1836: Two English poisoners

Add comment April 9th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1836, two different Englishwomen hanged in Gloucester and Liverpool for seeing off their respective husbands with arsenic.

They’re the subjects of an excellent pair of posts by Naomi Clifford, author of such topical-to-Executed Today fare as Women and the Gallows, 1797-1837 and The Murder of Mary Ashford: The Crime that Changed English Legal History, which concerns the long overdue abolition of juridical trial by combat in Great Britain … after an accused murderer used this artifact to escape prosecution in 1817.

Here’s Clifford on our poisoners, bound for separate gallows on April 9, 1836:

Clifford makes a triptych here with a third post about yet another poisoner who shared the same fate five days later.

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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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1838: William Moore, thirsty for blood

Add comment February 26th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1838, William Moore hanged at High Street, Maitland, New South Wales, a mere 25 days after slaughtering his master.

Australian convicts were commonly assigned to work for the free population — as Moore was to a butcher named John Hoskins/Hosking. Pissed that Hosking had reported him absent to the police when he ditched work the previous day, Moore on February 1st got drunk and

made an attack upon him with a knife, and inflicted six wounds, either of which would have caused death; he then left the house with the bloody knife in his hand, and wiping the blood off with his hand, he put it to his lips, saying, “This is flash Hosking’s heart’s blood, and, thank God! I have got a good appetite to eat it.” He then drew his finger along the blade, licked off the blood, and swallowed it!

The blood-licking was the least of it. Once the maniac was overpowered and the butcher’s shop examined, well,

[t]he first thing, which met the eye on entering, was a stream of gore flowing over the shop, and proceeding backwards by the track of blood visible on the floor, the body of the unfortunate Hoskins was discovered perfectly lifeless, his throat cut through to the bone, the vertebral column broken and a frightful gash on the chin; independent of these wounds, which were enough to have destroyed him, there was a second in the pit of the stomach, a third in the region of the heart, a fourth in the right side, a fifth above the hip, from which the intestines protruded in a frightful manner, a sixth across the arm, and a seventh, by which his left thumb was nearly severed from his body, that had evidently been inflicted when the unfortunate man was struggling with his murderer.

He was hanged to the hisses of a hostile populace at the site of Hoskins’s house.

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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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1835: Patrick O’Brien, Francis Spaight apprentice boy

Add comment December 19th, 2017 Headsman

On or very near this date in 1835,* a Limerick ship’s boy named Patrick O’Brien lost a casting of lots … then lost his life to feed his ravenous shipmates.

The spanking new 457-ton barque Francis Spaight was on the return leg of her second-ever run to Quebec to fetch timber back to her home port of Limerick. The ship was named for her owner, a big landowner and shipping magnate who had thriftily sent 216 passengers on the voyage’s first leg. As Spaight would explain to a state commission a decade later amid the Great Famine, replacing ballast with emigres on outbound voyages was pure profit. In a sort of microcosm of Ireland’s terrible economic machinery,** Spaight’s own commercial interests on land and sea dovetailed nicely in filling his hulls with Ireland’s surplus population. For example, when Spaight gained the 4,200-acre Tipperary estate of Derry Castle in 1844 he smoothly set about depopulating it** — as Ciaran O Murchada describes in The Great Famine: Ireland’s Agony 1845-1852:

He [Spaight] did this by obligating unwanted tenants to emigrate to America on board his own ships and at his cost. It was all done extremely cheaply since the ships were cargo vessels which were empty on each outward voyage in any case. By 1847 Spaight’s businesslike approach had rid him of half the Derrycastle tenants, and by the time his consolidation was completed two years later he had removed some 2,000 persons in an operation which was admired by other landlords for its efficiency and the fact that it was done without arousing any overt protest on the part of the tenants.

