campaign for fear of lending counterproductive credence to charges such as those voiced by the New York Sun (Oct. 12, 1913):
The anti-Semitic feeling was the natural result of the belief that the Jews had banded to free Frank, innocent or guilty. The supposed solidarity of the Jews for Frank, even if he was guilty, caused a Gentile solidarity against him.
** Maurianne Davis’s Strangers and Neighbors: Relations between Blacks and Jews in the United States has a trove of interesting editorial comment from Frank’s contemporaries in the black press, and the Jewish press. Conley was actually the confessed accessory, and served a year in prison for it: he said that he complied with Frank’s order to hide the body for fear that his “white” boss could easily get Conley lynched for the crime. Conley also wrote (under Frank’s directive, he said) the preposterous “murder notes” found with the body that purported to be Mary Phagan’s dying indictment of Newt Lee, the African-American night watchman.
† The allusion to political suicide suggests Slaton’s mind was on the precedent of Illinois Gov. John Altgeld, whose career was destroyed by pardoning some of the Haymarket anarchists. If so, Slaton was quite correct; he actually had to flee Georgia altogether and could not return to the state for more than a decade.
On August 12, 1895, Willamina “Minnie” Dean became the only woman executed in New Zealand’s history.
An immigrant from Scotland, Dean married an innkeeper making bank in a gold rush boom town. If only the mines had not played out!
After they did, the Deans fell on hard times; Charles kept pigs instead of inns, and Minnie kept unwanted children. This “baby farming” industry carved out a curious niche in the Victorian heart of darkness — the domestic heart of darkness, not the colonial one.
Between the dearth of contraception and the stigma attached to unwed mothers, there was a ready market of unwilling parents hoping someone would whisk their little angels away. The “Winton baby-farmer” did just that — for a fee.
The question, then as now, is whether the many infants who died in Dean’s care perished because of calculated homicide, or because of the staggeringly high infant mortality rate of the era. Since baby farmers took one-time fees to take in children whom they would thereafter have to maintain, their incentives were to turn over the stock as quickly as possible — either by placing the child with an adoptive parent or … well …
Police surveilled and investigated Minnie Dean’s operation off and on for more than five years before her June 1895 capital trial: inquests after children’s deaths in 1889 and 1891 attributed them to natural causes but also noted deplorable sanitary conditions. Police found that she had attempted to take out life insurance policies on at least some of the kids.
Fearful of the attention (but still needing the income), Dean became more furtive, and this only made her look the more guilty. As greatly as the circumstances have changed, Dean’s case and others like it mirror the difficulty present-day judiciaries still have in drawing a bright line around childhood fatalities that can be convincingly attributed to abuse.
In the end it wasn’t the coroner who undid Dean, but an eagle-eyed railway attendant who noted the woman boarding a train with a baby and a hatbox … and later leaving the train with a hatbox but no baby. Now the investigation closed in on the Winton baby-farmer quickly: when Dean could not produce the infant granddaughter a woman claimed to have given up to her, police put a spade to her garden and turned up three corpses in the topsoil. The three-year-old boy had an undetermined cause of death, but the two infant girls had perished from suffocation and a laudanum overdose. One of them was the missing infant granddaughter. Murder charges ensued.
Her attorney was Alfred Charles Hanlon, who would go on to a brilliant career at the bar but was here defending his very first homicide — and was unable to interest the jury in an alternative configuration of the incriminating circumstances, namely that Dean had covered up accidental deaths fearing just that they would be taken for murders. (A 1985 TV series about this attorney, Hanlon, explored the case in its first episode, which can be seen online here.) Still less did that angle interest gawkers crowding the courtroom and the hustlers who sold them hatboxes carrying grotesque baby dolls.
(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.)
“To all of the racist white folks in America that hate black folks and to all of the black folks in America that hate themselves: in the infamous words of my famous legendary brother, Nat Turner, ‘Y’all kiss my black ass.’ Let’s do it.”
—Brian Roberson, convicted of murder, lethal injection, Texas.
