On this date in 1888, after a hearty breakfast of beefsteak, eggs, sweet potatoes and coffee, William Showers became the eighth man judicially hanged in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania.
He had been condemned for the murder of his grandson, William “Willie” Kahler. An account of his trial and death, assembled by the Lebanon County Historical Society, describes the condemned man as he appeared on the day of his execution: “The aged Bill Showers [he was sixty-two] looked like what he was, a pathetic soul. He was only five feet two inches in height and weighed less than one hundred twenty-five pounds.”
Showers had been dealt a hard hand in life, and he didn’t have a good reputation among his neighbors in the village of Annville. Much to the shame of the family, his only daughter Sara had borne six children out of wedlock. Sara died young in 1886, and her father was left in charge of two of her children: six-year-old Willie Kahler and his brother, Samuel “Sammy” Speraw, age four. (What happened to the other four children has not been recorded.)
Bill Showers was a widower by then. For about six months, with the help of his son and his daughter-in-law, Showers did the best he could to provide a home for his grandsons.
But in April 1887, Showers’s son and his wife stopped helping him care for Willie and Sammy. Bill had never wanted the boys in the first place, and he couldn’t afford to feed them on his own.
For about a month the three of them lived alone and Bill tried to get someone to take the children off his hands. He tried a few different foster homes, but he couldn’t afford to pay the foster parents for the boys’ keep. He took them to an orphanage, but they were refused admission. The county almshouse rejected them also.
Bitter and desperate, Bill complained to a friend, “If no one will take them, I have one place to put them. I won’t be a damned fool and raise other people’s children.”
In mid-May, however, Showers’s normally sulky and reclusive attitude suddenly changed and he went to the neighbors and cheerfully announced that he had finally found another home for the children. Two brothers in Schuylkill County were willing to adopt them and take them to Texas to start a new life, and they would be out of Bill’s hair forever. Showers asked his daughter-in-law to mend the boys’ clothing in preparation for their journey.
Then, on May 17, he borrowed the local minister’s buggy and set off over the mountains to Sammy and Willie’s new adoptive home. A few of the neighbors noticed Showers riding out of town that morning. They also noticed that he was alone.
By May 30, the good citizens of Annville were suspicious enough to go to the local constable, Joseph Fegan. When Fegan questioned Showers as to the whereabouts of his grandchildren, Bill told them a most extraordinary story: on the way to Schuykill County, he said, he’d encountered two black men and asked them for directions.
He then stopped to water his horses, letting the children out of the buggy as he did so. When he returned to the wagon, Willie and Sammy were gone. He believed they’d been abducted by the two black men. But he never reported their disappearances, he said, because he was “too upset.”
No one believed this wild story, and the people of Annville organized search parties to look for the two children, whom they were sure had been murdered. They found their tiny, nearly naked bodies that very same day, in a ditch only about 70 yards from Showers’s house. They had both been beaten and strangled to death.
Showers was arrested, charged with murder and lodged in the county jail. Which was just as well for him, because his neighbors were inclined to lynch him. His son hired a very able local attorney, Frank Seltzer, to defend him. Seltzer selected Frank Lanz, a former state senator, as co-counsel.
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania charged the defendant only with the murder of Willie. The idea was that if they lost that case, they could go forward and try Showers for the murder of Sammy.
The trial date was in mid-June, and the first thing Showers’s attorneys did was move that it be delayed. As the Lebanon County Historial Society puts it:
Seltzer…had a different view of the situation. He rose and objected to the call of the case with a voice that could be heard in the county jail one-half block away. Promptly and resignedly, his tone of voice changed. As if explaining a baptismal font to a heathen, he told the judges that he and Senator Lantz had been retained for less than a week. Their request for a continuance was not made :in the spirit of vexatious delay” but rather for lack of time to prepare the case for trial and, of prime importance, the inability to have a fair trial in the county at the time in light of the prevailing rumors. Adverse pretrial publicity, pleaded Seltzer, rendered a fair trial impossible at this time.
[The prosecutor] Ehrgood replied to Seltzer that he had been given prompt notice he was going to press for immediate trial and Seltzer would have ample time to prepare, since it was only Monday and he would not be ready for trial until the following Thursday. This was a concession which Seltzer and Lantz hardly appreciated.
