On this date in 1871, John Hanlon expiated a cold-case Philadelphia murder.
Back in September of 1868, a young girl named Mary Mohrmann vanished while playing outside — her outraged corpse to be discovered days later dumped on a vacant lot a few blocks away at Sixth and Susquehanna.
The crime had every hallmark of a neighborhood perpetrator, someone who would have had the ability to hide away the kidnapped or dead girl in his own home before disposing of her body nearby.
John Hanlon, a nearby barber who knew Mary’s mother, numbered among the several men suspected of the crime and even detained for it. But it was frustratingly impossible to pin a solid accusation on him or anyone else. There were a few witnesses who had seen Mary led off, and a few others who saw someone abandon a bulky encumbrance where Mary was found, but among them all nobody was prepared to venture an identification.
So there the matter rested, and little Mary Mohrmann’s file might to this day reside in the dusty back rooms of the Philadelphia police cold case lockers had Hanlon restraint enough to lay off the predation following his lucky escape.
He did have the wisdom to move (within Philadelphia), and even to change his name to “Charles Harris”, but some detectives who investigated the original case still had him in view. In December 1869, “Harris” caught a fire-year sentence for attempting to molest a 10-year-old girl — and this naturally strengthened the suspicion against him in the Mohrmann case to (as the Cincinnati Enquirer put it on Dec. 30, 1869) “morally certain” despite the “lack of legal evidence to place him on trial.”
Now sure of their mark — indeed, seemingly tunnel-visioned in a fashion highly conducive to a wrongful conviction — police resumed their efforts to remedy that want of legal evidence.
To this end, they provided the suspect a cellmate in the person of a thief named Michael Dunn, whose detail was to elicit from “Harris” particulars of his criminal career. Sure enough, this stool pigeon soon had a self-reported confession in hand.
This distasteful strategem made possible the case that hanged John Hanlon: with it, the state could situate its moral certainty in a coherent narrative of the crime that Dunn read into the court transcripts as issuing straight from the mouth of the accused.
While Hanlon denied to the last that he ever confessed anything to the convenient jailhouse snitch, posterity might comfort itself (as did contemporaries)* by the culprit’s conspicuous caginess when it came to his actual culpability. His refusal even to remark on his own guilt or innocence appeared to speak volumes.
So it is hardly a surprise that few other Philadelphians besides Hanlon’s own mother, sisters, and 16-year-old wife** were at all troubled by the cheat necessary to noose the man. The New York Herald, whose bulletins on the case ran towards sensationalism, reported “a general sense of relief” in the City of Brotherly love post-execution.
When it was found that … Hanlon had really been hung people began to breathe freer — they feel that now their innocents are safe. The influence exerted by Hanlon’s deeds on the minds of every one having helpless children in their family has been something wonderful … no sympathy has been manifested for the guilty wretch.†
He died firmly, having immersed himself in prayer in his last days, and pronounced himself at peace with the world and with his mortal fate.
Editorial from the Feb. 3, 1871 New York Tribune.
* Hanlon, understandably, did not share this equanimity and at sentencing subjected the court to a bitter rant against the prosecutors who stitched him up. “I will die by murder!” he cried. “If ever another such case should come to light, lay before the jury John Hanlon’s last words, and let no more blood be spilled by perjury.” (Harrisburg Patriot, Dec. 12, 1870) Towards the end, in an interview with one of the detectives responsible, a more resigned Hanlon peacably reproached the lawman, “You and I know how it was done, and I don’t want to talk about it.” (New York Tribune, Feb. 2, 1871) By this time, Hanlon had a dying man’s thirst for reconciliation, and he apologized to the detective for the sharp tone he had taken in court.
In his last statement on the gallows, he generically sought forgiveness from “all whom I have injured in any way whatsoever.” (Harrisburg Patriot, Feb. 2, 1871)
** She was 13 when they married.
† New York Herald, Feb. 2, 1871. This author admitted that “it was necessary to use Dunn as a witness … the end will justify the means; yet it is a bad precedent to establish.”
On this date in 1813, 19-year-old Ezra Hutchinson was hanged in the western Massachusetts village of Lenox for raping a 14-year-old named Lucy Bates.
Hutchinson passed the girl by (mis)chance on the road on his way home, and arriving there reflected what an inviting target she made — so he turned and followed her path into the wilderness until he overtook her.
Reproduced here is the pamphlet issued over his signature on the day of his execution with the informative title, “The solemn address and dying advice of Ezra Hutchinson: who was executed at Lenox, Mass. November 18, 1813, for a rape on the body of Miss Lucy Bates.” In it, we find a mostly penitent Hutchinson, who owns and laments his adolescent lewdness, still bold enough to “forgive” his victim her testimony against him. A footnote by the pamphlet’s editor explains:
for several weeks previous to his execution, he was uniform in declaring, that he supposed the girl had really consented to what was done. The girl in her testimony had said that having resisted to the utmost of her power, until her strength failed, she finally, through weariness and fright, sank almost lifeless to the ground. Here is an apparent contradiction; but it is easily reconciled in the eye of charity, by supposing, that when she fainted, and ceased any longer to resist, he honestly thought that she yielded her consent, though in truth she did not.
On this date in 1996, Ellis Wayne Felker was elecrocuted for a rape-murder that — despite his classic middle name — he always maintained he did not commit.
Felker was fresh off his release from prison for aggravated sodomy in 1981 when he opened a leather shop at which a Macon Junior College student named Evelyn Joy Ludlam solicited work. Felker had none to give her — the business was failing — but he still invited her to interview.
Sometime after Ludlam interviewed at Felker’s shop on Novemer 24, 1981, her car ended up parked in the lot of the Trust Company Bank with Joy nowhere to be found. She remained missing until December 8, when a passerby found her body in Scuffle Creek outside of Macon. She had been raped, sodomized, and throttled.
