1820: John and Lavinia Fisher

Add comment February 18th, 2019 Headsman

February 18, 1820 was the execution date of South Carolina crime Hall of Famers John and Lavinia Fisher.

By legendary repute the first serial killer in America, Fisher and her husband John were said to lure travelers to their Six Mile Wayfarer House near Ashley Ferry outside Charleston where they’d be poisoned, stabbed, and robbed.

Alas, the Fishers were actually a more conventional sort of brigand.


National Advocate for the Country (New York, N.Y.), January 28, 1820.

Quite incredible legends have been embroidered for this purported Bates Motel of the early Republic: for instance, that their cover was blown by a man named John Peoples/Peeples who grew suspicious enough to avoid drinking the poisoned tea and then sat up all night like young Felix Platter until he caught wind of the imminent attack, sprang out a window, and fled to safety. If so, it was a woeful failure of the period’s journalists merely to report that he had been savagely beaten and robbed.

A few books about the Lavinia Fisher case

Instead, these two seemed to be part of a gang of bandits who occupied not only their Six Mile House but also the Five Mile House, and Lavinia wasn’t the only woman in the lot: one Jane Howard was among the half-dozen arrested when the Six Mile lair was raided by a vigilante posse in February 1819, along with William Heyward, James M’Elwray, and Seth Young, along with others uncaptured. (Names via National Advocate, March 3, 1819) Papers of the time slate them with offenses like stealing livestock and highway robbery, and it’s the latter crime — not murder — that brought the Fishers to their gallows.

Either way, Charleston tour guides will tell you that she haunts the old city jail to this day. She’s also famous for her purported last words, “If you have a message you want to send to Hell, give it to me; I’ll carry it,” which might even be a real quote.


Alexandria [Va.] Gazette & Daily Advertiser, Feb. 26, 1820

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1821: Henry Tobin, extortionist

Add comment January 31st, 2019 Headsman

Five men hanged together at Newgate Prison on this date in 1821.

All stood convicted of stealing by means of violence. In four cases, they’d deployed fists and blades further to grim street muggings in the Great Wen.

The fifth, Henry Tobin, used the executioner as his weapon of choice — in the form of a threat to expose a man named Charles Overall for sexual deviance. Such a threat would carry public obloquy and the potential for capital punishment.

The historian Rictor Norton’s archive of reportage on same-sex news from that period informs us that

Tobin was convicted, upon the most satisfatory testimony, of extorting money from a respectable tradesman in Thames-stereet, by threatening to charge him with an unnatural crime; and the audacity with which he several times repeated his extortions has seldom been equalled. He was a young man of genteel appearance and insinuating manners, and possessed talents, which, if well applied, would have rendered him an ornament of society.

In fact, Norton notes at least three other people executed in this same year of 1821 for blackmailing “unnatural criminals.” Yet for this period the same courtrooms where this hard line was held against exploiting sodomites were ones in which sodomy cases were also prosecuted; no doubt there were a few black caps which came out of the drawer on this day for the one varietal and the next day for the other.

The noose ceased to threaten English same-sexers inside of a generation. Extortioners kept up their predations for many, many years beyond.

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1823: Giles East

Add comment January 20th, 2019 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1823, Giles East was hanged for the rape of a girl, Sarah Potter, who was under ten years of age.

In spite of the difference in ages, the sixteen-year-old East cohabitated with Sarah’s forty-five-year-old mother, who was also called Sarah, and was named in some accounts as her husband.

The elder Sarah stood beside her husband in the dock as an accessory after the fact; she had allegedly tried to cover up the crime. However, writes Martin Baggoley of this case in his book Surrey Executions: A Complete List of those Hanged in the County during the Nineteenth Century:

Part way into the trial the judge, Baron Graham, apparently unable to believe that any mother would act in such a manner directed that she be discharged. The judge had been especially moved when the victim described her mother crying when she learnt of the crime.

There was an expectation that East would be reprieved because of his youth and it was widely reported that the foreman of the Grand Jury, Grey Bennet MP, who had found the bill against East, had made a strong appeal to the Government on his behalf. However, he issued a statement strongly denying this and added he thought it inconceivable that any member of the Grand Jury would make such an appeal. Furthermore, he suggested that although a strong opponent of capital punishment, he had never known a case of greater atrocity.

East was hanged at Horsemonger Lane Gaol.

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1829: William Maxwell, the last hanged for sodomy by the Royal Navy

Add comment January 7th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1829, boatswain William Maxwell became the last British Navy sailor ever hanged for sodomy.

