Posts filed under 'Pelf'

1896: John Pryde, Brainerd murderer

Add comment July 23rd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1896, John Pryde hanged in Crow Wing County jail for a Brainerd murder over a little bit of money.

Pryde had worked all the preceding winter in a lumber camp but closed his engagement (so he said) with a Valentine‘s Day jaunt to Lothrop — abandoned in the present day but then the terminal stop on the Brainerd & Northern Minnesota Railway, where the lumber he’d been hewing would be loaded up for the Brainerd sawmill. According to this site about Minnesota ghost towns, Lothrop “was a typical hell-raising, end-of-tracks town.”

Some of the hell so raised consisted in the timeless pastime of wagering on small cardboard rectangles, and to hear Pryde’s (possibly suspect) account of it he got sharked at the poker table: ” I knew nothing about cards, only what I had found out by looking on. I tried the game and won, at one time being $100 ahead, and if I had known enough to quit then I would not be where I am today. But I was flush and my companions urged me to keep right on, saying that luck was with me and I could win everything in sight. I did so, to my regret, and lost all my winnings and also my winter’s wages, having but a few dollars in my pocket when I reached Brainerd, and I was all broke up.”

Back in Brainerd so penniless and broke up, Pryde decided a buddy from the logging camp could supply him and sent Andrew Peterson a letter urging him to hie to Brainerd immediately for a job that was waiting him. Peterson did so; Pryde met him on his return on Feb. 24 and escorted his victim around the outskirts of the city to a spot sufficiently remote to shoot him in the back of the head and rummage through his possessions.

Pryde found one dollar.

Unfortunately for Pryde, Peterson survived — not for good, just long enough to be found and identify his killer before he succumbed and made it a murder charge.

By the time authorities took Pryde into custody on this intelligence, he had already made arrangements for another logger to come on down for another “job”, with the same object in mind. (But hopefully more than a dollar in his pockets.)

With that pleasing want of artifice that can characterize the Upper Midwest at its finest, Pryde admitted everything and lodged a guilty plea just days after Peterson’s March 3 death. He did add that he regretted the mistake he made in not slashing Peterson’s throat to finish him for sure, and then burning the body to hide the crime.

Pryde’s fall — from an employed and relatively flush young man on the make to a condemned murderer — took all of three weeks.

There were suggestions that Pryde might have pulled the same trick on a different fellow who had disappeared from the work camp. He rejected that quite indignantly.

This story from his last days, and including his gallows address (blaming gambling) and his written last statement (blaming gambling) shows a man really locking in a narrative.

What we know about John Pryde is that he killed in cold calculation someone who was in no way connected to his gambling woes, and he was preparing to do the same a second time. There’s really only so much misbehavior one gets to write off to tilt. But Pryde was a young man and we might allow that a sense of guilt (however belated) and a wish to reconcile himself to his loved ones (however hypocritically) are not of themselves discreditable qualities. There were no protracted appeals or dramatic stays of execution to grow him into any other person but the one who shot his work chum dead for a buck. He had a bare five months to make sense of it all: one wonders if his parents in Chicago, who received this last missive from him, ever did.

I received your letter and was glad to hear from you, but I know that it was a hard thing for you to hear what I have done. Well, mother, I have thrown my whole life away, and not only that, how I have disgraced you and pa, and my only sister for the rest of your life; it is true that I made an awful mistake in life. Dear mother, my life was thrown away by the gambling hell hole, there is nothing in the world but that, and it would break most anyone up. It was my first time to gamble, and I was led away by one of my companions and was led into an eternal destruction, that is what put me in the place I am in now. Now my lot is a hard one, but I have made my peace with the Lord, and am prepared to meet my father in Heaven. God will forgive the most sinful if we only believe in Him. The Bible says that God has forgiven the greatest of sins.

I am very sorry over this matter, but it can’t be helped now. There is one thing, that I hope this will warn other young men and will put them on the straight road and show them what gambling will lead a young man to do, first from one thing and then to another.

Dear mother, now I have given you all the news that I have. Oh, dear mother, I cannot reward you for your kindness. You always stuck up for me, and if I had only taken your advice, I don’t think I would be where I am today. It is true what you said. I had a good home, and did not realize what a home was. I know I ought not to have left home but we young men do not pay enough attention to our mother and father. Now, father and mother, don’t take this matter too hard, as it won’t help it in the least. We all have go to go some time, sooner or later. There is a home prepared for us all and there we will have peace and joy. Now I will bring this letter to a close, hoping it will find you all well, as I remain, your most loving son,

JOHN PRYDE.

