1857: Two surviving members of the Aiken Party

Add comment November 28th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1857, the Utah Territory finished the extrajudicial executions it had botched three days before.

As we have detailed, Utah’s Mormon authorities had during these months of near-war against federal authorities taken prisoner a party of Californians crossing their territory — the Aiken (or Aikin) Party.

On November 25, four members of that party were murdered by the Mormon guards escorting them out of the state — killings that were quite extrajudicial, but also quite deliberately orchestrated by the stated.

Except, they had only killed two of the four.

Although outnumbered by their attackers and miles from the nearest settlement, somehow two men — perhaps John Aiken and John “Colonel” Eichard or Achard, although we cannot be certain of their identities — survived the bludgeons and staggered, wounded, back to the town of Nephi whose residents could not but take them in: an awkward situation since they still had to be done to death and could not very well be gunned down right there in the town.

We excerpt at length here from J.H. Beadle’s explanatory appendix in the autobiography of frontiersman and confessed Brigham Young hit man Wild Bill Hickman. Beadle was a vituperative anti-Mormon propagandist and his prose runs to the purple, but the core facts of the case are historically well-supported; see David Bigler, “The Aiken Party Executions and the Utah War, 1857-1858,” The Western Historical Quarterly, Winter 2007.

Two died without a struggle. But John Aikin bounded to his feet, but slightly wounded, and sprang into the brush. A shot from the pistol of John Kink laid him senseless. “Colonel” also reached the brush, receiving a shot in the shoulder from Port Rockwell, and believing the whole party had been attacked by banditti, he made his way back to Nephi. “With almost superhuman strength he held out during the twenty-five miles, and the first bright rays of a Utah sun showed the man, who twenty-four hours before had left them handsome and vigorous in the pride of manhood, now ghastly pale and drenched with his own blood, staggering feebly along the streets of Nephi. He reached Bishop Foote’s, and his story elicited a well-feigned horror.

Meanwhile the murderers had gathered up the other three and thrown them into the river, supposing all to be dead. But John Aikin revived and crawled out on the same side, and hiding in the brush, heard these terrible words:

“Are the damned Gentiles all dead, Port?”

“All but one — the son of a b– ran.”

Supposing himself to be meant, Aikin lay still till the Danites left, then, without hat, coat, or boots, on a November night, the ground covered with snow, he set out for Nephi. Who can imagine the feelings of the man? Unlike “Colonel” he knew too well who the murderers were, and believed himself the only survivor. To return to Nephi offered but slight hope, but it was the only hope, and incredible as it may appear he reached it next day. He sank helpless at the door of the first house he reached, but the words he heard infused new life into him. The woman, afterwards a witness, said to him, “Why, another of you ones got away from the robbers, and is at Brother Foote’s.” “Thank God; it is my brother,” he said, and started on. The citizens tell with wonder that he ran the whole distance, his hair clotted with blood, reeling like a drunken man all the way. It was not his brother, but “Colonel.” The meeting of the two at Foote’s was too affecting for language to describe. They fell upon each other’s necks, clasped their blood-spattered arms around each other, and with mingled tears and sobs kissed and embraced as only men can who together have passed through death …

[But] the murderers had returned, and a new plan was concocted. “Colonel” had saved his pistol and Aikin his watch, a gold one, worth at least $250. When ready to leave they asked the bill, and were informed it was $30. They promised to send it from the city, and were told that “would not do.” Aikin then said, “Here is my watch and my partner’s pistol — take your choice.” Foote took the pistol. When he handed it to him, Aikin said, “There, take my best friend. But God knows it will do us no good.” Then to his partner, with tears streaming from his eyes, “Prepare for death. Colonel, we will never get out of this valley alive.”

According to the main witness, a woman of Nephi, all regarded them as doomed. They had got four miles on the road, when their driver, a Mormon named [Absalom] Woolf,* stopped the wagon near an old cabin; informed them he must water his horses; unhitched them, and moved away. Two men then stepped from the cabin, and fired with double-barreled guns; Aiken and “Colonel” were both shot through the head, and fell dead from the wagon. Their bodies were then loaded with stone and put in one of those “bottomless springs” — so called — common in that part of Utah.

I passed the place in 1869, and heard from a native the whispered rumors about “some bad men that were sunk in that spring.” The scenery would seem to shut out all idea of crime, and irresistibly awaken thoughts of heaven. The soft air of Utah is around; above the blue sky smiles as if it were impossible there could be such things as sin or crime; and the neat village of Nephi brightens the plain, as innocently fair as if it had not witnessed a crime as black and dastardly as ever disgraced the annals of the civilized world.

* Grandfather of jockey George Woolf, who rode Seabiscuit to a famous victory over Triple Crown winner War Admiral in 1938.

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Corpses Strewn: The Aiken Party Massacre

Add comment November 25th, 2018 Headsman

“Six ‘gentlemen of good address,’ known as the Aiken party, rode into Salt Lake Valley from California in October 1857 and were never seen or heard from again by family members or friends.” So begins the late David Bigler’s 2007 Western Historical Quarterly article, “The Aiken Party Executions and the Utah War, 1857-1858.” It’s an affair with little purchase on the American recollection, buried in the omerta passed over the violent birth of Mormonism, once that faith attained its political accommodation come the late 19th century.

