Posts filed under 'Murder'

1879: Pocket, on the Hallettsville hanging tree

Add comment September 12th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1879, a half-blooded Native American named Pocket died in Hallettsville on an oak tree.

The son of a French Canadian father and a Blackfoot Sioux mother, Pocket had been befriended by a cattleman named Lou Allen. They met by chance in the early 1870s; Pocket was a half-caste child, maybe not even into adolescence, with broken English, doing odd jobs to scrape by.

Of Pocket we have only glimpses of the moments where he comes into the view of white men. His rancher-friend took him until “becoming tired of civilized life, and pining for the freedom of his native wilds,” Pocket vanished on a horse that Mr. Allen willingly gave him. (The quote comes from the Galveston Weekly News of September 18, 1879; it’s also the source for the other quotes in this post.)

That was in 1874. For the next several years Pocket’s activities are mostly unknown, save for the few times he popped back into Mr. Allen’s life — once to bum a suit of clothes; another time when they met by accident in Wichita, Pocket destitute after gambling everything away; and finally when Pocket reappeared in Lavaca County only to be refused aid by his benefactor in a possible gesture of tough love. Pocket found work on a nearby farm instead.

On Valentine’s Day 1878, Pocket was seen in the county seat of Hallettsville getting roaring drunk on whiskey. He left town for the countryside carrying another bottle and proceeded to stop at several farms to accost their residents.

At the Smith house, he barged in, stole a pistol, and forced his way into the family dinner. He stumbled into the home of a former slave named Frank Edwards, ripped up bed clothes, and started swinging an axe around until Edwards punched out the unwanted visitor.

Fuming, Pocket proceeded to yet another farm, the Petersons, where he contrived to get the family hunting rifle by representing the presence of a drove of turkeys nearby. A young Brit named Leonard Hyde worked for the Petersons, and he went along with Pocket “to see the fun.” As ominously as this reads, Hyde had no reason to suspect trouble; the Galveston Weekly News would note that Hyde and Pocket “were both under twenty-one years of age, friendly with one another up to the last moment, and both strangers in the land which has given to each of them a grave.” Two kids out on a turkey-shooting lark.

Hyde trotted along on foot after Pockett, and soon another of Hyde’s friends joined the supposed hunting foray. Suddenly, their intoxicated leader stopped and cursed Hyde for following him — then shot him dead through the forehead with his pistol. The killer’s mind was obviously disordered and impulsive, but it’s possible that Hyde died in place of Frank Edwards, or if not Edwards then whomever Pocket might have crossed paths with next that night.

Now with blood on his hands, Pocket did not pause to revenge any other slights but galloped off into the wilderness. He was eventually captured in Bosque County.

(Source, which also preserves a sad letter from Hyde’s father written in March 1878 upon learning of his son’s murder.)

Perhaps three thousand souls turned out to see a repentant Pocket die in Hallettsville on September 12, 1879 — “every road entering this town became alive with people of all ages, sexes and colors, without regard to previous condition, coming to witness the first legal execution in this county.” Pocket had spent his last weeks in religious devotion and struck those who saw him as a profoundly changed man.

The great hanging-tree can still be seen today, shading a picnic-table in City Park, next to the Hallettsville Golf Association clubhouse.

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1990: Charles Coleman, the first lethal injection in Oklahoma

1 comment September 10th, 2015 Headsman

Despite our occasional predilection for the odd “literally executed today” post, this macabre chronicle has never really aspired to focus on our subject matter’s breaking-news beat.

Nonetheless, the landscape of the death penalty has evolved noticeably in the years since we launched on Halloween 2007. Executions are down in China, but up in Saudi Arabia and Iran; India has ended a long death penalty hiatus; Pakistan began, sustained, and dramatically repudiated a death penalty moratorium.

And in the United States, the prevailing execution method, lethal injection, has fallen under a barrage of legal and political challenges.

Like the guillotine, the electric chair, the gas chamber, and weirder contraptions, the prick of the needle had once been sold as a Solomonic compromise between the executioner and his critics: you still get to kill a guy, but now he doesn’t feel a thing. This time we really mean it!

