1865: Robert Cobb Kennedy, Confederate terrorist

Add comment March 25th, 2020 Headsman

Robert Cobb Kennedy, the last Confederate executed by the Union during the U.S. Civil War, was hanged on this date in 1865 as an arsonist.


Harper’s magazine illustration of an arsonist.

Kennedy, a West Point washout from a Louisiana plantation, was part of an ensemble of Confederate agents who attempted to torch New York City on November 25, 1864 — a mission designed to revenge Sherman’s march.

On that Friday evening, the night after Thanksgiving, the eight conspirators fired 13 Gotham hotels as well as theaters, public buildings, and the ludicrous museum of showman P.T. Barnum.* Nineteen fires were started overall, the plotters hoping that their simultaneous flaring would overwhelm the city’s capacity to respond and turn into a general conflagration. Through a combination of good luck, bad arson, and timely informants the various blazes were caught before they could do any real damage.

That couldn’t quite be said of the arsonists, who were all — even Kennedy — able to slip away safely to Canada before they could be caught. Kennedy risked a return trip through Detroit hoping to reach Confederate soil. He didn’t make it.

“Mr. Kennedy is a man of apparently 30 years of age, with an exceedingly unprepossessing countenance,” by the description of the New York Times (Feb. 28, 1865) as he stood trial before a military tribunal.

His head is well shaped, but his brow is lowering, his eyes deep sunken and his look unsteady. Evidently a keen-witted, desperate man, he combines the cunning and the enthusiasm of a fanatic, with the lack of moral principle characteristic of many Southern Hotspurs, whose former college experiences, and most recent hotel-burning plots are somewhat familiar to our readers. Kennedy is well connected at the South, is a relative, a nephew we believe, of Howell Cobb, and was educated at the expense of the United States, at West Point, where he remained two years, leaving at that partial period of study in consequence of mental or physical inability. While there he made the acquaintance of Ex. Brig. Gen. E.W. Stoughton, who courteously proffered his services as counsel for his ancient friend in his present needy hour. During Kennedy’s confinement here, while awaiting trial, he made sundry foolish admissions, wrote several letters which have told against him, and in general did, either intentionally or indiscreetly, many things, which seem to have rendered his conviction almost a matter of entire certainty.

He was hanged at Fort Lafayette, having admitted to setting the fire at Barnum’s museum (“simply a reckless joke … There was no fiendishness about it. The Museum was set on fire by merest accident, after I had been drinking, and just for the fun of a scare”). His was the only life claimed by the Confederate incendiaries.

* This facility was born under a bad star: although it survived the ministrations of Kennedy and friends, it burned to the ground the following July. Barnum put up a successor museum which also burned down, in 1868 — leading the man to pivot into the circus industry where he fixed his name in the firmament.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arson,Capital Punishment,Confederates,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,New York,Terrorists,USA,Wartime Executions

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1860: James Stephens

Add comment February 3rd, 2020 Headsman

James Stephens hanged in New York on this date in 1860, for poisoning his wife.

We’ve referenced passingly a number of 19th century hangings on then-trendy “upward-jerking” gallows — whose action is not to drop the offender down through a trap, but to drop a heavy weight which levers the offender up.

Thanks to the Feb. 4, 1860 edition of the New York Herald, we have a very detailed description of this macabre device.

Perhaps the reporter’s skepticism as to this machine’s humane efficacy is informed here by a bit of hindsight, for when it engaged to end the life of our Mr. Stephens,

Up went the culprit high into the air, not with a sudden violent jerk as usual, but slowly, as if by the strength of a man’s arms, instead of a powerful weight of some 300 pounds. It became evident immediately that something was wrong, and soon a rumor went round that the rope had been unwound instead of cut by the hangman. It appeared that the executioner, who was inexperienced, got frightened, and thus the barbarous manner of hanging the culprit was explained.