Early Mormonism traded stripe for stripe with neighbors who hated the movement to the extent of an extermination order and the lynching of founding prophet Joseph Smith.

Under the leadership of Smith’s successor Brigham Young, the community relocated en masse to the arid westward frontier between the Rocky Mountains and California — the Utah Territory, spanning the eventual states of both Utah and Nevada.*

But the heretical and polygamous frontier theocracy at first stood in the same fraught relationship with the expanding Republic that it had once had with Protestant neighbors in Missouri and Illinois. Mormons answered to Governor Young as both the civil and ecclesiastical power, ignoring or overruling federal authorities to the extent that enemies slated the sect with rebellion.

“He has been so much in the habit of exercising his will which is supreme here, that no one will dare oppose anything he may say or do,” an Indian Affairs agent reported to Washington of Gov. Young. “His orders are obeyed without regard to their consequences and whatever is in the interest of the Mormons is done whether it is according to the interest of the government or not.”

In 1857 the new U.S. President James Buchanan appointed a new man to replace Brigham Young as Utah’s governor — and sent an armed expedition to enforce the federal writ. Young raged against this move, charging that “their entrance is designed by our Government to be the prelude to the introduction of abominations and death … if they can send a force against this people, we have every constitutional and legal right to send them to hell, and we calculate to send them there.”

Young declared martial law, closed trails through the territory, and braced to “repel any and all such invasion.”** This standoff commenced the 1857-1858 Utah War, which never quite came to open shooting between Mormon militias and the U.S. Army. But among Mormons who could remember civil strife with Americans all too well — “fear turned in their minds” as an interviewee has said on this very site, speaking on that occasion of the most notorious hecatomb of those years, the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Although downplayed in church-supported histories, Mormon guns did ample violence to other civilians of unreliable loyalties in those months.

It is thus that we come to our six gentlemen of good address, the Aiken or Aikin Party — victims of an atrocity not so well-known as those of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, but no less appalling.

Thomas Aiken, John Aiken, John “Colonel” Eichard/Achard, Andrew Jackson “Honesty” Jones, and John Chapman had set out from California to cross those closed trails aiming to meet the approaching federal forces, carrying several thousand dollars in gold and letters endorsing them to the federal commanders; they were joined en route by Horace “Buck” Bucklin. Nobody quite knows the party’s intent for this rendezvous; several were merchants who had done a brisk trade with miners during the gold rush and they might have hoped to set up a profitable gambling or whoring operation that would soak up the soldiers’ wages.† To their captors, they explained their presence by saying only that they “wanted to see the country.” Whatever they were truly, Mormons saw them for enemy agents.

What befell them is quite borderline in terms of this here site‘s executions portfolio, but utterly blood-chilling. Though effected as brute assassinations in the field, those killed were overt prisoners of the territorial government whose fates had been deliberated and decreed by their captors. Bigler’s journal article summation of the evidence is our chief source in this; he draws heavily from unsuccessful 1877-1878 legal measures against the men’s surviving murderers.

Falling in with a Mormon wagon train for safety against Indian attacks, the Aiken party instead found itself disarmed and given to the custody of the Mormon militia at Box Elder (present-day Brigham City), then brought under guard to the territorial capital of Salt Lake City. Governor Young was fully aware of these potential spies in his custody.

Horace Bucklin made a successful — for now — appeal to Gov. Young for mercy as an innocent bystander. The five Californians were escorted 25 miles onward to Lehi, where John Chapman was suffered to winter. One of his four companions allegedly took his leave of Chapman with the words, “Goodbye, John. If you come this way and see our bones bleaching on the plains, bury them.” It was a prescient fear: the deaths of all these four men, and apparently Bucklin and Chapman too, were even at this moment being orchestrated by orders from the top.

History has not preserved for us the command in the governor’s own hand. But as Bigler puts it on circumstantial evidence, “an authority at Great Salt Lake made a considered decision to allow two of the men to remain at large over the winter and kill the other four. Such an authority could only have been Brigham Young.”

Recommended background: episode 116 of the Year Of Polygamy podcast. The Aiken Party is briefly touched on from about 38:20 but the entire episode is worth a go.

* All this land and more the Mormon settlers once aspired to incorporate as a mighty sovereignty destined to become a state called Deseret. That name lives on today in a Salt Lake City newspaper.

** Young’s proclamation gives a sense of his own power within Utah and the umbrage it would inspire of the federal government. (It’s quoted here by a legislator who grouses, “Caesar, when he crossed the Rubicon, made no higher assumption than Brigham Young when he declared war.”)

Therefore, I, Brigham Young, Governor and Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Territory of Utah, in the name of the people of the United States in the Territory of Utah, forbid —

First. All armed forces of every description from coming into this Territory, under any pretense whatever.

Second. That all the forces in said Territory hold themselves in readiness to march at a moment’s notice to repel any and all such invasion.

Third. Martial law is hereby declared to exist in this Territory from and after the publication of this proclamation; and no person shall be allowed to pass or repass into, or through, or from, this Territory, without a permit from the proper officer.