As to the ship that bore the master’s name, discharged of her Irish exiles and loaded with Canadian lumber, she departed her last port of call in Newfoundland on November 24. Aboard were eighteen souls: fourteen crew and four boys among whom we find our principal Patrick O’Brien — a penniless 15-year-old bound over from the Limerick workhouse as an apprentice to Mr. Spaight approximately on the eve of the Francis Spaight‘s departure. He was destined never to lay eyes on his native soil again.

On December 3, the ship capsized.† Three men were lost at sea; the other 11 crew and all four boys clambered aboard a dinghy, adrift and unprovisioned in the frigid Atlantic. There the torments of privation worked them until they slaked their hunger on their comrades’ flesh, as the Irish and then the English press related months later to their titillated readers — such as this entry from Manchester Times, June 25, 1836.

On the 19th of December, the sixteenth day since the wreck, the captain said they were now such a length of time without sustenance, that it was beyond human nature to endure it any longer, and that the only question for them to consider was, whether one or all should die; his opinion was that one should suffer for the rest, and that lots should be drawn between the four boys, as they had no families, and could not be considered so great a loss to their friends as those who had wives and children depending on them.

None objected to this except the boys, who cried out against the injustice of such a proceeding. O’Brien, in particular, protested against it; and some mutterings were heard amongst the men that led the latter to apprehend they might proceed in a more summary way. Friendless and forlorn as he was, they were well calculated to terrify the boy into acquiescence, and he at length submitted.

Mulville now prepared some sticks of different lengths for the lots. A bandage was tied over O’Brien’s eyes, and he knelt down resting his face on Mulville’s knees. The latter had the sticks in his hand, and was to hold them up one by one demanding whose lot it was O’Brien was to call out a name, and whatever person he named for the shortest stick was to die. Muville held up the first stick, and demanded who it was for? The answer was “for little Johnny Sheehan,” and the lot was laid aside. The next stick was held up, and the demand was repeated, “on whom is this lot to fall?” O’Brien’s reply was, “on myself,” upon which Mulville said, that was the death lot — that O’Brien had called it for himself.

The poor fellow heard the announcement without uttering a word.

This same story, said to have been related by an unnamed survivor of the Spaight, appeared in a number of papers with slightly varying embroideries around this time. Some versions suggest that this blind man’s bluff lot-drawing was rigged to target O’Brien as the least popular crewman; whether or not that was the case, even the “fair” version of the game was rigged at the outset to exclude the adult crew members and leave only the apprentice boys for gobbling.

The lot having been cast, we resume the ghastly narrative with Bells Life in London and Sporting Chronicle, June 26, 1836:

The men now told him he must prepare for death, and the captain said it was better it should be done by bleeding him in the arm, to which O’Brien made no objection. The captain then directed the cook, John Gorman, to do it, telling him it was his duty; but Gorman strenuously refused. He was, however, threatened with death himself by the men if he continued obstinate, and he at last consented.

O’Brien then took off his jacket without waiting to be desired, and after telling the crew, if any of them ever reached home, to tell his poor mother what had happened to him, bared his right arm. The cook cut his veins across twice with a small knife, but could bring no flow of blood, upon which there seemed to be much hesitation among the men as to what could be done.

They were relieved by the boy himself, who immediately desired the cook to give him the knife, as he could not be looking at him putting him to pain. When he got the knife, and was about to cut the vein, the captain recommended him to try the left arm, which he accordingly did. He attempted to open the vein at the bend of the elbow with the point of a knife, as a surgeon would, but like the cook he failed in bringing blood.

A dead consternation now fell upon all; but in a minute or two the captain said, “This is all of no use, ’tis better to put him out of pain by at once bleeding him in the throat,” and some of them said it was true.

At this O’Brien, for the first time, looked terrified, and begged hard that they would not do so, but give him a little time; he said he was cold and weak; but if they would let him lay down and sleep for a little, he would get warm, and then he would bleed freely.

To this wish there was some expression of dissent from the men, and the captain shortly after said to them, “that it was useless leaving the boy this way in pain; ’twas best at once to lay hold of him, and let the cook cut his throat!”

