If he was real at all, or even if he wasn’t, Antonio Mamerto Gil Nunez was an freelance ranchhand gaucho who ditched his conscription into the Argentine Civil Wars for life as an outlaw — flourishing in the classic social bandit guise as a friend to the put-upon peasantry with beneficence extending all the way to saintly healing powers.
Ambushed and captured at last, Gil’s last charity was reserved for the policeman who decided to have him summarily executed — whom Gil warned was about to receive an en-route pardon. The cop didn’t buy this obvious dilatory gambit and slit the bandit’s throat, only to return and find the promised clemency riding on up. As Gil had also prophesied, the policeman’s son had fallen quite ill and now he prayed to the brigand he had just put to death, who posthumously secured the boy a miraculous recovery.
The reports of the duly impressed executioner proliferated and soon fathered a flourishing popular veneration. Although Gauchito Gil is of course entirely unrecognized by the institutional Catholic Church, many devout pilgrims visit his site to pray for, or to offer thanks for, a favorable intercession in life.
Old Blighty celebrated Christmas Eve of 1744 by weighing the Tyburn’s triple tree with no fewer than 18 thieves — 16 men, one woman, and one 14-year-old boy. Half of them were fellows in a “pestiferous Crew,” as the Newgate Ordinary colorfully describes it, the Black-Boy-Alley Gang.
Such a profligate Sett of audacious Bloodthirsty, desperate, and harden’d Villains, have of late started up to infest this great City, as make it quite unsafe to walk even in the most public Streets … Whether we consider the Number of the Malefactors, the Nature of their Crimes, the Age of some of the Offenders, (one particularly, which was a perfect Child) or the Apprehensions into which the Inhabitants of this great City were for some Time thrown, by their Excessive Boldness in committing their Robberies, all wears the Face of Horror and Confusion.
As one might suppose, these rascals based in the environs of Black Boy Alley“molly” culture, has often been referenced in these pages, has a fascinating exploration of the Black Boy Alley gang here.
While the Ordinary — a man named James Guthrie — expands considerably on the activities of this lot, he is outraged enough to begin his narrative instead with a group of soldiers reprieved from enlarging the Christmas Day caravan to Tyburn — “a Sett of Malefactors, who not content with the Crime of Robbery, have thought add thereto the most heinous Offence of Sodomy, which brought down Fire from Heaven; and, as if this had not been enough, they made that very monstrous Crime a Handle and Snare to draw Gentlemen in, who were inclined to that unnatural Sin.” (That is, they robbed by seducing their targets with the promise of a homosexual assignation.)
Guthrie is unabashedly furious that these guys have all managed to skate, and revenges himself by appending them to his narrative even if they cannot be depended from the gallows — so consumes the best part of ten pages reciting all that he knows or has heard about them, that “though they have hitherto escaped corporal Punishment, at least, in this World, we will do out Endeavour they shall not go wholly Scot-free, but expose both them and their vile Practices to the Public.” Considering that the nub of their operation was robbery, often violent, which of its own would cost the lives of many others on this date and throughout the era of the Bloody Code, no emerging enlightenment on human sexuality need be sought to explain their reprieve. Rather,
Of this abominable Sett, the better Sort, (if indeed any better can be of such a Crew) have found the way to escape both Shame and Chasment, very probably, by commuting with their Purses for the safety of their Persons; and as for the latter, who were all Soldiers, they escaped what was due to their Deserts, by being concerned with their Superiors; so true this our righteous Age, that Wickedness in high Places is sure to go unpunished.
Jack Hall, chimney sweep turned robber turned folk song antihero, hanged at Tyburn on this date in 1707, along with five other men.
Two of those others, Richard Low and Stephen Bunch, were Hall’s accomplices and co-defendants for burgling the home of a Captain John Guyon on a dark November night. They took “a blue Cloth Wastcoat, a pair of Cloth Breeches, 3 Suits of Lac’d Head-cloaths, four Yards of yellow Ribbon, four Yards of green Ribbon, two Silver Spoons, and a Dram Cup.”
