Posts filed under 'Wrongful Executions'

1650: Not Anne Greene, miraculously delivered

Add comment December 14th, 2017 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1650, 22-year-old Anne Greene was hanged for infanticide.

A maidservant, she had been seduced by her master’s teenage grandson and became pregnant. Anne stated stated she had no idea she was pregnant until the baby suddenly fell out of her while she was “in the house of office” — that is, the outhouse. But when the body was found she was arrested for murder.

Medical evidence supported Anne’s claim that the baby was stillborn. It was premature, born at only 17 weeks gestation, and only nine inches long, and the midwife said she “did not believe that it ever had life.” Nevertheless, Anne was convicted of murder and condemned to death.

After Anne was hanged, she dangled for half an hour while her friends pulled down on her body and thumped on her chest with a musket butt, trying to hasten her death. After half an hour she was cut down, put in a coffin and carted off to the anatomist, Dr. William Petty.

The good Dr. Petty soon realized she wasn’t quite dead.

The story is told in a 1982 article in the British Medical Journal, titled “Miraculous deliverance of Anne Green: an Oxford case of resuscitation in the seventeenth century.” Petty and his assistant immediately set about reviving his patient through various means:

William Petty and Thomas Willis abandoned all thoughts of a dissection and proceeded to revive their patient. They caused her to be held up in the coffin and then by wrenching open her teeth they poured in her mouth some hot cordial which caused her more coughing. They then rubbed and chafed her fingers, hands, arms, and feet, and, after a quarter of an hour of this with more cordial into her mouth and the tickling of her throat with a feather, she opened her eyes momentarily. At this stage the doctors opened a vein and bled her of five ounces of blood. They then continued administering the cordial and rubbing her arms and legs. Ligatures, presumably compressing bandages, were applied to her arms and legs. Heating plasters were put to her chest and another apparently inserted as an enema, “ordered an heating odoriferous Clyster to be cast up in her body, to give heat and warmth to her bowels.”

When Anne regained consciousness, she was unable to speak for twelve hours, but after 24 hours she was speaking freely and answering questions, although her throat was bruised and hurt her. Dr. Petty put a plaster on the bruises and ordered soothing drinks.

Anne’s memory was spotty at first; it was observed that it was “was like a clock whose weights had been taken off a while and afterwards hung on again.” Within two days the amnesia disappeared, although — perhaps mercifully — she still had no memory of being hanged. Within four days she could eat solid food again, and within a month she had made a full recovery.

The Journal of Medical Biography also has an article about Anne Greene, titled “Intensive care 1650: the revival of Anne Greene”. The abstract notes,

A combination of low-body temperature and external (pedal) cardiac massage after her failed execution, it is suggested, helped to keep her alive until the arrival of the physicians who had come to make an anatomical dissection but serendipitously won golden opinions.

Anne Greene was subsequently pardoned; the authorities said God had made His will clear on the matter, and furthermore, her dead baby “was not onely abortive or stillborne but also so imperfect, that it is impossible it should have been otherwise.” She became a celebrity, and tributary poems in her honor circulated widely.


This 1651 pamphlet contains 20-odd poems about Anne Greene’s remarkable survival, ranging in style from very reverent (“Thou Paradox of fate, whom ropes reprieve, / To whom the hangman proves a gentele Shrieve”) to very not (“Now we have seen a stranger sight; / Whether it was by Physick’s might, / Or that (it seems) the Wench was Light”). One of them was a classics-heavy number submitted by 18-year-old Oxford student Christopher Wren, later to set his stamp upon the city’s architecture after the Great Fire.

Wonder of highest Art! He that will reach
A Streine for thee, had need his Muse should stretch,
Till flying to the Shades, she learne what Veine
Of Orpheus call’d Eurydice againe;
Or learne of her Apollo, ’till she can
As well, as Singer, prove Physitian.
And then she may without Suspension sing,
And, authorized, harp upon thy String.
Discordant string! for sure thy foule (unkinde
To its own Bowels’ Issue) could not finde
One Breast in Consort to its jarring stroake
‘Mongst piteous Femall Organs, therefore broke
Translations due Law, from fate repriev’d,
And struck a Unison to her selfe, and liv’d.
Was’t this? or was it, that the Goatish Flow
Of thy Adulterous veines (from thence let goe
By second Aesculapius his hand)
Dissolv’d the Parcae‘s Adamantine Band,
And made Thee Artist’s Glory, Shame of Fate,
Triumph of Nature, Virbius his Mate

She left the area for awhile to stay with friends in the country, taking her coffin with her, “as a Trophy of her wonderful preservation.” She subsequently married and bore three children before dying in 1659, nine years after her hanging.

