1860: George Waines, forensically boned

Add comment July 16th, 2019 Headsman

From the Melbourne Argus of 14 July 1860:


The case of the convict [George] Waines appears to excite considerable interest in the public mind, especially since it has become known through our columns that he made a confession which had not previously been made public. We are now in a position to place before our readers the confession of the wretched man, and also the fact that his death-warrant has reached the sheriff, to be carried into execution on Monday next. [Monday, July 16, 1860 -ed.]

Upon a careful perusal of the confession, it will be found that the prisoner’s version of the whole circumstances connected with the crime would, if true, very materially alter the character of the offence for which he is condemned to die. It will be remembered that the hypothesis presented to the jury was that the prisoner went to the house of the Hunts, and in cold blood murdered them in order to escape a pecuniary liability. [Waines owed them 50 quid. -ed.]

His confession now made, under sentence of death, would show a state of things so entirely different, that had he revealed the facts in the first instance, the probabilities are, although in strictness of law the act might have amounted to legal murder, a jury would have been inclined to find a verdict of the lesser crime of manslaughter, or, at all events, that the Executive would mitigate the punishment to that of the minor offence. It is remarkable also that, although Waines admitted to several persons the fact of his having murdered the Hunts, the circumstances attending the commission of the crime were never clearly elicited until his present confession; and, indeed, as, far as they were elicited, a reference to the evidence would go to show that the deed was perpetrated under the smart of an imputation cast upon his wife.

The second point on which the confession, if true, would affect his case, is as to the identity of the bones of Mary Hunt. According to his statement, it would appear that every vestige of the remains of that unfortunate woman was destroyed before he exhumed the body of her husband, thereby showing that the medical testimony was wholly at fault in convicting him of the murder of Mary Hunt. With regard to this last point the convict is most anxious that the fact should, before — or even after — his execution be investigated; and certainly with regard to the science of medical jurisprudence, it is most desirable that such a course should be adopted, even with a view of proving whether or no the conviction is not a wrongful one. In the administration of criminal justice the slightest irregularity has frequently been held sufficient to warrant a commutation of punishment. A remarkable instance of this is on record where a learned judge, in sentencing a man to death, omitted to direct that he should be buried within the precincts of the gaol, the consequence of which omission was that the prisoner was set at large.

The convict, by his confession, offers to state what “he did with the bones of Mary Hunt,” on receiving an assurance that the bones which were deposed to as being hers should be subjected either before or after his death to surgical examination.

At the interview with which Waines was favoured the wretched man made the following extraordinary and startling statement. He confessed to having murdered both the man and wife in the manner detailed in his written statement, and that he buried them as therein mentioned. After a lapse of eight months, finding that inquiries were being made about the Hunts, he, understanding that he could not be found guilty if the remains were not identified, proceeded to disinter the bodies, with the intention of burning them to ashes. The night which he chose for this purpose happened to be bright moonlight, and his description of the dreadful scene is horrific in the extreme. His mind had been for a considerable period in a dreadful state, and at midnight he proceeded to his revolting task. He first disinterred the body of Mary Hunt, which he describes as being in a state of decomposition, with the rotten clothes clinging to the bones. On that lovely night he lighted a fire, and putting the ghastly remains on it, burned every vestige to ashes.

After having done so he found one piece of bone, a few inches in length, which, in his desire to destroy every trace of the unfortunate woman, he took up and pulverised with his hands.

The prisoner states that, having so destroyed every trace of the wife, he next proceeded to exhume the body of the husband, with the intention of destroying it in like manner. He so far succeeded in his horrid purpose as to disinter the body, when he became on that lovely moonlight night so perfectly horror-stricken, that he says he was wholly unable to proceed with his terrible work. He states that then, finding himself so perfectly unnerved, he hurriedly gathered the bones together, put them in a sack, and, rushing to the banks of the river, threw them into a waterhole. At this time the moon shone out brightly, and the wretched man states that, standing on the banks for a few minutes, he saw the sack with its ghastly contents rise to the surface. Horror-stricken as he was, he pulled it ashore, and filling the sack with earth and stones, finally sunk it. He admits that when in prison he made the confession to Brown, the detective, which led to his conviction; but it certainly is now a serious question whether, if this confession be true, a conviction of this kind ought to be confirmed, seeing the frightful consequences that might ensue from persons being found guilty of murder without clear proof of the corpus delicti.

In this case Waines was, on the surgical evidence that the bones were those of a white woman, convicted of the murder of Mary Hunt. If his confession be true — and under the circumstances there can scarcely be any reason for doubting it — the bones were those of a man, and although he confesses to the crime, it is not difficult to perceive how easily an innocent man might be convicted on similar testimony.