It was extraordinary that under these circumstances the unfortunate wretch, suspended between heaven and earth, did not exhibit indications of violent suffering. The moment the rope tightened around his neck, and he was elevated about half way up, a slight twitching of the fingers and kicking of the legs were perceptible. Then a few moments intervened without the slightest indication of suffering, except the hard breathing, which was fearful to listen to. After hanging two minutes in this way, another convulsive throe took place; the vessels in the neck seemed to be swelled almost to bursting, the fingers and wrists assumed a bluish hue, and the feet twitched once or twice spasmodically. Three minutes came, and with it a very feeble tremor showed itself in the whole body; but it lasted only a few seconds, when all further motion ceased, and life seemed to be completely extinct. The surgeons, Drs. Woodward, Simmons and Covell, viewed the body after a suspension of five minutes, and gave it as their opinion that animation was certainly gone; but the body was not lowered until fourteen minutes had expired. The surgeons then again examined the body, found no pulse, and the flesh icy cold. Considering the circumstances, the culprit died a remarkably easy death, which was owing, doubtless, to the feeble condition of his constitution. Had he been in good strength at the time of his execution there is no question but that he would have struggled in the most frightful agony for half an hour.

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

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1866: The Nashville murderers of William Hefferman

Add comment January 26th, 2020 Headsman

Blood accumulates upon us. Verily, it does seem that the reins of justice have been loosely thrown to the devil, and that we are all driving at breakneck speed in the same direction.

-Nashville Banner (via)

On this date in 1866, four youths employed as teamsters in the Army corrals of Union-occupied Nashville were hanged for a brutal highway robbery/murder.

The victim was William Hefferman, a wealthy railway contractor. His assailants were George Crabb/Craft, James Lysaught, Thomas Perry/Ferry, and James Knight; Knight at 20 was the only one out of his teens. On the night of November 22, 1865, they held up Hefferman’s carriage. The situation turned deadly when Hefferman’s son-in-law, attempting to protect the old man from the blows of the assailants when he refused to give them any money, fired a shot that wounded Crabb — which led to a return shot that mortally wounded Hefferman. He succumbed to the wound a few days later.

This was the immediate, unsettled aftermath of the U.S. Civil War, occasion for a robust crime wave that held Middle Tennessee in terror. “Nashville is infested by bands of robbers and murderers,” complained the Ohio newspaper The Spirit of Democracy (Dec. 6, 1865). Hefferman’s murder would be one of the signal crimes of that interim and draw nationwide outrage — all of which helped the killers’ associates to shop them very speedily. The army’s drumhead court-martial was gaveled in within a week and the hoodlums were lucky to get that far. “Great excitement exists in the city,” a dispatch to the Daily Ohio Statesman (Nov. 28, 1865) reported. “The streets are thronged with men vowing vengeance and threatening lynch law. Tonight meetings are being held in each ward to form a citizen patrol. A spark may incite the crowd to mob law.”

As it was a military trial, the appeal went up the chain of command to U.S. President Andrew Johnson,* who denied it. However, such a proceeding would not have been licit under the imminent (April 1866) U.S. Supreme Court holding in Ex Parte Milligan — which held that military courts cannot try civilians wherever civilian courts are open.

It is their youth, their boyishness, that leaps off the page in the accounts of their last hours — such as this from the Cleveland Daily Leader of January 29:

The four Heffernan [sic] murderers were hung to-day, at thirteen minutes past twelve o’clock. Their real names are James Knight, Thomas Perry, George Crab and James Lysaught. Two had been in the rebel army.

Yesterday several orthodox ministers called, conversed and prayed with the prisoners, who exhibited some emotion. Afterward, Father Begrath, of the Catholic Church, was with them. They all professed the Roman Catholic faith. Knight and Perry were baptised. The other two had been baptised in infancy. The prisoners had previously shown great hardihood, singing such pieces as “Bold Jack Dunaho” and “Bingen on the Rhine.” The past two days had tamed them down, but they were still stolid, frivolous and careless, joking about their doom.

This morning, Perry’s brother brought him clothing. The parting scene between them was heart-rending, Perry giving way to tears and sobs. Colonel Innis provided the others with clothing. Lysaught said, at first, that he didn’t want any pants, as those he had on were good as gold to hang in. Crab was asked to tell who shot Hefferman. He replied, “That is not a fair question; I’ll never tell that in this world.”

Father Begrath came about ten o’clock to attend them in their last moments. Lysaught said he felt as gay as a lay. He said he had been badly treated, else he would be with his parents now. Father Begrath read a touching letter from Lysaught’s parents to the Bishop, asking him to have James’ grave marked that some day they might take the body away. He was earnestly exhorted to repentance, but he remained almost stolid. Some one in the room having a looking-glass, he jumped up, exclaiming, “By golly, I must look at my face once more.” Then turning to Crab, he remarked, “Look at yours — it is your last chance.”