In 2009, author Mary Hooper wrote a novel based on Anne Greene, titled Newes From the Dead.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Executions Survived,Hanged,History,Lucky to be Alive,Murder,Not Executed,Other Voices,Public Executions,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1531: Rhys ap Gruffydd

Add comment December 4th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1531, a Welsh nobleman whose grandfather had been instrumental in raising the Tudor dynasty up caught the downswing of the Tudor dynasty’s axe.

Gruffydd ap Rhys ap Thomas (“son of Rhys, son of Thomas”) was the Welsh patriarch of an illustrious house who had taken the Lancastrian side during the English Wars of the Roses.

When the Lancastrians lost, he took the necessary oaths to the likes of Richard III but his reputed promise to defend Wales for his king with such ferocity that an invader must needs “make his entrance and irruption over my belly” was discharged in a ceremony equally literary and lawyerly — when he stood under a bridge while his invading ally, the Welsh-descended Henry Tudor, marched over it.


There’s always a loophole when one fails to insist on direct language.

Together the two would win the crown for Henry — and in a sense very much win it for Wales — at Bosworth Field, where Gruffydd is sometimes credited personally with the blow that felled King Richard.

He lived on to 1525, a loyal supporter of Henry VII and his son Henry VIII. But the reciprocal gratitude of the kings did not outlive Gruffydd’s passing, for the Welsh offices that he designed to pass to his grandson Rhys ap Gruffydd were instead foisted on Water Devereux, Baron Ferrers.*

The consequent hostility would set Rhys on his way to the block. In 1529, our man drew a blade on Devereux, and their respective bands of retainers skirmished violently with each other over succeeding months.

Attempting to elevate his frustrated political claim by assuming the name “Fitz Urien” — in reference to a half-legendary ancient Welsh king — finally got him clapped in the Tower. His subsequent trial on a fanciful charge of conspiring with Scotland to form a Celtic league against the English asserted the central royal authority against a noble loose cannon who also happened to be part of the Catholic, anti-Anne Boleyn faction; at a stretch it could arguably** be read to make him one of the earliest victims of the still-nascent English Reformation. Be that as it may, his countrymen did not much mourn the fall of a vaunting and greedy line, however spurious the grounds.

And indeed many men regarded his [Rhys’s] death as Divine retribution for the falsehoods of his ancestors, his grandfather, and great-grandfather, and for their oppressions and wrongs. They had many a deep curse from the poor people who were their neighbours, for depriving them of their homes, lands and riches. For I heard the conversations of folk from that part of the country that no common people owned land within twenty miles from the dwelling of Sir Rhys ap Thomas, that if he desired such lands, he would appropriate them without payment or thanks, and the disinherited doubtless cursed him, his children and his grandchildren, which curses in the opinion of many men fell on the family, according to the old proverb which says — the children of Lies are uprooted, and after oppression comes a long death to the oppressors. (Source)

* An ancestor of Elizabethan loverboy Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex.

** That argument is made by Ralph Griffiths in Sir Rhys ap Thomas and his Family: A Study in the Wars of the Roses and Early Tudor Politics.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Nobility,Power,Treason,Wales,Wrongful Executions

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1974: Beqir Balluku, Albanian Minister of Defence

Add comment November 5th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1974, the deposed Albanian Defence Minister Beqir Balluku was shot … a bit of an occupational hazard for the post considering a like fate for a predecessor 25 years before.

Balluku (English Wikipedia entry | Albanian | German) fought as an anti-Nazi partisan during World War II and ascended to the brass of the postwar communist state by the late 1940s. Thus positioned, he aided the dictator Enver Hoxha in a notable 1956 purge that earned him a derisive namecheck from Nikita Khrushchev.

