Posts filed under 'Theft'

1886: Dennis Dilda

Add comment February 5th, 2016 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1886, 37-­year­-old Dennis W. Dilda was hanged at the Yavapai County Jail in the then­-territory of Arizona. He was convicted of two murders but may well have committed others, as R. Michael Wilson records in his book, More Frontier Justice in the Wild West: Bungled, Bizarre, and Fascinating Executions:

Dennis W. Dilda was born on a farm near Rome, Georgia, in 1849. In his twenties he left home to avoid arrest after he stabbed a Negro to death for his money. He traveled to Texas, where he was soon charged with murdering a white man. Dilda fled and pursued, captured, tried, and acquitted, but there appears to be no record of either the crime or his trial. After being freed in Texas, he met and married his wife, Georgia, and soon followed her family from Texas to the Salt River Valley in the Arizona Territory. Over the next several years, Dilda got into several shooting scrapes in Phoenix, although no one was injured, but when his brother­-in­-law began to object to his sister’s choice of husband, the brother-­in­-law disappeared under suspicious circumstances. His body was never found and the family never heard from him again.

In September 1885, Dilda got a job helping to manage William Hamilton Williscraft’s farm. The farmhouse came along with the job and Dilda and his wife and children moved in. Williscraft went to live elsewhere but kept one room in the farmhouse for himself. The room was always securely locked and inside was a locked trunk.

Dilda was supposed to have worked alongside the farm’s general caretaker, “General Grant” Jenkins. By December, however, Jenkins had disappeared, and Williscraft noticed the lock had been pried off the door of his reserved room, the trunk had been opened and a gold watch and two pistols were missing. Dilda told his boss that his coworker had hated the job and complained all the time, and one morning he simply left. He denied knowing anything about the theft and suggested Jenkins had done it.

Williscraft, however, knew and trusted Jenkins, who had worked for him for twenty years. He didn’t believe his faithful employee would have stolen from him and then left without giving notice.

So he rode to town and swore out a warrant with the Yavapai County Sheriff, William J. Mulvenon, charging Dilda with the theft.

Deputy Sheriff John W. Murphy went to serve the warrant, stopping at rancher Charley Behm’s house on the way. He went to Dilda’s house several times on December 20, but each time Georgia Dilda told him her husband was out hunting.

Murphy borrowed Behm’s needle gun and tried one more time after dark. The sky was clear and there was full moon. Again, Dilda’s wife said he wasn’t home. In fact, he was hiding behind a fence, armed and waiting for his quarry, something Georgia was well aware of. When Murphy started to leave, Dilda shot him in the back. The deputy sheriff was able to fire the needle gun once before he collapsed and bled to death. Dennis and Georgia Dilda dragged his body inside the farmhouse and down into the cellar, and Dilda buried it there.

The next day, alarmed that Murphy hadn’t returned, Williscraft went to the farmhouse himself and found Murphy’s horse tied up just twenty feet from the house, and pools of blood in that yard. He gathered a posse of men, but Dilda had already left on foot and he was armed to the teeth, with Behm’s needle gun, his own .30 caliber Remington rifle, and Murphy’s .44 caliber revolver and cartridge belt.

Searchers found the corpse of “General Grant” Jenkins buried in the garden, concealed beneath a bed of replanted sunflowers. He had been shot in the head and had been dead for weeks. The searchers found Murphy’s body a short time afterwards.

A search party went looking for the fugitive and found him two days later, asleep under a tree. He did not resist when Sheriff Mulvenon arrested him. “You know it would be natural for a man in my position, if he could tell anything that would benefit him, he would do so,” Dilda replied simply when pressed for a confession. “But I have nothing to say.”

Dilda’s last night on earth, Wilson notes, “was restless, as he would doze only to awaken suddenly with a startled scream.” In the morning they took him to his favorite Chinese restaurant for breakfast and he ate heartily. At eleven o’clock, Dilda had one final photograph taken with his wife and two small children, Fern and John.

