1820: The pirates of the William

Add comment February 4th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1820, six pirates of the brig William hanged at the Maltese capital Valletta.

This vessel had the previous July departed her Liverpool berth hauling a cargo of lucrative sugar to Malta under the command of Charles Christopher Delano. The latter evidently labored under some legal judgment he considered unjust and convinced a none-too-reluctant crew that it would be “neither a sin nor a shame” to augment their wages by turning buccaneer.

To this end, the William waylaid an Italy-bound English brigantine, the Helen, off the Spanish coast just inside the Straits of Gibraltar on August 2. All that night and throughout the next day the pirates were engaged in transferring the Helen‘s cargo to their own ship, finally boring open the hull and abandoning her to sink with all hands aboard. The contingent of the Helen was able with difficult to force their way out of confinement and take a longboat (likewise disabled by the raiders and therefore in need of constant bailing) towards the coast until they encountered the aid of friendlier mariners. All survived their brush with the William although their prosecutor would rightly observe that “the confidence on which the prisoners relied for their security (and which has led to their present arraignment) must have arisen from the belief that all evidence of their crime was extinct, and that the intention of a deliberate and comprehensive murder must be added to their already too prominent offence.”

The William, meanwhile, had proceeded to Sardinia where her crew was able to unload some of the ill-gotten gains, and thence to Malta, where they discharged the remainder, along with the legitimate sugar cargo they’d carried out of Liverpool.* However, the Maltese transactions attracted enough suspicion that after the William left harbor, British insurance men there hired a ship named Frederick to apprehend the William — which was soon accomplished.

The case itself was open and shut, and from an appendix to its record we discover the usual climax that is this site‘s stock in trade:

On Friday morning, the 4th of February, at eight o’clock, the awful sentence of the law was carried into execution, on board the brig William, upon Charles Christopher Delano, Thomas Thompson, Benjamin Wilcock, John Smith, John Lewis, and John Webb, in the mode prescribed by the following order issued upon that occasion: —

That the William, brig, being the vessel in which the unfortunate convicts committed the flagrant and most atrocious act of piracy, be painted black, hauled out and anchored in the middle of the great port of Malta, viz. that of Valetta [sic]; and that the aforesaid most unhappy convicts be carried on board of the said vessel, at such time and in such manner as may hereafter be directed; and that on Friday morning, being the fourth day of the month, between the hours of eight and twelve, the aforesaid convicts, viz. Charles Christopher Delano, the late master of the said brig; Thomas Thompson, late mate of ditto; Benjamin Wilcock, late mariner and second mate of ditto; John Webb, late mariner of ditto; John Lewis, late mariner and cook of ditto; John Smith, late mariner of ditto; John Curtis, late carpenter of ditto;** and Reuben Marshall, late mariner of ditto, be hanged as may be directed between the hours of eight and twelve on Friday morning next, being the fourth day of the month of February, in the year of Our Lord one thousand eight hundred and twenty; and after hanging till they be dead, that they be cut down, put in open shells, and protected by a proper guard from his Majesty’s ships; that they be carried to the appointed place, viz. Fort Ricasoli, where the body of the late Charles Christopher Delano, late Captain of the William, is to be hung in irons on the right hand gibbet, next to the Port of Valletta, erected for this purpose in the north-west angle of the said fort; the body of John Lewis, late cook and mariner on board the same vessel, on the left hand gibbet in the same angle; the body of Thomas Thompson, late mate, on the right hand gibbet, erected for the purpose on the north-east angle of the same part of the said fort; and the body of John Smith on the left hand gibbet in the same fort; and that the four remaining bodies be interred at the feet of the before-mentioned gibbets — the body of Benjamin Wilcock under the gibbet on which the late Charles Christopher Delano hangs; the body of John Webb under the gibbet on which the late John Lewis hangs; the body of John Curtis under that on which Thomas Thompson hangs; and the body of Reuben Marshall under the gibbet on which John Smith hangs.

It is satisfactory to state, that the unfortunate man, who commanded the piratical vessel, confessed, in the last hours of his life, in order to reconcile himself with that Supreme Being on whom alone all his hopes then depended, that he was the prime mover and instigator of this most heinous crime.

His Majesty’s most gracious clemency was extended to the persons of the other two prisoners, Reuben Marshall and John Curtis, whose fatal sentence was respited on the spot, after the execution of their associates, by a warrant to that effect from his Excellency Sir Thomas Maitland,† issued at ten o’clock on the preceding night.

The following extract from the Malta Government Gazette will explain the laudable motives which induced His Excellency to this most humane and gracious act of clemency: —

We understand that His Excellency was induced to grant this mark of favour from the conviction, after a laborious investigation into the subject, that cases had occurred, although very rarely, of such clemency having been extended, in previous instances, to some of the parties convicted of aggravated piracy.