The following is the confession, as stated in the letter of Waines to his counsel:

Melbourne Gaol, July 8.

As a poor unfortunate prisoner now under sentence of death, which sentence I believe to be irrevocably fixed, I hope you will pardon me for taking the liberty of writing to you. I wish to inform you that, before I die, I have got what I think a duty to perform, likewise a request to make; and to show you that it is what I think as much a duty as a favour, I confess at once that I am guilty of the murder of Mary Hunt but not wilfully, as Brown stated in court. At the same time, I do not feel justified in doing it; but I hope, by a deep repentance and sorrow for my past conduct, and by faith in Jesus Christ, who died to save sinners, of whom I am chief, that the Lord will pardon my sins. It was not done for the money; I had no call to do it for that; it was done for Mrs. Hunt calling my wife a b—- w—-. After I had paid Hunt all that was due to him, he asked me if I would let them have the hut to live in for a fortnight. I told him I could not, as I had got a married couple coming the next day, and they would want to live in it. With that Mrs. Hunt spoke up, and said, “That’s the doings of that b—- w—- at the Wannon. She knows that I want to stop in the hut until you come from Portland.” When she said that, I was just going to the wood-heap with the axe in my hand, and I struck her over the head, and she fell. Hunt was at the wood-heap at the same time, and took up a lump of wood, and ran at me to strike me, and I struck him instead; and that is the way they carne by their death, which I was very sorry for; but I could not call back what was done. I thought once of confessing it; but I afterwards turned afraid of it, thinking I might be blamed and executed for it, as though I had done it wilfully. I afterwards buried them in separate places, for eight months. I then took the body of Hunt, and put it in the river. I never cut it up. The bones came separate when I took them out from where I buried them. As for Mary Hunt’s body, I can call God to be my witness that there never was a bone of Mary Hunt’s in the river, nor yet before the coroner’s jury. And I can say with truth, that had the witnesses sworn nothing but the truth, although I was guilty, neither judge nor jury would have found me so. I do not say this to screen myself; if I did, I should not plead guilty. The doctors not being so clever as they profess to be, and knowing they must pronounce it to be one of the two, they pronounced it to be that of a female, which I can call God to be my witness that there is not one female bone among them. I will make a full confession to the public, with the hope that it may be a warning to some one who may not have sufficient guard over his temper as was the case with myself. I think it my duty, and my request is, to beg of the Government to have the bones brought to Melbourne, which, if they would, I know they have got the means of proving what they are, and I am as certain as I am of my death that there is not one female bone among them. If the Government will do that, I will then tell them where Mary Hunt’s body is. My conscience tells me that it is quite as equal a duty of the Government to have the bones tested as what it is of me to make a confession. The expense would be very little, and time very short; and although I be guilty, it might be the means of saving some one that was innocent at some future time, by being a caution to Government how careful they ought to be, in a case of life and death, in taking a doctor’s evidence, by giving a random guess at a thing I am certain they do not understand. I have no doubt but they will try to keep the Government from doing it on account of their own credit. If the Government will not do it on account of delaying my execution — if they will only promise me to do it after I am dead, and bring the same to the eyes of the public, I will then tell them before I die what I did with Mary Hunt’s bones. I am convicted of my own confession [Waines was entrapped by a detective who posed as a fellow-prisoner and elicited his admission -ed.], and I think it ought to be proved, which it might have been if they had taken my words for it. When they pronounced it to be a female, at the first I told them it was not, and the evidence of Chaffe will show it. He swears that I told him it was that of a man — and that I can swear, and swear the truth, till the last moment I have to live. What I said with reference to Hunt’s going away, it was quite natural I should say to clear myself if I could. But what I say now the Government, if they wish, can prove to be the truth; and if they will, I think they might still have mercy on me, and save my life, when they prove the truth of my statement and the doctor’s error. Even if they do not save my life, it will be some satisfaction for them to know that the doctors were wrong. If I were not certain that they are, I would not say so. I know the doctors in Melbourne can prove it; and, therefore, I should only be keeping myself longer in suspense, which would be worse than death. As to other charges which have appeared in the papers, I can only say, with a clear conscience to my last moment, they are all lies, raised by my enemies with the hope, in my opinion, of poisoning the mind of the Government, from fear that I should have a chance of escape by the point of law which was reserved. I was never charged with anything in my life before of which I need fear anyone knowing. I hope the Government, after convicting me by my own statement, will feel it their duty to prove my statement thoroughly correct, when they have got the means of doing it so easily; and if they do, I call God to be my witness, they will find what I have stated to be the truth.

GEORGE WAINES.


Sir, I am quite satisfied that you have done all you possibly could in defending my cause and trying to save my life, although you were unable to do so. For what you have done, may the Lord bless you!

I think, sir, if you would be so kind as to ether see or petition His Excellency the Governor, he might grant my request, and have the remains of the body brought to Melbourne. If he would, I call God to be my witness that they will find them to be as I have stated. If you will do so, I am quite certain that whatever extra charge you make for your trouble, either Mr. Scott or my poor wife will pay you, whether you save my life or not. I admit the sentence is just as regards my guilt, but I think, as regards the law, my life ought to be spared. I think it quite unreasonable to execute a prisoner for the murder of a woman on the evidence of the body of a man, which man I was not tried for. Had they tried me for the murder of the man instead of the woman, I should never have written this.

Sir, – will you please to let me have an answer to this,

Your obedient servant,

GEORGE WAINES.

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1860: Johannes Nathan, the last ordinary execution in the Netherlands

Add comment October 31st, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1860, Johannes Nathan was hanged in Maastricht for murder.

Nathan murdered his mother-in-law over a pig. Most executions in the Netherlands at this point were commuted by royal prerogative but it was felt that Nathan’s acknowledgment of guilt was late, partial, and insincere — rendering him an unfit object for mercy.

Although the execution took place on the Markt, it “was not a public amusement as it was in the Middle Ages: Nathan walked through dead streets, the curtains were closed in the houses, children were held in.”

The Netherlands formally abolished the death penalty for ordinary criminal offenses in 1870; the only executions since then took place under 20th century wartime occupation, or in revenge for same.

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1860: Samuel Brust

Add comment August 31st, 2017 Headsman

From the New York Times, September 7, 1860:

A Murderer Hung.;

HIS DYING SPEECH AND CONFESSION.

Some months since SAMUEL SIMON BRUST murdered WM. FREDERICK SCHMIDT, in St. Louis. BRUST fled to Cincinnati, but was soon after arrested there and taken back to St. Louis, where he was tried, convicted and sentenced. On Friday last he was hung in the yard of the St. Louis jail. On the scaffold, after offering a prayer, he made the following speech to the spectators:

BROTHERS AND SISTERS: This is my last minute I am here. In a very few minutes I am gone. I have completed my life.

I killed WM. FREDERICK SCHMIDT. I took the money from him. I confessed to my minister here from the very first day when I got my sentence. I was very sorry for it, because I have done such a big crime.

Now, our God he gave me punishment. He let me fall, drop down here far as to hell, and then afterwards he help me out again with His strength, with His grace. He help me up again so far I can stand up. I don’t care nothing about it. I don’t care anything about this, and I know, for I am sure and certain that God in Heaven is my Father. Jesus Christ, He gave me the grace, He gave me the law, and here I stand, knowing who I look to, and though I lose my life, I am very happy and very well satisfied with this. The only place where I found my help, that was the grace at the foot of Jesus Christ. That is the only place where any sinner, any big-crime sinner, can find help, as he suffered on the cross for all sinners in the whole world.

And I thank God for it, and I love him to the last minute for all what he has done on me. He gave me a sound body; he gave me a soul, and fetched me so far as here, but he never told me to do such a big crime as that. It was my own fault. It is nobody else have the badness to fetch a man so far as that; but if every man will look right what he is here if he have committed a big crime, and look right to Him, it is only the grace of God can fetch him so far as he find out himself his own heart. I confess myself as a big sinner, as a big crime committer. I have done it, and I am very well satisfied with this here. This here rope don’t fetch me to death. It kill my body, it take the life out of my body, but I know I got heaven for me. I know my Lord suffered for me on the cross, and I will get him for my help. I know I am a blind sinner. I found it very true, and what Jesus Christ has left in his words. That is the only place where a man can find out his sins.

It is very hard to die on this here rope, for a young man. But it is not hard for me, I know this rope will fetch me up to my home; I don’t take it for myself — this here rope, but it is the grace of God that helps me see this here.

I thank God for everything; I thank Him for the last minute I got a soul in my body. I wish every sinner to fall on the feet of Christ, and beg to Him for forgiveness; I wish everybody to go in himself and find Him out for help; that is the only help he can get. I had punishment harder than any man in this city, but I believe God told me in this kind of punishment here in this way. He knows how to get me out. I forgive everybody who have had anything to do with me, and I say to you, gentlemen, brothers and sisters, to-day the same. I wish now to speak a few words in German.

