1845: Sarah Freeman, Shapwick Murderess

1 comment April 23rd, 2019 Headsman

Hanged April 23, 1845 for poisoning her brother Charles Dimond — and commonly suspected to have offed several other family members by means of arsenic — the “Shapwick Murderess” Sarah Freeman insisted her innocence to her very last breath. “I am as innocent as a lamb,” she said to the hangman William Calcraft as he noosed her.

Serial poisoner or wrongfully executed? Find out more at the Capital Punishment UK Facebook page

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1845: John Burnett, failson

Add comment December 26th, 2018 Headsman

At the Fayetteville (Arks.) Court on the 8th inst., John Burnett was sentenced to be hung on the 26th inst., for the murder of Jonathan Selby.

-Newark (N.J.) Daily Advertiser, Dec. 29, 1845

John Burnett, the son and collaborator of murderers Lavinia and Crawford Burnett — a case we addressed in a previous post — belatedly shared his parents’ fate on this date in 1845.

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1845: Maria Trinidad Sanchez, Dominican Republic heroine

Add comment February 27th, 2012 Headsman

We’ve previously noted in these pages Francisco del Rosario Sanchez, one of the Dominican Republic’s founding heroes, who in 1861 was shot for propounding independence.

Martyrdom was the family business.

On February 27, 1845, his sister Maria Trinidad Sanchez (Spanish link) had been, well, shot for propounding independence. (More Spanish)

That date, February 27, also happens to be the Dominican Republic’s Independence Day celebration — because a year to the date before her death, Maria Sanchez, her brother, and others of the anti-colonial La Trinitaria proclaimed independence from a bloody 22-year Haitian occupation.

Maria Sanchez, together with another woman named Concepcion Bona, made the first Dominican Republic flag.


Sanchez and Bona’s original flag for the Dominican Republic.

This was all well and good, until the resulting head of state steered the Dominican Republic towards recolonization by Spain, as a hedge against reconquest by Haiti. La Trinitaria types took an understandably dim view of this gambit, so busting them up was part of the deal.

Many of the country’s founding heroes, including brother Francisco, were chased into exile; Maria was rounded up by the new government and tortured for information about the Trinitarian “plots” against the new regime. She refused to name any names, and was shot on the country’s first independence anniversary.

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1845: John Gordon, the last hanged in Rhode Island

Add comment February 14th, 2012 Headsman

Last year, the Rhode Island General Assembly approved a measure posthumously pardoning John Gordon — who on February 14, 1845 was the last man executed in that state.

Gordon’s hanging, for the murder of a prominent industrialist who had bad blood with Gordon’s brother, was long notorious in Rhode Island as one secured on highly uncertain evidence in an atmosphere of anti-Irish prejudice.

Executed Today is pleased to welcome on this occasion University of Rhode Island labor historian Scott Molloy, author of Irish Titan, Irish Toilers and a major advocate of the Gordon pardon.

ET: Can you set the scene — what’s going on in Rhode Island at this time, and what are the tensions surrounding Irish immigrants?

SM: Rhode Island was the site of the first factory in America in the 1790s, called Slater Mill. It really changed the face of Rhode Island and eventually the rest of the US.

In Rhode Island, curiously, as more and more people left the farms to work on the mills, they had an unusual requirement that really didn’t make any difference years earlier: in order to vote, you had to have so much land. (Specifically, $134 worth of land.)

By 1840, not only were the usual suspects not able to vote — women, people of color, Native Americans — 60% of native-born white male Rhode Islanders were also unable to vote. It meant that just a handful of people ruled the state, compared to the time of the American Revolution when just about every white male could vote. And immigrants in particular — and in those days, that was the Irish — were basically precluded from voting. You had a residency requirement, a property qualification. It made Rhode Island almost unique in New England, almost like a southern state.

A group of reformers came to the forefront, a guy named Thomas Wilson Dorr, a blueblood aristocrat, Harvard-educated, one of the best legal minds of the country. He threw his lot in with the reformers to try to get people the right to vote. It really polarized the state in 1842.

The Irish were sympathetic, but Irish priests tried to keep them out of it because they wanted to acclimate. But because a lot of the animosity toward people having the right to vote was directed at Irish immigrants. People blamed the Irish even though the Irish didn’t get particularly involved in the Dorr War.

Often times they got blamed for everything whether they did it or not. And of course we face the same situation with immigrants today.

What was the crime and how did the Gordons come to be the focus of the prosecution?

