1859: Four of John Brown’s Raiders

Add comment December 16th, 2017 Headsman

Thank God, the principles of the cause in which we were engaged will not die with me and my brave comrades. They will spread wider and wider and gather strength with each hour that passes. The voice of truth will echo through our land, bringing conviction to the erring and adding members to that glorious army who will follow its banner. The cause of everlasting truth and justice will go on conquering and to conquer until our broad and beautiful land shall rest beneath the banner of freedom. I had fondly hoped to live to see the principles of the Declaration of Independence fully realized. I had hoped to see the dark stain of slavery blotted from our land, and the libel of our boasted freedom erased, when we can say in truth that our beloved country is the land of the free and the home of the brave; but that can not be.

I have heard my sentence passed; my doom is sealed. But two more short days remain for me to fulfill my earthly destiny. But two brief days between me and eternity. At the expiration of these two days I shall stand upon the scaffold to take my last look of earthly scenes. But that scaffold has but little dread for me, for I honestly believe that I am innocent of any crime justifying such punishment. But by the taking of my life and the lives of my comrades. Virginia is but hastening on that glorious day, when the slave shall rejoice in his freedom. When he, too, can say. “I, too, am a man, and am groaning no more under the yoke of oppression.”

Last letter of Edwin Coppock, to his uncle Joshua Coppock

Both Green and Copeland were resident in Oberlin, Ohio — which erected this marker to honor both they and a third comrade who had not survived the Harper’s Ferry raid. Its inscription read:

These colored citizens of Oberlin, the heroic associates of the immortal John Brown, gave their lives for the slave. Et nunc servitudo etiam mortua est, laus deo [And thus slavery is finally dead, thanks be to God].

S. Green died at Charleston, Va., Dec. 16, 1859, age 23 years.
J. A. Copeland died at Charleston, Va., Dec. 16, 1859, age 25 years.
L. S. Leary died at Harper’s Ferry, Va., Oct 20, 1859, age 24 years.

Anti-slavery martyr John Brown hanged on December 2, 1859 for his daring raid on Harper’s Ferry, but it was not until two weeks later that four companions in the enterprise faced the gallows.

This sequel was a far more muted affair in comparison to “Old Brown” whose execution was immediately understood in all sections as an event of historic consequence. Yet Brown did not strike his blow by himself, and Charlestown was crowded for this subsidiary occasion, too.

The four who would quaff his same cup, all men in their twenties, cut a cross-section of the nation’s stirring abolitionist movement, mingling in their biographies the many reasons that the Slave Power had become intolerable.

  • Shields Green, an escaped slave and a friend of Frederick Douglass who described him as “not one to shrink from hardships or dangers. He was a man of few words, and his speech was singularly broken; but his courage and self-respect made him quite a dignified character.”
  • John Copeland, an Oberlin-educated free black man originally from North Carolina who had moved to Ohio, and there participated in a famous incident liberating an escaped slave from the clutches of a slave-catcher.
  • Edwin Coppoc(k) or Coppie, a white Iowa Quaker.
  • John Cook, a Connecticut blue blood “talkative, impulsive and restless, eager for adventure” who had joined Brown in the Bleeding Kansas frontier wars. He also happened to be a brother-in-law of Indiana Gov. Ashbel Willard, who incurred Virginians’ wrath (and even intemperate accusations of orchestrating the Harper’s Ferry raid) by wrangling unsuccessfully for his kinsman’s pardon.

Here’s the original coverage of the New York Herald, consuming almost an entire page of its Dec. 17, 1859 edition.

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1859: Ratu Mara Kapaiwai, Fiji warrior

Add comment August 6th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1859,* the Ratu (chief or prince) Seru Epenisa Cakobau hanged a major obstacle to his control the Fiji archipelago.

Fiji comprises over 300 distinct islands in the South Pacific of which the principal and namesake is Viti Levu. Our man Cakobau ascended as the Ratu of a two-mile islet, Bau, which hugs the east coast of Viti Levu and to a 19th century European visitor “may with propriety be called the capital of Feejee.”

Not all of “Feejee” was quite so eager as Mary Davis Wallis to champion the suzerainty of the Ratu of Bau, and so Cakobau spent much of the mid-19th century maneuvering to consolidate and extend his authority. He would in the end succeed well enough to establish the first unified Kingdom of Fiji in 1871, and it was his signature on the 1874 Deed of Cession that gave said kingdom to the British.**

But before he could be the father of the nation he had to put his foot on the neck of rivals like his cousin Ratu Mara Kapaiwai.

“The ubiquitous stormy petrel of mid nineteenth century Fiji” (source), Mara’s bold adventures blew a turbulent wind through the Fijian political scene in the 1840s and 1850s. A renowned seaman and aggressive warrior, he called no one place home but shuttled incessantly among Fijian and Tongan islands, and among shifting alliances thereof. If there was one constant in the life of Mara Kapaiwai it was rejecting the overlordship of Cakobau.

He suffered what would prove to be a decisive defeat in 1855 at the Battle of Kaba, although the convert Cakobau in a paroxysm of Christian charity forgave the defeated right there on the battlefield instead of insisting the traditional right to kill and cannibalize them.

His pique for his kinsman only stoked by the defeat, the stormy petrel returned soon enough to his schemes and by 1858 had raised another rebellion.

Cakobau put an end to this resistance by putting an end to Mara himself: luring Mara to Bau with promise of forgiveness, Cakobau instead had him seized and sent to the gallows the very next day.

“He said his punishment was quite just — that he had been a very bad man and had caused the death of very many people, but that he sincerely repented of his sins and looked for mercy believing that in God his sins were being pardoned,” according to a Wesleyan missionary who attended to Mara.

