1830: Robert Emond

Add comment March 17th, 2018 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1830, at Libberton’s Wynd in Edinburgh, Scotland, Robert Emond or Edmond was hanged for the brutal murders of his sister-in-law, Catherine Franks, a fifty-year-old widow, and her teenage daughter, Magdalene. They had lived in a village called Abbey, near Haddington.

The story of the killings is told in Martin Baggoley’s book, Scottish Murders. It’s a sad but familiar tale of family trouble and domestic violence.

The victims had been discovered by concerned neighbors on the afternoon of October 28, 1829. Neither of them had been seen for days, and Catherine’s pig was squealing continually from hunger in its sty.

Two men went to the Franks cottage to investigate and found Catherine’s body lying in the pigsty. Her throat had been slashed and, as the Newgate Calendar records, her rings, earrings and watch were missing. The neighbors’ first thought was for Magdalene, and they rushed inside the cottage through the open back door and found her in the bedroom. The girl had been beaten to death; there were eight distinct injuries to her head and her skull had been fractured several times.

The doctor who examined the bodies determined Catherine and Magdalene had probably been killed on either Sunday night, October 25, or early Monday morning. The house had been ransacked, drawers had been pulled out of and their contents dumped on the floor, and the floor was covered with blood, including distinct bloody footprints.

The police didn’t have to look far for a suspect: a neighbor told them Catherine had recently accused her brother-in-law of stealing from both her and his wife, the latter also named Magdalene. Robert had then obliquely threatened her, saying, “If you won’t keep away from here and your sister, who are you are making as cross-grained as yourself, I won’t answer for the consequences.”

Although Robert Emond was of “respectable” parentage, had a good education and had been honorably discharged from the Army, he had a reputation for violence even as a youth and the neighbor kids called him “the fiend.”

The Emonds had been married for less than three years by the time Catherine and Magdalene Franks were murdered, but already the relationship was breaking on the rock of Robert’s violent temper and dissatisfaction with his life.

Unusually for that time, Magdalene Emond owned her own successful business and was of independent means, but Robert had had several financial failures and resented his wife’s success. He also resented Catherine because he felt she was continually criticizing him to everybody and making his marital problems worse.

A broadside about the crimes and Emond’s execution noted,

He seems to have brought himself to think that he was utterly despised by Mrs. Franks and his wife, and on being opposed by them in any of his foolish speculations in trade, although for his own ultimate good, was considered by him as resulting from that deep-rooted [antipathy], as he thought, they treated him with.

Guy B. H. Logan, in his 1928 book Dramas of the Dock: True Stories of Crime, described Robert as “a morose, sullen man, given to brooding over real or fancied wrongs, which, in his warped mind, became intolerable injuries,” and suggested he might have been mentally unbalanced, pointing out that there was a history of mental illness in his family.

When police went to Emond’s home in North Berwick, neighbors there told them Robert and his wife had had a violent, screaming argument after she refused to lend him money, and he’d beaten her and tried to throw her down the garden well. During their quarrel, the witnesses said, Magdalene had screamed that she knew Robert had taken money from her and her sister.

When questioned, Robert’s wife admitted the argument had taken place. Magdalene said they’d slept in separate rooms since their fight, and she kept her bedroom door locked from the inside at night.

Catherine Franks’s younger daughter, who was also named Catherine, lived with her aunt and uncle to maximize the reader’s confusion: we’ve got Catherine and Magdalene as victims, survived by Magdalene and Catherine in the killer’s household. The latter Catherine reported that she’d tried to go into Robert’s room at eight o’clock on Monday morning to give him a cup of tea, but found the door shut from the inside.

Magdalene became worried that her husband had “done himself some mischief” and summoned two men, who got a ladder and looked in the bedroom window. Robert wasn’t there and the bed had not been slept in. When he returned several hours later, he was dishelved and agitated.

The little girl would later testify at the trial, “He was wild-like, and trembling a lot. His eyes were fixed and staring.” He wouldn’t say where he’d been. His boots and stockings were wet and little Catherine saw him cleaning them later.

