1851: Ruben Dunbar, Destructiveness and Combativeness

Add comment January 31st, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1851, Ruben Dunbar hanged in New York for murdering two little boys: the 8- and 10-year-old nephews to his widowed mother’s second husband. Thanks to the mother’s remarriage, these boys had supplanted Dunbar as the heirs to his mother’s property.

We’re indebted for attention to this case to our crime-blogging friends at Murder by Gaslight, who also call attention to a short pamphlet entitled “Phrenological Character of Reuben Dunbar, With a Short Treatise on The Casuses and Prevention of Crime”. This item is available free from Google Books and contains the findings of a phrenologist — Margaret Thompson — who examined Dunbar. (Phrenology was already into an advanced stage of disrepute by the 1850s.)

We begin with the core metrics:

His physiology is sound and good. He has a fair proportion of all the temperaments, with a predominance of the vital. The size of his head is 22 3/4 inches in curcumference, over the organs of Individuality and Philoprogenitiveness; and 13½ inches over the top, from Destructiveness to Destructiveness, over Firmness. The size of his phrenological developments, on a scale of from one to seven, are as follows:

Amativeness, 5; Philoprogenitiveness, 4; Adhesiveness, 6; Inhabitiveness, 5; Concentrativeness, 4; Vitativeness, 6; Combativeness, 6; Destructiveness, 6; Alimentiveness, 6; Acquisitiveness, 6; Secretiveness, 7; Cautiousness, 6 to 7; Approbativeness, 7; Self-Esteem, 4; Firmness, 7; Consceintiousness, 4; Hope[,[ 5; Marvellousness, 4; Veneration, 4; Benevolence, 5; Constructiveness, 5; Ideality, 4; Sublimity, 5; Imitation, 5; Mirthfulness, 5; Individuality, 6; Form, 6; Size, 6; Weight, 6; Color, 6; Order, 6; Calculation, 5; Locality, 6; Eventuality, 6; Time, 5; Language, 5; Causality, 5; Comparison, 6

Several pages then elucidate the weight and combination of these figures in the estimation of the examiner, also neatly retrofitting the crime that she knows Dunbar stands accused of.

Philoprogenitiveness is only average. He might love his own children, but would not care for the children of others; and his large Destructiveness and Combativeness would incline him naturally to be impatient, severe, and even cruel with children over whom he has control.

His selfish propensities are large, while his moral faculties are between full and average. In such an organization the selfish feelings have a very powerful influence, and without great care and constant exercise of the moral organs, will be sure to gain the ascendancy. Acquisitiveness is large and very active. This gives him a strong desire to obtain money, property, &c.; and with his inferior moral brain, would lead him to be penurious and covetous. Secretiveness is very large. He is exceedingly cunning, and capable of acting artfully and deceitfully; has uncommon power to conceal his real feelings. Seldom discloses his plans to others; is secretive and says little. Destructiveness and Combativeness are large also; so is firmness. These, with his other combination of organs, make him quarrelsome, harsh, severe, self-willed, tenacious of his rights, wilful, and desperately determined.

All told, she reckons, Dunbar labored under “an unfortunate organization; one in which the animal propensities govern, because the moral faculties are not sufficiently large to balance and control them.”

Thompson’s pamphlet then pivots curiously from her diagnosis of Dunbar to that of his entire society, and reaches her own science’s strange circuits a familiar conclusion:

Crime is caused by an abuse or perverted action of the animal propensities, owing principally to education, and partly to the hereditary transmission of those faculties from parents to their children … It is a fact which comes within the range of our observation daily, that the faculties of Destructiveness and Combativeness are almost universally strengthened and encouraged in children by severe and coercive measures … Punishment with the rod invariably tends to give a highly stimulated and perverted action to Destructiveness and Combativeness … by repeated whippings an increased quantity of blood is sent to the base of the brain, and it is thereby inflamed and excited, and increased in size and activity. If children are punished in anger, and from a spirit of retaliation, we may reasonably expect to see in them, when full grown and matured, an abnormal exercise of Destructiveness and Combativeness.

Thompson recommends a more rehabilitative approach to criminal justice, a combination of instruction and what she calls “the law of love” — “of the efficacy and power of kindness over man, even when in ruins, and sunk to the lowest depths of sin and degradation. However far he may have wandered from the paths of truth and virtue, still he is a man and a brother — an immortal being, having claims on our sympathy, and our best efforts to reform him and make him happy.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Murder,New York,Pelf,USA

Tags: , , , , ,

1851: James Jones and Levi Harwood, but not Hiram Smith

Add comment April 15th, 2016 Headsman

For the April 15, 1851 hanging of James Jones (James Burbage was his actual name) and Levi Harwood, we crib from PlanetSlade’s collection of murder ballads. While this ballad amply narrates the murder committed in a home invasion, click through to PlanetSlade to find out about the third man who wasn’t hanged — the one who actually pulled the fatal trigger, but who saved himself by testifying for the crown to send his mates to the gallows.

Of all the crimes on Earth the worst,
Foul murder is of all accursed,
Assassins are by all abhorred,
Despised by men, condemned by God.

We are condemned and death is nigh,
And in two dismal cells we lie,
James Jones and Harwood: it is true,
We’ve murder done, no pity knew.

A minister of God we’ve slain,
For sake of gold, man’s curse and bane,
Poor Mr Hollest kind and good,
We left him weltering in his blood.

