Posts filed under 'Wrongful Executions'

1630: Guglielmo Piazza and Giangiacomo Mora, colonna d’infamia

Add comment August 1st, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1630, a ludicrous disease panic sent two innocent men to the scaffold in Milan.

Terrified as their family and neighbors dropped dead around them of a raging bubonic plague outbreak, the surviving Milanese sprouted buboes on their brains.


1630 illustration of the plague-wracked Milanese doing the bring-out-your-dead thing.

Just days before the executions marked in this post, a city official named Guglielmo Piazza was noticed by some busybodies “strolling down the street writing from an ink-horn at his belt and wiping his ink-stained fingers on the walls of a house.” They promptly reported him not for misdemeanor property damage but for spreading plague poison, whatever that would be.

Investigators to their shame gave this accusation enough credence to interrogate Piazza under torture, a decision which obviously was tantamount to the execution itself. He broke he sealed his own fate when he broke and confessed, and sealed same for a misfortunate barber named Giangiacomo Mora whom Piazza was made to accuse.

Milan was proud enough of this obvious injustice to stand up an colonna d’infamia (“column of infamy”) denouncing both “poisoners” until a storm finally knocked the lying marble down in 1788. It read,

Here, where this plot of ground extends, formerly stood the shop of the barber Giangiacomo Mora, who had conspired with Guglielmo Piazza, Commissary of the Public Health, and with others, while a frightful plague exercised its ravages, by means of deadly ointments spread on all sides, to hurl many citizens to a cruel death. For this, the Senate, having declared them both to be enemies of their country, decreed that, placed on an elevated car, their flesh should be torn with red-hot pincers, their right hands be cut off, and their bones be broken; that they should be extended on the wheel, and at the end of six hours be put to death, and burnt. Then, and that there might remain no trace of these guilty men, their possessions should be sold at public sale, their ashes thrown into the river, and to perpetuate the memory of their deed the Senate wills that the house in which the crime was projected shall be razed to the ground, shall never be rebuilt, and that in its place a column shall be erected which shall be called Infamous. Keep afar off, then, afar off, good citizens, lest this accursed ground should pollute you with its infamy.

August, 1630.

Prior to the column’s overturning, the Milanese Enlightenment intellectual Pietro Verri wrote a meditation upon it titled Sulla tortura e singolarmente sugli effetti che produsse all’occasione delle unzioni malefiche, alle quale si attribui la pestilenza che devasto Milano l’anno 1630. Italian speakers can enjoy it here.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Innocent Bystanders,Italy,Milan,Murder,Public Executions,Terrorists,Torture,Wrongful Executions

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1567: Captain William Blackadder, Darnley patsy

Add comment June 24th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1567, the Scottish soldier Captain William Blackadder (or “Blacketer”) died a scapegoat at Edinburgh.

Being dragged on a hurdle to Mercat Cross where he was hanged and quartered, and his remains nailed up in Scotland’s principal cities, was undoubtedly the worst thing that ever happened to Captain Blackadder but posterity finds his severed tendons and ruined viscera only a lesser subplot in the psychodrama of that august future Executed Today fixture Mary, Queen of Scots.

Mary’s famously terrible marriage to the monstrous Lord Darnley produced the eventual King James VI and I, at the cost of utterly ruining Mary’s reign. Please reference the great many more learned and erudite sources that will dwell on the innumerable faults of this grasping English lord who immediately upon achieving wedlock began maneuvering against his wife for power in Scotland. He’s notorious as a drunk, a lech, a murderer, and in general an obnoxious and arrogant shit.

Until, 18 months and change into the marriage, a huge explosion rocked Kirk o’ Field, Edinburgh … and when the debris cleared, there lay the bodies of the obnoxious consort and his servant. Strangely they were dead in a nearby orchard, suspiciously unsinged by the Gunpowder Plot-like pyrotechnics.


