Posts filed under 'Pelf'

1875: Henry Wainwright, Whitechapel murderer

Add comment December 21st, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1875, Whitechapel’s most notorious murderer ere Jack the Ripper arrived on the scene paid for his double life on the gallows of Newgate.

Henry Wainwright, brushmaker and philanderer, came to his mortal ruin by way of a financial one.

The expansive Wainwright could not confine his adventures to actresses at the theater adjacent his Whitechapel Road shop* but in 1872 installed a mistress, one Harriet Lane, in a flat of her own with a liberal £5-a-week stipend. “Mrs. King”, as she styled herself with a better ear for the forgettable name than Wainwright would evidence (we’ll come to that part), bore her lover two children.

But by the next year, Wainwright’s prodigalities and a worldwide economic crisis had sunk him in debt. As his creditors circled, Wainwright pinched farthings where he could, putting predictable strain on his lover’s allowance — and with it, her affection, her sobriety, and her discretion.

As Wainwright succumbed to bankruptcy, Harriet Lane’s demands for money and occasional drunken forays into his very place of business had Wainwright scrambling for some way to fob the mistress off on some other man. His efforts thereto were frustrated, so he contrived the next best thing: prevailing on his brother Thomas** to write his mistress mash notes under the ungainly pseudonym of “Edward Frieake”, Wainwright spun a plausible scenario for her elopement.

Unfortunately for Mrs. King, the honeymoon would be a chloride of lime pit under the floorboards of Wainwright’s warehouse.

On September 11, 1874, the lady sallied out of her apartment, and was never heard from again.

Laborers working near Wainwright’s warehouse that night would report hearing three gunshots, but being unable to pinpoint their source they let the matter drop — just as did police with Harriett Lane’s disappearance. With the help of a chaser letter or two from his brother, Wainwright represented that she had run off to Paris with her correspondent. Why, she might never be heard from again!

According to Jonathan Goodman, the 1844 Thomas Hood poem “The Bridge of Sighs” was a Wainwright favorite, one he often recited to entertain his family(s):

One more Unfortunate,
Weary of breath,
Rashly importunate,
Gone to her death!

Take her up tenderly,
Lift her with care;
Fashion’d so slenderly
Young, and so fair!

Wainwright himself qualified for verse not long after poor Harriet Cole’s remains tumbled into plain view on that London street, like the “Awful Murder and Mutilation of a Female At the East-end of London”, whose composition mirrors its expository title:

Her head was severed from her body,
Her arms as well — how sad to tell

The above fragment (I have not located the entire original) is from this informative post about murder ballads

Another year on, Wainwright had good cause to believe he’d gotten away with the whole thing.† But his finances having finally collapsed, the warehouse that doubled has Harriet Lane’s tomb had been foreclosed upon in July of 1875, and it would soon be sold to new and potentially nosy owners. Wainwright had a body to move. And when the hole was opened up on September 10, 1875, it uncovered not a few scraps of a satisfyingly dissolved corpse — but the body entire, preserved rather than eroded by its chemical bath.

And the corpse stank disgustingly.

Showing the extraordinary judgment that had got him into this mess in the first place, Wainwright bought a spade and a cleaver to dismember the foul limbs he had once made love to, and then engaged a colleague to help him schlep the resulting packages out to the street. Arthur Stokes would later attribute his decision to peek to a divine command that struck him from the firmament, but nothing more remarkable than below-average curiosity will be required of a man encumbered by a heavy, fetid parcel to wonder what they might contain. A more impressive explanation will be required to justify Henry Wainwright’s decision to leave Stokes alone with the horrors while Wainwright jogged off to hail a cab.

Thinking fast for a man come face to face with a severed head, Stokes rewrapped the horrendous bundle and casually helped his homicidal friend pack it all onto the cab. When Wainwright drove off, Stokes trailed him, looking for constables to summon. And when he found them, and they approached the cab asking to inspect his cargo, all Henry Wainwright’s nauseating hypocrisy spilled out on the street in a lurid pile. He lamely tried to bribe the constables two hundred quid to ignore the putrid sackful of human remains.

