August 8th, 2013
John Rodda was hanged on this date in 1846 behind York Castle on “a charge so unusual and so repugnant to the ordinary feelings of human nature.”
Rodda murdered his 18-month-old daughter Mary by pouring sulphuric acid down her throat.
The motive: as a member of a burial society — a sort of community insurance pool for defraying funeral costs — Rodda stood to pocket two pounds, 10 shillings for the death of his little girl. (Was that a lot of money in those days? Not really.)
The most complete account of this event The Criminal Chronology of York Castle, and it underscores what a rum job Rodda did of cashing in on Mary.
On April 18th of that year, while the baby was on the mend from some routine affliction of infancy, John Rodda bought a penny’s worth of vitriol from a druggist.
The next day, Mary’s condition took an abrupt turn for the worse after being left a few minutes in her father’s care, and the acid was found in her stomach. Hmmmmm.
A few days previously to his execution, he made a full confession of his guilt, and stated that avarice was his only motive for sacrificing his innocent and unoffending child, whom it was his duty as a parent to have succoured and protected; but whom he coolly, deliberately, and cruelly murdered for the sake of filthy lucre. But the day of execution at last arrived, and the greatly erring young man’s earthly hopes and fears were soon to terminate. At an early hour on Saturday morning, August 8th, the workmen commenced erecting the drop in front of St. George’s Field, and the solemn preparations for the awful ceremony were speedily completed. At the usual hour the wretched man, with blanched cheek and dejected look — his arms pinioned — appeared on the scaffold, attended by the regular officials; after spending a few minutes in prayer, the executioner proceeded to perform the duties of his office, by drawing the cap over his eyes and adjusting the rope, when the fatal bolt was withdrawn — the drop fell — a convulsive struggle ensued — and the unhappy mortal ceased to exist.
There was a large concourse of spectators assembled in St. George’s Field, and the intervening road, to witness the appalling spectacle, amongst whom were a great number of the lower orders of the Irish, who had congregated to witness the last moments of their fellow-countryman.
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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Pelf,Public Executions
Tags: 1840s, 1846, august 8, filicide, insurance fraud, john rodda, mary rodda, poison, poisoner, sulfuric acid, vitriol, york
January 24th, 2013
On this date in 1846, a 46-year-old woman lamed from a fall got noosed in her rocking chair in Fulton, N.Y.
Elizabeth Van Valkenburgh had been widowed at 34 with four children, when her first husband died of dyspepsia and exposure. “There is no foundation,” the prisoner explained, “for the report that I had in any way hastened his death, nor did such a thing ever enter my mind.”
She remarried shortly thereafter to John Van Valkenburgh, apparently a violent drunk, whose depredations eventually led Elizabeth to get rid of him by spiking his tea with arsenic. “To this act I was prompted by no living soul,” she said in her confession. “I consulted with no one on the subject, nor was any individual privy to it.” She may have been keen to clear any public suspicion from her oldest children — they were old enough to try to get mom to move out of the house with them and offer to help take care of the younger kids. She suffered a fall from a barn’s hayloft as she was hiding out, which crippled her leg.
The key original documents from her trial, including the death sentence and the rejection of clemency (a petition to which 10 of Valkenburgh’s 12 jurors subscribed) are preserved here.
Oh, and one other thing. On the eve of her hanging, the condemned murderess produced a germane revision to her aforementioned confession, recalling that there may actually have been some foundation for the report that she also hastened her first husband’s death.
With respect to my first husband I should have stated that about a year before his death I mixed arsenic, which I purchased several months previously at Mr. Saddler’s in Johnstown, with some rum which he had in a jug, of which he drunk once, and by which he was made very sick and vomited, but it did not prevent his going to work the next day and continuing to work afterwards, until the next June. His feet and the lower part of his legs became numb after drinking this, which continued until his death, and his digestion was also impaired.
I always had a very ungovernable temper, and was so provoked by his going to Mr. Terrill’s bar where he had determined to go and I had threatened that if he did go he should never go to another bar, and as he did go nothwithstanding this, I put in the arsenic as I have said.
