Posts filed under 'Theft'

1830: William Banks, housebreaker

Add comment January 11th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1830, William Banks, the leader of a gang of West Moulsey robbers was hanged at London’s Horsemonger Lane Gaol.

Despite a freezing day and a ferocious northerly wind that newsmen enhanced “almost to a hurricane” (London Morning Chronicle, January 12, 1830), a vast concourse of onlookers turned out to witness the execution.

The case attracted such enormous public interest for the boldness of the thieves in plundering the home of a Rev. William Warrington and his wife. That couple “had just undressed for bed,” explain the newspapers (this the Dec. 30, 1829 London Morning Chronicle), “when they were alarmed by the sound of several footsteps walking towards the door of their room.”

Mr. Warrington grabbed for a pistol he kept at the ready as the gang barged into the room, but couldn’t get a shot away before both were seized, trussed up, and deposited in the cellar with two tied-up maids.

Having the place at their disposal now, the robbers made a leisurely search of chests, drawers, cupboards, and the like and loaded up the domestic valuables on one of the house’s own gigs, finally driving it off under the locomotion of one of the house’s own horses at about 4 in the morning.

Though widely reported at the time it happened — way back in November 1828 — there was no break in the case until a year later when a gang member in prison on an unrelated case started informing against them in exchange for a remittance of his own punishment.

The gang’s leader, our man William Banks, “had repeatedly sworn that he would not be taken alive,” the Morning Chronicle reported in its January 12, 1830 account of the hanging. But with a gun literally to his head, he thought better of resistance and surrendered with the accurate prophecy, “I am a dead man.”

Even in 1830, housebreaking was among the two hundred-odd non-homicide crimes eligible for a capital sentence by the terms of England’s Bloody Code; indeed, Frank McLynn observes that it “was treated particularly harshly, as it violated privacy and exposed householders to assault.”

Banks, “a dark but handsome and very muscular man” of 35, dismayed the chaplain with his indifference to his spiritual salvation — for “all he cared about hanging was the pain it would give him, for he knew nothing about a hereafter.”

England in the early 1830s abolished the death penalty for a number of property crimes, including (in 1833) housebreaking.

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1960: Anthony Miller, the last hanged at Barlinnie

1 comment December 22nd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1960, 19-year-old Anthony Miller became the 10th and last person executed at Scotland’s Barlinnie Prison.*

Miller worked in a team with a 16-year-old accomplice in a “queer-rolling” racket: the younger James Denovan would lure a mark with the promise of an assignation, then Miller would jump him and turn a 2-against-1 robbery. Artless, but effective.

With such a crude m.o., it’s no wonder Miller and Denovan beat a man all the way to death in the course of one of their shake-downs. Since he was a minor, Denovan drew a prison term. Miller … not so lucky. His plaintive last words, “Please, Mister …” form the title of a play about his life written by Patrick Harkins.

Tour Barlinnie’s capital punishment environs with one of its old death-watch officers in this David Graham Scott short film, “Hanging With Frank”:

David Graham Scott was good enough to share some firsthand recollections of the film’s title character Frank McKue, and the process of producing “Hanging With Frank”.

Frank McKue was an extremely likeable chap with a very dark sense of humour. Definitely my type of guy. Used to have a drink with him at his local pub in Edinburgh called ‘The Diggers Arms’ (called as such because local gravediggers would drink there) . The sound of the trapdoor swinging open that you hear in the film is actually the door to the beer cellar crashing open in the pub which I recorded as a foley. Frank said it was almost the exact sound! Since the trapdoor in the execution chamber at Barlinnie Prison was shored up and unable to open when we visited it seemed a logical idea to use this nice little soundbite.

Incidentally, the prison that we were filming was still (and still is) very much in operation. There are some shots where you can see prisoners moving about in the upper galleries. It’s Barlinnie Prison in Glasgow, Scotland and dates from the Victorian era. Frank worked there in the 50s as a prison officer who occasionally did deathwatch details. That involved sitting with the condemned man on his last nights and drinking tea, engaging him in conversation and playing draughts [checkers in the U.S.].

Frank showed how the prison officer’s escorting the condemned man would walk a few paces across the gallery and through the doors into the execution chamber.

They’d stand on planks placed over the trapdoors …

… and hold onto safety ropes dangling from the ceiling to stop them from falling down with the prisoner. There had been various instances in the past of prison guards and assistant executioners falling through the trapdoors with the condemned man.