* There are a few cites to be found for June 8, rather than August 6, which I cannot credit to any better cause than an inverted reading of the date 6/8 or 8/6 because people are rubbish about dates. The scholarly consensus around 6 August, and the allusion in sources like this book chapter to western missionaries’ diaries and letters, carries the argument for me — even though I have not been able to lay my own eyes on those primary documents. (As best I can determine, many of these firsthand accounts are held, un-digitized, by the Methodist Church of Australasia Department of Overseas Missions.)

** Fiji attained independence within the Commonwealth in 1970. Queen Elizabeth II’s picturesque honorific as Tui Viti (paramount chief) of Fiji — the title that Cokabau ceded to Queen Victoria along with the archipelago — has slipped into official disuse in recent years but many Fijians still embrace Elizabeth as queen. Here’s a newsreel of her 1953 visit to Fiji:

Topical here: Ratu Mara’s grandson Lala Sakuna became one of the leading statesmen of Fijian independence in the 20th century, although he predeceased its realization … fulfilling Mara’s plea to his executioner “for the safety of his 10-day-old son Joni, promising Cakobau that one day the child’s descendants would ‘bear Fiji up’.” (Source)

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1859: Oscar Jackson lynched, precipitating the Wright County War

1 comment April 25th, 2017 Meaghan

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

The story of what would become known as the Wright County War began on September 21, 1858, when Henry A. Wallace was found lying dead in a clump of willows on his own farm, his head bashed in. He had last been seen alive on August 27, twenty-five days earlier.

Wallace’s employee, Oscar F. Jackson, was the prime suspect in his murder. Jackson had agreed to help Wallace reap his hay crop in exchange for a portion of the harvest, and on August 27 the two men had been seen working together in the fields near where Wallace’s body was later found.

Jackson showed a curious lack of concern about his boss’s disappearance. He never even bothered to tell the authorities he was missing, and when neighbors noted that Wallace hadn’t been seen in weeks and decided to launch a search, Jackson declined to join in. An impoverished sharecropper, Jackson also seemed to have become suddenly flush with cash — an oddity because like most of the residents of Wright County, Jackson was poor, still struggling to recover from the Panic of 1857. Wallace was comparatively well-off.

A grand jury indicted Jackson for his employer’s murder, but the case against him was incredibly feeble. At the trial, Jackson’s attorneys pointed out that no one had seen the murder or could even determine the day it took place, and suggested any number of people could have visited Wallace and killed him at any time during that three-and-a-half-week period that he was missing.

The jury quite rightly gave Jackson the benefit of doubt and acquitted him on April 3, 1859, after eighteen hours of deliberation.

That night, a lynch party of fifteen men chased him into the woods. Fearing for his life, Jackson fled to St. Paul.

The local citizenry — among them Henry Wallace’s brother, Hiram — were not prepared to let the matter rest. And, horrifyingly, neither was the Wright County Sheriff, George M. Bertram,* or the justice of the peace, Cyrus Chase Jenks.

Five days after Jackson’s acquittal, the three men went to find the presumed murderer in Hennepin County. There, Hiram Wallace swore out a complaint against Jackson accusing him of theft, and Jenks issued a warrant for his arrest. Never mind that Jenks did not have jurisdiction outside of Wright County: Sheriff Bertram delivered the warrant to Alfred Brackett, the deputy sheriff of Hennepin County, and asked him to serve it.

Walter N. Trenery wrote in his 1962 book, Murder in Minnesota,

Brackett found Jackson in St. Paul’s Apollo Saloon the next day. Handcuffing his prisoner, the deputy set out with him for St. Anthony by buggy. Jackson pleaded for time to call his attorney, but at first Brackett would not allow it. On the ride Jackson insisted that his arrest was based on a false charge, the purpose of which was to get him back to Rockford [in Wright County] where he would be murdered… Brackett reconsidered. When the two men reached St. Anthony, he sent word to Jackson’s counsel and persuaded the Wright County sheriff to spend the night in town before starting back to Rockford.

The implacable Sheriff Bertram

Jackson’s lawyer hastily drew up a writ of habeas corpus and before the day was out he’d served it to Sheriff Bertram. The Hon. Isaac Atwater, a Minnesota Supreme Court justice, ordered Jackson’s release on April 11. He was immediately re-arrested, however, as by then Jenks and Bertram had realized their error, gone back to Wright County and drawn up a second warrant. Jackson’s attorney responded with a second writ of habeas corpus, and on April 13, the man was ordered released again.

His friends had pooled their money and come up with enough for him to leave Minnesota forever, but for some reason Jackson returned to Rockford instead of skipping town. The residents of Wright County still wanted to lynch him, and to that end a neighbor swore out yet another phony complaint against him and yet another justice of the peace issued yet another warrant for his arrest.

A mob virtually tore Jackson’s cabin and its contents to pieces and set several fires. They surrounded the home of Jackson’s father-in-law, George Holdship, where the fugitive was reported to be hiding, and set more fires.

On April 24, Sheriff Bertram arrived at Holdship’s residence, and after he swore Jackson would not be harmed, arrested Jackson and took him away.

According to John D. Bessler’s book Legacy Of Violence: Lynch Mobs And Executions In Minnesota,

Less than half a mile from the house an armed mob overtook Sheriff Bertram’s procession. The sheriff relinquished power without resistance and rode off with the deputies, failing to even report the incident. After taunting Jackson throughout the night, the mob strung him up, even as his wife arrived to plead for mercy. Her pleas ignored, she was sent away distraught and empty-handed. The bloodthirsty mob hauled Jackson up and down times, failing to get Jackson to confess but successfully mangling his neck. Only when Jackson was hoisted up for a third time, at 2:00 P.M. on April 25, did his neck break. Jackson’s body was left dangling from a beam that protruded from Wallace’s cabin.