He’d been condemned only two days previous by a bare-bones Admiralty court at the Simon’s Town naval base at the Cape of Good Hope; his charge was buggery upon one of the ship’s boys of the 28-gun frigate HMS Tweed. This accuser, William Pack, was supported by four other boys from the Tweed alleging “uncleanness and other scandalous actions in corruption of good manners” which certainly described Pack’s experience as well.

“On the third daay after he joined the Tweed, he summoned Pack to his cabin on the larboard side of the lower deck,” we find in B. Burg’s Boys at Sea: Sodomy, Indecency, and Courts Martial in Nelson’s Navy, which has an extensive narrative of the case* —

and, as the boy explained, “he then throwed me down on the deck. He then hauled my trousers down … He then turned to put his pintle into my backside. I felt him do all this. He hurt me very much.” … The boy continued his testimony by detailing four additional instances when he had been sodomized by Maxwell. The occurrences were all much the same. Pack added only that the boatswain neither used alcohol nor offered him money after he forced his attentions on him.

In an affecting detail that doesn’t appear to have carried any special legal import, Pack had diligently tallied his assaults in chalk on a mainmast hoop.

The other four boys’ allegations fell a bit short of violent rape but still followed a pattern of aggressive approaches by Maxwell shortly after the youth came aboard, with pretty obvious intent. The boatswain wanted to “do a dirty trick with me,” one said. Another euphemized the deed as “poking him about.” Citing fear of flogging or doubt that their claims would be believed, these boys hadn’t reported Maxwell — and indeed the panel pressed all of the witnesses on whether they’d been receiving gifts from Maxwell, suggesting a more reciprocal arrangement.

These private and unmentionable acts formed a difficult class of crime for the judiciary, and Maxwell knew it.** Much of his defense is taken up attacking the credibility of these boys — their questionable and perhaps interested testimony, and legal scholars who by 1829 counseled as one to err heavily towards caution in such difficult-to-prove cases.

He impugned Pack’s testimony, honing in on inconsistencies between different statements during a direct cross-examination that must have been dramatic for all involved. It didn’t work.

The youth of the victims, according to Burg, didn’t particularly exacerbate the crime in the eyes of Maxwell’s judges nor in general throughout the Navy; he wasn’t being read as a pedophile, but as a sodomite who happened to find the ship’s boys the easiest prey. This indeed they commonly were, occupying the very bottom of a ship’s hierarchy, but the same vulnerable stature also cut against their credibility as accusers since it made them liable to threats or cajoling to supply false accusations, or simply to the impetuosity of childish malice. Absent sterling character testimonials from other mariners, they carried scant weight as witnesses even in multiples; in an 1805 case, the judges who convicted a man named Barrett Ambler had put into the Admiralty for a pardon because they disliked “condemn[ing] a man to death, upon the evidence of four boys, the eldest not more than thirteen years of age.”

But no matter the evidence, the time for outright executing same-sexers was coming to an end in Britain. Even in the ranks of the Navy there had been no such punishment meted out since 1816. That was just weeks after (and for actions committed during) the Napoleonic Wars. But perhaps the ensuing era of peace helped more lenient attitudes take hold permanently — for until Maxwell, no Briton had swung for sodomy in the peacetime Navy in many decades.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the number of buggery trials was directly related to whether or not England was at war. After the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-1713) and the Seven Years War (1756-1763), there were few trials and no executions for sodomy. Between 1756 and 1806, as Table 5 shows, fear and assiduous prosecution of sexual deviance was a wartime phenomenon. (Arthur Gilbert, “Buggery and the British Navy, 1700-1861,” Journal of Social History, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Autumn, 1976))

* I have not been able to locate the original 62-page court record anywhere online.

** He knew it because he’d previously been prosecuted for buggery — in fact, sentenced to death and then spared. Although he had no barrister at his last and fatal trial, he’d enjoyed legal assistance during his previous brush and ably deployed what he learned. It’s hard not to think that everyone’s awareness of this previous proceeding helped to shape the outcome of his second trial.

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1822: Johan Wilhelm Gebhardt, Junior, slave-slayer

Add comment November 15th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1822, Johan Wilhelm Gebhardt was executed at the Dutch-founded South African settlement of Paarl. His offense, unusual but not unheard-of in our executioner’s annals: killing his slave.

According to Alex Mountain in An Unsung Heritage: Perspectives on Slavery, the 21-year-old Gebhardt, who managed the farm belonging to his father, Rev. Johan Wilhelm Gebhardt Sr., had ordered a slave named Joris flogged “for not working properly.”

the flogging was done repeatedly by a slave called November who had been warned by Gebhardt, who remained present throughout the torture, that he too would be severely punished if he did not flog Joris properly. The flogging was done with a variety of instruments and from time to time salt and vinegar were rubbed into his wounds.