Evidence incriminating Felker was circumstantial but suggestive: Felker was the last person who could be shown to have seen Joy Ludlam alive, and that under duplicitous circumstances; he had shifted his account of his contact with Ludlam during the crucial hours as evidence came in; he had gone out for an unexplained drive late the night of her disappearance; some bruises on the victim’s body suggested bondage sex and Wayne, a BDSM aficionado, had suspiciously disposed of some leather restraints shortly after Joy vanished. Plus, of course, there was that previous sexual assault conviction.
On the other hand, the initial autopsy and some expert testimony concerning the body’s condition suggested that Joy had died just a few days before she was pulled out of the creek — a timeline which would have ruled Felker out as a suspect since he was under police surveillance from the evening of November 25. (The revision of the autopsy’s initial, Felker-exonerating timeline, and the subsequent expert dispute over the expected state of a body submerged in water after X number of days forms a sizable part of the record. We at Executed Today have no ranks in this coroner’s science, but would note that she was found wearing the clothes she donned for her November 24 visit to Felker’s leather shop.) And years after the trial, boxes of evidence that the state had illegally failed to disclose to Felker’s defense team were discovered. They contained interviews with other witnesses, a highly dubious signed confession by a mentally disabled man, and human tissue.
The last really sticks in craw: courts in 1996, when DNA was still only emerging as a forensic force, refused to allow the sample to be tested on the Kafkaesque procedural grounds that the request had not been made earlier in the process — you know, before the defense knew there was such a sample to test, and/or before DNA testing was a thing. Partial credit for the frustration of Felker’s appeal routes goes to that relic of 1990s death penalty mania, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. This law, which limited (and still limits) capital defendants’ access to federal habeas corpus relief was actually upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in June 1996 via Felker’s own case: the key ruling is Felker v. Turpin.
He wasn’t through making history after he died, either.
In what was thought to be a first in 2000, a consortium of media organizations footed the bill for posthumous DNA testing of those recovered hair and fingernail samples, with the potential to deliver an embarrassing four-years-too-late exoneration.
At 8:00 p.m. on the evening of August 8, 1944, Watson and Wimberly, both of them already drunk, arrived at the farmhouse and bartered for a liter of apple cider. They spoke no French but were able to get their point across. The farmer and his daughter were wary of the inebriated pair and, after they left, barricaded the door.
Five minutes later, the two soldiers returned and battered it down.
Wimberly hit the man on the head with his Tommy gun and Watson forced the woman into a chair. Then, just like that, they left again. The two victims went upstairs, barricaded themselves into another room and double-locked it.
A few hours later the two soldiers returned and fired at least twenty .45 submachine gun rounds through the upstairs door, wounding both of the French civilians.
The farmer staggered downstairs and went to get help, but his daughter’s tibia was fractured and she was unable to flee. She was raped in turn by each of the men while the other held her at gunpoint.
At trial she couldn’t identify either of her attackers. The farmer identified Wimberly out of a lineup of six black soldiers, but wasn’t sure about Watson.
Their identification wasn’t really needed, however. Watson was found passed out at the crime scene in the morning, still wearing his bloodstained pants, with the fly unzipped. Wimberly had left, but he left his helmet liner (marked with a unique serial number) on the steps of the farmhouse.
When questioned, Wimberly blamed the entire thing on Watson. Watson made several contradictory statements about the night of the crime before pulling the old amnesia gag. He admitted he’d gone to the farmhouse with Wimberly and added, “I must have gotten drunk because the next thing I knew I was in the yard with a Colonel, two Lieutenants and two MPs.”
Given the circumstances, there wasn’t much either man could say to show why he should not be convicted and executed.
Justice was quick: they were hanged less than three months after their crime. Wimberly went first and was pronounced dead at 10:29 p.m. Watson followed and was dead by 10:48. Eight days later, General George S. Patton had a letter sent to the rape victim, apologizing for what she’d been through and for the soldiers’ part in it.
On this date in 1833, Ira West Gardner [Gardiner] hanged in Warren, Ohio — the only person ever executed in Trumbull County.
Gardner reads like the kind of rotter to inspire a Lifetime TV obsessed-stalker thriller: in the tiny township of Gustavus, he married a widow named Anna Buel[l] with a teenage daughter. Even the trial records are delicate on what transpired between young Maria and her stepfather — “for some reason, not very satisfactorily shown in the proof, she, for a short time before her death, evinced a strong desire to leave your roof, under circumstances which induced her friends to believe she was in fear of you.” The girl “was seen running from home disordered” and took refuge with a nearby farmer named Mills, where she turned up “barefooted, and without a handkerchief to put on her neck.” This was just two or three days before her murder on August 8, 1832; if the reader is getting a distinct whiff of sexual assault, well, one neighbor “told Gardner, that Maria had said, he had had criminal intercourse with her in a manner that would send him to the penitentiary.” Gardner denied it, but his obsessive behavior tells a different tale.
For Mills, Gardner showed the reasonable neighbor, and tried to persuade his absconded stepdaughter to return — but also agreed she was of age to go her own way if she preferred.
But to others, he made less compromising and much more sinister intimations, like “Maria has got to go home and live contented or I will be the death of her — I will have my revenge.” That’s actually less a sinister intimation than a highly specific threat.
Dad was able to put off his menacing aspect as a temporary fury that had come and gone, and he eventually negotiated with Maria via another neighbor, Bidwell, to allow her to return for her clothes. As soon as she got there, with Bidwell right there in the house too, Gardner suddenly produced a butcher’s knife and stabbed the unhappy object of his obsession in her chest and stomach. Though he was instantly subdued by Bidwell, the deed was done: Maria expired in ten painful minutes while Gardner ranted demonically to the arriving neighbors.