To Frimley Grove, ’twas there we went,
On robbing we were fully bent,
The rector’s house we soon broke in,
And then to plunder did begin.

With faces masked, disguised to all,
And pistols loaded well with ball,
Like vile assassins on we crept,
To where the good old couple slept.

But Mrs Hollest struggled brave,
And nobly fought their lives to save,
Undaunted, boldly bore her part,
A woman with a warrior’s heart.

Her husband had one ruffian down,
And held him firmly on the ground,
The coward wretch for help did call,
‘Twas then the other fired his ball.

Thy wound was fatal, good old man,
Thy blood in streams around it ran,
We both escaped while thou didst bleed,
And now we suffer for the deed.

How could we thus such monsters prove,
To murder those whom all did love?
To want thou didst assistance lend,
And ever was the poor man’s friend.

Widows weep thy loss: they mourn,
The only friend they had is gone,
And orphans’ tears they quickly fall,
For thou a father’s been to all.

And Mrs Hollest? She was kind,
Distress in her a friend did find,
Her sole delight it seemed to be,
To dry the tears of misery.

So we confess the crimes we’ve done,
Is there no hope on Earth? There’s none,
Grim death will drag us to the tomb,
A scaffold is the murderers’ doom.

On this day..

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

Tags: , , , , , , ,

1851: Aaron Stookey, clemency denied

Add comment September 19th, 2015 Headsman

State of New York, Executive Department
Albany, Sept. 4, 1851.

To Thomas Carnley, Esq., Sheriff of the City and County of New York

Sir: — I have carefully considered the application for a commutation of the sentence of death pronounced upon Aaron B. Stookey, to be executed on the 19th inst., for the murder of Zeddy Moore.

I have weighed the evidence with an anxious desire to give him the benefit of every circumstance which tends to extenuate his guilt; but after a mature deliberation I am clearly of opinion that his conviction was merited, and that the ends of public justice require the execution of the sentence.

The facts disclosed on his trial were sufficient beyond all doubt, to constitute the crime of wilful murder. It is contended that most of the material witnesses for the prosecution were persons of infamous character and unworthy credit. Making all due allowance for this objection, the proof of his guilt is so complete and overwhelming as to preclude any doubt, and in fact no material fact alleged by any of the witnesses have been called in question by the convict or his friends.

It appears that Stookey met his unfortunate victim casually in one of the public streets of your city. He was armed with deadly weapons, which he usually carried about his person. Upon provocation which, if not wholly imaginary, was too trivial to justify even momentary resentment, and apparently with no other motive than the indulgence of wanton and brutal passion, after first instigating his comrade to commit violence upon Moore, he declared his own intention to kill him and instantly stabbed him to the heart.

To palliate the enormity of this offence, it has been alleged that Stookey was laboring under temporary alteration of intellect, and was morally incapable of an intentional and deliberate crime. [i.e., he was drunk on rum -ed.] Several affidavits have been placed before me intended to sustain this hypothesis. Deeming it my duty to obtain satisfactory evidence on so material a point before coming to a final decision, I have caused an investigation to be made of all the facts bearing upon the question of insanity, and the result proves that there are no sufficient grounds for such an assumption.

It is shown that Stookey, for some years past, had led a life of dissipation and debauchery, that his moral nature was depraved, and his mental faculties impaired, by a long course of vicious indulgence; and in this general degradation of character consists the only reason that has been adduced for doubting that he was conscious of evil, and still retained those powers of moral perception which are given to discern between virtue and crime. All the usual phenomena of insanity and lunacy are wanting. There was nothing in his conduct to indicate that destitution of reason which absolves men from moral and legal responsibility.

My sympathies have been deeply moved by the earnest appeals made in behalf of your prisoner by his worthy relatives and friends. The petitions presented to me bear the names of many influential and respected citizens, whose opinions deserve the highest deference and regard. It is a painful office to be compelled to resist these urgent and affecting solicitations. But all must remember it is the voice of the law which condemns the murderer to death. This penalty, the most dreadful which human power can inflict, is imposed not in a spirit of retaliation or of vengeance, but from conviction of its necessity, for the protection of society and the security of mankind. The severity of the law in this respect has its source in the sacred regard for human life which pervades all civilized communities.

It proclaims in advance, to all whose evil passions may prompt to deeds of blood and vengeance, the impressive warning, that whosoever shall take the life of his fellow being shall thereby forfeit his own. This stern mandate is conceived not in cruelty but in humanity; in compassion for the innocent rather than a willingness to destroy the guilty; it originates in the obligation which society owes to all its members to protect them from unlawful violence, and its true aim is to prevent both crimes and punishments by restraining those who can only be deterred from the worst of offences by the most terrible penalties.

I am aware that serious differences of opinion exist among enlightened legislators in respect to the justice and tendency of a penal code which forfeits the life of the offender in case of murder. It does not come within my province to discuss this principle in the discharge of my executive duties. The law as it stands must be my guide, so long as it remains in force. It is among the first and highest of my obligations to see that it is faithfully executed.

The penalty which the State has prescribed, as a punishment for the crime of wilful murder, must be enforced in all cases where the offence is established by clear and sufficient proofs. This responsibility, weighty and difficult at all times, derives unusual force from the alarming increase of crime in some portions of our State, and especially in your city. The destruction of life by criminal violence has become an event of almost daily occurrence. My reflections upon this subject have produced a firm conviction that this deplorable evil is to be checked, and the lives of our peaceful citizens effectually shielded from danger only by an efficient, faithful and unswerving execution of the law. The peace and safety of society are too sacred to be hazarded by the indulgence of those generous sympathies which the fate of the convict is so well calculated to excite. The demands of justice, and an enlightened regard for the public security, must prevail over the pleadings of compassion.

