On this date in 1816, four British sailors on the HMS Africaine were hanged for buggery. One other crewman suffered 200 lashes; a second, a 17-year-old sentenced to 300, had the flogging stopped at 170 stripes by a surgeon who feared the youth’s life was in danger.
The Africaine: it was a French ship originally, captured in 1810 by the British.
“The Africaine had a reputation as a ‘man-fucking ship’ long before evidence of sodomitic practices came to the attention of Captain [Edward] Rodney,”* Arthur Gilbert explained in his seminal study published in the very first (volume 1, issue 1 — 1976) edition of the Journal of Homosexuality. “There were several reports of “uncleanliness” on the ship early in 1815 and, on one occasion, two seamen were punished for ‘lying on a chest together one night’.”
Late in 1815, Captain Rodney determined to crack down on the man-fucking and by threatening them with “dreadful consequences” coerced two of the crew into implicating themselves and a great many others in a buggery ring. As the Africaine made its way back to Portsmouth that autumn, it was scene to an ever-widening investigation.
Out of about 220 to 230 men aboard, some 50 members of the crew would ultimately be involved in the investigation, 23 of them charged or implicated with a wide variety of riffs on “the unnatural crime”: one Raphael Seraco was seen “with his yard actually in the posterior of John Westerman”; another sailor “placed his yard between [my] thighs and in that position effected an emission”; still another had “his yard against the backside of the boy Christopher Jay and … in quick motion as if he was committing the unnatural crime”; one of the ship’s boys “being much hurt sung out ‘Oh’” during an attempted rape; and someone had been rogered “on the flag stones of the Galley.”
While seabound sodomy was hardly unheard-of, the practitioners among the Africaine‘s crew had seemingly grown unusually (and dangerously) bold about practicing it without a modicum of concealment, “copulating in plain view like dogs.”
“God must put it into men’s heads to commit the unnatural crime of buggery,” an accused boatswain’s mate had allegedly declared. “If God was to put it into his head to fuck a man, [I] would as soon do it as fuck a woman.”
The sheer number of men rolled up in accusation and counter-accusation made across-the-board death sentences inconceivable. And among those implicated, it was extremely difficult to ascertain truth when fear and favoritism and innuendo were so thick in the air — “terrified as we were,” as one accused man later recounted, “in the idea of being prosecuted for the horrible crime imputed to us, dismayed and alarmed … in the duress of our situation, our minds and feelings every moment distorted by hope and fear without a friend to counsel us.”**
Blackstone had long before noted that the witch-hunt potential of a charge of sexual deviance demanded “that the accusation should be clearly made out.” To Rodney’s credit, he didn’t start stringing people up from the yardarm while the Africaine was at sea.
In port, Captain Rodney gave the matter over to the Admiralty with what one imagines was probably no small relief. In the grand tradition of prosecutorial discretion, the court-martial board proceeded to break down the many accused into those who would be charged and those who would cut deals to implicate the charged.
Seraco and Westerman, mentioned above, were the first sentenced to death, and then Seraco again condemned along with another partner, John Charles. (Seraco had been implicated by several people during Captain Rodney’s seaside inquiry, and Seraco in turn had accused no fewer than 14 of his mates in a vain attempt at self-protection.)
One of the other (uncharged) seamen giving against Seraco offered this juridically damning and sociologically interesting testimony:
Seraco put the question to me whether I would let him fuck me. I told him I did not much mind. He connected with me forward on the Starboard side. He entered my backside — I did the same with him three times. John Charles the prisoner was the first who mentioned the thing to me or I should never have had such a thought in my head.
Testimony of this nature, Gilbert says, posed a problem of jurisprudence: this was evidence not directly bearing on the charge that the defndant committed a specific act of sodomy with the other defendant. Legally, unless the Seraco-Charles liaison had been the charge at the bar, this testimony was extraneous. The Attorney General opined that, in a like civilian trial, he would have advised against executing a death sentence that had been obtained with such evidence — and that fact may have helped procure a pardon for a sailor named Joseph Tall.
Raphaelo Troyac (Treake), condemned with Tall, got the same favor — but Treake was immediately re-tried for a different act of buggery and re-condemned. Troyac was another Italian, and Albert notes that their common crime was popularly euphemized as le vice Italien and considered a characteristically Mediterranean indulgence. “All the scandalous behavior in the Africaine has been owing to Treake and Seraco. They are the origin of the whole of it,” another crew member — a Spanish Morisco — testified.†
As January 1816 unfolded, several others went before the court martial and received prison sentences (or in the odd case, acquittal) as the great sodomy-and-uncleanliness audit proceeded.
By month’s end, it was all finished but the noosings.
On February 1, the four condemned “died truly penitent acknowledging the justice of their sentences and admonishing their shipmates to take warning from their unhappy fate not to be guilty of such detestable practices.” The ship’s clipped log entry tersely recorded that unhappy fate.
a.m. Fresh breezes and cloudy … employed getting ready for punishment. At 9 made signal [with] a gun. At 11 executed Seraco, Westerman, Charles, and Treake [for] a breach of te 29th article of war, and punished alongside [John] Parsons … with 200 lashes and [Joseph] Hubbard with 170 lashes for a breach of the 2nd article of war as sentenced by a court martial.
p.m. … sent the bodes of the executed to the hosptal. Read articles of war to the ship’s company.
On that same date as the poor buggers of the Africaine suffered their various corporal punishments, the Portsmouth commander Admiral Edward Thornborough appointed three captains to lead an inquiry into whether this floating Sodom was the fault of Captain Rodney’s soft discipline. The investigators heard good testimony all around among the ship’s junior officers to the conduct of Captain Rodney, and within days exonerated all the higher-ups, only pausing to complain that there could have been more frequent religious services and readings of the Articles of War.