In 1843, a Yankee industrialist out in Cranston by the name of Amasa Sprague was found on New Year’s Eve 1843 bludgeoned to death in what today we might call a hate crime. He had a gold watch still on him, he had money in his poket, and he had been beaten to death.

Amasa Sprague was a very influential guy. His older brother who helped run the mill with him and was the US Senator from Rhode Island had the local city council lift the liquor license from the Gordon family’s business, which for all intents and purposes ended their livelihood. This was Nicholas Gordon’s shop: John Gordon had only just crossed over from Ireland.

When Sprague was found dead about six months after the license was lost, they focused on the Gordon family. The authorities formed a posse and they went after this Irish family.

Book CoverHow did anti-Irish sentiment manifest itself at trial?

The juries in all three trials had no Catholics and no Irish that I’m aware of. There was a lot of religious and socioeconomic animosity.

At the time, the Supreme Court of the state would sit in on the whole trial just because it was a capital trial, and the trial judge would say in the transcript — which is still available (pdf) — he basically says to the jury, if you find testimony that contradicts itself between a Yankee and an Irish witness, you should give the Yankee testimony more credence.

Doesn’t the fact that John Gordon’s brothers were not convicted militate against the notion of overwhelming anti-Irish prejudice?

You can’t go overboard on these things. The juries — all three of them — they found one Gordon innocent and in the other case they had a hung jury. I don’t want to say they were completely prejudiced, because they weren’t, but almost everything else in Rhode Island at that time was stacked up against them.

The earlier Irish who came in the 1820s and 1830s were a little bit better off, a little bit better-educated [compared to later Irish immigrants after the potato famine]. The animus against the Irish was still intense; the Irish were seen as criminal, unskilled, uneducated, ignorant. The Protestant majority at the time, mostly of English heritage, kind of brought that over with them even though they had been there for a long time.

So how did the legal proceedings play out?

They put two of the recently immigrated brothers up for conspiracy for murder, but not the oldest brother. So John Gordon and his brother William go on trial first.

The jury came back with a guilty verdict for John Gordon, who didn’t have much of an alibi, but a not guilty verdict for William, who did have an alibi. So you’ve got a conspiracy conviction with only one conviction.

Then they put Nicholas Gordon on trial, and the jury comes back deadlocked. His second trial is not going to be until the spring of 1845. In the interim, his brother John was to be hanged, Valentine‘s Day 1845 — rather than wait to see what happened at Nicholas Gordon’s trial and whether there even is a conspiracy.

The defense petitions the governor and the general assembly to hold off the execution until after the trial of the oldest brother. The governor washes his hands of it, and the general assembly votes very narrowly to go ahead with the execution.

So they hang him, and what’s interesting in that part of it is an itinerant, traveling Catholic priest — a guy named Father John Brady — hears John Gordon’s last confession.

Well, they invite the elite of providence inside the prison to watch the hanging. (There’s about 1,000 Irish outside the prison in support of John Gordon.) When they put the noose around his neck, the priest is with him, and the priest berates the elites and authorities, and he says, John, you are going before a just God who has seen way too many of your countrymen.

I always argue in my writings that this guy, he’s an immigrant, he’s uneducated, he’s just been in America for a few months. I just can’t believe that this guy would ever lie to the priest hearing his last confession, and the priest would never berate the elites unless he’d heard a confession of innocence.

After John Gordon’s hanging, his brother Nicholas goes on trial as planned, and they come back with another hung jury — this time, with a majority voting him as innocent. They were going to try him again except about 18 months later, Nicholas dies of natural causes.

I’ve seen a lot of people describe growing up hearing unambiguously that this was a wrongful execution. Is that how it was perceived right from the start? How universal was/is that perception?

There was such a collective feeling of guilt about this that in 1854, Rhode Island abolished the death penalty and John Gordon was the last person ever executed there.

There’s one flaw in the law. This was added late in the 20th century, that anyone convicted of killing a prison guard during an escape could still be killed. And there was an incident, I remember it as a kid maybe 30 years ago, but they still didn’t condemn even that person to death. But Rhode Island has never changed that.

None of us who ever testified ever said categorically that John Gordon was innocent, because we just can’t prove that. But we did say that he never got a fair trial, just like Sacco and Vanzetti in the 1920s.

We did in our research was come up with two or three suspects who had much better reason to assassinate Sprague. But there were no witnesses to the case. It was all circumstantial evidence. I have to say, every time I look at the case — there are some pieces of evidence that would make the Gordons look very guilty. There are other aspects of it that make them look very innocent. If it was in today’s world, the police would interrogate them as people of interest.

