1827: Joseph Sollis, the sheriff unmanned

Add comment April 27th, 2018 Headsman

Joseph Sollis was executed in North Carolina on this date in 1827 for murder. It didn’t go so well, apparently leading a regular gawker to pierce the spectacle’s fourth wall and get involved in the action himself.


Article from the May 8, 1827 Raleigh Register

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Murder,North Carolina,Public Executions,USA

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1827: Blue Jimmy

Add comment April 25th, 2018 Florence Dugdale

(Thanks to Florence Dugdale-Hardy, wife of gallows aficionado and literary titan Thomas Hardy, for the guest post on horse thief “Blue Jimmy”, whom Thomas Hardy also referenced by name in a poem. We dug up the piece here. -ed.)

Blue Jimmy: The Horse Stealer

(written by Florence Dugdale-Hardy with Thomas Hardy)

Blue Jimmy stole full many a steed
Ere his last fling he flung.

The name of “Blue Jimmy” — a passing allusion to whose career is quoted above from Mr Thomas Hardy’s ballad “A Trampwoman’s Tragedy” — is now nearly forgotten even in the West of England. Yet he and his daring exploits were on the tongues of old rustics in that district down to twenty or thirty years ago, and there are still men and women living who can recall their fathers’ reminiscences of him.

To revive the adventures of any notorious horse-thief may not at first sight seem edifying; but in the present case, if stories may be believed, the career of the delinquent discloses that curious feature we notice in the traditions of only some few of the craft — a mechanical persistence in a series of actions as if by no will or necessity of the actor, but as if under some external or internal compulsion against which reason and a foresight of sure disaster were powerless to argue.

Jimmy is said to have been, in one account of him, “worth thousands,” in another a “well-to-do” farmer, and in all a man who found or would have found no difficulty in making an honest income. Yet this could not hinder him from indulging year after year in his hazardous pursuit, or recreation, as it would seem to have been, till he had reft more than a hundred horses from their owners, and planted them profitably on innocent purchasers.

This was in full view of the fact that in those days the sentence for horse-stealing was, as readers will hardly need to be reminded, death without hope of mitigation. It is usually assumed that the merciless judicial sentence, however lacking in Christian loving-kindness towards the criminal, had at least the virtue always of being in the highest degree deterrent; yet at that date, when death was the penalty for many of what we should now consider minor crimes, their frequency was extraordinary. This particular offence figures almost continually in the calendar at each assize, and usually there were several instances at each town on a circuit. Jimmy must have known this well enough; but the imminent risk of his neck for a few pounds in each case did not deter him.

He stood nineteen times before my lord judge ere the final sentence came — no verdict being previously returned against him for the full offence through lack of sufficient evidence.

Of this long string of trials we may pass over the details till we reach the eighteenth — a ticklish one for Jimmy — in which he escaped, by a hair’s breadth only, the doom that overtook him on the nineteenth for good and all. What had happened was as follows: —

On a December day in 1822 a certain John Wheller, living near Chard, in Somerset, was standing at his door when Jimmy — whose real name was James Clace — blithely rode by on a valuable mare.

They “passed the time of day” to each other, and then, without much preface:

“A fine morning,” says Jimmy cheerfully.

“‘Tis so,” says Mr Wheller.

“We shall have a dry Christmas,” Jimmy continues.

“I think we shall so,” answers Wheller.

Jimmy pulled rein. “Now do you happen to want a good mare that I bought last week at Stratton Fair?” And he turned his eye on the flank of the animal.

“I don’t know that I do.”

“The fact is a friend of mine bought one for me at the same time without my knowledge and, as I don’t want two, I must get rid of this one at any sacrifice. You shall have her for fourteen pounds.”

Wheller shook his head, but negotiation proceeded. Another man, one named Wilkins, a nephew of Wheller, happening to pass just then, assured Wheller that he knew the seller well, and that he was a farmer worth thousands who lived at Tiverton. Eventually the mare was exchanged for a cart-horse of Wheller’s and three pounds in money.

Curiously enough Wheller did not suspect that anything was wrong till he found the next day that the animal was what he called “startish” — and, having begun to reflect upon the transaction, he went to his nephew Wilkins, who also lived at Chard, half a mile from Wheller, and asked him how he knew that the vendor of the mare was a farmer at Tiverton? The reply was vague and unsatisfying — in short the strange assurance of Wilkins, Wheller’s own nephew, was never explained — and Wheller wished he had had nothing to do with the “man worth thousands.” He went in search of him, and eventually found him at that ancient hostel “The Golden Heart” at Coombe St. Nicholas, placidly smoking a long clay pipe in the parlour over a tankard of ale.

