On this date in 1854, an Albany, N.Y. man named John Hendrickson hanged for the murder by aconite poisoning of his wife, Maria. “He has suffered the highest penalty of the law,” New York’s Weekly Herald pronounced the next day — “but whether justly or not, will likely never be known on earth.”
Whatever the prisoner’s denials,* a web of suspicious circumstances clasped the hemp around his throat. Hendrickson, whose family had some money and connections, fought the conviction tooth and nail; his then-unusual three appeals, plus clemency petition to the governor, stretched the time from conviction to execution out to nearly a year. “The evidence adduced … was so entirely circumstantial, and the testimony of the scientific men so liable to doubt and contradiction, that it was generally feared the murderer would escape,” a Boston Post correspondent reported.** But not to worry: “the atmosphere of guilt seemed to surround him in the whole county; not a man could be found that, at heart, believed him innocent.” We’re scarcely prepared at this distance to assert an affirmative case for the man’s innocence, but in some ways it reads like an antebellum Cameron Willingham case, all the way down to the dubious forensic evidence.
Like Willingham, Hendrickson was a less than stellar husband. He was noted for abusing his wife, philandering, and doing both together when he “communicated to her a loathsome veneral disease.”
The supposed murder motivation was his wife’s recent inheritance of the estate of her father, who died just a few months before the murder. Little could really be proven save by inference from the man’s bad character; in classic tunnel-vision fashion, the record suggests nearly every data point became fixed according to this theory. For example, Hendrickson’s trial prosecutors read into evidence — in the part of their presentation they called the “Moral Evidence” — that Hendrickson remarked at his wife’s autopsy that “they won’t find arsenic.” You and I might think he’s saying that the examination will dispel the gathering suspicions of poisoning, and saying it by reference to the chemical that was the metonym for poisoning in the nineteenth century. For the state, his uttering these words was
as if he knew (as he undoubtedly did) the precise poison which she had swallowed — as if he knew that that common poison, which is found in most cases of the kind, had not been given by the murderer in this case, and hence they won’t find arsenic. Ah! gentlemen, it was nature speaking out, as she often unconsciously or unguardedly will, disclosing the otherwise well concealed and apparently undiscoverable crime.
The district attorney introduced evidence courtesy of chemists named Salisbury and Swinburne, to the effect that it was no mean arsenic that carried away Maria Hendrickson but the more exotic potion of aconite — derived from a toxic herb seeded (per Ovid) by Cerberus himself.
One can peruse the evidence presented in the case here, but the most remarkable part of this trial record is the appendix — wherein numerous medical men, including a former teacher of Dr. Salisbury, skewer the forensic processes used to decide that Maria Hendrickson died by poison and even offer to reproduce them in person under the eyes of Gov. Horatio Seymour to prove their unreliability. Their findings harshly undercut the only concrete evidence that any murder took place at all.
“I am pained and oppressed with the conviction that the medical witnesses for the prosecution have, in a main point of this case, abused the confidence with which criminal courts so often compliment the man of science,” one writes — words that could still today be applied to many disciplines of junk science that have disappeared bodies into oubliettes on the strength of lie detectors, bite mark analysis, matching hair samples, and suchlike hocus-pocus.
We turn from the contemplation of this subject with feelings of sorrow, not that any of ours have been crushed under the wheels of mutilated justice, set in motion by ignorance and false science, but we feel now, as we have always felt, that a great personal wrong has been committed under the authority of law, for which there can be no atonement, as the dead cannot be brought to life, nor the blasted feelings of the living restored.
It would be well, too, for judges and jurors, who are very often hasty and inconsiderate in letting their feelings and prejudices get the better of their judgment, to remember that life, human life, is neither a toy nor a rattle, but the gift of God; when once extinguished, no matter how, it is gone forever, and the dead never rise again.
-Dr. Charles A. Lee, reviewing the Hendrickson case
* Hendrickson’s final message to his parents via his spiritual advisor, on the eve of his hanging:
To-morrow I am to die, and standing as I do on the brink of eternity, I wish to say to you, in the presence of that God before whom I am so soon to appear, that I am entirely innocent of the crime of murdering my wife. I did not give her poison. I do not know that any one gave her poison. She did not come to her death by violence of any kind, so far as I know. I believe she died a natural death. She did not vomit on the night of her death. [This remark touches the disputed forensic evidence; vomiting would be a symptom of poisoning, and state chemists’ assertion that Maria had done so was among the conclusions challenged by outside scientists. -ed.] I never knew that there was such an article as aconite in the world, until after I was in jail. Nor did I know it by any other name. I do not know that I have anything further to add, except to say some farewell words to my parents. But you will remember what I have said to you, and inform them of it. I wish you to make it public.
** Transcribed here via the Portland (Me.) Advertiser of Apr. 18, 1854.
On this date in 1926, Weimar Germany beheaded Josef Jakubowski for a murder he did not commit. Though a notorious miscarriage of justice in Germany, it is not widely known elsewhere and most of the links about Jakubowski are in Germany.
A Pole reared in the tsar’s Lithuania, Jakubowski emigrated by way of that great ravager of imperial borders, the First World War: taken as a POW, he preferred sticking around as a Mecklenburg farmhand over returning to a now-Bolshevik Russia engulfed in civil war.
Jakubowski never married, but if he had done it would have been to Ina Nogens, a local woman with whom he fathered a daughter out of wedlock. But his lover died (in non-suspicious circumstances) leaving Jakubowski to support not only the infant girl but also Ina’s three-year-old son by another man, Ewald — who were nonetheless being raised not by Jakubowski but by the Nogens relatives.
On November 9, 1924, Ewald disappeared: he was found outside the village the next day, strangled to death.
The Nogens family immediately made known their suspicions of the almost in-law from a foreign land, and in no time at all Jakubowski was caught in that still-familiar gaze of official tunnel vision and its mirrors of endlessly receding self-vindication. The most substantial evidence against Jakubowski was the shaky — and in fact, manipulated — eyewitness report of a mentally impaired teenager made to sort of put the Pole on the path to the Nogens house on the morning of the little boy’s disappearance. That’s it. It’s the sort of case would have to level up several times to achieve the stature of laughability, but when everyone already knows you did it, actual evidence is really just a luxury. Jakubowski was an outsider who maybe wanted to stop paying child support. Work backward from there!
Two years after the luckless migrant lost his head to the fallbeil, it came out that some of the Nogens clan were the ones really behind the murder, a two birds, one stone scheme to take off their hands both bastard whelp and Auslander. Three were judicially convicted of the very same murder, and one, Ina’s brother August, was actually sentenced to death — although the sentence was remitted. Despite issuing these other convictions, no German state organ has ever officially reversed Jakubowski’s condemnation.
(Thanks to guest writer Victor Hugo, who having haunted these pages in many a post kindly permits us to republish the open letter he wrote on February 11, 1854 to Home Secretary (and future Prime Minister) Lord Palmerston. This is the English version as published by London’s Daily News on February 17 of that year; here is a French version of the same. Hugo at the time was living as an exile from the French Empire in the British-controlled Channel Island of Jersey; the case concerned was the highly controversial hanging of John Tapner on the nearby island of Guernsey for the murder of an aged Frenchwoman. Nobody ever hanged again on Guernsey after this possible wrongful execution.
The footnote appears in the original. -ed.)
I lay before you a series of facts which have transpired in Jersey within the last few years:
Fifteen years ago Caliot, a murderer, was condemned to death, and pardoned. Eight years ago Thomas Nicolle, a murderer, was condemned to death, and pardoned. Three years ago, in 1851, Jacques Fouquet, a murderer, was condemned to death, and pardoned.* In each of these cases the penalty of death was commuted for transportation.
In each case, to obtain a commutation of the sentence, a petition signed by the inhabitants of the island was sufficient.
In 1851 transportation was thought a sufficient punishment for Edward Carlton, who murdered his wife under circumstances of the most horrible description.