A coroner’s jury was called on the same day Jackson died and decided he had met with his death at the hands of some person or persons unknown. “The jury was not likely,” Trenery noted dryly, “to accuse its own members.”

But the story didn’t end there.

At the time of Oscar Jackson’s lynching, Minnesota had been a state for less than a year; it was admitted to the Union on May 11, 1858. Their first state governor, Henry Hastings Sibley, was anxious to maintain the rule of law, which had been besmirched by the Jackson outrage. One newspaper said, a tad melodramatically, “Wright County will be painted black upon the map of Minnesota — a patch of loathsome leprosy upon the fair surface of the land.”

Sibley offered a $500 reward for the arrest and conviction of anyone concerned with the lynching. It went unclaimed and the lynching started to slip away into obscurity, until July, when Oscar Jackson’s wife spotted Emery W. Moore (called “Emory” or “Aymer” in some accounts) at a gathering in Minnehaha Falls. Moore had been a member of the lynch mob, and it was his warrant that lead to Jackson’s arrest at his father-in-law’s house.

Mrs. Jackson alerted St. Paul’s chief of police, who arrested Moore for murder, and he was sent to Rockford to stand trial.

What followed, as Trenery describes it, was something of a solemn farce:

To prevent further collusion among local officials, the governor directed Charles H. Berry, the state’s attorney general, to conduct the prosecution in person. Berry opened the preliminary examination in Monticello on July 31, 1859, with an angry mob swarming about the building, shouting and threatening the agents of law enforcement. Mrs. Jackson, testifying for the prosecution, clearly and unequivocally named the leaders of the lynch mob and described the circumstances under which her husband had died. When the Wright County sheriff took the stand to explain how the mob had overwhelmed him and took Jackson from his custody, the attorney general found the sheriff’s explanation so unsatisfactory that he ordered Bertram arrested and held as an accomplice in the lynching. Berry then discovered that certain prosecution witnesses had mysteriously disappeared before they could testify, and he was forced to adjourn the hearing before it had been in session a full day.

To add insult to injury, that evening the vigilantes descended on the place where Emery Moore was confined, set him free, and melted into the darkness.

Berry returned to St. Paul and reported all this to the governor.

Fed up, Sibley declared Wright County to be “in a state of insurrection” and sent in the state militia to put a stop to mob justice and force the county officials to do their damn jobs. Three units — the Pioneer Guards, the St. Paul City Guards and the Stillwater Guards — marched in, aided by 35 special policemen.

The results were mixed. At first the militia was unable to find any members of the lynch mob, the locals just shrugged their shoulders when asked where they had gone, and the sheriff and other officials refused outright to cooperate. Only when they found out Governor Sibley was on his way over to personally take charge did the county officials “find” and arrest three suspected lynchers: Emery Moore, Hiram S. Angell, and J.E. Jenks.**

Satisfied, the governor sent the state militia home. The three-day occupation was later facetiously dubbed the Wright County War. It was a bloodless war.

The arrested men were almost immediately set free on a $500 bail, and in October, a grand jury refused to indict them. In the end, no one at all was punished for Oscar Jackson’s death, and Henry Wallace’s murder was never officially solved.

Charles Bryant groused in his History of the Upper Mississippi Valley,

And so the drama ended; the curtain fell; and the so-called “Wright county war” was a thing of the past. Its effects, however, long remained in the enormous expense incurred, which, with other criminal cases of less magnitude, created an indebtedness almost resulting in bankruptcy, and depreciating county orders to less than thirty-five cents on the dollar.

Of the principals involved in this story:

  • Sheriff Bertram left office in 1860 and was succeeded by W. Smith Brookins.
  • Cyrus Jenks died in Meeker City, Minnesota in 1897. He was almost 90 years old.
  • Governor Sibley stayed in office until 1860, and did not seek reelection. In 1862, he was appointed colonel of the Minnesota Militia and led them against the Native Americans in the Dakota War.
  • Charles Berry was later appointed as a judge in the Idaho Territory. He died in 1900.
  • Alfred Brackett fought in the Civil War, leading what would become Brackett’s Battallion, which served longer than any other Minnesota unit. The unit fought against the Confederates between 1861 and 1864, then became part of the Northwestern Indian Expedition in the Dakota Territory.
  • Hiram Angell also fought in the Civil War, with the Third Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment. He died in St. Louis, Kentucky on April 5, 1862.
  • J.E. Jenks got elected to Minnesota’s House of Representatives in the 1870s and served for a year.

Nearly twenty years after Henry Wallace’s death, first his gold watch and then his rifle were found near the former site of Oscar Jackson’s cabin.

* Wright County boasts a Bertram Chain of Lakes, named for Sheriff Bertram.

** J.E. Jenks was probably Cyrus Jenks’s son; records note that Cyrus had a son named John Edwin Jenks who would have been about 22 years old in 1859, which matches J.E.’s first name and age.

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1859: John Stoefel, the first hanged in Denver

Add comment April 9th, 2016 Headsman

This date in 1859 saw the first hanging in Denver — then a nascent mining town known as Denver City.

Denver in 1859 dangled on the far end of a long western extrusion of the Kansas Territory, but had John Stoefel managed to refrain from murder just two years longer he might have had the privilege to be the first to hang in Colorado Territory instead.

Massachusetts Spy (Worcester, Mass.), April 6, 1859

Indeed, the town had only sprung into existence the previous summer — product of the Pike’s Peak gold rush that drew to the territory thousands of fortune-hunters, desperadoes, and merchants servicing same.

