American lynch law come 1926 was into its decline phase; the 30 lynchings in that year across the country have never been equalled in the nine decades since, but were also 50% below the rates at the beginning of the 1920s, and very far from the peak 1890s where triple-digit counts of mob murder were the perennial norm.
One might say that both the phenomenon and its pracitioners had matured. If exhortations to better refer justice to the law were the authorities’ running strategy for quelling lynch mobs, then the mobs themselves became complicit with the barristers — and could reserve recourse to extrajudicial means for occasions when the courts failed to work Judge Lynch’s will. Leo Frank’s case a decade prior to this is an excellent example: though there was a virtual lynch atmosphere at his trial, it was only after the man’s death sentence had been commuted by the governor that a lynch gang systematically extracted the man from prison to slay him.
Something like this pattern appears to distinguish the Lowman lynchings.
This dreadful case began with an exercise in that other grand tradition of racialized justice, the drug war — Prohibition-style. On April 25, 1925, the Lowmans’ tenant farm near Monetta was raided by police on a bootlegging tip.* The Lowmans resisted and a firefight broke out, leaving two dead: Annie Lowman, and Sheriff Henry Hampton “Bud” Howard.
Annie’s killing would of course never be punished. But inside of three weeks, fourteen-year-old Clarence Lowman was death-sentenced as Sheriff Howard’s killer, along with his cousin and “conspirator” 21-year-old Demmon Lowman. Bertha Lowman, Demmon’s older sister, received a life sentence.
And so Judge Lynch might rest easy.
Except that one year later, the South Carolina Supreme Court surprisingly threw out the Lowmans’ sentences as prejudicially obtained. The second trial began in October and right away the state suffered a setback when Judge Samuel Lanham threw out the murder case against Demmon Lowman.
Judge Lynch was wide awake now.
That very night — October 7 — white vigilantes organized a new verdict. According to the NAACP’s investigation, “within one hour of [Lanham’s] decision, news had been sent to as distant a point as Columbia that the three Lowmans were to be lynched that night.”
At 3 o’clock in the morning of October 8, and aided by the local constabulary, the mob stormed the jail and dragged Clarence, Demmon and Bertha Lowman away to a pine thicket outside of town where they were gunned down.
“On the way Clarence Lowman jumped from the car in which he was held,” the NAACP investigator would later report in the summation of his interviews.
He was shot down and recaptured, in order to prevent telltale blood marks, a rope was tied to the back of the car and the other end of it around Clarence’s body. In this manner he was dragged about a mile to the place of execution. The members of the mob sated that Bertha was the hardest one to kill. She was shot but not killed instantly. She dragged herself over the ground and as one member of the mob put it, ‘bleated like a goat.’ Another member of the mob, slightly more decent, said that she begged so piteously for her life and squirmed about so that a number of shots had to be fired before one found a vital spot and ended her agony.
Although the NAACP supplied South Carolina’s governor with the identities of 22 alleged members of the lynch mobs (including the sheriff himself) and 11 other witnesses to its actions, no man was ever sanctioned for this event, and an all-white grand jury declined to forward any indictments.
A distant Lowman relative was quoted in the Augusta Chronicle recollecting the stories his grandmother told about that horrible night, and the impression those stories had in his own life.
“She [grandma] talked about it all the time,” William Cue said. “Took them out of jail — drug them out like dead mules. When I drive past, I think about it — it happened in that house. … I learned something from that. … There was a lot of times where a man mistreated me and it kept me from doing anything.”
* It’s been argued by latter-day researchers that the tip itself was bogus, and supplied to police further to a personal vendetta — which, if true, would make the Lowmans victims of the 1920s version of SWATting.
Spanish anarchist Paulino Pallas was shot on this date in 1893 for attempting to assassinate the military chief of Catalonia.
A bricklayer’s son who had known starvation days, the politically radicalized Pallas returned from years abroad to his native Catalonia to discover a restive district nearing the brink of outright rebellion.
An 1892 uprising among the Jerez peasantry, a disturbance that ended with four anarchists publicly garroted, stirred Spanish anarchists to a wave of violent revenge. Pallas’s strike came on the September 24, 1893, when he hurled two bombs at a military parade on the Gran Via in Barcelona in an attempt to assassinate Gen. Arsenio Martinez-Campos.
The bombing killed a nearby policeman, but Gen. Martinez-Campos was only slightly injured.
Pallas was arrested on the spot and his lair yielded for the horror of the pro-Bourbon press “many anarchists proclamations, a photo of the anarchists who were executed in Chicago, and several letters from France containing instructions on making a revolution.” Within days, a court-martial condemned him.