All this has taken place within fifteen years in the island from which I now address you.
Let us shift the scene from Jersey to Guernsey.
Tapner, a murderer, an incendiary, and a robber, is condemned to death.
At present, and the facts above stated prove the truth of the assertion, the penalty of death is virtually abolished in the opinion of every sane, well thinking man.
No sooner is Tapner condemned than a cry is heard, petitions are multiplied; one, energetically establishing itself on the principle of the inviolability of human life, was signed by 600 of the most enlightened of the inhabitants of the island.
And it is worthy of notice that not one minister of any Christian sect has deigned to affix his signature to either of these petitions. These men are probably ignorant that the cross is a gallows. — The people cried: “Mercy!” The priest cried: “Death!” — Let us pity the priest and resume our subject.
These petitions have been forwarded to you — a repsite has been granted. In similar cases a respite was equal to a commutation of the sentence — the island draws breath — the gallows is not to be erected — cruel error! the gallows is erected — Tapner is hung! and this after mature consideration.
Why should Guernsey be refused that which has been so often granted to Jersey?
Why deal to one concession and to the other affront? — Why should pardon be sent here and the executioner there?
Why this difference where all things else are equal? — What use was the respite but to aggravate the torture? — Was some mystery involved? To what purpose has been consideration?
Things are whispered, sir, to which I dare not listen. No! it cannot be true. What! a voice, and that of the most obscure, if it be the voice of an exile, cannot ask pardon from an insignificant corner of Europe for a man about to die without being heard by M. Bonaparte, without M. Bonaparte’s interference. What, M. Bonaparte, who has the guillotine of Bellay, the guillotine of Draguignan and the guillotine of Montpellier, not satisfied with all these! Has he still an appetite left for a gallows in Guernsey.
What — in such a case could you have refused justice to the proscribed for fear of giving umbrage to the proscriber. If so, the man was hung to accommodate, and the gallows erected as an act of courtesy, and could you have done all this to strengthen your alliance. No, no; I do not, I cannot believe it. I cannot even admit the idea, although I shudder at it.
Before the great and generous English nation can your Queen have the right of pardon, and M. Bonaparte that of a veto. At the same time that there is an omnipotent in heaven, can there be an omnipotent on earth? No.
I merely say that it was not possible for the French journals to speak of Tapner. I state the fact, but I draw no conclusion from it. However this may be, you have determined to use the terms of the despatch, that justice should take its course, and all is over.
However this may be, Tapner, after having been three times respited, and had his case three times under consideration, was hung yesterday, the 10th of February, and if there be any truth in the conjectures, which for myself I utterly reject, I present you, sir, with the bulletin of the day. you may, if such be the case, transmit it to the Tuileries. These details cannot be offensive to the Empire of the 2nd of December. The Eagle will hover with delight over the field of this victory! He is a gallows Eagle!
A garden joined the prison. In this garden the scaffold was erected. A breach was made in the wall for the prisoner to pass through. At 8 o’clock in the morning the neighbouring streets were crowded with spectators, of whom 200 of the privileged were admitted into the garden. The man appeared in the breach. He walked erect and with a firm step; he was pale, the red circle caused by anxious wakefulness surrounded his eyes.
The month just passed had added twenty years to his age — a man thirty years of age appeared fifty.
“A cotton night-cap was drawn over his head and turned up in front (says an eye-witness); he was dressed in a brown coat, which he wore during the trial, and an old pair of slippers.”
He walked partly round the garden, in a walk gravelled expressly for the occasion. The javelin men, the sheriff, the under-sheriff, and the Queen’s solicitor surrounded him. His hands were tied loosely, as we shall presently see.
According to English custom, while the hands were crossed upon the breast, a cord bound the elbows behind the back.
Behind him, the chaplains, who had refused to sign the petition for mercy, followed weeping.
The gravel walk led to the ladder — the cord was swinging — Tapner ascended the ladder — the executioner trembled: inferior executioners are at times susceptible of pity. Tapner placed himself under the noose, and pressed it over his head, and his hands not being firmly tied, he desired the executioner, who seemed quite confused, to arrange the rope. Then, “as if he had had a presentiment of what was to follow,” says the same eye-witness, “he said, ‘Tie my hands tighter.’ ‘That is unnecessary,’ replied the executioner.” Tapner standing thus with the rope round his neck, and his feet on the trap, the executioner drew the night-cap over his eyes, and nothing more could be seen of that pale face but the mouth moving as in prayer.
After some moments, the man destined to this high office pressed a spring — the drop fell, and the body fell abruptly through — the cord tightened, the body turned, and the man was considered dead.
“It was thought (says the eye-witness) that Tapner was killed at once by the rupture of the spinal marrow, he having fallen 4 feet,” but the witness further adds, “the relief of our oppressed hearts did not last two minutes.” Suddenly the man not yet a corpse, but already a spectre, moved.
The legs were thrown convulsively about, as if seeking some stay in the empty space; what could be discovered of the face was horribly disfigured; and the hands, which had become loose, were clasped and relaxed, as if to implore assistance. The cord around the elbows had snapped in the fall. Amidst these convulsions the rope began to swing, the elbows of the poor wretch came in contact with the edge of the trap, he clung to it with his hands, rested his right knee upon it, raised his body, and seemed to lean towards the crowd. Again he fell; and twice, says the eye witness, was the same scene repeated. He then raised his cap, and the crowd gained a sight of his face. This, it seemed, was too much. It was necessary to close the scene. The executioner reascended the scaffold, and caused the sufferer (I still quote the eyewitness) to let go his hold. The executioner and the victim struggled for a moment; the executioner triumphed. Then this wretch, himself like one condemned, threw himself into the aperture where Tapner was hanging, straightened his knees, and hung to his feet. The rope oscillated for a moment, bearing the victim and the executioner, the crime and the law. At last the executioner himself relaxed his hold; all was over; the man was dead.
Also a prolific drawer, Victor Hugo produced this Ecce in 1854, and several other depictions of the gallows in the ensuing years — possibly inspired by his horror at Tapner’s fate. Ecce is also known as John Brown, although that American slavery abolitionist was not executed until 1859.
You see, sir, how things were managed; the effect was completed; for the town, being built as an amphitheatre, everything was seen from the windows, all eyes were fixed on the garden. If it were the object to excite a feeling of horror, it was done: the crowd cried “Shame, shame,” and several females fainted.
During this time, Fouquet, who had been pardoned in 1851, is repeating. The executioner has converted Tapner into a corpse; Mercy, Fouquet into a man!
Between the time when Tapner fell into the trap, and that in which the executioner, no longer perceiving any motion, let go his feet, 12 minutes elapsed. Twelve minutes! Let that time be calculated, if any one knows by what clock to number the moments of suffering. Such, sir, was the mode of Tapner’s death.
The theory of example is satisfied; the philosopher alone mourns, and asks himself if this be what is called allowing justice to take its course? We must believe the philosopher to be wrong. The punishment has been frightful, but the crime was hideous. Must not society be defended? What will become of us if, &c. &c. The audacity of criminals would meet with no restraint. There would be nothing but atrocities and murders. A check is absolutely necessary. At least, it seems your opinion, Sir, that Tapners should be hung unless they be emperors. Let the will of statesmen be done!
Theorists, dreamers, those visionary spirits who have formed some notion of good and evil, cannot sound, without difficulty, certain depths of the problem of destiny.
Had Tapner, instead of killing one woman, destroyed 300, adding to the heap some hundreds of old men and children — had he instead of breaking a door, violated an oath — had he, instead of purloining a few shillings, stolen 25 millions — had he, instead of burning the house Saujon, overawed Paris by force of arms, he would have an ambassador at London.