Executed August 9, 2000
Roberson was convicted in the stabbing death of James Boots, seventy-nine, and his wife, Lillian, seventy-five, who lived across the street from him in Dallas. Roberson was African-American and his victims were Caucasian. Amnesty International issued a memo before the execution urging action and “expressing concern at the prosecutor’s systematic exclusion of African-Americans from the trial jury.” Roberson claimed he was “juiced up” on PCP and liquor during the crime. His last words were alternately recorded as “You ain’t got what you want.”
Later that same year, Roberson’s twin brother, Bruce, was arrested for allegedly threatening then President-elect George W. Bush. In a New York Times article, officers reported that Bruce wanted “to take him down.” The piece continued: “Mr. Roberson told them that Mr. Bush ‘stole the election and he’s not going to get away with it.'” Bush had been governor at the time of Brian’s execution.
In John Grisham’s The Chamber, it is on August 8, 1990 that the titular enclosure receives its victim in a cloud of lethal gas.
In The Chamber, Sam Cayhall, a Ku Klux Klansman who had long avoided conviction for bombing a Jewish civil rights lawyer in 1967, has at last been condemned in Mississippi twenty years later.
The action centers around the futile and increasingly hopeless efforts of Cayhall’s grandson Adam Hall to save the old man working pro bono for a Chicago law firm.
Adam comes to learn that his grandfather has a long and bloody Klan history, even killing children. (We also find that the missing link in this generational drama, Adam’s father, committed suicide after Sam was sent to death row.)
But Sam is in no way a good guy: still an unreconstructed racist, he refuses to inform on any ex-confederates. As grandpa wends his way towards his date with the executioner, Adam’s torrent of judicial appeals go nowhere and the politically sensitive nature of the case makes executive clemency a non-starter. (When The Chamber was published in 1994, the death penalty was at an acme of popularity.) This is to be expected, of course; as Chekhov might observe, you can’t call the book The Chamber if someone isn’t going to go sit in said chamber by the end.
This bestseller was made into a 1996 film starring Gene Hackman as the grizzled Klansman. (In the film version’s execution scene, the date is changed to April 13, 1996.)
There’s an excerpt of the novel available on Grisham’s site here.
On this date in 1883, the illustrious hanging career of executioner William Marwood came to an inglorious conclusion.
The Billy Beane of the Victorian gallows, Marwood brought metrics — that is, calculated drop distances designed for killing precision — to a craft long characterized by clumsy amateurism.
James Burton, 33, had killed his 18-year-old wife in a violent quarrel earlier that same year; according to his confession, after she jabbed him with an umbrella and threatened to swear his life away,
my temper got the best of me, and I struck her, and we both fell. She got up first to check me not to hit her any more. At that time I could not see out of my own eyes for tears, and she cried out, ‘Oh, Jim Burton, I am only trying you don’t hit me any more,’ and I said it was too late now, for I have not a home for myself. I was blind at the time with passion, and I picked up a stone and hit her with it, and she fell down in the same place where her body was picked up. Then she said, ‘Jim, don’t, for that is my last; do come with me, Jim.’ (Glasgow Herald, Aug. 8, 1883)
Hardly a criminal mastermind, Burton proceeded to wander the town of Tunstall for several furtive days trying to screw up the nerve to commit suicide.
The 174th and last client of the great executioner surely didn’t present any difficulties in the Mass * Acceleration department, but even for Marwood there’s more to a hanging than striking force. By some last-moment faint, stumble, or twist Burton fell through the trap wrong, dinging the side of it and getting the long slack of the noose caught under his arm.
Marwood, who was an aging man of declining strength at this point, had to haul poor Jim Burton up through the trap. “When drawn up Burton presented a shocking appearance,” one reporter on-site put it.
As Burton moaned “Oh Lord, help me!” Marwood readied for an inelegant do-over: not bothering to reset the trap, he hurriedly unwound the rope and positioned it as it ought while Burton stood heaving on the platform. When all was in readiness, Marwood simply shoved the uxoricide back into the hole.