Characteristically for a boom town, Denver grew with more rapidity than order.

On a New York to San Francisco overland odyssey, newsman Horace “Go West Young Man” Greeley arrived in Denver in June, missing our milestone hanging by weeks; his annals (being dispatched east for publication) describe a hardscrabble* place that “can boast of no antiquity beyond September or October last.”

Outlaws and fugitives formed a class “not numerous, but … more influential than it should be”:

Prone to deep drinking, soured in temper, always armed, bristling at a word, ready with the rifle, revolver, or bowie-knife, they give law and set fashions which, in a country where the regular administration of justice is yet a matter of prophecy, it seems difficult to overrule or disregard. I apprehend that there have been, during my two weeks sojourn, more brawls, more pistol shots with criminal intent in this log city of 150 dwellings, not three-fourths of them completed, nor two-thirds of them inhabited, nor one-third fit to be, than in any community of equal numbers on earth.

No surprise, the first outright murder case to blot the infant city implicated two prospectors: our villain John Stoefel, one of a party of German emigres, shot his brother-in-law Thomas Biencroff on April 7 for his gold dust. From that point, Stoefel had 48 hours to live; standing on only the barest pretense of legal nicety, a “people’s court” convened to try and condemn Stoefel on the basis of his own confession, then immediately hanged him to an obliging tree.

The affair was reported in the very first issue of the Rocky Mountain News, a newspaper that debuted two weeks after Stoefel’s execution/lynching and was destined to survive until 2009.

* Greeley: “It is likely to be some time yet before our fashionable American spas, and summer resorts for idlers will be located among the Rocky Mountains.” You’ve come a long way, Colorado.

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1859: William Burgess

Add comment January 7th, 2016 Meaghan

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

An unusual handbill was distributed in the areas of North Somerset and North Devon in the late summer of 1858, about a somewhat peculiar criminal case: a child had been murdered, and a suspect arrested, but authorities had yet to find a body.

The handbills read,

£10 REWARD — Whereas I have received information which leads me to suppose a Girl of six years of age, named Hannah Burgess, has been murdered and her body concealed either on Exmoor Forest or in the vicinity of Porlock, I am therefore authorised to offer a Reward of Ten Pounds to any Person who shall discover the said Body. Should the Body be found, the person finding it is requested not to move it or remove anything on it, but immediately to communicate the circumstances to the nearest Police Constable, or to Mr. Superintendent Jeffs at Exford. The above stated Reward will be paid by Valentine Good, Esquire, Chief Constable, to any person who may become entitled to it under the conditions of this notice.

CRESANT JEFFS, Superintendent
Exford, August 24, 1858

The dry legalese of those notices had a tragic story behind it, involving “a man of weak character” with “dissolute habits,” and a little girl, his own daughter. William Burgess was hanged for her murder on this date in 1859.

William Burgess was a widower with several children and, like most men in that time and place, he was poor and made his living doing hard physical labor in the mines and farms. Unlike most men, however, he was not too proud to beg, going around to wealthier people’s homes and asking them to put up a collection for him and his motherless offspring. At one point the locals did raise a sum of money on behalf of the Burgess family, but the father spent it all on a drinking binge and people were far less sympathetic to him after that.

By the summer of 1858, William had placed all of his older children “in service,” working for landowners as domestics or farmhands. Only the youngest, Hannah Maria, remained with him; at six, she was too young to go to work. At first he asked his sister and brother­-in­-law in Porlock to take her in, but that arrangement fell through and William arranged for Hannah to be fostered by a local couple for two shillings a week.

Then, in June, he removed Hannah from her foster home and they both moved into a lodging house, Gallon House Cottage, run by Sarah Marley in the village of Simonsbath on Exmoor. William paid half a crown a week in rent for his bed, which he shared with Hannah and another lodger. For an extra two shillings and sixpence, Mrs. Marley looked after the child, fed her and did her laundry.

At the time, William had a steady job at the local iron mine and was paid two shillings a day, so Hannah’s care ate up a significant, but not unaffordable, part of his income.

In his book No Justice for the Poor: Four True Tales of Death and Mystery of West Country Pauper Children (from which most of the information in this account is drawn), Harry Clement writes,

Hannah’s father is described as a placid man except when he was in drink, which apparently happened quite often. From comments that he made, it was obvious that he begrudged paying Sarah Marley the half­a­crown each week, probably desiring instead to spend it on drink … It was also claimed that he did not appear to have any love for the child, no doubt this was assumed because of his attitude towards the child, although the reports do not clarify why this was thought.

Only three weeks after Hannah was placed in Sarah Marley’s care, William announced that he planned to move her again. He told Mrs. Marley to have Hannah cleaned up and her clothes packed and ready to go by the evening of Saturday the 24th because in the morning he was going to take her to stay with his sister in Porlock.

At half-­past three in the morning on Sunday — a most unusual hour to be starting a trip of this kind — William got up, dressed Hannah and left the house with her and her spare clothing, what there was of it, wrapped in a bundle.

Their bedmate, a fellow laboring man named Cockram, was the last person to see her alive. William returned to Simonsbath later that day without his daughter.

Some time later, men working in the surface mines had noticed that some earth had been moved from the top of one of the shafts. Burgess was present and suggested somebody had stolen a sheep and buried the carcass for retrieval later on. (This was apparently a common practice.) The miners decided to exhume the dead sheep, butcher it and share the meat, but when they dug down, they didn’t find anything. They shrugged and returned to work.

William did not have a reputation for honesty, and as the weeks passed, when he was asked about Hannah he gave conflicting answers as to her whereabouts. He said once that she was at Brimsworthy, and another time that she was with her aunt.

On the tenth of August, he left town in a hurry, saying he was going to leave the country and take Hannah with him.

