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Unspecified Year: Vilem, the Forest King

Add comment May 2nd, 2018 Headsman

On this date in an unspecified year, the bandit Vilem is broken on the wheel and beheaded in the classic Czech poem Maj, by Karel Hynek Macha.

Maj (“May”) commences with a lass called Jarmila on the first day of that month who waits on the shores of a Bohemian lake now named for Macha for her outlaw lover … only to be told by a boatman that her sweetheart in fact reposes across that body of water, weighted with irons in a castle dungeon, where he awaits a dawn execution for murdering his own father, who was also Jarmila’s seducer. All concerned reflect and pine through a melancholy night, and come morning Vilem is put to death as planned and gibbeted on his breaking-wheel; years later, his still-visible remains occasion a traveler-narrator to discover and somberly reflect on the events, and the ephemerality of all things: “My youth, alas, my youth! My season and song are May! / An eventide of May on a rocky, desolate shore: / Light laughter on the lips, deep grief in the heart’s core.”

This tale, recognizable to every Czech, has been put to the silver screen on several occasions. Macha’s timing was impeccable, for he self-published it in 1838, right when central Europe’s romantic social banditry mythos was forming. According to Mohmir Grygar, the name “Vilem” (Wilhelm, William) might allude to the executed Tyrolean chancellor Wilhelm Biener, although Biener himself — a fallen overmighty politico, not a gold-hearted brigand — bears little resemblance to his alleged literary descendant.

1

Late evening, on the first of May—
The twilit May—the time of love.
Meltingly called the turtle-dove,
Where rich and sweet pinewoods lay.
Whispered of love the mosses frail,
The flowering tree as sweetly lied,
The rose’s fragrant sigh replied
To love-songs of the nightingale.
In shadowy woods the burnished lake
Darkly complained a secret pain,
By circling shores embraced again;
And heaven’s clear sun leaned down to take
A road astray in azure deeps,
Like burning tears the lover weeps.

A haze of stars in heaven hovers—
That church of endless love’s communion—
Each jewel blanches and recovers
As blanch and burn long-parted lovers
In the high rapture of reunion.
How clear, to her full beauty grown,
How pale, how clear, the moon above,
Like maiden seeking for her love,
A rosy halo round her thrown!
Her mirrored image she espied,
And of self-love, beholding, died.
Forth from the farms pale shadows strayed,
Lengthening longing to their kind,
Till they embraced, and close entwined,
Coiled low into the lap of shade,
Grown all one twilight unity.
Tree in the shadows writhes to tree.
In the far mountains’ dark confine
Pine leans to birch and birch to pine.
Wave baunting wave the streamlets move.
For love’s sake—in the time of love—
Anguished goes every living thing.

A fair girl at the rim of land
Watches the evening’s rosy phases;
Under the oak-tree by the strand
Far out across the lakes she gazes.
Blue to her feet it coils and glimmers,
And green beyond, and greener, sleeps,
Till in the distances and deeps
In clear, pale light all melts and shimmers.
Over the wide and watery plain
The girl has fixed her weary gaze;
Over the wide and watery plain
Only the glint of starlight plays.
A lovely girl, an angel ravaged,
A bud that April winds have savaged,
In her pale cheeks doomed beauty hastens.
One hour has swallowed up her morrow,
One hour her promise chills and chastens,
Marries her May to grief and sorrow.

Of twenty days the last has died;
Still dreams the quiet countryside.
The last light hastens to its close,
And heaven, like a great, clear rose,
Over the deep blue mountains flushes.
“He comes not! Ah, such anguish takes me!
Another spoiled, and he forsakes me!”
A heavy sigh her sad voice bushes,
Her aching heart burns in her breast,
And with the water’s plaint unsleeping
Mingles the note of bitter weeping.
Snared in her tears the stars find rest,
Down her pale cheeks like bright sparks flowing
Till like quenched stars they burn to shades there,
On her cold countenance briefly glowing.
And where they fall, the blossom fades there.

At the rock’s rim she glimmers whitely;
A silken standard flies her gown,
In evening zephyrs fluttering lightly.
Her eyes on distance fix and frown—
In haste she dries her blinding tears,
Beneath her shading hand she peers,
And on the distant shore she fastens,
Where in the hills the lake creeps hiding;
Over the waves live sparks go gliding,
Star after watery starlet bastens.

Even as snow-white virgin doves
Against dark wastes of cloud in flight,
On water-lily flowering white
On deepest blue—so something moves—
Where in the hills the lake creeps hiding—
Over the dark waves nearer gliding,
Nearer in haste. A moment proves
Now as the stork’s grave flight it looms,
No dove so flies nor lily blooms,
But a white sail rocked by hasting breezes.
A slender oar the blue wave teases,
With flaming furrows the surface bazing.
The golden rose of heaven’s hold,
High in the mountain oakwoods blazing,
Gilds the ripples with rosy gold.
“Swift litlle boat! Near, nearer bounding!
‘Tis be! ‘Tis be! Those plumes bright beaming,
The hat, the eyes beneath it gleaming—
His cloak—” The boat in the beach is grounding.

Over the rocks his light step rings,
By a known path he climbs and closes.
The girl’s pale face flowers into roses;
From the tree’s shade in wild hope flying
She runs, high-calling, runs and springs,
And on the rower’s breast she’s lying-
“Alas, my heart!: The moonlight shows
In its full flood a face she knows.
Her pounding blood to terror knells her.
Where is Vilem?”

“See, by the lake,”
In low grim tone the boatman tells her,
“Above the night the forests make
Rises a tower, its image white
Deep in the lake’s heart drowned from sight;
But deeper, see, at the water’s rim,
From a little window a lantern’s gleam;
This night to vigil Vilem is giving:
Tomorrow sets him free from living.
His heavy guilt and yours he carries:
Deep your seducer’s blood has stained him,
That stroke a parricide arraigned him.
Still, still revenge the avenger barries!
A felon’s death! Peace to him bring,
Lord, when that face, the rose outshining,
In its high place stands withering,
And in the wheel his limbs are twining!
So dies the dreaded Forest King!
Bear for his guilt, and your own shame,
My bitter curse, and the world’s blame!”

He turns. His voice to silence falls;
Down he climbs through the rocky walls,
Outward his boat goes gliding.
Swift as the stork’s flight, beating fast,
Dwindling, dwindling, a lily at last,
Over the lake in the mountains hiding.

Hushed are the waters, dark, forlorn,
In deep dusk all things crouch to cover.
A white dress gleams on the waves that mourn
Over her: “Jarmila!” like a lover,
And the woods sigh: “Jarmila!” over and over.

Late evening, on the first of May—
The twilit May-the time of love.
To dalliance woos the turtle-dove:
“Jarmila! Jarmila!! Jarmila!!!”

2

Out of heaven a star falls questing,
Dying through the wastes of space,
Endlessly it falls unresting
Through its endless resting-place;
From the unbounded grave wild crying
Beats at heaven with bitter breath.
“Is there then no end of dying?”
Nowhere—never an end of death.
Around the white tower breezes shiver,
Beneath, the whispering wavelets quiver.
On the blanched walls in silver glance
The argent moon sheds radiance.
But deep within the tower is darkness only,
For the clear moon’s pale wealth of light
Through narrow window into the cell gropes lonely,
And dims into the assault of night.
Column by column the sombre vault’s recesses
Melt into darkness. The entering wind sighing
Circles the cell like murdered felons crying,
And stirs the prisoner’s tresses.
Beside a table hewn of stone,
His head upon his hands inclining
Half-sits, half-kneels this wretched one,
To deeps of thought his soul resigning.
As clouds the moon’s face veil and cover,
He draws their web his spirit over;
Thought into thought flows undesigning.

“Deep night, now in your veiling hold
My native village you enfold,
And friends weep for my end there.
Weep?—and for me? A dream outworn!
Long since I have no friend there.
The first gleam of tommorow’s morn
Over her forest breaking,
Will send me to my death forlorn,
And gild, as when her child was born,
Her merry, mild awaking.”

Silent he falls; but through the night,
About the high vault flying,
Far, far his voice goes sighing,
Till as with horror frozen in flight
At the cell’s end it chills there,
And into darkness stills there.

