1848: Harris Bell

Add comment September 29th, 2017 Headsman

From the New York Commercial Advertiser, Oct. 3, 1848:

Honesdale, Pa., Sept. 29, 1848.

I have just returned from the execution of Harris Bell. He was the murderer of Mrs. Williams, the wife of Rev. Gershom Williams, of Scott township. She was going from her house to the Sabbath school on Sabbath morning, when, in passing through a piece of woods, she was seized by Bell for a brutal purpose and died amid her struggles.

Bell was apprehended not long after the commission of the crime, and has lain in prison in this borough about a year and two months.

I visited him in prison and was officially, and by his own request, desired to attend him to the scaffold. Although an unpleasant duty, yet how could I decline the request of a poor man under such circumstances?

Bell was nurtured of vicious parents, and cast forth upon the world destitute of education and of any religious knowledge, and was left like a wild animal, to rove abroad and pick up his food as a vagabond. He commenced an abandoned life in early years, was instructed into vice by others, and always lived in its practice. His mind, or what mind he had, was weakened by his vicious courses, and his passions were inflamed so as, at times, to defy all self control.

Twice he was imprisoned for attempts to commit the crime for which he suffered, and he was shut up some five years in the penitentiary.

While in prison here, he exhibited a diversified character, sometimes making a shrewd observation, and then a foolish speech to excite a laugh. But he had sufficient intelligence and conscience to know right from wrong, as was evinced by his concealing the evidence of the murder, and by other irrefragable proofs.

Condemned by an intelligent jury, he was sentenced by Judge Jessup to die. An application was made for his reprieve, for the purpose of having his sentence commuted to imprisonment for life by the Legislature, as the Governor in this state cannot commute a sentence though he can pardon; but this was unavailing. Governor Johnson passed through our borough a few weeks since, and visited Bell incognito, at the request of the counsel for the defence, bur mercy could not be extended to him.

He freely confessed his guilt, acknowledged his dependence on the blood of Jesus Christ to cleanse him from guilt, and seemed to feel that he had truly repented and would be saved. He was executed in the prison yard, or rather in a building without a roof prepared for the occasion, and every thing was conducted with propriety.

He was attended by two clergymen, twelve witnesses, and the various officials which the law allows. Religious services were held on the scaffold, and Bell himself addressed the spectators in an appropriate manner. At the close of a prayer by one of the attending clergymen, the scaffold dropped and Bell was suspended for about twenty minutes; and when he was taken down, life was extinct.

His body goes to the surgeons for dissection.

At Bell’s request, the Rev. Mr. Rowland will preach a funeral sermon in the Presbyterian Church on Sabbath evening. I wonder what kind of sermon it will be. It is rather singular to preach a funeral sermon for one who has been hanged, but I imagine that the preacher knows what he is about, and will at least have a crowded house.

It makes me nervous to see a man strangled to death, even though it is according to law. Yet I fully believe in the justice and expediency of capital punishment, in some cases.

Yours &c.

A SPECTATOR

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1848: James Langford, violent drunk

Add comment December 1st, 2015 Headsman


Charleston Southern Patriot, January 22, 1847


Trenton State Gazette, July 1, 1847


Trenton State Gazette, September 22, 1847


Baltimore Sun, Dec. 12, 1848

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1848: Harriet Parker, crime of passion

Add comment February 22nd, 2015 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1848, Harriet Parker was publicly hanged in front of the Debtors’ Door at Newgate for the murder of her lover’s two young children.

The sad story is described in Nicola Sly’s In Hot Blood: A Casebook of Historic British Crimes of Passion.

Harriet was a widow. Her partner, Robert Henry Blake, was legally married to another woman, but they were separated and he lived with Harriet and two of his children by his wife: Amina, age seven, and Robert Jr., age five.

Despite residing at Cupid’s Court in London, their relationship was far from blissful. Robert was an inveterate womanizer who openly flaunted his affairs. It all came to a head on New Years’ Eve, 1847, when Robert told Harriet he was going to the theater without her. He’d made plans with a friend, Stephen Hewlett, and she wasn’t invited.

Harriet was furious and suspected, rightly, that Robert was actually going to be with another woman. She followed him as he left their home and tagged along behind him wherever he went, telling him he’d better get used to it because she would be with him all night.