“I told you you had outwitted me last night, but that I would match you yet,” he said to one who had tried to reason with him. “I have done it, and got my revenge.” The killer was fixated on the idea of townsfolk who had lately tried to smooth out the situation as adversaries to “outwit”; to another he taunted, “I have now outgeneraled you as I told you I would — I did the deed, and did it effectually.”
(It was later found that this Scipio had also readied a pitchfork and an axe should he have the opportunity to chase after her.)
was escorted to the place of hanging by a great procession and band … people who had children away at school brought them home to witness the execution. We now wonder how these parents reasoned, but one of the young men who was thus brought many miles remembers that his father said he might never have another chance to see another hanging, and he was right. The children of the sixties were not like those of thirties, for the former always shivered as they passed the corner of South and Chestnut streets on the way to the cemetery, and dare not look towards the tree from which Gardner is supposed to have swung. Whether the tree was still standing at that time is not certain. Possibly children are like men and horses, less afraid where many people are congregated.
Sheriff Mygatt said that he did not believe he was going to be able to discharge his duty in the case of Gardner, but that he did work himself up to the point. He took the prisoner in his own carriage, led by Warren’s first band, which played a dire. The military organization formed a hollow square around the scaffold. Elder Mack, a Methodist minister, walked with Mr. Mygatt and the prisoner to the scaffold. A hymn was sung, in which the prisoner joined, and he was then swung to a great overhanging limb where he breathed his last.
“The young, beautiful & innocent Frances Maria Buel who was butchered by her stepfather” still has a marker in the East Gustavus Cemetery. Gardner rests in an unmarked grave.
On this date in 1850, Henry Leander Foote was hanged in Connecticut.
Foote was an educated man who used his time languishing in jail — there was nearly a full year between his conviction and his execution — to bestow upon the world an autobiographical narrative of his peregrinations, which the reader can peruse in its entirety at the bottom of this post. Affected with wanderlust, he struck out from home as a teenager and began a rambling career that would take him all over America.
One of his first stops was the bustling and burgeoning metropolis that will become the hub of his narrative and, as Foote conceived it, the source of his ruin — New York city. There he was introduced to the city’s vast sexual marketplace.
At the end of two or three weeks, I found myself in the city of New York. What a place for a stranger, a young man of seventeen or eighteen years of age to visit alone, without any guardian to conduct him or advise him, and warn him against evil company! I had no acquaintances except three or four young men, whom I met on board the boat, who were also from Connecticut. They were in company, all belonging to one town, and then invited me to stop at the same public house with them. I had been informed that one of them was the son of a minister of the gospel, consequently I concluded that the company was good and safe to be with. But I found, to my astonishment, that this young man was the ring leader, the rudest and wildest of the crowd. The first night I was led to the Theater, from there to the brothel, and from there to the gambling house and drinking saloon. Here we must be fashionable and have a game of cards and a bottle or two of champane. [sic] … We played and drank till sometime past midnight, when we concluded it was time to retire.
Foote is coy here and suggests that his virginal young self repelled the subsequent invitation to a brothel. Whether or not this is so, he soon became by furtive subsequent visits whose purpose he was careful to conceal from his family an intimate of the city’s many whores.
These youthsome frolics are only foreshadowing for the excuses that Foote would be obliged to make many years later in the pall of the gallows. He spent the 1830s and 1840s bouncing around the growing republic — upstate New York, westward to Cleveland at St. Louis, south to Charleston where he married but lost his wife within a year to childbirth. (The son died, too.) After that, he enlisted in the cavalry and fought in the Seminole Wars.
Foote does not give us much of his sexual adventures on these trips, but between the lines it appears that the concupiscient fornicator and the New England prude ever travel side by side with him. He ships to Rio de Janeiro and does not fail to notice that “the dress of most of the women was not much better than none, being merely a short gown, all open in the neck and breast, and reaching only half way to the knee, fastened round the waist with a belt. They would make any civilized man blush from head to foot, but they were not at all particular as to what position they happened to be in.” Nevertheless, he affects shock when “a mixed-blood, half Spanish and half Indian publican” offers him a girl for the night. (According to Foote, he did not take the girl.)
As for the army, well, it “is a most dangerous and destructive place to the morals of young men. It is a school of intemperance, profanity, licentiousness, obscene language, filthy communications, and all kinds of vile and lewd company” thanks to the degrading example of officers who “when at home, or where they are known, always assume the character of gentlemen, and presume to walk in respectable society, unite with the ‘upper ten,’ and [associate] with virtuous females, who, if they knew their true character, would turn from them with disgust.”
By 1849 we find the peripatetic Foote back in his native hamlet of Northford, Connecticut, 37 years old and again, or still, preoccupying himself with the diversions of the Tenderloin. To the best of my knowledge he is the subject of no biography save his own, and since we find that the diverse sojourns of the previous 20 years have ultimately changed neither his conduct nor even his locale, we might be excused for speculating how many adventures were contrived by the author’s hand.
Wherever it was that he had been, he was becoming a worldly denizen of the bagnio.