Suspicious, police searched the house and found Robert’s vest and pants, which were damp and bloodstained. They also found a shirt which had a bloody handprint on the fabric in spite of someone’s attempt to clean it. They also confiscated his boots.

Under arrest on two counts of murder, Robert Emond steadfastly maintained his innocence. He wrote the following letter to his wife while in custody:

My dear wife,

I am now confined in Calton Jail charged with the murder of your sister and daughter, of which I declare to you I am perfectly innocent, though I have done as much as deserves the gallows.

My dear Magdalene, I am sorry and even wish to take my own life when I think upon what I have done to you. I can’t rest night or day. I can’t rest night or day. I confess that I am a great sinner and nothing hurts me more than to think that I am suspicion of the crime of murder. I assure you that I am perfectly innocent of the crime laid to my charge and I hope God Almighty who sees into all things will be my advocate on the day of the trial.

I am aware the people are inveterate against me, because the proof, in their opinion, is so much against me. I again, my dearest Magdalene, declare I am innocent, although at this time my mind is so much affected that I hardly know what I say.

I have been examined before the Sheriff of Edinburgh several times but I think they can’t prove nothing against me. The public are aware I understand of the iron heels of my shoes corresponding with some marks at Mrs. Frank’s [sic] house and with a bloody shirt found in my house, which you can prove was occasioned by the bleeding of my knows, or you know better by the blood that flowed from your head the Sunday preceding that most horrid murder. I understand that the authorities in Edinburgh are anxious to discover my old coat, but I hope they never shall.

My dearest wife, my name has been branded in Edinburgh by illiterate stationers and I suppose that even in North Berwick is held in as much dread as the notorious murderers Burke and Hare. I must allow suspicions are against me that is nothing. I again implore you to banish from your mind the idea [that I am] a murderer of your sister and niece.

My love to all your friends, for friends I have none. Would that God take me to himself.

Robert Emond

Robert was tried in February. The prosecution argued that he’d killed Catherine Franks to get revenge, and Magdalene Franks because she was a witness, and then tore the house apart and stole Catherine’s jewelry to make it look like a robbery.

Some local witnesses who saw Robert on October 26 testified, reporting that he had “blood about his mouth, both above and below,” and that he complained that Catherine Franks was ruining his marriage and said, “This is a terrible business. I am so confused I don’t know what I am doing.” He told a friend that “the devil had been very busy with him.”

Robert pleaded not guilty and claimed the blood on his clothes came from a nosebleed, the injuries his wife sustained when he beat her, or a chicken he’d killed. The coat he mentioned in his letter never did turn up, but one witness testified that he’d seen Robert wearing it shortly after the murders and it had a “wet, reddish stain” on the sleeve.

But there wasn’t a lot he could say about the bloody footprints at the crime scene: a local cobbler testified and said he’d compared the prints to Robert Emond’s boots and “it was a most unusual design and they matched the heels of Emond’s boots perfectly.”

The jury deliberated an hour before convicting him, and after his conviction he finally confessed. In spite of several attempts at suicide while in jail, Robert lived to be hanged five weeks later. On the scaffold he admitted his crime and said he deserved to die. His body was dissected at the University of Edinburgh, as per the custom.

* Line breaks have been added to this letter for readability.

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1830: Benito de Soto, a pirate hanged at Gibraltar

1 comment January 25th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1830, the Galician or Portuguese pirate Benito de Soto was hanged at Gibraltar.