† The Aiken party did not have wagons full of merchandise, so any intended commercial operation they would have needed to realize on the spot.

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1857: Two members of the Aiken Party

Add comment November 25th, 2018 Headsman

The first “executions” meted out by Mormon captors to the Aiken or Aikin Party men who were attempting to cross the war-footing territory eastward from California took place on November 25, 1857, and were as clumsy as they were brutal.

Under the pretext of escorting them out of the state, Thomas Aiken, John Aiken, John “Colonel” Eichard, and Andrew Jackson “Honesty” Jones reached the small settlement of Salt Creek, Utah, on November 24. They had their least peaceful sleep there that night while their guides, acting on orders from the top of the state’s hierarchy, planned their murders.

Four toughs dispatched by Bishop Jacob Bigler slipped out of Nephi before dawn the next day. They’d ride on ahead, and later that evening “accidentally” meet the southbound Aiken men and their escorts, presenting themselves as a chance encounter on the trails to share a camp that night. These toughs plus the escorts gave the Mormons an 8-to-4 advantage on their prisoners, which was still only good enough to kill 2-of-4 when the time came:

David Bigler’s 2007 Western Historical Quarterly article, “The Aiken Party Executions and the Utah War, 1857-1858.”

After supper, the newcomers sat around the fire singing. “Each assassin had selected his man. At a signal from [Porter] Rockwell, [the] four men drew a bar of iron each from his sleeve and struck his victim on the head. Collett did not stun his man and was getting worsted. Rockwell fired across the camp fire and wounded the man in the back. Two escaped and got back to Salt Creek.”

We don’t actually know which two died at the camp and which two made it back to Salt Creek. Bigler suspects Thomas Aiken and John Eichard were the victims to die on the 25th; the editors of Mormon assassin Bill Hickman‘s confessional autobiography make it Thomas Aiken and Honesty Jones.

The doomed men were stopping at T. B. Foote’s, and some persons in the family afterwards testified to having heard the council that condemned them. The selected murderers, at 11 p.m., started from the Tithing House and got ahead of the Aikins, who did not start till dayhght. The latter reached the Sevier River, when Rockwell informed them they could find no other camp that day; they halted, when the other party approached and asked to camp with them, for which permission was granted. The weary men removed their arms and heavy clothing, and were soon lost in sleep — that sleep which for two of them was to have no waking on earth. All seemed fit for their damnable purpose, and yet the murderers hesitated. As near as can be determined, they still feared that all could not be done with perfect secrecy, and determined to use no firearms. With this view the escort and the party from Nephi attacked the sleeping men with clubs and the kingbolts of the wagons. Two died without a struggle.

As for the two survivors … that’s a tale for another day.

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1857: John Dorsey

Add comment July 17th, 2018 Headsman

The public domain volume 1886 Professional Criminals of America might divert the devotee of classic true crime with its numerous vignettes from the latter 19th century, quite a few of them unsolved. Executed Today of course cottons to the section on executions at Manhattan’s The Tombs Prison, such as the following:

JOHN DORSEY (negro), a sailor, was executed in the Tombs prison for the murder of Ann McGirr, alias Ann Hopkins. The crime was committed at No. 3 Worth Street on March 10, 1857. The scene of the crime was a five-story tenement inhabited by colored prostitutes. Dorsey and the woman lived together, and on the night of March 10, 1857, he returned home under the influence of liquor. He met his mistress. Ann McGirr, in the alleyway. They had some words, and Dorsey becoming angry drew a razor from his pocket and cut the woman’s throat from ear to ear. Dorsey was convicted of murder in the first degree, in the Court of General Sessions, May 21, 1857, before Judge Abraham D. Russell. He was hanged on July 17, 1857.

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1857: Danforth Hartson, again

Add comment July 15th, 2018 Robert Elder

(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. This post originally appeared on the Last Words blog. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)

“For God’s sake, don’t do that again.”

Danforth Hartson, convicted of murder, hanging, California.
Executed July 15, 1857

Hartson (aka Sailor Jim) claimed self-defense in a fight that followed his argument with “estimable citizen” John Burke, whom he knocked to the ground and then shot in the chest. Burke was able to make a full statement, naming Hartson as the murderer, before he died.

Hartson’s last words came after he slipped through the noose and fell through the trap door.

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1857: Dedea Redanies, immigrant soldier

Add comment January 1st, 2018 Headsman

On New Year’s Day of 1857, Serbian Dedea Redanies was hanged in front of the Maidstone gaol for the shocking, out-of-nowhere murder of two English sisters he was close with.

Hailing from Belgrade, capital to the autonomous Serbian proto-state at the fraying fringes of Ottoman Europe, Redanies numbered among the thousands of subjects of central and southern European polities recruited by England as Crimean War cannon fodder. Relocated to England for training, a great many of these Germans, Italians, and Swiss were never deployed before the war ended in March 1856.

