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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1828: William Dyon and John Dyon, all in the family

Add comment April 2nd, 2017 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1828, William Dyon, 45, and his son, John, 23, were hanged for the murder of William’s brother, who was also named John.

The brothers had fallen out over their father’s inheritance; William Dyon Sr. had favored John’s family over William Jr.’s. Writing dramatically of the case in his book Foul Deeds and Suspicious Deaths in Doncaster, Stephen Wade described the brothers as

sons of a Lincolnshire farmer, and the two boys were so different that this tale almost attains a biblical resonance, with jealousy, brooding and resentment, and finally a deathly hatred that led one brother to a bloody death; and the other to the scaffold. It is a Cain and Abel story, but with more than one layer of evil: William Dyon was joined by his son, John, in the murder.

According to contemporary account, from his youth William was “of a Wild disposition, and addicted to low sports; in his youth, a frequenter of cocking matches [and] bull baits.” While William joined “scenes of riot and dissipation,” John was a much steadier sort and very helpful to his father on the farm. Dyon Sr. was wealthy and he rewarded his more filial son with 63 acres of land, followed by cash gifts amounting to £300 sterling, while giving William nothing.

When he drafted his will he also favored John, virtually ignoring his other son.

William and his son planned out the murder more than a week in advance, enlisting the help of another man named John White who had known both brothers for years. John Dyon was walking through the front gate of his farm, 800 yards from his house, when he was ambushed by his brother and nephew and shot to death on the evening of February 16, 1828. His family didn’t find him until morning.

The victim was lying in the grass by the gate, stiff and cold, shot in the chest. He was carrying about £40 and an expensive watch, so robbery was ruled out as a motive for his death.

The inquest that followed returned a verdict of “willful murder by person or persons unknown,” but suspicion had already fallen on the embittered relatives.

Both Dyon pere and fils had been seen loitering near the farm with guns; they claimed to be hunting, but it wasn’t the right time of year for that. They had also asked people what time the victim normally returned home from the Doncaster market.

Their enmity towards the victim was well­known in the area and many witnesses remembered hearing William threaten his brother and even say outright that he planned to murder him. After John’s death he was seen boasting about his crime in the local pub.

The investigating magistrate actually performed some CSI work: he noticed a pair of boot tracks at the site of the murder and saw that the wearer had walked with their feet turned outward. William Dyon walked in that way.

Furthermore, the prints were from a left boot and a right boot; not many shoes were made left­ and right­footed during that time period, but William owned a pair that was.

The two suspects produced an alibi, initially confirmed by William’s brother­in­law and his servant: they were at home at the time of the murder. But this collapsed when both witnesses recanted. Then their accomplice, White, came forward with his evidence.

Lincoln, Rutland, and Stamford Mercury, April 11, 1828

By the time of the trial, there wasn’t much of a defense left to offer. The jury deliberated five minutes before voting guilty for both defendants.

On the scaffold under 10,000 eyes, John acknowledged the justice of his sentence. William, who had been caught passing notes to his son in gaol enjoining him to keep his silence, merely announced that “the Lord will pardon my sins.” A friend of the victim wanted to buy the execution ropes, but he was turned away.

“The bodies,” Wade wrote, “were dissected by the anatomists and their skins tanned.”

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1828: Uriah Sligh

Add comment February 22nd, 2017 Headsman

From the Charleston Courier, March 29, 1827.

PENDLETON, MARCH 21. — We regret to announce that Captain Jehu Orr, who was stabbed on the 12th of February by Uriah Sligh, died on Sunday morning last of the wound.

Captain Orr has been long an inhabitant of the district, and has been very generally esteemed as an upright man and respectable citizen. His sufferings from the period of the infliction of the wound to that of his death, are represented to have been severe, and to have been borne with the most Christian fortitude.

Sligh, who was some time since admitted to bail, has been recommitted, and will probably be tried at the ensuing Court, which will commence on Monday next.

From Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser (Philadelphia, Pa.), March 13, 1828:

Pendleton, (S.C.) February 27, 1828.

On Friday last pursuant to the sentence of the law, Uriah Sligh was executed at this place for the murder of Jehu Orr.

As usual on such occasions, a large concourse of people assembled to witness the last pangs of a suffering fellow creature. It is certainly a strange curiosity which prompts people to attend the execution of a criminal, but it has so happened that the three occurrences of the kind which have unfortunately taken place here within two years, have severally collected together a more numerous assemblage than we have observed on any other occasion.

