1863: Zygmunt Padlewski, January Uprising rebel

Add comment May 15th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1863, Zygmunt Padlewski was shot for rebelling against the Russian empire.

A young St. Petersburg-trained tsarist officer with a patriotic bent — his father had taken part in the November [1830] Uprising against Russian domination — Padlewski (English Wikipedia entry | German | the surprisingly least detailed Polish) spent the early 1860s organizing revolutionary exiles in Paris.

He then put his neck where his mouth was by returning to Warsaw to agitate and, eventually, to assume the leadership of Polish rebels in that area during his own generation’s doomed revolution, the January [1863] Uprising.

Padlewski’s carriage was detained at a checkpoint when he tried to sneak back to Warsaw after a defeat, and his too-liberal bribes excited the suspicion of the Cossack sentries — who searched the traveler and discovered they had a man well worth the capturing.

He was shot at Plock, where a street and a school today bear his names (numerous other cities around Poland also honor Padlewski).

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1863: Spencer Kellogg Brown, Union spy

Add comment September 25th, 2017 Headsman

Spencer Kellogg Brown, a young Union spy during the U.S. Civil War, was hanged on this date in 1863 in the rebel capital of Richmond, Virginia.

Brown would come by the latter years of his short life to commonly drop his surname and simply go by Spencer Kellogg: this was fruit of the same cause for his enthusiasm for the northern cause, to wit, his growing to manhood in Osawatomie, the antislavery epicenter of the dirty frontier war known as “Bleeding Kansas”. But the thing about the name was, notwithstanding Kellogg’s/Brown’s enthusiasm for the Free State side, the surname he chanced to share with the ferocious abolitionist warrior John Brown was liable to get a body killed when uttered in the wrong company. (There was no blood relationship between Spencer Brown and John Brown.)

Spencer Kellogg Brown was just a teenager when he joined the Union army but the pell-mell ramp-up to war footing opened opportunities for able people. Brown rose out of the enlisted ranks to an officer’s commission and was detailed for risky scouting assignments into rebel territory down the Mississippi River, even feigning desertion so that he could enlist in the Confederate ranks and then escape back to his own lines with intelligence. Execution was an occupational hazard of this daring profession; eventually, young Brown was captured one too many times.

This public domain volume summarizes the man’s short biography, including many affectionate letters that Brown exchanged with family in the course of his adventures and his subsequent year-long imprisonment. If you like, you can imagine them in that Ken Burns documentary portentous voice-over reading.

Castle Thunder, Richmond, Virginia, Sept. 18, 1863.

Dear Kitty, my Sister: After lying in prison over a year, my time has come at last. To-day I went out for trial, but got it deferred until to-morrow. The witnesses are there, and there can be but one result, death. So I have written to you for all, to bid you a last good-bye, God bless you, I have tried to write often to cheer all, and it seemed very hopeful for a while, but within a few days all hope has left me. But don’t mourn, Kitty, as for one without hope. These only take away the mortal life, but God, I trust, has given me one that is immortal. Dear Kitty, I hope there is a ‘shining shore’ for us all, and another world where, free from guilt, we’ll no more sorrow, or part. I do not look forward with fear to death — not nearly as much as when it was farther off. God has been very kind to me, and for the past twelve months I have tried earnestly to please Him. I fear the embarrassment of the trial, to-morrow, the worst, but He will help me, I trust.

I have some little trinkets; you must divide them. The ring is for my wife; if she be not found, for yourself. Take comfort now, dear ones, God is good, and naught shall separate us from Him. I have hoped and longed, indeed, to see you all; but I know His wisdom chooses better; let us be content. Thank Him that all this time He has given me life and health and a heart to love Him, and to trust in Christ. Much as I long to see you all, I know ’tis best as it is, for He doeth all things well. So do not mourn, but hope — and think of heaven, where I hope, by God’s mercy, to await you all.

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1863: Not Nathaniel Pruitt, reprieved deserter

Add comment June 10th, 2017 Headsman

On this date 150 years ago, according to Larry Daniel’s Soldiering in the Army of Tennessee, a middle-aged man was all set to be shot for deserting the Army of Tennessee, and the much-resented command of Gen. Braxton Bragg.

In a well-documented incident, a soldier received a reprieve as a result of a dramatic incident. Forty-seven-year-old Nathaniel Pruitt of the Nineteenth Tennessee was found guilty of desertion and on June 10, 1863, was taken to a field beside his regimental camp, his coffin placed beside an open grave. A minister cut a lock of hair to give to Pruitt’s wife. The firing squad was positioned and ordered to take aim, but just then an officer came galloping up with a special order to suspend the sentence. The prisoner began crying. “I was truly glad [of the reprieve], but must say some of the boys were disappointed,” a Mississippi diarist noted. Incredibly, the very next day, Pruitt again deserted and was never heard from again.

One takes the author’s point here about Pruitt’s risk-seeking second flight, but even so it might not really be all that “incredible” that one would desert the company of armed men who had recently shown open disappointment about being prevented from shooting one dead.

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1863: Lawrence Williams and Walter Peters, bold CSA spies

Add comment June 9th, 2017 Headsman

From the July 4, 1863 issue of Harper’s, as digitized by sonsofthesouth.net.

THE EXECUTION OF WILLIAMS AND PETERS.

We are indebted to Mr. James K. Magie, of the 78th Illinois Regiment, for the sketch of the execution of the two rebel spies, WILLIAMS and PETERS, who were hanged by General Rosecrans on 9th inst. The following account of the affair is from a letter written by the surgeon of the 85th Indiana:

HEADQUARTERS POST, FRANKLIN, TENNESSEE

Last evening about sundown two strangers rode into camp and called at Colonel Baird’s head-quarters, who presented unusual appearances. They had on citizens’ overcoats, Federal regulation pants and caps. The caps were covered with white flannel havelocks. They wore sidearms, and showed high intelligence. One claimed to be a colonel in the United States Army, and called himself Colonel Austin; the other called himself Major Dunlap, and both representing themselves as Inspector-Generals of the United States Army. They represented that they were now out on an expedition in this department, inspecting the outposts and defenses, and that day before yesterday they had been overhauled by the enemy and lost their coats and purses. They exhibited official papers from General Rosecrans, and also from the War Department at Washington, confirming their rank and business. These were all right to Colonel Bayard, and at first satisfied him of their honesty. They asked the Colonel to loan them $50, as they had no coats and no money to buy them. Colonel Baird loaned them the money, and took Colonel Austin’s note for it. Just at dark they started, saying they were going to Nashville, and took that way. Just so soon as their horses’ heads were turned the thought of their being spies struck Colonel Baird, he says, like a thunder-bolt, and he ordered Colonel Watkins, of the 6th Kentucky cavalry, who was standing by, to arrest them immediately. But they were going at lightning speed. Colonel Watkins had no time to call a guard, and only with his orderly he set out on the chase. He ordered the orderly to unsling his carbine, and if, when he (the Colonel) halted them they showed any suspicious motions, to fire on them without waiting for ano rder. They were overtaken about one-third of a mile from here. Colonel Watkins told them that Colonel Baird wanted to make some further inquiries of them, and asked them to return. This they politely consented to do, after some remonstrance on account of the lateness of the hour and the distance they had to travel, and Colonel Watkins led them to his tent, where he placed a strong guard over them. It was not until one of them attempted to pass the guard at the door that they even suspected they were prisoners. Colonel Watkins immediately brought them to Colonel Baird under strong guard. They at once manifested great uneasiness, and pretended great indignation at being thus treated. Colonel Baird frankly told them that he had his suspicions of their true character, and that they should, if loyal, object to no necessary caution. They were very hard to satisfy, and were in a great hurry to get off. Colonel Baird told them that they were under arrest, and he should hold them prisoners until he was fully satisfied that they were what they puported to be. He immediately telegraphed to General Rosecrans, and received the answer that he knew nothing of any such men, that there were no such men in his employ, or had his pass.

