1844: John Gavin, the first European hanged in Western Australia

Add comment April 6th, 2020 Headsman

John Gavin/Gaven, a 15-year-old who had been transported from England just months before, hanged at Fremantle on this date in 1844. This was the day between Good Friday and Eastern Sunday, and Gavin was the first European executed in the new settlements of Western Australia.

Working as a farmhand, Gavin yielded to an impulse to murder the farming family that held his indenture — an impulse to whose explication Gavin was not equal during the three days between his trial and his hanging.

He slew the family’s strapping 18-year-old son, George Pollard, thinking this would leave the mother defenseless thereafter; instead, the woman was defended by Gavin’s wracked conscience which drove him to a half-hearted suicide attempt and a meek surrender.

The Perth Gazette and Western Australia Journal, April 6, 1844:

CONFESSION OF THE MURDER OF GEORGE POLLARD.

To all parties it must be most consolatory to know that, on Friday night and Saturday morning the unfortunate criminal confessed his guilt, and this in so ample and sincere a manner as to leave not a doubt on the mind of Mr. Schoales, who received that confession, that anything remained behind. The substance of the confession was that, the first thoughts of committing the crime arose in his mind within five minutes of the execution of the deed, that it was a sudden instigation, one which had been paralleled, but not frequently.

The boy sat down to dinner with his victim without a thought harboured in his mind of harm towards him. He had made up his mind to murder the mother of the family that afternoon, and as he commenced his work about the farm while the lad Pollard was sleeping, the thought flashed across the mind of the prisoner, that, if he murdered the woman first, then a lad stronger than himself remained on the premises able to take him prisoner, and that, to secure the fate of the woman, and his own safety, he must first kill the lad.

In explanation of the circumstance of his clothes being wet, the unfortunate lad stated that he went to the river, not to drink, nor to wash the blood from his clothes, but to drown himself, but that his courage failed him, such was his feeling and remorse at the act he had committed. He could state no possible reason why he compassed the death of Mrs. Pollard.

EXECUTION.

The convict was transferred to Fremantle Jail on Thursday afternoon, where he was attended with the utmost attention by the Rev. George King. On Good Friday the Rev. gentleman was in prayer with the lad before the hours of service, and again in the afternoon, and to an advanced hour of the evening. On the same evening, Mr. Schoales placed himself in communication with the boy, remaining with him during the time that the clergyman was affording the consolations of the Church. Extreme penitence, the utmost contrition, and the fullest confession, marked his behaviour. At daylight Mr. Schoales was again in attendance, and Mr. King attended at an early hour.

At eight o’clock, A.M, the preparations were complete, which were made with every attention to the proper execution of the sentence, at the same time ensuring the least possible suffering to the unfortunate lad. The prison bell then began to toll, and the melancholy procession set out from the condemned cell to the scaffold: the Sheriff and his deputies and constables, the Rev. G. King, reading appropriate passages of Scripture, the prisoner, supported by Mr. Schoales, and lastly, more constables closed the train. The boy was deeply affected, and was assisted up the steps to the platform. From this time the proceedings were rapid, and at ten minutes after eight the cart moved forward, and the criminal was launched into eternity. So light was the body, that with a humane attention, heavy weights were attached to the legs of the sufferer, a precaution the propriety of which was evinced in the fact, that apparently the pangs of the unhappy boy were very few. Having hung for an hour, the Sheriff resigned the custody of the body to Mr. Schoales, who had it cut down, placed in a decent shell, and removed for the purpose of interment.

The place of execution was about ten yards on the left of the jail, looking towards the Church. The assemblage of people was not very great, and proper precautions for decent behaviour on such a solemn occasion were taken and provided for, by the presence of the Constables and a detachment of Her Majesty’s 51st L. I., who kept the ground.

After death, an excellent mask of his face and cast of the skull were taken, for the purpose of furthering the ends of science. The head we understand is of extraordinary formation; the anterior organs being very deficiently developed, while the posterior organs are of an enormous size.

At 4 o’clock P.M. the body was committed to the earth, in the sand hills a little to the southwest of the Court-house, accompanied by Mr. Schoales alone, and carried by a fatigue party of the prisoners of the jail. There, without rite or ceremony, the remains of this miserable lad were inhumed, but though the place of his sepulchure be unknown to all yet may God grant that the awful example made on so young a lad, may ever be before the minds of all of us young or old.