The silence in the darkness grieving
Calls back to heart the days departed;
Again in waking dreams he’s living
The long-lost life of a boy light-hearted.
Remembrance of green years and kind
Brings back a young man’s dreams to mind;
The prisoner’s eyes with tears are flowing,
And in his heart a great pain growing—
A lost world how shall the seeker find?

Mountain on mountain westward presses
Beyond the lake high-piled
And there in the pinewoods’ sweet recesses,
He dreams himself once more a child.
Early thrust from his father’s care,
Bred up by brigands in strifes and stresses,
Last to their leader fallen heir,
Gallant and daring they acclaim him.
Known to all men, thus all men name him,
Lord of the Woods, a name of fear.
Till the love of a broken rose inflames him;
His hand, to bitter vengeance straying,
Seeks the seducer, strikes him, claims him,
His stranger father strangely slaying.
Wherefore a prisoner he lies,
Doomed to the wheel’s embrace that kills;
Lord of the Woods, at dawn he dies,
At the first kindling of the hills.

Now at a table hewn of stone,
His head upon his hands reposing,
Half-sits, half-kneels this wretched one,
The abyss of thought his soul enclosing:
As clouds the moon’s face veil and cover,
He draws their web his spirit over,
Thought evermore new thought disclosing.

“He, sire and foe!-I, death and seed!
And he my love’s betrayer!
I knew him not! My fearful deed
recoiled and slew the slayer.
Why was I banished from his sight
The lawless woods to barry?
Whose crime does the dawn’s death requite?
Whose guilt is this I carry?
Not mine! ab, surely I was bent
A mute, unwitting instrument
God’s judgment to deliver.
Not mine the deed! Why, then, ah, why
Out to this hideous death go I
So soon-and, ah, for ever?
Soon, and for ever! Endless—death—”
For horror fails the prisoner’s breath,
Echoing from the dungeon wall;
The voiceless shadow of the night
In iron grip shuts sound and sight.
A new dream holds his mind in thrall.

“Ah, she, my saint, my rose embowered!
Why lost ere ever she was found?
Why at my father’s hands deflowered?
Accursed I!—” Deep anguish drowned
The struggling words. With sudden sound
Of clamorous chains he springs upright,
And from the little window strains
Over the waves his tortured sight.
Cloud veils the moon, and shadow reigns
Over the earth, but no shade mars
The zenith glittering with stars;
With points of fire the lake they stain,
That flash and fade in waters hollow.
Their glimmering flight his fixed eyes follow,
And all his heart is wrenched with pain.
“How fair the world! How rich the night!
Silver and shade agreeing!
Ah, tomorrow shuts my dying sight
On all the bliss of seeing!
And as grey cloud across the skies
Far, far and wide goes flying,
So—” Down he sinks, his hungering eyes
Torn from the scene, his chains’ harsh cries
Soon into silence dying.

A monstrous bird’s extended wing,
From peak to peak the cloud is driven,
Under one vast pall gathering
In blackest marriage earth and heaven.
Hark! from the high hills lost to sight
A poignant voice is trilling,
A forest piper of the night,
The song of heaven distilling.
To all things which bave wakeful lain
It charms down sleep’s completeness;
The prisoner in his mortal pain
Finds Lethe in its sweetness.
“How beautiful, dear voice, the song
On the night’s breast you’re flinging!
But one more night-ah, God, not long!-
And deaf to your enchanted tongue,
No more I’ll hear such singing.”
Again be sings-the clank of chains
Rings through the cell, despairing-
Deep silence. Once again the pains
Of death his heart are tearing,
And fading far the voice complains
An anguish beyond bearing.
“Time yet to come? Tomorrow’s day?
Still, still some dream will time repay,
Or sleep too deep for dreaming?
Perhaps this life which here I live
Is but a sleep, and dawn will give
Only another seeming?
Or that best rose, long longed-for here,
That fruit the wide earth did not bear,
Will dawn and death disclose?
Who knows?—Ah, no one knows!”

Silence again. The hush of night
On all the earth is draped there.
Quenched is the moon’s benignant light,
Quenched are the stars, and all around
Is purest darkness, black, profound,
As if the grave’s mouth gaped there.
No winds blow more, nor waves complain,
Nor even the far, sweet pipe of pain,
And in the bosom in the cell
Dead silence, utter darkness dwell.
“How deep the night-how dark the night!
On me a darker closes—
Away, thought!” Panic shuts from sight
The grave his thought discloses.

Deep silence. From the streaming wall
Flows down a small, slow river,
And echoing drops the silence fret;
Through the long cell their hollow fall,
Measuring night’s moments of regret,
Chimes—ceases—chimes and ceases ever,
Chimes—ceases—chimes and ceases yet.

“How long the night—how long the night!
On me a longer closes—
Away, thought!” Horror shuts from sight
The grave his thought discloses.
Deep silence. Once again the chime
Of slow drops falling metes out time.

“A darker night! Here in the womb
Of veriest midnight shines some beam
Of moon or star—there—hideous gloom,
There never—never—never a gleam,
Only the dark for ever.
All’s one there, without part-they send
no hours, no moments to befriend,
Night fails not, never dawns the day,
For there time passes never.
There never—never—never an end!
From death that passes not away
Who shall my soul deliver?
“There utter emptiness, beneath,
Around, above, the void of death,
Quenching all live’s endeavour.
Unending silence—never a sound—
Unending space, night, time, surround
The dead mind dreaming on decay—
Mere nothingness—for ever!
And I to nothing—but one more day,
And I to nothing am cast away—”
He faints, he falls aquiver.

Lightly the waves at play come springing
Under the tower, their small spray flying,
Ever a gentle murmur bringing,
A cradle-song for captive singing,
Who in a deep half-death is lying.

The fearful clash of chains awakes
The guard, who with his lamp comes hasting;
So light a step, it scarcely breaks
The prisoner’s trance of dread unresting.
Pillar to pillar the lantern bright
Puts forth its little gleaming:
Still paler, paler grows its light,
Till fails at last the exhausted spark,
And absolute and moveless dark
On all beyond lies dreaming.
But still the prisoner’s eyes, adaze
As if night shrouded still their gaze,
Strain forward, nothing seeing,
Althought the lantern’s reddening ray
Lights his wan face, and drives away
The timid shadows fleeing.
Beside the table hewn of stone,
His head upon his hands inclining,
Half-sits, half-kneels the wredched one,
To sick despair his soul resigning;
And the faint whispering of his breath
Tells forth tormenting dreams of death.

“Alas, my soul-Alas, my love-”
Single and slow the sad words move
Out of his shut lips sighing.
Scarcely they reach the straining ear
When, newly born in pain and fear,
Already they are dying.

The gaoler’s light before him goes,
And on the prisoner’s face it glows.
The prisoner’s face—ah, dread and pain!—
His fixed eyes glare in wild distress
After an end of endlessness,
Tears, sweat and blood his pallor stain,
For speech his lips contend in vain.

The frightened gaoler stoops to snare
The thread of utterance from the air,
Lighter than lightest breeze he hears
The prisoner’s tale of blood and tears.
Lower he leans, and closer yet
To the wan mouth his ear is set,
Hard on the labouring lips now leaning,
Till fainting, fainting, they forget
Speech, as if sleep came unawares.

Still stands the guard in dreadful dreaming,
Like bees in swarm his tears come teeming,
Sorrow his heart within him sears.
Long he stands frozen there aghast,
Till thrusting off his helpless fears,
Out of the cell he flies in haste.
Long as he lived, he told no word
Of what his ears this night had heard:
Rather his whole life through thereafter
His pale lips said farewell to laughter.

The guard is fled, fast-closed the door.
Deep darkness shrouds the cell once more;
And through the night once more the chime
Of slow drops falling metes out time.

Beside the table hewn of stone
Half-sits, half-kneels Vilem alone;
His face a sight for fear and pain,
With fixed eyes staring in distress
After an end of endlessness—
Tears, sweat and blood his pallor stain.

Incessantly the watery chime
Of slow drops falling metes out time,
And wind and wawes as one complain;
To Vilem’s ear of death they tell.
He faints beneath the thought appalling.
Far through the night an owl is calling,
And louder beats the midnight bell.

Intermezzo I

Midnight

(a lonely place in the countryside)

In the wide plains sleeps sound the pale moon’s argent light,
Darkness is on the hills, the lake with stars is bright.
A hillock by the lake-shore rises,
A stake thereon, a wheel raised lightly,
Whereon a bleached skull glistens whitely,
While ghostly rout a dance devises,
About the high wheel revelling rightly.