Though empires seek young men for their trigger-fingers they obtain also their passions and dreams so it is no surprise that a number of these import soldiers made time with the women near their posts. Our man Dedea Redanies was one of these; he became intimate with a Dover family near his garrison at Shorncliffe Camp and began to pay court to its eldest daughter, Caroline Back. Caroline liked Dedea too. Some of the young soldier’s letters to his inamorata, in touchingly fractured English, were published. (This is from Jackson’s Oxford Journal, Aug. 23, 1856)

My dear Caroline, —

I receive your portress and letter. I am glad and happy unto death. I am glad that you me not forgotten, and I beg you rit me every week one letters.

I have since that time than I from you to depart must, no happy hour to live to see can, and I thanks you for yours truth love.

I hoppe next month to see you. I do wish God spead you well. Me complaments on all familie 6000 tousend kisses.

Good bie mi dear Caroline, you truth,

Mi not forgotten.

Dedea Redanies

That letter was dated the 28th of June.

Barely a month later a passerby would find Caroline and her sister Maria (ages 18 and 16, respectively) stabbed to death on the road to Folkstone. They’d been last seen by their family gaily conversing with Dedea as he escorted them on the nine-mile walk; some others would describe noticing them on their way that morning, all of them in apparent high spirits.

Dedea Redanies said little after his arrest other than to embrace his (already obvious) responsibility for the murders but as could be best understood from a German letter* that he posted to the victims’ mother shortly before his capture, he had perceived a slip in Caroline’s affections and decided to do the whole tragic murder-suicide thing rather than live another day without her. Attaining a secluded glen facing the sea, he effected his plan in the most mawkish fashion imaginable. (This is from Jackson’s Oxford Journal, Aug. 23, 1857)

To Mother Back, —

On the first lines I pray to forgive the awful accident to the unlucky Dedea Redanies, which I committed on my very dear Caroline and Maria Back yesterday morning at five o’clock. Scarcely I am able to write; my heart break for my ever memorable Caroline and Maria. The cause of my deed is — 1, As I heard that Caroline is not in the family way, as I first believed; 2, because Caroline intends to go to Woolwich; 3, as I cannot stay with my very dear Caroline it made my heart so scattered that I put into my mind at last that Caroline rather may die from my hands than to allow Caroline’s love being bestowed upon others. However, I did not intend to murder also Maria, her sister, but, not having other opportunity, and as she was in my way, I could not do otherwise. I must stab her, too.

Dear Mother, — Saturday evening, when I came, I had not at least any intention to commit this awful act; but as I learned that my dear Caroline gave me back my likeness, and as she told me she would leave, I did not know any other way than that leading to the cutler, where I bought a poignard which divided the hearty lovers.

Sketch of Dedea Redanies committing murder by … Dedea Redanies. (Some stories indicate this was a repeated hobby of his as he awaited hanging.)

Arm by arm I brought my dearest souls in the world over to the unlucky place, neear the road before Folkestone, and requested them to sit down. But the grass being wet, they refused to do so, and I directed then Caroline to go forward, and I went behind Maria, into whose breast I ran the dagger. With a dull cry she sank down. With a most broken heart I rushed then after Caroline, lifting the poignard in my hand towards her. ‘Dear Dedea,’ cried she, with a half-dead voice, and fell down with weeping eyes. Then I rushed over her, and gave her the last kisses as an everlasting remembrance.

I could not live a more dreadful hour in my life than that was, and my broken heart could not feel when my senses were gone. And I took both the black capes of Maria and dear Caroline, as a mourning suit for me, leaving the awful spot with weeping eyes and a broken heart. Never I shall forget my dear Caroline and Maria, and the poignard will be covered with blood until it will be put in my own breast, and I shall see again my dear Maria and Caroline in the eternal life.

Farewell, and be not unhappy about the blissful deceased; they are angels of God, and forget the unhappy ever-weeping

Dedea Redanies

Wandering onward toward Canterbury, Redanies self-inflicted three stab wounds (one of them tearing into his left lung) that would have been fatal but for the timely arrival of a party of laborers and a surgeon they were able to summon. That enabled the crown to do the inflicting for him. Impassive in the face of his approaching death, he kept on roleplaying the romance in his head to the very end — “In a few moments I shall be in the arms of my dear Caroline; I care not for death” — “Now I write no more — I prepare myself to go meet my dear Caroline” — etc.

There’s more detail about this case as well as a hanging ballad to be found at PlanetSlade.com; the crime also inspired a folk tune, “The Folkestone Murder”

One final senseless death remained to the tragedy: according to the London Morning Chronicle (Jan. 2, 1857), one of the workmen disassembling the scaffold after it had served its turn “fell from a considerable height upon his head, and was killed upon the spot.”

* The quoted text is the English as it was originally published; I’m not positive whether to attribute its clunky prose more to the writer or the translator.

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1857: The mutineer Jemadar Issuree Pandy

Add comment April 21st, 2017 Headsman

From the Annals of the Indian Rebellion, 1857-58:

THE MUTINEER JEMADAR ISSUREE PANDY.

