Posts filed under 'Wrongful Executions'

1741: John Ury, schoolmaster

Add comment August 29th, 2017 Headsman

Colonial New York’s summer 1741 slave rebellion panic* drew to a close on this date with the execution of the alleged Catholic priest John Ury.

The supposed plot to fire the city, whose reality and extent have been questioned ever since, had seen some 30 souls to the gallows and stakes these past four months after a suspicious series of fires hit the city in the spring.

The original supposed spider at the center of the web of was a white innkeep called John Hughson, who kept a raucous tavern frequented by blacks — and also kept a serving-girl named Mary Burton, the “eyewitness” who would become the inquisitor-judge Daniel Horsmanden‘s faithful familiar throughout the trials, conjuring every new accusation required of the next plot twist.

But even as Hughson was executed in June, the compounding accusations of people in fear of their lives had driven the story past the confines of his humble tavern, all the way to the capitals of the European powers against whom England was fighting a New World naval war. Jill LePore in New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan characterizes four Venn-patterned seditions that investigators perceived over the course of these months:

  • Hughson’s Plot, centered on the publican and his establishment;
  • The Negro Plot, extending well beyond Hughson’s circle to compass perhaps the majority of black people in New York;
  • The Spanish Plot, a foreign plan — possibly coordinated with an internal slave rising — to destroy New York or seize her for Spain; and,
  • The Catholic Plot.

It was the last of these, perfectly calibrated for the Anglo id, that would gather all the other strands together. What hand could unite the threats within and without? The priest. Who moved conspiratorially among Englishmen while obeying the dictates of a foreign potentate? The priest. Who gave men the boldness to murder their masters through his promise of absolving worldly sin? The priest.

The confusing — the incoherent — unfolding of trials that summer became marvelously clarified once apprehended as a Catholic intrigue; maybe the only wonder was that this decisive reveal emerged so late. The prosecutor of the trial that concerns us in this post would say as much in his summation:

Though this work of darkness, in the contrivance of a horrible plot, to burn and destroy this city, has manifested itself in many blazing effects, to the terror and amazement of us all; yet the secret springs of this mischief lay long concealed: this destructive scene has opened by slow degrees: but now, gentlemen, we have at length great reason to conclude, that it took its rise from a foreign influence; and that it originally depended upon causes, that we ourselves little thought of, and which, perhaps, very few of the inferior and subordinate agents were intimately acquainted with.

Gentlemen, if the evidence you have heard is sufficient to produce a general conviction that the late fires in this city, and the murderous design against its inhabitants, are the effects of a Spanish and popish plot, then the mystery of this iniquity, which has so much puzzled us, is unveiled, and our admiration ceases: all the mischiefs we have suffered or been threatened with, are but a sprout from that evil root, a small stream from that overflowing fountain of destruction, that has often deluged the earth with slaughter and blood, and spread ruin and desolation far and wide.

It might have been a warning letter sent by governor of Georgia, James Oglethorpe, that prepared this popish cast to events. “Some intelligence I had of a villainous design of a very extraordinary nature, if true, very important, viz. that the Spaniards had employed emissaries to burn all the magazines and considerable towns in the English North-America,” Oglethorpe wrote in May of 1741. And who were these “emissaries”? “Many priests were employed, who pretended to be physicians, dancing-masters, and other such kinds of occupations; and under that pretence to get admittance and confidence in families.”

These few words would prove a death warrant.

Days after Oglethorpe’s letter arrived to New York, a Manhattan newcomer named John Ury was taken up as a suspected undercover priest — appearing to fit Oglethorpe’s description for he had advertised himself a schoolmaster “pretending to teach Greek and Latin.” Latin!

Mary Burton, the Hughsons’ servant turned stool pigeon for all seasons, revised her original depositions averring that she had never seen white people besides her own household at Hughson’s nefarious negro gatherings and now conveniently remembered that this guy named Ury or Jury “used to come there almost every night, and sometimes used to lie there.” And he was Catholicizing the slaves as he inducted them into a spectacular conspiracy. How could I have forgotten to mention it?!

“Corroborating” testimony to this same effect would also be wrenched from the white soldier William Kane … when Mary’s fabrications against Kane forced him to choose between joining his accuser in perjury or joining slaves at the gallows. And the case was cinched by John Hughson’s miserable daughter Sarah, who spent that entire summer suspended between life and death before she was finally pardoned on the very morning of John Ury’s trial — an expedient necessary to clear the reluctant but desperate young woman to provide evidence against the “priest.”

Ury denied being Catholic at all; he defended himself vigorously in a nine-hour trial and clowned his accuser on cross-examination:

Prisoner: You say you have seen me several times at Hughson’s, what clothes did I usually wear?

Mary Burton: I cannot tell what clothes you wore particularly.

Prisoner: That is strange, and [k]now me so well.

Furthermore, Ury noted, he had been forewarned of the suspicions against him but not attempted to flee. Plus, what about all those people who had been executed since May? “The negro who confessed as it is said that he set fire to the fort did not mention me in all his confession doubtless he would not have neglected and passed over such a person as I am said to be … neither Huson his wife nor the creature that was hanged with them and all that have been put to death since did not once name me.”

Show trials are not proper venues for defenses, of course. If anything can be said on behalf of Ury’s appalling prosecution, it is that the production of an arch-villain permitted the final closure of a terrorist-hunt that weeks before had seemed on the verge of becoming a literal hecatomb. Horsmanden’s senior colleague on the bench, James De Lancey, had shown keen to wrap things up; at the same time, as an Atlantic oligarch, he likely viewed the foreign threat of the Spanish and/or Catholic plot far more gravely. From either perspective, Ury’s death was a fit end to the scene.

Ury was hanged on August 29, 1741, a month to the day after his trial. (He was originally to have shared his gallows with the Spaniard Juan de la Silva on August 15, but had been respited.) The freelance teacher turned infernal mastermind prepared a written vindication of himself for a friend, and at the gallows he “repeated somewhat of the substance of it before he was turned of.” Here it is:

Fellow Christians —

I am now going to suffer a death attended with ignominy and pain; but it is the cup that my heavenly father has put into my hand, and I drink it with pleasure; it is the cross of my dear redeemer, I bear it with alacrity; knowing that all that live godly in Christ Jesus, must suffer persecution; and we must be made in some degree partakers of his sufferings before we can share in the glories of his resurrection: for he went not up to glory before he ascended Mount Calvary; did not wear the crown of glory before the crown of thorns.

And I am to appear before an awful and tremendous God, a being of infinite purity and unerring justice, a God who by no means will clear the guilty, that cannot be reconciled either to sin or sinners; now this is the being at whose bar I am to stand, in the presence of this God, the possessor of heaven and earth, I lift up my hands and solemnly protest I am innocent of what is laid to my charge: I appeal to the great God for my non-knowledge of Hewson [sic], his wife, or the creature that was hanged with them, I never saw them living, dying, or dead; nor never had I any knowledge or confederacy with white or black as to any plot; and upon the memorials of the body and blood of my dearest lord, in the creatures of bread and wine, in which I have commemorated the love of my dying lord, I protest that the witnesses are perjured; I never knew the perjured witnesses but at my trial.