It was only when Joris lost consciousness that the torture stopped.

Joris died that night.

The western Cape had recently been taken under British management, and these looked with surprising hostility on the murder of Joris. Gebhardt was not suffered to plead to manslaughter in order to escape his fate.

Mountain reproduces a photo of Gebhardt’s gravestone (found “being used as a small bridge across a ditch”) with the lines

Rest in Peace
Unfortunate Youth
Your Career was short
and you were led Astray
Few were the Pleasures of your Life
And many your Sufferings!

There’s no gravestone for Joris, of course.

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1826: Seventy-two Janissaries

Add comment October 21st, 2018 Headsman

We credit the London Times of November 27, 1826 for this tidbit on the Ottoman Empire’s mop-up of the Janissaries, the truculent infantry elites who had been shattered earlier that same year during the “Auspicious Incident”.

The news from Constantinople extends to the 25th ult. It is stated that on the 18th a plot was discovered which had for its object to kill MEHEMED PACHA, who commands in Asia, the SERASKIER-PACHA, and the TOPCHI-BACHI [chief of the cannoneers -ed.]. The ex-Janissaries who are incorporated with the new troops were the authors of this project. They had agreed to come to a review, which was to take place on the 19th, provided with ball-cartridges, and on the order to fire, had resolved to discharge their muskets on these Pachas and their Staff-officers. The conspiracy was revealed to MEHEMED PACHA by a Captain and four Topchis, whom the conspirators had endeavoured to gain over to their cause. The information was immediately conveyed to the SULTAN and the Government, who took prompt and decisive measures to punish the guilty and intimidate the disaffected. They despatched 1,500 of the most suspected towards Nicomedia, under the pretext of suppressing a revolt, but with the real design of getting rid of obnoxious and dangerous defenders. It is supposed that when this detachment arrives at the Dardanelles it will be sent to Chios. On the 20th ult. the GRAND VIZIER ordered the execution of eight Mussulmans, and the SERASKIER commanded six to be strangled, on a charge of corresponding with the disaffected. On the 21st, the latter officer is said to have executed in secret, and without trial, 72 more, among whom were four captains. The Government banishes all the unmarried Janissaries, even though they exercise trades and are entirely unconnected with the soldiers of that suppressed corps. The Mussulman population, it is said, are to be disarmed, as well as those whom they call “Christian dogs.”

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1822: General Berton

Add comment October 5th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1822,* General Jean Baptiste Berton (sometimes Breton) was guillotined in Poitiers.

A young junior officer during the French Revolutionary Wars, Breton/Berton scaled the Napoleonic ranks in the early 19th century and was elevated by the Corsican’s own hand to Brigadier General.

Upon Napoleon’s 1815 return from exile Breton rallied to the ex-emperor’s cause but he did not suffer the worst of it after Waterloo, instead scribbling his memoirs in enforced half-pay retirement.

This situation permitted the ex-marechal-de-camp both the time and the liberty to dabble in that era’s rife conspiracies intending the overthrow of the Bourbons — a fact which was exposed by mischance when one of the young cavalrymen he had recruited was killed in an accident with incriminating documents in his pockets. Agents provocateur baited him thereafter into a treasonable and doomed rebellion.

* Some sources give October 6, which was a Sunday. Primary documentation prefers October 5.

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1821: Corporal Chaguinha, Brazil’s saint of freedom

1 comment September 20th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1821, Brazil’s saint of freedom was martyred by the Portuguese.

Francisco José das Chagas, fondly remembered as Corporal Chaguinha, led a mutiny in Santos of enlistees aggrieved by wages five years overdue, and the unequal treatment of Brazilian as compared to Portuguese soldiers.

It was a fraught and contradictory political moment; the Portuguese royal family had spent the past decade-plus in the quasi-exile of their New World colony after fleeing Napoleon. In the process they had (even formally) elevated Brazil from a mere dependency to a coequal in the empire, and attempts to reverse this promotion once the royals returned to Portugal in early 1821 found little welcome in Brazil.

Chaguinha was born to symbolize in his death his countrymen’s frustration.

To great popular indignation a customary pardon was not extended to the man, who was instead publicly hanged in a notorious botch. After the rope broke repeatedly — and again a public clamor for clemency was refused — they strangled him slowly with a leather strap. A Catholic priest named Diogo Antônio Feijó, who in time would rise to become the regent of independent Brazil, would describe seeing “with my own eyes” seeing the still-surviving Chaguinha being murdered lying under the gallows after his last noose failed to support him.