And that was that … even for the ship itself. By mid-February, the HMS Africaine was being stripped down at a Thames dock. She would be officially decomissioned and broken up that year.
How exceptional were the Africaine sodomites in the British navy as the 18th century gave way to the 19th?
I’d like to start with a question about the historiography. Arthur Gilbert brought this incident to wide public view in the 1970s, and you’ve written about it much more recently. How has the scholarly sense of homoeroticism in the British navy, or in western militaries generally, evolved in the past forty years or so?
Its evolution has paralleled the gay rights movement that began with the Stonewall riots. Generally, scholars have come to realize that homoeroticism in the ranks is more than an isolated phenomenon. Most research on the matter, however, has centered on the persecution of gay service members or the rights of gays to serve openly: can it be allowed, what problems would it create, how military personnel and the public might deal with it, etc. Scholarly interest in the historical dimension of military homoeroticism has been confined to an isolated handful of researchers. Most scholars are dealing with more contemporary and more relevant aspects of the subject.
How widespread were same-sex trysts in the Royal Navy at this time?
No idea. This is, of course, what everyone wants to know, and there is simply no data that even suggests a guess let alone an answer.
What was it about the case of the Africaine that resulted in this sizable court-martial and multiple hanging, when at least some other incidents of “buggery” and “uncleanliness” over the years appear to have been dealt with quietly or discretely ignored?
What made the Africaine different? The number and conspicuousness of the Africaine business meant it had to be dealt with. All other known incidents that produced courts martial or even summary punishment involved only pairs of mariners. Admittedly, some mariners were involved with multiple partners, but the relationships were dyadic rather than involving multiple partners simultaneously.
Do we know if men who engaged in homosexual behavior within the navy also did so on terra firma, or is that an “identity” most took on specifically to adapt to their confined all-male environment at sea? Is there any connection or analogue we can speak to between these cases and the simultaneous molly culture?
I have only run across mention of one or two navy sodomites who took their proclivities with them on land. This does not mean it didn’t happen. It is just that it is almost impossible to follow sailors once they leave their ships. They leave almost no evidence of their individual activities when not signed on board navy ships. No, I see no parallels or connections to eighteenth-century molly culture.
This is a a tangential point, but I was struck by your remark relative to the Italian Rafael Seraco that “sodomy, Popery, and Italy were inseparably linked in the minds of eighteenth-century Englishmen.” Why was that?
Sodomy, Popery, and Italy were linked in the minds of Englishmen long before the eighteenth century. Sodomy arrived in England as an Italian import according to popular views prevalent at least since the early seventeenth century, and probably earlier. The pope and the Catholic Church were also considered the handmaidens of sodomy at the same time. Part of this is due to raging anti-Catholicism in England dating from the Reformation of Henry VIII. Another part of it is the human tendency to blame the “other” for real or perceived ills: Jews, Communists, Fundamentalists, Liberals, whoever is handy. Catholics and sodomites were easy targets for Englishmen from the sixteenth century onward.
On this date in 1913, Edward Hopwood was hanged for the murder of his girlfriend, Florence Silles.
Silles was an actress and music hall songstress who had broken off her relationship with the 45-year-old manager when she found out that, contrary to his representations, Hopwood was (a) still married; and (b) not wealthy.
Hopwood contrived to track his ex down in a hotel bar, and after an evening’s drinking and talking, the two got into a cab together. There, Hopwood shot her point-blank through the head.
It sounds — and was — pretty open-and-shut, but Hopwood’s bootless defense took the case through a brief detour of an odd cul-de-sac of English jurisprudence. Hopwood claimed that he’d been trying to commit suicide, and that Silles caught her bullet accidentally as she attempted to stop him killing himself.
While it’s clear that nobody else in the court believed this, it’s also the case that suicide is a felony by law. And up until 1957, it was legal doctrine that anyone who, in the course of commission of this felony, managed to kill another person, could be held liable for homicide. (Source)
Accordingly, as the London Times reported on Dec. 10, 1912, that with respect to the attempted-suicide claim, “even if the prisoner’s story were true, the prosecution submitted that in law his crime would be at least manslaughter, and in all probability murder.” Hopwood attempted to appeal his conviction on the basis of botched suicide, and an appellate ruling wrote this very doctrine into precedent.
On this day in 1678, one Stephen or Steven Arrowsmith was executed at Tyburn for the rape of a little girl the previous summer.
He was one of six people sentenced to hang that day, but four of them got reprieved. Arrowsmith and Nathaniel Russel, a convicted murderer, were the ones who had to swing.
The victim in Arrowsmith’s case, eight-year-old Elizabeth Hopkins, testified against her rapist in court, as did the child who walked in and saw Arrowsmith abusing the victim on July 7 of that year. Neither witness was properly sworn in. From the Old Bailey records:
The Girl that was ravished, being between 8 and 9, testified that he had had to do with her for half a year together every sunday, that she was hindred from crying the first time, by his stopping her mouth, and that he gave her money afterwards; and she never discovered it, till some of her friends observing her to go as if she were very sore, examined her, and by telling her she would be in danger of hanging in Hell, got her to confess, that the Prisoner was her fathers Prentice.
One Mrs. Cowel did testifie that upon observing her going, and other Circumstances, she did resolve to examine her, and made her confess, which she did, and being searched, was found shamefully abused, and sent to the Doctors to cure.
The like was attested by one Mrs. Sherwin, and by a Midwife, who said, she had got a very foul disease by it.