The hanging was at 2:00 p.m.

While Dilda was standing on the scaffold, Sheriff Mulvenon asked, “Is there anything you want?”

“A drink,” Dilda replied. Mulvenon let him take a long draw from a bottle of whiskey.

Some eight hundred men, as well as a dozen women, watched the hanging. Dilda went to his death quietly. The only commotion came from the audience: a reporter sent to cover the execution fainted as the trap was sprung.

The condemned man’s last words were, “Goodbye, boys!”

Georgia Dilda did not face charges for her role in Deputy Sheriff Murphy’s death. She returned to her family in Phoenix after the execution and never bothered to send for her husband’s body.

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1784: James Andrews, the last to hang in the Grassmarket

Add comment February 4th, 2016 Headsman

This date in 1784 was the last occasion Edinburgh’s Grassmarket hosted a public execution.

One of 15 marketplaces in Edinburgh by 15th century royal decree, the Grassmarket was then and remains today a rectangular plaza flattened between the imposing Edinburgh Castle to the north, and George Heriot’s School for orphans to the south.


Edinburgh Castle seen from the western edge of the Grassmarket.
(cc) image from Jan Brünemann.

(In 1783, teenage outlaw James Hay had managed to escape from prison shortly before his hanging and hide out in the environs of Heriot’s school — of which he was an alumnus. Puckish schoolboys secretly brought morsels to their fugitive chum for six weeks, until the heat had died down enough for Hay to successfully escape Scotland.)

For more than a century, since the Restoration, the Grassmarket’s east end had doubled as a public execution theater — although other executions also continued to take place at different Edinburgh venues such as Mercat Cross. But the Grassmarket came online for the gallows just in time to lodge that site in the nation’s memory for martyring an hundred or more Covenanters during the Killing Time. The Duke of Rothes would crack of one such believer who preferred death to reconciliation, “Then let him glorify God in the Grassmarket.” Many did so.


Covenanters Memorial at the onetime site of the Grassmarket’s gallows. (cc) image from Kim Traynor. Just to the right (north) of this view one would find overlooking the memorial the pub named for Half-Hangit Maggie Dickson, who survived her execution in the Grassmarket in 1724.

To these souls of these saints was attached a more profane passion in 1736 when a mob incited by an unjust execution rampaged through the Grassmarket and lynched the captain of the city guard who fired on the populace — the real-life events recalled in Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian.

As was the case with London’s nearly simultaneous retirement of the Tyburn tree, the milestone occasion dignified the sufferer far more than the other way around. James Andrews was a forgettable minor criminal who hanged for a robbery in the Meadows.

The city’s next execution was fully 14 months later. It took place outside the western facade of the Tolbooth prison, which now took over from the Grassmarket as Edinburgh’s definitive public execution site.

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2016: Brandon Astor Jones

3 comments February 3rd, 2016 Headsman

Forty-six minutes after midnight this morning, the U.S. state of Georgia executed its oldest death row inmate, Brandon Astor Jones.

Jones was a prolific penpal correspondent who had won a worldwide following as he fought his death sentence over half a lifetime.

His accomplice Van Roosevelt Solomon was electrocuted all the way back in 1985 for the same convenience store robbery-murder;* as Liliana Segura recently noted in The Intercept, Jones’s case is heavy with the arbitrariness of capital cases — not only that Jones outlived Solomon by three decades, but also that in that span many other Georgians have committed homicides equal to his in tragic banality, served a term of years for it, and been released. It needs hardly even be said that Jones, like 54 of the other 60 people executed by Georgia since the 1970s, had a white victim: that’s a disparity that courts have washed their hands of even though it was one of the constitutional concerns that led a former incarnation of the U.S. Supreme Court to invalidate death penalty statutes in 1972.

While Jones’s death is headline news, his case dates to the earliest years of what is dignified the “modern” death penalty period and as such might more closely resemble the preceding era than the one we inhabit today.