Crab replied, “It aint any use.” Lysaught asked, laughingly, “afraid you’ll break the glass?” when all four seemed much tickled. Crab having eased Lysaught’s handkerchief, the latter playfully snatched it away, saying, “let me smell it everlasting.” Then, turning to Crab, said, “you’re enough to make a monkey grin.”

Perry was asked if he feared to die. He replied “I don’t dread it a bit. It’s best to take it easy, it’s got to come.”

Crab indicted the following letter to Byron Heston, Oswego, New York:

George Crab, the boy who used to run on the packet with you, in 1861, is about to be hung. He requests to be remembered, kindly, to yourself and family.

Perry took his brother aside at parting, and advised him never to indulge in sinful, lazy ways, never to swear, and to let alone whisky, cards and bad houses, “for the like of this has brought me to the gallows. I want you to take my body home and let mother see me. I am sorry she did not see me before I was hung. Tell her to meet me in a better world, as I am prepared to die. God bless you! Good-bye!”

When the priest left them for a few moments they began to chat and joke about the ropes that would hang them, the feeling of contrition being evanescent.

An immense crowd, numbering fifteen thousand persons, were on the ground. At twenty minutes past eleven, the prisoners were brought to the gallows, which they mounted with a firm step, and stood gazing around for nineteen minutes, while the charges and specifications and sentence were read. Perry composedly leaned against one of the uprights, and surveyed the crowd. Crabb took hold of the noose before him, and viewed it with a comic look, testing its strength with his thumb, and rubbing his head against the rope.

Knight buttoned his coat, chewing his cud of tobacco violently and showing nervousness. As his arms were bound he quivered a moment. During the prayer he knelt, bowing his head and holding his handkerchief to his nose, which was bleeding. His last words were: “I have no hard feelings against any one. I am going to a better world.” Lysaught took a farewell chew of tobacco, saying “Pretty rough, ain’t it?” He asked forgiveness of all whom he had injured, adding, “I am glad we had time for repentance; I am glad we were removed from the jail to the Penitentiary. If I had stayed at the jail I would have starved to death.” Crab also asked forgiveness for his misdeeds, and thanked Mr. Johnson, keeper of the Penitentiary, for his kindness. Just before the drop fell, he shrugged his shoulders and exclaimed, “It’s kind o’ cold.” A chum called on him on the platform, and was affectionately kissed by Knight and Crab; as he went down the steps, the former called out, “Take warning by this.”

Just before the drop fell, Perry held out his hat and said, “Jim Johnson give my brother that.”

At thirteen minutes after 12 o’clock the rope was cut, and the four bodies fell with a heavy thump. Lysaught’s neck was broken. The knot slipped with Knight and Crab, who died with many struggles and convulsive writhings. Perry died by strangulation, but did not move much.

After hanging twenty minutes the bodies were cut down and placed in common pauper coffins.

An early attempt was made to erect whisky, candy and apple stands among the crowd of spectators, but the military promptly interfered.

The bearing of the condemned showed that they had agreed to brave it out. Their highest estimation of conduct on such occasions seems to have been to die game. They certainly met death with as little show of fear as it possible to imagine in youths not out of their teens.

* By coincidence, Johnson had been the military governor of Tennessee during the war.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Tennessee,U.S. Military,USA

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1861: Antonino Aberastain

Add comment January 12th, 2020 Headsman

Argentinian politician Antonino Aberastain was executed on this date in 1861, after the Battle of Rinconada del Pocito.

A polymath barrister from Buenos Aires, Aberastain was cursed to live his days amid the long and terrible civil wars — which pitted liberal centralizers (the Unitarian party) against conservative federalists. Aberastain belonged to the former faction.

After an interesting career that saw him by turns lawyer, judge, newsman, and national minister — and for most of the 1840s, exile abroad in Chile when a Federalist warlod chased him out — Aberastain in 1860 led a putsch that deposed and killed the Federalist governor of San Juan in November 1860.

The Federalist counterattack was settled in battle at a place called La Rinconada* on January 11, 1861, and the reader may well infer the outcome from the presence of the Unitarian commander on this site. The victorious Federal commander had him summarily executed the next day.

With the eventual settlement of hostilities, Aberastain settled in as a heroic Sanjuanino; this monument to him decorates a square that’s named for him in San Juan city.


(cc) image from EagLau.