Robert did meet up with his friend Stephen and complained of Harriet’s jealousy. “If I was to kiss that post,” he said, “she would be jealous of it.” Eventually he was able to give Harriet the slip, though, and went immediately to a prostitute’s house, where he stayed the night.

Harriet, meanwhile, angrily searched for her errant lover for hours, saying darkly that Robert would regret his actions for the rest of his life.

“I will do something that he shall repent and will die in Newgate,” she told Stephen Hewlett. She added, “I have something very black in mind … You will hear of me before you see me.”

He didn’t take her seriously. He should have.

A few hours after midnight on New Years’ Day, witnesses saw Harriet walking the city streets with little Amina, still asking people if they’d seen Robert. The next time anyone saw her was at 4:00 a.m. She was alone, and knocked frantically at her neighbor’s door. The neighbor opened the bedroom window and looked out, and asked what on earth was wrong.

“Oh, Mrs. Moore, I have done it,” Harriet said. She added that Blake had “met a little strumpet” and left her last night, and hadn’t come home. “A pretty spectacle is there for him when he does come home,” she added. “I shall go and deliver myself up to a policeman.”

Her neighbor asked why and she replied, “I have murdered the two children.”

That got Mrs. Moore’s attention and she sent her husband to find a police officer. Harriet herself went looking and found one, and asked to be arrested, but she didn’t disclose the reason until they were on the way to the station house. Finally she unburdened her secret:

I have murdered the children to revenge their father. They were innocent — through my vindictiveness I have done the deed.

A look in at the Blake/Parker house showed Harriet was telling the truth: Amina and Robert Jr. were lying in bed, quite dead. They had been smothered and their bodies were still warm. Harriet’s clothes were stiff with dried blood, but it wasn’t the children’s; it was her own blood, from a beating Blake had given her a few days before.

Harriet had to be persuaded not to plead guilty to her crimes from the outset. At her trial, which was presided over by two judges, her defense was that of provocation. Her attorney argued that Robert’s horrible treatment of her had driven her out of her mind and she was not a “responsible agent” at the time of the murders.

The jury was out for only ten minutes before returning with a verdict of guilty of willful murder. The automatic sentence was death, but the jurors included a strong recommendation of mercy because of the provocation Harriet had received. (Even after the murders Robert had boasted of all the women he’d seduced during the time he lived with Harriet.)

Judge Baron didn’t agree with the jury, pointing out that “the children gave her no provocation at all.”

Nevertheless, he promised to pass the recommendation on to the Home Secretary. When the two judges passed their sentence on the convicted woman, they emphasized that she had no right to take her feelings about Blake out on two “unoffending children” who were “in a sweet, innocent sleep.”

Harriet cried out, before being lead from court, “God forgive you, Robert. You have brought me to this.”

The Home Secretary did receive the jury’s recommendation of mercy, but didn’t act on it. The widespread perception was that if Harriet had murdered her louse of a partner rather than his children, she would gotten off with a lesser verdict of manslaughter. But the deaths of two small children, killed for the actions of their father, could not be countenanced.

Harriet spent her last days dictating letters to people. In one of several letters sent to Blake, she wrote, “Awful as my fate is, I would rather die than live again the wretched life I have done for the last twelve months.” She sent him a Bible and a pair of cuffs she’d knitted, and advised him to return to his wife and forsake drinking, bad company and other women.

The crowd of persons assembled to witness the awful scene was immense, and far exceeded in number those present at any execution of late — their conduct, also, we regret to add, was worse than usual, the yells and hootings which prevailed for some time previous to the culprit making her appearance being perfectly dreadful.

London Times, February 22, 1848

Mrs. Moore visited her in her cell and found her surprisingly at ease. “I have received more kindness in Newgate than ever since I left my mother’s home,” Harriet told her former neighbor.

Harriet was hanged by one of Britain’s most famous executioners, William Calcraft — although it was never the tidiness of his executions that he was famous for. Calcraft didn’t handle Harriet all that well, either: according to one account, Harriet’s “muscular contortions and violent motion of the hands and arms … were truly dreadful” as she choked to death. Her frame was so slight that the fall didn’t break her neck.

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1848: Robert Blum, German democrat

Add comment November 9th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1848, a day short of his forty-second birthday, the German revolutionist Robert Blum was summarily shot in Vienna — a tragic victim of Germany’s Revolutions of 1848.

Marker at Robert Blum’s birthplace in Cologne reads “I die for the German liberty that I fought for. May the fatherland remember me.” (cc) image from Elke Wetzig.