It’s almost a time capsule of the jurisprudence — and sociology — touching capital punishment, even including Jones’s unluckily-timed appeal victory that led to a new sentencing hearing during the gung-ho-to-execute 1990s. Even if the distance of time is extreme, more typical death penalty lags of 8, 10, 15 years mean that most present-day executions are ripples of receding public policy sensibilities — “zombie cases” in the words of Southern Center for Human Rights director Stephen Bright. People like Brandon Jones “almost certainly would not be sentenced to death today,” when prosecutors, judges, and juries all show growing reluctance to don the black cap. But it’s a very different story for those is already tangled in the coils of the system.

* A policeman happened to be arriving right to the same store on a coincidental errand when the crime went down, so the culprits were arrested before they made it off the parking lot.

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1927: Robert Greene Elliott conducts six electrocutions in one day

Add comment January 6th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1927, Robert Greene Elliott — the “state electrician” who wired the majesty of the law to condemned men and women from Rockview, Pa. to Windsor, Vt. — had the busiest day of his illustrious career.

Once just a regular prison electrician, Elliott graduated himself to the euphemism in 1926 and was soon the go-to angel of electric death throughout the northeast. He pulled the lever a reported 387 times for men and women who sat in the new killing device in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Connecticut and (just one time) Vermont; when John Dos Passos wrote that “they have built the electricchair and hired the executioner to throw the switch,” well, he could have been talking about Elliott’s $150-per-head bounty.

January 6, 1927 was a full and lucrative day for Elliott.

He started the day off with a triple execution in Boston’s Charleston Prison — the first triple electrocution in Massachusetts history.* Then he took a train to New York — relaxed with family — took in a picture — and then conducted the Empire State’s triple execution in the evening. (All six of his luckless subjects in either state had been sentenced for various robbery-murders.) His $900 in wages between the two occasions would be the equivalent of a $12,000+ payday today.

Friend of the site Robert Walsh has a wonderful post detailing this character’s remarkable career; venture if you dare into the world of a prolific killer of the Prohibition and Depression eras, here.

Elliott also wrote an autobiography, Agent of Death, which is out of print and difficult to come by.


(Via).

* Elliot would return there a few months later for a more famous trio: Sacco and Vanzetti, along with their accomplice Celestino Madeiros. Some other noteworthy clients of Elliott: alleged Lindbergh baby kidnapper Bruno Richard Hauptmann and illicitly photographed femme fatale Ruth Snyder.

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1819: John Booth and Thomas Wildish, minor crooks

Add comment December 31st, 2015 Headsman

Two days ago, we noticed imprisoned English radical John Hobhouse, noticing a hanging. (Not his own.)

As jarring and “frightful” as this event was, we are at this moment in England of the Bloody Code — the tail end, to be sure, but still a world answering to Blackstone’s lament that “It is a melancholy truth that among the variety of actions which men are daily liable to commit, no less than a hundred and sixty have been declared by act of parliament to be felonies without benefit of clergy; or, in other words, to be worthy of instant death.”

According to the invaluable Capital Punishment UK site, 110 hangings ornamented the damnable* year of 1819.

Our wretched sodomite from two days past, John Markham, was the 108th. The 109th and 110th were reserved for New Year’s Eve: John Booth and Thomas Wildish. And two days on from the last execution, our author Hobhouse has already begun numbing to the horror:

Friday December 31st 1819: Two men, Wildish and Booth, hanged at eight o’clock — they had a psalm sung under the gallows — I looked out a moment after they dropped — could not discern any motion except a little tremor in the hands of one of them — I am quite certain that the contemplation of these scenes frequently would very much diminish in me the fear of dying on a scaffold — I felt much less shocked this day than I did on Wednesday last.

Booth and Wildish were both non-violent offenders. Wildish, a young man, was condemned for passing a number of forged £10 notes. Booth, taking a more direct approach to his fraud, exploited his position in the General Post Office to steal from the mail. (A common abuse, as guest blogger Meaghan Good has noted in these pages.)