A distinct scar and the dress Harriet Lane had worn on the day of her “elopement” identified the body to everyone’s satisfaction, and the circumstances of the body’s discovery did not admit much hope for Wainwright’s defense team.‡

So notorious was Wainwright’s crime that a vast concourse of gawkers mobbed the exterior of Newgate on the morning of his hanging, just like in the bad old days — even though, all executions by this late date being private affairs, these masses had no opportunity to glimpse anything save the black flag hoisted over Newgate to signal that the sentence of the law had been carried into effect.

Sources:

* Wainwright’s old shop apparently still stands, in relatively good condition. There are some 21st century photos of it and some interesting discussion of the case on casebook.org.

** Exactly when Thomas Wainwright became aware of what his brother had been up to with this “Edward Frieake” stuff is not certain. He did help his brother open Harriet Lane’s lime grave prior to its catastrophic attempted move.

Tried for his life alongside his brother, Thomas was acquitted of capital murder but caught a seven-year prison sentence as an accessory after the fact.

† The illegitimate children were in the care of a dressmaker, Ellen Wilmore, who still had them by the time of Wainwright’s trial. (Wilmore was called to testify.) It is not known what became of them thereafter.

‡ We are indebted to Foul Deeds and Suspicious Deaths in London’s East End for this outstanding detail: librettist W.S. Gilbert appears as a part of Wainwright’s defense. Gilbert, a barrister by training who had just made his big breakthrough by writing the 1875 musical theater hit Trial by Jury, was in the process of launching the collaborative career that puts Gilbert and Sullivan productions on community playhouse stages down to the present day.

Late in 1875, W.S. Gilbert received a jury summons highly inconvenient to his burgeoning artistic career. Consequently, he managed to finagle for himself a nominal assignment on the Wainwright defense team as a means of re-establishing “practicing attorney” bona fides that would exempt him from any jury boxes.

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1895: Harry Hayward, the Minneapolis Svengali

Add comment December 11th, 2014 Headsman

Minnesota executed Harry Hayward shortly after midnight on this date in 1895.

Dubbed the “Minneapolis Svengali” by the press for his perceived similarity to the sinister hypnotist of that year’s hit literary release, the prodigal rake Hayward cast his spell over a New York emigre with the name of Kitty Ging and a pocketbook every bit as alluring.

On December 3, 1895, Kitty rented a horsey from a livery stable, but the ride returned to the stable alone. What terrible fate befell her? And how did the Mesmer of Minneapolis work her murder from his innocuous booth at a theater that night?

Our oft-endorsed friends at Murder by Gaslight unwind this terrible tale here.

He fixed me with his eyes. I couldn’t say no when he looked at me that way — nobody could.

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1323: Jean Persant, a black cat, and the body of Jean Prévost

1 comment December 7th, 2014 Headsman

From the French Grandes Chroniques. The numbered footnotes within the blockquote are verbatim from this text.

Moreover, it befel in this year [1323] that an abbey of the Cistercian Order was robbed of a marvellous great sum of money.

So they managed by the procuration of a man who dwelt at Château-Landon and had been provost there (for which cause he was still called Jean Prévost) that an agreement was made between him and an evil sorcerer, that they should contrive to discover the thieves and compel them to make restitution, in the fashion here following.

First, the sorcerer made a chest, with the help of the said Jean Prévost, wherein they clapped a black cat; and this they buried in a pit in the fields, right at a cross-way, and set three days’ meat for the cat within that chest, to wit bread steeped and softened in chrism and consecrated oils and holy water; and, in order that the cat thus interred might not die, there were two holes in the chest and two long pipes which rose above the earth thrown over that chest, by which pipes the air might enter therein and suffer the cat to breathe in and out.

Now it befel that certain shepherds, leading their flocks afield, passed by this cross-way as had ever been their wont; and their dogs began to scent and get wind of the cat, so that within a brief while they had found the place where she lay. Then began they to scratch and dig with their claws, for all the world as it had been a mole, nor could any man tear them away from that spot.

When the shepherds saw that their dogs would by no means depart thence, then they drew near and heard the cat mew, whereat they were much amazed. And, seeing that the dogs still scratched without ceasing, one who was wiser than the rest sent word of this matter to the justice, who came forthwith to the place and found the cat and the chest, even as it had all been contrived; whereat he was much astonished, and many others who were come with him.

And while this provost of Château-Landon pondered anxiously within himself how he might take or find the author of so horrible a witchcraft, (for he saw well that this had never been done but for some black art; but whereof or by whom he knew not) then it came to pass, as he thought within himself and looked at the chest which was newly-made, that he called all the carpenters of that town, and asked them who had made this chest.