This Jemadar of the 34th Regiment N.I. was brought to trial on the following charges: —

1st. For having at Barrackpore on the 29th March 1857, he being then in command of the quarter-guard of his regiment, not used his utmost or any endeavours to suppress a mutiny begun by Mungul Pandy, the said sepoy having on the afternoon of the day above mentioned, gone out into the parade ground in front of and near to the quarter-guard of the regiment armed with a sword and musket; and then and there used words to excite the men of the reigment to come forth and join him in resistance to lawful authority; and having then and there on the parade ground, and near to the quarter-guard of the regiment, discharged his loaded musket at Serjeant Major James Thornton Hewson, and Lieutenant Bempole Henry Baugh, of the 34th Regiment N.I., and then and there with a sword struck, and severely wounded, the said Lieutenant Baugh and Serjeant Major Hewson, and the said Jemadar not having taken any measures to arrest and confine the said sepoy throughout the aforesaid occurrences, nor to assist the said Lieutenant Baugh and Serjenat Major Hewson, and he [sic] the said Jemadar having, moreover, then and there discouraged and interfered to prevent any sepoys of his guard from going to their assistance.

2nd. For disobedience to the lawful command of his superior officers in not having advanced with his guard to rescue the Serjeant and capture the aforesaid sepoy, Mungul Pandy, when shortly after the occurrences, set forth in the first charge, he was ordered to do so by Brevet Colonel S.G. Wheler, commanding the 34th Regiment N.I.

The Court found the prisoner, Jemadar Issurree Pandy, guilty of both charges preferred against him, and sentenced him to suffer death. On the 21st April 1857 Major General Hearsey reported as follows: —

Jemadar Issuree Pandy was duly hanged by the neck this afternoon at 6 o’clock in presence of all the troops at the station; the crimes, finding, and sentence of the General Court Martial before which he was arraigned, approved and confirmed by His Excellency the Commander-in-Chief, having been first carefully explained to all the native corps.

It may be perhaps satisfactory to the Government to know that when on the scaffold the Jemadar made a voluntary confession of his guilt, and admitted the justice of the sentence which had been passed on him, at the same time imploring all his fellow soldiers who were present to take warning by his untimely fate.

They didn’t.

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1858: Maniram Dewan, tea infuser

1 comment February 26th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1858, the British hanged Assamese grandee Maniram Dewan for joining the 1857 Indian Rebellion.

Maniram was a young man going on 20 when the British wrested control from Burma of the eastern province Assam, and he carved himself a successful career in the empire.

But without doubt his lasting service to the Union Jack and the world was discovering to the British the existence of a theretofore unknown varietal of the tea plant, cultivated in Assam’s monsoon-drenched jungles by the Singhpo people* — a fact of geopolitical significance since it augured a means to crack the Chinese stranglehold on tea supply so taxing to the current accounts.** Today, rich Assam tea is one of the world’s largest tea crops, yielding 1.5 million pounds annually.

Maniram himself was among its earliest commercial cultivators (in fact, the first native Indian cultivator), setting up with an estate at the village of Chenimora in the 1840s, but the next decade found him increasingly irritated by the injuries British avarice to the extent that he began intriguing to restore the lately dispossessed kings.

With the outbreak of rebellion in 1857, Maniram and the like-minded made their move to restore the Ahom heir Kandarpeswar Singha but the plot was betrayed and landed its authors in irons.

Although he suffered the law’s last extremity for his plot, Maniram’s name lives on in honor in modern India. A trade center in Assam’s largest city bears his name, for instance; and, when India declared tea its official drink in 2013, it timed the announcement to fall on Maniram’s birthday (April 17, 1806).

* It goes without saying that imperial recognition of their secret produce did not redound to the benefit of the Singhpo. Although Singhpo assembled the very first export crop, much of their land was soon gobbled up by tea plantations, and when they rebelled in 1843 the East India Company annexed it outright. “Now it is said that where the tea grows, that is yours, but when we make sacrifices we require tea for our funerals,” a Singhpo chief wrote the Company, mournfully. “We therefore perceive that you have taken all the country, and we, the old and respectable, cannot get tea to drink.” (Source)

** China required payments in specie for tea, an imbalance which London tried to redress by foisting an undesirable import upon China — resulting in the Opium War.

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1857: James Copeland, repentant gangster

Add comment October 30th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1857, “the great southern land pirate” James Copeland went to the gallows in the now-abandoned Mississippi town of Augusta.

Copeland‘s criminal career is the subject of a wonderfully old-timey reader by the Perry County sheriff who noosed him. (As it says right there on the title plate. Sheriff J.R.S. Pitts does not shrink from injecting his own story into the narrative, and to get to the action the reader must first wade through tedious digressions into the hangman’s biography, his civic-minded rationales for a prurient interest in outlaws — “such a life and history cannot fail, even at this late date … of materially interesting and benefiting the public at large” — and some whinging about the libel suits that dogged his attempts to materially benefit the public at large.)

After an “introduction”, a “preface”, and an “explanatory”, our volume comes at last to an illustrated 100-page autobiographical narrative which Pitts says that Copeland dictated to him while cooling his heels in jail.

Hardened and violent in life, Copeland under the eaves of death seems to made that familiar return to God and repentfully confessed his path into depravity beginning with youthful delinquencies the condign punishment of which was consistently deflected by his mother, “who always upheld me in my rascality.”

Having fallen into a legal scrape for pig-thieving, Copeland left behind charming rascality for Godfather territory when he made contact with an outlaw named Gale Wages and concocted a plan to vacate the charges by destroying the documentation … by torching the courthouse in which they rested.

