On this date in 1922, Benny Swim suffered a double hanging for a double murder.
Benny Swim(m) grew up on a squalid backwoods farm in the New Brunswick “badlands” where violence and moonshine were as ubiquitous as poverty: “the poorest human beings I have ever met in a civilized country,” in the words of an English observer who chanced to meet the story’s principals on a hunting trip before they made the crime headlines.
According to a somewhat lurid 1981 Toronto Star profile, Benny was “a moody, difficult boy who didn’t get along at home” and left school at age 12 after attacking a crowd of bullying schoolmates with a knife.
His cruel life’s best comfort was an incestuous passion for his cousin Olive Swim(m).
Olive did not leave her cousin’s lust unrequited — Olive’s father said the two lived as de facto man and wife for a year and a half — but neither was she faithful to the jealous Benny. Our visiting hunting party discovered that firsthand when one of its number took Olive out for a drive and parked with her. Before they could get to steaming up the windshield, a gunshot ripped through it, fortuitously harming neither. “Benny, Benny, don’t shoot again!” Olive cried as she leapt out of the adulterous conveyance.
In February-March of 1922, 17-year-old Olive became so infatuated with a former soldier that she ran off and married him, moving away and refusing to receive her former paramour. Benny met in his customary way the turn of his fortunes: he got himself a revolver and went to see the newlyweds making no attempt to disguise his intentions.
Harvey Trenholm he surprised chopping woods in the snow and shot him dead in the face. A screaming Olive he met at the door of her new home as she attempted to flee, and shot her in the chest, and then, as she staggered away from her assailant, in the back. “It’s awful what a woman can bring a man to do,” the killer would later remark.
The only person on the scene whom he couldn’t manage to kill was himself. His suicide shot failed to penetrate his skull and lodged under the skin. The sheriff found him, following the trail of bloody snow from the crime scene, recuperating at a neighboring farm. “Sheriff, this is awful,” Swim said to him. “I suppose I will hang for it.”
Doyle, who claimed to have several hangings on his resume, conducted Benny to the scaffold and, at 5:06 a.m., dropped him as the the prisoner was in the midst of reciting the Lord’s Prayer. One eight-foot fall later, and it was another zipless kill for the cocksure Doyle. “Splendid job ain’t it?” Doyle boasted. “The man is as dead as a door-nail.”
What Doyle lacked in professional decorum, he also lacked in professional competence.
Though Swim was unconscious, the fall had not broken his neck — and the hangmen then proceeded to blithely cut the “dead” man down without leaving him to dangle long enough to ensure death. When the body was laid out back in its cell as prison staff set about attending to the posthumous necessaries, the doctor designated to certify death discovered a pulse. And breathing. He soon enough, coughing and choking sounds. The pulse was growing stronger — the doctor believed he could bring Benny back around.
A hushed argument then followed in the little cell over the essence of the judicial sentence “hanged by the neck until dead.”* The sheriff, possibly considering the enormously embarrassing fallout no less than the letter of the law, carried the day. Two ministers, who had been singing hymns with Benny Swim minutes beforehand, helped the assistant hangman, a fellow named Gill, carry the still-insensible man back to the gallows and propped him up for a second noosing. (Doyle, whose indecorous remarks had been overheard by the general public peeping at the hanging over the jailyard walls,** was spirited away within the jail for fear that he might stand to join the ranks of lynched executioners. He remained in protective custody for much of the day, and was at last secretly escorted back to a train station and sent home to Montreal.)
Public fury at the affair, and the scandalous word-of-mouth reports of hangman Doyle’s behavior, conspired to make the late double murderer into an object of pity. Benny’s funeral, noted The Press (Oct. 17, 1922), was “very largely attended. There were 150 teams in the procession. The large number of people attending … testified to the disgust of the community against hanging, a relic of the dark ages.”
* “It is clear that if, upon judgment to be hanged by the neck until he is dead, the criminal be not thoroughly killed, but revives, the sheriff must hang him again. For the former hanging was no execution of the sentence.” -Blackstone
** Woodstock’s jail was hardly constructed with steady gallows-traffic in mind. “The yard is small, bordering on the street and there is nothing to obstruct the view of the public from what takes place therein,” ran one report at the time. “The Swim hanging would have been hardly more public if the scaffold had been erected on the street.”
On this date in 1829, George Swearingen, late the sheriff of Washington County, Md., was hanged for murder.
Swearingen murdered his wife after he became infatuated with a woman of ill repute. To savor this tawdry tale, we’re going to reprise our periodic endorsements of our friend (and occasional guest-blogger) Robert Wilhelm at Murder by Gaslight.
Here are a few morsels from the fall of George Swearingen to whet the appetite:
Mary was away from her marital duties for at least six months and George had to find other ways to meet his needs. In his words, “I occasionally visited those houses of libertinism and chambering, which, Solomon declares to be ‘the way to hell leading down to the chambers of death.’“
One night he caught her in an amorous embrace with another young man, a Mr. G—. As a result, the two men fought a duel. Orlando Haverley was killed, and Rachel went to live with the victor.
And then there’s this Huck Finn interlude.
George and Rachel both fled Maryland; first travelling together, then separating, planning to meet in New Orleans. Rachel, travelling by steamboat, probably passed George who, travelling under the name Martin, was floating down the Mississippi in a flatboat.