“I have been looking for you,” said Mr Wheller with severe suddenness.

“To get another such bargain, no doubt,” says Jimmy with the bitter air of a man who has been a too generous fool in his dealings.

“Not at all. I suspect that you did not come honestly by that mare, and request to have back my money and cart-horse, when I’ll return her.”

“Good news for me!” says Jimmy, “for that I’m quite willing to do. Here, landlady! A pipe and ale for this gentleman. I’ve sent my man out to bring round my gig; and you can go back to my farm with me, and have your horse this very afternoon, on your promising to bring mine to-morrow. Whilst you are drinking I’ll see if my man is getting ready.”

Blue Jimmy went out at the back, and Wheller saw him go up the stable-yard, half-regretting that he had suspected such a cheerful and open man of business. He smoked and drank and waited, but his friend did not come back; and then it occurred to him to ask the landlady where her customer, the farmer, lived.

“What farmer?” said the landlady.

“He who has gone out to the stables — I forget his name — to get his horse put-to.”

“I don’t know that he’s a farmer. He’s got no horse in our stables — he’s quite a stranger here.”

“But he keeps the market here every week?”

“I never saw him before in my life. And I’ll trouble you to pay for your ale, and his likewise, as he didn’t.”

When Wheller reached the yard the “farmer” had vanished, and no trace of him was discoverable in the town.

This looked suspicious, yet after all it might have meant only that the man who sold him the mare did not wish to reopen the transaction. So Wheller went home to Chard, resolving to say nothing, but to dispose of the mare on the first opportunity. This he incontinently did to Mr Loveridge, a neighbour, at a somewhat low price, rubbed his hands, and devoutly hoped that no more would be heard of the matter. And nothing was for some while. We now take up the experience of Mr Loveridge with the animal. He had possessed her for some year or two when it was rumoured in Chard that a Mr Thomas Sheppard, of Stratton, in Cornwall, had been making inquiries about the mare.

Mr Loveridge felt uneasy, and spoke to Wheller, of whom he had bought her, who seemed innocence itself, and who certainly had not stolen her; and by and by another neighbour who had just heard of the matter came in with the information that handbills were in circulation in Cornwall when he was last there, offering a reward for a particular mare like Mr Loveridge’s, which disappeared at Stratton Fair.

Loveridge felt more and more uncomfortable, and began to be troubled by bad dreams. He grew more and more sure, although he had no actual proof, that the horse in his possession was the missing one, until, valuable to him as his property was for hauling and riding, his conscience compelled him to write a letter to the said Mr Sheppard, the owner of the lost animal. In a few days W. Yeo, an emissary of Mr Sheppard, appeared at Mr Loveridge’s door. “What is the lost mare like?” said Mr Loveridge cautiously.

“She has four black streaks down her right fore-foot, and her tail is stringed’ so” — here he described the shades, gave the particular manner in which the tail had been prepared for the fair, and, adding other descriptive details, was certain it was the same mare that had been brought to Chard. He had broken it in for Mr Sheppard, and never before had known a mare so peculiarly marked.

The end of the colloquy was that Mr Loveridge gave up the animal, and found himself the loser of the money he had paid for it. For being richer than his worthy neighbour Wheller who had sold it to him, he magnanimously made up their temporary quarrel on the declaration of Wheller that he did not know of the theft, and had honestly bought the horse. Together then they vowed vengeance against the thief, and with the assistance of Mr Sheppard he was ultimately found at Dorchester. He was committed for the crime, and proving to be no less a personage than the already notorious Blue Jimmy, tried at the Taunton Assizes on March 28, 1825, before Mr Justice Park.

During the trial all the crowd in court thought that this was to be the end of famous Blue Jimmy; but an odd feature in the evidence against him was that the prosecutor, Mr Sheppard, when cross-examined on the marks described by his assistant Yeo, declared that he could not swear positively to any of them.

The learned judge, in summing up, directed the jury to consider whether the identity of the mare had been so indubitably proved as to warrant them in pronouncing the prisoner guilty, and suggested that the marks described by the witness Yeo might be found upon many horses. “It was remarkable,” his Lordship observed, “that Wilkins, who was present when Wheller bought the horse, although the nephew of the latter, and living within half a mile of him, had not been brought into court to give evidence, though witnesses from so considerable a distance as Cornwall had been examined.”