Blum grew up in a penniless proletarian family but drifted into the literary set. He spent the 1830s penning liberal-minded plays, poetry, newspaper correspondence. He uncovered a magnetic personality and a gift for organization.

By the 1840s he was a — maybe the — preeminent left-liberal in the Kingdom of Saxony: pro-parliamentary democracy, anti-violence, for a wide grant of civil liberties and mass education.

The pressures, both liberal and radical, pushed to the brink the small realms in the German Confederation, as well as the neighboring Austrian Empire. Both struggled to handle even the liberals’ demands like expanding the franchise and freedom of the press, with old hereditary polities that might not be up to changing times. Germany, Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto (1847), “is on the eve of a bourgeois revolution.”

Right on cue…

That pregnant year of 1848 found Blum in the Frankfurt parliament, and his neither-fish-nor-fowl leftism — a little too out there for mainstream liberals; a little too bourgeois for real radicals — made Blum the perfect pick for a solidarity mission.

When in September 1848 the Austrian army was defeated trying to crush a Hungarian rebellion, the Habsburg capital of Vienna took the example and mounted a revolution of its own, putting the government to flight.

Blum was sent as sympathetic delegate to this abortive Viennese commune, but found himself trapped in the city when the Austrian army encircled it in late October.

The Austrians, when they caught him, sent their own message back by denying him any form of deference for his parliamentary rank. Blum’s direct condemnation was a stark warning by the Habsburg state to agitators, but also to their putative brethren dreaming of a Greater Germany. Austria wasn’t buying what the Großdeutsche people were selling.


Detail view (click for the full image) of Carl Steffeck’s painting of Robert Blum’s execution. Here’s a YouTube recreation (in German).

Blum went on to a posthumous career as a star liberal martyr among the German circles who had use for such a character.

Blum’s seven-year-old son Hans grew up to follow his father’s literary footsteps … but from quite the other side of the aisle. He was a pro-Bismarck nationalist.

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1849: Lajos Batthyány and the 13 Martyrs of Arad

8 comments October 6th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1849, the shining lights of Hungary’s 1848 revolution met the Austrian Empire’s firing squadsexecutioners. (Correction: Most were hanged, not shot. See comments.)

Probably no polity in Europe stood more fundamentally in danger from the wave of 1848 revolutions than the Habsburg Empire. While governments would be overthrown and power renegotiated across the continent, the Austrian state’s dynastically welded hodgepodge of mingled ethnicities appeared existentially at odds with the nationalist stirrings afoot.

And none of those ethnicities answering to Vienna stirred as vigorously as the Hungarians.

The Hungarian Diet established a national government under Lajos Batthyány (English Wikipedia page | Hungarian) (or Louis Batthyani) in the spring of 1848* and soon pushed for more self-determination than Austria was prepared to countenance.

When Austrian troops turned on Hungary, the aspiring nation issued an 1849 declaration of independence full of vituperation for the ancient noble line.

[T]he house of Hapsburg-Lorraine, as perjured in the sight of God and man, has forfeited its right to the Hungarian throne …

Three hundred years have passed since the Hungarian nation, by free election, placed the house of Austria upon its throne, in accordance with stipulations made on both sides, and ratified by treaty. These three hundred years have been, for the country, a period of uninterrupted suffering.

This dynasty … which can at no epoch point to a ruler who based his power on the freedom of the people, adopted a course toward this nation from father to son, which deserves the appellation of perjury.

The house of Austria has publicly used every effort to deprive the country of its legitimate independence and constitution, designing to reduce it to a level with the other provinces long since deprived of all freedom, and to unite all in a common link of slavery.

Guess how that turned out.

Lajos Batthyany portrait by Hungarian painter Miklos Barabas.

It wasn’t much of a contest in the field, leaving this day’s doings the shooting of Batthyany at Pest (the city later merged with Buda and Obuda to form Budapest) and 13 Hungarian generals — the so-called 13 martyrs of Arad — in a Translyvanian city that is today part of Romania.

This was not, however, the last the Habsburg dynasty would hear of Hungary’s frustrated national aspirations.

Three years later, a Hungarian nationalist attempted to assassinate the youthful Emperor Franz Joseph,** and the strength of the Magyar lands’ self-determination movements would eventually drive a formal ratification of Hungarian privileges that rechristened the state as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or simply Austria-Hungary.