One of the very last of the dying breed of high-seas pirates, de Soto mutinied aboard an Argentine slave smuggler in 1827, re-christened her Burla Negra (“Black Joke”), and ran up the black flag.*

The pirates now entered freely into their villianous [sic] pursuit, and plundered many vessels; amongst others was an American brig, the treatment of which forms the chef d’oeuvre of their atrocity. Having taken out of this brig all the valuables they could find, they hatched down all hands to the hold, except a black man, who was allowed to remain on deck, for the special purpose of affording in his torture an amusing exhibition to Soto and his gang. They set fire to the brig, then lay to, to observe the progress of the flames; and as the miserable African bounded from rope to rope, now climbing to the mast head — now clinging to the shrouds — now leaping to one part of the vessel, and now to another, — their enjoyment seemed raised to its highest pitch. At length the hatches opened to the devouring element, the tortured victim of their fiendish cruelty fell exhausted into the flames, and the horrid and revolting scene closed amidst the shouts of the miscreants who had caused it.

Of their other exploits, that which ranks next in turpitude, and which led to their overthrow, was the piracy of the Morning Star. They fell in with that vessel near the Island Ascension, in the year 1828, as she was on her voyage from Ceylon to England. This vessel, besides a valuable cargo, had on board sevreal [sic] passengers, consisting of a major and his wife, an assistant surgeon, two civilians, about five and twenty invalid soldiers, and three or four of their wives. As soon as Benito de Soto perceived the ship, which was at day-light on the 21st of February, he called up all hands, and prepared for attacking her; he was at the time steering on an opposite course to that of the Morning Star. On reconnoitring [sic] her, he at first supposed she was a French vessel; but Rabazan, one of his crew, who was himself a Frenchman, assured him the ship was British. “So much the better,” exclaimed Soto, in English, (for he could speak that language,) “we shall find the more booty.”

The Burla Negra was much the faster and better-armed ship — in fact the Morning Star was completely unarmed, with not even a store of small arms for her frightened passengers — and soon corralled her prey, murdered the captain and mate, plundered the ship, and gang-raped the women aboard. The only mercy was that the marauders, out of tenderness or drunkenness (having also helped themselves to the Morning Star‘s wine), only imprisoned the human cargo below when they scuttled the ship and sailed away — and the passengers and crew were able to free themselves before they drowned and return safe home to tell the tale of their outrage.

Benito de Soto sailed next for his home port of Corunna, with the aid of a hostage navigator commandeered from his next prize. (The captain ruthlessly shot said unwilling helmsman dead upon arrival.) This adventure, however, marked the last of his career for on the way back to sea the corsairs were shipwrecked and had to take refuge at British Gibraltar where, after residing some time under false identities, a survivor of the Morning Star recognized them.

Easy come, easy go. “Adeus todos!” were his understated last words, not counting those syllables whistled by the salt winds through his posthumous pike-mounted skull.

However, British authorities — who were very conscious that they had detected the villain by pure chance — were not at all amused by the ease with which he had set up in Gibraltar. His legacy would be an impetus to Gibraltar officials to tighten up entrance regulations and, later that same year of 1830, to institute the Royal Gibraltar Police — the oldest police force in the Commonwealth outside the British isles.

* The slaver was full of African slaves, so the first profitable thing the buccaneers did was complete the vessel’s “legitimate” purpose by smuggling them to the West Indies. A black cabin boy that de Soto chose to retain would be captured with the rest and give evidence against the pirates. “The black slave of the pirate stood upon the battery trembling before his dying master to behold the awful termination of a series of events, the recital of which to his African countrymen, when he shall return to his home, will give them no doubt, a dreadful picture of European civilization,” muses our reporter.

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1830: Ebenezer Cox, gone postal gunsmith

Add comment August 27th, 2017 Headsman

Long before slavery abolitionist John Brown wrote its name into the firmament, Harpers Ferry* was a vital cog for the military of the young United States. Its armory, founded at George Washington‘s behest at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers whose waters turned its machines, was the 1b supplier of small arms to American soldiery alongside a similar facility in Springfield, Mass.

But it was also a bit of a problem child from the start: the facility too small, the location too inaccessible,** the manufacturing process too inefficient.

Hoping to remedy at least the last of these, a fellow named Thomas Dunn was hired from the Antietam Iron Works in 1829 for a managerial task that was not calculated to please the Harpers Ferry armorers.