Now, I will bid you good bye, good bye. Father, forget me not, keep this letter to remember me.

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2013: Zeng Chengjie, China’s Bernie Madoff

Add comment July 12th, 2014 Headsman

A year ago today, China executed self-made millionaire Zeng Chengjie for corruption.

Once the subject of glowing media profiles (Chinese link) for his entrepreneurship, Zeng was convicted of bilking 57,000-plus investors out of RMB 2.8 billion (US $460 million) which he in turn used to lock up lucrative urban development projects in Jishou.

The case stirred an uproar in China and overseas because Zeng’s daughter vigorously protested the execution on her Weibo page.

Zeng Shen said she was notified of her father’s execution only two days after it took place. The official story would be that Zeng never requested the family meeting; that story was met with incredulity. (And widespread speculation that Zeng’s organs were harvested for medical transplantation.)

“If one day, I’m sentenced to death and told that I have the right to meet my family, I guarantee that I will absolutely ask to see my family,” wrote IT venture capitalist Kai-Fu Lee on one of the country’s most-followed microblogging accounts. “If the court claims that I didn’t make such request after the execution, it must be a lie.”

Moreover, Zeng Shen charged that the whole affair was a political fix-up orchestrated by the successors of Hunan province officials that Zeng pere worked with — and that as a result the executed man’s assets had been snapped up for yuan on the renminbi.

China has made a point in recent years of dialing back capital punishment for white-collar “economic” crimes; most similar cases of fraud or theft result at worst in suspended death sentences, which are de facto prison terms.

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1962: Talduwe Somarama, Ceylon assassin

Add comment July 7th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1962, the Buddhist monk — turned Christian convert in detention — Talduwe Somarama was hanged for assassinating Ceylon Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. (Ceylon became Sri Lanka in 1972.)

Somarama was a 44-year-old ayurvedic medicine practitioner when he was tapped for the job by a powerful Buddhist named Mapitigana Buddharakkitha, high priest of the Kelaniya temple. The latter had played kingmaker in Bandaranaike’s 1956 election — and had perhaps two interlocking grievances against Bandaranaike:

  1. Buddharakkitha had been balked by the government of lucrative trade concessions he anticipated as the quid for his quo; and,
  2. Buddharakkitha was closely linked to the movement of partisan Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists who in Ceylon’s early years systematically discriminated against the island’s ethnic Tamils — and were angered at Bandaranaike’s halting moves to reach an accommodation.*

Exploiting the prerogatives of clergy, Somarama obtained a September 25, 1959, meeting un-screened by security for one of the Prime Minister’s public-audience days, a revolver secreted in his saffron robes. When Bandaranaike knelt ceremonially to the monk, Somarama shot him in the stomach.

The wound was mortal, but the Prime Minister lingered on all that night — long enough even to give a televised address from his hospital bed asking his countrymen to “show compassion to” his assassin “and not try to wreak vengeance on him.”* Only months before the murder, ethnic riots had devastated minority Tamil communities, and another pogrom might have been averted on this occasion only the quick thinking of a government official to promulgate immediate word that the assassin was not Tamil.

Ironically Buddharakkitha was so far above suspicion at that he was solicited for a broadcast eulogy of his victim. One can only imagine his relish at the performance — but it was not to last. Buddharakkitha was tried as a conspirator for orchestrating Somarama’s deed, dodged a prospective death sentence, and died in 1967 serving a prison sentence at hard labor.


Talduwe Somara on the steps of the courthouse …


… and Buddharakkitha likewise.

Bandaranaike’s daughter Sirimavo succeeded him as Prime Minister in 1960, becoming the world’s first elected female head of government. A second daughter, Chandrika, and a son, Anura, have also been prominent Sri Lanka politicians.

This three-part series unpacks some of the primary sources on the murder and speculates as to cui bono: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

* Buddharakkitha, also noted for exploring paths to enlightenment with various Sinhalese elites’ wives, was the high priest of the Kelaniya temple — which is the titular temple in the 1953 Sinhalese nationalist tract The Revolt in the Temple, “a blunt statement that the Tamils are a threat to [the Sinhalese] historic mission.” Its author was Don Charles Wijewardena, who had been a patron of Bandaranaike as a young monk; the (still-extant) Wijewardena dynasty had likewise associated itself with the Kelaniya temple itself, the political and the devotional mutually reinforcing one another.