The assassin justified his action in a letter published two days after his execution:
I have maintained throughout my life a titanic struggle for existence. I have felt in my own skin the effects of this society, constituted poorly and governed even worse. I observe that it is a gangrenous body, to which you can not place one finger without touching a festering sore. I thought it was necessary to destroy it and I wanted to offer my contribution that demolishing work in the form of another bomb. General Martinez Campos, as a soldier and a gentleman, I respect. But I wanted to hurt him to undo one of the many pillars on which rests the current state of affairs in Spain. […] I state the record that, in undertaking this act, I have not been compelled by any consideration other than to sacrifice my life for the benefit of my brothers in misfortune.
Enclosed is a statement of the evidence which appeared against Daphne and Nell, two negroes convicted for the murder of Joel Garthright, which would have been sent sooner had the Attorney been in Town.
Your humble servant.
The evidence against Daphne and Nelly, two Slaves belonging to Col. Champion Travis, who were tried and convicted by the court of James City County in the month of June, for the murder of Joel Gathright, Col. Travis’s overseer, as well as my memory enables me to state it, was in substance follows:
It was proved in plain and positive terms by two negro boys, who were present and saw the greater part of the transaction, that Daphne and Nelly, the two criminals now under condemnation, were at work with ploughs on the day on which the overseer was killed, and the boys themselves leading the oxen to the ploughs.
Gathright, the overseer, came at his usual time to the field where these women were working, and blamed Nelly for suffering the fence to be left open, which had exposed the corn growing to be cropped by the sheep.
Nelly denied the charge and used some impertinent language, which provoked the overseer to strike her. This he did repeatedly with a small cane, till Nelly quitted her plough and ran; the overseer pursued and struck her on the ground after she had fallen.
Nelly recovered from her fall, and immediately engaged him. The woman Daphne, who was at a small distance off, as soon as she saw Nelly closely fighting with the overseer, ran to the place where they were engaged, and together they seized and threw him to the ground. They beat him on the ground with their fists and switches with great fury a considerable time.
The overseer made frequent efforts to raise himself up and get from them in vain, and demanded to know if they intended to kill him.
At length he ordered one of the boys, the witness, to go to a remote part of the field where the negro men were at work, and call one of them to his assistance; after some time, he sent the other boy.
The boys executed their orders, and soon returned to the place they had left; when they returned, the women, Daphne and Nelly, had fled, and an old negro man belonging to Col. Travis assisted to raise the overseer from the ground, who soon after expired.
It was proved by an old negro man, who kept a mill in the neighborhood of Col. Travis’s plantation, that these two women, Daphne and Nelly, in the afternoon of the same day on which they killed the overseer, passed the mill on their way to Williamsburg; and being asked by the old fellow where they were going, and what was the matter — seeing some disorder in their appearances, they replied that they had whipped their overseer, and were going to town to their master.
They were urged by the miller to go on, lest the overseer should overtake them; they observed that they had left him unable to move, and Daphne asked the old man if a woman could be hanged for killing a man.
Several white men who came to the place shortly after the scene was closed, and who were Jurors in the inquest held on his body, proved the violence committed on the body, and a fracture of the skull, which they imagined was made by a stone found a few feet from the head of the unfortunate man.
The Criminals, Daphne and Nelly, were tried separately, and the boys closely and rigidly examined; on each trial they delivered the same clear and unequivocal testimony. The criminals were undefended, but asked themselves many questions of the witnesses, which, as well as I remember, were answered strongly against them.
Attorney for James City County
July 26, 1793
Elsewhere in antebellum human chattelry: this from the Columbian Gazetteer, Oct. 28, 1793.
The full court record ensues in these same papers, demonstrating the same circumstances. Daphne was duly hanged on July 19, but “it being suggested to the court that the said Nelly is quick and big with child, it is commanded the Sheriff of this county that he cause execution of the above Judgement to be done on Friday the fourth day of October next. The Court also valued the said Nelly at fifty pounds Current money.”
(The timeline here implies that Nelly would have been about six to seven months pregnant when overseer Gathright began thrashing her for leaving the fence gate ajar.)
Nelly’s fate moved enough tender-hearted white neighbors to petition for her reprieve, a petition that was rebutted by a furious confutation with vastly more numerous signatories noting that “not a single circumstance appeared in alleviation of the horrid offence.” Can’t think of a one!
At any rate,
She has been delivered of her child some weeks, and now awaits the Execution of her sentence. We have heard with great emotion and concern that much Industry has been exerted to get signatures to a petition to your Excellency and the Hon’ble Board of Council to obtain a Pardon for the said negro woman, Nell; when we consider the alarming commotions which have lately existed among the negroes in this neighborhood, and the dangerous example of such a murder, we humbly conceive it necessary for the public peace that the course of the law should have its full effect in this instance.