Lethal injection got some run in the Nazi T-4 euthanasia program but was first approved for regular judicial executions by Oklahoma in 1977, and first used by Texas in 1982. Where gas and electricity transferred industrial technology to the death chamber, with great metal chairs and huge switches like Dr. Frankenstein’s lab, injection analogized medicine: silent and light, and so sterile that the technicians would hygienically swab the skin before they pushed in the death-dealing needle.

Most of all it was sterile for the viewers, who had occasionally been subjected under the other processes to nauseating botches: men who were supposed to be dying instantly instead thrashing wildly away, catching fire, gushing blood, or requiring jolt after jolt to finish off. The electric chair surely owes its iconic cultural position in part to its reputation for spectacular failures.

When capital punishment got its 1970s reboot, it only seemed natural to think about cleaning up the how along with the why. Nearly everyone now had the experience of anaesthetic; it was natural to think that you could just put a man down like the family dog and not have any mess to clean up afterwards.

“Being a former farmer and horse raiser, I know what it’s like to try to eliminate an injured horse by shooting him,” future president Ronald Reagan had said in proposing the technology while he was still governor of California in 1973. “Now you call the veterinarian and the vet gives it a shot and the horse goes to sleep. That’s it.”

As executions surged in the 1990s, lethal injection was thoroughly displacing America’s previous humane technologies to become the overwhelmingly predominant method.

Data via the Death Penalty Information Center’s executions database.

And the state of Oklahoma, which had been first with a lethal injection law back in ’77, finally started rolling out gurneys — when it put murder Charles Troy Coleman to death with the needle on September 10, 1990. It was Oklahoma’s first execution in 24 years.*

It was Oklahoma’s medical examiner Jay Chapman who had formulated the three-drug cocktail that for a long time comprised the definitive lethal injection protocol: the short-acting barbiturate sodium thiopental, followed by the paralytic drug pancuronium bromide, capped with potassium chloride to stop the heart. Why three drugs, Human Rights Watch later asked him? “Why not?” Chapman was not a pharmacologist and had little expertise with the drugs in question.

Nevertheless, his process “could not be construed as cruel and unusual punishment since it is merely the extreme of procedures done daily around the world for surgical procedures,” Chapman insisted when he proposed it. “It’s simply an extreme form of anesthesia.”

Extreme anaesthesia. Was it really?

Even at Coleman’s death, observers saw it differently.

“I saw him choke and gasp and struggle for air,” said Joe Ward, an investigator in the public defender’s office. “It looked like he was choking to death. He looked over … and mouthed the words, ‘I love you.’ Then he looked straight back up and started choking.” Reporter Art Cox, by contrast, viewed it as “a very easy death … a very cold death, very antiseptic.”

Oklahoma has executed well over 100 people since Charles Coleman but if anything the uncertainty about that “easy” and “antiseptic” death has only grown — in the Sooner state and elsewhere.

And the question has become quite urgent during the lifetime of this blog as political pressure on manufacturers has dried up the supply of sodium thiopental, forcing the many states using lethal injection to scramble for a variety of new drug sequences that are basically being invented on the fly and sussed out with live experimentation on the next death row prisoner in the queue.

Oklahoma’s version was to switch from sodium thiopental to pentobarbital; in January 2014, a man being executed with pentobarbital exclaimed, “I feel my whole body burning.”. Months later, the manufacturer of that drug also cut off the supply, unwilling to be party to the executions it facilitated.

So Oklahoma switched to a third anaesthetic, midazolam, a drug whose execution debut took place in Florida in 2013. The state has also tried to shield its suppliers from anti-death penalty campaigners with a secrecy law.

Proceeding on a mad catch-as-can basis, Oklahoma proceeded to horribly botch its midazolam executions, throwing its new procedure right back to the courts. Just this past June, a divided U.S. Supreme Court narrowly approved the continued use of its midazolam cocktail, which a dissenting justice savaged as “the chemical equivalent of being burned alive.”

It’s a story still being written before our eyes — a long quarter-century after Charles Coleman premiered Oklahoma’s modern era of executions on this date in 1990.

* The last previous execution in Oklahoma was that of James French in 1966.

