Posts filed under 'Wrongful Executions'

1922: George Hornsby

1 comment April 14th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1922, George Hornsby was hanged in Belton, Texas.

We pick up the George Hornsby’s trail 18 months before his execution, when the bludgeoned body of car dealer J.N. Weatherby was discovered outside Brownwood, Texas, on October 19, 1920.

The mysterious crime was unlocked by 16-year-old Willie Carter, who told authorities that he was the accomplice of the murderer George F. Hornsby* — Carter’s sister’s lover. The motive, Carter said, was theft.

Hornsby was arrested some weeks later in Birmingham, Alabama. He would insist from that time until the trap dropped under his feet that he had already been en route to Birmingham when the crime was committed.

The warring eyewitness testimony** attempting to situate Hornsby’s whereabouts on the days surrounding Weatherby’s murder defined the case both within the courtroom and without. A jury in Belton — where the trial had been moved owing to prejudice against Hornsby in Brownwood — bought Willie Carter’s version.

This did not cinch the case in the court of public opinion, especially since Hornsby vociferously adhered to his original story.

In the weeks leading up to the execution, after Hornsby’s legal team had fought its corner and the matter was in the hands of Gov. (and pioneer tough-on-crime pol) Pat Neff, Carter recanted his testimony.†

Then, a few days later, Carter recanted his recantation.

With the evidence in such a muddle, 7,000 sympathetic Texans — heavily residents of the trial venue Bell county as against those of Brown county, where the murder occurred — petitioned Gov. Neff for Hornsby’s life. Neff ended up personally interviewing Carter to try to figure out what was what. In the end, Neff wasn’t buying what the clemency campaigners were selling, and took a lonely stand against mobs of vigilantes roaming the Lone Star state imposing summary mercy.

No finer example can be had of criminal hero-worship than when a few months ago seven thousand one hundred and twenty-eight persons in Bell County signed a petition that I either pardon or commute the death sentence adjuded by court and jury against one George Hornsby. Hornsby was a man 29 years of age, a deserter from the American army, went under an assumed name to avoid identity, a transient fellow without vocation, lived with a woman not his wife on a negro street in Brownwood, and for the purpose of robbery, murdered, if human testimony is to be believed, one of the substantial citizens of Brown County. That he might have an impartial trial, removed from local influence, the case was sent to Bell County. The jury assessed the death penalty, and from the evidence as I found it to be, any other verdict would have been a travesty on justice. No sooner was the verdict of guilty rendered than there was begun by men and women, among them the very best citizens of Bell County and the equal of those of any other county, a campaign closely resembling hero-worship of the convicted murderer. Eighty per cent of the voting strength of Bell County protested to me against the punishment assessed against him. Reports stated that admiring hands brought to his cell the delicacies of life, flowers were strewn for him to walk on to the scaffold and fair women coveted the privilege of holding his hands while the black cap was being adjusted.‡ By public contributions a costly casket was purchased and flowers were piled high above his grave, even as the grave of one who had fallen in defense of his country. The murderer was praised as a hero and the Governor who refused to set aside the verdict of the Court of Appeals, all declaring him guilty, was held up to scorn and ridicule.

To these more than seven thousand petitioners I made no apology then and I make none now. In the administration of the law, I am for the courthouse, its judgments and its decrees. It is the one tribunal whose sole function is to make life sacred and property secure. It is the outgrowth of the centuries, the ripened product of civilization. When people ignore the courthouse and defy the law, they are blasting with the dynamite of destruction at the very foundation of their government. Without the courthouse the weak would be made to surrender to the strong. I am for the courthouse and against the mob. If civilization is worth preserving on the battlefield when war shakes her bristling bayonets, it is worth maintaining in the courthouse, where justice, when properly supported, holds forth her delicately balanced scales. In this deluge of lawlessness and disrespect for governmental authority which has submerged the State, the courthouse will prove to be the Mount Ararat upon which the ark of the law must finally rest, to send forth the dove of peace and civilization.

Hornsby’s Ararat was the gallows. He went calmly, with a short address reiterating his innocence.

People, I don’t know many of you, but lots of you know me. People, I stand before you a saved man. I accepted Christ as my personal Savior. I am going to leave you people, but I am going to a better land. I am going to where we will all be treated alike. We will all be charged alike, and I want to tell you people I am going as an innocent man.

I have lived a sinful life, but I have not committed any murder, so help me God. (New Orleans Times-Picayune, April 15, 1922)

A crowd estimated at three to four thousand turned up for Hornsby’s funeral.

The next year, state Senator J.W. Thomas from the little Bell County town of Rogers sponsored the legislation that would centralize all Texas executions (formerly conducted, as was Hornsby’s, by local authorities) in Huntsville.

* Here are two interesting facts about George Hornsby: first, he went by “George Scott” in Brownwood before all the trouble, since he was trying to distance himself from a dishonorable army discharge; second, his search results are complicated by his case unfolding during the simultaneous emergence of baseball great Rogers Hornsby.

** Some of it is discussed in Hornsby’s (unfavorable) appellate ruling, here.

† Sign of the times: after Carter’s first recantation — before he recanted the recantation — Hornsby was moved from the Bell county jail as “a precautionary measure owing to reports that efforts to bring about a commutation of sentence were distasteful to friends of Weatherby.” (Wire report in the Portland (Ore.) Oregonian, Aprkl 2, 1922.)

The Ku Klux Klan enjoyed a major revival in Texas during the 1920s.

‡ Actually, a high wooden palisade shielded Hornsby from public view of the flower-strewing masses. A Mrs. Bennett Smith of Temple, Texas, who helped lead the clemency campaign did offer to stand on the scaffold with Hornsby, but Hornsby seems to have declined the favor.

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1859: The martyrs of Tacubaya

Add comment April 11th, 2014 Headsman

On this date, the conservative Mexican Gen. Leonardo Marquez earned himself the nickname “Tiger of Tacubaya” for the mass execution of liberal prisoners after a battle in Mexico’s Reform War.