Arrowsmith’s defense was two-pronged:
he hadn’t done it
but if he had done it, Elizabeth had consented
The maid of the doctor who examined Elizabeth testified for the defense, saying she’d asked the victim why she hadn’t told anyone about the abuse, and Elizabeth answered that she took pleasure in it.
The jury was very reluctant to convict and, in fact, initially brought back a verdict of not guilty. And here the judge, a fellow with the Dickensian name Lord Chief Justice Scroggs, decided to become the prosecutor.
One of the jurors, an apothecary, ventured that he personally believed Elizabeth had consented to intercourse. Scroggs reminded this person that she was under age and so the issue of her consent was irrelevant.
Other jury members said they were bothered by the fact that almost all the evidence was hearsay and the only direct witnesses, Elizabeth and her friend, had not been sworn. Testily, the judge replied that a rapist was not going to commit his crime in crowd of eyewitnesses, and the only reason the two girls had not been sworn was because of their youth, but if the jury wanted them sworn in he was prepared to do that. Then he sent them back to re-think their verdict.
To further complicate matters, during the second round of deliberations a thoughtless officer of the court, charged with looking after the two child witnesses, brought both girls to the jury to talk to them in private. When Scroggs found out he quickly put a stop to this and had the bailiff thrown in jail, and the jury (who swore that this hadn’t been their idea) was allowed to continue its deliberations. Jurors later said the unauthorized meeting had convinced them of the girls’ honesty, and they returned with a verdict of guilty.
“The Criminal Trial Before the Lawyers,” (pdf) a paper published in the University of Chicago Law Review in 1978, referenced the Arrowsmith case and Scroggs’s behavior. The paper’s author, John H. Langbein, tried to explain and defend the “judicial dominance” which might lead a modern reader to look askance at the fairness of the proceeding:
Hale’s treatise confirms this practice. “If the jurors by mistake or partiality give their verdict in court, yet they may rectify their verdict before it is recorded, or by advice of the court go together again and consider better of it, and alter what they have been delivered.” The tradition that the jury would lightly disclose the reasoning for a verdict became especially important in this situation, because it enabled the court to probe the basis of the profferred verdict, hence to identify the jury’s “mistake” and correct it. Thus, in the Arrowsmith case, the court discovered that the chemist’s opinion that an eight-year-old “could not be Ravished” had been influential, and the court refuted it…
Indeed, to this day in many countries, including the UK and the USA, a judge still has the right to overturn a jury’s decision if he or she feels the evidence did not support the verdict. This privilege is but rarely exercised.
At the gallows, just before his death, Arrowsmith wept and finally owned up to what he had done, saying he’d been a good person all his life until “Satan seduced him to this abominable wickedness.”
On this date in 1835, John Smith and James Pratt (sometimes reported as John Pratt) were hanged outside Newgate Prison for (in the exhausting fulminations of the Old Bailey trial records) “feloniously, wickedly, diabolically, and against the order of nature, carnally … commit[ted] and perpetrate[d] the detestable, horrid, and abominable crime (among Christians not to be named) called buggery.”
These men were the last put to death anywhere in the realm under the ghastly Tudor-era Buggery Act,* and indeed among the last to die at Newgate for any crime other than murder or attempted murder.
“The grave will soon close over me,” Smith allegedly wrote to a friend before his hanging, “and my name [be] entirely forgotten.”
But that’s not altogether true.
Unbeknownst to the sufferers, they were destined for literary preservation by a young writer on the make, one Charles Dickens: Smith and Pratt make an appearance in Dickens’ Sketches by Boz, an 1836 compilation of London scenes of which “A Visit to Newgate” is perhaps the best-known.
This description of the author’s visit to Newgate Prison narrates a visit made, according to William Carlton’s “The Third Man at Newgate” (The Review of English Studies, Nov., 1957), on November 5, 1835. Dickens would write in subsequent correspondence that the experience left him “intensely interested in everything I saw.”
Prisons and the threat or reality of execution would loom large in that redoubtable author’s canon. “You cannot throw the interest over a year’s imprisonment, however severe, that you can cast around the punishment of death,” the perspicacious 23-year-old told his publisher.
So too did the still-living apparitions of the condemned Smith and Pratt occupy Dickens’s reflections in “A Visit to Newgate”; they comprise a good third of the essay.
In the press-room below, were three men, the nature of whose offence rendered it necessary to separate them, even from their companions in guilt. It is a long, sombre room, with two windows sunk into the stone wall, and here the wretched men are pinioned on the morning of their execution, before moving towards the scaffold. The fate of one of these prisoners was uncertain; some mitigatory circumstances having come to light since his trial, which had been humanely represented in the proper quarter. The other two had nothing to expect from the mercy of the crown; their doom was sealed; no plea could be urged in extenuation of their crime, and they well knew that for them there was no hope in this world. ‘The two short ones,’ the turnkey whispered, ‘were dead men.’
Smith and Pratt, of course, were the “dead men.”
Their third companion, otherwise unconnected with them, was a soldier named Robert Swan, convicted of robbery. Swan was indeed reprieved, a few days before the execution. “Boz” sketched the aspect of these men as he observed them:
The man to whom we have alluded as entertaining some hopes of escape, was lounging, at the greatest distance he could place between himself and his companions, in the window nearest to the door. He was probably aware of our approach, and had assumed an air of courageous indifference; his face was purposely averted towards the window, and he stirred not an inch while we were present. The other two men were at the upper end of the room. One of them, who was imperfectly seen in the dim light, had his back towards us, and was stooping over the fire, with his right arm on the mantel-piece, and his head sunk upon it. The other was leaning on the sill of the farthest window. The light fell full upon him, and communicated to his pale, haggard face, and disordered hair, an appearance which, at that distance, was ghastly. His cheek rested upon his hand; and, with his face a little raised, and his eyes wildly staring before him, he seemed to be unconsciously intent on counting the chinks in the opposite wall. We passed this room again afterwards. The first man was pacing up and down the court with a firm military step – he had been a soldier in the foot-guards – and a cloth cap jauntily thrown on one side of his head. He bowed respectfully to our conductor, and the salute was returned. The other two still remained in the positions we have described, and were as motionless as statues.
