1803: Thomas Hilliker, teen machine wrecker

9 comments March 22nd, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1803, 19-year-old apprentice Thomas Hilliker (or Helliker, or Heliker, or Hiliker) was hanged on doubtful eyewitness identification for having helped torch Littleton Mill near Semington during an anti-mechanization protest.

The youth’s affecting handwritten last letter, on display at the Trowbridge Museum, was recently selected by the BBC for its “History of the World in 100 Objects” series.

“Remember my last Fate …” Detail view of Thomas’s letter, as seen in the BBC series. (For the full letter: page 1; page 2) Images (c) Trowbridge Museum, and used with permission.

Executed Today is pleased to mark the anniversary of Thomas Hilliker’s hanging with a chat with Trowbridge Museum Curator Clare Lyall.

ET: Can you put in context the significance of burning down a mill in Wiltshire in the early 1800s?

CL: This was part of organized resistance against mechanization that had begun to turn violent. Mills at Warminster and Bedington had already been burned. There was widespread opposition to processes that were perceived as threatening jobs and this was indicated by many employees joining unions despite the union’s illegal status.

Thomas Hilliker was 19 when he died. What do we know about him? What kind of life did he lead?

Thomas was a literate, apprentice shearman. The job of a shearman was highly skilled and involved the cropping of the raised nap of the cloth to ensure that a finely knitted fibre remained. He was only two years into a five-year apprenticeship when he was arrested. We have little evidence about the type of life he led. There was a statement that gave him an alibi for the night of the burning down of Littleton Mill, when one of his friends found him drunk outside a cottage where he had been visiting and took him in there to spend the night in the kitchen. I guess from that we can conclude that like many teenagers he liked on occasion to drink alcohol to excess.

You’re quoted on thisiswiltshire.co.uk as saying that Hilliker “was probably the wrong guy.” Was he wrongfully executed?

There were contradictory statements about whether Hilliker was actually there holding the Mill manager prisoner whilst the Mill was burned. He also had an alibi for that evening and it would have been very unusual for senior union men to have involved a junior member with such a serious event. I think all this casts doubt on his guilt.

What did Thomas have to say to his family in this last letter? What does that tell us about his life?

It was a moving farewell to his parents and siblings with a request for them not to forget him and to stay out of trouble. I don’t think this was an admission of his involvement in the Littleton Mill incident but may refer to his membership of an illegal organization, a union which after what had happened to him might have considered wasn’t worth the risk.

As a curator, how do you present this artifact to visitors? What kind of reactions does it typically draw?

We present the letter in a display case which has a controlled environment and subdued lighting. There is a transcription of his final letter that is displayed on the outside of the case and adjacent to the letter.

Many people are moved by the letter and why he never told who the true culprits were.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Activists,Arson,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Innocent Bystanders,Public Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1803: Johannes Bückler, “Schinderhannes”

5 comments November 21st, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1803, the famous German bandit “Schinderhannes” and 19 others of his gang were efficiently guillotined in French-occupied Rhineland.

Schinderhannes with mistress Juliana Blasius and their child.

As low-born as they come, Johannes Bückler (English Wikipedia link | German) hailed from a family of executioners and knackers (his appellation means “John the Knacker”).

But this outcast was born to command, and in the wild Rhineland at the close of the 18th century, his audacity, charisma, and deft cruelty made him a legendary bandit king.

He stole, he blackmailed, he slipped his fetters … “he seemed to contest French authority” recently projected by the revolutionary citizen-army, and he preyed heavily on unpopular Jewish merchants, all of which gave Bückler purchase on folk hero status with the boldness to hold a public “robber’s ball” at the ruined castle his band occupied.

His legend grew in his own lifetime, and as such things do, it inflated quite past any capacity of its originator’s character to support.

When things got too hot on the French side of the Rhine, he ducked over the frontier to the Holy Roman Empire in the east, but was nabbed attempting to lay low in the imperial army under an assumed name, and handed back to the French.

The authorities turned his outlaw gallantry to good effect (or at least, that’s the cover story his apologists have made for his stool pigeoning) by threatening to come down on the mistress who bore him a child, leading Schinderhannes to get her off with a slap on the wrist by giving up his bandit brethren.

And with French law came French execution technology, whose proliferation in the train of Napoleon’s Grande Armee would bequeath the German condemned death by the “falling axe” down to Hitler’s time and even after.

A spectacle here as it was in France, tens of thousands turned up in Mainz this date in 1803 for what sounds like an anticlimactic six-minute show of a score of Schinderhannes’ gang losing their heads to the mechanical contraption.