The “reform” warred-over is actually the label for a whole era of liberal modernization with all the usual stuff to enrage a conservative old guard: land reform, a liberal constitution, and a rollback in the prerogatives of the clergy and the military.

It was rather sucessful.

The liberals successfully deposed General Santa Anna* and set about implementing this stuff. You, clever reader, have already surmised from the existence of a “Reform War” that they did not do so without resistance.

In the late 1850s, Mexico actually sported two rival presidents — Benito Juarez, under the liberals’ 1857 constitution, and Gen. Miguel Miramon, under a rebellious military junta that rejected this constitution.

One of the conservatives’ top commanders was Leonardo Marquez, our Tiger of Tacubaya: so called because at that ancient village, today engulfed in the sprawl of Mexico City, Marquez defeated a liberal army in a bloody fight.

Beginning that very night, Marquez had all his prisoners executed,** not excepting the wounded, foreign nationals, medical personnel, and even civilians sympathetic to the losing side. U.S. President James Buchanan denounced this affair to Congress in 1859 as evidence of the “wretched state” of Mexico that, he said, demanded American intervention.†

To cap the climax, after the battle of Tacubaya, in April, 1859, General Marquez ordered three citizens of the United States, two of them physicians, to be seized in the hospital at that place, taken out and shot, without crime, and without trial. This was done, notwithstanding our unfortunate countrymen were at the moment engaged in the holy cause of affording relief to the soldiers of both parties who had been wounded in the battle, without making any distinction between them.

Congress demurred on warmongering, but this act of wanton cruelty towards the so-called Martires de Tacubaya helped to turn Mexicans against the conservatives. The liberals had won the Reform War by the first days of 1861 — just in time to brace for that year’s ill-fated French intervention.

* Of Alamo fame, for yanquis; Santa Anna’s loss of Texas to the United States did no favors for his political position back home.

** One notable victim: writer Juan Díaz Covarrubias.

Marquez said he was ordered to carry out the summary executions by Miramon, but Marquez also had a reputation for ruthlessness apart from the incident at hand. Miramon got his a few years later when he was shot by the victorious constitutionalists alongside Emperor Maximilian, a later French-backed interloper not yet on the scene in 1859.

† Buchanan also cited the hanging of Ormond Chase in this same speech.

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1642: George Spencer, pork loin

1 comment April 8th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1642, George Spencer paid the penalty at the New Haven (Connecticut) colony for a pig-fucking that he probably never perpetrated.

Seven and a half weeks previous, a farmer named John Wakeman had reported to magistrates that his pregnant sow had delivered a litter of healthy piglets … plus one abomination from the nightmares of H.P. Lovecraft and Ron Jeremy.

Itt had no haire on the whole body, the skin was very tender, and of a reddish white collour like a childs; the head most straing, itt had butt one eye in the midle of the face, and thatt large and open, like some blemished eye of a man; over the eye, in the bottome of the foreheade which was like a childes, a thing of flesh grew forth and hung downe, itt was hollow, and like the mans instrument of generation.

Genetics is a funny thing. Once in a while the little variations in a new generation will produce an adaptive advantage that takes the species another step down its evolutionary path.

And then other times what you get is dickface swineclops.

As so often with a proper monster story, it was the frightened townsfolk who produced the real horror.

The resemblance of this poor (and mercifully stillborn) pig to a man — “nose, mouth and chinne deformed, butt nott much unlike a childs, the neck and eares had allso such resemblance” — looked like palpable divine anger to New Haven worthies, and inspired a suitably inquisitorial response.

Its target was localized to George Spencer, a former servant to the pig’s former owner. Spencer had a bum eye himself plus a reputation as a “prophane, lying, scoffing and lewd speritt.” With a model of heredity we might strain to credit as primitive, it emerged as widespread suspicion that soon manifested into fact that Spencer had fathered the penis-headed chimera.

Maybe George Spencer really did go hog wild. Who really knows? But the account of the “investigation” — in which the only actual evidence was Spencer’s own confession plus his mutant “progeny” — has every hallmark of the false confessions whose prevalence is only lately becoming well-understood. European and American “witches” were also telling their persecutors just what they wanted to hear in the mid-17th century.

Spencer denied the charges at first. The magistrate Stephen Goodyear(e)* interrogated him: did Spencer not “take notice of something in [the monster pig] like him”? Goodyear implied that they already knew Spencer was guilty.

During a nervous pause, which Goodyear took to be Spencer preparing his soul to unburden itself but a less hostile viewer might have taken to be the frightened farmhand fretting about how he was going to escape with his neck, Goodyear hit him with Proverbs 28:13. It’s a nice dual-purpose verse to stamp the divine imprimatur on the good cop-bad cop approach: “He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy.”

Spencer wasn’t getting anywhere denying everything. He decided to try confessing and getting in on that mercy.

(Even at this, he told someone else that he had only confessed “for favor”. Upon hearing this, Goodyear stalked back to Spencer’s cell and made him commit to the confession.)

The next day, a team of town grandees showed up to get the details. Again, Spencer denied it, but now his previous day’s remarks hemmed him in. His story was shifty; he changed the location of the sin from the sty to the stable, varied between a half-hour and two hours engaged in his sin.

By the time of the trial that commenced on March 2, Spencer — perhaps now realizing that the proverb he ought to have heeded was “don’t talk to police” — was back to full denial. This time he stuck to it all the way through the proceedings, and little good it did him as witness after witness who had heard various iterations of his confession reported the admission. The judges had to decide how to adjudicate this kind of case at all, and they decided to go straight to the Pentateuch.

according to the fundamentall agreement, made and published by full and generall consent, when the plantation began and government was settled, that the judiciall law of God given by Moses and expounded in other parts of scripture, so far as itt is a hedg and a fence to the morrall law, and neither ceremoniall nor tipicall, nor had any referrence to Canaan, hath an everlasting equity in itt, and should be the rule of their proceedings. They judged the crime cappitall, and thatt the prisoner and the sow, according to Levit. 20 and 15, should be put to death.