But for the removal of all scruples that may arise after my death I shall give my thoughts on some points.

First — I firmly believe and attest, that it is not in the power of man to forgive sin; that it is the prerogative only of the great God to dispense pardon for sins; and that those who dare pretend to such a power, do in some degree commit that great and unpardonable sin, the sin against the Holy Spirit, because they pretend to that power which their own consciences proclaim to be a lie.

Again, I solemnly attest and believe, that a person having committed crimes that have or might have proved hurtful or destructive to the peace of society, and does not discover the whole scheme, and all the persons concerned with them, cannot obtain pardon from God: and it is not the taking any oath or oaths that ought to hinder him from confessing his guilt, and all that he knows about it; for such obligations are not only sinful, but unpardonable, if not broken: now a person firmly believing this, and knowing that an eternal state of happiness or misery depends upon the performance or non-performance of the above-mentioned things, cannot, will not trifle with such important affairs.

I have not more to say by way of clearing my innocence, knowing that to a true Christian unprejudiced mind, I must appear guiltless; but however, I am not very solicitous about it. I rejoice, and it is now my comfort (and that will support me and protect me from the crowd of evil spirits that I must meet with in my flight to the region of bliss assigned me) that my conscience speaks peace to me.

Indeed, it may be shocking to some serious Christians, that the holy God should suffer innocence to be slain by the hands of cruel and bloody persons; (I mean the witnesses who swore against me at my trial), indeed, there may be reasons assigned for it; but, as they may be liable to objections, I decline them; and shall only say, that this is one of the dark providences of the great God, in his wise, just and good government of this lower earth.

In fine, I depart this waste, this howling wilderness, with a mind serene, free from all malice, with a forgiving spirit, so far as the gospel of my dear and only redeemer obliges and enjoins me to, hoping and praying, that Jesus, who alone is the giver of repentance, will convince, conquer and enlighten my murderers’ souls, that they may publicly confess their horrid wickedness before God and the world, so that their souls may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.

And now, a word of advice to you, spectators: behold me launching into eternity; seriously, solemnly view me, and ask yourselves severally, how stands the case with me? die I must: am I prepared to meet my Lord when the midnight cry is echoed forth? shall I then have the wedding garment on? Oh, sinners! trifle no longer; consider life hangs on a thread; here to-day and gone to-morrow; forsake your sins ere ye be forsaken forever: hearken, now is God awfully calling you to repent, warning you by me, his minister and prisoner, to embrace Jesus, to take, to lay hold on him for your alone savior, in order to escape the wrath to come; no longer delay, seeing the summons may come before ye are aware, and you standing before the bar of a God who is consuming fire out of the Lord Jesus Christ, should be hurled, be doomed to that place, where their worm dies not, and their fire is never to be quenched.

* Longtime readers may recall that the series to which this post belongs ran last year. Embarrassingly I lost track of the date, and in the almanac form the calendar is unforgiving.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arson,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Innocent Bystanders,New York,Public Executions,Terrorists,Treason,USA,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1943: Gunnar Eilifsen, good cop

Add comment August 16th, 2017 Headsman

Policeman Gunnar Eilifsen on this date in 1943 achieved the undesirable distinction of becoming the first person executed under the auspices of Norway’s World War II collaborationist Quisling government.

As an officer in Oslo, Eilifsen got himself in hot water with the Reichskommissar Josef Terboven when he supported several constables’ refusal to arrest girls who shirked the national labor conscription.

Terboven’s orders-must-be-followed jag was excessive even by the standards of a fascist puppet state, and a court told him to get lost. So, Terboven “appealed” by keeping Eilifsen in custody until later that day, when he arranged a do-over proceeding with handpicked judges and no defense.

The disobedient cop was shot the next sunrise. Three days later the dubious execution was retroactively legalized by a law subjecting the police to the military code, a measure sometimes sarcastically dubbed the “”Lex Eilifsen”.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Milestones,Military Crimes,Norway,Power,Shot,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1683: Andrew Guilline, Covenanter accessory

Add comment July 20th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1683, Andrew Guilline (several different spellings of his surname are possible) had his hands chopped off and then his head too, for his part in the Covenanter assassination of the hated Archbishop Sharp four years earlier.

To refresh the reader, Sharp was a former Presbyterian minister who accepted King Charles II’s appointment to be the face of Stuart religious policy in Scotland, thus earning himself a comfortable state pension and permanent lodgings in Hibernian galleries of villainy. The Covenanters who made so many martyrs in these years were so known for their demand that the king honor his pre-restoration “covenant” to promulgate Presbyterianism; that Sharp associated himself with the sovereign’s volte-face made him a traitorous figure in their eyes.

He’d been subject to assassination bids for years.

And our man Guilline was present on the afternoon of May 3, 1679 when one finally succeeded.

On that occasion, a party of Covenanters intercepted Sharp’s carriage near Magus Muir and — after suffering the prelate a last prayer — slashed and sabered him to death. Covenanter hagiographies of Guilline insist this man was a mere incidental to events, the bystander into whose hand the killers slapped their horses’ reins while they went about their business — that Guilline even objected as the assassination unfolded. (Evidence given by the Archbishop’s daughter, who witnessed the murder, confirmed that “one of the traitors standing some paces off called to the rest, Spare those gray hairs.”)


The Murder of Archbishop Sharpe on Magus Muir near St. Andrews, 1679, by William Allen (c. 1840).
A faithful martyr here doth lie,
A witness against perjury;
Who cruelly was put to death,
To gratify proud Prelate’s wrath;
They cut his hands ere he was dead,
And after that struck off his head.
To Magus-muir then did him bring,
His body on a pole did hing.
His blood under the altar cries,
For vengeance on Christ’s enemies.

-Guilline’s funerary inscription.

Be that as it may, Guilline was also immediately sought as a conspirator. He found it prudent to up stakes from Magus Muir and take his weaving business elsewhere.

In 1683, he caught the eye of a minister at Cockpen, near Edinburgh, on account of shirking his legal duty to attend the official church services. It was behavior characteristic of Covenanters, and during the years since Sharp’s murder the persecution of Covenanters had sharply intensified. The sniffing around that ensued uncovered his more infamous association, and it was this that Guilline was charged and condemned for, his sentence augmented with a demonstrative pre-execution severing of his heretical hands.

Guilline met his fate as befits a martyr, brandishing the spurting stump of his right hand after it had been clumsily severed and announcing to the multitude, “As my blessed Lord sealed my salvation with His blood, so I am honoured this day to seal His truths with my blood.”