It was only the latest in a string of raids that must have earned them some kind of reputation, for at their execution the Ordinary of Newgate, Paul Lorrain, pressed Hall “Whether (as ’twas reported by some) he had made a Contract with the Prince of Darkness, for a set time to act his Villanies in; he answer’d, He never did, nor said any such thing.”
The devil paid dividends into the afterlife by giving surprisingly long legs to a tributary folk ballad* which survives into the present as “Sam Hall”. Some (not all) of this song’s many latter-day versions reference Jack/Sam’s first legitimate occupation, chimney-sweeping: as a boy, Hall had been sold into a indenture as a “climbing boy”.**
* This song’s passage from its source of tunes dating to the 16th century English church into a delta of variant versions in the 19th and 20th century is traced by Bertrand H. Bronson in “Samuel Hall’s Family Tree” (California Folklore Quarterly, Jan. 1942).
** The horrifying use of small children to shimmy, near-naked, up asphyxiating chimneys a-soot scrubbing persisted deep into the 19th century. William Blake paid heartbreaking poetic tribute to chimney-climbing boys, and in Dickens’ Oliver Twist, young Oliver is nearly given as an apprentice to a vicious chimney sweep named Mr. Gamfield — the avoidance of which “was the critical moment of Oliver’s fate.”
Out on probation for an armed robbery conviction, this avatar of the classic middle name robbed a convenience store at gunpoint, then shot and killed a deputy who pursued him.
Georgia somehow didn’t have a state public defender system until 2003, a system presenting to the counties who were supposed to appoint indigent defense counsel on a local and ad hoc basis a fine opportunity for callous graft dovetailing the interests of the prosecutor’s office in winning its cases with court’s interest in pinching its pennies.
Accordingly, Baldwin County stuck Holsey with a man to test appellate courts’ standards for minimal representation, an alcoholic attorney named Andy Prince* who was rock-bottoming during the trial to the gobsmacking reported tune of a quart of vodka every night. Prince was disbarred shortly after Holsey’s conviction for robbing another client of $100,000.
According to a tragic Mother Jones profile, Prince, who was white, also happened to get in a dispute around this same time with a black neighbor and hurled some racist invective, which doesn’t seem ideal when your day job consists of trying to keep a black defendant off death row.
The late Prince — he died in 2011 — told an appeals court in 2006 that he “shouldn’t have been representing anyone,” but appeals courts, which must generally find that such “shoulds” clearly “would” have changed the trial outcome, have much less scope to act on the determination.
It’s a massive systemic cheat still in widespread use, albeit not always in such egregious fashion: use some underhanded means to get a death sentence on the books, then argue to every higher court that the deficiency can’t be proven certainly decisive vis-a-vis what might have happened in a fair fight. Do you know Holsey wouldn’t have received a death sentence? He did shoot a cop in the course of committing a violent felony, after all.
There are many general reasons why a robust defense might mitigate a sentence, but the specific reason of interest in Holsey’s case — a reason not litigated by Prince, an omission that likewise foreclosed appeals avenues — was that Holsey was severely mentally disabled.
With a testing IQ around 70, just at the border of the conventional definition for so-called “mental retardation,” Holsey had at the minimum a very strong card for the mitigation phase of the trial — if not an outright bar to execution.** Prince failed to play that card … and as of this date in 2014, American jurisprudence and the state of Georgia determined themselves content to leave it permanently face-down.
* The Guardian article cited in this post calls him Andy Price. As all other media citations I find call him Prince, I’m going with that — but as it’s likely that everyone is copying from the last story instead of doing original reportage, I’m not completely confident that it isn’t Price after all.
** Georgia was actually among the first states to bar the execution of mentally disabled prisoners — although paradoxically its early standard thereafter became one of the nation’s weakest as other states implemented their own over the years. The Supreme Court theoretically bars executing the mentally disabled, but as it has enforced no coherent standard the executing states themselves generally get to decide who qualifies.