By hanging-day on April 8, Spencer was still refusing to admit the charges, and he even continued his obstinacy to the gallows — giving only the sort of standard-issue hanging-day exhortation to straighten those laces and not skip church that everyone always gave. To this he still “joyned a denyall of his fact.”

Only at the very last, with the noose about his neck, “and being tolde it was an ill time now to provoke God when he was falling into his hands, as a righteous and seveere judge who had vengeanc at hand for all his other sins, so for his impudency and atheisme, he justified the sentence as righteous, and fully confessed the bestiality in all the scircumstances,” meanwhile blaming for the probable damnation of his soul a sawyer in the audience named Will Harding who tried to keep the flesh alive by counseling Spencer to just keep his damned mouth shut and not confess anything in the first place. This death’s-edge admission would have satisfied onlookers, but ought not satisfy us; the complex psychology of false confessions with their underlying fear of punishment and need to please a captor are potentially even sharper at the communal performance of a public execution — the offender’s last opportunity to spiritually rejoin his own community. Spencer knew he was doomed; he knew everyone thought he was lying; he would presumably have genuinely feared hell and deeply desired to give his own certain death meaning. Somewhere in this id soup is surely reason enough to say the thing his friends and neighbors all but willed him to say.

Thing said, the poor sow was butchered under Spencer’s eyes first (as Leviticus demands). Then Spencer was strangled on hemp, “God opening his mouth before his death, to give him the glory of his rightousnes, to the full satisfaction of all then present.”

* Goodyear(e)‘s daughter Hannah would eventually marry the son of John Wakeman, whose sow it was that gave birth to the pig that started all the ruckus. In the early 1650s, Stephen Goodyear would favor colonial authorities with suspicions of a witch in his very own household, but that poor servant managed to avoid execution.

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1958: Jeremiah Reeves, Montgomery Bus Boycott inspiration

Add comment March 28th, 2014 Headsman

In 1954, the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama hired as its pastor a 25-year-old fresh out of Boston University’s doctoral program.

In his memoir, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. remembered his entry to civil rights activism in Montgomery. One of his first steps was setting up a Social and Political Action Committee for his church, prominently emphasizing voter registration.

But his next engaged a major death penalty case that haunted Montgomery throughout the 1950s.

After having started the program of the church on its way, I joined the local branch of the NAACP and began to take an active interest in implementing its program in the community itself. Besides raising money through my church, I made several speeches for the NAACP in Montgomery and elsewhere. Less than a year after I joined the branch I was elected to the executive committee. By attending most of the monthly meetings I was brought face to face with some of the racial problems that plagued the community, especially those involving the courts.

Before my arrival in Montgomery, and for several years after, most of the NAACP’s energies and funds were devoted to the defense of Jeremiah Reeves. Reeves, a drummer in a Negro band, had been arrested at the age of sixteen, accused of raping a white woman. One of the authorities had led him to the death chamber, threatening that if he did not confess at once he would burn there later. His confession, extracted under this duress, was later retracted, and for the remaining seven years that his case, and his life, dragged on, he continued to deny not only the charge of rape but the accusation of having had sexual relations at all with his white accuser.

The NAACP hired the lawyers and raised the money for Reeve’s defense. In the local court he was found guilty and condemned to death. The conviction was upheld in a series of appeals through the Alabama courts. The case was appealed to the United States Supreme Court on two occasions. The first time, the Court reversed the decision and turned it back to thes tate supreme court for rehearing. The second time, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear the case but later dismissed it, thus leaving the Alabama court free to electrocute. After the failure of a final appeal to the governor to commute the sentence, the police officials kept their promise. On March 28, 1958, Reeves was electrocuted.

The Reeves case was typical of the unequal justice of Southern courts. In the years that he sat in jail, several white men in Alabama had also been charged with rape; but their accusers were Negro girls. They were seldom arrested; if arrested, they were soon released by the grand jury; none was ever brought to trial. For good reason the Negroes of the South had learned to fear and mistrust the white man’s justice.

-Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story

Reeves’s plight struck much closer to home for Claudette Colvin.

A Montgomery native, she was a classmate of Reeves at Montgomery’s segregated Booker T. Washington High School.

On March 2, 1955, Colvin boarded a city bus in front of King’s church on her way back from school, and plopped herself down in the middle of it. As the bus meandered on its route, it began to fill up. Montgomery’s segregated-bus rules at the time reserved a few rows up front for whites, and opened the middle rows for blacks … but only until the white rows overflowed, at which point black riders in the midsection were expected to give up their seats.

Colvin refused to do it.

She furiously argued with the police summoned by the bus driver, invoking her constitutional rights.

When they arrested her, she didn’t do nonviolent resistance: she fought back.

“I was really struggling,” she said in Ellen Levin’s Freedom’s Children: Young Civil Rights Activists Tell Their Own Stories.

“Other kids got home and told Mama what happened,” Colvin remembered. “She already knew how hurt I was about Jeremiah Reeves. She knew this wasn’t a one-day thing. This was a rebellious time that started with Jeremiah … I just couldn’t get over Jeremiah being framed.”

Colvin’s spur-of-the-moment act of civil disobedience predated the more famous refusal of Rosa Parks by nine months. (Colvin’s parents knew Rosa Parks, and Parks was an advisor to the NAACP Youth Council, which Colvin was involved in.)

Montgomery civil rights leaders were already looking for a test case to mount a challenge against Montgomery buses’ racial ridership rules. Colvin was considered for the part, but ultimately Montgomery’s leaders took a pass on the case: she was an angry teenager, very dark-skinned, and from a working-class family; moreover, she soon became pregnant by an older, married man whom Colvin refused to name. Nevertheless, her name, and her act, became well-known in Montgomery and nationwide. The first pamphlets about Parks’s arrest reference Colvin as the well-known precedent.