So detested were Dunn’s downsizing and production speedups that one armory hand name of Ebenezer Cox — having been laid off and subsequently balked of a re-hire on grounds of being a volatile drunk — simply walked into the boss’s office one day in January 1830 and gave him a taste of his own product.

Hopefully the irony wasn’t lost on anyone because the message for labor-management relations had the sharp report of a Model 1803: Cox “became a folk hero among the armorers; whenever future managers tried to impose factory discipline Cox’s name was always mentioned to the armory officials.” (Source)

Folk hero … and martyr. Cox naturally still had to pay the price for his early instance of going postal, and the Library of Congress helpfully preserves for ready access a Narrative of the life, trial, confession, sentence of death, and execution of Ebenezer W. Cox.

While we can scarcely evaluate Cox’s craft when it came to boring a muzzle, he was certainly not a man who wanted for an engineering cast of mind.

Preceding the fatal hour, strong suspenders were prepared, with hooks under or near the collar of his shirt or shroud, so contrived as to prevent suffocation, provided the rope could be securely placed within the crooks; and no doubt this plan would have succeeded, and the culprit been preserved alive, had the rope been deliberately fixed. But owing, probably, either to want of time, or through perturbation of mind, something was omitted, and only one of the hooks caught the fatal cord which twisted his neck awry; and although it did not prevent his finally suffocating, he apparently died with all the agonies of a lingering and protracted death.

“John Brown’s Fort”, the armory’s former guard and fire engine house. Though not yet extant at the time of Cox’s crime, it’s the best we’ll do since the rest of the original armory was destroyed during the Civil War and never rebuilt. (cc) image by Doug Kerr.

* Harpers Ferry was in Virginia at the time of these events; today, it’s in West Virginia.

** Connections via the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad would arrive in the 1830s.

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1830: Agnes Magnusdottir and Fridrik Sigurdsson, Iceland’s last executions

Add comment January 12th, 2017 Headsman

Iceland last used the death penalty on January 12, 1830 with the beheading of farm servants Agnes Magnusdottir and Fridrik Sigurdsson.

Only threadbare details survive to posterity about their crime: one night in 1828, Agnes roused a neighboring farm to give the alarm that Natan Ketilsson’s farmhouse, where she worked, was afire. Neighbors were able to quench the blaze quickly enough to realize that Ketilsson himself had not died because he was trapped in the flame — but because he had been stabbed to death, along with another man known as a criminal, Petur Jonsson.

Agnes, 33, and teenager Fridrik were arrested for murder and eventually beheaded on a desolate hill on the frozen northern coast where a mossed-over stone still silently marks the spot.*

(cc) photo taken by Jennifer Boyer on the walking path to be found at the site of crime.

Why were these men killed? The trial record attributes it to Fridrik’s “hatred of Natan, and a desire to steal,” which are answers that ask their own questions. If the stones remember, they aren’t telling and in the scantiness of documentation the job has fallen to literature instead, for there is something to be said for an mysterious double murder in the ashes of a half-burned farm and the novelty of a woman being the very last human to have her head chopped off in Iceland. (On execution day, Fridrik went first.)

Agnes was Natan’s lover, but the farmer had a reputation for womanizing and, so all suspect, eyes for Fridrik’s young girlfriend;** the inference of a jealous domestic psychodrama cast on the fringe of the Arctic Sea, of chilly twilit tables gathering furtive eyes above with wandering hands below, seems hard to resist. One of Natan’s other paramours was the poet Skald-Rosa, who addressed an anguished quatrain to Agnes in the weeks after the murder, helping to fix the latter’s place in national lore as the wicked moving spirit behind the whole disaster.

Don’t be surprised by the sorrow in my eyes
Nor at the bitter pangs of pain that I feel:
For you have stolen with your scheming he who gave my life meaning,
And thrown your life to the Devil to deal.

And then there was the strange coda, while verdicts were sent to Denmark for confirmation,† of the condemned simply living and working among the community waiting to execute them. Nineteenth century rural Iceland was a little short on jail cells and surplus provisions.