In spite of this summing-up people in court were all expecting that Blue Jimmy would swing for his offences this time; yet the verdict was “Not Guilty,” and we may well imagine the expression of integrity on Blue Jimmy’s countenance as he walked out of the dock, although, as later discoveries proved, he had, as a matter of fact, stolen the mare.

But the final scene for Blue Jimmy was not long in maturing itself. Almost exactly two years later he stood at the bar in the same assize court at Taunton, indicted for a similar offence. This time the loser was one Mr Holcombe, of Fitzhead, and the interest in the trial was keener even than in the previous one.

Jimmy’s first question had been, “Who is the judge?” and the answer came that it was Mr Justice Park, who had tried him before.

“Then I’m a dead man!” said Jimmy, and closed his lips, and appeared to consider his defence no longer.

It was also a mare on this occasion, a bay one, and the evidence was opened by the prosecutor, Mr Holcombe, who stated that the last time he saw his mare in the field from which he had lost her was on the 8th of the preceding October; on the 10th he missed her; he did not see her again till the 21st, when she was in a stall of Mr Oliver’s, at the King’s Arms, Dorchester.

Cross-examined by Mr Jeremy: The field from which the mare was stolen was adjoining the public road; he had never known the mare to escape; it was not possible for her to leave the field unless she was taken out.

Elizabeth Mills examined. Her husband kept the Crown and Anchor at Mosterton, Somerset; the prisoner came to her house about four o’clock on October 9. He had two horses with him. He asked for some person to put them in the stable; another man was in his company, and eventually the other man put them in the stable himself. The prisoner was riding the mare on his arrival; it was a bay one. Her husband returned about nine at night. (Cross-examined by Mr Jeremy.) Prisoner bargained with her husband for the horses; Pierce, the constable, was there while prisoner and her husband were talking; prisoner left next morning.

Robert Mills, husband of the last witness, examined. He reached home about nine o’clock on October 9. He went with Pierce the constable into the stable and saw a blood Mare; also a pony mare. Constable and witness took two bridles and a saddle belonging to the horses into the house, having a mistrust that the animals were not honestly acquired. Prisoner called for his horses next morning, and asked what he had to pay. Witness, who now began to recognise him, said: “Jimmy, I don’t think you came by these horses straight.” He replied, “I don’t know why you address me by the familiar name of Jimmy, since it is not mine. I chopped the mare at Alphington Fair for a black cart-horse.” Prisoner spoke of the pedigree of the mare, and asked twenty-five guineas for it, and twelve for the pony. Witness offered twelve for the mare. Prisoner refused, paid his reckoning and ordered his horses. While the saddle was being put on, witness cut two marks in the hair under the mane. Prisoner then left the house. The other man had gone away before witness returned the night before. The pony was left. Witness saw the mare afterwards, on the 22nd, in Mr Holcombe’s possession. He examined the mare and found the private marks he had made on her under the mane. He had never seen the prisoner between the time the latter put up at his house and when he saw him in Tiverton Prison.

(Cross-examined by Mr Jeremy.) The morning after prisoner brought the horses to his house he asked for some beer, though he was accustomed to wine, he remarked, and said that he was going to Bridport Fair to spend a score of bank-notes or so by way of killing time.

A witness named Gillard, as he was walking to church on the morning of the 8th (the morning before the robbery was committed) saw the prisoner in a lane three miles from Fitzhead, sitting on the ground between two camps of gipsies.

The prisoner said nothing in his defence, merely shaking his head with a grim smile. The verdict was Guilty.

“A Trampwoman’s Tragedy”
by Thomas Hardy
(Stanza X)

The taverns tell the gloomy tale,
The gloomy tale,
How that at Ivel-Chester jail
My love, my sweetheart swung;
Though stained till now by no misdeed
Save one horse ta’en in time of need;
(Blue Jimmy stole right many a steed
Ere his last fling he flung.)

His Lordship, in passing sentence of death, entreated the prisoner to make the best use of the short time he would have to live in this world. The prisoner had been two years since brought before him and in 1823 he had been convicted by his learned Brother Hullock for a similar offence. The full weight of the punishment awarded to his crime must now fall upon him, without the least hope of mitigation.

Such was horse-stealing in the ‘twenties of the last century, and such its punishment.

How Jimmy acquired his repute for blueness — whether the appellative was suggested to some luminous mind by his clothes, or by his complexion, or by his morals, has never been explained, and never will be now by any historian.