Scottish scribbler Leitch Ritchie helped convey to posterity the legend with Schinderhannes, the robber of the Rhine, which romantically celebrates a knave who must have been less lovable to those who knew him from the business end of his blade. These, nevertheless, are all long gone, and Ritchie has the authority of historical mythologizing to vindicate his text’s last eulogy with its hero’s foot upon the scaffold:

The bandit-chief preserved his intrepidity to the last, and left to other times, unsullied by many of the basenesses of his tribe, the name of SCHINDERHANNES, THE ROBBER OF THE RHINE.

He sure did. From the practically mandatory ballad …

… to the stage …

… to the screen

… to vicious-looking Cambrian anomalocarid Schinderhannes bartelsi

… the outlaw has long outlived his guillotining, to the profit of the tourist trade in his former stomping-grounds.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/20973106@N08/ / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,France,Germany,Guillotine,History,Mass Executions,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Organized Crime,Outlaws,Pelf,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Theft

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1803: George Foster, and thence to the reanimator

9 comments January 18th, 2009 dogboy

It’s not too often that a typical convicted murderer becomes a source for not just law, but also literature and science. George Foster (sometimes spelled George Forster despite few, if any, contemporaneous spellings as such) managed just that on this date in 1803, and his legacy lives on to this day.

Foster’s case was, in the annals of capital punishment, unremarkable.

He was accused in the drowning of his wife and youngest child in the Paddington Canal, one of the many canals being improved at the time to connect various parts of England by water. Foster was found guilty based on circumstantial evidence and sentenced to hang at Newgate Prison on 18 Jan 1803.

Shortly after 8 a.m., Foster was executed; minutes later, he was a science experiment.

Professor Giovanni Aldini was the nephew of biological electricity guru Luigi Galvani, and he wanted to electrify a body. Galvani had shown that frog legs responded to electricity, twitching when current was passed through the muscle, and he was in academic competition with his associate and sometime dissident Alessandro Volta over why this occurred. Galvani claimed that an electrical fluid flowed through the corpse, activating the muscles; Volta said that the cells passed electrical signals between one another. It was this latter assertion that led to the development of Volt’s first battery, a voltaic pile.* Aldini was convinced that his uncle was right about electrical fluid, but he was keen on Volta’s ideas for creating portable electricity.

His stated reason for delving into what was known as galvanic reanimation was to aid the recently drowned, who, he said, might be resuscitated. Galvani leaned on some earlier experience with beheaded victims in Bologna, as well as animal experiments, to convince British government agents of the viability of the plan. As one witness to those events stated:

A very ample series of experiments were made by Professor Aldini which show the eminent and superior power of galvanism beyond any other stimulant in nature. In the months of January and February last, he had the courage to apply it at Bologna to the bodies of various criminals who had suffered death at that place, and by means of the pile he excited the remaining vital forces in a most astonishing manner. This stimulus produced the most horrible contortions and grimaces by the motions of the muscles of the head and face; and an hour and a quarter after death, the arm of one of the bodies was elevated eight inches from the table on which it was supported, and this even when a considerable weight was placed in the hand.

Which is not to say it was really difficult to get permission.

Aldini’s experiments were a very public roadshow demonstration of Galvani’s ideas. London’s Royal College of Surgeons was, at that time, fascinated with the boundaries of life and death, and Aldini was more than happy to offer his services. As well, the 1751 (or 1752) Murder Act would not allow hanged criminals to be buried, and their corpses were often used for scientific discovery. Foster’s body, which had hung for an hour in slightly sub-zero temperatures, was the first complete corpse Aldini acted upon, but he wasn’t the first to get a chance.**

The Newgate Calendar summarizes the events:

On the first application of the process to the face, the jaws of the deceased criminal began to quiver, and the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened. In the subsequent part of the process the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion. Mr Pass, the beadle of the Surgeons’ Company, who was officially present during this experiment, was so alarmed that he died of fright soon after his return home.


An illustration of Aldini’s experiments with executed corpses. His notes of George Foster record that “the jaw began to quiver, the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and the left eye actually opened … The action even of those muscles furthest distant from the points of contact with the arc was so much increased as almost to give an appearance of re-animation … vitality might, perhaps, have been restored, if many circumstances had not rendered it impossible.” (cited in Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters)

Aldini’s act was yet another public showcase of strange new technologies, this time sparking the imaginations of the Brits. Within a generation, Scottish experimenters were performing similar feats, and the College of Surgeons had, after further attempts similar to Aldini’s, revived the heart of another convicted murderer, John Bellingham. It was the first recorded heart shock revival in modern medical history.† (Even today’s scientists turn to electricity to instantiate life’s precursors in trying to solve the riddle of abiogenesis.)

But even more than that was the effect these results had on popular culture, where Mary Shelley, well aware of Aldini’s work (as well as that of Erasmus Darwin, a proponent of evolution well before the concept of “natural selection” was framed by his more famous grandson), used the idea of reanimation — such as was attempted on her husband’s first wife after she drowned — to inspire her signature characters, Victor Frankenstein and his “monster.”