Many idle reports are in circulation with the usual rapidity and volubility of public rumour. It has not been hesitated to be said, that he had confessed previous murders in England. We do, on good authority, contradict this most positively.

The whole of his previous life was fully detailed, and although it shewed a sad catalogue of guilt, yet we unhesitatingly say that this was the first and only time of shedding blood; the crime for which he has suffered is bad indeed, why then indulge in the vain, silly, and false insinuation of imaginary guilt? Why belie the memory of one who has departed from among us by the gossiping retailment of every inventtion that rises in the minds of foolish people, who seek to raise themselves to some temporary importance by asserting a more peculiar knowledge of the “facts” than is possessed by the public at large. We may say in a few words, the boy’s faults were many — let them sleep in his grave.

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1844: John Knatchbull, moral madman

Add comment February 13th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1844, John Knatchbull hanged before an orderly crowd of 10,000 at Taylor Square in Sydney, Australia.

Knatchbull was among 20 children of a prolific baronet. The youngster fought at sea in the Napoleonic Wars but found himself in financial straits after demobilization and spiraled into a criminality.

Transported to Australia for an armed robbery, he there cultivated an extensive rap sheet — mutiny, forgery, poisoning his guards. It was a comprehensive Jekyll-to-Hyde heel turn: “all traces of a gentleman had long disappeared, he exhibited no evidence that he had been in a higher social position,” wrote a clergyman who visited him. “[H]e appeared to be in his natural place.”

So you couldn’t say that nobody saw it coming in early 1844 when Knatchbull, out on a ticket of leave, went

into the shop of a poor widow, named Ellen Jamieson, and asked for some trifling article. While Mrs. Jamieson was serving him, the ruffian raised a tomahawk, which he held in his hand, and clove the unfortunate woman’s head in a savage manner. She lingered for a few days, and died, leaving two orphan children … though an attempt was made to set up a plea of insanity, a barrister being employed by the agent for the suppression of capital punishment, so foul a villain could not be saved from the gallows. (Source)

This insanity defense was a then-novel “moral insanity” claim contending “a form of mental derangement in which the intellectual faculties were unaffected, but the affects or emotions were damaged, causing patients to be carried away by some kind of furious instinct.” That is, Knatchbull knew that he did wrong when he struck the luckless shopkeep, but he had no power to restrain himself. The court took a pass.


Sketch of the scene at Knatchbull’s hanging.

More fortunate of birth and temperament, John’s brother Edward Knatchbull, who was not only the sitting baronet but the UK’s Paymaster General, made good his vocation by arranging a donative to Ellen Jamieson’s orphaned children.

This family — the donors, not the orphans — remains among the peers of the realm, its vintage baronetcy of Mersham Hatch having been upgraded to a baronage in 1880. It’s currently held by Norton Knatchbull, who is also Earl Mountbatten (he’s the maternal grandson of the Mountbatten who led British forces in Southeast Asia, took down the Union Jack in India, and was assassinated by the IRA).

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1844: Samuel Mohawk

Add comment March 22nd, 2018 Headsman


Philadelphia Sun, March 26, 1884.

On this date in 1844, Samuel Mohawk, an indigenous Seneca Indian, was hanged for slaughtering Mary McQuiston Wigton and her five children in Slippery Rock, Penn.

Many witnesses noticed Mohawk in a violent rage as he traveled by stage from New York, and his mood grew fouler with drink and with the repeated refusal of hospitality by white establishments. It’s unclear what specific trigger turned his evil temper to murder at the Wigton residence — if there was any real trigger at all — but in his fury, he pounded the brains of his victims out of their skulls with rocks. The case remains locally notorious to this day, in part for being the first execution in Butler County.

I’d tell you all about it but the (inert but very interesting) blog YesterYear Once More has already got it covered.

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1844: William Saville, brutalising scene

1 comment August 7th, 2016 Headsman

From the Leeds Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser, Aug. 10, 1844;

NOTTINGHAM, AUGUST 7. — This morning (Wednesday) being the day fixed for the execution of Wm. Saville for the murder of his wife and three children, the town was thrown into an unusyal [sic] state of excitement.