About a month later, in the same old County Chronicle, one finds a tepid and unemotional account of the end of him at Ilchester, Somerset, where then stood the county gaol — till lately remembered, though now removed — on the edge of a wide expanse of meadowland, spread at that season of the year with a carpet of butter-cups and daisies. The account appears under the laconic heading, “Execution, Wednesday, April 25, 1827: James Clace, better known by the name of Blue Jimmy, suffered the extreme sentence of the law upon the new drop at Ilchester … Clace appears to have been a very notorious character” (this is a cautious statement of the reporter’s, quite unlike the exuberant reporting of the present day: the culprit was notorious indubitably). “He is said to have confessed to having stolen an enormous number of horses, and he had been brought to the bar nineteen times for that class of offence…. In early life he lived as a postboy at Salisbury; afterwards he joined himself to some gipsies for the humour of the thing, and at length began those practices which brought him to an untimely end; aged 52.”

A tradition was till lately current as to his hanging. When on the gallows he stated blandly that he had followed the strict rule of never stealing horses from people who were more honest than himself, but only from skinflints, taskmasters, lawyers, and parsons. Otherwise he might have stolen a dozen where he had only stolen one.

The same newspaper paragraph briefly alludes to a young man who was hanged side by side with Blue Jimmy, upon the “new drop”: —

“William Hazlett — aged 25 — for having stolen some sheep and some lambs. The miserable man, after being condemned, seemed to imagine that his was a very hard case.”

The County Chronicle prints the last few words in italics, appearing to hold up its hands in horror at the ingratitude of the aforesaid William Hazlett. For was not he provided with a “new drop,” and had he not for his fellow voyager into futurity that renowned Wessex horse-thief, Blue Jimmy, who doubtless “flung his last fling” more boldly than many of his betters?

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1825: El Pirata Cofresi

Add comment March 29th, 2018 Headsman

I have killed hundreds with my own hands, and I know how to die. Fire!

-Last words of Roberto Cofresi

A monument to Roberto Cofresi rises from the water in his native Cabo Rojo.

On this date in 1825, the Puerto Rican pirate Roberto Cofresi was publicly shot in San Juan with his crew.

The family of “El Pirata” — his father was an emigre who fled Trieste after killing a man in a duel — bequeathed him the upbringing and honorific (“Don”) due to a gentleman without any of the money. Dunned by multiplying creditors, he took to the sea to keep his finances afloat and for a time made a legitimate living in the late 1810s as a piscator and a ferryman. Soon, the crises in Puerto Rico’s economy and governance prodded him into more adventurous pursuits, beginning with highway robbery around his hometown of Cabo Rojo. Wanted posters testify to his landside notoriety; soon, he would combine his vocations as a buccanneer.

In his brief moment, about 1823-1825, he became one of the Caribbean’s most feared marauders, and one of the last consequential pirates to haunt those waters. His career plundering prizes and evading manhunts is recounted in surprising detail on the man’s Wikipedia page, which is in turn an extended summary of an out-of-print Spanish-language book. Given the development of maritime policing by this point it was an achievement to extend his career so long … but everyone has to retire, one way or another.


Norwich Courier, April 27, 1825

A proclamation issued justifying the execution testifies both to the example authorities wished to be understood by his fate, and their awareness that they contended with a strain of sympathy for the outlaw. This is as quoted in Southern Chronicle (Camden, South Carolina, USA), July 2, 1825:

The name of Roberto Cofresi has become famous for robberies and acts of atrocity, and neither the countryman, the merchant nor the laborer could consider himself secure from the grasp of that wretch and his gang. If you ought to pity the lot of these unhappy men, you are bound also to give thanks to the Almighty, that the island has been delivered from a herd of wild beasts, which have attempted our ruin by all the means in their power. You are also bound to live on the alert, and be prepared, in conjunction with the authorities to attack those who may hereafter be so daring as to follow their example.

His throwback profession, his acclaimed charisma, his talent for eluding pursuit, and a purported streak of Robin Hood-esque social banditry all helped to make him a legend that has long outlived the forgotten Spanish agents who hunted him. With his threat to the sea lanes long gone, he’s become a beloved staple of literature, folklore, and popular history in Puerto Rico and especially his native Cabo Rojo. Again, a lovingly curated Wikipedia page on this posthumous career awaits the curious reader.


Label for a Ron Kofresi-brand rum, which one might use to toast his memory with a piña colada: it’s a drink he’s alleged to have invented.

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1829: Jane Jameson

2 comments March 7th, 2018 Headsman

The newsprint below (with spaces added for readability) comes from the Newcastle Courant of March 14, 1829, but the real interest in this date’s hanging tale lies in Jane Jam(i)eson’s public anatomization after hanging.. Here’s a fascinating story about it by Patrick Low of LastDyingWords.com.