On this date in 1853, three bushrangers hanged in Melbourne Gaol for the sensational (and very nearly successful) McIvor Gold Escort attack.
Our hanged trio’s crime traces to the mad 1850s gold rush to Victoria, mainland Australia’s southwesternmost province* and more specifically to the McIvor Creek diggings near Heathcote. Gold was struck there late in 1853; by the next year, the place was heavy with prospectors. And gold, why, we know what gold does to men’s souls.
The notes are eternal but gold sings her siren song in every major and minor key; where she calls men, haggard and desperate, bearing pickaxes and gilded dreams, she also beckons in another register to their counterparts bearing ready sidearms and black hearts. Miners after a different name.
On July 20, 1853, some 2,300 ounces of gold extracted from the McIvor diggings were dispatched with an armed guard from the Private Escort Cmpany on its regular run to Kyneton. Here was a mother lode for characters who could stake it.
The July 20 gold escort encountered a blocked road and six desperadoes waiting in a well-orchestrated ambush: without bothering to demand the escort stand and deliver, the robbers opened fire on their prey, wounding four of the troopers — non-fatally, but enough to compel submission — and killing the coach driver, William Flookes, ere they looted the dray of treasure worth near £10,000.
19th century illustration of the attak on the McIvor gold escort.
When news of the incident reached McIvor, 400 outraged miners formed up in posses and set off in pursuit — but the robbers had planned their strike cunningly and were well ahead of the chase. Racing away through wilderness, they paused to divide their spoils near Kilmore and proceeded to Melbourne, where they scattered themselves and were able to duck a sweeping but essentially blind manhunt for several weeks.
Joseph Grey, George and Joseph Francis, William Atkins, George Wilson, and George Melville were perhaps on the verge of completing the caper by August 13 when George Francis got cold feet and turned himself into the police — shopping all of his confederates into the bargain.
Joseph Grey, the wiliest of the bunch, was cautiously changing his address every single night — and so George Francis’s information did not nab him. Grey managed to stay ahead of the search and make good an escape with his share of the booty: he was never caught.
The remaining four — including Joseph Francis, George Francis’s own brother — were all speedily snapped up.
A twist in the plot occurred when star witness George Francis slashed his own throat, leaving the crown with a virtually empty case until brother Joseph fulfilled the informer’s place, piously declaiming against the shootings as more crime than either Francis had bargained for. This self-serving pap came in for uproarious pillory by the defense barristers when the surviving Francis took the witness stand — “with your own person in danger, you would sacrifice your mother and tell any lie you rpoor intelligence could invent!” — but the stool pigeon’s evidence stuck, corroborated by accounts from the troopers who survived the ambush.
Atkins, Wilson, and Melville hanged together at Melbourne Gaol sixteen days after their judge donned the black cap. Melville’s wife availed her right to claim her husband’s body and scandalized Melbourne’s authorities by cheekily garlanding the corpse in flowers and putting it on display in her oyster shop on Little Bourke Street, charging half a crown per gawk. Melbourne Gaol’s hanged thereafter were exclusively buried within the prison yards itself, and Parliament soon legislated this as a nationwide requirement.
* While the gold rush brought many boom towns that expired with their associated mineral veins, it boomed the frontier town of Melbourne right into the gigantic metropolis it remains today.
On this date in 2012, northern Mali’s Islamist Ansar Dine movement, then in control of the city of Timbuktu, publicly executed Moussa Agh Mohammed there for murder.
Mohammed was one of Ansar Dine’s own fighters, but stringent consistency would oblige his fellows to put him to death under the sharia law Ansar Dine itself was enforcing in Timbuktu. Some days before he got into a fight with fishermen who reproached him for trampling their nets; as the confrontation escalated towards physical violence, Mohammed unslung his Kalashnikov and gunned one of them down. The fisherman’s family was offered, but refused, compensation in exchange for sparing the killer.
According to a correspondent, Mohammed “was a Tuareg cattle farmer from a major tribe [who] joined the Ansar Dine movement one month ago [before his execution]” having previously been affiliated with the Tuareg rebel army the National Movement for the Independence of Azawad. It was the third known execution in northern Mali under sharia: the previous two were an adulterous couple stoned to death in the town of Aguelhok.
“I didn’t feel a great deal of emotion from the crowd,” our observer reported. “People just stood there and watched as if it were a show. In contrast, the members of Ansar Dine looked moved by the event. Mohammed had close relationships with a number of his peers. But they explained that no one is exempt from Sharia law, and because of that they had no choice but kill him. It was a question of God’s will.”