It remains for you to discharge the most trying duty of your office as I now do mine.

Very respectfully,

Washington Hunt

P.S. — I intended to have remarked that Stookey’s crime may be traced directly to the habit he had adopted of carrying a dangerous weapon concealed about his person. His fate should be a warning to all who indulge in this reprehensible practice. It cannot be too strongly impressed upon their minds that persons who choose to carry concealed arms, will be held to a rigid responsibility for the use they may make of them, and for all consequences that may ensue.

(Clemency denial and execution order as printed in the New York Spectator, September 11, 1851.)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,New York,USA

Tags: , , , , , ,

1851: Samuel Whittaker and Robert McKenzie lynched in San Francisco

2 comments August 24th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1851 — mere hours after a similar exercise of summary justice took place in Sacramento — the San Francisco Vigilance Committee strung up two accused crooks.

This was the throes of the California Gold Rush — and San Francisco was its epicenter.

San Francisco entered the gold rush an unassuming port of perhaps a thousand souls … but she exited it as one of the American West’s leading cities.

It made an unruly adolescence for the boom town as penniless treasure-hunters poured in from every quarter of the globe. “Turbulent, gold-hungry men,” wrote Herbert Asbury in his The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld “transformed the once peaceful hamlet of San Francisco into a bawdy, bustling bedlam of mud-holes and shanties.” Suddenly, San Francisco had a huge crime problem — not to mention the conflagrations* that repeatedly devastated the fast-growing tangle of tinderworks shacks.


San Francisco in 1850

In an effort to sustain some measure of order, a number of the city’s respectable citizens banded together to create a famous or infamous Vigilance Committee.

Sworn in their published constitution of June 9, 1851 “to do and perform every lawful act for the maintenance of law and order,” the Committee declared itself “determined that no thief, burglar, incendiary or assassin shall escape punishment, either by the quibbles of the law, the insecurity of prisons, the carelessness or corruption o the Police, or a laxity of those who pretend to administer justice.”

Two days later, they proved their chops by hanging on no authority but their own emigre from Australia named John Jenkins for stealing a safe. A month later, James Stuart, also late of Sydney, was lynched at the Vigilance Committee’s hands, too.

Detail view (click for full image) of Whittaker and McKenzie’s lynching.

Though not the first Vigilance Committee hangings, Samuel Whittaker and Robert McKenzie might be the best-known.

Like their predecessors, Whittaker and McKenzie had arrived from Australia** — which had aptly bequeathed to gold rush San Francisco a criminal colony of its own in the form of a network known as the Sydney Ducks. Scrambling to save his own neck, Stuart had informed on a number of these confederates.

Whittaker and McKenzie were arrested based on Stuart’s information, as the Vigilance Committee tried to smash up the Ducks. Though extrajudicial, the Committee’s investigations were at least as meticulous as one might expect from the law at this moment in time, and the minutes of its witness interviews can be read here.

In the end, the two were basically convicted not so much for any individual crime as for their lengthy careers of robbery, often violent — for “divers offences, whereby the safety of Lives and property have been endangered” (as read the executive report on Whittaker) that rendered each “a hardened offender, and dangerous to this community … it would be unsafe to hand him over to the Authorities or mete out to him a less Penalty than Death” (as read the report on McKenzie).

Such an arrangement of juridical powers, exercised in lieu of “unsafe” Authorities, can scarcely persist long-term. Here, the governor of California, John McDougall determined to intervene in order that the fracturing of the Australians’ vertebrae would also vindicate the majesty of the law.

McDougal arrived to San Francisco and secured a writ to seize the suspects from the Vigilance Committee’s hands, tucking them away in the county jail.

Although in principle this orderly and lawful prosecution of malefactors was exactly what the Committee wanted to see happen, Gov. McDougal’s intervention when they were on the brink of consummating their own process left everyone with a frustrating sensation of justice interruptus.

And so that next Sunday — August 24, 1851 — when prisoners were removed from their cells to a chapel for the salvation of their souls and the jail’s guard detail was reduced by the proportion of gendarmes attending services of their own, a party of 36 Vigilance Committee men barged into the jail, overpowered all concerned, and seized their prey.

“Never before was San Francisco so excited,” editorialized the Steamer Alta California (Sept. 1, 1851).

Through every street, in all directions, the hurrying crowd of humanity rushed with the utmost precipitation — no one knew whither, no one knew for what. The bell of the Vigilance Committee had sounded its alarum note — and instantly the streets were living, swaying masses of human beings — uncertainty and conflicting fears and hopes ruled the hour … with a sweep like the rushing of a torrent of lava they bend their course towards the Rooms of the Vigilance Committee. Almost instantly California street, Battery street, and all their approaches, are filled with one dense mass of human beings. From lip to lip the news flies that the two criminals, Mackenzie and Whittaker, have been taken by force from the jail, by an armed posse of the Vigilance Committee. On the eager and excited multitude press toward the Rooms. On, on, on — the crowd becomes denser and broader. Wonder is stamped on every face — a solemn, almost awful silence pervades the thousands who are anxiously gazing up at the building, when quickly the doors are opened — a moment of preparation — and the numberless multitude holds its breath as the two malefactors are seen suspended by the neck — a struggle or two, a spasmodic heaving of the chest — and each spectator feels a thrill of terror coursing his veins as he involuntarily utters — dead, dead, dead!