The following has been handed us by a gentleman who was present; the address being as nearly as can be remembered in the words uttered by the criminal on the eve of execution: —

After some religious exercises, he rose and addressed the crowd as follows.

Fellow-Citizens of Pendleton District — You see me in this situation. It is intemperance has brought me here. I was an honest and industrious man and strove to maintain my family in honesty and comfort.

I have no recollection of the action for which I am now suffering. I never had any ill-will or intention of killing that man.

And I now warn all of the danger of a habit of intemperance; particularly the poorer class who have it not always in their power. When they have an opportunity they will go to great excess.

I would exhort all to seek religion as the only sure guard against such awful practices. If you were always in the discharge of your duty and serving your God, you would be in no danger of coming to an end like mine.

He then knelt down and prayed with much earnestness that the Lord would pardon his sins and receive him to happiness; expressing a strong hope that as the blessed Saviour had promised that none who came to him should be cast out, he would also receive his spirit, and cleanse him by his blood.

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1828: Charles French, York printer

Add comment October 23rd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1828, a young printer’s assistant morally corrupted by the theater went to the gallows at York, Upper Canada (soon to become Toronto, Ontario).

After boozing it up at a performance of Tom and Jerry, or, Life in London* at Frank’s Hotel, 21-year-old Charles French fell into a drunken row with Edward Knowlan or Nowlan and shot him dead, in a case that occasioned a local moral panic about the dangerous carousing nurtured by the nightlife in the small frontier town.

Frank’s Hotel, York’s very first theatrical venue, was “neither under order nor restraint,” French’s respectable parents pleaded in their unsuccessful clemency missive. It was “the haunt of the gay and dissolute, the idle and the profligate, the ruffian and woman of bad fame, those who show in the light of the moon were there — and from its temptations few parents or masters could restrain the youth.” (Source) Theater troupes were banned from York stages for five years after the French affair.

French’s defense had likewise attempted to raise doubts about his mental competency, and although this worked as well as it usually did in a 19th century courtroom there was no small sentiment for French’s reprieve: (K)nowlan was a notorious goon, and the circumstances of the fray seemed muddled enough to bring the shooter’s degree of calculation into question. Two alleged accomplices, acquitted in separate trials, swore that Knowlan had menaced French before French shot him.

The close clemency call carried a sharp political undertone. French was an understudy of the reform publisher William Lyon Mackenzie and his victim a Tory brawler who dealt out bruises in the service of Upper Canada’s “Family Compact” ruling clique. That his petition for mercy was rejected by Lt. Gov. Peregrine Maitland eventually became one of the (lesser) briefs against the Family Compact advanced a decade later during the Upper Canada Rebellion.

* The period’s several Tom and Jerry plays — no overt relationship is known between them and the 20th century Tom and Jerry cartoons — derived from Pierce Egan‘s smash hit Life in London, or, the day and night scenes of Jerry Hawthorn, esq., and his elegant friend Corinthian Tom in their rambles and sprees through the metropolis. The title characters capture vignettes around the city, naturally not excluding the condemned hold at Newgate, which they tour with their friend Bob Logic on the pretext of consoling one of Logic’s old friends.

An opportunity presented itself to our TRIO to visit the Condemned Yard in Newgate. “It was a mournful sight,” Logic observed to the Corinthian; “but as it was the intention of Jerry not to neglect visiting any place that might afford him information during his stay in London, he had been induced to make the proposition to Hawthorn; yet, he was free to confess, it was more especially on his own account, as he was compelled to attend, and companions would, therefore, prove very agreeable to his feelings upon such a melancholy occasion.” “We will accompany you, Bob,” replied Tom and Jerry.

The Plate represents the Morning of Execution, and the malefactors having their irons knocked off previous to their ascending the fatal platform that launches them into eternity. The Yeoman of the Halter [i.e., the hangman — at the time of Egan’s writing this would have been John Foxton] is in waiting to put the ropes about them. The Clergyman is also seen administering consolation to these unfortunate persons in such an awful moment; and the Sheriffs are likewise in attendance to conduct the culprits to the place of execution, to perform the most painful part of their duty, in witnessing the offended laws of their country put in force. It is a truly afflicting scene; and neither the pen nor the PENCIL, however directed by talent, can do it adequate justice, or convey a description of the “harrowed feelings” of the few spectators that are admitted into the Condemned Yard upon such an occasion. The tolling of the bell, too, which breaks in upon the very soul of the already agonized malefactor, announcing to him that he has but a few minutes to live, adds a terrific solemnity to the proceedings: —

Hear it not, Duncan, for ’tis a knell
That summons thee to heav’n or to hell.

