1849: Quddus

Add comment May 16th, 2016 Headsman

On the Baha’i calendar, this date in 1849 marked the martyrdom of Quddus.

The 18th and last of the “Letters of the Living” comprising the original disciples of the the faith’s founding prophet the Bab, Quddus was a charismatic young mullah of whom it was said that “whoever was intimately associated with him was seized with an insatiable admiration for the charm of the youth.” Denis MacEoin even argues that Quddus’s preaching verged on asserting divinity, and he might have been an incipient rival to the Bab himself for leadership of the new religion.

Under either leader the movement was officially excommunicate to the ulama, and its heretical proselytizing consequently generated no shortage of martyr-making backlash. The backlash in question for this post began with an anti-Baha’i riot in the Mazandaran city of Barfurush (today, Babol) which drove a few hundred adherents to the nearby Shrine of Shaykh Tabarsi where they took refuge behind ad hoc defensive fortifications.

The Persians’ ensuing besiegement of this redoubt constitutes the Battle of Fort Tabarsi — and if the designation sounds a bit exalted for mob control it was dearly earned by the surprising (and to Persia, embarrassing) Baha’i resilience. Under Quddus’s leadership the makeshift fort held out for seven months. Half of those original 18 “Letters of the Living” disciples would die in the engagement — the largest upheaval during those formative years.

At last, having finally been reduced to near-starvation by the encirclement, the Baha’i defenders surrendered on the guarantee of safe passage — a guarantee that was immediately violated, with most of the former “garrison” massacred on the spot on May 10.

Quddus was preserved for special treatment in Barfurush several days later: not judicial execution, but simply handing over to an angry rabble who tore him apart.

The Bab, already imprisoned pending the passion he would suffer the following year, was said to be so devastated at learning of Quddus’s fate that he could scarcely write any longer: “the deep grief which he felt had stilled the voice of revelation and silenced His pen. How deeply He mourned His loss! What cries of anguish He must have uttered as the tale of the siege, the untold sufferings, the shameless betrayal, and the wholesale massacre of the companions of Shaykh Tabarsi reached His ears and was unfolded before His eyes!” (Source)

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,God,History,Iran,Lynching,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Persia,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Summary Executions

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1849: Zsigmond Perenyi, by the Hangman of Arad

1 comment October 24th, 2015 Headsman

In the weeks following his defeat of Hungary’s 1848-49 revolution, the Austrian general Julius Jacob von Haynau consolidated his victory with enough cruelty to merit the title “Hangman of Arad.” On this date in 1849, he advanced Zsigmond Perényi, of late the speaker of revolutionary Hungary’s House of Magnates, to the ranks of Magyar martyrs.

A career politician and judge, Perenyi (English Wikipedia entry | the more detailed Hungarian) was a stately 74 years of age when the barricades went up. He was a baron, but a member of the reform-minded faction of that class who in the 19th century came more and more to see themselves in a national, Hungarian context. This historical thrust would lead, 18 years after the events of this post, to the official arrangement of an Austro-Hungarian Empire, the promotion of Hungary to titular imperial partnership but never to a fully satisfactory settlement of the tensions between Hungarian patriotic aspiration and Habsburg imperial prerogatives.

Perenyi signed the April 14, 1849 Hungarian Declaration of Independence; he and others who had set their hand to this treasonable document and played a role in the national government — they were just the sort of people to invite the attention of the hangman of Arad.

“Many government commissioners who had supported Kossuth were summarily court-martialled and led to the gallows,” Alan Walker notes in Franz Liszt: The Weimar Years, 1848-1861, Volume 2.

Baron Jeszenak, lord-lieutenant of the county of Nyitra; Szacsvay, the young secretary of the Diet; and Csernus of the treasury board all swung from the end of a rope. Baron Zsigmond Perenyi, of the court of justice, listened carefully to the charges against him and replied: “I have to complain that the accusation is incomplete. I request to add that I was the first to press the resolution that the House of Habsburg-Lorraine should be declared to have forfeited the throne of Hungary.”


By Hungary’s own Franz Liszt.

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1849: Konrad Heilig and Gustav Tiedemann, Baden revolutionaries

Add comment August 11th, 2015 Headsman

Konrad Heilig and Gustav Tiedemann, two officers who joined the Baden Revolution(s) of 1848-1849, were shot on this date in 1849.

