1817: Not Hall or Read, prosecuted for blood-money

Add comment August 16th, 2015 Headsman

Miscarriages of justice perpetrated by actors in a position to extract private benefit from generating criminal prosecutions is a story as old as the hills. This one, as reprinted in the London Morning Chronicle, Aug. 25, 1817, at least has a happy ending:


Two soldiers, named Hall and Morrison, were on the 26th July tried for a highway robbery at the Stafford Assizes, before Baron Garrow, convicted, and ordered to be executed. They were prosecuted by a man named Read, a bricklayers labourer, who swore that they knocked him down and robbed him of a shilling and a penny, in a church-yard at Wolverhampton, on the 23d July. The evidence of the woman in whose house the prisoners resided, went to prove that they did not sleep at home on the night of the imputed robbery. To those two witnesses the evidence was confined, and against it there appeared nothing upon the trial, except the declarations of the prisoners, containing facts which were afterwards sworn to be others, and which, after the utmost labour of a few benevolent persons, were the means of saving the innocent prisoners from a death which appeared to all to be inevitable.

The two soldiers were, upon the 23d of July, drinking at an hour too late for admission at their lodging at Wolverhampton, and, after applying in vain to be allowed to go into the guardroom to sleep, walked about the village to kill time.

In loitering through the church-yard they met a man who seemed to be in want of work, and, like themselves, without a lodging for the night. A conversation ensued, and the stranger told them his name was Read; that he was a bricklayer’s labourer out of employment, and a Hertfordshire man.

It happened, that in his description he hit upon the part of the country from which one of the prisoners came. A jesting dialogue took place between them, and at length it was agreed that they should wrestle.

Hall was the friendly opponent of Read upon the occasion, and he was thrown in the first round of wrestling. In the second, however, Hall was more successful in the feat of activity, but his triumph nearly robbed him of his life. The vanquished man dropped a shilling and a penny from his pocket. Morrison immediately picked up the money, said it would do for beer, and put it into his pocket. The soldiers quizzed Read about his loss, and were heard by a watchman near the spot acknowledging that they had the shilling, and would certainly dispose of it in the most convivial way.

Read growled about his money, and showed a disposition to quarrel, but did not utter a word about his being robbed of it. About five o’clock in the morning the three were seen near the market-place by another watchman, and the soldiers were bantering Read upon the same subject.

The good humour of Read, however, at this time, appeared quite broken up; he spoke of having the soldiers taken into custody, but was answered by a laugh from them. A grocer, named Powis, saw them all under similar circumstances, and heard Read complain of no attempt at robbery, but saw that he was not pleased at being laughed at.

The grocer soon after met a man named Roberts, the keeper of the House of Correction at Wolverhampton, and mentioned to him that Read said two soldiers had got his money. The answer of Roberts, which did not strike the grocer as extraordinary at first, was, “I must see that man; this is a good job.”

The event, however, soon explained the language. Roberts immediately inquired after Read, questioned him upon the loss he had sustained, and in a very short time apprehended the two soldiers upon the charge of robbing Read in the highway of a shilling and a penny. Before the magistrate, Read swore that the soldiers knocked him down and robbed him of his money in the church-yard. Their commitment was immediately made out, and they were sent to the Assizes of Stafford, where, on the Saturday following they were tried and condemned for the capital offense.

The inhabitants of Wolverhampton knew nothing of the intention of Read upon the interference of Roberts in this transaction. It was generally concluded amongst them that the angry state of mind in which Read appeared, would have influenced him to swear a common assault, but nothing at all serious was apprehended from the wrestling bout. There was consequently no interference upon the part of those who were acquainted with many of the circumstances; and the matter died away until the village was struck with horror at an account in the Stafford paper of the proceedings of the Assizes. An old man was reading the paper in an ale-house to a number of politicians, who were not much affected at any thing they heard until he came to that part which stated the number of persons left for execution. Amongst the names were those of Hall and Morrison. The whole population of Wolverhampton instantly showed how they felt upon an occasion so dreadful.

The Rev. Mr. Guard, one of the most venerable characters in that part of the country, who officiates in the village where Hall’s family resides, upon hearing the event of the trial, set out for Wolverhampton, where he found the people already meeting and acting upon this subject. The men were to be hanged this day (Saturday last), and not a moment was to be lost. Mr. Guard, who had known Hall from his infancy, and would have staked his life upon the integrity of the young man, made a quick but deep inquiry into the facts, and having found every thing confirmatory of his innocence, followed Baron Garrow on his circuit to state what he had learned from the very best authority, and obtain a respite.

