On this date in 1942, red-haired Robert S. James became the last man judicially hanged in the state of California. He’d earned the noose three times over. The press called him “the Diamondback Killer” or “Rattlesnake James”.
“Robert James,” records Robert Keller in his book 50 American Serial Killers You’ve Probably Never Heard Of, Volume Five, “must rank as one of the most creative killers in the annals of American crime. Not content with such mundane methods as shooting, stabbing or strangling, James resorted to such inventive devices as auto wrecks, drowning and rattlesnake bites.”
James’s cunning homicides and his proclivity for cross-country travel meant his crimes went unnoticed for years.
Born Major Raymond Lisenba in 1895, he seemed destined to a hardscrabble life of Alabama sharecropping like his parents until his brother-in-law paid for him to go to Birmingham and attend barbering school.
In 1921, at age 26, Lisenba married. His wife quickly left him, however, and filed for divorce, citing extreme cruelty. James moved to Kansas and married again, and began an affair with a young local girl. He made her pregnant, and after her father showed up at his barbershop with a shotgun, Lisenba skipped town and moved to Fargo, North Dakota, abandoning wife no. 2. He also changed his name.
From here on out, he goes by Robert S. James.
In 1932, “Robert” married Winona Wallace and took out a life insurance policy on her. After three months of wedded bliss, they went on an outing to climb Pike’s Peak. During the journey, though, the couple was in a single-car accident and Winona sustained a serious head injury, while her husband was completely unharmed: he had jumped out of the out-of-control vehicle just before impact.
The police who responded for some reason thought nothing of the bloodstained hammer they noted in the car’s back seat.
Although Winona’s head wound was grave, she pulled through, and was discharged from the hospital after two weeks, with no memory of the accident. She never recovered that memory because shortly after arriving home she drowned in her own bathtub. Her husband suggested she had still been suffering vertigo from the head injury.
James collected on Winona’s $14,000 life insurance policy, moved back to Alabama and married again. He found he was unable to take out a policy on the new wife, however, and filed for an annulment on the very day of their wedding.
Undaunted, James turned his attention to his nephew, Cornelius Wright. He insured the young man, with double indemnity in case of accidental death, then invited him over to visit. During the visit, James lent Cornelius his car. Cornelius drove it off a cliff and was killed.
The insurers paid.
Curiously, James sent a telegram to his sister informing her of her son’s death before it actually happened.
James moved to Los Angeles and married a fifth time. It was wife #5, Mary Busch, who proved to be his undoing.
In 1935, James conspired with an acquaintance named Charles Hope to murder Mary. They decided to use rattlesnakes, and Hope obtained two large large Colorado diamondbacks to do the job. The snakes had names: Lethal and Lightning. They performed well in field tests on chickens.
Mary was pregnant at the time, and James convinced her to get a home abortion. To this end, she allowed herself to be tied to a chair, blindfolded and gagged for the procedure. Her husband then forced whiskey down her throat to quiet her, and he and Hope shoved her bare foot into a box containing the rattlers.
They left her there to die, but when they returned later, Mary was still alive, although had been bitten three times. James dragged her into the bathroom and drowned her in the tub, then he and his accomplice threw her body into an ornamental fish pond on his property.
Then James called the police to report the tragic accident.
Authorities who arrived at the scene found Mary lying in very shallow water. Her grieving widower mentioned she had dizzy spells quite often and would fall down. The police speculated she might have been bitten by a rattlesnake and then, in shock, stumbled into the pond. They did a search of the property and did find something strange: a bottle containing black widow spiders, hidden in a corner of the garage. But what did that have to do with anything?
Mary’s death was ruled accidental and James collected yet another insurance payout.
He appeared to have gotten away with it again.
However, several months later, it came undone.
A sharp insurance investigator found out about James’s previous wives and the fact that one of them had drowned after being heavily insured. The investigator informed the police, who bugged James’s house and discovered he was committing incest with his niece.
This was a crime in California, although she was a legal adult. The police hauled him in for questioning. “Interrogation techniques,” remarks Keller, “were somewhat more brutal than they are today and under questioning, James let something slip about Mary’s death. Investigators immediately seized on this and eventually extracted a confession.”
Charles Hope’s role in the crime came out — he’d been paid $100 for his assistance in the murder — and he turned state’s evidence and was sentenced to life in prison. During the trial, Lethal and Lightning were presented as evidence, and Lethal caused a bit of a stir in the courtroom when it escaped during lunch.
The Los Angeles Times notes, “Columnist Walter Winchell dropped by the courtroom; so did actor Peter Lorre, who studied James’ impassive face and beady eyes for one of those psychotic killer roles he often played.”
James was inevitably convicted of Mary’s murder and sentenced to death, but prolonged his life with a few years of appeals. In Lisenba v. California, the Supreme Court upheld his confession in spite of the third-degree methods by which it was obtained.
The lag from trial to execution caused by Rattlesnake’s judicial review, however, made him by the time of his hanging the last convict whose death sentence predated California’s adoption of the gas chamber. California was executing in volume at this period, and almost all by gas: everyone knew as Robert James went to the gallows that he was to be the last to die on that anachronistic device.
And the executioner — who to be fair was probably out of practice — underscored the reason for that shift by botching the job, leaving his prey to strangle to death for ten ghastly minutes. San Quentin‘s warden, Clinton Duffy, an opponent of the death penalty described the hanging to reporters but his story was deemed too graphic to be printable. In this more permissive age we can use it with impunity … but it’s liable to put you off your appetite.
The man hit bottom, and I observed that he was fighting by pulling on the straps, wheezing, whistling, trying to get air, that blood was oozing through the black cap. I observed also that he urinated, defecated and the droppings fell on the floor, and the stench was terrible. I also saw witnesses pass out and have to be carried from the witness room. Some of them threw up. It took ten minutes for the condemned man to die.