And competing interpretations of troubling forensic evidence.
Swearingen’s defense attorney, John L. M’Mahon explained that Mary had suffered from “leuco phlegmatic temperament” which made her liable to spontaneous uterine hemorrhaging. Her doctor had advised her to refrain from sex — explaining why George strayed in the first place. The condition also explained why she appeared to have been raped before death. For good measure, he speculated that Charity Johnson had attacked the body with a broomstick to implicate Swearingen as a rapist.
On this date in 2006, the government of Kurdistan hanged eleven members of an alleged “terrorist cell” in its capital of Erbil.
Sheikh Z(h)ana Abdel Karim Barzinji and his gang “were involved in kidnapping and killing innocent people,” per media accounts, and security forces made sure to provide to television statements dubiously adulterated videotapes of confessions they had wrung from the group. The confessions copped to beheadings and bomb attacks, as well as to gay sex and child rape.
It was the first known judicial execution in Kurdistan since it attained functional autonomy in 1992 — but authorities still delayed it in deference to the moratorium on executions in Iraq immediately following the U.S. invasion. When Baghdad resumed executions in September 2006, Erbil went ahead and did so as well.
This was coming at a time when Erbil had just suffered an especially bloody suicide attack, and residents were demanding answers and more security. Because I had heard of similar homosexual accusations related to al-Qaeda before, my reaction was a mix of amusement and skepticism. A gay/pedophile/Islamist/terrorist network: how convenient to discredit any insurgent effort for years to come …
The entire city was waiting for the confessions, which finally came in the most sordid of manners, interrupted with footage of gay sex, executions, and much gore. The fact that the confessions were intermittent, cut off abruptly at times, that the images of gay sex supposed to have been filmed by Sheikh Zana and his group could have been filmed by anyone even after the culprits’ arrest — in the same way that some were filmed in Abu Ghraib — was not relevant at all to the viewers of this show. My friend Rowand and his family were mesmerized and disgusted. When I expressed my skepticism, they politely dismissed it. This footage appealed to the deepest of Iraqi collective fears, the fear of being exposed as a homosexual.
In Arequipa, there is active devotion to Victor Apaza Quispe, who was born in the Miraflores district in 1932. Apaza led a vagrant life supported by odd jobs after fleeing his abusive father. In a variant version that he related to inmates, he was sold by his father into farm labor. Apaza married in 1953, continued a life of transient jobs and petty crime, drank heavily, and physically abused his wife and daughter until he finally abandoned the home. When he returned ten years later, the marriage was beyond repair. In January 1969, Apaza dreamed that his wife was unfaithful to him. He went to the location revealed in the dream and saw the shadowy figure of a man escaping. His wife, also there, was not as fortunate. Apaza beat her to death with a rock.
It was later revealed that the crime was premeditated and carefully planned. Apaza originally denied responsibility but confessed his guilt once the evidence mounted against him. Later, during appeals for clemency, he again declared his innocence. He was convicted partially on the evidence of his two daughters, who wittingly or unwittingly offered testimony that supported the death penalty. Apaza did not understand the sentence until his lawyer translated it for him into Quechua. He hugged his lawyer, the two of them crying, and then collapsed into his chair.
People in the courtroom were shocked by the death sentence. The rarity of the event — this would be the first execution in Arequipa — resulted in extensive press coverage. Apaza suddenly gained a celebrity derived less from his crime than from the punishment. The press represented him as a poor, simple man and a good Christian. According to Apaza’s defense attorney, “the very foundation of society was shaken” when the public learned that Apaza had been sentenced to death. Horror and indignation were aroused because the imminent execution was “an unjust action of human justice.” Divine justice would make amends.
Apaza faced the firing squad in prison on September 17, 1971. (The drama is intensified in some folkloric versions by locating the execution in Arequipa’s main plaza.) Arequipa’s residents were outraged, even traumatized, and some fifteen hundred attended Apaza’s funeral. They organized themselves into squads, taking turns to carry the coffin.
Apaza had been in prison for two years before he was executed. Like Ubilberto Vasquez Bautista in Cajamarca, he became a model prisoner and something of a populist. Fellow inmates described Apaza as a good, hardworking, honest man. In 1971, the 531 men incracerated with him sent a letter to the court petitioning clemency, in part because Apaza had proven himself to be “an honorable man and dedicated to his work.” The prison chaplain, a Jesuit, found Apaza to be pious and God-fearing, and the warden thought he was a “completely good” man. Later, retrospective press accounts described Apaza and Ubilberto together as “innocent men crushed by the Kafkaesque and labyrinthine cruelties of the administration of justice in Peru.”
The devotees with whom I spoke in Arequipa knew little about Apaza. Even the official rezador, a man who prays for tips at the shrine, did not have the story clear. Many devotees had a vague idea that Apaza had been executed under circumstances that suggested injustice, however, and the key word offered by all was “innocent.” Some believed that the true killer confessed the crime after Apaza was executed.