Rosa Parks, a dignified and nonviolent matron, was eventually judged the palatable public figurehead to rally behind. Days after Parks’s December 1, 1955 arrest,* the Montgomery Improvement Association — with King at its head — mounted its famous bus boycott. Parks is the name everyone knows … but Colvin was the first.

And Colvin was one of four plaintiffs in the federal suit that forced desegregation in Montgomery.

Claudette Colvin’s refusenik notoriety made it so difficult for her to work in Montgomery that she moved to New York in 1958 — the same year her schoolmate was finally electrocuted for that supposed rape.

Days after Reeves died in Alabama’s electric chair, an Easter rally assembled on the lawn of that state’s capitol building to protest the execution — and gird for the struggles still to come.

We assemble here this afternoon on the steps of this beautiful capitol building in an act of public repentance for our community for committing a tragic and unsavory injustice. A young man, Jeremiah Reeves, who was little more than a child when he was first arrested, died in the electric chair for the charge of rape. Whether or not he was guilty of this crime is a question that none of us can answer. But the issue before us now is not the innocence or guilt of Jeremiah Reeves. Even if he were guilty, it is the severity and inequality of the penalty that constitutes the injustice. Full grown white men committing comparable crimes against Negro girls are rare ever punished, and are never given the death penalty or even a life sentence. It was the severity of Jeremiah Reeves’s penalty that aroused the Negro community, not the question of his guilt or innocence.

But not only are we here to repent for the sin committed against Jeremiah Reeves, but we are also here to repent for the constant miscarriage of justice that we confront every day in our courts. The death of Jeremiah Reeves is only the precipitating factor for our protest, not the causal factor. The causal factor lies deep down in the dark and dreary past of our oppression. The death of Jeremiah Reeves is but one incident, yes a tragic incident, in the long and desolate night of our court injustice.

Let us go away devoid of biterness, and with the conviction that unearned suffering is redemptive. I hope that in recognizing the necessity for struggle and suffering, we will make of it a virtue. If only to save ourselves from bitterness, we need vision to see the ordeals of this generation as the opportunity to transfigure ourselves and American society … Truth may be crucified and justice buried, but one day they will rise again. We must live and face death if necessary with that hope.

-Martin Luther King, ““Statement Delivered at the Prayer Pilgrimage Protesting the Electrocution of Jeremiah Reeves” (pdf transcription)

* Parks would say that she had been thinking on the occasion of her refusal of that summer’s murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi.

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1782: The Gnadenhutten Massacre

3 comments March 8th, 2014 Headsman

You recall the time when the Jesus Indians of the Delawares lived near the Americans, and had confidence in their promises of friendship, and thought they were secure, yet the Americans murdered all the men, women, and children, even as they prayed to Jesus?

-Tecumseh, to William Henry Harrison in 1810

This date in 1782 marks one of the more appalling single atrocities in the United States’s long destruction of indigenous Native Americans — the Gnadenhutten Massacre.

This incident during the American Revolution took place in the Ohio River basin, a vast and fertile flashpoint whose part in not only the revolution but the antecedent French and Indian War perhaps entitles it to claim the midwifery of the coming American empire.

After victory in the French and Indian War, the British closed the area west of the Appalachian mountains to European settlement. This proclamation:

  • Made good a wartime pact Britain had made to secure the support of the Iroquois, Lenape (Delaware) and Shawnee tribes; and
  • Trailed facts on the ground the moment it was issued.

European settlements and land claims already existed in the supposed Indian Reserve, and land-hungry settlers did not let the supposed frontier deter them from advancing new ones. Confrontations between these arriving claimants and the native inhabitants not infrequently came to atrocious resolutions.

By 1768, a new treaty pushed the line further west, effectively ceding to the colonists everything south of the Ohio River — present-day Kentucky and West Virginia.*


Map of the disputed area: the frontier moved from the yellow line along the Applachians to the orange line along the Ohio.

Ohio Country, the remaining territory in dark green shading north of the Ohio River, lay at the time of the American Revolution between the British garrison at Fort Detroit and colonial outposts along the nascent United States’s western marches, such as Fort Pitt (Pittsburgh).

The Lenape Indians in Ohio Country had a difficult calculation to make as to which side (if any) and how to support during the British-American fighting. The question split the Lenape internally.

In this cauldron, a strange morsel: Lenape who were Moravian** Christian converts had established a little missionary village. “Gnadenhutten” literally means “huts of grace”.

As one might imagine, Gnadenhutten and its sister settlements of pacifistic, Christian Lenape stood in a terribly ambiguous position in the brutal irregular war going on around them. Their fellow Lenape distrusted them because they were Christians; their fellow Christians, because they were Lenape.

Suspected by the British of being friendly enough with the American colonists to pass intelligence to their eventual murderers, these converts were in 1781 forced out of Gnadenhutten by British-allied Lenape to a new settlement aptly named “Captive Town”.

Starving there in the ensuing winter, the Moravians dispatched nearly 100 of their number back to Gnadenhutten to retrieve food abandoned at that settlement.

The Moravians were still at their village when a raiding party of Pennsylvanians descended on the town. Under no authority but the militiamen’s own festering grievances from the ongoing dirty war, the Pennsylvanians rounded up the Delaware and heartlessly declared their deaths.

Here were Indians who would pay for the violence Indians had done. And they were the best kind: the kind who didn’t fight back.

After spending a night praying and preparing for the end, the Moravian Lenape were systematically butchered on the morning of March 8† with mallet blows and scalpings.

Depending on your source, there were either 90 or 96 scalps to take that morning – women, men, and children in nearly equal proportions. At least one young boy survived the death squad and reported the massacre. Nor were all the militia themselves at peace with their deed.

one Nathan Rollins & brother had had a father & uncle killed took the lead in murdering the Indians, & Williamson was opposed to it; & Nathan Rollins had tomahawked nineteen of the poor Moravians, & after it was over he sat down & cried, & said it was no satisfaction for the loss of his father & uncle after all. — So related Holmes Jr. who was there — who was out on both Moravian campaigns, & Crawford’s. (Source)

Ah, Crawford’s campaign.