On the eleventh, a farmowner’s son was walking across one of his father’s fields and noticed a place where someone had had a small fire. The following morning, he and his brother went to the site again and stirred through the ashes. They found some charred bits of cloth, a piece of fur, and some buttons and hook-­and-­eye fasteners.

Clement reports,

These rumors and suspicions caused several people to take an interest in the matter, and on Sunday 15th August, Mary Fraley, who also lived at Gallon House cottage, walked across the fields to where John Mills had discovered the pile of ashes. Mary also stirred about the remains and picked up a piece of lilac cotton print and a piece of black yard stocking. She later said she knew this piece of print to be part of the pinafore that Hannah had worn, in fact she had washed it at Sarah Marley’s house. Still intent to unravel what was ominously becoming what appeared to be the foreboding of a terrible tragedy, Mary Farley took the pieces to Mrs. Marley and asked her if she recognized them, to which Mrs. Marley replied, “Yes, it is a piece of Hannah Burgess’s pinafore.”

The concerned local vicar, W.H. Thornton, sent people to both Brimsworthy and Porlock to look for Hannah. When they came back and said she wasn’t in either place, Thornton was so alarmed he made a five­-hour ride on horseback to the Chief Constable’s home in Somerset to tell him his suspicions.

Thornton brought the police to Simonsbath and was met by a crowd of villagers who told them about the disturbed soil they’d seen near the mine, which, in retrospect, was beginning to seem ominous. A group went back to the spot and found fresh turf had been laid over it. They raised the sod and found a rectangular hole, about four feet long by two feet wide. It was empty, but there was the telltale stench of decaying flesh. Something, or someone, had been buried there recently.

By the sixteenth of August, Superintendent Jeffs had put the word throughout rural North Devon and North Somerset, and its fishing villages and ports, to find William Burgess, as he was wanted on suspicion of murder. They learned he’d gotten a ferry ride to Swansea in Wales, and began looking there.

It didn’t take long: on the nineteenth, Jeffs personally arrested Burgess, who had found a job at the docks in Swansea. When Jeffs told him why he was being arrested, Burgess replied, “I done it and must die for it. I would sooner die than live. I shall never be happy no more.”

He wasn’t kidding about wanting to die: a few days after his arrest, Burgess tried to commit suicide by stabbing himself in the throat with a pair of scissors, opening them up to widen the wound, and struggling against the four police officers who held him down while a doctor stitched it shut. His jailers kept a much closer eye on him after that.

Meanwhile, the police and the community continued looking for Hannah’s body.

Although Burgess claimed he’d dumped it far off at sea, searchers focused on local mines where he’d previously worked. One of them, an iron mine known as the Wheal Eliza, had been shut down and was flooded. Deeming it too risky to send down a diver, the authorities spent months having the water pumped out “at great expense,” stopping from time to time when the mine became filled with foul air. It wasn’t until the evening of December 2 that conditions were safe enough to send someone down. By then the water level was down to just a few feet.

On some staging in the mineshaft, 207 feet down, rested a coarse hemp sack, tied with cord.

They brought it up on a windlass and untied it. Inside that bag were two large, heavy stones and another bag, containing the remains of a small child.

The search for Hannah Burgess was over.

The body was in surprisingly good shape, considering how long it had spent in the water. Sarah Marley, the Burgesses’ landlady, and William Cockram, who shared Hannah and William’s bed, identified it. Sarah said the child was wearing the clothes she was dressed in the morning she was last seen alive. She also identified the raincoat as William Burgess’s. Burgess had had a pair of child’s boots among his possessions when he was arrested. They were Hannah’s: Sarah knew them very well, for it was she who had laced the little girl’s boots every morning and tied them for her.

The local surgeon had a look at Hannah’s body and noted there were clods of dirt and bits of gravel stuck to her clothes and under her shawl — soil that matched that in the area of the apparent gravesite. Hannah had a skull fracture that would probably have been fatal, but not instantly so; the doctor thought the actual cause of death was suffocation.

William Burgess was tried less than two weeks later. It wasn’t much of a trial. Given the damning circumstantial evidence and his confession to Superintendent Jeffs, there was very little he or his defense counsel could say.

The defense lawyer, a Mr. Rotton, presented no evidence and merely made a statement to jury claiming there was no motive for the crime and suggesting Burgess was insane. He said he could have presented a better case for insanity, but a lack of time and money made this impossible. As it was, the only evidence he count point to was Burgess’s suicide attempt while in custody, and the fact that one of his brothers had died in a lunatic asylum.

The jury voted for conviction more or less immediately.

In the brief interval between his conviction and his execution, Burgess was visited by the usual stream of clergymen, including W.H. Thornton, the man who had brought Hannah’s disappearance to the attention of the police. To all of them he admitted his guilt and said he deserved to die. He continued to make threats of suicide and the authorities watched him very closely, lest he try to cheat the gallows. At least two and possibly four of his surviving children came to visit him during his last days.

In his final confession to the Reverend Thornton, he supposedly said,

I murdered my child for the purpose of saving two shillings and sixpence per week, that I might be enabled thereby to indulge myself in more drink; and to indulge in drunkenness I committed this awful deed. Do you sir, go back to Simonsbath and tell the drunkards there to forsake drunkenness and strong drinks, or they may yet stand a condemned felon as I now stand.

On the morning of his hanging he had the usual breakfast that was served to every inmate, and was allowed to attend chapel during the eight a.m. service, but he was not permitted to take Communion.

It was said that the prison officials were afraid Burgess might put up a fight when the time came, but he surprised them with “a fortitude that had not been anticipated.” His executioner was the famous William Calcraft.