BRUST then delivered substantially the same speech as given above, in the German language, and during the entire delivery, his voice never faltered, neither did he exhibit any excitement or nervousness. When he had concluded he made another prayer, then stepped quickly upon the drop, adjusted the rope around his neck with his own hands, and put his arms behind him so that they might be tied together. The Sheriff touched the drop, and after a few struggles life was extinct.

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1860: Albert Hicks, the last pirate hanged by the US?

Add comment July 13th, 2016 Headsman

The hanging of Albert Hicks on Bedloe’s Island on this date in 1860 marked perhaps the last execution for piracy in U.S. history.*

This was a century and more past the Golden Age of Piracy. By the mid-19th century, the picaresque buccaneer had long ago hornswaggled his last doubloons and retired from Atlantic sea lanes into literary nostalgia. According to the Espy file, there had been only a single piracy death case, a double execution in Virginia in 1852, over the preceding quarter-century.

Hicks, who alternately went by William Johnson, wasn’t exactly Captain Kidd: think less freebooter, and more hijacker.

Shipping out of New York on the sloop E.A. Johnson, Hicks — urged on by the devil, he later claimed — seized the vessel by murdering two crewmates, Oliver and Smith Watts, and the captain, George Burr. As that was the entirety of his company, that gave him the ship too. He didn’t mean to raise the Jolly Roger and go a-plundering with his prize: he simply stripped his victims of portable valuables, pitched their bodies into the drink 50 miles off Sandy Hook, and abandoned ship. Eventually the creepy hulk of the E.A. Johnson drifted back into New York’s harbor.

Hicks was tracked down in Providence, R.I. and arrested a few days later — the only survivor of a bloodstained mystery ship who happened to have a large quantity of coins he couldn’t quite account for.


1860 ballad, set to the tune of “The Rose Tree”.

As pieces fell into place, it emerged that Hicks had some previous experience as a seaborne desperado. Indeed, he published a confession admitting to quite an extensive career in. The life, trial, confession and execution of Albert W. Hicks, the pirate and murderer, executed on Bedloe’s Island, New York Bay on the 13th of July 1860 for the murder of Capt. Burr, Smith and Oliver Watts on board the oyster sloop E.A. Johnson: containing the history of his life is available free online and details a bloody life’s adventure from Peru to gold rush California that might even qualify as a swashbuckle — if it’s true.

Newsmen meeting him during his incarceration not infrequently express skepticism of Hicks’s veracity and motivations as he attaches himself to new outrages; in particular, Hicks might have been interested to create sensational gallows copy in order to support the family he would soon leave behind. One report shortly after Hicks’s arrest (Boston Courier, March 29, 1860) has his soon-to-be-widow visiting Hick’s cell where “she broke out upon him in the most vituperative language, charging him with being a bloody villain. She held her child up in front of the cell door, and exclaimed, ‘Look at your offspring, you rascal, and think what you have brought on us. If I could get in at you I would pull your bloody heart out.'”


Execution report from the July 14, 1860 New York Herald.

* The U.S. also enforced — loosely — its anti-slaving provisions under piracy statutes, so the 1862 execution of slave trader Nathaniel Gordon occurred under an anti-piracy law. Whether that makes him pirate enough for the milestone, the reader may judge.

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1860: Ann Bilansky

Add comment March 23rd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1860, Ann Bilansky was hanged in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Bilansky — her Christian name is given as Ann, Anne, or Anna in various reports — was condemned for poisoning her husband, an immigrant Polish saloonkeeper named Stanislaus, so that she could get with her bit on the side.

Just a couple of weeks before Stanislaus’s unexpected March 1860 demise, Ann had gone with a friend to a local drug store and picked up a bit of the deadly powder, allegedly to deal with vermin. (This was arsenic’s very common, legitimate use.) She suspiciously tried to get her friend to put the purchase in her name.

The community suspected Ann a murderess as soon as Stanislaus dropped dead. She showed far less evident grief about her spouse than could possibly suffice for decency, and one local snoop peeped on her being a very merry widow indeed with her suspected paramour … on the very day after the funeral. Call it one for the road: the late husband’s stomach, when autopsied, had revealed that suspicious rat poison. She was soon behind bars, and would be convicted with ease.

(In July 1859, she escaped through a window of the barely-secure jail, rendezvoused with her old lover, and fled to the countryside. It was a week before the law collared her.)

Ann Bilansky continued to maintain her innocence at trial, in jail, and all the way to the scaffold. She reveled in the attention her case garnered and plied numerous visitors with claims of innocence and minute supposed errors in her trial. “She was a complete pettifogger,” said a newspaperman, “and had imbibed an opinion, which is common among better informed people, that technicalities could defeat justice in every case.”

But the versions of events she pushed on her many callers stood so starkly at odds with the evidence and the popular sense of her guilt that she even found her way into the local idiom for a time: a St. Paul resident could drolly call b.s. on someone by remarking, “You have been to see Mrs. Bilansky.”

Still, she was a condemned woman — and from the sound of it a rather appealing one — who asserted her innocence, and this meant she did not want for supporters. Legislators were among her jailhouse social circle, and she had enough sympathetic lawmakers that both the House and Senate actually passed a private bill for commutation of her sentence. Gov. Alexander Ramsey vetoed it.

Other visitors arrived bearing more forceful means of liberation: one slipped her chloroform, to disable the guards; a female visitor got caught in the act of trying to swap clothes with the doomed woman. Ann Bilansky even copped to having a specific family that she had arranged to hide out with if she could get out.

She just never quite managed the trick.

Ann Bilansky’s death was accounted a good one by the metrics of gallows-conduct: she did not faint or quail at the sight of the rope, or beg unbecomingly for mercy. But her last words plainly indicate that although she may have reconciled herself to death, she was not in the end at peace with the events that had brought about her end. (Many observers thought she entertained hope for the dramatic arrival of a last-second pardon.)

I die without having had any mercy shown me, or justice. I die for the good of my soul, and not for murder. May you all profit by my death. Your courts of justice are not courts of justice — but I will yet get justice in Heaven. I am a guilty woman I know, but not of this murder, which was committed by another. I forgive everybody who did me wrong. I die a sacrifice to the law. I hope you all may be judged better than I have been, and by a more righteous judge. I die prepared to meet my God.

Bilansky was the first woman executed in the state of Minnesota. (Minnesota had just become a state in 1858.) She remains to this date the last, and since Minnesota has no death penalty at present, she figures to keep the distinction for the foreseeable future.

Source: April 3, 1860 New York Herald

Part of the Themed Set: Arsenic.

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1860: Khan Bahadur Khan Rohilla, Bareilly rebel

Add comment February 24th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1860, the British hanged Khan Bahadur Khan Rohilla, a Pashtun leader who when India revolted in 1857 set up a short-lived independent government at Bareilly.*

Having word of the burgeoning rebellion elsewhere on the subcontinent, Bareilly’s native troops mutinied on May 31, 1857. Three captured European civilians were shot that evening; three more followed the next day.

Though Bareilly did not furnish the most spectacular massacre of the rebellion, it was one of several** that became grist for industrial Britain’s burgeoning mass media … and reports of bloody deeds prepared the British public to respond in kind. One Englishman wrote the London Times on June 3 (it was published on July 14): “When this crisis shall have passed, stern and unflinching vengeance on those who have mutinied and been guilty of atrocities, tempered with judicious and gracious clemency to those who were only misled into a willingness to joining them, will, I fondly hope, tend greatly to create and consolidate a lasting loyalty throughout our native troops.”

Other Britons were far more interested in the unflinching vengeance than the lasting loyalty. Outraged at the news that the Governor-General of India was offering mutineers amnesty, one wrote in a private correspondence on October 4,

I wish I were Commander in Chief in India. The first thing I would do to strike that Oriental race with amazement (not in the least regarding them as if they lived in the Strand, London, or at Camden Town), would be to proclaim to them in their language, that I considered my Holding that appointment by the leave of God, to mean that I should do my utmost to exterminate the Race upon whom the stain of the late cruelties rested; and that I begged them to do me the favor to observe that I was there for that purpose and no other, and was now proceeding, with all convenient dispatch and merciful swiftness of execution, to blot it out of mankind and raze it off the face of the Earth.

That imperial genocide enthusiast was a liberal man of letters known to be downright softhearted when beholding his own countrymen condemned to death singly: Charles Dickens.

After the initial shock of the various risings, Great Britain set about methodically putting down the revolt.

In 1858, it was Bareilly’s turn. Fresh off defeating the most vigorous rebel commander Tantia Tope, the British commander Colin Campbell wrapped up the Indian campaign by marching his Highland regiments “in red coats, kilt, and feather bonnet, under a blazing sun, showing 112 degrees in the shade.”

That wished-for stern and unflinching vengeance marched with them.