He saw Mr. Baron Garrow, but his Lordship appeared to see no reason to alter the opinion which he had formed from hearing the trial. The worthy Clergyman, however, was so well convinced of the truth of his own information, that he could not help exclaiming, with more zeal than discretion, “I see you are determined to hang these poor men.”

Mr. Baron Garrow was naturally offended at this intemperate observation, and an eminent Barrister remarked, that Mr. Guard’s object was wholly defeated by the use of it.

Mr. Guard was not, however, to be turned from the endeavour to save the lives of the two soldiers; there was another quarter to which he could apply. He immediately came to town, and went without ceremony to Lord Sidmouth, to whom he obtained an easy access. He remained in conversation with his Lordship between three and four hours, and Lord Sidmouth afterwards declared, that he never in his life saw such an interest taken in the fate of men who were not related by domestic ties to the individuals whom he was labouring to save. This meeting gave Mr. Guard hopes; though Lord Sidmouth had observed, that in cases of this kind the Judge was necessarily better acquainted with all the bearings of the evidence than the Secretary of State, and therefore his power was seldom interfered with, except under circumstances of strong fact.

Mr. Guard posted back to Wolverhampton the moment after he parted from the Secretary. A meeting of the inhabitants was called, at which Mr. Mander, and all the other respectable residents of Wolverhampton attended.

The witnesses were sworn, and a Petition to the Prince Regent was signed and delivered into the hands of Mr. Guard, who, accompanied by Mr. Charles Mander, very soon after arrived in town. These two gentlemen went, with Mr. Pearsall, of Cheapside, to Lord Sidmouth, and put into his hands the evidence of the innocence of the soldiers. His Lordship requested that Mr. Pearsall would relate the circumstance.

That gentleman repeated the manner in which Read and the two soldiers had acted in the presence of the watchmen and the grocer. Lord Sidmouth was just going up with the Recorder’s Report, and said, that upon his return he would examine the affidavits, and act upon them. Mr. Pearsall observed, that the men were ordered for execution on Saturday, but was assured by his Lordship that their case should not be neglected, and that the affidavits should be laid before the Attorney-General.

Upon the next meeting, Lord Sidmouth said there had been no necessity for laying the affidavits before the Attorney-General. The case, he observed, was one of the most interesting that ever came before him.

Indeed, such was the effect of the affidavits upon him, that he was not only immediately convinced that the soldiers should not be executed, but, in the absence of his clerks, he wrote the dispatch for their respite with his own hand, and sent it to the Sheriff; “because,” said his Lordship, “I could not endure the thought that the soldiers should have one hour more of unnecessary anxiety.”

Mr. Pearsall said there was no doubt that the men had no intention of felony; it would also appear, at another time, that the prosecutor had no intention of indicting them, until he was instigated by Roberts, with the view of gaining the reward called “Blood-money,” which was accordingly pocketed by Read and the keeper of the prison, to the amount of 80l.

Lord Sidmouth declared, that, under such circumstances, an immediate investigation should take place. He coincided in the opinion of the impropriety of Roberts’s conduct, and said a pardon would be instantly granted to the soldiers. He also complimented, in the warmest manner, the conduct of Mr. Guard and the other gentleman, who had exerted themselves. In the course of his observations to Lord Sidmouth, Mr. Guard said he would give up half his fortune to save the life of Hall, so convinced was he of his honesty.

While these operations were going forward in London, affidavits, copied from those handed to the Secretary, were brought to Mr. Baron Garrow by Lieut. Buchanan, of the same regiment as the soldiers, and a respite was instantly granted by his Lordship when he read them.

The Officer stated, that Baron Garrow, upon reading the affidavits, said, if the facts had been known before, their respite should have been granted; and asked whether they would, upon being pardoned, be taken into the regiment again? Lieutenant Buchanan immediately replied, that they would be most gladly received.

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1817: Four arsonists in the rain

1 comment August 15th, 2015 Headsman

Account from the Derby Mercury, Aug. 21, 1817:

John Brown, Thos. Jackson, Geo. Booth & John King.

The above unfortunate men were arraigned at our late Assizes for setting fire to certain hay and corn stacks, the property of Winfield Halton, Esq. of Southwingfield, in this county, and after a long and impartial trial were found guilty on the most satisfactory evidence, by a very respectable jury of their fellow countrymen. The awful sentence of the law was passed upon them in the most impressive manner by the Judge, who endeavoured to prepare them for the fate which awaited them by assuring them that the heinous nature of their offence precluded all hopes of mercy.