It might, however, be as well to define a little more precisely the point at which Tapner ceases to be a robber, and Schinderhannes commences politician. Sir, this is horrible! We are members, you and I, of the infinitely small. I am only a refugee, you are only a minister — I am ashes, you are dust — Atom may surely speak freely to atom — where each is nothing, truth may be spoken. Well then, be assured, whatever may be the actual success of your policy, however glorious the alliance of M. Bonaparte, however honourable it may be for you to act in strict union with him, however far famed and magnificently may be your common triumph in Turkish affairs, this rope, which was fastened round a human sack, the trap which opened under his feet, the hope that, in falling, he would break his spine, the face become livid beneath the deep shadow of the gallows, the bloodshot eyes bursting from their sockets, the tongue lolling from the throat, that groan of anguish only stifled by the knot, the terrified soul which still clings to its tenement, the convulsed knees which seek some support, those bound hands mutely clasped and asking help — and that other man, that man of darkness, who throws himself upon these last struggles, who clings to the knees of the dying wretch, and himself hangs upon the hanging — Sir, these things are frightful!
Victor Hugo, The Hanged Man, c. 1855-1860.
And if haply the conjectures which I disavow be true, if the man who hung to the feet of Tapner were indeed M. Bonaparte, it would be monstrous. But, I repeat, I do not believe this. You have yielded to no influence; you simply said — let justice take its course; you gave this order, as you would have done any other, the prolonged discussions concerning capital punishment do not interest you. To hang a man, and to drink a glass of water are the same things in your estimation — you did not comprehend the importance of the act; it was the oversight of a statesman, nothing more. Sir, keep your blinders for earth, and do not offer them to eternity! Do not trifle with such deep interests, mix nothing of your own with them; it would be impudent. I can see more deeply into those interests than you — Beware! Exul sicul mortuus. I speak as from the tomb.
Bah! what matters it? A man is hung; and what more? a coil of rope to be wound up; some timber work to be taken to pieces a corpse to be buried. Certainly these are great matters! We will fire the cannon, a little smoke in the East, and all will be over. A microscope will be required to detect Guernsey and Tapner. Gentlemen, this rope, this beam, this corpse, this dreadful though invisible gallows, this suffering, carry us into immensity. They involve the social question, which is more important than the political; they do more — they carry us beyond earth. That, which is of little consequence, is your cannon, your politics, and your smoke. The assassin who to-morrow becomes the victim, as a soul which takes its flight holding the end of the gallows-rope — it is this which is frightful. Statesmen, who between two protocols, two dinners, and two smiles, carelessly press with white-gloved hand the spring of the gibbet, and the trap falls under the feet of the victim. Know you what you do? The infinite appears; the unfathomable and the unknown; the mighty shade which rises suddenly and terribly beneath your littleness.
Proceed! Let us observe the men of the old world at their work. Since the past still struggles let us examine it. Let us observe its successive phases.
At Tunis it is impaling; with the Czar the knout; with the Pope it is the garrot; in France the guillotine; in England the gallows; in Asia and America the slave market. All this will be swept away. We, the anarchists, the demagogues, the blood-drinkers, tell you, the protectors and saviours of the world, that human liberty is to be respected, human intelligence is holy, human life is sacred, and the human soul divine. Now go on hanging! But beware! The future opens. You think that living which is dead, and that dead which is living. The ancient form of society, but it is dead. You are deceived. You have stretched out your hand to the spectre of darkness, and chosen her for your bride. You turn your back upon life: it will soon arise behind you. When we pronounce the words Progress, Revolution, Liberty, Humanity, you smile, unhappy man, and point to the darkness in which we both are involved. Do you indeed know what that night is? Learn the truth; ere long the ideas will burst forth in all their strength and glory. Democracy yesterday took the name of France; to-morrow it will take that of Europe. The eclipse does but conceal the increasing magnitude of the star.
* We read in the Jersey newspapers, of January 7, 1851:
James Fouquet — We are informed that James Fouquet, condemned to death by our Royal Court, for the murder of Derbyshire, and whose punishment was commuted by her Majesty into transportation for life, was removed, about six months ago, from the prison at Milbank, where he had hitherto remained, to Dartmoor. He is nearly cured of the wound in his neck, and his conduct has been such, while at Millbank, that the governor of that prison thinks it extremely possible, there will be a further commutation of his sentence into banishment from the English territories.
On this date in 1573, the Jewish courtier Lippold ben Chluchim was broken on the wheel and cut into quarters.
Most of the readily available information about poor Lippold is in German; his was a fate similar to the 18th century “Jud Süß”, minus the worldwide notoriety conferred by a Nazi propaganda film.
Though born in Prague, Lippold would live a life, and die a death, in the orbit of the Elector of Brandenburg — a principality where Jews endured precipitous reversals of fortune over the centuries.
Elector Joachim I had actually expelled Jews from the territory in 1510* after riots incited by rumors of desecrating the Host; Lippold and his family would benefit when Joachim’s son, also named Joachim, rescinded some of the old man’s harsh ordinances and invited Jews to return. Lippold was about 12 years old when his family took advantage of the liberalization and relocated to Berlin in 1542.
By adulthood, the able Lippold had plugged into Joachim II’s court and become a trusted favorite. While Joachim’s dad must have been turning in the grave, one imagines the son appreciated the loyalty of an aide whose prestige depended entirely upon the prince himself.
Events would underscore painfully Lippold’s vulnerability to the turning wheel of fortune.
As Brandenburg’s master of the mint, it fell to Lippold to implement a wide-ranging currency debasement program required by Joachim to finance his spendthrift government — basically passing on the cost to merchants who were required by edict to accept the local coinage at its fanciful face value.
Despite this hated policy, plus additions to the state’s rounds of direct taxation, Joachim was 2.5 million guilders in debt when he died suddenly during a hunting trip on the third of January in 1571. Things immediately turned grim for Brandenburg’s Jewry after the liberal Joachim fils was in the earth; a pogrom sacked Berlin’s synagogue and rampaged through the Jewish quarter.
Joachim’s son and successor Johann Georg likewise found in his father’s Jewish henchman — a man who had naturally waxed very wealthy and very unpopular doing the previous sovereign’s dirty work — a ready scapegoat for Brandenburg’s financial woes. Johann Georg accused Lippold of using black magic and poison to assassinate his benefactor and persuaded Lippold in the usual way to confirm it. Jews beheld the reinstatement of that old proscription, little more than 30 years after Joachim II had canceled it — and they were once again expelled from Berlin en masse.
Autos were also enacted for benefit of the subjects in the hinterlands of Spain’s global empire — especially since lapsed Jewish conversos, who were one of the principal interests of the Spanish Inquisition, were known to seek safety in the periphery.
All three were the playthings of Inquisitor Cristóval Sánchez Calderón — whose prosecutor’s office, then as now, enjoyed a wide scope for mischief.
According to the public domain The Inquisition in the Spanish Dependencies, one distant predecessor in the post had “aroused indignation” with his “arbitrary and scandalous conduct”: planting spies in the palace, and brazenly taking concubines. According to a report submitted to Toledo, this bygone inquisitor
was in the habit of walking the streets at night dressed as a cavalier, brawling and fighting, and on one Holy Thursday he supped with a number of strumpets … He was involved in perpetual contests with the [viceregal] judges and royal officials, whom he treated without ceremony or justice, interfering with their functions, of which a number of cases were given which, if not exaggerated, show that the land was at the mercy of the inquisitorial officials, who murdered, robbed and took women at their pleasure, and any who complained were fined or kept chained in prison.
But Inquisitors liked to keep busy with the pleasures of destroying the flesh, too.
Francisco de Ulloa, a Jesuit mystic “of little education but of high spiritual gifts,” had gained a small following who revered him as a saint by the time he died in 1709. For the Inquisition he looked like a possible exponent of heretical quietism, whose founder had been forcibly shushed by the Inquisition in the late 17th century. A half-mad expelled Jesuit named Juan Francisco Velazco was caught up in the same charge, and although he died in prison in 1719 the legal machinery proceeded against both he and Ulloa just the same — albeit without any great hurry.