The Condemned Yard is long, but narrow, and contains a great number of cells, one above another, forming three stories in height. Each cell measures nine feet in length, and six in width. [Compare with Dickens’s description -ed.] Every indulgence is allowed to those prisoners immediately the “death-warrant” arrives at Newgate, ordering them to prepare for execution. They are then allowed to remain in the Large Room (which the Plate represents), in order that the Clergyman may attend upon them as often as they desire it, and who, generally, previous to the morning on which they are to suffer, sits up praying with them the whole of the night. It is really astonishing, upon most of these occasions, to witness the resignation and fortitude with which these unhappy men conduct themselves: many of the most hardened and desperate offenders, from the kindness, attention, and soothing conduct of the Rev. Mr. Cotton, who is indefatigable in administering consolation to their troubled minds, have become the most sincere penitents; nay more, several prisoners, who have received a free pardon after having been ordered for execution, have since publicly declared that they should never again be in such a fit state to meet eternity. The criminal on the left side of the Plate, lifting up his hands in the attitude of prayer with the Clergyman, was once a character of considerable note at the West End of the Town, and from his vivacity, then designated “Lively Jem!” He soon ran through a fine fortune; and, to keep up his extravagances, he plunged into those destructive habits which ultimately brought him into this ignominious situation. Lively Jem, like most others, saw his error too late to repair it. He had not strength of mind sufficient to bear with the reverses of fortune; to fall from splendour to poverty was too much for his feelings; and, to avoid the jests and sneers of his once dashing acquaintance, under the appellation of “poor fellow!” and being excluded from their company, he thus violently terminated his thoughtless career. Jem had been at college with the Oxonian, and as his last request, lie had sent a message to Logic to attend upon him on this mournful occasion, in order to be the bearer of some important circumstances respecting himself to a female, to whom he had been very much attached, and who had also never been absent from him except this fatal morning. Logic was too much of a man to neglect another in the hour of misfortune; and it was to fulfil the request of a dying unfortunate acquaintance, that he came, accompanied by Corinthian Tom and Jerry, to the condemned Yard of Newgate.

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1828: Antoine Berthet, Stendhal inspiration

Add comment February 23rd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1828, Antoine Berthet capped his gift to the arts by going under the guillotine at Grenoble‘s Place Grenette.

You probably haven’t heard of Antoine Berthet, but if you’ve read The Red and the Black (Le Rouge et le Noir) you know his story. Stendhal (a native of Grenoble) published his magnum opus not three years after Berthet lost his head, and the novel’s executed fictional protagonist Julien Sorel bears an unmistakable resemblance to the very real Berthet.

Berthet was a smart seminary student of low birth who hired out as a tutor for the Michoud family but was dismissed under a cloud for an apparent affair with Madame Michoud.

Nothing daunted, Berthet caught on as a tutor in another family — where he proceeded to seduce the lovely daughter Henriette. But a letter from Madame Michoud to the new employers terminated job and liaison alike.

The enraged Berthet stalked his former mistress to Mass and melodramatically shot her right there in the church. He failed to kill his target, and likewise failed his attempted suicide.

Unlike his literary doppleganger — the Julien Sorel character defiantly spurns his former lovers’ attempts to pull strings on his behalf and insists on his responsibility in court — Antoine Berthet mounted an unsuccessful insanity defense. It was the “irresistible derangements of love” drove him to outrage feminine virtue, consecrated grounds, and (maybe most scandalously) the upper classes.

His prosecutor disagreed, attributing all to Berthet’s frustrated “ambitious dreams”: “understanding too late that he could not reach the goal that his pride proposed, Berthet, stripped of his hopes, would perish; but his rage would drag a victim along with him to the tomb that he dug for himself!”

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1828: James “Little Jim” Guild

Add comment November 28th, 2012 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1828, a black slave named James Guild, also known as Little Jim, was hanged in Farmington, New Jersey.

His crime, though brutal, was commonplace enough. But his case was extraordinary for another reason: at the time of his offense, Little Jim was twelve years, five months and thirteen days old.