When he was finally dead enough to cut him down, “big hunks of flesh were torn off” James’s purple face; “his eyes were popped,” and his tongue “swollen and hanging from his mouth.” (source)
On this date in 1770, the King of Yorkshire counterfeiters hanged (along with one of his subjects) at York’s Tyburn gallows.
Hartley was the chief of a band of currency manipulators who achieved surprising success and longevity operating from the haunting moors of England’s north.* Known (in order of least to greatest geographical specificity) as the Yokrshire, or West Riding, or Cragg Vale coiners, their operation was a straightforward shaving precious metal from coins but found its edge — so to speak — in their lair’s remoteness from the capital.
Illustration of the coining tools for Portuguese money seized from King David’s band, from The Yorkshire Coiners, 1767-1783. (Portuguese coins, a Cragg Vale specialty, were in active and legal circulation in England at this time, along with other continental coinage.)
According to this public domain volume about the criminals, the first recognition of their activities by law enforcement occurred in 1767, when a coin-clipper named Greenwood “confessed who learnt him the art of clipping in your neighbourhood” — which makes it sound like those artists were already both numerous and practiced. The next year, a man named Joseph Stell hanged for the crime, but the Leeds Intelligencer editorialized in 1769 against “the number of Sweaters and Filers of Gold coin [who] still continue to infest the Western part of this County with impunity” because “if they are suffered to go on a few years in this public and daring manner, it is supposed the current gold coin of the nation in general will be reduced a fifth part.” (A parliamentary inquiry in 1773 found that the overall weight of the country’s coinage came up a full 9% short of its face value: certainly not entirely the work of Cragg Vale, but an alarming state of affairs.)
The business had an undeniable appeal despite the occupational hazard of the gallows. With England awash in the whole world’s specie as the dominant mercantile power, the West Riding became a veritable Silicon Valley for currency entrepreneurs. It’s thought their number might have ranged into the hundreds.
Gold Coin, which has heretofore been so scarce among us as to command a large Premium against Bills of Exchange, flows in upon us with great Rapidity from all parts of the Island; and by the Hocus Pocus Touch of a Number of experimental Philosophers and Chymists (not by an addition to its weight, but by an ingenious Multiplication of its Numbers) is so greatly increased, that all Payments in Paper will soon be at an end … [they] are in a fair Way of drawing Half the Gold in the two Kingdoms into this happy Country … If you wish to be rich, and can sacrifice a few nonsensical Scruples to that Deity, make haste hither, and you may soon be instructed in these Mysteries, which, (with great Ease and Pleasure) will enable you to convert a thousand of your old-fashioned Guineas into Twelve Hundred, and, with a moderate Industry, to repeat the Process every Week.
-Letter from Halifax, July 14, 1769
This letter reflects an alarming situation: not merely the extent of the operation but the degree to which it had become normalized, winked-at, and even integrated into Yorkshire’s economic circuits. “It had become a common practice of the moneyed people — the merchant and manufacturers of the Parish of Halifax — and of those by which that Parish was surrounded, comprising a large portion of the West Riding of the County of York, to carry on a somewhat lucrative business with the Coiners,” one observer wrote. “The central body, if such it may be called, with, for a time, ‘King David’ at its head, was constituted into a kind of Banking Company, with whom certain capitalists deposited large amounts in the shape of guineas.” After all, this bank could offer steady guarantees of investment return.
But bubbles are blown for the bursting, and however many Yorkshiremen had been looking the other way while chymists multiplied guineas, it was about this time that officers of the law started putting the screws to the Yorkshire coiners. (Needless to say, the illicit bank’s merchant customers weren’t handled quite the same way.)
Confrontation came into the open with the 1769 arrests of our man David Hartley (nicknamed “King” for self-evident reasons) and at least a half-dozen others. York Castle’s bowels began to fill up with coiners and collaborators, courtesy of a crown excise officer named William Dighton (or Deighton). Dighton bgan rolling up the gang in a very modern way: starting with bribes to obtain informants and then using their information to smash through the cells.
But so vaunting were the Yorkshire coiners that David Hartley’s brother Isaac put up a £100 reward for the murder of William Dighton — and two guys duly ambushed him in a dark lane in Halifax in November 1769 and shot Dighton dead. This gambit by Isaac was much more loyal than it was wise, for the effrontery to murder an agent of the state invited a ferocious counterattack. (It also didn’t help David Hartley in the least: there was no plan to break him out, only vindictiveness against his persecutor.) the Marquess of Rockingham — the once (1765-66) and future (1782) Prime Minister — was dispatched to the scene to avenge the murdered Dighton, and had 30 coiners in custody by Christmas.
The coiners were done shooting back by this point, and the remaining tales form a tissue of outlaw desperation — flight from manhunts, maneuvering to mitigate death sentences, informing on one another. (Its particulars, and the evidence marshaled against various coiners, can be read in detail at the public domain history already cited.) David Hartley was brought up on capital charges at the next assizes;** his former comrades, including the assassins of Dighton, were hunted to ground. Soon, such counterfeiters as might still be found were reduced to their customary posture, in hidey-holes leaching a few dank groats from the neglected plumbing under the economy, rather than as retail concerns with banking ledgers and armed toughs.
But they left countless others besides — passive co-conspirators, whose wealth their shaving and filing had enlarged and who like King Charles‘s regicides could never fully be brought to book. And they’re not done to this very day: a coiners’ museum is reportedly in the works to capture a few tourist dollars, too.
** Death sentences came down liberally at the assizes, but were (almost) as liberally reprieved — including, for the instance at hand, all of the following: “Thomas Harrison and Benjamin Smith, for Burglary; Benjamin Parkinson, for returning from Transportation; Richard Whitfield, for stealing Linen Cloth from a Bleaching Field; William Dalby, and Robert Moor, alias William Moor, for Horse-stealing; William Owen, George Carr, and John Tunningly, for Cow-stealing; and Robert Allerton, for Sheep-stealing.” (London Public Advertiser, April 13, 1770.)
(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.)