A few months before the murder, I spent one week in the city of crime and pollution, viz., New York. As usual on former occasions, I spent my evenings and nights in a theater, gambling house, or brothel. Also on a former visit I had attended an exhibition of nudes, or model artists, as they are termed. But at this time the company had gone to New Orleans; a few of them, however, remained in New York, with one of which I had the misfortune to become acquainted. She was an arrogant prostitute, residing in a house of the higher class. I found her at the Bowery Theater; she enticed me, and I consented to accompany her home. As we entered her room she locked the door, laid aside her upper garments, and invited me to take a glass of wine with her. She poured out two glasses, and took a phial from the drawer of her toilet, drew the cork, and pretended to drop some of the contents in her glass of wine, but not a drop did she let fall. She said it was Cream of the Valley, it would give the wine a delightful flavor, and then made a motion to drop some into my glass. But I was too wide awake for her. I knew it was some drug that might upset my ideas, so I told her to save her cream, I did not need any cream of that sort. She looked at me, and said, “you are not so green as you pretend. I gues syou understand a game or two.” I replied, “I understand enough to know the nature of your cream.” And said I, “what was your object in giving it to me?” “O,” she replied, “I was only going to give you a drop or two, to make you feel keen.” She was very proud of her perfect symmetry of form, and proceeded to make a model artist of herself again, that she might give me a clear view of her model, and also of the extra manoeuvres which she had learned in the model artist plays.
After passing the night with his model artist’s “extra manoeuvres,” Foote pinched the potion for himself thinking to deploy it for his own benefit. He first called on a prostitute who had previously robbed him, engaged her charms for the night, and administered the drug to her, thereby having leisure to rob back the lost funds (“with interest,” Foote admits) as well as to leave behind a taunting note. He also found that she, too, possessed a dose of this potent Cream of the Valley, and duly replenished his supply.
Our dissolute principal was much given to exploiting his moment of notoriety for moral grandstanding, and we again should treat his account with caution.* Another author who visited Foote and published his observations in a pamphlet titled Death Cell Scenes, Or, Notes, Sketches and Momorandums of the Last Sixteen Days and Last Night of Henry Leander Foote is by no means hostile to his subject but often notices his unbecoming worldly preoccupations when he ought to be attending his imminent death with due gravity: he “showed a singular disposition to make money even at the hazard of his soul” by cranking out paintings to sell to the gawkers come to gape at him through the prison-bars and on one occasion arrives only to be brushed off as Foote is “in the height of glory and ambition, vending pamphlets and pictures to persons surrounding his cell with as much gusto as though he had to live twenty years or more!”
He was a doomed man with a keen sense of his audience; Foote even took the trouble to pre-order his own inscribed marble tombstone. (The stone can still be seen at Northford Old Cemetery in New Haven.)
He had a gift for rationalizing and segmenting his hypocrisies, surely honed by his years alternating Puritan piety with opportunistic harlotry. At the end when it could no longer be denied, he surfaced the contradiction by way of attenuating his own guilt.
“By this and other means, the hags who keep brothels contrive to get many of their recruits,” Foote wrote of the drugs like Cream of the Valley — subtly conflating his own loss of self-control with white slavery. “And if an inexperienced young man allows himself to visit their houses once, perhaps for mere curiosity, when he is not aware of any danger, they will bewitch him in some way that will induce him to come again; and so he will continue to go until his ruin is completed. Beware, young man, and shun all such places! Once in, you insensibly lose self-command. It is not easy to resist such temptations when once poisoned. These female Satans use the very arts of old Satan himself, and some that he does not use. Once in their power, you are not your own keeper.”
Not your own keeper — even as he admits and bewails his own crime, Foote wants to convey to posterity the notion of a Jekyll-and-Hyde: that there is a Foote distinct from the murderer.
Back at Northford, “my thoughts were continually revolving upon the obscene views which I had witnessed in New York, particularly upon the model artist female … I seemed to have a bewitching anxiety to see the same again, or to see something of the same kind, and this base desire I could not overcome. A curiosity to see and examine some female in the same state of nudity was constantly haunting my mind.”
Although he’s taken the care to secret the prostitutes’ powerful draught in his trunk, it is not quite he who addresses himself to the “bewitching anxiety”: he gets drunk, and then “Satan himself was certainly busy with me, driving me on to ruin with all his power … [using] me as an instrument for the destruction of innocent life.” At length, “Satan” suggests him his young cousin Emily as the object to satisfy his base desire. Foote intercepted her on the way to school and, he said, lured her into the woods to snack on some tomatoes which he had dosed with the sleeping potion after which, you know, stuff happened. For a guy who carried out a premeditated plan to incapacitate and molest his underage kin, he sure expected to be given a lot of latitude.**
But with shame! shame! do I write it, I now proceeded to examine her person, which inflamed my baser passion to an unmanageable degree; and after my eyes were satisfied, I violated and robbed her of her virgin purity. She gave no signs of feeling except to draw one deep sigh. My brutish passion was now satisfied. I meditated upon what I had done, the criminal nature of the awfully wicked deed, the meanness of the act itself, and the base stratagem which I had employed to gratify my shameful curiosity. In the first place I had no intention of doing any thing more than to satisfy my eyes; but this created a passion so strong as to overrule all better feelings, honor, and decency. I stood over the wreck of beauty, innocence, and purity, and sincerely wished I had never seen the city of New York, or any of its bewitching female satans … my head was wild, and my heart felt as if it had turned into a great stone. I would have given half of the town had I possessed it, if I could have undone what I had done that morning. But that was impossible.
And having come this far, Foote realized if he should allow her to revive and be on her way, her story would send him to prison. “As if I almost heard an audible voice,” “something” suggested to him that he murder her. Foote floridly describes himself alternately resisting and impelled to the idea until “I acceeded [sic] to the horrible proposal, and Satan used me as an insensible instrument for his nefarious, bloody, and soul-destroying purpose.” Then Satan used him to slash Emily’s neck through the windpipe.
It’s a bit difficult to disentangle the actual or purported sequence of steps to the next murder; Foote writes of it as if he was hurled into despair by his crime and only paused from his intention of suicide to murder his mother when he reflected that the incestuous rape-murder imputed him might destroy her after he was gone. We get a somewhat different picture from the period’s newspaper accounts which suggest that he was no suspect at all when Emily first turned up missing and coolly played it as if shocked, before getting drunk and bashing mom’s head with a hammer. If you liked his story about how Satan made him rape Emily, you’ll love this.