After a (different) failed kidnapping, Cheung ducked into mainland China to lay low for a spell; he was arrested there in early 1998, months after his Hong Kong stomping-grounds had been transferred to Chinese sovereignty.
Although the man’s guilt was not merely plain but legend, his case was a controversial one when it became an early bellwether for Hong Kong’s judicial independence. Cheung was put on trial for his Hong Kong robbery and kidnapping spree not in Hong Kong but in Guangzhou, the neighboring mainland city — seemingly in order to subject him China’s harsher criminal justice system. (Among other differences, Hong Kong does not have the death penalty.)
“A crime — that of kidnapping certain Hong Kong tycoons — allegedly committed in Hong Kong by some Hong Kong residents [was] tried in the Guangzhou court,” one prominent Hong Kong lawyer explained. “Is it surprising that Hong Kong people are alarmed and ask how is this permissible?”
But if possession is nine-tenths of the law, the Guangzhou authorities had all the permission they could need — the criminal’s own person.
The milestone subject’s name was Johan Alfred Ander, a failed hotelier and petty thief who, on January 5 of 1910, robbed a currency exchange outfit and in the process beat the clerk to death with a steelyard balance. As Ander had been casing his target from a nearby hotel whose own staff had grown suspicious of him, it didn’t take long to connect criminal to crime. An ample supply of incriminating booty in Ander’s possession (e.g., the beaten clerk’s wallet) confirmed the link.
Executions were already disappearing in Sweden at this point; by 1910, it had been a decade since the most recent one, ferry spree killer John Filip Nordlund. On the other hand, Sweden clearly anticipated repeat performances in the future because in the meantime it had ordered a guillotine. (Nordlund’s beheading was done by hand, by Albert Gustaf Dahlman, who also executed our man Ander.)
Ander never copped to the murder and refused to appeal for royal clemency.* Whether it was the savagery of the crime or the pride of its author, he was found a worthy candidate to interrupt the hiatus.
On November 22, 1946, American executioners recorded a double-double with twin killings in both North Carolina and Georgia.
Charles Primus, Jr., and Wilbert Johnson carjacked a couple in Raleigh, forced them to drive six miles into the country,
got out and ordered the occupants to do likewise, demanded their pocketbooks, commanded them to go down a road in the woods; the defendants then held a whispered conversation, after which Johnson, with gun in hand, directed Miss Lipscomb to “stay there,” with Primus and marched Guignard approximately 200 feet down a path and demanded to know where his money was. While the parties were thus separated, Primus had intercourse with the prosecutrix after threatening to kill her if she did not submit. She says, “I submitted to Primus on account of fear.” The defendants were over 18 years of age; and the prosecutrix was 25 years old at the time of the assault.
Soon after the rape was accomplished the defendants freed the prosecutrix and her companion and allowed them to make their way to a house in the neighborhood.
The defendants admitted in statements in the nature of confessions that they obtained $650 from Guignard and $38 from Miss Lipscomb. Each originally claimed the other committed the rape, but finally Primus admitted he was the one who actually assaulted the prosecutrix. Johnson was tried on the theory of an accessory, being present, aiding and abetting in the perpetration of the capital offense. He was referred to by Primus as “the boss” of the hold-up conspiracy.
The specification abut “submitt[ing] on account of fear” — obviously, right? — mattered because Primus and Johnson took an appeal all the way to the state Supreme Court that this submission made intercourse no longer legally “forcible.”
Johnnie Burns and Willie Stevenson were both electrocuted at Georgia State Prison November 22, 1946 for the ax murder of a man named Lucius Thomas, a crime that netted the pair $27.14.
Stevenson was only 16 years old at the time of the murder, and 17 when he was executed.
There was also a fifth, singleton execution on the same day in Arkansas: Elton Chitwood was electrocuted for murdering Mena pharmacist Raymond Morris during an armed robbery.
On this date in 1803, Flemish outlaw Ludovicus Baekelandt was guillotined at Bruges with about 20 of his gang.
