1861: Robert Thomas Palin, under Ordinance 17 Victoria Number 7

Add comment July 9th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1861,* Western Australia’s Ordinance 17 Victoria Number 7 claimed its one and only victim.

Implemented early in Western Australia’s convict era as the influx of criminals made existing settlers jumpy, this law made a wide variety of violent but non-fatal crimes potentially subject to the death penalty when committed by an escaped fugitive.

Robert Thomas Palin was a newcomer to Australia, having debarked from a convict ship only in January 1860. Despite his burglary conviction back in the mother country, he was an exemplary prisoner and earned his ticket of leave (a sort of limited furlough). He even kept a house in Fremantle and took lodgers.

In May 1861, he threw every away every bit of good will and more by burgling another Fremantle home. A Mrs. Susan Harding awoke in the moonlight to find this invader looming over her bed — and he greeted her in that classic of convict argot, “Your money or your life.”

Mrs. Harding didn’t have any — in the words of her testimony on July 3:**

He repeatedly told me to “hush.” He took hold of me by the arm and pulled my hair about, and then pulled the bed clothes down, and felt about the bed. I was afraid he was about to commit some assault — he touched my night dress, not to move it, and then I got so dreadfully alarmed, that I jumped out of bed on the opposite side of the bed. I went to my looking-glass drawer, and took out a watch and chain, which I handed him, and prayed him to leave me.

Palin did so.

Although terrifying for Susan Harding, the encounter did not result in any injury; as Palin’s boot-prints were easily followed back to his own house, even her watch and chain were recovered. To send this offender to the gallows seemed like a punishment out of the wrong century, as Perth’s Inquirer and Commercial News editorialized (June 10):

Burglary attended with violence, however brutal that violence might be, so long as it did not result fatally, is not punished with death in the United Kingdom.

… What was the violence on this occasion? Catching hold of the arm of the principal witness; and it does not appear from the evidence that even the grasp was violent, nor was it necessary to be so according to the acceptation of the meaning of the word laid down for us. It was propounded by the Chief Justice that, strictly speaking, merely laying a hand upon a person, under such circumstances, constituted violence. Is this truly the spirit of the law? …

Palin might have taken everything in that house, yet he would not have been hung. He might have threatened with the presumed pistol, have gesticulated, have stormed and terrified the occupant of the chamber almost to the verge of insanity, and yet he would not have been hung, but he touched her arm, and death is the penalty. There is something horrible in this. But there is something more fearful still when we further look into the matter and find that had he committed any enormity, even to the shedding of blood, he could not have had awarded to him a more extreme measure of punishment. …

[It is our] fervent hope that never again may the pages of our Colonial History be inscribed with so terrible a record; that never again will it be our province to allude to an event of so dreadful a character as that which has lately passed away.

The fervent hope was realized. In the only other case where Ordinance 17 Victoria Number 7 was used to secure a death penalty for an ordinarily non-capital crime, the sentence was commuted.

* As of this writing, Wikipedia avers July 6. References from 1861 newspapers make it clear that this is erroneous. (example, another).

** Yes, that’s six days before the execution occurred.

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1861: The Bascom Affair hangings, Apache War triggers

Add comment February 19th, 2015 Headsman

The retaliatory executions a U.S. Army lieutenant carried out on this date in 1861 helped set in motion a decade-long war with the Apaches.

Three years out of West Point and brand new to Arizona’s Fort Buchanan, George Bascom in retrospect was probably not the ideal ambassador to send out with orders to retrieve a young half-Apache boy kidnapped from a ranch by an Indian raid. (Along with all the cattle.)

Since nobody was present at the time, the identity of the raiders just wasn’t known — but someone’s suspicions affixed on the wily and dangerous* Chiricahua warrior Cochise. The Chiriachuas were just one group among the Apache peoples; they ranged from Mexico to southeastern New Mexico and southwestern Arizona, and were divided into many small local groups each with their own leader — like Cochise.

Lt. Bascom would be killed in a Civil War engagement a year after the events in this post without leaving posterity his memoirs, so his understanding of Apache society can only be guessed at. But his on-the-make bullheadedness is universal to every time and place where young men can be found. “Bascom was a fine-looking fellow, a Kentuckian, a West Pointer, and of course a gentleman,” Arizona frontiersman Charles Poston later remembered. “But he was unfortunately a fool.”


Lt. Bascom and Cochise.

The greenhorn lieutenant rode out with 54 cavalrymen to Apache Pass and lured Cochise to a confabulation. Cochise showed up with his brother, wife, and children — clearly expecting some sort of social call.

Cochise was entirely unaware of the kidnapping, and unaware that Bascom considered him the kidnapper. He offered to find out about it and retrieve the boy from whomever had him.

Bascom, whose troops had surrounded the tent during the parley, accused Cochise of lying to him. Cochise had twice the impertinent lieutnant’s years and at least that multiple of Bascom’s sense, and must have been affronted by his opposite number’s behavior — but when Bascom announced that he would be taking Cochise and his companions as prisoners pending the return of the raiders’ spoils, the Apache commander whipped a knife out of its sheath and instantly slashed his escape route through the wall of the tent. Bursting past the shocked troops (they were as inexperienced as their officer), Cochise escaped into the twilight. This “Bascom Affair” (to Anglos) is remembered more evocatively by Apaches as “Cut Through The Tent”.

