1801: Angre Kethi, Polygar prey

Add comment April 23rd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1801, a luckless British messenger was hanged to a Tamarind tree during the Polygar Wars.

The Polygars — an English corruption of the Tamil word Palaiyakkarar — were feudal administrators in South India whose authorities the ascending East India Company struggled to bring to heel.

A brief first rebellion in 1799 gave way to a second more substantial one from 1800 to 1805; these are the Polygar Wars.

As one might imagine the fight was quite nasty, and not wanting for executions. Notably, the British had hanged a Polygar chief named Kattabomman in 1799 after the first Polygar War.

But one of Kattabomman’s old allies, name of Ethalappa Naicker Zamin, was among a coalition of Polygars who rose against the British in the subsequent war.

It was to this man that the British dispatched the messenger Angre Kethi — a man whom Naicker decided to make an example of.

The spot of the hanging, known as “Thookupuliamara Thottam”, was long known locally, but it recently made wider news when an archaeologist discovered a stone inscription at the messenger’s memorial attesting the name and date of the hanging.

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1800: Roddy McCorley, at Toomebridge

Add comment February 28th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1800, Rodaí Mac Corlaí — with due apologies for the imperial encroachment, we’re going to roll with the Anglicized “Roddy McCorley” — was hanged “near the Bridge of Toome” in Ireland

McCorley‘s death date — it was reported in the Belfast Newsletter — seems to be one of the few reliably documented facts about the man.* (See this forum thread for debate on the various nth-hand oral tradition)

He’s remembered as a rebel of 1798.

The actual nature and extent of his involvement in that rebellion is totally undocumented, but that doesn’t mean it’s not celebrated in an oft-covered patriotic song.

Post-rebellion, the (probably) Presbyterian McCorley was part of the so-called “Archer Gang”, men whom that newspaper account of McCorley’s execution calls “nefarious wretches who have kept this neighbourhood in the greatest misery for some time past.” That’s a hostile witness, obviously; the band in question looks to be Irish rebels turned outlaws, for whom plunder on the roads and vengeance on the rebellion’s enemies neatly coincided.

That coterie was gradually rounded up; its leader Tam Archer would also hang. But the national cause ran in the McCorley blood: the hanged man’s great-grandson Roger McCorley was a Republican insurgent during the Irish War of Independence in the early 1920s.

Thanks to @elongreen for bringing Roddy McCorley to our attention.

* Although even the execution date has been blurred by a later, martyr-making tradition claiming that McCorley died on Good Friday. He did not.

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1806: Hepburn Graham, HMS St. George rapist

1 comment December 20th, 2013 Headsman

Hepburn Graham, masters’ mate aboard the HMS St. George, was tried by Admiralty court-martial in early December on a charge of sodomy forwarded by the ship’s captain, Thomas Bertie.

We excerpt from the trial record via Gay Warriors: A Documentary History from the Ancient World to the Present:

George Parr, a boy of fourteen years of age belonging to His Majesty’s ship, St. George, called in and sworn:

Capain Bertie asked:

Q. Do you know the prisoner?

A. Yes

Q. Relate to the court what the prisoner was guilty of with you on the twenty-first of November last, the day after the St. George arrived in Torbay, and also n the twenty-seventh of November last.

A. On the twenty-first of November last, Mr. Graham took me into his hammock. He got me on a stool and got hold of me, telling me I must be a good boy. He got hold of my hair, and pulled me into his hammock in his berth on the starboard side, forward on the lower gun deck. It was between eight and nine o’clock in the evening of the first watch. He told me to put down my trousers, and he put them down himself. He pulled his yard out, and put it into my backside. He kept doing backwards and forwards, and made my arse wet. I was laying on my side in his hammock when he committed the act, and immediately afterwards he said you may go to your hammock now, and told me I must not tell any one, and if I did he would get me flogged …

On the twenty-seventh of November at night, between eight and nine o’clock in the [illegible] watch, I was in his berth attending him as his servant. He told me I must be a good boy. He would make me a good boy. He got hold of me and pulled me into his hammock. I did not want to get into it and he kept hitting me on the head while I was in the hammock. I wanted to get out, and he kept hitting me and asked me to stay in and said if I did not, he would get me flogged, he would get me three dozen [lashes]. He had made me unbutton the buttons before, and he them pulled down my trousers and pulled out his yard and put it into my backside. It went into my backside. He kept moving backwards and forwards, and made my backside wet. He then told me to go to my hammock and get up in good time in the morning and I went away. On the following morning early, I was again in his berth. It was before breakfast, before the hammocks were up. He pulled a hole in my trousers behind with his fingers and told me he would get them mended. He then pulled his yard out, and put it through the hole of my trousers to my backside, but did not enter it, but kept moving backwards and forwards and made my arse wet.