For some days after their condemnation, however, they cherished a hope that pardon or at least a mitigation of their sentence might be extended to them. Under this impression they persisted in asserting their innocence of the crime for which they were about to suffer, and even when this delusion could no longer influence their conduct, their denial of all participation in the offence of which they had been convicted was repeatedly made in the most solemn manner. The faithful exhortations of the Chaplain, and also of a Dissenting Minister, who at their own request attended Brown and Booth, failed to draw a confession of the fact from them. Still they did not appear unimpressed by certain religious convictions which might have been expected to lead to contrition. But in the midst of their profession of forgiveness towards their prosecutor and the witnesses who appeared against them, there was a manifest irritation of mind and a vindictive expression of feeling which justified a doubt of the sincerity of their repentance.

This was particularly the case with Brown and Booth, who were confined together. Jackson exhibited a calmer state of spirit, but still protested that he was not guilty. King shewed the most absolute submission to the fate which awaited him, and his assertions of innocence seemed to be made more in deference to the wishes of his fellow criminals, than to arise from another cause. Indeed he had made a confession of the offence before his trial, but was led subsequently to retract what he had admitted.

It was vainly hoped that at the place of execution they would prove by their confession that their general professions of contrition were sincere. But they had previously stated that they should die with the protestations of innocence on their lips, and not even the dread prospect of that eternity on which they were about to enter was able to produce a charge in this determination.

They were brought out upon the scaffold about a quarter before one o’clock, and seemed but little affected by the sad solemnities by which they were surrounded. After the Chaplain had concluded his devotions, in which they appeared to unite with some degree of fervour, they sang a hymn, all joining in it except King, whose manner expressed a firmness bordering on indifference, and a high disdain of the enthusiastic fervours by which the others seemed to be sustained. Booth and Brown addressed the immense multitudes who were assembled before them; the former expressing himself in unwarrantable terms against individuals whom he named, and the latter exhorting the croud to religious faith and practice.

They, as well as Jackson spoke familiarly to their acquaintances who came to witness their tragical end, and their whole behaviour betrayed an insensibility to their real situation which it was painful to observe, and would be difficult to account for, were not their previous abandoned characters sufficient to furnish the solution. The drop fell from under them about five minutes after one o’clock, and they seemed to die almost without a struggle.

Such was the deportment of these wretched men; even in the closing scene of their lives, aggravating the heavy criminality of their former conduct, by their continued protestations of innocence. Many circumstances tended to produce this. The state of the prison in which they were confined did not, unfortunately, admit of their being in solitary cells, and their intercourse with each other seems to have given them hardihood to deny what had been so clearly proved against them, by evidence which has not been in the slightest degree affected by any circumstances that have subsequently transpired. Indiscreet communications from their friends, by which they were assured that their innocence was believed by their neighbours, farther tended to make them persevere in their first protestations. They seemed unwilling to destroy the sympathy which they believed they had succeeded in exciting.

Still it appears incredible to many that guilt should be so bold, and the professions of religion loudly made by two of the criminals are thought by some to be greatly in favour of their sincerity. Nothing however is more common than protestations of innocence even at the place and hour of execution; nor is it wonderful, where all moral feeling has been outraged during a long course of years that it should not be displayed in a nice regard to truth even in the most awful moments.

The professions of religion made by men who have not been brought by penitence to confession, may well be regarded with suspicion, and such conduct would be inconceivable were we not aware that a species of fanaticism is abroad in the world which separates religion from morals, and substitutes mere profession in the place of practice.

As every fact which may tend to illustrate the principles of human action deserves notice, it is worth observing, that a heavy shower happening, whilst the men were singing the hymn, two of them deliberately retreated to the shelter of an umbrella which was expanded on the drop, and a third placed himself under cover of the door way. The inconvenicne of being wet was felt and avoided by men who knew they had not five minutes longer to live!! The whole of the scene now recorded was one of great horror, increased by the conduct of the criminals themselves. The many thousands of spectators behaved with great decorum, but retired from the spectacle apparently little impressed with sympathy towards men who had evinced so much insensibility to the real nature of their own unhappy condition.

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1817: Maggie Houghtaling

Add comment October 17th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1817, Maggie Houghtaling (alias Peggy Densmore) was hanged in Hudson, N.Y. for infanticide.

Houghtaling lived with the mother of 15-month-old Lewis Spencer. One awful day in August — just eight weeks before the consequent execution — the mother popped out of the house a few moments and left Lewis gnawing on a piece of bread under her roommate’s care.

When the mother returned, she found the child “apparently in convulsions, its tongue protruded from the mouth, and covered with erosions — the inside of the mouth corrugated, and all the shocking symptons which may be supposed to follow from a potion so horrid.” The potion referred to in this account of the New York Evening Post (September 23, 1817): vitriol, also known as sulfuric acid. It’ll do a number on you.