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1859: Thomas Ferguson, but not on a Sunday

Add comment October 28th, 2015 Headsman

The first judicial execution of a white man* in the history of the Utah Territory took place on this date in 1859.

One Thomas Ferguson earned the distinction by getting roaring drunk and shooting dead the shopkeeper who employed and boarded him. Allegedly, Alexander Carpenter’s provocation had been to accuse Ferguson of being party to the unknown burglars who had lately raided his Salt Lake City shop, which obviously got way under Ferguson’s skin.

This was frontier America, being newly-settled by Brigham Young‘s upstart Latter-Day Saints sect, though not only by them. The capital’s population was perhaps 14,000 — the kind of place where dubious refugees could wash up from parts unknown, trusting their fortunes to their native wit and Colt’s Manufacturing Company.

“Crime has run riot in this city since the assassination of McNeill and Sergeant Pike” a hostile, non-Mormon correspondent wrote to the San Francisco Bulletin (letter dated Oct. 5, 1859, and published Oct. 27).

Till lately, no one has been arrested. Ferguson, a “Gentile,” murdered Carpenter, a Mormon, and for such an outrage “this people” will permit the sentence of death to be carried into effect; but the murderers of McNeill, of Pike, of Drown, of Arnold — the first two “Gentiles,” the last “apostates” — run at large to hold the community in terror and carry out other sentences.* An apostate committed suicide a few nights since by shooting himself twice in the back of the head!

Carpenter murdered his partner named Turner near Fort Laramie, Nebraska, brought their goods to this city, where, he said, (and convinced his associates,) he was tried and acquitted. Tried and acquitted in Utah for murder in Nebraska!

Both men were New Yorkers — and per a less strident observer writing to the New York Herald (datelined Oct. 7; published Nov. 7) neither of the two was Mormon. They had been allured to the West by the usual siren songs: wealth, fortune, fame. As young men do, these may have pictured themselves forever getting the drop on their enemies and never the other way around … and always with a dashing jailbreak at the ready if it came to that.

Unfortunately for Ferguson, he wasn’t the only Old West stock character in this tableau; a hanging-judge of dubious character named Charles Sinclair officiated the trial, so deep into his cups that he initially set Ferguson’s execution date for a Sunday. (It was changed to a Friday.) Ferguson himself gave the judge a right scorching from his scaffold rostrum on his way off this mortal coil:

I was tried by the statutes of Utah Territory, which give a man the privilege of being shot, beheaded or hanged. But was it given to me? No, it was not. All Judge Sinclair wanted was to sentence some one to be hanged, then he was willing to leave the Territory; and he had too much whiskey in his head to know the day he sentenced me to be executed on, and would not have known, if it had not been for the people of Utah laughing at him … A nice Judge to send to any country! (Source)

* The Espy file credits earlier executions of Native Americans, two Goshutes named Longhair and Antelope who hanged for slaying two whites during settler bush wars. (I would not venture to assert the judicial propriety, even by antebellum standards, of these proceedings.) And of course, Ferguson’s distinction excludes extrajudicial killings like the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

** The unpunished killings the correspondent names in this piece took place in the immediate aftermath of the 1857-1858 war between Mormon settlers in Utah and the federal government asserting its jurisdiction — a period when Brigham Young’s martial law had just been rescinded. Utah Gentiles inclined to read these incidents as emblematic of a lawless atmosphere in which reluctance to prosecute gave Mormons virtual impunity in their conduct towards the rest of the population.

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

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1859: Baltimore’s Plug Uglies

Add comment April 8th, 2015 Headsman

This date in 1859 saw the joint hanging of youths from a notorious Baltimore gang, and in honor of the occasion thousands upon thousands of curiosity-seekers packed Charm City from “all parts of the State, the District of Columbia, Virginia and Pennsylvania, and even New York city and Buffalo” to throng the hills and high points overlooking the Baltimore City Jail, where a fine view could be had of the nominally private gallows.

“The housetops, windows, trees and all other places from whence a more enlarged view could be obtained, were crowded with human beings,” reported the Baltimore Sun (Apr. 9, 1859). “A sea of faces met the eye far and near — men, women and children — old age and infancy — white and black — swelled up the vast multitude, drawn to witness the horrible spectacle.”

The doomed quartet were four men named Henry Gambrill, Marion Crop, Peter Corrie, and John Cryphus. Cryphus was a black man condemned for a knife murder committed under the name John Stephens, and he vainly protested all the way to the gallows that Stephens was not he.

The other three who hanged with him — our principal focus today — were entirely unconnected to him. Gambrill, Crop, and Corrie were all stalwarts of the “Plug Uglies”, who were at once a street gang and a political goon squad, involved (with several similar entities) in a number of election day poll riots in the 1850s. Baltimore was at this point America’s third-largest city, having boomed to 200,000 souls rather faster than its civic institutions could cope.

The city veered near to mob rule (for which it earned the sobriquet “Mobtown”): rival gangs of toughs like the Plug Uglies regularly fought deadly street battles involving hundreds of participants — especially around municipal elections which they shamelessly rigged with armed bullying and prodigious vote-stuffing.* The anti-Know Nothing mayoral candidate in 1858 simply conceded the election rather than invite “loss of life and the general disorder of the city.”


Plug Ugly ruffians boss a ward. (Via)

Affiliated with the nativist, anti-Catholic “Know-Nothing” movement,** the Plug Uglies’ nickname underscores the brutal tenor of their times:

[Baltimore’s gangs] carried pugnacious and frequently obscene banners and often brandished weapons. The awl was seen as a workingman’s weapon, and many were made and handed out at rallies. They were used to “plug” Democrats “ugly” and to prevent them from voting. (Source)

Not long before that peacekeeping 1858 mayoral concession, alliterative policemen Benjamin Benton and Robert Rigdon had arrested a Plug Ugly crony for disorderly conduct, when Henry Gambrill raced up to the grappling trio and shot Officer Benton in the head.