This time, Burton died. But Marwood himself had not long to outlive him: he passed away four weeks later, on September 4, at the age of 65.
On this date in 2008, Mexican national Jose Medellin was executed by Texas, pleasurably sticking its thumb in the eye of the International Court of Justice.
U.S. state and local officials have often displayed the ugly-American tendency to view binding treaty obligations as a Washington thing of no moment to the likes of a Harris County prosecutor. So when Medellin was arrested for the 1993 rape-murder of two teenage girls in a Houston park, the idea of putting him right in touch with Mexican diplomats to assist his defense was, we may safely suppose, the very farthest thing from anyone’s mind.
Yet under the Vienna Convention, that is exactly what ought to have occurred. The idea is that consular officials can help a fellow on foreign soil to understand his unfamiliar legal circumstances and assist with any measures for his defense — and by common reciprocity, every state is enabled to look after the interests of its nationals abroad.
A widespread failure to do this, in death cases and others, has involved the United States in a number of international spats over the years.
Jose Medellin was among more than 50 Mexican prisoners named in one of the most noteworthy of these: the Avena case, a suit by Mexico* against the United States in the International Court of Justice.
In its March 31, 2004 Avena decision, the ICJ found that U.S. authorities had “breached the obligations incumbent upon” them by failing in these instances to advise the Mexican nationals it arrested of their Vienna Convention rights, and of failing in almost all those cases likewise to advise Mexican representatives that a Mexican citizen had been taken into custody.
“The appropriate reparation in this case,” the 15-judge panel directed, “consists in the obligation of the United States of America to provide, by means of its own choosing, review and reconsideration of the convictions and sentences of the Mexican nationals.”
If you think the Lone Star State’s duly constituted authorities jumped right on that “obligation,” you must be new around here.
Several years before, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions visited the United States and filed a report complaining “that there is a generalized perception that human rights are a prerogative of international affairs, and not a domestic issue.”
“Domestic laws appear de facto to prevail over international law, even if they could contradict the international obligations of the United States,” the Special Rapporteur noted.
Texas, famed for not being messed with, took a dim view indeed to being bossed about from The Hague. Indeed, the very concept of foreign law and international courts is a gleefully-thrashed political pinata among that state’s predominant conservative electorate.
U.S. President George W. Bush — a former Texas governor who in his day had no time at all for appeals based on consular notification snafus — in this instance appealed to Texas to enact the ICJ’s proposed review.† In fact, he asserted the authority to order Texas to do so.
“The World Court has no standing in Texas and Texas is not bound by a ruling or edict from a foreign court,” a spokesman of Gov. Rick Perry retorted.
This notion that America’s federalist governance structure could insulate each of her constituent jurisdictions from treaty obligations undertaken by the nation as a whole naturally seems preposterous from the outside. But in the U.S., this dispute between Washington and Austin was resolved by the Supreme Court — and the vehicle for doing so was an appeal lodged by our man, Medellin v. Texas.
The question at stake in Medellin was whether the treaty obligation was binding domestic law on its own — or if, by contrast, such a treaty required American legislative bodies to enact corresponding domestic statutes before it could be enforced. The high court ruled for the latter interpretation, effectively striking down Avena since there was zero chance of either Texas or the U.S. Congress enacting such a statute.
Medellin, the decision, spelled the end for Medellin, the man — and, at least for now, the end of any prospect of effectual intervention in American death penalty cases by international tribunals.
Minutes before dawn prayers today, Pakistan hanged Shafqat Hussain in Karachi Central Jail.*
He’s the latest casualty of Pakistan’s wild death penalty resurgence following last December’s bloody terrorist attack on a Peshawar school — leading Islamabad to break a moratorium on carrying out the death sentences that it was continuing to hand down.
And how! According to the BBC, today’s hanging brings to 193 the total of people put to death in the little more than half-year since; Pakistan could stop hanging today (it won’t) and easily rank among 2015’s execution leaders by the end of the year.