The judge agreed with the defense, and set a new trial date for September. This would give time for his lawyers to prepare, and maybe for the rumor mill to stop spinning. These were some of the stories floating around:
Seltzer murdered his wife in 1886.
He also killed his daughter Sara, Willie and Sammy’s mother.
He was in love with a local seamstress, Elizabeth Sargent, and killed his family members to get them out of the way so he could marry her.
The press didn’t help matters.
Headlines in the local papers included shockers like “Annville the Scene of a Murder Most Foul!” and “William Showers Dyes His Hands with His Grandchildren’s Blood!”
During the summer of 1887, Showers’s attorney, Seltzer, fell ill and was confined to bed, unable to assist with the defense. It seemed unlikely that the trial would really take place in September. Perhaps Showers couldn’t stand the suspense anymore, for on September 23 he summoned his sons Stephen and William Jr. to the jail, along with the lawyer Luther F. Houck.
Showers made an oral confession to all of them, speaking in his native German, and Houck wrote it down and translated it into English.
The substance of Showers’s confession was that Elizabeth Sargent had agreed to marry him on the condition that he got rid of the boys, and they had agreed to kill them. Elizabeth, he said, helped him strangle Willie and Sammy and dump their bodies in a pre-dug grave.
In court later that day, Showers pleaded guilty to both murders, and his confession was read out for everyone to hear. Elizabeth Sargent was in the audience and she leaped up and shouted, “That’s a lie!” The judge had her removed from the courtroom. The next day she and her parents took a train out of town. Because Showers had implicated her and the police weren’t sure as to whether she was involved in the children’s deaths, the court issued a bench warrant for her arrest.
The townspeople, however, didn’t believe Showers’s second story any more than they had his first one. They were convinced of Elizabeth’s innocence. She subsequently reappeared and presented an alibi, proving she had not been with Showers on the dates he specified in his statement.
When he heard the news about his client, Selzer rose from his sickbed and rushed to court to try to undo the damage. He begged the judge not to accept the guilty plea. In private, Showers told his attorney the confession was completely untrue and he made up the story because he’d been sick and weak, and people who visited him in jail told him he would be hanged if he didn’t own up to what he did.
Selzer’s argument persuaded the judge: Showers’s guilty plea was withdrawn. He finally went to trial on December 15, 1887.
He testified on his own behalf and gave yet another bizarre story, this time implicating a local man named George Matterness and his dead daughter Sara’s husband, a man named Huffnagle. He said Matterness and Hufnagle, along with two other men in blackface, had visited Showers’s home on the night of May 17 and lead Willie and Sammy out of the house. Matterness, Showers said, had later told him the children were buried in the ditch. Showers had told no one about this before because Hufnagle had repeatedly threatened his life.
The prosecution immediately called George Matterness as a rebuttal witness. Matterness, a teacher, freely admitted he knew Showers slightly, but said the whole story was a lie and he was baffled as to why the old man would have implicated him.
Given the circumstances, it’s surprising the jury actually deliberated till midnight and then on to 8:00 a.m. the next morning before pronouncing Showers guilty.
He told Seltzer, “I’m glad they didn’t find me innocent so they can’t go ahead and try me on the indictment for the murder of Sammy.” He expressed hope that he would prevail on appeal, but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied him and the governor quickly issued a death warrant.
Three hundred people were allowed into the prison courtyard to witness the execution. Thousands more clogged the streets around the jail into a “solid mass of morbid minded humanity bent on seeing Bill Showers tripped into endless time.”
The morbid mass got its wish. The small, slight man fell only three feet, and his neck was not broken. He strangled slowly for seventeen minutes.
As Showers’s sons all refused to take custody of the body, he was buried on the grounds of the county almshouse. This was the same institution that had refused to accept his grandsons, an act that would have saved their lives.
On this date in 2010, Farid Baghlani was hanged in Ahvaz for a 2004-2008 serial murder spree that claimed the lives of six women.
At trial, Baghlani openly attributed his crimes to his hatred for women, probably not a defense calculated to maximize his prospects of acquittal. Those who lost loved ones to Baghlani returned the sentiment, and celebrated his execution by handing out sweets.
On this date in 1806, the Neapolitan partisan Michele Pezza was hanged as a bandit.