I drank several times during the forepart of the afternoon, and about three o’clock I went to get another drunk, but the jug was missing — my mother had hid it, and it was not to be found by me. This enraged me … if she had let the liquor alone, it is possible, and not improbable, that I would have drank so much as to render me incapable of making any attempt upon her life; and thereby she might have escaped entirely. But she was often very unwise in provoking me, especially when I had liquor in my head. It was a wrong way to deal with me, to take liquor from me to prevent my drinking, for I was generally sure to go and get a larger quantity and drink so much the more. But she has many times done it, and thereby caused me to behave much worse than I should otherwise have done. Late years my mother has been very petulant towards me; whether I had been drinking or not, it seemed to be about the same. This I attributed to trouble, and the influence of opium, which induced her to pack the faults of others upon me, charge me with things of which I was entirely innocent, and find fault with me when I was not in the least to blame; and to complain of things which I knew were right.
Foote insists that he tells us all this not “for the purpose of defending or screening myself from any blame” from the matricide he committed for mom’s own benefit. Just wanted to contribute to the historical record. And then he has the chutzpah to accuse a neighbor who came running to the battered woman’s shrieks of being a big old pussy for backing away and yelling for help when threatened with the bloody hammer. This is a man who required a more forceful minister, a good psychiatrist, or a better P.R. team. Even to the last, the killer’s self-awareness only amounted to his own narcissism.
“The last act of Foote in his cell,” writes the hanged man’s companion in Death Cell Scenes, “was to make use of a quantity of mus on his hair, six cents worth of which he had ordered the night previous, besides ‘two pleasant Spanish cigars.'”
* As pertains the potion specifically, Foote cites (and perhaps may be suspected of borrowing from) the story of temperance moralizer John Bartholomew Gough, who disappeared in New York for a week in 1845 and was discovered in a whorehouse, floating in an opiate daze.
** There was a witness who heard a scream, presumably by Emily. Foote’s account essentially renders the attack “non-violent” (he says, as if to complete his travesty of Eden, that at one point she shrieked when she caught sight of a snake). It really is entirely possible that he simply perpetrated an uncomplicated wilderness rape and subsequently concocted every other convenient detail. (“No intention of doing any thing more than to satisfy my eyes” indeed.)
On this date in 1794, Edmund Fortis was hanged in Dresden, Maine* — at the time still a part of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Fortis was born a slave in Virginia but escaped and slipped into the wage economy by hiring out as a seaman on a ship bound from Alexandria, Va., to England. According to his dying confession he was a habitual petty thief; by the time he had made his way to Maine, “my life was dreadful — Drinking, stealing and gaming.”
Fortis admitted to, and even pleaded guilty to, the rape-murder of a young girl named Pamela Tilton whom he saw by chance and waylaid on a country road on May 18. This confession “the evidence of credible witnesses on oath … abundantly confirmed.” That’s from the sentencing oration of Justice Robert Treat Paine, via The Oracle of the Day (Portsmouth, N.H.), July 26, 1794, which continues with flourishes of hellfire —
This sentence, when executed, will remove you from this world, where you have proved yourself so unworthy an inhabitant, to a state of existence where you must reap the fruits of your past life; where you must appear before the awful tribunal of that holy Being, who cannot be deceived and who will not be mocked, and who will judge you for this and all the other sins in your life …
you have cast off the fear of God from your eyes, and all restraint of reverence to him from your thoughts, words, and actions, till your unbridled lust and malicious disposition had arrived to full ripeness, and urged you to the commission of crimes, at your own relation of which, nature revolts and the human heart is rent with agony. To what a pitch of brutal lust must you have arrived, that a person of your nation, your age, having a wife and children in the neighborhood, should so inhumanly assault and violate the chastity of that young girl in spight of her intreaties and remonstrances, and then with all the savage cruelty of a ruffian and an assassin, deaf to those cries and supplications which would have melted any heart but one lost to every humane feeling, you barbarously strangled to death the inoffensive victim of your lustful crime; thus in a short space of time destroying life, the first right of all mankind, and chastity, the second right of woman.
… repent and live … so, although your aggravated crimes must bring you to an untimely and disgraceful death, yet that you may escape that weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth, that destruction from the face of the Lord, that bitterness of misery which cannot be discribed nor conceived, which will be inflicted on all the enemies of the holy Governour of the Universe, and that your soul may be happy forever in the heavenly world.
But Fortis did not need much convincing of his soul’s peril.
The bulk of his confession is taken up describing the transformative apparition of God’s grace as he awaited arraignment in prison — the appearance of which is precisely what induced him to plead guilty to the charge, lest he “lie against God.”
I could not rest, there was no comfort or peace for me: I tho’t no person was so bad as I, my whole life filled with sin, stealing, lying, whoring and drinking, and now murder. At length I got up, and endeavoured to pray, but my heart was hard as a stone, and it seemed bound up; still I thought I would keep praying to the Lord whether he had mercy on me or not.
On Saturday morning it seemed as if I had more desire to pray and plead with God than before; and in the afternoon it seemed as if my heart was in some degree melted, and there was some hope. I heard something like a voice, saying “verily, verily give him a new heart,” and it seemed as if a man was in me working downward, and clearing or cleaning my heart. I thought I could breathe out my heart to God, and could see a light shining from heaven, brighter than snow, and in the light it seemed as though a great many angels were singing, which drowned my groans and prayers; and I cried O Lord! and looked up, and I saw in a corner of the prison something red like fire, and thought it was the Devil. I found I had another feeling, and I cried to the Lord. I now felt relieved; but was doubtful whether it could be true that the Lord had mercy on me, and wanted to see the light again.
