1832: James Lea and Joseph Grindley, arsonists

Add comment March 31st, 2017 Headsman

The London Times of April 7, 1832 brings us this arson double hanging evidencing the extension of the rural Swing Riots labor rebellion from its southern heartland up to the West Midlands.

CONFESSION OF LEA AND GRINDLEY.

(From the Salopian Journal.)

After their trial and condemnation Lea evinced much anxiety, and expressed a wish to disburden his mind by stating all that he knew of the transactions in which he had been so deeply implicated; and he observed that he would freely do so, but that he had acted under the encouragement of certain abettors, who had bound him under the obligation of a horrible oath not to divulge the counsels and purposes in which they had engaged his assistance.

However, on Wednesday last, having, from the instruction and advice to which he was submitted, in preparation for that state to which he was so shortly to remove, satisfied himself that no compact such as we have described could be binding upon him, but, on the contrary, was in itself most iniquitous, he made a full and complete confession as to all the parties implicated in the atrocious conspiracy to which he had been a ready instrument, and in furtherance of which, it appeared, his department was to set Grindley at work under the instructions that he himself received from the prime members of the conspiracy.

Who the parties implicated are, and what Lea stated, cannot of course be here more particularly alluded to; it is, however, a striking circumstance that he again affirmed the truth of Wednesday’s confession just previous to his ascending the scaffold.

The sacrament having been administered to the unhappy men in the chapel of the jail, they were pinioned and at 12 o’clock the procession commenced moving from the chapel to the lodge, where the convicts spent a few minutes in prayer with the Chaplain, and were then conducted to the platform.

Grindley ascended first, and the rope, &c., having been adjusted, he continued to pray to Heaven for mercy until the fatal bolt was drawn. Lea ascended the steps of the scaffold apparently with more difficulty than Grindley, though both met their fate with much firmness, and with a demeanor becoming their awful situation.

Richard Whitfield, convicted at our late Assizes for writing threatening letters, and now under sentence of transportation for life, was among the convicts brought out into the yard to witness the execution; and as soon as the culprits ascended the scaffold a striking and most ominous change was apparent in his countenance. His intimate connexion with these wretched men, as already known to the public, would of itself be sufficient to account for this, if no other circumstances were within the knowledge of himself and those whose awful exit he was fated to witness; but, if the statement made on Wednesday by Lea be correct, not only Richard Whitfield, but several other parties not in custody, have an account to give, either in this world or the next, the very recollection of which might well make a man of the stoutest nerves tremble.

(An 1830s publication on the fires in Shropshire, which also summarizes the trials Lea, Grindley, and Whitfield, can be read here. -ed.)

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arson,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Public Executions

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1836: Felipe Santiago Salaverry, President of Peru

1 comment February 18th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1836,* the deposed President of Peru was shot with his comrades by the new Bolivian boss.

The youngest ever to head his country, Felipe Santiago Salaverry (English Wikipedia entry | the much more detailed Spanish) abandoned his studies in 1820 for the romance of soldiery.

He was all of 15.

By age 28, he was a brigadier general, fresh off crushing a bunch of rebels in the 1834 civil war.

He must have decided he could build a better mousetrap, because by 1835 Salaverry was rebelling himself. He chased off President Luis Orbegoso and was cock of the walk in Peru from the spring of 1835 until the first days of 1836.

By then, his exiled predecessor had made common cause with their Andean neighbor, Bolivian strongman Andres de Santa Cruz — who now proceeded to invade into southern Peru, where Orbegoso remained more popular than his usurper.

Salaverry answered with panache, pronouncing “Guerra a Muerte” and going on the offensive by crossing the border to raid Cobija where he pulled down the Bolivian flag and dragged it around. He was cocksure in victory after defeating his enemies at the Battle of Uchumayo (there’s a Salaverry Hill at the location, where a crumbling bust of our man stands trapezoidal sentinel).


The march “El ataque de Uchumayo” was originally dubbed “La Salaverrina”

But three days later, he was routed at Socabaya; his escapes cut off, Salaverry had to surrender his presidency and his person to the discretion of his foes. This outcome merged both states into the short-lived Peru-Bolivian Confederation under Santa Cruz, who now bore the Cromwellian title Supreme Protector. (Orbegoso was relegated to the tributary presidency of North Peru.)

But Salaverry was not around to see all that play out because Santa Cruz had he and eight chief officers condemned to death by a drumhead tribunal. Not a one of them had so many as 35 years; Salaverry was still just 29. They were shot together in Arequipa’s Plaza de Armas before a massive, and hostile, crowd: Arequipa was a stronghold for Orbegoso’s forces, and Salaverry in better times had openly relished the prospect of rewarding his own soldiers by putting it to the sack.

My dear Juana,

Within two hours I will be assassinated by Santa Cruz, and I address to you my final vows. I have loved you as you have loved me, and I carry into eternity the profound sorrow that I have made you so unhappy. I preferred my country’s good to my family’s, and I have been permitted neither. Educate my children, care for them; I put my trust in your wisdom and your talents. Do not lose heart that misfortune is the inseparable companion of mortals. Be as happy as you can, and never forget your dear husband.