It’s not as cut-and-dried as some people make it. All I know is that they got an unfair trial.

Gordon was posthumously pardoned last year. How did that campaign get going, and how receptive were folks in the capitol?

The problem was a lot of people had forgotten the case. I had been writing for a number of years op-ed pieces in the Providence Journal, and mentioned John Gordon from time to time.

But it was an 80-year-old guy named Ken Dooley, and he grew up a couple miles from the murder site near Cranston, and he was a playwright. He came back home and remembered his grandmother singing some little ditty of a song 70 years ago saying something like “Poor Johnny Gordon”, and so he researched it, and he wrote a play.

And they put it on in Cranston, and over the couse of the month several thousand people saw it. A state representative, an Irish guy, saw the play four or five times and then introduced that into the general assembly trying to obtain a posthumous pardon — just to say that the evidence didn’t support the execution.

And Gov. Chaffee, who comes from an ancient Yankee family in Rhode Island, signed the damn thing. It was that play that this guy wrote and we were all amazed that this kind of came out of the blue. We held a lot of events around it — had church services, put up ceremonial headstones. I always tell people that I want this on my headstone: that I had a hand in getting John Gordon pardoned.


There are some excellent resources already available online concerning the Gordon case, including:

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1845: Not William Weaver, defended by Abraham Lincoln

Add comment June 27th, 2011 Headsman

This date in 1845 was the appointed hanging of William Weaver, the first convicted murderer in Champaign County, Illinois.

While drunk, Weaver shot to death one David Hiltibrau and despite the able representation of one Abraham Lincoln was speedily convicted. (pdf)

Where the rail splitter failed, fortune prevailed.

“A few days — or nights rather — before that set for his execution,” we read,

a friendly auger passed to him afforded the means of escape. Just then delays were dangerous to poor drunken Bill Weaver, for Sheriff Lewis had the rope and scaffold ready, so he did not await a farewell word from friends, but sped away to the North, as the winds go. At that time the tangled forests and the untramped prairies afforded unexcelled means for seclusion and escape, and the condemned man, once a mile from town, might well bid farewell to every fear of being caught and hanged, as he doubtless did. Years afterward Weaver was heard from in far Northern Wisconsin, a useful, law-abiding citizen. No effort was ever made to bring him back from his delicious exile.

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1845: John Tawell, the man in the Kwaker garb

2 comments March 28th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1845, John Tawell was publicly hanged in Aylesbury (while broadsheets were hawked beneath the scaffold to the crowd of thousands) for the murder of his mistress — making history as the first criminal apprehended with the use of the telegraph.

Tawell had had an interesting 60-plus years on the planet. He did well as a young banker on the make to avoid the halter for the capital crime of forging banknotes.*

In those sanguinary days of our penal code, this crime, if brought home, would have led to his certain condemntion and ignominious execution as a felon. The particulars of the affair were, however, suppressed as far as possible, on account of the insuperable disinclination of the bankers to be in any way instrumental in taking away human life.**

Clapped in irons and sent to Australia, he waxed wealthy — “by his fortunate, and, it is to be presumed, honest trading,” our wry biography remarks. (As a pharmacist. That’s what we in the biz call “foreshadowing.”)

Tawell returned to England in 1831, got Sarah Hart as a bit on the side (she’d initially been hired to nurse Tawell’s dying wife), and then married a respectable Quaker woman. To conceal the affair — or perhaps because the payola Tawell was obliged to send for the maintenance of his mistress and the kids he begat with her was chewing into his straitened finances — Tawell poisoned Hart on New Year’s Day 1845.

Unfortunately for him, he was noticed leaving the scene of the crime by a neighbor, who found the victim before she had even expired.

Tawell had hopped a slow train for London ahead of apprehension, but it transpired that the station had installed the newfangled telecommunications device, the telegraph, which was requisitioned to dispatch to Paddington station a famous missive.

A murder had just been committed at Salt Hill and the suspected murderer was seen to take a first class ticket to London by the train that left Slough at 7.42pm. He is in the garb of a Kwaker with a brown great coat on which reaches his feet. He is in the last compartment of the second first-class carriage.

(The telegraph didn’t have a “Q”, so they had to improvise a phonetic spelling. k l8r.)


Dot dot. Dash dash.

(This landmark police event is not to be confused with the first use of wireless telegraphy to apprehend a criminal — the next century’s very similar philandering-apothecary-on-the-lam case of Dr. Crippen.)