Deserting the army of the conquering French, Baekelandt set up as a bandit preying the deep spruce forests of the Vrijbos, eventually attaining leadership of a gang more than 30 strong.
Baekelandt is one of those whom popular memory and national sentiment (resentful here of the French occupation) has elevated into huggable social banditry. But the evidence remaining us testifies to little but a garden-variety brigand whose offenses were in no way confined to property crimes.
The gang was rounded up in 1802 and the Bruges court heard testimony from more than 100 witnesses, eventually dooming 21 men and three women to death for a litany of murders and robberies.
Almost all the information about Baekelandt available online is in Dutch; if that tongue is in your toolkit, gentle reader, this public-domain book is sure to level you up on Ludovicus Baekelandt and friends.
On this date in 1857, “the great southern land pirate” James Copeland went to the gallows in the now-abandoned Mississippi town of Augusta.
Copeland‘s criminal career is the subject of a wonderfully old-timey reader by the Perry County sheriff who noosed him. (As it says right there on the title plate. Sheriff J.R.S. Pitts does not shrink from injecting his own story into the narrative, and to get to the action the reader must first wade through tedious digressions into the hangman’s biography, his civic-minded rationales for a prurient interest in outlaws — “such a life and history cannot fail, even at this late date … of materially interesting and benefiting the public at large” — and some whinging about the libel suits that dogged his attempts to materially benefit the public at large.)
After an “introduction”, a “preface”, and an “explanatory”, our volume comes at last to an illustrated 100-page autobiographical narrative which Pitts says that Copeland dictated to him while cooling his heels in jail.
Hardened and violent in life, Copeland under the eaves of death seems to made that familiar return to God and repentfully confessed his path into depravity beginning with youthful delinquencies the condign punishment of which was consistently deflected by his mother, “who always upheld me in my rascality.”
Having fallen into a legal scrape for pig-thieving, Copeland left behind charming rascality for Godfather territory when he made contact with an outlaw named Gale Wages and concocted a plan to vacate the charges by destroying the documentation … by torching the courthouse in which they rested.
“Such a sight I never had before beheld,” Copeland remembered of the blaze. “The flames seemed to ascend as high, if not higher than the tops of the tallest pine trees; they made everything perfectly light for over two hundred yards around.” After that bonfire, Copeland gave himself over to the guidance of a man who turned out to be halfway between Jabba the Hutt and a Masonic lodge chief.
Wages, Copeland found, had “a great many persons concerned with him, in different parts of the country, some of them men of wealth and in good standing in the community in which they lived.”
They had an organized Band that would stand up to each other at all hazard; they had a Wigwam in the city of Mobile, where they held occasional meetings … they had many confederates there whom the public little suspected …
I was there introduced by Wages, (who was their president,) as a candidate for membership, I should have been rejected, had Wages not interceded for me. I was finally passed and admitted to membership. Wages then administered to me the oath, which every member had to take. I was then instructed and given the signs and pass-words of the Clan.
Maybe the gang was right to doubt him, for Copeland broke this oath by divulging to his hangman-biographer numerous names of members as well as the Encyclopedia Brown-esque cipher this gang used to send coded messages.
Over the course of the next decade and more, Copeland’s narration has the gang and he romping through Dixie in misadventures that range from the charmingly picaresque — finagling a guest role at a Methodist pulpit by posing as wandering preachers upon which they netted several hundred dollars from the inevitable passed hat — to the much less charming:
A legend of $30,000 in gold that the squad claimed to have buried in Catahoula Swamp still circulates in Mississippi — spur to thus-far frustrated treasure hunters down to the present day.
We can’t know to what degree the voice that we read is Copeland’s own or that of Pitts interposing but the narrator we have affects at times a stagey horror at his sins.
With the gang determined to be rid of an Irish boatman on the Mississippi, Copeland draws the short straw to bludgen him to death in his sleep: “Oh, God! when I look back, it makes me shudder. Even now it chills the blood in my veins.” Copeland bashed his brains in with a hatched and as day broke they slipped the weighted corpse into the river.