As a cultural icon, Frankenstein did exceedingly well. Considered a true Gothic novel, the story was remade for stage as early as 1887, turned into a variety of films which were subsequently parodied (c.f. The Rocky Horror Picture Show, “Treehouse of Horror II”, The Re-Animator, etc.), retold on radio, brought up in song, and re-written in novels.

Galvanization was never mentioned directly in that book, but the studies at the College of Surgeons were clearly an inspiration. And galvanization transcended that book, striking a chord in the public imagination. It continued to pop up in publication for decades after the Aldini/Foster event, for instance in the 1836 illustration “A Galvanized Corpse”, in which the editor of the Washington Globe, Francis Preston Blair, is shown being “galvanized” by two demons, who represent the interests of Andrew Jackson.

* The Voltaic pile was originally used to disprove Galvani’s fluids theory. However, the two were largely non-adversarial, so Volta actively advanced Galvani’s name through the word “galvanism” and, by the time of Foster’s death, “galvanize.” The term “galvanized” metal refers to a conductive element coated with something non-conductive and dates from the late 1830s. Volta, of course, is the recognizable source of the the electrical potential unit of the “Volt.”

** Indeed, the College of Surgeons was receiving all hanging victims from London since 1752, and most were put through rigorous postmortems. Such scientific experimentation is also often blamed for the revival of Patrick Redmond in 1767, who received a windpipe incision following his hanging in Cork, Ireland; Redmond, however, was documented as hanging for just nine minutes, only slightly longer than the average person takes to die if deprived of oxygen.

† Those interested in the history of cardiology in general should take a look at Louis J. Acierno’s The History of Cardiology; those interested in the use of human remains in medical science should seek out Human Remains: Dissection and Its Histories by Helen MacDonald.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Language,Murder,Notable Participants,Popular Culture,Public Executions

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1803: Robert Emmet, “let no man write my epitaph”

2 comments September 20th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1803, Irish nationalist Robert Emmet was hanged and posthumously beheaded, a day after his trial for treason against England.

The well-to-do scion of a Protestant family, Robert Emmet followed his older brother into the Republican ferment of the time and led an unavailing uprising in Dublin on July 23, 1803.

Captured a month later when he romantically recklessly moved his hideout closer to his beloved Sarah Curran.*

Emmet won his great laurels in the annals of Irish Republicanism with a stirring “Speech from the Dock” addressed to the courtroom the day before he died. Or better to say that it was addressed in a courtroom, for knowing that his death sentence was a foregone conclusion, the real audience was posterity and a wider world.

Emmet found that audience with one of the great orations of the 19th century.

This clip is a truncated version of a longer speech not set to paper by Emmet, so no single definitive version exists. Versions can be found at this Irish history site, and at SinnFein.ie.

I have but one request to ask at my departure from this world — it is the charity of its silence! Let no man write my epitaph: for as no man who knows my motives dare now vindicate them. let not prejudice or ignorance asperse them. Let them and me repose in obscurity and peace, and my tomb remain uninscribed, until other times, and other men, can do justice to my character; when my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not till then, let my epitaph be written. I have done.

On the strength of such sentiment — and the public’s learning of his love for Sarah Curran — the 25-year-old became iconic in death. Robert’s own death inspired the mandatory Irish patriotic ditty, “Bold Robert Emmet”:

But that sundered love between Emmet and Sarah Curran — who broken-heartedly accepted another proposal and moved to Sicily — was at least as stirring to the Romantic imagination. Washington Irving dedicated a short story to the lost romance; Emmet’s friend Thomas Moore made Curran the subject of a poem (beware: link opens an auto-playing audio file).


Anti-British terrorist Robert Emmet has a statue on Washington, D.C.’s Massachusetts Ave, and probably an entry on the no-fly list.

* 19th century Irish poet Thomas Moore paid her tribute in “She Is Far From the Land”:

She is far from the land where her young hero sleeps,
And lovers are round her, sighing:
But coldly she turns from their gaze, and weeps,
For her heart in his grave is lying.

She sings the wild song of her dear native plains,
Every note which he lov’d awaking; —
Ah! little they think who delight in her strains,
How the heart of the Minstrel is breaking.

He had liv’d for his love, for his country he died,
They were all that to life had entwin’d him;
Nor soon shall the tears of his country be dried,
Nor long will his love stay behind him.

Oh! make her a grave where the sunbeams rest,
When they promise a glorious morrow;
They’ll shine o’er his sleep, like a smile from the West,
From her ow lov’d island of sorrow.

Part of the Themed Set: Counterrevolution.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Hanged,History,Ireland,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Treason

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