Later in 1782, another expedition of frontiersmen under Col. William Crawford set out “to destroy with fire and sword” a different Lenape settlement in Ohio. Instead, the Lenape met and routed the expedition, taking Crawford prisoner. He and the other captives from that misadventure would be burned to death, in part to avenge Gnadenhutten.

This, and whatever like tit for tat could be exacted in the field, was all the justice the Lenape could ever hope to have for the hecatomb of Gnadenhutten. American authorities declined to prosecute or sanction any members of the militia.


“Here triumphed in death ninety Christian Indians March 8, 1782″: inscription at the base of a memorial obelisk in Gnadenhutten. (cc) image from Mike Drabik.

* This might have been a nice solution, except that said treaty was made by the Iroquois — and only the Iroquois. For the Shawnee who actually lived and hunted in this cessation, this was two outside powers bartering their land. They didn’t mean to give it up on the say-so of the Iroquois. Another nasty frontier war followed, and even when that was won by Virginian militia, dissatisfied Shawnee continued targeting settlements in Kentucky; it’s partly for this reason that the Declaration of Independence slates King George III with having “endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

For more on the long and tragic Shawnee struggle in this period, see “‘We Have Always Been the Frontier’: The American Revolution in Shawnee Country” by Colin G. Calloway in American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Winter 1992).

** The Moravian Church‘s name harkens to its Czech origins. It’s a successor to the reform tradition of Jan Hus.

† There are a few cites out there for the day before or the day after March 8.

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1687: The first of the Martyrs of Eperjes

Add comment March 5th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1687, the Austrian empire made the first of its many Protestant martyrs in Eperjes — the Hungarian name for the city now in Slovakia, where it is known as Prešov.

In the wake of the unsuccessful Zrinski-Frankopan Hungarian conspiracy against Hapsburg absolutism, the arch-Catholic Holy Roman Emperor Leopold did some cracking down.

Leopold suspended the Hungarian constitution and rounded up Protestant pastors, who “were not executed, but the choice of those convicted was between recantation and serving as galley slaves.” (Source)

Rough handling pushed the most aggrieved Hungarians into outright revolt in the 1670s, eventually led by the nobleman Imre Thököly.*

Thokoly enjoyed fantastic success, carving by force of arms a Principality of Upper Hungary roughly corresponding to present-day Slovakia. Squeezed as he was between the great powers of the Holy Roman Empire and the Ottoman Turks, Thokoly allied himself with Sultan Mehmed IV and aided the Turks’ 1683 siege of Vienna.

That meant that his followers would share the downfall of that enterprise.

After the siege was thrown off, Thokoly’s rebellion was gradually quashed, culminating in a 1685 battle at Presov — one of Thokoly’s major bastions. (Hungarian link)

Thereafter, Thokoly himself would be a ward of the Ottomans, alternately a prisoner or a vassal captain in the field. (He would briefly establish himself as Prince of Transylvania with Ottoman backing in 1690.)

Pope John Paul II and Evangelical bishop Jan Midriak prayed together at a monument to the Presov martyrs in 1995.(cc) image from Jozef Kotulic.

For Presov and those misfortunate enough to be caught there, matters were worse.

The Hapsburg military governor of the former rebel territory, Antonio Caraffa, set up a star chamber to deliver some harsh justice.

From February 1687, Presov Protestants trying to raise money to re-establish war-damaged schools were accused of conspiring to rise again and subjected to a series of torture-driven show trials.

The first four of these, Sigmund Zimmermann, Caspar Rauscher, Andreas Keczer and Franz Baranyay, were beheaded and quartered on March 5, 1687. All told, some two dozen would die over the course of 1687 in this hunt, most of them on the scaffold — the Martyrs of Eperjes. (German link.)


Statue of Imre Thokoly at Budapest’s Heroes’ Square. (cc) image from Hungarian Snow.

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1878: J.W. Rover, sulfurous

Add comment February 19th, 2014 Headsman

Reno, Nevada had its only hanging on this date in 1878, and it’s never since been certain whether it was the right man they hung.

J.W. Rover, Frank McWorthy, and Isaac Sharp(e) had come from Oakland to work a sulfur claim in present-day Pershing County (then Humboldt County).

Sharp ended up dead, his body horribly mutilated and its dismembered parts scattered to different burial holes.

A mental health counselor I know is fond of saying of the family dysfunctions he has handled that who is crazy depends upon who gets to the phone first. It turns out that sometimes murder does, too.

McWorthy rode in to Winnemucca and swore out a complaint accusing Rover of the murder. Rover would spend the next three years vigorously but never quite successfully insisting that McWorthy was the one who killed Sharp.

Rover was convicted of murder in July 1875, but because the verdict didn’t mention degree of murder, the case had to be retried. In April 1876, Rover was convicted again, of first-degree murder, thank you very much. But the Nevada Supreme Court overturned that verdict, too, and granted Rover a change of venue to Reno’s Washoe County, where Rover was convicted for a third time in June 1877.

In all these proceedings, Rover never wavered from his claim of innocence, calling God to witness at trial after trial that it was his associate and accuser McWorthy who was the guilty party and wanted to frame up Rover to get his hands on that lucrative sulfur deposit.

Having failed three times over in court, Rover’s lawyers turned as the hanging approached to Section 458, a remote provision of the criminal code permitting a special jury to be impaneled “if after judgment of death there be good reason to suppose that the defendant has become insane.”

Three years and all those hearings on, Rover’s fate would finally rest in the hands of twelve new jurors impaneled on the very eve of his hanging. While Rover passed his final night in the Reno jail, his sanity jury met in a courtroom in an upper-story room.

Rover’s lawyers and the District Attorney made their arguments to the jury until midnight that night, then adjourned, and then re-assembled at 7:30 on the morning of the scheduled execution. Rover couldn’t sleep a wink, passing the night rambling emotionally with reporters — at one point breaking down as he read them a letter from his sister.