There is a great confluence come here at this time; I wish with all my heart they would get good by their coming. I am come here to lay down my life. I declare I die not as a murderer, or as an evil doer; although this covenant-breaking, perjured, murdering generation lay it to my charge as though I were a murderer, on account of the justice that was executed on that Judas [i.e., Archbishop Sharp] that sold the Kirk of Scotland for 50,000 merks a year. And we being bound to extirpate Popery and Prelacy, and that to the utmost of our power, and we having no other that were appearing for God at that day, but such as took away his life; therefore, I was bound to join with them in defending the true religion. And all the land, every man, was bound in covenant, when he had sold the Church they were bound, I say, to meet him by the way, when he came down from London, and have put him presently to the edge of the sword for that heinous indignity done to the holy Son of God.

But it is (alas!) too apparent that men have never known God rightly, nor considered that He is a holy God. Oh! terrible backsliding, they will not believe that God will call them to an account for what they owed to God. But assure yourselves; as He is in heaven, He will call every one to an account, how they have stood to that Covenant and work of Reformation. I need say no more; but I would have you consider, that in breaking the Covenant, we have trampled under foot the precious truths of Jesus Christ.

Now, being straitened of time, I must leave off writing. Wherefore, farewell holy Scriptures, wherewith my soul hath been many a day refreshed. Farewell sweet societies with whom I have been, whose company was only refreshful to me. Farewell my mother, brethren, sisters, and all other relations. Farewell all earthly pleasures. Farewell sun, moon, and stars. Welcome spirits of just men made perfect. Welcome angels. Welcome Father, Son, and Holy Ghost into whose hands I commit my spirit!

Sic subscribitur,

ANDREW GUILLINE.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Assassins,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Gibbeted,History,Innocent Bystanders,Martyrs,Notable for their Victims,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Wrongful Executions

1408: Konrad Vorlauf, Vienna Burgermeister

1 comment July 11th, 2017 Headsman

Konrad Vorlauf, late the mayor of Vienna, was beheaded on this date in 1408 with two other councillors.

The patrician Burgermeister was a casualty of the dynastic civil war between brothers Leopold IV and Ernest the Iron, which manifested in Vienna — a rising city on the brink of becoming (in 1440) the Habsburgs’ permanent residence — as a conflict between the city’s merchant oligarchs (allied to Ernest) and her artisan craftsmen (allied to Leopold).

It was a violent conflict even within city walls: in January of 1408, Vorlauf had seized five Leopold-friendly guild leaders and had them beheaded on the Hohenmarkt. (See this public-domain history of Vienna, in German)

During a subsequent truce, Vorlauf along with fellow Vienna grandees Hans Rock, Rudolf Angerfelder, Stephan Poll, Friedrich von Dorffen, Wolfhardt Schebnitzer, Niklas Untermhimmel and Niklas Flusthart went to a confabulation called by Leopold under his safe conduct, only to be seized on their return by knights allied to his cause and held to ransom.

Vienna duly paid it up but perhaps might have done better to keep the cash. Somewhere around this time Leopold imposed himself in Vienna itself, and when the artisan class caused a ruckus over new taxes, the prince was pressured to seize Vorlauf along with the aforementioned Hans Rock and another councillor named Konrad Rampersdorfer. Their beheading — in the city’s Pig Market, for added disgrace — proceeded under no color of law. The aged Rampersdorfer asserted his seniority for the privilege of dying first, saying

I have hitherto been a precursor to all others, and I have not earned the death penalty, but I have stood always for the natural rights of my prince. Therefore I offer to my fellows my own example, not to fear a righteous death, but to submit to it voluntarily.

With the childless death of Leopold a few years later Ernest became the uncontested chief of the Leopoldian line, and his martyred Viennese compatriots celebrated as municipal patriots — eventually exhumed from their graves and reburied with honor in St. Stephen’s Cathedral. They were fortuitously allied, as events would transpire, to the imperial glory conquered by Ernest’s descendants in what became the chief Habsburg dynastic line (the mighty Maximilian I was Ernest’s grandson).

Today, the place of the mayor’s execution is called Lobkowitzplatz; it’s marked by a plaque paying tribute to the men who bled there in 1408.


Commemorative plaque honoring Vorlauf and the others beheaded with him.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Austria,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Habsburg Realm,History,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1835: Vincent, by popular demand

Add comment July 9th, 2017 Headsman

This story is transcribed from the July 27, 1835 National Banner and Nashville Whig:

From the Clinton (Miss.) Gazette.

PUBLIC EXECUTION. — On Thursday morning last,* between the hours of 10 and 11 o’clock, VINCENT, a mulatto fellow belonging to the estate of the late Robert Bell, was hung in this place, by the citizens.

Abundant evidence of his participation in the late insurrectionary movements having been furnished the Committee of Vigilance appointed by the people of Clinton, he was sentenced to receive three hundred lashes, and to perpetual banishment from the United States, after the expiration of forty days.

On Wednesday evening, Vincent was carried out to receive his stripes; but the assembled multitude were in favor of hanging him — regarding the sentence pronounced against him as insufficient for the punishment of so enormous a crime. A vote was accordingly fairly taken, and the hanging party had it by an “overwhelming majority,” as politicians say. He was remanded to prison.

On the day of execution, a still larger crowd was assembled, and fearing that public sentiment might have changed in regard to his fate, after every thing favorable to the culprit was alleged, which could be said, the vote was taken — and his death again demanded by the people.

In pursuance of this sentiment, so unequivocally expressed, he was led to a “black-jack,” and suspended to one of its branches.

We approve entirely of the proceeding. The people have acted properly. Any man, whether he be white, yellow, or black, who lends his countenance and aid to a scheme, having for its object the burning of villages and towns, and the indiscriminate butchery of men, women and children, surely deserves an ignominious death. He who robs a solitary traveller on the high-way of a few dollars, is doomed to suffer death. How much more then, is he deserving of that punishment, who concocts and matures a deep laid conspiracy against the lives of an unoffending community?

Vincent could have made important discoveries at the gallows, but obstinately refused doing so, alleging that his own death being certain, it would profit him nothing to bring others to the same fate, and that he should inform on no one.


The Clinton lawyer named Henry Foote — who in future would become Governor of Mississippi — claimed in his memoir Casket of Reminisces that the ad hoc public votes on Vincent’s life were the product of his, Foote’s, desperate attempts to prevent the lynching at the behest of the former slave’s aged mistress.

When I rode into the town of Clinton I saw a large multitude assembled on one of the most popular streets, in front of a store in which Mr. Archibald Kenney, now in Staunton, Virginia, had some years before sold merchandize. I dismounted and went to the spot. I soon learned that the vigilance committee of that vicinage, composed of some of the best citizens of the county, had been trying a mulatto man, whom I knew very well, upon a charge of being a participant in the scheme of alleged insurrection.

