Posts filed under 'Murder'

1834: Eliza Joyce, confessed poisoner

9 comments August 2nd, 2015 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1844, Eliza Joyce was hanged on the roof of Cobb Hall at Lincoln Castle for the murders by poison of her two daughters and her stepson.

She was the fifth and last woman to be publicly hanged at the castle during the 19th century, and she remains the last woman in England to be hanged for a crime she’s pleaded guilty to.

Eliza had married William Joyce, a gardener, in 1840. He had two children by his prior marriage, Emma and William Jr., and he and Eliza went on to have a daughter together, Ann.

However, Emma died suddenly in October 1841 and William took sick the following year. In September 1842 he was visited by a doctor, who prescribed medicine for him. Eliza went to the chemist’s … where she picked not that medication, but arsenic.

Her husband found out and took the poison back to the chemist’s, where they realized some of it was missing. By then William Jr.’s condition had worsened considerably and he was showing symptoms of arsenic poisoning. Before his death at Christmastime he gave a statement, confirming his stepmother had given him the arsenic. He was fifteen years old.

Early in 1843, Eliza’s baby daughter Ann also died. Eliza was charged with William Jr.’s murder, but the indictment was thrown out on a technicality. She was then re-charged with attempted murder, which at the time carried the same penalty: death. But at her trial she claimed William Jr.’s poisoning was accidental: she’d spilled some of the arsenic powder on the floor, she said, and picked it up with a spoon, and later without washing it she used the same spoon to give William his medication.

The jury bought the story and Eliza was freed in the summer of 1843.

However, in light of what had happened, her husband cast her out and she had to move into the workhouse.

Eventually, her conscience began to trouble her and she confessed she’d been guilty all along of William Jr.’s murder, and that she had also poisoned both Emma and Ann with laudanum.

When asked why she’d done such terrible things, she plaintively replied, “I don’t know, except I thought it was such a troublesome thing to bring a family of children into this troublesome world.”

By now fully resigned to her punishment, she offered no defense to the court and pleaded guilty to both girls’ murders. (She couldn’t be charged with her stepson’s murder a second time.) William Calcraft handled her execution, and (for once) he didn’t botch it; she died quickly and quietly.

The prisoner walked with tolerable firmness, being only occasionally supported; and once, when about midway on the platform, she paused for a second, and turned to take a parting glance at the sunny scenery by which she was surrounded, and, as if to bed a lingering farewell to the bright and glorious world which she had sacrificed: her face and features wore an aspect of ghastly agony which none can forget who gazed upon her. Having ascended to the top of the tower on which the scaffold was erected, her bonnet was removed, her arms pinioned, and the cap placed over her face. She then ascended the step of the gallows. The effect of her appearance on the immense crowd was awfully striking. In an instant, the hootings, bellowings, and imprecations, which ever distinguish such enormous assemblages, were hushed, and a profound stillness reigned throughout the living mass.

-The Hull Packet and East Riding Times, Aug. 9, 1844

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1831: John Bell, age 14

Add comment August 1st, 2015 Headsman

Fourteen-year-old John Bell was hanged at Maidstone Prison on this date in 1831, for slashing the throat of a 13-year-old chum near Rochester in order to steal a pittance of poor relief that boy had received from a parish church. (The murder netted “three half-crowns, a shilling, and a six-pence” per the Aug. 6, 1831 Preston Chronicle, from which the facts of the case below are also drawn.)

Bell’s little(r) brother James gave the evidence that would hang John: that John spied Richard Taylor and on a lark announced that they would slay him for his pennies.

To this end John borrowed James’s knife, and before employing it to open Richard’s carotid artery, retired with Richard to a turnip-field where the blade pared a few snacks for greedy boys.

Then on the pretense of taking a shortcut home, James guided Richard into a woods where avarice guided his hand to a greater sin than turnip-theft. Showing a streak of the same ruthless acquisitiveness, 11-year-old James demanded half the proceeds lest he blab on his brother — leading James, whose situation was beginning to dawn upon him, to exclaim, “Torment will come upon me for this; I know I shall be hanged!”*

The hardihood which the culprit had displayed at his trial, and even when sentence was passed, deserted him as he entered his cell. He wept bitterly; and when his mother visited him on Sunday afternoon, [the day before the hanging -ed.] he acused her of being the cause of bringing him to his “present scrape.”