On September 24, 1827, Little Jim took a break from his work in his master’s cornfield and went to the home of Catherine Beakes, a white woman in her sixties who lived with her son and grandson. She was home alone at the time, and Jim wanted to borrow her rifle to go fowling.

Some time prior to this, someone had tampered with Mrs. Beakes’s livestock, releasing the pigs from their pen during the night and letting the chickens out of their coop. She believed the culprit was Little Jim and, though he denied this, she had told him to stay off her property or she would tell his master, Mr. Bunn.

So when he knocked on the door and asked for the gun, she refused to give it to him.

Jim was angry, he said later, that the “damned old bitch” had been “saucy” to him for no reason.

So, after Mrs. Beakes had her back turned and thought he was gone, he took up a metal horse yoke and sneaked up on her from behind. He bludgeoned her to death in her own house as she was tending the fire, crushing her skull, shattering her jaw and gouging out one of her eyes.

He left the gore-caked weapon next to her corpse.

Little Jim came under suspicion and confessed to the murder after someone told him liars went to hell. At his trial, he said he’d killed Mrs. Beakes because he was afraid she would inform on him to Mr. Bunn and get him in trouble.

“The trial became more of a debate over whether a 12-year-old killer should be punished like an adult,” Daniel Hearn writes in Legal Executions in New Jersey: A Comprehensive Registry, 1691-1963. “The presiding judge placed great emphasis on that issue, especially during his instructions to the jury.”

It is an issue that remains highly controversial even now, nearly 200 years later.

The jury convicted James Guild of first-degree murder, which meant an automatic death sentence … but the judge was reluctant to execute a preteen. He referred the case to the New Jersey Supreme Court for sentencing, as Hearn records:

Special hearings were held to probe all aspects of Jim’s mentality. It was found that he knew right from wrong as well as the consequences of murder. He knew about the sanctity of an oath. It was also clear that Jim had had the wherewithal to confess what he had done based on his own rationale. Moreover, the appellate judges found what they considered to be ample precedent for condoning the execution of preteen felons — especially those of precocious acumen … The use of his tender age alone as a pretext for sparing his life under such circumstances would “be of dangerous consequence to the public … by propagating a notion that children might commit atrocious crimes with impunity. So the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that Jim Guild was “a proper subject of capital punishment.”

Jim Guild’s manner was of “stoic indifference” when he was hanged before a large crowd fourteen months after his crime, the last execution in Hunterdon County history. He was thirteen years old when he died.

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1828: Carbonari in Ravenna

2 comments May 13th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1828, revolutionaries Luigi Zanoli, Ortolani Angiolo, Gaetano Montanari, and Gaetano Rambelli were hanged in Ravenna.*

These were members of the carbonari, charcoal-burnersan anti-clerical political secret society of the early 19th century.

Further to that body’s sanguinary campaign against papal political domination, they authored an attempted kidnapping and/or assassination of the Vatican’s Romagna enforcer, Cardinal Rivarola. Rivarola had recently issued mass condemnations against carbonari.

Which is very nice. But they didn’t get the Cardinal.

Ubiquitous 19th century papal executioner Mastro Titta conducted the executions — the 266th through 269th of his career (he’d also done Gaetano Montanari’s better-known brother Leonida three years before) — and devoted a chapter of his memoirs to the occasion. You can call the carbonari terrorists if you wish, but the Ravenna populace’s fearsomely cinematic display of solidarity with the doomed makes eloquent historical testimony on their behalf.

The execution took place on May 13 on a large square in Ravenna, occupied by the military so that nobody could not approach the gallows other than the executioners, the soldiers, and the prisoners. The windows and doors of the city and the shops were all closed and many were hung with black. Not a person was seen on the streets. Ravenna seemed transformed into a necropolis. All attempts to convert them were vigorously rejected by the prisoners, who did not want confession nor religious comforters, and protested against the accompaniment of two friars ordered by the Cardinal.** The wagon crossed streets deserted and silent, all surrounded by soldiers on foot and horseback riding at a brisk trot. Arrived at the foot of the gallows, the condemned went down with a firm step, and one by one they boldly climbed the stairs of the gallows, and before the gallows clutching their necks shouted in a voice strong and fearless:

– Viva Italia! Down with the papacy!

The execution was conducted rapidly. I departed with my aide that night under guard, because it was rumored that the conspirators wanted to skin us.