When I asked devotees how they knew that Apaza was innocent, one woman astonished me with her answer: “because a sinner cannot work miracles.” I later encountered this same response in other devotions. Once a folk saint’s fame for miracles is accepted as true, then this truth — this evidence — revises backward to create the conditions necessary for the production of miracles. Miracles make Apaza’s apparent guilt impossible, so the verdict is reversed. Innocence causes miracles, and miracles cause innocence. Miracles occur within the circularity defined by these parameters.
Apaza is miraculous, like all folk saints of this prototype, because “he died innocent and is beside Our Lord.” “You were shot, you suffered,” people said when they requested the first miracles, because these misfortunes qualified Apaza for sainthood.
That teen’s younger brother, Filippo Visconti, spent the early 1400s packed away in Pavia, sickly and marginal, wondering which of the deadly machinations of state playing out above him might unexpectedly come crashing down on his own head. It seems doubtful that Beatrice ever had reason to give the little twerp a thought.
Delivery for Filippo came in May 1412. Big brother was assassinated while Facino Cane lay dying and suddenly the 19-year-old called the shots in Milan. In his day, he would become known as a cunning and cruel tyrant, and would make Milan the dominant power in northern Italy.
And it all was possible because of May 1412, which not only elevated Filippo but widowed our principal Beatrice. From her puissant late husband she inherited 400,000 ducats and huge … tracts of land. Her virtues could hardly fail to appeal to the whelp of a Duke, even at twenty years his senior; indeed, it was Cane himself who sketched out this succession plan from his deathbed.
It seems, however, that having taking possession of the wealth and legitimacy that came with Beatrice’s hand, Filippo soon grew irritated with the rest of her — enough so that he at last determined to put her aside. His paranoid Excellency wasn’t the quietly-retire-you-to-a-monastery type; instead, he went for the full Anne Boleyn.
Accusing his consort of consorting with a young troubadour in her court, Michele Orombelli, Filippo had the accused cuckold and two of Beatrice’s handmaidens tortured until they produced the requisite confession/accusation of faithlnessness. Upon that basis he had Orombelli and Beatrice di Tenda both beheaded at the castle of Binasco. A plaque placed there to commemorate the spurned wife is still to be seen today.
Bellini’s second-last opera was based on this tragic story. Beatrice di Tenda premiered in 1833; it’s noteworthy in Bellini’s biography because deadline disputes in its composition ruined the composer’s longstanding collaboration with librettist Felice Romani.
In the May of 1874, in the town of Montpellier, M. Boyer, a retired merchant, some forty-six years of age, lay dying. For some months previous to his death he had been confined to his bed, crippled by rheumatic gout. As the hour of his death drew near, M. Boyer was filled with a great longing to see his daughter, Marie, a girl of fifteen, and embrace her for the last time. The girl was being educated in a convent at Marseilles. One of M. Boyer’s friends offered to go there to fetch her. On arriving at the convent, he was told that Marie had become greatly attracted by the prospect of a religious life. “You are happy,” the Mother Superior had written to her mother, “very happy never to have allowed the impure breath of the world to have soiled this little flower. She loves you and her father more than one can say.”
Her father’s friend found the girl dressed in the costume of a novice, and was told that she had expressed her desire to take, one day, her final vows. He informed Marie of her father’s dying state, of his earnest wish to see her for the last time, and told her that he had come to take her to his bedside. “Take me away from here?” she exclaimed. The Mother Superior, surprised at her apparent reluctance to go, impressed on her the duty of acceding to her father’s wish. To the astonishment of both, Marie refused to leave the convent. If she could save her father’s life, she said, she would go, but, as that was impossible and she dreaded going out into the world again, she would stay and pray for her father in the chapel of the convent, where her prayers would be quite as effective as by his bedside. In vain the friend and the Mother Superior tried to bend her resolution.
Happily M. Boyer died before he could learn of his daughter’s singular refusal. But it had made an unfavourable impression on the friend’s mind. He looked on Marie as a girl without real feeling, an egoist, her religion purely superficial, hiding a cold and selfish disposition; he felt some doubt as to the future development of her character.
M. Boyer left a widow, a dark handsome woman, forty years of age.
Some twenty years before his death, Marie Salat had come to live with M. Boyer as a domestic servant. He fell in love with her, she became his mistress, and a few months before the birth of Marie, M. Boyer made her his wife. Madame Boyer was at heart a woman of ardent and voluptuous passions that only wanted opportunity to become careless in their gratification. Her husband’s long illness gave her such an opportunity. At the time of his death she was carrying on an intrigue with a bookseller’s assistant, Leon Vitalis, a young man of twenty-one. Her bed-ridden husband, ignorant of her infidelity, accepted gratefully the help of Vitalis, whom his wife described as a relative, in the regulation of his affairs. At length the unsuspecting Boyer died. The night of his death Madame Boyer spent with her lover.
The mother had never felt any great affection for her only child.
During her husband’s lifetime she was glad to have Marie out of the way at the convent. But the death of M. Boyer changed the situation. He had left almost the whole of his fortune, about 100,000 francs, to his daughter, appointing her mother her legal guardian with a right to the enjoyment of the income on the capital until Marie should come of age. Madame Boyer had not hitherto taken her daughter’s religious devotion very seriously. But now that the greater part of her husband’s fortune was left to Marie, she realised that, should her daughter persist in her intention of taking the veil, that fortune would in a very few years pass into the hands of the sisterhood. Without delay Madame Boyer exercised her authority, and withdrew Marie from the convent. The girl quitted it with every demonstration of genuine regret.