-Salaverry’s last letter to his wife

* There are some cites out there for February 19. I have had a surprisingly difficult time finding a definitive date for so public and recent an event, but the more numerous and stronger sources — e.g., this very specific narration — prefer the 18th.

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Entry Filed under: Bolivia,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Heads of State,History,Mass Executions,Occupation and Colonialism,Peru,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Shot,Soldiers

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1832: Three Nottingham rioters, for better governance

Add comment February 1st, 2017 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1832, three young men were hanged in front of Nottingham’s County Hall for riots that erupted in late 1831 against Tory lords’ opposition to urgently needed reform of England’s grossly misrepresentative allocations of governing power.

George Beck, 20, George Hearson, 22, and John Armstrong, 26, were among twenty-plus alleged rioters arrested by the military whose intervention had been required to contain the disturbance. They were unlucky as much as anything, prey to statecraft’s requisites of resolve shown and examples made, for in the chaos of the riots the evidence gathered against these three as particular baddies resided at best on the arbitrary and dubious side. Such a public outcry arose against their punishment that officials made sure to delay the hanging until after the day’s post reached town, lest it bear along a last-minute pardon.

Kevin Turton’s A Grim Almanac of Nottinghamshire records,

On 4 January Armstrong had been found guilty of causing the Beeston riot and the destruction of Lowe’s silk mill. The other two had been arrested later the same month and charged with involvement in the same crime. Unfortunately for Beck and Hearson, though, their convictions had been made on spurious identification evidence. No one at their trial had given irrefutable evidence to establish guilt and by the time they climbed on to the scaffold to join Armstrong some 24,000 people had signed petitions for their release and well over that number swelled the crowds which gathered to watch the executions. So nervous were the Nottingham officials that they called out the 15th Hussars, The Queens Bays, the 18th Foot and a significant body of special constables to block off High Pavement and prevent any outbreak of unrest.

From a contemporary news account:

On the day of execution (Wednesday February 1st), the condemned took a glass of wine. Both Hearson and Armstrong protested their innocence by saying “I am a murdered man”. Beck ascended the platform first and a cry of “Murder!” could be heard from the crowd. Despite his irons, Hearson ran quickly up and jumped on the scaffold, calling to friends in the crowd. He then twirled his cap around his hand, “as if in triumph”, followed by his neckerchief, to cheers from the crowd. He also did a little dance before being calmed, and before Armstrong ascended. The ropes had been adjusted, and the chaplain began the service. On uttering the words “in the midst of life we are in death”, the drop fell!

The blog Pallax View has an excellent entry about the riots and resulting trials and executions, focusing on Hearson in particular. He was a married lace manufacturer and an enthusiastic boxer, called “Curley Hearson” in the prize ring.

A poem about the injustice of the executions gained wide circulation:

Hark! The Trumps are mournful sounding,
Wafting souls to realms above,
Where there’s naught but bliss abounding,
Glorying too for Jesu love.

The reckless fate of these poor creatures,
Fills the town with sad dismay,
For Nottingham, with its bright features,
Could not check that dreadful day.

To see the prime of youth now wither,
‘Midst relations, friends so dear,
It makes one’s blood almost to shiver,
Who could stop the burning tear?

Hearson, Beck and Armstrong boldly,
Met their fates beneath the tree;
Villains swore against them coldly,
And their doom we all shall see.

The bitterly-fought parliamentary reform was at last enacted that June.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Other Voices,Public Executions,Rioting,Wrongful Executions

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1830: Agnus 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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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,History,Iceland,Milestones,Murder,Public Executions,Women

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1835: Francisco Ruiz, prostrated pirate

Add comment September 12th, 2016 Headsman

From the Lowell (Mass.) Patriot, September 18, 1835 — channeling, as the headling indicates, the Boston Morning Post. In addition to a wanton overuse of commas, this article’s casual alternation between the interchangeable spellings of “Marshal” and “Marshall” is [sic]. The piracy at issue was the subject of a previous Executed Today post.

Francisco Ruiz, the carpenter of the Spanish piratical schooner Panda, who was distinguished above his brother buccaneers, by his pre-eminence in guilt, and violence, in the robbery of the Mexican, and yet had succeeded outliving them a few months, and prolonging a miserable existence in jail, by counterfeiting madness, in which, however, there was altogether too much method, was executed on Saturday morning in the jail yard.

At the trial of the Pirates, last December,* Ruiz was more positively identified than the others, on account of the prominent part which he took in the proceedings on board of the Mexican: he was pointed out as the man, who, with a drawn sword, drove the crew below, and as keeping guard over the hatchway while the vessel was pillaged of her specie; he was also singled out by the steward as the individual who beat him with a baton to compel him to disclose where he had secreted his private property.

Under his direction the sails were slashed, the combustables collected in the camboose, and the arrangements completed, for the setting fire to the sails and rigging of the plundered brig, which was happily arrested by her crew who escaped from below, by an aperture, which the pirates, in their haste to abandon her, fortunately omitted to secure.

Had the crew remained below an other [sic] minute, the brig would have been enveloped in one general conflagration, and not a man could have survived to recount the fate of his vessel and companions.

In the river Nazareth too, when the Panda, closely pressed by the British boats, was abandoned by her officers and crew, to Ruiz was assigned the dangerous duty of securing the ship’s papers, and then blowing her up, but his attempt to explode her magazine proved as unsuccessful as his infernal endeavor to wrap the Mexican in flames, in the middle of the ocean.

Since the expiration of Ruiz’s second respite, Mr. Marshall Sibley had procured the attendance, at the jail, of two experienced physicians, belonging to the U.S. Service, and who, being acquainted, with the Spanish language, were able to converse freely with him.

They had continued access to him, during the past month, and, as the result of their observations, reported to the Marshall in writing, that they had visited Ruiz several times for the purpose of ascertaining whether he was, or was not insane; and from their opportunities of observing him, they expressed their belief, that he was not insane.

This opinion being corroborated by other physicians, unacquainted with the Spanish language, but judging only from Ruiz’s conduct, induced the Marshal to forbear urging the Executive for a further respite; and for the first time, on Saturday morning, in an interview with the Spanish Interpreter and Priest, he was made sensible, that longer evasion of the sentence of the law was impracticable, and that he must surely die.

They informed him, that he had but half an hour to live, and retired, when he requested that he might not be disturbed during the brief space that remained to him, and turning his back to the open entrance of his cell, he unrolled some fragments of printed prayers, and commenced reading them to himself.

During this interval he neither spoke, nor heeded those who were watching him; but undoubtedly sufferred ]sic] extreme mental agony. At one minute he would [obscure] his chin on his bosom, and stand motionless; at another he would press his brow to the wall of his cell, or wave his body from side to side, as if wrung with unutterable anguish.

Suddenly, he would throw himself upon his knees on his mattress, and prostrate himself on his face as if in prayer; then throwing his prayers from him, he would clutch his rug in his fingers, and like a child try to double it up, or pick it to pieces.

After snatching up his rug and throwing it away again and again, he would suddenly resume his prayers, and erect posture, and stand mute, gazing through the aperture that admitted the light of day, for upwards of a minute.

This scene of imbecility and indecision — of horrible prostration of mind — eased in some degree when the Catholic clergyman re-entered his cell.

Precisely at 10 o’clock, the prisoner was removed from the prison, and, during his process to the scaffold, though the palor of death was spread over his countenance, and he trembled n every joint with fear, he chanted with a powerful voice an appropriate service from the Catholic ritual.

Several times he turned half round to survey the heavens, which at that moment were clear and bright above him, and when he ascended the platform, after concluding his last audible prayer, he took one long and steadfast gaze at the sun, and waited, in silence, his fate.

Unlike his comrades who had preceded him, he uttered no exclamations of innocence — his mind never appeared to revert to his crime.

His powers, mental and physical, had been suddenly crushed with the appalling reality that surrounded him; his whole soul was absorbed with one master feeling — the dread of a speedy and violent death.

Misunderstanding the lenity of the government, and the humanity of the officers, he had deluded himself with the hope of eluding his fate, and not having steeled his heart for the trying ordeal, it quailed in the presence of the dreadful paraphernalia of his punishment, as much as if he had been a stranger to deeds of blood, and never dealt death to his fellow man, as he ploughed the deep under the black flag of piracy, with the motto of “Rob, Kill, and Burn.”

He appeared entirely unconscious — dead, as it were — to all that was passing around him, when Deputy Marshal Bass coolly and securely adjusted the fatal cap, and, at the Marshall’s signal, which soon followed, adroitly cut the rope, which held down the latches of the platform.

The body dropoped heavily, and the harsh, abrupt shock must have instantly deprived him of all sensation, as there was no voluntary action of the hands afterwards. The body hung motionless half a minute, when a violent spasmodic action took place, occasioned simply by muscular contraction, but confined chiefly to the trunk of the body, which seemed to draw up the lower extremities into itself. The muscles of the heart continued to act nearly half an hour, but no pulsation was perceptible in a very few minutes after the fall.

Thus terminated his career of crime, in a foreign land, without one friend to recognize or cheer him, or a single being to regret his death — dying in very truth “unwept, unhonored.”

The skull of Delgrado, the suicide, who held the knife to Capt. Butman’s throat, was thought by the phrenologists to favor their supposed science; but they will find in the head of Ruiz a still more extraordinary development of the destructive, and other animal propensities, if we were not deceived in the alleged localities of these organs.

The execution took place in one of the most secluded situations in the City — not a hundred persons could witness it from within the yard; and very few, excepting professional persons, having business there, and the officers, were admitted inside.

Great credit is due to the U.S. Marshall for the privacy with which he caused the execution to be performed, and for not interrupting, by exhibiting a public, and exciting through barbarous spectacle, the business of the community.

* The long interval which has elapsed since the conviction of Capt. Gilbert and his crew, has afforded the most ample time to bring to light facts tending to establish their innocence, if any had been in existence; and the non-production of such facts, under the circumstances, must remove every possible shadow of a doubt of their guilt.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Attempted Murder,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Massachusetts,Murder,Pelf,Piracy,Pirates,U.S. Federal,USA

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1834: Catherine Snow, the last hanged in Newfoundland

Add comment July 21st, 2016 Headsman

The last woman executed on Newfoundland hanged on this date in 1834.

Historical novel about Catherine Snow.

Born Catherine Mandeville, Catherine was seven children into an audibly-to-the-neighbors combative marriage with John Snow when Snow disappeared in 1833, leaving behind only a splatter of blood on his Salmon Cove fishing stage.

Though the corpse was never found, the inference seemed clear enough — and the suspects were obvious: Catherine Snow, her cousin and lover Tobias Manderville, and a household servant named Arthur Spring. But the whether the crown ever converted reasonable suspicion into proof sufficient to justly hang Catherine Snow was controversial then and remains so today.

Now, if all three did go in together on a murder plot, it was one which signally neglected adequate planning for the police investigation that was sure to follow.

Manderville and Spring were arrested on suspicion of murder, and they were not long in jail befoe Spring summoned the sheriff to announce that “we killed him; Manderville and myself, and Mrs. Snow” — shooting him dead and sinking him into the Atlantic with a grapnel. So, no code of silence here. Soon, Manderville and Spring were each accusing the other of being the guy who pulled the trigger when they went out to murder John Snow together. However the matter of the trigger finger might weigh in their afterlives, it was juridically irrelevant to their fate in Newfoundland.

Catherine Snow was supposed to have initiated this conspiracy and certainly her violent marriage would have given her ample motivation to do so — perhaps a far stronger motivation than the men had. The inference strengthened by Snow’s changing her story to police, and then by her fleeing her home when she heard about Spring’s jailhouse revelation.

But she could never really be shown to have been present at the murder nor proven to have clearly conspired in it, and to the discomfiture of all she insisted on maintaining her innocence all along. “There is no direct or positive evidence of her guilt,” attorney general James Simms admitted to the jury. (Source) “But I have a chain of circumstantial evidence to show her guilt.” The jury convicted her.

Manderville and Spring hanged in the provincial capital of St. John’s mere days after the trial in January of 1834.

Snow had a substantial reprieve: she was pregnant.

For six months Newfoundland was abuzz with the case while Catherine Snow came to term, bore her putative victim a posthumous son named Richard, and nursed him in his infancy. Was she really guilty? And guilty or no, could they bear to leave her months to bring new life into the world only to orphan it?

Catherine Snow did not offer the sizable crowd of onlookers any peace of mind when she mounted the scaffold on Duckworth Street on July 21, 1834. “I was a wretched woman, but I am as innocent of any participation in the crime of murder as an unborn child.”

CNN reporter Mary Snow is a descendant of Catherine Snow.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Canada,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Public Executions,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1836: Isaac Young/Heller, axman

Add comment April 29th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1836, a troubled (ex-)family man named Isaac Young — latterly going by Isaac Heller — was publicly hanged in Liberty, Indiana for axing his entire family to death in a fit of madness.

Young hailed from Pennsylvania, and the reason he had changed his name and moved to Indiana was that he had done a similar thing in his native haunts.

As a teenager in the 1820s, Isaac Young had been seized strangely by the spiritual tremors abroad during America’s Second Great Awakening. A baptized zealot who fancied himself blessed with the power of prophesy, Young was also captive to an inescapable — and seemingly defeatist — impression of being forever pursued and haunted by the devil. Young’s religious thunderings tended to produce more interest in the utterer’s state of mind than in the listener’s state of soul, and the youth was known to succumb to “gusts of passion.”

Eventually, those gusts blew a hurricane.

Young lived with his brother, who had a wife and a 10-year-old orphan girl — and, little did they know, the devil watching over them all. One night in 1830, Young awoke with a start at a sound he perceived upon the stair, convinced that some entity had entered the room he shared with the little girl; his religious eccentricities jumbling him right into lunacy.

“The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” Young bellowed at the dragon from Revelations come to visit him in his nightshirt in Dauphin County. He tried to grapple with the phantom but missed it, and of a sudden he turned his frenzy on the girl, battering her furiously. Young would later say that he was “forcibly impelled” to the attack by an overwhelming “duty” to “destroy” the child; his brother and his sister-in-law attempted to intervene but Young seized a club and with a berserker rage chased them from the house — then returned to his cowering little roommate, and sawed off her head with his knife.

He was acquitted of this murder by reason of his manifest insanity, but this was not a time and place with resources to aid the mentally ill. All anyone could think to do was to keep him chained in the poor house until after a few months he appeared to return to reason — at which point he was finally released and blew town, now rechristened with his mother’s maiden name.

In the hamlet of Liberty, the new man Heller escaped the devil … for a few years. He opened a grocery store and married a woman named Elizabeth McCollam with whom he had a happy brood of three children.

Until one day the gusts returned to swirl his soul again.

“The first symptom of insanity noticed in this county was about three years ago [i.e., 1833], by a young man who was going home with him on a Sabbath evening,” the Connersville (Ind.) Watchman reported in a profile that was widely reprinted around the Republic.*

The young man noticed something very extraordinary in his manner, and was much affected. At length he asked him what was the matter. He replied in effect that a superhuman influence or inspiration was upon him. Soon after he became very much excited on religious subjects … Witnesses stated that for several days at a time, during the last two or three years, he would act like a wild man or a raving maniac. During that time he was twice taken into the care of the overseers of the poor and kept some time as an insane person.

Heller’s neglect of his work soon exhausted his family’s modest reserves and left wife and children surviving on the charity of neighbors, spiraling Heller even deeper into depression, and in his “great horror of the poor house” he owned “that he would rather die than be separated from his family.” One hears in these words a man with the walls closing in about him … or else, a man hammering out the rationale for the madness he has already determined to undertake. There was calculation in Heller’s fatal outburst; a neighbor visited on the morning of his hecatomb and found the family in good spirits and Heller cogent. The disturbed patriarch waited until the guest was well away before he

took his axe from under the bed, went to the fire, turned round [and] commenced rubbing the fingers of one hand over the edge. His wife asked him what he was going to do — he replied he was going to chop some wood. About this time the woman told the children to get some apples out from under the bed. the two little ones immediately crawled under the bed, and the little sister-in-law stood near the bed looking at Heller. She saw him raise the axe and strike his wife one full blow about the chin and neck. Seeing this she sprang to the door, threw it open and fled for the nearest neighbor’s between a quarter and a half a mile off, crying murder as she ran. After she had fled some two hundred yards, she saw Heller come round the end of the house and look after her. Heller states that after he had despatched his wife he went out of the house and looked after the little girl — that he then went back into the house — his little boy came towards him, when he split him down and chopped his head off. He then dragged his little daughter Sarah out from under the bed — placed his foot upon her breast — she raised her hands for protection, and at the first blow he cut off the fingers of one hand and nearly took off her head. He then went and rolled the mother off of the infant on which she had partly fallen, and cut its head off.

His spiritual torments and probable schizophrenia here are the framework — a cynic might say, the excuse — for a much more commonplace scourge: the murderer said “in justification of the act ‘that they were likely to become a county charge, and that he would rather see them in their present situation.'” (Connecticut Courant, Mar. 21, 1836) In the confession he willingly supplied later, he admitted having attempted to set his homicidal plan in motion several times prior, once even brandishing a butcher’s blade over his wife like the Psycho shower scene before she soothed him. Elizabeth Heller must have been a woman of remarkable calm under pressure; unfortunately for her, resources for abused spouses were about as plentiful as those for the mentally ill.

“Nearly all … who know any thing about the case, regard it as incomprehensibly mysterious,” the newspaper reports concluded. “Many who know the most about it, say they hardly know how or what to think of it. It is doubted whether the annals of crime can produce a parallel case, and it is devoutly hoped they never may!”

But the annals of crime hold many mansions, as readers of this here site surely know.

Heller’s final, “successful” outburst was actually just one of a number of grisly mass-murders by family fathers who through the closely intimate exertion of a bloody blade drenched their domestic idylls with the gore of their loved ones — enough even to form a discernible pattern. Struggling to come to grips with this “homicidal insanity” or “monomanie-homicide”, the early American psychologist Isaac Ray lamented the “painful frequency” of cases “where the individual, without provocation or any other rational motive, apparently in the full possession of his reason, and oftentimes in spite of his most strenuous efforts to the contrary, imbrues his hands in the blood of others, — oftener than otherwise, of the partner of his bosom, of the children of his affections.” Incomprehensible perhaps, but scarcely unparalleled: what could make sense of this “horrid phenomenon”?

Pious family men turning Middle America domiciles into charnel houses was the going postal of settler-era America, and maybe Ray even had the Young/Heller-style addled religiosity in mind when he noted that absent some rational accounting the mind would default “to that time-honored solution of all the mysteries of human delinquency, the instigation of the devil.”

In a review of the period’s “familicide” cases, Daniel Cohen (“Homicidal Compulsion and the Conditions of Freedom: The Social and Psychological Origins of Familicide in America’s Early Republic,” Journal of Social History, Summer, 1995) speculates that the revolutionary grant of personal autonomy exacted a dangerous emotional toll upon men who felt themselves failures or simply could not pay “the high psychic costs of economic freedom, particularly for men prone to anxiety and depression.” Isaac was surely prone.