On Sunday evening, after the condemned sermon had been preached by the Rev. Chaplain, Bell made a full confession of his guilt. His statement did not materially differ from that which was given on the trial; but he added some particulars of the conduct of his victim before he murdered him, which make the blood run cold.

He said that when he sprung upon Taylor with the knife in his hand, the poor boy, aware of his murderous intention, fell upon his knees before him — offered him all the money he had, his knife, his cap, and whatever else he liked. Said he would love him during the whole of his life, and never tell what had happened to any human being. This pathetic appeal was lost on the murderer, and without making any answer to it, he struck the knife into his throat!”

At half-past 11 o’clock, the solemn peals of the prison bell announced the preparations for the execution. After the operation of pinioning, &c. had been completed, the culprit attended by the Chaplain, &c., walked steadily to the platform.

When he appeared there, he gazed steadily around him; but his eyes did not quail, nor was his cheek blanched. After the rope was adjusted round his neck, he exclaimed in a firm and loud tone of voice, “Lord have mercy upon us. Pray good Lord have mercy upon us. Lord have mercy upon us. All the people before me take warning by me!”

Having been asked if he had any thing farther to say, he repeated the same words, and added, “Lord have mercy upon my poor soul.”

At the appointed signal, the bolt was withdrawn, and in a minute or two the wretched malefactor ceased to exist.

The body is to be given over to the surgeons at Rochester for dissection.

The number of persons present could not be less than 8,000 or 9,000.

The jury did not even retire to come to its verdict, but it strongly endorsed commuting the consequent (mandatory) death sentence.


The Spectator editorialized for the occasion (and we draw this text from its reprint in the Standard of Aug. 8, 1831):

The boy Bell, whose conviction of the murder of little Taylor, near Chatham, we mentioned in our last number, was hanged on Monday, at Maidstone. Bell was only 14 years of age; and, from the utter neglect of his education, could hardly be regarded, even had he been much older, as an accountable being.

It does not appear, from any thing that transpired at the trial or after it, that he felt any greater qualm in killing Taylor, than he would have done in killing the rabbit to whose squeak the dying shriek of the child was, with horrid reality, compared by the brother of the slayer.

Was an untutored boy like this, with his chubby cheeks and flaxen locks, and every attribute of childhood, a proper subject for the halter and the dissecting-knife? Is it required that our code, like that of Moloch, should receive its sanction by the sacrifice of infants? Are our children and schoolboys already murderers in intention, that we should offer them such an example; or was it our grown-up men that we sought to deter from crime by so revolting a specimen of punishment?

Of all the legal tragedies that have been enacted for the last twenty years, there has been none so replete with horror.

And yet we are told therer wer multitudes assembled to behold it! And the masses that pressed forward to glut their eyes with the expiring convulsions of the miserable boy were angry because they had to wait from eight to eleven o’clock until their longing was satisfied!

* This quote is from the Liverpool Mercury of Aug. 5, 1831.

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1701: Esther Rodgers, repentant

Add comment July 31st, 2015 Headsman

O my dear Friends — Take Warning by me. Here I come to Dy, and if God be not Merciful to my Soul, I shall be undone to all Eternity — If I do not turn by Repentance. I Bless God, I have found more Comfort in Prison, than ever before. O Turn to God now. O how hard it is to Repent; If you go on in Sin, God may give you up to a hard Heart. Oh! Turn whilst the Day of Grace lasts.

These, shouted to a crowd of thousands, were the last uttered by repentant sex worker and infanticide Esther Rodgers at her hanging in Ipswich, Mass., on this date in 1701. Esther Rodgers’s life story and jailhouse conversion in New England are richly explored by author and sometime Executed Today guest blogger Anthony Vaver on his site, Early American Crime. Take a look here.

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1830: Charles Wall

2 comments July 30th, 2015 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1830, Charles Wall was hanged at Worcester Prison for the murder of his fiancee’s daughter.

Wall’s fiancee, Mary Chance, lived in the town of Lye and had two illegitimate children. Wall was not their father and didn’t support them financially, but he seemed fond of them and was never known to mistreat them.

The oldest child, five-year-old Sally, vanished without a trace on May 16, 1830. Sally and her mother had gone out visiting with Wall, and that evening the little girl asked permission to go outside and play. She never returned, and her mother and Wall searched frantically for her until the wee hours, but to no avail.

Little Sally’s body wasn’t recovered until May 19; it was found at Old Swinford at the bottom of a limestone pit some 240 feet deep. She had died of a fractured skull. But did she fall … or was she pushed?