* By coincidence, it had also been the site of a different Unitarian-Federalist battle in 1825.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Argentina,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Judges,Lawyers,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Power,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1863: Angel Vicente Peñaloza, “Chacho”

Add comment November 12th, 2019 Headsman

Angel Vicente Peñaloza — “Chacho” to friends and to history — was stabbed and shot to death on this date in 1863.

This caudillo was a casualty of Argentina’s long, long conflict between unitarians looking to centralize the state and federalists looking to hold power devolved to their own provinces. Chacho (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) stood in the latter camp.

A career officer from a prosperous ranching family, Peñaloza had become the caudillo of his native La Rioja province by the 1850s — meaning he was also its key military leader when unitarian-federalist hostilities turned kinetic from 1858.

His skirmishes with the unitarian president Bartolome Mitre saw Chacho hopelessly outgunned, but an attempt between the rivals to conclude a peace treaty turned sour over a prisoner exchange — whose quota Mitre allegedly met with corpses rather than living fighters. Chacho rose again, for the last time, in March 1863, writing angrily to Mitre that his

governors are become the executioners of the provinces … they banish and kill respectable citizens without trial solely because they belong to the federal party.

That is why, Mr. President, that the people, tired of a despotic and arbitrary domination, have proposed justice, and all men who have nothing to lose would rather sacrifice their existence on the battlefield, defending their liberties and their laws and their most precious interests trampled by vile perjurers.

It was just the invitation Mitre needed to crush him: Peñaloza’s several thousand followers were simply outlawed, giving soldiers and militia carte blanche to murder them at discretion. Captured at the village of Olta, he was summarily killed later that same day by the commander in the field and they didn’t stop there: Chacho’s head was nailed up in the town square, and his widow made to sweep the streets of San Juan, manacled in disgrace.

His doomed rebellion has seen him to a heroic posthumous reputation, buttressed by the verse homage of poet Olegario Victor Andrade. There’s also a rampant equestrian monument to the martir del pueblo near Olta.


(cc) image by masterrp.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Argentina,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Execution,History,No Formal Charge,Power,Put to the Sword,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1866: The Richard Burgess gang, for the Maungatapu Murders

Add comment October 5th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1866, Nelson, New Zealand was marred for the first time by a gallows — which revenged in triplicate one of the most notorious crimes in New Zealand’s European settlement era.

The gang of toughs led by London-born transport convict Richard Burgess formed itself at the fringes of the early 1860s *gold rush in the South Island’s Central Orago wilderness. The gold strike was nicely timed to attract veterans of the California (USA) gold rush and the Victoria (Australia) gold rush, both of which were ten-plus years old and into their petering-out stages; in those places and many others where gold stirred men’s feet sticking up lucky prospectors was just a lucrative tertiary sector supported by all those the pickaxes, like boom town saloons and cathouses.

And Burgess was an old pro at rendering his peculiar “service”. He’d made his own way for some time robbing miners in Victoria, before he followed his market to Otago and attracted to his train fellow-desperadoes Thomas Kelly (aka Thomas Noon), Joseph Sullivan, and (an old associate from Aussie days) Philip Levy.

Along a stretch known as the Maungatapu track — at a spot now remembered as Murderers’ Rock — the quartet set up an ambush for a group of businessmen whom they learned were moving their money to a bank in Nelson. On June 12, a luckless passing laborer named James Battle passed their way and wound up strangled to death for his mischance. The next day, four businessmen appeared as expected and were all shot and strangled to death, yielding a total haul north of £300.

To their grief, the previously impecunious men were quite indiscreet about throwing their earnings around back in Nelson, and when a friend reported the victims’ party missing the Burgess group became suspect almost immediately. All were in custody within a week of the crime, even before the bodies were located — which only occurred on the 29th when Joseph Sullivan, seeing where the wind was blowing, made a full confession in exchange for clemency.* His statement was the death warrant for his former confederates.