A considerable quantity of powder and shot had been found in his possession, which circumstance had awakened some suspicions against him. The committee had tried him, and had sentenced him to be whipped only, and they would, indeed, have discharged him altogether, as I learned from themselves, had they not dreaded the indignant rage of the population of the town, then in a very excited condition. The committee had been unfortunate enough to sit with closed doors, which gave to the imagination of those not taking part in their proceedings a wide field for unfavorable conjecture. When the sentence was announced the outsiders determined to hang their longed-for victim at any rate; and at the time I reached the place where they were assembled the preparations for the execution of the boy were going forward. The boy had been in the ownership of a venerable gentle man of the neighborhood, Captain Bell, a Virginia friend of mine of great respectability and intelligence. He had been a great favorite with his master, who had left him free. The captain had been dead about a year, and this boy, who by-the-by was nearly white, and singularly polite and civil in his manners, had been since his master’s decease a faithful protector of his family, which consisted of his widow and a single female child. This widowed lady had reached the fearful scene some minutes before my own arrival, and had been allowed, in connection with a learned and pious minister of the Gospel, Dr. Comfort, to hold a last interview with this unfortunate boy. She came forth from this interview, attended by her pious and humane protector, and advancing within the portico where most of the multitude were located, she spoke, with a voice much agitated and almost stilled with emotion, while the tears were rapidly coursing down her venerable cheeks, as follows:

“GENTLEMEN, you all knew my husband during his life, and respected him. This poor boy was his favorite servant. I know his disposition and character well. I have just catechised him most searchingly. Had he been guilty as charged I should have been able to detect his guilt. I assure you that he is innocent. Oh! gentlemen, (she wildly exclaimed,) is there not one among you who will stand up here as the representative and champion of a poor, widowed, friendless female?” I immediately rose to my feet. I looked circumspectly upon the crowd for a moment. I saw standing just before me the grim-looking face of a man notorious for his violent and blood-thirsty character, whose name was Hardwick, and whom I soon after prosecuted for a diabolical murder, for which he would certainly have been hanged if the victim of his atrocity had been a white man. I saw a new rope in this ruffian’s hands, the texture of which he was feeling with his accursed fingers, evidently for the purpose of ascertaining whether it was strong enough to do the dread office effectually for which he had purchased it. I was conscious of all the perils which surrounded my position, and I therefore proceeded with extreme caution. I spoke thus: “Gentlemen, you have heard the touching appeal of this venerable lady. I have nothing to add to her decorous and impressive address, but I have a word to say to you of a prudential character in regard to yourselves and your own future responsibilities. The excitement now raging in this community may after awhile subside. Then it may be that some officious person shall wish to institute a prosecution for murder on account of the hanging of this boy. In my judgment it will be most safe that whatever is done in this affair shall be the act, as it were, of the whole community. I am not willing that a few generous-minded young men shall be made the scape-goats of this vicinage. Let us all join in whatever act may be resolved on. Now I will take the vote of the whole assemblage upon the question of banging, if no one sball object to it.” No objection being made, I said: “All in favor of hanging this unfortunate boy will signify the same by saying aye.” Nine-tenths answered aye. I said: “Those opposed to hanging will answer no.” About eight or ten persons said no.

I determined to make one more experiment before I gave up all hope of saving a human being from a fate so dreadful as that I saw impending. The day was intensely hot. The street on which we were located was very wide and intersected with deep gullies. I said: “Gentlemen, let us settle this question more satisfactorily: All in favor of hanging will range themselves on the opposite side of the street; those in favor of mercy will remain under the shade of this portico.” Nearly all rushed across the street! I left the spot with feelings of sorrow and disgust which no words can express. The boy was swung into eternity in less than fifteen minutes from that moment.

On my way home to dinner I met that distressed widow. She was on horseback, and stopped for a moment to speak to me. She said: “Mr. Foote, you know what has taken place to-day. You were, during the life of my venerated husband, his friend and his legal adviser. Tell me what I had best do. I wish to prosecute the murderers of my servant. Will you undertake to bring them to justice? I will reward you liberally.”

“My dear madam,” I said, “We are in the midst of most unhappy circumstances and of most appalling dangers. The community in which we live is in a frenzied condition. Were you to commence such a prosecution as you mention your own life would not be safe. Let me recommend to you earnestly to bow to the imperious necessity of the hour. “She looked at me for a moment with a mingled expression of sorrow and resentment upon her countenance, and then responded to me with a grave and touching solemnity of look I can never forget: “I will take your advice. Farewell!”

* This story was republished around the country featuring only the Gazette‘s original “Thursday morning last” locution, without any contextualizing dateline, which is another compelling reason for newsfolk to abandon the chatty day-of-week convention in favor of stating an actual date. Neither does Foote trouble to date the affair.

However, in view of the infuriatingly cavalier dating of events that this calendar-interested author is forever wrestling, Joshua Rothman‘s gumshoe act on Vincent’s hanging date in Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson is nothing short of a godsend. Here’s endnote 50 to chapter 7 in its gloriously diligent entirety:

Figuring the date of Vincent’s trial requires a bit of detective work and a bit of guesswork. On July 24 the Jackson Mississippian reprinted Vincent’s story as it appeared in the Clinton Gazette. July 24 was a Friday, and while no copies of the Gazette from July 1835 survive, the paper was published on Saturdays, meaning that its article about Vincent appeared in either the July 11 or July 18 edition. The original story indicates that Vincent’s execution took place on “Thursday morning last” and suggests that his trial took place the day before that. The language here is ambiguous. If the story originally appeared in the July 11 issue of the Gazette, “last” means July 9, the Thursday immediately preceding, as there was no vigilance committee in existence in Clinton on any Thursdays prior to that one. If the story originally appeared in the July 18 issue of the Gazette, “last” could mean that Vincent’s trial occurred on July 15 or on July 8, but July 8 seems more likely for several reasons. The activities of the vigilance committees all over the state, including the one in Livingston, had slowed significantly by the fifteenth. Moreover, Henry Foote claimed to have seen what happened to Vincent when he got back to Clinton the day after seeing the beating of Lee Smith. He may have been mistaken, but an entirely plausible and consistent timeline exists in which Foote saw a mob assault Lee Smith on the afternoon of July 7, arrived in Jackson that evening, accompanied William Sharkey to Clinton on the morning of July 8, and witnessed what became of Vincent in town that afternoon and early the next day. [citing] Clinton Gazette in Jackson Mississippian, July 24, 1835; Foote, Casket of Reminiscences, 256.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Lynching,Mississippi,Notable Participants,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1877: Pennsylvania’s Day of the Rope

Add comment June 21st, 2017 Headsman

This date in 1877 was Pennsylvania’s “Day of the Rope”, a Thursday blackened by the execution of ten Irish coal miners as labor radicals.*

These are supposed “Molly Maguires”, others of whom we have previously met in these pages.

Though the term is now best associated with these anthracite miners of eastern Pennsylvania, it enters the textual record earliest in Great Britain right around 1845 … which, no coincidence, was the dawn of Ireland’s Great Famine.

Where tenant farmers starved even as absentee landlords exported crops, militancy naturally ensued — intrinsically criminal and therefore secretive, inevitably characterized as terroristic by its foes. For this desperate movement the fictitious heroine “Molly Maguire” would be name and watchword, a mythic resistance character in the tradition of Captain Swing or Ned Ludd; legend — perhaps reality? — would hold that her earliest followers had desolated a lord’s land after he turned subsistence farmers off it in favor of cash crops by murdering new tenant after new tenant until nobody dared occupy the tract. Newspapers began to denounce her followers proportional to the publication’s proximity to London capital.