On Saturday last, Jane Jameson, the unfortunate woman who was condemned at the assizes here on the preceding Thursday, for the murder of her mother in the Keelmen‘s Hospital, suffered the sentence of the law. After her condemnation she was frequently visited in her cell by the Rev. Robt. Green, the chaplain of the prison, who prayed with her, and afforded her all the religious consolation in his power.

She seemed most anxious to attend to any thing said to her for her spiritual good, and showed none of the hardihood or indifference which she has been said to have evinced. The impression on the chaplain’s mind was, that she was sincerely penitent for her ill-spent life, and the Vicar, who saw her on Friday, felt the same persuasion.

When exhorted by the Rev. Mr. Green to unburden her mind, to speak the truth freely, and confess the justice of the sentence under which she was about to suffer, as she must shortly appear before the Almighty, she replied, “I might as well say that I had done it as that I had not done it, for I was so drunk that I knew nothing at all about it.” Indeed she seems to have been very sensible of her past misconduct, for she observed, “It was all that cursed drink” that had brought her to her present situation.

In the course of conversation, when the worthy chaplain expressed his hope that she was truly penitent for the many and great sins she had committed, and particularly for the great crime for which she was about to suffer, her answer was, “that she hoped she was, and it was a great crime indeed.” This may be regarded as an indirect confession — she made no other.

She appeared, and said she was, resigned to her death, and the only thing she lamented was, the being hanged like a dog.

At 7 o’clock on Saturday morning, she was visited by the Rev. R. Green, who continued in prayer with her for some time. The sacrament was administered at 8 o’clock, when, besides the Chaplain, there were present the Rev. Mr. Shute, and the Rev. F.A. West, Wesleyan minister.

The period for affording her religious consolation previous to the awful change she was to undergo soon expired, and at a ¼ before nine o’clock she was pinioned: in a few minutes more the cart arrived at the gaol, which was to convey her to the place of execution. Mr. Turner, the turnkey, got into it with her, in order to support her.

About 9 o’clock, the procession moved forward at a very slow pace. The order in which it advanced was as follows: — The Town-Serjeants on horseback, in black, with cocked hats and swords; the Town-Marshal, also on horseback, in his usual official dress; the cart with the prisoner sitting above her coffin, guarded on each side by 8 javelin men, and 10 constables on each side, with their staves; then came a mourning coach containing the Rev. R. Green, Chaplain; Mr. Adamson, Under-Sheriff; Mr. Sopwith, Gaoler; and Mr. Scott, Clerk of St. Andrew’s. The unhappy woman kept her eyes shut all the way, as she had been directed, that her thoughts might not be distracted by the sight of the crowd.

The procession arrived at the gallows, which was erected at the usual place, on a part of the Town-Moor near the Barracks, at a few minutes before 10 o’clock.

The Rev. R. Green, on the reaching [sic] the fatal spot, prayed with her, and a psalm was sung. The worthy chaplain then asked her if she died in charity with all mankind, and she said she did. To his question, whether she had the same faith in Jesus Christ for the salvation of her soul which she had before expressed, she also answered in the affirmative. The rev. gentleman recommended her to continue in prayer till the last moment, which she appeared to do, then shook hands with her, and bidding her farewell, said, “May Almighty God have mercy on your soul.”

She appeared till the last remarkably firm, and when the cap was placed over her face, she got on a stool upon the platform in the cart, and when the cord was adjusted about her neck, she said in a steady tone of voice, “I am ready,” then stooping as if to meet her fate, she was launched into eternity, expiring almost in an instant without a struggle.

After she had hung nearly an hour, the body was taken down, and conveyed to the Surgeon’s Hall for dissection, where lectures have since been given upon it. This unfortunate woman was very ignorant, and her course had been extremely vicious. It was given in evidence on the trial that her mother had charged her with destroying her two illegitimate children; and it is currently reported that in one of her mad drunken fits she had attempted to kill her father.

The crowd that attended to witness the execution was immense. We have heard the number of persons present estimated at 20,000, more than half of whom were women. The dreadful ceremony does not seem to have made on all who witnessed it the impression it should have made, for there were some pockets picked at the time.

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1828: Annice, a slave

Add comment August 23rd, 2017 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1828, a slave named Annice was executed on a public gallows in Liberty, Missouri. She was probably not the first female slave to face capital punishment in Missouri, a U.S. state since 1821, but she is the first one whose case can be adequately documented.

