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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1861: Melchor Ocampo, liberal statesman

Add comment June 3rd, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1861, the Mexican statesman Melchor Ocampo was summarily executed by right-wing guerrillas.

Once a seminarian, Ocampo (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) turned his face towards public life, becoming a most eloquent exponent of the era’s movement of liberalism and anticlericalism.

He was among the faction who rebelled in 1854 against recurrent strongman Santa Anna; he served in the ensuing epochal presidency of Benito Juarez and helped to draft the liberal constitution that governed Mexico until 1917. Secular, egalitarian marriage vows promulgated in 1859 by Ocampo are still used in many marriage ceremonies to this day.

The revolutionary social reordering of these years was achieved only by civil war, a conflict remembered as the Reform War which ended only when the conservatives surrendered Mexico City on New Year’s Day of 1861.* Ocampo, who had the stature to stand for president himself, preferred to consolidate the victory by throwing his support to Benito Juarez in the ensuing elections.

Retiring thereafter to private life, he was targeted by one of the numerous remnant right-wing militias that still persisted in the countryside months after the putative conclusion of the Reform War. These abducted him from his home in Michoacan on May 30 and held him for some days, permitting him to write his last letters, before having him shot and strung up on June 3. His remains currently repose in honor at Mexico City’s Rotunda of the Illustrious … as are those of Ocampo’s longtime comrade Santos Degollado, who undertook to hunt down and revenge himself upon his friend’s killers but instead became their prey.

The town of Melchor Ocampo is, quite obviously, named for the man; his surname has been attached as an honorific to his home region of Michoacan, one of Mexico’s 32 states (officially called Michoacan de Ocampo) and to Tepeji del Rio de Ocampo, the place where he was executed.

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1868: Georg Ratkay, the last public hanging in Vienna

Add comment May 30th, 2019 Headsman

Vienna’s last public execution was the raucous May 30, 1868 hanging of Georg Ratkay.

The 23-year-old Hungarian proletarian had migrated to the bustling capital where he found accommodation as a “bedwalker”, literally renting hours in a bed shared by shifts with others. In January of 1868, he bludgeoned a carpenter’s wife to death in the course of robbing her.

For a few months that year it was the outrage on the lips of every Viennese and when the day came lips and limbs and leering eyes thronged as one into the square surrounding the Spinnerin am Kreuz tower, where the execution was to take place. By report of the Neue Freie Presse, the plaza was already bustling with early campers by 2 in the morning although the hanging wouldn’t go off until the evening. Roofs of adjacent taverns and factories made their owners a tidy profit charging gawkers for the vantage point, as did custodians of improvised grandstands hastily thrown up on the scene.

There were many reports of the indecencies of this bawdy and bloodthirsty gaggle, making merry for the “unusually pleasurable spectacle” and lubricated on beer served by vendors who also plied their trade here. Essayist Friedrich Schlögl gave voice to the disdain of respectable Vienna, in a piece quoted from Unruly Masses: The Other Side of Fin-de-siecle Vienna:

These were the habitues of the gallows, of both sexes — pinched faces, regular customers of the noisiest bars, inmates of the dirtiest cellars of poverty and squalor, a composite mixture of the many-headed company of knaves … All who had not been detained in prisons, asylums, and other Imperial establishments for improvement had come out for crude pleasure. Right through until dawn, the mob made the most appalling nuisance; then when day eventually broke and the food sellers came around hawking their “criminal sausages,” “poor sinner pretzels,” “gallows sandwiches,” etc., all hell broke loose and thousands upon thousands became as frenzied as was the fashion at the Brigittenauer Kirtag in days long past.

Only with difficulty (and rifle butts) could the hussars escorting the death party actually force their way through the mob to bring the star attraction to the post for his Austrian-style “pole hanging”.*

Then the “poor sinner” arrived and the official procedure took its undisturbed course. Was the crowd enraged? Was it shocked by the frightful sin? A jubilant cheer echoed through the air when, at the moment the executioner adjusted the candidate’s head, a pole broke and hundreds of curious spectators pressed forward. The joyous cries of at least a thousand throats went on to reward the clever trick of a man who knocked a coachman’s hat off because he “thoughtlessly” kept it on when the priest began his prayer.