Several people reported having seen Wall alone with Sally the night of her disappearance. One witness picked him out of a lineup of more than a dozen men and said he’d seen Wall carrying Sally, who was sobbing and begging to be allowed to go home for her supper. Another witness saw Wall walking alone from the direction of the limestone pit at 9:00 that evening. Still a third witness said that on the morning of May 16, Wall had asked her some questions about which limestone pits in the area were being worked.

The inquest returned a verdict of willful murder against Wall and he was brought to trial. Nicola Sly’s A Grim Almanac of the Black Country notes,

For every witness called by the prosecution, the defense countered with a witness who had either seen Sally playing alone around the top of the unfenced mineshaft on the night of her disappearance, or who testified about the kindness shown by Wall to both of Mary Chance’s illegitimate children.

Mr. Justice Park told the jury that he personally could not see any possible motive that Wall might have for killing the little girl, reminding them that nobody had spoken of anything but kindness and fondness between Wall and his alleged victim.

He was convicted anyway, after only fifteen minutes’ deliberation on the part of the jury, but they recommended mercy. Wall’s death sentence was not respited, though. He was hanged two days later, still protesting his innocence.

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1815: Eliza Fenning, for the dumplings

2 comments July 26th, 2015 Headsman

Two hundred years ago today, an Irish serving-girl named Eliza Fenning hanged for poisoning her master’s family. The reliability of the judgment against her was widely questioned in 1815 and has not improved with age.

Robert Turner’s family, along with one of his apprentice stationers all sat down to a meal of dumplings that Eliza, a cook, had prepared for dinner on March 21 of that same year. Within minutes, all were in agony. As Charlotte Turner, who was the mistress of the house even though only a few months older than Ms. Fenning, told the Old Bailey:

I was taken ill myself in less than three minutes afterwards; the effect was so violent, that I had hardly time to get into the yard before my dinner came up. I felt considerable heat across my stomach and chest, and pain.

Q. Was the vomitting of a common kind?

I never experienced any thing before like it for violence; I was terribly irritated; it was not more than a quarter of an hour my apprentice Roger Gadsell was taken very ill in a similar way to myself.

It appeared from the symptoms — and from the blackened dough of the dumplings — that the meal had been laced with arsenic, that cunningly ubiquitous terror of the 19th century. The inference of family, Crown, and eventually court was that Eliza had availed the opportunity of preparing the food to revenge herself on the Turners because Charlotte Turner had caught her some days before sneaking into the apprentices’ room for a snog.

It’s a sure thing that homo sapiens has murdered for feebler reasons than this, but the insufficiency of the provocation, the vociferous denials of the condemned, and the puzzling fact that she too ate the noxious dumplings — all these things militated against confidence in the verdict which was hotly disputed in the public at large. Methods of establishing the presence and quantity of arsenic in a sample were extremely primitive in general, and painfully specious as applied by the surgeon who came to that verdict in the Fenning case.

The court inconclusively pursued the various ingredients in the dish: the same flour had been used for a meat pie that had brought up nobody’s dinner, so that was out; Eliza suggested the milk might be to blame, or a new yeast the house obtained on the eve of the dinner party. There is a wide-ranging effort in the transcript to establish the young woman’s access to an arsenic packet that Robert Turner kept in a desk drawer to poison mice, but this seems little relevant; it was an unlocked desk drawer in a busy household, plus arsenic was widely available in town. Everyone had effective access to arsenic, should she or he have a mind to find it.

As friend of the site (and occasional guest blogger) Richard Clark puts it in his overview, “it is difficult to be sure whether Eliza was guilty or not” even all these years later. But it’s a certainty that what was developed against her in 1815 would fall leagues short of any present-day standard for a confident conviction. Was she really unbalanced enough to try to murder the entire household over a tongue-lashing, yet steely enough to eat the poisoned dish herself to dispel suspicion, yet incautious enough not to have readied any other alibi for the moment when attention would turn to the cook? What possible basis could she have had for believing that she could salt in enough of the toxin to kill everyone else but eat a safely sub-lethal dose herself?

And maybe, as with Cameron Willingham, we might best begin with the premise: was there actually a dose of arsenic, laid in by a sinister hand — or might some contaminant carelessly proximate to the food supply of an unruly metropolis have been the true and undetected culprit?*

The case dissolves under even mild scrutiny into a tissue of social and medical quackery: the uppity servant, the sexually precocious Irishwoman, the assassin infiltrating the dumplings. (See Judith Flanders’s The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime for a scathing defense of Fenning.)