In southwest Germany’s edition of the revolutionary wave that swept Europe in 1848, Baden’s radical democrats attempted to topple the Grand Duchy of Baden in hopes of uniting with a (still aspirational) greater Germany.

Two separate risings were easily defeated in 1848.


German Confederation troops
storm Republicans in Freiburg in April 1848.

Baden revolutionaries’ last gasp came in May-June 1849; its progress in detail is explored in a public domain volume, An Account of the Final Struggle, in Baden, for the Maintenance of Germany’s First National Representative Government.

Remnants of the left in Baden, exiles from the last go-rounds, and sympathetic soldiers who mutinied at the fortress of Karlsruhe and Ratstatt declared yet another abortive republic. Although the disturbance briefly forced Grand Duke Leopold to flee, other German states allied with Leopold’s exiled government to crush the rebellion. Revolutionary Baden had no chance in a test of arms against Prussia, which defeated the rebellion at Waghausel, then reduced the holdout fortress of Ratstatt. In all, 19 were shot there as rebels between August and October of 1849.

Rastatt saw the most blood flow in the execution of the law as enforced by the invaders. Here leader after leader was laid low, and his body thrown, without coffin or funeral service, into a big ditch prepared in the northern end of the cemetery. One day it was Major Konrad Heilig, the commander of the Rastatt artillery, who as a non-commissioned officer had been the pride of his men, as well as the tallest man in the army. He walked calmly to the place of execution smoking a cigar, and only when force was threatened allowed himself to be blindfolded …

Colonel Tiedemann … had been originally a lieutenant in the Baden army, [and] was the son of a well-known professor in the Heidelberg Uiversity, had gone to Greece and fought in the army of the country, and had a Greek wife and a young son in that far-away land …

In the year 1873, friends and companions-in-arms of the dead asked permission to erect a gravestone common to all those interred there; the Baden government offered no objection but Prussia stepped in with its veto, and the burial-place is still unmarked, although visited yearly by pilgrims from all parts of the world.

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1849: Andrew Tyler, clairvoyant

3 comments January 26th, 2015 Headsman

Fortune Telling and Crime.

(Daily Ohio Statesman, August 22, 1848)

The trial in the case of Andrew Tyler, convicted and sentenced to die, at the late term of the Supreme Court held in Williams county, as accesory [sic] to one of the most wanton and singular murders of which the records of depravity and crime presents an example.

From the evidence given on the trial, as well as the confessions of Heckerthorn, the principal, (who awaits his trial in November next,) it appears that Heckerthorn was desirous of learning the art of fortune telling, and that as the initiatory step, Tyler persuaded him to kill Scamp’s child, and hide the body, designing then to leave the country together, and after some months return and get a reward for finding the body of the child, and thus establish a reputation as fortune tellers, by which they would be enabled to make a great deal of money.

A more inadequate cause for so great a crime we never learned of; and, on Tyler’s part, the instigation of the murder can only be explained by the supposition that long habits of deception and falsehood, practiced by him as a fortune teller, had darkened in his mind whatever little sense of right and humanity he ever possessed. -Kalida Venture

The Death Penalty
Horrible Account of a legalized murder in Williams county, Ohio, which took place on Friday week.

(Cleveland Plain Dealer, February 6, 1849)

If we are at times put to the blush for the crimes of our fellow-beings, we are as often shocked at the barbaraties [sic] of our race, who to retaliate for one crime commit another, no less offensive in the sight of God and man. We refer to the barbarous custom of strangling a man to death in cold blood for certain crimes which twelve men believe he has committed.

Here is an account of this legalized murder, committed no the 26th ult. in Bryan, Williams Co., the particulars of which contain enough of the horrible to gratify the most savage. The Spirit of the Age, published at Bryan, says:

About one o’clock, P.M. the prisoner was conducted on to the scaffold, accompanied by Rev. R.R. Walters, who, after the prisoner had taken his seat, delivered some very appropriate remarks from Acts, chap. 5th, verses 2nd, and 3d — a text selected by the prisoner.

A hymn was sung and prayer offered by Rev. Mr. Walters.

The prisoner then made a brief address to the assembly. He asserted his innocence in the strongest terms — declaring that he had nothing to do with the perpetration of the crime, for which he was to be executed. He said he had no anxiety to live — but felt prepared and desired to depart and dwell with his Saviour.