Q. Did he ever make any more attempts than what you have related?

A. Yes, he has attempted it five times in all, but only entered me twice.

A second boy on the same ship gave similar testimony.

John Sky, a boy about fifteen years of age, belonging to the St. George, called in and sworn.

Captain Bertie asked:

Q. Relate to the court what the prisoner was guilty of with you on the twenty-ninth of November, last.

A. On the twenty-ninth of November last I was down between decks talking to one of the boys whose name is Taylor. Mr. Graham, the prisoner came to me and [illegible] me he wanted me in his berth. I went in and he told me he would give me a bed. He then took me round the deck and set me down on a stool [illegible] of him. He began kissing me and told me he must feel my cock. I told him to leave it alone. If he did not, I would sing out. He was at this time going to unbutton the flap of my trousers. Mr. Miller, a midshipman, came in and he asked Mr. Miller to take down a great coat that [illegible] on the gun to give him more light. He said it gave him light. Whilst Mr. Miller was taking down the coat, he took me by the arm and hoved me out of the berth. I told the boy, George Parr, if he did not complain, I would. He then said that he would complain, and I told him to mention my name. He did complain to the first lieutenant, and mentioned my name. I told Mr. Graham that I could not stand it, and would complain. About a fortnight before, Mr. Graham [illegible] me in his berth and had my trousers down and pulled out his private parts. He tried to get these into my backside, but could [illegible], but got them between my thighs. Before he had had his turn, someone came in and disturbed him. I told him I would go out of the berth, and he put me out of the berth. He never succeeded with me in what he wanted to do.

George Parr’s rape claim was vouched by the ship’s surgeon.

Mr. Hugh Hughes, surgeon of the St. George, called in and sworn:

Captain Bertie asked:

Q. On the twenty-ninth of November was the boy, George Parr, sent to you to undergo a certain examination?

A. Yes.

Request: Relate to the court the result of your examination.

A. About seven o’clock in the evening of the twenty-ninth of November I was sent for by Lieutenant Caulfield on the quarter deck, and when I appeared, he said that Captain Bertie desired that I should examine the two boys, Parr and Sky. I immediately took them down to the sick bay accompanied by my two assistants, and there examined them immediately and found the anus of George Parr inflamed and not excoriated at all. I also examined Sky, and found no appearance of inflamation in the anus, as in the former boy. In order to corroborate what I have now stated I requested both my assistants to examine them also and begged that they would give me their opinion, and it corresponded with my own.

The court asked:

Q. Did you ask the boy, Parr, what had occasioned this appearance in his anus?

A. I did. He answered that two nights before, the twenty-seventh, that Mr. Graham had connection with him and gave him an infinite deal of pain. I asked him whether the anus was very painful at the time he was examining. He said, no, not very painful just then.

Q. Was it your opinion that the apperance was occasioned by the insertion of an instrument similar to a man’s yard?

A. I could not ascertain that.

Q. Would such an insertion cause a similar appearance in your opinion?

A. I think it would.

Q. As a professional man, do you think that the crime of which the prisoner stands charged could be committed upon a boy so young as George Parr.

A. Yes, I do.

Q From your knowledge of instruments could you imagine that the crime could be committed with a passive obedience on the part of that boy?

A. I do think he must have been placed in a particular position and he must have been a passive instrument.

One of the surgeon’s assistants testified to like effect. At this point, the Graham gave a scanty defense, merely describing his service since 1793 without addressing the charges against him.

The court was cleared and agreed that the charge had been proved against the said Hepburn Graham, and did adjudge him to suffer death by being hanged by the neck onboard such ship of His Majesty and at such time as the commissioners for executing the Office of Lord High Admiral of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, etc. or any three of them for the time being should direct.