Officer Rigdon, who knew Gambrill well, testified against the goon in the resulting murder trial. So incensed were Gambrill’s pals that they contrived to assassinate Officer Rigdon in revenge: covered by a lookout, Marion Crop in the dark of night shot Rigdon through a window as the cop stood at his mantelpiece chatting with his wife. Both Crop and the lookout, Peter Corrie, were chased down and condemned for first degree murder at separate, and sensational, trials in January 1859.

Despite the power of the Know-Nothings, this outrage proved to fall well outside the range of the Plug Uglies’ impunity. If they could do this, then what institutional pillar of the city would remain standing?

No small sentiment went abroad to skip the assassins’ trials and proceed directly to the hanging — perhaps a problematic means by which to stave off anarchy. In a more promising vein, the affair catalyzed some long-sought political reform measures from the legislature to rein in political violence. And on a chilly, overcast morning in April, Marion Crop stood on the gallows and belted out a hymn for the nation’s gawkers, joined with varying enthusiasms by the other three doomed men.

Former friends, we now must leave you
All our earthly hopes are o’er
But in heaven we hope to greet you
There to meet to part no more.

When a few more moments wasted
And this dying scene is o’er
When this last dread grief we’ve tasted
We shall rise to fall no more.

Fast our sun of life’s declining
Soon it will set in endless night
But our hopes pure and reviving
Rise to fairer worlds of light.

Cease this mourning, trembling, sighing,
Death shall burst this sudden gloom
Then our spirits fluttering, flying
Shall be borne beyond the tomb.

Corrie and Crop were buried privately. Gambrill enjoyed a solem public funeral with a procession of a hundred or so carriages through the center of town. An estimated eight to ten thousand Know-Nothing sympathizers attended it.

* Full marks for period color to the gangs of that time, which included the Rip Raps, Black Snakes, Blood Tub, Regulators, Rough Skins, Double Pumps, and Calithumpians. The successful Plug Uglies, who spread to other cities than Baltimore, were the ones destined to give their name to the language as a synonym for a an urban rowdy. (It’s also the name of some bars.)

** Shortly after the events in this post, Baltimore would be distinguished by a massive, and deadly, riot against a column of federal troops being dispatched to Virginia in the immediate aftermath of Fort Sumter. Since the Battle of Fort Sumter itself had not resulted in any combat fatalities, it was this riot that laid in the ground the first bodies of America’s bloody Civil War.

† While the Know-Nothings’ national impact was limited, they essentially took over Maryland’s political apparatus in the 1850s and made it the party bastion. Know-Nothing nominee (and former U.S. President) Millard Fillmore carried only one state in the 1856 presidential election won by James Buchanan: Maryland.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Maryland,Murder,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1859: Father Paul Loc, Vietnamese martyr

Add comment February 13th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1859, Paul Loc, a Catholic Vietnamese Martyr, was summarily beheaded at Saigon ahead of a French landing.

The orphaned child of a Catholic family from Cochinchina (southernmost Vietnam), Paul Loc was brought up by a pastor and went to seminary.

His ministry during the reign of a sovereign very hostile to the inroads of Christian missionaries, lasted less than two years. At that point, France went to war to conquer Cochinchina.

At that point, Father Loc was clapped in prison, but even then the earnest young man’s treatment seems to have been light. But on this date, French warships had been sighted ascending the Dong-Nai River towards Saigon itself, and the city’s panicking defenders martyred the priest almost without warning.

According to this French text, Paul Loc had his head cut off at the gates of Saigon’s citadel. Just a few days later, the French did indeed successfully take Saigon … the start of a beautiful friendship.

Pope Pius X elevated Paul Loc to “Blessed’ in 1909.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,God,History,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Religious Figures,Summary Executions,Vietnam,Wartime Executions

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1859: Danford Balch, inadvertent PDX benefactor

Add comment October 17th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1859, five to six hundred folks braved a dreary Portland morning to witness the first execution in the state of Oregon — Oregon having graduated into statehood just that very year, as it says on the flag.

Danford Balch, who would surely merit an entry in these pages for his name alone, had staked out a 345-acre land claim near the small settlement of Portland, but all that money couldn’t buy his daughter’s love.

Anna, the eldest of nine kids at a blossoming 15, was amenable to a suit by the farmhand, one Mortimer Stump — this is a Dickensian roster of characters — and in the face of Papa Balch’s opposition, eloped with him over the Columbia River to Vancouver, Wash.

So Danford Balch stewed, and drank, and was allegedly incited by his shrewish wife Mary Jane — this one has an ironically innocent moniker — until, encountering the Stumps in town for supplies one day, Danford Balch tried to retrieve his daughter and ended up shotgunning his unwanted son-in-law, right in the face.

Ka-blamo.

Bystanders tackled Balch immediately, though it took nine more months to bring the killer to trial: in these sparsely-populated frontier precincts justice was being administered on the old “assize” model of wandering judges who dropped in for a spell to try everything at one go. It was enough time for Balch to bust out of a rain-rotted jail cell once and get recaptured (once on the lam, he returned to his own home).

When court was finally in session, conviction was a mere formality. He’d done the deed in public, after all. But the offended father seemed genuinely bewildered by the outcome: apart from the shooting being accidental (so he said), he clearly expected that a court would uphold the dominion of the family patriarch over his wayward progeny.