The Albanians are worse than beasts — they are monsters. Only later did we learn how the Albanian Communist leaders punished and eliminated members of their own Party. They had a sort of troika: Hoxha, Shehu and Balluku. These three used to bring someone to trial, and Enver Hoxha and Mehmet Shehu would sentence the accused to death themselves, without ever putting anything in writing; then they would look for an opportunity to have their victim murdered secretly, and Balluku would personally carry out the execution. It was all very similar to the system used by Joseph Stalin and Lavrentiy Beria.

The unrepentant Stalinism of this “troika” would lead Albania to its strange Cold War alliance with China against Moscow and the power of Hoxha et al would long outlast that of Khrushchev.

But such things never last forever, after all. By the 1970s, friction between the party and the military (and between Albania and China, a relationship that closely implicated Balluku) led Hoxha increasingly to fear a coup d’etat. Hoxha struck first in 1974 by suddenly felling the entire top ranks of the armed forces: not only Balluku but also generals Hito Cako and Petrit Dume.* Balluku had been 22 years the trusted Minister of Defence and 26 years a member of the Politburo, a dependable ally of the chief the entire time but it needed mere weeks to “eat him alive”. (Albanian link)

* These generals would be executed one month after Balluku.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Albania,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Politicians,Power,Shot,The Worm Turns,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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1865: Samuel Clarke, Jamaican radical

Add comment November 3rd, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1865, the creole politician Samuel Clarke was condemned and immediately executed under martial law in the crackdown following Jamaica’s Morant Bay Rebellion.

A carpenter from the parish of St. David, Clarke was a political activist — the kind of gadfly whom like Tony Moilin in the Paris Commune “a prudent and wise Government must rid itself when it finds a legitimate occasion to do so.” And the post-rebellion British crackdown was just such a “legitimate occasion” … well, sort of.

“Persons were tried and put to death under martial law for acts done, and even for words spoken, before the proclamation of martial law,” complained John Stuart Mill. “A peasant, named Samuel Clarke, was hanged some days after the proclamation of amnesty, for words spoken two months before the proclamation of martial law, his only specified offence being that he had, at that time, declared with an oath that a letter signed by the Secretary of State for the Colonies was a lie.”

Like the more celebrated white politician George William Gordon, Clarke was seized from outside the martial law zone and brought into it so that he could be prosecuted for “subversion” that consisted of merely having liberal opinions.

According to Swithin Wilmot (“The Politics of Samuel Clarke: Black Creole Politician in Free Jamaica, 1851-1865,” Caribbean Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 1/2 (March-June, 1998), a key source for this post), Clarke first became obnoxious to elite planters in the early 1850s when he mobilized black ex-slaves to capture one of the parish seats in the colonial assembly. Clarke would serve a month in prison for an election day riot that claimed the life of a poll clerk. But a few months after his release, “the small settler voters … pronounced their own verdict on the conduct of their black political leaders” by giving Clarke and his party a clean sweep at the 1853 elections and a stranglehold on local politics in St. David.

Clarke himself did not meet the property qualifications to contest a seat in the colonial assembly, but his faction had the votes to control these seats — and Clarke himself became a militant levelling voice whom white elites regarded as a demagogue, forever inciting “the people to be rude and insolent to their employers.”

The bloody year of 1865 finds Jamaica facing an economic crisis thanks to trade liberalization and Clarke provocatively denouncing the “Queen’s Advice” directed at the restive lower orders (“The prosperity of the Labouring Classes … depends … upon their working for Wages, not uncertainly, or capriciously, but steadily and continuously, at the times when their labour is wanted”) as “a lie, a damned red lie” and complaining of a regressive levy that “The taxes were only made for the Black man and not the White, there was one law for the Black man and one for the White man.”

In the wake of October’s Morant Bay black rising, these statements would be read in a most incendiary light by Governor Edward John Eyre — but they were made before that rising, and Clarke did not take part in the rebellion. As with Gordon, his standing political commitments simply became retroactively seditious.