“Such a sight I never had before beheld,” Copeland remembered of the blaze. “The flames seemed to ascend as high, if not higher than the tops of the tallest pine trees; they made everything perfectly light for over two hundred yards around.” After that bonfire, Copeland gave himself over to the guidance of a man who turned out to be halfway between Jabba the Hutt and a Masonic lodge chief.

Wages, Copeland found, had “a great many persons concerned with him, in different parts of the country, some of them men of wealth and in good standing in the community in which they lived.”

They had an organized Band that would stand up to each other at all hazard; they had a Wigwam in the city of Mobile, where they held occasional meetings … they had many confederates there whom the public little suspected …

I was there introduced by Wages, (who was their president,) as a candidate for membership, I should have been rejected, had Wages not interceded for me. I was finally passed and admitted to membership. Wages then administered to me the oath, which every member had to take. I was then instructed and given the signs and pass-words of the Clan.

Maybe the gang was right to doubt him, for Copeland broke this oath by divulging to his hangman-biographer numerous names of members as well as the Encyclopedia Brown-esque cipher this gang used to send coded messages.

Over the course of the next decade and more, Copeland’s narration has the gang and he romping through Dixie in misadventures that range from the charmingly picaresque — finagling a guest role at a Methodist pulpit by posing as wandering preachers upon which they netted several hundred dollars from the inevitable passed hat — to the much less charming:

A legend of $30,000 in gold that the squad claimed to have buried in Catahoula Swamp still circulates in Mississippi — spur to thus-far frustrated treasure hunters down to the present day.

We can’t know to what degree the voice that we read is Copeland’s own or that of Pitts interposing but the narrator we have affects at times a stagey horror at his sins.

With the gang determined to be rid of an Irish boatman on the Mississippi, Copeland draws the short straw to bludgen him to death in his sleep: “Oh, God! when I look back, it makes me shudder. Even now it chills the blood in my veins.” Copeland bashed his brains in with a hatched and as day broke they slipped the weighted corpse into the river.

Copeland had moved up the ranks enough to share the marquee in the “Wages-Copeland gang” by the time things got real dark. In early 1844, a summit of the gang’s leadership determined spies were afoot and four of the suspected “butted their heads against a slung-shot hung to a man’s arm, and they went floating from Mobile wharf down the channel of the river.” Others they left “in a situation where he told no more tales” and “fed … the contents of two double-barrel shot-guns, about forty-eight buck-shot, and put him in a swamp near Eslaya’s old mill” and “put a rope around his neck, and we very soon squeezed the breath out of him.”

The end of the line could really have been any one of these incidents or the numerous others this post elides — enough blood feuds and hand-to-hand murders and the odds are sure to turn against you in the long run.

In 1849, now a wanted man, Copeland started drinking at a grocery near Mobile

and became intoxicated, and in that situation I imagined every man I saw was trying to arrest me. I fell in with a man by the name of Smith, an Irishman, and a difficulty occurred between us; I concluded that he intended to arrest me. I drew my double-barrel shot gun upon him and intended to kill him. He was too quick for me; he threw up my gun, drew his dirk and stabbed me just above the collar bone.

Having made himself both conspicuous and immobile, Copeland was tracked down by a posse and now he was really in the soup: “one indictment against me in Alabama for larceny, and another against me in Mississippi for murder.” Copeland pleaded guilty in Alabama and served a jail sentence there, hoping that the passage of years would buy him some opening to escape the hanging sentence that would surely await in neighboring Mississippi. But the Magnolia State was on its game and had a timely extradition request ready to receive James Copeland the moment his term in the Alabama pen expired.

The day arose clear and beautiful on which the sentence of the law and of outraged humanity was to be executed on the man who had so often violated their most sacred behests. The sky was blue and serene; the atmosphere genial; all nature was calm and peaceful; man alone was agitated by the various strong emotions which the execution of the fatal sentence of retributive justice on a fellow-man could not but create.

The place of execution was distant from the city of Augusta one-quarter of a mile. The gallows was erected on a beautiful elevation that was surrounded by the verdure of shrubby oak and the tall, long-leaf pine. The ground was everywhere occupied by thousands of spectators, gathered from Perry and the surrounding counties, to witness the solemn scene. It was indeed one that they will long remember.

About the hour of noon, the prisoner, after being neatly clad, was led from the jail by the officers of the law, placed in the ranks of the guard formed for the occasion, and the procession moved slowly toward the fatal spot.

Soon the doomed man appeared on the gallows. The death warrant was then read to him, and he was informed that he had but a short time to live.

He proceeded to address the awe-struck and silent multitude. He especially urged the young men present to take warning from his career and fate, and to avoid bad company. His misfortune he attributed principally to having been mislead while young.

When he had concluded, a number of questions were asked by the immediate spectators, in relation to crimes which had transpired within their knowledge; but he would give no direct answer — shrewdly eluding the inquiries.

The Sheriff then asked him, in hearing of many lookers on, if the details of his confession, previously made to that officer, were true. He replied that they were.

His hands were then tied and the cap pulled over his face, and he was told that he had but a few moments to live. He exclaimed, “Lord, have mercy on me!” and he was praying when the drop fell, and a brief struggle ended his blood-stained career.