The court was again opened, the prisoner brought, [illegible] audience admitted, and sentence passed accordingly.

Greentham
Deputy Judge Advocate of the Fleet

Just a few weeks before he’d been wetting the arse of boys on the St. George. Now, only King George III stood between Graham and the noose.

Admiralty, 16 Dec 1806.

Mr. Grenville has the honour to lay before your Majesty the minutes and sentence of a court martial held on Mr Hepburn Graham, master’s mate on board the St George for an unnatural crime.

Mr. Grenville humbly submits to your Majesty that the sentence of the court martial may be put into immediate execution.

This petition was transmitted simultaneously with a like appeal from a seaman condemned for a Caribbean mutiny. Mr. Grenville endorsed a pardon in that case; King George endorsed both recommendations.

The King’s reply, Windsor Castle, 17 Dec.

The King upon consideration of what is stated in Mr Grenville’s letter in regard to the case of Naiad Sware, consents to remit the sentence of death pronounced by the court martial. Under the circumstances which attend the crime of which Mr Hepburn Graham has been found guilty, his Majesty is under the painful necessity of directing that the sentence of death may be carried into immediate execution.

Accordingly, that same day the Admiralty issued a warrant to hang Hepburn Graham on the upcoming Saturday, December 20.

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1806: Fra Diavolo, royalist guerrilla

Add comment November 11th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1806, the Neapolitan partisan Michele Pezza was hanged as a bandit.

Better known by his infernal nickname “Fra Diavolo” — “Brother Devil” — Pezza (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) was forced into the army of the Kingdom of Naples as punishment for manslaughter in 1797, just in time to experience its thrashing at the hands of the French Republicans rolling down the peninsula.

By 1799, Naples was no longer a kingdom at all, but a French-modeled and -backed republic, one of several in Italy.

Populist, Catholic resistance to these impositions commenced almost immediately. Fra Diavolo was destined to become the enduring legend of this sanfedismo movement.

Pezza’s band, which eventually numbered as much as 4,000, stalked the roads around Rome and Naples, terrorizing French soldiers and Republicans. They had a reputation for cruelty.

Francis Maceroni, a writer and an aide (and eventual biographer) for Napoleonic marshal Murat, charges that Fra Diavolo was merely “a well known assassin and highwayman [who] could not but be infamous, in any service. Brief, he was put upon his trial, — found guilty of as many horrid felonies as would fill a dozen volumes like that of ‘Rookwood,’ and hanged upon a gibbet of extraordinary height, at the Ponte della Maddalena at Naples.” The author is disgusted that the name Fra Diavolo “has not only been immortalized by his atrocious crimes, but by the appliances of fine music and operatic representation” for the outlaw “was a most unmitigated mass of evil, without one redeeming point.”

Actually, his effectiveness with irregulars was a very significant redeeming point in a dirty-war environment.

After Naples’ Parthenopean Republic was deposed by France’s foes, Pezza was retired with an aristocratic title, a substantial pension, and a trophy bride: just the Bourbons’ way to say thanks.

But he was recalled to the field when the French re-invaded Naples in 1806, briefly installing Napoleon’s brother Joseph Bonaparte as the new Neapolitan king, and again set to raiding with a mass of guerrillas. This time the French hunted him to ground, defeating his irregulars in an October 1806 engagement and capturing Fra Diavolo himself days later.

Pezza hanged as a brigand in Naples, but the city’s exiled royalty funded a funeral mass for their lost commander in the cathedral of Palermo.

Maceroni wasn’t kidding about the “fine music and operative representation,” by the way. Daniel Auber composed a hit 1830 debut, Fra Diavolo.

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1803: Joseph Samuel survives three hangings

Add comment September 26th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1803, Joseph Samuel just wouldn’t hang.

Transported to Australia in 1801 for theft, Joseph Samuel was part of a cohort of Sydney Cove convicts who, on the night of August 25-26, burgled a house.

The band was surprised by constable Joseph Luker, himself a former convict. One or more of the thieves battered him to death on the spot with whatever was at hand: recovered with Luker’s broken body at morning’s light were a bloodied wheelbarrow wheel, and the hilt of Luker’s own cutlass, buried in his brains. Luker was the first policeman killed on duty in Australia, and his name can be found on the country’s National Police Memorial.