But the tent-knifing was only the start of it.

Cochise’s party did not manage to follow his escape, so Bascom now held Cochise’s brother, wife, son, and two other warriors. The Apache tried to put himself in a negotiating position by seizing hostages of his own — first a Butterfield stagecoach stationmaster named Wallace, and later three white men seized from a passing wagon train.

Nor were the hostages’ the only lives at stake. Cochise’s band, including the soon-to-be-legendary Geronimo, had assembled and their campfires burned menacingly in the hills around the little stage station where Bascom’s force fortified themselves. Bascom could have defused it all with a hostage swap, but the kid had his orders and stubbornly refused to make the trade unless it included the one hostage Cochise didn’t have: that little boy from the ranch.

At length, reinforcements for the beleaguered cavalry began arriving, one such party bringing three other Apaches captured en route and entirely unrelated to Cochise. “Troops were sent out to search for us,” a much older Geronimo recalled in his memoirs. “But as we had disbanded, it was, of course, impossible for them to locate any hostile camp … while they searched we watched them from our hiding places and laughed at their failures.”

Despairing now of seeing his family again, Cochise had his hostages killed and dispersed, leaving the mutilated remains to be discovered by his antagonists with the help of circling buzzards. When they did so, they retaliated in fury — releasing only Cochise’s wife and child, but hanging the six other hostages, including Cochise’s brother. In the narration of Sgt. Daniel Robinson,

After witnessing the fiendish acts committed by the Apaches, the minds of our officers and men were filled with horror, and in retaliation, it was decided in Council, that the captive Indians should die. On the 19th we broke camp to return to our respective posts leaving a Sergeant and eight men to take charge of the station until relieved. We halted about half a mile from the station where there was a little grove of Cedar trees. The Indians were brought to the front with their hands tied behind their backs, and led up to the trees. Noosed picket ropes were placed around their necks, the ends thrown over the limbs of the trees and manned by an equal number of willing hands. A signal was given and away flew the spirits of the unfortunate Indians — not to the happy hunting grounds of Indian tradition. According to their ideas or belief in a hereafter, those who die by hanging can never reach that region of bliss. I was in an ambulance with the other Sergeant, and must confess it was a sad spectacle to look upon. An illustration of the Indians sense of Justice: “That the innocent must suffer for the guilty.” And the white man’s notion — “That the only good Indians are dead ones.” Whatever it may be, I do not think it was much worse than the present policy of penning them up on Reservations and starving them to death. (See Cochise: Firsthand Accounts of the Chiricahua Apache Chief.)

A devastating decade-long war against Cochise and his equally able father-in-law Mangas Coloradas ensued, and right when the army most needed its military resources for the Civil War. The conflict claimed hundreds or thousands of lives, crippled mining and ranching, and depopulated fearful white settlements around Apache country in favor of “gravestones … by the road-side like sentinels, bearing the invariable description ‘Killed by the Apaches'”.

A fort near the Texas border was later named for Bascom. The kidnapped boy was never recovered and grew up in a different Apache tribe.

The events of, and following, the Bascom Affair were depicted on the silver screen in the 1950 Jimmy Stewart western Broken Arrow and its 1952 prequel Battle at Apache Pass — among many other cinematic adaptations.


Tom Jeffords (Jimmy Stewart): “Cochise didn’t start this war! A snooty little lieutenant fresh out of the east started it. He flew a flag of truce which Cochise honored, and then he hanged Cochise’s brother and five others under the flag.”

* Cochise was officially at peace with the Americans at this point and hostile to Mexicans. In “Cochise: Apache War Leader, 1858-1861,” in the Journal of Arizona History (Spring 1965), Barbara Ann Tyler argues that the reality of the situation was that his warband flexibly shifted between temporary peace and opportunistic small raids, moving north and south of the Mexican border as convenient.

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1861: Christopher Haun, potter and incendiarist

1 comment December 11th, 2012 Headsman

Christopher Alexander (“Alex”) Haun was perhaps the finest potter in antebellum Tennessee. He never had the chance to become the finest in post-bellum Tennessee because he was hanged in Knoxville this date in 1861 as an incendiarist.

While Tennessee seceded with the Confederacy in the U.S. Civil War, East Tennessee was a Union stronghold. This was the native soil of pro-Union “War Democrat” (and future U.S. President) Andrew Johnson.

Soon after the war began, Unionist east Tennesseans started slipping over the border to northern-controlled Kentucky, where they hatched a plot to burn railroad bridges throughout East Tennessee.

Hand of Bridge

Besides being good fun, the conspiracy promised an effectual blow against the Confederacy inasmuch as the East Tennessee & Virginia and East Tennessee & Georgia lines constituted the South’s most reliable rail and telegraph link between its capital at Richmond, Va., and the Deep South. This plan’s author, Rev. William Carter, went to Washington and had his scheme personally approved by President Abraham Lincoln, Secretary of State William Seward, and Gen. George McClellan.