Meanwhile, in 1726, a beautiful (multiple sources of the time dwell on this characteristic) noblewoman named Ana de Castro was turned in by a lover as a possible Judaizer. Her case along with those of the late Jesuit heretics languished for a decade for unclear reasons,* but when Calderon (who only became Inquisitor in 1730) turned his attention to her, she was tortured on three different occasions — treatment that her sex ought to have exempted her from.
Apparently (pdf) one basis of the case against her was her continued recourse to Jewish rituals learned in her childhood, whose observance she thought was immaterial to Christianity — things like Jewish mourning practices. But if the subsequent reports of the skeptical chief Peruvian inquisitor Mateo de Amusquibar are to be believed, Calderon was determined to send her to the stake in order to gratify his auto with a live human sacrifice. (Absent Castro, the auto’s apex sentences would have been mere floggings of various misbelievers and polygamists.)
In doing so, Calderon ignored an explicit directive straight from the mother country not to execute her; he may even have ignored Castro’s own attempt to claim the sanctuary of penitence — something her situation should have allowed her.
Amusquibar reported that the day before the auto she sought two audiences; no record was made of what occurred, but there could be no doubt that she confessed more than enough to entitle her to reconciliation; even if she did not entirely satisfy the evidence, what more could be expected of a poor woman in such agitation of mind…?
Amusquiar … states that there was no record that she was notified of the sentence; that the book of votes id not contain such a sentence and that, even if there was one, it was invalid in consequence of the absence of the Ordinary; moreover that, in spite of her confessions, no new consulta de fe was summoned to consider them. Altogether, if Amusquibar is to be believed, it was a cold-blooded judicial murder contrived, like the burning of Ulloa in effigy, for the purpose of rendering more impressive the spectacle of the auto de fe.
Today is the feast day of Santa Claus himself, St. Nicholas.
Nicholas was a real-life bishop in fourth century Asia Minor. He’s among the prelates to sign off on the Nicene Creed, Christianity’s official profession of orthodox doctrine hammered out at the emperor Constantine’s epochal Council of Nicaea.
Living as he did amid the triumph of his once-persecuted faith, Saint Nick was not called upon to offer God his own martyrdom. Our death penalty context comes from one of the stories in his hagiography — that on one occasion, returning to the seat of his diocese at Myra, Nicholas discovered that three innocent men had been condemned to imminent execution by a wicked magistrate. Hastening to the scene, he dramatically averted their beheading by seizing the executioner’s sword.
The great Russian artist Ilya Repin dramatically depicted the scene.
St. Nicholas Saves Three Innocents from Death, by Ilya Repin (1888).
Repin did not love this painting — he slinked out of its 1889 exhibition, allegedly dissatisfied with its ridigity and melodrama* — but it did express the liberal-minded artist’s distaste for capital punishment. The era we now know to be the late tsarist period in Russia saw violent (and sometimes indiscriminate) crackdowns on revolutionary terrorism following the 1881 assassination of Tsar Alexander II, to the great grief of her dissident intelligentsia. Philosopher Vladimir Solovyov called the death penalty “absolute murder”; with a like attitude, tsarist Russia’s “liberal politicians, academics and journalists repeatedly campaigned against this form of punishment.” (Source)
Around the time that Repin depicted St. Nicholas’s great act of clemency, Leo Tolstoy — who abhorred capital punishment — wrote of his youthful experience witnessing the guillotine in action in Paris, “at the moment the head and body separated and fell into the box I gasped, and realized not with my mind nor with my heart but with my whole being, that all the arguments in defence of capital punishment are wicked nonsense … [that] murder remains murder, and that this crime had been committed before my eyes.”**
Repin was forever being read and misread by the ideologues afoot in Russia, but this Tolstoyan horror at the scaffold he shared unambiguously. In a later era, by which time Repin was the established senior figure of the Russian art scene, the painter was exercised enough by Stolypin‘s wholesale use of capital punishment following Russia’s abortive 1905 revolution to issue a public denunciation of executions. But it was only ever by the hand of St. Nicholas that he had the experience of preventing one.
* See David Jackson, “The ‘Golgotha’ of Ilya Repin in Context”, Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University, Vol. 50, No. 1 (1991).
His very first client was a fellow named John Reid, accused in 1766 of rustling 120 sheep from a Peebleshire farm. Boswell, clever lad, beat the charge,** and John Reid lived to shear again.
In 1774, Reid was accused again — and this time, all Boswell’s rhetorical genius could not save him: the Edinburgh Advertiser (Aug. 2, 1774) saluted the “masterly and pathetic manner” of Boswell’s summation, “which did him great honour both as a lawyer and as one who wished for a free and impartial trial by jury.”
It did not do John Reid the honour of an acquittal.
Even beaten in court, our libertine diarist went to extraordinary lengths to defend Reid; his personal passion for saving Reid’s life bleeds out of lengthy diary entries — 70-odd pages’ worth over the seven weeks from conviction to execution, quoted here from Boswell for the Defence. He strongly believed Reid innocent of the crime — that he had received the sheep apparently legitimately from a man named William Gardner, who was the real thief. (Gardner was transported for theft before Reid’s execution.)
Boswell worried at the Earl of Rochford, the Earl of Pembroke, the Earl of Suffolk, and the Duke of Queensberry with imprecations to intervene for a royal pardon. He found himself checked by the judge, equally determined to hang Reid: “The King was certainly disposed to transport, but the judge’s report was too strong,” Lord Pembroke wrote him afterwards. “Indeed, I never read anything more so, or so positive.”
Balked of royal mercy, Boswell even went so far as to lay plans to snatch Reid’s body immediately after hanging and have it whisked away for an attempted resuscitation. As a client, you can’t ask for more zealous representation than that. (Boswell was talked off the scheme only the day before the hanging.)
It is still true today that many death row attorneys give much more of themselves to their clients than mere legal scholarship, as they find themselves shepherding in the valley of death. Boswell met often with Reid, and Reid’s wife; he solicited family history, had Reid sit for a portrait, and bore the delicate burden of keeping Reid’s spirits up even while apprising him day by day of his ever darkening situation. When they spoke of making ready for death, Boswell found Reid much better possessed than was he himself.
The barrister’s diary entries for these days are among the longest and most anguished that Boswell ever wrote. (I have here elided from the September 20 entry a good deal of Boswell’s logistical preparations for, discussions with potential collaborators about, and grudging final resolution against, the mooted resurrection attempt.)
TUESDAY 20 SEPTEMBER. I was now more firmly impressed with a belief of John Reid’s innocence … I really believed he was condemned on insufficient evidence, and, from his solemn averments of his innocence, thought him not guilty of the crime for which he was condemned; such averments being in my opinion an overbalance not for positive, or even strong circumstantial, evidence, but for such evidence as was brought against him, which I thought could produce no more than suspicion.
When I came to the prison I found that John Reid’s wife and children were with him. The door of the iron room was now left open and they were allowed to go and come as they pleased. He was very composed. His daughter Janet was a girl about fifteen, his eldest son Benjamin about ten, his youngest son Daniel between two and three. It was a striking scene to see John on the last night of his life surrounded by his family. His wife and two eldest children behaved very quietly. It was really curious to see the young child Daniel, who knew nothing of the melancholy situation of his father, jumping upon him with great fondness, laughing and calling to him with vivacity. The contrast was remarkable between the father in chains and in gloom and the child quite free and frolicsome. John took him on his knee with affection.