Drawing of the crime scene made for the English Secretary of State William Cecil

The particulars of Darnley’s murder have puzzled posterity for the ensuing 450 years, precipitating as it did Mary’s own fall from her throne — a moment manifested by Mary’s humiliating surrender when her dwindling and dispirited supporters melted away instead of fighting at the “Battle” of Carberry Hill. Mary had the humiliation in that June of 1567 of being led through Edinburgh by rebel lords to imprisonment, under the jeers of a hostile crowd.

But since these rebels were rising against Mary’s post-Darnley fling, putatively in the name of Mary herself, they also proceeded to conduct a disingenuous search for Darnley’s assassins in these days, landing on this luckless son of a declining house who had presented himself under Mary’s colors at Carberry Hill. Nobody since and probably nobody then really thought he had “art and part” in Darnley’s death; nevertheless, the diarist Birrel noted, “the 24 day of Junij Captane Villiam Blacketer was drawn backward, in ane cairte, from ie Tolbuith to the Crosse, and ther wes hangit and quartred, for being on the King’s Murther.”

We could not in good conscience miss the opportunity afforded by this distinctive name to cite topical-to-us content from the BBC sitcom Blackadder.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Murder,Nobility,Public Executions,Scotland,Soldiers,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1884: Seven anarchists of La Mano Negra

Add comment June 14th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1884, seven alleged terrorists of the Black Hand* were garroted in Jerez (Xeres), Spain.

This frightening organization was announced to the public via Spanish police discovery of documents purporting to outline their murderous perfidy and conveniently justifying a crackdown on restive Andalusia, then plagued (so the crown saw it) with a burgeoning labor movement.

Whether La Mano Negra (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) truly existed as an organization has been subject to debate from that day to this, but anarchist worker militants had undoubtedly moved in 1881-82 towards overtly violent confrontation with landowners — bread riots during an agricultural crisis paired with robbery and arson. It was by no means merely adventurism. A Madrid newspaper reporting the sack of a bakery saw for the starving looters only three options: “O la limosna, o el robo, o la muerte” … alms, theft, or death.

Three thousand or more of protesting workers would be arrested in those months, and bound over to be used at the discretion of torturers; in the main, they affiliated to the labor union FTRE rather than anything so exotic as a Black Hand. But several murders that took place during or at least proximate to the Andalusian labor disturbances would be attributed to that sinister appendage and bring seven men controversially to execution in Jerez’s market squae on June 14, 1884.

As for others made to prefer alms or theft, hundreds were burdened with judicial penalties of various sorts and deported to Spanish colonies. A successful clemency campaign in the early 1900s reversed a number of those sentences, finally permitting these anarchists or “anarchists” to return to Spanish soil.

* This fell moniker refers to a number of distinct movements with a violent cast of mind sufficient to expose them to the predations of this very blog — notably, the Serbian terrorists who assassinated Archduke Ferdinand

The successors of the Jerez Black Hand that is the subject of this post also paid their own subsequent notable visit to the scaffold in the 1890s.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Garrote,History,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Murder,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Spain,Strangled,Terrorists,Torture,Wrongful Executions

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1952: Jan Bula, Czechoslovakian priest

Add comment May 20th, 2019 Headsman

Catholic priest Jan Bula was hanged on this date in 1952 at Jihlava

A Rokytnice pastor, Bula (English Wikipedia entry | the more detailed Czech and German) put himself in the gunsights of the postwar Communist state by defying its strictures on proselytization and commenting publicly against them.

Although perhaps a gadfly from the state’s perspective he was by no means a dissident consequential enough to have merited his eventual treatment; however, he was cruelly rolled into a notorious 1951 show trial called the Babice Case. Occasioned by a fatal raid launched by anti-Communist terrorists, the Babice trials targeted a huge number of ideological enemies and eventually resulted in 107 convictions and 11 death sentences.* Bula was among them, speciously condemned a traitor for complicity in the attack — a move that also opportunistically accelerated a case that state agents had for some time been attempting with little success to construct by means of entrapment.

“We human beings do not love God enough,” he wrote in a letter to his parents before his hanging. “That is the only thing for which we must ask forgiveness.”