The deathwatch officers would sit with the condemned prisoner at all times after sentence was pronounced. Cups of tea, mingled with small-talk and endless games of draughts and they just chatted away about everything ‘except the obvious’! Their job on the morning of the execution was to escort the condemned man out of his cell (which was actually two normal sized cells knocked into one) and into the execution chamber just a few paces across the gallery in D-Hall of the prison. They steadied the man as the executioner led the way onto the scaffold and the assistant helped buckle his wrists and feet with leather straps when they reached the correct position on the trapdoors. A signal from the assistant to the executioner sent the man on his downward journey to the basement below where the mortuary slab awaited.

The positioning of the noose was crucial for a clean break between the 2nd and 3rd vertebrae The rope always did a quarter turn to throw back the head and cleanly sever the spinal column at those points and the hangman treated the affair with diligence and extreme reverence. Frank would then often sit with the executioner and assistants as they had their breakfast and left the executed man dangling for a full hour. The prisoner was then pulled back up, the noose removed and then he was lowered back down with other ropes to the basement room again where he was stripped and laid on the mortuary slab. The body ‘belonged to the state so it was buried within the prison grounds’ and no relative was allowed to visit the grave site or send flowers.

I storyboarded much of the film due to the restrictions of time, the nature of the equipment we were using and, of course, the mood I was trying to evoke. I also used black and white, grainy, light-sensitive film stock to try and get the feel of the execution facility in its heyday of the 1950s. If I had more money and time I would have made this film about 10 minutes longer but alas it was not to be. There was always the odd event that we shot spur-of-the-moment. Like when I noticed a butterfly trying to escape from the window of the execution chamber. In this space it took on quite a metaphorical aspect as it struggled desperately and futilely against the glass. Strangely, there was a large group of them roosting on the ceiling. I’ve never seen such a thing in my life and have no idea why they were acting like this. There were also mounds of pigeon droppings too which we tried to avoid as best we could (it can be quite toxic when breathed in). There’s a very brief shot in the film of two pigeon chicks which were nested snugly within a cavity of the execution beam … another bizarre metaphor about death and resurrection, I guess.

When we visited there were major renovations taking place within D-Hall and, as we see in the film, the condemned cell and execution chamber were torn apart. Even the grave sites were not spared. Drainage for the new toilets being built (this was the end of the notorious slop-out era) actually passed through the graves of the executed men. Indignity upon indignity heaped upon these pathetic corpses with each flush of the toilet. The graves had been marked with initials to denote where each of the murderers lay but these had been removed at some point as if to completely erase any trace of them. Frank knew exactly where each lay though and reeled them off one by one. He told me about the way the coffins were designed with a hinged flap over the face of the dead man. Once sealed in the coffin with quicklime scattered over him, Frank would open the flap and add water over the face of the executed prisoner to hasten the destruction of the body. The grave was then filled back in. One of the graves was forever sinking and had to be refilled with ashes from the boiler house on a regular basis. It was the grave of James Robertson, a former policeman who had run over and killed his lover in 1950. He was duly executed for the cold-blooded murder but it was as if his body was restless in the grave the way the tarmac kept on sinking down. In refilling the grave Frank told me that the body seemed to be miraculously well preserved and that somehow the quicklime designed to dissolve it had had the very opposite effect! The prisoners on that grave-filling detail were often terrified and were offered extra perks like cigarettes to make it a bit easier for them. To this very day that same grave is still sinking for some odd reason … the depression in the tarmac can be clearly seen in the film.

There were many stories that Frank related to me about his good friend Albert Pierrepoint, who he befriended during his time at Barlinnie Prison. Pierrepoint was the famous British state executioner at that time and conducted various executions throughout the entire United Kingdom. Frank kept up his friendship with Albert way after capital punishment was abolished and used to visit his pub in Manchester called ‘Help the Poor Struggler’. At his home in the west side of Edinburgh, Frank proudly showed me his various bits of execution related paraphernalia.