At which demand a carpenter came forward and said that he had made it at the instance of a man named Jean Prévost; “But so help me God,” quoth he, “as I knew not to what purpose he had bidden me make it.”

Then within a brief space this Jean Prévost was taken upon suspicion, and put to the question of the rack: upon which he accused one Jean Persant as the principal author, contriver, and inventor of this cursed witchcraft; and afterwards he accused a monk of Cîteaux, an apostate, as the special disciple of this Jean Persant, and the Abbot of Sarquenciaux [Serquigny?] of the Order of Cîteaux, and certain Canons Regular,(2) who were all abettors of this wickedness. All of whom were taken and bound and brought before the Official of the Archbishop of Sens and the Inquisitor at Paris.

When they were come before them, men enquired of them — and of these more especially of whom they knew by report that they were masters in this devilish art — wherefore they had done this thing. To which they answered that, if the cat had dwelt three days long at those four crossroads, then they would have drawn him forth and flayed him; and from his hide they would have made three thongs, which they would have drawn out to their fullest extent and knotted together, so that they might make a circle within the compass whereof a man might be comprised and contained. Which when they had done, he who was in the midst of the circle would first nourish himself in devilish fashion with the meat wherewith this cat had been fed; without which these invocations would be null and of none effect. After which he would have called upon a devil named Berich, who would presently have come without delay, and would have answered all their questions and discovered the thefts, with all those that had been principal movers therein and all who had set their hands thereunto; and in answer to their questions he would have told them all the evil to be done.

Upon the hearing of these confessions and downright devilries, Jean Prévost and Jean Persant, as authors and principals in this accursed witchcraft, were adjudged to be burned and punished with fire; but while the matter was drawn out and delayed, Jean Prévost chanced to die; whose bones and body were burned to ashes in detestation of so horrible a crime, and the other, to wit Jean Persant, was bound to the stake with the cat around his neck, and burned to ashes on the morrow of St Nicholas’ day; after which the Abbot, and the apostate monk, and the other Canons Regular who had administered the chrism and other matters to this witchcraft, were first degraded and then, by all rules of law, condemned and put into prison for their lives.

(1) In the face of such abuses of things consecrated, the church Councils of the Middle Ages constantly insisted that the Pyx, the Chrismatory, and the Font must be kept under lock and key in all churches. The neglect of these precautions is one of the points most frequently noted by official visitors.

(2) Canons bound to the lifelong observance of a Rule; the best known are the Austin Canons and the Praemonstratensians. They were in fact practically monks, and are often so-called by medieval writers, though modern pedantry sometimes ignores this. Cf. Chaucer, Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale.

(3) Quasi-heraldic personal insignia, with motto; cf. Richard II, Act iii, Sc. I. [“From my own windows torn my household coat,/Razed out my imprese”]

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1802: Captain William Codlin, maritime insurance scammer

Add comment November 27th, 2014 Headsman

From A Peep Into the Past: Brighton in the Olden Time, with Glances at the Present, by John George Bishop:

In 1802 an event, at which “all the world wondered,” took place off Hove. This was the supposed foundering of the good ship Adventure, Captain William Codlin, commander.

The morning of Sunday, August 8th, 1802, was bright and beautiful; towards noon, however, there was a dense fog, which lasted the whole afternoon. There was little or no wind; the sea was calm; and in the evening, as the fog cleared, a brig, evidently abandoned by her crew, was seen coming heavily, as if water-laden, westward.

Just as she reached opposite the bottom of Hove-street, the water was up to her bulwarks, when down she sank, and was wholly lost to view.

Strong suspicion of foul play was excited, as there appeared to be nothing to account for such a disaster. This suspicion proved to be true — the object of the Captain evidently being to obtain the insurance money. All was apparently well-planned; but

The best laid schemes o’ mice and men,
Gang aft a gley.

As the tide receded, the top of one of the brig’s masts appeared above water, indicating her whereabouts; and Mr. S. Stepney, of Brighton, was employed to raise her.

A day or two after the occurrence Dr. Hargraves was on “the Bank,” at the bottom of West-street, Brighton, and Captain Codlin happened to be standing near him. The Doctor said, “Don’t you think, Captain, they’ll get her up?”

“I’ll swallow hell fire, if they do,” replied Codlin.