But the order of the day in 1803 was a different sort of memorial. “Avenging Heaven directs the Hand of Justice, and the Manes of the Deceased inspires us with Indignation and Resentment,” the Sydney Gazette fulminated. The need to cut a deal for crown’s evidence with one of Samuel’s compatriots eventually meant that Samuel was the only one to bear the vengeance of Luker’s Manes. (A third man, Isaac Simmonds, was acquitted at trial, but he was so heavily suspected that he was made to attend the execution.)

We’ll pick up the narration of the Sydney Gazette (Oct. 2, 1803):

James Hardwicke were brought, in pursuance of the sentence passed upon them on the preceding Friday.

Both prisoners conducted themselves with becoming decency; and when the Reverend Mr. MARSDEN had performed the duties of his function, and quitted Hardwicke, he turned to Samuels (who being a Jew, was prepared by a person of his own profession) and questioning him on the subject of the murder of Luker, he solemnly declared, that during the interval of his confinement in the cell with Isacc [sic] Simmonds, nicknamed Hikey Bull, they in the Hebrew tongue exchanged an oath, by which they bound themselves to secrecy and silence in whatever they might then disclose.

Conjured by that GOD before whom he was shortly to appear, not to advance any thing in his latter moments that would endanger his salvation, he now repeated with an air of firmness what he had before declared ; and appearing deeply imprest with a becoming sense of his approaching end, appealed to Heaven to bear him testimony that Simmonds had, under the influence of the oath by which they were reciprocally bound, acknowledged to him that Luker had accidentally surprised him … and that he, in consequence thereof, had “knocked him down, and given him a topper for luck!” … [and] that he would hang 500 Christians to save himself.

Simmonds, as we’ve noted, was right there in forced attendance at the public hanging, and as Samuel’s accusations started the audience murmuring, Simmonds tried to interject his denials. The very fact that the words were spoken by a man on the brink of death and presumably in fear for his soul made Samuel a credible accuser in the eyes of the populace, “in whose breasts a sentiment of abhorrence was universally awakened … and the feelings of the multitude burst forth into invective.” Yikes.

While the gendarmes moved to protect Simmonds from the possible wrath of his neighbors, and Hardwicke received a last-minute pardon,* Samuel commenced the inadvertently superlative finishing act of his persuasive performance.

at length the signal was given, and the cart drove from under him; but by the concussion the suspending cord was separated about the centre, and the culprit fell to the ground, on which he remained motionless with his face downwards. The cart returned, and the criminal was supported on each side until another rope was applied in lieu of the former: he was again launched off, but the line unrove, and, continued to flip until the legs of the sufferer trailed along the ground, the body being only half suspended.

All that beheld were also moved at his protracted sufferings; nor did some hesitate to declare that the invisible hand of Providence was at work in the behalf of him who had revealed the circumstances above related. To every appearance lifeless, the body was now raised, and supported on men’s shoulders, while the executioner prepared anew the work of death. The body was gently lowered, but when left alone, again fell prostrate to the earth, this rope having also snapped short, close to the neck.

Compassion could no longer bear restraint; winged with humanity, the Provost Marshal sped to His EXCELLENCY‘S presence, in which the success of his mission overcame him; A Reprieve was announced — and if Mercy be a fault, it is the dearest attribute of GOD, and surely in Heaven it may find extenuation!

Samuells when the Provost Marshal arrived with the tidings which diffused gladness throughout every heart, was incapable of participating in the general satisfaction. By what he had endured his reasonable faculties were totally impaired; and when his nerves recovered somewhat from their feebleness, he uttered many incoherences, and was alone ignorant of what had past. Surgical assistance has since restored him; And MAY THE GRATEFUL REMEMBRANCE OF THESE EVENTS DIRECT HIS FUTURE COURSES!

It didn’t.

In 1806, Samuel made an escape attempt with some other convicts by boat. It was swept away in a tempest, with all presumed lost at sea.

* A number of sources claim that Hardwicke did hang successfully while Samuel’s rope repeatedly broke. We think the eyewitness newspaper report days after the execution to the effect that Hardwicke was reprieved is by far the more credible report.