At the close of his remarks, he knelt down, and spent a few moments in audible prayer. He prayed for support in the terrible scene upon which he was immediately to enter — for the forgiveness of all who had sought his hurt, and that he and they might meet in a happier world.

At a quarter past two, the Sheriff adjusted the rope, which was already around the prisoner’s neck, drew the cap over his face, and bade him adieu.

He then descended the stairs, and as he went down, touched the spring with his foot, and the drop fell.

Here followed a scene, which was for a moment, shocking to all beholders — almost beyond description. To set the matter in its true light, it should be mentioned that Tyler had at all times insisted that he should be executed without any slack of rope.

Willing to gratify him so far as duty would permit, and in accordance with this oft-repeated and urgent request, the Sheriff gave him at first only about one foot of slack.

The instant the drop was sprung, the prisoner slightly crouched his body; by this means the hoose slipped around, bringing the knot immediately under the chin, in such a position that with his short fall it did not tighten at all, consequently he was merely suspended by the neck.

Probably his first slight fall suspended sensation and respiration temporarily for he hung quietly for a time; but this suspension was only temporary, and it is certain that nothing like strangulation was produced.

He soon recovered his breath, and commenced groaning and struggling as if suffering excruciating torture.

The spectacle at this moment was too revolting to witness; we noticed many who had thought and said, that they could look on his expiring agonies with a hearty good will, who turned away from the sight with blanched cheeks and looks of commiseration.

The Sheriff, probably somewhat overcome by the fearful duty he had attempted to discharge, did not immediately after springing the drop go around to see the true condition of affairs.

On learning the situation of the prisoner, he promptly ordered the scaffold raised, and no sooner was this done than he was upon it, and taking Tyler by the hand directed him to stand on his feet, which he was able to do without assistance.

Aided by Gen. Gilson, the Sheriff then proceeded to lengthen the rope, giving it about four feet additional slack.

Tyler still fervently begged them to shorten instead of lengthening it, but he was told that his wishes could no longer be regarded.

During this time, Ex-Sheriff Cunningham passed up the stairs, and taking Tyler’s hand, inquired if he still asserted his innocence; he replied, “I am innocent.”

Having adjusted the noose, and all others having left the scaffold, the Sheriff took his hand, and again bade him farewell. His last words to the Sheriff were — “For God’s sake shorten the rope.”

Again the drop was sprung, and Andrew F. Tyler was launched into eternity. He scarcely struggled after the second fall — after about thirty minutes, his body was taken down, placed in the coffin and carried back to an upper room of the jail.

Executed

(New York Commercial Advertiser, February 13, 1849)

Andrew F. Tyler, the “fortune teller,” convicted in Williams county, Ohio, as accessary [sic] to the murder of a small child in that county, was executed at Bryan, on the 26th ult. A large concourse of citizens assembled to see the spectacle, and in defiance of the law abolishing public executions, tore down the jail yard erected by the Sheriff. The last words of Tyler were, “I am innocent.”

If we recollect right, Tyler was charged with aiding in the murder of a child in order that the fortune he had preetended to tell might prove true. He declared his innocence of a murder of such strange motive to the moment of the falling of the fatal drop, and would it not have been better for the cause of justice, and just as well for the community to have sent him to life imprisonment as the gallows? His dying declaration may be true, for evidence that appears conclusive of guilt is not always so. -Cleve. Herald

The Popular Taste

(Boston Daily Atlas, February 22, 1849)

A man named Andrew F. Tyler, convicted of murder, was hung recently at Bryant [sic], in Williams county, Ohio.

The Dayton Transcript states that the Sheriff had built a high wood fence around the jail yard, in order to have the execution as private as possible, but the populace were so eager to witness the spectacle, they tore down the fence the night previous.

The brutal taste which prompted this act, is of the same character as that which leads crowds to witness prize fights, and makes momentary heroes of the vilest bullies in creation. -Cincinnati Gazette

(As inchthrift old-time editors were fond of forbidding walls of unbroken text, line breaks and white space have been added to all of the excerpts above. -ed.)

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1849: Friedrich Neff, 1848 Revolutions radical

Add comment August 9th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1849, the German revolutionary Friedrich Neff was shot at Freiburg.