Chorus of Phantoms

“Silent the midnight graveyard lies;
Through the graves the marshlight flies,
Its dead blue radiance lights the head
Of the newly-buried dead,
Who, while his fellows sleep, stands guard,
Last of the sepulchred, dead today,
Beside his own cross keeping ward.
A grey cloud in the zenith stays,
No moon beneath it but the ray
Of the dead man’s glassy gaze,
And through half-open lips beneath
The glitter of his gnashing teeth.”

A Voice

“This is the hour! The place prepare!
Lord of the Woods, the lord of fear,
Is one with us at dawn of day.”

Chorus of Phantoms (lifting down the skull)

“From death’s dim threshold come away,
Inherit life – a voice receive.
Be one among us, know us well,
No more be doomed alone to dwell.
Another must your place achieve.”

The Skull (joining in their dance)

“How my limbs long to join again
In one whole creature, only one!
What is this rout of terror and pain?
My newest dream – I still dream on!”

Voice

“His place of honour ready see!
When tomorrow’s course is o’er
The storm shall bear us here once more.
Glorious may his burial be!”

Chorus of Phantoms

“His place of honour ready see!
When tomorrow’s course is o’er
The storm shall bear us here once more.
Glorious may his burial be!”

Voice

Fly, voice, across the fields with power!
At midnight is the funeral hour.
His votive gift let each make known!

The Stake and Wheel

“I’ll be the coffin to his repose.”

Frogs in the Marsh

“The burial anthem we’ll intone.”

Storm over the Lake

“The gale funeral music knows.”

The Moon in the Zenith

“I’ll cover him with snow-white pall.”

Mist on the Mountains

“With veils I’ll drape his funeral.”

Night

“I’ll give black weeds to mourn the dead.”

The Hills Standing Round

“Give veils and garments to us all.”

The Falling Dew

“And I will give you tears to shed.”

The Barren Soil

“I’ll incense with sweet smoke his head.”

The Sinking Cloud

“With rain will I asperge his bed.”

The Falling Blossom

“I will weave garlands for his bier.”

Light Breezes

“We’ll bear them to the coffin lightly.”

St John’s Fireflies

“Our tiny candles shall burn up brightly.”

Thunder out of the Depths

“I’ll wake the great bell’s hollow tone.”

The Mole under the Earth

“I’ll dig his grave, I, lowly here.”

Time

“Over his bones a tomb I’ll rear.”

Flocks of Night-Birds Crossing the Moon

“We’ll make the funeral feast our own.”

Voice

“All honour to his grave we pay!
The moon pales in the heaven’s heart,
The gates of morning draw apart—
It is day! It is day!”

Chorus of Phantoms (as they vanish)

“It is day! It is Day!”

3

Over the dark hills rosy day
Arises, the May valley wakes;
Above the woods, as morning breaks,
Like mist lies long the dream of May.
Out of the forests bluely lifting
Faint vapours climb the rose-flushed sky,
And on the lake more bluely drifting
In delicate colours melt and die;
And on the shore, and in the shadow
Of hills and valleys flowering,
Shine out white courts through wood and meadow,
Waking; till like a mighty king—
Colossal as the shade of night
Against thwe heaven’s rosy light—
The highest peak stands towering.

But now the sun his first red blessing gives
Over the blue, dark hills, and by that token
Suddenly all the spell of dreams is broken,
And joy possesses everything that lives.
Whitely the lake’s green glass the flight of birds receives,
And fleets of little craft, and small, swift-rowing shallops,
Pattern the dim blue waves with glancing, fiery scallops.
Murmurous by the shore the pinewoods greet the day,
Sweet with the song of birds, the thrush’s shower of pearls,
And mingling with their psalm the mirth of straying girls,
As all that lives draws breath to praise the youthful May.
The morning wind, like song, through the green valley blowing,
Bears on its incensed breath a sweet white foam of flowers,
And wild geese ride its flight above the forest bowers,
And to its touch young trees unfold their eager growing.
One scene, and only one, the fair young morn defaces,
Where to the wide lake’s heart a narrow isle goes straying,
Bearing the little town, and the white tower, whose shade
Deep in the waters green in quiveringly laid.
Here wakes a clamorous cry, babel of human baying,
As from the gates of the town the hungry man-pack races.
From far the people haste, a swift stream rushing by,
And ever swells the food, a river strongly rolling,
A mighty multitude, its voice to thunder tolling;
The unhappy felon comes, led forth at dawn to die.

Now from the little town a troop of guards comes swinging,
In slow and sombre march the hapless prisoner bringing,
Whose old, proud habit soon the eager watchers spy.
The clamour stills around—a hush falls on the crowd—
Till babel bursts anew, with many a cry and loud:
“Tis he! The flowers, the plumes he’s wearing,
The hat, the eye beneath it glaring—
His very cloak—’Tis he,’tis he! The dreaded Forest King!”
About him beats the cry, his old name echoing;
And louder still it rings, as thundering waters clear,
As with a heavy step the criminal draws near.
Round him darkens the throng—like heavy clouds in heaven—
A sword flames from the dark—as heaven’s lightnings flare;
Slowly the doomed man goes, his gaze to earth is given.
The town bell tolls; the crowd pities and falls to prayer.

There stahd a little mound, on the lake-shore leaning lightly,
A long stake raised thereon, a wheel above it rearing,
A steep hill looms above, twin peaks its summit sharing,
And on the higher point a chapel gleaming whitely.
In sombre march thereto company is come;
Now all men move aside—the felon stands alone.
A last time led forth here, still he beholds his own,
The dark, deep-breasted hills which were his early home,
Where the lost coin was spent, the golden childhood days.
Yet once more, only once, in the rosy dawning light,
Let forth to the hills, a shade before the chapel white,
To the lord of heaven and earth his reverence he pays.
And deep compassion folds its hands on every heart.
His grief their grief inflames, they suffer his despair,
Fixing their eyes through tears on the summit where he stands
Adoring the fair earth well-fashioned at God’s hands,
A murderer praising God in the humbled hush of prayer.

The rising sun with ruddy grace
Flushes the prisoner’s pallid face;
His eyes, through mists of weeping,
A last love-tryst are keeping.
Beneath him deep the lovely vale
Dreams in its rugged mountain pale,
By forests circled greenly.
The lucid lake serenely
Nursed in the flowering valley drowses.
Blue to the shore it coils and glimmers,
And green beyond, and greener, sleeps,
Till in the distances and deeps
In clear, pale light all melts and shimmers.
About the wheel the white farmhouses
Dimpling the sunlit lake-shore lie.
Across the mirroring waters fast
Flocks of white birds and small boats fly,
Till bluely hides the lake at last,
Far in the hills retreating.
And white craft in the scalloped beaches—
The tower-the town-the white birds’ flight—
Hillocks and shadowy mountain reaches—
Gaze on that mirror with delight,
Their deep-drowned beauty greeting.
Rocks are piled heavy on that far shore
Where flowering land and lake are meeting,
And there an oak-tree old and hoar
Roots in the rocks-once, once the dove
Called there deliciously to love—
Oh, fair lost hour and fleeting!
Never again! The mound is nearing,
The column an the wheel appearing.
Beyond the hill there slips away
A young wood, murmuring mournfully;
Radiant the sun on vale and lea—
The morning dew—the morning May.