The four fishing-boats engaged by Mr. Stepney, however, did their work successfully; and when the Adventure was towed ashore, a hole was discovered in the ship’s bottom; and the auger with which it was bored was lying near it!

Codlin, anticipating this discovery, had previously taken the coach to London, going thence to Dover, where he got on board a vessel, with the vie of getting across the Channel.

But justice was on his track. Another vessel was dispatched, which overtook the former, and he was brought back to London — a prisoner.

Codlin was subsequently tried for the offence, found guilty, and, as was then the custom, hung for his crime at Execution Dock, Woolwich. The raising of the Adventure cost Mr. Stepney £30, for which he was never reimbursed one farthing! His sole memento of the transaction was a dirk, found on board the ship; and this is still in the possession of a member of his family.


From the Morning Post and Gazetteer (London, England), November 29, 1802.

As early as six o’clock on Saturday morning [Saturday, November 27, 1802], a croud began to assemble opposite Newgate, to see Codlin go into the cart, and proceed to the place of execution, pursuant to his sentence for sinking the brig Adventure.

About eight, the spectators had increased prodigiously, so much so, that the multitude extended from Ludgate hill to Newgate-street. All the windows were crouded, and the tops of the houses were covered with people.

At ten minutes before nine, the unhappy man was brought out at the felons’ door. When he appeared, he was perfectly composed, and indeed cheerful.

He was a very personable man, as it is called, of the age of 36, and a ruddy complexion; and was well dressed in a blue coat, white waistcoat, mixture small clothes, and white stocking.

He ascended into the cart, which was covered with black, with a firm step and steady countenance, attended by the two executioners, Jack Ketch and his deputy, and another person appointed to read prayers to him on the road.

His arms were tied back with ropes, and the rope was round his neck. The cart went towards Newgate-street, preceded by the City Marshal on horseback, and the whole phalanx of peace officers, mustering nearly 100.

The Under Sheriffs, as usual, attended in their carriages, in one of which went the Chaplain.

In this order the procession proceeded slowly through Newgate-street, Cheapside, Cornhill, Leadenhall street, to Whitechapel.

During the journey, the prisoner looked up only once, and that was when the cavalcade got to the Royal Exchange. At Whitechapel they turned down the New Road, and arrived at Execution Dock soon after ten o’clock; the procession, preceded by the Deputy Marshal of the Admiralty on horseback, with his silver car.

At the sight of the gibbet (which had been previously erected at low water mark), the unhappy man started back with an apparent horror in his countenance at the vie of his approaching fate; that was the only symptom of fear which he betrayed on the occasion.

The obstructions by the different turnings in the way, and by the concourse of people filling every passage, did not seem to disturb the settled firmness of his mind.

As the procession drew near to the scene of execution, the difficulties of the passage became continually greater, so that it was hardly possible for the peace officers to clear the way.

At the entrance towards the dock, it became necessary that the criminal should be removed out of the cart, to walk to the scaffold, which was yet at some distance. He descended from the cart with the assistance of those who were beside him. After coming down, he stood as erect as the confinement of his shoulders and arms would allow. His looks wore still an air of unchanged firmness. He walked on with a steady step, and was even observed, by some gentlemen, to chuse the least dirty paths, so as to avoid bemiring his legs, while he went on.

He ascended the ladder to the scaffold, without betraying any new emotions of terror.

On the scaffold he joined in prayers with the clergyman, who was there in attendance, for two or three minutes. He shook the clergyman’s hand in taking farewell, with somewhat of a convulsive grasp.

He turned up his eyes and looked for a moment earnestly at the shipping opposite. A cap was put on his head; he drew it with his own hand, over his eyes. The board, upon a signal from the Sheriff, who sat in an opposite window, was soon after dropped from under his feet. In to or three minutes he appeared to expire without a struggle.

After hanging the usual time, the body was cut down and put into a coffin, covered with a cloth, then into a boat, and attended by the executioners, Mr. Gale, the undertaker, and two peace officers, the boat, a four-oared one, proceeded up the river, nearly to Blackfriars-bridge, where the coffin was landed. The body was conveyed to the house of Mr. Gale, in the Old bailey, here it remained yesterday for interment.

The concourse of people was as great as ever remembered. Many seafaring men were of course present. An immense concourse of people attended his progress from the gaol to the place of execution; it continually augmented while he proceeded.