“As he lay there he formed an object at once of pity and interest,” one scribe wrote for the newspaper of nearby silver mining boomtown Virginia City.*

He was reclining upon a rude bed covered by a coarse blanket. His pillow had no case, and his hair was unkempt and rough-looking. His beard had the appearance of being about one month’s growth. The cell was narrow, and was lighted by the feeble rays of a tallow candle held by a Deputy Sheriff.

Once or twice, he would furtively ask the reporters’ estimation of his chances with the proceedings upstairs. The reporters didn’t know. The jury didn’t either.

That morning, as crowds besieged the courthouse seeking one of the 200 visitors’ permits for the “private” execution, the jury huddled inside it making its final deliberations over four long hours. At last, at noon, it came down seven votes for sane, five for insane.**

Seventy minutes after that vote, Rover was escorted to the gallows supported by two men and a stiff drink of whiskey. This was nearly a two-hour theater in its own right: after a 20-minute recitation of the death warrant, Rover spoke for 50-plus minutes, continuing to insist upon his innocence:

I am so prostrated by this long prosecution that I am unable to say what I want to say …

Gentlemen, McWorthy has got away, but if I had my liberty the face of the world would not be large enough to hide him. I would search him out and bring him to justice, and if the law could not reach him I would find a strong arm of justice that would reach him …

I must be hung; you will be sorry for it some day, but what good will that do me when I am dead and gone? Good-by. My heart is with you.

By the end, Rover could barely hold up. He took a drink of water. “Oh, gentlemen, I cannot realize that I am to be hung!” he cried as his limbs were pinioned at last, and had to be supported lest he swoon. The Catholic priest finally had to settle him down from his last babbling.

“Not guilty,” he insisted one last time. Then to the sheriff: “Go on and do your duty.”


Rumors of Rover’s innocence persisted for years after his hanging, not excluding claims that his ghost was on the haunt.†

In 1899, a newspaper reported that “It afterward developed that Rover was innocent of the crime for which he suffered. McWorthy died a few years ago in Arizona, and on his deathbed confessed that he was the murderer of Sharp.”

McWorthy might or might not have been the guilty party. But that story was not accurate — McWorthy was still alive at the time in Oakland, California.

* The newspaper in question was the Territorial Enterprise, notable for employing the young Mark Twain in the early 1860s. Indeed, it was here that the writer Samuel Clemens first employed that nom de plume. Ten years before Rover’s hanging, Clemens/Twain actually witnessed and wrote about a public hanging in Virginia City.

** Not as close as it sounds: Rover needed a unanimous verdict.

† The present-day Washoe County Courthouse, not built until many years after Rover’s hanging, allegedly has a haunted jail whose spook might be Rover.

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1896: Bartholomew “Bat” Shea, political machine ballot-stuffer

2 comments February 11th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1896, during a driving Adirondack snowstorm, Bartholomew “Bat” Shea was electrocuted at New York’s Clinton Prison for a political murder two years prior.

This was the great boom time for machine politics, corrupt political patronage networks doling “spoils” like jobs and benefits to members who in turn maintained a party’s stranglehold on an electorate. These flourished in an industrializing America’s burgeoning cities; Troy, N.Y., at 60,000-plus in the 1890s (it has fewer than that today), was one of upstate New York’s prime industrial centers, and home to a municipal machine rooted in Irish Catholic immigrants and bossed by Democratic U.S. Senator Edward Murphy.

Machine politics were a major bone of contention in the Progressive Era, and certainly in the Troy elections of 1894. The ballot that year would decide Troy’s mayor, and as per usual the Murphy machine meant to stuff the box for its handpicked candidate.

On March 6, 1894, a group of Murphy “repeaters” (so called for their intent to vote repeatedly) including “Bat” Shea and (he’ll figure momentarily) John McGough approached a Thirteenth Ward polling place.

Republican poll watchers Robert and William Ross awaited them — armed, and expecting trouble. They had sparred with the Murphy machine at the ward caucus a few days previous.

“In a twinkling,” went a press report, “clubs and revolvers were flourished. Many shots were fired and when the fight closed it was found that Robert Ross had been fatally shot, that his brother, William, received a bullet in the neck and that Shea and McGough, who fled from the scene, had each been slightly wounded.”

This bloodshed, profaning as it seemed a sacred pillar of the polis, aroused a passionate if opportunistic response from Republicans, anti-machine reformers, and Troy’s Protestants. The killer(s) “were guilty of a crime against the Republic and against republican institutions,” as the resulting Committee of Public Safety put it, deep into the appeals process. (NYT, Jan. 15, 1896) “If such a crime is to go unpunished, ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people,’ must perish from the earth.”

“In this case there is something dearer than a single life,” said a prosecutor.*

It is the question of American citizenship, a question which comes home to us all, Democrats and Republicans, rich and poor. The question is whether it is the good citizen with the ballot, or the thug with his revolver, who shall control our nation.

Two other men were actually implicated in Robert Ross’s death before “Bat” Shea. John Boland, a fellow ballot-watcher, was the first arrested, but outcry against the apparent bid by the Murphy machine to fix the homicide on the victimized party soon freed him.

John McGough of the “repeater” party was also taken into custody, and accused at first of having fired the fatal shot.

Eyewitnesses soon pinned the murder on “Bat” Shea, and a conviction was speedily secured on this basis — with McGough subsequently receiving a long prison sentence for attempted murder, his shot having come within centimeters of taking William Ross’s life, too.

But many of those whom the Murphy machine benefited never believed the evidence against Shea and certainly never thought him capitally liable. Eyewitnesses hewing to their own party affiliation, pushing their own political agenda aided by convenient certainty upon the triggerman of this or that specific bullet in a general firefight. (The Rosses were shooting, too.)

The evidence could certainly be disputed, and over nearly two years Shea’s advocates did just that in courts and clemency petitions — a remarkable (for the time) odyssey to save Shea from the gallows.