Long before this dispatch was received, however, every one who had an opportunity of hearing their conversation was well satisfied that they were spies. Smart as they were, they gave frequent and distinct evidence of duplicity. After this dispatch came to hand, which it did about 12 o’clock (midnight), a search of their persons was ordered. To this the Major consented without opposition, but the Colonel protested against it, and even put his hand to his arms. But resistance was useless, and both submitted. When the Major’s sword was drawn from the scabbard there were found etched upon it these words, “Lt. W.G. Peter, C.S.A.” At this discovery Colonel Baird remarked, “Gentlemen, you have played this damned well.” “Yes,” said Lieutenant Peter, “and it came near being a perfect success.” They then confessed the whole matter, and upon further search various papers showing their guilt were discovered upon their persons. Lieutenant Peter was found to have on a rebel cap, secreted by the white flannel havelock.

Colonel Baird immediately telegraphed the facts to General Rosecrans and asked what he should do, and in a short time received an order “to try them by a drum-head court-martial, and if found guilty hang them immediately.” The court was convened, and before daylight the case was decided, and the prisoners informed that they must prepare for immediate death by hanging.

At daylight men were detailed to make a scaffold. The prisoners were visited by the Chaplain of the 78th Illinois, who, upon their request, administered the sacrament to them. They also wrote some letters to their friends, and deposited their jewelry, silver cups, and other valuables for transmission to their friends.

The gallows was constructed by a wild cherry-tree not far from the depot, and in a very public place. Two ropes hung dangling from the beam, reaching within eight feet of the ground. A little after nine o’clock A.M. the whole garrison was marshaled around the place of execution in solemn sadness. Two poplar coffins were lying a few feet away. Twenty minutes past nine the guards conducted the prisoners to the scaffold — they walked firm and steady, as if unmindful of the fearful precipice which they were approaching. The guards did them the honor to march with arms reversed.

Arrived at the place of execution they stepped upon the platform of the cart and took their respective places. The Provost Marshal, Captain Alexander, then tied a linen handkerchief over the face of each and adjusted the ropes. They then asked the privilege of bidding last farewell, which being granted, they tenderly embraced each other. This over, the cart moved from under them, and they hung in the air.

What a fearful penalty! They swung off at 9:30 — in two minutes the Lieutenant ceased to struggle. The Colonel caught hold of the rope with both hands and raised himself up at 3 minutes, and ceased to struggle at 5 minutes. At 6 minutes Dr. Forester, Surgeon 6th Kentucky Cavalry, and Dr. Moss, 78th Illinois Infantry, and myself, who had been detailed to examine the bodies, approached them, and found the pulse of both full and strong. At 7 minutes the Colonel shrugged his shoulders. The pulse of each continued to beat 17 minutes, and at 20 minutes all signs of life had ceased. The bodies were cut down at 30 minutes and encoffined in full dress. The Colonel was buried with a gold locket and chain on his neck. The locket contained the portrait and a braid of hair of his intended wife — her portrait was also in his vest pocket — these were buried with him. Both men were buried in the same grave — companions in life, misfortune, and crime, companions in infamy, and now companions in the grave.

I should have stated in another place that the prisoners did not want their punishment delayed; but, well knowing the consequences of their acts, even before their trial, asked to have the sentence, be it by hanging or shooting, quickly decided and executed. But they deprecated the idea of death by hanging, and asked for a communication of the sentence to shooting.

The elder and leader of these unfortunate men was Lawrence Williams, of Georgetown, D.C. He was as fine-looking a man as I have ever seen, about six feet high, and perhaps 30 years old. He was [a] son of Captain Williams, who was killed at the battle of Monterey. He was one of the most intellectual and accomplished men I have ever known. I have never known any one who excelled him as a talker. He was a member of the regular army, with the rank of captain of cavalry, when the rebellion broke out, and at that time was aid-de-camp and private secretary to General Winfield Scott. From this confidence and respect shown him by so distinguished a man may be judged his education and accomplishments. He was a first cousin of General Lee, commanding the Confederate army on the Rappahannock. Soon after the war began he was frank enough to inform General Scott that all his sympathies were with the South, as his friends and interests were there, and that he could not fight against them. As he was privy to all of General Scott’s plans for the campaign, it was not thought proper to turn him loose, hence he was sent to Governor’s Island, where he remained three months. After the first Bull Run battle he was allowed to go South, where he joined the Confederate army, and his subsequent history I have not been able to learn much about. He was a while on General Bragg‘s staff as Chief of Artillery, but at the time of his death was his Inspector-General. When he joined the Confederate army he altered his name, and now signs it thus: “Lawrence W. Orton, Col. City P.A.C.S.A.” — (Provisional Army Confederate States of America). Sometimes he writes his name “Orton,” and sometimes “Anton,” according to the object which he had in view. This we learn from the papers found on him. These facts in relation to the personal history of Colonel Orton I have gathered from the Colonel himself and from Colonel Watkins, who knows him well, they having belonged to the same regiment of the regular army — 2d U.S. Cavalry. Colonel Watkins, however, did not recognize Colonel Orton until after he had made himself known, and now mourns his apostasy and tragic fate.

The other victim of this delusive and reckless daring was Walter G. Peter, a lieutenant in the rebel army, and Colonel Orton’s adjutant. He was a tall, handsome young man, of about twenty-five years, that gave many signs of education and refinement.

Of his history I have been able to gather nothing. He played but a second part. Colonel Orton was the leader, and did all the talking and managing. Such is a succinct account of one of the most daring enterprises that men ever engaged in. Such were the characters and the men who played the awful tragedy.

History will hardly furnish its parallel in the character and standing of the parties, tne boldness and daring of the enterprise, and the swiftness with which discovery and punishment were visited upon them. They came into our camp and went all through it, minutely inspecting our position, works, and forces, with a portion of their traitorous insignia upon them; and the boldness of their conduct made their flimsy subterfuges almost successful.