One of the prize exhibits was an engraved glass from the Albert’s pub. There was also an amazingly detailed scaled down model of the Delaware gallows which his retired carpenter friend and fellow execution enthusiast, Sudsy, had made for him. Frank showed me with great relish how this unique hanging apparatus would operate. It was obvious that he wanted more than mere models to play with and his real ambition was to be the British state executioner. He had contacted the British Home Office to put his name down as one of the persons willing to train as a state executioner should capital punishment come back. There was no way he’d be getting that job at the time I met him though as he’d already undergone a major operation and had a pig’s heart valve sewn into him. I felt guilty asking Frank to climb the rungs of the ladder into the beam room for a third take, I recall. He was happy to do it but breathless by the end! I thought how awful it would have been, and ironic, if he’d died within this space he loved so much.

But it seems that within the film Frank does fulfill the dual role of hangman and condemned man. The two aspects merged into one at the crowning moment as he puts the bag over his own head — a touch that I thought might be ridiculous at first but somehow does work quite well in the finished film.

Alas for Frank the calling to be a state executioner never came to happen and he died in 2008 from heart complications. Hanging with Frank will remain his legacy, however. A film as much a character study as it is a piece of history. [See more movie stills here -ed.]

I made this film with very little funding indeed and despite its receiving various accolades over the years the government funded film agency in Scotland at the time, The Scottish Film Council, refused to send it to film festivals as it was deemed distasteful. My work has frequently led me to being despised by the powers that be in the largely straight-laced documentary scene … I must be doing something right I suppose!

* Not to be confused with the last executed in Scotland full stop. Miller was the second-last in Scotland.

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1694: James Whitney, highwayman

2 comments December 19th, 2014 Headsman

Dapper highwayman James Whitney was hanged at Smithfield on this date in 1694.

A monument to the allures and the perils of a midlife career change, Whitney threw over a tiresome life as the proprietor of an inn in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire,* purchased with his liquidation the accoutrements of the gentleman thief, and took to the road.

“Captain” Whitney — he had no right to the rank he appropriated for himself — was one of those stickup men who greatly esteemed the pose of honor associated with his new calling. On one occasion, he relieved a gentleman traveler of a large sack of silver on Newmarket Heath, but when his victim pleaded the length of his journey Whitney opened the bag to its former owner with an invitation to take what he would need.

The man plunged his hands in and hauled out as much as they would carry, leading Whitney to remark with a smile, “I thought you would have had more conscience, sir.”

In another fine caper (there are more of them assembled here) Whitney told a man to stand and deliver, only to have the traveler reply that he was about to say the same back to him. The two robbers laughed at their encounter and went their separate ways, but Whitney later chanced to turn up at the same inn as his so-called brother plunderer and overhear him regaling his fellows with the tale of having outwitted a highwayman by pretending to be one of the same profession.

Whitney stalked the man and a companion out of the hostel the next morning and this time robbed them successfully: “You should have kept your secret a little longer, and not have boasted so soon of having outwitted a thief. There is now nothing for you but to deliver or die!” Nobody likes your stories anyway, you blowhard.

True, James Whitney ended his adventure at the gallows: death is the fate of us all. From his day to ours, folk toiling away the ceaseless lonesome days between ashes and ashes have understood the soul’s stirring to exalt their scant mortal hours with deeds of valor and romance and derring-do. And as Whitney himself is said to have remarked to a miser whose lucre he was seizing, “Is it not more generous to take a man’s money from him bravely, than to grind him to death by exacting eight or ten per cent, under cover of serving him?”**

Nobody knows any of James Whitney’s peers in the publican guild, but as Captain Whitney he joined England’s most legendary gentleman outlaw in verse.

When Claude du Val was in Newgate thrown,
He carved his name on the dungeon stone;
Quoth a dubsman, who gazed on the shattered wall,
“You have carved your epitaph, Claude du Val,

Du Val was hanged, and the next who came
On the selfsame stone inscribed his name;
“Aha!” quoth the dubsman, with devilish glee,
Tom Waters, your doom is the triple tree!”

Within that dungeon lay Captain Bew,
Rumbold and Whitney — a jolly crew!
All carved their names on the stone, and all
Share the fate of the brave Du Val!

Full twenty highwaymen blithe and bold,
Rattled their chains in that dungeon old:
Of all that number there ‘scaped not one
Who carved his name on the Newgate Stone.

* The George Inn. A map search does yield a The George in Cheshunt; whether this is actually the same facility where our famous highwayman once earned a lawful keep, I have not been able to establish.