The self-evident inference was that his babysitter had poisoned the kid — an inference the mother made immediately and that Maggie Houghtaling vainly sought to repel all the way to the rope.*

Hudson’s Northern Whig reported a heavily-attended (five to ten to even fifteen thousand souls, by various estimates) but orderly scene and “the ceremonies of the day … conducted with great propriety.” Houghtaling herself was composed and even indifferent** riding a horse-drawn cart with a halter around her neck to a scaffold erected on the pastures north of State Street.†

Houghtaling made one last assertion of her innocence under the gallows, despite the overwhelming confidence her contemporaries had in her guilt. “Such declarations,” sniffed the Otsego Herald (Oct. 30, 1817) “after a fair and impartial trial, and from her incredibility of character, were not entitled to consideration, and made but little impression in her favor.”

Then she swung.

Many, many years later, as the Empire State prepared to execute Roxalana Druse — the very last woman put to death by hanging in New York — one of the numerous pamphlets published in the hope of sparing Ms. Druse curiously resuscitated the Houghtaling hanging.

Mrs. Druse’s case and Maggie Houghtaling: An innocent woman hanged claims that the secret of the crime was revealed to its writer by “a tall, handsome lady of middle age and most refined manner” who had “befriended Peggy, when that unfortunate young woman was being tried and she was the last one who prayed in her cell with her before she was led out for execution.” Since Roxalana Druse was hanged seventy years after our Ms. Houghtaling, this refined Samaritan must have discovered the font of middle age.

There is no evidence I have been able to locate of the manipulative story purportedly related surfacing in any official fashion to exonerate Maggie Houghtaling (or “Peggy Houghtaling”, here). But doubts aside — and we must allow that the incendiary domestic murder of a child has been known to railroad a body now and again — this qualifies at the very least as intriguing folklore: the young woman publicly executed over her protestations of innocence still maintained a purchase on the public conscience seven decades after her death.

In agony she [Houghtaling] begged for her life to be at least spared till she had an opportunity to prove her innocence. But, no, there was no mercy for her as the case was a most revoltingly brutal one, and the wretched woman was strung up like a dog six weeks [sic] after the murder, protesting with her last breath:

God forgive you all for hanging me; but I am innocent, and my only prayer is that some day it may be proved and the black spot taken off my name and memory.

That some day did not come for several years, and then the real murderess was found. She had been a rival of poor Peggy’s in the affections of the same man, and was “cut out” as she called it, by Peggy. In her disappointment and rage she resolved on revenge, but buried it in her heart, and appeared very friendly and indifferent on the surface. At last she got her opportunity, and she cold-bloodedly murdered Peggy’s child. [sic] Her devilish plot had been laid with the most consummate skill, in such a way that suspicion was thrown upon the mother, who accordingly was arrested. The public mind was aroused to the highest point of excitement, most especially by the testimony of this very witness, given on the stand amidst a flow of crocodile tears, and apparently with great reluctance. Her revenge was thus complete; but as he always does, the devil sowed in her bosom the little black seed of remorse, and it sprouted and grew, and spread, until she was the most unhappy wretch in existence. At night the ghosts of her two victims came to her in her sleep, and she would wake up screaming with terror and in daytime her imagination brought them before her, at times so vividly that she would fall in fits.

After enduring a lifetime’s pangs of remorse, the “real murderess” (never named) at last expires

in convulsions on the bed, screaming, clasping her hands, tearing at her throat, and crying out:

“I am lost! I’m lost, forever! There is no forgiveness! none! none!”

In the midst of one of these awful paroxysms the guilty wretch suddenly expired, and her soul stood in the presence of her Maker, to answer for the hideous crime she had committed on earth.

* Maggie Houghtaling was prosecuted by District Attorney Moses I. Cantine with the assistance of his brother-in-law, who just happened to be the state Attorney General: future U.S. President Martin Van Buren. (Evening Post, Sept. 23, 1817)

** By the conventions of the execution bulletin, condemned prisoners are remarked “indifferent” when their composure exceeds the reporter’s own.

† I have no idea whether it actually relates to this date’s events but one would be remiss not to mention that the next lane north of State Street in Hudson is something called Rope Alley.

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1817: James Lane

Add comment September 9th, 2014 Headsman

I was born near Goshen, in the state of Connecticut, about the year 1793. My father was a show-man, and his business leading him much from home, I was neglected, and suffered to follow my own inclinations … I chose for my companions the most vicious boys, and spent most of my time in quarrelling, fighting, sabbath-breaking, and other vices. I was indeed sent to school a short time; but, disliking restraint and study, made but little progress in learning. Thus by parental neglect on the one hand, and bad example on the other, were sown those seeds of vice, which, as will be seen in my narrative, produced such a dreadful harvest of crimes.