Beauty once more the felon’s eyes receive,
Beauty which now for ever he must leave,
And passionate regret his heart possesses:
Deeply he sighs—tear after tear flows over—
One last long look, lingering as looks the lover,
Then to the sky his tear-dimmed eyes he raises.
In the azure vault of heaven the blanching mists are dancing,
In light dissolving zephyrs tattered,
And on the far horizon scattered
White cloudlets over the placid sky go glancing.
The grieving prisoner greets them as they race:
“You clouds, who in your wandering course embrace
Like secret circling arm the earth her own course keeping,
You dissolutions of stars, shades in the blue of heaven,
You mourners ever to mutual sorrow given,
Who know so well the ways of silent weeping—
Bear you my charge, of all things that have birth.
Where you pass from me on your long, wide way
To the distant shore, there for a moment stay,
There, pilgrim clouds, greet reverently the earth.
Ah, well-beloved earth, beautiful earth,
My cradle and grave, the womb that gave me birth,
My sweet, sole land, left to my spirit’s keeping,
Ah, vast and single of beauty as of worth!-
Seek there that rock, and when your swift sails gain it—
If you shall see—by the shore—a woman weeping—”
There fails his voice, the strangling tears have slain it.
Down from the height the guards their prisoner lead
By a wide pathway through young pinewoods threading,
Down and still down; now on the mound they’re treading;
And now the multitude is hushed indeed.
The executioner with his sword stands ready.
Yet one more time the prisoner lifts his eyes,
Worships the sweet, encircling world-once sighs-
And on the approaching death his soul makes steady.
His breast and throat he bares, kneeling to earth he leaves it;
Back steps the headsman-an age the frozen mind believes it!—
The sword flashes; a rapid forward stride—
The sword circles; the bent white neck receives it—
The head falls—a tremor—and yet a tremor beside—
And falls the body after, one with the grieved earth growing.
Into the earth, so beautiful, so beloved.
His cradle and grave, the womb that gave him birth,
His sweet, sole land, his heritage approved,
In the generous earth, the single, holy earth,
Into the mother’s heart the blood of her son is flowing.

The prisoner’s shattered shell, limb after long limb broken,
Twined in the wheel’s embrace is raised, a terrible token,
And over the wheel his head, a blind, oblivious thing.
So died the lord of the woods, the dreaded Forest King.
On the dead countenance the last dream lingers still.
Gazing upon his face, mute round the little hill
The unquiet multitude awaits the long day’s ending,
Till the declining sun draws to the west once more,
Into the head’s blind eyes its gay last laughter sending.
Hushed is the broad lake-hushed is the evening shore.

Above the far dark hills the last radiance blazed.
The pale, dead face of the head is softly silvered o’er,
Silvered the silent mound, hushed by the lake-shore,
As in the evening hush the moon’s fair face is raised.
Distant are grown the towns, far as a cloud in air,
Beyond to the edge of seeing the dead eyes steadily stare,
To the edge of sight, to his youth-Oh, brief, bright childhood day!

Time in its headlong flight has carried that Spring away.
Far fled is his dream, a shadow no more found,
Like visions of white towns, deep in the waters drowned,
The last indignant thoughts of the defeated dead,
Their unremembered names, the clamour of old fights,
The worn-out northern lights, after their gleam is fled,
The untuned harp, whose strings distil no more delights,
The deeds of time gone by, quenched starlight overhead,
Heresy’s pilgrimage, the loving, lovely dead,
The deep forgotten grave, eternal board and bed;
As the smoke of burned-out fires, as the shattered bell’s chime,
Are the dead years of the dead, their beautiful childhood time!

Late eve—the second eve of May—
The twilit May—the time of love—
Meltingly calls the turtle-dove:
Vilem! Vilem! Vilem!!

Intermezzo II

Close the hills lean to each other,
Underneath a dark cloud hiding,
Like a vaulted ceiling riding
Taut from one peak to his brother.
Dark this place by evening gloom is,
Dark and silent as the tomb is.
In the portal deeply-shaded,
Where the hills shrink back dividing,
Sharp rocks in the opening spaces
Steeply rear their frowning faces,
Lower, narrower, blackly biding;
Underneath the cloud dark-braided
Shuts this gate of rocks and boulders.
In the valley’s heart deep-gladed,
Darkly red a camp-fire smoulders,
Broken from the west bright-beaming,
A long sliver of the sunset;
Round its red nocturnal gleaming
Circle night-birds, wheeling, plaining,
In a red and restless onset,
Till the blue of night they borrow.
Sinks the fire, still waning-waning,
Till the broad and bounteous heaven
Melts in nightly dews of sorrow,
And the earth to grief is given.

Oaks a hundred years a-growing,
Darkness within darkness throwing,
Hide a company of friends there.
Cloaked in white, as in the bright time,
Sit the comrades of the night-time.
Each before him groundward bends there,
Wordless, motionless, his vision,
As if terror’s chill transition
Into stone their flesh had stricken.
Through the valley seems to quicken
Whispered breath of lamentation
Round the moveless men who plain him,
Secretly, without cessation:
“Lost, our leader!—they have slain him!”

And the wind, the smoke-wreaths plying,
To the moveless men is crying:
“Lost, our leader!-they have slain him!”

And the restless leaves aquiver
Underneath the cold cliff-faces,
Trembling, murmuring, utter ever
These insistent, changeless phrases:
“Lost, our leader!-they have slain him!”

All the forests in their station
Sound the great, sad accusation:
“They have slain him—slain him!!—slain him—!!!”

4

Beautiful May is passed, withered the bloom of Spring;
The summer fire burns high, wanes, and as soon is gone,
Autumn, and winter after; another Spring comes on,
As time bears off the years on its unresting wing.

The seventh year it was, the seventh year’s last day;
Deep on it lay the night, and with the midnight chime
A new year would be born. The cold earth dreaming lay.
Lone hoof-beats by the lake troubled the silent time.
I was that wayfarer, bound for the town by night,
Led by chance to the mound, where, long ago at rest,
The dreaded Forest King lingered a quiet guest;
There first I saw Vilem- a bare skull glistening white.
There in the midnight land, far as the eye’s reach ranging,
Through valleys, over hills, by forest, lake and meadow,
A wide, white pall of snow lay level and unchanging,
Over the skull and wheel-all white without a shadow.
Deep clouds hemmed in the moon, which seemed to droop and sicken;
Sometimes the weird owl cried, ever the sad wind’s shaking
Plucked at the wheel above, and set the loud bones quaking,
So that my horse and I with panic dread were stricken.
Forward I spurred in fear, there where the safe town hailed me,
And asked what wheel, what bones were these which grimly grew there,
The old innkeeper told the story all men knew there-
The story I have told-and on that wheel impaled me.

Far I went through the world-and the world has enough of pain,
Many a storm of heart blew over me and bled me;
But still this old, worn woe beckoned me back again,
Till in a young Spring season home to the mound it led me.
Under the stake I sat, just as the sun descended,
Under the wheel which bore the skeleton and skull there,
Gazing sad-eyed on Spring, whose cup was fair and full there,
Even to the misty rim where earth and heaven blended.

Evening once more, the first of May-
The twilit May-the time of love.
Meltingly called the turtle-dove,
Where rich and sweet the pinewoods lay.
Whispered of love the mosses frail,
The flowering tree as sweetly lied
The rose’s fragrant sigh replied
To love-songs of the nightingale.
The lake within the dark woods straying
Softly complained a secret pain,
By circling shores embraced again
As brother sister in their playing.
About the head the sunset bright
Lay like a wreath of roses growing,
Gilding the bony face with light,
On fretted skin and white jaw glowing.
In the hollow skull the breezes sped
As if grim laughter mocked the dead,
and lifted lightly here and there
What time had left of his long hair;
Beneath his brows the dewdrops borrow
The sunset light, as if, discerning
The evening beauty of May’s returning,
His dead eyes brim with tears of sorrow.

There I sat on, until the young moon’s light
Blanched both my face and his with rays as pale as bright;
Now like a snowy pall its whiteness spreads before him
Over the vales and woods to the distant hills that bore him.
Sometimes from far away the cuckoo’s greeting sounds here,
Flung from the flowering vale, sometimes the owl’s grave warning;
From many a farmyard near the bark of dogs rebounds here;
Out of the dust arises a sweet incense of mourning,
The little tears of the Virgin upon the hill are flowering,
Deep in the heart of the lake a secret light is burning;
And the fireflies, shooting stars, about the wheel are showering,
Glittering in their play, touching the pale skull brightly,
Lighting to launch again, and launch again ac lightly,
Like fiery falling tears, all his spent tears embowering.

And in my grieving eyes two hot tears rise and break,
Glittering down my cheeks as sparks play in the lake;
For my young years, mine too, my childhood golden-gay,
Time in its headlong flight has seized and borne away.
Far is that lost dream now, a shadow no more found,
Like visions of white towns, deep in the waters drowned,
The last indignant thoughts of the defeated dead,
Their unremembered names, the clamour of old fights,
The worn-out northern lights after their gleam is fled,
The untuned harp, whose strings distil no more delights,
The deeds of time gone by, quenched starlight overhead,
Heresy’s pilgrimage, the loving, lovely dead,
The deep, forgotten grave, eternal board and bed,
The smoke of burned-out fires, the scattered bell’s chime—
Like the song of dead swam, like Eden snatched away,
So is my childhood time—
But what of following time?
My youth, alas, my youth! My season and song are May!
An eventide of May on a rocky, desolate shore:
Light laughter on the lips, deep grief in the heart’s core.

