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1816: Five Ely and Littleport rioters

Add comment June 28th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1816, England hanged five men for a bread riot.

The war against Napoleon, only just concluded, had from 1812 enthroned a dyed-in-the-wool reactionary government under the Earl of Liverpool.

The 1810s were rough years for England’s working population, and distinguished by violent class conflict whose suppression was among the Crown’s chief cares.

The particular locus of conflict here is the most pressing and ancient in civilization: the price of bread.

During the Napoleonic Wars, Napoleon had embargoed continental Europe’s trade with Britain. With the Corsican’s end, the Tory government had in 1815 enacted Corn Laws protecting English grain markets from a sudden onset of competition.

This sop to the Tories’ landowner supporters propped up the already inflated price of bread and triggered social unrest throughout Great Britain.

Preoccupied as she was by the specter of Jacobinism, London could hardly imagine that even geology was conspiring against her: the gigantic 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia caused a global volcanic winter that made 1816 a year without a summer in the northern hemisphere — crippling agriculture across Europe.

But the bottom line was that war-inflated grain prices having fallen precipitously in the immediate aftermath of Napoleon’s defeat turned right around and spiked back up once British farmers were protected from import competition. Wages, it need hardly be said, did not enjoy a similar spike; to the contrary, they were suppressed by the legions of demobilized soldiers who returned from Waterloo in glory to discover a ruinous cost of living with scant prospect for employment. Dr. Marjorie Bloy contends that Britons “suffered more, economically, socially, and politically” during the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars than during their prosecution.

Landholders as a class had gained more than anyone else from the preceding generation of warfare and its attendant embargo, and not neglected to aggressively enclose more and more acreage on which to raise their ever more lucrative produce. Their transparent cupidity in gouging from the hard-won peace chagrined their countrymen. In “Age of Bronze” (1823), Lord Byron skewered the sententious patriotism of “The landed interest — (you may understand / The phrase much better leaving out the land)”:

See these inglorious Cincinnati swarm,
Farmers of war, dictators of the farm;
Their ploughshare was the sword in hireling hands,
Their fields manured by gore of other lands;
Safe in their barns, these Sabine tillers sent
Their brethren out to battle — why? for rent!
Year after year they voted cent per cent,
Blood, sweat, and tear-wrung millions — why? for rent!
They roar’d, they dined, they drank, they swore they meant
To die for England — why then live? — for rent!
The peace has made one general malcontent
Of these high-market patriots; war was rent!
Their love of country, millions all mis-spent,
How reconcile? by reconciling rent!
And will they not repay the treasures lent?
No: down with every thing, and up with rent!
Their good, ill, health, wealth, joy, or discontent,
Being, end, aim, religion — rent, rent, rent!

On May 22, 1816, some residents of the Cambridgeshire village of Littleport collected at a local pub to commiserate with one another about this common grievance.

Fortified by their tankards, the crowd spilled out into the streets and began abusing their most prosperous neighbors — in some cases merely menacing them; in others, invading and looting homes, extorting money, and gorging on wine.

A Rev. John Vachell fled the unfolding riot to the nearby (and larger) town of Ely where he alerted authorities. By daybreak, the Ely rioters, now swollen to a mob of hundreds and armed with pitchforks and guns, had arrived at Ely too. There local grandees engaged them in a dilatory negotiation with liberal wage concessions to mellow the mood — while the dragoons, cavalry, and militia that had been called for at Rev. Vachell’s first alarm were being summoned from Bury St. Edmunds.

They did not arrive until late the afternoon of the 23rd, and were not able to press their confrontation with the unrulies until the following day.

A small-scale but frightening urban skirmish took place on May 24 with rioters firing at the gendarmes from houses and the soldiers returning same, until the crowd was pinned down at last in the George and Dragon and from there its members either surrendered or scattered to flight.

Out of an estimated 300 or so rioters, about 80 went to trial, and 24 received capital sentences — all of this taking place within a month after events. The court understood in imposing its sentences that the punitive bloodbath would be a bit more constrained: 19 sentences were commuted, many of them joining comrades who had been directly sentenced to convict transportation.