Yes, they were dead! The two men — Whittaker and Mackenzie — who were taken from the hands of the Vigilance Committee a few nights since, by virtue of a write of habeas corpus, had been torn from the ail by force, in the middle of the day, and at the risk of life, hurried to the Committee rooms, and executed without scarcely a moment’s preparation. It is a most terrible tragedy! Well, indeed, might one exclaim, “I have supped full with horrors!”

Such are the terrible effects of misrule — these are the fruits of maladministered laws — these the results of official corruption, neglect and malfeasance. Well may the patriotic and the good turn in sadness and grief from the contemplation of such horrors. The timid may shrink from beholding them — the quiet desire an end to them; but neither fear, regret, nor desire will accomplish our security. It must go abroad over the land that this community possesses the power and the will to protect itself against every species of wrong, and that it is resolved to do it at all hazards.

Whilst we regret that the Vigilance Committee have by this act, been brought into direct collision with the constituted authorities, we cannot but approve their course in executing the two criminals. This condition of affairs was not sought by the committee; it was rather forced upon them by the action of the authorities. True, the authorities acted rightly in rescuing the men; but the course they took has proved to be unnecessary and injudicious. No one doubts the guilt of the men executed, and no one believes but that they deserved the punishment they received. The Vigilance Committee felt this, and believing that the public welfare would be promoted by the act, they had resolved to execute Whittaker and Mackenzie. But the officers of the law, with unusual adroitness, prevented the decision from being carried into effect. The Vigilance Committee have now redeemed their honor, and carried out their original determination, by recapturing the prisoners and executing them. The line of division between the legitimate civil power and the Vigilance Committee is therefore plain, broad and unmistakable.

And what is to result? We see nothing disheartening or dispiriting in the prospect. On the contrary, we think we perceive that settled determination on the part of the body politic to have justice done, which is to be the great lever of our salvation. When crime is convinced, as it must now be, that nothing is capable of preserving it from speedy and avenging punishment — when the abandoned feel, as they will now feel, that there is no safety for them here — when all bad men shall understand, as they may now understand, that their unworthy acts will surely be visited with condign reward — then will the country rise above its tribulations and its sorrows.

But this is a dreadful storm! If we did not know the ship, the crew and the passengers, we might despair of our reaching port. As it is, we speak confidently. We feel that there is gloom around us, but there is nothing to alarm the honest and patriotic. The guilty may, and ought to, flee before the gale of popular indignation; but it is through such trials that our voyage is ultimately to become a prosperous and fortunate one. Through the watches of the night of darkness which now surrounds us, there is a gentle voice whispering “Be firm, be calm, be just, and the welcome daylight will soon come!”

The Vigilance Committee disbanded itself a few weeks later. Its last act in 1851† was to prevent the lynching of a sea captain by sailors angered at his brutality, an expression of class solidarity in the definition and punishment of crime as timeless as America herself. (Source)

* These fires were widely feared to be the product of arson motivated by the opportunity to loot. This is likely a reversal of cause and effect. One inclines here to reckon with Tolstoy that cities have a natural tendency to kindling fire, and those fires are liable to blaze out of control in inverse proportion to the city’s administrative faculties.

The late San Francisco police officer and amateur historian Kevin Mullen puts together an argument here that merchants opportunistically torching excess stock to sustain gold rush price gouging was also a contributing factor.

** Both men were born in England; many of the Sydney Ducks hailed originally from the British Isles.

† Like Batman, the Vigilance Committee later emerged from retirement to fight crime again, in 1856.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Lynching,Public Executions,Summary Executions,Theft,USA

Tags: , , , , , ,

1851: John McCaffary, the last hanged by Wisconsin

2 comments August 21st, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1851, the domestic abuser John McCaffary (or McCaffrey) was publicly hanged in Kenosha, Wisconsin.* His crime — singularly ill-concealed — was a noisy row with his wife Bridgett that ended with him tipping her into a rain barrell and holding her in it until she stopped moving.

Neighbors alerted by Bridgett’s shrieks arrived to find the newly-minted widower redwet-handed, and his late wife stuffed in the backyard butt.

There had been a few executions in Wisconsin before McCaffary’s, but this was the first one after Wisconsin attained statehood in 1848. It was attended by a large crowd of 2,000 to 3,000 onlookers — a third of them female, to the special chagrin of newsmen.

And those 2,000 to 3,000 onlookers, as it turned out, witnessed something never to be repeated. From that day until this, the state of Wisconsin has never again put a human to death.**

The crowd played a part in that eventuality. Wisconsin was a reforming northern state — in a few years, the anti-slavery Republican Party would be founded there — and the spectacle of public enjoyment under the gallows struck as regrettable the sorts of people who, say, write Madison Democrat editorials. (“Murder before the people, with its horrors removed by the respectability of those engaged in its execution.” (Source))

Christopher Latham Sholes, a Kenosha publisher whose main claim to historic fame was later inventing the first commercially successful typewriter,† was seated in the Wisconsin State Assembly in 1852 as a Free Soiler. He too had denounced the execution in his newspaper — “the crowd has been indulged in its insane passion for the sight of a judicially murdered man … we hope this will be the last execution that shall ever disgrace the mercy-expecting citizens of the State of Wisconsin.” (See It Happened In Wisconsin, 2nd, or this link.) As a legislator, he put his political capital where his editorials were and spearheaded a successful campaign to get rid of capital punishment.