Whatever it was that the family puked up, everyone did so speedily enough to remain among the living. Attempted murder, however, was still a capital crime in England, and would remain so until 1861.

Though her case would attract widespread sympathy and public controvrsy, Eliza Fenning’s defense before the bar was all but nonexistent: four good-character witnesses, plus this statement:

My lord, I am truly innocent of all the charge, as God is my witness; I am innocent, indeed I am; I liked my place, I was very comfortable; as to my master saying I did not assist him, I was too ill. I had no concern with the drawer at all; when I wanted a piece of paper I always asked for it.

That’s the whole of it — complete and unabridged. It is a pathetic thought to consider this helpless plea in light of the idea that the food might have been poisoned accidentally; tunnel vision had already settled on a semi-coherent story of the embittered serving-girl’s revenge,** and without the art to draw out some different interpretation of the few facts available, Eliza found her place fixed by the self-validating suspicions cast upon her.

She held to her innocence all the way to the end; it was put about that a Newgate screw had overheard her father bid her do so no matter what lest he lose all honor after she died. One last character assassination for the road.

Supporters — and she has had many, down to the present day — flocked to Eliza’s Irish wake in the days after her hanging (the body “being placed in the kitchen of the house, and dressed out in ribbons, flowers, &c.”†) and then thronged a funerary procession from Red Lion Square to the tombs of St. George Bloomsbury.

* In 1900, to the consternation of brewers, around 6,000 pub-fanciers in northern England fell ill from beer that turned out to be contaminated with arsenic present in an ingredient (sulphuric acid) that made a different ingredient (glucose) that went into the beer.

** As Fenning was condemned just a few weeks before Waterloo, the paranoia that England’s burghers nurtured over the prospect of incipient Jacobinism must be presumed a relevant part of the scenario … doubly so, considering the young lady’s nationality.

The Lincoln, Rutland and Stamford Mercury, Aug. 4, 1815. Reports that the family had the effrontery to accept 40 quid worth of gifts from well-wishers were also lamely represented by Fenning’s persecutors as black marks on the family name.

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1729: James Cluff, on appeal

Add comment July 25th, 2015 Headsman

From the Newgate Calendar:

This unhappy young man was born in Clare-market, and lived as a waiter at several public-houses, in all of which he maintained an extraordinary character for diligence, obligingness, and integrity.

Mr. Payne, master of the Green Lattice, in Holborn, hired Cluff [or Clough -ed.] as a servant, and during his residence there, he fell in love with Mary Green, his fellow-servant; but she being courted by another man, constantly rejected his addresses, which frequently agitated his mind in the most violent degree.

Green’s other lover coming to see her, sat in the same box with her, and was received by her in an affectionate manner; but this did not seem to be much regarded by Cluff, who was then engaged in attending the customers: but when the lover was gone, Mr. Payne, perceiving that something had discomposed Cluff’s mind, asked him the reason of it; but could not prevail on him to tell the cause.

While Mr. Payne and his wife were at dinner in the parlour, and the girl was eating her dinner in one of the boxes, Mrs. Payne heard a noise, as if two persons were struggling, and going into the tap-room, Cluff said, “Come hither, madam.” On this she advanced, and saw the prisoner holding the deceased by the shoulders, who was sitting on the floor, and speechless, while the blood streamed from her in large quantities.

Mrs. Payne called out, “What have you been doing, James?” He said, “Nothing.” He was asked if he had seen her hurt herself? He said, No; but that he had seen her bring a knife from the cellar where she had been to draw some beer for her dinner. Mr. Payne now entered the tap-room, and then went into then cellar to discover if there was any blood there; but finding none, he accused Cluff on suspicion of having committed the murder; and instantly sent for a surgeon. When the surgeon arrived, he found that a knife had been stabbed into the upper part of the thigh, and entered the body of the girl, in such a manner that she could not survive the stroke more than a minute. [i.e., it gashed her femoral artery -ed.]

A bloody knife was found in the room, and Cluff was committed to Newgate for the murder. On his trial, the surgeon deposed that the knife fitted the wound that had been made, and that he believed the woman had not killed herself: but the jury acquitted the prisoner, from what they deemed insufficiency of evidence.