From the diary of Felix Platter, a Swiss youth studying in Montpellier, France. It is not completely evident from context (“afterwards …”) whether the masked dummy was “executed” on the same occasion as the coiner, or whether that effigy was punished on a different day.
Afterwards a masked dummy was brought on a hurdle, and was laid on the cross and its limbs broken, as I have described. This dummy represented a Greek who had studied at Montpellier and had been accounted one of the keenest blades of the town. He had married Gillette d’Andrieu, a girl of doubtful reputation, who had neither beauty nor fortune. She had a very long nose, and her lover could scarcely manage to kiss her on the lips, especially since he too had a nose of respectable size.
The Greek was insulted by a canon, Pierre Saint-Ravy, who taunted him, at the moment when he was about to relieve himself, of having had intercourse with his wife. The husband at once stabbed the canon and fled; he could therefore be executed only in effigy. His wife continued to live in Montpellier, and was often in Rondelet’s house she was a relative of his.*
She often came there to dance, and one day I danced with her, all booted and spurred, on my return from Vendargues. As I turned, my spurs entangled themselves in her dress, and I fell full length on the floor. Some tablets I had in a breast pocket were broken into pieces, and I was so stunned that I had to be helped up.
On the 28th [of September, 1554] the Provost came to Montpellier, and there were several executions.
On the first day he appeared on horseback, preceded by several horsemen and followed by the town trumpeter sounding his trumpet. Behind him walked a criminal, with some monks. He was a handsome young man and had been an accomplice in a murder He was brought to a scaffold that had been erected in front of the Hotel de Ville. There a Saint Andrew’s cross had been made with two hollowed-out balks of timber; in this his limbs were to be broken.
The condemned man stood and recounted in rhyme the crime he had committed, and at the end he added: ‘Pray to Holy Mary that she may intercede with her Son to take me into Paradise.’
The executioner then undressed him and tied him by the limbs to the cross, as those are tied, with us, who are to be broken on the wheel. Then he took a heavy bar of iron, called a massa, sharpened a little on one side, and broke the man’s limbs with it. This punishment resembles our punishment of the wheel, and is called here massarrer. The last blow was struck on the chest, and this killed the victim.
(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. This post originally appeared on the Last Words blog. 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.)
I have something of interest to tell —
-Paul Rowland, convicted of murder, California. Executed September 27, 1929
Serving time for a robbery, Rowland approached Alger Morrison, a man whom he claimed as a good friend, and stabbed him with a five-inch homemade knife. Rumors circulated among the inmates that Rowland and Morrison had had a “degenerate” sexual relationship, rumors that Rowland found unendurable. His last words were cut short as the trap sprang from beneath his feet.
On this date in 1987* in the Belarusian SSR, highly prolific serial killer Gennady Modestovich Mikhasevich was put to death by firing squad. Police were able to prove he’d committed 36 murders; he confessed to 43, but the actual total may have been 55 deaths or perhaps more.
“The murders are separate incidents,” the police insisted, “not connected at all.” And so off they went to arrest a suspect, four in fact over a fourteen-year period, one of whom was executed. It was an arcane and inept stance, one that allowed a killer to massacre at least 33 young women in 14 years.
On the surface, Mikhasevich (English Wikipedia entry | Russian | Belarussian) was an ordinary enough man: born in the village of Ist in the Vitebsk Oblast’ in 1947, as an adult he served in the military, graduated college, got a job in a machine repair shop, married and sired two children.
He was conscientious at his work, a caring father, and didn’t drink. He was a Communist Party member — in fact, he was chosen to be secretary of the local committee — and also a member of the Voluntary People’s Druzhina, a sort of Soviet equivalent to the Neighborhood Watch.
But who watches the watchmen?
Mikhasevich committed his first murder on May 14, 1971. He came home from his stint in the army and discovered that his girlfriend back in Ist had left him and married another man.
Devastated, a few days later he decided to hang himself. He was walking to a nearby forest to do the deed, carrying the rope, when he met a woman on the road. Rather had commit suicide, Mikhasevich took his anger out on the stranger, dragging her off into the woods and strangling her.
He must have liked it, because he killed again later that year, and twice more in 1972.
And the list kept growing.