After studying on an exchange program in Iceland, Australian Hannah Kent found this speculative environment a rich source for her well-received first novel, Burial Rites. (There’s a lengthy and interesting podcast interview with her by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation here.)

Kent’s drama has made headway in Hollywood, with Jennifer Lawrence said to be keen on playing the tragic lead; if it someday does hit the silver screen, however, it won’t even be the first on its subject matter — witness the 1995 film Agnes.

As of this writing, the full movie can also be searched on YouTube…

The criminals Fridrik Sigurdsson and Agnes Magnusdottir were today moved out of custody to the place of execution, and following them to the execution site were the priests Reverend Tomasson and Reverend Thorvardur Jonsson, an assistant priest. The criminals had wished that the latter two help them prepare for their deaths. After the priest Johann Tomasson completed a speech of admonition to the convict Fridrik Sigurdsson, Fridrik’s head was taken off with one blow of the axe. The farmer Gudmundur Ketilsson,‡ who had been ordered to be executioner, committed the work that he had been asked to do with dexterity and fearlessness. The criminal Agnes Magnusdottir, who, while this was taking place, had been kept at a remote station where she could not see the site of execution, was then fetched. After the Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jonsson had appropriately prepared her for death, the same executioner cut off her head, and with the same craftsmanship as before. The lifeless heads were then set upon two stakes at the site of execution, and their bodies put in two coffins of untreated boards, and buried before the men were dismissed. While the deed took place, and there until it was finished, everything was appropriately quiet and well-ordered, and it was concluded by a short address by Reverend Magnus Arnason to those that were there.

Actum ut supra.

B. Blondal, R. Olsen, A. Arnason
(From the Magistrate’s Book of Hunavatn District, 1830 — as quoted in the epilogue of Kent’s Burial Rites)

* The milestone murderers, or at least their heads, rest in Tjörn.

** This young woman, Sigridur Gudmundsdottir, was condemned to death with the other two but got to keep her head in the end.

† Iceland did not become independent of Denmark until 1944.

‡ The victim’s brother was the executioner.

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1830: Charles Wall

2 comments July 30th, 2015 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1830, Charles Wall was hanged at Worcester Prison for the murder of his fiancee’s daughter.

Wall’s fiancee, Mary Chance, lived in the town of Lye and had two illegitimate children. Wall was not their father and didn’t support them financially, but he seemed fond of them and was never known to mistreat them.

The oldest child, five-year-old Sally, vanished without a trace on May 16, 1830. Sally and her mother had gone out visiting with Wall, and that evening the little girl asked permission to go outside and play. She never returned, and her mother and Wall searched frantically for her until the wee hours, but to no avail.

Little Sally’s body wasn’t recovered until May 19; it was found at Old Swinford at the bottom of a limestone pit some 240 feet deep. She had died of a fractured skull. But did she fall … or was she pushed?

Several people reported having seen Wall alone with Sally the night of her disappearance. One witness picked him out of a lineup of more than a dozen men and said he’d seen Wall carrying Sally, who was sobbing and begging to be allowed to go home for her supper. Another witness saw Wall walking alone from the direction of the limestone pit at 9:00 that evening. Still a third witness said that on the morning of May 16, Wall had asked her some questions about which limestone pits in the area were being worked.

The inquest returned a verdict of willful murder against Wall and he was brought to trial. Nicola Sly’s A Grim Almanac of the Black Country notes,

For every witness called by the prosecution, the defense countered with a witness who had either seen Sally playing alone around the top of the unfenced mineshaft on the night of her disappearance, or who testified about the kindness shown by Wall to both of Mary Chance’s illegitimate children.

Mr. Justice Park told the jury that he personally could not see any possible motive that Wall might have for killing the little girl, reminding them that nobody had spoken of anything but kindness and fondness between Wall and his alleged victim.

He was convicted anyway, after only fifteen minutes’ deliberation on the part of the jury, but they recommended mercy. Wall’s death sentence was not respited, though. He was hanged two days later, still protesting his innocence.