** Parables from this golden age of highwaymen often place in the mouths of outlaws sharp critiques of their targets, who despite putative respectability turn out upon examination to be far more deeply corrupt than the dashing adventurer. See for example Old Mobb.

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1578 : Kort Kamphues, outlaw judge

Add comment December 9th, 2014 Headsman

Most judges are content to inflict their atrocities with a gavel, but on this date in 1578, a magistrate turned freebooter named Kort Kamphues was beheaded at Bevergern.

Just a few months before his July 1553 death, Prince-Bishop Franz von Waldeck set Kamphues up for his interesting career arc by appointing him Stadtrichter of Coesfeld.

Kamphues’s overbearing presumptions on the perquisites of that sinecure, coming on more than one occasion to physical violence, led other city leaders to petition unsuccessfully for his removal in 1569.

But his attempt in 1572 to assemble a mercenary army on the pretext of getting involved in Spain’s war in the Netherlands led to a definitive break with Coesfeld — which tried to arrest him, and then outlawed him when he escaped with his armed posse into the Westphalian countryside.

For several years, Kamphues and gang marauded merrily until a clumsy bid to frighten a new Coesfeld magistrate led to an arson attack on the city. Kort Kamphues was captured on June 19, 1578, and tortured into confessing to arson, banditry, and breaching the peace — gaining a permanent place in folklore at the small expense of his head.

The Kamphues Dagger, a beautiful 14th century artifact later documented in the Coesfeld treasury, is supposed on sketchy evidence to have been captured from this brigand.


A replica of the Kamphues Dagger, at the city museum in Walkenbrückentor. (cc) image from Günter Seggebäing.

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2006: Sanjaya Rowan Kumara, with “signs of life”

Add comment November 28th, 2014 Headsman

Sri Lankan national Sanjaya Rowan Kumara was hanged on this date in 2006 at Kuwait’s Central Prison for murdering a woman while robbing her house.

He was pronounced dead and cut down within eight minutes. But …

medics who transported his body to a morgue said they noticed he was still moving, Al-Qabas daily reported.

Forensic experts were immediately called to examine the body and they confirmed that “there was some weak pulse in his heart,” the daily said.

The examination was repeated several times and each time “the dead body showed some signs of life,” Al-Qabas quoted unnamed medical sources as saying.

“They eventually pronounced him completely dead at 1400 hours local time,” five hours after his hanging, the sources said.

The justice ministry refused to comment on the report but head of the criminal execution department, Najeeb al-Mulla, who supervised the hanging, told Al-Watan newspaper the report was “baseless.”

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1700: Jamie Macpherson, Highlander

4 comments November 16th, 2014 Headsman

The legendary Highlands freebooter Jamie Macpherson was hanged on this date in 1700 in Banff.

Macpherson is said to be an illegitimate half-Gypsy child with every talent necessary to live larger than life — and if gigantism can be inferred from the size of his enormous alleged sword, that would be extremely large indeed.

Besides his elite SPARQ score, Macpherson was blessed with complementary gifts for making music and sweet sweet love, and plundered livestock and merchandise and maidenheads as he sprang through the vicinities of Banff and Aberdeen. Despite living by his prowess with the sword every source concurs that he never used it to harm anyone that the audience would sympathize with.

But he outraged the local grandees, and at length he was apprehended (as befits his outsized tale) by a fellow with the improbable name “Duff of Braco” — then was duly condemned to hang on market-day (“Forasmeikle as you James McPherson, pannal are found guilty by ane verdict of ane assyse, to be knoun, holden, and repute to be Egiptian and a wagabond” etc.).

In the week before his hanging, Macpherson reportedly composed an air variously described as “Macpherson’s Lament” or “Rant” or “Farewell” which he then performed on the gallows.

In the most picturuesque version, he played his own fiddle in this exit performance, then dramatically smashed the instrument. As Chambers’s Journal observes, it seems hard to accept that the sheriff would have given this veritable Goliath the free use of his hands at such a desperate moment. Indeed, local legend has it that the authorities were so afraid that a reprieve might arrive that upon catching sight of an approaching rider on the horizon, they put the town’s clocks 15 minutes forward.