Days prior to Shea’s January 1896 execution, his fellow repeater McGough sent a letter to Republican Gov. Levi Morton,** claiming that he, not Shea, shot Ross.

Interviewed directly by the governor’s agents, McGough stuck to his story. This wasn’t enough to convince Morton to spare Shea. For one thing, it would invite the suspicion that the Murphy people were conniving to weasel each other out of the debt that someone owed for Ross’s blood — McGough having already been convicted for his part in the skirmish, and thus safely out of the executioner’s potential grasp.

So much for Republican New York, Protestant New York, respectable New York. Shea’s many supporters who could never secure a legal toehold received his remains in honor at Troy, crowding a train platform where the coffin arrived in at 2:30 a.m. the morning after the electrocution. All that Wednesday, February 12, throngs of supporters paid their respects as the electrocuted man lay in state at his family’s River Street home.

At funeral services at St. Patrick’s Church on February 13, the officiating Father Swift averred uncertainty as to Shea’s guilt.

“If he was guilty,” said Swift (NYT, Feb. 14, 1896), “I do not believe he was conscious of it.”

For the reported 10,000 who turned out to lay the “murderer” to rest, the sentiment was quite a bit less ambivalent. Countless floral arrangements crowded into the Shea home. “Innocent,” read the cards upon many of them. Or, “Murdered.” (With a similar sympathy but perhaps much less taste, someone else sent flowers shaped like the electric chair.)

The present-day visitor to Troy can see “Bat” Shea’s name on a downtown Irish pub … and a monument of Robert Ross defending a ballot box at Oakwood Cemetery.


(cc) image from @zakkforchilli.

* This statement was made in the McGough trial, not the Shea trial. It’s sourced to this 1890s celebration of Ross and his cause.

** Morton had been U.S. Vice President from 1889 to 1893. More interestingly for this blog, Morton was U.S. President James Garfield’s 1881 appointee as ambassador to France. This was the very diplomatic post for which Charles Guiteau had petitioned Garfield, and being passed over (on account of being a whackadoodle obscurity) caused Guiteau to assassinate Garfield. Morton was succeeded as governor by Frank Swett Black … a Troy clean-elections crusader who had gone into politics after sitting at the prosecution’s bar in the case of “Bat” Shea.

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1253: P. Morret, poor guesser

Add comment January 29th, 2014 Headsman

Henry Charles Lea‘s A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages brings us the following anecdote of the Kafkaesque legal trap in which those denounced to the Inquisition found themselves.

In reality no advocate could be of material service to the accused, save in the most exceptional cases. The men who organized the Holy Office knew too well what they wanted to leave open any possibilities of which even the shrewdest advocate could take advantage, and it was admitted on all hands as a recognized fact that there was no method of defence save disabling the witnesses for the prosecution. It has been seen that enmity was the only source of disability in a witness, and this had to be mortal — there must have been bloodshed between the parties, or other cause sufficient to induce one to seek the life of the other. If, therefore, the case rested on witnesses of this kind, their testimony had to be rejected and the prosecution fell. As this was the only possible mode of escape, the cruelty of withholding from the prisoner the names of the adverse witnesses becomes doubly conspicuous. He was forced to grope around in the dark and blindly name such persons as he imagined might have a hand in his misfortunes. If he failed to hit upon any who appeared in the case, the evidence against him was conclusive, as far as it went. If he chanced to name some of the witnesses, he was interrogated as to the causes of enmity; the inquisitor examined into the facts of the alleged quarrel, and decided as he saw fit as to the retention or the rejection of their testimony. Conscientious jurists like Gui Foucoix and inquisitors like Eymerich warned their brethren that as the accused had so slender a chance of guessing the sources of evidence, the judge ought to investigate for himself and discard any that seemed to be the product of malice; but there were others who sought rather to deprive the poor wretch of every straw that might postpone his sinking. One device was to ask him, as though casually, at the end of his examination, whether he had any enemies who would so disregard the fear of God as to accuse him falsely, and if, thus taken unawares, he replied in the negative, he debarred himself from any subsequent defence; or the most damaging witness would be selected and the prisoner be asked if he knew him, when a denial would estop him from claiming enmity. It is easy to imagine other tricks by which shrewd and experienced inquisitors could save themselves the trouble of admitting the accused to even the nugatory form of defence to which alone he was entitled. As to allowing him to call witnesses in his favor, except to prove enmity of the accusers, it was never thought of in ordinary cases. By a legal fiction, the inquisitor was supposed to look at both sides of the case, and to take care of the defence as well as of the prosecution. If the accused failed to guess the names of enemies among the witnesses and to disable their testimony, he was condemned.

In England, under the barbarous custom of the peine forte et dure, a prisoner who refused to plead either guilty or not guilty was pressed to death, because the trial could not go on without either confession or defence. Cruel as was this expedient, it was the outcome of a manly sense of justice, which based its procedure on the rule that the worst felon should have a fair opportunity to prove his innocence. Far worse was the system of the Inquisition, which was equally resolved that its culprits should have no such easy method of escape as a refusal to plead. It had no scruples as to proceeding in such cases, and the obstinacy of the accused only simplified matters. The refusal was an act of contumacy, equivalent to disobeying a summons to appear, or it was held to be tantamount to a confession, and the obdurate prisoner was forthwith handed over to the secular arm as an impenitent heretic, fit only for the stake. The use of torture, however, rendered such cases rare.