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1863: The servile murderers of Isaac Strowd and John Lockhart

Add comment April 10th, 2017 Headsman

Scant appetite as North Carolinians showed for the Civil War, the alarm when two eminent white men of Orange County were murdered by their slaves within days of each other (and just days after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 stoked such alarm that, according to Unruly Women: The Politics of Social and Sexual Control in the Old South, several eminent white citizens sent personal appeals to governor Zebulon Vance to fast-track their condign judicial punishment lest lynch mobs handle them in more summary fashion.

Although the press clippings excerpted here imply five hangings, the Espy File registry records only four, omitting the man convicted not of murder but of accessory before the fact.


Thursday, February 26, 1863 N. C. ARGUS (Wadesborough, Anson County, NC)
-Hillsboro Recorder, 18th – Murder: On Thursday morning last, Mr. Isaac STROWD, living southwest of this place, near the Chatham lines, was killed by some negroes working with him who afterwards carried him about half a mile and buried him in an old field. His body was not found until Sunday morning. We understand one of the negroes has confessed that he killed him, but says that it was by accident. The negroes, four in number, two men and two women, were brought to this place on Monday, and lodged in jail.

Thursday, March 5, 1863 N. C. ARGUS (Wadesborough, Anson County, NC)
-Hillsboro Recorder – Another murder – Mr. John LOCKHART, a respectable citizen residing in the northeastern section of this county, was murdered on Tuesday of last week by three negroes in his employ – one belonging to him and two hired. The negroes have been lodged in jail in this place, to await their trial.

Thursday, March 26, 1863 N.C. ARGUS (Wadesborough, Anson County, NC)
-Hillsborough Recorder – Judge GILLIAM’S first Court was a Court of Oyer and Terminer held in this place. The first case brought on was the trial of America, Daniel and Solomon, three slaves, for the murder of Mr. John LOCKHART. America and Daniel were convicted of the murder. Solomon was an accessory before the fact … The next arraignment was Lucian and Allen, for the murder of Mr. Isaac STROWD … On Saturday night about 12 o’clock the Jury returned a verdict of guilty as to both. On Monday, the five criminals were brought to court for sentence. The judgment of the Court was that they be hung on Friday, the 10th day of April next.

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1863: William Ockold, the last hanged at Worcester

1 comment January 2nd, 2016 Headsman

This date in 1863 saw the last hanging ever at Worcester — that of a decrepit old drunk, William Ockold, either 69 or 70 years of age, who had beaten his wife to death in one of the brutal thrashings that had been a mainstay of their half-century of married life.

We’ll let the period’s press tell the tale.

Birmingham Daily Post November 10, 1862

On Saturday morning a shocking murder was committed at Hales Owen Street, Oldbury, and as might be expected, the inhabitants of that locality manifested no small interest in the matter.

The facts, so far as we have been enabled to ascertain at present are as follow: — William Ockold, tailor, in his 70th year, and his wife, Sophia Ockold, aged seventy-three, lived together in the above-named street. They lived in a very poor way, and were known to indulge together in intoxicating drinks.

For a few days prior to Saturday last Mrs. Ockold was unwell, but not confined to her bed; and at about a quarter past nine on the morning in question a young woman, named Maria Glazebrook, aged about nineteen or twenty years, went into the house to enquire as to Mrs. Ockold’s health. The young woman was very intimate with the Ockolds, and though not related to them, she called them respectively “grandfather” and “grandmother.” She is a domestic servant at the George and Dragon public house, in Hales Owen Street.

When she went to Ockold’s house she asked him how “grandmother” was.

He replied, “I don’t know.”

The girl then said, “Where is she? Is she in bed?”

Ockold made answer, “I suppose she is.”

The girl then noticed that there was some blood upon Ockold, and she said to him “Laws, grandfather, how did that come there?” and he said, “I have given the old woman a punch or two.”

The girl then went to the foot of the stairs, and called out “grandmother,” and, receiving no answer, she asked Ockold if his wife was asleep. She again called at the foot of the stairs two or three times, and still receiving no answer, she said she would go upstairs. Ockold told her she must not; but he did not get up to prevent her doing so, but continued as he had been during the time of the ialogue given above, working on the board. She, however, said “I will go up,” and went upstairs accordingly.

Here a shocking spectacle presented itself to the view of the affrighted girl. The body of Mrs. Ockold was stretched upon the floor, covered with blood, life being quite extinct.

The girl screamed out, and ran down stairs, exclaiming, “Why, grandfather, you have killed her.”

He said “Her ain’t dead, is her?” and the girl replied “She is, though.”

She then ran out of the house, and fetched in some neighbours, Mr. Weston, butcher, who lives next door, with his wife, being the first to come into the house. In the meantime Ockold went upstairs, took up the body of his murdered wife, and laid it upon the bed.

The police were then communicated with, and Sergeant Simmons was speedily in attendance.

By the time he arrived the news of the sad affair had spread rapidly through the town, and a crowd of from 200 to 300 persons had assembled. Mr. Simmons went into the house, and saw the old man standing in the chimney corner apparently careless of what was going on around.

The officer went upstairs, and briefly examined the body of deceased, observing that the face was covered with blood, and that one of the eyes presented the appearance of having been battered in. He came downstairs, and then observed that there was blood all the way down …

No one saw the murder committed, yet the facts are so concise and significant that there exists not the slightest doubt as to how and when it was done. When the body was found life had not been extinct more than an hour or two, and the heart was still warm. It is supposed that Ockold had been at work al night, that he had been disagreeing with his wife, and that in a moment of passion he committed the awful crime.

There are rumours abroad that deceased and his wife were heard having high words at four o’clock on the morning of the murder, and the police-constable on duty heard him cursing her at about that time. Another rumour is that the old woman was heard begging for mercy at about the hour named. A broken mopstick was found in the pantry by Sergeant Simmons, and this leads to the suggestion that the prisoner broke it over the head of his victim. Deceased and her husband were well known in the parish, the latter for certain peculiarities of conduct in working all night and playing all day. They frequently went out together drinking, and used to return home arm in arm, the worse for what they had taken.

The prisoner had half-a-pint of beer at six o’clock on the morning of the murder. There is some pretence that he was very much vexed at his wife for having been drinking with another man; but this seems to be too ridiculous a notion to be entertained seriously, especially as deceased had been very unwell for two or three days prior to her death …


Birmingham Daily Post, December 15, 1862

WORCESTER WINTER ASSIZES

Mr. Benson proceeded to the task of defending the prisoner. The learned counsel, in a powerful speech, contended, first that there could not have been any motive on the part of the prisoner to murder his wife. It had been shown that for almost half a century the deceased had shared the humble bed and board of the prisoner, and in the manner of the rough part of the country in which they lived, they lived in terms of conjugal love and fellowship …

That the wife fell by the hand of her husband he would at once concede, but arguing upon the absence of motive, of malice, or forethought, the learned counsel, contended that the crime of the prisoner was not greater than the crime of manslaughter, and asked the Jury to spare the prisoner the few short years which Providence might still allot to him, and not send his tottering feet to the gallows, and leave a gibbet over the prison gate as a legacy of their labours that day.