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1830: George Cudmore, posthumous book-binding

1 comment March 25th, 2015 Headsman

George Cudmore was on March 25, 1830 executed at Devon County Gaol, the present-day site of Exeter Prison.

Wanting to run off with his mistress, Cudmore slipped his wife a lethal dose of the 19th century’s prolific domestic assassin, arsenic. But suspecting the foul play, the surgeon opened Grace Cudmore’s belly and found the incriminating powder. At trial, Cudmore was convicted of the murder while the mistress, Sarah Dunn, was acquitted — somewhat to her own surprise.

The man’s strange last request was for Dunn to witness his hanging — grandly justified as a means to scare straight his ex-lover’s amoral libido. (Dunn already had four children out of wedlock at this point.) Exeter’s Western Times (March 27, 1830) reported that the ghastly sight of her Cudmore’s strangling on the rope “sunk [Dunn] down, and violent hysterics deprived her for awhile, of any further consciousness.”

More strange by far than the man’s late turn to righteousness was the disposal of his remains.

Condemned to the post-mortem terror of dissection, part of Cudmore’s skin was flayed, tanned, and eventually used to cover a book — an 1852 edition of The Poetical Works of John Milton.

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?

-Paradise Lost

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1830: William Banks, housebreaker

Add comment January 11th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1830, William Banks, the leader of a gang of West Moulsey robbers was hanged at London’s Horsemonger Lane Gaol.

Despite a freezing day and a ferocious northerly wind that newsmen enhanced “almost to a hurricane” (London Morning Chronicle, January 12, 1830), a vast concourse of onlookers turned out to witness the execution.

The case attracted such enormous public interest for the boldness of the thieves in plundering the home of a Rev. William Warrington and his wife. That couple “had just undressed for bed,” explain the newspapers (this the Dec. 30, 1829 London Morning Chronicle), “when they were alarmed by the sound of several footsteps walking towards the door of their room.”

Mr. Warrington grabbed for a pistol he kept at the ready as the gang barged into the room, but couldn’t get a shot away before both were seized, trussed up, and deposited in the cellar with two tied-up maids.

Having the place at their disposal now, the robbers made a leisurely search of chests, drawers, cupboards, and the like and loaded up the domestic valuables on one of the house’s own gigs, finally driving it off under the locomotion of one of the house’s own horses at about 4 in the morning.

Though widely reported at the time it happened — way back in November 1828 — there was no break in the case until a year later when a gang member in prison on an unrelated case started informing against them in exchange for a remittance of his own punishment.

The gang’s leader, our man William Banks, “had repeatedly sworn that he would not be taken alive,” the Morning Chronicle reported in its January 12, 1830 account of the hanging. But with a gun literally to his head, he thought better of resistance and surrendered with the accurate prophecy, “I am a dead man.”

Even in 1830, housebreaking was among the two hundred-odd non-homicide crimes eligible for a capital sentence by the terms of England’s Bloody Code; indeed, Frank McLynn observes that it “was treated particularly harshly, as it violated privacy and exposed householders to assault.”

Banks, “a dark but handsome and very muscular man” of 35, dismayed the chaplain with his indifference to his spiritual salvation — for “all he cared about hanging was the pain it would give him, for he knew nothing about a hereafter.”

England in the early 1830s abolished the death penalty for a number of property crimes, including (in 1833) housebreaking.

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1830: Stephen Simmons, the last executed by Michigan

1 comment September 24th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1830, Stephen Simmons was publicly hanged in Detroit, Michigan: the very last time that state has conducted an execution.*

Michigan was the first English-speaking jurisdiction in the world to abolish the death penalty for ordinary crimes. Death penalty foes celebrate March 1 as “International Death Penalty Abolition Day” (pdf) after the date Michigan’s law took effect.

Simmons himself was a minor malefactor in the scheme of things but amply detested in the day of his crime.