Emoting a bit more than Hobhouse, the newspaper report (this version taken from the Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle of Jan. 3, 1820) described the exit of these unfortunate crooks thus:

EXECUTION. — The execution of J. Booth, for embezzling money letters from the General Post Office; and T. Wildish, for uttering a quantity of forged 10l. notes upon the Dover Bank, took place in the Old Bailey … Booth had held a situation in the Post Office for some years, and was much respected. His father, it appeared, had been in the domestic service of the King. He was about 10 years of age, and had a wife and child.

Wildish was a fine looking young man, of about 25 years of age. His father is an innkeeper in Kent, and he was also respectably connected. The crime for which he suffered appears to have been his first offence in that way, and he was led to the commission of it by the art of two notorious venders of forged notes, one of whom is at present suffering the judgment of the law for the minor offence.

Great exertions were made to save the life of Wildish, but without success. Mr. Alderman Rothwell, who knew his family, was particularly active in endeavouring to effect this object. Wildish had also a wife and a child, who, together with those of Booth, had a parting interview with the unhappy men in their cells on Thursday afternoon. The scene was truly afflicting, particularly with Wildish, whose wife is extremely young and interesting, and whose infant is but 12 months old.

From the moment of their conviction, each of the unhappy men evinced the most exemplary conduct, invariably acknowledging the justice of their fate, and betaking themselves in the most fervent devotion. The Rev. Mr. Cotton, and some religious friends, spent that night with them alternately in prayer. They were visited by the former at an early hour next morning, and after spending a considerable time in singing and prayer, they partook of the Sacrament. During this ceremony Wildish appeared quite enthusiastic. Booth seemed equally happy, but not so animated as his companion. The latter, upon receiving the cup of wine, (either from thirst or religious fervour) drank off the entire contents, nearly a pint.

On their way to the scaffold, they embraced all they met. Wildish was first le[d] out. He was most ardent in recommending his wife and infant child to the care of the Almighty. Booth, upon being led forth, embraced his companion, and both joined in hymns and prayer together. The fatal preparations being made, and they again joined the Ordinary in a short prayer, and at 20 minutes after eight were launched into eternity.

* Percy Bysshe Shelley:

England in 1819

An old, mad, blind, despis’d, and dying king,
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn — mud from a muddy spring,
Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know,
But leech-like to their fainting country cling,
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow,
A people starv’d and stabb’d in the untill’d field,
An army, which liberticide and prey
Makes as a two-edg’d sword to all who wield,
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay,
Religion Christless, Godless — a book seal’d,
A Senate — Time’s worst statute unrepeal’d,
Are graves, from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.

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1948: Arthur George Osborne, as per Harry Allen’s journal

Add comment December 30th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1948, Arthur George Osborne hanged at Armley Gaol in Leeds for murdering 70-year-old Ernest Westwood in the course of a robbery.

Osborne’s execution date was also his 28th birthday.

Mustachioed assistant executioner Harry Allen kept a handwritten journal of the executions he officiated in his 23-year career — a journal recently sold at auction. From it we have notes on each prisoner’s height (5 feet, 6.5 inches in Osborne’s case), weight (188 pounds) and the consequent length of the rope’s drop (8 feet).


Very good job? but not expected to be so. Was hung on his 28th birthday at HMP Leeds by S. Wade got highly complimented on the speed of the job.

Harry Allen was eventually promoted to a chief executioner, in which guise he became Britain’s Last Executioner: he carried out one of the two simultaneous last hangings in England, as well as the last in Scotland and the last in Northern Ireland.

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1690: John Bennet, the original Golden Farmer

Add comment December 22nd, 2015 Headsman

As we have seen in the past two posts, the character exalted in the Newgate Calendar as William Davis, the Golden Farmer bears scant resemblance to the real-life man named William Davis who went to the Tyburn tree.