A few days after the riot at Morant Bay … [Clarke] was told a warrant was out for his arrest. He at once gave himself up to the authorities, and was handed over to the military at Uppark Camp. While there, he was told by an officer of superior rank he would be hanged, although he had not been engaged in the riot, because he was one of the “ringleaders” of the people … Mr. Eyre personally directed that Clarke, with a number of other prisoners who had been arrested in Kingston, out of the martial law district, for the same crime of having attended the Underhill meetings, should be sent to Morant Bay for trial; and he was so sent, on or about the 1st of November, many days after Mr. Eyre had himself declared the rebellion to be subdued, and had issued a so-called proclamation of amnesty.

Clarke was put upon his trial on the 3rd of November at Morant Bay before a Court-martial, of which Lieutenant Brand was president, and it is unnecessary to say more than that the sentence was death. The only witnesses examined were the Custos Georges, McLean the Vestry Clerk, and a reporter called Fouche, who gave evidence as to Clarke’s speech at the Underhill meeting in Kingston. The evidence disclosed no circumstances of participation in the riot by word or deed, and related solely to Clarke’s words weeks even months before martial law was proclaimed.

Within an hour of the trial Samuel Clarke was on the gallows, the proceedings of the Court-martial and the sentence having been “approved and confirmed” by General Nelson. At this very time General Nelson had himself apparently begun to sicken at the work, he having already hung upwards of 170 persons, including seven women. He accordingly represented to General O’Connor that he had doubts about trying the remainder of the Kingston prisoners by Court-martial for words spoken before the proclamation of martial law. The General agreed with him, but although the same doubt applied most conspicuously to the case of Samuel Clarke, it did not save him from his doom …

Before his trial Mr. Clarke was flogged by order of Provost-Marshal Ramsay, and among the prisoners forced to witness the execution were his brother, Mr. G[eorge] Clarke.* (Source, which also has a full transcript of the trial)

* George Clarke was the son-in-law of another prominent martyr of these days, the Baptist deacon Paul Bogle.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Jamaica,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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1665: Gabriel de Beaufort-Canillac vicomte la Mothe, during the Grands Jours of Auvergne

Add comment October 23rd, 2017 Headsman

As with Peter the Great a few decades later, the budding absolutist Louis XIV experienced a scarring breakdown in law and order in his youth that at times threatened his own person.

In the French case, this was the Fronde — meaning “sling”, a weapon of choice for Parisian mobs — or rather the Frondes, successive insurrections in defense of feudal liberties launched against Louis’s mother and regent, Queen Anne that consumed the 1648-1653 span.

(Among other things, Louis’s experience during these disturbances of fleeing trouble spots in Paris, or cowering practically imprisoned behind palace walls, eventually resolved him to relocate his royal person away from the restive capital, to Versailles; his fear was more than vindicated by the fate of the 16th sovereign of his name at the hands of a different century’s Parisian enragees.)

Upon the death of his mother’s Richelieu figure (and literal Richelieu protege) Cardinal Mazarin, Louis took the state in hand in 1661 at age 22, determined to bring France to his elegant heel.

“You will assist me with your counsels when I ask for them,” he directed stunned ministers who had been accustomed to doing a good deal of the day-to-day governing themselves. “I request and order you to seal no orders except by my command, or after having discussed them with me, or at least not until a secretary brings them to you on my behalf. And you Messieurs of state, I order you not to sign anything, not even a passport, without my command; to render account to me personally each day and favour no one.”

L’etat c’est moi … he wasn’t kidding about that.

Bold reforms followed pell-mell through the 1660s and beyond: of the army, the bureaucracy, industry, the tax system. The archetype absolutist, Louis meant to gather into his Leviathan all the little redoubts of cumbersome right and privilege strewn about from France’s feudal antiquity, and above all to master the independence of his aristocrats and parlements.

One district in particular, the region of Auvergne, had in the chaotic 1650s descended into a minor dystopia ruled by avaricious and unprincipled officials gleefully abusing their control of the local judicial apparatus.

The investigations … revealed that quite a few judges lacked professional scruples and were of questionable moral character. Officers in the bailliages and senechaussees were aware of crimes but did nothing to prosecute them … registration of letters of remission could be bought “with ease.” Officers extorted money from countless victims … At the bailliage of La Tour in Auvergne, officers made arbitrary seizures of oxen belonging to peasants … seized property for “salaries and vacations,” forced minor girls to pay a price for marriage authorizations, and so on. Since all the officers in each of the lower courts were related to one another, “they all upheld one another so that it was impossible to obtain justice.”