Such a precedent was, no doubt, most grateful to his Excellency’s feelings, and in the choice of the two persons to be spared, we understand his Excellency was guided by the uncommonly good character which Marshall had possessed previous to this atrocious act in which he was concerned; and in the case of Curtis, independently of his youth, by some very peculiar circumstances which had been disclosed in his favour by the captain and the rest of his ill-fated associates.

* One of the crew members reported receiving a total of 345 dollars from his share of the booty. Even allowing that “legitimate” fourfold share he claimed for himself as the captain, Delano apparently shortchanged his associates.

** So many Johns!

† Catch a Maitland cameo in this post from the Haitian Revolution.

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1829: Thomas Maynard, the last hanged for forgery

Add comment December 31st, 2019 Headsman

The last day of the 1820s marked the last hanging for forgery in Great Britain: that of Thomas Maynard, at London’s Newgate Prison.

Maynard was charged with two other men* for forging an order of His Majesty’s Customs to pay them £1,973. They got the money and for a few months had that blessed relief from the weight of penury and debt; one of the numerous witnesses in their case described how one of Maynard’s confederates “was in difficulties in the year 1828 … I saw him in June last, when he told me his wife had 700l.”

It must have been nice, but they weren’t quite quick enough about executing their plan to sail for America.

Although the sovereign himself was the victim in this instance, British juries had grown ever more reluctant in the early 19th century to impose capital punishment for faking a document to non-violently steal some money — although there were still 218 such executions over the first 30 years of the century.

The availability of the death penalty for such a deed was repealed in 1832.

* Joseph West, who was acquitted, and Richard Jones, who was convicted only as an accessory and transported to Australia.

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1822: Thomas Thomasen Bisp, skull exhibit

Add comment July 22nd, 2019 Headsman

Thomas Thomasen Bisp, an adulterer who fatally poisoned his wife after he got the hots for his maid, became on this date in 1822 the last person executed in the North Jutland city of Hjørring.

Times being what they were, the torture-spectacle parts of the sentence — like having his offending hand struck off — were remitted; all things equal, we assume that Bisp would have best preferred to keep the one extremity he was still required to sacrifice.

This minor milestone is memorable to visitors of the Vendsyssel Historial Museum, where reposes the killer’s grisly beheaded skull courtesy of its 1900 accidental discovery in the course of some road work.

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1821: Athanasios Diakos, Greek War of Independence hero

Add comment April 24th, 2019 Headsman

Greek independence hero Athanasios Diakos died by Ottoman impalement on this date in 1821.*

Though he acquired his nickname Diakos (“deacon”) from a youthful spell in a monastery, this fellow Athanasios (English Wikipedia entry | Greek) while the Turks still governed Greece made his way as a klepht — Greece’s version of the Balkan hybrid outlaw/guerrilla archetype, similar to the hajduk figures among the South Slavs. All of these outlaw types took to the mountains where they could subsist as brigands and mercenaries beyond the reach of the Porte, and seek opportunities where they might to strike at Ottomans. Many of the Greek persuasion, Diakos included, adhered to the Filiki Eteria secret society that aspired to liberate Greece.

With the onset of the Greek War of Independence in early 1821, Diakos jumped right into the fight. Picturesquely, he met a much larger Turkish detachment in battle at Thermopylae where he made like Leonidas and with a handful of companions heroically held out against impossible odds at the Alamana Bridge.

Captured wounded, Diakos spurned the temptation of an officer’s commission in the Turkish army should he but switch sides with words that remain legendary in his homeland to this day: “I was born a Greek, I shall die a Greek.” He was impaled at the city of Lamia, fearlessly musing, “Look at the time Charon chose to take me, now that the branches are flowering, and the earth sends forth grass.”


The Apotheosis of Athanasios Diakos, by Konstantinos Parthenis (1933).

He’s a very famous and beloved figure in Greece, albeit much less so in parts beyond. The village where Diakos was allegedly born has been renamed for him full stop.

* The narratives I’ve seen run a bit hinkie between the Battle of Alamana on April 22 and the great klepht’s death on April 24 since there’s a two-day gap and everyone seems to agree that he was ordered for execution “the next day”. I’m sticking to the agreed death date here, which is universal, but as best I can discern the timeline alternatives for accounting the missing day appear to break down between the notion that Diakos was impaled on the 23rd and lingered on his spike overnight before death, and that it was not until the 23rd that the Ottoman commander had the opportunity to interrogate him and decide his fate and thus “the next day” was the 24th. I haven’t located a source that appears dispositive on this issue.

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1827: Sarah Jones, firm infanticide

Add comment April 11th, 2019 Headsman

From the Bristol Mercury of April 16, 1827:

EXECUTION OF SARAH JONES.