Though the first victims of the new policy were people previously death-sentenced for terrorism, and thereby at least thematically linked to the Peshawar massacre, Pakistan by March had dropped the distinction and commenced hanging prisoners by the fistful for ordinary crimes, too.
Shafqat Hussain’s name has repeatedly entered the news cycle during that time, as he has faced and then avoided multiple execution dates, most recently this past June 9. Some have gone to the very brink, and seen the young man reprieved moments from donning his hanging-shroud.
Hussain denied committing the crime laid at his door — the abduction and murder of a 7-year-old boy in the area where he worked as a watchman — but a confession “allegedly” obtained by torture doomed him. Guilt aside, the matter garnered worldwide headlines (and advocacy) largely on account of his youth: Hussain and his advocates say he was a minor of age 14 or 15 when arrested; Pakistani courts have found him to have been 23. (!) It is this dispute about the age that has been at the center of Shafqat Hussain’s recent heart-stopping cycle of appeals and stays.
Shortly before his execution, Shafqat Hussain put his byline to a compelling first-person testimonial for CNN about life on Pakistan’s death row and the experience of nearing an imminent execution date.
When the jailer tells me that my execution date has been set, he separates me immediately from the other prisoners. I spend all seven days by myself in a cell in the barracks for prisoners about to be executed. They conduct a physical exam every one of those seven days. They weigh me every day, take my blood pressure and temperature as well.
On the last two days they also measure my height, my neck and my body for the clothes I am to wear when they hang me.
One day before my hanging, they tell me about my final visit with my family and that I need to execute my will. I cannot really say what I am thinking in those last seven days. My brain is thinking all sorts of things.
* According to a brother, who told AFP that “there is a cut mark on his neck and half of his neck is separated from his body,” they did not hang him very well.
A century since highwaymen were as common as insolvent debtors are now.
Public vehicles were then little known. The roads were covered with night travellers, either on horse or foot, who became the easy prey of one or two armed and desperate ruffians. Turpin, Sixteen-String-Jack, and others of less notoriety, almost made these criminals fashionable; for, strange to say, there is a fashion even in crime.
Their daring was great; and in a country where personal prowess and high courage were so much prized, it was not to be wondered at that such characters should obtain a sort of fame. Now that our roads are covered with stage coaches, the race of highwaymen is extinct; solitary individuals of the species may be now and then met with, but the “calling” has decidedly fallen into disuse; pickpockets have succeeded them, and robberies are thus achieved with greater facility, less danger of personal violence, and with less dread of legal punishment.
The callosity of London thieves is dreadful. The Rev. Mr. Cotton is ordinary of Newgate, and in allusion to that gentleman’s spiritual consolation on the fatal platform, they call hanging, “dying with your ears stuffed with cotton.”
A pickpocket lately gave it as his reason for following his profession, “That it didn’t hurt above the arm pits;” i.e. that if discovered, the punishment was transportation, not hanging.
None of the numerous depredators we have already noticed, can excel in villainy, the subject of the present memoir. He was one of the most fierce, depraved, and infamous of the human race.
From early life he exhibited in his disposition a combination of the worst feelings of our nature, which, as the period of manhood approached, settled into a sort of prerogative of plunder and depredation, by which he seemed to consider himself as entitled to prey on the property, and sport with the lives, of his fellow creatures, with the most heartless impunity.
He attached himself to gangs of the most notorious thieves, and imposters, over whom, by a kind of supererogatory talent for all sorts of villainy, he very soon acquired unlimited influence and command, and by whose aid he committed such numerous and daring acts of highway-robbery, house-breaking, and plunder, as made him the dread and terror of the metropolis and its vicinity.
Kennington Common, Hounslow Heath, Bagshot Heath, and indeed all the commons and roads for several miles round London, were the scenes of the predatory depredations of Avershaw and his associates; and such a degree of terror had his repeated acts of robbery and brutality inspired, that the post-boys, coachmen, and all whose duty compelled them frequently to travel over the theatre of his exploits, trembled at his name and dreaded his visitation.