A discharge of the accused party would now have followed of course; but William Green, the brother and heir of the deceased, immediately lodged an appeal in consequence of which Cluff was brought to trial at the next sessions but one, when his case was argued with the utmost ingenuity by the counsel for and against him, but this second jury found him guilty, and he was sentenced to die.

Holy double jeopardy! Though rarely used, it was indeed formerly an option for a victim or a victim’s heir to lodge a private appeal against the purported malefactor, even one who had already been acquitted — indeed, even against one who had been convicted and then pardoned.

The distinction between a “public” and a “private” prosecution was usually more theoretical than real, since — at least until Sir John Fielding began organizing professional police in the late 18th century — even normal Crown trials often depended mostly on the exertions of the victim or friends to bring a man to book with sufficient evidence to punish him.* But in a close case, like Cluff’s, the rarely-used private appeal option could occasionally offer what amounted to a second bite at the apple.** (See Whores and Highwaymen: Crime and Justice in the Eighteenth-century Metropolis)

Perhaps tracing to the ancient weregild system of atoning crimes via direct redress by offenders to their victims, private prosecutions were completely immune from interference by a sovereign pardon. (However, they could be dropped any time the prosecuting party wished — which also made them leverage for extracting cash settlements.)

Back to the Newgate Calendar:

“I earnestly press’d upon him to glorify God by a plain Confession of his Crime, and urg’d to him the most material Circumstances, in Consideration whereof scarce any Body doubts but he committed the Fact. He could not pretend that his Master, or Mistress, who gave him the Character of a good Servant, had any Prejudice, or Ill-will to him, upon which Account they might be easy, whether he lived or died. He neither reflected on them, nor none of the Witnesses, as if they had any View in Prosecuting him, but that Justice might be executed. I urg’d him with the Surgeon’s Opinion, that it was improbable, if not impossible, for the Maid to give herself such a Wound; that she had no Knife in the Cellar; that in the first Trial, three Persons had sworn that he was Rude and Barbarous to the Deceased upon many Occasions, and upon that Account she made grievous Complaints to her Mother, and others … he continued Peremptory in his Denial. At first, indeed, he seem’d to be in Confusion, at the many pressing Instances which were made to extort a Confession from him; but recollecting himself, he denied that he gave the mortal Wound, and said, that he knew nothing at all how she came by her Death … Many of his Friends and Acquaintances came daily to visit him, while he was under Sentence, and I wish they did not divert him too much from his Duty, and that some of them did not under-hand, buoy him up with false Hopes. He hop’d to be sav’d only by the Mercy of God, through the Merits of Jesus Christ, and that he forgave all the World any Injuries done him, as he expected Forgiveness from Almighty God.”

-James Guthrie, the Ordinary of Newgate

After conviction, his behaviour was the most devout and resigned that could be imagined; he exercised himself in every act of devotion, but solemnly declared his perfect innocence with respect to the murder. He was visited by his friends, who earnestly entreated him to make a sincere confession; especially as in his case it was not in the power of the king himself to grant him a pardon. In answer hereto, he freely confessed all his other crimes; but, saying he would not rush into eternity with a lie in his month, again steadily denied the perpetration of the crime of which he had been convicted. The clergyman who attended him urged him to the confession of his guilt, and even refused to administer the sacrament to him on the morning of his execution, on any other terms than those of acknowledging his crime, but nothing could shake his resolution; he still steadily persisted in his innocence.

On his way to the place of execution, he desired to stop at the door of his late master, which being granted, he called for a pint of wine, and having drank a glass of it, he addressed Mr. Payne in the following terms:

“Sir, you are not insensible that I am going to suffer an ignominious death, for a crime of which I declare I am not guilty, as I am to appear before my great Judge in a few moments to answer for all my past sins. I hope you and my good mistress will pray for my poor soul. God bless you, and all your family.”

At the place of execution he behaved in the most composed, devout, and resigned manner; and seemed to possess in the consciousness of innocence. There was a great concourse of spectators to witness his fatal end; to whom he spoke in the following manner: “Good people, I am going to die for a fact I never committed, I wish all mankind well; and as I have prayed for my prosecutors, I hope my sins will be forgiven through the merits of my ever blessed redeemer. I beg you to pray for my departing soul; and as to the fact now die for, I wish I was as free from, all other sins.”

He was hanged at Tyburn on the, 25th of July, 1729, exhibiting no signs of fear to his last moment.