Thanks for a million things. Thanks for a million things. I’ve got a son, six foot three inches, one hundred and seventy pounds. He’s married, got two kids. He’s in the service overseas right now. … So I’ve left something good—one decent thing out of a dirty life …
— Lloyd Edison Sampsell (aka “the Yacht Bandit”), convicted of robbery and murder, gas chamber, California.
Executed April 25, 1952
Sampsell and an accomplice plundered Pacific Coast banks before stealing away in his yacht. He pilfered a total of $200,000 in his career but died with only $5.27 to his name. Sampsell, age fifty-two, was convicted of killing Arthur W. Smith in a San Diego finance company robbery.
Before the gas took its effect, he turned to the nearly one hundred witnesses gathered and winked.
April 19 was the death date in 1012, and the feast date in perpetuity, of Archbishop of Canterbury and Christian saint Aelfheah (also known as Alfege or Alphege).
When harrying Danish invaders under Thorkell the Tall put Canterbury cathedral to the sack in 1011, they seized this Anglo-Saxon cleric too in expectation of adding a VIP’s ransom to their sacrilegious pillage of candelabras and jeweled chalices.
Aelfheah turned out not to be the render-unto-Caesar type — or at least, not unto Ragnar — and stubbornly refused to raise his own ransom or to permit one to be paid for him. Seven months on into his captivity, some ill-disciplined Vikingers with their blood (and blood alcohol) up for an Easter pillage just decided to get rid of him — as detailed in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which also helpfully provides us the date:
1012. Here in this year, there came to London town Ealdorman Eadric and all the foremost councillors of the English race, ordained and lay, before Easter — that Easter Day was on the 13 April. And they were there until after Easter, until all the tax was paid — that was 8 thousand pounds.
What we have here is the unprincipled nobleman Eadric Streona — destined for an Executed Today entry of his own — celebrating Christ’s resurrection by squeezing hard-pressed Londoners for the Danegeld needed to buy off Thorkell’s rampaging army. And beside that in the ledger, a vicar declines to save his own life at the cost of incrementing his flock’s suffering. The ransom-refusing Aelfheah is a patron saint of kidnap victims; he ought to be taxpayer ombudsman, too.
Then on Saturday the raiding-army became much stirred up against the bishop, because he did not want to offer them any money, and forbade that anything might be granted in return for him. Also they were very drunk, because there was wine brought from the south. Then they seized the bishop, led him to their ‘hustings’ on the Saturday in the octave of Easter, and then pelted him there with bones and the heads of cattle; and one of them struck him on the head with the butt of an axe, so that with the blow he sank down and his holy blood fell on the earth, and sent forth his holy soul to God’s kingdom. And in the morning the bishops [of Dorchester and of London] Eadnoth and Aelfhun and the inhabitants of the town took up the holy body, and carried it to London with all honour and buried it in St. Paul’s minster, and there now [i.e., to this day] God reveals the holy martyr’s powers.
Aelfheah was canonized by Gregory VII in 1078 — and was one of the rare clerics of the Anglo-Saxon era still officially revered after the Norman conquest.* It is said that Thomas a Becket had just prayed to Aelfheah before he too attained his predecessor’s martyrdom.
On this date in 1841, Peter Robinson hanged for a New Jersey murder. Little could he have imagined that he was on his way to the literary canon.
A wealthy merchant and banker named Abraham Suydam had disappeared, and suspicion quickly settled on Robinson — one of his debtors, who suddenly seemed to be a little bit flush with cash and a timepiece too rich for his station in life.
Robinson was arrested and examined before the Mayor of New Brunswick, and from his confused manner and contradictory statements, it was determined that his house should be searched. Accordingly the Mayor, accompanied by several constables, and a number of citizens, proceeded to Robinson’s house for the purpose of searching it. Every room, nook and corner in the upper stories of the house were searched, but without success. At last one of the constables proposed to adjourn to the cellar and see what could be discovered there. This proposition caused the greatest trepidation on the part of Robinson, who strongly remonstrated against it.
He stated that if the floor of his cellar was removed, it would endanger the safety of the building, and there was no telling what would be the consequences. This only made the party feel the more convinced of Robinson’s guilt, and they immediately commenced operations removing the plank of the cellar. A few boards and the earth underneath only had been removed, when the dead body of the unfortunate Mr. Suydam, to the astonishment of all present, was found. His skull was found to be dreadfully fractured, and his head was horribly disfigured by the marks of blows which had been inflicted on it. From the state of his body, it is supposed that he was murdered eight or nine days ago. (New York Commercial Advertiser (Dec. 15, 1840.)
It is commonly thought — thought there does not appear to be any direct evidence for it — that this nationally infamous body-under-the-floorboards murder helped to inspire Edgar Allan Poe‘s classic short story “The Tell-Tale Heart”.*
Published in January 1843, “The Tell-Tale Heart” features a young man who murders an old man, stashes his body under the floor, then pleasantly dissipates the suspicions of the police until a sensation of the victim’s heart noisily throbbing overwhelms him into a confession:
Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God! — no, no! They heard! — they suspected! — they knew! — they were making a mockery of my horror! — this I thought, and this I think. But anything better than this agony! Anything was more tolerable than this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die! — and now — again! — hark! louder! louder! louder! louder! —
“Villains!” I shrieked, “dissemble no more! I admit the deed! — tear up the planks! — here, here! — it is the beating of his hideous heart!”
Poe’s nameless character denies a motive for the crime, attributing it only to the victim’s “eye” — a mythologizing device which has surely aided the story’s longevity.
Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! — yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture — a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so, by degrees — very gradually — I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.
But if Robinson was the source material, the occult power of the old man’s “eye” was nothing but the oldest motive in the world: plain old luchre.
In 1839, Robinson had borrowed $400 from Abraham Suydam to buy a lot and begin construction of a home upon it, but soon found himself (to use a familiar but anachronistic parlance) underwater.