A sympathetic domestic description is provided by the Cork Examiner of July 9, 1845, which contends that Molly McGuireism is nothing but “the tenant creed.”

The spirit and letter of legislation are all for ramparting round the rights of property. The meaning of this plainly is — legislating for themselves, whilst the population of the country may perish. Hence, stone walls and bogs, and houses and fields, with all dead matter, are cared for and legislated upon by landlords, whilst the living and producing beings — the Christian inhabitants of the country, who are formed to make up the sum of its riches, naturally and artificially, are exterminated, expatriated, famished, or shot down like dogs. What is the necessary consequence of this infamous state of things? Circumspice. Look around you and behold the monument raised to the desolating idol. Its history and its effects are written in the hovelled mud, and the squalid wretches and the naked children, which form the social and rural beauties of the soil of Ireland.

Well, the people feel and say — they would be stupid and brutal if they did not — that legislation or legislators will do nothing for them. They are thus thrown upon their own resources and their own energies. By the midnight lamp they write their own fearful enactments. If the code of their specified rights be written in blood, it is awful, but it is not unnatural.

And in Pennsylvania’s coal fields, during the depression of the 1870s, this was much the condition of Irish immigrant miners — no few of whom had been driven there by the very famine that spawned the original Molly Maguires.

Since verifiable documentary evidence of Molly Maguireism as an organized movement is very scant it’s an open question for posterity to what extent we behold the traces of an international Irish Catholic labor militancy or the hysteria of the boss. In whichever dimensions, the ghost of Molly Maguire crossed the Atlantic and haunted the violent carbon-harvest business in Pennsylvania … a ghost that rattles its chains ever so faintly whenever your Monopoly piece takes a ride on the Reading.

Though it’s difficult to think it today, the Reading Railroad company was one of the world’s largest corporations in the 1870s. The firm’s captain of industry, Franklin Gowen, figures as the antagonist and perhaps the concoctor of the Mollies, whose appearance as a criminal offshoot of the fraternal Ancient Order of Hibernians he alleged as a calumny against the union he fought blood and nail.

In the course of an 1871 strike, Gowen complained that the union’s ability to achieve general compliance with the work stoppage could only be the result of a shadowy association of foreign agitators “which issues orders which no one dare disobey.”

There has never, since the middle ages, existed a tyranny like this on the face of God’s earth. There has never been, in the most despotic government in the world, such a tyranny, before which the poor laboring man has to crouch like a whipped spaniel before the lash, and dare not say that his soul is his own … I say there is an association which votes in secret, at night, that men’s lives shall be taken, and that they shall be shot before their wives, murdered in cold blood, for daring to work against the order. (Source)

Fired by his public-spirited humanitarianism, Gowen went to work against the despotism of refusing his wage by retaining the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Its agent, James McParland, would make his name** famous or infamous with his claim to have infiltrated secret Molly meetings orchestrating routine political assassinations (assassinations he notably failed to prevent). His (thrilling) allegations, supplemented by confessions of alleged Mollies who turned state’s evidence to save their own lives,† were decisive in noosing the Mollies as murderers. For this McParland would receive both laurels and death threats, and also inspire a character in the Sherlock Holmes adventures.


Cincinnati Commercial, June 22, 1877.

The hysteria Gowen, McParland et al orchestrated was so self-confirming in the moment that newsmen wrote as categorically about the Mollies as they would in our era about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, and their terroristic reputation would be freely wielded to bludgeon the miners’ union. But curiously these existential menaces, once prosecuted, vanished with nary a footprint from their former rollick … so was the whole network phenomenally thorough about its secrecy, or was there never any such Hibernian Black Sabbath at all? There’s never been a historical consensus save that their trials by political allies of Gowen were at the very least travesties of justice — if not outright frame-ups.

Three weeks after the Day of the Rope, deep wage cuts for railroad workers triggered the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 which soon gave the Reading Railroad company its second bloody association in as many months: the Reading Railroad Massacre.

* Six hanged in Pottsville, and four in Mauch Chunk (since renamed as Jim Thorpe). Andrew Lanahan also hanged for murder on the same day at Wilkes-Barre, giving Pennsylvania 11 executions overall for its day of the rope; Lanahan’s was not one of the Molly Maguire cases but owing to his own Irish heritage there was never-proven conjecture that his crime was “inspired” by Maguireism. Accordingly, one can find different sources claiming either 10 or 11 Mollies hanged on this occasion. After this date’s harvest, ten additional supposed Molly Maguires were hanged by Pennsylvania during the next 18 months.

** McParland is the subject of a recent biography, Pinkerton’s Great Detective.

† Pennsylvania deployed demonstrative ferocity here: a 15-year-old who gave an alibi for her uncle got slapped with a thirty-month perjury sentence for contradicting a Pinkerton detective.

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1797: Martin Clinch and Samuel Mackley

Add comment June 5th, 2017 Headsman

Say’s Weekly Journal, May 13, 1797:

On Sunday evening, between eight and nine o’clock, as Mr. Fryer, of Southampton Buildings, Holborn, was returning home, accompanied by a young Lady, in passing through the fields near White Conduit-house, he heard the screams of a woman in distress. He hastened to her assistance, and perceived her in the hands of three footpads, who, on seeing him approach, shot him through the head.

Some of the Bow-street patrols, who go that road, hearing the report of the pistol, made up to the place, where they found Mr. F. lying, not quite dead, but who expired in a few minutes afterwards; he appeared to have been robbed of his watch and money, and near the spot lay a stick with a sword in it.

The young Lady, who was in company with him, it is supposed, ran away on the villains first attacking him.

Three men were last night taken up on suspicion of the above murder.

General Evening Post, May 11-13, 1797:

Mr. Fryer, who was murdered on Sunday evening last, in Islington fields, was a young man of some property, and had been brought up to the law.

The young Lady, who accompanied him at the time, was his intended bride. They had been to spend the day at the house of a Mrs. P. in Paradise-row, Islington, and were returning home when the murder took place.

Mrs. P. had come a short distance from her own house with them, and after they had bid her good night, and had got about 100 yards from her, she was attacked by three villains, who robbed her of her cloak and money.

Her cries alarming Mr. F. he ran back to her assistance, which being perceived by the robbers, one of them advanced and shot him through the head, and then robbed him.

The young Lady was a distant spectator of this shocking scene.

London Evening Post, May 16-18, 1797:

Yesterday evening three men were examined at Bow-street, for the murder of Mr. Fryer, in Islington Fields, but, after a long investigation, they were discharged.

London Star, May 25, 1797:

Tuesday Martyn Clynch and James Mackley were committed to Newgate by John Floud and William Brodie, Esqs. charged with the oath of Ann Fryer and others, on suspicion of being the persons guilty of the wilful murder of Sydney Fryer on Sunday the 7th inst. in the fields near the Work-house, in the black road, Islington.

London Chronicle, June 1-3, 1797:

OLD BAILEY.