On July 12, 1853, Wisconsin followed the example of its neighbor, Michigan, and abolished the death penalty full stop.


Burial marker for McCaffary in Kenosha’s Green Ridge Cemetery, erected in 2001. ((cc) image from Matt Hucke.) The McCaffary house on Court Street is also a registered historic landmark, and possibly haunted by Bridgett’s ghost.

There’s a handy roundup of resources related to the McCaffary execution here.

* The present-day name. Kenosha was then known as Southport.

** According to Invitation to an Execution: A History of the Death Penalty in the United States, there was an 1868 Wisconsin execution under Oneida (not Wisconsin) law, conducted on tribal lands.

† Said typewriter also debuted the now-standard QWERTY keyboard layout.

On this day..

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

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

1851: Sarah Chesham, poisoner

Add comment March 25th, 2014 Headsman

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

On this date in 1851, 41-year-old Sarah Chesham was hanged before a crowd of six to seven thousand people in Chelmsford, England. She’d been convicted of a single count of attempted murder, but the evidence indicates, and the public certainly believed, that she was responsible for several deaths and had perhaps even taught her deadly craft to other women.

Sarah lived in the village of Clavering in Essex. In January 1845, two of her six children died suddenly, one after the other, and were buried in a single coffin. Their deaths were written off as cholera, a common and deadly disease in those times. Yet, according to later accounts, just about everyone in Clavering knew the boys had been murdered.

In fact, Sarah’s reputation as a poisoner had been well known long before her sons’ untimely deaths.

In spite of the rumors, no action was taken until later that year — when Sarah was arrested on the charge of poisoning a friend’s illegitimate baby, a boy named Solomon Taylor. Solomon had been born healthy and thrived for the first few months of his life, but in late June 1845 he became sick, rapidly wasted away and died. His mother accused Sarah of murder.

Suspicious, the authorities exhumed the bodies of ten-year-old Joseph and eight-year-old James Chesham.

The boys’ corpses turned out to be saturated with arsenic.

James C. Whorton, in his book The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain was Poisoned at Home, Work and Play, describes what happened next:

An inquest quickly led to Chesham being indicted for murder, and she was brought to trial in the spring of 1847. The evidence against her seemed conclusive: her sons had arsenic in their bodies, police had found “an assortment of poisons” in her house, and during the trial there were clear attempts to coerce witnesses not to testify against her. Sarah Chesham was nevertheless acquitted of all charges.

The jury’s foreman for Joseph’s case explained, “We have no doubt of the child having been poisoned, but we do not see any proof who administered it.” After all, no one had actually seen Sarah giving arsenic to her sons.

After her trials for the murders of James and Joseph Chesham, Sarah was tried for Solomon Taylor’s murder. Again she was acquitted; there was no evidence of poison in the infant’s body. Whorton records,

The verdict struck most observers as outrageous, but even if it was correct, something very disturbing was going on. The woman’s neighbors had believed her to be spreading poison for years, yet had uttered not a word to authorities. “What is to be said,” a newspaper asked, “of a district where cold-blooded murder meets with all the popular favor which is shown to smuggling in Sussex?”

One can’t help but think of the many incidents in modern times when “everyone knew” about the child abuse going on in some local household, but nobody bothered to report it until after a tragedy occurred.

Chesham was released from custody, went home and resumed her life. Then, in 1849, her husband died. He had much the same symptoms his dead sons had, but suffered a great deal longer: it took months for him to die.

During his illness, the solicitous Sarah was constantly by his side. She gave him milk thickened with rice or flour and wouldn’t let anyone else feed him anything.

After Richard Chesham’s death, authorities seized a sack of rice from Sarah’s kitchen. It was contaminated with sixteen grains of arsenic. (Two or three grains can kill a healthy adult.) Richard had arsenic in his body as well, but only in traces.

Although her latest alleged victim had died, Sarah was charged only with attempted murder: Richard suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis and it was unclear whether it was the arsenic or the lung disease that caused him to die. (It’s theorized that Sarah, having learned something from her earlier trials, had poisoned her husband slowly in small doses rather than in one dose all at once, as she allegedly did with her children.)

The punishment was the same either way: death. Sarah would be the last woman in Britain to be hanged for attempted murder.

Sarah Chesham may have wanted to rid herself of an inconvenient husband, perhaps reasoning that he would die of consumption anyway so she might as well speed him along. In some other fatal poisonings in Essex during that time period, however, it appears the motive was the deceased’s burial club money.

Club Dead

Many of England’s poor and working-class subscribed to burial clubs for themselves and their families. These were a form of life insurance and meant to provide money for the funeral if a member died, thus sparing the person from a pauper’s grave or worse, the anatomist’s dissecting table.

Some people, however, subscribed for different reasons, as Whorton noted:

Yet there were, inevitably, some subscribers who were not at all averse to a child or spouse receiving a pauper’s send-off, and if sufficient economies were adopted in their disposal, there would be enough money left over to make murder worthwhile … If done right, profits were not inconsiderable. First of all, club dues were affordable for virtually anyone … Second, benefits were relatively generous. Manchester clubs, for example, paid out £3 as a rule, but some paid £4 or even £5; a basic funeral for a child could be financed for only £1 or £2.

Provided they came up with the money for subscription fees, there was nothing stopping people from joining multiple burial clubs at the same time and getting a big fat payout upon their relative’s untimely death. Wharton mentions one child from Manchester who belonged to nineteen burial clubs at once.