“Every one to whom I owed a few dollars was after me to sue or get me to give my furniture for the debt,” Robinson recounted in a tearful confession 48 hours before his hanging. (We excerpt it here from the April 17, 1841 Baltimore Sun.) “I did so; I did all that I could; I was driven nearly crazy by these debts … I let them take my furniture until there was scarcely any thing left in the house; and I was ashamed to let any one come into it to see how very poor we really was, and how bad off.”
The harrying of creditors and the passion of the crime seem to have left the murderer’s mind awash in dollars and cents.
Even facing a far more considerable penalty than bankruptcy, Robinson’s confession is obsessed with the winnowing margins of his former debts; scarcely a paragraph elapses without citation of a meticulous mental ledger-book. Robinson recalled the bills incurred to construct his home (“I bought about $250 worth of lumber … The mason work was done for me by Mr. Chessman; for this I was to pay Mr. C. $210. I paid him $110 in cash, and gave him a mortgage for $100 … I had bought some sash frames for my house of a man, and they came to $22.25″ …). He dwelt on his negotiations with Suydam and complained of the lender’s tightfistedness; he recalled the precise value of what he was able to steal from Suydam’s body (“$10 in money, not a cent more … [in] his pantaloons pockets … only two shillings and a penknife”) and the expenses incurred to evade justice (he offered his brother $50 to burn his house down for the insurance, then took a bath unloading Suydam’s gold watch — it “was worth double what I got for it”); yet even so, he was still a little proud of his diligence assailing his debt, in contrast with “Thorne who bought a lot close by mine” and with whom “Mr. Suydam got out of patience.” The killer even had the brass to pat himself on the back for not destroying the papers Suydam had on him: thus, “the relations of Suydam, and his friends, can’t say that they lose any money by the murder.”
At this time I took up a mallet, which I had placed in the basement ready to knock him over with. I then went into the front basement, Mr. Suydam in front of me. I followed behind with the mallet in my hand, he not noticing the same. My intention then was to murder him in the front basement — but my heart failed me. We then went up stairs again in the back room, I carrying the mallet against the palm of my hand. We stood by the fire talking about the house. He was there nearly fifteen minutes. I stated that my wife staid a long time.
He told me that he would go out and take a wall, and return again. He started to go, and I followed, until he got just through the doorway of the back room, which is within three or four feet of the back door, in the entry. I then knocked him down on his knees with the mallet, by striking him n the back of his head, through his hat. He undertook to rise, when I struck him again on the head, and he fell over, and laid still and senseless. I then supposed he was dead, and laid the mallet down; I then went and turned the button of the front door, which all this time was unfastened; and I went down into the front basement. I then went to work and began to dig a small hole; after I had been digging for two minutes, I thought I would not leave the body up stairs; so I went up stairs to bring him down. I saw him on his hands and knees, with his face and hands all bloody. He cried out, “Oh! Peter!” once or twice. Had he begged for his life then, I believe I should have let him off; but I did not want to drag him down stairs alive, and I didn’t want to see him linger there in misery; so I seized the mallet, and again struck him on the head, which knocked him perfectly dead, as I supposed. …
I discovered a chain hanging out of his pocket, and drew from it his gold watch, and put it in my own pocket. I then dug the hole larger, and in throwing out the dirt I threw about half a load of it on his body and head, which completely covered it. He then groaned a little, but I shuddered to hear him, and so I got out and stood upon the dirt and on his head to smother him! He then groaned so hard that I got off from him and struck him with the edge of the spade upon the head, which sunk completely to the brain, and which killed him instantly! …
I now felt as if my heart was completely black, and I was so hardened and callous, and yet so cool and deliberate, that I could have murdered many more. I could, without flinching or hesitating, have killed twenty men if they had come on me one by one.
I don’t believe that I was over a half hour doing the whole exercises of the whole thing! For I had a kind of knack of doing work somehow that others hadn’t. And why, sir, I’ve took hold of floor plank before now, and done forty-five of them in one day, that is, planed and ploughed and grooved them; whereas from sixteen to eighteen is a day’s work for some men.**
As if to complete the American Gothic quality of the crime, Robinson fell through the rope on the first attempt to hang him, then painfully strangled to death on the second try.
* Poe took up a very similar theme — the criminal psychology of a domestic murder concealed by subterranean immurement — later that year in “The Black Cat” (published in August 1843).
** His last wish in this confession: “whatever you do, don’t let the doctors get hold of me and make medicine of me.”
Louise Peete died in the Caliornia gas chamber on this date in 1947.
Stock of “cultured, educated people” — her words — she turned teenage delinquent, got kicked out of her private school, and commenced a colorful career as an itinerant prostitute and scam artist. Her gallantries — and larcenies — are supposed to have driven two early husbands to suicide, though given her subsequent career one can’t help but wonder.
Lofie Louise Preslar (as she was born) or Louise Gould (as she came to style herself) got the surname by which she is best known from a Denver salesman named Richard Peete. Though this pair fought wantonly and soon separated, Louise still bore his name when her wealthy lover Jacob Denton mysteriously went missing, days after Louise moved into his Los Angeles mansion. Eventually, he turned up … under the floorboards. Louise had been signing checks in his name, and when her bad forgeries were noticed concocted a cockamamie alibi about a “Spanish woman” who had got the man’s arm amputated.
This wasn’t even the murder that Ms. Peete was executed for, but it made her a national celebrity: a black widow who had preyed on a magnate from the shadow of yellow journalism’s newbuilt Xanadu.
American Newspapers (Hearst and otherwise) from sea to sea ran breathless updates from the trial of the “Tiger Woman”, and local interest in Tinseltown — well, it was intense.
Olympia (Wash.) Daily Recorder, Jan. 19, 1921.
In a 2½-week trial, Peete was convicted of Denton’s murder, but the all-male jury declined to hang her and ordered a life sentenced instead. While she served it, a despondent Richard Peete — who continued to profess his absconded wife’s innocence — shot himself. She just had some way with men.