The clergy had fallen into disarray … committed kidnappings and assaults and lent their names to laymen so that they might enjoy an ecclesiastical benefice. And this is to say nothing of such “peccadilloes” as frequenting taverns, taking the name of the Lord in vain, keeping mistresses, and fathering children. Monasteries and even convents were rife with “libertinage.” Their income was being squandered on banquets for visitors.

Gentilshommes had been using violent means to maintain their tyranny over the peasants. Forcible extortion of money was “the common offense of the gentilshommes of Auvergne,” according to Dongois, clerk of the Grands Jours. The king’s lieutenant in Bourbonnais, the marquis de Levis, was a counterfeiter who manufactured pistoles that were then circulated by his maitre d’hotel. Many gentilshommes exacted seigneurial dues beyond what they were entitled to, for watch, wine, oxen, supply and transport, and the use of seigneurial mills. They usurped such communal property as meadows, woods, and rights to gather firewood, collected money on every pretext, raised the cens without justification, and collected new dues. (Source

Practical princes see opportunity in such crises, in this case the opportunity to make common cause between the crown and the populace at the expense of of those gentilshommes. And so Louis decreed for Auvergne a Grands Jours, a sort of special visiting assize that could circumvent the incestuous area magistrates. From September 1665 to January 1666 the Grands Jours d’Auvergne processed more than 1,300 cases, meting out 692 convictions and 23 executions (although many sentences were executed in effigy). Six of those actually put to death were gentlemen.*

No noble crest attracted the inquisitors’ attentions more urgently than the ancient family of Montboissier-Beaufort-Canillac whose patriarch,

Jacques-Timoleon, marquis de Canillac, age seventy-two, accompanied by a bodyguard of valets known as his “twelve Apostles,” terrorized his fiefs and seigneuries from Clermont to Rouergue. All his close relatives were guilty of serious crimes or misdemeanors. His eldest son stole his neighbors’ animals, besieged their homes, and murdered them. His next eldest son murdered a curate. Guillaume de Beaufort-Canillac had not only extorted money but also abducted and held captive a notary who had drawn up a document against him. Gabriel de Beaufort-Canillac, vicomte de La Mothe, had attempted to murder another gentilhomme …

Charges had been mounting against the Canillacs, and especially against the old marquis, for decades without any effect. (Same source)

They would continue without effect here for the cagey patriarch, who absented himself in time to suffer only a condemnation in absentia,** but his son Gabriel, the vicomte de la Mothe, was taken by surprise as one of the Grands Jours commission’s very first acts and would distinguish himself its highest-ranking prey — on October 23rd, 1665, a mere four hours after his trial.

The charge against him was one of murder, under what was then considered extenuating circumstances. During the civil war [i.e., the Fronde] he had been commiss[i]oned by the great Conde to raise some regiments of cavalry, and had handed over some six thousand francs of the sum entrusted to him for this purpose, to his friend, D’Orsonette, who would neither furnish the troops nor refund the money. Conde, naturally enough, reproached the vicomte, who thereupon left his service, full of rancor against D’Orsonette. The quarrel grew fiercer as time passed on, until on an evil day the disputants met, each accompanied by a body of servants. M. de la Mothe’s party was the most numerous. D’Orsonette and one of his men were wounded, and his falconer was slain. The facts were incontrovertible. A striking example was deemed essential, and despite the entreaties of his family, and a short delay occasioned by an effort to traverse the jurisdiction of the court, the accused was sentenced to death and executed within a month from the commencement of the assize. It affords a significant illustration of the condition of Auvergne to note that the prosecutor in this case and all his witnesses were far more guilty than the prisoner. The prosecutor was accused by his own father of having murdered his own brother, of being a parricide in intention, and of a hundred other crimes. The next principal witness had been condemned for perjury, and was an acknowledged forger. The others were either outlaws or convicts at the galleys. Against M. de la Mothe no other crime was alleged, and he was generally regarded as the most innocent member of his family. Public opinion held that he suffered for having joined the losing side in the civil war, and for bearing a powerful and deeply-hated name. (A different source)

* A full and colorful account of the affair awaits the Francophone reader in Esprit Flechier’s Memoirs de Flechier sur les Grands-Jours d’Auvergne en 1665 (alternate link).