On this day..

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

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1857: George Sharpe and John Johnson, Edwardsville murderers

Add comment June 19th, 2015 Headsman

From the Alton Weekly Courier, June 25, 1857, under a June 20 dateline.

Yesterday being the day appointed for the execution of the murderers of Jacob Barth, we dispatched one of our Assistants to Edwardsville, in order that from personal observation we might be able to correctly report the proceedings of this melancholy occasion at the earliest moment. The following is as full and concise a sketch as could be prepared after his return late yesterday evening, and contains, we believe, all the particulars in which our readers would likely feel an interest.

The Day and The Crowd

The weather was very favorable, the day being mild and pleasant. The sun shone clear and warm, but not oppressively so; the recent rains had settled the dust, but had not made any mud, and the roads were consequently in good traveling condition. The rarity of capital executions in this part of the country, together with the recent and very exciting history of this case, conspired to draw out a tremendous crowd of people to witness this the last and severest penalty of the law. It was estimated that there were between seven and eight thousand persons present, some of whom had come from a distance of fifty miles. They were of all ages, sexes, conditions and complexions. A large portion of them were Germans* — friends, relatives and countrymen of the murdered man. Very much to our surprise, mortification and sorrow, we observed a large number of females among the spectators — we say “females,” for we scarcely feel at liberty to designate them as either women or ladies, for we have always thought, and had good reason to think, that every feeling and attribute of a true woman’s nature would generate in her bosom an unconquerable repugnance to voluntarily witnessing any such revolting scenes under any circumstances in the world. Many of the females who were at the place of execution yesterday, and who witnessed the infliction of the dreadful death penalty with the same coolness and indifference as the men generally manifested, were young, and would have been pretty anywhere else and under ordinary circumstances. Why they attended, or what could have induced them to be present at all, we cannot possibly conceive; and in recording the fact that they were there, we feel that their loving, and noble, and gentle sex is by that fact disgraced.

The Prisoners

It is already known to our readers that Robert Sharpe, the younger of the two brothers condemned, has been sent to the State’s Prison for life, under commutation of sentence by Gov. Bissell. The other two – George W. Sharpe, tried and condemned under the name of George Gibson, and John Johnson, who, until after his trial bore the false name of Edward Barber — have been closely attended by Rev. E. M. West and other clergymen, and have appeared to be truly penitent for their crimes. For several days before their execution, they both seemed fully resigned to their fate, and prepared to meet and try the dread realities of eternity; but yesterday morning Sharpe yielded to despondent and despairing feelings, and seemed to suffer dreadfully with fear and terror during the last few hours of his life. The prisoners were both young, heavy set, and rather good-looking men. They evidently had been possessed of healthy and vigorous frames, capable of performing much labor. In preparation for the last scene of their lives. Sheriff Job had arrayed the unfortunate men in very neat suits of clothing, of the ordinary style and fashion, and of perfect snowy whiteness in every particular; they were also cleanly shaved and looked extremely well. Sharpe had two sisters and two brothers, including the one now in the Penitentiary; Johnson had four sisters and four brothers; the parents of both are all living yet; but no relative or even acquaintance who knew them before they committed the murder was beside them in their last trying hour.

The Procession

At half past one o’clock the Sheriff placed the prisoners in a neat and comfortable hack which had been provided, and in which they were conveyed at a slow pace to the place of execution. The carriage was escorted by a portion of the Madison Guards, under command of Captain J. Sloss, fully armed and equipped. A large concourse of spectators followed, but observed good order and decorum. The procession passed along the main street of the town, through its entire length. The prisoners occupied themselves in singing and prayer all the time after they left the prison.

The Scaffold

The spot chosen for the execution was in a ravine east of town, and on the County Poor House Grounds. The scaffold was a neat and substantial structure, as perfectly adapted to its use as anything could be. It was surrounded by rising ground in every direction, so that every person in the vast assemblage could obtain a perfect and near view of the awful tragedy. An area had been laid off by a temporary enclosure, which was guarded by a detachment of the Madison Guards, under command of Lieut. J. G. Robinson, no one being allowed to enter without the permission of the Sheriff.