Poisoner Mary May, who was convicted of killing her half-brother and hanged in 1849, had subscribed to multiple burial clubs without her victim’s knowledge. After she poisoned him she got £10 in all. Some people got double or triple that sum. And this at a time when an unskilled laborer could expect to earn only about £27 annually.

Cases like Sarah Chesham’s and Mary May’s set off a moral panic about poisonings in the 1840s and 1850s. As the London Medical Gazette noted, twopence could buy enough arsenic to kill one hundred people.

The press had everyone convinced that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people were poisoning others for profit. Newspapers devoted a great deal of space to poisoning trials and speculated that these cases were only a few of a “multitude” of murders that went unpunished — and that this multitude was growing. Jill Ainsley wrote about this at length and says,

According to the press, the bodies subjected to forensic examination represented the tip of the iceberg of poisoned corpses. Poison narratives routinely assumed that poisoners were caught only once their lethal practice was well established. Once a particular individual was suspected in one death, their pool of alleged victims automatically expanded to include anyone else they had contact with who subsequently died. The implications of references to large families “all of whom were dead” were clear to regular readers of crime reports.

Women in particular were liable to suspicion.

In fact, the papers alleged that in Essex there was a “secret society” of female poisoners who conspired together to murder people with arsenic, and that the general public was aware of the situation and accepted it. There is no actual evidence that such a conspiracy existed, never mind that it was condoned by the locals.

It is true that the number of prosecutions in poisoning cases rose during this time period, but that was probably because of the application of the Marsh test, invented in 1836 by chemist James Marsh.

The Marsh test was the first reliable test for arsenic in the human body and it was extremely sensitive. Before that, just about the only way to figure out if something was poisoned was to give some of the suspect substance to a dog and see if it died.

Arsenic during the nineteenth century was cheap, plentiful and used in a myriad of things, from wallpaper coloring to makeup to sheep dip. In small amounts it made a good rat poison, and that’s usually what it was used for.

Since it came in the form of a grainy white powder that could easily be mistaken for flour, salt or sugar, a lot of people got poisoned — not all of them intentionally, either.

There were not a few suicides and many, many accidents. Ainsley, who studied the Essex poisonings at length, believes it’s entirely on the cards that the arsenic that killed James and Joseph Chesham got into their systems accidentally.

It was partly due to the notoriety of Sarah Chesham’s crimes that the British parliament passed the Sale of Arsenic Regulation Bill in 1851. The law required arsenic sellers to record the name of each buyer and to sell it only to people they knew personally. It also required arsenic to by dyed some other color so people would no longer mistake it for food.

Getting back to Sarah: after her execution, her family was permitted to claim her body for burial in the local churchyard. But before the internment could take place, the body was stolen, probably for dissection, by a person or persons unknown. It was never recovered.

Part of the Themed Set: Arsenic.

On this day..

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

Tags: , , , , , ,

1851: Two men hanged and one lynched in Sacramento

1 comment August 22nd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1851, three men were publicly hanged from a scaffold at Fourth and O Street in Sacramento, California: John Thompson* and James Gibson legally, and William Robinson under color of lynch law.

According to Ken Gonzales-Day’s Lynching in the West: 1850-1935, all three had been condemned to death under the brand-new state‘s brand-new Criminal Practices Act, making theft a capital offense.

They had assaulted and robbed a guy on the streets of Sacramento a few weeks previous, and the local vigilance committee had already made plain its impatience with the matter: upon the granting of a legal motion to stay the trial three days in order to allow the defense to actually prepare, an orderly posse had firmly forced the court back into session to proceed with the speediest of trials. Any outcome other than death could scarcely have come to pass.

Nonetheless, California governor John McDougall made bold to stay one of the hangings, that of William Robinson.**

The San Francisco-based Alta California — which had previously (August 1, 1851) editorialized in strong support of the forced trial: “If our courts would in all cases act, the people would have no occasion for assuming the responsibility of ferretting out criminals, and awarding them their proper punishment” — narrated (September 1, 1851) a, er, popular veto of that gubernatorial mercy.

The Executions in Sacramento City

The Sacramento papers of Saturday are filled with accounts of the exciting scenes that have transpired in that city within a few days past.

We condense from the Sacramento Union, a decription [sic] of the occurrences of Friday last.

THE SCENES OF YESTERDAY. — By daylight yesterdat morning, teams, horsemen and pedestrians, were seen pouring into the city from every direction, and at an early hour the city was crowded with miners and strangers from the country, who had come in to witness the execution of the three culprits, Thompson, Gibson and Robinson.

Soon after nine o’clock, a rumor ran through the city, that a respite of Robinson’s sentence had been received from the Governor, and that the day of his execution was to be postponed until the 19th day of September. …

As the hour for the execution drew nigh, the crowd around the Station House became immense, and there was evidently a fixed determination in the minds of the populace that the prisoner, Robinson, should suffer the same penalty as the other two culprits, and that, too, in spite of the Governor’s proclamation …

The Sheriff, after reading the reprieve, ordered the two prisoners, Gibson and Thompson, to be taken to the place of execution, and likewise commanded the “Guards” to convey the prisoner, Robinson, to the Prison brig. The former two were then placed in a wagon, with their arms securely pinioned, and driven rapidly off, in company with the officers, to the scaffold.