A law and philosophy student, Neff had been one of the firebrands of the Baden incarnation of Germany’s 1848 Revolutions.

These stirrings for political liberalization and national unification in the loose 19th century German Confederation, which comprised dozens of duchies and principalities left over from the dissolved Holy Roman Empire, were just the sort of thing to inspire student radicals like Neff.

Neff‘s Heidelberg was an initial center of the movement, led by Friedrich Hecker* and Gustav Struve. (All links in this sentence are German Wikipedia pages.) Though Hecker and Struve were established lawyers who most certainly had something to lose, they led rebel guerrillas into the field against the troops dispatched to crush the republican stirrings. They didn’t have much success, but it’s the thought that counts.

On September 21, 1848, Struve unavailingly proclaimed a German Republic in Baden, an event that is known as the Struve-Putsch and whose defeat four days later closes the first chapter of the 1848 revolutions (at least in Baden).

As a Struve-Putsch supporter (and an open advocate of political violence even before that), Neff had been obliged to flee to Switzerland and onward to Paris. That positioned him perfectly when the 1848 revolution scheduled an 1849 comeback to be the man to muster a legion of Baden exiles who would attempt to topple the duchy.

“This legion was the wildest band which the revolution brought forth,” this history of the revolution recounts. “It was commonly called the Legion of Fugitives, because composed largely of political refugees from Baden, who had fought under Hecker and Struve … There were also in the Legion many daring adventurers, some of whom were still wearing the red trousers of the Algerian Foreign Legion of France.” But these, too, were easily crushed, and Neff was arrested fleeing into exile. His last letter urged his mother to “remain firm and steadfast. I will go to death tomorrow as calmly as I once strolled in our garden — would that I had ten lives to give for the cause.”

Neff is a hero to social democrat types in present-day Germany, and there are public monuments him — like this plaque marking his birthplace in Rümmingen.


(cc) image from Erik Vogelpohl.

* Haberdashers might be familiar with the Heckerhut, a wide-brimmed, high-peaked hat popularized by Friedrich Hecker.

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1849: Washington Goode

Add comment May 25th, 2014 Headsman

America’s national debate over abolishing slavery in the decades leading up to the Civil War is well-known. Not as well remembered is a different group of “abolitionists” — for death penalty foes, too, took this name,* and mounted a vigorous challenge against capital punishment, too.

In the main, they did not attain their ultimate objective, although Michigan in 1847 did become the world’s first Anglo polity to abolish executions.** But their contemporary-sounding arguments against the morality and efficacy of capital punishment did help drive important reforms, especially in the Northeast: narrowing the scope of the death penalty towards murder alone, and removing the spectacle of public hangings to the privacy of prison walls. Anti-death penalty scholar Hugo Bedau terms this the “first abolitionist era.”

Alexis de Tocqueville’s American travels began in 1831 with a brief from the French government to investigate the prison system; in the classic Democracy in America that ensued, Tocqueville characterized Americans as “extremely open to compassion.”

In no country is criminal justice administered with more mildness than in the United States. Whilst the English seem disposed carefully to retain the bloody traces of the dark ages in their penal legislation, the Americans have almost expunged capital punishment from their codes. North America is, I think, the only one country upon earth in which the life of no one citizen has been taken for a political offence in the course of the last fifty years.

In Massachusetts, executions nearly ground to a halt … but they never quite got banned de jure. A committee headed by the very liberal legislator Robert Rantoul, who had cut his teeth as a young barrister defending an accused murderer in a death penalty trial, produced for Gov. Edward Everett a strong recommendation to take the death penalty off the books. The votes in the legislature never quite got there, but Gov. Everett would have signed it:

A grave question has been started, wheter it would be safe to abolish altogether the punishment of Death. An increasing tenderness for human life is one of the most decided characteristics of the civilization of the day, and should in every proper way be cherished. Whether it can, with safety to the community, be carried so far, as t permit the punishment of death to be entirely dispensed with, is a question not yet decided by philanthropists and legislators. It may deserve your consideration, whether this interestion question cannot be brought to the test of the sure teacher, — experience. An experiment, instituted and pursued for a sufficient length of time, might settle it on the side of mercy. Such a decision would be matter of cordial congratulation. Should a contrary result ensue, it would probably reconcile the public mind to the continued infliction of capital punishment, as a necessary evil.