See you the pilgrim there, hastening on his quest
Through the long, sunset fields, beneath the dimming west?
Strain your eyes as you will, the end you cannot see,
As over the edge of vision he falters and finds no rest.
Never-ah, never! And this is all life offers me!
Comfort? Who comforts me? What charm this heart can move?
Love is without an end!—And bitter is my love!

Late evening, on the first of May—
The twilit May-the time of love—
Meltingly calls the turtle-dove:
“Hynek! Vilem! Ah, Jarmila!!!”

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1941: Harry Gleeson, posthumously exonerated

Add comment April 23rd, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1941, Harry Gleeson hanged for murder in Ireland — wrongly, the government admitted in 2015.

Gleeson was the nephew and farmhand of a man called John Caesar, whose County Tipperary property abutted a cottage inhabited by a local prostitute called Moll McCarthy. On November 21, 1940, Gleeson found Moll McCarthy dead on a farm field. Her face had been destroyed by a gunshot; her murder orphaned seven children, many of them the illegitimate progeny of local married men.

Nine days later, Irish police arrested a surprised Gleeson for the murder. He hotly denied their theory that he had availed himself of the victim’s services, and then slain her to prevent his uncle finding out about it.

It was, the Irish Times says in a review of one of the several books about the case, “a definitively Irish murder case: the prosecution claimed that ‘Gleeson was meeting Moll at the field pump, away from prying eyes, and arranging to give her potatoes in exchange for sex.'”

As a criminal case, it involved that brew of tunnel vision preoccupation with the wrong guy and outright cheating to nail him that frequently characterizes errant convictions. But there may have been a political undercurrent besides.

Gleeson was defended by former Irish Republican Army chief of staff Sean MacBride,* and it’s been hypothesized that the barrister’s political affiliations critically unbalanced the case for at least a couple of important reasons:

  • A prejudicial court and jury perhaps gave their verdict as much against MacBride as against Gleeson. (The jury issued its conviction alongside an unsuccessful application for clemency.)
  • MacBride himself might have pulled some punches from the defense bar in view of the possibility — as charged by Kieran Fagan in The Framing of Harry Gleeson — that McCarthy was actually murdered for informing on IRA men.
A few books about Mary MacCarthy and Harry Gleeson

* MacBride’s father John “Foxy Jack” MacBride hanged in 1916 for his role in the Easter Rising.

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1951: Jean Lee, the last woman to hang in Australia

Add comment February 19th, 2018 Richard Clark

(Thanks to Richard Clark of Capital Punishment U.K. for the guest post, a reprint of an article originally published on that site with some explanatory links added by Executed Today. CapitalPunishmentUK.org features a trove of research and feature articles on the death penalty in England and elsewhere. -ed.)

Jean Lee, an attractive 31-year-old redhead, made history as the last woman to hang in Australia when she went to the gallows in Pentridge prison in the Coburg suburb of Melbourne in Victoria state on the morning of Monday, February 19th, 1951. She and her two male companions were hanged for the murder of 73-year-old dwelling house landlord and bookmaker, William “Pop” Kent.

Jean Lee was apparently quite intelligent and a bit rebellious at school and had a succession of dead end jobs from which she soon left or was fired.

She married at 18 and lived with her husband for about nine years before leaving him and entrusting her daughter to her mother. She had a relationship with a petty criminal who got her into prostitution with American servicemen. He acted as her pimp whilst she worked to support them both.

She left him for another professional criminal, Robert David Clayton, with whom she fell deeply in love. As is so often the case, she became caught in a downward spiral. She was in love with a criminal who abused her and used her in his criminal activities.

These centered principally on what was known as the “badger game.” Lee, at the time, a voluptuous and attractive woman would pick up men and get them to a hotel room, their own home, or a car where she would appear to be about to have sex with them. Once they were semi-naked and vulnerable, Clayton would appear in the role of outraged husband and demand money from them. Usually the victims handed over their ready cash but kept quiet for fear of their wives finding out or of being ridiculed — so it was a fairly safe bet. If they were not forthcoming Clayton would beat them up. It was a scheme that had worked well, although at least two previous cases had been reported to the police.
On the evening of November 7th, 1949, Lee, Clayton and a third accomplice, Norman Andrews, whom Clayton had met in prison, saw William Kent in a Melbourne hotel lounge. Jean Lee had several drinks with Kent and soon succeeded in persuading the old man to take her back to his apartment where she tried to pick his pockets.

However, Mr. Kent, although inebriated and quite elderly, was of sterner stuff. He put up a fight with Lee which was ended when Clayton and Andrews entered his room. Mr. Kent was systematically kicked, beaten and tortured over the next hour in an attempt to get him to reveal where he kept his money. His hands had been tied behind his back and his thumbs tied together with bootlaces. He had been repeatedly stabbed with a small knife and was finally manually strangled.

The trio were soon arrested at their hotel and bloodstained clothing was found in Lee’s and Andrew’s rooms. At police headquarters, they were questioned in separate rooms where each initially denied their involvement and then started to blame the others.

They came to trial on March 20th, 1950 at Melbourne’s Criminal Court and the proceedings lasted six days. As each had tried to shift the blame on to the others in their statements to the police, the trial judge Mr. Justice Gavan Duffy explained the law of “common purpose” to the jury, i.e. that when three people take part in a violent robbery and murder they are all equally guilty, irrespective of which one had actually strangled Mr. Kent. The jury took less than three hours to find them all guilty and they were sentenced to death. Lee became hysterical whilst Clayton shouted abuse at the jury.

Their appeal was heard by the Court of Criminal Appeal and was upheld by a two to one majority decision on the 23rd of June 1950. The Appeal Court ruled that their statements to the police had been obtained improperly as the statement of one was used to extract confessions from the other two. They were thus granted a retrial. However, this was not to be as the High Court overturned the Appeal Court and reinstated the convictions and sentences.

There was considerable protest, led by left-wing and feminist groups, when Lee was sentenced to death. However, it seemed to primarily be against the execution of a woman by hanging, rather than the execution of women per se.

Lee would became the first woman to be hanged in Victoria since Emma Williams in November 1895. She had aged noticeably during her time in prison and suffered violent mood swings — now abusing her wardresses, next begging them for an alcoholic drink. She told one of her wardresses: “I just didn’t do it. I haven’t enough strength in my hands to choke anyone. Bobby was stupid but the old man was trying to yell for help. None of us meant to kill him.”

It was decided that Lee should be the first to hang at 8 am, the two men being executed two hours later.

She was heavily sedated as she shuffled under escort to a double cell near the gallows. Her weight was recorded as 7 stone 6 lbs, her height as 5′ 7″ and the drop was set at 8 feet exactly.

Sheriff William Daly was required to read the death warrant to her. She collapsed on seeing the hangman and his assistant — both wearing “massive steel rimmed goggles [with a] soft felt hat … to ensure that they were not recognised in the future”. A doctor examined her and found she was unconscious. However, the execution had to proceed so Daly continued to read out the details of her conviction and sentence although she would not have heard a word of it — if she had, she would have spotted a mistake (the date on which she had been sentenced).

Because of her state of collapse, the executioner pinioned her arms in front of rather than behind her back as was normal. His assistant then pinioned her legs with a strap whilst he put the white hood on her head, and they carried her from the cell the few yards to the gallows where she had to be placed on a chair on the trap. Her head drooped to her chest and the executioner had to pull it back in order to adjust the noose correctly.

The flap of the hood, which was to cover her face, had been left open. At a signal from the sheriff, the executioner dropped the flap to obscure her face, stood back from the trap and pulled the lever. The trap fell and both she and the chair plummeted through. The chair had been secured to the gallows by a cord and although it fell with her, the two parted company at the end of the drop leaving her suspended normally. Her weight was recorded as 7 stone 6 lbs, her height as 5’ 7” and the drop was set at 8 feet exactly. The knot was positioned under her left ear and death was said to be “instantaneous”. At 8.05 am the prison doctor found no heartbeat. The death certificate was signed at 8.20.