The “Guards” then brought out Robinson, and attempted to convey him to the prison brig, but were compelled, on the corner of 2d street, to deliver their prisoner to the people, who placed him in a cart, and thus, surrounded by the “Guards,” were escorted to a grove near the place where the scaffold was erected.

A committee was appointed who were to take charge of the execution of Robinson after the legal authorities had performed their duty.

While these proceedings were going on at the grove, the final peparations for the execution of the unfortunate men, Gibson and Thompson, were progressing. …

The prisoners bore themselves with the greatest fortitude throughout the whole of this tragical scene, and not the slightest agitation was perceptible. At the moment the cord was cut, a cry was heard — “Now for Robinson.” The shout went up from the dense throng, “Hang the scoundrel!” — “Bring him here!” — “Let him hang too!”

The scene which followed was the most terrific we ever witnessed. The thronging crowds rushed for the station house in the greatest excitement, and on all sides was heard the thrilling cry, “Hang the rascal!” In the mean time the Sheriff, having performed his duty efficiently and faithfully, retired from the scene, as did also the officers with whom he was connected.

The muffled drum of the Guards announced that the culprit Robinson was approaching. The crowd gave way, the Committee with their prisoner slowly and solemnly ascended the scaffold, and the Guards formed a hollow square around it below.

Robinson appeared perfectly cool and collected, and on being requested to address the crowd, came forward, and in a clear voice made another confession. He evidently appeared desirous of creating a sensation, and accordingly commenced by alleging the grossest and most unfounded charges against men who stand high in this community … we do not feel ourselves justified on such evidence as this, in proclaiming to the world that officers who have heretofore been deemed perfectly upright and honourable, are no better than felons.

After the events of Friday, a portion of the excited populace assembled during the evening, and hung John McDougal in effigy. This proceeding, perhaps, was more the result of a hasty and excited spirit on the part of the few, than the calm reflection of the public mind, although the Union apologizes for the act by observing that persons engaged in it did not desire to cast obloquy on the office, but to exhibit their contempt for its incumbent.

* Thompson’s real name was evidently McDermott. The Espy file of historical American executions calls him “Thornton,” though it’s not clear whether this was yet another alias or simply an erroneous entry in the database.

** According to a different article in the same September 1, 1851 Alta California, the governor’s grounds for clemency were “the conviction of about thirty men … that Robinson was quite guiltless of the offence with which he stood charged. That false testimony had been trumped up to convict him, that he was not a hardened man, had fought the battles of his country, and finally, (as stated in a letter from a clergyman) he was quite a promising youth, of pious education, and possessing a ‘good understanding of the Christian doctrines.'”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Lynching,Public Executions,Theft,USA

Tags: , , , , , , ,

1851: Col. William Logan Crittenden, nephew of the Attorney General

6 comments August 16th, 2011 Headsman

“An American kneels only to his God, and always faces his enemy,”* declared William Logan Crittenden, refusing to kneel before his executioners in Havana this date in 1851.

This well-bred** Kentuckian veteran of the Mexican-American War ditched a New Orleans customs-house gig when Narciso Lopez formed a private filibustering expedition to try to steal Cuba from the Spanish.

Placed at the head of one of Lopez’s three battalions, Crittenden’s force was cut off and overwhelmed by the Spanish. (The detailed progress of the campaign is described here.)

He and 50 of his command captured with him were all ordered for immediate execution, six at a time, as pirates, with just a few hours’ allowance to take down official statements and scribble their hasty goodbyes. With “not the heart to write to any of my family,” Crittenden sent one to a friend giving his farewells … then, just before the end, dashed off another addressed to the Attorney General of the United States — his uncle, John J. Crittenden.†

Dear Uncle: In a few moments some fifty of us will be shot. We came with Lopez. You will do me the justice to believe that my motive was a good one. I was deceived by Lopez — he, as well as the public press,‡ assured me tat the island was in a state of prosperous revolution.

I am commanded to finish writing at once.

Your nephew,
W.L. Crittenden

I will die like a man

(Some other affecting last letters from Crittenden’s party can be perused here.)

All this scene, including a post-mortem mutilation by the enraged mob of onlookers, became a bloody banner for U.S. Southerners — since expanding the slave power was core to the entire filibustering project.

When word of the shootings reached New Orleans, a crowd sacked the Spanish consulate.

But in the international relations game, the U.S. had disavowed filibustering and its raiders enjoyed no special diplomatic protection. When a number of the later prisoners were returned in chains to Spain, the Millard Fillmore administration asked their release, but had no grounds to demand it. It was a touchy diplomatic situation … one that our late Crittenden’s uncle, as a member of cabinet, was right in the middle of.

Fillmore eventually secured the captives’ release, atoning the insult to the European power’s agents by causing the Spanish colors to be saluted in New Orleans in honor of the birth of the Infanta Isabella.

All this mincing instead of brawling struck a certain variety of hothead as distinctly unmanful.

Our flag has been wantonly insulted in the Caribbean sea … captured citizens of our country [were] sent in a slave ship to the coast of Spain, fettered, according to the custom of that inhuman traffic, and released, not as an acknowledgement of wrong on demand of our government, but as a gracious boon accorded to a friendly suit … Whilst the dying words of Crittenden yet rung in the American ear, and the heart turned sickening away from the mutilated remains of his liberty-loving followers; whilst public indignation yet swelled at the torture which had been inflicted on our captive countrymen, even then we were called upon to witness a further manifestation of the truckling spirit of the administration …

-Jefferson Davis (yes, that one)

* An alternative version has Crittenden declaring that Kentuckians kneel only to their God.