Copeland had moved up the ranks enough to share the marquee in the “Wages-Copeland gang” by the time things got real dark. In early 1844, a summit of the gang’s leadership determined spies were afoot and four of the suspected “butted their heads against a slung-shot hung to a man’s arm, and they went floating from Mobile wharf down the channel of the river.” Others they left “in a situation where he told no more tales” and “fed … the contents of two double-barrel shot-guns, about forty-eight buck-shot, and put him in a swamp near Eslaya’s old mill” and “put a rope around his neck, and we very soon squeezed the breath out of him.”
The end of the line could really have been any one of these incidents or the numerous others this post elides — enough blood feuds and hand-to-hand murders and the odds are sure to turn against you in the long run.
In 1849, now a wanted man, Copeland started drinking at a grocery near Mobile
and became intoxicated, and in that situation I imagined every man I saw was trying to arrest me. I fell in with a man by the name of Smith, an Irishman, and a difficulty occurred between us; I concluded that he intended to arrest me. I drew my double-barrel shot gun upon him and intended to kill him. He was too quick for me; he threw up my gun, drew his dirk and stabbed me just above the collar bone.
Having made himself both conspicuous and immobile, Copeland was tracked down by a posse and now he was really in the soup: “one indictment against me in Alabama for larceny, and another against me in Mississippi for murder.” Copeland pleaded guilty in Alabama and served a jail sentence there, hoping that the passage of years would buy him some opening to escape the hanging sentence that would surely await in neighboring Mississippi. But the Magnolia State was on its game and had a timely extradition request ready to receive James Copeland the moment his term in the Alabama pen expired.
The day arose clear and beautiful on which the sentence of the law and of outraged humanity was to be executed on the man who had so often violated their most sacred behests. The sky was blue and serene; the atmosphere genial; all nature was calm and peaceful; man alone was agitated by the various strong emotions which the execution of the fatal sentence of retributive justice on a fellow-man could not but create.
The place of execution was distant from the city of Augusta one-quarter of a mile. The gallows was erected on a beautiful elevation that was surrounded by the verdure of shrubby oak and the tall, long-leaf pine. The ground was everywhere occupied by thousands of spectators, gathered from Perry and the surrounding counties, to witness the solemn scene. It was indeed one that they will long remember.
About the hour of noon, the prisoner, after being neatly clad, was led from the jail by the officers of the law, placed in the ranks of the guard formed for the occasion, and the procession moved slowly toward the fatal spot.
Soon the doomed man appeared on the gallows. The death warrant was then read to him, and he was informed that he had but a short time to live.
He proceeded to address the awe-struck and silent multitude. He especially urged the young men present to take warning from his career and fate, and to avoid bad company. His misfortune he attributed principally to having been mislead while young.
When he had concluded, a number of questions were asked by the immediate spectators, in relation to crimes which had transpired within their knowledge; but he would give no direct answer — shrewdly eluding the inquiries.
The Sheriff then asked him, in hearing of many lookers on, if the details of his confession, previously made to that officer, were true. He replied that they were.
His hands were then tied and the cap pulled over his face, and he was told that he had but a few moments to live. He exclaimed, “Lord, have mercy on me!” and he was praying when the drop fell, and a brief struggle ended his blood-stained career.
On this date in 1770, inveterate burglar William Linsey was hanged in Worcester, Mass.
Linsey never killed anyone but just couldn’t lay off the thieving — as he owned himself in a gallows broadsheet: “Having so often escaped with impunity, for my wretched crimes, I was under no awe or restraint, neither learning God nor regarding man, resolutely bent upon working wickedness.” That didn’t mean he didn’t get caught: he frequently did, and once was pilloried, flogged, and branded all in the same day as punishment for fraud.
The quote is courtesy of a Linsey profile by friend of the blog and occasionalguest poster Anthony Vaver, on his site Early American Crime — which notes that Linsey ultimately fell foul of a sort of colonial three-strikes law escalating penalties for mere property crimes all the way to the gallows in the case of repeat offenders.