Yesterday, 14 prisoners were tried at the Old Bailey, two of whom were capitally convicted, viz. Samuel Mackley and Martin Clinch, for the wilful murder of Mr. Fryer in the parish of St. Mary, Islington.

It appeared by the evidence, that the deceased and his cousin, Miss Fryer, were walking across the fields in their way from Southampton Buildings, Holborn, towards Islington: that when they arrived at the field called the Cricket field, near White Conduit House, they heard a noise as of some person in distress; this induced the deceased to go to the spot.

At this time, Miss Fryer, the principal witness on this occasion, was at some distance from him. By the time she came to the stile, which he had crossed in his way to the place, she saw Clinch fire, when the deceased fell into a small pond. Clinch then took his watch out of his fob, and a sum of money out of his pocket.

By this time Miss Frye [sic] had got on the other side of the stile, when the prisoner, Mackley, held a pistol to her head, and took her cloak from her. They then went away, and Mr. Fryer was taken to a house at a short distance from the spot, where he died at eleven o’clock the same evening.

The evidence in support of the above statement, as given by Miss Fryer, was clear, artless, and unembarrassed. When asked if she really believed Clinch to be the man who shot Mr. Fryer, she said she believed from her soul he was; with respect to Mackley she seemed not quite so positive; several witnesses, however, proved his being seen in the same field within a few minutes of the time the murder happened, who all had noticed him on account of his having red hair.

The prisoners being called on for their defence, they only said they were innocent, but could give no account where they were at the time the murder was committed.

The jury went out for about half an hour, and returned with a verdict — Guilty. They were both ordered for execution on Monday next.

Five were convicted of felony, and seven acquitted.

Hereford Journal, June 7, 1797:

This morning were executed at the front of Newgate, Clinch and Mackley, for the robbery and murder of Mr. Frye, in Islington Fields.

An extremely disagreeable circumstance happened. The floor of the scaffold, from some previous misarrangement gave way, and precipitated into the area of the apparatus, Messrs. Vilette and Gaffy, the latter a Catholic Priest, who attended Clinch, and the two executioners. Mr. Sheriff Staines had a very narrow escape.

Mr. Gaffy was very severely hurt, as were both the executioners; Mr. Villette escaped with a slight bruise.

The two malefactors swung off with their distorted features exposed to the view of the distressed spectators. Their bodies were removed for the purposes of dissection and exposure.

Lloyd’s Evening Post, September 11-13, 1797:

Burton Wood and William Harlington, the two persons executed a few days ago on Kennington Common, for highway-robbery and sheep-stealing, made voluntary confessions of the various depredations in which they had been concerned.

Burton Wood positively declared, that Clinch and Mackley, who were hanged for the murder of Mr. Fryer, in Islington Fields, were totally innocent of that crime, it having been committed by himself and two others.

Harling made a similar confession respecting the murder of Mrs. Gray at Waltham-Abbey, for which two men, of the names of Harold and Upsham, were taken up; but who, he averred, had no connection in that shocking transaction. The robberies mentioned in their confessions were very numerous.

Whitehall Evening Post, September 12-14, 1797:

The following is a copy of a Letter sent from Burton Wood (who was hanged a short time since on Kennington Common, for a footpad robbery) to Mr. Carpenter Smith, in the Borough, from which it appears that he was the person concerned in the murder of Mr. Fryer, in Islington-fields, and that Clinch and Mackley, who were hanged for that murder, died innocent; also the copy of another letter which was sent from William Harling, a person that was hanged with Wood for sheep-stealing, to a friend of his, in which it appears is a confession of the robberies that he has been guilty of.

Honoured Sir,

I confess to robbing Mr. Francis, near Dulwich; I was mounted a grey horse. To stopping the Chatham coach the other side of Shooter’s-hill: I was dressed in a blue great-coat: I was mounted on a brown crop mare; it was between four and five in the afternoon; and to the robbing and murder of Mr. Fryer, in Islington-fields; the two men, Clinch and Mackley, was innocent of it; and to breaking open the house of Mr. Emery, brass-founder, in Shoe-lane, Fleet-street, and taking away Bank notes, cash, and other articles to the amount of 130 l.: and to robbing the waggon of Mr. Newport and Sons, of Crayford, in Kent, on Blackheath, last Easter Wednesday night, about ten o’clock — the man that was tried at Maidstone for it in the name of George Rhodes, was innocent of it; and I was the person that stopped and robbed the carriage on the night of Thursday the 25th of May last near Ball’s Pond turnpike; and to breaking open the house of Mr. Parkes, the brewer, in Baldwin’s Gardens, Gray’s-inn-lane, Holborn; I was the person that broke open the iron chest in Mr. Parke’s Counting-house; and to breaking open the house of Mr. Sewell, Seward-street, Goswell-street, St. Lukes, and taking away two Bank-notes, one of 5 l. and one of 10 l. and cash to the amount of 15 l. on Sunday night the 14th of last February; I as by myself; and to robbing a Mr. Robert Morris, belonging to the Custom-house, of his watch and fourteen shillings in Locks Field’s; and to the robbery that I now suffer for; and to robbing the Fishman near Sutton, when I robbed George May, of Banstead, in Surrey, of 2 l. 16 s. 6 d. for which I now suffer.

The Lord have mercy upon my sinful soul!

Honoured Sir, I hope the robberies that I have confessed I hope will be the means of many innocent men’s escaping to be brought to justice for the same, for I am the transgressor thereof. It would have been a good thing if I had suffered while Clinch and Mackley were under confinement in Newgate, for the robbery and murder of Mr. Fryer, in Islington-fields; for they died innocent. I confess to being one of the party, but they was not with me; I might have been the saving of their two lives had I have suffered sooner, but now it is too late; but I hope they are happy, I hope my soul will meet them in Heaven.

These are the confessions of your long-lost and unfortunate

Humble servant,
Burton Wood
August 21, 1797


Dear Charles,

The following names are them that I have robbed, and therefore I hope that nobody else may be brought to justice when I am dead and gone concerning them, for nobody but me did them, except Alderson, that suffered last Thursday at Maidstone, rob robbing Mr. Robinson, at Sydenham.

1st. Mr. Polton, of his horse.

2nd. Mr. Spinks, the bricklayer, of his horse.

3rd. And broke open the house of Mr. Mason.

4. Mr. John Hudson, the shopkeeper; Mr. Pinner, butcher, of nine sheep and two beasts; to taking the eleven sheep off Mitcham Common; Mr. Mills, of Mordon, of eleven fat weathers; breaking open the house of Mr. Marriot, of Mitcham; Newton and Leache’s callico-grounds twice; Mr. John Waggoner’s callico-grounds once; Mr. Groves, of his ten hogs; Mr. Blink, last Easter Monday; the Epsom Fisherman, Easter Tuesday; the two Gentlemen that had been to Ewill with their children to a boarding-school, near the turnpike, in a single-horse chaise: and Mr. Robinson, at Sydenham; a Gentleman in a single-horse chaise, on Mordon Common, going to Ewill.