The Sinhala-Tamil conflict stoked in these years has progressed in the decades since to ever-bloodier consequences.

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1879: Troy Dye and Ed Anderson, estate salesmen

Add comment May 29th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1879, Sacramento County public administrator Troy Dye was hanged for murder, along with the Swedish goon whom he’d hired to do the dirty work.

A 36-year-old father of three, Dye was a prosperous tavern owner in the California capital who volunteered at the Sunday school. In 1877, voters entrusted him with the necessary public office of managing intestate estates.

In retrospect one can safely say that Dye was not cut out for the public trust.

The position entailed a percentage claim on the estate so handled, which meant in practice that it was a thankless burden for long periods when only paupers died without their wills made out, punctuated by rare jackpots when the occasional wealthy fellow kicked off without heirs.

San Francisco Bulletin, Aug. 16, 1878.

All Dye did was speed that cycle up a little, by arranging to murder a fifty-five-year-old bachelor in order to lay hands on his 650-acre farm and plunder the “rich old son of a bitch.”

Dye hired a Swedish sausage-maker named Ed Anderson and a young tough named Tom Lawton at three grand apiece to handle the labor.

For six hot summer weeks, Anderson and Lawton built a boat on Dye’s property with the one mission in mind. On July 30, they put it into the Sacramento River and rowed it downstream to the Grand Island orchards of their target, Aaron Moses Tullis. Under the guise of soliciting work, Anderson approached Tullis in his groves, and when the man’s back was turned, clobbered him with a blackjack. In the ensuing melee, Lawton, leaping into the fray from hiding nearby, shot Tullis through the throat, then felled him with a shot in the back, and finished him off with an execution-style coup de grace.

The two killers fled two miles down the river, where they ditched the boat. Their employer, signaling furtively by whistling, picked them up in a buggy and rode them back to Sacramento for celebratory oysters.

They wouldn’t be celebrating for long.

News of the murder puzzled the community as it got out. Tullis was wealthy all right, but his assailants had stolen nothing; he wasn’t known to have any enemies; and nobody had seen the riverborne assassins slip onto the property.

But within a few days, discovery of the abandoned boat led to the lumberyard that stamped its planks, and that led to the fellows who purchased it. Tom Lawton wisely used this tiny interval to leave California; Ed Anderson and Troy Dye stuck around and made national wire copy with their confessions before August was out.

Having spilled all the beans, Dye had only the feeblest of gambits remaining to avoid the noose.

At trial, Dye argued that the whole plan was the idea of the other two men, and he, Dye, was was just too damn weak-minded to say them nay.

At sentencing, Dye whined that the district attorney had induced him to confess by dint of a promise to let him walk.**

And during his appeals and clemency process he inconsistently shammed insanity, fooling nobody.

“A more pitiable object than Troy Dye, the assassin, never marched to the scaffold,” one observer noted of the pallid, stocking-footed figure whom the ticketed observers saw on execution day. (Quoted in this pdf retrospective on “one of the most shocking and melancholy episodes in the history of Sacramento.”)

Against Dye’s wheedling and quailing, Anderson cut a picture of manfulness. Even on the eve of the execution, while Dye was just this side of collapse, Anderson noticed the sheriff toting the hanging ropes and insisted on inspecting them, then shocked the lawman with a cool off-color joke.

But this was calm and not mere bravado. Time that Dye wasted in his simulated spasms was spent by Anderson with his spiritual counselor; his gracious last statement from the gallows confessed his guilt and begged forgiveness. “Troy Dye Dies, Anderson Ascends” ran the headline afterwards.

* A county clerk reached by the Sacramento Record-Union recalled a conversation that clouded suspiciously in retrospect: “he said that unless something turned up, that he would not make enough out of it to pay his expenses … I said to him: ‘You cannot tell when some one will die and leave a good estate.’ … he said he did not know of any one who was likely to die that was worth any amount except Mr. Tullis, down the river. He said he was an old man and drank a great deal, and was likely to die at any time, and that he was rich. If he should drop off and he got the estate, it would help him out.” (Reprinted by the San Francisco Bulletin, Aug. 15, 1878)

** That was indeed the case, as it seems that Dye’s confession revealed himself much more deeply involved than the prosecutor had previously assumed. This is why it’s much better to just shut up already.