The Emperor Franz Joseph I, who was already commuting most of the empire’s death sentences as a matter of policy** and had lost his own brother to a firing squad the year before, was so disgusted by the commotion that he never again permitted such a scene in Vienna. Ratkay’s hanging is commonly described as the last public execution in all of Austria, although according to the Austrian State Archive there were actually six more, all lower-key affairs away from the imperial center, before 1873 legislation formally moved all executions behind prison walls.

* For images of this distinctive execution method, see photos of Italian nationalist Cesare Battisti or video of World War II war criminal Karl Hermann Frank undergoing the punishment.

** The Austrian State Archive page linked above claims that of 559 death sentences from 1868 to 1876, only 14 came to actual execution.

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1867: Ciosi and Agostini, at the Polygone of Vincennes

Add comment January 21st, 2019 Headsman

From the London Times, Jan. 23, 1867, under a January 22 dateline:

The two soldiers (Corsicans) who committed a murder and robbery some time since at Neuilly, and were sentenced to death by court-martial, were shot yesterday morning, in presence of a large crowd, at the Polygone of Vincennes. One of them, [Jean-Baptiste] Agostini, was so exhausted that he had to be tied to a post to keep him from falling to the ground. The other, [Jean-Antoine] Ciosi, was more courageous, and, having addressed the shooting party to this effect, — “Dear comrades, on my conscience, I committed the crime for which I die, but I committed no robbery. I ask pardon of God, and of you. Farewell!” he himself gave the word to fire. The troops marched past the bodies as they lay on the ground. The interment took place in the burial ground of Vincennes, under the supervision of the chaplain of the fort.

A longer French-language account of the crime and execution — including the necessity of a brain-splattering coup de grace to complete the sentence — can be found here. There’s some fuzziness with the date cited in different places but French press reports (for instance, from Le Figaro on January 22) unambiguously place it on Monday the 21st.

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1863: Antonio Locaso

Add comment January 17th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1863, the famed Italian bandit Antonio Locaso was shot in Castellaneta at the tender age of 22.

A former goatherd, Locaso supposedly embarked his career in brigandage in the classic style of the social bandit, impetuously intervening to fight off an agent of the law who was bent on ill-treating some penniless neighbors.

He thereafter was compelled to conceal himself in the wildernesses near Castellaneta,* down at the hinge of the Italic boot’s heel.

No mere highwayman, he fell in as a lieutenant of the ex-Bourbon officer turned outlaw/rebel Sergente Romano. This brought a violent crackdown by the Kingdom of Italy.

In a Christlike turn, he was betrayed by a comrade for the price on his head — and found slumbering amid his repast where “bread, cheese and salami there was also a bottle of narcotized wine.”

* Although it’s hardly a city on the front rank of the world’s conscience, it’s on the credit scroll of every episode of The Simpsons as it confers the municipal ancestry and the surname on Homer Simpson voice actor Dan Castellaneta.

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1868: Heli Freymond, the last beheaded by sword in Switzerland

Add comment January 10th, 2019 Headsman

Heli Freymond lost his head on this date in 1868 to an executioner’s sword — the last time that ever happened in Swiss history. (His is also the last death sentence enforced in the canton of Vaud.)

Freymond and his cousin and lover Louise Freymond conspired to murder the man’s pregnant* wife with arsenic.

They might have gotten away with this but avarice for the portion of the wife’s inheritance that had redounded to the wife’s sister led them to make a bid at murdering that sister’s beau. This man survived it, and accurately discerned the hand behind his brush with death; his lawsuit led to the literal and metaphorical exhumation of the late wife’s corpse, too.

Louise Freymond caught a 20-year prison sentence for this, but Freymond was doomed to lose his head. Switzerland had introduced the guillotine as an alternative beheading method some years before, but the old-school two-handed richtschwert blade still remained available for the hands-on touch you only get with hired goons. Twenty thousand souls turned out in Moudon for the occasion.

Heli Freymond was in fact the last person executed at all in Switzerland, for an era: he was still the last when the 1874 constitution abolished capital punishment full stop. However, a crime wave brought the death penalty back in 1879. The last Swiss execution for ordinary crimes occurred in 1940; according to CapitalPunishmentUK’s index of Swiss executions, there were 17 Swiss men (no women) shot during World War II for treason.

* Technically, an initial unsuccessful attempt to poison the pregnant mother Elise Olivier caused a miscarriage; subsequently, another poisoning brought off Elise, too.