The efforts of those men to submit to supernatural authority were less single-minded pursuits of spiritual perfection than desperate attempts to evade seemingly irresolvable personal conflicts, most importantly between moral demands (or social obligations) and destructive urges or desires. It was ultimately less important for them to avoid sin than to resolve dilemmas or evade choice. When the breathless individual freedom of the early republic collided with the relentless responsibilities of paternal stewardship, the result was an implosion of self-destructive violence … the beginning not the end of a disturbing national tradition …

Many social barriers had fallen in post-Revolutionary America, but several unhappy men could still not control the rain, or the currency, or their own darker impulses. Where others may have perceived boundless opportunities, they experienced gnawing fears and terrifying compulsions. Situations of free choice did not inspire them with a “heady feeling of command” or a “sense of marvelous potential,” to use Robert Wiebe’s expansive phrases, but drove them instead to desperation. Physical unsettlement, economic insecurities, and religious speculations all combined to baffle and torment them. Unable to cope with the perplexities of life in a free society, they constructed internal imperatives to evade and annul that very freedom. By their actions, each tacitly endorsed John Cowan’s conclusion in prison: “Liberty would be more horrible to me than death.” Thus did a handful of troubled Americans confront freedoms profound enough to transform sober Christians into deluded visionaries, loving husbands into axe-wielding assassins, and tidy republican households into slaughterhouses.

Where Pennsylvania acquitted, Indiana convicted — but within even a few years the cooling of passions stirred by the slaughter led many to regret the judgment. According to this volume, even the judge later acknowledged that he ought to have set aside the verdict owing to Heller’s state of mind.

* We’re channeling this via the Gloucester (Mass.) Telegraph of May 4, 1836.

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1836: Maria del Rosario Villa and Gervasio Alipas lynched in Alta California

Add comment April 7th, 2016 Headsman

California on April 7, 1836 saw the first known installment of what would become a rich tradition of history of vigilance committee lynchings in the state — over an affair of the heart.

This was Alta California under Mexican rulership, a decade before the Yankees gobbled it up in the Mexican-American War.

Maria del Rosario Villa had abandoned her husband Domingo Felix (or Feliz) back in 1834 to take up with a vaquero named Gervasio Alipas (or Alipaz). The honor-stricken husband spent two years fruitlessly trying to reconcile until in 1836 at his behest the alcalde successfully pressured Maria into returning to her husband.

But on the couple’s return trip to their ranch, the lover Alipas intercepted them and did the husband Felix to death. Narciso Botello’s* annals describe that Alipas “took hold of his [Felix’s] horse and threw himself on Felix, grabbed him by his neckerchief, and pulled him off, dragging him along downhill and twisting the neckerchief, strangling him” — then pitched the choking victim into a gully where he finished him off with a machete. “Later it was proven by the tracks that the wife had been present.” (Source) She helped him dump the body near San Gabriel Mission, too.

Outraged both by the dastardly murder and by the wanton violation of matrimony that precipitated it, a gang of 55 organized themselves as a Junta of the Defenders of the Public Safety, led by Victor Prudon, a recent arrival to the area from the Hijar-Padres colony.** As no militia could be mustered inclined to oppose its will, on April 7 the junta forced open the jail where Alipas was interred, stood him up behind a church, and shot him to death. Villa — being held in an apartment at a private residence — was likewise forced out and marched to a nearby stable where she got the same treatment.

The vigilantes deposited the bodies back at the jail with the communique,

Junta of the Defendres of the Public Safety —

To the First constitutional Alcalde:

The dead bodies of Gervacio Alispaz and Maria del Rosario Villa are at your disposal. We also forward you the jail keys that you may deliver them to whomsoever is on guard. In case you are inned of men to serve as guards we are at your disposal.

God and Liberty. Angeles, April 7, 1836.

Victor Prudon, President
Manuel Arzaga, Secretary

And that was the end of the Defenders of the Public Safety, who disbanded a few days later, never to reconstitute. Indeed, while vigilance committees became regular features on the Californian landscape in later years, this is the sole such incident ever known to have occurred there under Spanish or Mexican rule.

* A Mexican who would serve two terms in the state assembly of California after it became a U.S. state in 1850.

** Mexico at this point was still in its first generation of independence; its hold on sparsely-populated California was not strong — and the missions set down there to convert natives to Christianity and project a Spanish presence had Russian competition.

The Hijar-Padres colony (Padres was the name of the colony’s organizer, Hijar its financier) was a nucleus of 200-odd souls dispatched to settle in California by one of the liberal intra-Santa Anna governments. The leaders soon became embroiled in a complex political rivalry with California’s governor and the colony itself failed to take root, its emissaries settling and taking work wherever they could. Many set down roots in California’s “Southlands” where Los Angeles, then just a small town but still the regional capital, would one day splay out its sunlit superhighways. While colonists were involved in the vigilance committee proceedings, no member of the love triangle was a colonist. (See C. Alan Hutchinson, “An Official List of the Members of the Híjar-Padrés Colony for Mexican California, 1834,” Pacific Historical Review, Aug. 1973.)

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1831: Edmund Bushby, Swing rioter

Add comment January 1st, 2016 Headsman

On New Year’s Day of 1831, Edmund Bushby was hanged in Horsham for arson committed during southern England’s great agricultural labor rising, the Swing Riots.

“Captain Swing” was the rebellion’s namesake, a Ned Ludd-like legendary archetype, a figurehead who could never swing from the gallows. Swing was a long-suffering tenant farmer fallen desperately below subsistence and ready to fight back, and it goes without saying that in this the fictional “captain” mirrored his very real cohort — who were known to sign the captain’s anonymizing name to their letters threatening prosperous farmers: “work, money, or fire”.