William Beamiss, George Crow, John Dennis, Isaac Harley, and Thomas South were the five left to pay for the day’s excesses; their black-shrouded gallows-cart had to be rented from Cambridge lest a local provisioner incur the wrath of the populace.

Hauled to the suitably evil-sounding “Parnell Pits”, they were swung off after making penitential remarks submitting to the justice of their doom. As an example, Dennis (who also managed to attribute his end to those old gallows saws, “Sabbath-breaking, whoremongery, and bad company”) begged the crowd come to watch him die to “refrain from breaking the laws of your country! Remember the words o the Judge, that tried us for the crimes for which we are now going to suffer, who said, ‘The law of the land will always be too strong for its assailants, and those who defy the law, will, in the end, be subdued by the law, and be compelled to submit to its justice or its mercy.'” (Norfolk Chronicle and Norwich Gazette, July 6, 1816)

Though the speaker evidently meant his words earnestly, some of those onlookers scrabbling to afford their daily bread must have heard them with a certain amount of bitterness. To argue the law’s strength is not to argue its justice.

But the address, and the strangulation that its author was put to directly thereafter, served their purpose. Cambridgeshire’s fens became quiescent — though it was very far from deterring the rest of the English working class.


Memorial to the executed rioters at St. Mary’s church, Ely. ((cc) image from John McCullough)

The Corn Laws were not repealed until 1846.

* Edward Christian, older brother of HMS Bounty mutineer Fletcher Christian, was Chief Justice of the Isle of Ely (not a literal island) and one of the presiding magistrates at the rioters’ tribunal.

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1691: William Fielding, scammer

1 comment June 3rd, 2015 Headsman

Four men and four women stretched their necks at Tyburn on this date in 1691. Among them we find one William Fielding, condemned for robbing three houses by using a 17th century variant of the Nigerian prince email scam:

The Prisoners came to all the Prosecutors and pretended that there was a Lady Dead who had left them Legacys, and Wheedled them to go to look after it, and the whilest Robbed their Houses; which was lookt upon as a very wicked Invention.

Proving that even confidence men are vulnerable to their own trick, however, the Ordinary of Newgate‘s dispatch from the foot of the gallows reports that Fielding

said, That he was afraid that if he might be spared that he should be tempted to Rob again, because of his extream poverty: Therefore he now submitted to dye willingly, that he might not add sin to sin, and so encrease his future punishment.

Well might he fear hellfire if he took the judiciary for his example. In a time when property was far dearer than life, Fielding himself and all but one of the other seven to hang with him (the one was an infanticidal mother) died for felony thefts of various types — ranging from the pathetic (“stealing from Charles Thurston, on the 4th of this Instant May, one Linnen Bag, value 1 d. and 20 l. in Mony”) to the ludicrous (“Robbing Daniel Leery, on the 12th Instant, in the Street, as he was going along, in St. James’s Parish, snatching his Hat and Perrywig off his Head, in the Night”).

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2014: Mahafarid Amir Khosravi, billionaire

1 comment May 24th, 2015 Headsman

Businessman Mahafarid Amir Khosravi, once the wealthiest man in Iran, was hanged one year ago today for embezzling $2.6 billion.

Khosravi rocketed up the world’s rich lists — Forbes estimated that he would slot in around no. 219 in 2012 — during the late 2000s, when he launched the Aria Investment Development Company. This firm sprouted up from a strapling of 50 million rial (just a couple thousand US dollars) to 20 billion rial in just three years — thanks, as investigations ultimately revealed, to a series of bank loans obtained by means of forged documents that bank managers were tricked or bribed into accepting, then using those loans to purchase state-owned companies like Khuouzestan Steel at sweetheart rates.

According to the Associated Press, “Khosravi’s business empire included more than 35 companies from mineral water production to a football club and meat imports from Brazil.” His fall was a gigantic scandal, generally reckoned the largest financial scam in the history of the Islamic Republic.

The condemnation of a top business magnate on the nuclear “corrupt on earth” charge could hardly fail to raise uncomfortable questions about top government officials. In this case allegations of untoward connections were alleged by to go all the way to then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as a political football to discredit the more liberal elements in Ahmadinejad’s Cabinet.

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1685: John Nevison, speed demon

Add comment May 4th, 2015 Headsman

It might have been this date in 1685* that the famously speedy highwayman John Nevison (or William Nevison) was hauled to York’s gallows on the Knavesmire and launched into eternity.