If we have Dickens to thank in part for this unexpected glimpse of these poor fellows in the shadow of death, we also can hardly help but notice that — and this is in keeping with Smith’s forecast of posthumous anonymity — he does not name them, nor breathe a word about their scandalous crime. Only the man destined for the reprieve has animation; Smith and Pratt, immobile and affectless, are … but are little else besides. “Dead men,” like that turnkey said. This is not necessarily implausible, but it is also very pat for the literary construction of “A Visit to Newgate,” and we might be entitled to wonder how close to journalistic accuracy the writer has really come here, or regret the details Dickens has discarded that might have salvaged their humanity for a later readership.
Dickens’ party proceeded from these characters to a tour of the physical cells in which these doomed “statues” passed their last sleepless nights.
A few paces up the yard, and forming a continuation of the building, in which are the two rooms we have just quitted, lie the condemned cells. The entrance is by a narrow and obscure stair-case leading to a dark passage, in which a charcoal stove casts a lurid tint over the objects in its immediate vicinity, and diffuses something like warmth around. From the left-hand side of this passage, the massive door of every cell on the story opens; and from it alone can they be approached. There are three of these passages, and three of these ranges of cells, one above the other; but in size, furniture and appearance, they are all precisely alike. Prior to the recorder’s report being made, all the prisoners under sentence of death are removed from the day-room at five o’clock in the afternoon, and locked up in these cells, where they are allowed a candle until ten o’clock; and here they remain until seven next morning. When the warrant for a prisoner’s execution arrives, he is removed to the cells and confined in one of them until he leaves it for the scaffold. He is at liberty to walk in the yard; but, both in his walks and in his cell, he is constantly attended by a turnkey who never leaves him on any pretence.
We entered the first cell. It was a stone dungeon, eight feet long by six wide, with a bench at the upper end, under which were a common rug, a bible, and prayer-book. An iron candlestick was fixed into the wall at the side; and a small high window in the back admitted as much air and light as could struggle in between a double row of heavy, crossed iron bars. It contained no other furniture of any description.
A year after Sketches‘ February 1836 publication, Dickens’ serialized novel of the London underclass Oliver Twist began its run. That story’s heart-wrenching denouement of the thief Fagin awaiting execution in Newgate seems to owe a debt to Dickens’ meditation in Sketches on the dolorous condition of Smith, Pratt, or any doomed prisoner facing death in these awful cells.
“A Visit to Newgate” concludes:
Conceive the situation of a man, spending his last night on earth in this cell. Buoyed up with some vague and undefined hope of reprieve, he knew not why – indulging in some wild and visionary idea of escaping, he knew not how – hour after hour of the three preceding days allowed him for preparation, has fled with a speed which no man living would deem possible, for none but this dying man can know. He has wearied his friends with entreaties, exhausted the attendants with importunities, neglected in his feverish restlessness the timely warnings of his spiritual Fagin in Newgate – Cruikshank consoler; and, now that the illusion is at last dispelled, now that eternity is before him and guilt behind, now that his fears of death amount almost to madness, and an overwhelming sense of his helpless, hopeless state rushes upon him, he is lost and stupefied, and has neither thoughts to turn to, nor power to call upon, the Almighty Being, from whom alone he can seek mercy and forgiveness, and before whom his repentance can alone avail.
Hours have glided by, and still he sits upon the same stone bench with folded arms, heedless alike of the fast decreasing time before him, and the urgent entreaties of the good man at his side. The feeble light is wasting gradually, and the deathlike stillness of the street without, broken only by the rumbling of some passing vehicle which echoes mournfully through the empty yards, warns him that the night is waning fast away. The deep bell of St. Paul’s strikes – one! He heard it; it has roused him. Seven hours left! He paces the narrow limits of his cell with rapid strides, cold drops of terror starting on his forehead, and every muscle of his frame quivering with agony. Seven hours! He suffers himself to be led to his seat, mechanically takes the bible which is placed in his hand, and tries to read and listen. No: his thoughts will wander. The book is torn and soiled by use – and like the book he read his lessons in, at school, just forty years ago! He has never bestowed a thought upon it, perhaps, since he left it as a child: and yet the place, the time, the room – nay, the very boys he played with, crowd as vividly before him as if they were scenes of yesterday; and some forgotten phrase, some childish word, rings in his ears like the echo of one uttered but a minute since. The voice of the clergyman recalls him to himself. He is reading from the sacred book its solemn promises of pardon for repentance, and its awful denunciation of obdurate men. He falls upon his knees and clasps his hands to pray. Hush! what sound was that? He starts upon his feet. It cannot be two yet. Hark! Two quarters have struck; – the third – the fourth. It is! Six hours left. Tell him not of repentance! Six hours’ repentance for eight times six years of guilt and sin! He buries his face in his hands, and throws himself on the bench.