But there was a robber with the nickname “Golden Farmer” — it just wasn’t William Davis.

John Bennet, alias John Freeman, was hanged one year and one day after Davis, on December 22, 1690, part of a huge batch consisting of no less than 14 men and women.

John Bennet, far from the winning outlaw of the Newgate Calendar, led a gang responsible for numerous violent home invasion robberies, sometimes working with another criminal famous enough for his own nickname (and his own fabricated adventures), Old Mobb. One victim of the “Golden Farmer” described how he harvested his crop:

the Prisoner, with others, to the number of nine came on the 16th of October 1689 to her House at Grays in Essex, and entring forcibly, pretended, with horrid Oaths and Excerations, That they had the King’s Broad Seal to seize all the Mony, &c. having Vizard Marks on and Pistols in their Hands, and that they drove her Husband and Servants into the Celler, and there set a Guard over them, threathing Death to those that Stirred; and then forc’d this Deponent, with many Threats of Death, and often clapping Pistols to her Breast, to go with them from Room to Room to shew them where the Plate; Money, and Goods of value were; and perceiving a Soldier belonging to the Block-house coming by whilst they were rifling, they fetched him in, under pretence of drinking with some good Fellows, and put him into the Gutter; and so carryed off to the value of 5 or 600 l. in Money, Plate and Jewels.

Though his identity was known, his habit of constantly relocating his residence made him difficult to track. At last, one victim had his wife and sister stake out Bennet’s own wife until they could get a bead on him. At that point, they raised a hue and cry for the watch. Bennet killed a gendarme named Charles Taylor in his flight (this is the crime he hanged for, though many of his thefts would have secured the sentence just as well); with a furious mob now in pursuit, Bennet was finally subdued by a hail of brickbats, but only after shooting someone else, too.

To judge by the length of his entry, the Newgate Ordinary harrowed Bennet ceaselessly, and though the robber “shed many Tears” and “did acknowledg this Crime” he refused to make any more than a generic breast of his outlawry — perhaps to protect those of his confederates who were still at large. Despite the standard threats of hellfire “I could not prevail with him to give any Testimony of his syncere turning to the Lord, to whose all-discerning Eye and determination of his Soul’s State I must leave him,” concluded the exasperated Ordinary.

Bennet was hanged at “Salisbury-court end in Fleetstreet, near the Place where he had committed the Murther” and hanged “without making any Speech or Exhortation.” The other 13 doomed souls were then taken to Tyburn for a more conventional mass execution.

It appears that Bennet’s nickname became carelessly attached to William Davis through a 1714 bestseller with the voluminous title The History of the Lives of the most noted Highwaymen, Footpads, Housebreakers, Shoplifts and Cheats of both Sexes in and about London and other places of Great Britain, for above 50 years last past; wherein their most secret and barbarous Murders and unparalleled Robberies, notorious Thefts and unheard of Cheats are exposed to the Public, by Captain Alexander Smith. Smith, writes Lincoln Faller in Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England, probably had to have known that Davis was not the Golden Farmer but “cared not at all for historical accuracy and sought (when he felt the need of it) only after its appearance. Happening to have a name and a date at hand, he attached it to some appropriate adventures.” Then, “later writers follow Smith’s version of the Golden Farmer’s life even more slavishly, repeating the same errors, telling (with occasional embroideries) the same fanciful anecdotes about him.” Hence, our Newgate Calendar figure — the distant echo of a real criminal distorted by a succession of fabulists.

* Dick Turpin had a similar criminal profile that ended up being subsumed by his knight-of-the-road reputation to posterity.

Part of the Themed Set: The Creation of a Newgate Calendar legend.

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1689: William Davis

Add comment December 21st, 2015 Headsman

Yesterday, we posted about “William Davis, the Golden Farmer” — a character in the Newgate Calendar. While the calendar is presented as straight criminal biography, its heavy dollop of authorial moralizing is a clue to scrutinize its characters before accepting their factual veracity.