-From the Narrative of the life of James Lane: who was executed at Gallipolis (Ohio), September 9, 1817, for the murder of William Dowell, with some observations on his behaviour under condemnation : to which is added the address of the court, on pronouncing sentence of death upon the prisoner.

The gallows narrative commenced thereby will arrive on this date in 1817 at a hangman’s tree in Ohio. But it begins, as is customary, delving into the miscreant’s youthful forays into theft, through which he soon “stifled the voice of conscience, which cried against it.” He suffered 10 lashes at the public whipping-post of Litchfield for robbing a schoolhouse of books, and had a couple of close brushes for his habit of walking into unattended farm houses and making off with clothes.

The War of 1812 gave Lane the opportunity to mend his ways, or at least collect enlistment bonuses, which he did on at least three occasions. Being caught in desertion attempts one time, Lane was “sentenced to be cobbed two mornings, fifteen strokes each time. This mode of punishment is very severe. It is performed by laying the offender across a barrel, and whipping him with rods. Five or six others suffered the same punishment with me, some of them much worse than I.”

At last, following more successful desertions, he found his way up the Hudson to

Catskill, [where] I fell in with one Church, as hardened as desperate as myself. We formed an acquaintance with each other, and travelled together to a place near the city of New York. Here we went into a store to buy some small article; and the store keeper suspecting our money to be bad, I flew into a violent passion, snatched the watch from his pocket, and stamped it under my feet. Church then seized a scythe and drove him out of the door. We then locked ourselves in and in spite of the danger which threatened us, ate and drank our fill of the good things we found. By this time, a number of people had assembled in the chamber over our heads, and were making their way down the trap door to take us. Hardened, insensible, and enraged with liquor and passion as we then were, it would have been no wonder if we had put fire to some barrels of powder there. This we might easily have done; but either did not think of it at the time, or were prevented by some other circumstance. I thank God for preventing this dreadful crime; for preserving my life and the lives of so many people as would have been thus destroyed, and giving me a space for repentance.

But it seems so idyllic in Thomas Cole’s 1833 “Catskill Scenery”.

They got a three-year sentence in the penitentiary for this brazen raid, and Lane piously averred that “the time spent there was the happiest of my life.”

“But such deep rooted habits as ours are not to be cured by a few years of confinement,” the narrator continues, rubbishing the penitentiary movement without which he might have been hanged already. “No sooner were we at liberty, than we betook ourselves to our old course of life.”

The old confederates burgled in Albany, then wandered to New York, and Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh, separating along the way. Lane lived hand to mouth, moving town to town, working a day or two here and there, stealing when the opportunity arose, and wasting whatever money he laid hands upon “in drinking, carousing, and every other species of vice.”

Following the Ohio River, he made his last call at the river hamlet of Gallipolis, Ohio where he “first met with Dowell, removing from Virginia, for whose murder I am so justly condemned to suffer death.”

The next morning I went to his house, or shed, about six miles from Gallipolis, on my way to Chillicothe, entered, sat down, and talked in a friendly manner with him and a female slave, his house keeper. I then walked on to Mr. Ryan’s, about a quarter of a mile from Dowell’s, where the latter soon came in to buy some meat. We were both asked to breakfast, and accepted the invitation. When Dowell had paid for the meat, I perceived that he had about forty dollars left. To possess myself of this, I resolved to commit the horrid crime of murder! and this on a man who had never done me any injury, whose house I had entered an hour or two before as a friend, and been treated as such, and with whom I had just partaken at the table of the bounties of Providence; and not only on him, but on the woman also, and her four children, and then set fire to the home. Astonishing and incredible wickedness!!! Six human beings were to be sent to their final account, in a sudden and awful manner, and perhaps unprepared — and for what? That I might have a few dollars to throw away, or worse than throw away, as I had done with all my former ill gotten money!!? I can plead no excuse. I was able to work, and not ashamed to beg, till I could find employment. — Shall I say I was urged on by the devil? No doubt I was; but his temptation could have been of no avail, if I had not lent a willing ear to him. I had never resisted him. I was completely his slave! Just, I repeat it, is the sentence of death pronounced against me!!

Lane executed his exclamation-mark plan that night, stealing a cudgel from yet another farm and slipping back to ol’ Moneybags Dowell’s. When the house was asleep, he crept into the house and to Dowell’s very bedside, and slew him unawares with a mighty two-handed smash.