The Catholic Church is currently considering this modern martyr for beatification.

* After the Cold War these sentences were retrospectively overturned or reduced, and a judge in the Babice case, Pavel Vitek, was prosecuted for his role in it.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Czechoslovakia,Death Penalty,Execution,God,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Power,Religious Figures,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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1766: Edmund Sheehy, James Buxton, and Buck Farrell, Whiteboys

Add comment May 3rd, 2019 Headsman

This account from the London Chronicle, June 5, 1766 refers to the disappearance and alleged murder of the informer John Bridge. We’ve visited this case previously, in the form of Father Nicholas Sheehy, who had also been drawn and quartered a few months previous for the Bridge affair; collectively, these cases are pretext for state reprisal against the Irish Whiteboys movement, which opposed large landholders’ moves to consolidate estates, expel tenants, and let people starve while the land that once fed them was shifted towards commercial agriculture.


The Trials of Mr. Edmund Sheehy, Mr. James Buxton, and Mr. John Farrell, at Clonmel Assizes in Ireland, for the Murder of John Bridge, on the Night of the 18th of October, 1764

Mr. Edmund Sheehy being put to the bar, the lawyers for the crown first called upon John Toohy, who declared, that the prisoner was within two or three yards of John Bridge, when he received the fatal blow from John Mechan.

Mary Brady swore that she came up immediately after the murder, and that the prisoner was present, together with the Rev. Mr. Sheehy, and Edmund Mechan, and that the latter held in his hand a bill hook all bloody, and that the Priest commended the action.

Mr. James Herbert, Farmer, declared, that on Sunday Oct. 28, 1764, he was called upon by Roger Sheehy, then on horseback, behind whom he rode to a meeting of twenty or thirty persons, on the lands of Shanbally, near Clogheen, where they were sworn by Father Sheehy to murder John Bridge, John Bagwell, Esq; William Bagnell, Esq; the Rev. Dr. Hewetson, and every other person who should oppose them; that they would be faithful to the French King, and conquer Ireland.

After having thus sworn, they came to the house of one English, on the lands of Shanbatly, where Bridge was; they took him to a field, where was another party of about a hundred and thirty; here they accused him of giving information against the White Boys, and insisted that he should by oath contradict whatever he had given information of, which he refused to do; hereupon one Byrne made a stroke at him with a turf-slane, which he kept off with his arm; then Edmond Meehan took a bill hook from under his coat, with which he struck Bridge on the back part of his head, which so cleft his scull, that he instantly expired; that the Priest was then within the distance of two yards, with a hook in his hands. After this (being first sworn not to divulge what had been done) they put the body in a blanket, which they conveyed to a ploughed field, where they buried it; but in about eight days after, lest the plough should turn up the body, it was taken up and carried to a church-yard about two miles off.

John Lenorgan swore, that being sent by his uncle, Guynan, to the house of English, where the Bridge had been, between ten and twelve at night, he heard the noise of a number of people; that not caring to be seen, he concealed himself in a ditch, where he was discovered by Thomas McGrath, who put him on horseback behind the Priest, with whom he rode some time, and on the way discovered the body of a dead man, wrapt up in a blanket, before a person on horseback, and through a hole in the blanket, saw the head bloody, and that there was a number of persons attending it, both on foot and horseback, of whom he knew Father Sheehy, Edmond Meehan, Buck Sheehy, Thomas McGrath, Bartholomew Kenneley, and John Toohy; and that when they came to the turn of the road, the Priest let him down, directing him the shortest way home, and gave him three half crowns, charging him not to mention to any one what he had seen; and that he understood the dead body was that of John Bridge.