Worn with watching and excitement, he sleeps, and the same unsettled state of mind pursues him in his dreams. An insupportable load is taken from his breast; he is walking with his wife in a pleasant field, with the bright sky above them, and a fresh and boundless prospect on every side – how different from the stone walls of Newgate! She is looking – not as she did when he saw her for the last time in that dreadful place, but as she used when he loved her – long, long ago, before misery and ill-treatment had altered her looks, and vice had changed his nature, and she is leaning upon his arm, and looking up into his face with tenderness and affection – and he does NOT strike her now, nor rudely shake her from him. And oh! how glad he is to tell her all he had forgotten in that last hurried interview, and to fall on his knees before her and fervently beseech her pardon for all the unkindness and cruelty that wasted her form and broke her heart! The scene suddenly changes. He is on his trial again: there are the judge and jury, and prosecutors, and witnesses, just as they were before. How full the court is – what a sea of heads – with a gallows, too, and a scaffold – and how all those people stare at HIM! Verdict, ‘Guilty.’ No matter; he will escape.
The night is dark and cold, the gates have been left open, and in an instant he is in the street, flying from the scene of his imprisonment like the wind. The streets are cleared, the open fields are gained and the broad, wide country lies before him. Onward he dashes in the midst of darkness, over hedge and ditch, through mud and pool, bounding from spot to spot with a speed and lightness, astonishing even to himself. At length he pauses; he must be safe from pursuit now; he will stretch himself on that bank and sleep till sunrise.
A period of unconsciousness succeeds. He wakes, cold and wretched. The dull, gray light of morning is stealing into the cell, and falls upon the form of the attendant turnkey. Confused by his dreams, he starts from his uneasy bed in momentary uncertainty. It is but momentary. Every object in the narrow cell is too frightfully real to admit of doubt or mistake. He is the condemned felon again, guilty and despairing; and in two hours more will be dead.
Lotta books about Dickens
A magistrate with the Dickensian name of Hesney Wedg(e)wood appealed vigorously for clemency for Smith and Pratt — pointing out that the only reason these two had been doomed among the rather many enthusiasts** for this victimless offense was that they were penurious enough to have to pursue their desires in a lodging-house rented by a friend where they were easily spied-upon.
(The testimony lodged against them in court came from the nosy landlord who got suspicious, and with his wife peeped through the keyhole on “Pratt laying on his back with his trowsers below his knees, and with his body curled up—his knees were up—Smith was upon him—Pratt’s knees were nearly up to Smith’s shoulders—Smith’s clothes were below his knees … and a great deal of fondness and kissing.” The landlord burst in on the sodomites and put a stop to the fondness right away.)
“There is a shocking inequality in this law in its operation upon the rich and the poor,” wrote Wedgwood.
It is the only crime where there is no injury done to any individual and in consequence it requires a very small expense to commit it in so private a manner and to take such precautions as shall render conviction impossible. It is also the only capital crime that is committed by rich men but owing to the circumstances I have mentioned they are never convicted. The detection of these degraded creatures was owing entirely to their poverty, they were unable to pay for privacy, and the room was so poor that what was going on inside was easily visible from without. (Quoted here)
* The first executed under the Buggery Act shared his scaffold with Thomas Cromwell almost 300 years before. Although there were no further executions for sodomy after Smith and Pratt in 1835, that penalty remained theoretically available for the “crime” until 1861.
On this date in 1724, Willem Mons was beheaded in St. Petersburg for peculation.
Mons was the brother of the German commoner Anna Mons, a beautiful young woman who segued from being the May-December lover of Peter the Great‘s trusted admiral Franz Lefort to the mistress of the teenage emperor himself. Peter and Anna had a famous (famously scandalous) romance through her twenties, but as she entered her thirties and heard the clock ticking, her bid to make Peter put a ring on it by flirting with a Prussian diplomat came to grief and got her briefly tossed in prison.
Willem Mons was still a minor when his big sister fell from Peter’s graces. He would prove to have an equally adroit instinct for imperial bedchamber politics.
“One of the best-made and most handsome men that I have ever seen,” in the French ambassador’s estimation, Mons hustled his way into the train of the woman Peter had married instead of Anna — Catherine.
There Willem Mons and his other sister Matryona Balk monopolized the access routes to the empress and lucratively tolled all petitioners who traveled them. Wealth and status accumulated; the immigrant bourgeois’s son even stopped going by William in favor of the more impressive “Moens de la Croix”.
Not surprisingly, the emperor himself was the last to discover the open secret of his wife’s household’s river of graft.* Peter, who could be quite the moralist, was incensed; he interrogated the chamberlain so terribly that the young man fainted dead away.
“Moens de la Croix” was no longer. In both senses.
Having issued the confessions to condemn himself under the very credible threat of torture, Mons was socked away in Peter and Paul Fortress. Catherine made bold to defy Peter’s edict that nobody petition him for Mons’s life; in response, the enraged tsar smashed a Venetian mirror with his bare hand and roared, “thus I can annihilate the most beautiful adornment of my palace!” Court observers reported that marital relations between the two were visibly strained well after the scandal.
These weren’t happy days for the oft-sickly Peter; indeed, they were the last months of his life. Early the next year, he would succumb to a gangrenous bladder and leave the throne to this very Catherine. Perhaps his decrepit state accounts for the likely scurrilous rumor that the handsome chamberlain’s real offense wasn’t so much corruption as cuckoldry. It’s fair to say that such an affair would have been an extraordinarily reckless thing for Catherine.