Better known by his infernal nickname “Fra Diavolo” — “Brother Devil” — Pezza (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) was forced into the army of the Kingdom of Naples as punishment for manslaughter in 1797, just in time to experience its thrashing at the hands of the French Republicans rolling down the peninsula.
By 1799, Naples was no longer a kingdom at all, but a French-modeled and -backed republic, one of several in Italy.
Populist, Catholic resistance to these impositions commenced almost immediately. Fra Diavolo was destined to become the enduring legend of this sanfedismo movement.
Pezza’s band, which eventually numbered as much as 4,000, stalked the roads around Rome and Naples, terrorizing French soldiers and Republicans. They had a reputation for cruelty.
Francis Maceroni, a writer and an aide (and eventual biographer) for Napoleonic marshal Murat, charges that Fra Diavolo was merely “a well known assassin and highwayman [who] could not but be infamous, in any service. Brief, he was put upon his trial, — found guilty of as many horrid felonies as would fill a dozen volumes like that of ‘Rookwood,’ and hanged upon a gibbet of extraordinary height, at the Ponte della Maddalena at Naples.” The author is disgusted that the name Fra Diavolo “has not only been immortalized by his atrocious crimes, but by the appliances of fine music and operatic representation” for the outlaw “was a most unmitigated mass of evil, without one redeeming point.”
Actually, his effectiveness with irregulars was a very significant redeeming point in a dirty-war environment.
After Naples’ Parthenopean Republic was deposed by France’s foes, Pezza was retired with an aristocratic title, a substantial pension, and a trophy bride: just the Bourbons’ way to say thanks.
But he was recalled to the field when the French re-invaded Naples in 1806, briefly installing Napoleon’s brother Joseph Bonaparte as the new Neapolitan king, and again set to raiding with a mass of guerrillas. This time the French hunted him to ground, defeating his irregulars in an October 1806 engagement and capturing Fra Diavolo himself days later.
Pezza hanged as a brigand in Naples, but the city’s exiled royalty funded a funeral mass for their lost commander in the cathedral of Palermo.
Maceroni wasn’t kidding about the “fine music and operative representation,” by the way. Daniel Auber composed a hit 1830 debut, Fra Diavolo.
Although his crimes were committed in Australia and were not war-related, he was court-martialed and sentenced to die under American military law.
This was the first and last time a foreign national who committed crimes in Australia was tried and sentenced under the laws of their own country. Eddie was only the second U.S. serviceman to be executed in World War II. (The first, James Rowe, had been convicted of murdering another soldier and was hanged in Arizona just three weeks earlier.)
Known as the “Brownout Strangler” due to his penchant for attacking women at night on Melbourne’s dimly lit streets, Leonski killed three people and assaulted several others of the course of just over two weeks, from May 3 to May 18, 1942. He said he was fascinated by women’s singing and killed his victims to “get at their voices.”
Leonski was born in New Jersey in 1917, the sixth child of Polish/Russian immigrant parents, and grew up in New York City. Crime historian Harold Schechter notes he had the kind of unstable childhood, dysfunctional family background and mommy issues typical of serial killers:
Both [parents were] confirmed alcoholics. He was seven when his father abandoned the family. Not long afterward, his mother, Amelia, took up with another drunkard. She herself suffered at least two mental breakdowns, severe enough to land her in Bellevue, where she was diagnosed with both manic-depression and incipient schizophrenia. From an early age, three of his brothers were chronic troublemakers, eventually racking up lengthy rap sheets. One of them ended up in a state institution, where he lived out his life.
According to all accounts, Eddie was the apple of his unstable mother’s eye. He, in turn, had the kind of deeply disturbing attachment to her found in other homicidal mama’s boys.
On the surface Eddie seemed to have risen above his origins. He began weight-lifting in adolescence and eventually developed an impressive physique. Following high school he took a three-year stenography course and graduated in the top ten percent of his class. He was a promising employee at a Manhattan supermarket chain before he was drafted into the Army in 1941.
Leonski didn’t do nearly so well in the military: although he was reliable and charming when sober, he drank heavily and was unstable and aggressive when under the influence. As a result, he was always in some minor trouble or another.
But there was a war on and the United States was not in a position to be picky about who would serve. Eddie was sent to Australia in early 1942.