On Lord’s day morning I felt more contented; but could hardly believe what I saw, and felt. I looked out of the grates, and all things looked strange, as if in another place; the birds seemed to come near the Goal and sing. Putting myself in the same place where I first saw the light, I prayed, and said, O Lord, for thy dear Son Jesus’ sake, who died for sinners, have mercy on me! And immediately the same angels began to sing again; and I believed in the Lord, and loved every body. I felt cool and calm; all the dread and fear which I had suffered were gone.
When I was brought to the bar, a gentleman spoke to me, and advised me to plead not guilty: Oh! I thought he wanted me to lie against God; and I considered how dreadful it was for a man that could read to give such advice. When the indictment was read, and the judge asked me whether I was guilty or not guilty, I felt very calm, and answered, guilty. And when I was brought the next day to hear my sentence, I felt perfectly resigned and thankful to the court, God knows their sentence was just. I now wait for the last stroke of death. I can trust my soul in the hands of the Lord, and am willing to do, or suffer any thing God shall lay upon me; and if he should cast me off, it will be right for I deserve it.
However wondrous this gallows-foot conversion was for Edmund Fortis, it augured ill for some other residents of the Commonwealth.
It appears that M’Causling has lately become deluded in matters of religion. For some time he has principally associated himself with a party of baptists, living on a plantation back off Pittston, headed by one Stinson, and two or three others. In one of his paroxisms of religious insanity, he burnt an elegant church in the town of Pittston. He says that Stinson told him, that his brother Edmund Fortis, who was lately executed for the murder of Pamela Tilton, was certainly gone to heaven, and that the road to Heaven was marked with blood. M’Causling thought, that as Fortis had gone to heaven, he should go there too, provided he was to use the same means. (Boston Gazette and Weekly Republican Journal, Nov. 17, 1794)
Consequently, McCausling stalked a Mrs. Warren** “in a dark night, through woods and over rivers which were almost impassable by day” until he finally came upon her at her sick mother’s house, tending to her, and thereupon
he flung her back with his left hand, and with his right, drew a knife from his pocket, where he had concealed it, and instantly cut her throat, without her being able to say more than this — “M’Causling, are you going to murder me!” He immediately fled, but was soon arrested and committed to gaol, where he must remain for the sentence which awaits him.
Like his predecessor, McCausling also pleaded guilty to his crime; the court judging him quite mad, he was balked of his objective in this world at least: how he has fared in the next we dare not guess.
* The Pownalborough Court House, which doubled as a jail, can still be seen today. It’s where Fortis spent his last days, although he was not tried in that building.
** From the press accounts I have seen, she is identified only as “the wife of a Mr. Pelton Warren.”
One hundred years ago today, Leo M. Frank was lynched to an oak tree at Marietta — one of the most notorious mob murders in American history.
Methodically extracted hours before from the Midgeville State Penitentiary by an Ocean’s Eleven-style team of coordinated professionals, Frank’s murder was as shocking in 1915 as it reads in retrospect.
The well-heeled Jewish Yankee was factory superintendent at the National Pencil Company in Atlanta when a 13-year-old girl in his employ was discovered in the factory’s basement — throttled and apparently raped. That was in 1913; for the ensuing two years, the prosecution of Mary Phagan’s boss as her murderer would play out in sensational press coverage.
Frank is today widely thought innocent of the crime, although the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles has balked at issuing an unconditional pardon since so little of the original evidence survives. (A 1986 pardon came down “without attempting to address the question of guilt or innocence” in recognition of the slanted trial and the failure to protect Frank from lynchers.) But this was much more than a courtroom drama; the Frank affair crackles with the social tensions of early 20th century America. Industry and labor; integration; sexual violation; sectional politics; race and class and power.
Populist Party politician Thomas E. Watson, whose magazines made a dishonorable intervention by openly agitating for (and then celebrating) Frank’s lynching, captures the Zeitgeist for us as he fulminates against the nationwide campaign to grant the convicted murderer a new trial: “Frank belongs to the Jewish aristocracy, and it was determined by the rich Jews that no aristocrat of their race should die for the death of a working-class Gentile.” Frank came to enjoy (if that’s the right word) the editorial support of most of the country’s major papers, but the meddling of northern publishers, and of fellow Jews in solidarity,* arguably led Georgians to circle wagons in response. Present-day Muslims called upon to disavow every bad act by every other Muslim would surely recognize this no-win position.
But then we must also add that Watson himself, a lawyer, had been approached by Frank’s defense team hoping to enlist his bombast to defend their man at trial. The white supremacist demagogue would have been perfect for the job, for the legal battle pitted the credibility of a black janitor named Jim Conley against that of Frank.
Here amid the nadir of American race relations Frank’s team made its own ugly and unsuccessful pitch for racial solidarity with his neighbors. When formulaically asked by the court that had convicted him for any statement to mitigate the impending sentence, Frank replied that
my execution will make the advent of a new era in Georgia, where a good name and stainless honor count for naught against the word of a vile criminal; where the testimony of Southern white women of unimpeachable character is branded as false by the prosecution, disregarded by the jury and the perjured vaporings of a black brute alone accepted as the whole truth.