WEDNESDAY 21 SEPTEMBER. John Reid’s wife called on me before breakfast and told me that Mrs. Walker said she was welcome to the best room in her house for the corpse; but that afterwards her landlord had sent to her that she must quit his house if she allowed such a thing. I said that there would be no occasion for any place. The mob would not trouble the corpse; and it might be put directly on the cart that she expected was to come for it. After breakfast Mr. Nasmith came, and was pleased to find that the scheme of recovery was given up … We walked backwards and forwards in the Grassmarket, looking at the gallows and talking of John Reid. Mr. Nasmith said he imagined he would yet confess; for his wife had said this morning that he had something to tell me which he had as yet told to no mortal.
We went to the prison about half an hour after twelve. He was now released from the iron about his leg. The Reverend Dr. Webster and Mr. Ritchie were with him. We waited in the hall along with his wife, who had white linen clothes with black ribbons in a bundle, ready to put on him before he should go out to execution. There was a deep settled grief in her countenance. She was resolved to attend him to the last; but Richard whispered me that the Magistrates had given orders that she should be detained in the prison till the execution was over. I dissuaded her from going and she agreed to take my advice; and then Richard told her the orders of the Magistrates. I said aloud I was glad to hear of it. The Reverend Dr. Macqueen, who afterwards came in, told her it would be a tempting of Providence to go; that it might affect her so as to render her incapable to take care of her fatherless children; and Mr. Ritchie said that the best thing she could do was to remain in the prison and pray for her husband. Dr. Macqueen said to me he was so much impressed with the poor man’s innocence that he had some difficulty whether he ought to attend the execution and authorize it by his presence. I said he certainly should attend, for it was legal; and, besides, supposing it ever so unjust, it was humane to attend an unhappy man in his last moments.
“But,” said Dr. Macqueen, “I will not pray for him as a guilty man.”
“You would be very much in the wrong to do so,” said I, “if you think him not guilty.” Dr. Webster and I had no conversation as he passed through the hall except inquiring at each other how we did.
John’s wife then went up to him for a little, having been told both by me and Mr. Nasmith that she could not hope for the blessing of Providence on her and her children if by her advice John went out of the world with a lie in his mouth. I followed in a little, and found him in his usual dress, standing at the window. I told him I understood he had something to mention to me. He said he would mention it. He had since his trial in 1766 stolen a few sheep (I think five), of which he never was suspected.
“John,” said I, “it gives me concern to find that even such a warning as you got then did not prevent you from stealing. I really imagine that if you had now got off you might again have been guilty, such influence has Satan over you.” He said he did not know but he might. Then I observed that his untimely death might be a mercy to him, as he had time for repentance. He seemed to admit that it might be so. He said that what he had now told me he had not mentioned even to his wife; and I might let it rest. I called up Mr. Nasmith, with whom came Mr. Ritchie. I said he might acknowledge this fact to them, which he did. I asked him, if I saw it proper to mention it as making his denial of the theft for which he was condemned more probable, I might be at liberty to do so? He said I might dispose of it as I thought proper. But he persisted in denying the theft for which he was condemned. He now began to put on his white dress, and we left him.
Some time after, his wife came down and begged that we would go up to him, that he might not be alone. Dress has a wonderful impression on the fancy. I was not much affected when I saw him this morning in his usual dress. But now he was all in white, with a high nightcap on, and he appeared much taller, and upon the whole struck me with a kind of tremor. He was praying; but stopped when we came in. I bid him not be disturbed, but go on with his devotions. He did so, and prayed with decent fervency, while his wife, Mr. Nasmith, and I stood close around him.
He prayed in particular, “Grant, Lord, through the merits of my Saviour, that this the day of my death may be the day of my birth unto life eternal.” Poor man, I felt now a kind of regard for him. He said calmly, “I think I’ll be in eternity in about an hour.” His wife said something from which he saw that she was not to attend him to his execution; and he said, “So you’re no to be wi’ me.” I satisfied him that it was right she should not go.
I said, “I suppose, John, you know that the executioner is down in the hall.” He said no. I told him that he was there and would tie his arms before he went out.
“Ay,” said his wife, “to keep him from catching at the tow [rope].”
“Yes,” said I, “that it may he easier for him.” John said he would submit to everything.
I once more conjured him to tell the truth. “John,” said I, “you must excuse me for still entertaining some doubt, as you know you have formerly deceived me in some particulars. I have done more for you in this world than ever was done for any man in your circumstances. I beseech you let me be of some use to you for the next world. Consider what a shocking thing it is to go out of the world with a lie in your mouth. How can you expect mercy, if you are in rebellion against the GOD of truth?” I thus pressed him; and while he stood in his dead clothes, on the very brink of the grave, with his knees knocking together, partly from the cold occasioned by his linen clothes, partly from an awful apprehension of death, he most solemnly averred that what he had told concerning the present alleged crime was the truth. Before this, I had at Mr. Ritchie’s desire read over his last speech to him, which was rather an irksome task as it was very long; and he said it was all right except some immaterial circumstance about his meeting Wilson with the six score of sheep. Vulgar minds, and indeed all minds, will be more struck with some unusual thought than with the most awful consideration which they have often heard.
I tried John thus: “We are all mortal. Our life is uncertain. I may perhaps die in a week hence. Now, John, consider how terrible it would be if I should come into the other world and find” (looking him steadfastly in the face) “that you have been imposing on me.” He was roused by this, but still persisted. “Then,” said I, “John, I shall trouble you no more upon this head. I believe you. GOD forbid that I should not believe the word of a fellow man in your awful situation, when there is no strong evidence against it, as I should hope to be believed myself in the same situation. But remember, John, it is trusting to you that I believe. It is between GOD and your own conscience if you have told the truth; and you should not allow me to believe if it is not true.” He adhered.
I asked him if he had anything more to tell. He said he had been guilty of one other act of sheep-stealing. I think he said of seven sheep; but I think he did not mention precisely when. As he shivered, his wife took off her green cloth cloak and threw it about his shoulders. It was curious to see such care taken to keep from a little cold one who was so soon to be violently put to death. He desired she might think no more of him, and let his children push their way in the world.
“The eldest boy,” said he, “is reading very well. Take care that he reads the word of GOD.” He desired her to keep a New Testament and a psalm-book which he had got in a present from Mr. Ritchie and which he was to take with him to the scaffold. He was quite sensible and judicious. He had written a kind of circular letter to all his friends on whom he could depend, begging them to be kind to his family.
Two o’clock struck.
I said, with a solemn tone, “There’s two o’clock.” In a little Richard came up. The sound of his feet on the stair struck me. He said calmly, “Will you come awa now?” This was a striking period. John said yes, and readily prepared to go down. Mr. Nasmith and I went down a little before him. A pretty, well-dressed young woman and her maid were in a small closet off the hall; and a number of prisoners formed a kind of audience, being placed as spectators in a sort of loft looking down to the hall.
There was a dead silence, all waiting to see the dying man appear. The sound of his steps coming down the stair affected me like what one fancies to be the impression of a supernatural grave noise before any solemn event.
When he stepped into the hall, it was quite the appearance of a ghost. The hangman, who was in a small room off the hall, then came forth. He took off his hat and made a low bow to the prisoner. John bowed his head towards him. They stood looking at each other with an awkward uneasy attention. I interfered, and said, “John, you are to have no resentment against this poor man. He only does his duty.” “I only do my duty,” repeated the hangman. “I have no resentment against him,” said John. “I desire to forgive all mankind.” “Well, John,” said I, “you are leaving the world with a very proper disposition: forgiving as you hope to be forgiven.” I forgot to mention that before he left the iron room Mr. Ritchie said to him, “Our merciful King was hindered from pardoning you by a representation against you; but you are going before the King of Heaven, who knows all things and whose mercy cannot be prevented by any representation.”
The hangman advanced and pinioned him, as the phrase is; that is, tied his arms with a small cord. John stood quiet and undisturbed. I said, “Richard, give him another glass of wine.” Captain Fraser, the gaoler, had sent him the night before a bottle of claret, part of which Richard had given him, warmed with sugar, early in the morning, two glasses of it in the forenoon, and now he gave him another. John drank to us.