Because of the her impaired mobility, the condemned poisoner was carried in her rocking chair to the gallows, and stayed right in it for the whole procedure. They noosed her up sitting in the rocker, and dropped the platform to hang her as she rocked away in it.
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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Murder,New York,USA,Women
Tags: 1840s, 1846, arsenic, domestic violence, elizabeth van valkenburgh, fulton, january 24, poison, poisoner
October 13th, 2010
On this date in 1846, the Australian outlaw William Westwood — better known as Jackey Jackey — was hanged with 11 others for a prison riot/escape attempt that claimed several guards’ lives.
“To the old hands,” relates George Boxall in this volume of bushranger folklore, “he was always the gentleman bushranger.”
More legends have collected round the name of Jackey Jackey than round that of any other of the bushrangers, and many of them are obviously variants of the stories told of the historical highwaymen of England. For instance, Jackey Jackey is said to have bailed up the carriage of the Commissary. When he discovered that the Commissary’s wife was inside he dismounted, opened the door and, sweeping the ground with his cabbage tree hat, as he bowed low before her, he invited her to favour him with a step on the green.* He rode incredible distances in incredibly short periods of time** … [and] never did anything mean or brutal or unworthy of a gentleman bushranger, until he was almost goaded to madness by the cruel discipline of Norfolk Island.
Transported to Australia at the age of 16, Jackey Jackey made that reputation with only a scant few months in the bush. The Victorian era was already underway in our young outlaw’s mother country; the day of the highwayman had long since given way to the day of romanticizing the highwayman.
Only on the empire’s distant fringes could the profession persist; there, men like our day’s principal self-consciously took their chivalrous forebears as their templates: Jackey Jackey thrashed a confederate who did violence to a woman, and threatened to murder the man if they should meet again.
Jackey Jackey had only a few months out in the bush in 1840-41 to trace the outlines of the gentleman bandit figure he aspired to. Caught in an inn in 1841, he spent the next several years exercising that other great craft of the folklore criminal: escape.
A cycle of jailbreaks, fleeting moments of liberty, recaptures, higher-security lockups, and increasingly desperate jailbreaks eventually landed at Norfolk Island, where “the treatment of the prisoners in the island was rigorous in the extreme, and may aptly be described as savage.” (Boxall, again)
Just a few years before Jackey Jackey’s death, they had been savage enough to provoke inmates desperate for the release of death to draw lots between the privileges of being murdered by a fellow-prisoner and hanging as that murderer.
Norfolk experimented with liberalizing its regimen in the early 1840s, but it was in rollback mode when our bushranger landed there. The steady removal of the minute privileges that make incarceration bearable — the right to grow a few potatoes; access to one’s own cooking tin and utensils — eventually triggered a similar suicidal mental break … but this time, on a riot scale.
Jackey Jackey made the following speech: “Now, men, I’ve made up my mind to bear this oppression no longer ; but, remember, I’m going to the gallows. If any man funks let him stand out. Those who wish to follow me, come on.”
A policeman named Morris was standing in the archway or entrance to the yard, Jackey Jackey rushed forward, struck him a fearful blow with an enormous bludgeon, and knocked him down. A large mob of the prisoners snatched up such weapons as came to their hands and followed him.
there were about eighteen hundred prisoners on the island, and of these, sixteen hundred were among the rioters. The soldiers numbered only about three hundred, but their discipline enabled them to overawe the vastly superior force, numerically, opposed to them. Perhaps the habits of obedience and submission, so long enforced on the prisoners, may have had some influence. Perhaps, even among this herd of desperate and reckless men, the sight of the soldiers standing firmly with their guns presented ready to fire may have instilled some fear. However this may have been, there was no fight. The rebels retired slowly and unwillingly to the Lumber Yard, where they permitted the soldiers to arrest them one after the other without making any show of defence until one thousand one hundred and ten of them were placed “on the chain.” Perhaps Jackey Jackey and the more violent of his followers may have thought that they had done sufficient to ensure them that death on the gallows which was the avowed object of their rising, while the majority had been so demoralised by official brutality as to be utterly indifferent as to what might become of them.
Twelve suffered death on the Norfolk Island gallows this date for the murder of the guard, with headline-grabber Jackey Jackey exonerating four of his fellow-sufferers in his dying statement.