I am sorry that Robert Harrold and Frederick Upham was taken up for the murder of Mrs. Gray, at Waltham Abbey, for they were innocent: I was one that was concerned in it, and these sheep that I now suffer for; therefore I wish to let you know, that they may not give themselves any more trouble to take any body else into custody, for it was only me and Alderson, for that robbery at Mr. Robinson’s at Sydenham, which robbery I was concerned with.

Give my remembrance to Mason, and ask him if he has hanged that great black dog of his, that laid upon the basket of clothes; if not, it is high time he had, for he was a very neglectful servant, for he lay as still as a mouse while I and my Pall drank a bottle of peppermint over his head. But now they have got what they longed for, and it is to be hoped they will sleep in peace when I am dead.

William Harling.

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1728: John Audouin, “happy is the Man whom God correcteth”

Add comment May 29th, 2017 Headsman

From The Last Speech and Dying Words of Mr. John Audouin, who was executed at Dublin, on Wednesday the 29th of May last 1728 for the Murder of his Maid Margaret Kief; at the place of Execution he delivered the following Paper to the Sheriffs. (Courtesy of the National Library of Scotland):


It is usual for Persons under my unfortunate Circumstance, to say some thing on these melancholy Occasions; or at least it is expected by most People, who come to be Witnesses of their tragical End; as I see so many are of mine this Day; but nevertheless I should be silent, to the Disappointment of this Multitude, were it not for the Glory of God, my own Justification, and a Warning to those I leave behind me, that I think it incumbent on me, to deliver these my last Words with a clear Conscience, and in the fulness of Truth; for this is a Time, that I should not Lie to the Almighty, nor call him to witness a Falshood.

What have I to fear, That I should now conceal the worst Actions of my by past Life? or what have I to hope for, that I should dissemble with the World, and deceave my self? No! God forbid that I should now provoke my Saviour, who’ I have often done it before, which has now brought the Weights of his Judgments upon me; but as all my Hopes, ends in his Mercy, according to his Promises to the Penitent I hope that this Day, there will be that heavenly Joy over my Soul, as over, a repenting Sinner, more than over Ninty and Nine just Persons, as he himself has testified.

The Sum of which I have to say and of what is expected to me, whether I am guilty or innocent of the Fact laid to my Charge, or not, and for which I am brought here to die. I now, as I always did, do declare solemnly in the Presence of God (before whom I shall soon be judged) and do testify it here under my Hand (which I desire may be published accordingly) and that I am entirely innocent thereof.

I sincerely forgive all my Prosecutors, Enemies and Slanderers, and all other whatsoever, and hope, that in christian Charity, these my last Words will meet with Credit, since I can propose no worldly Advantage by concluding my Life with asserting a Falshood, to the Dishonour of God, and Slander of my neighbour.

I shall conclude with the Words of Job, the 1st Chapter and 17th Verse [sic: it’s actually Job 5:17 -ed.], viz. Behold happy is the Man whom God correcteth; therefore dispise not thou the Chastning of the Almighty.

JOHN AUDOUIN

Edinburgh, Re-printed in the Year M. DCC. XXVIII.

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1954: Ernst Jennrich, for 17 June 1953

Add comment March 20th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1954, East Germany beheaded Ernst Jennrich for the previous June’s short-lived popular protests.

A Magdeburg gardener of socialist proclivities, Jennrich was nothing more than an enthusiast who got swept up in events when metalworkers at the Ernst-Thälmann factory struck for better pay and lower food prices — a protest that quickly metastasized into what looked to the Communist authorities like a treasonable movement calling for liberalization, a release of political prisoners, and reunification with West Germany.

The movement was crushed within a day by Russian tanks — although some Soviet soldiers notably (and sacrificially) refused to fire on protesting workers. But before events played out, Jennrich had disarmed a guard at the prison in nearby Sudenburg. He fired the guard’s carbine twice, then destroyed the weapon.

It’s not certain how many people lost their lives in the suppression of this affair — hostile western estimates ran into the thousands — but two policemen were killed at Sudenburg prison, and in a cruel show of official impunity Jennrich got tapped to answer for their deaths. He said he’d just fired the carbine into a wall or the air in order to empty it … but the state said he’d emptied it into those two luckless officers.

On scant evidence, Jennrich harshly received a life sentence that August. But even this did not suffice for officials racing to manifest their righteous indignation against the late subversion. “The protection of our peaceful state requires the death penalty for the crimes committed by the defendant,” huffed the prosecutor, and appealed the sentence to Germany’s high court … which accordingly upgraded the sentence to “the extermination of the defendant from our society, and therefore the death penalty.”

Jennrich was beheaded on the fallbeil at Dresden still protesting his innocence. A post-unification court finally vindicated that protest in 1991, posthumously rehabilitating Jennrich as having been condemned without evidence even by the terms of East Germany’s 1950s laws.

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1807: John Holloway and Owen Haggerty, sworn away

Add comment February 23rd, 2017 Meaghan

On this date in 1807, John Holloway, 39, and Owen Haggerty, 24, were hanged outside Debtors’ Door at Newgate Prison for the murder of John Cole Steele five years earlier. They died alongside murderer Elizabeth Godfrey, who had stabbed a man.

Steele was 35 at the time of death and was noted for his “amiable character.” He had a warehouse in London and a lavender plantation in the country at Feltham, and business was going well.

On Friday, November 5, 1802, he set out from his London townhouse to Feltham. He didn’t say exactly when he was coming home, but it was his wife’s birthday on Sunday and the family assumed he’d be back by then.

He didn’t arrive home by Saturday, and everyone figured he’d stayed overnight at his plantation. But when he missed his wife’s birthday party the next day, they got worried. On Monday they sent a messenger to investigate.

Steele, it turned out, had arrived in Feltham, and by 7:00 Saturday evening he was ready to return to his London house. He wasn’t able to procure a carriage, however, and decided to walk across Hounslow Heath, then a notorious haunt of bandits and highwaymen. It was not the sort of place a man with money — Steele was carrying about 26 shillings on him — should be at night.

He had paid for his want of caution with his life.

Searchers subsequently found Steele’s bloodstained coat on the heath, in a gravel pit ten or fifteen yards off the road. His corpse was under a clump of trees in a ditch 200 yards from the road. It had not been buried, but turf had been laid over it to conceal it. He’d been beaten and strangled to death, and the leather strap used to choke him was still tied tightly around his throat. His boots and hat were missing, his pockets had been cut away from his clothes and all his money was missing.

The coroner’s jury recorded a verdict of willful murder against some person or persons unknown. Forensics in the early 1800s basically didn’t exist, and with no witnesses to the crime, it seemed very unlikely that Steele’s murder would ever be solved. As Linda Stratmann records in Middlesex Murders,

Letters were sent to justices in Rutland and Leicester, urging that the most strenuous efforts should be made to apprehend [suspects], but they were never found. Steele’s family placed an advertisement in the newspaper offering a reward of £50 for information leading to the capture of the murderers. Several known criminals were arrested on suspicion, but after questioning they were released. Four years went by and all hope of finding the guilty persons was gone.