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1801: Jason Fairbanks, lackadaisical escapee

Add comment September 10th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1801, Jason Fairbanks was hanged for murder in Massachusetts.

Fairbanks, hailed from one of the oldest families in Anglo North America; the house where he whiled away his pre-homicide idleness is today the Dedham museum Fairbanks House.

A youth of about twenty-one, weak, sickly, with a stiff right arm,” Jason had a thing for 18-year-old “neighbor” (they lived more than a mile apart) Elizabeth Fales and she for him, but the Fales family opposed the romance.

So one day in May 1801, Fairbanks “told two of his friends, that he should meet [Fales] in the pasture on Monday, and endeavour to induce her to go off with him, and marry him; and that if she refused to do so he would attempt her chastity.”*

Evidently she just wasn’t that into him, because later that day of their rendezvous, Jason weirdly showed up at the Fales house covered in blood with a cock-and-bull story about how Eliza had committed suicide and he, Jason, had tried and failed to follow suit. Jason Fairbanks was indeed seriously injured (he convalesced in his victim’s family’s house), but Eliza’s wounds were the more interesting: her throat was slashed — she was still breathing faintly through her gashed windpipe when found — and she had stab wounds in her arms and between her shoulder blades.

It’s an atypical suicide who stabs herself in the back.

There was, of course, the matter of Fairbanks’s crippled arm (so did he really overpower Eliza?) and his own injuries (so was it a fight, or what?) — sufficient ambiguity for dueling attorneys to spin every manner of hypothetical to account for the maximum or minimum villainy of the suspect.

But when a dude says he’s off to attempt the chastity of a virtuous young woman and she emerges from the encounter with a stab in the back and a slash through the throat, he’s going to have a hard time repelling the charge. Fairbanks was easily convicted of murder on August 8.

Nine days later, or rather nights, this young-love tragedy took an even more amazing turn: Fairbanks’s friends broke him out of prison. Newspapers all over America were soon raising the hue and cry

STOP THE MURDERER
1000 Dollars Reward

The absconding of Jason Fairbanks from the jail of Dedham has excited much interest in the breasts of every one who regard the peace of society and the security of life; it will be the duty of the citizens of the United States to exert themselves in securing the condemned criminal without pecuniary reward, but as that may be the means of stimulating many who would otherwise be inactive, a large gratuity is now offered. Every newspaper printed in the U.S. it is hoped will publish the advertisement of the Sheriff … and by other means extend the hue and cry against him. (Quoted here)

Despite the bulletins, Fairbanks made it all the way to Whitehall on the southern tip of Lake Champlain, where a hired boat waited to carry him to freedom in Canada. Instead of boarding ASAP, Fairbanks and his escort paused for a parting breakfast on the very morning of the prospective embarkation — it’s the most important meal of the day, you know — and the fugitive was there apprehended addressing his table, steps away from safety.

* 1801 murder pamphlet, “A Correct and Concise Account of the Interesting Trial of Jason Fairbanks”

** We couldn’t help but enjoy this explanation for the murder published in the Philadelphia Gazette of the United States as part of an unsigned “Letter from Dedham”: “Fairbanks had been seduced previous to his becoming a murderer, by some European travellers; and joined with a society of Jacobin Deists, who held their meetings in this town. Among other of their tenets, they avowed that a rigid observance of chastity in man or woman was ridiculous; being contrary to natural impulse.” Dedham was to Federalists of 1801 sort of what San Francisco is to the present-day Tea Party, thanks in large measure to a ridiculous case recently charging a so-called “Jacobin” under the ridiculous Alien and Sedition Acts; there was an abortive attempt in the Federalist press to ascribe Fairbanks’s jailbreak to a revolutionary mob.

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1809: Andreas Bichel, Bavarian Ripper

Add comment June 9th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1809, Andreas Bichel lost his head.

This killer’s strange m.o. was to entice young women with the promise of divining their fortune in a magic mirror.

His victims were two young women unwise enough to accede to his request to bind their hands on the pretext that the wrong gesture would ruin the spell. With such lamblike naivete, what could Bichel do but clobber the poor maids over the head, strip them down, and butcher them still-living — slicing open their bowels, and cracking their breastbones open with a wedge.