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1866: John Roberson

Add comment December 28th, 2018 Headsman

From the Richmond (Va.) Whig, Dec. 28, 1866 …

… and the same source on Jan. 1, 1867:

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1865: Henry Wilson, shy subject

Add comment December 22nd, 2018 Robert Elder

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

“I had made a request not to have my photograph taken, for fear my friends would recognize me. Somebody else made a request that it should be taken, and Chase [the sheriff] paid more attention to them than to me, and let them try to take it as I came out. You can see what kind of man this Chase is, and if I had a chance I would take his photograph d—-d quick. I don’t think they got a good one. So my friends will not know it. Perhaps my photograph will be the means of finding out who I am, but I doubt it d—-dly. I have nothing more to say, and you may go on as soon as you please, for it is no consolation to me to be kept standing here in the cold.”

— Henry Wilson, convicted of murder, hanging, New York.

Executed December 22, 1865 A career burglar, Wilson was executed for slaying of Henry DeVoe, whose home he had been robbing. Wilson admitted to killing two other New Yorkers — Burr Burton in Syracuse and Mrs. Lewis in Lancaster — and told police he was the man wanted for a host of unsolved crimes. He went to the gallows three days before Christmas. A reporter for the Rochester Democrat censored Wilson’s profanities, which appear to be derivations of damn.

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1868: Melvin Baughn, Pony Express rider turned horse thief

Add comment September 18th, 2018 Headsman

We cadge today’s entry from the August 1950 Kansas Historical Quarterly; the article “Legal Hangings in Kansas” by Louise Barry can be perused in pdf form here.

A footnote in the original notes that “During the time in 1860 and 1861, when the Pony Express was in operation, one of the well-known riders on the route between St. Joseph, Mo., and Seneca, was Melvin Baughn. It is said he turned to a life of crime by joining a gang of horse thieves, soon after the Pony Express ended. Mooney is said to have been lynched sometime later.”


The Hanging of Melvin E. Baughn

Three Doniphan county men arrived in Seneca on November 19, 1866, with warrants for four horse thieves known to be in the vicinity. Sheriff William Boulton and a posse of Nemaha county men joined in the hunt. Jackson and Strange, two of the wanted men, were captured a little east of town. Three posse members (Charles W. Ingram, Henry H. Hillix and Jesse S. Dennis) overtook the other two criminals on the road to Capioma. When they rode up to arrest the men — Melvin E. Baughn and Zach Mooney — they were fired upon. Hillix was wounded severely and Dennis was fatally shot in the back, dying a few minutes later. The horse thieves escaped.

Baughn was arrested in Leavenworth on January 6, 1867, on a robbery charge. When recognized as Dennis’ murderer, he was turned over to Nemaha county officers who placed him in the Seneca jail. Four days later an unsuccessful attempt was made to lynch him. On February 6 he and another prisoner escaped.

More than 15 months later Baughn was captured near Sedalia, Mo., after being wounded by officers attempting to arrest him for a robbery. Upon being identified, he was returned to Kansas and to the Seneca jail. He was tried during the next term of the district court, early in August, Judge R. St. Clair Graham presiding. The jury found him guilty of murder in the first degree and on August 7 he was sentenced to be hanged on September 18, 1868.

A gallows was erected on the south side of the Nemaha county jail, and an area of the jail yard was enclosed by a “fence” of canvas. And, on the appointed day, at 3:18 in the afternoon, Baughn was hanged.

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1869: An Dehai, beloved eunuch

1 comment September 12th, 2018 Headsman

The imperial eunuch An Dehai was beheaded in Jinan on this date in 1869.

He was so much the favorite that it’s been clained that the redoubtable Empress Dowager Cixi had outright fallen in love with the courtier.

This was a circumstance destined to sharpen both An’s confidence in his position, and the blades of the inevitable enemies within the Forbidden City who were keen to be rid of him.

In 1869, the eunuch was dispatched to Nanjing as Cixi’s envoy to arrange the wedding gowns for the marriage of her son, the titular boy-emperor in whose name Cixi wielded power. On this trip, Cixi openly flaunted the protocol requiring eunuchs keep themselves inconspicuous, and also allegedly used the occasion to feather his bed with a bit of opportunistic extortion.

This, at any rate, was the report that an imperial governor relayed back to Prince Gong, who had once helped Cixi seize power in the state but had now become her rival. Gong got a quorum of the Grand Council to sign off on An’s execution while Cixi was off at the opera. She was so bereaved to discover his fate that she had his belongings lovingly gathered up for permanent safekeeping.

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