Paroled for good behavior in 1939, Louise proved that prison had not sapped her gift for attracting convenient deaths to her proximity.
The notorious Tiger Woman, now nearing 60, was a sensation of the past but Peete still had advocates who believed in her innocence, worked for her release, and took her in when she was paroled. Peete went to work for one of those advocates as her housekeeper (until the advocate died), and then got the same gig for her parole officer (until the officer died), and then moved in as the live-in caregiver for two more of her jailyears advocates, Arthur and Margaret Logan.
This couple had actually taken in Peete’s daughter for a time during her prison sentence, and in gratitude, Peete reprised for them all her greatest hits.
In June 1944, Margaret Logan disappeared (just like Mr. Denton had); then, posing as his sister, Peete had the dementia-addled Arthur committed.
Living now in the victims’ house (as with Denton’s), Peete began plundering their assets (as with Denton’s). Eventually (as with Denton) someone noticed the forged signature, and when that happened the inquiry brought Tiger Woman into the light yet again: Margaret Logan’s corpse was mouldering away in the back yard.
First as tragedy, then as farce. Even her new lover when all this stuff broke proceeded to commit suicide.
She still claimed innocence — sans “Spanish woman” this time — but the evidence at hand coupled with the suspicious pall of violent death that had always seemed to shadow her career made that an impossible sell. A jury of mostly women sent her to death row.
She was the second (of four) women gassed in California.
A (lengthy) gallows broadsheet via James Kelly’s Gallows Speeches From Eighteenth-Century Ireland. Almost all the [bracketed] content is exactly as Kelly has rendered it, interpolating wherever possible damage to the document that obscures small bits of text.
The Last Speech, Confession and Dying Words of Mr. J. Dunbar
who was Try’d and Condemn’d, for High Treason against his Majesty King George; at the Assizes, of Oyer, Terminer, or Goal Delivery, holden, at Carrickfergus, for and in the County of Antrim, the 17th Day of Ma. 1725. And was Executed Saturday, April 10th for the same together with his last Advice to his Children prov’d by Scripture Texts, &c. As it was taken from his own Mouth in the Goal, and desir’d to be Printed.
Into whose Hands those my Dying Words shall come; they may not be look’d upon as a Form, because it is Customary, for unfortunate Persons under my Fate so to do; No, but with a sincere Heart to clear my Conscience, as I am a Dying Man. First to my Creator & Redeemer, by whom and thro’ his great Mercy I hope to merit Salvation.
I JAMES DUNBAR, was born in the Town land of Grogan, in the Parish of Drummal, near Ronaldstown, in the County of Antrim of honest Parents; My Father was a Farmer, Liv’d in the fear of God, attended the Meetings constantly with his Family, doing to the best of his Knowledge as became a Man in his Station; brought up all under his care in the fear and service of God. To this Day I well remember when I was about Eleven years of Age, I had amongst others learned a great Word to swear by my Conscience, and in his hearing, he finding it became practice took an opportunity to Chastize me for it, but with that pleasant Fatherly Correction, that he perfectly sham’d me out of it, the same was so imprinted in my mind, be in what Company soever, I never was any way addicted to that Sin of Swearing to this Day. He taught me the Catechism and Psalm Book; brought me up to the Age of Sixteen, then I stray’d away from him and Listed in the Service, where in Flanders and Ireland I served seven years under King William, in which time I receiv’d three Wounds, during my whole Travels my mind was always bent upon the Genuine part, casting Molds of several sorts, each exceeding the other.
Upon my return I settled, Marry’d a Wife, and got things necessary about me: But in process of time, hearing such a Character of New England, what great Advantage was to be made by those that could carry some Money with them, I resolv’d for that place: In order thereunto I made Sale of all I had, & proceeding forward at Newtown-Stuart chang’d my Mind, which I now dearly repent. Settles again there about three Years. At Leisure times to recreate my self with an Innocent Pleasure I took delight in Fishing; but once too often, for by an unhappy fall, there was a Knife with the point Towards me, stuck into and gave me a Wound six Inches deep, the same I lay by sixteen Weeks. Even upon my Recovery, came three Idle Fellows, knowing me to be an Ingenious Artist, desired me to make them a Crown Molud in Steel for the use of Coyning, I told them in Horn, Brass, Pewter, Silver or Gold I could; but because I had never try’d in Steel I should spoil it, they not fearing told me that I should have twelve pence per Day if I did, not being of Steel as I said, I did notwithstanding they paid me twelve Shillings. Sometime after they came to me again to do the same the which I dextrously Perform’d to a truith, and [for] the same receiv’d forty Shillings; Some of the same 3 [men] have been Executed on that Head since: As for In[stance] David Denniston at Omey the last Assizes. For my [own] part my Genious so far exceeded other Men that I have [no] occasion for help but for Company sake; I ca[n make] Molds and could Perform all that Art requir’d; [but because] the Laws of the Land are so strict I must own an[d confess] myself Guilty of what is laid to my Charge, a[nd I am] willing to resign my Vital Breath and Soul to hi[m, my God,] for the same, in whom I trust thro his great Me[rcy, with] sincere Repentance I have made my Peace, and s[eek out] the ingdom of Heaven, forsaking this Life for [that of the etern]nal. I Die in Charity with all People, freely fo[rgiving] those that was the cause of this my untimely Dea[th and any] others that ever wrong’d me in Thought Word [or Deed] and for all those that I have wrong’d Directly or [Indirectly] I ask Pardon and Forgiveness. First of my Grea[t and Glo]rious GOD, the which I hope to obtain for all [my off]ences; next of them, hoping they will do the s[ame, I] do expect to be forgiven at the latter Day.