The blow woke Dowell’s slave — who is never referred to by name in this narrative — and after a struggle she managed to escape out the door and elude her murderous pursuer, and we presume her four children did likewise since they were also not murdered. When Lane returned to the emptied Dowell house, he could find no money — “for it since appears he had left it with Mr. Ryan.” He fled over the river into Virginia (today West Virginia), but was captured a few miles away, and as will be readily perceived, was thoroughly worked over before his execution by the local divine.

Since a small town like Gallipolis (population as of the 1850 census: 1,686) didn’t exactly have regular traffic to the gallows, this was a big occasion for the ministers as well. To Lane’s confession, the Rev. Gould appends a two-page summary modestly reviewing his soul-saving offices. Lane’s own biography traces the classic gallows narrative, from sabbath-breaking to the noose; the like formula for Gould’s review ought to be taking Lane from his initial condition, “destitute of all religious knowledge, insensible of his sinfulness, and unconcerned about futurity” to the hope of eternal salvation.

Gould, however, remained skeptical of Lane’s histrionics of religiosity. After the prisoner was sentenced, he “broke off profane swearing, acknowledged his guilt, and became sober,” but as Gallipolis’s pious citizens held prayer meetings in the jail or read the Bible to him, Gould thinks it was his narcissism as much as his conscience that was excited and “the increasing attention which he received from every kind of character, elated him, and did much to divert his mind from the thoughts of death.” Although sometimes “under lively representations of his situation and of the mercy of God in Christ Jesus, his feelings were softened into tears,” these interludes “lasted but a few moments” and “he showed no pleasing signs of repentance, no attachment to the Saviour.”

The evening before execution, like careless sinners, he was unwilling to be disturbed with the thoughts of his unpreparedness and danger. He said he had left off swearing, and had prayed a good deal; and therefore believed that God would pardon him. This appeared to be the foundation of his hope to the last. On the day of execution, his sensibility nearly or quite left him. He appeared not to realize his situation. When he was first placed upon his coffin, at divine service, however, he was affected … [but] on the gallows, he expressed his willingness to die, saying he had made his peace with God; but manifested little sense of the importance of death and of eternity.

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1817: Two-fifths of the condemned in Valenciennes

Add comment July 3rd, 2014 Headsman

From the York Herald and General Advertiser (York, England) of Saturday, Aug. 16, 1817.

Five English soldiers being on guard, the 18th of June last, at one of the gates of Valenciennes, committed a robbery on the house of an individual, and were condemned to be hanged. They were conducted, by the orders of Lord Wellington, on the 3d of July, outside the walls of the town, to undergo their punishment.

The people followed the culprits, invoking, in accents of sorrow, the pity of their officers, and crying “Mercy! Mercy!”

Two of them were executed, and the other three received their pardon at the very moment they were about to part with life. At this news the joy of the numerous spectators was extreme, and the thanks they addressed to the English General were no doubt less eloquent than the joy from which they emanated.

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1817: Gertrudis Bocanegra, Mexican independence heroine

1 comment October 11th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1817, Mexican War of Independence heroine Gertrudis Bocanegra was publicly shot in her native town of Pátzcuaro for treason.

Bocanegra (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish), a literate Enlightenment woman was already 45 years old when the rebellion against the Spanish empire broke out.

Her husband and son joined Biblioteca Gertrudis Bocanegra, where one can find this:

(cc) image from eperales depicts Juan O’Gorman‘s monumental Historia de Michoacan. We’ve seen this monument before, as it depicts the Spanish burning to death the last native Tarasco ruler.

Bocanegra’s own execution is also shown in the mural — in the lower right, obscured by the bookshelves in the photograph above, but captured in detail in this Spanish blog post.

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1817: The Pentrich Rebellion leaders

3 comments November 7th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1817, Jeremiah Brandreth, William Turner, and Isaac Ludlum or Ludlam were hanged and posthumously beheaded for the Pentrich Revolution or Pentrich Rising.

Retrace the “revolution” on a walking trail (pdf). Scenic!

The executions this day were an ugly consequence of government vigilance against subversives after the Napoleonic Wars.

There was plenty of “subversion” to spark vigilance: economic realignments of the early Industrial Revolution pushed workers into untenable positions, and a political system overgrown with archaic privileges and undemocratic veto points could not respond pending desperately needed reform.

Political Hampden clubs interested in parliamentary reform had cropped up all over England. The government viewed them as potential Robespierres.

So not only the Pentrich rising’s suppression but the rising itself were the product of the state security apparatus. A government spy named William Oliver, in the employ of Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth, infiltrated himself into radical circles in the Derbyshire village, and convinced the real radicals that nationwide protests were planned for June 9.