Two hours later Clayton and Andrews, both mildly sedated, shared her fate.

Capital punishment ended in Australia with Victoria’s next execution, that of Ronald Ryan on the same gallows at Pentridge prison on the 3rd of February 1967.

A recent book, Jean Lee: The last woman hanged in Australia by Paul Wilson, Don Trebl and Robyn Lincoln casts doubt on the justice of her conviction and execution based upon the police interrogation methods and her part in the murders.

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2 CE: Iullus Antonius

1 comment February 14th, 2018 Headsman

On some undateable occasion in the second year of our Lord, Roman Emperor Augustus had his notorious daughter’s lover put to death.

Half-predator and half-prey in the incestuous Julio-Claudian family web, Iullus Antonius was the son of Augustus‘s great (and here, long-vanquished) rival Marc Antony, as well as the half-brother of Augustus’s discarded first wife.

Who fain at Pindar’s flight would aim,
On waxen wings, Iulus, he
Soars heavenward, doom’d to give his name
To some new sea.

Pindar, like torrent from the steep
Which, swollen with rain, its banks o’erflows,
With mouth unfathomably deep,
Foams, thunders, glows,

All worthy of Apollo’s bay,
Whether in dithyrambic roll
Pouring new words he burst away
Beyond control,

Or gods and god-born heroes tell,
Whose arm with righteous death could tame
Grim Centaurs, tame Chimaeras fell,
Out-breathing flame,

Or bid the boxer or the steed
In deathless pride of victory live,
And dower them with a nobler meed
Than sculptors give,

Or mourn the bridegroom early torn
From his young bride, and set on high
Strength, courage, virtue’s golden morn,
Too good to die.

Antonius! yes, the winds blow free,
When Dirce’s swan ascends the skies,
To waft him. I, like Matine bee,
In act and guise,

That culls its sweets through toilsome hours,
Am roaming Tibur’s banks along,
And fashioning with puny powers
A laboured song.

Your Muse shall sing in loftier strain
How Caesar climbs the sacred height,
The fierce Sygambrians in his train,
With laurel dight,

Than whom the Fates ne’er gave mankind
A richer treasure or more dear,
Nor shall, though earth again should find
The golden year.

Your Muse shall tell of public sports,
And holyday, and votive feast,
For Caesar’s sake, and brawling courts
Where strife has ceased.

Then, if my voice can aught avail,
Grateful for him our prayers have won,
My song shall echo, “Hail, all hail,
Auspicious Sun!”

There as you move, “Ho! Triumph, ho!
Great Triumph!” once and yet again
All Rome shall cry, and spices strow
Before your train.

Ten bulls, ten kine, your debt discharge:
A calf new-wean’d from parent cow,
Battening on pastures rich and large,
Shall quit my vow.

Like moon just dawning on the night
The crescent honours of his head;
One dapple spot of snowy white,
The rest all red.

-Horace, celebrating Iullus Antonius‘s verse in verse. The latter’s verse has not reached posterity, though he was a well-regarded poet in his time.

Contrary to what one might expect, Augustus didn’t hold the kid’s parentage against him* and “not only granted him his life, but after honouring him with the priesthood, the praetorship, the consulship, and the governorship of provinces, had admitted him to the closest ties of relationship through a marriage with his sister’s daughter.” (Per Marcus Velleius Paterculus**)

But at some point Iullus took his relations rather too far for the old man by achieving the favors of Augustus’s only daughter, Julia — notorious of ancient scribes for her promiscuity and eventually destined to be murdered off when her crusty, cuckolded husband Tiberius attained the purple.

There is nobody party to this event that comes out the better for it; Augustus for his part really cemented his uptight prig reputation for the history books, and Tacitus censures him because in “[c]alling, as he did, a vice so habitual among men and women by the awful name of sacrilege and treason, he went far beyond the indulgent spirit of our ancestors, beyond indeed his own legislation.”

In the telling of Cassius Dio:

when [Augustus] at length discovered that his daughter Julia was so dissolute in her conduct as actually to take part in revels and drinking bouts at night in the Forum and on the very rostra, he became exceedingly angry. He had surmised even before this time that she was not leading a straight life, but refused to believe it. For those who hold positions of command, it appears, are acquainted with everything else better than with their own affairs; and although their own deeds do not escape the knowledge of their associates, they have no precise information regarding what their associates do. In the present instance, when Augustus learned what was going on, he gave way to a rage so violent that he could not keep the matter to himself, but went so far as to communicate it to senate. As a result Julia was banished to the island of Pandateria, lying off Campania, and her mother Scribonia voluntarily accompanied her. Of the men who had enjoyed her favours, Iullus Antonius, on the ground that his conduct had been prompted by designs upon the monarchy, was put to death along with other prominent persons, while the remainder were banished to islands. And since there was a tribune among them, he was not tried until he had completed his term of office. As a result of this affair many other women, too, were accused of similar behaviour, but the emperor would not entertain all the suits; instead, he set a definite date as a limit and forbade all prying into what had occurred previous to that time. For although in the case of his daughter he would show no mercy, remarking that he would rather have been Phoebe’s father than hers, he nevertheless was disposed to spare the rest. This Phoebe had been a freedwoman of Julia’s and her accomplice, and had voluntarily taken her own life before she could be punished. It was for this that Augustus praised her.

* Iullus’s older brother was not so lucky, nor was Marc Antony’s very dangerous son by Cleopatra.

** Worth noting: Velleius Paterculus says that Iullus died by his own hand rather than (as most other sources in antiquity give it) the executioner’s.

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1866: Dr. John Hughes, Cleveland bigamist

Add comment February 9th, 2018 Headsman

From America’s State Trials, vol. II, whose “Narrative” excerpted here continues in the form of trial transcripts explicating the particulars of this sad and banal stalker-murder situation. (As a juridical matter, Hughes’s fate hinged on finely measuring his degree of premeditation and intent — and drunkenness — at the moment that he shot his 17-year-old other wife; however, once the decision was in, even Hughes called “the verdict of the jury, just; the sentence of the law, inevitable … I know that I deserve death.”)

THE TRIAL OF DR. JOHN W. HUGHES FOR THE MURDER OF TAMZEN PARSONS, CLEVELAND, OHIO, 1865

THE NARRATIVE.

Dr. Hughes To His Friends
(one of several poems Hughes wrote as he awaited hanging -ed.)

Of trifles the world is composed,
Like minutes that grow into years;
So friendship, in pity reposed,
Allays our most troublesome fears.

Away from all comforts at home,
From all the desires of my heart,
Not building on pleasures to come,
With feelings of hope I must part.

A moment of phrenzy, unthought,
A second of madness defined —
What change in the creature is wrought.
The soul in such horror entwined!

To review the dear scenes of the past,
Is but a renewal of strife
To a mind so constant o’ercast
In weighing the issues of life.

Grateful thanks is all I can give
For mercies which others deny.
Oh! that I were destined to live
To recompense you bye and bye.

Your efforts are sadly in vain;
The plea was a day or two late.
Remonstrance its malice to rain
Had hopelessly finished my fate.

Yet your prayers shall be to my death
Like the hidden treasure of leaven,
My spirit to raise by their breath
To waft it to Jesus in heaven.

I pray, and I never forget
To ask of my best friend above,
For blessings on those in whose debt
I am bound by their pitying love.

On the ninth of August, 1865, John W. Hughes, physician and surgeon, of Cleveland, Ohio, committed a murder in the small neighboring village of Bedford, which, from the nature of the case, the character of the parties to the tragedy, and the antecedents of the deed, forced him upon the attention of the people of Cleveland and of the whole of the State of Ohio. The public was shocked on the following morning by the publication in the newspapers that Miss Tamzen Parsons, a young lady of seventeen years of age, had been shot down in the streets of Bedford by this man, who had been her lover, and who, under cover of a forged decree of divorce from his wife, had married her in Pittsburgh, in December, 1864, and suffered in the Pennsylvania penitentiary, the penalty attaching to the crime of bigamy.