At an early hour, crowds were assembled in front of the County Hall; and at a few minutes to eight o’clock there could be not less than twenty thousand people present, anxiously waiting to behold the inhuman spectacle.

At eight o’clock Saville made his appearance on the platform, accompanied by the sheriff, chaplain, and the executioner. He seemd to display great firmness., and looked around him quite cool and unconcerned. He nodded to a few friends whom he distinguished in the crowd, and not more than two minutes could elapse from the time of his arriving on the scaffold to the fatal bolt being drawn.

He was much convulsed; but in a few minutes, all his troubles in this world were at an end.

Proceedings of a more painful nature have to be narrated as the result of the brutalising scene of “hanging.”

At the time the drop fell, the rush was so terrific, some anxious to get a sight of the wretched man, whilst others wished to be released from the pressure of the crowd, that a great number of persons of all ages and both sexes, were precipitated down a flight of steps leading from the High Pavement, down to Garner’s Hill; and notwithstanding every caution of the Mayor and other inhabitants, great numbers were forced down upon those already lying in a mangled state.

Seven persons were taken up quite lifeless, and a great number more much injured.

The dead and those that had sustained the most serious injuries, were conveyed to the Mayor’s Yard, whilst others were conveyed directly to the General Hospital. Sedans, chairs, and various suitable vehicles being put in requisition for the purpose.

The Mayor’s Yard presented a spectacle the most appalling. Never did human eye behold a more heard-rending [sic] sight than there presented itself. The wailings and mournings of parents for the loss of their children, husbands lamenting the fate of their wives, wives the fate of their husbands, together with the crimes and moans of the injured and dying, were truly horrifying.

Every countenance seemed agitated; whilst parents and relatives were running in all directions to discover those most dear to them.

Every facility was afforded (as soon as suitable arrangements could be made) to allow parties to visit the mangled bodies, for the purpose of recognizing their friends and relatives. Great praise is due to the mayor and town police for the kind manner in which they conducted themselves towards the afflicted friends of the unfortunate dead and injured, whilst I am sorry to say the “rurals” did not evince a like spirit.

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1844: Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism, lynched

2 comments June 27th, 2016 Headsman

Joseph Smith, the strange founder of America’s most successful home-grown religion, was lynched on this date in 1844 at the jail in Carthage, Illinois.

Mormonism today boasts some 15 million adherents but it all started in the 1820s when Smith, then an energetic young mystic in the revival hotbed of western New York, claimed to have been guided by an angel to plates engraved in a made-up language that only he could translate and only that one time because the plates disappeared back to angelic custody after Smith’s perusal. It will not be news to this site’s LDS readers that few outside the faith place this origin story on the near side of the laugh test, but then, it is the nature of religions to appear ridiculous to outsiders: Christ crucified is unto the Greeks foolishness.

Smith’s heretical story of America as the ancient zone of a literal “New Jerusalem” founded by Israelites with a theretofore unknown gift for transoceanic navigation was certainly a stumbling-block for Protestant American neighbors, who harried from state to state — a practically Biblical sojourn through the desert — the fast-growing community. It came to pass* that the young man’s implausible scripture struck a resonant chord for the young nation.

“It was a really powerful religion,” says John Dolan in an episode of the War Nerd podcast.** “It said, our people have always been here, America is the promised land, you’re at home here. And that meant so much to 19th century Americans.”

The strange new sect’s capacity for punching above its weight in the missionary game also unleashed violently hostile reactions, marrying to its settler theology a compelling lived experience of persecution. The march of the movement across the continent has an astonishing, can’t-make-this-up character — “full of stir and adventure” in Mark Twain’s words, so again a perfect fit for America.

A few books about Joseph Smith

Smith took his fledgling faith from its New York birthplace to Kirtland, Ohio — where he was fortunate to survive a tarring and feathering in 1832 — and then onward to Missouri where a dirty vigilante war led the governor to issue a notorious “extermination order”: “the Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state if necessary for the public peace.” Scrabbling for a homeland and pursued by a Missouri treason charge (!) Smith ducked over the western border to Illinois and set up a Mormon town called Nauvoo.