When he reached the scaffold, the whole neighbourhood, to a considerable distance, was filled with one throng; all the decks of the ships round the dock, and a multitude of boats on the river, were equally crowded with spectators. The solemnity of the occasion seemed to make a due impression on the mob.

It was not until the night of Thursday that the unhappy man ceased to entertain hopes of a reprieve; he was very cheerful until his brother visited him on that evening, and bade him prepare for death, for that every hope was lost.

The prisoner as then much affected; but his brother, by his repeated assurances that he would be a friend to his wife, and a father to his child, made him more easy and collected. His wife was with him until twelve o’clock on the night preceding his execution.

Codlin was a native of Scarborough. We are assured by those who knew him, that a better seaman was not in the North coast trade, in which he had long sailed between Sunderland and London.

He had two or three years since begun to drink occasionally too much. He was not in employment, and his wife and children were in distress, at the time he entered into the fatal engagement.

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1864: Franz Muller, “Ich habe es getan”

1 comment November 14th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1864, German tailor Franz Muller hanged before an unruly London mob estimated near 50,000 angry souls.

Muller was among Britain’s last public hangings, before executions disappeared behind prison walls four years later. But what he’d done was a first, and father to a legion of detective novels and dinner theater: Muller committed the first murder on a British train.

Certainly Muller’s motive was as pedestrian as his locomotion was unusual, for the victim was a 69-year-old banker who was relieved of a gold watch and gold spectacles, then pitched out of his compartment onto an embankment on a North London commuter train.

This operation was facilitated and — so conceived a public that was spellbound by the crime — poor Mr. Thomas Briggs’s escape prevented by the then-prevalent use of the compartment coach, a railcar design without any interior corridor communicating between the berths. As each compartment opened only to the outside, passengers were stuck in their rooms between stations (and ticket-takers had to scuttle hazardously along exterior running-boards). Known in much of Europe as the English coach, these designs would quickly lose popularity thanks in part to this very affair.*

In a sense, these spaces just translated into the industrial era the age-old terrors that stalked travelers. It must be this that accounts for the extraordinary interest the public took in Briggs and Muller: in a sealed compartment, face to face with a desperate man, one would be as nakedly vulnerable as the lone rider on the roads of yesteryear quailing at the shadow of Dick Turpin. London businessmen did not expect such harrowing encounters on their daily commute.

A reward soon yielded a tip that put police onto this working-class immigrant Muller — the man sure ticked every box for a proper moral panic — who had dropped into a Cheapside jeweler’s** shop two days after the murder to exchange a gold chain (later identified as Briggs’s chain), and hopped a ship to New York soon thereafter. Inspectors took a faster ship and beat him to the Big Apple. He still had Briggs’s watch and top hat on his person, the latter ingeniously cut down.†

In a recent book about Briggs’s murder, Kate Colquhoun argues that despite the verdict, Britons “never quite felt they got to the bottom of” why the murder occurred. It’s commonly supposed that Muller didn’t intend to slay his victim and perhaps didn’t even realize he had done so.

Muller’s disarmingly amiable personality contrasted sharply with the circumstantial but persuasive evidence of a violent bandit; he struck the men who awaited him in New York as having been genuinely surprised by his arrest. Muller himself denied his guilt throughout a breathlessly reported three-day trial and even pressed for a stay of execution claiming to have developed new evidence of his innocence.

There was no stay, and only at the very last moment before the drop fell did the condemned youth succumb to the pressure of the German-speaking Lutheran clergyman who had been his companion in the last days to confess himself of the crime with the words Ich habe es getan.

Rev. Louis Cappel, whose immediate public announcement of this solemn unburdening played better as theater than as ministry, later explained in a letter to the London Times‡ (Nov. 16, 1864) that

the unhappy man declared he was innocent not while, but before, the Sacrament was being administered to him. Soon after entering his cell on the last morning I asked Muller again whether he was guilty of this murder. He denied it. I then said, “Muller, the moments are precious; we must turn our minds wholly to God; I shall question you no more about this, but my last words to you will be, ‘Are you innocent?'”

He remained silent for a minute or two, but presently exclaimed, his eyes full of tears, and clasping his arms round my neck, “Do not forsake me; stay with me to the last.”