In the account of the next day’s Nelson Examiner, Burgess died boldly and Levy, after favoring the audience in Nelson Gaol with an extended vindication of his innocence, did likewise. But Kelly was entirely unmanned by mounting the scaffold where

ensued a scene of the most painful nature, one which almost baffles description, but which, nevertheless, it is hardly possible to regard otherwise than as a consistent and appropriate finale to this most extraordinary tragedy … [Kelly] for some time resolutely refused to obey the directions of the officials, literally screaming and ejaculating in the most piteous tones, “Don’t do it yet, let me speak. I am forced, I am not hanged, but murdered.” And then, with an almost idiotic expression on his features, “God bless me, where am I? I ought to be allowed to speak.” … During this time the various ministers were engaged in whispering consolation to their respective charges, and the scene of confusion which Kelly’s violent conduct produced may be more easily imagined than described. The ropes were then placed round their necks and the white caps drawn over their faces, but during the whole time Kelly never ceased talking, or rather whining out, in a half broken voice, saying, “I did not write that name on the gun, Burgess did it. I hope I may go to God, and every one here.” …

Our readers may picture to themselves the distressing nature of this scene, which visibly affected every spectator present, and which seemed to increase in intensity every moment it was prolonged. Kelly’s shrill and discordant voice was still heard continually shrieking forth, in the most heartrending accents … Once Kelly attempted to move himself aside from the drop, but was immediately replaced by the officials in attendance.

Kelly kept on babbling as a minister began reading the Anglican Burial Service, and he was still at it when the trap was dropped. Perhaps due to his agitation on the scaffold, Kelly died hard the hard, requiring the help of the executioner’s rough grab on his legs to enhance the pressure of the noose. “The dead silence which followed on the consummation of the tragedy seemed almost a welcome relief,” the Examiner remarked.

After hanging, science and pseudoscience had their way with the bodies: doctors dissected the necks, it being “a matter of dispute amongst medical authorities whether death in such cases is caused by strangulation or by dislocation of the spinal column … it was satisfactorily proved that death has resulted in each case from strangulation, the spinal column being found to be perfect in each instance; thus setting this much vexed question at rest.” Meanwhile, the heads were removed altogether so that phrenologists could cast them.

Those casts are still in the possession of the Nelson Provincial Museum. An obelisk in memory of the five men they slew stands at Nelson’s Wakapuaka Cemetery.


(cc) image.

* Sullivan served seven years in prison, then was pardoned on condition that he remove himself permanently from both New Zealand and Australia, although he later violated that condition. His ultimate fate is uncertain but he’s known to have outlived the rest of his party by many decades.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,New Zealand,Outlaws,Pelf,Theft

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1861: Martin Doyle, the last hanged for attempted murder

Add comment August 27th, 2019 Headsman

Outside Chester Prison in Cheshire on this date in 1861, Martin Doyle became the last hanged in Britain for “mere” attempted murder.

He’d battered his lover, Jane Brogine, nearly to death — but not all the way to death — on May 30th. “Jane, say no more, I intend to have your life; I came for it, and I will have it,” he incriminatingly declared during the assault, just to leave no possible doubt. If his intent was clear enough, it turned out that 21 blows from a heavy rock were not so sufficient as Doyle supposed to the execution of the deed. Brogine survived, creeping away to the aid of a passing Good Samaritan once Doyle departed the scene thinking her dead.

Great Britain in 1861 thoroughly overhauled its criminal statutes, including an Offences Against the Person Act that rejiggered a variety of punishments, setting the punishment for attempted murder at a prison sentence:

Whosoever shall administer to or cause to be administered to or to be taken by any Person any Poison or other destructive Thing, or shall by any Means whatsoever wound or cause any grievous bodily Harm to any Person, with Intent in any of the Cases aforesaid to commit Murder, shall be guilty of Felony, and being convicted thereof shall be liable, at the Discretion of the Court, to be kept in Penal Servitude for Life or for any Term not less than Three Years, or to be imprisoned for any Term not exceeding Two Years, with or without Hard Labour, and with or without Solitary Confinement.

The above, in Section 11, and similar language in Sections 12, 13, 14, and 15, replaced the attempted murder language of the Offences Against the Person Act of 1837:

Whosoever shall administer to or cause to be taken by any Person any Poison or other destructive Thing, or shall stab, cut, or wound any Person, or shall by any Means whatsoever cause to any Person any bodily Injury dangerous to Life, with Intent in any of the Cases aforesaid to commit Murder, shall be guilty of Felony, and being convicted thereof shall suffer Death.

Unfortunately for Mr. Doyle, the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861 did not receive royal assent until August 6 … which meant that what he’d done to Jane Brogine in May still was a capital felony back when he’d done it.

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

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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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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Australia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Murder

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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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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Execution,Famous,History,Intellectuals,Lawyers,Martyrs,Mexico,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Popular Culture,Power,Revolutionaries,Shot,Wartime Executions

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

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