Rantoul (and Edwards) had to settle for an 1839 law removing burglary and highway robbery from the ranks of potential capital crimes.

In practice, Massachusetts had not hanged anyone for mere theft in a number of years and by the late 1830s and throughout the 1840s scarcely hanged anyone at all.†

That tenderness of human life would meet what proved a decisive test with
Washington Goode‘s execution on May 25, 1849 for the murder of a fellow sailor over a romantic rivalry.

While philanthropists and legislators debated the merits of the rope in those years, Goode grew up at sea. There was a woman he called on when he made port in Boston, one Mary Ann Williams — married to someone else but kept by no man, Washington Goode included.

In 1848, Goode discovered in his lover’s boudoir a handkerchief given her by another seaman and soon enough started stewing over it. According to the circumstantial case that Goode’s jury ultimately accepted, he went out the next night, packing a wicked sheath knife and openly boasting to drinking buddies of his imminent revenge upon that Thomas Harding.

Later that night, the two rivals (plus Williams) all managed to run into each other in the same joint. Goode and Harding crossed words, then left that place one after another. Half an hour later, Harding had a sheath knife between his ribs. Nobody had actually seen it happened, but the identity of the murderer appeared self-evident.

However plausible the argument for Goode’s guilt and execution in the narrow case at hand, it could not help but be complicated by the execution-free years that had preceded him. Was this the most atrocious crime in Massachusetts of the 1840s? In 1845, a burgher named Albert Terrill had cut the throat of a prostitute on Beacon Hill, and set fire to her room; he had been spared execution.‡

Boston’s death penalty abolitionists mounted a furious clemency campaign, and again the arguments strike a familiar tone for present-day readers: the fallibility of the justice system (Goode maintained his innocence all the way to the gallows); the prospect that, were Goode indeed guilty, alcohol and passion had clouded his mind; and the manifest disproportionality between the extreme penalty that just so happened to be handed down to a poor black workingman when more atrocious crimes by better-connected Bostonians had lately merited far more lenient treatment. Thousands subscribed to petition, like this one, demanding mercy. Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson fought to save Goode from the gallows.

But the Commonwealth was not moved.

Despairing, Goode slashed his veins during the night preceding the hanging in a vain bid for suicide. He would be hanged that day — after a physician stanched the bleeding and patched him so that Goode could die properly — seated in a chair. The fall broke his neck, and purpled some prose into the bargain.

The scene is past. A more fearful tragedy has never been enacted in our city. A more disgraceful scene never occured in any country. A stain has been made upon Massachusetts that ages can never wash away.

Ostensibly “private”, the jailyard hanging was readily visible from surrounding windows and rooftops in the neighborhood. Some shops in the vicinity even shut up their doors in protest, and hung up placards to make sure those arriving for a rented overlooking window knew it.

But the first abolitionist era was even now giving way to the rising section tension about to tear the country apart. Even people who cared deeply about the death penalty usually cared moreso about slavery … and the stain of Washington Goode’s hanging would be blotted out by the far bloodier years to come.

* The anti-death penalty and anti-slavery causes had a good deal of overlapping personnel, too: slavery abolitionists like Wendell Phillips, Lydia Child, and William Lloyd Garrison were prominent supporters of the Massachusetts Society for the Abolition of Capital Punishment. (See The Death Penalty: An American History.)

** Wisconsin and Rhode Island both followed Michigan’s lead. None of those three states has conducted an execution since the mid-19th century, although Rhode Island did put never-used death penalty statutes back on its books for most of the 20th century.

† According to the Espy file‘s survey of historical U.S. executions.

‡ Terrill was acquitted by his jury in two separate death penalty trials — one for the murder, one for the arson. The verdicts were commonly believed to be acts of nullification by juries unwilling to sully their consciences with a death sentence. (Terrill’s barristers resorted to the embarrassing somnabulism defense.) “We infer that no person will hereafter be convicted of murder in the courts of Massachusetts,” the Boston Courier editorialized. “There is prevalent in society such a feeling of horror [about capital punishment] … jurors will not hesitate to acquit.” But after Terrill, backlash against the verdicts inverted the horror — since it now appeared that the tender scruples of jurymen proposed to hand villains carte blanche.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Massachusetts,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1849: Elisha Reese, suitor

1 comment September 7th, 2013 Headsman

A number of comment threads on this site attest that many accidental visitors to Executed Today are genealogy researchers turning up information about a famous ancestor. The Internet age is a true renaissance for genealogists; while it’s not this blog’s specific objective, it’s a happy side effect if we throw the odd ray of light on the very odd bits of a family’s history.