The rest of the plan called for the Union army to invade East Tennessee on the heels of the bridge-burnings and occupy the area. Just a few months before, McClellan’s troops had similarly occupied the pro-Union western mountains of secessionist Virginia, which is why there’s a state of West Virginia today.

But there’s no state of East Tennessee, is there?

The bridge-burning conspiracy would go down as one of the great, failed guerrilla operations of the war.

Burning Your Bridges

With authorization straight from the top, the conspirators got going. A Captain David Fry** was tasked with targeting the Lick Creek bridge, located in northeastern Tennessee† near the settlement of Pottertown, so named for the ceramics craftsmen attracted to the area’s excellent clay.

After dark fell on Nov. 8, 1861, the local Union sympathizers recruited to the plot — Christopher Haun among them — gathered at the house of a local landowner, Jacob Harmon, Jr. There they took a dramatic lantern-lit oath on the Union flag, each to “do what was ordered of him that night and to never disclose what he had done.”

Then a party of some 40 to 60 mounted raiders stole out for the Lick Creek bridge two miles distant.

Around 2 a.m., they overpowered the small Confederate sentry detail assigned to Lick Creek, and forced the sentries to watch as they fired the bridge. That same night, several other parties elsewhere along the line all the way down to Alabama also burned, or tried to burn railroad bridges and cut telegraph lines.

These “deep-laid schemes … by an organization of Lincolnite traitors” (as the Knoxville Register accounted matters) brought a predictably furious Confederate response — and the audacious saboteurs would discover only after the fact that the planned East Tennessee invasion had been aborted by William T. Sherman without alerting his pyrotechnic fifth-column allies.

A Bridge Too Far

Within three days of the “treason,” East Tennessee had been clapped under martial law. A number of bridge-burners were also arrested (although many others escaped), and here the Lick Creek men would pay dearly for their recklessly humane decision to release their captured sentries. (pdf) As a result, several of them were captured in the days following their attack.

Confederate Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin had a ruthless order for East Tennessee’s military authorities.

I now proceed to give you the desired instruction in relation to the prisoners of war taken by you among the traitors of East Tennessee.

First. All such as can be identified in having been engaged in bridge-burning are to be tried summarily by drum-head court-martial, and, if found guilty, executed on the spot by hanging. It would be well to leave their bodies hanging in the vicinity of the burned bridges. [emphasis added]

Second. All such as have not been so engaged are to be treated as prisoners of war, and sent with an armed guard to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, there to be kept imprisoned at the depot selected by the Government for prisoners of war.

Two men, William Hinshaw (often called “Hensie” in the period’s reports) and Henry Fry, were condemned by such a tribunal on Nov. 30 and immediately hanged — their bodies left exposed at the Greeneville Station for a day or more, until the stench became overpowering.

Haun was condemned on Dec. 10.‡ Confederate Brigadier General William H. Carroll telegraphed Benjamin for Jefferson Davis‘s confirmation of sentence.

The court-martial has sentenced A.C. Haun [sic], bridgeburner, to be hung. Sentence approved. Ordered To be executed at 12 o’clock tomorrow. Requires the approval of the President. Please telegraph.

Benjamin replied within hours, telling Carroll to make with the noosing.

Execute the sentence of your court-martial on the bridge-burners. The law does not require any approval by the President, but he entirely approves my order to hang every bridge-burner you can catch and convict.


Haun takes leave of his pregnant wife and four children before execution. Illustration from this 1862 propaganda volume by the Unionist publisher of the Knoxville Whig.

Six days after Haun hanged at Knoxville, the landowner who hosted the conspirators, Jacob Harmon, also went to the gallows, along with his son Henry. It seems someone in the incendiary party had carelessly dropped the name “Harmon” in conversation while the bridge sentries were in custody within earshot.

(Several others only narrowly avoided execution, or lynching, for the conspiracy. Given hundreds of other arrests of even merely suspect East Tennesseans and the very nasty feelings engendered by the Unionists’ attempt, it’s something of a wonder that only five were executed.)

Water Under the Bridge

Today, the Harmons are buried at Pottertown Harmon Historic Cemetery in rural Green County, Tenn., where a hexagonal monument commemorates all five executees (with an extra panel for summary text). There’s an annual ceremony there to commemorate the East Tennessee bridge burners.

Or, pay your respects any time by using the cemetery as the trailhead for the Civil War Bridge Burners’ Bike Ride (pdf). You’ll find the spot just off Bridge Burners Blvd.


View Larger Map

All the hanged incendiarists were posthumously enrolled in Company F of the 2nd Tennessee by Congress in 1862, a gesture of appreciation which also conferred on their heirs the right to survivors’ benefits.

In addition to the resources linked here, see Donahue Bible’s “Shattered like earthen vessels,” Civil War Times, Dec. 1997.

* Later to become the East Tennessee, Virginia & Georgia Railway, and then the Southern Railway, and then a big band hit.