Here was closed the evidence for the crown. James Prendergast, Esq, attempted to prove an alibi, by swearing that, on the 28th of October, 1764, he and the prisoner, with their wives, dined at the house of Mr. Joseph Tennison, near Ardfinan, in the county of Tipperary; where they continued until after supper, and that it was about eleven o’clock when he and the prisoner left the house of Mr. Tennison, and rode a considerable way together on their return to their respective homes, and that the prisoner had his wife behind him; that when they parted, he (Mr. Prendergast) rode directly home, where, on his arrival, he looked at the clock, and found it to be the hour of twelve exactly, and as to the day he was positive, the 29th being the fair day of Clogheen; that he had desired the prisoner to sell some bullocks for him at the fair, not being able to give his attendance; and that Paul Webber, of Cork, Butcher, was in treaty for the said bullocks with the prisoner, on the 29th.

Mr. Tennison declared he remembered the prisoner and Mr. Prendergast dining with him some time in the month of October, 1764, but was inclined to believe it was earlier in the month than the 28th, for that on the 29th he dined with the Corporation of Clonmell; that on the Wednesday following he dined with the prisoner and Mr. Prendergast, at the prisoner’s house, and that day he invited the prisoner and his wife, with Mr. Prendergast and his wife, to dine with him the Sunday following, and was positive that company did not dine with him on any other day in October.

Paul Webber, of Cork, Butcher, swore, that he was at the fair of Clogheen on the 29th of October, 1764, where he saw the prisoner, but was not in treaty with him for any bullocks belonging to Mr. Prendergast, but the prisoner told him, that Mr. Prendergast had some bullocks on his hands to dispose of, on which he sent a person to Mr. Prendergast’s house, who bought them for him.

Thomas Mason, Shepherd to the prisoner, swore to the night and hour of the prisoner’s return abovementioned, and that he took him from his master his horse, and turned him out to the field. The following persons were also produced to discredit the testimony of John Toohy: viz. Bartholomew Griffith, Surgeon, Daniel Griffith, and John Day, servants to Brooke Brasier, Esq.

The purport of the evidence given by Bartholomew Griffith was to confront Toohy, who, being asked by the prisoner, who gave him the new cloaths he then had on, answered they were given him by his uncle Bartholomew Griffith, who being examined, denied it. Daniel Griffith declared, that Toohy was, on the 28th and 29th of October, 1764, at his house at Cullen.

John Day swore, that Toohy lived for six weeks with his master Brooke Brasier, Esq, when he behaved very ill, and was a person of bad characer; but Mr. Brasier declared he did not know the said Toohy, but that a person was in his family, for that time, of a very bad character, but that he did not know him.

The evidence of James Herbert, for the Crown, was not attempted to be invalidated. Mr. Herbert came to the Assizes, in order to give evidence in favour of Father Sheehy; the Grand Jury, who before had found bills of high treason against him, sent for Toohy, who said he knew him very well, and would assist to take him; upon this William Bagnell, Esq, attended Toohy, with some of the light-horse, went and took him; when being told on what occasion he was secured, he said he would discover the rise and meeting of the White Boys, and their intentions; and acknowledged himself guilty of what he was accused.

Mr. James Buxton, commonly called Capt. Buxton, on account of the power he had over the people he commanded, was the next person put to the bar to be tried. The testimony, which has been already related, was in every particular supported by the additional evidence of Mr. Thomas Bier, who was an accomplice, and acknowledged being present when they all swore allegiance to the French King, and to murder John Bridge, &c. and that too in consequence of a letter he received from Father Sheehy. Mr. Bier declared, that, at the time Bridge was murdered, the Priest was within two or three yards of the unfortunate man, holding the book, on which he a little before pressed and exhorted him to swear for the purpose, as has been mentioned.

Mr. James Farrell, commonly called Buck Farrell, a young man of a genteel appearance, was the last convicted, and on the joint evidence of the prosecutors.

Tuesday, the 15th of April, they received sentence to be executed the 3d of May, at Clogheen.

The general characters of the prisoners, until this unfortunate affair, were very respectable. Their influence must have been considerable, otherwise they could not have brought after them, and inlisted, the number of people they did, who were subject to martial law, by which they were tried on misbehaviour. It was in resentment of a whipping, which was inflicted on John Bridge with remarkable severity, to which he was sentenced by one of the Court-martials, that he was led to give evidence against them, by which he lost his life.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Ireland,Martyrs,Murder,Power,Public Executions,Terrorists,Wrongful Executions

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1919: The Pinsk Massacre

Add comment April 5th, 2019 Headsman

A century ago today, a Polish army major had 35 Jews executed in Pinsk.