The 1660s and 1670s were his time, when the ex-soldier Nevison made the coachmen of the Great North Road stand and their their passengers deliver from York to Huntingdon. “In all his pranks he was very favourable to the female sex, who generally gave him the character of a civil obliging robber,” the Newgate Calendar would later memorialize. “He was charitable also to the poor, relieving them out of the spoils which he took from them that could better spare it; and being a true Royalist, he never attempted anything against that party.”

Not all that much is really known of Nevison, but he earned his place in outlaw lore with a reputed 1676 escapade. After the pre-dawn robbery of a traveler in Kent, in the southeast of Britain, Nevison hopped on a rocket horse and spurred it north all the way to York. Google Maps makes that 350+ km trip a nearly four-hour drive today, by the A1. Nevison miraculously made it on horseback by sundown, then cleaned himself up and strolled out to the bowling green to lay a friendly, and alibi-establishing, wager with the Lord Mayor.

Unfortunately for Nevison, Harrison Ainsworth appropriated the legend of the bandit’s impossibly fast ride for a later outlaw, Dick Turpin — who in Ainsworth’s Rookwood rides his famous mare Black Bess to death in a wholly fictitious sprint from London to York.

To be completely fair to that fickle muse Clio, it has been postulated that Nevison’s own legend was appropriated from yet another highwayman, Samuel Nicks, which would account for the nickname “Swift Nick” or “Swiftnicks” won by this feat of horsemanship. Nicks and Nevison might be one and the same man, but they might very well be two different humans whose legends were already conflated before Ainsworth was even a twinkle in his father’s eye.** If there was a distinct “Swiftnicks”, Nevison has the considerable advantage over him for our purposes of having some identifiable biography and an identifiable hanging-date. But it is to this other fellow, Nicks, that Defoe attributed the gallop in his A Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain, available online here:

it was about four a clock in the morning when a gentleman was robb’d by one Nicks on a bay mare, just on the declining part of the hill [Gad’s Hill, Kent -ed.], on the west-side, for he swore to the spot and to the man; Mr. Nicks who robb’d him, came away to Gravesend, immediately ferry’d over, and, as he said, was stopp’d by the difficulty of the boat, and of the passage, near an hour; which was a great discouragement to him, but was a kind of bait to his horse: From thence he rode cross the county of Essex, thro’ Tilbury, Homden, and Bilerecay to Chelmsford: Here he stopp’d about half an hour to refresh his horse, and gave him some balls; from thence to Braintre, Bocking, Wethersfield; then over the downs to Cambridge, and from thence keeping still the cross roads, he went by Fenny Stanton to Godmanchester, and Huntington, where he baited himself and his mare about an hour; and, as he said himself, slept about half an hour, then holding on the North Road, and keeping a full larger gallop most of the way, he came to York the same afternoon, put off his boots and riding doaths, and went dress’d as if he had been an inhabitant of the place, not a traveller, to the bowling-green, where, among other gentlemen, was the lord mayor of the city; he singling out his lordship, study’d to do something particular that the mayor might remember him by, and accordingly lays some odd bett with him concerning the bowls then running, which should cause the mayor to remember it the more particularly; and then takes occasion to ask his lordship what a clock it was; who, pulling out his watch, told him the hour, which was a quarter before, or a quarter after eight at night.

The public gallows, nicknamed “York Tyburn”, was torn down in the early 19th century. A worn stone labeled simply “Tyburn” today marks the former site of the fatal tree.


(cc) image by Carl Spencer.

* May 4, 1685 is one of several execution dates suggested for Nevison; all appear to lack recourse to any definitive primary document. The Ballads and Songs of Yorkshire, Transcribed from Private Manuscripts, Rare Broadsides, and Scarce Publications is our source here; it attributes its dating to Macaulay, although I have not found it in the latter’s History of England. Other possibilities include May 8, or March 15, in either 1684 or 1685.

** This site suggests that Nicks might also be the same as, or conflated with, yet another highwayman, Captain Richard Dudley.

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1815: George Lyon, career thief and possible poltergeist

Add comment April 22nd, 2015 Headsman

Two hundred years ago today, Lancaster Castle hosted a quintuple hanging, starring career thief George Lyon.