The “William Davis” of the Newgate Calendar turns out to be a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster stitched together from the remains of various dead men. He appears to have obtained his name and his attributed date of execution — within a small margin of error! — from the December 21, 1689 hanging of a man named William Davis. Far from the dashing highwayman of decades’ distinction that the Newgate Calendar presents, Davis was a run-of-the-mill young ne’er-do-well who was condemned for burgling a house to the tune of £200.

Of this man’s career, we have the Ordinary of Newgate’s hurried summing-up:

William Davis desired all his dear Brethren to take warning by him, left they come to the fame punishment, telling them, That he was but 23 years of Age, and that he had been a Robber for Four years last past, not only in England, but in other Countries; and could not be contented to abide with his Parents at home, (tho’ he lived well) but run into Extravagances, keeping com pany with lewd Women, besides breaking the Sabbath day; and was guilty of all manner of enormous Sin, for which he prayed God to forgive him.

Two other men were hanged on the same occasion: Walter Mooney, for killing a coachman who refused to take them to Spitalfields; and John Peartman, “for Robbing one John Hozey upon the Road between London and Bristoll, of a Gelding Price 12 l. a Hat 3 l. a Hatband value 10 s. a Point Cap value 3 l. a Suit of Linnen for a Child value 40 s. with a Box value 6 d.”

Part of the Themed Set: The Creation of a Newgate Calendar legend.

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1556: A canon’s servant

Add comment December 14th, 2015 Headsman

We’ve touched in these pages on the appealing diary of Felix Platter, a youth from Basel, Switzerland, studying medicine in Montpellier, France.

This was published in English as Beloved Son Felix; sadly, it’s now out of print, though it can be perused for free on archive.org.

A murderer was executed on the 14th of December. Three years earlier he had been a servant with a canon, who lived alone in his house, and carried a quantity of gold sewn into his clothes. The servant plotted with another man to kill his master. One evening, when the canon was sitting in a corner of the hearth, roasting a partridge, the servant felled him with a blow of a club on the back of the head. The villains then cut his throat and fled with the money, which came to a good sum. When the crime was discovered a sergeant was sent after them; but he allowed himself to be corrupted, and instead of arresting them he accepted a bribe and left them free to take the road to Spain. There they were too ostentatious with their wealth, and as a result they were robbed by brigands. However, the servant continued on his way, now alone. Without resources, he took employment with a Spanish shoemaker, and remained there three years. He let his beard grow, and believing that he would no longer be recognized he returned to France, and went to Lunel by way of Montpellier, but he was arrested there and brought back to Montpellier.

Although buried three years, the canon was disinterred, so that the murderer could be confronted with his victim. However, there were none of the signs they expected to see on such an occasion — as for example the opening of the wound and the gushing forth of blood; although it should be added that the corpse was very wasted. The accused man made a full confession and was condemned to the punishment they call massarer.* He appealed to Toulouse, succeeded in escaping as he was being taken across a river, was recaptured, condemned anew to that cruel punishment, and brought back to Montpellier for the sentence to be carried out. After the judgment had been read aloud, the executioner put the man on a cart, where he was laid on the lap of the executioner’s wife. He then began to pinch him with red-hot tongs, and this treatment continued until they came to the canon’s house. There the executioner cut off both the man’s hands on a block placed on the cart for that purpose. The woman held him with his eyes blindfolded, and as each hand was cut off she pulled a pointed linen bag over the stump, from which shot a jet of blood, and tied the bag on tightly to stop the bleeding. The man was taken afterwards to the Cour du Bayle, and there he was beheaded. His body was cut in quarters, and the pieces were hung up on the olive trees outside the town.

The sergeant who had taken the bribe, and who had been betrayed by the murderer, was tied to the cart, his body bare to the waist. The executioner scourged him until the blood came, several times over. After this he was banished.