This violent collision of two vulnerable minorities each with the keen sense that one or the other of them was being outfitted for WASP America’s nooses makes for riveting and sometimes bizarre reading. Newspapers could hardly fail to note that the all-white jury (Leo Frank’s defense team struck all the blacks) had, as Frank complained, privileged the account of just the sort of “black brute” that Southern courts were accustomed to scorn, or railroad. Thus we have the NAACP organ The Crisis taking umbrage that “Atlanta tried to lynch a Negro for the alleged murder of a young white girl” but “a white degenerate has now been indicted for the crime.” It was likewise reasoned by some that since Conley was a young black man with a criminal record who was a potential suspect in the Deep South in the murderous sexual assault of a little white girl, “the mere fact that Conley did not long ago make his exit from this terrestrial sphere, via a chariot of fire is convincing proof that he, at least, is not the man who committed the deed.”** (New York Age, Oct. 29, 1914.)
In the end it was a zero-sum game between Jim Conley and Leo Frank: one of them was the murderer; each accused the other. Their respective desperate interests permeated to their respective communities. (After Frank’s lynching, hundreds of Jews left Georgia; many who remained took pains to downplay their Jewishness.)
By whatever circumstance police zeroed on Frank and the white community’s passion followed — tunnel vision that would eventually manifest itself in a circus courtroom atmosphere where the prosecuting attorney was cheered and defense witnesses hooted at and the ultimate outcome more demanded than anticipated. The judge feared that an acquittal would result in the summary lynching of not only Frank but his defenders.
Unusually for the time, appeals on the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court which declined to intervene — although two justices filed a dissent citing the egregious trial atmosphere.
Mob law does not become due process of law by securing the assent of a terrorized jury …
This is not a matter for polite presumptions; we must look facts in the face. Any judge who has sat with juries knows that in spite of forms they are extremely likely to be impregnated by the environing atmosphere … we think the presumption overwhelming that the jury responded to the passions of the mob …
lynch law [is] as little valid when practiced by a regularly drawn jury as when administered by one elected by a mob intent on death.
“Feeling as I do about this case, I would be a murderer if I allowed this man to hang,” the governor said. “It may mean that I must live in obscurity the rest of my days, but I would rather be plowing in a field than feel for the rest of my days that I had this man’s blood on my hands.”†
Frank was spirited away to the penitentiary under cover of darkness; it was hoped that the remote and reinforced edifice would deter any reprisal. It turned out that the furies who hunted Franks could not be dissuaded by mere inconvenience: a committee calling itself the Knights of Mary Phagan formed with the open object of organizing the intended mob vengeance — and indeed it was almost superseded in July of that year by a fellow-prisoner who slashed Frank’s throat as he slept.
Frank survived that murder attempt only to await the next one. Who knows what fancies frequented him in those weeks when he ducked from the shadow of the gallows to that of the lynching-tree, object of pity or hatred. He had time on the last day to savor his impending fate when the Knights methodically cut their way into the penitentiary — snipping the phone wires and disabling the vehicles — and marched their man out with nary a shot fired. Then, a convoy of automobiles “sped” (at 18 miles per hour) all the way back to a prepared execution-site at Marietta. The drive took seven or eight hours over unpaved country lanes, and for every moment of it Frank surely knew how it would end.
As a contrasting response, the American Jewish Committee declined to participate in the Frank campaign for fear of lending counterproductive credence to charges such as those voiced by the New York Sun (Oct. 12, 1913):
The anti-Semitic feeling was the natural result of the belief that the Jews had banded to free Frank, innocent or guilty. The supposed solidarity of the Jews for Frank, even if he was guilty, caused a Gentile solidarity against him.
** Maurianne Davis’s Strangers and Neighbors: Relations between Blacks and Jews in the United States has a trove of interesting editorial comment from Frank’s contemporaries in the black press, and the Jewish press. Conley was actually the confessed accessory, and served a year in prison for it: he said that he complied with Frank’s order to hide the body for fear that his “white” boss could easily get Conley lynched for the crime. Conley also wrote (under Frank’s directive, he said) the preposterous “murder notes” found with the body that purported to be Mary Phagan’s dying indictment of Newt Lee, the African-American night watchman.
† The allusion to political suicide suggests Slaton’s mind was on the precedent of Illinois Gov. John Altgeld, whose career was destroyed by pardoning some of the Haymarket anarchists. If so, Slaton was quite correct; he actually had to flee Georgia altogether and could not return to the state for more than a decade.
On this date in 2008, Mexican national Jose Medellin was executed by Texas, pleasurably sticking its thumb in the eye of the International Court of Justice.
U.S. state and local officials have often displayed the ugly-American tendency to view binding treaty obligations as a Washington thing of no moment to the likes of a Harris County prosecutor. So when Medellin was arrested for the 1993 rape-murder of two teenage girls in a Houston park, the idea of putting him right in touch with Mexican diplomats to assist his defense was, we may safely suppose, the very farthest thing from anyone’s mind.
Yet under the Vienna Convention, that is exactly what ought to have occurred. The idea is that consular officials can help a fellow on foreign soil to understand his unfamiliar legal circumstances and assist with any measures for his defense — and by common reciprocity, every state is enabled to look after the interests of its nationals abroad.
A widespread failure to do this, in death cases and others, has involved the United States in a number of international spats over the years.
Jose Medellin was among more than 50 Mexican prisoners named in one of the most noteworthy of these: the Avena case, a suit by Mexico* against the United States in the International Court of Justice.
In its March 31, 2004 Avena decision, the ICJ found that U.S. authorities had “breached the obligations incumbent upon” them by failing in these instances to advise the Mexican nationals it arrested of their Vienna Convention rights, and of failing in almost all those cases likewise to advise Mexican representatives that a Mexican citizen had been taken into custody.
“The appropriate reparation in this case,” the 15-judge panel directed, “consists in the obligation of the United States of America to provide, by means of its own choosing, review and reconsideration of the convictions and sentences of the Mexican nationals.”
If you think the Lone Star State’s duly constituted authorities jumped right on that “obligation,” you must be new around here.