Wages in Britain, which perhaps were mired in a generations-long slide to begin with, had cratered painfully following the Napoleonic Wars. And few felt the pinch more sharply than the working class in the rural economies of England’s southern half from East Anglia, Essex and Kent clear across to Somerset and Devon. Here, without the wage prop that coal mining was already beginning to confer in the north, the situation in the fields grew desperate.*

Years later, in 1851, James Caird would draw an east-west line through the English countryside — a wages line, he called it. North of that line, Caird noticed, agricultural workers were still being paid better than their brethren to the south by an enormous margin, 30% or more.

And so with the onset of harder times, like a devastating financial crash in the 1820s, this was also the line below which every farmhand existed at the edge of utter destitution — mitigated only by a niggardly allotment of poor relief forever squeezed smaller by its donors, the local landowners.** This zone of rural immiseration was the home of Captain Swing.


From Stuart Macdonald, “The progress of the early threshing machine”, Agricultural History Review, 23:1 (1975). It’s available online in pdf form here.

In 1830, following two consecutive years of crop failures, English radical William Cobbett published his survey of the countryside’s growing want in his Rural Rides. Written over the course of several years previous, it was a prescient appraisal.

As far as I had an opportunity of ascertaining the facts, the farmers feel all the pinchings of distress, and the still harsher pinchings of anxiety for the future; and the labouring people are suffering in a degree not to be described. The shutting of the male paupers up in pounds is common through Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire. Left at large during the day, they roam about and maraud. What are the farmers to do with them? God knows how long the peace is to be kept, if this state of things be not put a stop to.

Those words Cobbett set down late in 1829. By the summer of the following year, labor rebellions began breaking out in these counties.

This wave of mutually inspired resistance saw villages’ working classes take the offensive against their local grandees. Beginning that summer, farmers’ hay ricks were set ablaze by secret arsonists; resistance rapidly metastasized from that point. (See this pdf.) “Burnings were necessary to bring people to their senses,” one Swing radical proclaimed — to force the rural gentry to come to terms with the plight of their neighbors.


1844 Punch magazine cartoon. (Source)

Following a long tradition of English machine-wrecking, Swing rioters also turned their fury on hated threshing machines, which were popping up by the hundreds and promising to displace still more of the shrinking wage share available in the countryside. (A very cheap portable machine invented in 1829 augured especially ill for the workers whose labor it would obviate; see N.E. Fox, “The Spread of the Threshing Machine in Central Southern England”, The Agricultural History Review, Vol. 26, No. 1 (1978).)

Nearly 400 were reportedly destroyed from 1830-1832 — and typically the owner of the machine would then be mulcted £2 per thresher for the dismantling labor. (In the subsequent assizes, these forcibly exactions were prosecuted as highway robbery.)

A countryside threatening to go up in flames like the farmers’ ricks inspired the requisite shock and exercise of state suppression, beginning with an aggressive investigation with widespread prosecutions in the last weeks of 1830. By the time it was all said and done, 252 people were sentenced to die and although all save 19 of those were commuted to transportation, the effect of a few very public examples would scarcely be neglected. Thomas Hardy,† born in 1840 the son of rural Dorset stonemason, would later describe his father’s recollection of the Swing days:

My father saw four men hung for being with some others who had set fire to a rick. Among them was a stripling boy of eighteen … with youth’s excitement he had rushed to the scene to see the blaze … Nothing my father ever said to me drove the tragedy of life so deeply into mind.

Edmund Bushby was one of these misfortunate souls marked for the scaffold instead of Australia. (Another Swing arsonist, Thomas Goodman, was to have hanged immediately after Bushby. Goodman was reprieved but was not told of it until after Bushby died.)

Convicted at the busy Lewes assizes of torching farmer George Oliver’s wheat in East Preston, Bushby hanged firmly‡ before a crowd of “eight to nine hundred persons,” according to the January 4 Morning Chronicle reprint of a Sussex Advertiser report,

three parts out of four of whom appeared to be agricultural labourers, who seemed deeply affected at the awful scene, and the most profound silence prevailed amongst them. The Sheriff’s javelin men surrounded the gallows, and two companies of foot guards were drawn up on the square, in the centre of the town, a considerable distance from the jail, and not within sight of the populace. Every thing passed off with the utmost order and decorum.

After the body had been suspended the usual time, it was cut down and delivered to the friends of the deceased for interment, who were waiting with a cart to receive it.

* The southern counties, nearest London, were also the areas where enclosure was most advanced and the rural labor force most thoroughly proletarianized.

** To add to the woes, comfortable parish parsons also had a customary right to exact a cash tithe that their flock could scarcely afford in bad times.

† We have met Thomas Hardy several times in these pages; his was surely a soul sensitive to the plight of the condemned. Hardy [probably] set the action of his short story “The Withered Arm” (with its gallows climax) in the Swing Riots period.

‡ His reported last words on the scaffold: “I hope you will take warning from my fate; and, my dear fellows, always attend to the Sabbath-day.” If accurately reported — and unironically uttered — this ageless gallows formula so irrelevant to Bushby’s situation surely attests to the power of a cliche. There is a good chance that Bushby heard these words spoken by some other hanged fellow in his lifetime, and knew them described more widely than that as the sort of thing everyone ought to say before turning off.