At any rate, several versions of the Lament/Rant/Farewell survive and one can follow its evolution in this open-source Annals of Banff. Robert Burns’s eventually immortalized the verse with this gloss on it from the late 18th century:

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1864: Franz Muller, “Ich habe es getan”

1 comment November 14th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1864, German tailor Franz Muller hanged before an unruly London mob estimated near 50,000 angry souls.

Muller was among Britain’s last public hangings, before executions disappeared behind prison walls four years later. But what he’d done was a first, and father to a legion of detective novels and dinner theater: Muller committed the first murder on a British train.

Certainly Muller’s motive was as pedestrian as his locomotion was unusual, for the victim was a 69-year-old banker who was relieved of a gold watch and gold spectacles, then pitched out of his compartment onto an embankment on a North London commuter train.

This operation was facilitated and — so conceived a public that was spellbound by the crime — poor Mr. Thomas Briggs’s escape prevented by the then-prevalent use of the compartment coach, a railcar design without any interior corridor communicating between the berths. As each compartment opened only to the outside, passengers were stuck in their rooms between stations (and ticket-takers had to scuttle hazardously along exterior running-boards). Known in much of Europe as the English coach, these designs would quickly lose popularity thanks in part to this very affair.*

In a sense, these spaces just translated into the industrial era the age-old terrors that stalked travelers. It must be this that accounts for the extraordinary interest the public took in Briggs and Muller: in a sealed compartment, face to face with a desperate man, one would be as nakedly vulnerable as the lone rider on the roads of yesteryear quailing at the shadow of Dick Turpin. London businessmen did not expect such harrowing encounters on their daily commute.

A reward soon yielded a tip that put police onto this working-class immigrant Muller — the man sure ticked every box for a proper moral panic — who had dropped into a Cheapside jeweler’s** shop two days after the murder to exchange a gold chain (later identified as Briggs’s chain), and hopped a ship to New York soon thereafter. Inspectors took a faster ship and beat him to the Big Apple. He still had Briggs’s watch and top hat on his person, the latter ingeniously cut down.†

In a recent book about Briggs’s murder, Kate Colquhoun argues that despite the verdict, Britons “never quite felt they got to the bottom of” why the murder occurred. It’s commonly supposed that Muller didn’t intend to slay his victim and perhaps didn’t even realize he had done so.

Muller’s disarmingly amiable personality contrasted sharply with the circumstantial but persuasive evidence of a violent bandit; he struck the men who awaited him in New York as having been genuinely surprised by his arrest. Muller himself denied his guilt throughout a breathlessly reported three-day trial and even pressed for a stay of execution claiming to have developed new evidence of his innocence.

There was no stay, and only at the very last moment before the drop fell did the condemned youth succumb to the pressure of the German-speaking Lutheran clergyman who had been his companion in the last days to confess himself of the crime with the words Ich habe es getan.

Rev. Louis Cappel, whose immediate public announcement of this solemn unburdening played better as theater than as ministry, later explained in a letter to the London Times‡ (Nov. 16, 1864) that

the unhappy man declared he was innocent not while, but before, the Sacrament was being administered to him. Soon after entering his cell on the last morning I asked Muller again whether he was guilty of this murder. He denied it. I then said, “Muller, the moments are precious; we must turn our minds wholly to God; I shall question you no more about this, but my last words to you will be, ‘Are you innocent?'”

He remained silent for a minute or two, but presently exclaimed, his eyes full of tears, and clasping his arms round my neck, “Do not forsake me; stay with me to the last.”

* As a stopgap safety measure in the following years, before the widespread introduction of cars with interior corridors, existing compartment coaches were fitted with peepholes (called “Muller’s lights”) between compartments as well as wires enabling passengers to ring the alarm

** Submitted without comment: the jeweler’s name was John Death.

† Muller’s truncated-top-hat design actually enjoyed a brief fashion vogue that became named for him as a “Muller cut-down”.

‡ Consonant with the growing elite consensus on the matter, half the Times‘ execution coverage — a full column and a half of newsprint — was dedicated to excoriating the “lawless ruffianism” of the jeering hang-day mob.

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1697: Three duty stamp counterfeiters

Add comment November 3rd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1697, nine men hanged at Tyburn — all for property crimes.

Three were highway robbers. A fourth was a coiner. A fifth was a pickpocket. A sixth was a husbandman who stole a gelding.

The remaining three men, Thomas Houghton, Francis Cook and Francis Salisbury, operated a ring selling vellum paper bearing counterfeit sixpenny impressed duty stamps.