The remains of the gallows area at the Norfolk Island gaol, gorgeously captured by Canberra photographer Allyeska. (Image used with permission.)
The bitter letter our despairing bushranger wrote to a gaol chaplain, meanwhile, could have been posted from many a modern penitentiary.
I was, like many others, driven to despair by the oppressive and tyrannical conduct of whose whose duty it was to prevent us from being treated in this way. Yet these men are courted by society; and the British Government, deceived by the interested representations of these men, ontinues to carry on a system that has and still continues to ruin the prospects of the souls and bodies of thousands of British subjects … instead of reforming the wretched man, under the present system, led by example on the one hand, and driven by despair and tyranny on the other, goes on from bad to worse, till at length he is ruined body and soul. Experience, dear bought experience, has taught me this. In all my career, I never was cruel I always felt keenly for the miseries of my fellow-creatures, and was ever ready to do all in my power to assist them to the utmost, yet my name will be handed down to posterity branded with the most opprobrious epithet that man can bestow. … this place is now worse than I can describe. Every species of petty tyranny … is put in force by the authorities. The men are half-starved, hard worked, and cruelly flogged. … Sir, out of the bitter cup of misery I have drunk from my sixteenth year ten long years and the sweetest draught is that which takes away the misery of living death; it is the friend that deceives no man; all will then be quiet no tyrant will there disturb my repose, I hope, William Westwood.†
(Boxall’s History of the Australian Bushrangers is available from archive.org here.)
* This legend is lifted wholesale from the c.v. of English highwayman Claude Duval.
** Warp-speed horsemanship features in many English outlaw legends, including those of Dick Turpin and the lesser-known John Nevison.
† Death as an escape from injustice and misery: another timeless theme.
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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Australia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Outlaws,Rioting
Tags: 1840s, 1846, claude duval, highwayman, jackey jackey, october 13, william westwood
April 22nd, 2010
Portugal has not carried out a civil (non-military, non-wartime) execution since hanging two murderers on this date in 1846.*
Despite some impressively sanguinary exercises of capital punishment in its history, the Iberian nation has been in the European vanguard of death penalty abolition.
Writing on what turned out to be the eve of Portugal’s landmark 1867 renunciation of the death penalty for criminal offenses, the 1866 report of Britain’s capital punishment commission observed:
The last execution which took place was at Lagos, on the 22nd of April 1846. And it is right to state also, that ever since the definitive re-establishment of a liberal government in this country, capital punishments have never been very numerous. Thus during the 13 years which elapsed between 1833 and 1846, inclusive, out of 99 culprits condemned to death there were only 32 executed, and the sentences of the remaining 67 were commuted.
[Portugal] is, then, the only [country] in Europe in which the punishment of death has been for the last 18 years de facto suppressed. Public opinion has gone before the law: and the law, in effacing this punishment from its provisions, far from being in anticipation of society, will not do more than give its sanction to a fact which has long been accepted by general feeling, and which at the present day it would be difficult to contravene. Even if the punishment of death were to remain inserted in the text of our penal legislation, I think I may with safety affirm it would be impossible to meet with a Minister of Justice who would venture to recommend the King to withhold the exercise of the Royal prerogative of pardon, and who would have the heart to order the timbers of a new scaffold to be again erected on the soil of Portugal.
Despite an abortive feint at backsliding during World War I, the popular sense of the issue does not seem to have changed much in the interim.
The tragedy of man, ‘a postponed dead body’ as Fernando Pessoa said, does not need an untimely exit from the stage. It is tense enough without an end that is artificial and planned by butchers, megalomaniacs, potentates, racisms, and orthodoxies. Therefore, being human, we demand unequivocally that all peoples should have a code of humanity. A code that for all citizens guarantees the right to die their own death.
-Portuguese writer Miguel Torga, at a 1967 colloquy marking the centennial of Portugal’s formal abolition of the death penalty for ordinary crimes.
* There are some scantily documented World War II treason executions; the death penalty was officially abolished for treason (the last capital crime on the books) in 1977.
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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Portugal,Public Executions
Tags: 1840s, 1846, abolition, april 22, fernando pessoa, lagos, miguel torga