At age 54, Lyon could be considered a throwback: he openly styled himself “The King of Robbers”, inspiring a sarcastic hack “to congratulate the inhabitants of Wigan and the neighbourhood, and indeed the country at large, on the conviction of George Lyon.” (This notice ran in a number of publications at the time.) He was basically a well-known crook and authorities were thrilled to get one of his fellows to turn Crown’s Evidence on him and make a charge stick.

He had eleven indictments including a stickup of the Liverpool mail, and on this basis has been described as the last highwayman executed at Lancaster — but in the main his methods less romantic and more straightforward. The crime that hanged them — for Lyon died along with two confederates, plus two other unconnected men — was taking advantage of the access a house-painting hire afforded them to just loot the joint.

Lyon did make sure to class it up for his hang-day, however, in a natty black suit and jockey boots to be on point for some 5,000 Lancastrians who reportedly crowded the banks of the castle moat to gawp.

Lyon’s wife arranged to take the body — saving the old footpad from a posthumous anatomization — and buried it in Upholland in the grave of their daughter, Nanny Lyon. (The stone can still be seen to this date: it does not mention George.) It’s been alleged that his spirit has been spooking the place in the 200 years since, including at the venerable White Lion Pub, adjacent to Nanny and George’s final resting place.


Lancaster Gazette and General Advertiser, April 29, 1815

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1824: Three Bondy brigands

Add comment April 20th, 2015 Headsman

Bondy, today a Paris suburb, was in the Middle Ages a forest notorious for the bandits and murderers who laired in its leafy shadows — a reputation stretching back to antiquity. The Merovingian king Childeric II was assassinated while hunting there.

Just as the French Revolution swept away the titles and prerogatives left over from feudal Europe, it put the onetime thieves’ forest on the track to respectability. The golden age of the highwayman was rapidly closing anyway; as the 19th century unfolded, the lumberman, the railroad, and the police inspector combined to drain away the outlaw’s arboreal habitat.


Take the tram where angels once feared to tread. ((cc) image from gasdub.

But such transitions do not happen overnight, and on this date in 1824 were guillotined in Paris three representatives of this vanishing species — brigands from a ferocious gang who, in the words of their executioners’ memoirs, “excelled in the art of waylaying stage-coaches, and killing the passengers if they refused to give up their money.”

Renaud, Ochard and Delaporte were their names; five others of their band had received sentences of life in prison at hard labor.

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1635: Elizabeth Evans, “Canonbury Besse”

Add comment April 17th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1635, Elizabeth Evans (known as “Canonbury Besse”) was hanged for murder.

Sometimes characterized as one of early modern Europe’s pioneer serial killers, Evans was not driven to slaughter by compulsion — merely by its emoluments. Using an early version of the timeless “Lonely Hearts killer” scheme familiar to a later era of classified adverts and Craigslist postings,* Evans and her beau Tom Sherwood committed at least five homicides via the expedient of Canonbury Besse’s allures.

Once the prospect had been enticed to a private rendezvous, Sherwood — “Country Tom” — would jump him, and the couple would rob the body. A straightforward enterprise, with a straightforward consequence. (Sherwood had already gone to the gallows on April 14th.)

The ballad “Murder Upon Murder” blames Evans for seducing Sherwood, “a man of honest parentage”, both bodily and spiritually:

she sotted so his minde,
That unto any villany,
fierce Sherwood was inclind,
His coyne all spent he must have more,
For to content his filthy (Whoore).

So shocking was the spree these lovebirds carried out — as reflected in nicknames that denote a degree of celebrity — that they were doomed to posthumous terrors as well.

Sherwood was hung in chains near St. Pancras Church where he so notably failed to deter crime that a later group of thieves, frustrated at finding their mark penniless, contempuously lashed him naked to Country Tom’s gibbet.

“Oh pity! Still running on to more mischief, having such a fearful spectacle before their eyes as Country Tom, which should rather have frightened and hindered them from doing this bold and insolent act,” laments Henry Goodcole in Heaven’s Speedie Hue and Cry, a narrative pamphlet trading on that same “fearful spectacle.”