There was no doubt that on the night when the woman met her fearful death, the husband and wife were quarrelling, and the man made use of passionate words, which would in all probability be met with taunting words by his wife … The man had gone upstairs to get his wife from bed, and used the violence which had caused her death in a moment of passion; he appeared indifferent the next morning when asked where his wife was, for the simple reason that he in ungoverned anger had thrown his wife down without knowing that he had hurt her. He was callous, harsh, brutal if they would, but not guilty of murder and malice aforethought. The learned counsel went into a careful and searching analysis of the evidence offered on behalf of the prosecution, and concluded by an eloquent appeal to the Jury for the life of the old man at the bar.

The learned Judge then proceeded to sum up to the Jury, and charged them to disabuse their minds of all compassion and indignation, and return a verdict which would be a just one. He carefully stated to the Jury the facts which had been brought before them, and fully explained the law of the case.

The Jury then retired, and after an absence of an hour returned into Court. The prisoner was brought up from the cell and again placed at the bar. The indifferent look which he had borne during the trial was now passed away, and his twitching lips and moistening eye showed the state of his feelings.

Amid solemn silence the Foreman of the Jury said that they had found the prisoner guilty, but desired to recommend him to mercy, on the ground that nothing had transpired during the trial which was adverse to his previous good character, and also on account of his extreme age.

The Clerk of Arraigns called upon the prisoner whether he had anything to say why sentence should not be pronounced upon him, and his lips moved as though he would have spoken, but the words died in his throat, and he stood calm and silent.

The learned Judge then assumed the black cap, and in a tremulous voice addressed the prisoner and said: William Ockold, you have been found guilty of this dreadful crime, the murder of your wife, to whom you had been married, by your own statement made to your son, near upon fifty years.

It is a most painful thing indeed to see a man at your advanced period of life, convicted of such a crime, and a crime committed against the wife whom you had sworn to love and cherish.

The Jury have recommended you to mercy. That recommendation I shall take care to transmit to the proper quarter. I have no power whatever to hold out any hopes to you; the power is entirely vested in the breast of the Sovereign, and it is only from her clemency that any possible mitigation of your sentence can proceed. What may be the course taken is not for me to say, and I should be deceiving you if I were to hold out hopes of any remission of the sentence.

I beseech you, therefore, by penitence and prayer to apply yourself to the Throne of Mercy, that you may obtain that mercy which you denied your poor ailing unfortunate wife, and that the short remainder of your days may be spent in preparation for the doom which awaits you, and the other Judge, before whom you will have to stand; and may God in his infinite mercy have mercy upon your soul.

His Lordship then passed sentence of death in the usual form, and the prisoner was removed from the dock.


Birmingham Daily Post, December 16, 1862

In the name of humanity as well as of justice, we feel bound to call attention to the case of William Ockold, found guilty and sentenced to death, on Saturday, at Worcester Assizes, for the murder of his wife.

The facts of the sad history may be very briefly told. Ockold, who is in his seventieth year, was a tailor at Oldbury, his wife, who was about the same age, assisting him in his business. They seem to have been very poor, and their means were still further reduced by their addiction to drinking. Drink led to its natural result, — frequent quarrels, accompanied by violence; and, indeed, the wretched pair seem to have led a sadly dissipated, wrangling, miserable kind of life — tolerably good-tempered when sober, but when drunk perpetually quarrelling. Several witnesses deposed to this — one of them adding that “the people round there [the place where Ockold lived] are very rough people.”

On the 7th of November Mrs. Ockold was ill — as one of the witnesses stated, “she was groaning very much and seemed in great pain.” Ockold, evidently disbelieving his wife’s illness, expressed great annoyance at having been kept awake by her groans during the previous night, and declared that she should not keep him awake again — evidently meaning that he would give her a beating.

In the night a policeman heard the wife groaning and the prisoner cursing her from the bottom of the stairs; but such noises being frequently heard upon his beat the officer took no further notice of them. On the morning of the 8th Mrs. Ockold was found dead in her bedroom, death having evidently resulted from blows inflicted on the head with a mopstick.

Ockold who was seated at work downstairs admitted at once that he had beaten his wife, but was evidently unconscious that the poor woman was dead. Dead, however, she was, manifestly killed by the blows inflicted by her husband.

On this evidence the Jury returned a verdict of wilful murder, coupled with a recommendation to mercy; but the Judge while promising to send the recommendation to the Home Office, held out no hope that it would be complied with.

We call attention to this case because while entirely assenting to the recommendation of the Jury, we dissent from the grounds on which their merciful conclusion was arrived at. The Jury endeavoured to save the life of the unhappy convict “because nothing had transpired during the trial which was adverse to his previous good character, and also on account of his great age.”

The latter reason is a good ground for abstaining from hanging this wretched old man, but the former, if acted upon, would free from punishment half the murderers who are arraigned at the bar of justice.

The strongest ground in favour of a remission of sentence is, we think, that urged by Mr. Benson, the prisoner’s counsel — that the prisoner was deeply irritated in a quarrel with his wife, that the blows were given in a moment of uncontrollable passion, without premeditation, and with no design to cause death; and therefore, that the offence was not murder but manslaughter.

With all respect for the Jury, we submit that the whole probabilities of the case favour this view, and that it is very hard to reconcile the incidents narrated by the witnesses with any other. The girl Glazebrook proved that Ockold did not believe in the reality of his wife’s illness, the policeman and a neighbour deposed to the occurrence of a quarrel in the night, and the demeanour of the prisoner next morning was perfectly consistent with the supposition that he meant to beat his wife, but did not mean to kill her. There was plenty of evidence to support this view of the case; but none at all to indicate the malicious motive and design which the law regards as the very essence of murder.

If we felt sure that the recommendation of the Jury would produce its effect we should not trouble our readers with these remarks. But we are inclined to think that some further effort may be needed to induce a reconsideration of the case; and as there is no time to spare, we urge some benevolent persons to take the matter in hand at once.

To hang a gray-headed man, who has nearly run out the period allotted to human life, would be bad enough under any circumstances; but it would be infinitely worse in a case like this where so much doubt hangs over the nature of the offence.

Even if he were guilty of murder, what would justice gain by hanging this wretched old man, already tottering on the brink of the grave, and so sunk in ignorance, so debased by constant association with scenes of violence that he scarcely knows the character or the consequences of his acts? In the “rough neighbourhoods” of the black country blows and curses are unhappily the commonest arguments of domestic life, and a passionate man living within constant sight and hearing of such teaching might easily carry his violence to a fatal issue, without the least intention either to kill his victim or to bring himself within the grasp of the law.

We have no doubt that this was Ockold’s case, and therefore we feel that, despite the serious nature of his crime, it would be a grievous perversion of justice to hang an old man, with the snows of seventy winters upon his head, for an offence which substantially does not amount at the utmost to more than aggravated manslaughter.