Only weeks after his arrival, he began attacking women and trying to choke them. The first few times, he was interrupted and had to flee before he could accomplish his purpose. Then his crime spree was interrupted in the last week of March after he went AWOL on a six-day bender and was thrown into the brig for a month. As soon as he got out he began stalking women again.
At 2:00 a.m. on May 3, an extremely intoxicated Leonski encountered 40-year-old Ivy Violet McLeod waiting for a streetcar near a dry cleaner’s. He strangled her to death and ripped off her clothing, but was scared away when he heard footsteps.
McLeod’s body was found several hours later: “legs wide apart and feet tucked under her thighs, with genitals exposed.” Her killer had not had time to rape her.
A week later, Eddie was in a restaurant when he struck up a conversation with 31-year-old Pauline Buchan Thompson, a policeman’s wife and mother of two. They went to a bar after dinner and spent several hours talking and drinking.
Close to midnight, Eddie offered to escort her home. On the way, Mrs. Thompson started drunkenly singing.
“She had a nice voice,” he said in his confession. He got angry when she stopped: “I got mad and then tore at her, I tore her apart.”
A few hours later a night watchman found her body on the very steps of her boardinghouse. Like Mrs. McLeod, she was nearly nude with her legs splayed, but had not been raped.
Hours later, a hung-over Eddie Leonski was nursing the hair of the dog that bit him when he told a fellow soldier what he’d done. He made more statements about the two murders over the next few days, but his friend didn’t believe him and told no one what Leonski was saying — time during which Leonski made three more unsuccessful assaults on women.
Eddie’s friend finally took him seriously on the morning of May 19, after the body of 41-year-old Gladys Lillian Hosking was found sprawled in a patch of yellow mud outside Camp Pell, where the American soldiers were stationed.
The previous night, Eddie had come in after midnight, slathered head to toe in the same yellow mud. Too drunk to clean himself up (he’d consumed an incredible thirty beers and seven whiskeys that day), he just shed his soiled clothes and collapsed into bed.
Leonski’s friend finally went to the cops.
When he was arrested, Eddie made no pretense of innocence: he quickly confessed, and various witnesses to his aborted attacks identified him. (That said, Ivan Chapman’s out-of-print book on Leonski makes the point that the evidence against him might not really have held up without those confessions: 1940s forensics techniques would not have yielded a positive match to a victim from his bloodstained trousers, and the yellow mud could easily have been picked up innocently by any drunken G.I. who stumbled traversing the trench.)
Fredric Wertham, a noted forensic psychiatrist who never met Leonski, believed he was insane and the murders were prompted by his twisted relationship with his mother:
That his three victims were all women considerably older than he was is psychiatrically most significant. He unconsciously linked their voices with his mother. The whole psychological explosion occurred in a period of deprivation when he was away from home and separated from his mother — but not from her dominating image. The deeds constituted symbolic matricide.
Very Norman Batesian.
Army psychiatrists, however, believed that while Eddie Leonski was certainly a psychopath, he was not psychotic and was fully aware of the wrongfulness of his acts. Douglas MacArthur personally signed the death warrant.
Eddie maintained a positive, chipper attitude awaiting execution. He spent his time memorizing Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol, and converted to Catholicism, and went to the gallows singing a popular song that was called, ironically, “It’s a Lovely Day Tomorrow.”
Colin Campbell was said on that fatal May 14 to be en route to expel the Stewarts from the village of Duror so that Campbells could move in. But even Campbell’s everyday job of extracting resentful rents from estates repossessed from Jacobite sympathizers would have turned many a murderous eye his way.
Someone that day shot Colin Campbell in the back from wooded cover, then vanished, murderous eye and trigger finger and all, never to be never apprehended. So they got James Stewart to answer for it instead.
This wasn’t a tragic case of well-intentioned police developing tunnel vision on the wrong suspect so much as repaying tit for tat in a family feud. The trial was held at the Campbells’ Inverary Castle. Its presiding judge was the Campbell alpha male, the Duke of Argyll. Eleven more Campbells sat on Stewart’s jury. But then, from the Campbells’ side, or London’s for that matter, what was to say that this one murder might not be the germ of a new rebellion if not ruthlessly answered?
Still, there was “not a shred of evidence,” says present-day Glasgow barrister John Macauley, who is pushing for an official reversal of the verdict. “The whole thing from start to finish was a farce.” (Judge for yourself here.)