Sergeant David McAusland of the 42nd Highland Regiment recalled that during his service in Bareilly during the Rebellion, “three scaffolds and six whipping posts stood outside of the town along side of the jail and there [took place] executions to the number of six every day.” The judge in charge of trials had lost his wife during the conflict, and had told McAusland, “if ever I get the chance of [judging] these Black rebels I will hang a man for every hair that was in my wife’s head.” McAusland responded by asking him how many men he had executed already, “he told me close on 700 well I said if you just continue you will have made good your work and turning to Sergt … Aden I said you mind what Sir Colin [Campbell] said to us at Cawnpore that every man that had a black face was our enemy and we could not do wrong in shooting him so you know how to act here.” (Source pdf, an essay eventually integrated into the author’s book-length study Martial Races: The Military, Race and Masculinity in British Imperial Culture, 1857-1914

As the man who had styled himself chief of Bareilly in opposition to British power could scarcely expect to escape such indiscriminate revenge.

“The complicity of this wretched man in the atrocities committed at Bareilly admits of no doubt whatever, and to allow him to escape from the gallows would be an outrage upon the memory of his unhappy victims,” the London Times reported on April 21, 1860, upon receiving (much belated) word of his execution.

* Great Britain’s initial seizure of Bareilly (Rohilkhand) from Khan Bahadur Khan’s ancestors in a 1774 war became part of the impeachment case Edmund Burke leveled against colonial official Warren Hastings. As we’ve seen elsewhere on this site, that remarkable charge also involved a shady execution.

** The largest and most inflammatory, of course, was Cawnpore/Kanpur.

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1860: William Fee, the only person hanged in Wayne County

3 comments March 23rd, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1860, William Fee became the only person ever executed in Wayne County, New York.

Fee’s alleged victim is not distinguished by a name, at least not one known to Fee’s prosecutors. The anonymous woman turned up dead September 26, 1859 on Wayne County’s old Montezuma Turnpike. She had been strangled, the coroner said — and ravished.

Though she was a stranger, the victim had been seen in the area inquiring about employment. Fee and another man named Muldoon had been observed following her the day previous, and that “following” was cast in a sinister light by their now-unknown whereabouts. Both men were laborers working on an enlargement of the Erie Canal around Lyons, N.Y.

Fee was eventually arrested in New York City; Muldoon, in Scranton, Pa. We’ll return to Muldoon later.

Fee and his ill-favored “Hibernian countenance” stood trial from January 30 to February 3, 1860. “Seats were at a premium in the court room and in the gallery behind the curtains there was a crowd of ladies, listening breathlessly to the testimony,” ran a retrospective from 1913. “During the noon hour, seats were bargained for and sold at 10 cents to 50 cents apiece.”

And though he maintained a superficial calm when the jury returned a guilty verdict against him — “Damn tough, but I’m not going to lie awake thinking about it” — William Fee broke down sobbing when the judge finally sentenced him.

The kid came from a working-class family and had a scrappy reputation. It wasn’t clear as he approached execution that he was handling it with the gravity expected for the occasion by right-thinking gentlemen. Then there was the worry for his eternal salvation: born of mixed Protestant/Catholic parents, he was essentially irreligious and indifferent to a parade of ministers who called upon his cell. (Fee accepted the ministrations of a couple of Catholic priests in his very last hours.)

While clerics kneaded the hard clay of Fee’s soul, municipal officials took a chisel to logistics. Since this was the first (and last) hanging in these parts, the equipment had to be obtained on loan: they borrowed the upward-jerking gallows recently used to execute Ira Stout in upstate New York.*

The gallows was erected in one of the small halls of the jail … four upright posts twelve feet high and five feet apart. Across the top was an oak timber projecting two feet or more beyond the frame. At the front end, above where the prisoner was to stand was a grooved wheel or pully; and another was inserted in the timber over the centre of the frame. The main rope ran over these rollers, one end falling in front, to which the halter was attached, the other dropping to the centre of the gallows frame, where heavy weights were attached. These weights, in all 254 pounds, were suspended by a small cord passing through the main timber above and over it to a pin. The weights had a fall of perhaps eight feet. When the cord was severed by a blow of the axe, the weights fell and jerked the main rope running over the grooved wheels. In order that there should be no failure, Sheriff Snedaker had the gallows put up in the court house and fully tested before removing it to the jail. (New York Herald, April 3, 1860)

Fee came to this device still asserting his innocence, but also asserting that Muldoon wasn’t involved. Don’t worry if those seem a bit at odds; the execution party was confused enough to require clarification, too. Cut him some slack: those 254 pounds of weights weren’t going to cut him any.