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1913: Andriza Mircovich, by a shooting-machine

Add comment May 14th, 2014 Headsman

101 years ago today, a Serbian immigrant was shot for murder in Carson City, Nevada.

It was an ordinary murder, by an ordinary man: his cousin died in a mining fire in 1911, and Andriza (or Andrija) Mircovich, feeling he got stiffed on the resulting inheritance, stabbed to death the probate attorney (a fellow South Slav named Gregorovich).

The execution, however, was extraordinary — and has never in history been repeated.

The march of science had lately made possible whole new methods of execution heretofore uncontemplated — like electricity and poison gas. At the same time, mechanical engineering had improved old standbys like beheading and hanging from slipshod, error-prone affairs to efficient operations worthy of an age of industry.

Somewhere between those categories we find he firing squad. Firearms, of course, were new technology relative to the noose and a big ol’ axe, but we do find executions by shooting back to the 17th century at least.

Though the guns themselves had been updated, Nevada was forced by circumstances to do for firing squads what Dr. Guillotin had done for headsmen.

Nevada law at the time allowed inmates to choose between hanging and shooting. The state had all the accoutrement for the former, but it hadn’t ever conducted one of the latter. When Mircovich insisted on being shot, and prison officials couldn’t find people willing to pull the trigger, Nevada actually built a “shooting gallery of steel” — an entire contraption to automate the lethal fusillade.


Image from this history of Nevada capital punishment.

The 1,000-pound gallery of steel, whose arrival caused the prison warden George Cowing to resign in horror,* consisted of a shed with three protruding mounted rifles, which would be individually sighted on the heart of the restrained prisoner and fired when guards cut a string to release a spring mechanism.

In a macabre Rube Goldberg parody, it was improved for the consciences of the guards by having three strings that would be simultaneously cut, only one of which actually triggered the gallery. A redundant layer of plausible deniability was added, since each of the three guards had aimed only one of the three rifles, by loading only two of the three guns with live ammunition.

Mircovich went to his death still fulminating profanely against the judge who condemned him and the injustice of it all. The scene, it must be said, was not exactly the finest hour in penal history.

But the device itself? It worked perfectly, killing Mircovich nigh-instantly with two balls straight to his heart.


From the Los Angeles Times, May 15, 1913.

Nevada got rid of this inconvenient execution option not long after, and Mircovich remains the only human being put to death by shooting (whether by human hands or mechanical ones) in the Silver State’s history. The guns from this weird artifact currently reside at the Nevada State Museum, Carson City; the scaffolding that once surrounded them is in some aircraft carrier or tank, having been donated as scrap metal during World War II.

* Cowing was replaced by former governor Denver Dickerson, who would later oversee Nevada’s pathbreaking gas chamber debut. Digression: Dickerson’s turn as governor had been notable for his arranging a boxing match in Reno between the black champion Jack Johnson and the “great white hope” James Jeffries, which resulted in a legendary Johnson victory and — another sign of the era’s dismal condition of race relations — a nationwide wave of racial violence.

According to Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, Dickerson was the kind of guy who could see past skin color well enough to make bank wagering on Johnson.

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1883: Henry De Bosnys, bane of Elizabeths

Add comment April 27th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1883, Henry De Bosnys was hanged in Elizabethtown, New York, for murdering his wife.

De Bosnys was an immigrant near to 50 years old who turned up in 1881 in a little town on Lake Champlain as a farm hand. As we will see, this humble station contrasted sharply with the life De Bosnys claimed he had formerly led.

With him was “a colored woman who passed as his wife,” Eliza — but not for long. Soon after, De Bosnys took her away on his boat claiming that he had found work for her elsewhere on the lake. De Bosnys returned, but Eliza never did.

Whatever suspicions this might have aroused about the French farmhand did not suffice to deter another Eliza, the local widow Elizabeth Wells, from marrying De Bosnys only a few weeks later.

Their short union was characterized by terrible quarrels when the wife declined to place her small farm in the husband’s name. On August 1, 1882, she became the second Essex County woman to go for a ride with De Bosnys and fail to return.

At 122 meters deep, Lake Champlain is an oblivion where a corpse might vanish without trace. This is less true of a pile of leaves along a country lane — which is where Mrs. De Bosnys turned up, shot twice in the head with 22 calibre bullets and her neck gashed all the way to her spine.