After the devastation of World War I, Poland and now-Soviet Russia fell into war in early 1919 over the oft-trod lands between them.

In late March of that year — still the opening weeks of the conflict — the Polish 34th Infantry Regiment commanded by Major Aleksander Narbut-Luczynski captured the town of Pinsk which today lies just on the Belarus side of the Belarus-Ukraine border. This town had seen occupying armies cross it to and fro during the recent bloody years: Germany captured it from Russia in 1915; the Soviets recaptured it shortly after World War I; now, the Poles expelled the Red Army.

They weren’t exactly greeted as liberators. Town and occupiers alike were on edge when Major Narbut-Luczynski caught word of about 75 Jews holding a meeting. Believing them to be Bolshevik agitators, he had the lot arrested and — according to a subsequent report on events by former U.S. ambassador Henry Morgenthau, Sr.

conducted to the market place and lined up against the wall of the cathedral. With no lights except the lamps of a military automobile, the six women in the crowd and about twenty-five men were separated from the mass, and the remainder, thirty-five in number, were shot with scant deliberation and no trial whatever. Early the next morning three wounded victims were shot in cold blood as soon as life revealed itself in them.

The women and other reprieved prisoners were confined in the city jail until the following Thursday. The women were stripped and beaten by the prison guards so severely that several of them were bedridden for weeks after, and the men were subjected to similar maltreatment.

Morgenthau’s and history’s verdict on the Pinsk Massacre was that the town’s Jews were meeting legally to discuss distribution of relief packages received from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. “Incredibly brutal,” Morgenthau wrote of Major Narbut-Luczynski in his memoirs. “And even more incredibly stupid.”

The still-extant kibbutz Gvat in northern Israel was founded by settlers from Pinsk — and dedicated to the victims of this massacre.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Belarus,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Jews,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Poland,Shot,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1940: The Sass Brothers, Weimar burglars

Add comment March 27th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1940, the Sass Brothers — notorious scofflaw thieves from the Weimar Germany era — were extrajudicially executed by the Nazis at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

Pioneers of the then-novel art of blowtorching their way into bank safes, die Brüder Sass — Erich and Franz — became public celebrities after their arrest in 1929, especially when the state failed to stick the case against them and the lads remained as free men, publicly flaunting their stolen wealth.

The position of being well-known unpunished crooks became a good deal less comfortable after the 1933 rise of the Nazis, so the Sasses (wisely) moved to Denmark and (less wisely) did some crimes there, too. They copped a short Danish sentence, and after its expiration in 1938 the Danes transferred Erich and Franz Sass back the Third Reich. But even the severity of 13- and 11-year sentences for bank robbery back home, according to Nikolaus Wachsmann,

did not satisfy Heinrich Himmler, who ordered the brothers’ execution. On 27 March 1940, Erich and Franz Sass were taken from penal institutions to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Here, they were murdered by SS men under the command of Rudolf Hoess, who recalled the execution after the war: ‘They [the brothers] refused resolutely to stand against the post, and I had to let them be tied up. They resisted with all their strength. I was extremely relieved when I was able to give the order to shoot.’ Their murder was promptly reported in the Nazi press. This case demonstrates clearly the difference between punishment in the Weimar and the Nazi period. In the Weimar Republic, the two brothers had walked free because there was not sufficient evidence to convict them. In Nazi Germany, they were murdered, irrespective of legal regulations.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Concentration Camps,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,No Formal Charge,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Shot,Theft,Wrongful Executions

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1855: Manuel da Mota Coquiero, the Beast of Macabu

Add comment March 6th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1855 a wealthy farmer named Manuel da Mota Coqueiro — “the Beast of Macabu” in the popular nomenclature — was hanged for orchestrating the slaughter of a tenant farmer and his entire family.