Marie Boyer when she left the convent was growing into a tall and attractive woman, her figure slight and elegant, her hair and eyes dark, dainty and charming in her manner. Removed from the influences of convent life, her religious devotion became a thing of the past. In her new surroundings she gave herself up to the enjoyments of music and the theatre. She realised that she was a pretty girl, whose beauty well repaid the hours she now spent in the adornment of her person.
The charms of Marie were not lost on Leon Vitalis.
Mean and significant in appearance, Vitalis would seem to have been one of those men who, without any great physical recommendation, have the knack of making themselves attractive to women. After her husband’s death Madame Boyer had yielded herself completely to his influence and her own undoubted passion for him. She had given him the money with which to purchase a business of his own as a second-hand bookseller. This trade the enterprising and greedy young man combined with money-lending and he clandestine sale of improper books and photographs.
To such a man the coming of Marie Boyer was a significant event. She was younger, more attractive than her mother; in a very few years the whole of her father’s fortune would be hers. Slowly Vitalis set himself to win the girl’s affections. The mother’s suspicions were aroused; her jealousy was excited. She sent Marie to complete her education at a convent school in Lyons. This was in the April of 1875. By this time Marie and Vitalis had become friendly enough to arrange to correspond clandestinely during the girl’s absence from home. Marie was so far ignorant of the relations of Vitalis with her mother.
Her daughter sent away, Madame Boyer surrendered herself with complete abandonment to her passion for her lover. At Castelnau, close to Montpellier, she bought a small country house. There she could give full rein to her desire.
To the scandal of the occasional passer-by she and her lover would bathe in a stream that passed through the property, and sport together on the grass. Indoors there were always books from Vitalis’ collection to stimulate their lascivious appetites. This life of pastoral impropriety lasted until the middle of August, when Marie Boyer came home from Lyons.
Vitalis would have concealed from the young girl as long as he could the nature of his relations with Madame Boyer, but his mistress by her own deliberate conduct made all concealment impossible. Whether from the utter recklessness of her passion for Vitalis, or a desire to kill in her daughter’s heart any attachment which she may have felt towards her lover, the mother paraded openly before her daughter the intimacy of her relations with Vitalis, and with the help of the literature with which the young bookseller supplied her, set about corrupting her child’s mind to her own depraved level.
The effect of her extraordinary conduct was, however, the opposite to what she had intended. The mind of the young girl was corrupted; she was familiarised with vice. But in her heart she did not blame Vitalis for what she saw and suffered; she pitied, she excused him. It was her mother whom she grew to hate, with a hate all the more determined for the cold passionless exterior beneath which it was concealed.
Madame Boyer’s deliberate display of her passion for Vitalis served only to aggravate and intensify in Marie Boyer an unnatural jealousy that was fast growing up between mother and daughter.
Marie did not return to the school at Lyons. In the winter of 1875, Madame Boyer gave up the country house and, with her daughter, settled in one of the suburbs of Montpellier. In the January of 1876 a theft occurred in her household which obliged Madame Boyer to communicate with the police. Spendthrift and incompetent in the management of her affairs, she was hoarding and suspicious about money itself. Cash and bonds she would hide away in unexpected places, such as books, dresses, even a soup tureen.
One of her most ingenious hiding places was a portrait of her late husband, behind which she concealed some bearer bonds in landed security, amounting to about 11,000 francs. One day in January these bonds disappeared. She suspected a theft, and informed the police. Three days later she withdrew her complaint, and no more was heard of the matter. As Marie and Vitalis were the only persons who could have known her secret, the inference is obvious.
When, later in the year, Vitalis announced his intention of going to Paris on business, his mistress expressed to him the hope that he would “have a good time” with her bonds. Vitalis left for Paris. But there was now a distinct understanding between Marie and himself. Vitalis had declared himself her lover and asked her to marry him. The following letter, written to him by Marie Boyer in the October of 1876, shows her attitude toward his proposal:
I thank you very sincerely for your letter, which has given me very great-pleasure, because it tells me that you are well. It sets my mind at rest, for my feelings towards you are the same as ever. I don’t say they are those of love, for I don’t know myself; I don’t know what such feelings are. But I feel a real affection for you which may well turn to love. How should I not hold in affectionate remembrance one who has done everything for me? But love does not come to order. So I can’t and don’t wish to give any positive answer about our marriage — all depends on circumstances. I don’t want any promise from you, I want you to be as free as I am. I am not fickle, you know me well enough for that. So don’t ask me to give you any promise. You may find my letter a little cold. But I know too much of life to pledge myself lightly. I assure you I think on it often. Sometimes I blush when I think what marriage means.
Madame Boyer, displeased at the theft, had let her lover go without any great reluctance. No sooner had he gone than she began to miss him. Life seemed dull without him. Mother and daughter were united at least in their common regret at the absence of the young bookseller.
To vary the monotony of existence, to find if possible a husband for her daughter, Madame Boyer decided to leave Montpellier for Marseilles, and there start some kind of business. The daughter, who foresaw greater amusement and pleasure in the life of a large city, assented willingly. On October 6, 1876, they arrived at Marseilles, and soon after Madame bought at a price considerably higher than their value, two shops adjoining one another in the Rue de la Republique. One was a cheese shop, the other a milliner’s.