O’Brien, now roused, and driven to extremity, seemed working himself up for resistance, and declared he would not let them; the first man, he said, who laid hands on him, ‘twould be worse for him; that he’d appear to him at another time; that he’d haunt him after death.

The poor youth was, however, among so many, soon got down, and the cook was again called upon to put him to death. The man now refused more strenuously than before, and another altercation arose: but, weak and irresolute, and seeing that his own life would absolutely be taken instead of O’Brien’s, if he persisted, he at length yielded to their menaces.

Some one at this time brought him down a large case knife that was on the poop, instead of the clasp-knife that he had first prepared, with which, pale and trembling, he stood over O’Brien, who was still endeavouring to free himself from those who held him. One of them now placed the cover of the tureen (which they before used to collect rain) under the boy’s neck, and several cried out to the cook to do his duty.

The horror stricken man, over and over again, endeavoured to summon up hardihood for the deed, but, when he caught the boy’s eye, his heart always failed him, and then he looked supplicatingly to the men again.

Their cries and threats were, however, loud for death — he made a desperate effort — there was a short struggle — and O’Brien was no more.

As soon as this horrid act was perpetrated, the blood was served to the men; but a few of them, among whom was Mahony, refused to partake of it.

They afterwards laid open the body, and separated the limbs; the latter were hung over the stern, while a portion of the former was allotted for immediate use.

Shocked, as, for the sake of human nature, it is to be hoped many were at the scene they had just witnessed, a gnawing hunger came upon them all when they saw even this disgusting meal put out for them, and almost every one, even the unwilling boys, partook more or less of it.

This was the evening of the sixteenth day. They ate again late at night, and some greedily; but the thirst, which was before at least endurable, now became craving, and as there was no more blood, they slaked it with salt water.

They then lay down to rest, but several were raving and talking wildly through the night, and in the morning the cook was observed to be quite insane — his eyes inflamed and glaring, and his speech rambling and incoherent; he threw his clothes about restlessly, and was often violent. His raving continued during the succeeding night, & in the morning, as his end seemed to be approaching, the veins of his neck were cut, and the blood drawn from him. This was the second death.

On the night of that day, Michael Behane was mad, and the boy George Burns on the following morning; they were both so violent, that they were obliged to be tied by the crew, and the latter was bled to death, like the cook, by cutting his throat. Michael Behane died unexpectedly, or he would have suffered the same fate.

Next morning the captain came off deck, and, feeling too weak and exhausted to keep a look-out any longer, desired some one to take his place above. Harrington and Mahony went up very soon after; the latter thought he could distinguish a sail, and raised a shout of joy, upon which those below immediately came up. A ship was clearly discernible, and apparently bearing her course towards them.

Signals were hoisted with as much alacrity as the weakness of the survivors would allow, and, when she approached, and was almost within hail, their apprehension of her passing by was so great, that they held up the hands and feet of O’Brien to excite commiseration.

The vessel proved to be the Agenoria [sic — Agenora is the correct name of the ship], an American. She put off a boat to their assistance without any hesitation, although the weather was so rough at the time, and the survivors were saved.

The Francis Spaight was channeled almost straight from such reports by Jack London into a shocking short story.

The notoriety of cannibalism did not translate to any sense that the famished survivors ought to be prosecuted: they were objects of pity and the survival of those who made it was rather celebrated than disdained since even weeks later as they arrived back at Limerick they presented an appearance “ghastly and spectre like with a singular woe-be-gone expression of countenance.” (Quoted in Neil Hanson’s book about a later instance of cannibalism, The Custom of the Sea)

Francis Spaight — the oligarch, not his barque — wrote an appeal that the public sustain with charity his own invalided employees … for, “mutilated by the frost and otherwise rendered helpless” they would “be unable not only to obtain bread, but to labour for it during the rest of their lives.” What, you think I’m going to hire them? (Actually the skipper who orchestrated O’Brien’s death went back to work captaining Spaight’s ships.) Spaight put in ten quid for the lot of them, something like US $1,000 in present-day money.

And the grief-stricken mother of Patrick O’Brien haunted Spaight’s country estate “where her hysterical cries were truly heart-rendering.” (Source)

* Understandably calendar-keeping was not foremost on the minds of the Francis Spaight survivors. Many sources give the 18th as the date of O’Brien’s sacrifice; I’m gingerly preferring the 19th in deference to the immediate newspaper reports such as the one quoted in this article. This also appears to square with rescue on the 23rd: by the quoted narrative, the cook is slaughtered two days after O’Brien (hence, the 21st), and Michael Behane and George Burns die on the following day (the 22nd), only for the survivors’ salvation to appear “the next morning.”

** “Irish genius discovered an altogether new way of spiriting a poor people thousands of miles away from the scene of its misery … instead of costing Ireland anything, emigration forms one of the most lucrative branches of its export trade.” -Marx

† Though useless to our survivors in their hour of need, the Francis Spaight did not sink. She was recovered, pumped out, and returned to service. Years later she went down for good at Table Bay, near the Cape of Good Hope.

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1831: Slaves of Sussex County, for Nat Turner’s rebellion

Add comment September 23rd, 2017 Headsman

Four slaves allegedly concerned in Nat Turner‘s Virginia rebellion were hanged on this date in 1831.

Turner’s rising had spanned only a couple of days in August but would haunt Virginia and the South all the way to the Civil War. (At least.) And one of the first, frightening questions that white slaveowners had was — was the rebellion in Southampton County an isolated event, or was it part of a wider servile conspiracy that might augur a general insurrection? Would there be two, three, many Nat Turners? The Southampton Spartacus was himself pressed on this point before his execution; the published confessions of his interrogations note that “If Nat’s statements can be relied on, the insurrection in this county was entirely local, and his designs confided but to a few, and these in his immediate vicinity.”

Little but suspicion supported this proposition but the search was intense and in the time-honored investigative tradition eventually generated its own evidence, from the lips of “a negro girl of about 16 or 17 years of age” named Beck(y) when pressed by her mistress.

We can only guess at the particular circumstances inducing this young house slave to issue her denunciations,* but their substance was that she had heard the denizens of the slave quarters discussing the insurrection and planning to join it — not in Southampton County but in neighboring Sussex County. Slaveholders all knew that they dwelt in the shadow of a smoldering Vesuvius; if Becky’s claims were true, then the mountain was already spewing fire.

Becky’s accusations got three slaves put on trial in Southampton County on September 8, but all were acquitted. (There were many acquittals in the Nat Turner bust-up.) But Sussex County convened its own court and here Becky’s allegations were better received. Her testimony in the cases of “Solomon a negro man slave the property of Nancy Sorrly, Booker a negro man slave the property of Samuel A. Raines and Nicholas a negro man slave the property of Hannah Williamson here became favorably received — perhaps Sussex County feared that declaring itself insurrection-free would suggest a want of diligence?

Beck a negro slave the property of Solomon D. Parker a witness for the Commonwealth says that at the last May meeting at the Raccoon Meeting House, she heard the prisoners Nicholas and Booker say that they would join the negroes to murder the white people and heard the prisoner Solomon say that he would join too for God damn the white people they had been reigning long enough. Captain Peters’ two negroes Boson and Frank were also present and Mr. Parker’s Bob who told her if she told the white people would shot her like a squirrel and would not bury her, and she has since been told the same thing by all the others. There were several other negroes present whom she did not know. The Saturday night before and the Monday night of the last Southampton election she heard conversations among the negroes about ? On both these nights she was called in by her mistress and slept in the house. On Friday night she went out and stayed so late that she was not permitted to go in.

Similar evidence also helped to condemn several other accused slaves, all of whom were slated to hang on September 23. On September 16, the Virginia governor noted in his diary, “I had a Council of State, transacted business and received the record of nine slaves condemned to be hanged by the Court of Sussex. One I have reprieved. No news from any other part of the State.” Several others were set instead for convict transportation out of Virginia Commonwealth, and two slaves died in a desperate jailbreak attempt.

Solomon, Booker and Nicholas all hanged on September 23, 1831, along with a fourth slave called Ned who had been accused not by Becky but by a different house slave named Lizzy.

* In Nat Turner Before the Bar of Judgment, Mary Kemp Davis calls Becky “nothing if not wily. Her incriminating testimony was a masterful ‘hidden polemic’ against anyone who would try to implicate her in the insurrection.”

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

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1831: Edward Hogsden, rapist father

Add comment August 22nd, 2017 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1831, Edward Hogsden (some reports call him “Hodgson”) was executed for rape in Surrey, England.

He’d committed the crime on July 27, less than a month earlier; the victim was his own seventeen-year-old daughter, Harriet. The story is told in Martin Baggoley’s book Surrey Executions: A Complete List of those Hanged in the County during the Nineteenth Century.

Hogsden’s mother had died, and on the night before the attack that brought him to the gallows Hogsden kept a dolorous vigil at the cemetery to keep body-snatchers from violating her grave. Harriet’s mother, as per her usual routine, got up and left for work at 4:00 a.m.; both she and her husband were employed by a local farmer.

Two hours later, Harriet awoke as her father was returning home. At the time, she was lying in bed with her baby — “the offspring, as the girl swore, of a former forced connexion with her unnatural parent.” (The Newgate Calendar*) A few minutes after he arrived, Edward crawled into Harriet’s bed, demanding sex. She begged him to leave her alone and said she could not stand to bear another of his children.

But Edward was without mercy. He raped her, threatening to kill her if she made any noise, and as he left her to go to work he told her that as far as he was concerned both she and the baby could drown.

It was the last straw for Harriet: she had her sister summon their mother and finally confided in her about the abuse she’d been enduring for much of her life. Horrified, Harriet’s mother summoned the magistrate, who had Hogsden arrested.

“I admit I had connection with her,” Hogsden told the authorities, “but she was always agreeable.”

At his trial, Hogsden maintained that Harriet wasn’t his biological child; that their shocking relationship had always been consensual; and that, come on, who’d be in an incestuous mood after passing the whole night contemplating mom’s bones? He charged that his daughter was revenging herself after papa Hogsden caught her in bed with another man and threw him out of the house.

“Nevertheless,” notes Baggoley,

he acknowledged he had been having sex with her since she was nine years old. Clearly nobody believed his account, or that Harriet was not his natural daughter, or that she had willingly agreed to comply with his demands that day or in the past.

The Newgate Calendar concluded,

We shall abstain from adding any further account of the life of this diabolical ruffian, exhibiting as its circumstances do a degree of sinfulness and crime not exceeded by any of those bloodthirsty murderers whose offences it is our duty to describe.

Nothing further is known of the fate of Harriet Hogsden, or her baby.

* Displaying its customarily cavalier regard for detail, the Newgate Calendar pegs the hanging to August 21, which was a Sunday in 1831. The correct date is August 22.

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1835: Ruel Blake, “often seen among negroes”

Add comment July 10th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1835, Ruel Blake hanged in Livingston as one of the white instigators of a supposed slave uprising.

Blake was an foreigner to Madison County, a Connecticut carpetbagger who (according to the vigilance committee’s proceedings) “could claim but few or none as friends” as he was “of a cold, phlegmatic temperament, with a forbidding countenance; kept himself almost aloof from white society, but was often seen among negroes” and “was noted for cold-blooded revenge, insatiable avarice, and unnatural cruelty.” He worked as a wheelwright and carpenter, and had only a single slave, Peter.

But not everyone in Livingston had it in for the guy. As the excitement first began to bubble up as June turned to July, Captain Thomas Hudnall, a wealthy plantation owner gave Ruel Blake money and a horse and sagely suggested he lay low somewhere else while the storm passed. Blake had not yet been accused by anyone, but he’d aroused the ire and seemingly the suspicion of his neighbors when his own slave was accused and Blake administered an unconvincing and pro forma flogging — “he did not wish to hurt [the slave], occasionally striking a hard lick to keep up appearances.” Eventually other white citizens forcibly relieved him of the job, and Blake had the effrontery as he saw his man being thrashed to “[rush] through the crowd to where his negro was, and swore, if he was touched another lick, they would have to whip him first,” a threat that brought him to blows with the man wielding the whip.

Hudnall rightly anticipated that his neighbors’ presumption of “mere” excess sympathy for the slave would soon take a much darker turn: Blake blew town on July 1, and with the arrival into Livingston the very next day of the fantastical slave revolt claims from nearby Beatties Bluff, a $500 reward for his capture soon went nipping at Blake’s heels. In the ensuing panicked days, Blake along with the “steam doctors” Cotton and Saunders — all strangers come to Mississippi, all of them socially marginal and noted for fraternizing with black people — came to be acclaimed as the chief white conspirators, accusations that became self-affirming as men under the lash or in fear of the gallows repeated the names, knowing from their torturers’ leading questions who was already condemned by acclamation.

Blake was captured after just a few days, in Vicksburg, where he posed as a boatman from upriver. Now Hudnall’s favor cut against him, for the flight from Livingston appeared to prove his guilt:

He arrived in Livingston on the 8th of July, under a strong escort, intimations being obtained that an attempt would be made by the clan [John Murrell’s bandits, the alleged nexus of the slave rising plot -ed.] to rescue him.

His appearance in Livingston created a most alarming excitement; and, but for the committee’s being in session, in all probability he would have been forcibly taken from the guard, and immediately executed. After arriving, he was immediately put on his trial before the committee … Every disclosure which was made [by previous interrogations] was replete with testimony against him.

After hearing all the evidence, every opportunity was given him to produce counteracting testimony, which he failed to do. There being no doubt on the minds of the committee, he was, by a unanimous vote, condemned to be hanged; and, just before leaving the committee-room, he requested the committee to give him time to settle his affairs.

On the 10th of July, in the presence of an immense concourse of people, he was executed. He privately commended the verdict of the committee, and said they could not have done otherwise than condemn him from the evidence before them, and publicly, under the gallows, made the same declaration. He protested in his innocence to the last, and said that his life was sworn away.

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1835: Vincent, by popular demand

Add comment July 9th, 2017 Headsman

This story is transcribed from the July 27, 1835 National Banner and Nashville Whig:

From the Clinton (Miss.) Gazette.

PUBLIC EXECUTION. — On Thursday morning last,* between the hours of 10 and 11 o’clock, VINCENT, a mulatto fellow belonging to the estate of the late Robert Bell, was hung in this place, by the citizens.

Abundant evidence of his participation in the late insurrectionary movements having been furnished the Committee of Vigilance appointed by the people of Clinton, he was sentenced to receive three hundred lashes, and to perpetual banishment from the United States, after the expiration of forty days.

On Wednesday evening, Vincent was carried out to receive his stripes; but the assembled multitude were in favor of hanging him — regarding the sentence pronounced against him as insufficient for the punishment of so enormous a crime. A vote was accordingly fairly taken, and the hanging party had it by an “overwhelming majority,” as politicians say. He was remanded to prison.

On the day of execution, a still larger crowd was assembled, and fearing that public sentiment might have changed in regard to his fate, after every thing favorable to the culprit was alleged, which could be said, the vote was taken — and his death again demanded by the people.

In pursuance of this sentiment, so unequivocally expressed, he was led to a “black-jack,” and suspended to one of its branches.

We approve entirely of the proceeding. The people have acted properly. Any man, whether he be white, yellow, or black, who lends his countenance and aid to a scheme, having for its object the burning of villages and towns, and the indiscriminate butchery of men, women and children, surely deserves an ignominious death. He who robs a solitary traveller on the high-way of a few dollars, is doomed to suffer death. How much more then, is he deserving of that punishment, who concocts and matures a deep laid conspiracy against the lives of an unoffending community?

Vincent could have made important discoveries at the gallows, but obstinately refused doing so, alleging that his own death being certain, it would profit him nothing to bring others to the same fate, and that he should inform on no one.


The Clinton lawyer named Henry Foote — who in future would become Governor of Mississippi — claimed in his memoir Casket of Reminisces that the ad hoc public votes on Vincent’s life were the product of his, Foote’s, desperate attempts to prevent the lynching at the behest of the former slave’s aged mistress.

When I rode into the town of Clinton I saw a large multitude assembled on one of the most popular streets, in front of a store in which Mr. Archibald Kenney, now in Staunton, Virginia, had some years before sold merchandize. I dismounted and went to the spot. I soon learned that the vigilance committee of that vicinage, composed of some of the best citizens of the county, had been trying a mulatto man, whom I knew very well, upon a charge of being a participant in the scheme of alleged insurrection.

A considerable quantity of powder and shot had been found in his possession, which circumstance had awakened some suspicions against him. The committee had tried him, and had sentenced him to be whipped only, and they would, indeed, have discharged him altogether, as I learned from themselves, had they not dreaded the indignant rage of the population of the town, then in a very excited condition. The committee had been unfortunate enough to sit with closed doors, which gave to the imagination of those not taking part in their proceedings a wide field for unfavorable conjecture. When the sentence was announced the outsiders determined to hang their longed-for victim at any rate; and at the time I reached the place where they were assembled the preparations for the execution of the boy were going forward. The boy had been in the ownership of a venerable gentle man of the neighborhood, Captain Bell, a Virginia friend of mine of great respectability and intelligence. He had been a great favorite with his master, who had left him free. The captain had been dead about a year, and this boy, who by-the-by was nearly white, and singularly polite and civil in his manners, had been since his master’s decease a faithful protector of his family, which consisted of his widow and a single female child. This widowed lady had reached the fearful scene some minutes before my own arrival, and had been allowed, in connection with a learned and pious minister of the Gospel, Dr. Comfort, to hold a last interview with this unfortunate boy. She came forth from this interview, attended by her pious and humane protector, and advancing within the portico where most of the multitude were located, she spoke, with a voice much agitated and almost stilled with emotion, while the tears were rapidly coursing down her venerable cheeks, as follows:

“GENTLEMEN, you all knew my husband during his life, and respected him. This poor boy was his favorite servant. I know his disposition and character well. I have just catechised him most searchingly. Had he been guilty as charged I should have been able to detect his guilt. I assure you that he is innocent. Oh! gentlemen, (she wildly exclaimed,) is there not one among you who will stand up here as the representative and champion of a poor, widowed, friendless female?” I immediately rose to my feet. I looked circumspectly upon the crowd for a moment. I saw standing just before me the grim-looking face of a man notorious for his violent and blood-thirsty character, whose name was Hardwick, and whom I soon after prosecuted for a diabolical murder, for which he would certainly have been hanged if the victim of his atrocity had been a white man. I saw a new rope in this ruffian’s hands, the texture of which he was feeling with his accursed fingers, evidently for the purpose of ascertaining whether it was strong enough to do the dread office effectually for which he had purchased it. I was conscious of all the perils which surrounded my position, and I therefore proceeded with extreme caution. I spoke thus: “Gentlemen, you have heard the touching appeal of this venerable lady. I have nothing to add to her decorous and impressive address, but I have a word to say to you of a prudential character in regard to yourselves and your own future responsibilities. The excitement now raging in this community may after awhile subside. Then it may be that some officious person shall wish to institute a prosecution for murder on account of the hanging of this boy. In my judgment it will be most safe that whatever is done in this affair shall be the act, as it were, of the whole community. I am not willing that a few generous-minded young men shall be made the scape-goats of this vicinage. Let us all join in whatever act may be resolved on. Now I will take the vote of the whole assemblage upon the question of banging, if no one sball object to it.” No objection being made, I said: “All in favor of hanging this unfortunate boy will signify the same by saying aye.” Nine-tenths answered aye. I said: “Those opposed to hanging will answer no.” About eight or ten persons said no.