The hanging went off without difficulty and, whether influenced by Fee’s parting attempt at exoneration or otherwise, Muldoon was never ultimately brought to trial. The evidence against him being unsatisfactory, he was released some months later.

William Fee’s afterlife — apart from this blog post — is allegedly spent haunting his old Lyons Jail (today, the Wayne County Museum).

* From reports, Wayne County didn’t return the gallows: it was eventually scrapped (someone made a chair out of part of it), and the Lyons Republican nicked the hanging-weight to use as a doorstop.

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1860: John Guthrie, antislavery horse thief

Add comment February 5th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1860 in “Bleeding Kansas” — the frontier zone of dirty war by and against the Slave Power where John Brown got his start — a man named John Guthrie was hanged under scant-to-no color of law.

The site of this execution is still known as Guthrie’s Mountain or Mound … and it’s even alleged that the spot is still ill-omened by the event, and that the dying Guthrie “assailed his executioners for lynching an innocent man,” prophesying that “each of them would meet a horrible death” which curse the imminent U.S. Civil War carried into effect.

For a fuller account, see this pdf of a 1982 Kansas History article, “Guthrie Mound and the Hanging of John Guthrie”.


I know a story I think worth preserving of a Bourbon county execution without benefit of clergy, but it was not a lynching. I have had the story from a lot of people, including two eyewitnesses — not participants, of course. Away back in the later territorial days, when Bourbon county was in the ‘region beyant the law,’ a young man named Guthrie was caught up near Mapleton riding somebody else’s horse. Everybody knows that at that time in those parts, horse stealing and nigger chasing and homicide were offenses in a class by themselves. The hardheaded and hard-fisted farmers thereabouts gathered in a hurry. But there were no courts that they respected or had reason to respect. What to do?

Just across the river south of Mapleton in the Little Osage bottom is a little round hill about three hundred feet high shaped almost exactly like an overturned soup bowl. They adjourned to the top of that hill. There they elected a judge and a sheriff and a prosecuting attorney. They selected a jury and tried their man, who admitted his guilt. After the verdict and the proper sentence, the sheriff had no place to keep the man, so he executed the sentence at once by hanging him to the limb of a jack oak tree nearby. His body was buried where it was cut dawn. It is there yet.

From what I have been told I am quite satisfied that that trial was quite as regular and formal as many cases in the regular courts of that day, though not sanctioned by the law.

By the way, that hill is the same ‘pretty little hill’ where Lieut. Zebulon M. Pike ate the fried venison steak that September morning in 1806, as he notes in his journal. It is still called Guthrie mountain, and is one of the real beauty spots of old Bourbon.

C.E. Cory, 1932

The horse-thief story has different versions, in which Guthrie is either innocent of the charge or not. For what it may be worth, the 1860 New York Times also reported a “very imperfect” version of this take.


However, there’s at least one primary document suggesting that “thieving” may have been a pretext for killing the man over his anti-slavery stance.

Mapleton, K. T., Feb. 12, 1860. “MY DEAR PARENTS: … Last Sunday night about 1 o’clock a man named John R. Guthrie was hanged about a mile and a half from here on the top. of what is known as Tigret Mound. He was left suspended until Monday eve. His corpse was in plain sight from here as he hung. The proslavery’s hung him for an alleged crime of horse stealing. They arrested him without authority or shadow of law and never gave him even a mock trial, as has generally been the case. The country is again in commotion. I know not what will be the result, the probability is that unless Montgomery takes the field again it will soon blow over and give them a chance to hang the next ones that gets in their way.

Free Stater (i.e., anti-slavery) Alpheus H. Taylor

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1860: Juan Rafael Mora Porras, President of Costa Rica

Add comment September 30th, 2010 Headsman

This date is the sesquicentennial of former Costa Rican president Juan Rafael Mora Porras’s death by firing squad, for attempting to retake that office from his brother-in-law after being ousted in a coup.

In the mid-19th century, coffee was king in Costa Rica — say, wouldn’t you enjoy a refreshing cup right now? — and Juan Rafael Mora was the young country’s wealthy leading exporter of the ground black gold.

Little wonder he held the presidency for most of the 1850s.

(Signal achievement: allied with American tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt to help drive filibuster William Walker out of neighboring Nicaragua. Unfortunately, Mora’s army returned home bearing something besides the enemy standards: a cholera epidemic that decimated — literally, killed 10% of — the Costa Rican populace.)

In 1859, while making unwelcome sounds about a national bank not controlled by the coffee barons, Mora was overthrown by another coffee baron — Jose Maria Montealegre.