My dear Friends and Countrey-Men, and all [people that] hears of my Unhappy Fall to take Warning in t[his; let it] be an Example to all; especially Young People, w[hatever walk] of Life it is the[y] go on in, and to their utmost En[deavour] shun all lewd Company. Besure [sic] first choose the [compa]ny, than their Liquor, and then not to Debauch […] with it, so as to be bereft of Sense; it is the f[irst step to] Destruction. Next to shun all lewd Women, […] Total Overthrow, and nothing but the Works [of the Devil] proceeds from them. Thirdly be not Covetous of […]stance. And fourthly, If the LORD is pleased to [endow us] with a Talent to be more Ingenious than any other [to put] it to that Use that the great Giver of all Design[s ordains.] I leave behind me one Son and three Daughters [; Grant] them Grace to lead their Life and Conversation u[ntroubled be]fore God and Man. I hope there is no Person w[ill put] either upon my Wife or them after my Decease. T[o] all that knew me in my Settlement in the County of Derry; and all others, that knew me else where, what a Value and Esteem all People had for me, for my Ingenuous Performances in that Trade of Horning. How I lived in my Family is well known for many years together, performing the Duty as becometh a Professor or Christian to do, I could inlarge: But let no Man boast in his own Strength least he Fall, they are well kept whom the LORD keeps.
I have laid down some Scripture Proofs to shew the Error of Man, and the Scourage [sic] that attend it, which I hope may prove of some Use after my Decease, as follows
V. 17. Be not a terrour unto me thou art my hope in the Day of evil. V. 18. Let them be confounded that presecute [sic] me, but let not me be confounded. Let them be dismayed bring upon them the day of evil and destroy them with double Destruction.
I will look unto thee O Lord for Deliverance from all my Troubles: For there is no Power like unto thy Power, who delivered thy People from all the Power of Egypt, and with a strong Hand brought them through the Red Sea.
Mat 9.10[-13]. And it came to pass as Jesus sat at Meat in the house behold many Publicans and Sinners came and Sat down with him and his Disciples; And when the Pharisees saw it they said unto his Disciples, Why eateth your Master with Publicans and Sinners. But when Jesus heard that he said unto them, They that be well need not a Physician, but they that are sick. Now go ye and learn what that meanet, I will have Mercy and not Sacrifice; for I am not come to call the righteous, but Sinners to Repentance.
[Some] Advice from a Father to his Children, when he was near to his Death.
[My] Son James Dunbar, I Charge thee in the Name of [the L]ord thy God, that thou keep thy self from the Unlaw[ful, Lewd] Women strong Drink, and Sabbath breaking for [they d]raw away thy Heart from the Lord thy God, & [follow the w]ay of his Commandments.
[Proverbs 5:]3. For the Lips of a strange Woman drop as a Hon[eycomb an]d her Mouth is smoother than Oil. V. 4. But her [end is bitter] as Wormwood, sharp as a two edged sword. V. 5. [Her feet go] down to Death, her steps take hold on Hell. V. 6. [Lest thou sh]ouldest ponder the path of Life, her ways are move[able th]ou canst not know them. V. 7. Hear me therefore, [o sons], and depart not from the Words of my Mouth re[move thy way] far from her, and come not nigh the door of her house.
[Keep thy]self from all Woman kind, except thy own [wife (if] you live to have one) for that Unlawful Use of [them an]d strong Drink hath been the Ruin of me, and [others], and so it will be of thee and thine, if ever thou [follow that pr]actice.
[Hear m]e my dear Children, hear the Instruction of your [dying Fa]ther, from the Word of God, receive them and [take them dee]p in your Hears [sic], for they will be an Ornament […] to your Hands, and Chains of Gold about your [wais]t as They will render you Beautiful and Accept[able to Go]d and good Men. When you are in Trouble, God [hears y]our Cries when ye pray unto him, and will deliv[er you ou]t of all your Distresses, if you be not in the wrong; [These a]re the Troubles that Afflict the Just but the [good be]ereth them out of them all. My dear children, [let your e]yes be fixed on the Lord your God in all your [actions;] if you offend in one you are guilty of all; there[fore keep e]qual Regard and Respect to them all, and when [you have d]one all that you can, say you are Unprofitable […].
[But] be not Lifted up, nor High in your own Eyes, but fear least ye be Tempted to Sin and God be provoked to cast you down again, as he has justly done to me. Therefore I beseech you for your Saviour’s sake, beware of vain Glory and high Mindedness but Contrarywise of be Humble and Meek and Lowly, and God will lift you up, but if he do not be Content he is well worth the trusting for he is not Unrighteous to forget your Work and Labour of Love for when he seeth you Diligent and Sincere in your Christian Course he will help you with his Blessing in the Work of your Hands and he will encourage you and strengthen your Hearts with the gracious of his Spirit, but if it be his Will to keep you Low and Mean in the World be Content and do not fret nor repine at the Dispensations of God, for that is the way to keep you Low and Mean still, but contrarywise be thankfull, and say with Paul I have learned in whatsoever State or Condition I am therewith to be content. [Philippians 4:11 -ed] For if you be content and have but a Morsel of dry Bread or Herbs you have a good Feast. For Contentment is great gain, Likewise I beseech you my dear children set your Hearts to seek the Lord with all your might.
Thess. 5:16,17. Rejoice evermore Pray without ceasing. V. 18. in every thing give thanks, for this is the Will of God in Christ Jesu,concerning you. V. 19 Quench not the Spirit. V. 20. Dispise not Prophesying. V. 21. Prove all things hold fast that which is good V. 22. Abstain from all appearance of evil, V. 23. And the very God of Peace sanctifie you wholly, and I pray God your whole Soul and Body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ &c.
Consider my Chidlren, these words, Pray without Ceasing. It is not that you should always be upon your Knees at Prayer, but that you shall be always in a Praying Flame of Spirit. But more particularly, dear Children see that ye neglect not to Pray in secret every Morning, and at Night, for that is the Duty of all others. That you may pour foth [sic] your Hearts to God, in the most familiar way without Bashfulness or Confusion, and expect most of the Presence of the Holy Ghost.
Eph. 6 16, [sic: he means Ephesians 6:18] Praying always with all prayer and Supplication in the Spirit and watching thereunto with all Perseverance and Supplication for all Saints.