Annice had drowned five slave children in Clay County on some unspecified date in the summer of 1828; she was indicted on July 27. All six of them — Annice and five victims — were the property of Jeremiah Prior. Those victims were Ann, Phebe, and Nancy, whose age and parentage are not specified, plus Annice’s own children Billy, five, and Nelly, two. It was reported that she was discovered whilst attempting to drown yet another of her children.

According to the indictment, Annice “pushed the said [children] into a certain collection of water of the depth of five feet and there choaked, suffocated and drowned of which the said [children] instantly died.”

In her book Slavery and Crime in Missouri, 1773-1865, author Harriet C. Frazier writes of Annice’s case,

Because the records contain no statement from her, her motivation may only be surmised. Most likely, it was the same as Missouri’s many slave mothers … who either attempted or accomplished the murder of their offspring. Without “the curse of involuntary servitude” … almost certainly, Annice would never have systematically drowned one child after another, thereby depriving her owner of no fewer than five potentially valuable properties.

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1829: John Stacey, in Portsmouth town

Add comment August 3rd, 2017 Headsman

A barbarous, foul, & horrid deed
I shortly will recite,
Which did occur in Portsmouth town
Upon a Sunday night;
An aged man of eighty years,
His housekeeper likewise,
Were there most basely murdered,
By a monster in disguise.

All in the night, so dark and drear,
He entrance did obtain,
And with a deadly hammer he
Beat out the old man’s brains,
His throat he cut from ear to ear,
Most horrible to view,
And streams of crimson blood did flow
The bed-room through and through.

The aged housekeeper likewise,
Lay butcher’d on the floor,
Her face and hands most cruelly
Were cut, and stabb’d full sore.
Her head it was nearly severed
From off her body quite.
Those who beheld it shivered,
So dreadful was the sight.

When at the bar the murderer stood,
He could not deny his guilt,
‘Twas clearly proved that he
The aged couples blood had spilt;
The Jury found him guilty,
And the Judge to him did say,
You must prepare to end your days,
Upon the gallows high.

-Broadside ballad about double murderer John Stacey, hanged adjacent to the house of his victim on August 3, 1829

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1820: Stephen Sullivan, for murdering the Colleen Bawn

Add comment July 27th, 2017 Headsman

The hanging this date in 1820 of Stephen Sullivan for killing a 15-year-old a year before closed the real-life case that inspired the popular Irish play The Colleen Bawn.

In the play — which in its own turn is based on the 1829 Gerald Griffin novel The Collegians — an older landowner unhappily wed to an unsuitable younger wife has the marriage murderously annulled by the offices of a loyal factotum.

In The Colleen Bawn, these figures are Hardress (the husband), Eily (the wife),* and Danny (the hunchbacked murderer). It’s still performed today, both on stage and in an operatic adaptation, The Lily of Killarney.

In 1819, their real-life equivalents were John Scanlon, his wife Ellen Hanly, and our man Sullivan, the killer.

Scanlon, the regretful groom and instigator of the murder, had already been captured and executed at a previous assize; Sullivan likewise blamed his patron with his dying breath for “when I looked in her innocent face, my heart shuddered, and I did not know how I could do it!” Somehow he found a way.

The final scene, courtesy of Edinburgh’s Caledonian Mercury, August 14, 1820

* Eily is also the play’s title character — from the Gaelic cailín bán, “fair girl”.

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1820: William Holmes, Edward Rosewaine, and Thomas Warrington, pirates

Add comment June 15th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1820, William Holmes, Edward Rosewain, and Thomas Warrington aka Warren Fawcett all hanged in Boston as pirates.

A Scotsman, an Englishman, and a Connecticut Yankee (respectively), the three numbered crewed a privateer bearing the flag of newly independent Argentina. Having captured a merchantman heavy with valuable cargo, they’d been put aboard it with a few others, to sail the prize home.

On July 4, 1818, following a drunken quarrel between one of their number and the mate of this skeleton crew, they stole below and agreed upon a mutiny whereupon that very evening they crept upon the sleeping mate and “Holmes and Warrington seized him by the heels and pitched him over the rail of the vessel.” Roused by the mate’s shrieking, the captain raced up to the deck where he too was overpowered and forced over the edge where he clung for dear life to a rope, until the trio cut it. (According to the testimony of one of the surviving crew, Salem Gazette, July 12, 1819)

The hijackers then trimmed sail for Baltimore which even those pre-Wire days was renowned as a haven for freebooters. Unfortunately they weren’t the best mariners, and overshot the Chesapeake all the way to Scituate, Massachusetts, where they clumsily ditched their ride and were rounded up in due course. A U.S. Circuit Court condemned them for “piratical and felonious homicide upon the high seas,” and the Supreme Court upheld the judgment. (A pdf of proceedings is here)

Heinousness aside, we are by this point in history well abroad in the period of fretful chin-wagging over the deleterious spectacle of public execution, and as church bells tolled the condemned out of jail on the morning of June 15 in 1820 right-thinking observers again wondered whether the whole scene wasn’t counterproductive to its purported objectives.