The mother arranged that she should look after the cheese shop, while her daughter presided over the milliner’s. The two shops were next door to one another. Behind the milliner’s was a drawing-room, behind the cheese shop a kitchen; these two rooms communicated with each other by a large dark room at the back of the building. In the kitchen was a trap-door leading to a cellar. The two women shared a bedroom in an adjoining house.
Vitalis had opposed the scheme of his mistress to start shop-keeping in Marseilles. He knew how unfitted she was to undertake a business of any kind. But neither mother nor daughter would relinquish the plan. It remained therefore to make the best of it.
Vitalis saw that he must get the business into his own hands; and to do that, to obtain full control of Madame Boyer’s affairs, he must continue to play the lover to her. To the satisfaction of the two women, he announced his intention of coming to Marseilles in the New Year of 1877. It was arranged that he should pass as a nephew of Madame Boyer, the cousin of Marie. He arrived at Marseilles on January 1, and received a cordial welcome.
Of the domestic arrangements that ensued, it is sufficient to say that they were calculated to whet the jealousy and inflame the hatred that Marie felt towards her mother, who now persisted as before in parading before her daughter the intimacy of her relations with Vitalis.
In these circumstances Vitalis succeeded in extracting from his mistress a power of attorney, giving him authority to deal with her affairs and sell the two businesses, which were turning out unprofitable. This done, he told Marie, whose growing attachment to him, strange as it may seem, had turned to love, that now at last they could be free. He would sell the two shops, and with the money released by the sale they could go away together.
Suddenly Madame Boyer fell ill, and was confined to her bed. Left to themselves, the growing passion of Marie Boyer for Vitalis culminated in her surrender. But for the sick mother the happiness of the lovers was complete. If only her illness were more serious, more likely to be fatal in its result! “If only God would take her!” said Vitalis. “Yes,” replied her daughter, “she has caused us so much suffering!”
To Madame Boyer her illness had brought hours of torment, and at last remorse.
She realised the duplicity of her lover, she knew that he meant to desert her for her daughter, she saw what wrong she had done that daughter, she suspected even that Marie and Vitalis were poisoning her. Irreligious till now, her thoughts turned to religion. As soon as she could leave her bed she would go to Mass and make atonement for her sin; she would recover her power of attorney, get rid of Vitalis for good and all, and send her daughter back to a convent.
But it was too late. Nemesis was swift to overtake the hapless woman. Try as he might, Vitalis had found it impossible to sell the shops at anything but a worthless figure. He had no money of his own, with which to take Marie away. He knew that her mother had resolved on his instant dismissal.
As soon as Madame Boyer was recovered sufficiently to leave her bed, she turned on her former lover, denounced his treachery, accused him of robbing and swindling her, and bade him go without delay.
To Vitalis dismissal meant ruin, to Marie it meant the loss of her lover. During her illness the two young people had wished Madame Boyer dead, but she had recovered. Providence or Nature having refused to assist Vitalis, he resolved to fall back on art. He gave up a whole night’s rest to the consideration of the question.
As a result of his deliberations he suggested to the girl of seventeen the murder of her mother. “This must end,” said Vitalis. “Yes, it must,” replied Marie. Vitalis asked her if she had any objection to such a crime. Marie hesitated, the victim was her mother. Vitalis reminded her what sort of a mother she had been to her. The girl said that she was terrified at the sight of blood; Vitalis promised that her mother should be strangled. At length Marie consented. That night on some slight pretext Madame Boyer broke out into violent reproaches against her daughter. She little knew that every reproach she uttered served only to harden in her daughter’s heart her unnatural resolve.
On the morning of March 19 Madame Boyer rose early to go to Mass.
Before she went out, she reminded Vitalis that this was his last day in her service, that when she returned she would expect to find him gone.
It was after seven when she left the house. The lovers had no time to lose; the deed must be done immediately on the mother’s return. They arranged that Vitalis should get rid of the shop-boy, and that, as soon as he had gone, Marie should shut and lock the front doors of the two shops.
At one o’clock Madame Boyer came back. She expressed her astonishment and disgust that Vitalis still lingered, and threatened to send for the police to turn him out. Vitalis told the shop-boy that he could go away for a few hours; they had some family affairs to settle. The boy departed. Madame Boyer, tired after her long morning in the town, was resting on a sofa in the sitting-room, at the back of the milliner’s shop. Vitalis entered the room, and after a few heated words, struck her a violent blow in the chest. She fell back on the sofa, calling to her daughter to come to her assistance. The daughter sought to drown her mother’s cries by banging the doors, and opening and shutting drawers. Vitalis, who was now trying to throttle his victim, called to Marie to shut the front doors of the two shops.
To do so Marie had to pass through the sitting-room, and was a witness to the unsuccessful efforts of Vitalis to strangle her mother. Having closed the doors, she retired into the milliner’s shop to await the issue. After a few moments her lover called to her for the large cheese knife; he had caught up a kitchen knife, but in his struggles it had slipped from his grasp. Quickly Marie fetched the knife and returned to the sitting-room.