** It would be the second time in his rapacious career that Canillac pere was executed in effigy.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Murder,Nobility,Pelf,Public Executions,Wrongful Executions

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2017: Robert Pruett

4 comments October 12th, 2017 Headsman

Texas this evening executed Robert Pruett, a 38-year-old man who last saw the outside of prison as a 15-year-old boy … and who perhaps had no hand in either of the murders that defined his life and death.

He was sent to jail as a child under the “law of parties” for being present when his father stabbed a neighbor to death — an offense that caught him an unthinkable 99-year sentence before he was old enough to drive.

It’s claimed by way of justifying his death by lethal injection tonight that in 1999 he murdered a guard. Pruett has always denied this and has never been linked by physical evidence to the murder — a very late attempt at DNA testing yielded a frustratingly indecisive outcome — and the testimony against him consisted of prisoners whose status as wards of the state issuing the prosecution predictably compromises their evidence. Pruett never quite had conclusive proof of his innocence so his “merely” questionable guilt fits a depressingly frequent pattern: use the prosecutor’s muscle to get a conviction on the books, then ride procedural inertia all the way to the gurney.

Anti-death penalty nun Sister Helen Prejean of Dead Man Walking fame has a Twitter thread summarizing the case for Pruett beginning here.

Innocent or guilty, Pruett is — was — a man of unusual erudition. A blogspot blog last updated in 2007 has some fascinating reflections from a much younger man, years before he was a figure of interest for New York Times op-eds.

As I lie awake at night pondering my predicament, a feeling of futility envelopes me. The maxim that had once helped me develop an insatiable will wants to fade away. I waited too long to fight, says some voice that I hardly recognize as my own. It’s over. I should acquiesce to my fate … Yet there’s another voice from the depths of my soul rebuking the other, warning me against throwing the towel in. I’m not a quitter, it says, I can do this if I set my mind to it. That sounds more like the Robert I know. There’s still time to prove my innocence. It’s foolish to waste it with all the negative thoughts of defeat.

Just three days before Pruett’s execution, Current Affairs editor Nathan J. Robinson wrote a captivating review of a nine-chapter autobiography of Pruett’s that demands a full read. I have not been able to locate a link to the actual autobiography itself and would be grateful for anyone who might be able to direct me; nevertheless, Robinson’s lengthy excerpts achingly humanize the late writer from his behind-the-8-ball childhood to his maturation under the executioner’s very long shadow.

It wasn’t until I got to death row that I realized my ignorant and hateful views on race were a reflection/projection of how I felt about myself, that I’d constructed a complex ideology totally rooted and parallel to the things I most disliked about me. I used to go on tangents about the criminality exhibited by the black youth of America, how it needs to be addressed and curbed, but the truth was that I was talking about myself the entire time and didn’t even realize it. It’s a truth that we project onto others the things we most hate about ourselves. Carl Jung said that our shadow selves, the part of our psyches that we store repressed emotional themes and the aspects of our personalities we dislike, is represented by what we hate/dislike in others. You are what you hate …

Somehow, I believe it took me coming here, living the life of extreme adversity that I have, in order to conquer my shadow and grow in the ways I have … I needed to have my life ripped away from me, to face a hopeless situation and experience great loss and pain in order to finally break through and spread my own wings.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Lethal Injection,Murder,Ripped from the Headlines,Texas,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1741: John Ury, schoolmaster

Add comment August 29th, 2017 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These few words would prove a death warrant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fellow Christians —

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1943: Gunnar Eilifsen, good cop

Add comment August 16th, 2017 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

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1683: Andrew Guilline, Covenanter accessory

Add comment July 20th, 2017 Headsman

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

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

He’d been subject to assassination bids for years.

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

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


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

-Guilline’s funerary inscription.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sic subscribitur,

ANDREW GUILLINE.

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

1408: Konrad Vorlauf, Vienna Burgermeister

1 comment July 11th, 2017 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Commemorative plaque honoring Vorlauf and the others beheaded with him.

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

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