It’s in that spirit that we present this date’s profile of Elisha Reese, hanged before a reported 5,000 spectators on September 7, 1849 just outside the city limits of Macon, Ga.

As with many crimes, it was the news on everyone’s lips in its own day, but then passed rather quickly into obscurity. Elisha Reese, age 50, was rejected in his marriage suit by 60-year-old widow Ellen Pratt. The nature of their relationship is not known, but Reese took this badly enough that Ellen’s father, 90-year-old Revolutionary War veteran David Gurganus, swore out a peace warrant against his would-be son-in-law … and then Reese took the existence of this peace warrant with a downright vengeful fury.

For what happened next, click on through to the proper genealogist — and Gurganus descendant — who has researched this story already and posted it as a three-parter on her site, A Southern Sleuth.

  1. Murder In Macon
  2. Murder In Macon Part 2
  3. Murder In Macon, the Final Chapter: Trial

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Georgia,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions,USA

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1849: Rebecca Smith, to save her children from want

Add comment August 23rd, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1849, forgotten mass murderer Rebecca Smith was hanged before a large crowd outside Devizes Prison in Wiltshire, England. She’d been convicted of the murder of her one-month-old baby, Richard.

Smith was the fifteenth person executed in the UK that year, and she would be the last woman in British history to be put to death for the infanticide of her own child. (Not to be confused with infanticide in general.)

Lionel Rose, in his book Massacre of the Innocents: Infanticide in Great Britain 1800-1939, described Rebecca Smith as “an impoverished depressive and the wife of a drunkard.” In many ways she fit the profile for perpetrators of infanticide then and now: most women who commit these acts are desperate, often young, often impoverished, often unmarried, unable to take care of their babies and not knowing where to turn.

In many jurisdictions today, such women are treated leniently. 19th-century judges and juries did the same and rarely convicted the defendants of murder, which at the time entailed an automatic death sentence; they would usually try to go for an outright acquittal or, at worst, a manslaughter verdict.

As Rose notes in his book, “Between 1849 and 1864 there had been only 39 convictions of mothers for the willful murder of their children, almost all of them under 1 year and all but 5 illegitimate. From 1849 the Home Secretary invariably reprieved mothers who killed their own infants under twelve months … Between 1849 and 1877 only two more women were to be executed for child murder.”

One had slaughtered her four-year-old son; another killed not only her own child but also the child of her lover’s former mistress, to get him out of having to pay child support.

Rebecca’s case was something else altogether, though.

Her behavior before little Richard’s death was suspicious: she claimed the infant was “wasting away” when he was in fact the picture of health, and she went around in her home village of Bratton asking where she could buy arsenic.

When Richard died suddenly a short time later, the police launched a homicide investigation. On autopsy his body was found to be riddled with poison.

He had clearly been murdered in cold blood, but in spite of this the jury recommended mercy.

However, after her conviction Rebecca confessed that she had poisoned not just Richard but seven more of the eleven children born to her. Seven! All of them except Richard were killed only a day or so after birth. Her statements were confirmed when the authorities exhumed the children’s bodies and autopsied them.

Katherine D. Watson, in Poisoned Lives: English Poisoners and Their Victims, explains Rebecca’s motive:

Aged forty-three, ‘undernourished and in poor health, living in great poverty and almost illiterate’, she had borne eleven children during eighteen* years of marriage, but only one, the first-born, was still alive. […] Her husband was an alcoholic who never earned much money and frittered away the £100 that her father left to her; although a seemingly pious woman, Smith felt that murder was a kinder fate than slow starvation. […] Seen by her neighbors as inoffensive and industrious, she claimed that her only fear was that her surviving daughter would be neglected after her death.

Two of her non-murdered children also died of natural causes; only one daughter survived to adulthood.