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1902: John C. Best

1 comment September 9th, 2015 Headsman

From the Boston Morning Journal, Sept. 9, 1902.


Bailey’s Murderer Executed Just After Midnight.

Assisted the Guards and Uttered Never a Word.

Dreadful Current Did Work Swiftly and Surely.

John C. Best was put to death by electricity this morning at Charlestown State Prison at 12.22 o’clock, paying the supreme penalty of the law for the murder of George E. Bailey of Saugus on Oct. 8, 1900. He maintained the air of coolness, and even indifference, which has marked his conduct since his arrest, to the the [sic] last. He walked to the chair unassisted and without even being held by the guards in attendance; sat down composedly, as one would waiting for a train at a station; assisted the guards even in the operations of confining his hands and legs, and awaited the shock of the current in perfect composure.

He had no word to say at the end, uttered no groan, and was pronounced dead by the attending physicians at 12.27. The witnesses were Dr. Joseph F. McLaughlin, prison physician; Dr. Robert A. Blood, Surgeon General of the State; Dr. George Stedman, Associate Medical Examiner of the District; Deputy Sheriff William Cronin, the presence of whom is prescribed by the Statutes; Rev. I. Murray Mellish of Salem, attending to the spiritual wants of the prisoner, and a representative of the press.

The Crime of Best.

The crime for which Best was executed was the murder of George E. Bailey, the caretaker of Breakheart Farm, Saugus. The murder took place in October, 1900, and Best was condemned by the Superior Court sitting at Salem June 14, 1901.

In the early part of October, 1900, Bailey was missed. Best was employed on the farm, and his replies as to the whereabouts of Bailey gave the impression that the missing man had gone to Maine. Inquiry failed to locate him, and until the morning of Oct. 17 nothing definite was known of his whereabouts.

On that morning the dismembered body of a man was found in Floating Bridge Pond, the mutilated torso encased in a sack. Later the arms, legs and head were found and the body was identified as that of George E. Bailey.

Suspicion pointed toward Best, and he was arrested Oct. 18, the day after the gruesome find at the pond. He appeared in the Lynn Police Court Oct. 20, and was remanded to Salem Jail, pending the hearing, which was held Nov. 8.

Judge Berry of the Lynn Police Court after a prolonged hearing, found “probable cause,” and Best was sent to jail to await the action of the Grand Jury which, on Jan. 25 following, indicted him for murder.

In Superior Court.

Best was arraigned in the Superior Court Jan. 30, and entered a plea of not guilty. The trial began March 18, and continued until March 29, when a verdict of murder in the first degree was rendered. The prosecution was conducted by Attorney General Knowlton, District Attorney Peters and his assistant, Roland H. Sherman. Best was represented by James H. Sisk and N. D. A. Clark of Lynn.

The day after the verdict was returned, counsel for Best filed exceptions and offered a motion for a new trial. Oct. 18 counsel conferred with Presiding Justices Sherman and Fox, and on Nov. 23 the exceptions were approved and allowed to go to the Supreme Court.

A hearing was given in the Supreme Court Jan. 6, 1902, and on Feb. 27, a rescript overruling the exceptions was filed. March 29 other exceptions were taken to a denial of amotion for a new trial, and the Supreme Court heard the arguments on May 19.

On June 3, in a rescript, the Court said:

After the exceptions in this case were disposed of a motion for a new trial was made upon the ground that one of the jurors was deaf. Evidence was put in on the subject before the Judges who had taken part in the trial, a portion of the evidence being an examination of the juror himself. The motion was denied, the Judges stating that they were satisfied that the juror heard substantially all the evidence. The argument addressed to us is a pure argument of fact as to what the proper finding would have been, a question with which we have nothing to do, and upon which the Judges considered not merely the testimony reported but what they saw at the time, as it was proper that they should. Assuming every proposition of law that could be urged in favor of the defendant, there is no ground for an exception.

After the first motion had been overruled another motion was made that the hearing be reopened and the defendant be allowed to introduce further evidence, cumulative in character, being the testimony of a doctor who had been consulted by the juror a little more than three months before the trial. The Judges refused this motion on the ground that the doctor’s statement did not change their opinion. The defendant’s counsel again attempted to save an exception. Apart from what else might be said, the same answer may be made to this as to the other exception. It is perfectly plain that the defendant had no ground for bringing his case here a second time. Exceptions overruled.