Aris’s Birmingham Gazette, December 27, 1862

THE CONDEMNED CONVICT, W. OCKOLD

Unless the sentence of death passed upon this old man at the late Worcestershire Assize, for the murder of his wife, is commuted, the dreadful spectacle of an execution will be witnessed in Worcester city on Friday next. A memorial to the Home Secretary, praying for a commutation of the sentence, has been got up, and there is a strong feeling that it will meet with success, and that the prisoner will not be hanged.


The Morning Post, January 01, 1863

THE CONDEMNED CONVICT OCKOLD

This wretched old man, now lying in Worcester county gaol, condemned to death for the murder of his wife at Oldbury, will, it seems, be executed.

Friday next is the day fixed for the execution, and workmen are already engaged in erecting the drop.

On Tuesday the following communication was received from the Home-office, in answer to a memorial sent up by the city magistrates, praying for some commutation of the sentence: —

Whitehall, Dec. 27, 1862.

Sir, — I am directed by Secretary Sir George Grey to acknowledge the receipt of a memorial presented by you from the mayor and magistrates of Worcester, on behalf of William Ockold, now under sentence of death for the murder of his wife.

Sir George Grey would have been very glad if he could have satisfied himself that there were sufficient grounds for complying with the prayer of this memorial, and of another which he had previously received, which prayed for the commutation of the sentence on the ground that the prisoner was not of sound mind when he killed his wife.

Of the latter allegation — which, indeed, is rather suggested as probable than affirmed as a fact — there is no evidence whatever.

He has, therefore, only to consider the evidence given at trial, which he has carefully read, and the recommendation to mercy with which the verdict was accompanied.

The attack by the prisoner on his wife appears from the evidence to have been wanton and unprovoked. She was so weak and ill as to be unable to make any effectual resistance, and the violence used and the repeated blows which must have been struck were such as, under such circumstances, would not fail to produce death.

She was heard crying out to him “not to kill her,” or “that he would kill her;” and the state of her body, as proved by the medical witness, afforded ample evidence of the determination with which the prisoner acted in the commission of the crime.

The jury recommended the prisoner to mercy on account of his extreme age, and nothing having transpired detrimental to his previous character. Character may be entitled to much weight where doubt exists as to the facts, but not so where the crime is clearly proved to have been committed; but were it otherwise, the recommendation on the ground of character seems in this case scarcely consistent with the evidence of the bad feeling of the prisoner towards his wife, and of the language used by him to her.

The age of the prisoner, Sir George Grey is informed, is 69. He cannot agree in the opinion that a murder committed by a person of this age is on that account only to be exempt from the penalty attached to it by law. He fears that if he yielded to the consideration, he should be establishing a precedent which would be detrimental to the due administration of the criminal law.

Under these circumstances, he much regrets that he oes not feel it consistent with his duty to advise any interference in this case with the ordinary course of law.

–I am, sir, your obedient servant,
H. Waddington
Sir E. Lechmere, High Sheriff of Worcestershire


Birmingham Daily Post, January 3, 1863

THE OLDBURY MURDER.
EXECUTION OF OCKOLD, YESTERDAY.
(From our own Reporter.)

Within the calm old city of Worcester, yesterday — in the early light of the second morning of this new year — while we were yet keeping high festival in honour of Christmas — and while the departing echoes of that angel-song of peace and goodwill, sung eighteen centuries ago, still lingered on the confines of thes eason — William Ockold, a hale old man of seventy, white-headed, rosy-faced, and kindly-looking, was publicly hanged, in the presence of gaping thousands, for the wilful murder of his wife, at Oldbury.

It was a harrowing spectacle — a sight to make the heart sick.

Hard upon threescore and ten years had the old man journeyed through time, and for nearly half a century had the old woman, who was older than he by some three or four years, borne him company. They had children; and, on the whole, seem to have lived as happily as people in their class of life and of their tastes do in the Black Country.

When the old man — who was a tailor — worked, the old woman helped him; when he went out drinking — which was often — she went with him, and they generally staggered home in company.

They mostly lived upon the parish, and spent their scant earnings in drink.

Occasionally the old man best his wife, but not very often and not very badly — perhaps not oftener than he conscientiously thought she deserved it, for he does not look like a cruel man, and report speaks somewhat kindly of him for a drunkard.

And thus they travelled on through life — loving each other very much, in their rude way, at times, and falling out now and then when provisions or money ran short. It was a long journey in married life — fifty years; and they had nearly completed it. A peaceful grave lay before them, and a few more tottering paces would have brought them to it. The old woman, indeed, was well nigh there, for she was very infirm and sorely diseased.

But they were never destined to reach it.

In the last stage, just before the final step was to be taken, the old man either unwittingly or wilfully — a Jury of his countrymen say wilfully — hurled the old woman into eternity before her time, and followed her, red-handed, to the presence of their common Maker, by way of the gallows, yesterday.

It is a fearful story.

Instead of waiting a few brief moments, till Death came, the hoary patriarch dragged his seventy years through blood to meet him, and while earning for himself a murderer’s grave, leaves nothing to his children but the bitter legacy of shame and sorrow.

And what is more dreadful is the fact that he never seems to have realised to the full the enormity of his crime.

Utterly ignorant, accustomed no doubt in his younger day to constant scenes of brutality, his mental acuteness blunted by the wear of drunk and years, and his dim notions of right and wrong almost entirely obliterated, he has shown hardly any symptom either of sorrow for what he has done, of pity for his victim or of fear regarding his own fate. He seems indeed to have been a man, not brutal by nature, but one who overcome by the stupor of ignorance, mingled blindly with the class amongst whom he fell; never dreaming, even, that there was anything nobler in life than eating and drinking, and sleeping and dying.

And to this besotted callousness rather than to any actual, premeditated guilt perhaps his violent death yesterday was owing.

Imminent death upon the scaffold seemed to have no terrors for him, and as to that mystic other world, he did not comprehend it. The chaplain of the gaol (the Rev. J. Adlington) was unremitting in his endeavours to impress the old man with a due sense of his position, but without any apparent effect.

Sometimes he would sit and listen as to a strange story that had pleased him, and at others as to a dreary narration that wearied him, but at no time did he seem to grasp hold of and understand the truths laid before him.

With what he occupied his mind during the long night watches in the silence of the condemned cell is a secret that none mortal may know, for he revealed his mind to no one … when he displayed any emotion of the mind at all it was generally of a cheerful character; as, for instance, when on one occasion he congratulated himself that the prison apartments were like those of a palace when compared with his wretched home at Oldbury.

[F]rom first to last, his conduct was that of an old, old man, whose uneducated faculties were dimmed by age, who had no very refined ideas of right and wrong, who thought beating a righteous correction for a wife who displeased him, and who, in an untoward moment of passion, under-rated his own strength, over-rated his poor old wife’s powers of endurance, and dealt her a blow that unhappily proved fatal to both of them.