* It appears to me — although it’s not completely clear from what I’ve seen — that a fifth man, a Jewish poisoner named Abramo Isacco Forti (aka “Machino”), was also executed in this group, for collaborating with the carbonari on a different murder. He’s listed on Titta’s roster of victims without date or explanation, but specifically named in, e.g., this Italian book’s roster of death sentences handed out by that same court.

** This public-domain Italian independence martyrology attributes to the prisoners the worthy quote, “Who becomes a king and an executioner ceases to be a minister of God.”

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1828: William Corder, for the Red Barn Murder

2 comments August 11th, 2011 Headsman


This nostalgic emblem of bygone pastoral idylls doubles as a great place to dump a body. (cc) image from boodie131.

This date in 1828, throngs of thousands at Bury St. Edmunds saw the climax of the Red Barn Murder case in the form of the public hanging of William Corder.

This broadside blockbuster got its start in a Suffolk village, where a local ladies’ man and his paramour plotted a rendezvous at the titular shed for the purpose of elopement — she having become pregnant by the young man’s offices.

When the meeting was over, Corder had vanished from town … and Maria Marten had just plain vanished.

Almost a year later, Maria Marten’s stepmother began reporting dreams that the poor girl had been murdered and stashed in the barn. And sure enough, when they searched it, there lay Maria — with William Corder’s handkerchief around her neck. Corder was found in London living with his new wife.

(About the stepmom: she was just a year older than her “daughter”, and considering her essential role in divining the body’s location, has to be considered suspect herself. It’s not too hard to picture her as Maria’s rival for the tomcatting Corder. She never faced any charges, though.)

In a standing-room-only trial that commenced a mere four days before the hanging — papers reported shortages of post-horses owing to the influx of rubberneckers — Corder failed to persuade anyone that he merited the least bit of mercy with his cockamamie story that Marten done shot herself through the eye.* He was doomed by the jury with 35 minutes’ deliberation.

The Red Barn murder is one of dozens in Judith Flanders’ The Invention of Murder (Review)

The London Times (Aug. 11, 1828) waxed unctuously pleased with this circumstance.

We congratulate the country on a manifest improvement in the condition of its moral feeling, since the sickly sensibility of the press, and of the multitude to whose foul taste it ministered, was wont to declare itself on the side of ruthless and treacherous murder, and to stifle at once every movement of honest compassion for the victim, and all reverence for the principles by which justice is vindicated and human society held together.

Another base ruffian has now equalled or exceeded Thurtell in guilt, and is about to follow him in the experience of lawful retribution. To the honour of the people, we have not yet heard one ejaculation of unnatural pity for the miscreant who deliberately butchered the mother of his infant on pretence of accompanying her to the altar. Corder has united in this one deed of horror — if it be his only one — whatever the heart revolts at most in the conduct of man to woman. He seduced — then betrayed — then massacred the wretched creature, in cold blood; and providential were the means of his detection, as his crime was hateful to God and man.

Why will not unhappy females bethink themselves before it be too late, that he who is depraved enough to corrupt their innocence, has already made no small advance in that course which ends too often in his exacting from them the only remaining sacrifice?

Corder left the scaffold just as he had reached it, corrupting females all the way down.

Seated on a wall, which gave a commanding view of the whole scene, were several ladies, dressed in the first style of fashion. I mention this fact because it shows the intense curiosity prevalent in this county respecting every action of Corder: for nothing else could have brought respectables females to behold a catastrophe so uncongenial with the usual kindness and benevolence of the female character.

-London Times, Aug. 12, 1828

An account of the trial is long since in the public domain and available free from Google books; especially recommended is the collection of dozens of Victorian-Craigslist notes Corder received when he advertised for a wife upon reaching London.

Also of interest: this journal article comparing popular ballads around the case, and even linking to a recorded performance.

As befits such a magnetic public spectacle, Corder’s body was slated for a long afterlife as a macabre totem of the principles by which justice is vindicated.

His corpse was publicly displayed — some 5,000 people are reported to have filed past it — and the hanging rope sold off in increments. Gruesome relics from the case — Corder’s scalp, his death mask, a book bound in his skin — were harvested for exhibition. (Tourists also poured into Corder’s village of Polstead, stripping souvenirs from the red barn and chipping Maria Marten’s gravestone down to the nub.)

The murderer’s skull was one of these trophies, but its owner became convinced it was cursed and had it buried. The rest of Corder was anatomized, as was the style at the time, and its skeleton remained on public display until just a few years ago with that of 18th century crime lord Jonathan Wild.