* As a stopgap safety measure in the following years, before the widespread introduction of cars with interior corridors, existing compartment coaches were fitted with peepholes (called “Muller’s lights”) between compartments as well as wires enabling passengers to ring the alarm

** Submitted without comment: the jeweler’s name was John Death.

† Muller’s truncated-top-hat design actually enjoyed a brief fashion vogue that became named for him as a “Muller cut-down”.

‡ Consonant with the growing elite consensus on the matter, half the Times‘ execution coverage — a full column and a half of newsprint — was dedicated to excoriating the “lawless ruffianism” of the jeering hang-day mob.

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2011: Luo Yaping, “land granny”

Add comment November 9th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 2011, China’s “land granny” was executed for plundering 145 million yuan ($23 million) from China’s swelling bubble in real estate.

Luo Yaping was head of a land sub-bureau in a district of Fushun, a city in northeast China — not an especially high position — and yet she was able to use her power over land development and compensation to accumulate a fortune in bribes and embezzled compensation,” according to Reuters.

Though anti-corruption investigators tarred her racket as “the lowest in class, biggest in sum and evilest in tactics,” neither the person nor her boodle were very big game at all for China’s bananas real estate market. Chinese conglomerates write budget lines for routine bribery far beyond what Luo feathered her nest with.

China’s new fortunes chasing after property — and vice versa — have given the country a wild kaleidoscope: astronomical urban rents; colossal speculative ghost cities awaiting tenants who might never arrive; and underhanded deals among developers and government officials to split up the spoils. Average housing prices across the country tripled from 2005 to 2009.

Whatever the inanities of the market, more buyers have always been there because real estate has long been seen in China as one of the few fairly reliable places to put one’s money. In fact, China’s newly minted millionaires have even globalized the real estate markets of some European and North American cities.

But for China’s 99% the tectonic social changes so profitable to builders are full of dislocations; probably fewer people feel kinship to a grandmother waxing fat on the boom than to a grandmother literally buried alive by ravenous builders.

It would take deeper knowledge than this site can pretend to to figure why the Land Granny in particular got fitted for the harshest sanction, but it seems reasonable to presume that in carrying it out China had a mind to redress some grievances.

China’s real estate sector has continued to go great guns in the years since Luo died — only recently as of this writing (in 2014) showing signs of faltering.

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1697: Three duty stamp counterfeiters

Add comment November 3rd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1697, nine men hanged at Tyburn — all for property crimes.

Three were highway robbers. A fourth was a coiner. A fifth was a pickpocket. A sixth was a husbandman who stole a gelding.

The remaining three men, Thomas Houghton, Francis Cook and Francis Salisbury, operated a ring selling vellum paper bearing counterfeit sixpenny impressed duty stamps.

Their offense was against a 1694 levy titled “An act for granting to Their Majesties several duties on Vellum, Parchment and Paper for 10 years, towards carrying on the war against France”. This statute (full text here) imposed taxes of varying amounts for any number of a huge variety of officially-registered business. Routine commercial transactions now almost universally came with a rake for the taxman: “every skin or piece of vellum or parchment, or sheet of paper, upon which shall be ingrossed or written any indenture, lease, or deed-poll” had to be executed with a sixpenny stamp.

As a practical matter, such skins or pieces of vellum or parchment were sold pre-stamped, the stamp to be canceled by the parties in question when they signed on the line which is dotted. And it was this market that Houghton, Cook, and Salisbury exploited.

While counterfeiting the specie could be held to imperil the kingdom so dangerously to rate as treason, this trio’s “counterfeiting” was just everyday white-collar siphoning. By forging a bogus sixpenny stamp and applying it to sheafs of contract-ready vellum that they could sell at market rates, they got the revenue-agent’s cut — not the crown. (The scam is described in their Newgate Calendar entry, which inexplicably gives short shrift to Francis Cook.)

Though the “war against France” named by the stamp bill — the War of the League of Augsburg or the Nine Years’ War — had ended weeks before even the hangings we mark on this date, the lucrative levy long outlasted it. In the following century, England revived this type of tax often, notably in 1712 expanding it to encompass printed publications like newspapers and pamphlets. Hey, just require anything printed on paper to have a royal stamp on it — easy! This habit would eventually create the 1765 Stamp Act so obnoxious to North American colonists in the run-up to the American Revolution.