And so the old man of seventy, half unconscious of having committed any crime at all, utterly incapable of comprehending the enormity of it, and too sunken in ignorance to lay hold on the comforts of religion, was publicly and judicially strangled in front of the County Gaol at Worcester, yesterday.

And thousands came as witnesses. Not many thousands — four or five perhaps — of whom several hundreds were strangers in the city. The mere anticipation of the sickening sight had proved sufficiently attractive to bring crowds from their warm beds miles away, and that on a miserably windy stormy night.

Early on the previous evening the wind blew up briskly, and brought with it some sharp sprinklings; and as the night wore on the breese [sic] broke up into cold gusts, and bore upon its wings still heavier loads of rain. It whistled dismally through the streets all night long, and sung mournfully through the gallows which had been put up ere midnight.

Some few hundreds of citizens ventured out in the storm to see it, but after gazing at it, and finding no signs of early crows, they shivered drearily, and betook themselves homewards. As time went on, and three and four o’clock came, a pedestrian party or two from the black country, drenched but hilarious, tramped up to the gaol front, and finding all still clear, sauntered off to neighbouring public-houses. Five came, and with it a continual plashing of footsteps along the sloppy streets. More people had come in from the country, some in traps and some on foot, and there were two continual streams of them passing each other to and from the gallows; for few cared to take their places even yet.

At six, however, the wind came unladen with rain, and from that time onward sunk to a low soft breeze. And then the crowd began to assemble in Infirmary Walk, a road running straight out in front of that part of the gaol on which the drop had been erected. Some few had come from Birmingham overnight.

Seventy years ago it seems the old man was born there, and six and fifty years ago he was apprenticed by his mother, who carried on business as a pawnbroker, to a tailor in Steelhouse Lane … From the villages and hamlets immediately around Worcester, too, there came a large sprinkling of agricultural labourers. But what was most revolting was the fact that women and children formed a very large part of the crowd. There were mothers there — not one or two, but many — with infants in their arms, and there were old men with their grandchildren.

There were people of all ages, from the man well stricken in years to the baby in arms; there were people of all classes, from the well-to-do tradesman to the pauper; and there were hundreds of little boys and girls mingling with them everywhere.

And by half-past seven in the gray morning they had crowded up the three avenues to the gaol. And there they stood gazing upon the gallows fixed high up on the castellated gaol, and looking more like some ghastly remnant of feudal barbarity than an engine of modern punishment in a Christian land.

As the morning light intensified, and the sky cleared, the crowd thickened, and then some three or our Scripture-readers made their appearance to “improve the occasion” — some by distributing tracts, and two by preaching extempore sermons. And so the crowd waited on, very orderly in its conduct, more than usually so, for the harrowing scene to follow.

A strong body of the county police, under the charge of Superintendent Phillips, were the duty inside the gaol railings, and a strong body of the city police, under the charge of Chief-superintendent Power, were on duty outside. But their services were not required.

Meanwhile, the old man inside the gaol was being made ready for death.

He went to bed on the previous night at nine, fell asleep directly, and woke at two. During the remainder of the night he only slept at intervals, and seemed restless but still indifferent. The warder who was with him thought proper to remind him that he was spending his last morning on earth, to which the old man replied, almost jocularly, “That’s a pretty thing to tell a fellow, that is.”

The whole of his conversation during the night was of a similarly cheerful character. Between six and seven he got up and dressed himself, and had breakfast — tea and bread and butter, of which he ate and drank as heartily as usual. At half-past seven he was visited by the chaplain, who remained and prayed with him, the old man remaining to all appearance indifferent the while, until the hour fixed for the execution.

He would have been hanged at eight, but the Governor had deferred the execution till after the arrival of the morning post, hoping to the last that a reprieve would arrive. Shortly before half-past eight Mr. Hyde, the Under-Sheriff, accompanied by his javelin men — for the ceremony was performed in the ancient manner — arrived. The morning post was in, and no reprieve had come, so the usual procession was formed, and the old man was led out of the condemned cell in the east wing, to death.

The chapel bell clanged out three weird notes — and three more — and three more.

And while that awful funeral cortege moved slowly on to the gallows, and that hoar old man was listening to the reading of his own burial service, a dreadful hush ran through the crowd without.

Then followed a brief low murmur of excitement and a gentle surging down upon the gaol railings. And then there were a few brief moments of eager expectancy. The procession had halted in the porter’s tower in order that the old man might be bound. Arrived there he calmly sat down upon a seat provided for him, and was pinioned without displaying the least sign of fear or emotion of any kind until he was told to set forward again.

Then, and not till then, a tear stealing out of his eye rolled down his cheek, and he paled and began to tremble violently. The bell again clanged out three dismal notes, and there was another hush in the crowd without. And then, one by one, the execution[er]s and their victim glided out upon the scaffold.

First came six javelin men, who ranged themselves in front of the scaffold, then six warders, who ranged themselves behind it. Then came the Governor of the Gaol and the Under Sheriff, and then Calcraft — for he had been engaged to end the ceremony — leading along the old man, at sight of whom, bare-headed, pale and trembling, his long white hair fluttering in the morning breeze, the very crowd who came to see him hanged sent up, with one consent, a long low utterance of pity.

Still he was led on, along the scaffold, up the rude steps, beneath the gallows, on to the drop. Once there, while the burial-service was being ended, he looked calmly down upon the thousands of upturned faces before him. The Chaplain, who, though not seen could be distinctly heard, then paused, and Calcraft came forward — with some difficulty drew a too small cap over the white flowing hair, over the furrowed face, down to the thin gaunt neck of the old man — quietly dropped the noose upon his shoulders, while the victim trembled in every joint — drew it tight around the throat — adjusted the knot with deadly nicety upon the blue scaly prominent vein — fillipped the other end of the rope over the cross-beam, looped it into a knot around it — grasped the shrivelled hand in token of farewell — buckled a strap around the thin weak legs — grasped the hand again — and was about to retire, when the old man questioned him.

“I suppose I’m goin now, aint I?” he asked.

“I’ll let you know that,” replied the hangman, and retired.

Then there was one moment in which the chaplain’s voice rose up in the midst of the surrounding silence, and the old man’s weaker voice joined with it, in the antiphon, “Lord have mercy upon us; Christ have mercy upon us; Lord have mercy upon us.”

The words were scarcely ended ere there was a rattling of bolts. The drop fell with a horrible clatter; a wild wail, acute, heart-piercing, arose from the crow, and the body of William Ockold, after a few brief nervous contortions, swung lifeless in the breeze.

In that one moment the pains, many, and the pleasures, few, of a long, sad life were ended — the memories of seventy years driven rudely from their storehouse. In that one moment the soul of the old man had learned more than seventy years could teach it, and appallingly ignorant as he was, that one “leap in the dark” made him wiser than all living.

In one instant the clutch of man had released him from the clutch of man, and had rendered him up to the hand of that All Wise One who will try him truly, judge him righteously, and temper mercy with justice, in a way of which we blind mortals know little and perhaps guess hardly.