Mota Coqueiro — that’s a Portuguese link, as are almost all sources about this gentleman — ticked the “motive” box thanks to his running conflict with the victim, Francisco Benedito da Silva. Mota Coqueiro had had an affair with Benedito’s daughter Francisca and the two men quarreled thereafter over compensation for Francisca’s resulting pregnancy — quarrels that broadened over the course of 1852 into the more conventional vectors of landlord-tenant conflict. In a relationship there’s having hand, and then there’s being able to evict your significant other’s entire family.

On a literal dark and stormy night that September, a machete-wielding gang of Black men invaded Francisco’s home, beating and slashing to death the man, his wife, and six children ranging in age from three years to teenagers. The only survivor, fleeing into the woods as the murderers made a pyre of their house, was Mota Coquiero’s former lover Francisca. Naturally the volatile landlord with the grudge against the victim was an immediate suspect, and he compounded the suspicion by fleeing in disguise as the investigation unfolded. In a climate of mounting public outrage, Mota Coquiero quickly became fixed in the eyes of police and public alike as the man who had surely ordered his slaves to commit the crime; a slave and two free Black servants in his household would likewise be executed for the crime. However, the evidence ultimately comprised a tissue of self-confirming inference and hearsay with no direct indicia of Mota Coqueiro’s guilt.

Today, he’s commonly remembered as the victim of a miscarriage of justice,* although there’s a dissatisfying want of firm evidence to implicate anyone in particular in his place. The 1877 historical novel Mota Coqueiro, au A Pena de Morte even resorted to inventing an ahistorical character to carry the blame.

The man himself denied guilt all the way to the end. There’s a rumor that he laid a 100-year curse on the city of Macae that lagged economic development … until the discovery of oil there broke the spell in the 1950s, a century later.

* Mota Coquiero is also widely associated in the popular imagination with the end of capital punishment in Brazil. However, he was not nearly the last executed in Brazil nor even the last free man executed in Brazil. What is certain is that Emperor Pedro II who failed to spare Mota Coquiero would gradually turn against the death penalty over the years to come — although any causation by this particular case remains purely speculative.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Brazil,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1952: Alfred Moore

Add comment February 6th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1952, poultry farmer and burglar Alfred Moore hanged at Leeds (Armley) Prison for shooting two Huddersfield policemen dead. Many believe he was wrongly convicted.

Suspected (accurately) of robbing several rural domiciles around Kirkheaton in West Yorkshire, Moore’s farmhouse had been staked out late one night in 1951 by ten plainclothes cops hoping to catch the guy coming or going.

Near midnight, two of their number challenged someone approaching. Was this the master criminal?

Several shots rang out in the gloom, and the midnight rambler fled into the night. By the time their comrades reached them, Duncan Fraser lay dead while Gordon Jagger was mortally wounded.

The latter man would live on several more hours, enough to provide a deathbed identification of Moore as the shooter. That was damning enough to hang Moore at the time.

But years later, Moore’s claims of innocence in the shootings have returned to headlines: we’re far more conscious now of the unreliability of eyewitness identifications — of a stranger seen in the dark — made amid medical duress. And there was never any other evidence implicating Moore save the circumstantial inference following from the fact that it was Moore’s house that was being surveilled. But no ballistics evidence, no blood (the shooting occurred at near point blank range), and no other witness. Investigators even have the name of an alternate suspect. (It’s Clifford Mead, who committed several armed robberies in the area, was known to receive Moore’s stolen goods, and allegedly boasted of shooting two policemen.)

These innocence claims, latterly supported by some Yorkshire police officers, have been welcome news to Moore’s descendants; however, as of this writing, the official reviews of the Criminal Cases Review Commission which could potentially queue Moore up for formal posthumous exoneration have failed to persuade authorities.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Ripped from the Headlines,Wrongful Executions

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1909: Martha Rendell

Add comment October 6th, 2018 Headsman

For the last time ever, Western Australia executed a woman on this date in 1909. Her name was Martha Rendell, and she had allegedly murdered up to three of her partner’s five* children.