Torture having recently been outlawed with the Napoleonic conquest, Bichel was pressured into coming clean by the novel expedient of moving his questioning ever-closer to the scenes of his crimes — to the Regendorf town hall, at first, and thence to his own home where the two exhumed bodies were stretched out before him.

Visibly affected, Bichel admitted all.

“I opened her breast and with a knife cut through the fleshy parts of the body,” Bichel said. “Then I arranged the body as a butcher does beef, and hacked it with an axe into pieces of a size to fit the hole which I had dug up in the mountain for burying it. I may say that while opening the body I was so greedy that I trembled, and could have cut out a piece and eaten it.”

It was not cannibalism but cupidity that cut Bichel’s spree short: he was foolish enough to sell the women’s distinctive stolen clothes. (An occasional petty thief before he turned Ripper, Bichel said he’d been seduced into homicide by the fine clothes of his first victim.)

According to Lady Duff Gordon,

The sentence of breaking on the wheel from the feet upwards, which had been pronounced in accordance with the laws still in force, was commuted to beheading. This was done, not for the sake of sparing the criminal, whose crimes deserved the extremest punishment, but out of regard to the moral dignity of the state, which ought not, as it were, to vie with a murderer in cruelty.

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1804: Little Harpe and Peter Alston, Mississippi pirates

2 comments February 8th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1804, two known as John Setton/Sutton and James May were hanged at Greenville, Mississippi.

They were, in fact, Wiley “Little” Harpe and his outlaw partner Peter Alston — the survivors (well, up until then) of a notorious gang of Mississippi River pirates and frontier highwaymen.

Their villainous coterie had plagued the Mississippi (river) and the proximate byways from Kentucky down to Mississippi (state), making a couple of spots on the great river legendary pirate hideouts in the process.

With a price on the head of the notorious leader Samuel Mason, “Sutton” and “May” coldly murdered their captain to turn in his head for the reward.

They got their reward alright. They were recognized as Mason’s own fellow-bandits, and themselves put on trial for piracy.


The Harpe Brothers

This date’s hanging was not only the end of the Mason gang — it was the end of the Harpe Brothers.

Micajah Harpe (“Big Harpe”) and Wiley Harpe were brothers or cousins who cut a bloody swathe through the early American Republic, such that some have acclaimed the Harpes that young nation’s first serial killers. They were, in one historian’s words, “the most brutal monsters of the human race.”

Heading west out of North Carolina after Revolutionary War service as Tory irregulars, the Harpes made for Knoxville, Tennessee, kidnapping wives for themselves along the way. When they were rousted out of their cabin on accusations of livestock-rustling in 1797, their notorious careers really began in earnest.

This was, then, the extreme western frontier of the United States, and the Harpes were consequently able to plunder in wilderness impunity.

And they slew with a frequency and savagery far in excess of the professional demands of a bush robber.

Big Harp confessed before dying in 1798 to 20 murders, probably not counting the babies. Estimates are as high as 40, but usually around 30. After two killings, one in Knox County and one on the Wilderness Trail, the Harps left Tennessee in December 1798 for Kentucky, where they killed two traveling men from Maryland…

The final stretch of slaughter took place soon after this, in July 1798, when the Harps returned to Eastern Tennessee. The victims included a farmer named Bradbury; a man named Hardin; a boy named Coffey; William Ballard, who was cut open, filled with stones, and dumped in the Holston River; James Brassel, with his throat ripped apart on Brassel’s Knob; John Tully, father of eight. On the Marrowbone Creek in south central Kentucky, John Graves and his teenaged son, out planting crops, had their heads axed. Moving toward Logan County, the Harps came upon a little girl, whom they killed, as they did a young slave on his way to the mill. Once in Logan County, near today’s Adairville, near the Whippoorwill River, they butchered an entire migrating family asleep in their camp, but for one son who survived. (Source)

TruTV also has an account of them sending a hijacked flatboat passenger over a cliff, and bashing a little girl’s head in against the side of a bridge.

“They murdered all classes and sexes, without distinction,” a Knoxville man* recounted years later, “not for plunder but for the love of shedding human blood.” We don’t have Little Harpe’s conscience on the record, but Big Harpe would only express remorse for one of his dozens of homicides: smashing his own infant child against a tree to make it stop crying.