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1938: George Brain, Wimbledon murderer

Add comment November 1st, 2014 Headsman

The headline story from Wimbledon in July of 1938 ought to have been the conquet of its renowned tennis championship by Don Budge. The American great didn’t drop a set in seven rounds romping to a men’s title that left him on the cusp of sweeping the Grand Slam tourneys that year. Weeks later, Budge did indeed complete the Slam by taking the U.S. Open — the first player to accomplish that feat in a single year.

But on the morning of July 14, two weeks after Budge raised the silverware, Somerset Road opposite Centre Court yielded up to a passing motorist the body of a 30-year-old woman.

The badly mangled body suggested a hit-and-run, but examination soon revealed that Rose Muriel Atkins had come to her grievous end via the trauma of a small, sharp instrument and not a large, blunt one: the tire marks over Irish Rose’s legs merely a post-mortem red herring.

By no coincidence, a local driver that morning skipped his shift and disappeared, leaving his van in a buddy’s garage. Once police caught wind of this circumstance and found in the van extensive bloodstains that the fugitive deliveryman had unsuccessfully scrubbed, the nationwide manhunt for George Brain was on.

Brain managed to stay on the lam for more than a week, which caused him to miss his intended July 21 wedding date, but this futile flight was really the strongest defense he could offer.

Irish Rose was a well-known prostitute and Brain a well-known satyr; once arrested, he acknowledged having picked her up in the company van with a professional assignation in mind. At that point, he was already in the soup with his employer for stealing 37 quid to squander on hedonism — money he was past due to return to them. (The firm’s reporting him for theft when he skipped work is what brought his creepy van right to police attention.)

Per Brain, the courtesan tried to extract more money from him by threatening to tattle on the naughty use of his work vehicle, at which point “I said: ‘Don’t be silly.’ I struck her with my hand. She started screaming. Then everything seemed to go blank and I hit her with a starting handle which I keep in the van. When I came to there was her body lying in the van.” (London Times, September 20, 1938)

The old “blacked out during this person’s inexplicable murder” defense. Too bad for that story that he actually killed her with a knife; the judge incredulously instructed the jury that “one who takes a chisel or a knife, such as has been produced — a cobbler’s knife — and tears up the throat of a woman, cannot be heard to say that he never expected her to die and never intended to kill her.” Though Brain meted out the wounds with (per the coroner’s characterization) “savage determination” he had still not gone so ravingly feral that he couldn’t be arsed to stage the hit and run or rummage the moll’s purse for her last four shillings. The jury needed only 15 minutes to convict.

Brain’s convivial reputation around Wimbledon earned him 16,500 subscribers to a petition to save his neck despite what he’d done to Atkins’s, but the Home Secretary turned him down flat. Brain was executed at Wandsworth Prison by Thomas Pierrepoint.

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1621: Rodrigo Calderon, ambitious

Add comment October 21st, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1621, Spain’s once-powerful Marquis of the Seven Churches fell as far as tragedy can drop a man.

Still to this day a Spanish emblem of the perils of ambition, Rodrigo Calderon hailed from the minor nobility in the rebellious Low Countries breaking away from Hapsburg rule.

Displaced to Spain, Calderon had a meteoric rise as the trusted henchman of the Duke of Lerma — who was himself the trusted (some say over-trusted) favorite of the Spanish King Philip III from the moment the latter came to the throne at age 20 in 1598. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.

Calderon’s who became perhaps Spain’s most powerful figure, and surely its most resented. By Philip’s own decree, nothing came to the royal quill but through his valido Lerma. Lerma dominated access to Philip and to a great extent, Calderon dominated access to Lerma. Both men prospered accordingly.

Calderon cut an operatic character — he’s one of those characters awaiting a suitably coruscating literary treatment, although Bulwer-Lytton gave it a shot — of zealotry mixed with greed. His family was the aristocratic equivalent of “new money”; his father had not been born to the nobility at all, and Calderon hustled to climb so high as he did. He did not mean to forego the emoluments of office, like the flattering Rubens portrait that illustrates this post.*

Inevitably, such a figure attracted the resentment of other courtiers, and not only courtiers.

Calderon almost fell in 1607 for extracting bribes far in excess of what acceptable corruption permitted. But he had by then the open enmity of the queen herself. It’s testimony to Lerma’s power that his patronage sufficed for Calderon to maintain his station in the face of such a powerful foe.

