The hanging of Albert Hicks on Bedloe’s Island on this date in 1860 marked perhaps the last execution for piracy in U.S. history.*
This was a century and more past the Golden Age of Piracy. By the mid-19th century, the picaresque buccaneer had long ago hornswaggled his last doubloons and retired from Atlantic sea lanes into literary nostalgia. According to the Espy file, there had been only a single piracy death case, a double execution in Virginia in 1852, over the preceding quarter-century.
Hicks, who alternately went by William Johnson, wasn’t exactly Captain Kidd: think less freebooter, and more hijacker.
Shipping out of New York on the sloop E.A. Johnson, Hicks — urged on by the devil, he later claimed — seized the vessel by murdering two crewmates, Oliver and Smith Watts, and the captain, George Burr. As that was the entirety of his company, that gave him the ship too. He didn’t mean to raise the Jolly Roger and go a-plundering with his prize: he simply stripped his victims of portable valuables, pitched their bodies into the drink 50 miles off Sandy Hook, and abandoned ship. Eventually the creepy hulk of the E.A. Johnson drifted back into New York’s harbor.
Hicks was tracked down in Providence, R.I. and arrested a few days later — the only survivor of a bloodstained mystery ship who happened to have a large quantity of coins he couldn’t quite account for.
Newsmen meeting him during his incarceration not infrequently express skepticism of Hicks’s veracity and motivations as he attaches himself to new outrages; in particular, Hicks might have been interested to create sensational gallows copy in order to support the family he would soon leave behind. One report shortly after Hicks’s arrest (Boston Courier, March 29, 1860) has his soon-to-be-widow visiting Hick’s cell where “she broke out upon him in the most vituperative language, charging him with being a bloody villain. She held her child up in front of the cell door, and exclaimed, ‘Look at your offspring, you rascal, and think what you have brought on us. If I could get in at you I would pull your bloody heart out.'”
Execution report from the July 14, 1860 New York Herald.
* The U.S. also enforced — loosely — its anti-slaving provisions under piracy statutes, so the 1862 execution of slave trader Nathaniel Gordon occurred under an anti-piracy law. Whether that makes him pirate enough for the milestone, the reader may judge.
On this date in 2010, Chongqing politician Wen Qiang was executed for corruption — but the rival who felled him was on the brink of his own destruction.
Wen, the longtime Public Security Bureau chief in the southwestern city of Chongking, was a big dog to most. To Bo Xilai, Wen looked more like trophy game.
Son of an “immortal” Communist pol Bo Yibo, the aggressive and charismatic Politburo member Bo was then an ascending star on the national stage.
In 2007, Bo won the Communist Party’s appointment as party chief of Chongqing — effectively giving him control of the city. From this platform, Bo launched a high-profile crackdown on graft and organized crime rife in the 30 million-strong megacity.
During a campaign from roughly 2009 to Bo’s own fall in 2012, some 9,000 people were investigated for corruption, and nearly half of them jailed … or in Wen’s case, worse.
“Dare to fight against the devil, never compromise with the gangs”: Bo’s act resonated powerfully in a country fractured by economic development and widely afflicted by beak-wetting. But Bo’s political angle was not merely playing to the peanut gallery: it was also a factional power play, implicitly critical of his similarly powerful predecessor Wang Yang for having tolerated the mobsters’ rise.
And Wen Qiang, a holdover from even before the Wang years, was Bo’s highest-ranking prey.
Xinhua reported that he was found guilty of soliciting USD $1.7 million worth of bribes, of protecting criminals like his sister-in-law who happened to be the “godmother” of crime in Chongqing, and even of raping a university student. Media circulated salacious stories of buried sacks of cash, mistresses collected and discarded, and secret luxury villas.
In these years, Bo went from victory to vctory and destroying Wen was just another stepping-stone towards the top leadership circles in the People’s Republic.
But merely 16 months after Wen faced his executioner, Bo’s own star also dramatically fell to earth.
In November 2011, British businessman and Bo associate Neil Haywood was found suspiciously poisoned in his Chongqing hotel. Practically overnight, Bo Xilai found himself the target instead of the author of the investigation — politically stricken as all his own chickens came home to roost.
An incredible sequence of events ensued: Bo’s chief of police (and Wen’s own Javert) Wang Lijun bizarrely fled to the (temporary) sanctuary of an American consulate the following February, days after Bo demoted him — apparently citing fear that Bo might have him, too, murdered.
Within weeks, Bo had been sacked as Chongqing party boss and dismissed from the Politburo while his wife Gu Kailai arrested for Neil Heywood’s murder. Wang was arrested when he left the American consulate. Politically impotent now, Bo had months to wait before his own divisive case finally came to a courtroom resolution in 2013. As of this writing, Wang and Bo and Gu are all serving long prison sentences. (Gu’s was a suspended death sentence recently commuted to life imprisonment.)
Through Bo’s precipitous fall, Bo’s own patron Zhou Yongkang was also ruined, forced out of national leadership, and eventually sent to prison on corruption charges of his own.
Bo’s disgrace has brought a re-examination of his rough rule in Chongqing — though many targets of his bygone anti-corruption drive still languish in prison, vainly protesting their innocence.
Though he is no longer around to protest on his own behalf, and there appears to be little sentiment that he was clear of corruption in an absolute sense, Wen has also been re-evaluated in light of those events — including indications that the most incendiary allegations against him might have been ginned up for show:
police buried the bundles of cash, carefully wrapped in waterproof paper, in the morning and then dug them up in front of the cameras that afternoon.
Another key piece of evidence used to convict Wen — two luxury villas worth more than 30 million yuan that Wen allegedly owned — has also been questioned.
A former senior police officer in Chongqing who was close to Wen insisted he was the real owner of the villas, where Wen allegedly kept mistresses and which were later turned into destinations for “anti-graft education” tours.
The (possibly apocryphal) story has it than in a prison meeting, the doomed Wen prophesied Danton-like to his persecutor Wang, “You’ll meet the same fate as me.”
There are affecting interviews with Wen’s wife and son, and even a reporter’s conversation with Wen during the very last hours of his life, all here.
OMAHA, Neb., June 5. — Charles Sheppard and Christian Fuerst, who murdered Carl Pulsifer Dec. 10, 1889, and then robbed the body of $20, were hanged at Frement [sic] at 10:30 this morning. Sheppard nearly fainted on the gallows, but Fuerst acted entirely unconcerned. When the men were asked if they had anything to say Fuerst replied, “nothin,” but Sheppard said, “We are the men who did the deed and therefore no one else can be accused of it.” Both of the men’s necks were broken.
Colonial counterfeiter Owen Syllavan (Sullivan) was executed in New York on this date in 1756.
An Irish runaway, Syllavan followed an indenture to the North American colonies and wound up enlisted in the army during the French and Indian War. As a militia armorer, he picked up the smithing skills with which he would later turn out plates to to clone the colonies’ bills of exchange.
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 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.”