A contemporary account described her demeanor as she awaited death:

[H]er conduct was most becoming. Mild and contented in her manner and deportment might be thought that she was totally incapable of the unnatural crime of which she was convicted. Free from guile or hypocrisy, she at once unhesitatingly confessed her crime, and acknowledged the justice of the punishment that awaited her, and frequently expressed a hope that others would take warning by her fate. At the same time she was extremely ignorant, and betrayed a want of any deep feeling.

The modern reader may be shocked that she was able to get away with it for so long, but it wasn’t necessarily all that unusual.

The infant mortality rate in 19th-century Britain was so high, particularly among the poor, and the methods for investigating murders and potential murders were so primitive, that a person could commit such crimes repeatedly with very little fear of being detected.

Rebecca Smith was certainly not the only mother of that time and place who killed several of her own children during infancy, and she was probably not the most prolific, either. The only thing that stands out about her is that she got caught.

In spite of what she did, when you look at her life, it’s difficult not to pity her. But as Watson explained, “A confession to eight murders made a reprieve impossible.”

* Some sources say she was married twenty-eight (not eighteen) years.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Other Voices,Public Executions,Women

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1849: Ugo Bassi, nationalist priest

4 comments August 8th, 2012 Headsman

Measure thy life by loss instead of gain;
Not by the wine drunk, but the wine poured forth
For love’s strength standeth in love’s sacrifice;
And whoso suffers most hath most to give.

-From Harriet King‘s poem “Ugo Bassi’s Sermon in the Hospital”

On this date in 1849, the Garibaldian priest Ugo Bassi was shot in Bologna along with fellow-nationalist Count Livraghi.


Statue of Ugo Bassi at Bologna’s via Ugo Bassi.(cc) image from Biblioteca Salaborsa.
Detail view (click for full image) of Bassi and Livraghi being escorted to execution.

Bassi was a penniless Barnabite priest famous for his powerful oratory* and his national enthusiasms. He signed right up for Garibaldi‘s national movement in the heady liberal revolutions of 1848-49.

“Italy is here in our camp,” he would say of the Garibaldian forces readying their (ultimately unsuccessful) defense of the Roman Republic.** “Italy is Garibaldi; and so are we.”

Alas, in this engagement, Italy had a lot fewer guns than the French.

The new French ruler Napoleon III, who had himself been in youth a revolutionary carbonaro in Rome, saw foreign policy advantage in backing the exiled Papacy and overthrew the Republic.†

Garibaldi escaped to exile, but many of his subalterns did not. Bassi was captured unarmed — he didn’t even bear arms in battle — and Pius IX, once thought a fellow-traveler by the liberals, did not hesitate to hand him to the Austrians for punishment. The Habsburgs stood equally to lose from any gains of the Risorgimento, and accordingly gave Bassi a perfunctory military trial, then had him shot immediately in Bologna.

For crowning his open-hearted life with this sacrifice, Ugo Bassi instantly became, from that day to this, one of the best-honored Italian patriots.

He possessed at once the simplicity of a child, the faith of a martyr, the knowledge of a scholar, and the calm courage of a hero … If ever Italy comes to be united may God restore her the Voice of Ugo Bassi … The name of Ugo Bassi will be the watchword of the Italians on the day of vengeance!

-Garibaldi

* Anecdote associated with Bassi once he came to firing up the Bolognese for Garibaldi: a poor girl who could give nothing to the cause spontaneously chopped off her own hair and handed it to him. This is the event depicted by Bassi’s fellow-Bolognese Napoleone Angiolini, Ugo Bassi sui gradini di San Petronio.

** Topical incidental: the Roman Republic lasted only a few months, but its constitution abolished the death penalty … so it can count as the first nation to abolish capital punishment in constitutional law.

† Earning Napoleon III the permanent wrath of Italian nationalists.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Austria,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Habsburg Realm,History,Italy,Martyrs,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Shot,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1849: Anna Koch of Appenzell

1 comment December 3rd, 2010 Headsman

This date’s pastoral story of adolescent avarice — and impressive disobedience at the scaffold — comes to us from the tiniest of Swiss cantons,* as related in this public-domain text