**The intrepid Captain Fry would escape immediate capture, gather a few hundred Unionists as a guerrilla band, and eventually get caught, sent to Georgia, and condemned to death as a spy. Fry escaped by breaking out on the eve of his Oct. 15 hanging, in the company of some of the men arrested for the Great Locomotive Chase. He rejoined Union forces, was captured again, and survived the war, finally dying in 1872 … when he was hit by a train.

† The other bridges successfully torched by the conspiracy included two over the Chickamauga in southeastern Tennessee, and the theme of Civil War bridge-burning in that sector can’t help but suggest Ambrose Bierce’s “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”. (The other details are nothing alike, so Bierce’s story clearly isn’t about this incident.)

‡ The railroad bridge at Lick Creek was back in action by this time.

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1861: Anton Petrov, of Bezdna

3 comments May 1st, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1861,* a peasant rebel was shot for demanding a little too much emancipation.

The scene is a village — aptly named Bezdna, which is Russian for abyss — in the Kazan Province, and the time is the critical reign of tsar Alexander II.

This reformer, who ascended the throne in 1855, saw his historic task as modernizing and liberalizing Europe’s most backward great power (fresh off a salutary clock-cleaning at British hands in the Crimean War). Ultimately, he wouldn’t advance Russia’s feudal despotism far enough, fast enough before revolutionaries murdered him, and his descendants suffered the consequences.

Here in 1861, all that bloodshed remains many years to the future, and a young Alexander is reordering Russia with the landmark emancipation of the serfs.


Reading the Manifesto, by Boris Kustodiev. (Also see this version)

Big. Change.

But, you didn’t really think the power and property interests that nobles held in their serfs were just going to be thrown over willy-nilly, did you?

Quite the contrary. Emancipated serfs got small plots of land** along with obligations to pay off their lords, restrictions on using lands designated to aristocrats, and new bureaucracies to answer to. In short, this wasn’t exactly the freedom of the open road. This was swapping an old set of onerous legal encumbrances for a new set. Sort of tsarist Russia’s 40 acres and a mule moment.

The Bezdna unrest started when a charismatic local peasant named Anton Petrov started convincing his neighbors that the the local officials interpreting the new reforms were lying, and that volya, a true open-ended liberty, had been proclaimed. One should bear in mind here that most serfs were illiterate, and both depended upon and distrusted the legal interpretations bandied about by literate country squires who also happened to be directly interested parties in the law they were announcing. Russia had some issues.

Some form of this grumbling must have been common throughout the Empire, but in Bezdna it became even more serious than that. Transported by Petrov’s “perverse interpretation” of the law, emancipated serfs refused to fulfill their alleged obligations to nobles or recognize the legal authorities who were those nobles’ handmaidens.


Klavdy Lebedev‘s painting of Alexander II personally announcing emancipation to serfs. Maybe it’s a good thing he didn’t actually do that.

This experience of volya was as short-lived as it was intoxicating. Within days, troops arrived to “emancipate” the peasantry properly.

On April 12 (April 24 by the “New Style” Gregorian calendar), thousands of unarmed and peaceful ex-serfs were confronted by a detachment of the Russian army. According to a report to the Minister of Internal Affairs translated and excerpted in Daniel Field’s Rebels in the Name of the Tsar, the troops demanded Petrov’s surrender — but

the people kept replying the same thing: “We will not surrender him, we are united for the tsar, you will be shooting at the Sovereign Alexander Nikolaevich himself.” The soldiers, drawn up in ranks, made five or six volleys; they shot the first few without aiming, so that at a distance of 300 paces [only] three or four men fell, but then they became outraged by the peasants’ stubbornness, and hit with every shot on the fourth volley. The poor people stood motionless like a wall and continued to shout, “We will not yield, it is the tsar’s blood that is flowing, you are shooting at the tsar.” After the last volley they wavered and fled, and then Anton Petrov appeared, holing the [Emancipation] Statute on his forehead, and was arrested.

It must have been a riveting spectacle, to see this peaceable and resolute mass of humans fired by the promise of freedom, absorbing volley after volley from their savior tsar’s own foot soldiers. Well over 50 civilians died.

These people, at least, did not endure the last volley of a judicial massacre. Petrov only was punished, lashed to a telegraph pole and shot in public.

Publishing from exile in England, Russia socialist Alexander Herzen lamented the martyred serfs’ suicidal adherence to that venerable myth of the good tsar.

If only my words could reach you, toiler and sufferer of the land of Russia!… How well I would teach you to despise your spiritual shepherds, placed over you by the St. Petersburg Synod and a German tsar…. You hate the landlord, you hate the official, you fear them, and rightly so; but you still believe in the tsar and the bishop … do not believe them. The tsar is with them, and they are his men. It is him you now see — you, the father of a youth murdered in Bezdna, and you, the son of a father murdered in Penza…. Your shepherds are as ignorant as you, and as poor…. Such was another Anthony (not Bishop Anthony, but Anton of Bezdna) who suffered for you in Kazan…. The dead bodies of your martyrs will not perform forty-eight miracles, and praying to them will not cure a tooth ache; but their living memory may produce one miracle — your emancipation.