On November 16, 1724, William Mons and Matrena Balk were taken in sledges to the execution site. Mons behaved courageously, nodding and bowing to friends he saw in the crowd. Mounting the scaffold, he calmly took off his heavy fur coat, listened to the reading of the sentence of death and laid his head on the block. After his death, his sister received eleven blows of the knout, very lightly administered so that not much harm was done, and was exiled for life to Tobolsk in Siberia. Her husband, General Balk, was given permission to marry again if he wished. (Source)
The late courtier’s severed head was preserved in alcohol (legend says that the fuming Peter made Catherine contemplate it). It was eventually deposited in the Kunstkamera museum, famous for housing Peter’s gross horde of collected pickled fetuses, dwarves, and other medical curios. Mons’s head still resides there today.
After shooting his hated father in the face — the Shreveport, La., policeman lost an eye but lived — Rolling headed east to Florida. He would later say that he aspired to become a “superstar” criminal — just like Bundy.*
Little did anyone know that Rolling was already a murderer. Only after his grisly turn in Gainesville was he linked back to a theretofore unsolved 1989 Shreveport triple homicide that saw a man, his daughter, and his son stabbed to death. Rolling had posed young Julie Grissom for investigators.
It was a signature behavior the Gainesville police were about to know all too well.
Out of nowhere, the horror murders leaped onto Florida front pages: 18-year-old Sonja Larson and 17-year-old Christina Powell, stabbed to death on August 24, 1990 (Larson was raped, too): both girls’ bodies theatrically posed.
The very next day, 18-year-old Christina Hoyt raped, stabbed to death, and decapitated — the severed head positioned as if scrutinizing its former torso.
Terrified students began taking what protective measures they could against the hunter in their midst, but just two days later 23-year-old Tracy Paules was raped, knifed, and posed … after Rolling also killed the boyfriend that she had staying over for safety.
Arrested soon thereafter on an unrelated burglary, Rolling’s campsite turned up the evidence linking him to the Gainesville Ripper’s predations. Superstardom was on the way: Rolling’s murders helped inspire the Wes Craven slasher classic Scream.**
When the much-delayed case finally came to trial in 1994, Rolling unexpectedly pleaded guilty without any deal to avoid the death penalty. Why dilute his infamy by denying it? “There are some things you just can’t run from, this being one of those,” Rolling told the judge in his singsong drawl.
Maybe had he come of age just a few years later, the Gainesville Ripper might have scratched that itch for notoriety holding forth on the coming age of new media channels instead of butchering humans.
Certainly Danny Rolling, arranger of mutilated corpses, had the character of a performer; recordings of his own renditions of folk songs were among the artifacts police recovered from the killer’s campsite. Later, in prison, Rolling became a prolific death row artist and his “murderabilia” art can be found for sale on the Internet.
Whatever charms people perceived in Danny Rolling have understandably been lost on those who survived the victims. And Rolling’s wicked “superstardom” remains yet a sensitive subject in Gainesville, where many residents still remember those days of panic the Gainesville Ripper sowed in 1990.
* There was a more direct link between Bundy and Rolling as well: (non-death-row) murderer Bobby Lewis, who became Bundy’s friend while the latter was in prison, later also befriended Danny Rolling, even acting as a go-between for Rolling’s dealings with investigators.
Glatman began trolling the City of Angels’ famous seedy underbelly for young women to model for “detective magazines” shoots — an understood euphemism for snapping illicit bondage pics. This excellent cover not only enabled him to have his victims willingly put themselves at his mercy in private, it enabled him to take their pictures as trophies.
They were images of Glatman’s detailed methodology of murder, which showed a sequence of terror by re-creating the entire psychological arc of the crime. He first photographed each victim with a look of innocence on her face as if she were truly enjoying a modeling session. The next series represented a sadist’s view of a sexually terrorized victim with the impending horror of a slow and painful death etched across her face. The final frame depicted the victim’s position that Glatman himself had arranged after he strangled her.
Photos Glatman took of two of his victims, models Judy Ann Dull (top) and Ruth Mercado (bottom). Images via Murderpedia’s collection, at least one of which is very distinctly NSFW. Murderpedia also has, as per usual, a detailed writeup of the Glatman case.
Glatman killed two women this way and a third via a lonely-hearts club meeting,** while losing a few targets along the way who were put off by his aspect or wily enough to demand a male escort for the photography sessions.
He was only stopped in 1958 when a police officer chanced to encounter him while attempting the more daring enterprise of roadside kidnapping. The perp was only 30 years old at the time, a frightening mixture of predatory calculation and homicidal lust: if not for this fortuitous early detection, it’s not too hard to imagine 1957-58 Glatman standing at the outset of a serial rape-murder spree of Bundyesque dimensions.
Unlike that later conniving, spotlight-hogging monster, Glatman post-arrest retreated quickly back to reclusion. He made only a token effort to deny his crimes; as soon as detectives tricked him (by pretending they had it already) into coming clean about a hidden toolbox full of incriminating evidence, the confessions started gushing out of him — another dam burst. He was begging detectives for death well before trial and willingly pled guilty to speed his own steps to San Quentin’s gas chamber. It took less than a year, time Glatman mostly spent in self-imposed isolation from the society of the inmates and guards around him in prison.
“It’s better this way,” he once said near the end, of his imminent date with those noxious fumes. “I knew this is the way it would be.”
Glatman’s LAPD interrogator, legendary detective Pierce Brooks, would later serve as a consultant for the made-for-TV Dragnet 1966 movie. In that film, the serial kidnapper, bondage-photographer, and murderer of young models, “Don Negler”, is conned by police into revealing the location of his incriminating toolbox — just like Glatman was.
The full film is available on YouTube; the interrogation sequence begins about 1:23:56. It clinches with the nebbishy “Negler’s” pathetic self-explanation.
Negler: The reason I killed those girls is they asked me to. (pause) They did; all of ‘em.