I determined to make one more experiment before I gave up all hope of saving a human being from a fate so dreadful as that I saw impending. The day was intensely hot. The street on which we were located was very wide and intersected with deep gullies. I said: “Gentlemen, let us settle this question more satisfactorily: All in favor of hanging will range themselves on the opposite side of the street; those in favor of mercy will remain under the shade of this portico.” Nearly all rushed across the street! I left the spot with feelings of sorrow and disgust which no words can express. The boy was swung into eternity in less than fifteen minutes from that moment.

On my way home to dinner I met that distressed widow. She was on horseback, and stopped for a moment to speak to me. She said: “Mr. Foote, you know what has taken place to-day. You were, during the life of my venerated husband, his friend and his legal adviser. Tell me what I had best do. I wish to prosecute the murderers of my servant. Will you undertake to bring them to justice? I will reward you liberally.”

“My dear madam,” I said, “We are in the midst of most unhappy circumstances and of most appalling dangers. The community in which we live is in a frenzied condition. Were you to commence such a prosecution as you mention your own life would not be safe. Let me recommend to you earnestly to bow to the imperious necessity of the hour. “She looked at me for a moment with a mingled expression of sorrow and resentment upon her countenance, and then responded to me with a grave and touching solemnity of look I can never forget: “I will take your advice. Farewell!”

* This story was republished around the country featuring only the Gazette‘s original “Thursday morning last” locution, without any contextualizing dateline, which is another compelling reason for newsfolk to abandon the chatty day-of-week convention in favor of stating an actual date. Neither does Foote trouble to date the affair.

However, in view of the infuriatingly cavalier dating of events that this calendar-interested author is forever wrestling, Joshua Rothman‘s gumshoe act on Vincent’s hanging date in Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson is nothing short of a godsend. Here’s endnote 50 to chapter 7 in its gloriously diligent entirety:

Figuring the date of Vincent’s trial requires a bit of detective work and a bit of guesswork. On July 24 the Jackson Mississippian reprinted Vincent’s story as it appeared in the Clinton Gazette. July 24 was a Friday, and while no copies of the Gazette from July 1835 survive, the paper was published on Saturdays, meaning that its article about Vincent appeared in either the July 11 or July 18 edition. The original story indicates that Vincent’s execution took place on “Thursday morning last” and suggests that his trial took place the day before that. The language here is ambiguous. If the story originally appeared in the July 11 issue of the Gazette, “last” means July 9, the Thursday immediately preceding, as there was no vigilance committee in existence in Clinton on any Thursdays prior to that one. If the story originally appeared in the July 18 issue of the Gazette, “last” could mean that Vincent’s trial occurred on July 15 or on July 8, but July 8 seems more likely for several reasons. The activities of the vigilance committees all over the state, including the one in Livingston, had slowed significantly by the fifteenth. Moreover, Henry Foote claimed to have seen what happened to Vincent when he got back to Clinton the day after seeing the beating of Lee Smith. He may have been mistaken, but an entirely plausible and consistent timeline exists in which Foote saw a mob assault Lee Smith on the afternoon of July 7, arrived in Jackson that evening, accompanied William Sharkey to Clinton on the morning of July 8, and witnessed what became of Vincent in town that afternoon and early the next day. [citing] Clinton Gazette in Jackson Mississippian, July 24, 1835; Foote, Casket of Reminiscences, 256.

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