There a desperate struggle was taking place between the man and woman. At one moment it seemed as if Madame Boyer would get the better of Vitalis, whom nature had not endowed greatly for work of this kind. Marie came to his aid. She kicked and beat her mother, until at last the wretched creature released her hold and sank back exhausted. With the cheese knife, which her daughter had fetched, Vitalis killed Madame Boyer.
They were murderers now, the young lovers. What to do with the body? The boy would be coming back soon. The cellar under the kitchen seemed the obvious place of concealment. With the help of a cord the body was lowered into the cellar, and Marie washed the floor of the sitting-room. The boy came back. He asked where Madame Boyer was. Vitalis told him that she was getting ready to return to Montpellier the same evening, and that he had arranged to go with her, but that he had no intention of doing so; he would accompany her to the station, he said, and then at the last moment, just as the train was starting, slip away and let her go on her journey alone. To the boy, who knew enough of the inner history of the household to enjoy the piquancy of the situation, such a trick seemed quite amusing. He went away picturing in his mind the scene at the railway station and its humorous possibilities.
At seven o’clock Vitalis and Marie Boyer were alone once more with the murdered woman. They had the whole night before them.
Vitalis had already considered the matter of the disposal of the body. He had bought a pick and spade. He intended to bury his former mistress in the soil under the cellar. After that had been done, he and Marie would sell the business for what it would fetch, and go to Brussels — an admirable plan, which two unforeseen circumstances defeated. The Rue de la Republique was built on a rock, blasted out for the purpose. The shop-boy had gone to the station that evening to enjoy the joke which, he believed, was to be played on his mistress.
When Vitalis tried to dig a grave into the ground beneath the cellar he realised the full horror of the disappointment. What was to be done? They must throw the body into the sea. But how to get it there?
The crime of Billoir, an old soldier, who the year before in Paris had killed his mistress in a fit of anger and cut up her body, was fresh in the recollection of Vitalis. The guilty couple decided to dismember the body of Madame Boyer and so disfigure her face as to render it unrecognisable. In the presence of Marie, Vitalis did this, and the two lovers set out at midnight to discover some place convenient for the reception of the remains. They found the harbour too busy for their purpose, and decided to wait until the morrow, when they would go farther afield. They returned home and retired for the night, occupying the bed in which Madame Boyer had slept the night before.
On the morning of the 20th the lovers rose early, and a curious neighbour, looking through the keyhole, saw them counting joyously money and valuables, as they took them from Madame Boyer’s cash-box. When the shop-boy arrived, he asked Vitalis for news of Madame Boyer. Vitalis told him that he had gone with her to the station, that she had taken the train to Montpellier, and that, in accordance with his plan, he had given her the slip just as the train was starting. This the boy knew to be false: he had been to the station himself to enjoy the fun, and had seen neither Vitalis nor Madame Boyer. He began to suspect some mystery.
In the evening, when the shops had been closed, and he had been sent about his business, he waited and watched. In a short time he saw Vitalis and Marie Boyer leave the house, the former dragging a hand-cart containing two large parcels, while Marie walked by his side. They travelled some distance with their burden, leaving the city behind them, hoping to find some deserted spot along the coast where they could conceal the evidence of their crime. Their nerves were shaken by meeting with a custom-house officer, who asked them what it was they had in the cart. Vitalis answered that it was a traveller’s luggage, and the officer let them pass on. But soon after, afraid to risk another such experience, the guilty couple turned out the parcels into a ditch, covered them with stones and sand, and hurried home.
The next day, the shop-boy and the inquisitive neighbour having consulted together, went to the Commissary of Police and told him of the mysterious disappearance of Madame Boyer. The Commissary promised to investigate the matter, and had just dismissed his informants when word was brought to him of the discovery, in a ditch outside Marseilles, of two parcels containing human remains. He called back the boy and took him to view the body at the Morgue. The boy was able, by the clothes, to identify the body as that of his late mistress.
The Commissary went straight to the shops in the Rue de la Republique, where he found the young lovers preparing for flight. At first they denied all knowledge of the crime, and said that Madame Boyer had gone to Montpellier. They were arrested, and it was not long before they both confessed their guilt to the examining magistrate.
Vitalis and Marie Boyer were tried before the Assize Court at Aix on July 2, 1877. Vitalis is described as mean and insignificant in appearance, thin, round-backed, of a bilious complexion; Marie Boyer as a pretty, dark girl, her features cold in expression, dainty and elegant. At her trial she seemed to be still so greatly under the influence of Vitalis that during her interrogatory the President sent him out of court. To the examining magistrate Marie Boyer, in describing her mother’s murder, had written, “I cannot think how I came to take part in it. I, who wouldn’t have stayed in the presence of a corpse for all the money in the world.”
Vitalis was condemned to death, and was executed on August 17. He died fearful and penitent, acknowledging his miserable career to be a warning to misguided youth. Extenuating circumstances were accorded to Marie Boyer, and she was sentenced to penal servitude for life. Her conduct in prison was so repentant and exemplary that she was released in 1892.