Queen Margaret died in 1611. The cause was complications from childbirth, but rumors, like this anonymous pamphlet, hinted at other hands in her death.

moved by the outcries of the people and the advice of wise and virtuous persons … felt obliged to confront the ill intentions of those who without doubt have caused her death. Her goal was to serve our Lord by promoting justice in the distribution of favors, appointments of good ministers, and the elimination of bribes, simonies, the sale of offices, and the promotion of unworthy and inept persons.

While not daring such an accusation, a friar preaching Margaret’s funeral sermon directly to Philip made bold that

a king has two wives, the queen and the community … the offspring of the first marrriage should be children. The offspring of the second marriage should be prudent laws, the appointment of good ministers, mercies to those who deserve them, the punishment of criminals, audiences to all your subjects, dedication to affairs of state, and the consolation of the afflicted. To repay God for the abundant offspring from the first marriage Your Majesty has to comply with your duties towards your second wife. (Both quotes via Kingship and Favoritism in the Spain of Philip III.)

Nothing troubled, Calderon had become a marquis by 1614.

But the rumor mill played the long game. Calderon’s patron Lerma was displaced by his son in 1618, leaving his longtime crony vulnerable to the next turn of fortune. That turn was the 1621 death of Philip III himself, leaving the kingdom to a 16-year-old son, Philip IV.

It is said that when Calderon heard the bells tolling the elder Philip’s passing he remarked, “the king is dead, and I am dead.”

Determined to rein in the perceived decadences of the last era — this period was the peak, and the very start of the decline, of Spain’s wealth and global power — Philip’s Lerma figure the Duke of Olivares had Calderon arrested. Regicide and witchcraft were right there on the charge sheet, but it was the murder of a different man in 1614 allegedly killed to keep him silent about Calderon’s misdeeds that sustained the sentence. A bit more exotic than regular beheading, Calderon had his throat slashed, then was left to bleed out on the scaffold.

As Calderon had come to personify courtly corruption, the new regime anticipated a salutary effect from making an example of him. To their surprise, the pitiless and obviously politically-motivated handling of the fellow — who bore his fate with lauded stoicism — made the late grasping aristocrat the subject of no small sympathy.

Calderon’s mummy, the executioner’s gash through its neck still gruesomely visible, is still preserved in Valladolid. (Link in Spanish, but more importantly, with pictures.)

* Calderon was himself a great collector of art.

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1593: Gabriel Wolff, Nuremberg adventurer

1 comment October 11th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1593, Nuremberg executioner Franz Schmidt beheaded one of that city’s finest con artists.

Gabriel Wolff, a burgher’s son, had gone on a picaresque swindling bender through central Europe and all the way to Constantinople, posing as a V.I.P. in various courts for fun and profit.

As Schmidt recounted it, Wolff first “called himself George Windholz, Secretary to the Elector at Berlin, also took the name of Ernst Haller and Joachim Furnberger, borrowed 1,500 ducats from a councillor here in Nuremberg by means of a forged letter in the Elector’s name and under the seal of the Margrave John George in Berlin; was arrested at Regensburg and delivered over to Nuremberg.”

And this was far from all.

The inveterate trickster had made off with 1,400 crowns from the Duke of Parma in the Netherlands and fled to Ottoman Turkey. He had had a misadventure with an Italian abbess, netting a silver clock for his trouble; conned a Knight of St. John out of his mount; and ensconced himself as the Habsburg emperor’s personal attendant in Prague, where he perpetrated “many other frauds, causing false seals of gentlemen to be cut, wrote many forged documents and was conversant with seven languages; carrying on this for twenty-four years.” In his time he got the best of “a councilor at Danzig, the count of Ottingen, his lord at Constance, two merchants at Danzig, a Dutch master,” and similar worthies crisscrossing Europe from Lisbon to Crete to Krakow to London and seemingly every point worth mentioning in between.

As Schmidt’s biographer observes, it’s more than likely that the crowd under the scaffold beheld Wolff with admiration as much as opprobrium, for this native son’s silver tongue and brass balls had enabled him to spend a lifetime in material luxury, hobnobbing with the masters of Europe — and certainly ensured him an afterlife in pleasurable folklore he could scarcely have conjured had he spent his days respectably haggling for a better price on the ell. Frankly, we in drab modernity could ourselves do with a Gabriel Wolff book.

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