The case of this man is very extraordinary. The evidence against him was at best but circumstantial; and this not supported with such strong corroborative proofs as have occasioned conviction in many other instances. No person was witness to his commission of the murder; nor was there any absolute proof that he did commit it; and from the steady perseverance with which he denied it, under the most awful circumstances, and at the very concluding scene of his life, charity would. tempt one to believe that he was innocent. Ought not this case to afford a lesson of caution to juries how they convict on circumstantial evidence? Is it not better that the guilty should escape, than the innocent be punished? All the decrees of mortals are liable to error; but the time will come when all mists shall be cleared from our sight; and we shall witness to the wisdom of those laws of Providence, which are now inscrutable to mortal eyes. Then shall we see that what appeared inexplicable to us was divinely right; and learn to admire that wisdom which, at present, so much exceeds our finite comprehension. In the mean time, we ought to adore that goodness we cannot comprehend, and rest satisfied with those dispensations, which are eternally and immutably just.

After Cluff’s hanging, his friends published a paper delivered them by the dead man “wherein [Cluff] makes a solemn Declaration that he was innocent of the Murder, and that several material Circumstances given in Evidence against him (which he particularly mentions) were untrue.” (London Journal, Aug. 2, 1729)

* Most notoriously, Jonathan Wild profiteered wildly from this system of privatized law enforcement by extracting a cut both from thieves whom he could threaten to shop for a reward, and from victims whose effects he could recover for a percentage.

** Though such proceedings would normally be handled, as Cluff’s was, by a jury trial, it was for private prosecutions that trial by combat still remained a possibility; one wonders if the accused servant considered taking his chances in the lists. This archaic legal artifact would not be abolished for ninety more years yet — after an 1818 case, Ashford v. Thornton, in which the burly accused in a private appeal successfully sued for the right to fight his wispy accuser in arms rather than in court. The magistrate gave an embarrassed ruling in the brawler’s favor (“however obnoxious I am myself to the trial by battle, it is the mode of trial which we, in our judicial character, are bound to award. We are delivering the law as it is, and not as we wish it to be”), leading the appellant to wisely back out of the case … and leading Parliament to ban private appeals and trial by combat in 1819.

When such an abolition was mooted as a means of soothing the American colonies in the early 1770s, however, conservative Lords decried the innovation as tending to “a system of ministerial despotism” that would remove a failsafe for crime victims — although Edmund Burke did allow that the ugly remnant of judicial combat “was superstitious and barbarous to the last degree.”

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1908: Grete Beier, who wanted the fairy tale

Add comment July 23rd, 2015 Headsman

Marie Margarethe (Grete) Beier, the daughter of the late Mayor of Brand-Erbisdorf, was beheaded on the fallbeil on this date in 1908 for murdering her fiance. While her crime was banal, the consequent spectacle lit up newswires all the globe ’round.


Despite the marquee half of this contradictory headline in the Adelaide, Australia Advertiser (Aug. 26, 1908), the execution occurred behind prison walls. About two hundred tickets were distributed to members of the public (all men), but thousands of applicants (which included many women) were denied them. These “ticket holders rushed in pell mell in their eagerness to get the best places. Men fell and fought wildly.”

Secretly carrying on with a lover named Johannes Merker, Beier (German Wikipedia link was forced by her parents — a working-class couple made good — into pledging her troth to a respectable engineer named Heinrich Pressler.

With “the face of an angel and the heart of a fiend”* the charming Beier contrived a plan to truly have it all: on May 13, 1907, she visited her would-be husband and spiked his drink with potassium cyanide — then to be sure of her project, had him close his eyes and open his mouth on her flirty promise of a sweet surprise. Then she shoved his own revolver between his lips and fired, abandoning at the scene of her crime a forged will to her benefit, a forged suicide note lamenting a purported affair with a vengeful Italian woman, and forged love letters corroborating the latter, fictional, relationship.

She was some weeks on towards her way to getting away with it — the coroner did indeed take Herr Pressler for a suicide — before suspicions as to the dead man’s testament led police to set a watch on her and unravel the web. Grete Beier confessed, in an unsuccessful gambit to secure mercy.

She reportedly died bravely, albeit slightly appalled by the size of the audience that had been admitted to gawk at her disgraceful finale.


Detail view (click for the full image) of the courthouse yard at Freiburg being readied for Grete Beier’s beheading. Image via the invaluable Bois de Justice.

* Her feminine fiendishness was greatly exacerbated to contemporaries by stories that she had also aborted three bastard children.