* The officer sent to suppress the revolt reported that “the military court passed sentence on April 17, I confirmed it the same day, and it was carried out on the 19th” — referring to the Julian dates, which correspond to April 29 and May 1, respectively. However, this is quoted by Field, who believes that officer is himself mistaken about the 19th; since I don’t have access to the primary documents which lead him to that conclusion, and all the secondary sourcing on the execution date is pretty squishy, I’m just going with the self-reported April 19/May 1 date.

** Serfs who hadn’t been working in agriculture were pretty well hosed: they got emancipation without the land.

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1861: William Johnson, impulse deserter

Add comment December 13th, 2011 Headsman

One hundred fifty years ago today, a now-long-forgotten deserter from the Union Army was shot in Washington, D.C. This sad event in the then-novel American Civil War received lavish coverage in the pages of Harper’s Weekly, which we reproduce below.

THE EXECUTION OF JOHNSON.

ON page 828 we illustrate the military execution of Johnson, who was shot at Washington for desertion on 13th. The culprit’s crime is clearly described in the following extract from his confession:


Contemporary illustration from Harper’s Weekly.

I had not the slightest intention of deserting up to a few minutes before I started in the direction of the enemy’s lines. The way I came to leave our army was this: I was on the outposts, and after dinner, when out watering my horse, I thought I would go to the first house on the Braddock road and get a drink of milk. When I rode up to the house I saw a man and a boy. I asked the man for some milk and he said he had none, and to my inquiry as to where I could get some, he said he did not know, except I should go some distance further on. I said I thought it would be dangerous to go far, and he remarked that none of the rebels had been seen in that vicinity for some time. It was then that I conceived the idea of deserting. I thought I could ride right up to the rebel pickets and inside the enemy’s line, go and see my mother in New Orleans, stay for a few weeks in the South, and then be able to get back to our regiment again, perhaps with some valuable information. I never had any idea of going over to the rebels, and as it is I would rather be hung on a tree than go and join the rebel army. I don’t see what under heaven put it into my head to go away. I acted from the impulse of the moment. When the man at the house said none of the enemy had been seen lately in that vicinity I asked where it was that the five rebels I had heard of had been seen some time ago, and he said it was at the round house on the left-hand side of the road. I asked him where the road led to. He said to Centreville, and so I went that way. Riding along on the Braddock road, some miles beyond our pickets, I suddenly came across Colonel Taylor, of the Third New Jersey regiment, with his scouting party. I thought they were the rebels, but at first was so scared that I did not know what to say. However, I asked him who they were, and he said they were the enemy. Said I to him, “I’m all right, then.” “Why so?” said he. “Because we are all friends,” said I; “I am rebel too—I want to go down to New Orleans to see my mother.” Then he asked me how our pickets were stationed. I told him two of our companies which had been out went in that day toward the camps. He asked if I thought he could capture any of them, and I told him I did not think he could. He asked why, and I replied that there were a number of mounted riflemen around. The head scout asked me what kind of arms the Lincoln men received, and at the same time said, “Let me see your pistol.” I handed him my revolver. Colonel Taylor took it, and cocking it, said to me, “Dismount, or I will blow your brains out!” I was so much frightened I thought my brains had been blown out already. 1 dismounted, delivered up my belt and sabre, while at the same time they searched my pockets, but there was nothing in them except a piece of an old New York Ledger, I believe. Then he tied my hands behind me, and sent me back to camp in charge of three men, besides another who took my horse.

He was duly tried by court-martial and found guilty. The sentence having been approved, it was ordered that it be carried into effect on 13th. The following extracts from the Herald report complete the melancholy history:

The spot chosen for the impressive scene was a spacious field near the Fairfax Seminary, a short distance from the camp ground of the division. The troops fell into line, forming three sides of a square, in the order designated in the programme, precisely at three o’clock P.M.

In the mean time the funeral procession was formed at the quarters of Captain Boyd, Provost Marshal of the Alexandria division, near the head-quarters of General Franklin. Shortly after three o’clock it reached the fatal field.

The Provost Marshal, mounted and wearing a crimson scarf across his breast, led the mournful cortege. He was immediately followed by the buglers of the regiment, four abreast, dismounted. Then came the twelve men—one from each company in the regiment, selected by ballot—who constituted the firing party. The arms—Sharp’s breech-loading rifle—had been previously loaded under the direction of the Marshal. One was loaded with a blank cartridge, according to the usual custom, so that neither of the men could positively state that the shot from his rifle killed the unfortunate man. The coffin, which was of pine wood stained, and without any inscription, came next, in a one-horse wagon. Immediately behind followed the unfortunate man, in an open wagon. About five feet six inches in height, with light hair and whiskers, his eyebrows joining each other, Johnson presented a most forlorn spectacle. He was dressed in cavalry uniform, with the regulation overcoat and black gloves. He was supported by Father M’Atee, who was in constant conversation with him, while Farther Willett rode behind on horseback. The rear was brought up by Company C of the Lincoln Cavalry, forming the escort.

Arriving on the ground at half past three o’clock, the musicians and the escort took a position a little to the left, while the criminal descended from the wagon. The coffin was placed on the ground, and he took his place beside it. The firing party was marched up to within six paces of the prisoner, who stood between the clergymen. The final order of execution was then read to the condemned.