Caught, convicted,† condemned. (And confessed, secretly, to the prison chaplain.) The usual. Botched strangulation hanging. Hardly unusual. Love triangle murder? Downright trite.

But still: Tawell’s strange and variegated life left a strange and variegated legacy. (pdf)

In Australia, the memory of Tawell lingered for many years after his death because considerable legal argument took place about the validity of the Crown’s hndling of his property there. The Governor, Sir William Denison, affixed the Great Seal of the colony to the grant documents on his own initiative, which creted a serious difference between him and his chief minister. Known as the “Great Seal case”, it dragged on for some 16 years before it was resolved. It provided a dramatic epilogue to Tawell’s activities.

John Tawell had pharmacy qualifications of a sort, and he was no better or worse than many of the doctors around Sydney at the time who had received no regular professional instruction. When Tawell ventured into competition with the medical establishment in the colony it was a huge gamble because until 1820 many government doctors saw private patients and had clerks to do their dispensing, usually from hospital stores. He showed that independent pharmacy could thrive away from the medical shadow, but the commercial nature of his success also showed that the founding of independent pharmacy in Australia occurred as a retailing activity rather than as a needed profession.

* As a teen, Tawell was friends with a Quaker linen-draper who was himself ultimately executed for forgery, Joseph Hunton.

** This claim for bankers’ gentility is advanced in the context of the story of a banker who in fact went on to commit murder. Aside from that obvious paradox, it will come as no surprise to any denizen of the post-bailout neoliberal era that bankers proved more than ready to involve themselves in human misery, sufficiently remunerative. If Tawell’s sweetheart plea bargain reveals anything about the financier class, it’s that bankers aren’t keen on precedents for taking away bankers’ lives.

† John Tawell’s trial lawyer, the eminent jurist and politician Sir Fitzroy Kelly, disputed the coroner’s poisoning conclusion by arguing that Sarah Hart might have just eaten too many apple seeds. (Prussic acid, aka hydrogen cyanide, does occur naturally in many fruits.)

This attempted Chewbacca defense earned the barrister the nickname “Apple-pip Kelly”. However, since the cutting-edge technology of the day was only telegraph and not Twitter, the case does not appear to have launched any of Apple-pip Kelly’s progeny into lucratively pointless careers as famous-for-being-famous socialites.

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1845: Lavinia Burnett and Crawford Burnett

Add comment November 8th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1845, husband-and-wife murderers Crawford and Lavinia Burnett (nee Sharp) danced a gallows jig built for two in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

The duo contrived with their son, John, to rob and murder a nearby recluse, Jonathan Selby, for the money he was thought to be hoarding.

The family the slays together, pays together.

Alas for mom, dad, and big brother, 15-year-old daughter Minerva shopped them.

John-boy was still on the lam at this time — he’d be caught soon, and hanged December 26 — but Lavinia and Crawford hanged together before a large crowd in the vicinity of the present-day Fayetteville National Cemetery.

It was the first recorded execution of a woman in Arkansas history, and would be the only such until the year 2000.

Among the ranks of the Burnetts’ illustrious if unsuccessful defense team was Isaac Murphy, who would go on to become a notable pro-Union pol during the Civil War (with a murky part in an infamous massacre of Confederate sympathizers), and subsequently became governor of the state during Reconstruction.

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1845: An Italian highwayman, as witnessed by Dickens

5 comments March 8th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1845, Charles Dickens witnessed a man beheaded in Rome for robbery and murder.

At 33, Dickens was well-established in his field; he already had to his credit The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby and others.

Dickens spent a good part of the mid-1840’s abroad, with extended stays in North America, Italy and Switzerland, although without much abating his prodigious output. He intended the travelogue Pictures From Italy to help finance his journeys; it met an unenthusiastic reception and rates distinctly among Dickens’ minor works.

This day’s events took place during the latter stages of Dickens’ stay in Italy and — as the distinctly proscriptive last paragraphs of this excerpt indicate — touch a social theme very pressing to the author, one to which he would soon return again. Years later, the utterly unedifying scene of the public guillotine would be fodder for Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, whose tragic protagonist has already appeared in these pages.

Of note also is Dickens’ implication — though he doesn’t quite state it outright — that the criminal was uncovered by a secret revealed under the seal of confession, a touchy point for the priesthood as any viewer of television crime dramas will certainly be aware. We have to allow a considerable latitude for a misapprehension on the traveler’s part here, especially given that Pictures as a whole caught considerable heat from the moment of its publication for its relentless anti-Catholicism. (Update: More on the use of confessionals in Papal Rome in this post about the Vatican’s headsman.)