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1799: Elizabeth Lavender, teenage Fairlight infanticide

Add comment July 22nd, 2015 Headsman

London Chronicle, Feb. 2-5, 1799

On Sunday se’nnight the body of a new-born male infant, with its throat cut, was discovered, concealed in a small tub, among some cordwood, in a cellar at Fairlight in the county of Sussex. The fact appearing to have been recently committed, and suspicion falling on a young woman, resident in an adjoining apartment, named Lavender, she was taken into custody and a surgeon sent for, who declared she had been very lately in travail; and the Coroner’s Jury having on view of the body, returned a verdict of wilful murder against the said Lavender, she was committed to Horsham gaol. The wretched girl hath scarcely attained her eighteenth year.

London Oracle and Daily Advertiser, July 19, 1799

LEWES. — At our Assizes, which commence here on Friday morning next, before Lord Chief Justice Buller,* we have the satisfaction to say, there are but seven prisoners for trial, viz.

Elizabeth Lavender, aged 19 years, charged with the wilful murder of her male bastard child at Fairlight.

James Medhurst, alias Miles, aged 24 years, for feloniously stealing one barrow hog, the property of Thomas Davis.

Daniel Noyell, aged 20 years; John Gardiner, 21 years; and John Twiney, 22 years, for divers felonies in the town of Brighton.

William Jackson, aged 23 years, for feloniously entering the dwelling-house of Henry Karn, of Tillington, in June last, and stealing therein to the amount of twelve shillings in money, a silver watch, some wearing apparel, and other articles, the property of the said Henry Karns.

William Hodson, otherwise Powell, aged 28 years, charged with having stolen on Westbourn Common, a black gelding, the property of William Churcher; also with having stolen and rode away from a lane, in the parish of New Fishbourn, a grey poney gelding, the property of John Hardham.

Should the business at nisi prius prove as light as that on the Crown side, we shall have a very short Assize.

London Sun, July 25, 1799

LEWES, July 22

At the Assizes for this County, which ended here on Saturday morning last, seven prisoners were tried, five of whom were capitally convicted, and received sentence of death, viz.

Elizabeth Lavender, for the wilful murder of her male bastard child, at Fairlight. — John Gardiner and John Twiney, for felonies in the town of Brighton. — William Jackson, for a felony in the dwelling house of Henry Karn, at Tillington. — And William Hodson, otherwise Powell, for horse-stealing.

The four men were reprieved before the Judges left the town; but the unhappy woman was left for execution, and is this day to suffer at Horsham, after which her body is to be dissected and anatomized.

True Briton, Aug. 2, 1799

LEWES, July 29

Last Monday Elizabeth Lavender was executed at Horsham, pursuant to her sentence at our late Assizes, for the murder of her male bastard child. Her behaviour at the gallows was such as became one in her unhappy situation. She trembled and wept much, but nevertheless seemed to listen to the Clergyman who attended her, and having expressed a hope that all other females would take warning by her untimely fate, she was turned off about half past twelve, and expired without any apparent agony.

* Buller is most (in)famous now for allegedly issuing the judicial standard permitting a man to beat his wife with a rod, provided it was no thicker than his thumb. It’s quite dubious whether he ever did so rule, and indeed whether any such rule has ever existed; nevertheless, Buller was lampooned in his own day as “Judge Thumb”.

More historically verifiable is his role on the judicial panel upholding the right of the slaveship Zong to throw all its cargo into the sea.

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1762: Sarah Metyard and Sally Metyard, mother and daughter

Add comment July 19th, 2015 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1762, Sarah Metyard and her daughter, Sarah Morgan “Sally” Metyard, were hanged at Tyburn for the horrible murder of their apprentice girl.

Sarah, a milliner, and Sally, her assistant, had taken on several female apprentices. One of those, a thirteen-year-old workhouse orphan named Anne Naylor or Nailor, was cruelly treated by the Metyards, who beat her, confined her to the attic and fed her nothing but bread and water. Twice she escaped and asked for help and twice she was dragged back by her mistresses to be tortured all over again.

After the second escape attempt, according to the entry in the Newgate Calendar, the Metyards

…put [Anne] into a back room on the second storey, tied a cord round her waist, and her hands behind her, and fastened her to the door in such a manner that it was impossible for her either to sit or lie down. She was compelled to remain in this situation for three successive days; but they permitted her to go to bed at the usual hours at night. Having received no kind of nutriment for three days and two nights, her strength was so exhausted that, being unable to walk upstairs, she crept to the garret, where she lay on her hands and feet.