M. [Louis] Proal, a distinguished French judge, and the author of some important works on crime, acted as the examining magistrate in the case of Vitalis and Marie Boyer. He thus sums up his impression of the two criminals:
Here is an instance of how greed and baseness on the one side, lust and jealousy on the other, bring about by degrees a change in the characters of criminals, and, after some hesitation, the suggestion and accomplishment of parricide, Is it necessary to seek an explanation of the crime in any psychic abnormality which is negatived to all appearances by the antecedents of the guilty pair? Is it necessary to ask it of anatomy or physiology? Is not the crime the result of moral degradation gradually asserting itself in two individuals, whose moral and intellectual faculties are the same as those of other men, but who fall, step by step, into vice and crime? It is by a succession of wrongful acts that a man first reaches the frontier of crime and then at length crosses it.
On this date in 1973, former cabaret star Mimi Wong Weng Siu and her husband Sim Woh Kum were hanged for the murder of Wong’s Japanese lover’s wife.
“Overwhelmed by a consuming jealousy” (her prosecutor’s words) for Hiroshi Watanabe, a land reclamation engineer from Osaka who was in Singapore working to prepare Bedok for development, Wong recruited her estranged husband to help her get rid of the competition. (Sim was just in it for the payment Wong promised him.)
On the evening of January 6, 1968, the two broke into the home when Ayako Watanabe was alone there. Sim threw bleach in the victim’s eyes to incapacitate her, as Wong fatally gashed her neck and abdomen with a small knife.
The resulting 26-day trial riveted Singapore with the risque details of the dance hostess’s adulterous trysts. (And said dance hostess’s two courtroom fainting episodes.) But their manifest guilt plus their confessions — each vainly attempting to blame the other — assured their convictions.
While Sim situates as a side character of little lasting interest, Mimi Wong’s hanging was among the few that would really stick with long-tenured Singapore hangman Darshan Singh.
The title character, if you like, of Alan Shadrake’s Singapore death row critique Once a Jolly Hangman, Singh executed more than 850 people in more than four decades on the job and never wavered in his support for the policies that kept him occupied. Even so, Singh felt compassion for the individual humans he was called upon to kill; he was known to go out of his way to get to know condemned prisoners and to comfort them in their distressing situation.
In prison, she was a difficult inmate who would at times strip naked and refuse to put on her clothes even when ordered by prison guards. She even threw urine at the wardens, said Madam Jeleha.
“Darshan was the only one who could control her. He would say ‘Mimi, wear the blanket and cover yourself. Don’t do this or you won’t be beautiful any more’, and she would listen to him,” Madam Jeleha said.
The two forged an unlikely friendship and other prison officers even joked that Wong was his girlfriend. Mr Singh never minded.
Before her execution, Wong told Mr Singh they should be lovers in the next life and she wanted to take him with her.
“After he hanged Mimi Wong, he fell very sick for a month. He was in Toa Payoh Hospital for more than two weeks,” his wife said.
Even when probed, he refused to tell his wife about Wong’s final moments.
On this date in 756, the imperial consort Yang Guifei was expediently executed during the An Lushan Rebellion.
The Tang dynasty Emperor Xuanzong, whose beloved concubine Yang was, undertook this cruel extremity only in great duress. Initially married to one of the emperor’s sons, Yang so enamored the emperor that he usurped the prince’s place and got the kid a different wife. In the c. 800 classic poem “Song of Everlasting Sorrow” the poet Bai Juyi mused on the smitten sovereign rushing headlong into waiting tragedy.
The emperor neglected the world from that moment,
Lavished his time on her in endless enjoyment.
She was his springtime mistress, and his midnight tyrant.
Though there were three thousand ladies all of great beauty,a
All his gifts were devoted to one person.
Indeed, over the 740s Yang’s relations rose at court on the strength of her hold over the emperor, causing no few resentments among courtiers now obliged to flatter them. She’s been cast as a femme fatale, a siren whose chords called the emperor to capsize his own ship of state.
The general An Lushan was the rock of his ruin. Though An Lushan’s revolt would one day claim Yang’s life, he was a great favorite of hers and eventually adopted as Yang’s son; it was whispered that the imperial gifts showered on this commander might reflect favor with the concubine quite surpassing the bounds of propriety.
The most important favor was command of all northern China’s garrisons, with 150,000-plus troops.
His influence (and the fact that he was not ethnically Han, but of Turkic and Iranic extraction) made him rivals at the imperial court, even including the concubine Yang’s cousin, chancellor Yang Guozhong.
One can speculate as to who suspected whom first, but as we’ve seen with the Roman Empire a sufficiently strong inducement to treachery inevitably becomes tantamount to the real thing: eventually one’s intemperate supporters or implacable enemies will cast the die for even the most retiring general. An Lushan was Caesar enough to cross the Tang’s Rubicon, which for him was the Yellow River, above which his armies had been confined.
In the winter of 755-756, An crossed this river and marched towards Chang’an (Xi’an, then the imperial capital and the world’s most populous city), styling himself the Emperor of Yan. This aspirant state proved far from durable, and vanished by 763 — but by the time that long term had come into view, all of our principal characters were dead.