When arrested, De Bosnys had a .22 pistol with two shots discharged, and a bloody knife. His story was that the couple had run into a Scotsman they knew, got drunk together on whisky, and that he, Henry, had fallen right asleep and knew nothing of what became of the wife. “His story,” the New York Times observes almost unnecessarily (Aug. 6, 1882), “is regarded as very improbable, and he is thought to be an escaped criminal who is concealing his identity.”

De Bosnys initially said he had come to the New World at age 17. By the time he went to the gallows — still insisting on his innocence — he had improved his biography considerably. The Times, possibly short of column-inches that day (Apr. 28, 1883), freely narrated the murderer’s compounded embellishments.

His education was thorough and extensive, and he could write and speak English, French, Italian, Spanish, Greek, and Portuguese, and could less perfectly speak and understand several other languages. While yet a mere lad he sailed with a north polar expedition under Leclaire, and was gone nearly two years, from February, 1848, to October, 1850. [I am unsure if this corresponds to any actual known polar expedition. -ed.] In 1854, with his father and brother, he volunteered for the Crimean war, and served in the French army in the Crimea for a couple of years. A few years of peace followed, in which De Bosnys completed his education, but on the breaking out of the war with Austria, in 1859, he joined MacMahon‘s army, in which he saw a few months’ service, sailing in the Autumn to China with the French contingent. Returning to France he joined the French expedition to Mexico in 1861, and after a few months joined the Mexican side, becoming a Captain of guerrillas under Lopez. In this service he was severely wounded in an engagement. He came North, and, being cured of his wound, enlisted in the Fourth Pennsylvania Volunteers in 1863. He was wounded at the battle of Gettysburg and discharged from the army. Returning to France he was married, but after two months’ matrimonial experience sailed on another arctic expedition. After an absence of two years he returned to this country, where he led a roving life until the outbreak of the Franco German war. He entered the French Army, rising by successive promotions until he became a Colonel under Gen. Boubaki. He served all through the war with varying fortunes, at its close escaping to Marseilles, whence he shipped for America.

One would think a man with that history would have a vision wider than squeezing 15 acres out of a widow, or at least the perspicacity to clean up his murder weapons — but then again, he really did speak all those languages. Maybe this was the date Elizabethtown hanged the Most Interesting Man in the World. If so, history records that the man’s savoir faire extended so far as cannily inspecting the apparatus of his own execution a few hours before hanging on it, and offering the hangman a few engineering tips (De Bosnys thought the rope needed more soaping).

Henry De Bosnys’s skull is preserved at Elizabethtown’s Adirondack History Center Museum — and, it is said, his spirit haunts that place too.

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1878: The Brassell boys

Add comment March 27th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1878, Joe and Teek* Brassell were hanged in Cookeville, Tennessee.

These brothers (their eldest sibling Jim Brassell wisely bowed out of the scheme) and two other buddies got into the whiskey moonshine from the Brassells’ own home still, and decided to knock over a nearby lodging where two guests thought to be heavy with cash were staying.

So the quartet blacked up faces and turned clothes inside out by way of disguise and around midnight tromped up to the Allison Stand Inn wielding pistols.

“Don’t worry!” Russell Allison called to his guests, recognizing his onetime schoolmates. “It’s the Brassell boys!”

Great disguise.

Nothing daunted by their identities outed, the moonshine party invaded the log residence. A bedroom melee ensued, and in the course of it Teek Russell shot Russell Allison fatally in the gut; another shot only narrowly missed Mrs. Isbell, the wife of the tax collector W.J. Isbell whom the party was trying to target in the first place.** Isbell wasn’t there at all, and the whole band fled the house not a penny richer, but about to be wanted men.

The next day as Allison lay expiring from his painful wound, the Allison family rounded up its own posse and descended on the Brassell residence. Again, Teek gut-shot an Allison — Russell’s brother Joe — and killed him, too. But the rest of the posse detained the desperados and they were soon hailed to Cookeville Jail. The murder became extremely notorious in the area and the Brassells boys were easily condemned, albeit after nearly two years’ worth of legal continuances.†

We’ve liberally included these youths in our arsenic themed set. Of course, these young men worked their mayhem with firearms and not philters, but in a sense their case underscores the ubiquity of that poison for 19th century crime. Desperate to escape, even the brutally direct Brassell boys turned like dissatisfied housewives and furtive insurance adjusters to inheritance powder: in their case, they managed to have some smuggled to them in jail, which they planned to insinuate into some apples they would share with their guards while being moved between Nashville and Cookville.