The faith was barely a decade old and still struggling to find an equilibrium. While Smith fought the last battle by creating a gigantic militia to protect his flock from the sorts of military attacks it had faced in Missouri — which state still sought Smith’s head in the 1840s — he attained his martyrdom as the fallout of prosaic internal politics. Seeking to suppress schismatic Mormons, Smith in June 1844 ordered the destruction of their critical newspaper, the Nauvoo Expositor.†

By now having worn out his welcome with yet another state, the unpopular Smith became the subject of an Illinois arrest warrant as a result of this lawless attack on his rivals. Expecting better treatment than Missouri would have offered him and angling to keep Mormons in an amicable relationship with neighbors, Smith this time chose to turn himself in to face trial for inciting a riot, along with his brother Hyrum Smith and two other Mormon leaders, Willard Richards and John Taylor.‡

But in this case, the law did not take its course.

On the afternoon of June 27, 1844, a mob of 200 armed men stormed the jail in Carthage where the Mormons were held, meeting only token resistance. (Indeed, many of the force assigned to guard the Mormons joined the attackers instead.) They gunned down Hyrum Smith on the spot and drove Joseph Smith — firing back all the while — to a window where a fusillade knocked him out of the second story. His body was shot up and mutilated; one of the numerous accounts of those moments even has it that the corpse was propped up for a summary firing squad “execution.”

Whatever else one could say of Joseph Smith, he forged a community that survived its founder’s death, and is thriving still nearly two centuries on. With Smith’s passing, leadership of the Mormons fell to Brigham Young, who brought the Mormons out of Illinois for their destiny in Utah.

* Smith — or the angel Moroni, if you like — amusingly abuses the portentous clause “it came to pass” in the Book of Mormon, repeating it in about one-fifth of the tome’s verses.

** Also recommended: Dolan’s article on Joseph Smith as an outstanding product of an era of “text-finding” — his spuriously “ancient” book offering pious Americans their greatest desideratum, a national link to God’s Biblical chosen people much like James MacPherson‘s forged Ossian epic thrilled the patriotic fancies of Scots discomfitingly swallowed up into Great Britain.

† The Expositor published only one single issue: the June 7, 1844 edition that caused its immediate suppression and eventually Smith’s death.

‡ Both Richards and Taylor survived the mob attack on Carthage Jail. Taylor in 1880 succeeded Brigham Young as president of the church.

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1844: Hester Foster and William Young Graham

1 comment February 8th, 2014 Meaghan

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

At 1:30 p.m. on this date in 1844 at the Columbus Penitentiary in Ohio, William Young Graham, aka William Clark, and Hester Foster, aka Helen or Esther, were hanged together for their respective crimes.

It was an integrated execution: Graham was a white man, and Foster was black.

Foster was the first woman to be executed in Ohio. (There have been just three more … so far.) The previous spring, while incarcerated for some offense lost to history, she beat a white female prisoner to death with a fire shovel. As this history of Franklin County notes, Foster admitted to her actions, but claimed the murder wasn’t premeditated and therefore not a death penalty crime.

Graham’s crime was somewhat similar; within a few months of the murder Foster committed, he killed a prison guard with an ax. He claimed insanity by way of defense.

The pair’s public execution was attended by thousands. In the atmosphere of “noise, confusion, drunkenness and disorder,” one attendee, a Mr. Sullivan Sweet, was accidentally trampled to death. Many more Ohio men would face the death penalty in coming years, but Ohio’s next execution of a woman would not be until almost a century later, with the electrocution of serial poisoner Anna Marie Hahn in 1938.

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1844: Gabriel de la Concepcion Valdes, “Placido”

1 comment June 28th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1844, Cuban poet Gabriel de la Concepcion Valdes was executed in Matanzas for conspiring to overthrow Spanish authority on the island.

His mother (who gave him up to an orphanage) was a Spanish dancer. His father (who adopted him back) was a “quadroon” barber. Valdes, aka Placido (Spanish link, which is true of most available online resources about him) grew up as a free mixed-race youth in a slave society.

This situated him in the privileged (relative to plantation slaves) but precarious position of the petty bourgeoisie, menaced not only by the prospect of economic reversal but by the vicissitudes of Spanish policy towards his caste — whose growth many colonial officials fretted warily.