All that stuff we said about you Habsburgs? Bygones.

While becoming half of a dual capital opposite Vienna meant a late 19th-century renaissance for Budapest, this cure by the Empire for its internal pressures proved almost as harmful as the disease. The pressures immediately discharged would pale in comparison to the conflicts Hungarians’ now-privileged status helped provoke with Slavs and other ethnic minorities (exacerbated by Hungarians’ ability to block Austrian foreign policy). In an early preview of a now-familiar pattern, the proto-nation-state of Hungary was a nastier piece of work for its ethnic minorities than the decadent old melting-pot ruled from Vienna … and the road from this day’s executions to the Austro-Hungarian Compromise ran straight on to 1914 Sarajevo and the graveyard of Habsburg history.

As for the executions this day, Batthyany was saluted by the great Hungarian composer Franz Liszt in his Funerailles:

More prosaically and much more pervasively, a legend that Austrians were jovially toasting the death of the 13 Martyrs as they were being executed translated into a still-active tradition against clinking beer glasses in Hungary.


The Martyrs of Arad (Sixth of October) by Janos Thorma

* Hungary’s March 15 National Day derives from this period.

** Franz Joseph was no mere abstract emblem of imperial absolutism: he had assumed the Austrian throne in December 1848 upon the abdication of his feebleminded uncle specifically to free the crown from the oaths his predecessor had taken to various reforms. From the Hungarian perspective — and the declaration excerpted above dwells at length on the perfidy of this maneuver — he was installed to crush the revolution.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Austria,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,Habsburg Realm,Heads of State,History,Hungary,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Popular Culture,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Revolutionaries,Romania,Shot,Soldiers,Treason

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1848: Camila O’Gorman and Father Ladislao Gutierrez, for traditional family values

5 comments August 18th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1848, a pregnant 20-year-old socialite and her forbidden lover were shot at the order of an Argentine dictator.

Virtually a lens for the contradictory currents of gender, class and power in her time, Camila O’Gorman was the daughter of an elite family of (as her name suggests) Irish extraction, and a bosom friend of the daughter of her future executioner, dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas.

She fell into a torrid affair with Gutierrez, the family priest, and in 1847 eloped with him, a grand gesture of romanticism that brought a government warrant for their capture to “satisfy religion and the law and to prevent further cases of immorality and disorder.”

A scandal, as one might suppose — there was much chatter over who seduced whom, and whether it was a kidnapping — but a manhunt (and womanhunt)? Rosas appears psychotically enraged by two young people crazy in love, and still more so for summarily decreeing their death when he had them in his clutches. Another priest, it turned out, handed them over — more in sadness than in anger, in the manner of such folk, but understanding deep down that the arbitrary law is the law and immorality and disorder don’t go about preventing themselves.

O’Gorman was the first woman executed in independent Argentina, and she was eight months pregnant: the better to “satisfy religion” (though not the law, which forbade the execution of a pregnant woman), O’Gorman’s unborn child was baptized … by making her mother drink holy water.

The lovers were then shot together at the town of General San Martín, then known as Santos Lugares de Rosas.

The pregnant O’Gorman, borne to her firing squad. The image comes from this Argentinian page (in Spanish) about the heroine.

According to this effusively pro-elopers essay,

Camila and Uladislao’s brave sense of freedom upset the structured norms of a society used to obeying through fear. Their only way of facing the tyrannical power was escaping from a society which would never understand. They did not give up on their love to please the Restorer [Rosas], as was expected in those days. They never showed signs of repentment, [sic] on the contrary their peaceful minds reflected their clean consciences.

And among the many questions this tragic true story might raise, there’s one that particularly appals [sic] us: why did Rosas shoot Camila knowing the law stated a pregnant woman could not be murdered? Was that baby guilty of his parents’ “crime”?

He evidently was, since by being born he would symbolise the testimony not only of the criminal act, but also the evidence of “disobedience” of a moral code imposed by a fearful dictator.

Such Shakespearean drama ripped from recent history has not failed to inspire literary treatment — such as Enrique Molina’s Una Sombra Donde Suena Camila O’Gorman, (“A Shadow Where Camila O’Gorman Dreams”) and this 19th century Spanish text.

On the screen, O’Gorman and Gutierrez’s doomed love was the topic of one of the first Argentine feature films (a century-old silent film now thought lost), and an Academy Award-nominated 1984 film with plenty of talking:

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