While she remained tied up on the second floor the other apprentices were ordered to work in an adjoining apartment, that they might be deterred from disobedience by being witnesses to the unhappy girl’s sufferings; but they were enjoined, on the penalty of being subjected to equal severity, against affording her any kind of relief.

On the fourth day she faltered in speech, and presently afterwards expired. The other girls, seeing the whole weight of her body supported by the strings which confined her to the door, were greatly alarmed, and called out: “Miss Sally! Miss Sally! Nanny does not move.” The daughter then came upstairs, saying: “If she does not move, I will make her move”; and then beat the deceased on the head with the heel of a shoe.

This is a sad epitome of what will appear at large in too many dreadful examples on the great day of account, when all those who have counteracted, or ill discharged their relative duties of parent and child, ruler and subject, pastor and people, or any other of the superior and inferior relations in this state of trial, will look aghast at each other, in frantic despair, charging the neglect of duty, of relaxed discipline, of disobedience, and evil example to each other’s account; when all that seduce and betray each other into sin, will fill up the dire and dreadful number.

Learn hence ye parents and children of every rank, the force and importance of that admonition, preparative to a general reformation of life and manners, the neglect of which is a sure presage of a general corruption and impending destruction.

-the Newgate Ordinary

Anne died a short time afterwards, and Sarah and Sally hid this fact and told everyone she had run away. They hid her body in a box in the garret for two months until the smell became too offensive, then dismembered the corpse and dumped it in a gully-hole in Chick Lane. Two watchmen found the remains on December 5, 1758.

The crime went undiscovered for years, and Sally eventually moved out of the house and in with a Mr. Rooker. Sarah, however, was afraid her daughter might tell someone what happened, and began stalking her and threatening her life. Her attempts to frighten Sally into silence backfired when Sally confronted her and alluded to the murder in front of Mr. Rooker.

Once Sarah was gone, Rooker demanded to know what they’d been talking about, and Sally spilled the beans. He went straight to the cops. (Or more precisely, to “the officers of the parish of Tottenham High Cross.”)

Sally backed up everything he told them.

Cate Ludlow and Graham Jackson record in their Grim Almanac of Georgian London,

the Metyards had to be separated in prison lest they attack each other, and would always blame the other if asked about the crimes. Unbeknownst to the gaolers, the mother had been starving herself (a fitting fate) in an attempt to cheat the gallows; a few days before the due date she fell into a fit and swooned away. She never spoke again. On 19 July 1762, before 9:00 a.m., the women were put into the cart. The ordinary had to fight to get them through the enormous crowds, and found the mother stretched out like a statue, not even seeming to breathe, though her chest twitched convulsively now and then. The daughter begged for prayers from the crowd (over the jeers and boos*), and looked about for Mr. Rooker. She added that ‘she died a martyr to her innocence.’

After they were hanged, their bodies were displayed before the public at the Surgeons’ Hall, then dissected.

* The populace reserved a special hatred for mistresses who abused their serving-girls.

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1787: Jacob “Hannikel” Reinhard

Add comment July 17th, 2015 Headsman

Robber Jakob Reinhard, better known as Hannikel, was hanged on this date in 1787 in Sulz am Neckar in Wurttemberg.

The captain of a brigand company stalking the Black Forest, Hannikel (English Wikipedia entry | German) kept one step ahead of pursuers for many years simply by exploiting the fragmented map of southern Germany: the next lord’s border was never more than a few strides away. Like his near-contemporary Schinderhannes, the bandit prince earned the affection due charismatic rogues for the usual reasons, viz., turning the wheel of fortune against the great and the good whom they made to stand and deliver.

Hannikel elevated his crew’s outlawry level from nuisance to anathema in 1786 by killing a guy in the course of a home invasion, which featured the less romantic part of the robber’s job: dripping burning resin on the lady of the house until she yielded up the concealed ducats. This incurred the wrath of the Duke of Wurttemberg, and the great bailiff (and early criminologist) Jacob Georg Schaeffer damned the borders and pursued the marauders all the way to Switzerland before he finally had them all rounded up.

Hannikel hanged along with three others of his gang; other members received lengthy prison sentences at hard labor.


1788 illustration of Hannikel imprisoned in the Schloss Sargans. Via this German-language summary (pdf) of Hannikel’s career.

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