As it transpired, the guards caught wind of this scheme and foiled it, along with several other jailbreak attempts. But that was the great thing about that innocuous dust: everywhere someone would profit from some other fellow dropping unexpectedly dead, the first thought was invariably arsenic!

Frustrated of this and all other exits from their grim condition, the Brassell boys at last had to face the hemp. It would be the only judicial hanging in the history of Putnam County, Tennessee, and it would not want for ceremony. The execution itself occurred on a Wednesday; on the Sabbath preceding, the local Sunday school’s curriculum included (pdf) a visit to the condemned cells, where prisoners and children sang “Let us cross over the river”.

On hanging-day itself, the boys were up early for press interviews in the jailhouse. Shortly after 11 a.m., they piled into a wagon, grabbed seats on their own coffins, and were taken under guard to the double gallows specially built for them on Billy Goat Hill. Their sister Amanda trailed the wagon, but after a farewell hug she complied with Joe and Teek’s request to leave without seeing them hang.

Amanda had plenty of time to comply. The hanging wasn’t until 1:30!

The Brassells passed their last two hours or so of life on the scaffold. As they sat under their hanging-nooses, a crowd of thousands — some estimates put it as high as 20,000; old folks in the early 20th century would still say that it was the largest crowd Cookeville had ever seen — imbibed a series of preachers and religious songs, the warnings of the condemned duo themselves, and a scene where their intended target Mr. Isbell climbed up on the platform himself and pressed the two for a confession. Joe admitted his guilt. Teek refused until the very end to do so.‡ To cap off the drama, the sheriff, hatchet in hand to chop the fatal rope, counted down the last five minutes.

It seems this whole event, from the murder to the hanging, still survives in Cookeville folklore. There’s a lengthy ballad about the Brassell boys’ crime and execution, available here (pdf). Also see this fantastically detailed web page about the crime, including a blurry restored photograph of the hanging, and this pdf roundup.

A fragment of the Brassell boys’ joint headstone can still be seen at a family plot adjacent to Upperman High School in the small town of Baxter, just outside Cookeville.

* Teek had “George Andrew” on his birth certificate.

** William Jefferson Isbell was a tax collector carrying his proceeds; he had fallen ill that day and had to stop elsewhere. The Isbells and Allisons were related through marriage.

† “Justice, when most severe to him who has offended, is always most mercifully to him who would offend,” the Supreme Court most severely ruled — admonishing the young men not to entertain any hope of reprieve. (Quoted in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, March 28, 1878)

‡ Teek’s obstinacy on claiming innocence when the evidence against him seemed to overwhelming led to some later speculation that he might have semi-willingly taken the rap for a different Brassell — maybe Jim, the one who supposedly bowed out of the raid, or maybe even Amanda.

Part of the Themed Set: Arsenic.

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1898: Doc Tanner, Copper River gold rusher

Add comment January 3rd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1898, an ornery gold prospector became the victim of an Alaskan miner’s court … and a great gold rush scam.

This is a tragic sidelight of the great Klondike gold rush, a mania set off in summer of 1898.

As legions of America’s many unemployed set out in hopes of striking it rich in the frigid north, interest in the vast and underexplored interior of next-door Alaska naturally followed. After all, there had been gold finds in Alaska before.

The putative reasons justifying the spread of the Klondike fever to Copper River were some combination of these:

  • That the Copper River promised a shortcut into the Klondike easier than the route over Canadian soil;

  • That the Copper River itself had gold — and that it could be prospected under less extreme climate, and exempt from 20 percent royalties that Canada imposed on Klondike gold

Passenger steamers, whose operators were later suspected of flogging interest in this route as the “All-American trail,” brought several thousand bonanza-seekers from west coast cities to the tent-city port of Valdez, Alaska. From there, miners could tromp over a treacherous mountain-and-glacier path to the unspeakable riches of the Copper River.

“It was one of the greatest hoaxes in Alaska’s history,” write Jim and Nancy Lethcoe. “The prospectors arrived to find a glacier trail twice as long and steep as reported.”

An estimated two hundred people died, slipping off glaciers or frozen to death on the mountain or, as we’ll see, by acts of violence. By the summer of 1898, there was another rush — 3,000 or so busted prospectors pouring out of Copper River country back for Valdez. The U.S. government had to show up with provisions to avert mass starvation.