That sentiment would come at the end, when Big Harpe had been cornered by a posse after murdering a frontier woman. The widower in that posse halved the Harpe menace by hewing Big Harpe’s head from his shoulders.

For generations after the subsequent roosting-spot of this deathly visage — presented to a justice of the peace to verify the man’s death (and pocket the price on his literal head), then hung up for public display by the intersection of Morgenfield, Henderson, and Maidensville Roads in Union County — was known as Harpe’s Head.

Little Harpe’s subsequent career with Sam Mason and his own violent demise capped the Harpe brothers’ nefarious legacy.

Their name was so infamous that many of their family changed it … including, according to rumor, the ancestors of legendary Wild West lawman Wyatt Earp.

* J.W.M. Breazeale was part of the posse that hunted down Big Harpe, and a witness to Big Harpe’s death, and gives the outlaw the (possibly tall-tale) last words directed to his slaughterer in mid-beheading: “You are a God damned rough butcher, but cut on and be damned.”

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1801: James Legg, crucified ecorche

1 comment November 2nd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1801, 73-year-old James Legg(e) was hanged for murdering his mate William Lamb(e) at Chelsea Hospital.

Both men were pensioned ensigns from His Majesty’s service. According to the trial transcript, Legg was sinking into obvious depression. A nurse of long acquaintance remarked on

a lowness, a melancholy and deranged state; knowing him so long, I took the opportunity of asking him what was the matter with him, and the reason of his melancholy; he told me his mind was confused; that he had no rest night or day; that he was hurried from place to place, and could not tell what he was doing; and I really was afraid he would make away with himself; I was always unhappy when he was out of my sight, for fear he should do himself an injury; I never mentioned it to the doctor, because he was harmless … sometimes when I spoke to him, he would start like a person surprized out of a sleep; sometimes he would give me an answer, and sometimes only just a bow; I still observed that lowness and melancholy, and that his head was always confused down to the time of this unfortunate event.

Ah. The “unfortunate event.” Legg took it to mind that Lamb was “a tyrannical tempered man” who gave him “repeated insults” and challenged him to a duel. (Lamb’s widow, the only witness to the murder, said her husband had no beef with his killer.)

When Lamb quizzically (or scornfully) discarded the pistol that the irate Legg had forced into his hand, Legg just shot him dead.

He probably had no expectation that he’d just punched his ticket to artistic immortality.

Legg hanged exactly a month after the homicide. During the interval, three Royal Academy of Arts members — sculptor Thomas Banks and painters Benjamin West and Richard Cosway — pulled some strings with the Chelsea Hospital surgeon Joseph Carpue to get Legg’s body after death.

These gentlemen had an idea that centuries of artistic representation of Christ’s crucifixion were nonsense from a physiological point of view.


Giotto crucifixion fresco, c. 1300.

It was a natural outgrowth of Europe’s long fascination with anatomical accuracy — a fascination that made liberal use of executed bodies.

Despite the centrality of Christ’s crucifixion to western culture, nobody had seen an actual crucifixion — not for centuries. So, sure, you can make the guy on the cross look like a proportioned, three-dimensional human being …


Possible Michelangelo (otherwise, Marcello Venusti) Crucifixion with the Madonna, St. John and Two Mourning Angels.

… but is this really what a proportioned, three-dimensional human being would look like when nailed to a cross?

That Chelsea surgeon Carpue and his artist friends had the best way to find out. (Well … the second-best.)

“A building was erected near the place of the execution; a cross provided,” Carpue recorded. After hanging, “the subject was nailed on the cross; the cross suspended … the body, being warm, fell into the position that a dead body must fall into … When cool, a cast was made, under the direction of Mr. Banks, and when the mob was dispersed it was removed to my theatre.” West supposedly exclaimed that he had “never before seen the human hand” until he saw James Legg’s nailed and stretched.

Carpue proceeded to flay the cadaver and make a second cast from the grisly skin-less ecorche … an artistic/anatomical practice of the age whose best-known product is Smugglerius, also cast from a hanged man.

That latter ecorche still survives, and the despondent veteran James Legg’s last pose, hypothetically in the manner of the Savior, can be seen to this day the Royal Academy.