Several years before, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions visited the United States and filed a report complaining “that there is a generalized perception that human rights are a prerogative of international affairs, and not a domestic issue.”
“Domestic laws appear de facto to prevail over international law, even if they could contradict the international obligations of the United States,” the Special Rapporteur noted.
Texas, famed for not being messed with, took a dim view indeed to being bossed about from The Hague. Indeed, the very concept of foreign law and international courts is a gleefully-thrashed political pinata among that state’s predominant conservative electorate.
U.S. President George W. Bush — a former Texas governor who in his day had no time at all for appeals based on consular notification snafus — in this instance appealed to Texas to enact the ICJ’s proposed review.† In fact, he asserted the authority to order Texas to do so.
“The World Court has no standing in Texas and Texas is not bound by a ruling or edict from a foreign court,” a spokesman of Gov. Rick Perry retorted.
This notion that America’s federalist governance structure could insulate each of her constituent jurisdictions from treaty obligations undertaken by the nation as a whole naturally seems preposterous from the outside. But in the U.S., this dispute between Washington and Austin was resolved by the Supreme Court — and the vehicle for doing so was an appeal lodged by our man, Medellin v. Texas.
The question at stake in Medellin was whether the treaty obligation was binding domestic law on its own — or if, by contrast, such a treaty required American legislative bodies to enact corresponding domestic statutes before it could be enforced. The high court ruled for the latter interpretation, effectively striking down Avena since there was zero chance of either Texas or the U.S. Congress enacting such a statute.
Medellin, the decision, spelled the end for Medellin, the man — and, at least for now, the end of any prospect of effectual intervention in American death penalty cases by international tribunals.
July 20, 1934 was the third and last of Walter Lett’s scheduled execution dates for raping a white woman in Monroeville, Alabama.
A thirty-something ex-convict, Lett’s protestations of innocence stood little chance against the word of a white woman named Naomi Lowery, herself a penniless drifter.
Lett was almost lynched but despite his certain condemnation there was something wrong about this case — something discomfiting even for Monroeville’s worthies. We have seen elsewhere in these pages that a rape accusation was a powerful weapon on the ambiguous fringes of the color line. Just three years before this story, nine black teens had been accused of a rape on an Alabama train, and the legal odyssey of these Scottsboro Boys would dominate headlines during the Depression.
“It may have been that [Lett] and Lowery were lovers, or that she was involved with another Negro man,” one author put it. “If a white woman became pregnant under those circumstances, it was not uncommon for her to claim rape, or accuse someone other than her lover.”
Records of this trial seem to have gone missing, but Lett’s claims had enough weight (and Lowery’s had little enough) to induce Monroeville’s elders to petition Gov. Benjamin Miller* against carrying out the electrocution. Miller reprieved Lett ahead of May 11 and June 20 execution dates: “I am of the opinion and conviction that there is much doubt as to the man being guilty,” Miller told the Montgomery Advertiser. Gov. Miller was so sure that Lett didn’t do it that before the man went to the chair on July 20, Miller decided instead to let him spend the rest of his life in prison for the thing he didn’t do.
We don’t have Walter Lett’s side of this story because the strain of his position drove him mad; when the sentence was commuted, he was transported from death row directly to a mental hospital, where he died of tuberculosis in 1937.
In his stead, we have a different voice: a Monroeville schoolgirl at the time of Lett’s trial named Harper Lee** would later channel the case’s undertones of racial injustice for her legendary (and, until recently, only) novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.
In one of the famously retiring Lee’s few public comments on the book, she cited the Lett case as her model for the book’s fictional, and manifestly unjust, rape trial.
Lee’s father, A.C. Lee was the editor-publisher of the Monroeville Journal at the time of l’affaire Lett. But as a young lawyer, before Harper’s birth, Lee himself had once defended in court two men who wound up being hanged. An idealized† version of this man is the clear foundation for the defense attorney Atticus Finch in Lee’s book.
Charles Shields, whose 2006 biography of Harper Lee is quoted above on the indeterminate reason for the rape allegation, writes that the author “had a free hand to retell this macabre episode in her father’s life, which he always referred to in vague terms, no doubt because of the pain it caused him. (He never accepted another criminal case.) This time, under his daughter’s sensitive hand, A. C. Lee, in the character of Atticus Finch, could be made to argue in defense of Walter Lett, and his virtues as a humane, fair minded man would be honored.”
* Miller was an anti-Ku Klux Klan politician, a fact of possible relevance to his actions.
** Harper Lee’s childhood friend was Truman Capote, future author of In Cold Blood. (Lee traveled to Kansas with Capote and helped him research the murder case in question.) Alabama’s legislature has recognized Monroeville as the state’s literary capital.
† According to Shields, the real A.C. Lee was more of a gentleman, establishment segregationist: more like the warts-and-all Atticus Finch of Lee’s Go Set a Watchman than the saintly character played by Gregory Peck. In 1952-53, A.C. Lee helped to force out the pastor of the local First Methodist church over controversial pro-integration remarks from the pulpit. Rev. Ray Whatley’s post-Monroeville assignment took him to Montgomery, where he was president of a chapter of the Alabama Council on Human Relations while the young Rev. Martin Luther King was vice-president. Whatley was forced out of his Montgomery congregation, too: called “a liar, a communist, and a few other things” (Whatley’s words) for supporting the Montgomery Bus Boycott. They tried to reassign him to tiny Linden, Alabama, but townspeople there immediately rejected him and many stopped paying church tithes until he was shipped onward to Mobile.
See When the Church Bell Rang Racist by Donald Collins, who notes that Whatley’s anathema had a chilling effect on other white Methodist clergy — now clearly given to understand that there would be “a great price to be paid if a minister chose to speak out for racial justice.”