“Last winter papers of the country contained stories of the fabulous riches of the Copper river country, Alaska, the accessibility of the gold-laden land, cheapness of transportation, and in other ways lauded to the skies the country in which one had but to scrape the earth to secure a fortune,” ran a bitter report in the Aug. 27, 1898 Jackson (Mich.) Daily Citizen. The occasion was the empty-handed return of one of that city’s native sons, A.A. Jankowsky, from the Alaskan interior. “These stories, published in good faith, no doubt, had the effect of arousing in the minds of the more adventurous a desire to search for gold in the far-away land. Last spring there was a perfect exodus to the Copper river.”

Boston Journal, Jan. 7, 1898

Baltimore Sun, Sept. 6, 1898

Jankowsky, like many others, survived the treacherous journey into the interior only to find the Copper River region entirely destitute of gold. After supporting himself for a bit running a canteen, he joined a veritable stampede of thousands of duped prospectors fleeing back from the interior to Valdez. By his telling to the Citizen, “All along the trail were seen immense stores of provisions, representing in many instances, the savings of many years of prospectors, which were abandoned. Some of these contained cards marked, ‘Boys, help yourselves, I’ve gone home!’ Some of the men in their eagerness to get out had left their tents standing, containing clothing, bedding, stoves, firearms and everything else.”

Our date’s principal, Doc Tanner, at least had the comfort of never experiencing this disappointment ubiquitous to his fellow-adventurers.

The Kentucky native joined a party bound for Copper River that sailed from Seattle on November 20. Each had “grub-staked” $250 up-front with the understanding that they would be discharged from their ship with six months’ provisions … but when they were let out, they received only three months’ worth.

Oddly, Tanner seems to have been the only one incensed by this. When the leaders of the expedition refused to provide him an itemized account, Tanner turned into the cantankerous black sheep of the party as they drug their undersized packs over the dangerous Valdez glacier.

Matters came to such a pass that as dark fell on January 2, several of the other prospectors met in a tent to discuss turning Tanner out of the party full stop. Overhearing them, the enraged Tanner burst into the tent with the cool action hero words, “I’m here for business now,” then started firing. He killed two of the men; a third only owed his life to a lamp’s timely extinguishing during the affray. (1898 newspaper reporting also indicated that the tragedy redoubled for one of the victims, William Call: his wife upon hearing news of the murder fell into madness and was committed to an asylum, and lost the family’s indebted farm.)

Tanner immediately gave himself up to other miners of the camp and at dawn the next day faced an extra-legal drumhead tribunal that judged him guilty of murder and promptly hanged him.

As for Valdez, more orderly development of the trail from that port into the Alaskan interior ensued. Though cold comfort to men shot in their tents, hanged by miners, or fallen into glacial crevasses, that route eventually became part of the present-day Richardson Highway, and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.

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1605: Niklaus von Gulchen, Nuremberg privy councillor

Add comment December 23rd, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1605, Nuremberg privy councillor Niklaus von Gulchen (or Gilgen) was beheaded for his scandalous corruption. The wheeler-dealer’s graft had problematically extended to playing false with and backstabbing any number of elite patrons, from Nuremberg burghers all the way up to the Prince of Sulzbach, and even gone so far as to provide advice to foreigners against the interest of his own city.

The great executioner Franz Schmidt, whose many diary entries record (often tersely) the hundreds of hangings, beheadings, drownings, burnings, and breakings on the wheel he performed for Nuremberg over his lifetime, made an unusually voluminous entry for this shocking treachery. And from the sound of it, the duplicitous Master Doctor earned every drop of his executioner’s opprobrium — even if, according to Schmidt’s biographer, the malefactor’s misused position still entitled him to the privilege of execution by the sword, exemption from torture, and a dignified black cloak to wear to his last performance.

December 23rd (a Monday).* Master Doctor Nicholas von Gilgen, who was by appointment a privy councillor in an honourable council and was bound to that council by oaths he did not observe; for the sake of money received wrote for and advised two (opposite) parties in many affairs; also gave evidence and sat in council for deliberations and decisions; also stole from my lords of this town the allowances for beer and wine, causing it to be stored by his servants.