James Stewart was, however, the foster father of a man who actually was suspected of firing the shot, Allan Breck Stewart, a former Jacobite fighter who had returned from exile in France to collect rents for the Stewarts. Known to have threatened the Campbells previously, Allan was also tried and condemned to death — but only in absentia, since he suspiciously fled to France immediately after the so-called Appin Murder.
Many years later, Robert Louis Stevenson would use this dramatic crime, and Al(l)an Breck’s flight to safety, in Kidnapped. “I swear upon the Holy Iron I had neither art nor part, act nor thought in it,” Stevenson’s Alan says to the fictional protagonist in the novel, just after both have witnessed the murder.
And in reality, Alan too is thought by those who know the case to be clear of guilt in the matter. The Stewart family reputedly knew all along which of their number was Campbell’s real killer, but refused to give him up and kept the family secret for generations. It’s even said that that man had to be forcibly held down on execution day to prevent him giving himself up.
To judge by the most recent research, that man was likely Donald Stewart, the son of Stewart of Ballachulish and the best shot among a group of several young hotheads who resolved together to slay the Campbells’ hated Factor. The conspiracy also goes as the reason — or at least excuse — for keeping Donald silent, since in giving himself up he might see all four of them to the gallows. The late Lee Holcombe makes a comprehensive case for Donald Stewart as the gunman in the 2004 book Ancient Animosity: The Appin Murder and the End of Scottish Rebellion; Donald Stewart was also fingered publicly in 2001 by a matriarch of the Stewarts of Appin, though others of her family have not publicly confirmed that that’s the secret name.
James Stewart’s decaying corpse remained gibbeted on the spot of his execution for 18 months after, a rotting warning to the Stewarts or any late Jacobites. In 1754, a local halfwit called “Daft Macphee” finally tore down the gallows and threw it into Loch Linnhe … but its former position overlooking the modern Ballachulish Bridge is still marked by a mossy stone monument to James of the Glen, “executed on this spot Nov. 8th 1752 for a crime of which he was not guilty.”
He shot a guard to get into the plant. The guard survived, but four others were not so fortunate as Wise stalked through his former employer’s halls screaming and firing. Police later recovered four empty eight-round magazines.
The human resources director who had fired him was the first Wise killed.
Two men in the tool and die area who had jobs that Wise had once sought unsuccessfully were the next.
A young woman in a job Wise had sought promotion to was wounded with shots to the back and leg, then finished off execution-style.
Wise took to firing almost indiscriminately and wounded a few others, but the body count still might have been higher. Some others Wise saw and could have murdered, but did not — some possibly saved by happenstance, others whom Wise said in court that he declined to shoot because he used to get along with them as coworkers. The whole rampage was calculated to such an extent that Wise took a 9,000-mile road trip to California and Texas to tick a few items off his bucket list first.
Wise always intended to check out at the end of his spree; the SWAT team found him on the floor suffering from a swallow of insecticide that turned out to be non-fatal. The judicial process was the slow train, but the destination remained the same.
“I don’t have much to say except that I did not wish to take advantage of the court as far as asking mercy,” Wise said to the court at his sentencing. “It’s a fair trial. I committed the crimes.”
As good as his word, Wise voluntarily dropped his appeals and went quickly from his 2001 conviction to execution, declining to make any final statement.
The first execution of a woman* in the U.S. “modern” death penalty era took place at Raleigh, North Carolina’s Central Prison on this date in 1984 when 52-year-old Velma Barfield received a lethal injection for poisoning her fiance.**
Barfield was already twice a widow in 1977 when her prospective third spouse Stuart Taylor began suffering agonizing stomach pain at church. He died shortly after.
A thorough coroner and a tip call to police by Barfield’s sister each independently flagged arsenic as the cause. Exploration of her past uncovered a disturbing pattern of people near to Velma Barfield who died in spells of nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
She would confess when confronted to poisoning off not only her late fiance, but also her mother and two elderly people for whom she was a paid caregiver, all during the 1970s — a period when she was afflicted by addictions to numerous prescription drugs. There are at least two other probable murders she may have authored during this time.† “It’s the saddest thing but it seems like everybody my mother ever gets close to dies,” one of her sons remarked innocently at Taylor’s service, before the criminal suspicions surfaced.