Joe Friday: They asked you to.
Negler: Sure. They said they’d rather be dead than be with me.
We doubt that any interposition of ours can improve the story of this execution as provided in the Newgate Calendar:
Executed on 22nd of August, 1700, near Edinburgh, for the diabolical Murder out of Revenge of the Two Children of Mr Gordon
It is with deep regret that we are compelled to bring before the reader a murderer, in a character which ever should be held most sacred. A crime more premeditated, and more fraught with cruelty, never stained the annals of history. Ambition has often impelled tyrants to shed innocent blood; revenge has stimulated men to kill each other; jealousy with ‘jaundiced eye’ destroys the object of its love; but God forbid that we should ever again have to record the fact of a tutor, a minister of the Gospel, premeditatedly murdering his pupils! — the sons of his benefactor. When we add, that this most miserable sinner expiated his offence in avowing himself an atheist, we arrive, at once, at the very depth of human depravity.
This detestable culprit was born in the county of Fife, in Scotland, and was the son of a rich farmer, who sent him to the University of St Andrews for education. When he had acquired a sufficient share of classical learning he was admitted to the degree of Master of Arts, and began to prosecute his studies in divinity with no small degree of success. Several of the younger clergymen act as tutors to wealthy and distinguished families till a proper period arrives for their entering into orders, which they never do till they obtain a benefice. While in this rank of life they bear the name of chaplains; and in this station Hunter lived about two years in the house of Mr Gordon, a very eminent merchant, and one of the bailies of Edinburgh, which is a rank equal to that of alderman of London.
Mr Gordon’s family consisted of himself, his lady, two sons and a daughter, a young woman who attended Mrs Gordon and her daughter, the malefactor in question, some clerks and menial servants. To the care of Hunter was committed the education of the two sons; and for a considerable time he discharged his duty in a manner highly satisfactory to the parents, who considered him as a youth of superior genius and great goodness of heart. Unfortunately a connection took place between Hunter and the young woman, which soon increased to a criminal degree, and was maintained for a considerable time without the knowledge of the family.
One day, however, when Mr and Mrs Gordon were on a visit, Hunter and his girl met in their chamber as usual; but, having been so incautious as not to make their door fast, the children went into the room and found them in such a situation as could not admit of any doubt of the nature of their intercourse. No suspicion was entertained that these children would mention to their parents what had happened, the eldest boy being not quite ten years of age; but when the children were at supper with their parents they disclosed so much as left no room to doubt of what had passed. Hereupon the female servant was directed to quit the house on the following day; but Hunter was continued in the family, after making a proper apology for the crime of which he had been guilty, attributing it to the thoughtlessness of youth, and promising never to offend in the same way again.
From this period he entertained the most inveterate hatred to all the children, on whom he determined in his own mind to wreak the most diabolical vengeance. Nothing less than murder was his intention; but it was a considerable time after he had formed this horrid plan before he had an opportunity of carrying it into execution.
Whenever it was a fine day he was accustomed to walk in the fields with his pupils for an hour before dinner, and in these excursions the young lady generally attended her brothers. At the period immediately preceding the commission of the fatal act Mr Gordon and his family were at their country retreat, very near Edinburgh; and having received an invitation to dine in that city, he and his lady proposed to go thither about the time that Hunter usually took his noontide walk with the children. Mrs Gordon was very anxious for all the children to accompany them on this visit, but this was strenuously opposed by her husband, who would consent that only the little girl should attend them.
By this circumstance Hunter’s intention of murdering all the three children was frustrated; but he held the resolution of destroying the boys while they were yet in his power. With this view he took them into the fields and sat down as if to repose himself on the grass.
This event took place soon after the middle of the month of August, 1700 and Hunter was preparing his knife to put a period to the lives of the children at the very moment they were busied in catching butterflies and gathering wild flowers. Having sharpened his knife, he called the lads to him, and when he had reprimanded them for acquainting their father and mother to the scene to which they had been witnesses, said that he would immediately put them to death.
Terrified by this threat, the children ran from him; but he immediately followed and brought them back. He then placed his knee on the body of the one while he cut the throat of the other with his penknife, and then treated the second in the same inhuman manner that he had done the first. These horrid murders were committed within half-a-mile of the Castle of Edinburgh; and as the deed was perpetrated in the middle of the day, and in the open fields, it would have been very wonderful indeed if the murderer had not been immediately taken into custody.
At the very time a gentleman was walking on the Castle hill of Edinburgh, who had a tolerably perfect view of what passed. Alarmed by the incident, he called some people, who ran with him to the place where the children were lying dead. Hunter now had advanced towards a river, with a view to drown himself. Those who pursued came up with him just as he reached the brink of the river; and his person being immediately known to them, a messenger was instantly dispatched to Mr and Mrs Gordon, who were at that moment going to dinner with their friend, to inform them of the horrid murder of their sons.
Language is too weak to describe the effects resulting from the communication of this dreadful news; the astonishment of the afflicted father, the agony of the frantic mother, may possibly be conceived, though it cannot be painted.
According to an old Scottish law it was decreed that “if a murderer should be taken with the blood of the murdered person on his clothes, he should be prosecuted in the Sheriff’s Court, and executed within three days after the commission of the fact.” It was not common to execute this sentence with rigour; but this offender’s crime was of so aggravated a nature, that it was not thought proper to remit anything of the utmost severity of the law.