And now my dear Children, I might have Recommended you to many more Places of Scripture, but I rather Recommend you to the search of the whole Old and New Testment, [sic] which is able to make you Wise unto Salvation.
I humbly beg leave of thee, O Father, of Heaven and Earth, to return thee my hearty thanks, for inspiring an Spirit of Remorse & Pity, into the Hearts and Minds of those Learned Gentlemen the Clergy of the Presbytery of the Town of Belfast &c. Who was pleas’d to remember me in their publick Service, joyn’d with their Congregations, on Sunday last. Humbly rendering their Prayers to thee O GOD to have Mercy on me, a poor lost Soul, without thy help; hoping thou was pleas’d to hear the same, and that I may find the Sweetness, Joy and Comfort of it, at this my Sudden Departure; altho’ I was no ways deserving of such a Compassionate Christian Favour, being a fallen Member and Transgressor of the same; That they will be pleased to receive this as in obedience of thanks Paid to them as true Professors obedient to God’s Holy Word, and Teachers of the same; and all those that joyn’d with them in that Charitable Act.
Also those Worthy Gentlemen of the Church of England, who hath since offered up their Prayers for me.
My time is spent my Glass is run, sweet Saviour open thy Arms of Mercy, for unto thee I come. O Lord, shut not thy Gate against me stretch forth thy Almighty Hand, and take me to thy self and let not SATAN have Power over me; now I launch into Eternity in full Hopes of Assurance to be with thee in thy Heavenly Kingdom, there to remain with thee and thy holy Angels, World without end.
I Die in the Presbyterian Communion, and upwards of Fifty Years of Age.
Have Mercy on me O LORD sweet JESUS I COME. I COME, Mercy I crave at this my last Minute, Grant it for thy dear Son’s sake Amen.
This date in 1859 saw the first hanging in Denver — then a nascent mining town known as Denver City.
Denver in 1859 was clinging to end of a long western extrusion of the Kansas Territory, but had John Stoefel managed to refrain from murder just two years longer he might have had the privilege to be the first to hang in Colorado Territory instead.
Massachusetts Spy (Worcester, Mass.), April 6, 1859
On a New York to San Francisco overland odyssey, newsman Horace “Go West Young Man” Greeley arrived in Denver in June, missing our milestone hanging by weeks; his annals (being dispatched east for publication) describe a hardscrabble* place that “can boast of no antiquity beyond September or October last.”
Prone to deep drinking, soured in temper, always armed, bristling at a word, ready with the rifle, revolver, or bowie-knife, they give law and set fashions which, in a country where the regular administration of justice is yet a matter of prophecy, it seems difficult to overrule or disregard. I apprehend that there have been, during my two weeks sojourn, more brawls, more pistol shots with criminal intent in this log city of 150 dwellings, not three-fourths of them completed, nor two-thirds of them inhabited, nor one-third fit to be, than in any community of equal numbers on earth.
No surprise, the first outright murder case to blot the infant city implicated two prospectors: our villain John Stoefel, one of a party of German emigres, shot his brother-in-law Thomas Biencroff on April 7 for his gold dust. From that point, Stoefel had 48 hours to live; standing on only the barest pretense of legal nicety, a “people’s court” convened to try and condemn Stoefel on the basis of his own confession, then immediately hanged him to an obliging tree.
The affair was reported in the very first issue of the Rocky Mountain News, a newspaper that debuted two weeks after Stoefel’s execution/lynching and was destined to survive until 2009.
* Greeley: “It is likely to be some time yet before our fashionable American spas, and summer resorts for idlers will be located among the Rocky Mountains.” You’ve come a long way, Colorado.
On the morning of Saturday the 1st inst. William Bailey, collier, of Old Park Iron Works, near Shifnal, Shropshire, was found robbed and murdered in an iron-stone work, at Red-lake, in the parish of Wellington, having his throat cut and skull fractured in several places.
Suspicion immediately attached the crime to John Griffiths, a cooper, who resided about two hundred yards off, (and that from his bad character, he having been twice convicted of felony, as well as its being known that he had recently much importuned the deceased for the loan of cash,) and he was accordingly taken into custody in the [fear?] of absconding.
Notwithstanding there had been much rain during the preceding day, and the roads dirty in consequence, yet the shoes of Bailey were perfectly clean when his body was found; and it was conjectured that he had been murdered in some building and his remains carried to where they then lay.
The search was in consequence directed to a house lately erected by Griffiths about one hundred yards off, and the attention of those who entered it was attracted by stains of blood on the wall, and a quantity of sand which appeared to have been recently laid on a part of the floor. The latter was immediately ripped up, and underneath it was found a vault about eight feet long, four feet wide, and five deep, to which there was no communication but by removing the boards of the floor.
The boards were much stained with blood, and a considerable quantity in a coagulated state, which had evidently run down between them, was found in the bottom of the vault. A shirt, marked with the initials of Bailey’s name, was found hid under some coals in the cellar, and which has been sworn to as his property. A cooper’s bloody adze, exactly corresponding with the fractures in Bailey’s skull, was found on the floor; and a large horse pistol secreted in the brick work.
No part of Griffith’s working apparel, or dirty linen, could be found; but it appeared his wife had been washing the major part of the preceding night. A woman that lives nearly opposite the end of Griffith’s new house, and about twenty yards off, swore that on the night of the murder, at about half past nine o’clock, she saw (from her window) Griffiths come out of his house, and reconnoitre the road both ways, and seeing no one in sight, drag out a bag containing some weighty matter, and haul it round the end of his house in the direction to where the body of Bailey was found.
A bag was found in Griffith’s house containing a quantity of coagulated blood at the bottom of it.