The Christian Watchman of June 17, 1820 — having observed with “regret” that “no satisfactory evidence of the genuine repentance of the sufferers has come to our knowledge” — approvingly reprinted another paper’s editorializing against the public execution:

The frequent recurrence of these scenes compels us to ask, whether the manner in which, in obedience to custom, they are now conducted, be such as promotes the great ends of this dreadful judicial infliction.

It scarcely need be said, that every thing which has a tendency to mislead the public feeling on these occasions, — to turn the reflections of the beholders from the enormity of the crime to the severity of the punishment — defeats the great objects, which the law has in view.

It is not from any want of humanity and tenderness toward the unhappy persons themselves, that we make this remark; but because we think the scene of a public execution, as it takes place among us, runs too far into a dramatic spectacle, and has the effect, first of exciting and occupying the curiosity, and then of making an untimely pity for those, whose dark and murderous passions have brought down upon them the righteous inflictions of the law.

The unreflecting spectator, who sees the Reverend priest in the party-coloured vestments of his church, pouring into the ears of the convicts those precious promises of Christianity, which it is scarce the right of the most tried faith and patience to claim, who sees them standing on the fatal scaffold in the arms of a Confessor, and receiving with the fatal doom of bloody crime in this world, the promises of eternal blessedness in the other; we say that the unreflecting spectator, who beholds this, if he do not conclude that the whole is a solemn mockery — will either be thrown wholly into confusion to his notion of judicial infliction, or he will be inclined to pity and sympathise with the sufferers. And either of these effects will defeat the order of justice.

The ceremony of execution should, in our opinion, be as short and simple as possible. The Warrant of Execution, in an abridged form, should be read; a short and solemn prayer, without purple surplices or embracings, or kissings, be made, and the last horrid moment hastened, as far as public decency admits.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Massachusetts,Murder,Piracy,Pirates,Public Executions,U.S. Federal,USA

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1821: Tommy Jemmy executes Kauquatau

Add comment May 2nd, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1821, a chief of the Seneca Native American nation slit the throat of a woman named Kauquatau, who had been condemned as a witch.

As Matthew Dennis explains in his book on the Seneca of the early American Republic, Seneca Possessed, the rapid march of European settlement and the Seneca’s recent and ambiguous incorporation into the newborn United States had strained the indigenous society in complex ways.

One of those reactions was a period of gendered witch-hunting in the early 19th century, especially growing out of the religious movement of the prophet Handsome Lake.

“Handsome Lake pinpointed the dangers the Seneca faced, the threats that they faced, the source of those threats, and a way … of purging his society of those who were most likely to resist his changes,” Dennis explained in this New Books Network podcast interview.

The “threat” for the instance at hand was a tribal healer who had become suspected of bewitching a man to his death — and her guilt in the same voted on by the Seneca elders. One of their number, Chief Soonongise — known as Tommy Jemmy to whites — went to her cabin on May 2, 1821, and killed her. It’s anyone’s guess whether Kauquatau realized what was happening — whether she took it as a social call or recognized her angel of death from the outset. But to New Yorkers, it was murder plain as day — and Tommy Jemmy was soon confined to a gaol to stand trial for his life.


Another reaction occasioned by the upheaval of those years, a reaction destined to emerge dramatically in this instance, was a feeling-out of the Seneca people’s position within the Anglo Republic that had engulfed it. “If the Senecas were a conquered people, as some tried to allege, the terms of their conquest were ill defined, their sovereignty, though diminished, still recognizable,” Harris writes. In these very pages we have met this ill-defined sovereignty several times: a few years on from the events of this post, the state of Georgia would defy a Supreme Court stay and execute a Cherokee man in a case turning on disputed sovereignty.*

Here in New York, Tommy Jemmy’s trial would open a different contest over the same underlying question.

Rather than attempting to deny or minimize his “crime,” Tommy Jemmy defended it as a legal execution conducted by the proper jurisdiction of Seneca laws — no matter for the interference of New York. It’s a position that appeared to have ample sympathy among Anglo New Yorkers,** who gingerly kicked the argument to a Circuit Court and thence to the New York Supreme Court which found itself thereby obliged to “a very thorough examination of all the laws, treaties, documents and public history relating to the Indians” going all the way back to the Dutch. (Cherry-Valley Gazette, Aug. 21, 1821)

What musty old scrolls could supply by precedence, the luminous Seneca orator Red Jacket brought to life in his forceful defense. Red Jacket had an expert feel for the pangs in the Anglo conscience, as one can appreciate by his retort against one obvious line of condescension.