The prisoner was therefore committed to jail and chained down to the floor all night, and on the following day the sheriff issued his precept for the jury to meet; and in consequence of their verdict Hunter was brought to his trial, when he pleaded guilty, and added to the offence he had already committed the horrid crime of declaring that he only lamented not having murdered Mr Gordon’s daughter as well as his sons. The sheriff now passed sentence on the convict, which was to the following purpose: that “on the succeeding day he should be executed on a gibbet, erected for that purpose on the spot where he had committed the murders; but that, previous to his execution, his right hand should be cut off with a hatchet, near the wrist; that then he should be drawn up to the gibbet by a rope, and when he was dead, hung in chains between Edinburgh and Leith, the knife with which he committed the murders being stuck through his hand, which should be advanced over his head and fixed therewith to the top of the gibbet.”
Mr Hunter was executed in strict conformity to the above sentence on the 22nd of August, 1700. But Mr Gordon soon afterwards petitioned the sheriff that the body might be removed to a more distant spot, as its hanging on the side of the highway, through which he frequently passed, tended to re-excite his grief for the occasion that had first given rise to it. This requisition was immediately complied with, and in a few days the body was removed to the skirts of a small village near Edinburgh, named Broughton. It is equally true and horrid to relate, that, at the place of execution, Hunter closed his life with the following shocking declaration: “There is no God — I do not believe there is any or if there is, I hold him in defiance.” Yet this infidel had professed himself to be a minister of the Gospel!
On this date in 1820, Amasa Fuller was hanged for murdering his rival in love.
“I am a man, and have acted the part of a man!” he declared when taken standing over the still-expiring body of his victim, Palmer Warren. “I glory in the deed!”
It’s one of those problematic constructions of manhood that might do for a graduate thesis.
Our man-actor from the town of Lawrenceburg (and from a star-crossed family with a pattern of violent deaths) had been courting assiduously a “young lady”. Apropos of that graduate thesis, the historical records basically don’t even mention her name; according to a single newspaper article cited in Cecilia Reclaimed: Feminist Perspectives on Gender and Music, it was “Catharine Farrar”. The court records generally just call her the “young lady,” even adding that she was “not handsome,” as in “why are you people committing homicide over this prize?”
But let’s just say Miss Farrar was really great. And Amasa Fuller was really smitten.
Having wooed Farrar into an engagement, Fuller was incensed when he found out that she’d been swooped by a rival while he, Fuller, was away on a business trip. Murder by Gaslight has illuminated the fuller story of Fuller’s revenge; in fine, he returned to Lawrenceburg, and after several unsuccessful attempts to start a scrap with his rival, Fuller forced his way into Palmer’s office, offered him a pistol for a duel, and when the peacable Palmer again refused to fight, Fuller just plain shot him — right through the heart.
Strangely from our retrospective standpoint, the good people of Lawrenceburg viewed Fuller not so much as an unbalanced stalker as, well, the Indiana hero — a man of honor. After Fuller’s conviction,* Lawrenceburg and its surrounding Dearborn County petitioned almost en masse for Fuller’s pardon.
When they didn’t get it, they settled for an execution ballad, “Fuller and Warren”, that lauds “brave Fuller” standing “like an angel” on the scaffold’s trap. (Right before the rope broke.)
This ballad has some bitter words for the near-anonymous object of Fuller’s heart who “robbed him of his honour and his life”: “Cursed be she who has caused this misery; / In his stead she had ought for to die.” And it’s not much kinder to womankind in general:
Of all the ancient history that I can understsnd,
Which we’re bound by the scripture to believe,
Bad women are essentially the downfall of man,
As Adam was beguiled by Eve.
So, young men, beware, be cautious and be wise
Of such women when you’re courting for wives.
Look in Genesis, and Judges, and in Samuel, Kings, and Job,
And the truth of the doctrine you’ll find.
For marriage is a lottery and few gain the prize
That’s both pleasing to the heart and to the eye.
So those who never marry may well be called wise.
So, gentlemen, excuse me; goodbye.
(Some versions of the ballad — there are dozens of variations on record — omit these last and nastiest stanzas.)
On this date in 1852, a white woman and a black man — no connection between them — were hanged on an upward-jerking gallows in Poughkeepsie, New York.
31-year-old (though she looked 22, said smitten newsmen) Ann Hoag was a foundling who’d been raised by an adoptive family, then married a local farmer in a union that featured at least five children, financial loss, and a good deal of unhappiness. The sequence of causation among those mutually convivial characteristics is left for the reader’s imagination. Eventually — the New York Times (July 31, 1852) is most piquant on this — succumbing to the thrall of a younger lover, “the ill-starred woman plunged into misery and degradation, renounced virtue, reputation, husband, and children, until at last she murdered her husband” with arsenic and eloped with her paramour to Bridgeport.
Luckily for Ann, her brief summer of carnal liberty sufficed to quicken her belly, with the result that her delicate condition bought her a few extra months of life. On April 18, 1852, she gave birth to a baby daughter, and sealed her own fate.
A most interesting scene occurred in the separation of the child from the unhappy mother, which none but a mother’s heart can conceive. It appeared as if the last prop of life, the very cords of the heart were being severed, when, with the most endearing caresses, amid tears and sobs, the mother looked for the last time on that innocent babe, which sine its birth had unconsciously shared her solitude and been her solace. As it passed forever from her sight, she exclaimed — “Now let them execute me — I have nothing to live for — one by one they have dragged my children from me.” (Albany Journal, Aug. 5, 1852)
Although the faithless wife left a 70-page statement implicating her lover William Somers, that gentleman was acquitted in October of 1852 on a charge of accessory to murder.
Jonas Williams, Ann Hoag’s partner upon the gallows, was much less the sighed-over. Williams committed a “fiendish outrage” upon his 11-year-old stepdaughter, killing her.