Bailey’s house at Old Park, was robbed of every thing valuable on the night of the murder, and, no doubt, by the murderer or his associates; from his person was stolen an old silver watch, maker’s name, “C. Harrison, Limerick, No. 76.” Bailey was in the 64th year of his age, and of the Methodist persuasion; Griffith is about 28, and pretended to be of the same profession; he was at the meeting the same evening immediately after the murder. They were in the habit of praying together in private.
Coroner’s verdict, wilful murder against John Griffith. He is now in Shrewsbury gaol to take his trial at the next assizes. He denies all knowledge of the murder, and says if he should be found guilty, he is determined not to be publicly hanged. Griffith is a native of Wellington.
Original caption: “The above is a plan of the premises: — a. — The road to Potter’s Bank. — b. — Griffith’s dwelling house. — c. — Red Lake. — d. — The house, from whence the woman saw Griffith in the act of hauling the bag out of his new house. — e. — Road to Old Park Iron Works. — f. — Griffith’s New House. — g. — Iron Stone Work. — h. — Here Bailey’s body was found. — i. To Ketley Iron Works.”
Salisbury and Winchester Journal, April 6, 1812
At Shrewsbury Assizes, on Friday se’nnight, John Griffiths was tried for the wilful murder of Mr. W. Bailey, of Ketley, near Wellington, on the evening of the 31st of January last.
The deceased and the prisoner lived near each other, and were in habits of intimacy, the latter having experienced many acts of friendship from the former, whom he at length resolved to murder, in order to get possession of some cash bills which he understood he had about him.
The prisoner was a cooper by trade, and was carrying on his business in a house he had newly built, but to which he had not wholly removed. He was seen on the evening stated dragging something from his new house round the old one, to the spot where the body of the deceased was found, the skull beat in with a hammer part of a cooper’s adze, and Griffiths’s adze was found bloody on the hammer part, which exactly fitted the wounds.
Blood was found on the floor of a room in his new house, and had run through to the cellar; the walls were sprinkled with it, and attempts had evidently been made to scrape it off, and to clean it from the floor. A train of circumstances, related by different witnesses, brought the fact so close home to the prisoner, that the Jury had no hesitation in pronouncing him Guilty.
He was hanged on Monday last, and his body given to the surgeons for dissection. He had previously made a full confession of his guilt.
Idaho and eastern Washington, a correspondent wrote to the Baltimore Sun by way of summing-up the bonanza year of 1863,* “is exceedingly rich in deposits of gold” to the delight of “thousands of sturdy miners from California and Oregon.”
“It is estimated that the mines situated in Washington and Idaho Territories yielded for the year 1863 some $20,000,000, and it is thought that next year this amount will be doubled … coin is almost unknown in the various mining towns, and even the ost trivial transaction of business has to be paid for in gold dust.”
As usual in these cases precious few of the miners hit the mother lode; it was the contractors who supplied them best positioned to make out. In August 1863 Lloyd Magruder, a prosperous and respected pack train operator who had once sat in the California legislature, embarked one of his mule convoys heavy with mining goods from Lewiston, over the imposing Bitterroot Range, and bound for the burgeoning mining colony of Virginia City.**
The Bitterroot Mountains. (cc) image by Eric Gross.
But the hills held other treasures than merely retail markups.
A day after Magruder’s slow pack train set out, three rough frontiersman — our three men, Howard, Low(e)ry and Romaine — left Lewiston, too. Overtaking Magruder on the road, they joined his traveling party on an amiable basis; by the time they reached Virginia City, Magruder trusted them to help sell off his mining supplies. Business complete, Magruder was ready to return to Lewiston, he had $25,000 in gold revenue in his pockets and not an inkling that the boon companions he now hired as his guards meant to take it from him. That’s the gold … that’s what it makes us.
Deep in the mountains one night, the wicked trio — joined by a trapper, Billy Page, who was inducted into the plot (so he said) by means of the sure understanding that to refuse was death — murdered Magruder and four other men traveling in the party.
A night was chosen when they were encamped on a ridge which broke off on one side almost perpendicular for several hundred feet into a canyon or mountain gorge. Near the summit was a spring which furnished men and animals water. From a confession made by Page, the trapper, it appears that on the night selected for the massacre, Page was put on guard and told what was going to happen, and ordered to keep still under penalty of death. Magruder and Lowry were also on guard away from the camp in an opposite direction, while Phillips, Allan and the other men were fast asleep in their blankets near the fire. During the first watch of the night, Lowry, who was on guard with Magruder, approached within striking distance, and dealing him a powerful blow with an axe which he had concealed under his coat, awaiting the fatal moment, knocked him senseless to the ground, where he was speedily dispatched. The killing of the sleeping men in camp was then quickly accomplished. Page, the trapper, who was watching the mules near by, claimed that he saw the murders committed. As soon as daylight arrived, the mules were brought up and five of the best were selected, four for saddle mules for the men to ride and one to pack their plunder. The other animals were then driven into a deep canyon and they, too, were murdered. They tied the murdered men in blankets and dropped them over the bluff near camp, into the bottom of the canyon, several hundred feet below, after which, having secured the gold dust, they made a bonfire and burned all the camp equipage, including the aparejos and other paraphernalia of a pack train. (Early History of Idaho)
The murderers made for the coast, slipping quietly back into Lewiston and grabbing the first stagecoach out in the morning, en route to Portland, Ore. But a friend of Magruder’s, sensing in their furtive and ill-favored manner — buying tickets in disguise; heedlessly abandoning valuable mules and camp supplies — something of their villainous design, set a Javert-like pursuit upon their booted heels.
He would pursue them at his own expense, leaving behind the inn he operated in Lewiston, all the way to San Francisco whence they journeyed to have their gold shavings coined by the mint. Page earned his freedom for giving evidence against the others; the remaining three attained the distinction of suffering the first legal executions in the history of the Idaho Territory.
* Letter dated Jan. 1, 1864; it was published Mar. 24.
** Today a hamlet (Wikipedia pegs its population under 200) in the state of Montana; at the time, a Wild West boom town in the Idaho Territory whose tenuous order was maintained by a vigilance committee.