While the order was being read Johnson stood with his hat on, his head a little inclined to the left, and his eyes fixed in a steady gaze on the ground. Near the close of the reading one of his spiritual attendants whispered something in his ear. Johnson had expressed a desire to say a few final words before he should leave this world to appear before his Maker. He was conducted close to the firing party, and in an almost inaudible voice spoke as follows: “Boys,—I ask forgiveness from Almighty God and from my fellow-men for what I have done. I did not know what I was doing. May God forgive me, and may the Almighty keep all of you from all such sin!”

He was then placed beside the coffin again. The troops were witnessing the whole of these proceedings with the intensest interest. Then the Marshal and the chaplains began to prepare the culprit for his death. He was too weak to stand. He sat down on the foot of the coffin. Captain Boyd then bandaged his eyes with a white handkerchief. A few minutes of painful suspense intervened while the Catholic clergymen were having their final interview with the unfortunate man. All being ready the Marshal waved his handkerchief as the signal, and the firing party discharged the volley. Johnson did not move, remaining in a sitting posture for several seconds after the rifles were discharged. Then he quivered a little, and fell over beside his coffin. He was still alive, however, and the four reserves were called to complete the work. It was found that two of the firing party, Germans, had not discharged their pieces, and they were immediately put in irons. Johnson was shot several times in the heart by the first volley. Each of the four shots fired by the reserves took effect in his head, and he died instantly. One penetrated his chin, another his left cheek, while two entered the brain just above the left eyebrow. He died at precisely a quarter to four o’clock.

The troops then all marched round, and each man looked on the bloody corpse of his late comrade, who had proved a traitor to his country.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Desertion,Execution,History,Military Crimes,Shot,Soldiers,USA,Wartime Executions,Washington DC

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1861: Sushun, by Empress Dowager Cixi

Add comment November 8th, 2011 Headsman

One hundred fifty years ago today, Qing China’s last great ruler, the Empress Dowager Cixi, having seized the helm of the state she would drive for 47 years, had her deposed predecessor executed.

Formally, China was being “ruled” at this time by the illustrious Tongzhi Emperor, age five.

This child’s old man, depressively self-medicating at the drubbing China was taking in the Second Opium War, had died young, leaving his only son the throne, in care of a council of regents.

As one of the late monarch’s key advisors, Sushun was among that eight-strong panel, and he was popularly regarded as the worst of the lot — vicious, drunken, spendthrift, and just the guy to blame (along with co-regents Zaiyuan and Duanhua) for all the vicious, drunken, and spendthrift stuff the deceased emperor had put his seal to. Or, just the sort of stories trumped up by the rivals of the man really steering the state. Either way is good.

The Empress Dowager Cixi (1905 photograph)

More perilous for Sushun was his burgeoning rivalry with “the Concubine Yi,” the master of harem politics and mother of the new boy-emperor. She had long distrusted the courtier.

Recast in both title and name with her lover’s passing, the woman now known as “Empress Dowager Cixi” was able to obstruct the regency’s policies. And she did one better than that, intrepidly allying with disgruntled princes to engineer a coup d’etat against Sushun’s faction.

The end of Sushun’s regency arrived within months, and transpired within days: less than a week separated Sushun’s liberty from his beheading in a vegetable market. (Striking a liberal pose, Cixi declined to have him put to death by lingchi.) Cixi’s side simply took him into custody, decreed his execution on the attainder of a secret committee, and speedily carried it out. Zaiyuan and Duanhua were ordered to commit suicide the same day.

“Surely,” wrote a British diplomat who had only barely avoided execution at the hands of the lately toppled regime, “we may trace the finger of God in these events, and trust that they augur well for the future of China … we yet may see peace or order return to this poor torn country.” Peace and order and a robust opium market, he meant.

But whatever the form, the poor torn country was in the hands of the Empress Dowager Cixi from here on in.

For a half-century, she would be the consummate survivor — but it was survival during an epoch of terminal decline for the Qing. Riven by conflicts within and without, the imperial system simply couldn’t adapt.

And when the cagey Empress Dowager finally died in her 73rd year, the whole enterprise came apart.

On her deathbed in 1908, Cixi named as emperor the toddler Puyi. A few years later, revolution ensured that Puyi would be the last person ever to hold that title.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,Heads of State,History,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Summary Executions

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1861: Not William Scott, the Sleeping Sentinel

3 comments September 9th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1861, Vermont private William Scott of the new-formed Army of the Potomac, then fortifying Washington D.C. for the unfolding Civil War in the aftermath of Bull Run, was led out for execution for having fallen asleep at his post.

The so-called Sleeping Sentinel took a sick comrade’s watch even though he himself was bushed, and … well, you know the rest.

Condemned for a dereliction of duty which “may endanger the safety of a command, or even of the whole army” (the words of the army’s commander Gen. McClellan), Scott still attracted widespread sympathy due to the obviously sympathetic nature of his situation. He was a youth new to war, with an exemplary military record outside of his forty winks.

“The American people,” reckoned the New York Times, “are quite unprepared to hear of a measure of such fearful and unwarned rigor as that which was awarded private SCOTT.”