What! Do you denounce us fools and bigots because we still believe what you yourselves believed two centuries ago? Your black-coats thundered this doctrine from the pulpit, your judges pronounced it from the bench, and sanctioned it with the formality of law; and would you now punish our unfortunate brother for adhering to the faith of his fathers and of yours? Go to Salem! Look at the records of your own government, and you will find that thousands have been executed for the very crime which has called forth the sentence of condemnation against this woman, and drawn upon her the arm of vengeance. What have our brothers done more than the rulers of your people? And what crime has this man committed, by executing in a summary way the laws of his country and the command of the Great Spirit?

It was by no means certain that Tommy Jemmy’s argument would prevail here; a literally simultaneous case in Michigan saw a native defendant make a similar jursidictional argument and still wind up on the gallows. The question in the end stood outside any existing grant of law — and it was resolved in a legally questionable way, too.

Accepting the merits of Tommy Jemmy’s position but also unwilling to render Indian power over life and death into the statutes, Tommy Jemmy was set free without any judgment and subsequently pardoned by the legislature — the pardon reversing no conviction. He was an executioner, after all.

* U.S. President Andrew Jackson vigorously supported the state in this separation-of-powers dispute: it’s the case of which he alleged to have remarked, “[Chief Justice] John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it.”

** In an essay appearing in New World Orders: Violence, Sanction, and Authority in the Colonial Americas, Dennis notes the precedent here of an 1802 trial involving a Seneca man named Stiff-Armed George. Although Stiff-Armed George murdered a white victim and not on Seneca land, Red Jacket also urged a defense, successfully: “Did we ever make a treaty with the state of New-York, and agree to conform to its laws? No. We are independent from that state of New-York … we appeal to the government of the United States.” (The Seneca did have treaties with the federal government.)

They finessed the issue in the end: Stiff-Armed George was convicted, but immediately pardoned.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,New York,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Put to the Sword,USA,Witchcraft,Women

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1820: William Piper, drunken matricide

Add comment April 18th, 2017 Headsman

From the Boston Daily Advertiser and Repertory, April 26, 1820:


GEORGETOWN, (Del.) April 18 — This day, the awful sentence of the law was executed on William Piper, for matricide.

The following particulars were taken down by a person present at the time:

Early in the day a crowd was collected at the prison and another at the gallows. At 12 o’clock the tolling of the bell at the court-house announced the arrival of the time when the prisoner was about to bid adieu to earthly things. The anxiety of the people became very great, thousands crowding around the place where the gallows stood, and others pressing to see the criminal leave the prison.

The bell tolled ten minutes, when the sheriff entered the jail with the rope: 25 minutes past 12, the criminal appeared, and was assisted into the cart, and standing up with a horrible, frightened countenance he uttered the broken sentence, “Oh, all these people!”

The cart-horse was soon led off by the deputy sheriff, the guard forming around the cart and marching with charged bayonets; at 32 minutes past 12, the criminal was halted under the pole on which he was soon to be suspended.

The Rev. John Rogers addressed the people, and warned them against drunkenness; the crime, he said, that caused the criminal to do the act that had brought him to the gallows.

The Throne of Grace was then addressed in a very appropriate prayer by Mr. Hudson; after which the criminal spoke a few minutes to the congregation, declaring a knowledge of his sins &c.

The sheriff drew the cap over his face, and fastening [sic] the rope to the hook in the pole; at 13 minutes past one, the cart was moved off, and the criminal left hanging! A horrid consequence of drunkenness! Much might be said of the very trifling impression that was made on the minds of some rum drinkers that were present.

It might be proper to state, that the fatal deed was perpetrated in a state of intoxication, and after some quarrelling between him and his mother, and a blow on the head from her which drew blood, and after she had pushed him down over a chair, and a scuffle on the floor between Piper and his sister, who attempted to tie him, and after the sister had first seized upon the stick with which the fatal blows were given.

The only witness present at the beginning, stated that Piper when intoxicated, often threatened to kill his mother, but when sober he was as good to her as ever a child was.

Suffice to say, that he persisted to the last in solemnly declaring that he never had any malice against his mother, and that he was not sensible of having killed her.

He was 45 years of age.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Delaware,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Public Executions,USA

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