Their offense was against a 1694 levy titled “An act for granting to Their Majesties several duties on Vellum, Parchment and Paper for 10 years, towards carrying on the war against France”. This statute (full text here) imposed taxes of varying amounts for any number of a huge variety of officially-registered business. Routine commercial transactions now almost universally came with a rake for the taxman: “every skin or piece of vellum or parchment, or sheet of paper, upon which shall be ingrossed or written any indenture, lease, or deed-poll” had to be executed with a sixpenny stamp.

As a practical matter, such skins or pieces of vellum or parchment were sold pre-stamped, the stamp to be canceled by the parties in question when they signed on the line which is dotted. And it was this market that Houghton, Cook, and Salisbury exploited.

While counterfeiting the specie could be held to imperil the kingdom so dangerously to rate as treason, this trio’s “counterfeiting” was just everyday white-collar siphoning. By forging a bogus sixpenny stamp and applying it to sheafs of contract-ready vellum that they could sell at market rates, they got the revenue-agent’s cut — not the crown. (The scam is described in their Newgate Calendar entry, which inexplicably gives short shrift to Francis Cook.)

Though the “war against France” named by the stamp bill — the War of the League of Augsburg or the Nine Years’ War — had ended weeks before even the hangings we mark on this date, the lucrative levy long outlasted it. In the following century, England revived this type of tax often, notably in 1712 expanding it to encompass printed publications like newspapers and pamphlets. Hey, just require anything printed on paper to have a royal stamp on it — easy! This habit would eventually create the 1765 Stamp Act so obnoxious to North American colonists in the run-up to the American Revolution.

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1858: Owen McQueeney, Green Tent Murderer

5 comments October 20th, 2014 Headsman

Murderer Owen McQueen(e)y was hanged on this date in 1858 at Gallows Flat down the road from Old Geelong Gaol.

McQueeney, a wandering Irish robber with one distinctively sightless eye, committed something called the “Green Tent Murder” which consisted of the slaying of the pretty proprietress of a structure that went by that name.

The Green Tent was a grocery and tavern serving Australia’s ample population of itinerant gold-hunters in the environs of Meredith, Victoria — specifically the environs of present-day Green Tent Road.

Fresh off a jail term for horse-rustling, McQueeney turned up at the ‘Tent in July 1858 and began creepily haunting the pleasing mistress with the well-proportioned stock shelves.

Until, for no known provocation save plunder, McQueeney murdered the widow owner Elizabeth Lowe and fled.

The poor woman’s body was chanced upon soon thereafter and travelers’ reports of a dead-eyed and overladen swag-man making tracks for Geelong soon zeroed the search in on the desperado, still carrying Ms. Lowe’s incriminatingly distinctive property.

McQueeney, who was noted for his obnoxious bravado from the moment of his first police examination all the way to condemnation evidently labored until almost the very last “under the infatuation that he would yet be reprieved … on the ground of the great aversion entertained by a large class of people to capital punishment under any circumstances. This belief of his in the morbid sympathies of his fellow-creatures, there can be no doubt, induced him to the last to disown his crime” even though he admitted to many other ones. Nevertheless, he continued his irascible act all the way to the noose, griping at the executioner for holding him too tight and pulling the hood down too soon.

Notwithstanding (or better owing to) his notoriety, McQueeney was sought out posthumously by a crippled woman, who besought the indulgence of the sheriff to touch McQueeney’s dead hands to her own in hopes of obtaining a curative from the legendary power of the hanged man’s hand.


Modeled on London’s Pentonville Prison, Old Geelong Gaol — officially HMS Prison Geelong — hosted six executions in its initial incarnation from the 1850s to the 1860s. Two occurred within its walls; McQueeney’s and three others took place in a paddock a few hundred meters away.

Old Geelong Gaol was converted in 1865 to an “industrial school” for street urchins, and 12 years after that into a prison-hospital. The dusty old place, famous for is spartan amenities resumed life as a working gaol after World War II and only closed in 1991 — but never had another hanging after the 1860s. Today it is open for public tours, complete with gallows exhibit.

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1660: Francis Hacker and Daniel Axtell, regicides

Add comment October 19th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1660, the English soldiers Francis Hacker and Daniel Axtel(l) were executed for their roles in keeping the captured King Charles I, and for eventually seeing that late king to his beheading.