He then paused a little, then kissed his wife with a sad adieu, then Mr. Ritchie kissed him. I then took him by the hand with both mine, saying, “John, it is not yet too late. If you have any thing to acknowledge, do it at the last to the reverend gentlemen, Dr. Macqueen and Dr. Dick, to whom you are much obliged. Farewell, and I pray GOD may be merciful to you.” He seemed faint and deep in thought. The prison door then opened and he stepped away with the hangman behind him, and the door was instantly shut His wife then cried, “O Richard, let me up,” and got to the window and looked earnestly out till he was out of sight. Mr. Nasmith and I went to a window more to the west, and saw him stalking forward in the gloomy procession.
I then desired his wife to retire and pray that he might be supported in this his hour of trial. Captain Fraser gave her four shillings. It was very agreeable to see such humanity in the gaoler, and indeed the tenderness with which the last hours of a convict were soothed pleased me much.
The mob were gone from the prison door in a moment. Mr. Nasmith and I walked through the Parliament Close, down the Back Stairs and up the Cowgate, both of us satisfied of John Reid’s innocence, and Mr. Nasmith observing the littleness of human justice, that could not reach a man for the crimes which he committed but punished him for what he did not commit.
We got to the place of execution about the time that the procession did. We would not go upon the scaffold nor be seen by John, lest it should be thought that we prevented him from confessing. It was a fine day. The sun shone bright. We stood close to the scaffold on the south side between two of the Town Guard. There were fewer people present than upon any such occasion that I ever saw. He behaved with great calmness and piety. Just as he was going to mount the ladder, he desired to see his wife and children; but was told they were taken care of. There was his sister and his daughter near to the gibbet, but they were removed. Dr. Dick asked him if what he had said was the truth. He said it was. Just as he was going off, he made an attempt to speak. Somebody on the scaffold called, “Pull up his cap.” The executioner did so. He then said, “Take warning. Mine is an unjust sentence.” Then his cap was pulled down and he went off. He catched the ladder; but soon quitted his hold. To me it sounded as if he said, “just sentence”; and the people were divided, some crying, “He says his sentence is just.” Some: “No. He says unjust.” Mr. Laing, clerk to Mr. Tait, one of the town clerks, put me out of doubt, by telling me he had asked the executioner, who said it was unjust. I was not at all shocked with this execution at the time. John died seemingly without much pain. He was effectually hanged, the rope having fixed upon his neck very firmly, and he was allowed to hang near three quarters of an hour; so that any attempt to recover him would have been in vain. I comforted myself in thinking that by giving up the scheme I had avoided much anxiety and uneasiness.
We waited till he was cut down; and then walked to the Greyfriars Churchyard, in the office of which his corpse was deposited by porters whom Mr. Nasmith and I paid, no cart having come for his body. A considerable mob gathered about the office. Mr. Nasmith went to Hutchinson’s to bespeak some dinner and write a note to The Courant that there would be a paragraph tonight giving an account of the execution; for we agreed that a recent account would make a strong impression.
I walked seriously backwards and forwards a considerable time in the churchyard waiting for John Reid’s wife coming, that I might resign the corpse to her charge. I at last wearied, and then went to the office of the prison. There I asked the executioner myself what had passed. He told me that John first spoke to him on the ladder and said he suffered wrongfully; and then called to the people that his sentence was unjust. John’s sister came here, and returned me many thanks for what I had done for her brother. She was for burying him in the Greyfriars Churchyard, since no cart had come. “No,” said I, “the will of the dead shall be fulfilled. He was anxious to be laid in his own burying-place, and it shall be done.”
I then desired Richard to see if he could get a cart to hire, and bid him bring John’s wife to Hutchinson’s. Mr. Nasmith and I eat some cold beef and cold fowl and drank some port, and then I wrote a paragraph to be inserted in the newspapers. Mr. Nasmith threw in a few words. I made two copies of it, and, both to the printer of The Courant and Mercury, subjoined my name to be kept as the authority. Richard brought John’s wife and daughter. “Well,” said I, “Mrs. Reid, I have the satisfaction to tell you that your husband behaved as well as we could wish.” “And that is a great satisfaction,” said she. We made her eat a little and take a glass, but she was, though not violently or very tenderly affected, in a kind of dull grief. The girl did not seem moved. She eat heartily.
I told Mrs. Reid that I insisted that John should be buried at home; and as I found that as yet no carter would undertake to go but at an extravagant price, the corpse might lie till tomorrow night, and then perhaps a reasonable carter might be had.
Mr. Nasmith went to The Courant with the paragraph, and I to The Mercury. I sat till it was printed. It was liberal in Robertson, who was himself one of the jury, to admit it; and he corrected the press.
It was now about eight in the evening, and gloom came upon me. I went home and found my wife no comforter, as she thought I had carried my zeal for John too far, might hurt my own character and interest by it, and as she thought him guilty.† I was so affrighted that I started every now and then and durst hardly rise from my chair at the fireside. I sent for Grange, but he was not at home. I however got Dr. Webster, who came and supped, and he and I drank a bottle of claret. But still I was quite dismal.
Boswell spent several days more in tying up affairs, and in a sense reconciling both his own self to the reality of what has occurred, and regaining an equilibrium with friends and colleagues who doubted Reid’s innocence (and/or played some part in Reid’s conviction).
Boswell was around the midpoint of his manhood at 33 years of age, with two more decades ahead to make a glorious mark. But on September 21, 1774, John Reid’s story was done.
“After this defeat, though he would labor at the law for many years more, Boswell made a critical emotional swerve,” writes Gordon Turnbull — away from law and towards the literary exertions that define him for posterity. “Part of Boswell died with Reid: it was defeat in this cause which, in Frank Brady’s words, ‘crystallized his distaste for the Scottish bar’ and ‘destroyed his momentum as a lawyer.'”
** Boswell’s friend and fellow Scottish Enlightenment big wheel Andrew Crosbie helped in the 1766 Reid case … but not the 1774 one.
† With a defter feel for the diplomatic considerations Boswell had ignored in his exertions, the barrister’s wife reminded him a few days afterwards “that John Reid was now gone, but that his jury, fifteen men upon oath, were alive. By my speaking strongly of the injustice of the sentence, I did John no good and in some measure attacked them.” She quoted him a passage from John Home’s tragedy Douglas:
The living claim some duty; vainly thou
Bestow’st thy care upon the silent dead.
Generally understood in the context of Catholic hostility to reform denominations on the soil of the present-day Czech Republic, this dreadful affair started when a Vernirovice woman was caught sneaking the Host out of Easter Mass in 1678, intending to use it as a charm for a folk spell to enhance the fertility of her cows.
By 1679, that woman was burned at the stake — along with two others whom she was induced to accuse by the threat of torture.
These executions were the fruit of a witchcraft commission that had been empaneled to pursue the original desecration of the communion bread, but now that the witch team was an institution it began finding more and more necromancers, in a self-justifying spiral of accusations.
Lautner, a well-liked deacon of Sumperk, spoke against the witch hunt when it came to that city and for his pains he was arrested there in 1680 … then leisurely broken by torture over a period of four years until he was at last undone by accusations wrenched from the torture of the wealthy Sattler family. (Whose valuables the commission did not neglect to appropriate.) It was standard witchcraft fare: black sabbaths, incestuous orgies, pacts with Satan.
“Milder tortures were used against him initially” the records say. “But those he admirably resisted, and remained obdurate. Then came harsher steps. Lautner began to confess, but when he was removed from the devices he recanted his admissions. So he was put to torture again and again, to defeat the devil’s secrecy. He was interrogated in June 1684 — twelve days in a row, except Sunday.” The case progressed so deliberately in part because the prosecution of a clergyman required the signoff of church heirarchy** … and in part because Lautner’s own friends intervened to try to free him. (One such ally, the priest Tomáš König, wrote a letter to the bishop on Lautner’s behalf and thereby became an object for investigation himself; it’s thought that he was about to be arrested by the witchsmellers when he fortuitously died in 1682.)