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1836: Six Creek rebels, amid removal

Add comment November 25th, 2015 Headsman

We ask you how the Muscogee Nation came by this country? You came from the west and took the country from another people who were in possession. After living here a great many years, the people from over the big waters came in large vessels and took some of the country from you and set up their own government, and made laws, & made you obey them …

you must be sensible that it will be impossible for you to remain, for any length of time, in your present situation, as a distinct society or nation, within the limits of Georgia, or any other State. Such a community is incompatible with our system, and must yield to it. This truth is too striking and obvious not to be seen by all of you, surrounded as you are by the people of the several States. You must either cease to be a distinct community, and become, at no distant period, a part of the State within whose limits you are, or remove beyond the limits of any State …

Brothers, we now tell you, what we, in the name of your Father the President, want you to do. We want the country you now occupy. It is within the limits of Georgia and Alabama. These States insist upon having their lines cleared. The President will do this by giving you a better country, and will aid you in removing; protect you where you may go, against whites and all others, and give you a solemn guaranty in the title and occupancy of the new country which you may select … By deciding for yourselves, it may prevent others from deciding for you.

-U.S. federal communication to the Muscogee Creek chiefs, Dec. 9, 1824


Brothers, you have been deceived. A snake has been coiled in the shade, and you are running into his mouth … drunk with the fire of the pale-face. Brothers, the hunting grounds of our fathers have been stolen by our chief and sold to the pale-face, whose gold is in his pouch. Brothers, our grounds are gone, and the plow of the pale-face will soon upturn the bones of our fathers. Brothers, are you tame? Will you submit?

-Opothle Yoholo

On this date in 1836, six Muscogee Creek rebels were hanged in Alabama as murderers.

This age of the bellicose Andrew Jackson comprised the peak years of America’s Indian Removal — a frightful term denoting the forcible expulsion of indigenous nations from America’s east to her frontier wastelands. This was the fate ordained for the Creek people of Alabama, just as it was with their “civilized tribes” brethren, the Choctaw of Mississippi and the Cherokee of Georgia and the Carolinas.

Jackson himself had tangled with the Creek during his career-making appearance as America’s up-and-coming caudillo in the War of 1812: the eponymous Fort Jackson in Alabama was the base from which the Tennessee militia captain had defeated rebellious natives in the 1813-1814 Creek War and forced upon them the Treaty of Fort Jackson.* “Numberless aggressions,” read that document, “had been committed [by the Creeks] against the peace, the property, and the lives of citizens of the United States.”

So small wonder that as President, Old Hickory — for whom Indian Removal was a signature policy — had no time for Creek appeals to Washington to uphold their treaty rights in Alabama and Georgia. Their defeat in 1814 had left the Creek polity a powerless dependency, whose rights and even survival extended precisely so far as the American government wished. With the shrunken remnant** of their ancestral lands increasingly sought by white settlers, all the pressure within Anglo America ran towards the ethnic cleansing option.

“Voluntary” emigration under steady white pressure gnawed away at Creek numbers in the Southeast for a decade or more preceding the events of this post, but there was always going to be a militant slice of the population for whom no inducement short of violence would suffice. In 1836, land incursions finally triggered a Creek revolt, and became the Second Creek War — Jackson’s justification at last for completing the long-sought elimination of the Creek in the East.†

“The Creek Indians, below the Federal Road, are all in arms and killing every white person they have fallen in with,” ran the May 12, 1836 Macon Messenger. Everything was in “confusion and disarray” — the fleeting advantage of initiative while Anglos mustered an overwhelming response.

Attacks on stagecoaches this same month “created a greater sensation throughout the country than any previous act of Indian hostility,” per this public domain history of Columbus, Ga. (The town abuts the Alabama border.)

Two stages carrying the United States mail, going from Columbus to Tuskegee, Ala., were attacked about eighteen miles from Columbus. The Indians killed Mr. Green, one of the drivers, and two horses, and robbed the mail. The next day a party of fifteen men started to come through to Columbus with two stages. Some of these men were passengers and others volunteers who accompanied the stages to assist in their protection.

It was for this raid that claimed Green’s life that Tuscoona Fixico and four others — never named in any source I have been able to find — were condemned to hang on Nov. 25, alongside a man named Chilancha for the unrelated killing of a man named Fannin during the uprising.

The Second Creek War went much the same way as the first, and proved those American diplomats prescient as to the inevitability of the conquered peoples’ fate. Today, the Poarch Creek — numbering barely 2,000 — are the only remaining band of Muscogee Creek in Alabama.

* It was from this engagement that Jackson proceeded to the famous Battle of New Orleans.

** In one vain bid to stanch the loss of Creek territory, the tribe — incensed by the Treaty of Indian Springs — had in 1821 enacted capital punishment for anyone who sold land to whites. It was on the strength of this statute that Creek assassins murdered/executed the collaborationist chief William McIntosh in 1825.

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