With his early murders, he would wait at an isolated spot, hoping that a woman would chance along. Now he had a car, a red Zaporozhets, so he cruised the roads looking for victims. None of the women ever refused to get into his car. In a backwater like Ist, a ride in a motor vehicle was a real treat. (Keller)
Mikhasevich would drive his victim to an isolated spot and then turn on her. Throttling her into unconsciousness. He’d then rape the woman before strangling her with a rope. Then he’d rob the victim of money and valuables, toss the body at the side of the road and drive off. In common with many serial killers, he often kept souvenirs.
By the 1980s, the police had finally conceded that the murders were related, and witnesses reported the killer drove a red Zaporozhets. Investigators started checking who in the oblast’ owned that particular vehicle, and called on the Voluntary People’s Druzhina for help with their inquiries.
Thus, Mikhasevich began investigating his own crimes.
Authorities were stopping and questioning anyone seen driving a red Zaporozhets, but the investigation went nowhere; the killer appeared to be invisible. Mikhasevich, as a druzhina, was of course aware of where the cops were and when, and he evaded them easily. He claimed fourteen victims in 1984 and twelve more the following year.
He was growing a bit nervous, though, so to derail the investigation he sent a letter to a local newspaper, supposedly written by members of an organization called the “Patriots of Vitebsk.” The letter said the murders were being committed by them and they were trying to rid the oblast’ of “lewd women.”
The police were inclined to write the letter off as a sick joke. But then a note turned up at one of the crime scenes, written in the same hand. It was signed, “the patriots of Vitebsk.”
Galvanized, the cops decided to check the handwriting of all the men living in the oblast. After sorting through 556,000 samples, graphologists found a match: Gennady Mikhasevich.
He was arrested on December 9, 1985, fourteen and a half years after his first murder. As the police were hauling him away in handcuffs, he told his wife, “This is a mistake. I’ll be right back.” Taken to the prosecutor’s office, he was asked, “Are you the patriot of Vitebsk?”
He ultimately broke down and confessed, leading investigators to the place where he’d hidden some of his victims’ belongings. He’d given other items to his wife as gifts; in one case, he even melted down two wedding rings from women he’d murdered and used them to make dental fillings and crowns for his wife.
According to Mikhasevich, although he did rape his victims, he got the most satisfaction out of killing them.
From there on it was a short trip to the firing squad.
The case was widely remembered in the area, not only for the terrible crimes Mikhasevich committed, but for the wrongfully convicted men and the ineptitude of the police. Several officials were dismissed from their posts, and one prosecutor was himself prosecuted for abuse of power.
Who watches the watchmen?
* Many Soviet executions were conducted in secrecy and have elusive dating as a result. In September 25 we’re going with the most commonly attributed date and the one favored at present by Russian and Belarussian Wikipedia. However, alternate dates as late as February 3, 1988 are also out there.
The city of Charleston, Virginia — soon to become Charleston, West Virginia — hosted the unctuously ceremonious public hanging of a killer preacher on this date in 1858.
Perhaps your correspondent is merely cynical having seen in these pages a thousand small-minded murderers lay their misdeeds to liquor and claim their redemptive shortcut to heaven. After all, hypocrisies great and small light each one of us through our days; Preston Turley no less than any man is surely entitled to his.
But we do incline with the fellow in the posse who arrested Turley after his missing wife Mary Susan was discovered at the bottom of a river, a rope fixing her neck to a stone and bludgeon bruises visible about her head, who had this exchange with Mr. Turley:
Turley: Whisky has brought me to this.
Mr. Webb: Don’t lay it all to whisky, as a man might have a deed in his breast, but not the courage to perform it, until he drank whisky.
Turley: That is about the fact.
Betweentimes Turley had posted a phony reward for his “missing” wife, slated her for unfaithfulness by way of palliating his crime, and briefly escaped his cell a few weeks before the execution. All of this is no more than any murderer might do to avoid the terrors of execution, but also does seem a bit difficult to square with the lamblike sacrificial Turley who presented on the scaffold September 17, preaching his last sermon to a throng five thousand strong or larger. Turley on this occasion was able to report that he had but a few days prior undergone a third and this time definitive conversion and that now, now, he had conquered death in Christ and become entitled to harangue the crowd and lead it in hymns. (And also that whisky was still the culprit.) He even got the murdered woman’s brothers to come out of the crowd and give him a tearful parting; “the whole scene was more that of an excited protracted [revival] meeting, than that of an execution.” If nothing else we have a compelling instance of the continuation of that ancient spirit of public execution reconciling the criminal to his community through his sacrifice.
We’ve been quoting from one of those books someone churned out to monetize all that pathos, suitably entitled “The trial, conviction, sentence, confession, and execution of Preston S. Turley: for the murder of his wife, Mary Susan Turley, in Kanawha County, Virginia.” We present it here for whomever might judge Turley’s character: