1826: Francis Irvin, the first hanging in Ohio County, Kentucky

Add comment May 13th, 2020 Headsman

This chapter titled “The First Hanging in Ohio County, KY” comes from the public-domain 1926 volume Ohio County Kentucky in the Olden Days. The footnote appears in the original text.

Francis Irvin, who was raised in the Adams Fork settlement, had become involved In a lawsuit with an old gentleman named William Maxwell in which Irvin’s character and purse were involved. Maxwell gave a deposition and, after he had testified, mounted his horse to go home. That was the last seen of Maxwell alive. At a late hour in the evening his riderless horse reached the farm and whinnied for his master. The animal was found by a member of the family who at once saw that the empty saddle was covered with blood, indicating that the rider had been seriously hurt or killed.

Several days were spent in hunting the body, in which hunt Irvin joined. Being suspected of the crime he was constantly watched. It was afterwards observed that he always proposed searching in different localities from that in which the body was eventually found. It had been thrown into a slight pool or basin worn by the water of a small branch where it poured over the roots that partially obstructed the channel. It was there found covered with loose stones, logs, dirt, and leaves. A heavy fall of rain had washed away all the lighter covering, and after the high water subsided, the body was left exposed to sight.

Cowardly sneaks, although the most disposed, should never commit crime. Had Irvin been a man of iron nerve and will and boldly protested his innocence, he could never have been lawfully convicted, but his craven heart gave evidence as soon as the body was discovered. He trembled and turned pale, and although his confession might have been made under sufficient threats and persuasions to have excluded it as evidence on the trial, yet he gave facts which fastened the guilt on him, such as telling where he had hidden Maxwell’s hat and shoes and where they could find another bullet hole in the body, one which, up to then, had not been noticed.

Irvin was arrested and committed to the old log jail in Hartford. The old house was so weak that it had to be guarded at a great expense until he was removed to the Hardinsburg jail for safe-keeping.

His case lingered in court for nearly two years and at one time resulted in a hung jury. A final trial was had and the jury brought in a verdict of murder.

Joseph Allen, of Hardinsburg, had been a practitioner at the Hartford bar from perhaps the first circuit court held in the county. He was Irvin’s lawyer, and was able, untiring, and devoted to his client. Great reliance was placed on the selection of juries in desperate cases. Next to the hardened villain who feared punishment himself, the mild, tender-hearted man who abhorred a murder and shrank from taking life, even by due process of law, was sought as a juryman. The panel was at last completed save one, and the defendant still had one or more peremptory challenges in reserve. Timothy Condit was called. There perhaps never lived a purer Christian or more tender-hearted man. He seldom listened to a tale of suffering or misery without tears.

Mr. Allen viewed him sternly and critically and took him without challenge, and during the trial and in his argument always aimed to excite the old man’s sympathy. This he no doubt succeeded in doing for tears were seen coursing down his cheeks during the trial, also when a verdict of guilt was announced. The able counsel for the defendant looked surprised, but no doubt still clung to the hope that Timothy Condit would “give down,” so he called for a poll of the jury.

This was done by each juryman being called by name and asked whether he agreed to the verdict. Condit’s name was the last on the list. When his name was called, Mr. Allen assumed a grave and solemn tone of voice, and, pausing on each word, said: “Mister Condit, do you agree to that verdict?” — with an emphasis on “you,” “agree,” and “verdict.”

During all this time the courthouse was thronged with spectators. The interest felt seemed painfully intense. Every eye was turned on the meek, simple-hearted old man. Every ear was strained to hear his words. The good old man raised his eyes to heaven; tears trickled down his cheeks. His words were feeble, yet thrilling. Slowly he said: “In the name of the Lord, I do.” A murmur of applause burst from the crowd. This was followed by a titter of laughter at an ill-natured remark by Allen about the old man and his Lord. Allen then threw down his papers and books and left the courthouse.

Judge Alney McLean, whose heart was always overflowing with human kindness, could not pass sentence with anything like due composure. He solemnly set the day of execution — May 13, 1826 — but when he spoke the words “that you be hanged by the neck until you are dead, dead, dead!” — his voice became husky and almost inaudible as he wiped tears from his eyes.*

A hanging had never before occurred in Ohio County. Men, women, and children of every age and condition came not only from this county but also from Daviess, Breckinridge, Grayson, Butler, and Muhlenberg. Taverns, private houses in town, and even homes for miles in the country were crowded with visitors. Even the courthouse was filled over night with campers. The whole of the four acres of the public square was then unoccupied, except as a common, and was almost as green as a meadow, but the morning after the hanging it resembled a battlefield.

The erection of a gallows in the center of the town was unusual, but the reason was this: Shortly after the sentence was passed, remonstrances came in from every neighborhood to the sheriff, John Rogers, against erecting a gallows on the road they traveled to town. No man would give leave for its erection on his property. The sheriff did not wish to incur the ill will of the whole community, so, upon the advice of the county attorney, he built the scaffold in Washington Street, a short distance below the crossing of Market Street.

The night previous to the execution the poor wife of the condemned man brought him a new suit of snow white home-made linen and a very large twist of home-grown tobacco.

Dressed in his suit of white, with his big twist of tobacco protruding largely from his pantaloon pocket, he was driven to the gallows in a one-horse cart by the sheriff. He seemed determined to take the tobacco with him to another world, for, just before the rope was adjusted around his neck, he pulled out his twist, took an enormous chew, and then put the twist back in his pocket and buttoned the flap over it, apparently with anxious care.

Irvin’s conduct upon the scaffold seemed to excite only pity and contempt. He showed nothing but a weak, cowardly fear of death — no courage, no stoicism to excite admiration, certainly nothing to stimulate the most depraved spectator to emulate his example. Whilst the sheriff was adjusting the cap over his face and the rope around his neck, he clung to him like a drowning man, and the sheriff had to pull from him. The cart moved suddenly away. A few convulsive struggles, a quiver of muscles, and the melon-stealing, orchard-robbing boy who had culminated into a vile murderer in middle age was no more.

* In a subsequent article Mr. Taylor makes a correction to the effect that upon further reflection he found “the scene with Timothy Condit and Joseph Allen” took place at the first trial of Irvin and not the last. He attended all the trials and admits that “after a lapse of these many years these trials became blended together in the writer’s memory.” Judge John B. Wilson, in a memorandum (1926) citing Order Book No. 7, pages 10 and 44, says that the last trial ended on Tuesday, April 4, 1826, and that the jury consisted of: George Oldham, Job Malin, Joseph D. McFarland, Ezekiel Kennedy, Cornelius Roach, Joseph Paxton, Stephen Rowan, Churchill Jones, Michael Myers, Nicholas Taylor, Allan May, and Ansel Watson, foreman.

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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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1826: Janissaries during the Auspicious Incident

2 comments June 16th, 2011 Headsman

We have received from Constantinople the following further particulars of the revolt of the Janissaries: —

“June 16, 3 o’clock p.m.

“The Sultan was at his summer palace of Bschektash. The Aga Pacha, and the Pacha commanding on the Asiatic bank of the Bosphorus, repaired to Constantinople with their troops: 8,000 topschis, or artillery, also went thither. At length, his Sublimity being resolved to quell the rebellion, caused the standard of the Prophet to be displayed, and proclamations to be made in all the quarters of the city, that all men of honour — that is to say, true believers — had immediately to rally round this standard. The Ulemas met in the Seraglio. The appearance of the Snadgiak Sherif caused some hesitation among the rebels; their numbers were reduced by desertion, while, on the other hand, all the people hastened to assemble round the sacred standard. The energy of the Aga Pacha did the rest; he has crushed the rebles with grape-shot, burnt their barracks in the Ahnudan, and pursued them without mercy.

“The Grand Vizier is in the Court of the Mosque of Sultan Achmet, in the Hippodrome, with the Sandgiak Sherif still displayed; the chiefs of the corps of the Ulemas are met there in council; the Sultan is at the Seraglio, with the great men of the empire. Every moment persons are brought into the Hippodrome, and executed on the spot. Above 100 Oustas have already suffered this fate. This morning all the gates of Constantinople, except one, are shut or guarded by topschis and citizens. The remainder of the rebels have taken refuge in some khans built of stone, where they are invested, and where, to all appearance, famine will soon deliver them to the mercy of the Aga Pacha.

London Times, July 15, 1826 (translating July 11 reports published in the French papers)

This date in 1826 finds Constantinople in the midst of what history will remember as the Auspicious Incident — an attempted revolt by the Ottoman Empire’s elite Janissary corps that was not at all auspicious for the Janissaries.

This centuries-old slave infantry,* a sort of Ottoman Praetorian Guard as well as the sultan’s elite military presence in the empire’s hinterlands, had evolved by this stage of decadence into a vampire squid on the face of the Porte.**

Jealous of their material privileges and political prerogatives even as the dawn of industry and conscript armies undermined their combat utility, the Janissaries had become much more trouble than they were worth.†

They had “begun to present a serious threat to the Empire,” wrote Lord Kinross in Ottoman Centuries. “On the battlefield they were gaining a reputation among the modern foreign armies for ineptitude and even cowardice under arms … In the capital … they came to be a dominant power and a focus of sedition.”

Kinross wrote that about the Janissaries of the early 17th century, in the reign of Osman II. (Osman tried to curtail the troop’s power, and was executed by his bodyguards for his trouble.)

A couple of centuries on from that moment, and the Janissaries are still skulking about the Seraglio, still keeping their supposed masters in mortal terror, still arbitrating the succession.

The current ruler, Mahmud II, had been fortunate in his own youth to survive the Janissaries’ political intrusion and reach the throne.

For a generation, Mahmud had waited and readied himself for the opportunity to sweep this piece off the chessboard. This would be a most Auspicious Incident indeed.

Kinross and many other historians suspect that Mahmud intentionally baited the Janissaries to revolt in 1826, but whether or not that is so, they did revolt — in response to a decree reorganizing the corps.

Mahmud was ready for them. He repelled the Janissary mutiny on June 15, and as described by our third-hand correspondent above, proceeded to slaughter them without mercy: under artillery barrage in the barracks they retreated to, or by the summary execution of all who surrendered — not just on this date, but throughout the Incident and extending to the further reaches of the empire where Mahmud’s agents carried his decree abolishing the Janissaries forever.

* Culled from children taken from non-Muslim families and raised as Islamic converts.

** Not unlike the actual Praetorian Guard.

† There’s a competing historiography contending (pdf) that, contrary to the corrupt-backwards-military-caste story, it was the Janissaries’ economic and social links that brought on their destruction: they became the entity representing the autonomous Ottoman classes, such as artisans and guilds, who had the most to lose from the elites’ state modernization project.

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1826: The Decembrists

7 comments July 25th, 2009 Headsman

On this date* in 1826, five leaders of the Decembrist revolt were hanged at St. Petersburg’s Peter and Paul fortress for their abortive eponymous uprising eight months before.

The most renowned and romantic of Russia’s hapless liberals, the Decembrists were a secret clique of idealistic young officers, many of whom had cut their teeth chasing Napoleon’s grande armee out of Russia in 1812.

In Russia’s complex interaction with the West — its ideas, its political institutions, its ways of life — these were the westernizers, who saw constitutionalism as the way of the future.

Upon the mysteriously sudden death of Tsar Alexander I, an irregular succession to the second-oldest surviving brother, Nicholas I, gave our day’s doomed and gallant youth cause to occupy St. Petersburg’s Senatskaya Square to uphold the rights of the first brother — and more to the point, to uphold the constitution to the extent of constraining the monarchy.


Decembrists at Senate Square, as depicted by Karl Kolman.

Uh … Now What?

This badly organized affair failed in its aim to attract the mass of soldiery and, constitutionalists as its organizers were, did not even aim at mobilizing the general populace.

After the initial heady rush of marching into the square in the name of liberty, the Decembrists were left in a standoff against a much larger force of loyalists. When the latter started shooting, that was that.

Those that survived faced trial, with five — Peter Kakhovsky, Kondraty Ryleyev, Sergei Muravyov-Apostol, Mikhail Bestuzhev-Ryumin and Pavel Pestel — initially sentenced to drawing and quartering.

“Mere” hanging was deemed sufficient for the purpose. That would be about the maximum embrace of liberalism by the Russian autocracy, whose lesson from the uprising was to crack down against any hint of forward-thinking politics — ultimately an unsuccessful strategy for the Romanov dynasty.

St. Petersburg’s Senate Square — renamed Decembrist Square by the Soviet government — where the action happened. The iconic equestrian statue of Peter the Great, commissioned by Catherine the Great and unveiled in 1782, witnessed it all; the statue acquired its enduring moniker, “The Bronze Horseman”, from a poem of the same title penned in 1833 by Alexander Pushkin, a friend of several Decembrists.

One of the greatest works of Russian literature, Pushkin’s “Bronze Horseman” weaves an ambiguous Decembrist-tinged critique of cruel imperial power and overreach into a complex narrative of St. Petersburg whose upshot is still up for lively literary debate. “The Bronze Horseman’s crag rose up before the poet on an empty square,” wrote one historian, “washed with the blood of those who rebelled on December 14, 1825”

Appalling there
He sat, begirt with mist and air.
What thoughts engrave His brow! what hidden
Power and authority He claims!
What fire in yonder charger flames!
Proud charger, whither art thou ridden,
Where leapest thou? and where, on whom,
Wilt plant thy hoof?

“They don’t even know how to hang you …”

When the hangings were carried out, Kakhovsky, Muravyov-Apostol and Ryleyev all had their ropes break; while some in the crowd anticipated the old prerogative of mercy for any prisoner who survives an execution, they just got re-hung instead. “Unhappy country,” quipped Ryleyev as the fresh nooses were fixed up, “where they don’t even know how to hang you.”**

Other Decembrists not condemned to the unreliable craftmanship of the Russian gallows were shipped to Siberia, where they invigorated the cultural life of the Lake Baikal city of Irkutsk — many of them famously followed by their “Decembrists’ wives,” an iconic type that continues to denote heroically sacrificial loyalty since the women had to renounce their own right to return to European Russia.

These, at least, had a place to call their own, however distant. But the class of Russian elites to which they belonged would be thrust into a trackless wilderness by their failure (in the Decembrist rising and otherwise) to carve out some distinct place for themselves. Russia’s long reckoning with modernity still had many years to run.


A worn postcard of a 19th century Russian painting depicting (perhaps) a political prisoner in the Peter and Paul Fortress.

* July 25 was the date on the Gregorian calendar; per the Julian calendar still in use in Russia at the time, the date was July 13.

** Ryleyev was quite the saucy one, having fought a “mysterious” duel with Pushkin in 1823, and instigated (and served as second at) a famous St. Petersburg jilted-love duel in 1825 that cost the lives of both antagonists.

A poet himself and a romantic to the point of fanaticism, Ryleyev wrote odes extolling executed national heroes like Artemy Volynsky and Severyn Nalyvaiko, seemingly alluding (as in this excerpt from the latter work) to his anticipation of joining them.

I know full well the dire fate
Which must upon the patriot wait
Who first dare rise against the foe
And at the tyrant aim the blow.
This is my destined fate

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1826: Matthew Brady, gentleman bushranger

4 comments May 4th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1826, “gentleman bushranger” Matthew Brady was hanged in the Hobart jail for one Australia’s most colorful outlaw careers.

Shipped from England on penal transportation, Matthew Brady was repeatedly flogged for escape attempts before he successfully busted out of Macquarie Harbour prison in 1824.

He made for the bush and began an 18-month spell as an outlaw, self-consciously constructing the persona of the gentleman outlaw — polite to his victims, never violent towards women, that sort of thing.

Among Brady’s best-known exploits: after the colonial governor George Arthur posted a reward for his capture, Brady posted a public counter-offer:

It has caused Matthew Brady much concern that such a person known as Sir George Arthur is at large.
Twenty gallons of rum will be given to any person that can deliver his person to me.

The authorities hunted him doggedly, and he was at last captured by settler John Batman, later famous for his founding role in the history of Melbourne.

The love letters and gifts that filled his cell attested his place in the folklore, but his fate was never in question. Ever the gentleman, Brady’s main protest was sharing his scaffold with (among several other bushrangers) the murderous cannibal Mark Jefferies.

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