Appeals went straight to the White House, which was conveniently located in the Army of the Potomac’s back yard, and freshman president Abraham Lincoln magnanimously spared the lad.

Still, wanting to use the case to impress military discipline upon the rabble of corn-fed conscripts, that clemency was delivered with a terrifyingly dramatic flourish. Scott was left to contemplate his last hours on the earth, and, Dostoyevsky-like, marched out to the stake ostensibly to face the firing squad. Only then did he and his fellow-soldiers hear the commutation order.*

This exhilarating climax did not long stay the hand of the Reaper, as it transpired.

Scott died in battle the following spring. In death he lives on, as befits the habitues of these pages: fellow Vermonter Lucius E. Chittenden, who was serving in the U.S. Treasury when all this sleeping sentinel stuff went down, commemorated William Scott for posterity in a subsequent entry to the merciful-Lincoln mythology, a postwar volume titled Lincoln and the Sleeping Sentinel.

The story was also made into a 1914 silent film, which sadly doesn’t seem to be available online: but never fear, this syrupy poem will amply represent our Sentinel’s contribution to the canon.

But God is love – and finite minds can faintly comprehend
How gentle Mercy, in His rule, may with stern Justice blend;
And this poor soldier, seized and bound, found none to justify,
While war’s inexorable law decreed that he must die.

‘Twas night. In a secluded room, with measured tread and slow,
A statesman of commanding mien paced gravely to and fro.
Oppressed, he pondered on a land by civil discord rent;
On brothers armed in deadly strife: it was the President!

The woes of thirty millions filled his burdened heart with grief;
Embattled hosts, on land and sea, acknowledged him their chief;
And yet, amid the din of war, he heard the plaintive cry
Of that poor soldier, as he lay in prison, doomed to die!

‘Twas morning. On a tented field, and through the heated haze,
Flashed back, from lines of burnished arms, the sun’s effulgent blaze;
While, from a somber prison house, seen slowly to emerge,
A sad procession, o’er the sward, moved to a muffled dirge.

And in the midst, with faltering step, and pale and anxious face,
In manacles, between two guards, a soldier had his place.
A youth, led out to die; and yet it was not death, but shame,
That smote his gallant heart with dread, and shook his manly frame!

Still on, before the marshalled ranks, the train pursued its way,
Up to the designated spot, whereon a coffin lay-
His coffin! And, with reeling brain, despairing, desolate-
He took his station by its side, abandoned to his fate!

Then came across his wavering sight strange pictures in the air:
He saw his distant mountain home; he saw his parents there;
He saw them bowed with hopeless grief, through fast declining years;
He saw a nameless grave; and then, the vision closed-in tears!

Yet once again. In double file, advancing, then, he saw
Twelve comrades, sternly set apart to execute the law-
But saw no more; his senses swam-deep darkness settled round-
And, shuddering, he awaited now the fatal volley’s sound!

Then suddenly was heard the sounds of steeds and wheels approach,
And, rolling through a cloud of dust, appeared a stately coach.
On, past the guards, and through the field, its rapid course was bent,
Till, halting, ‘mid the lines was seen the nation’s President!**

He came to save that stricken soul, now waking from despair;
And from a thousand voices rose a shout which rent the air!
The pardoned soldier understood the tones of jubilee,
And, bounding from his fetters, blessed the hand that made him free!

A few letters from Scott’s own hand are preserved here. A (defunct) mini-blog exploring the case in detail can be perused here.

* There was actually American precedent for this sort of stagey non-execution in a case from the War of 1812.

** Obviously, Lincoln did not actually bring his presidential person to the execution grounds to issue this pardon in the flesh: in fact, the presiding officer on-site simply read out the pardon: “the President of the United States has expressed a wish that as this is the first condemnation to death in this army for this crime, mercy may be extended to the criminal.”

Part of the Themed Set: Americana.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Last Minute Reprieve,Milestones,Military Crimes,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Public Executions,Shot,Soldiers,U.S. Military,USA,Virginia,Wartime Executions,Washington DC

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1861: Francisco del Rosario Sanchez

1 comment July 4th, 2011 Headsman

This is the sesquicentennial of the execution of Dominican Republic independence hero Francisco del Rosario Sanchez.

Statue of Sanchez at the image (cc) PBT Foto

The biggest name in the Dominican Republic’s successful separation from Haiti is generally reckoned to be liberal visionary Juan Pablo Duarte, but he’d been exiled to Venezuela by 1843.

In his absence, the republican cause coalesced around the 26-year-old Sanchez — who was saluted as chief of the government junta by the rebels whose February 27, 1844* seizure of Ozama Fortress commenced the victorious Dominican War of Independence. This makes him kinda-sorta the first head of state for his country.

This circumstance returned Duarte from exile, but the latter lost the ensuing presidential election to rancher Pedro Santana, who steered the country towards Spanish annexation as a hedge against Haitian recapture. Santana re-exiled Duarte, and booted Sanchez as well. Ironically, he had to take refuge in Haiti.

If the evil seek pretexts to sully my conduct, we respond with a charge saying loudly, but without boasting, that I am the Dominican flag.