Dr. Hughes was born in the Isle of Man, educated at a Scotch University, and emigrated with his wife to the United States in 1862. After practicing his profession of a physician for a few months in Chicago and Cleveland, he enlisted in an Ohio regiment as a private, but was very soon promoted to the position of Assistant Surgeon of the 48th United States Infantry. After serving for about a year he resigned on account of the illness of a son in November, 1864. He now began the practice of medicine in Cleveland, but making the acquaintance of Tamzen Parsons, he induced her to go with him to Pittsburgh, after showing her a paper which he persuaded her was a decree of divorce from his wife. For this he was convicted and sentenced to one year’s imprisonment in a Pennsylvania penitentiary, but was pardoned after serving five months. Returning to Cleveland, he resumed the practice of medicine and after having sent his wife and child back to the Isle of Man on a visit, he endeavored to win again the affections of Tamzen, who refused to have anything more to do with him. One night in July after drinking deeply, he went to the house of her father in the village of Bedford at night and, by his noise, aroused the old gentlemen, who tried to eject him. Hughes refused to leave the house, and objected with sufficient force to give ground for a charge of assault and battery, which was brought on the following day, Tamzen herself appearing and making the affidavit against him, an act which enraged him. Personal differences, however, were at length adjusted and legal proceedings stayed, the Doctor solemnly promising that he would thenceforth have nothing to do with the Parsons family.

But, alas! a drunken revel with a companion, Oscar Russell, on the night of the eighth of August, ended in their driving to Bedford and drinking at all the road houses on the way. Hughes, Russell and their driver, Carr, issued from a hotel in Bedford, and drove to the house of Mr. Parsons. Dr. Hughes entered the house and learned that Tamzen and her mother had gone blackberrying. They drove on, but soon met the women, and the Doctor sought a private conference with Tamzen. A neighbor, however, came along in a wagon and took her home, while the men drove to the grocery, where they held a drunken revel for two hours. Hughes learning that all the Parsons family had gone to Bedford for safety and to arrest him, started to the village and, seeing Tamzen coming out of the house, he ran after her, calling on her to stop. She flew up the walk, saying, “No, I will not stop,” and rushed through the gate, endeavoring to reach the front door. But before that asylum was reached, the pursuer laid hands on her, and shouting, “You won’t stop, will you?” fired his revolver. The ball glanced off her head, she screamed, but the piteous cry was instantly hushed by a second and fatal discharge of the deadly weapon.

The noise attracted a number of persons, who pursued Hughes, who jumped into the carriage with Russell and Carr, and, menacing the crowd with his revolver, succeeded in getting a good start of his pursuers. But he was captured in a few hours and landed in jail.

Indicted by the Grand Jury for murder, after a trial lasting eighteen days, he was convicted, though his counsel tried very hard to prove that he was insane at the time he committed the act. On February 9th, 1866, he was hanged in the yard of the Cleveland jail.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Doctors,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Ohio,Sex,USA

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1874: Marshall Martin, “an innocent man compared to that woman”

Add comment January 23rd, 2018 Robert Elder

(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.)

Gentlemen, I am here to die, but I am an innocent man compared to that woman. She deserves death ten times more than I do.

-Marshall Martin, convicted of murder, hanging, California. Executed January 23, 1874

Martin’s work supervisor was Valentine Eischler, whose marriage with wife Elizabeth was in the course of unraveling. According to Martin’s testimony, Elizabeth seduced him and urged him to murder her husband. Eventually, Eischler died in an attack with an ax, with both parties claiming responsibility at different times. Elizabeth pleaded insanity and was sent to an asylum. Martin was convicted of first-degree murder. It’s worth noting that the Chicago Daily Tribune recorded slightly different last words: “Gentlemen: I want you all to understand that I am here to die; but I am an innocent man; I don’t deserve this. The woman that caused me to do this deserves death a thousand more times than I do. That’s all I have to say.” Martin’s hanging was particularly gruesome, as recorded by the newspaper Alta California: “Although there was a drop of only six feet, the body dropped headless to the ground. His head rebounded a distance of six feet.”

(Also see a 2011 feature on the crime and the hanging in the San Jose Mercury News: Part 1 | Part 2 -ed.)

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1772: Bryan Sheehen, cuck

Add comment January 16th, 2018 Headsman

Colonial Massachusetts sailor Bryan Sheehen culminated a life of warped relations with the opposite sex at his hanging on this date in 1772.

According to the pamphlet An Account of the Life of Bryan Sheehen, as a child in Ireland, Sheehen‘s family split up by gender with the Catholic father taking the boys and the Anglican mother taking the girls. While the legacy of this childhood trauma can only be guessed at, it looks suggestive in hindsight

Sheehen migrated to Newfoundland and then to Massachusetts where he eventually indentured himself as a household servant to colonial shipwright Benjamin Hallowell, a “father” from whom the young adult Sheehen again fled, this time to fight in the Seven Years’ War.

Unfortunately upon his return from only six years away he found that his wife had impatiently [re]married herself to a Frenchman, a humiliating risk and fear of the seagoing set. Sheehen forced the woman to choose between the rivals but when she chose Sheehen, the latter found that he was still so disgusted with her that he preferred to abandon the wife, and the child she had borne him, and the child she had borne the Frenchman. Psychologists have a lot to unpack here already.

Relocating to Marblehead, Mass. our reborn swinging single now developed “the character of a wicked, profligate person” and eventually began stalking a woman named Abial Hollowell … her surname eerily echoing that of Sheehen’s own former master. In fact, Abial’s husband was also named Benjamin Hollowell. His advances rebuffed, Sheehen

went up, in the middle of the night, to the room where Mrs. Hollowell lay, found her asleep, awaked her, and swore, if she made the least noise, he would kill her; and then stopping her mouth, perpetrated the atrocious crime. After which (to prevent, it seems, a pregnancy) he abused her with his hand, in an unheard-of, cruel and shocking manner: Insomuch that her life was for some time almost despaired of; and she was not able for ten days after to get off her bed without help.

That’s as per a case summary appended to “A Sermon Preached at Salem, January 16, 1772″ by the Salem Rev. James Diman. The good preacher was so chagrined that Sheehen’s persistent denials had led some citizens to murmur against Mrs. Hollowell that for “justice to the woman’s character” he devotes about a page and a half to traducing Sheehen’s. Sheehen, Diman charged, was just the sort of vicious wretch who would imperil his soul by going to the gallows with a lie upon his lips, perhaps because, as a Catholic, “he might swear falsely, he might doubtless speak falsely to Hereticks, as they call all whose religious principles differ from theirs.”

Last and most important, Diman claimed to have it on good authority from “two credible persons”

that there was a young woman, daughter of one Williams, of Goldsborough, in the Eastern part of this province, abased in the same manner Mrs. Hollowell was. That she was way-layed in the the evening, between her father’s house and a neighbour’s; was seized, forced, and wounded to such a degree, that her friends were obliged to carry her home, she being unable to walk, and that the next morning early she died. That the villain, who perpetrated this crime, returned after he had done it, to his companions, who, it seems, were before, or then, made acquainted with his enterprize; for such wretches declare their sin as Sodom: And that one of them told him he would probably have a child to maintain: He answered so, that he had taken care to prevent that, and that she would never have a child by him, nor by any other man.

This guy, his informants said, was an Irishman named something like Bryan Sheehen — and he had escaped town after the incident.

* The Hallowells were notable British loyalists during the American Revolution, and returned to England when their estates were sacked by Patriots. The grandson of Bryan Sheehen’s employer, Admiral Sir Benjamin Hallowell Carew, was one of Lord Nelson‘s Band of Brothers. During the Battle of the Nile, Admiral Hallowell’s supplied the literal fireworks by defeating the French battleship Orient — whose spectacularly exploding magazines highlighted all the artistic commemorations of that victory. He later presented to Nelson as a gift a coffin fashioned from the Orient‘s mast, “that when you have finished your military career in this world you may be buried in one of your trophies.” Nelson was indeed laid to rest in Hallowell’s trophy in 1805.


The flaming Orient illuminates Thomas Luny’s Battle of the Nile, August 1st 1798 at 10 pm.

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1857: Dedea Redanies, immigrant soldier

Add comment January 1st, 2018 Headsman

On New Year’s Day of 1857, Serbian Dedea Redanies was hanged in front of the Maidstone gaol for the shocking, out-of-nowhere murder of two English sisters he was close with.

Hailing from Belgrade, capital to the autonomous Serbian proto-state at the fraying fringes of Ottoman Europe, Redanies numbered among the thousands of subjects of central and southern European polities recruited by England as Crimean War cannon fodder. Relocated to England for training, a great many of these Germans, Italians, and Swiss were never deployed before the war ended in March 1856.