Detail view (click for the full image) of Heaven’s Speedie Hue and Cry, a pamphlet narrating the crimes of Sherwood and Evans.

Canonbury Besse was bound over to the surgeons for anatomizing — well before this particular terror became a common extension of murder sentences. According to The Body Emblazoned: Dissection and the Human Body in Renaissance Culture, both Sherwood’s and Evans’s skeletons would ultimately became ornaments on permanent display at Inigo Jones‘s 1636 London anatomy theater,** and could be seen there as late as 1784.

* Consider, for instance, America’s Lonely Hearts Killers, Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck — or Henri Landru, French predator of World War I widows.

** Diarist Samuel Pepys described a visit to this theater in 1663.

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1764: John Nelson, Liverpool robber

Add comment April 7th, 2015 Headsman

From the Gazetteer and London Daily Advertiser, Feb. 15, 1764:

Extract of a letter from a gentleman at Liverpool, dated Feb. 2.

On Monday night was apprehended John Nelson (who has been frequently advertised in public papers) and for some time past has been a principal leader of a gang of highway robbers, and house-breakers. A Bailiff at Prescott has lately seen Nelson in a private lodging house in that town, and promised a handsome gratuity to the woman of the house, if she would give him the earliest intelligence when Nelson came again.

Accordingly on Monday evening, they acquainted him that Nelson was then in the house in bed; the Bailiff, upon this, engaged a Constable and three other men to accompany him to the house, and entering into it with as little noise as possible, they instantly went up stairs, and rushed into the room where Nelson lay; being thus surprised, and overpowered by numbers, he was at length obliged to submit, though not till after he had made a great resistance, and had struggled hard to get possession of his clothes, which lay at some distance from the bed; but the Bailiff stunned him by two blows on his head, and several upon his arm, with a large stick.

As soon as Nelson was secured, he offered the Bailiff a Johannes, and two other pieces of gold, and promised to send him fifty more in the morning, if he would leave him to drink a cup of ale with the other four men, but the Bailiff honestly rejected the profferred bribe. Upon examining his pockets, there were found two loaded pistols, which primed themselves, a powder-horn containing about two ounces of gunpowder, a tinder-horn, fifteen balls, a piece of crape, a case of launcets, a belt of a particular form to carry pistols in, and two silver meat spoons, without any mark.

He confessed, upon his examination before the Magistrates of this town, to all the robberies lately committed in this place, except one; to several highway robberies; and also impeached seven accomplices, two of whom are since taken and confined in the town gaol, two are gone to sea, and a pursuit is out in quest of the other three. Nelson formerly went to sea, and served an apprentice to a gentleman of this town; he is remarkably strong and robust, and of a daring and intrepid spirit. On the Sunday morning following, Nelson, with two of his confederates, attempted to make their escape, having got off their irons, and made a considerable progress under ground, but was prevented by the timely assistance of the guard, and properly secured; and on Tuesday they were conducted under a strong guard to Lancaster castle together with a woman, convicted of assisting the prisoners with saws and files, to make their escape. We hear Nelson has made several useful discoveries, by which means the gang of house-breakers and street robbers are expected to be brought to justice.


From the London Chronicle, Apr. 7-10, 1764:

At the assizes at Lancaster, the three following received sentence of death, viz. John Nelson, for entering the house of Mr. Richardson, of Liverpool, and stealing silver plate, &c. Thomas Naden, for pulling down and destroying Heaton-Mill, the property of Mr. George Bramall; and Francis Windle, for breaking into the house of Mr. Scarisbrick, of Widness, and stealing a sum of money. The judge, before he left the town, reprieved Windle, and ordered Nelson and Naden to be executed on Saturday the 7th instant.

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1843: A bunch from Heage hanged

Add comment March 31st, 2015 Headsman

The Derbyshire village of Heage achieved a bit of lasting notoriety with the triple hanging on this date in 1843 of three of its felonious sons: Samuel Bonsall, William Bland, and John Hulme.

“They hang ‘em in bunches in Heage” and “You can tell a man from Heage by the rope mark on his neck” are a couple of the ungenerous quips attached to the trio’s native soil on account of their villainy.


Heage. (cc) image from Stephen Jones.