Like the second American woman executed — Karla Faye Tucker more than 13 years later — Barfield was mediagenic, devoutly Christian, and white. Like Tucker, Barfield made national news as she approached her execution date. Time magazine, 60 Minutes, even international press descended on Raleigh.
The bespectacled, crocheting grandmother ended up declining to appeal to the Supreme Court or file other delaying actions that were available to her so that she could meet her execution with greater dignity, but she still sought mercy from the governor. Her sterling prison record was her strongest card; staff routinely broke a “no contact with other inmates” rule (the entire death row women’s section consisted of Barfield alone) in order to put the matronly “Mama Margie”‡ around inmates whom her ministrations could help.
Unfortunately for Velma Barfield, her clemency pitch was addressed to Gov. Jim Hunt at the peak of his ferocious 1984 U.S. Senate run against Jesse Helms, the most expensive Senate race in U.S. history up to that point. Hunt wasn’t about to go soft on arsenic killers four days before the polls opened. (He still lost by 86,280 votes.)
In the small morning hours this date in 1984, dressed in pink cotton pajamas and an adult diaper, Velma Barfield gave a last statement apologizing for “all the hurt that I have caused,” laid down on a gurney to receive the IV lines, and was put to sleep.
* The last execution of any woman in the U.S. prior to Velma Barfield’s was all the way back in 1962.
† Her first husband, and the father of her children, died in a suspicious fire in 1970; shortly before her execution, Velma admitted to her family that she had started it. Singer Jonathan Byrd is the grandson of the apparent first poisoning victim, whose death Barfield only confessed very late in the game to the minister who helped her write her book: Jennings Barfield was already afflicted with emphysema and diabetes when the two wed in 1971, so his death a few months later failed to raise any eyebrows. Byrd eventually composed a song about his grandfather and his deadly bride, titled “Velma”.
‡ Full name: Margie Velma Barfield. She was born Margie Velma Bullard.
On this date in 1822, David Lamphier was hanged for “a deed of unparalleled atrocity” as multiple newspaper reports put it: striking Sadsbury Township constable Samuel W. Smith dead with an ax blow that nearly beheaded the lawman.
Smith had been out to arrest Lamphier in Crawford county near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border for what’s described in the documents as “obtaining goods upon false pretense,” which seems like it could mean a great many possible malfeasances.
Whatever they were, Lamphier’s pretenses to Constable Smith were perfectly plain.
“As I Came to Mr. Campbell’s bars I saw Abel Freeman and one or two other Persons & bid them good evening I Stept over the Bans and walk’d along towards the Porch,” the strapping six-footer said later under interrogation. He had a heavy ax slung over his shoulder. (Not during the interrogation, of course.)
I got along towards the end of the house and saw Mr. Smith the Constable Coming out of the entry partly behind me. I turned Round and spoke to him and said I understand you want to take me tonight but I don’t mean that you Shall. Mr. Smith then step’d up to me I took my ax off my shoulder and I told him to stand back or I would strike him, as he Came up I step’d back a few steps intending to run and get out of his way. As he advanced upon me I made use of my ax I hardly know how, whether with the edge or the head or how, as soon as I made the blow I turned and run but did not know that I injured him untill I saw men coming to my father’s in Ohio with guns and supposed they might be after me.
Lamphier fled into a nearby swamp but gave himself up a few days later. He was shocked to learn that the constable was dead.
Although Lamphier would maintain on the scaffold that he had not intended Smith’s life, but “had given the fatal blow from the suddenness with which Smith had pressed upon him,” the fact that he admitted explicitly warning his Javert not to approach him put the fatal chop squarely into premeditation territory.
Shortly after noon this date, according to Murders, Mysteries and History of Crawford County, Pennsylvania 1800-1956, Lamphier appeared at the Meadville courthouse with a rope about his neck. Escorted by the local militia and fortified by a swig of wine, he walked the mile to the gallows on Baldwin Street, where three or four thousand souls had turned up to see him bravely die (after an hour-long exegesis there on the scaffold by the local minister).
“It is stated that the wretched man manifested the greatest resignation and composure to the last moment of his existence; but whether it was the composure of hardened depravity, the resignation of contrition for past sins, or of despair, it is not necessary for us to decide.” (Baltimore Patriot & Mercantile Advertiser, Nov. 16, 1822; this same story made the rounds of many other papers.)