Expecting sympathetic labor actions in London and elsewhere, a few dozen Pentrich men assembled themselves — alone in the nation, drenched in a downpouring rain. They marched towards Nottingham, killed a man along the way, dissolved pathetically and were rounded up by soldiers in the days ahead. Forty-five stood trial for treason: three doomed to die this day, others sentenced to jail terms or transportation. It was a warning shot against airing grievances, a harbinger of more infamous top-down violence to come.

These hangings and the throwback chopping-off-heads bit succeeded by just a few hours the sudden death of the young Princess Charlotte, a sort of Princess Di moment for the Hanoverians.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, who knew from scaffold bathos, produced for the occasion a meditation on the contrasting characters of their deaths, and the incommensurate public mourning reserved for privileged royalty as against suffering subjects.

The execution of Brandreth, Ludlam, and Turner, is an event of quite a different character from the death of the Princess Charlotte. These men were shut up in a horrible dungeon, for many months, with the fear of a hideous death and of everlasting hell thrust before their eyes; and at last were brought to the scaffold and hung. They too had domestic affections, and were remarkable for the exercise of private virtues. Perhaps their low station permitted the growth of those affections in a degree not consistent with a more exalted rank. They had sons, and brothers, and sisters, and fathers, who loved them, it should seem, more than the Princess Charlotte could be loved by those whom the regulations of her rank had held in perpetual estrangement from her. Her husband was to her as father, mother, and brethren. Ludlam and Turner were men of mature years, and the affections were ripened and strengthened within them. What those sufferers felt shall not be said. But what must have been the lone and various agony of their kindred may be inferred from Edward Turner, who, when he saw his brother dragged along upon the hurdle, shrieked horribly and fell in a fit, and was carried away like a corpse by two men. How fearful must have been their agony, sitting in solitude on that day when the tempestuous voice of horror from the crowd, told them that the head so dear to them was severed from the body! Yes—they listened to the maddening shriek which burst from the multitude: they heard the rush of ten thousand terror-stricken feet, the groans and the hootings which told them that the mangled and distorted head was then lifted into the air. … When man sheds the blood of man, revenge, and hatred, and a long train of executions, and assassinations, and proscriptions, is perpetuated to remotest time. … Their death, by hanging and beheading, and the circumstances of which it is the characteristic and the consequence, constitute a calamity such as the English nation ought to mourn with an unassuageable grief. …

On the 7th of November, Brandreth, Turner, and Ludlam ascended the scaffold. We feel for Brandreth the less, because it seems he killed a man. But recollect who instigated him to the proceedings which led to murder. On the word of a dying man, Brandreth tells us, that “OLIVER brought him to this”—that, “but for OLIVER, he would not have been there.” See, too, Ludlam and Turner, with their sons and brothers, and sisters, how they kneel together in a dreadful agony of prayer. Hell is before their eyes, and they shudder and feel sick with fear, lest some unrepented or some wilful sin should seal their doom in everlasting fire. With that dreadful penalty before their eyes—with that tremendous sanction for the truth of all he spoke, Turner exclaimed loudly and distinctly, while the executioner was putting the rope round his neck, “THIS IS ALL OLIVER AND THE GOVERNMENT.” What more he might have said we know not, because the chaplain prevented any further observations. Troops of horse, with keen and glittering swords, hemmed in the multitudes collected to witness this abominable exhibition. “When the stroke of the axe was heard, there was a burst of horror from the crowd. The instant the head was exhibited, there was a tremendous shriek set up, and the multitude ran violently in all directions, as if under the impulse of sudden frenzy. Those who resumed their stations, groaned and hooted.” It is a national calamity, that we endure men to rule over us, who sanction for whatever ends a conspiracy which is to arrive at its purpose through such a frightful pouring forth of human blood and agony. But when that purpose is to trample upon our rights and liberties for ever, to present to us the alternatives of anarchy and oppression, and triumph when the astonished nation accepts the latter at their hands, to maintain a vast standing army, and add, year by year, to a public debt, which, already, they know, cannot be discharged; and which, when the delusion that supports it fails, will produce as much misery and confusion through all classes of society as it has continued to produce of famine and degradation to the undefended poor; to imprison and calumniate those who may offend them, at will; when this, if not the purpose, is the effect of that conspiracy, how ought we not to mourn?