Also he debauched before her marriage, forcing her to do his will, his servant whom he brought from Trier to this town, and whom he gave as a wife to his clerk Philip Tumbler, by a promise of 50 florins and large presents. According to her declaration she brought forth five children by him, three of which miscarried during delivery or by fright in the twelfth week, two remaining alive, a boy and girl, he being sponsor to the boy at baptism.

Similarly, by like promises, he forced his under-maid to consent to his will a year ago, and tried likewise to persuade his brother’s two daughters; one, the wife of Doctor Wurffbaum, he tried to compel, but she resisted, the other the wife of Doctor Calrot, who yielded to his will and consorted with him before and after her marriage, according to her account through fear and compulsion and the promise of many presents and a wedding portion (he did not admit he compelled her, and I do not believe he forced her).

Lastly he played false when serving the Prince of Sultzbach, whose advocate he was; he also mediated dishonestly between the families of Nuremberg, and between the noble families of Leschwitz and Redwitz, writing to, and advising both parties in one affair. Likewise he counselled the Italian Charles Albert Nello and other Italians against the rulers of our town; also stole the decrees from the office of an honourable councillor.

In Italy too, at Padua, he produced a false certificate, when he figured as a doctor there by means of a false certificate, for he became a doctor at Basel only long after. For his evil deeds he lay in prison for thirty-eight weeks in Lugins Land and in the jail. He was led out on Monday by favour in a long mourning cloak, his arms bound behind him with a black silk cord, and led by a cord, a black cloth being spread on the seat (on the scaffold).


Niklaus von Gulchen’s beheading, from the Nuremberg chronicle. Note that the illustration portrays the doomed pol kneeling, when in fact he was beheaded in a chair. In any stance, von Gulchen “was a mischievious, gold-grubbing man,” according to the chronicler.

When he had been beheaded his body was wrapped in the cloth and laid in a wooden coffin, nailed down and taken to St. Peter’s church by the assistant executioner, but removed at night in a cart to St. John’s by the little gate that leads to the Butts, and buried in the graveyard by the walls.

* Nuremberg, a Protestant city, was still on the Julian calendar.

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1963: Russell Pascoe and Dennis Whitty, Britain’s second-last hanging date

1 comment December 17th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1963, gallows traps dropped simultaneously in Bristol and Winchester to hang two men for murdering a Cornish farmer.

Russell Pascoe and Dennis Whitty were laborers living out of a caravan in the Truro area; Pascoe had formerly worked for the victim, William Rowe, and knew a rumor that the 64-year-old recluse kept a small fortune stashed at Nanjarrow farm.

Late the night of August 14, 1963, the young toughs called at Nanjarrow. When William Rowe answered the door, they instantly beat and stabbed him to death. Perhaps they ought to have thought the plan out better, because William Rowe actually did have £3,000 on the premises … but Pascoe and Whitty only found four quid. (They split it.)

The killers were picked up before the week was out.

“We are both over twenty-one, so I suppose we can hang?” Whitty inquired.

Then they both started trying to blame each other. So the answer was yes.

Robert Douglas, later a bestselling author, was then a young prison guard beginning a career in corrections. He was on the detail guarding Pascoe and on friendly terms with the condemned man who was practically his own age.

Years later, with a lifetime’s wisdom at his back, Douglas wrote about it in his memoir of the prison At Her Majesty’s Pleasure. It’s an experience he says he has always remembered:

I can remember saying to Ken [Russell, another guard], ‘I’m not looking forward to this shift — I mean, what the hell are we going to talk about all evening?’ I was only 24 years old myself at the time, and we had built up a good relationship with Pascoe over the previous six weeks – playing cards and Monopoly and listening to the radio.

We went into the cell, and I asked Russell if he wanted a cup of tea. He said he didn’t. So I tried to coax him – ‘I’ve brought you a cream doughnut’ – I’d brought him a cream cake each day as a little treat. With that, he perked up a little and said, ‘ah go on then, I’ll have a tea’.

So we sat drinking tea for a while, none of us really saying anything. Just blathering about nothing to try to fill the silences.

Then Russell suddenly said, ‘They weighed me today, so they’ll know how far I’ll drop.’ Ken and I just looked at each other – what are you meant to say to that?

These were the third- and fourth-last men people put to death under Britain’s capital punishment statutes. (Here’s a picture at the doors of Bristol’s Horfield Gaol.) England would see only one more hanging date, another double execution conducted at two different prisons, before it abolished the death penalty.

* Writing a piece for his local paper about the hanging actually led Douglas into his later career

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