Counsel’s Great Fight.

All that could be done by devoted counsel to save Best from death sentence has been done, save an appeal to the Governor for a commutation of the final decree of the Court this forenoon, and it is understood that this will be made.

Of late Best has had frequent conferences with his spiritual adviser, Rev. Isaac M. Mellish of Salem. He steadfastly maintained his innocence of the crime.*

* In a last letter to his parents that later hit the presses, Best maintained his innocence: “One thing I would like to impress on the mind of you, my father and mother, is that it is not God’s will that I lose this life that he has given me, but through the vengeance and ignorance of men … I am not afraid to die, but I would like to live. I don’t compare myself to Christ, our Savior, but my condemnation is on the same line as His, and I will meet death as calmly as he did. If these lines, my dear father and mother, will give you any comfort, I am well paid for writing them.”

This excerpt is from The Evening Times (Pawtucket, R.I.), Sept. 20, 1902 — which also reported that Best felt out the prison physicians as to the prospect of their attempting a post-electric chair reanimation experiment. (The doctors turned him down.)

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1732: Pompey, poisoner of James Madison’s grandfather

Add comment September 7th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1732, a Virginia slave entered American presidential lore at the end of a noose.

The Madisons were “planters, and among the respectable though not the most opulent class”* resident in Virginia from the 1650s or so — and would in time bequeath the new American Republic its fourth president, James Madison.

We are concerned for today’s post with President Madison’s paternal grandfather, Ambrose Madison. Alas, concern will not necessarily translate to elucidation, for most of the Madison family’s records and correspondence were destroyed in the 19th century: the first Madison generations are shadowy historical figures. Ann Miller has pieced together the fragments in the short book “The Short Life and Strange Death of Ambrose Madison”, published by the Orange County (Va.) Historical Society, and that is the primary source for this post.**

Ambrose Madison was a local grandee of King and Queen County, with landholdings elsewhere in Virginia; it was Ambrose Martin who in the 1720s acquired (via his father-in-law, a land surveyor) the Orange County grounds that would become the great Madison estate Montpelier.

In 1732, Madison moved his family to the Montpelier property. By that time, he controlled 10,000 acres in present-day Orange and Greene Counties, and was gobbling up land elsewhere — like the new frontier of westward settlement, the Piedmont.

And of course, Madison owned human beings, too. The inventory of his estate from 1732 lists 29 black slaves by their first (sole) names: ten adult men, five women, and 14 children.

In the summer of 1732, Ambrose Madison took ill and started wasting away towards death. The fact was apparent to Madison and those around him; the last weeks of his life were taken up in settling affairs. (He made out a will on July 31.)

Shortly before Madison’s death on August 27, two of his slaves — a man named Turk and a woman named Dido — along with another slave, Pompey, property of a neighboring plantation, were arrested on suspicion of having poisoned Madison. No record survives to indicate how or why they would have done so.

If grievances can only be guessed-at, they are not difficult to guess. At the same time, for aught we know the trio might have been falsely accused: there had never been a murder in the vicinity, but Madison’s death came just months after a gang of slaves committed a series of armed robberies and shot at three white people.† As we have seen from later and better-documented slave resistance, southern whites were prone to great paranoia where the prospect of servile rebellion was concerned. And as Madison was a healthy fellow in his mid-thirties, attributing his unexpected death to poison was a natural move.‡

As Miller notes,

It is likely that Ambrose Madison’s case sent ripples of fear — even panic — through the region … the court [appeared] eager to have a quick trial (and, perhaps, to make quick examples of those found guilty and hopefully deter any other slave rebellions).

All three slaves were convicted together on September 6 of “feloniously Conspiring the Death” of Ambrose Madison. Pompey hanged the next day — after he’d been appraised (at £30) to compensate his owner for the destruction of property. Turk and Dido were only found to be “concerned in the said felony but not in such a degree as to be punished by death but … by Whipping.” They suffered 29 lashes apiece “on their bare backs at the Common Whipping post, and thereafter to be discharged”.