Here’s the scene in its entirety:

On one Saturday morning (the eighth of March), a man was beheaded here. Nine or ten months before, he had waylaid a Bavarian countess, travelling as a pilgrim to Rome – alone and on foot, of course – and performing, it is said, that act of piety for the fourth time. He saw her change a piece of gold at Viterbo, where he lived; followed her; bore her company on her journey for some forty miles or more, on the treacherous pretext of protecting her; attacked her, in the fulfilment of his unrelenting purpose, on the Campagna, within a very short distance of Rome, near to what is called (but what is not) the Tomb of Nero; robbed her; and beat her to death with her own pilgrim’s staff. He was newly married, and gave some of her apparel to his wife: saying that he had bought it at a fair. She, however, who had seen the pilgrim-countess passing through their town, recognised some trifle as having belonged to her. Her husband then told her what he had done. She, in confession, told a priest; and the man was taken, within four days after the commission of the murder.

There are no fixed times for the administration of justice, or its execution, in this unaccountable country; and he had been in prison ever since. On the Friday, as he was dining with the other prisoners, they came and told him he was to be beheaded next morning, and took him away. It is very unusual to execute in Lent; but his crime being a very bad one, it was deemed advisable to make an example of him at that time, when great numbers of pilgrims were coming towards Rome, from all parts, for the Holy Week. I heard of this on the Friday evening, and saw the bills up at the churches, calling on the people to pray for the criminal’s soul. So, I determined to go, and see him executed.

The beheading was appointed for fourteen and a-half o’clock, Roman time: or a quarter before nine in the forenoon. I had two friends with me; and as we did not know but that the crowd might be very great, we were on the spot by half-past seven. The place of execution was near the church of San Giovanni decolláto (a doubtful compliment to Saint John the Baptist) in one of the impassable back streets without any footway, of which a great part of Rome is composed – a street of rotten houses, which do not seem to belong to anybody, and do not seem to have ever been inhabited, and certainly were never built on any plan, or for any particular purpose, and have no window-sashes, and are a little like deserted breweries, and might be warehouses but for having nothing in them. Opposite to one of these, a white house, the scaffold was built. An untidy, unpainted, uncouth, crazy-looking thing of course: some seven feet high, perhaps: with a tall, gallows-shaped frame rising above it, in which was the knife, charged with a ponderous mass of iron, all ready to descend, and glittering brightly in the morning sun, whenever it looked out, now and then, from behind a cloud.

There were not many people lingering about; and these were kept at a considerable distance from the scaffold, by parties of the Pope’s dragoons. Two or three hundred foot-soldiers were under arms, standing at ease in clusters here and there; and the officers were walking up and down in twos and threes, chatting together, and smoking cigars.

At the end of the street, was an open space, where there would be a dust-heap, and piles of broken crockery, and mounds of vegetable refuse, but for such things being thrown anywhere and everywhere in Rome, and favouring no particular sort of locality. We got into a kind of wash-house, belonging to a dwelling-house on this spot; and standing there in an old cart, and on a heap of cartwheels piled against the wall, looked, through a large grated window, at the scaffold, and straight down the street beyond it until, in consequence of its turning off abruptly to the left, our perspective was brought to a sudden termination, and had a corpulent officer, in a cocked hat, for its crowning feature.

Nine o’clock struck, and ten o’clock struck, and nothing happened. All the bells of all the churches rang as usual. A little parliament of dogs assembled in the open space, and chased each other, in and out among the soldiers. Fierce-looking Romans of the lowest class, in blue cloaks, russet cloaks, and rags uncloaked, came and went, and talked together. Women and children fluttered, on the skirts of the scanty crowd. One large muddy spot was left quite bare, like a bald place on a man’s head. A cigar-merchant, with an earthen pot of charcoal ashes in one hand, went up and down, crying his wares. A pastry-merchant divided his attention between the scaffold and his customers. Boys tried to climb up walls, and tumbled down again. Priests and monks elbowed a passage for themselves among the people, and stood on tiptoe for a sight of the knife: then went away. Artists, in inconceivable hats of the middle-ages, and beards (thank Heaven!) of no age at all, flashed picturesque scowls about them from their stations in the throng. One gentleman (connected with the fine arts, I presume) went up and down in a pair of Hessian-boots, with a red beard hanging down on his breast, and his long and bright red hair, plaited into two tails, one on either side of his head, which fell over his shoulders in front of him, very nearly to his waist, and were carefully entwined and braided!