A tavern-keeper by trade, he had a habit of getting into the whiskey himself, to violent effect. One night at home, a sodden Simmons picked a fight with his wife Livana and killed her with a vicious blow to the abdomen. The main trouble in this noteworthy trial (pdf) was seating a jury not completely biased against him.

An estimated two thousand people turned up to watch him pay for his crime, and for their “comfort and entertainment” the authorities had “wooden grandstands erected on three sides of the scaffolding, uniformed militia to be deployed around the scaffolding as a guard of honor, a military band to serenade the crowd while it waited for the main event, and vendors to patrol the grounds hawking food, whiskey, and rum.”

Sounds like a place about to abolish the death penalty, right?

Executed Today was pleased to speak with David Chardavoyne, law professor at Wayne State University and the University of Detroit-Michigan, about this case and its place in Michigan’s early path to abolition. Chardavoyne is the author of the award-winning book A Hanging In Detroit: Stephen Wayne Simmons and the Last Execution Under Michigan Law

Book CoverET: To set the scene, what is Detroit like in 1830?

DC: In 1830 Detroit was the capital of the Michigan Territory, but it had only about 2,000 inhabitants. It was, though, a bustling community because it was the entryway for the tens of thousands of settlers heading into the wilderness west and north of Detroit. Most buildings were on a narrow strip of land between the river and Jefferson Avenue, although the capitol, jail, and Simmons’s execution site were further north, about a half mile from the river.

This was the last execution in Michigan, but to what extent can we really say that it led to the end of the death penalty there? It strikes me that support must have been pretty soft to start with if that’s the case.

To be precise, the last execution under Michigan law — there were 2 executions under federal law a short time later and the Chebatoris execution in the 1930s.

I conclude in my book that there is no real evidence that the Simmons case caused the abolition of capital punishment. Most people living in Michigan in the 1840s, and almost all of the legislators who voted for abolition, arrived in Michigan after 1830 and there was no mention of that case in the extensive debates in the constitutional conventions in 1835-36 or in the legislature in the 1840s.

However, incidents surrounding the Simmons execution show that unease about capital punishment existed in 1830. First, the fact that most killers before and after 1830 were convicted of manslaughter whatever the facts. Second, the alleged mob that tore down the city whipping post right after Simmons’s execution. Third, Governor Cass, in his annual address a couple of months later stated that he was sorry that the law did not allow him to reduce Simmons’s sentence to time in prison.

Why was it that this one hanging, of a guy who had clearly killed his wife even if not intentionally, so powerfully affected people? And how troubled were Michiganders by the case itself, before the specific events of execution day?

Whatever effect the Simmons execution had on the spectators had little to do with Simmons but rather their exposure to a gruesome death. The people seem to have been genuinely outraged by the crime and the fact that the victim was his wife, so that it was very difficult to seat a fair jury. There is little to no evidence of any sympathy for Simmons.

What about the accounts of attendees stunned and shamed by Simmons’ last-minute plea for mercy in the midst of the public-festival environment.

In the book, I explain that my research puts this whole story very much in doubt. It first appeared almost 50 years later in a speech at the state historical convention, but it is not clear that the speaker was even in town that day. It was picked up and repeated by subsequent writers, but the Detroit newspaper at the time made no mention of it, nor did the very few other witness accounts.

When Michigan did abolish the death penalty, how were people talking about the Simmons case? Did it swing any votes?

Again, the Simmons case seems to have been forgotten by then, or at least neither side thought that it would help their arguments.

We’re accustomed now to think of clemency decisions as highly political. How did Lewis Cass’s political aspirations affect his handling of Simmons, if they did at all? And for that matter, did he or anyone else end up suffering any political fallout for the way events ultimately transpired?

As noted above, under territorial law Cass’s only option was to pardon Simmons — he could not just reduce the sentence. It may or may not have been relevant that he left town early on the day of the execution to visit his mother in Ohio and did not attend the execution.

What’s really amazing is that Michigan has kept the death penalty off the books for nearing two centuries. That can’t all be about Stephen Simmons. What is it about Michigan’s culture, politics, or demographics that has kept it so staunchly anti-death penalty?