In the end the cleric could not hope to withstand the pressure. 20,000 people are reported to have swelled Sumperk for his execution by fire.
His case — which has latterly been commemorated by public monumentscelebrating Lautner as a hero of conscience — was dramatized in the historical novel Witch Hammer by Vaclav Kaplicki. Otakar Vavry adapted the story for the silver screen; Kladivo na Carodejnice is available online in its entirety, but you’ll need to be up on your Czech.
One hundred years ago today, Leo M. Frank was lynched to an oak tree at Marietta — one of the most notorious mob murders in American history.
Methodically extracted hours before from the Midgeville State Penitentiary by an Ocean’s Eleven-style team of coordinated professionals, Frank’s murder was as shocking in 1915 as it reads in retrospect.
The well-heeled Jewish Yankee was factory superintendent at the National Pencil Company in Atlanta when a 13-year-old girl in his employ was discovered in the factory’s basement — throttled and apparently raped. That was in 1913; for the ensuing two years, the prosecution of Mary Phagan’s boss as her murderer would play out in sensational press coverage.
Frank is today widely thought innocent of the crime, although the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles has balked at issuing an unconditional pardon since so little of the original evidence survives. (A 1986 pardon came down “without attempting to address the question of guilt or innocence” in recognition of the slanted trial and the failure to protect Frank from lynchers.) But this was much more than a courtroom drama; the Frank affair crackles with the social tensions of early 20th century America. Industry and labor; integration; sexual violation; sectional politics; race and class and power.
Populist Party politician Thomas E. Watson, whose magazines made a dishonorable intervention by openly agitating for (and then celebrating) Frank’s lynching, captures the Zeitgeist for us as he fulminates against the nationwide campaign to grant the convicted murderer a new trial: “Frank belongs to the Jewish aristocracy, and it was determined by the rich Jews that no aristocrat of their race should die for the death of a working-class Gentile.” Frank came to enjoy (if that’s the right word) the editorial support of most of the country’s major papers, but the meddling of northern publishers, and of fellow Jews in solidarity,* arguably led Georgians to circle wagons in response. Present-day Muslims called upon to disavow every bad act by every other Muslim would surely recognize this no-win position.
But then we must also add that Watson himself, a lawyer, had been approached by Frank’s defense team hoping to enlist his bombast to defend their man at trial. The white supremacist demagogue would have been perfect for the job, for the legal battle pitted the credibility of a black janitor named Jim Conley against that of Frank.
Here amid the nadir of American race relations Frank’s team made its own ugly and unsuccessful pitch for racial solidarity with his neighbors. When formulaically asked by the court that had convicted him for any statement to mitigate the impending sentence, Frank replied that
my execution will make the advent of a new era in Georgia, where a good name and stainless honor count for naught against the word of a vile criminal; where the testimony of Southern white women of unimpeachable character is branded as false by the prosecution, disregarded by the jury and the perjured vaporings of a black brute alone accepted as the whole truth.
This violent collision of two vulnerable minorities each with the keen sense that one or the other of them was being outfitted for WASP America’s nooses makes for riveting and sometimes bizarre reading. Newspapers could hardly fail to note that the all-white jury (Leo Frank’s defense team struck all the blacks) had, as Frank complained, privileged the account of just the sort of “black brute” that Southern courts were accustomed to scorn, or railroad. Thus we have the NAACP organ The Crisis taking umbrage that “Atlanta tried to lynch a Negro for the alleged murder of a young white girl” but “a white degenerate has now been indicted for the crime.” It was likewise reasoned by some that since Conley was a young black man with a criminal record who was a potential suspect in the Deep South in the murderous sexual assault of a little white girl, “the mere fact that Conley did not long ago make his exit from this terrestrial sphere, via a chariot of fire is convincing proof that he, at least, is not the man who committed the deed.”** (New York Age, Oct. 29, 1914.)
In the end it was a zero-sum game between Jim Conley and Leo Frank: one of them was the murderer; each accused the other. Their respective desperate interests permeated to their respective communities. (After Frank’s lynching, hundreds of Jews left Georgia; many who remained took pains to downplay their Jewishness.)
By whatever circumstance police zeroed on Frank and the white community’s passion followed — tunnel vision that would eventually manifest itself in a circus courtroom atmosphere where the prosecuting attorney was cheered and defense witnesses hooted at and the ultimate outcome more demanded than anticipated. The judge feared that an acquittal would result in the summary lynching of not only Frank but his defenders.
Unusually for the time, appeals on the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court which declined to intervene — although two justices filed a dissent citing the egregious trial atmosphere.
Mob law does not become due process of law by securing the assent of a terrorized jury …
This is not a matter for polite presumptions; we must look facts in the face. Any judge who has sat with juries knows that in spite of forms they are extremely likely to be impregnated by the environing atmosphere … we think the presumption overwhelming that the jury responded to the passions of the mob …
lynch law [is] as little valid when practiced by a regularly drawn jury as when administered by one elected by a mob intent on death.
“Feeling as I do about this case, I would be a murderer if I allowed this man to hang,” the governor said. “It may mean that I must live in obscurity the rest of my days, but I would rather be plowing in a field than feel for the rest of my days that I had this man’s blood on my hands.”†
Frank was spirited away to the penitentiary under cover of darkness; it was hoped that the remote and reinforced edifice would deter any reprisal. It turned out that the furies who hunted Franks could not be dissuaded by mere inconvenience: a committee calling itself the Knights of Mary Phagan formed with the open object of organizing the intended mob vengeance — and indeed it was almost superseded in July of that year by a fellow-prisoner who slashed Frank’s throat as he slept.
Frank survived that murder attempt only to await the next one. Who knows what fancies frequented him in those weeks when he ducked from the shadow of the gallows to that of the lynching-tree, object of pity or hatred. He had time on the last day to savor his impending fate when the Knights methodically cut their way into the penitentiary — snipping the phone wires and disabling the vehicles — and marched their man out with nary a shot fired. Then, a convoy of automobiles “sped” (at 18 miles per hour) all the way back to a prepared execution-site at Marietta. The drive took seven or eight hours over unpaved country lanes, and for every moment of it Frank surely knew how it would end.
As a contrasting response, the American Jewish Committee declined to participate in the Frank campaign for fear of lending counterproductive credence to charges such as those voiced by the New York Sun (Oct. 12, 1913):
The anti-Semitic feeling was the natural result of the belief that the Jews had banded to free Frank, innocent or guilty. The supposed solidarity of the Jews for Frank, even if he was guilty, caused a Gentile solidarity against him.
** Maurianne Davis’s Strangers and Neighbors: Relations between Blacks and Jews in the United States has a trove of interesting editorial comment from Frank’s contemporaries in the black press, and the Jewish press. Conley was actually the confessed accessory, and served a year in prison for it: he said that he complied with Frank’s order to hide the body for fear that his “white” boss could easily get Conley lynched for the crime. Conley also wrote (under Frank’s directive, he said) the preposterous “murder notes” found with the body that purported to be Mary Phagan’s dying indictment of Newt Lee, the African-American night watchman.
† The allusion to political suicide suggests Slaton’s mind was on the precedent of Illinois Gov. John Altgeld, whose career was destroyed by pardoning some of the Haymarket anarchists. If so, Slaton was quite correct; he actually had to flee Georgia altogether and could not return to the state for more than a decade.