But then…

In 1806, 26-year-old thief Benjamin Hanfield was sentenced to seven years’ transportation. While awaiting transfer to a convict ship to take him to Australia, he mentioned Steele’s murder to some other prisoners and said three men were involved in the slaying.

Word got around to the authorities, and they took him to Portsmouth by coach for questioning. He implicated John Holloway and Owen Haggerty. It had been Holloway’s idea, he said; he’d somehow found out that a gentleman with money would be at Hounslow Heath on Saturday, November 6, and had recruited the other men to help him commit a robbery.

The three of them went to Hounslow Heath that Saturday, as according to plan, and waited for Steele. When Hanfield accosted their mark and demanded money, Steele was cooperative at first, handing over his cash. But when the robbers demanded his pocketbook as well, he claimed he didn’t have it and begged them not to hurt him. Holloway struck him with his stick, and as Steele began to struggle, Holloway said, “I will silence the bugger,” and beat him several times about his head and body.

They left him lying dead on the heath.

Hanfield ran away first, ahead of the others. He waited for nearly an hour at The Bell public house for them to catch up. After his accomplices arrived, they all went to an inn, the Black Horse. It was midnight and inn was closed for business, but its proprietor was still awake and the three men convinced him to serve them. They shared half a pint of gin there before parting ways.

Hanfield’s story had some evidence to support it. While he was being transported to Portsmouth for questioning, the coach passed the place where Steele had been killed and Hanfield pointed it out. After confession, he was taken back the heath and pointed out the clump of trees where Steele’s body had been located. This was enough to get Holloway and Haggerty arrested. Both men, when apprehended, said they were innocent.

By December 8, Haggerty and Holloway were brought together and Hanfield’s statement was read to them. The two men denied knowing each other, denied any knowledge of the murder, and denied having ever been on Hounslow Heath in their lives.

Hanfield’s story had another problem: he said Holloway knew well in advance that Steele would be on the heath that fatal Saturday. But, although Steele visited his Feltham plantation regularly, he didn’t have a fixed day of the week for doing it, and his own family wasn’t sure when he would be returning when he left London on Friday.

But in spite of the discrepancies, the flat denials from the alleged accomplices, and the lack of evidence supporting Hanfield’s statement, the authorities were sure they had the right men — tunnel vision that presents in many wrongful convictions. Hanfield was granted a free pardon for turning King’s Evidence against his co-defendants, and his previous sentence of transportation was commuted. At the trial, he was chief witness for the prosecution.

The defense argued that Hanfield was a liar and a professional criminal who had implicated innocent people for personal gain. But the defendants could not prove where they had been on a random autumn night five years earlier, and both had clearly lied about being strangers to each other.

Multiple witnesses testified that Haggerty and Holloway had known each other for many years. One of those witnesses was Officer Daniel Bishop, who worked at the jail. The two prisoners had been placed in separate cells side by side, and the partition between them was so thin that they could easily converse with each other. This had been a trick, and Bishop had been hiding in a nearby privy, writing down everything they said. From Haggerty and Holloway’s conversation it was obvious the men were good friends.

That much was true. But it was also true that when they thought they were alone together, neither of them implicated themselves in Steele’s slaying, and in fact they said Hanfield was a liar and that he, and not they, should be hanged.

As the Newgate Calendar said, “There was a great body of evidence adduced, none of which tended materially to incriminate the prisoners, except that of Hanfield, the accomplice, who, under the promise of pardon, had turned King’s evidence.”

The verdict, nevertheless, was guilty, after fifteen minutes’ deliberation. The sentence was death.

Holloway and Haggerty went to the scaffold invoking God and insisting they had not been involved in Steele’s murder. The execution was a memorable one; the Reaper got a bountiful harvest that day. Linda Stratmann describes the awful events in detail:

The crowds that assembled were unparalleled and estimated at about 40,000 people. By 8 a.m. there was not an inch of ground around the scaffold unoccupied. Even before the prisoners arrived the crush was so great that people trapped in the crowd were crying out to be allowed to escape …

At the corner of Green Arbour Lane, nearly opposite the Debtors’ Door, two piemen were selling their wares when one man’s basket was knocked over. He was bending down to pick up his wares when surging crowds tripped and fell over him. There was an immediate panic, in which people fought with each other to escape the crush. It was the weakest and the smallest in the crowd who suffered. Seven people died from suffocation alone, and others were trampled upon, their bodies mangled. A broker named John Etherington was there with twelve-year-old son. The boy was killed in the crush, and the man was at first thought to be dead and placed amongst the corpses, but he survived with serious injuries. A woman with an infant at her breast saved her baby by passing it to a man and begging him to save its life. Moments later she was knocked down and killed. The baby was thrown from person to person over the heads of the crowd and was eventually brought to safety …

Gradually the mobs dispersed and the bodies, thirty in all, were taken up in carts, twenty-seven to Bartholomew’s Hospital, two to St. Sepulchre’s Church and one to The Swan public house. Numerous others were injured, including fifteen men and two women who were so badly bruised that they were taken to the hospital, one of whom died the following day.

As it turned out, the landlord of The Bell didn’t remember any strangers coming to the pub on the night of the murder, and the landlord of the Black Horse didn’t remember three men coming at midnight and asking for gin. There were no details of the murder in Hanfield’s confession that he couldn’t have learned from common gossip. Furthermore, he had a history of making false confessions. A lawyer, James Harmer, actually compiled a pamphlet (Google Play | Google Books) of evidence that supported Haggerty and Holloway’s innocence.

But none of this exculpatory evidence surfaced until after the executions.

In yet another twist, in 1820, John Ward, alias Simon Winter, was indicted for John Cole Steele’s murder. Ward had a bad reputation in the area and was suspected of robbery and livestock theft. It was said he participated in the search for Steele, and one witness said he had seemed to be trying to lead the search party in the opposite direction from where the corpse was found.

The paper-thin murder case against Ward was dismissed for lack of evidence, and rightly so. But by indicting him in the first place, the authorities had as much as said Haggerty and Holloway had been wrongfully convicted.

“The fate of Holloway and Haggerty,” Stratmann notes in her book, “was often referred to in subsequent trials as an example of how little weight could be given to accomplices to a crime. The tragedy which had attended their execution also gave rise to considerable anxiety for many years.”

Hanfield disappeared without a trace after the murder trial; it’s unknown whether he continued his criminal ways.

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Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!


Recent Comments

  • Kevin M. Sullivan: I wanted a paper copy for my library, so I didn’t get mine immediately lol! And yes,...
  • RD: I just devoured the kindle edition til the wee hours. This work is about as close an explanation of Bundy and...
  • Johan Louis de Jong: The Qajar dynasty , the ancestors of Prime Minister Mossadeq, have been accused of ethnic...
  • lisa anderson: My great grandfather, William Hurley testified at Samuel McCue’s trial. He a Liveryman and...
  • Kevin M. Sullivan: Hi RD, First, thanks for the good words about my Bundy books. I always put my heart and soul into...