Though Placido made his bread apprenticing as a print-maker and later making turquoise combs, he made his fame by dint of literary gift that was celebrated throughout Cuba and abroad. His “La siempreviva” won a literary competition when he was just 25, and led to an invitation to visit Spain (Placido declined it); the Cuban-born, naturalized Mexican poet Jose Maria Heredia visited Cuba in 1836 and made a point to look up Placido; and according to the out-of-print Cuba’s Romantic Poet: The Story of Placido by Frederick Stimson, the young Cuban was wildly popular with North American slavery abolitionists as well.

Placido is less well-remembered beyond his home island today, but arguably rates as Cuba’s most distinguished Romantic poet.

In the 1830s especially, when civil war in Spain put the reigning monarch on the liberal side, Placido was able to exploit the opening to write openly of Cuban political aspirations.

His La Sombra de Padilla, dedicated to Spain’s “wise and exalted Queen”, imagines one of Spain’s martyred comuneros charging him to venture his life for liberty against absolutism.

Better to fall prey to La Parca [the Grim Reaper]
Than to a despotic Monarca

But notwithstanding the war in Iberia, the exalted Queen still put Cuba under special (read: repressive) law. Placido’s prominence, having advocated for much more freedom than Cuba was slated to enjoy, subjected him to automatic Spanish suspicion as more authoritarian governance arrived in the 1840s.

The poet was arrested in the Conspiración de La Escalera (Conspiracy of the Ladder, so named for the structure its accused were tortured upon). This purported plot to raise a slave revolt may or may not (pdf) have really existed, but the crackdown it authorized sure did. Indeed, despite the “slave revolt” bogeyman, it was overwhelmingly free blacks whom the Spanish suppressed in this affair.

Gariel de la Concepcion Valdes, known as “Placido”, was shot with ten others, “miserable instruments of the most depraved machinations of immoral men, men who deserve the curse of the living and the opprobrium of generations to come,” just a week after his conviction.

The appointed lot has come upon me, mother,
The mournful ending of my years of strife,
This changing world I leave, and to another
In blood and terror goes my spirit’s life.

But thou, grief-smitten, cease thy mortal weeping
And let thy soul her wonted peace regain;
I fall for right, and thoughts of thee are sweeping
Across my lyre to wake its dying strains.

A strain of joy and gladness, free, unfailing
All glorious and holy, pure, divine,
And innocent, unconscious as the wailing
I uttered on my birth; and I resign

Even now, my life, even now descending slowly,
Faith’s mantle folds me to my slumbers holy.
Mother, farewell! God keep thee — and forever!

-Valdes, “Farewell to My Mother”

There are volumes of Placido’s poetry (in the original Spanish) freely available via public-domain Google books offerings here and here, with a short thumbnail biography here. For the nonfiction biographical exploration of Placido’s life, and detailed critical analysis of his poetry, this Vanderbilt master’s thesis (pdf) is highly recommended.

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1844: The Bandiera brothers

Add comment July 25th, 2011 Headsman

On this date* in 1844, the Italian nationalists Attilio and Emilio Bandiera were shot with seven companions at Cosenza, Italy.

The Bandieras (English Wikipedia page | Italian) were Venetian officers in the Austrian navy — sons, indeed, of an admiral in that service.

Having been caught out in a mutinous agitation, the patriotic lads had been obliged to flee to Corfu (then under British administration)

But whispers soon reached them of a nascent rising in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, and they took a small party to the toe of the Italian boot looking to get in on the glory.

They didn’t find the rumored revolutionaries — just martyrdom.

Reprieves preserved eight of the seventeen death-sentenced for the escapade; shot along with the renowned national martyrs together crying “Viva l’Italia!” were Nicola Riccioti, Domenico Moro, Anarcharsis Narde, Giovanni Verenui, Giacomo Rocca, Francesco Berti, and Domenico Lapatelli. (London Times, Aug. 12, 1844)

Venice visitors can pay their respects to the two at the Church of San Giovanni e Paolo, where they’re buried.

* There are some citations for July 23 out there, but the numerical bulk of the sources, and those closest to the event itself, clearly prefer July 25. e.g., the London Times of Aug. 12, 1844 cites the Journal of the Two Sicilies in reporting July 25; as noted by Mazzini and Marx, then-exiled Italian risorgimento figure Giuseppe Mazzini, who corresponded ineffectually with the martyrs, published a poem for this anniversary date in the July 25, 1846 edition of the Northern Star:

And in distant years the story
Still shall our children tell
Of those who sleep in glory
At Cosenza where they fell.

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