Miscarriages of justice perpetrated by actors in a position to extract private benefit from generating criminal prosecutions is a story as old as the hills. This one, as reprinted in the London Morning Chronicle, Aug. 25, 1817, at least has a happy ending:
Two soldiers, named Hall and Morrison, were on the 26th July tried for a highway robbery at the Stafford Assizes, before Baron Garrow, convicted, and ordered to be executed. They were prosecuted by a man named Read, a bricklayers labourer, who swore that they knocked him down and robbed him of a shilling and a penny, in a church-yard at Wolverhampton, on the 23d July. The evidence of the woman in whose house the prisoners resided, went to prove that they did not sleep at home on the night of the imputed robbery. To those two witnesses the evidence was confined, and against it there appeared nothing upon the trial, except the declarations of the prisoners, containing facts which were afterwards sworn to be others, and which, after the utmost labour of a few benevolent persons, were the means of saving the innocent prisoners from a death which appeared to all to be inevitable.
The two soldiers were, upon the 23d of July, drinking at an hour too late for admission at their lodging at Wolverhampton, and, after applying in vain to be allowed to go into the guardroom to sleep, walked about the village to kill time.
In loitering through the church-yard they met a man who seemed to be in want of work, and, like themselves, without a lodging for the night. A conversation ensued, and the stranger told them his name was Read; that he was a bricklayer’s labourer out of employment, and a Hertfordshire man.
It happened, that in his description he hit upon the part of the country from which one of the prisoners came. A jesting dialogue took place between them, and at length it was agreed that they should wrestle.
Hall was the friendly opponent of Read upon the occasion, and he was thrown in the first round of wrestling. In the second, however, Hall was more successful in the feat of activity, but his triumph nearly robbed him of his life. The vanquished man dropped a shilling and a penny from his pocket. Morrison immediately picked up the money, said it would do for beer, and put it into his pocket. The soldiers quizzed Read about his loss, and were heard by a watchman near the spot acknowledging that they had the shilling, and would certainly dispose of it in the most convivial way.
Read growled about his money, and showed a disposition to quarrel, but did not utter a word about his being robbed of it. About five o’clock in the morning the three were seen near the market-place by another watchman, and the soldiers were bantering Read upon the same subject.
The good humour of Read, however, at this time, appeared quite broken up; he spoke of having the soldiers taken into custody, but was answered by a laugh from them. A grocer, named Powis, saw them all under similar circumstances, and heard Read complain of no attempt at robbery, but saw that he was not pleased at being laughed at.
The grocer soon after met a man named Roberts, the keeper of the House of Correction at Wolverhampton, and mentioned to him that Read said two soldiers had got his money. The answer of Roberts, which did not strike the grocer as extraordinary at first, was, “I must see that man; this is a good job.”
The event, however, soon explained the language. Roberts immediately inquired after Read, questioned him upon the loss he had sustained, and in a very short time apprehended the two soldiers upon the charge of robbing Read in the highway of a shilling and a penny. Before the magistrate, Read swore that the soldiers knocked him down and robbed him of his money in the church-yard. Their commitment was immediately made out, and they were sent to the Assizes of Stafford, where, on the Saturday following they were tried and condemned for the capital offense.
The inhabitants of Wolverhampton knew nothing of the intention of Read upon the interference of Roberts in this transaction. It was generally concluded amongst them that the angry state of mind in which Read appeared, would have influenced him to swear a common assault, but nothing at all serious was apprehended from the wrestling bout. There was consequently no interference upon the part of those who were acquainted with many of the circumstances; and the matter died away until the village was struck with horror at an account in the Stafford paper of the proceedings of the Assizes. An old man was reading the paper in an ale-house to a number of politicians, who were not much affected at any thing they heard until he came to that part which stated the number of persons left for execution. Amongst the names were those of Hall and Morrison. The whole population of Wolverhampton instantly showed how they felt upon an occasion so dreadful.
The Rev. Mr. Guard, one of the most venerable characters in that part of the country, who officiates in the village where Hall’s family resides, upon hearing the event of the trial, set out for Wolverhampton, where he found the people already meeting and acting upon this subject. The men were to be hanged this day (Saturday last), and not a moment was to be lost. Mr. Guard, who had known Hall from his infancy, and would have staked his life upon the integrity of the young man, made a quick but deep inquiry into the facts, and having found every thing confirmatory of his innocence, followed Baron Garrow on his circuit to state what he had learned from the very best authority, and obtain a respite.
He saw Mr. Baron Garrow, but his Lordship appeared to see no reason to alter the opinion which he had formed from hearing the trial. The worthy Clergyman, however, was so well convinced of the truth of his own information, that he could not help exclaiming, with more zeal than discretion, “I see you are determined to hang these poor men.”
Mr. Baron Garrow was naturally offended at this intemperate observation, and an eminent Barrister remarked, that Mr. Guard’s object was wholly defeated by the use of it.
Mr. Guard was not, however, to be turned from the endeavour to save the lives of the two soldiers; there was another quarter to which he could apply. He immediately came to town, and went without ceremony to Lord Sidmouth, to whom he obtained an easy access. He remained in conversation with his Lordship between three and four hours, and Lord Sidmouth afterwards declared, that he never in his life saw such an interest taken in the fate of men who were not related by domestic ties to the individuals whom he was labouring to save. This meeting gave Mr. Guard hopes; though Lord Sidmouth had observed, that in cases of this kind the Judge was necessarily better acquainted with all the bearings of the evidence than the Secretary of State, and therefore his power was seldom interfered with, except under circumstances of strong fact.
Mr. Guard posted back to Wolverhampton the moment after he parted from the Secretary. A meeting of the inhabitants was called, at which Mr. Mander, and all the other respectable residents of Wolverhampton attended.
The witnesses were sworn, and a Petition to the Prince Regent was signed and delivered into the hands of Mr. Guard, who, accompanied by Mr. Charles Mander, very soon after arrived in town. These two gentlemen went, with Mr. Pearsall, of Cheapside, to Lord Sidmouth, and put into his hands the evidence of the innocence of the soldiers. His Lordship requested that Mr. Pearsall would relate the circumstance.
That gentleman repeated the manner in which Read and the two soldiers had acted in the presence of the watchmen and the grocer. Lord Sidmouth was just going up with the Recorder’s Report, and said, that upon his return he would examine the affidavits, and act upon them. Mr. Pearsall observed, that the men were ordered for execution on Saturday, but was assured by his Lordship that their case should not be neglected, and that the affidavits should be laid before the Attorney-General.
Upon the next meeting, Lord Sidmouth said there had been no necessity for laying the affidavits before the Attorney-General. The case, he observed, was one of the most interesting that ever came before him.
Indeed, such was the effect of the affidavits upon him, that he was not only immediately convinced that the soldiers should not be executed, but, in the absence of his clerks, he wrote the dispatch for their respite with his own hand, and sent it to the Sheriff; “because,” said his Lordship, “I could not endure the thought that the soldiers should have one hour more of unnecessary anxiety.”
Mr. Pearsall said there was no doubt that the men had no intention of felony; it would also appear, at another time, that the prosecutor had no intention of indicting them, until he was instigated by Roberts, with the view of gaining the reward called “Blood-money,” which was accordingly pocketed by Read and the keeper of the prison, to the amount of 80l.
Lord Sidmouth declared, that, under such circumstances, an immediate investigation should take place. He coincided in the opinion of the impropriety of Roberts’s conduct, and said a pardon would be instantly granted to the soldiers. He also complimented, in the warmest manner, the conduct of Mr. Guard and the other gentleman, who had exerted themselves. In the course of his observations to Lord Sidmouth, Mr. Guard said he would give up half his fortune to save the life of Hall, so convinced was he of his honesty.
While these operations were going forward in London, affidavits, copied from those handed to the Secretary, were brought to Mr. Baron Garrow by Lieut. Buchanan, of the same regiment as the soldiers, and a respite was instantly granted by his Lordship when he read them.
The Officer stated, that Baron Garrow, upon reading the affidavits, said, if the facts had been known before, their respite should have been granted; and asked whether they would, upon being pardoned, be taken into the regiment again? Lieutenant Buchanan immediately replied, that they would be most gladly received.