Although they never got the legal document, we might as well call Rendell and Thomas Nicholls Morris man and wife: the two moved in after Morris’s previous marriage failed, presented themselves as one another’s spouses, and had the four kids call Rendell “mom”. They lived together in a downscale district in east Perth, steps away from an open drain fed by industrial runoff.

And if what they charged her with is true — for Rendell would always deny it and her denials have had found traction with some from her time to ours — then nasty stepmothers of fairy tales might have sued Martha Rendell for defamation of character. Indeed, her step-motherliness clearly weighed against her in the public mind.

In 1907, four of the children took ill with diphtheria. After a relapse, seven-year-old Annie died; the death certificate would put it down to “epilepsy and cardiac weakness” (both diphtheria symptoms). Her little sister Olive, still weakened by her bout with diphtheria, contracted typhoid and bled and vomited to death in August of that same year. The doctors who treated these girls didn’t suspect anything untoward but the following year when yet a third of the children (Arthur, 14) also died of apparent typhoid. Doctors on this occasion conducted an autopsy, curious to find evidence of poisoning — an autopsy that Rendell attended and ordered halted partway through, an action that would play very culpably at her eventual trial.**

Said trial was not to be triggered until the following spring, when another son, George, fled the house to the protection of his natural mother, and told a nightmare tale of the mean stepmother painting the children’s throats with hydrochloric acid and serving them suspicious bitter tea that sent them to their sickbeds.

“In hindsight George’s story seems highly implausible, the feverish imagining of a vengeful mother and stepson newly reunited,” argues a Rendell defender who situates the Morris household’s catastrophe amid a wider social panic over the corruption of Perth’s feminine mores, embracing everything from prostitution to baby farming.

The horrific caustic action of hydrochloric acid was not the sort of stealthy killer chosen by poisoners nor did it fit with the gradual wasting noted by the children’s doctor. And how could the woman have forced a youth of fifteen to submit to such cruelty? If Rendell had used diluted solutions of the acid (and it came to light after the trial that this was a home remedy used as a mild antiseptic and sometimes applied to the throat to treat diphtheria) then how had this uneducated woman calibrated the children’s dosages to create symptoms to fool Perth’s most respected doctors?

The strength of feeling bordering on mass hysteria that lay at the heart of public frenzy about this woman was exhibited in the shrill crowds of Perth women demanding her hanging and worse. Some women even invaded the Morris cottage when it was opened up to auction the contents and souvenired every household item, even the auctioneer’s hat so that only ten pounds were raised for the couple’s legal defence.

Little concrete evidence was ever produced against her — was it thanks to that aborted autopsy? — but neighbors grown prejudiced against the scarlet villainess would color remembrances of her conduct in testimony that also told on themselves as peeping toms: this time a failure to nurture and that time a glow of outright pleasure at a crying child.

Much subtext surfaced in text. The arresting officer noted her “delighted in seeing her victims writhe in agony, and from it derived sexual satisfaction.” One appalling newspaper editorial reviled her as “a type that is seldom encountered in English speaking races … she represents a reversion to the primitive stage of humanity when destructive proclivities are uppermost. Like aboriginals, the Martha Rendells of this world must kill.” It was scarcely a novel formula for anathematizing the female criminal.

It was only Arthur for whom she was formally condemned but after the five-day trial she was popularly understood as responsible for all three of her dead stepchildren. But not all the public, for a vigorous albeit unsuccessful clemency campaign specifically citing doubts about the case’s evidence grew around her during her few short weeks awaiting the gallows. Those doubts have never since been categorically dispelled.

Legend holds that Martha Rendell still haunts Fremantle Prison where she hanged, in the form of a ghostly apparition of her face peering out from a stained-glass window.

* There were five children still in the house. Thomas Morris also had four older children, making nine total.

** Martha Rendell had also fallen ill during the course of treating her children. This of course was read by prosecutors as a feint to deflect suspicion.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Australia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,The Supernatural,Women,Wrongful Executions

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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!