Yang Guifei was the first of them. (Plenty of secondary characters — generals, eunuchs, rivals and family of rivals — were being put to death all along and well before Yang, of course.) As the rebel army advanced on the capital, Xuanzong and his court fled in panic, Yang included. One day’s march further inland towards Chengdu, the royal guards themselves rebelled. Embittered like many others by the sway Yang and her family held — and blaming the consort for the ignominious retreat they were embarked upon — the soldiers refused to proceed without Yang’s execution. Xuanzong had little choice under the circumstances but to assent to her summary strangulation.
The Son of Heaven made good his escape, and his kingdom prevailed in the fight. (An was assassinated in 757.) Xuanzong himself, however, had to abdicate in favor of his son before the chaotic summer was out, and lived out his last five years as Taishang Huang, “Retired Emperor”.
One can only guess at the regrets he had in those days for the beloved mistress sacrificed to the safety of his person and throne. It’s a circumstance that has become a staple of Chinese literature over the centuries since, from the aforeentioned Bai Juyi right down to the present day, in every medium imaginable.
In Bai’s “Song of Everlasting Sorrow”, the bereft former emperor at last sends a Taoist priest to the heavens in search of his lost love, whose spirit has not even appeared to him in a dream. Yang Guifei sends the messenger back with a last pledge of sundered love:
“Our spirits belong together, like these precious fragments,
Sometime, in earth or heaven, we shall meet again.”
And she sent these words, by the Taoist, to remind him
of their midnight vow, secret between them.
“On that Seventh night, of the Herdboy and the Weaver,
In the silent Palace we declared our dream was
To fly together in the sky, two birds on the same wing,
To grow together on the earth, two branches of one tree.”
Earth fades, Heaven fades, at the end of days.
But Everlasting Sorrow endures always.
The English diplomat Sir Thomas Roe, envoy to the Mughal Empire from 1615 to 1619 during the reign of Jahangir, recorded in his journal* the unfortunate fate this date of a nameless woman for being caught rendezvousing with a palace eunuch.
This day a gentellwoeman of Normalls was taken in the kings house in some action with an Eunuch. Another Capon that loved her kylld him. The Poore Woeman was sett up to the Arme pitts in the Earth hard ramed, her feete tyde to a stake, to abyde 3 dayes and 2 nights without any sustenance, her head and armes bare, exposed to the sunns violence: if shee died not in that tyme she should bee pardoned. The Eunuch was Condemned to the Eliphantes. This damsell yeelded in Pearle, Jewelles, and ready mony 160,000 rupias.
That this bit character who does not even merit a name here left such a fortune surely testifies to the Mughal Empire’s famously astounding trade wealth.
Roe does not disclose how long the condemned woman managed to survive, but the separate memoir of Roe’s chaplain Edward Terry confirms that she succumbed to exposure well before the elapse of the pardonable three days. (The two seem to have received differing intelligence on the execution method of the eunuch, despite Terry’s indication that it transpired practically in the English mission’s backyard.)
Now for the disposition of that King, it ever seemed unto me to be composed of extremes; for sometimes he was barbarously cruel, and at other times he would seem to be exceedingly fair and gentle.
For his cruelties, he put one of his women to a miserable death; one of his women he had formerly touched and kept company with, but now she was superannuated; for neither himself nor nobles (as they say) come near their wives or women, after they exceed the age of thirty years. The fault of that woman was this; the Mogul upon a time found her and one of his eunuchs kissing one another; and for this very thing, the King presently gave command that a round hole should be made in the earth, and that her body should be put into that hole, where she should stnad with her head only above ground, and the earth to be put in again unto her close round about her, that so she might stand in the parching sun ’till the extreme hot beams thereof did kill her; in which torment she lived one whole day, and the night following, and almost ’till the next noon, crying out most lamentably, while she was able to speak, in her language, as the Shumanite’s child did in his, 2 King. 4. “Ah my head, my head!” which horrid execution, or rather murder, was acted near our house; where the eunuch, by the command of the said King, was brought very near the place where this poor creature was thus buried alive, and there in her sight cut all into pieces.
* Published as The embassy of Sir Thomas Roe to the court of the Great Mogul, 1615-1619, as narrated in his journal and correspondence. This vignette is from volume 1; there is also a volume 2
On this date in 1927,* the Bohemian playboy Jindrich Bažant was hanged at Kutna Hora for a murder spree directed at his several lovers.
Thanks to wealthy parents, Bazant‘s major occupation was the pleasures of the flesh.
But really, “I was destined to be a murderer,” he confessed upon arrest. He’d certainly thrown himself into the role once he tired of his girlfriends.
Two women who fancied themselves future Mrs. Bazants were the victims: Marie Safarikova, age 19, lured into a supposed elopement to Slovakia and then coldly shot dead in the woods; and Josefa Pavelkova, who was already pregnant with Bazant’s child.
Yet another lover, Bozena Rihova, almost met the same fate after she threatened Bazant with a criminal complaint for infecting her with a venereal disease. Bazant shot her, bludgeoned her with a hammer, and set her on fire — but Rihova miraculously survived to testify against her former paramour.
Bazant was among the last put to death by Leopold Wohlschlager, one of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s five state executioners at the time of its dissolution. Wohlschlager got started in the craft at the tender age of 15, and was well into his seventies when he hanged Bazant.
* I’m going with the plurality (and the best-detailed) of Czech-language articles here, against some cites for the same date in 1926.