The enviable simplicity which the inquisitorial process thus assumed in the absence of counsel and of all practical opportunities for defence can perhaps best be illustrated by one or two cases. Thus in the Inquisition of Carcassonne, June 19, 1252, P. Morret is called up and asked if he wishes to defend himself against the matters found in the instructio or indictment against him. He has nothing to allege except that he has enemies, of whom he names five. Apparently he did not happen to guess any of the witnesses, for the case proceeded by reading the evidence to him, after which he is again asked thrice if he has anything further to say. To this he replies in the negative, and the case ends by assigning January 29 for the rendering of sentence. Two years later, in 1254, at Carcassonne, a certain Bernard Pons was more lucky, for he happened to guess aright in naming his wife as an inimical witness, and we have the proceedings of the inquest held to determine whether the enmity was mortal. Three witnesses are examined, all of whom swear that she is a woman of loose character; one deposes that she had been taken in adultery by her husband; another that he had beaten her for it, and the third that he had recently heard her say that she wished her husband dead that she might marry a certain Pug Oler, and that she would willingly become a leper if that would bring it about. This would certainly seem sufficient, but Pons appears nevertheless not to have escaped. So thoroughly hopeless, indeed, was the prospect of any effort at defence, that it frequently was not even attempted, and the accused, like Arnaud Fabri at Carcassonne, August 26, 1252, when asked if he wished a copy of the evidence against him, would despairingly decline it. It was a customary formula in a sentence to state that the convict had been offered opportunity for defence and had not availed himself of it, showing how frequently this was the case.

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1820: Not Stephen Boorn, saved by newsprint

1 comment January 28th, 2014 Headsman

January 28, 1820 was the scheduled hanging-date for Stephen Boorn in Vermont, who was spared by the stroke of luck in one of the Republic’s seminal wrongful conviction cases. For all its vintage, it has a disturbingly current feel.

Stephen Boorn and his brother Jesse were farmers in Manchester living with their possibly feebleminded brother-in-law Russell Colvin when Colvin suddenly vanished in May 1812. Vanishing unexplained for weeks on end was actually an established behavior for this peculiar gentleman, so it was only gradually that suspicion of foul play accumulated. There was some bad blood known to exist between Colvin and his brothers-in-law; they had even been seen in a violent quarrel just before Russell Colvin disappeared (pdf). There were whispers, but never any real evidence.

And so weeks stretched into months, and then to years. Many years. Was it possible two neighbors of the good people of Manchester, Vt., had gotten away with murder plain as day and gone about bringing in their crops just like nothing happened?

The break arrived in 1819 courtesy of the brothers’ aged uncle Amos Boorn. Amos reported that Russell Colvin had appeared to him in a dream and accused his former in-laws of murder. Now a dream couldn’t be read in evidence, but it proved sufficient to re-open a cold case and endow the investigation with official “tunnel vision” so familiar to the staging of a wrongful conviction.

The other classic trappings of that scene followed anon: shoddy evidence, a jailhouse snitch, and even a false confession.

Once under the pall of suspicion, random events around the Boorns began to seem sinister. The dream-Russell’s accusation led to a cellar-hole being excavated, which turned up some random junk (a penknife, a button); was it Colvin’s random junk? A barn on the Boorn farm burned down; had it been torched to conceal evidence? A boy found bones at a stump on the property; were they human remains? (They turned out to be animal remains.)

Stephen Boorn had moved to Denmark, New York, but Jesse Boorn was taken into custody for interrogation. There he was parked in a jail cell with a forger named Silas Merrill.

Lo and behold, Jesse Boorn immediately spewed to his bunkmate the awful secret of the murder. Yup, after keeping it quiet for seven years he detailed it all to Silas Merrill one “night, when he and Jesse had waked from their sleep, and without any previous persuasion or advice on the subject” and also just happened to tie in all that random sinister stuff from the investigation like the barn and the bonestump. Naturally, Merrill was released for relaying to his jailers this valuable and in no way impeachable information.

Now cornered, Jesse confessed to the murder. The causes of false confessions are complex, but the advent of DNA exonerations has underscored the alarming frequency of this phenomenon. A strictly rationalist explanation might postulate that Jesse thought he could avoid hanging by taking responsibility for a crime he was now certain to be convicted of, and framing it in the least culpable possible light; the murkier fathoms of human psychology might suggest a desire to please his captors or a conscience conforming itself to the conviction of his neighbors. Whatever the case, the confession got Stephen extradited from New York, and under interrogation Stephen too confessed. Stop confessing to things, people! (In fact, best say nothing at all.)

Despite retracting the confession, the brothers were convicted with ease in a trial held at the town’s church, the better to accommodate huge crowds that would have overflowed the courtroom. They were both slated to hang on January 28.*

While Jesse Boorn won a commutation his brother appeared doomed.

As an almost literal last gasp, Stephen took out newspaper advertisements searching for Russell Colvin. And they worked. At least, this is the version of the story as it is commonly recounted, dating I believe to this 1932 volume on wrongful convictions. The primary sources referenced there actually appear to me to indicate that the Boorn-saver, a New Jersey gentleman named Taber Chadwick, responded with a letter to the editor to a simple news report of the case, which report naively credited the dream-driven conviction as “divine providence”.


From the New York Evening Post, Nov. 26, 1819.

Luckily, Mr. Chadwick realized that he knew a Russell Colvin from Manchester whose mental state was thoroughly addled.


New York Evening Post, Dec. 10, 1819.

A fortnight after this letter hit the press, Colvin was back in Manchester … and this time, it was not in a dream.

Colvin confirmed that his brothers-in-law hadn’t hurt him at all and both Boorns — who, we remind you, had each previously confessed to killing a man who was now here in the flesh and blood to exonerate them — both these Boorns walked free.

Update: Embarrassingly not noticed by my own self in researching this post, a comment from the outstanding 19th century crime blog Murder By Gaslight flags the hypothesis that the entire exoneration was staged using an imposter to weasel the Boorns out of prison.

* According to this biography of the African-American divine Thomas Lemuel Haynes, Haynes was the Boorns’ confessor while they awaited execution, and one of the only people to believe the brothers’ protestations of innocence. Haynes was eventually moved to spend his own money on the famous advertisement hoping that “any person who can give information of the said Colvin may save the life of an innocent man.” If there’s one Vermonter who comes out of this astonishing story smelling like a rose, it’s Reverend Haynes.

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