(Debate and experimentation over the particulars of an execution by cross also continue to this day.)

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1804: Georges Cadoudal, Chouan

1 comment June 25th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1804, royalist counterrevolutionary Georges Cadoudal was guillotined in Paris with eleven of his chouan brothers-in-arms.

Cadoudal (English Wikipedia entry | the much more detailed French) was the French Revolution’s ultimate antagonist, a Breton notary (and commoner, obviously) who obstinately resisted the bloody progress of those years to the last of his strength.

His decade of royalist adventures (French) reads* like an adventure novel, a mind-bogglingly perilous series of revolts, captures, escapes, rappelling, martial exploits, diplomatic intrigue, terrorist plotting, high principles, low politics … a desperately heroic (or anti-heroic) struggle using every resource of a changing world to claw back the lost age of Bourbons.

After that dynasty’s last (up until then) king was guillotined in 1793, the intrepid Cadoudal staked his life to the 1793 Vendee rising, mounted an insurrection at Brest, and became one of the principal leaders of the anti-revolutionary Chouannerie fighting les bleus around northwest France through the 1790s.

Beaten but not bowed, Cadoudal took refuge in England when those campaigns came to grief following the royalist debacle at Quiberon, but he was never one to retire to the exile social circuit. Cadoudal remained an active schemer against the France of a rising Napoleon Bonaparte, and he was backed now by Britain’s statecraft … and her gold.

Spurning a proffered arrangement with the Corsican — who, say what one will, could recognize ability when he saw it — Cadoudal instead oversaw a dramatic 1800 assassination attempt on Napoleon that didn’t get the dictator but blew a bunch of Parisian bystanders to smithereens.

This effort having failed, our persistent intriguer slipped back into France to attempt an even bolder venture to kidnap Napoleon and elevate the Duke of Enghien — the going Bourbon candidate, who lurked on the French frontier to rush into the power vacuum.

This didn’t work either. As outlandish as the idea seems with benefit of hindsight, it was hardly a crackpot plan — as attested by the credentials of its participants.

“All Europe laughs at the conspiracy in Paris; it was, however, a well-built machine. Men, money, everything was ready. Bonaparte was to be taken alive and carried out like lightning from one post to the sea and the English fleet … I am inconsolable that it missed its mark. Those who criticize the French princes that they do not risk themselves while others fight for them, they will be the first to cry: What madness! How childish! [that d'Enghien risked himself] That is how men are made.”

-Joseph de Maistre (Source)

Which is a long way of saying that it still comes down to wins and losses.

Having lost, the Bourbon pretender (he’s a pretender because he lost, of course) d’Enghien was arrested and immediately shot for his trouble; Cadoudal, taken on the streets of Paris,** was around long enough to see the hated Bonaparte take sufficient warning from the conspiracies against him to vest his governance in the imperial dignity. That was proclaimed on May 18. (The famous coronation wasn’t until December.)


Happy now, Georges? Napoleon on his Imperial throne, by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.

“We have done better than we hoped,” the doomed Cadoudal remarked caustically from his dungeon. “We intended to give France a king, and we have given her an emperor.”

He was rock-ribbed in his royalism to the very last.

He’d met Napoleon face to face years before in an abortive parley — when Cadoudal was offered, and rejected, the bribe of a lucrative Republican military commission — and now Cadoudal’s proposed victim let it be known to him that mercy was his for the asking. The indignant Breton scorned as dishonorable the very idea of supplicating Napoleon, even when the invitation was refreshed as he underwent the fatal toilette on his final day. His dozen-strong party went to their deaths this date taking heart from following the very footsteps of their martyred king.


The Execution of Georges Cadoudal, by Armand de Polignac … who portrayed several scenes of the conspirators.

A very lovely mausoleum in his native village of Kerleano preserves Cadoudal’s remains (reburied honorably there after his Bourbon Restoration finally came to pass), and his memory.

* A descendant wrote this now-public-domain book about our man.

** Reproached for orphaning a policeman’s family as he resisted capture, Cadoudal sneered, “then you should have sent a bachelor.”

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guerrillas,Guillotine,History,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Notable for their Victims,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Soldiers,Terrorists,Treason

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