Although the peculiar features of the criminal laws of our country for a long time operated to the impunity of this abandoned ruffian and desperado, the cup of his iniquities was gradually filling, and he at length fell under the hand of outraged justice; but not till, unhappily, he had added a new act of murder to the long and black catalogue of his unatoned crimes: and it is lamentable to record that so base, so villainous, and so bloody a being, should have found creatures, bearing the form and name of men, so entirely forgetful of their duties to society and to God, as not only to become the admirers and apologists of what they misnamed the valour of Avershaw, but who absolutely affected to trace something prophetic in the fiendlike declarations he had too often made, that “he would murder the first ****** who attempted to deliver him into the hands of justice,” because, in the spirit of his diabolical declarations, he did actually shed the blood of a fellow-creature, who in the performance of his duty as a police officer, essayed the arrest of this most notorious of culprits.
Jerry Avershaw was the son of a laboring man who worked at one of the dye houses at Bankside — his father having met with a severe accident, was rendered incapable of following his usual employment — the support of the family consequently devolved upon the mother who took in washing, and was very indulgent to her family.
Jerry was educated in the parochial school of St. Saviour’s, Southwark — and at an early age resorted to places of public amusement which were then established in the neighborhood of St. George’s fields, where he soon became distinguished by his extravagant style of dress and profuse expenditure.
He associated at that time with many respectable young men, who were unacquainted with his real character, and way of living. This however became at length so notorious that he was obliged to seek associates in the lowest pot-houses, where from his superior address and appearance — and the liberal manner in which he spent his money — he was always welcome. Without reference to his other crimes, we shall proceed to give an account of his remarkable trial.
The prisoner was charged on two indictments; one for having, at the Two Brewers Public-house,* Southwark, feloniously shot at and murdered D. Price, an Officer belonging to the Police-Office, held at Union-hall, in the Borough. The other indictment was for having, at the same time and place, fired a pistol at Bernard Turner, another officer attached the office at Union-hall, with an intent to murder him.
Mr. Garrow, the leading counsel for the prosecution, opened the case to the Court and jury, by stating, that the prisoner at the bar, being a person of very ill fame, had been suspected of having perpetrated a number of felonies. The Magistrates of the Police-Office in the Borough of Southwark, having received information against the prisoner, sent, as was their duty, an order for his apprehension.
To execute the warrant, the deceased Price, and another officer of the name of Turner, went to the Two Brewers, a public-house, in Maid Lane, where they understood he was then drinking, in company with some other persons.
At the entrance of a parlour in the house, the prisoner appeared in a posture of intending to resist. Holding a loaded pistol in each of his hands, he with threats and imprecations desired the officers to stand off, as he would otherwise fire at them.
The officers, without being intimidated by those menaces, attempted to rush in and seize him, on which the prisoner discharged both the pistols at the same instant of time, lodging the contents of one in the body of David Price, and with the other wounded Turner very severely in the head. Price after languishing a few hours died of the wound.
Mr. Garrow was very pathetic and animated in his description of the several circumstances composing the shocking barbarity. To prove it, he would call four witnesses, whose evidence, he said, would be but too clear to establish the prisoner’s guilt.
The Jury would be enabled to judge from the facts to be submitted to them, and would undoubtedly decide on the issue joined between the Crown and the prisoner at the bar.
The learned counsel accordingly called Turner, the landlord of the house, a surgeon, and a fourth witness; but as the substance of their evidence is comprised in Mr. G’s opening of the indictment, it would be superfluous to repeat it. Turner said positively, he saw the prisoner discharge the pistols, from one of which he himself received his wound, and the contents of the other were lodged in the body of Price, who died very shortly after. The surgeon proved that the death was in consequence of the wound.
Mr. Knowles and Mr. Best were counsel for the prisoner, but the weight of evidence against him was too strong to be combatted by any exertions.