As soon as the body had ceased to move the greater part of the crowd dispersed, but large numbers still remained to see it cut own. After it had hung an hour it was removed. It was then found that the neck had been broken and the jugular vein burst in the fall. Cessation of sensation must, therefore, have been instantaneous, and the convulsions after the fall the result of unconscious vitality. The body was at once buried beside those of two other murderers, under the western wall of the prison, hard by the debtors’ promenade.

This makes the seventh execution at Worcester since 1832. In that year two brothers, James and Joseph Carter, were executed the highway robbery near Bewdley; in 1834, Robert Lilley was executed for the murder of Jonathan Wall, at Bromagrove; in 1837, William Lighthand was executed for the murder of Joseph Hawkins, at Areley Kings; in 1849, Robert Pulley was executed for the murder of Mary Ann Staight, at Broughton; in 1855, Joseph Meadows was executed for the murder of his sweetheart, Mary Ann Mason, at Kate’s Hill, near dudley; and now, in the first week of 1863, William Ockold, an old man of seventy, has been executed for the murder of his wife, at Oldbury.

On this day..

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1863: James Murphy, after a reunion

Add comment November 6th, 2015 Headsman

On November 6, 1863, Old Geelong Gaol (op. cit.) hosted the hanging of James Murphy.

This horse thief, having been put to some light piece of penal servitude cleaning up the Warrnambool courthouse, noticed his minder kneeling over the fireplace and bashed that constable’s head with a three-point mason’s hammer.

Murphy made good his escape … for two days. He paid for those meager hours of harrowed liberty with his neck: a remarkable occasion, for it was noted that

[t]he executioner was a man sent down from Melbourne for the purpose, and a rather affecting scene took place when he was first introduced to his victim. It ap- peared the condemned man and he had been intimate friends in Tasmania, and as soon as he recognised him the tears began to roll down at the idea of his having to carry out the grim sentence of the law upon his old mate. He soon recovered his composure, however, and got through the remainder of his thankless office creditably.

The death mask taken from Murphy is still exhibited, and a display at the Old Gaol purports to re-create Murphy’s hanging. (His was the first of only two executions to take place within the gaol’s walls.)

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1863: William Griffith, for the Marais des Cygnes massacre

1 comment October 30th, 2015 Headsman

One of the signal outrages of Bleeding Kansas was avenged with a hanging on this date in 1863.

“Bleeding Kansas” was the guerrilla war over slavery in the late 1850s that presaged the conflagration about to consume the Republic; here on the frontier, pro- and anti-slavery partisans traded atrocities in their respective campaigns to secure Kansas’s imminent entry to the Union as either a slave or a free state. The stakes, had America continued her antebellum course, were vital Congressional votes on which the continuance of the peculiar institution might one day hang.

The naked brutality of the conflict shocked its contemporaries; as one particularly notorious example, the sons of abolitionist crusader John Brown executed pro-slavery captives with broadswords.

The Marais des Cygnes massacre was one of the last major horrors of that conflict: a party of 30 or so pro-slavery men led by Charles Hamilton seized 11 Free-Staters. They were mostly people who knew Hamilton personally, and seem to have gone along without resistance not anticipating what he had in store for them.

But Hamilton had told his men that on this campaign, “we are coming up there to kill snakes, and will treat all we find there as snakes.” (Source)

Much to their chagrin, these “snakes” were driven into a narrow ravine and lined up before Hamilton’s men’s guns. The volleys they delivered before fleeing back over the porous border into equally restive Missouri “only” killed five of their hostages: the other six survived by playing dead.


(Via)

Five years later, one of those survivors, William Hairgrove, supplied the identification that damned William Griffith — whose claim that he only helped capture the Marais des Cygnes victims, and didn’t help shoot them was an especially lame offering at the height of the Civil War.

According to Legal Executions in Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma Including the Indian Territory: A Comprehensive History, Griffith paid the forfeit for his role in the massacre “in a wood west of [Mound City, Mo.] on the opposite bank of Little Sugar Creek” before a crowd of thousands. There,

[a] little after noon Griffith was conveyed to the wood where he stepped onto the wooden platform a few inches above the ground. His wrists, knees and ankles were bound and the noose was adjusted. The black cap was pulled over his face at 1:07 p.m., and in but a moment William Hairgrove, one of the survivors of the massacre, cut the restraining rope with a hatchet; the four hundred pound weight dropped, jerking Griffith upward. The body rebounded and hung motionless while the attending physicians monitored his vital signs, and in twenty-five minutes they pronounced him dead.

Today, the site of the massacre is a U.S. National Historic Landmark. Quaker abolitionist poet John Greenleaf Whittier also memorialized the blood that was shed there in a poem titled “Le Marais du Cygne”:

A blush as of roses
Where rose never grew!
Great drops on the bunch-grass,
But not of the dew!
A taint in the sweet air
For wild bees to shun!
A stain that shall never
Bleach out in the sun!

Back, steed of the prairies!
Sweet song-bird, fly back!
Wheel hither, bald vulture!
Gray wolf, call thy pack!
The foul human vultures
Have feasted and fled;
The wolves of the Border
Have crept from the dead.

From the hearths of their cabins,
The fields of their corn,
Unwarned and unweaponed,
The victims were torn,—
By the whirlwind of murder
Swooped up and swept on
To the low, reedy fen-lands,
The Marsh of the Swan.

With a vain plea for mercy
No stout knee was crooked;
In the mouths of the rifles
Right manly they looked.
How paled the May sunshine,
O Marais du Cygne!
On death for the strong life,
On red grass for green!

In the homes of their rearing,
Yet warm with their lives,
Ye wait the dead only,
Poor children and wives!
Put out the red forge-fire,
The smith shall not come;
Unyoke the brown oxen,
The ploughman lies dumb.

Wind slow from the Swan’s Marsh,
O dreary death-train,
With pressed lips as bloodless
As lips of the slain!
Kiss down the young eyelids,
Smooth down the gray hairs;
Let tears quench the curses
That burn through your prayers.

Strong man of the prairies,
Mourn bitter and wild!
Wail, desolate woman!
Weep, fatherless child!
But the grain of God springs up
From ashes beneath,
And the crown of his harvest
Is life out of death.

Not in vain on the dial
The shade moves along,
To point the great contrasts
Of right and of wrong:
Free homes and free altars,
Free prairie and flood,—
The reeds of the Swan’s Marsh,
Whose bloom is of blood!

On the lintels of Kansas
That blood shall not dry;
Henceforth the Bad Angel
Shall harmless go by;
Henceforth to the sunset,
Unchecked on her way,
Shall Liberty follow
The march of the day.

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1863: John P. Wood, of the Army of the Potomac

1 comment June 12th, 2013 Headsman

This dispatch to the New York Herald was published on June 16, 1863.

Mr. W. Young’s Letter.
Near Beallton Station, Va., June 14, 1863.