We must deny the fact, that slaves are considered merely as property, and in no respect whatever as persons. The true state of the case is, that they partake of both these qualities: being considered by our laws, in some respects, as persons, and in other respects as property … Let the compromising expedient of the Constitution be mutually adopted, which regards them as inhabitants, but as debased by servitude below the equal level of free inhabitants, which regards the slave as divested of two fifths of the man.

-(Future President) James Madison awkwardly defending the three-fifths compromise in the Federalist #54

Madison’s principal heir was his only son, James — a nine-year-old boy at the time of the events in this post.

The family brush with slave revolt did not deter this future Col. Madison from resuming (once he came of age) the family trade in land acquisition. He had 108 slaves of his own by the time that he died in 1801.

Col. Madison’s more famous son, the U.S. “founding father” and eventual president also named James, had slaves in the White House but was deeply conflicted about the horrid institution.

“He talked more on the subject of slavery than on any other, acknowledging without limitation or hesitation all the evils with which it has ever been charged,” a slavery abolitionist who visited Madison (post-presidency) reported of the evening’s tete-a-tete. “Mr. Madison spoke strongly of the helplessness of all countries cursed with a servile population, in a conflict with a people wholly free.” Madison eventually came to support the fantastical solution of resettling U.S. slaves to an African colony; still, beset by debts, he never quite saw his way to manumitting his own slaves — not even in his will.

Whether the fate befalling his grandfather ever entered into President Madison’s considerations on the subject is left to posterity’s imagination; the documents surviving in his hand never mention anything about grandpa Ambrose.

* Per James Madison, Sr., Ambrose Madison’s son and the U.S. president’s father.

** Since the primary sources available are so scarce, there seems to be little that can be said with confidence of Ambrose Madison’s personality. Miller suspects him a skinflint, on the basis of a merchant’s exasperated correspondence: “I am sorry to find you complain of the cost of the Goods I sent you” … and the same man again two years later: “have Ship’d the Goods you ordered … I don’t expect that you’ll like the Cotton, you order the Cheapest.”

† A slave named Jack, owned by Mildred Howell, was hanged on May 2, 1732 for this affair. The fate of his seven cmopatriots history passes over in silence.

‡ Miller notes in an appendix several other trials of slaves for poisoning in 18th century Virginia, including some that resulted in acquittal — possibly militating against the railroading hypothesis.

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1824: Johann Christian Woyzeck, non compos mentis?

Add comment August 27th, 2015 Headsman

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:

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1899: Armstead Taylor and John Alfred Brown, horribly

Add comment August 18th, 2015 Headsman

From the Wilkes-Barre (Pa.) Times, Aug. 18, 1899:

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.

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1915: Leo Frank lynched

2 comments August 17th, 2015 Headsman

One hundred years ago today, Leo M. Frank 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.

Mary Phagan was killed on Confederate Memorial Day, the “holiday” this ballad alludes to.

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.

But that mob would still have its say. On the eve of Frank’s scheduled June 22, 1915 hanging, outgoing governor John Slaton commuted the sentence.

“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.

* Frank was a chapter president of the Jewish fraternal organization B’nai B’rith; the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith was founded in 1913 as a direct outgrowth of the Frank campaign.

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.

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1895: Minnie Dean, the only woman hanged in New Zealand

Add comment August 12th, 2015 Headsman

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 …

This report (from the Aug. 14, 1895 Daily Telegraph) alludes to a fictitious lady-in-waiting of legend, whose shadowy inspiration in fact was a real-life Scottish expatriate beheaded for infanticide by Peter the Great.

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.

Dean maintained her innocence on the scaffold (at least “as far as intention and forethought was concerned”)

As an appropriate postscript, a boy trying to eyeball the macabre proceedings from the roof of a building overlooking the gaol fell off of it, fracturing his skull.

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2000: Brian Roberson, “Y’all kiss my black ass”

Add comment August 9th, 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.)

“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.

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1990: Sam Cayhall in Grisham’s “The Chamber”

Add comment August 8th, 2015 Headsman

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.

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