Rather than leave well enough alone, Mora regrouped in exile and launched an 1860 bid to regain power.

While Juan Rafael Mora was introduced to a firing squad for his trouble, one of his party who was spared that indignity was Mora’s nephew Manuel Arguello Mora, a future novelist and Costa Rican Supreme Court justice.

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1860: John Moyse, the Private of the Buffs

5 comments August 14th, 2010 Headsman

“Our readers,” intoned the London Times on Nov. 5 of 1860, “will not have overlooked the behavior and fate of Private Moyse, of the Buffs, whose resolution, indeed, was not proof against the allurements of the grog-cart, but who actually faced death in cold blood rather than demean himself by prostration before ‘any Chinaman alive.'”

It was on this date that said Private Moyse, John to call him by his Christian name, died in captivity — allegedly because he refused to kowtow to a Chinese mandarin. “The Sikhs obeyed” this Asiatic command, goes the account. “But Moyse, the English soldier, declaring that he would not prostrate himself before any Chinaman alive, was immediately knocked upon the head and his body thrown on a dunghill.”

Kowtowing — Chinese insistence upon; British rejection of — was a touchy symbolic issue between the rising European hegemon and the ancient Chinese empire. It’s said (likely with more color than accuracy) that the British envoy Earl Macartney‘s 1790s trade mission to the east failed for want of a kowtow.

For the same reasons this legend became current, the Moyse tale made sensational propaganda during Britain’s Second Opium War intervention in China, valorized in this jingoistic tear-jerker.

The Private of the Buffs
by Sir Francis Doyle

Last night, among his fellow roughs,
He jested, quaffed and swore,
A drunken private of the Buffs,
Who never looked before.
Today, beneath the foeman’s frown
He stands in Elgin‘s place,
Ambassador from Britain’s Crown
And type of all her race.

Poor, reckless, rude, low-born, untaught,
Bewildered and alone.
A heart, with English instinct fraught,
He yet can call his own.
Aye, tear his body limb from limb,
Bring cord, or axe, or flame;
He only knows that not through him
Shall England come to shame.

Far Kentish hop fields round him seem’d
Like dreams, to come and go;
Bright leagues of cherry blossom gleam’d,
One sheet of living snow;
The smoke above his father’s door
In grey soft eddyings hung.
Must he then watch it rise no more,
Doomed by himself so young?

Yes, honour calls! With strength like steel
He puts the vision by.
Let dusky Indians whine and kneel;
An English lad must die.
And thus, with eyes that would not shrink,
With knee to man unbent,
Unfaltering on its dreadful brink
To his red grave he went.

Vain, mightiest fleets of iron framed;
Vain, those all-shattering guns;
Unless proud England keep, untamed
The strong heart of her sons.
So, let his name through England ring –
A man of mean estate,
Who died, as firm as Sparta’s King
Because his soul was great.

Moyse’s defiance and death make an appearance in this Flashman novel.

Aye, Moyse liked to get into the drink and had a discipline problem, but no matter. This fact was easily appropriated further to his bluff and earnest character in national martyrdom.

Getting a bit carried away with itself, the Times editorialized on Nov. 16,

We have no such visions of human perfectibility as to believe that all the young men of this country will be “respectable youth” looking for “honourable service.” … The English are a people endowed with superabundant energy, and energy must sometimes take an irregular and even a criminal form. The best use that can be made of a young man who will settle down to nothing is to get him to enlist as a soldier. He is kept under strict discipline at the same time that his love of activity and adventure is gratified. He becomes a first-rate fighting man, and fulfils splendidly the only duty which society can ever hope to obtain from him. There is no reason to wonder, with Colonel McMurdo, that acts of heroism have been performed by such men, for they have performed them in all ages and all countries. The “obstinate intemperate hero” is of all time, whether in the shape of Alexander or Lord Clive, or Private Moyse of the Buffs. There are two kinds of valour, belonging to two different classes of men, and a citizen-force may very usefully be employed side by side with the wildest lads who ever rioted in Tipperary or gambled in a London pothouse.

Basically forgotten now, this story can be fleetingly encountered among Anglophiles as an arcane indicator that the national character of Britain, or the West, or what have you, is not now what it once was, given all the kowtowing to mandarins going on in these debased times.

(Although this post amusingly juxtaposes the “commonsense prudence and practicality” of Wellington taking an expedient knee so that a military strategem would not be lost on account of bullheaded pride. Maybe it helped that Wellington was kneeling to a European.)

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Soldiers,Summary Executions

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