Brazil declared independence from Portugal one year later almost to the date (September 7, 1822), and won the war to clinch it. The martyred corporal was thereafter improved by veneration as a popular saint credited with miraculous intercessions for suitably patriotic Brazilians.

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1825: Tahvo Putkonen, Finland’s last peacetime execution

1 comment July 8th, 2018 Headsman

Finland’s last peacetime execution occurred on this date in 1825: the instrument was an axe.

Farmhand Tahvo Putkonen, deep in a blue gap celebrating both Christmas and his December 26 name day in 1822, went off his rocker at the party he was hosting because of a guest’s actual or imagined transgression against good manners.

The drunken Putkonen suddenly attacked that guest, farmer Lasse Hirvonen, until this ill-tempered host got kicked out of his own house by the rest of the celebrants. Once he’d convinced everyone that he’d calmed down, he got back in the house and mortally bashed Hirvonen over the head with a firewood log.

Putkonen spent a long-for-the-time 2.5 years appealing against the legal proceedings before they finally struck off his head. So pedants take note: although he has the distinction of being the last peacetime execution, his was not the last peacetime crime that led to execution: one Abraham Kaipainen managed to commit murder (July 31, 1823) and reach the headsman’s block (October 30, 1824) all while Tahvo Putkonen was still fighting his sentence.

The very last executions in Finnish history took place in 1944, during the Continuation War — Finland’s local installment of World War II, fought against the Soviet Union.

Capital punishment is today formally abolished in Finland.

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1828: William Rice but not John Montgomery, who cheated the hangman with prussic acid

Add comment July 4th, 2018 Meaghan

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

Just before 6:00 a.m. on July 4, 1828, prison officers arrived at the cell of disgraced ensign John Burgh Montgomery in Newgate Prison‘s condemned hold.

They were there to escort Montgomery to his hanging. The 33­-year-­old would have been one of the last in England executed for for the crime of uttering forged notes — except that his wardens instead found him lying stone dead. With the aid of prussic acid, the counterfeiter had cheated the hangman of half his day’s prey, leaving his prospective gallows partner, thief William Rice, to face the hemp alone.

Although his guards had confiscated his razor and penknife as a routine precaution against suicide, no one had expected Montgomery to take his own life. He had pleaded guilty before the court and seemed resigned to his fate. In custody he was a model prisoner, spent his last days writing to his loved ones, and “addressed himself with great anxiety to his religious offices.”

Nobody was able to figure out how the condemned man came by enough poison to kill thirty people and how he kept it hidden, given that he and his cell were regularly searched.

The Irish-­born Montgomery, Nicola Sly records in her book Goodbye, Cruel World… A Compendium of Suicide,

was said to be a very respectable, well­-educated man, who had once held a commission in the Army. However, after inheriting a considerable fortune, he frittered it away and resorted to passing phony banknotes to support his rather dissipated lifestyle. Given his pleasing looks, gentlemanly appearance and good manners, he was very successful, since nobody thought him capable of any wrongdoing. However, he was caught after becoming careless and making the mistake of committing frequent repeated offense in a small geographical area of London.

Montgomery left behind several letters, marked by expansive tragic romanticism but no hint of suicidal intent. One letter was for the prison surgeon, asking that his body be used for dissection. He said that by this he wanted to provide some positive contribution to the public to make up for his crimes. He asked that his heart be preserved in spirits and given to his girlfriend.

To the girlfriend he wrote,

My dear idolized L.,

One more last farewell, one more last adieu to a being so much attached to the unhappy Montgomery. Oh, my dearest girl. If it had been in the power of anyone to avert my dreadful doom, your kind exertions would have been attended with such success. Oh, God, so poor Montgomery is to die on the scaffold. Oh, how dreadful have been my hours of reflection, whilst in this dreary cell.

Oh, how tottering were all my hopes; the bitterness of my reflection is bitter in the extreme. This will be forwarded to you by my kind friend Mrs. D. I should wish you to possess my writing portmanteau. Oh, I wished to have disappointed the horrid multitude who will be assembled to witness my ignominious exit. Farewell forever,

P.S. Here I kiss fervently.

The jury on the inquest into Montgomery’s death recorded a verdict of felo de se, meaning that Montgomery had willfully and knowingly taken his own life whilst of sound mind. As such, his body was buried in the graveyard of St. Sepulchre­-without-Newgate at night, and without any memorial service.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Cheated the Hangman,Common Criminals,Counterfeiting,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Not Executed,Other Voices,Pelf,Public Executions

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