Mourn then People of England. Clothe yourselves in solemn black. Let the bells be tolled. Think of mortality and change. Shroud yourselves in solitude and the gloom of sacred sorrow. Spare no symbol of universal grief. Weep-mourn—lament. Fill the great City—fill the boundless fields, with lamentation and the echo of groans. A beautiful Princess is dead:—she who should have been the Queen of her beloved nation, and whose posterity should have ruled it for ever. She loved the domestic affections, and cherished arts which adorn, and valour which defends. She was amiable and would have become wise, but she was young, and in the flower of youth the despoiler came. LIBERTY is dead. Slave! I charge thee disturb not the depth and solemnity of our grief by any meaner sorrow. If One has died who was like her that should have ruled over this land, like Liberty, young, innocent, and lovely, know that the power through which that one perished was God, and that it was a private grief. But man has murdered Liberty, and whilst the life was ebbing from its wound, there descended on the heads and on the hearts of every human thing, the sympathy of an universal blast and curse. Fetters heavier than iron weigh upon us, because they bind our souls. We move about in a dungeon more pestilential than damp and narrow walls, because the earth is its floor and the heavens are its roof. Let us follow the corpse of British Liberty slowly and reverentially to its tomb: and if some glorious Phantom should appear, and make its throne of broken swords and sceptres and royal crowns trampled in the dust, let us say that the Spirit of Liberty has arisen from its grave and left all that was gross and mortal there, and kneel down and worship it as our Queen.

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1817: Three criminals in Rome, as witnessed by Lord Byron

5 comments May 19th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1817, the day before he left his Roman holiday for Venice, Lord Byron saw three criminals beheaded at the Piazza del Popolo.

He wrote all about it in his correspondence with John Murray.

The day before I left Rome* I saw three robbers** guillotined. The ceremony — including the masqued priests; the half-naked executioners; the bandaged criminals; the black Christ and his banner; the scaffold; the soldiery; the slow procession, and the quick rattle and heavy fall of the axe; the splash of the blood, and the ghastliness of the exposed heads — is altogether more impressive than the vulgar and ungentlemanly dirty ‘new drop’, and dog-like agony of infliction upon the sufferers of the English sentence. Two of these men behaved calmly enough, but the first of the three died with great terror and reluctance, which was very horrible. He would not lie down; then his neck was too large for the aperture, and the priest was obliged to drown his exclamations by still louder exhortations. The head was off before the eye could trace the blow; but from an attempt to draw back the head, notwithstanding it was held forward by the hair, the first head was cut off close to the ears: the other two were taken off more cleanly. It is better than the oriental way, and (I should think) than the axe of our ancestors. The pain seems little; and yet the effect to the spectator, and the preparation to the criminal, are very striking and chilling. The first turned me quite hot and thirsty, and made me shake so that I could hardly hold the opera-glass (I was close, but determined to see, as one should, see every thing, once, with attention); the second and third (which shows how dreadfully soon things grow indifferent), I am ashamed to say, had no effect on me as a horror, though I would have saved them if I could.

— Venice, May 30, 1817

* The date is not stated directly in Byron’s missive, but his movements are known in some detail — for instance, this timeline.

** According to the notes of executioner Mastro Titta, the three criminals “‘decapitati’ al Popolo, per omicidi e grassazioni” this day were Giovanni Francesco Trani, Felice Rocchi and Felice De Simoni.

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1817: Policarpa Salavarrieta, Colombian independence heroine

1 comment November 14th, 2008 Headsman

This morning in 1837, a Colombian seamstress was shot in Bogota for spying on the Spanish forces fighting to quell South America’s Bolivarian independence movements.

Policarpa Salavarrieta — it was the name her brother used for her; her legal given name and origin are romantically lost — was infiltrated into Bogota during the reconquista, when a Spain recovering from Napoleon’s intrusion deployed in force to quash the separatist aspirations of its New World colonies.

It was the day of Simon Bolivar, but Spain had completed its apparent pacification of New Granada* in 1816, and established a stronghold in Bogota. Subversives had to mind their P’s and Q’s.

Although she was a known agitator in the city of Guadas, “La Pola” could slip into Bogota without drawing attention.

There, she used her skills as a domestic to hang around royalist households, sewing up clothes while snooping around, and helping revolutionaries recruit soldiers.

She was arrested when the Spanish busted the network, (the link is in Spanish) and shot publicly with her lover, Alejo Sabarain, and a number** of others — all men, none of them half so well-remembered or beloved as Salavarrieta. She was supposed to have ignored the priests murmuring te deums in her ear on the scaffold in order to exhort the onlookers to resistance.

Over the years to come, she would become an emblematic martyr of independence; just see how many times her theme is visited in this history of Colombian painting (Spanish again). She’s also the only historical (not mythological/allegorical) woman ever used on Colombian currency.

As will be readily surmised, of course, she merits her tribute because the movement in whose service she died soon rallied and carried the day.

* The Spanish territory of New Granada encompassed most of the ice cream of the South American cone.

** Various numbers are given for the day’s total execution count. This site (Spanish) says a total of nine — Policarpa Salavarrieta and eight men, including Alejo Sabarain — and persuasively names all of them.

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