THE DESERTER J.P. WOOD.

John P. Wood, of Company F, Nineteenth Indiana, who had deserted once or twice before, again deserted on the 28th of May, and was subsequently arrsted at Aquia Creek, tried by court martial, and sentenced to be shot on Friday last.

Wood was about nineteen years old, quite intelligent, and when arrested was dressed in rebel uniform and represented himself as belonging to the Nineteenth Tennessee.

He alleged that he deserted because he had come to the conclusion that the war was not right, and he could not therefore go into action. He admitted that when he volunteered his views were somewhat different, and that he enlisted because he did not wish to see the Union dissolved.

He regarded his sentence as just, and expressed the belief that his execution for desertion would be of more service to the army than he could render it in any other manner.

THE EXECUTION, AND THE EFFECT UPON THE ARMY.

As this is the first instance of an execution for desertion in the Army of the Potomac, it created considerable sensation.

The sentence was executed upon the prisoner on Friday, near Berea church. About two P.M., near Berea church, the corps was halted. The First brigade was ordered out, with the balance of the division to which the prisoner belonged, the First brigade in advance.

Two ambulances, in the first of which was seated the prisoner, and the other containing his coffin, at the head of the division, advanced about half a mile, when the division was drawn up, occupying three sides of an oblong parallelogram. On the fourth side were placed the coffin, the criminal and the guard. The men were selected to do the firing, and received their muskets from the guard properly loaded.

HIS LAST MOMENTS.

A clergyman —- was with the prisoner, who displayed no emotion. General Wadsworth then went to the men who were to perform the duty of execution, and spoke to them in regard to the disagreeable nature of the duty to be performed — the shooting of a comrade — and urged them, as a matter of humanity, to take good aim.

The General then returned to the right, Colonel Morrow to the left. The guard was then withdrawn, and the Provost Marshall, Lieutenant Rogers, took the prisoner to the coffin, upon which he was seated, his eyes blindfolded, his hands tied behind him, his knees tied together and his breast bared.

All having retired, except the executions and the Provost Marshal, the order to take aim was given. Before the order to fire was given two pieces were discharged, but without effect.

At the order to fire, the remainder of the men — ten in number — fired. The prisoner fell backward, and the Provost Marshal went up to him. He struggled for an instant, and then all was over.

An additional detail from the Pioneer corps were called up and began to dig the grave, and the division marched off in perfect order, much impressed by the solemn scene which they had witnessed.

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1863: William Francis Corbin and Thomas Jefferson McGraw

Add comment May 15th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1863, two men were shot* on the beach at Johnson’s Island in Lake Erie, site of a Civil War prison. Their crime: recruiting for the Confederate army behind Union lines.

After a short-lived attempt to maintain a posture of “armed neutrality” vis-a-vis the Civil War combatants, Kentucky became the uncertain and bloodily contested frontier march between the rival governments.

With the 1862 invasions of Kentucky by armies North and South, sides had to be chosen. Corbin enlisted with some local militia mates in the Confederate army; after wintering in Virginia, he was dispatched back to his native Campbell County, Ky. — now under Union control — to beat the bushes for more Confederate enlistees. With him was another Campbell County native son now serving in the Southern army, Jefferson McGraw.

In April 1863, a Union patrol out hunting Confederate guerrillas accidentally caught wind of the recruiters’ activities and followed McGraw to the Rouse’s Mill safe house where he was to rendezvous with the waiting Corbin.

Several days after the recruiters’ capture, Union Gen. Ambrose Burnside issued General Order 38, threatening the death penalty for “all persons found within our lines who commit acts for the benefit of the enemies of our country.” This order explicitly compassed “Secret recruiting officers within our lines.”


Not to be confused with Order 66.

This book has a chapter about the Corbin-McGraw case.

General Order 38 was viewed as targeting “Copperheads” and other anti-war northern agitators — and it almost immediately resulted in the arrest of Ohio Democrat Clement Vallandigham** — but it was the less august Corbin and McGraw who paid the heavier penalty.†

Again, General Order 38 postdated Corbin and McGraw’s arrest. They had expected, and perhaps were even directly assured by their captors, to be treated as regular prisoners of war. On the other hand, Order 38 aside, these men were undoubtedly working covertly behind Union lines, and risked harsher treatment on that basis alone.

At any rate, the two were condemned to die by a military commission in Cincinnati for violating Order 38 by recruiting behind Union lines. Neither Gen. Burnside nor Abraham Lincoln himself — who were both besieged by petitions for clemency — would consent to spare them.

Corbin, who was a church elder in his home environs, led a prayer service for guards and inmates alike at the prison chapel on the morning of his execution. Writing 34 years later, a witness recalled the moment:

That scene, and the words which fell from his lips on that occasion, are indelibly stamped on my memory …

After reading and prayer by Captain Corbin, he said, in part, speaking of himself, that “life was just as sweet to him as any man, but if necessary for him to die in order to vindicate the law of the country, he was ready to die, he did not fear death; he had done nothing he was ashamed of; he had acted on his own convictions and was not sorry for what he had done; he was fighting for a principle, which in the sight of God and man, and in the view of death which awaited him, he believed was right, and feeling this he had nothing to fear in the future.” He closed his talk by expressing his faith in the promises of Christ and his religion.

To see this man, standing in the presence of an audience composed of officers, privates, and prisoners of all grades, chained to and bearing his ball, and bearing it alone, presenting the religion of Christ to others while exemplifying it himself, was a scene which would melt the strongest heart, and when he took his seat every heart in that audience was softened and every eye bathed in tears.

After Corbin and McGraw were shot, two Union prisoners of war in Confederate custody were selected by lot for a retaliatory execution. With some diplomatic maneuvering (and a Union threat to retaliate for the retaliation by executing Robert E. Lee’s captured son), they managed to avoid that fate. (One of these men almost executed in retaliation, Henry Washington Sawyer, went on after the war to build the still-extant Chalfonte Hotel in his hometown of Cape May, N.J.)

There is a weathered but still-visible monument to Thomas J. McGraw erected in 1914 by the Daughters of the Confederacy at the Flagg Springs Baptist Church cemetery where his remains were interred. (Corbin’s remains are at a family cemetery in Carthage.)

* Corbin and McGraw were set up for execution seated on the edges of their own coffins, so that the force of the firing detail’s barrage would knock them conveniently back in. That’s efficiency.

** General Order 38 also resulted in the arrest of an Indiana legislator named Alexander Douglas. Douglas beat these charges thanks to the energetic defense mounted at the tribunal by his neighbor, attorney Lambdin P. Milligan … and the fame thereby falling to the latter man would eventually help to fix his own name into the jurisprudential firmament as the subject of the landmark Supreme Court ruling Ex parte Milligan. For more background, see this pdf.

Nobody else was ever executed under General Order 38.

On this day..

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Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!


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  • Juliette: It’s been reported that 9 months after Johnson’s execution, the real culprit was found. I also...
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