Bland, at 39 the senior member of the group, gave a confession admitting that the three had invaded a home outside Derby occupied by a 72-year-old spinster named Martha Goddard and her sister Sally.

It should have been a simple burglary. Clobbering Sally and chasing Martha upstairs, they set about ransacking the place. Since only Bland bothered even to defend himself, and his defense was that he was only there to steal and not to kill, it’s a bit difficult to grasp exactly what happened that led the party to beat her dead. Bland said that he heard from a different room Martha Goddard shriek out for her sister.

Cellmates of Bonsall’s — a source that we do not ordinarily consider to be presumptively credible — said that Bonsall saw Hulme facing Goddard in her bedroom when she begged of him, “Man, man, what a man you are; I have given you my money; tell me what else you want, and I will give it to you; but spare my life.”

Hulme, they testified at third hand, snapped back, “You old bitch, I want some of your five-pound notes” — and smashed her with an iron crowbar. For his part, Hulme gave a confession fingering Bonsall as the murderer.

They had only a week from conviction to contemplate the state of their case and their soul. In the end, the three “made no confession that could be relied on, each endeavouring to fix the guilt of the murder upon the other.” (Aris’s Birmingham Gazette, April 3, 1843) They were hanged at Derby gaol.

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1884: Tombstone hangs five

Add comment March 28th, 2015 Headsman

The frontier town Tombstone, Arizona saw its first legal hanging on this date in 1884 — and its second, third, fourth, and fifth besides.

On the 8th of December ult., Daniel “Big Dan” Dowd, Comer W. “Red” Sample, Daniel “York” Kelly, William “Billy” Delaney and James “Tex” Howard rode into the nearby town of Bisbee in an attempt to seize the $7,000 payroll for the Copper Queen Mine.

Sadly the bandits mistimed the arrival of the boodle. Having already committed to the raid, they improvised a plunder of the general store and the valuables of any nearby customers they could lay the sight of their sixguns upon. And then on the way out, villainous mustaches a-twirl, the gangsters shot up the town and slew four good residents of Bisbee.

The survivors telegraphed the sheriff of Tombstone, the seat of Cochise County.*

This Bisbee Massacre was just two years on from Tombstone’s signature moment, the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral — and it had a similar whiff of the lawless frontier.

Arrayed against Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday at the O.K. Corral** had been the so-called “cowboys”, a network of desperadoes who found this last vanishing enclave of the lawless frontier a congenial environment for opportunistic outlawry: livestock rustling, smuggling, stagecoach robbery, and the like.

The line between legitimate businessman and criminal element was as permeable as the nearby Mexican border. As Tombstone’s posses hunted down the five Bisbee shooters over the ensuing weeks, interrogations would reveal that Bisbee saloon-keeper John Heath — an Ohio native of shady reputation who could be found during the gunfight cowering behind his own bar — was actually the moving spirit behind the raid. He would later testify in a piece of hairsplitting vainglory that of course it was he who conceived it all, as his henchmen were too stupid for such a plan … but the part where they started shooting people was none of John Heath’s idea.

Heath was smart enough to get his own trial separate from his goons, and smart enough to work a jail sentence where his cronies were set up for execution.

Folk in Tombstone were incensed at this leniency and on February 22 they reversed it by extracting Heath from his irons and lynching him to a telegraph pole at First and Toughnut.

The Alfred Henry Lewis Wolfville books (available in the public domain) dramatize a fictitious western town loosely based on Tombstone … complete with vigilance committee and a strong female character named Nell.

It was fairly clear under the circumstances that the five toughs awaiting their March 28 hanging date had no need to entertain any hope of mercy.

Nonetheless, legendary frontierswoman Nellie Cashman — later to be inducted into the Alaska Mining Hall of Fame for her exertions in that arctic gold rush was at this time resident in the silver boom town of Tombstone.

So appalled was the Irishwoman at the highly improper festive civic atmosphere prevailing in Tombstone as the executions approached that she organized a gang of her own: a team that on the eve of the hangings secretly dismantled a grandstands some ghoulish entrepreneur had erected in order to at least permit the event to go off with some modicum of solemnity.

* Cochise County, Arizona, was named for the great Apache warrior.

** Actually, the shootout was neither in nor abutting the O.K. Corral.

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