The Scene at the Scaffold

After those whose duty or privilege it was had ascended to the platform of the scaffold, Sheriff Jon briefly addressed the assembled multitude. He said he was there in his official capacity to perform an unpleasant duty, in executing upon two of his fellow men the severest penalty provided by our laws for the violation of its enactments. Exceedingly unpleasant as was this duty, it was yet a duty, and should be faithfully performed. The example thus set ought not to be lost upon those who had come to witness it. The persons — and specially the youth — of that vast assemblage should take warning from the terrible fate of the two young men so soon to be hurried to the dread presence of an offended God, and avoid the crimes that so justly and so certainly lead to this terrible end. Rev. E. M. West then spoke at some length in explanation of the manner in which and the reasons why the commutation of the sentence of Robert Sharpe had been petitioned for and granted. We cannot possibly give even a skeleton of his remarks in this issue; perhaps we may do so tomorrow. Mr. West then closed with a brief and earnest admonitory exhortation suited to the occasion. The Sheriff then extended a permission — even an invitation — to the prisoners to address the audience, of which Johnson immediately availed himself. He said he stood before his hearers a cold-blooded murderer, of which crime he had been found guilty, and for which he was soon to be so terribly yet so justly punished. In a few minutes, he and one of his companions in guilt would be suddenly launched into eternity, and sent into the presence of the great God whose laws they had violated, with the blood of their victim yet red upon their hands. But he had a humble hope that he had made his peace with God, and that although his crime had been great, his salvation was sure. His soul was at peace; he had no malice in his heart, and he was ready and willing to meet the Judge of all the earth. His punishment although terrible was just, and he was prepared to meet it. If he had remained at home during his early youth and obeyed the pious instructions of his mother, he would not now have been on the scaffold a condemned murderer. He hoped all the youth who heard him would take warning by his example, he influenced by the counsels of their good and pious mothers, keep out of bad company and bad habits and thus avoid the terrible fate that had so soon overtaken him Johnson spoke with much feeling and earnestness and manifested deep emotion while speaking. His remarks were very appropriate to the occasion, and were listened to with respectful attention. Sharpe seemed to desire to speak but was so overcome with the horrors of his situation he was unable to do so. Rev. J. B. Corrington then addressed to the audience a few very appropriate remarks. He had once thought that a saving repentance in view of the certainty of death was almost if not quite an impossibility, but in the two interviews he had had with the condemned in prison, he had received grounds for hope that their repentance was thorough and sincere, and of course acceptable. He hoped, however, none of his hearers would trust their salvation to a death-pending repentance. We have positive evidence of the efficacy of but one such; and God had placed this one case on record in His Holy Word that none might despair, and but the one that none should presume. Mr. Corrington closed with a brief but earnest and heart stirring prayer, in which the prisoners, standing and with clasped hands, joined audibly.

The Execution

The prisoners then shook hands with and took an affectionate leave of each other, the Sheriff and his deputies and the attending clergymen. Johnson seemed perfectly composed and met his fate without exhibiting the least symptom of fear or even regret. He stood erect and without trembling, retained the ruddy natural glow of health in his face, and as much firmness and calmness of mind as in an ordinary business transaction. Often he would clasp his hands, and a smile of apparently perfect happiness would overspread his features. He seemed perfectly willing — even anxious, for his last moment to come. When the Sheriff told them to step on the drop, he turned to his companion and said, “George, which side would you rather stand on?” Sharpe was terribly affected, and was really a pitiable object to behold. His eyes seemed to have almost lost all expression, and exhibited nothing but a glassy, death-like stare; his face was ashy pale, and showed no color save a livid purple hue; his hands were alternately and convulsively clasped and raised in supplication, and he constantly gave utterance to heart-rending moans or incoherent prayers. When requested to step forward upon the drop, he obeyed, exclaiming, “O Lord! have mercy on me! I dare not die! I’m afraid I’m not prepared!” The ropes were adjusted round their necks, their arms were pinioned together across their backs, their hands tied, white muslin caps were drawn over their heads, and when all was ready, at a single stroke, Sheriff Jon severed the cord which held the supporters of the drop, and in an instant the unfortunate murderers were suspended in mid air in the agonies of death. They both struggled very much for more than a minute. In about two minutes after, they fell, Johnson ceased to manifest any signs of life. Sharpe continued to struggle, though less and less, for full five minutes. The knot of the noose had slipped round to the back of his head, and the fall had failed to break his neck; he therefore lived until he was literally choked to death. They both fell about five feet, and if the knot had remained in the right position, his neck would have been instantly broken, of course. After having hung full thirty minutes, the bodies were taken down, placed in handsome walnut coffins, and decently buried. Too much praise cannot be awarded to Sheriff Jon for the kind and considerate, yet firm and prompt manner in which he discharged the unpleasant duty that devolved upon him. The independent, manly and conscientious course he has pursued during the exciting and trying scenes that have occurred at our county seat during the past few weeks has won for him a still greater share of the popular favor of his constituents of which he before enjoyed so much.

* The victim was German; the young men, deep in their cups, murdered him because they took umbrage at Barth’s refusing them a ride. According to the New York Daily Tribune (May 29, 1857), a mob of some 400 lynch-minded Germans assembled in Edwardsville when the accused were granted a change of venue to a more “American” county — and even went so far as to throw up a gibbet before the Sheriff Job who eventually conducted the legal execution dissuaded his immigrant neighbors from effecting an extrajudicial one.

** Bissell was the first Republican governor of Illinois: in fact, one of the first Republican elected officials anywhere. He had previously distinguished a term in Congress (he was elected as a Democrat, before the 1854 founding of the GOP) with his naked contempt for the South’s delegates. For having the temerity to rebut exaggerated claims of Mississippian valor in the Mexican-American War, Bissell at one point prompted the future Confederate president Jefferson Davis to challenge him to a duel: surprisingly (to Davis) Bissell accepted, but word of the affair circulated in Washington and the sectional hotheads were made to cancel their rendezvous.

Here’s an 1858 letter to Bissell by Abraham Lincoln seeking (successfully) the pardon of two Logan County men convicted of stealing a few hogs.

On this day..

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

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