Mr. Baron Perryn summed up the evidence, on every essential part of which his lordship made several apposite, pointed, and accurate observations. The counsel for the prisoner, he remarked to the jury, had principally rested his defence on the circumstances of several other persons being present when the pistols were discharged, by some of which they contended the death wound might possibly have been inflicted. But, with respect to that part of the transaction, it would be proper for the jury to observe, that the witness Turner, had sworn positively to his having seen the prisoner in the act of discharging the contents of the pistol.
The jury, after a consultation of about three minutes, pronounced the dreadful verdict of — Guilty.
Through a flaw in the indictment for the murder, an objection was taken by the counsel. The indictment did not state that Price died in St. Saviour’s parish. This was argued nearly two hours, when Mr. Baron Perryn intimating a wish to take the opinion of the Twelve Judges of England, the counsel for the prosecution, waiving [sic] the point for the present, insisted on the prisoner’s being tried on the another [sic] indictment, for feloniously shooting at Barnaby Windsor, the officer who apprehended him after he had shot Price, which the learned counsel said, would occupy no great portion of time, as it could be sufficiently supported by the testimony of a single witness. He was accordingly tried and found guilty on a second capital indictment.
The prisoner, who, contrary to expectation, had in a great measure refrained from his usual audacity, began with unparalelled insolence of expression and gesture, to ask his lordship if he “was to be murderd by the evidence of one witness?” several times repeating the question, till the jury returned him Guilty.
When Mr. Baron Perryn put on the judicial cap, the prisoner, unconscious, and regardless of his dreadful situation, at the same time put on his hat, observing the judge with contemptuous looks while he was passing the sentence. When the constables were removing him from the dock to a coach, he continued to vent torrents of abuse against the judge and jury, whom, he charged with, as he styled it, his murder.
As his desperate dispostion was well known, he was, to prevent resistance, hand-cuffed, and his thighs and arms also bound strongly together, in which situation he was conveyed back to prison.
So callous was this ruffian to every degree of feeling, that on his way to be tried, as he was passing near the usual place of execution on Kennington Common, he put his head out of the coach window, and with all the sang froid imaginable, asked some of those who guarded him, if they did not think he would be twisted on that pretty spot by Saturday.
He was executed on Kennington Common, on the 3rd of August, 1795, with James [John] Little for the murder of Mr. Macevoy and Mrs. King at Richmond, and Sarah King for the murder of her new born bastard, at Nutfield, Surrey, in the presence of an immense multitude of spectators, among whom he recognized many acquaintances and confederates, to whom he bowed, nodded, and laughed with the most unfeeling indifference.
He had a flower in his mouth, and his waistcoat and shirt were unbuttoned, leaving his bosom open in the true style of vulgar gaiety: and, talking to the mob, and venting curses on the officers, he died, as he had lived, a ruffian and a brute! He was afterwards hung in chains upon Wimbledon Common.
The infamy of his life, and the atrocity of his deeds, rendered him a fit object for the posthumous punishment of hanging in chains on the arena of his crimes, and (painful as is the record, the truth must be told,) while the disgusting carcass of this malefactor, devoured by the birds and withered by the elements, gradually disappeared, the spot on which he had been gibbetted was converted into a temple of infamy, to which the thieves and vagabonds of London resorted in a sort of pilgrimage; and while the leading ruffians of the flash school, of which Avershaw was the child and champion, procured from his decaying and piece-meal carcass the bones of his fingers and toes to convert into stoppers for their tobacco-pipes, the tyro villains contented themselves with tearing the buttons from his clothes, as mementos of the estimation in which they held their arch prototype.
The newsmen effected horror that “Abershaw continued to the last moment of his existence in the same hardened state” (Telegraph, Aug. 4, 1795) and “took no notice either of his fellow-sufferers, or what the clergyman endeavoured to say to him” — then “when the executioner took the whip and touched the horse, made a spring from the cart, and was heard to repeat a horrid curse the last word he spoke.”
Avershaw’s larger-than-death performance of “dying game” would in subsequent years be a much-honored exemplar among kindred spirits who would not occasionally be required to attempt to outdo him in dramatic contempt of the gallows.