While the traditional ballads are to be expected …

this venial crime among commoners has sustained popular memory of sufficient longevity to put the Red Barn Murder onto such unanticipated media as the silver screen

… and Tom Waits’ somber blues/rock.

* Corder confessed before his execution.

Part of the Themed Set: Branded.

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1828: Manuel Dorrego, Governor of Buenos Aires

1 comment December 13th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1828, Argentine independence hero Manuel Dorrego was shot in Buenos Aires — a casualty of that country’s unfolding civil war.

Dorrego (English Wikipedia entry | the more detailed Spanish), the youngest son of a Portuguese merchant, became a brilliant soldier of his country with an adventuresome career in the Argentine War of Independence, at one point taking refuge in exile in Baltimore, U.S.

If one likes, that sojourn in a functioning republic firmed up Dorrego’s commitment to federalism — the principle that would animate a decades-long internal conflict over division of power in the newly independent state.

Argentina’s federalists approved a distribution of power to its constituent regions; the opposing unitarians wanted a strong central government in Buenos Aires.

And they did not confine their disputes to pamphlets.

Resistance from the provinces to overweening Buenos Aires and Argentina’s unitarian first president Bernardino Rivadavia helped precipitate that gentleman’s fall from power and the dissolution of the national government.

Dorrego became Governor of Buenos Aires in August 1827, and exercised de facto head of state powers — for instance, he formally accepted the treaty ending hostilities in the Argentina-Brazil War.*

But a rough customer of the unitarian camp, Gen. Juan Lavalle, overthrew Dorrego’s government and mounted a terrifying purge of federales.**

Beginning, of course, with Dorrego himself, who was given one hour’s advance notice of his entirely extrajudicial shooting.

Most of the detailed information available online about this martyr is in Spanish — see here, here, here, and here, for instance.

* The fruit of this treaty was the independent state of Uruguay, as each side gave up trying to take that territory from the other by force.

** Until Lavalle was ousted by the next great federalist leader, Juan Manuel de Rosas.

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1828: Joseph Hunton, forger

Add comment December 8th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1828, Quaker forger Joseph Hunton was hanged at Newgate Prison.

The very model of petit bourgeois hustle, Hunton was a versatile businessman who variously engaged in slop-selling, linen-draping, sugar-baking, and warehousing, before turning his craft to that most lucrative of all trades, money-minting.

Hunton circulated bills of exchange fraudulently drawn on dead people, and easily traced back to his hand. Ever the assiduous merchant, Hunton was arrested trying to flee England — with a letter in his pocket to post for the Times correcting that paper’s inflated account of his graft to a more modest figure.

Since the reputation that preceded him was otherwise a good one, and since executions for white-collar crime suffered declining popularity, Hunton had “every reason to expect that the mercy of the Crown will be extended to the unhappy object of public commiseration.” (The London Times, Nov. 21, 1828, evidently an error-prone source on the subject of J. Hunton.) Even Nathan Mayer Rothschild, one of the founders of that family’s banking empire, signed a petition for Hunton along with other eminences of the London financial district. This sentiment, the Times observed (Dec. 6, 1828)

proves sufficiently that in the opinion of the commercial public, fraud is not an appropriate subject for capital punishment … The human heart, we say, in the 19th century, revolts at such a retribution for such a transgression … [which] flies in the face of those feelings which attest, because they go far to constitute, the advancement of mankind in civilization and humanity. The penalty of death was enacted for the sake of the monied interest,–the monied interest, by this petition, loudly proclaim that they deem the penalty unnecessary!

Little wonder the Newgate Calendar noticed “a very general belief … that a respite would most certainly arrive for him even so late as on the morning fixed for his death. His safety was considered almost certain, and many were scarcely persuaded that he would really suffer even at the moment when the fatal cord encompassed his neck.”

But it was not so.


Some things never change.

Though 1828 is many decades before England developed its exacting “drop tables” calculating the precise length of rope meant to hang a fellow of a given stature, the accounts of Hunton’s hanging are at pains to note that, because Hunton himself was so short, his rope was made longer than that of the three unconnected fellow-convicts who hanged with him. Table or no, the executioner knew his craft: Hunton died instantly, or appeared to.

(Another Quaker once an intimate of Hunton later became notable gallows fodder himself, John Tawell. Tawell was the first criminal captured with use of the telegraph.)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Pelf,Public Executions,Theft

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