This unfortunate victim to seduction was 26 years of age, and lived with her father and mother, Thomas and Mary Jones, who resided in a small cottage, forming one of a row of houses, situated on the side of the Sirhowy tram-road, called Pye-corner, in the parish of Bassalleg, in the county of Monmouth.

On Tuesday morning she took a farewell leave of her wretched parents, which she bore with considerable firmness, being the least affected of the three. — A neighbor, who spoke to her character, was, at her desire, permitted to see her the same morning, and speak to her in the Welsh language. She was particularly communicative; detailing the circumstances most minutely, which led to her present situation. She said it was not her intention to have destroyed the hapless infant, until three months before her confinement, when she discovered her seducer, Flook, had married another woman; she then formed the diabolical plan of having her revenge in the murder of his infant.

On Monday, the 23d of October, at breakfast, she found herself ill, and went up stairs; about ten or eleven her mother came up, disturbed by her voice; she sent her down for some fresh linen; and whilst the mother was going down stairs, the child was born: — she immediately seized one of two pen-knives which were in her pocket by her bedside, and in a minute or two after the birth, gave it two gashes in the throat; the mother coming up with the linen, she hid the body between the sacking and the bed, on some straw lying between, and lay on it until the Friday night. On that night Flook came to see her, — she was then down stairs in the chair (her father asleep) — he immediately noticed the alteration in her size, on which she told him of the horrid deed she had committed, and entreated him to assist her, by burying the body; — he consented; and, having sewed it up in some spare sacking, she gave it him through the window.

She positively declares her father knew nothing of the transaction, till Potter, the game-keeper, brought the body to the house; that she had concealed her situation from her mother, denying her pregnancy, even the Sunday evening before her confinement; and that the mother believed the child to have been still-born, up to the time of the coroner’s inquisition.

Sarah Burley, a fellow prisoner, under sentence of imprisonment, for stealing money, at Newport, slept with her during the night; — she slept remarkably sound, being only disturbed by supposing she saw her coffin lying by her bedside: she asserts, she has felt ever since her sentence, the sensation of having a rope round her neck, and that she often lifted her hand to remove it. She spoke in the most flattering manner of the attentions of the keeper, Mr. T. Phillips, to whose humanity and instructions she was indebted for her firmness of mind; — she took a prison farewell of the friend to whom she revealed her mind, without tears, and viewed the prospect of the near approach of her death with the greatest resignation.

Additional Particulars. — This unfortunate woman was of short stature, stout made, with nothing in her countenance indicative of ferociousness, she stood during her trial without any perceptible emotion, but on receiving sentence was obliged to be supported by one of the officers in attendance, and was carried from the bar to the chaise which conducted her to the gaol; she has asserted that even then, she was as collected as she ever was in her life, and was only exhausted from the joy she felt that her mother was acquitted. She had made up her mind for the worst on first entering the gaol, and her whole anxiety was, lest her poor mother should be found guilty, and she should be thus accessory to another death.

She slept soundly the last night, awaking about 6 o’clock, and on viewing the fatal spot observed that every thing was ready and she was so herself. After divine service she received the sacrament with several other criminals, and was from thence ushered to the drop, walking with a steady step, on arriving at the lodge she took a last farewell of several around her, expressing her confidence of being in a few minutes happy, she then ascended the place where the executioner awaited her, in the performance of his painful duty, the only observation she made, was not to draw the rope too tight, and having kissed those around her, begged the cap might be then pulled over her face, she then stept on the platform with firmness, on the rope being adjusted, she begged the executioner to draw her clothes tight around her, which he did by tying a handkerchief, having retired, the drop fell, and in about a minute vitality ceased.

After hanging an hour her body was delivered to her friends, for interment in Bassalleg churchyard; on its being made known that the part of her sentence relating to her dissection was remitted, she felt much gratified and hoped they would let her body remain one night at her father’s house. Thus died this unhappy woman in her 26th year, her fate has excited much commiseration and miserable must be the recollections of her seducer; her resignation was praiseworthy, her repentance contrite, and her conduct firm and decided beyond precedent under such circumstances; endued with great strength and presence of mind, she only wanted the advantages of education, and to have been under the moral restrictions of the Christian code to have been an useful character in society, may her end be (in the impressive language of the Learned Judge who tried her) a warning to the unguarded of her age, and to those wretches unworthy the name of men who have, or who may seduce females to a similar state of degradation; throughout the trial the humanity of the Learned Sergeant was apparent, and the feeling manner in which he pronounced the dreadful fiat of the law drew tears from the eyes of a majority of the largest assemblage of spectators within that court. The crowd assembled at her execution was unusually large, and, as is customary, but no ways creditable to them, two thirds were females.

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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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