Though empires seek young men for their trigger-fingers they obtain also their passions and dreams so it is no surprise that a number of these import soldiers made time with the women near their posts. Our man Dedea Redanies was one of these; he became intimate with a Dover family near his garrison at Shorncliffe Camp and began to pay court to its eldest daughter, Caroline Back. Caroline liked Dedea too. Some of the young soldier’s letters to his inamorata, in touchingly fractured English, were published. (This is from Jackson’s Oxford Journal, Aug. 23, 1856)

My dear Caroline, —

I receive your portress and letter. I am glad and happy unto death. I am glad that you me not forgotten, and I beg you rit me every week one letters.

I have since that time than I from you to depart must, no happy hour to live to see can, and I thanks you for yours truth love.

I hoppe next month to see you. I do wish God spead you well. Me complaments on all familie 6000 tousend kisses.

Good bie mi dear Caroline, you truth,

Mi not forgotten.

Dedea Redanies

That letter was dated the 28th of June.

Barely a month later a passerby would find Caroline and her sister Maria (ages 18 and 16, respectively) stabbed to death on the road to Folkstone. They’d been last seen by their family gaily conversing with Dedea as he escorted them on the nine-mile walk; some others would describe noticing them on their way that morning, all of them in apparent high spirits.

Dedea Redanies said little after his arrest other than to embrace his (already obvious) responsibility for the murders but as could be best understood from a German letter* that he posted to the victims’ mother shortly before his capture, he had perceived a slip in Caroline’s affections and decided to do the whole tragic murder-suicide thing rather than live another day without her. Attaining a secluded glen facing the sea, he effected his plan in the most mawkish fashion imaginable. (This is from Jackson’s Oxford Journal, Aug. 23, 1857)

To Mother Back, —

On the first lines I pray to forgive the awful accident to the unlucky Dedea Redanies, which I committed on my very dear Caroline and Maria Back yesterday morning at five o’clock. Scarcely I am able to write; my heart break for my ever memorable Caroline and Maria. The cause of my deed is — 1, As I heard that Caroline is not in the family way, as I first believed; 2, because Caroline intends to go to Woolwich; 3, as I cannot stay with my very dear Caroline it made my heart so scattered that I put into my mind at last that Caroline rather may die from my hands than to allow Caroline’s love being bestowed upon others. However, I did not intend to murder also Maria, her sister, but, not having other opportunity, and as she was in my way, I could not do otherwise. I must stab her, too.

Dear Mother, — Saturday evening, when I came, I had not at least any intention to commit this awful act; but as I learned that my dear Caroline gave me back my likeness, and as she told me she would leave, I did not know any other way than that leading to the cutler, where I bought a poignard which divided the hearty lovers.

Sketch of Dedea Redanies committing murder by … Dedea Redanies. (Some stories indicate this was a repeated hobby of his as he awaited hanging.)

Arm by arm I brought my dearest souls in the world over to the unlucky place, neear the road before Folkestone, and requested them to sit down. But the grass being wet, they refused to do so, and I directed then Caroline to go forward, and I went behind Maria, into whose breast I ran the dagger. With a dull cry she sank down. With a most broken heart I rushed then after Caroline, lifting the poignard in my hand towards her. ‘Dear Dedea,’ cried she, with a half-dead voice, and fell down with weeping eyes. Then I rushed over her, and gave her the last kisses as an everlasting remembrance.

I could not live a more dreadful hour in my life than that was, and my broken heart could not feel when my senses were gone. And I took both the black capes of Maria and dear Caroline, as a mourning suit for me, leaving the awful spot with weeping eyes and a broken heart. Never I shall forget my dear Caroline and Maria, and the poignard will be covered with blood until it will be put in my own breast, and I shall see again my dear Maria and Caroline in the eternal life.

Farewell, and be not unhappy about the blissful deceased; they are angels of God, and forget the unhappy ever-weeping

Dedea Redanies

Wandering onward toward Canterbury, Redanies self-inflicted three stab wounds (one of them tearing into his left lung) that would have been fatal but for the timely arrival of a party of laborers and a surgeon they were able to summon. That enabled the crown to do the inflicting for him. Impassive in the face of his approaching death, he kept on roleplaying the romance in his head to the very end — “In a few moments I shall be in the arms of my dear Caroline; I care not for death” — “Now I write no more — I prepare myself to go meet my dear Caroline” — etc.

There’s more detail about this case as well as a hanging ballad to be found at PlanetSlade.com; the crime also inspired a folk tune, “The Folkestone Murder”

One final senseless death remained to the tragedy: according to the London Morning Chronicle (Jan. 2, 1857), one of the workmen disassembling the scaffold after it had served its turn “fell from a considerable height upon his head, and was killed upon the spot.”

* The quoted text is the English as it was originally published; I’m not positive whether to attribute its clunky prose more to the writer or the translator.

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2009: One stoned and one shot by Islamic militants in Somalia

Add comment December 13th, 2017 Headsman

From Associated Press reports:

MOGADISHU, Somalia — Witnesses say Islamist militants have executed two men accused by the fighters of murder and adultery.

Witnesses in the town of Afgoye southwest of the capital say the Hizbul Islam militants on Sunday stoned to death the man accused of adultery and shot the man accused of murder. They say the militants summoned the town’s residents to watch the executions.

Islamic courts run by radical clerics have ordered executions, floggings and amputations in recent months. In some areas militants have also banned movies, musical telephone ringtones, dancing at weddings and playing or watching soccer.

Somalia has been ravaged by violence since warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, then turned on each other.

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1780: Gerald Byrne and James and Patrick Strange, for carrying off the Miss Kennedy’s

Add comment December 2nd, 2017 Headsman

Today’s short and plaintive broadsheet arrives via James Kelly’s Gallows Speeches From Eighteenth-Century Ireland, a source we have enjoyed often in the past.

Though we have seen elsewhere via Kelly the capital prosecution of Catholic-Protestant marriages; these, however, appear by the thin text to be instances of the old tradition of bride-stealing — a practice which could straddle the vast distance from elopement ritual and kidnapping/rape.

The implication of these texts is that the men did the former, but got prosecuted for the latter: whether that’s down to an initial misunderstanding between the partners, to a change of heart by the wives Kennedy, to the pressure applied by disapproving in-laws, or some other cause, one can only guess.


The Last Speech, Confession and Dying Declaration of Gerald Byrne and James and Patrick Strange

Good People,

As we have for some time past excited the publick attention, it may be expected in our last moments to say a few words regarding the cause for which we suffer. As to our births; we have come from respectable families near Graigenamana, in the counties of Ki[l]kenny and Carlow; from an early acquaintance with the Miss Kennedy’s, we unfortunately conceived an affection for them, grounded on the most virtuous and honourable terms; they received our addresses and seemed to approve of our passions by the mutual exchange of their love for ours; but alas! how we have been deceived.

Thus encouraged with the many repeated assurances that we were not disagreeable, made us imprudently determine to take them away, which resolution we unhappily put in execution, and immediately after, married them, and during the time of their living with us no woman could be happier, as we used them in the most tender, loving and affectionate manner; however, illnatured people have shamefully propagated, that we treated them ungentleman-like; but such ill-natured reports have been founded and circulated by malice, and, we hope, in the humane and honest mind will have no weight.

We freely forgive our unnatural wives, beseeching the Searcher of all Hearts, when they appear before his awful tribunal, will mitigate the cruelty they have shown to us, and receive them into the mansions of bliss. We die members of the Church of Rome, in peace with the world, in the 23d and 20th years of our age, and may the Lord have mercy on our Souls

Gerald Byrne, James Strange


The last Speech of Patrick Strange, who was executed for aiding and assisting in taking away the Miss Kennedy’s

Good Christians,

As it is usual for persons in my unhappy situation to give some account of their past life, I shall only trespass on the public, to mention, that I was born in the county of Carlow, come from a reputable family, and always preserved an unblemished character, the cause I die for was of assisting Mess Byrne and Strange, in carrying away the Miss Kennedy’s. I forgive my prosecutors, requesting the prayers of all good Christians, and depart in peace with mankind, in the 24th year of my age.

Patrick Strange

ENISCORTHY: Printed by R. JONES

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