Heaven knows what fumes he was fuming by the time he climbed the scaffold and beheld that naughty daughter Anna turned up to witness his hanging — sitting in the front row with the [rest of the] Stump family in what you have to think was a somewhat uncomfortable party for all concerned.

Little more affectionate was the post-mortem behavior of the allegedly un-alienated part of the Balch clan.

That widow Mary Jane, whom Danford hinted gave him quite a goading over their wanton daughter, shafted the remaining rugrats out of inheriting their chunks of the family land and instead routed most of it to her next husand.

Balch Creek in Lower Macleay State Park. (cc) image from Brad Reber.

Though pretty difficult to admire by the yardstick of human decency, that behavior turned out to be Danford Balch’s redeeming legacy.

Having passed through several hands, the lion’s share of his former land was in 1897 donated to the city by its then-owner Donald Macleay, who was sick of paying taxes on the unprofitable parcel. That was the time the famously green PDX received its first land gift designated by the donor for parkland: Macleay Park. (Including a Balch Creek.)

Today, it’s all part of the larger Forest Park, and it’s a lovely hiking space for a city that grooves on its outdoor rec … complete with a gorgeously ruined Depression-era stone ranger station that’s popularly believed to be haunted, maybe by the spirit of poor old Danford Balch himself.


The haunted house … (cc) image from Adam Gaumont.

There’s a Balchipedia for chronicling Balch family notables, so you know the first guy executed in Oregon is going to rate a mention.

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

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1859: Ormond Chase, casus belli not quite

2 comments August 7th, 2009 Headsman

Every foreign policy adventure needs its pretexts, even adventures that never happen.

Quite marvelously, this illustration appeared in the same issue of Harper’s as Sydney Carton’s beheading in the last installment of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities serial.

On this date in 1859, forces of Mexican General Miguel Miramon provided the United States such a pretext by executing American Ormond Chase in Tepic during the Mexican War of Reform.

This incident, said to have ensnared the luckless Portland (Me.)-born sawyer “for reasons entirely unknown,”* became elevated into the foreign policy calculation of U.S. President James Buchanan.

Buchanan rates as one of America’s worst chief executives for fiddling as the conflagration of Civil War began, but he kept himself busy eyeballing other dark-skinned folk in the hemisphere over whom America ought to claim suzerainty.**

So, in December of 1859, Ormond Chase was name-checked in a State of the Union address further to pressing Buchanan’s case for Mexico as a (to use a modern coinage) failed state — “a wreck upon the ocean, drifting about as she is impelled by different factions.”

“Little less shocking,” the Chief Executive intoned, crowning a litany of injuries “upon persons and property,” “was the recent fate of Ormond Chase, who was shot in Tepic, on the 7th August … not only without a trial, but without any conjecture by his friends of the cause of his arrest.”

And, of course, we know what happens to failed states.

Mexico ought to be a rich and prosperous and powerful Republic. She possesses an extensive territory, a fertile soil, and an incalculable store of mineral wealth. She occupies an important position between the Gulf and the ocean for transit routes and for commerce. … Can the United States especially, which ought to share most largely in its commercial intercourse, allow their immediate neighbor thus to destroy itself and injure them? Yet without support from some quarter it is impossible to perceive how Mexico can resume her position among nations and enter upon a career which promises any good results. The aid which she requires, and which the interests of all commercial countries require that she should have, it belongs to this Government to render, not only by virtue of our neighborhood to Mexico, along whose territory we have a continuous frontier of nearly a thousand miles, but by virtue also of our established policy, which is inconsistent with the intervention of any European power in the domestic concerns of that Republic.

The wrongs which we have suffered from Mexico are before the world and must deeply impress every American citizen. A government which is either unable or unwilling to redress such wrongs is derelict to its highest duties.

I recommend to Congress to pass a law authorizing the President under such conditions as they may deem expedient, to employ a sufficient military force to enter Mexico for the purpose of obtaining indemnity for the past and security for the future.

“The meaning of all this is clear enough,” observed the London Times, an ocean away and correspondingly less euphemistic.†

Before long another Mexican war will sever new provinces from the unhappy Spanish Republic, and give them to the Anglo-Saxon race. In one sense this is a gain to humanity. Beautiful and fertile regions, now desert, will pass under the hands of the cultivator, mines will be worked, harbours will be filled with shipping, and a new life will animate that vast region. It is not likely, however, that the Americans will seek to annex the whole Republic. The Mexicans are not the stuff to make citizens of, and another generation of discord and decay must elapse before their time comes to be improved off the face of the earth. Although we have not the slightest wish to interfere with the Americans, it is but right that an adequate force should be at hand to protect British interests in those quarters.

In the event, Congress actually turned down Buchanan’s use-of-force request — that actually used to happen! — and with Abraham Lincoln’s election the next year, poor Ormond Chase’s purchase on historical significance was dashed by the fierce urgency of the Civil War. His death was a wasted root of an intervention that never was.

As it happens, and as the London Times article’s closing allusion suggests, Buchanan’s suspicion of European interference in the New World was not without foundation. The Mexican Civil War that Buchanan here proposed to join evolved — while the Yankees were busy shooting one another — into a badly botched French‡ attempt to establish a foothold in Mexico.

We have met the most famous casualty of that affair in these pages before: imported Habsburg Emperor Maximilian I.

Shot along with him were two of his loyal generals: one of them was Miguel Miramon, whose men had put Ormond Chase to death eight years before.

* Per a deposition in the U.S. Consul’s investigation.

** More on Buchanan’s Mexican project in this 1883 biography.

† January 11, 1860

‡ Spain and Britain had made the initial foray with France to collect their own debts as well, but soon thought better of the project.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Gibbeted,History,Lynching,Mexico,Shot,Summary Executions,USA,Wartime Executions

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