-Sanchez

His attempt to invade the Dominican Republic to prevent the Spanish takeover quickly foundered, and within weeks of his capture he was shot at San Juan de la Maguana.**

Just a couple of years later, a different revolt achieved the same objective. Their successors in the independent Dominican Republic continue to honor Francisco del Rosario Sanchez as one of the nation’s foremost visionaries.

His son, Gen. Juan Francisco Sanchez, went on to become the country’s Minister of Foreign Affairs.

* February 27 is the Dominican Republic’s Independence Day.

** He was the second member of his family executed by Pedro Santana: a province of the Dominican Republic is named for his sister, the independence movement’s first female martyr.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Dominican Republic,Execution,Famous,Heads of State,History,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Power,Revolutionaries,Shot

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1861: Paula Angel … but why?

8 comments April 26th, 2009 Headsman

Thanks to Laura James for the guest post, which originally appeared on her outstanding blog CLEWS Nov. 9, 2005. Laura’s first book, The Love Pirate and the Bandit’s Son, hits the shelves on May 5.

It’s not clear today how old she was — nineteen, maybe, or twenty-six, or twenty-seven — the reports all differ. It’s not even clear what her true name was: Paula Angel by most accounts, but she was also called Pablita Martin. But the most pressing questions, still unanswered nearly 150 years after her execution, are why she was hanged in the first place and how the sheriff managed to bungle the job so badly.

Paula Angel was the first and last woman ever executed in New Mexico (while it was yet a territory). Her crime: she stabbed her married lover, Juan Miguel Martin, to death when he tried to end their affair. Her execution was on April 26, 1861, in San Miguel, now Las Vegas.

Anyone familiar with historical crimes and trials, particularly those involving women, will marvel at such an outcome. A capital conviction for stabbing a lover, a crime passionel? That’s certainly not the outcome one would expect for that era (or this era, for that matter; today we’d label it second-degree murder at worst).

One explanation for Miss Angel’s hanging is that the newspapermen never got the story. Decades later, the wire services circulated very brief accounts of her trial and execution under headlines such as “The Story The Newspapers Missed.” So she may well have lacked the greatest champion anyone facing a murder charge can have: public opinion — the verdict of the greater jury. Throughout the nineteenth century, there was a universal revulsion for the execution of women, no matter what their crime, and judges and juries were anxious to find a reason to acquit a woman.

But the authorities in New Mexico Territory were eager to see her hanged. The accounts that survive today report that the jailer taunted her every day leading up to her execution — “I’m going to hang you until you’re dead, dead, dead,”* is the quote attributed to the sheriff.

What was her social status? Was she a prostitute? Was she a violent menace to the community? Had she committed other terrible acts? Was she unrepentant? Did she sullenly testify at her trial and put in a poor appearance on her own behalf? Most importantly, was she ugly? The accounts available today don’t say.

When it came time to launch Angel into eternity, the sheriff did not build a gallows. He selected a sturdy cottonwood tree outside of town. Paula Angel was driven there on a wagon, forced to ride on her own coffin to the site of her execution, which was witnessed by ranchers and townsmen. The sheriff fixed the rope to the tree, garlanded her with hemp, and then resumed his seat on the wagon and hawed the horses. But he’d made an error. He forgot to tie her hands behind her.

Paula Angel managed to get her fingers underneath the rope in a last pitiful effort to save her own neck, and she struggled on the end of the rope. It must have been an awful sight to see. The crowds surely voiced loud complaints. The sheriff was forced to put the wagon beneath her a second time, to cut her down, retie the rope amid the jeers and catcalls, properly secure her hands and feet, and to repeat the process. She did not survive her second hanging.

And there hasn’t been one woman executed in New Mexico since. Rarely has any woman from that state even faced the possibility, though a few years ago Linda Henning nearly became the second woman executed there — and she certainly deserved it. Fans of Court TV will recognize the name, since Court TV has rebroadcasted Henning’s bizarre trial more than once. She was tried for the cooly planned and bloody murder of Girly Chew Hossencofft, the estranged wife of her boyfriend, in one of the weirdest trials of the century. But the jury rejected the death penalty. The reason Henning agreed to involve herself in the murder of a woman she had not even met: Henning was convinced that Girly Chew was a reptilian alien queen from another galaxy.

You read that right: an alien queen from another galaxy. You can’t make this stuff up.

***

Recommended reading: Death on the Gallows : The Story of Legal Hangings in New Mexico, 1847-1923 by West Gilbreath (High Lonesome Books, 2002).

For the stories of the men executed in New Mexico see the excellent compilation by Mark Allan of the Angelo State University Library. [Note: link updated from Laura’s original post. -ed.]

For more on the Hossencofft case see the website of author Mark Horner.

* [Shades of Billy the Kid. Maybe it was something lawmen said to lend it that Wild West atmosphere. -ed.]

[Former New Mexico state historian Robert Torrez unpacks the Paula Angel story and reprints a corrido (folk ballad), “La Homicida Pablita” written by her cousin in Myth of the Hanging Tree. -ed.]

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Milestones,Murder,New Mexico,Other Voices,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Sex,USA,Women

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