Felix Platter noted a number of different executions in his five-year diary of Montpellier, but he didn’t let them get him down. The following February 27, Platter finally “with a heavy heart quitted this beloved town, in which I had lived for so long” and made for Basel where a respectable life as a doctor awaited him. (Felix was well-qualified for this from his coming of age in Montpellier, having dissected frequently: his journal records with something approaching glee the numerous midnight grave-robbings he undertook to secure subjects.)

* Massarer was the local version of the widespread and horrible “breaking” punishment of smashing the offender’s limbs one by one. Platter had earlier noted such an execution in 1554, and explained that it was carried out upon “a Saint Andrew’s cross … with two hollowed-out balks of timber.” Once the condemned murderer was trussed to the cross, the executioner “took a heavy bar of iron, called a massa, sharpened a little on one side, and broke the man’s limbs with it … The last blow was struck on the chest, and this killed the victim.”

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1754: Eleanor Connor, rogue

Add comment December 9th, 2015 Headsman

Seven people were hanged at Tyburn on this date in 1754.

For these minor malefactors — six thieves and a murderer, the latter of whom was ordered for posthumous anatomization — we simply cull from the day’s ordinary’s account, and focus on one Eleanor Connor.

A Catholic Irishwoman “about 35 years of age” and familiar by several aliases, she evidently refused to confide in the Protestant divine whose business it was to harrow the doomed prisoners’ souls. “How, or to what she was brought up, we have no authority to say,” her interlocutor puzzles. “No other account can be given of her, than what her behaviour has afforded, since she has been in England.”

She had been in London from a decade or so since, an inveterate pickpocket haunting “the theaters, and Covent Garden” and indeed “any public places … convenient for carrying on such practices.”

Arrested in Bristol in 1748, the hanging sentence was moderated to convict transportation. But an indenture to a distant master on the fringe of the New World wilderness was itself such a frightful fate that prisoners were occasionally known to prefer death outright; Eleanor Connor was just this side of such desperation, for she made bold to depart her prison ship shortly after it set sail by hurling herself off the deck under cover of poor weather to be retrieved from the waves by some boats hired by her partners in the underworld. While the Ordinary passes over this extraordinary gambit in a sentence or two, surely such a desperate and dangerous escape has as just a claim on poetic commemoration as any adventure of Turpin. A brine-drenched Eleanor Connor and her friends must have drank off the chills of the sea that night beside an exultant hearth.

Here she disappears from the annals of the courts, and hence from the Ordinary’s capacity to track her; by rumor he understands that she has changed her location often and her husbands nearly so much, navigating the margins as a picaro in both England and Ireland.

Around 1752 she appeared in Liverpool, making an honest go of it as a chandler. Into her thirties now and having passed through who knows what scrapes in the meantime, perhaps she was considering the limitations a criminal career based on manual dexterity might impose upon her once youth slipped away. But whether due to old habit or the capital requirements of a business startup, she did not yet abandon her diving profession and was caught picking the pocket of a gentlewoman at the marketplace. Once again she was imprisoned, and once again the camaraderie of the criminal caste came to her rescue, overpowering the turnkey on a pretended jail visit and liberating Eleanor. Whatever else one might say of this woman, she inspired the loyalty of her friends: one very much wishes we somehow had a record of her many adventures outside the gaze of the law.

Whatever they were, there were not many more of them. Soon after the band had relocated to London, our habitual cutpurse was recognized as a fugitive and taken up once more. It was a simple matter to reinstate her old suspended death sentence from that original Bristol conviction.

Condemned in February, she convinced a jury of matrons that she was quick with child … but after several months it became apparent that this was a ruse. The Ordinary is small enough to sneer at this intrepid character’s unavailing attempts to rescue her life yet again by making herself sympathetic to the magistrates: “she was not yet without some excuse, she pretended to be very weak after labour, and begged the court would take it into consideration, (a common expression, without any real meaning, among these unhappy wretches) and transport her for life; but she was ordered now to her former sentence.”

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Public Executions,Theft,Women

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