** According to this public domain book (pdf; it’s also on Google books) of the Lopez expedition, William Crittenden’s cousin George Bibb Crittenden — eventually a Confederate general — was among the Texan filibusters to survive the Black Bean Lottery.

William Crittenden’s brother Thomas Theodore Crittenden fought on the Union side of the Civil War, and became Governor of Missouri in 1881. He’s noteworthy for having issued the bounty on outlaw Jesse James that led to the latter’s assassination by Robert Ford.

† Family in the president’s cabinet was just no guarantee of preferential treatment, abroad or at home; just a few years before, a son of the sitting Secretary of War had been hanged at sea for mutiny.

‡ The Spanish press likewise excoriated American yellow journalism in terms that no few present-day scribes would also deserve.

New Orleans papers, there is your work! There is the result of your diragations, of your iniquitous falsehoods, of your placards with large black letters, and your detestable extras … This blood must flow, drop by drop, upon your heads — this blood will torment you in your sleep, for they have lost their lives when you were in security in your houses.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Cuba,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Notably Survived By,Occupation and Colonialism,Pirates,Power,Shot,Soldiers,Spain,Summary Executions,Terrorists,USA

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1851: Narciso Lopez, filibuster

2 comments September 1st, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1851, Venezuelan-born adventurer Narciso Lopez was garroted in Havana for his repeated expeditions to overturn Spanish dominion in Cuba.

Narciso Lopez had fought for the Spanish against Simon Bolivar, and migrated to Cuba when Bolivar carried the day.

Initially a loyal government functionary, Lopez gradually became sweet on the anti-Spanish cause, and fled Cuba for the United States (pursued by a death sentence in absentia) when a treasonable conspiracy of his was discovered.

Like MacArthur, he meant to return — and did.

Lopez crisscrossed the United States, drumming up support for filibustering raids on Cuba meant to detach it from Spain and make it an American slave state.

In this proposed enterprise, wedded alike to both national expansionism and southern sectionalism, Lopez rubbed shoulders with the likes of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, even helping precipitate criminal charges against a former U.S. Senator who backed him.

But the five expeditions went from bad to worse, until Lopez was captured in August 1851.

Tom Chaffin’s Fatal Glory: Narciso Lopez and the First Clandestine U.S. War Against Cuba, describes the scene of his death, just days after capture.

Between the wide Gulf sky and the waters of Havana harbor, the Gothic Morro Castle’s high tabby walls gleamed in the Sunday morning light on September 1, 1851. Though it was barely seven o’clock, a noisy crowd of four thousand already had gathered in a public plaza just across the harbor from the Morro. The plaza spread below the walls of the Punta, a small citadel guarding the western side of Havana’s finger-shaped harbor. At the center of the crowd’s attention on the cloudless dawn was a ten-foot high wooden scaffold that rose from the plaza. At its top was a garrote, an iron chair with a pair of clasps on its back. The mechanics of this grim machine were simple: just below its clasps, designed to grip the condemned man’s head, was a metal collar for his throat. With a turn of the screw on the garrote’s back, the collar tightens, strangling the prisoner.

Lopez was brought out at seven o’clock. At age fifty-four, with his mustache, white hair, and dark piercing eyes, he remained a handsome man. Accompanied by a line of Spanish soldiers, he wore a long white gown and a white cap. His wrists were tied in front. Another rope, binding his elbows, was knotted from behind, its strands held by guards. With two friends who had been allowed to join him, Lopez climbed the steps of the wooden tower. At the top he knelt in prayer for a moment, then rose and faced the crowd. “Countrymen,” he said in a steady voice that observers would recall as one of remarkable composure, “I most solemnly, in this last awful moment of my life, ask your pardon for any injury I have caused you. It was not my wish to injure anyone, my object was your freedom and happiness.” When an officer interrupted, Lopez quickly concluded, “My intention was good, and my hope is in God.”

He bowed, took his seat in the iron chair, and eased his head back. The executioner, a black man, placed the iron clamps around Lopez’s throat. His feet were then tied to bolts on the sides of the chair. He exchanged a few words with his friends and kissed a small cross. Then, with a turn of a screw, Narciso Lopez’s three-year campaign to vanquish Spain’s dominion over Cuba came to an end.

This forbidding example put a real damper on American plans to annex Cuba (for a while), but hardly stanched the North American appetite for filibustering.

Despite the bad end of his own project, Lopez managed to bequeath the eventually independent Cuba the flag (Spanish link) which it still flies today.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Cuba,Death Penalty,Execution,Garrote,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Separatists,Soldiers,Spain,Strangled,Treason

Tags: , , , , ,


Calendar

September 2018
M T W T F S S
« Aug    
 12
3456789
10111213141516
17181920212223
24252627282930

Archives

Categories

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!


Recent Comments

  • thomas kanyak: The christmas eve executions were mentioned in a September 1979 New York Times article on the fall of...
  • Johan Louis de Jong: Bit odd article as one has to know the Portuguese Crown Prince stayed in Brazil and declared...
  • KYGB: Richard, you need to stop bothering Kevin. You have a website with a forum on it. Go back to your own sandbox...
  • Be: RIP to the five year old murdered and shame on JCF to infer that her death was a sham perpetuated by the white...
  • Eric: Absolutely incredible, not much difference to someof the landlords today? https://youtu.be/hDG_hl_qZKw