Eleven o’clock struck and still nothing happened. A rumour got about, among the crowd, that the criminal would not confess; in which case, the priests would keep him until the Ave Maria (sunset); for it is their merciful custom never finally to turn the crucifix away from a man at that pass, as one refusing to be shriven, and consequently a sinner abandoned of the Saviour, until then. People began to drop off. The officers shrugged their shoulders and looked doubtful. The dragoons, who came riding up below our window, every now and then, to order an unlucky hackney-coach or cart away, as soon as it had comfortably established itself, and was covered with exulting people (but never before), became imperious, and quick-tempered. The bald place hadn’t a straggling hair upon it; and the corpulent officer, crowning the perspective, took a world of snuff.

Suddenly, there was a noise of trumpets. ‘Attention!’ was among the foot-soldiers instantly. They were marched up to the scaffold and formed round it. The dragoons galloped to their nearer stations too. The guillotine became the centre of a wood of bristling bayonets and shining sabres. The people closed round nearer, on the flank of the soldiery. A long straggling stream of men and boys, who had accompanied the procession from the prison, came pouring into the open space. The bald spot was scarcely distinguishable from the rest. The cigar and pastry-merchants resigned all thoughts of business, for the moment, and abandoning themselves wholly to pleasure, got good situations in the crowd. The perspective ended, now, in a troop of dragoons. And the corpulent officer, sword in hand, looked hard at a church close to him, which he could see, but we, the crowd, could not.

After a short delay, some monks were seen approaching to the scaffold from this church; and above their heads, coming on slowly and gloomily, the effigy of Christ upon the cross, canopied with black. This was carried round the foot of the scaffold, to the front, and turned towards the criminal, that he might see it to the last. It was hardly in its place, when he appeared on the platform, bare-footed; his hands bound; and with the collar and neck of his shirt cut away, almost to the shoulder. A young man — six-and-twenty — vigorously made, and well-shaped. Face pale; small dark moustache; and dark brown hair.

He had refused to confess, it seemed, without first having his wife brought to see him; and they had sent an escort for her, which had occasioned the delay.

He immediately kneeled down, below the knife. His neck fitting into a hole, made for the purpose, in a cross plank, was shut down, by another plank above; exactly like the pillory. Immediately below him was a leathern bag. And into it his head rolled instantly.

The executioner was holding it by the hair, and walking with it round the scaffold, showing it to the people, before one quite knew that the knife had fallen heavily, and with a rattling sound.

When it had travelled round the four sides of the scaffold, it was set upon a pole in front — a little patch of black and white, for the long street to stare at, and the flies to settle on. The eyes were turned upward, as if he had avoided the sight of the leathern bag, and looked to the crucifix. Every tinge and hue of life had left it in that instant. It was dull, cold, livid, wax. The body also.

There was a great deal of blood. When we left the window, and went close up to the scaffold, it was very dirty; one of the two men who were throwing water over it, turning to help the other lift the body into a shell, picked his way as through mire. A strange appearance was the apparent annihilation of the neck. The head was taken off so close, that it seemed as if the knife had narrowly escaped crushing the jaw, or shaving off the ear; and the body looked as if there were nothing left above the shoulder.

Nobody cared, or was at all affected. There was no manifestation of disgust, or pity, or indignation, or sorrow. My empty pockets were tried, several times, in the crowd immediately below the scaffold, as the corpse was being put into its coffin. It was an ugly, filthy, careless, sickening spectacle; meaning nothing but butchery beyond the momentary interest, to the one wretched actor. Yes! Such a sight has one meaning and one warning. Let me not forget it. The speculators in the lottery, station themselves at favourable points for counting the gouts of blood that spirt out, here or there; and buy that number. It is pretty sure to have a run upon it.

The body was carted away in due time, the knife cleansed, the scaffold taken down, and all the hideous apparatus removed. The executioner: an outlaw ex officio (what a satire on the Punishment!) who dare not, for his life, cross the Bridge of St. Angelo but to do his work: retreated to his lair, and the show was over.

Pictures from Italy is available free online from Project Gutenberg.

The date and description would indicate that Dickens witnessed the death of 26-year-old Giovanni Vagnarelli. (See this list of the Holy See’s executions.)

Part of the Themed Set: The Written Word.

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Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!