Francis Hacker

No hapless grunt, Hacker was a committed Roundhead even though most of his family stayed loyal to the Stuarts. When captured by the royalists at Leicester, Hacker “was so much prized by the enemy as they offered him the command of a choice regiment of horse to serve the king.”

Hacker disdainfully turned it down.

And as the wheel of fortune turned, the king would become Hacker’s prize. It was Hacker who commanded the detail of 32 halberdiers who marched the deposed monarch into Westminster Hall on January 20, 1649 to begin a weeklong trial — and a whole new historical era of parliamentary ascendancy.

Ten days later, when Charles was led out for beheading outside the Banqueting House, it was Hacker who escorted him. Hacker might have escaped even this much participation with his own life after the restoration of Charles’s son and heir, but it came out that he had even written, with Cromwell, the order to the executioner.

(It was an order that one of his comrades that day had very presciently refused to set his own hand to; come 1660, Hercules Huncks would owe his life to this refusal.)


Detailed view (click for a larger image) of an illustration of the king’s beheading. On the right of the scaffold, character “D” sporting a natty scabbard is Francis Hacker.

It’s a funny little thing to lose your life over, because — narrowly considered — it was nothing but a bit of bureaucracy. Hacker et al had been given from above a commission for the king’s death. On the occasion of the execution they had to convey from their party to the executioner a secondary writ licensing the day’s beheading.

But monarchs asserting divine prerogative certainly do not take such a view of mere paperwork.

“When you come to the Person of the King, what do our Law Books say he is? they call it, Caput Reipublicae, salus Populi, the Leiutenant of God”

-The regicides’ judge, delivering sentence

Huncks refusing to set his hand to this death warrant, it was Cromwell himself who personally dashed it off, then handed it to Hacker, who fatally countersigned it, just before the execution proceeded.

Meanwhile, Hacker’s subaltern Daniel Axtell razzed Huncks for chickening out. Axtell, who seemingly would be right at home in the kit of your most hated sports club, was indicted a regicide for his gauche fan behavior during the king’s trial, several times inciting soldiers (on pain of thrashing, per testimony in 1660) to chant for the king’s condemnation, whilst bullying any onlookers who dared to shout for Charles into silence.

Hacker did not bother to mount a defense; the verdicts were foreordained by political settlement.

Axtell argued superior orders, a defense best-known to us for its unsuccessful use by Nazis at Nuremberg but one which actually boasts a long history of failing to impress:

the Parliament, thus constituted, and having made their Generals, he by their Authority did constitute and appoint me to be an Inferior Officer in the Army, serving them in the quarters of the Parliament, and under and within their power; and what I have done, my Lord, it hath been done only as a Souldier, deriving my power from the General, he had his power from the Fountain, to wit, the Lords and Commons; and, my Lord, this being done, as hath been said by several, that I was there, and had command at Westminster-hall; truly, my Lord, if the Parliament command the General, and the General the inferiour Officers, I am bound by my Commission, according to the Laws and Customs of War to be where the Regiment is; I came not thither voluntarily, but by command of the General, who had a Commission (as I said before) from the Parliament. I was no Counsellor, no Contriver, I was no Parliament-man, none of the Judges, none that Sentenced, Signed, none that had any hand in the Execution, onely that which is charged is that I was an Officer in the Army.

Sounding equally modern, the court replied:

You are to obey them in their just commands, all unjust commands are invalid. If our Superiours should command us to undue and irregular things (much more if to the committing of Treason) we are in each Case to make use of our passive not active Obedience.*

The two men were drawn from Newgate to Tyburn this date and hanged.

Axtell was quartered, the customary fate of those regicides who had been put to death all the week preceding. Hacker, however, enjoyed the favor of hanging only, and was delivered and “was, by his Majesties great favour, given entire to his Friends, and buried” — perhaps because so many of Hacker’s family had remained true to Charles.

“If I had a thousand lives, I could lay them all down for the Cause

-Axtell, at his execution

* Axtell’s trial has a good deal of detailed bickering over the superior-orders defense, but the court itself did also take pains to differentiate the things Axtell did as an officer, such as commanding troops (for which Axtell was not charged) — and his going the extra mile and surely beyond his commission to shout for the king’s death.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Notable for their Victims,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Soldiers,Theft

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