Anna Maria Koch and Magdalene Fessler were girls — each about seventeen years of age — living in Gonten in the year 1849. On June 12 of that year the dead body of the latter was found lying in a ditch in one of the village pastures. There were upon it no marks of violence, and a coroner’s jury was led to conclude that the girl had come to her death by falling into the ditch in the dark. A little later, the discovery was made that on June 10 Anna Koch had sold to a silversmith in Gonten a chain, a locket, and a rosary. These articles on examination were proved to have belonged to Magdalene Fessler. Anna Koch was placed under arrest and asked to make explanation. The story related by her is as follows: –On the Sunday following Frohnleichnamsfest she met Jean-Baptiste Matezenauer, a young man of the village, and he gave her the articles of jewellery, saying that he had found them. He told her that she must sell the things and put the money in a bag which she was to hide in a field. She must then take with her a friend, stroll through the field and, as though by chance, spy the bag, pick it up and say, “Oh! I have found something!” With the money she was to buy a wedding dress, Matzenauer promising in a short time to marry her. Matzenauer was arrested and confronted with his accuser. He protested innocence, but the girl adhered to her story. She did even more, she enlarged upon it. She said that on the morning of Frohnleichnamsfest she had been in Matzenauer’s company; that he had then told her he meant to kill Magdalene Fessler in the afternoon, and had asked her to station herself in the field where the ditch was. This, she said, she had done, and that while there she saw Matzenauer drag thither the body of his victim. Despite the inherent improbability of her whole account, the girl vehemently reiterated it, each time challenging Matzenauer to a denial. At last the bewildered inquisitorial fathers before whom the examination was being conducted — perhaps with some recollection of the efficacy of torture in eliciting actionable testimony in the case of Landamman Suter — ordered Matzenauer to be brought under the lash. This was done, but without the hoped-for result. Matzenauer remained obdurate.

The case dragged on till November 13. It was then suddenly terminated by the confession of Anna Koch that she alone had planned and committed the murder. The details of the confession were substantially these: –She, a poor girl, had for a long time felt hurt in pride that she had not the money with which to provide herself the chains and trinkets commonly worn by the girls of her acquaintance. So keen was this feeling that finally she resolved to purchase a chain from one of the silversmiths of Gonten and trust to fortune to enable her to pay for it. She obtained the chain, but failing to pay for it by the time agreed on with the silversmith, was asked to return it. The necessity of doing so was fully impending when, on Frohnleichnamsfest, she met Magdalena Fessler in the churchyard, at the beginning of afternoon service. The latter had about her neck a beautiful chain, and Anna Koch, seeing it, was prompted to kill her, take the ornament, sell it, and with the money realised meet her own debt to the silversmith. She told her friend that she had lost her rosary, and asked her to go with her to find it. The two girls walked on together, soon passing into the field containing the ditch. As they were crossing the latter on a plank Anna Koch pushed Magdalene Fessler, causing her to lose her footing and fall into the water. She then jumped into the ditch herself, seized the head of her victim and, holding the mouth open with her fingers, kept the head under water until death ensued from strangulation. Having made her confession, Anna Koch asked that she might suffer the extreme penalty for her crime. Young people of her acquaintance petitioned the Great Council for a pardon. This was refused, the vote standing only six for pardon and ninety-six for punishment. Decree was then entered that the guilty one be beheaded on the block.

The day before that fixed for the execution (the latter being December 3) the condemned girl spent quietly in prayer and in communion with her confessor. She expressed herself as being entirely reconciled to her fate and, in fact, as anxious to meet it. But when led forth on the day of execution, her manner changed. The wild instincts of her Appenzell nature reasserted themselves. She declared that she could not and would not die, and with fierce cries drowned the voice of the officer who read her death-warrant before the people. The reading finished, four strong men seized the girl and bound her on a sled. Thus secured she was dragged to the headsman’s block in the market-place. But here a fresh difficulty was encountered. On being released from the sled her struggles were so frantic and determined that the executioner could not perform his task. After several vain attempts he sent the Reichsvogt (the same mediaeval official personage that had figured at the execution of Dr. Anton Leu and Landamman Suter) to report the situation of affairs to the Great Council and ask advice. The reply returned was that the headsman must do his duty. After an hour and a half of cries and resistance on the part of the condemned, her head was firmly secured to the block by the braids of her hair, and the fatal stroke given.


Gonten (it’s the long collection of buildings along the valley road, at the base of the slope) and environs. (cc) image from Michael Beat.

* Appenzell Innerrhoden is the smallest canton by population, and is larger by area only than the urban canton of Basel-City.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Murder,Pelf,Public Executions,Switzerland,Women

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