This is a question that writers have been asking for decades. Remember that abolition was a close-run thing. Religion, political party, and other divisions do not appear to have been a factor in the voting.

My guess is that it had to do with personality. The legislators in 1846 were mostly young men who were adventurous and optimistic enough to leave their friends and families in the east for the frontier. Such people, according to my psychologist friends tend to be against capital punishment. Why capital punishment was never reinstated is a tribute, I think, to the fact that the system works. Every so often a particularly bad killing starts politicians shouting about bringing it back, but it never goes anywhere. Since 1963, of course, the ban has been in our state constitution, and removing it would be very difficult.

* As Prof. Chardavoyne mentions, a few executions have been conducted in Michigan under federal (not state) law since 1830.

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1831: Julien Sorel, in The Red and the Black

Add comment July 25th, 2012 Headsman

According to Michel Crouzet,* literary scholar of Stendhal, it was on this date in 1831 that the protagonist of said French author’s magnum opus was guillotined.

“Everything passed simply, decorously, and without affectation on his part,” is the entirety of Stendhal’s death scene for his man.

Julien Sorel, the flawed (or anti-) hero of The Red and the Black (Le Rouge et le Noir), is the intelligent son of a provincial carpenter who puts his wits to use trying to climb Restoration France’s treacherous social ladder.

Ambition, says Stendhal, is “the very essence of his existence,” much as it is for his milieu, and through Julien’s exertions — brilliant and resourceful at times; infuriatingly handicapped by social prejudice against the protagonist’s low birth at others — the author sets down one of the most psychologically forceful works in the canon.

Julien Sorel’s ambition also powers his youthful passion, and his fall: to conquer the mother of the children he tutors, and to likewise conquer the daughter of a nobleman.** This latter conquest has him a made man, married into the aristocracy and set with a plum military assignment that has Julien dreaming of Napoleon … so when the spurned former conquest denounces Julien to the father of that latter conquest as an upstart seducer cynically shagging his way into decent society, the incensed Julien hauls off and shoots that previous conquest. (As she kneels at Mass, no less.)

Is it a mere jealous fit? Even though his victim survives the attack, and forgives her lover, Julien obstinately pleads guilty, and insists on his own maximum culpability. It’s not only an individual criminal culpability, but a culpability of class aspiration.

‘I ask you for no mercy,’ Julien went on, his voice growing stronger. ‘I am under no illusion; death is in store for me; it will be a just punishment. I have been guilty of attempting the life of the woman most worthy of all respect, of all devotion. Madame de Renal had been like a mother to me. My crime is atrocious, and it was premeditated. I have, therefore, deserved death, Gentlemen of the Jury. But, even were I less guilty, I see before me men who, without pausing to consider what pity may be due to my youth, will seek to punish in me and to discourage forever that class of young men who, born in an inferior station and in a sense burdened with poverty, have the good fortune to secure a sound education, and the audacity to mingle with what the pride of rich people calls society.

‘That is my crime, Gentlemen, and it will be punished with all the more severity inasmuch as actually I am not being tried by my peers. I do not see, anywhere among the jury, a peasant who has grown rich, but only indignant bourgeois …’

The Red and the Black is available in its French original here; in English translation here; and as a free French audio book here. And here’s some literary analysis

* The date is not explicit in the text. The Red and the Black was subtitled Chronique de 1830, but several past-tense allusions to the event show that the main action takes place after the July Revolution of 1830 that toppled Charles X and raised Louis-Philippe to the throne. There is, however, a late and seemingly anachronistic allusion to Julien’s lover/victim intending to “throw herself at the feet of Charles X” to appeal for his life. Oh well: ambiguity is the novel’s stock in trade.

** These (fictional) de la Moles are very proud of being descended from the (actual) Joseph Boniface de la Mole, whose signal achievement was his April 30, 1574 beheading.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Attempted Murder,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Fictional,France,Guillotine,History,Public Executions,Sex,Uncertain Dates

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