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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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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1801: Chevalier, bomb plot scapegoat

1 comment January 11th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1801, a Jacobin chemist was wrongly executed for Royalists’ plot against Napoleon.

Our scene is France, the year following Napoleon’s coup of 18th Brumaire (November 9, 1799 on the stodgy old Gregorian calendar). Marx’s “first time as tragedy”* saw the Corsican achieve monarch-esque power, and the months ensuing saw a plethora of plots against him.

The ranks of aggrieved potential assassins included both Jacobins, incensed at the military dictatorship, and Bourbons, incensed that it wasn’t their dictatorship — in both cases exacerbated by Napoleon’s decisive battlefield triumphs which consolidated his hold on power.

On Christmas Eve 1800, the man on horseback was a man in a carriage, careening through Paris to catch a performance of Haydn’s oratorio The Creation.

When, all of a sudden, a gigantic explosion on the Rue Saint-Nicaise attempted to un-create the First Consul. It failed, exploding after Napoleon had passed and before Josephine’s family followed, “merely” killing and maiming fifty-some miscellaneous Parisian bystanders instead.


Kablamo! The explosion of the Infernal Machine.
The Catherine Delors historical novel For the King (author’s teaser) is built around investigating the Plot of the Rue Saint-Nicaise.

“Every one,” wrote Sir Walter Scott,

shocked with the wild atrocity of such a reckless plot, became, while they execrated the perpetrators, attached in proportion to the object of their cruelty. A disappointed conspiracy always adds strength to the government against which it is directed; and Buonaparte did not fail to push this advantage to the uttermost.

This “Infernal Machine” had actually been built by disgruntled monarchists at the instigation of intriguer Georges Cadoudal, as was swiftly discerned by Napoleon’s Minister of Police, the ruthless ex-revolutionary Joseph Fouche.

Realpolitik exigencies — Napoleon was trying (unsuccessfully) to reach political terms with the royalist faction — instead drove a rush to pin the detonation on the Jacobins.

Who, it should be said, made themselves the primary suspects by virtue of the fact that they’d also been trying to blow up Napoleon. Chevalier had been arrested a couple of months before when a bomb of his, evidently an experiment for a similar Jacobin plot, loudly blew up near Salpetriere.

Four other Jacobins followed Chevalier to death later in January (and two royalists actually involved in the bomb got the same treatment). Some 130 other prominent Jacobins (French link) were expelled on Napoleon’s say-so — no legislative consultation — to the empire’s far-flung colonies, pretty much putting the remains of the long-supine revolutionary left permanently out of the picture as a political force.

* See the 18th Brumaire; the “second time as farce” also came with its own history-repeating-itself executions.

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