His friends, less resigned, tried in vain to resuscitate Lamphier when he was cut down after hanging only a survivable twenty minutes.
But when his body was laid out on a stretcher for disposal and the official witnesses were filing out of the death chamber, Rodrigues began showing signs of life.
It was “a defect in the garrote or due to careless adjustment of the metal band which fits about the victim’s neck to cause strangulation,” an Associated Press wire report ran.*
In present-day Iran, one of the most aggressive death penalty states going, a drug dealer managed to survive a hanging just weeks ago as I write this in 2013. That man got shipped to the hospital and placed on life support, with the justice minister eventually announcing that he wouldn’t be noosed again.
With nary a pause to await further instruction, the execution-chamber guards forcibly subdued Rodrigues, who had reanimated sufficiently to “put up a furious struggle.” They forced their thrashing victim back onto the garrote, double-checked the metal band this time,** and tightened it until it asphyxiated Rodrigues a second time … then left the now-actually-lifeless body on the machine a full 22 minutes to make good and certain of their work.
* Here quoted from the Oct. 30, 1927 Los Angeles Times. Also see the New York Times from the same date for a truncated paraphrase of the same report.
On this date in 1964, Western Australia conducted its last hanging — that of Eric Edgar Cooke.
Cooke was one of Australia’s worst serial killers, and also one of its strangest: the eight homicides were almost unpatterned save for their rage.
A harelipped, bullied youth turned delinquent turned small-time criminal — he had numerous arrests to his name for theft, for vandalism, for torching a church that rejected his choir audition, for auto theft and for being a peeping tom — Cooke busted out of obscurity and into nightmares on the night of Australia Day 1963 when he gunned down five random people in Perth‘s comfortable suburbs. But even by then he had already been stabbing and shooting at people, and menacing them with cars.
Cooke’s Australia Day spree comprised four distinct incidents united to one another and to Cooke’s previous patterns by little but a lust for the hunt: his sole methodology was opportunism. Cooke shot a couple parked in a car (they survived), then an accountant through his apartment window (not so lucky); then, Cooke murdered a young man asleep on an open veranda, and rang the doorbell of another house to lure a fifth victim (both of these men also died).
As he’d been previously arrested on the strength of his fingerprints, Cooke had taken the precaution to wear gloves, leaving police a very cold trail indeed. The shock of the one night’s carnage multiplied as weeks, and then months, elapsed with no arrest. Thirty thousand men were fingerprinted in a futile fishing expedition.
An isolated western city in the midst of a transformative population boom, Perth learned mistrust from Eric Edgar Cooke. Of course that can’t literally be true; Perth was half a million people strong by this time. But in the civic memory Cooke’s Australia Day signposts an innocence lost. Estelle Blackburn in her Broken Lives depicts Cooke as the baleful spirit come to scourge Perth’s newly, complacently prosperous. (See this pdf.) It was
[t]he small city … [that] had ways of a friendly, easy going big country town where people left their doors unlocked and their car keys in the ignition of open cars. They trusted each other. He turned it into a city of suspicion and terror. For the first time people started locking the doors of their homes and cars, stopped going out at night and slept with guns or any weapons they could find under their pillows.
There’s a kernel of truth in this cliche, for Cooke liberally exploited Perthians’ inattention to security. When finally arrested in August of 1963 after he shot an 18-year-old babysitter, his confession explained that thanks to car owners’ habit of just leaving the keys in the ignition, he had frequently stolen vehicles parked for the night, used them in hit-and-runs or other crimes, and returned them before morning … the owners very often none the wiser.
Cooke had, meanwhile, also strangled a social worker in the Perth suburbs in February 1963, and stabbed to death a South Perth beautician during a home invasion robbery back in 1959. He proved to have a photographic memory of his misdeeds, and could detail exactly the objects he had stolen in hundreds of long-past burglaries. He copped in all to eight murders and 14 attempted murders.
With such evidence from Cooke’s own mouth his barristers had little choice but to pursue an insanity defense. This didn’t fly with the courts, but neither too did Cooke’s more embarrassing admissions to two murders for which two other men were already imprisoned. (Officially, the crown only credited him with six of his eight kills.) A “villainous unscrupulous liar” he was called for those claims; Darryl Beamish and John Button each served many more years in prison for these two disputed murders; with Blackburn’s help, they were both formally vindicated in the 2000s.