1867: Gottlieb Williams, eyeballed

Add comment June 4th, 2016 Headsman

From the very first volume of the Transactions of the American Ophthalmological Society, spanning 1864 to 1871. The society, and the journal, are still going strong.

The ellipses omit three other hangings investigated by Dr. Dyer.

FRACTURE OF THE CRYSTALLINE LENS IN PERSONS EXECUTED BY HANGING.
By E. Dyer, M.D., of Philadelphia, Pa.

Three years ago I presented to the Society the result of the examination of the eyes of a man who was hanged, also some experiments on the effects of hanging on the crystalline lens of the dog. In the case of the man the anterior capsule and the lens of the right eye were fractured. The direction of the fracture was horizontal and a line below the centre, extending as far back as the middle of the lens. In the left eye the anterior capsule only as involved. In one dog the same conditions were found, in another only one lens was fractured, and in a third no lesion was detected.

Since then I have experimented on rabbits. Two were hanged and four were strangulated. The trachea in two of the latter were laid bare and tied, but no fracture was detected in any case. Drs. S.W. Mitchell and W.W. Keen, who assisted me at the experiments on the dogs, were present.

The following are the notes of several executions at which I have been present since my report of the case already mentioned. I have been able to examine the eyes of the criminals both before and after death.

Gottlieb Williams, aet. 34, was executed in Philadelphia, June 4, 1867. Drop four and one-half feet; the knot slipped so as to be under the occiput; suspended thirty minutes; convulsive movements lasted five minutes; neck not dislocated.

Examination at 11.54 A.M., five minutes after the body was cut down. Appearance of eyes natural; no protrustion; no injection of conjunctival vessels, corneae clear.

Right eye, pupil well dilated; media clear. Small point seen on the anterior capsule of the lens in the median line, just above the margin of the pupil. At 12, M., spot more distinct; at 12.26 P.M., spot still present, somewhat elongated. Optic nerve normal; retinal vessels small.

Left eye, pupil smaller than the right; cornea clear; lens in normal condition; optic nerve normal; arteries small. I was not allowed to remove the eyes.

Drs. H. Yale Smith, physician to the prison, W.W. Keen and J. Ewing Mears assisted me in the examination.

This unpleasant series of investigations has been pursued ith the hope of throwing some light on the vexed question of the mechanism of the accommodation, but as yet without any satisfactory result.

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

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1867: Modiste Villebrun, but not Sophie Boisclair

Add comment May 3rd, 2016 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1867, Modiste Villebrun was hanged in Sorel, Quebec, in what would be the last execution before Canada became its own country. His partner in crime, Sophie Boisclair, might very well have been executed alongside him had she not been pregnant.

Villebrun, a lumberjack from St. Zephirin, was having an affair with Boisclair and they wanted to get married. They had two slight problems to deal with, in the form of their respective spouses. In those times, divorce was unthinkable. Murder, apparently, was not.

Jeffrey E. Pfeifer details their crimes in his book Death By Rope: An Anthology of Canadian Executions:

The first victim was Villebrun’s wife, and their plan seemed to work well. No one suspected foul play when the previously healthy woman died, or at least no one could prove anything. Braced by their success, the lovers soon turned their attention to Boisclair’s husband, Francois-Xavier Jutras. Boisclair suggested to her husband that they should allow Villebrun to move in with them since the death of his wife had left him all alone. Jutras agreed to his wife’s request and almost immediately Boisclair began to lace his food with her “special” ingredient. It was not long before the strychnine took effect and Jutras was dead.

Unfortunately for the two lovers, a suspicious doctor demanded an autopsy, which revealed the dead man’s body was saturated with poison. Villebrun and Boisclair soon found themselves arrested.

They were tried separately and both were convicted in short order and sentenced to death. When asked, at sentencing, whether she had anything to say, Boisclair announced she was expecting a baby. She got a temporary reprieve until delivery, and got the opportunity to watch Villebrun’s execution from the window in her cell.

Ten thousand people attended his hanging.

Seven months later, Boisclair gave birth to his child, and her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

“Boisclair ended up serving 20 years in the penitentiary,” records Pfeifer, “before being released, a broken woman.”

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Canada,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Milestones,Murder,Not Executed,Other Voices,Pardons and Clemencies,Public Executions,Quebec

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1867: Not Santa Anna

Add comment October 10th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1867, the Mexican general and onetime president Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna avoided execution at his court-martial.

Best recognized north of the Rio Grande for overrunning the Alamo, Santa Anna actually enjoyed an amazing career with a near half-century as Mexico’s definitive caudillo.

Antonio López de Santa Anna joined the military he would come to personify as a 16-year-old cadet in 1810 … except it was the Spanish colonial army, where he had hands-on training in the cold counterinsurgency tactics he would subsequently apply in his maturity.

Within barely a decade, the ambitious young officer was advanced to general — the last step by dint of his timely adherence to the incoming emperor of now-independent Mexico, Agustin de Iturbide.

Iturbide was destined for a firing squad, but Santa Anna had a better knack for tacking with his new country’s political gales — turning against his recent patron just in time to help depose the guy.

Santa Anna’s P.T. Barnum*-quality panache for shameless self-promotion — at one pont he repelled Spain’s last attempted reconquista and pronounced himself the “Napoleon of the West” — soon self-promoted himself right to the presidency. From 1833 to 1855, he held the office during 11 distinct stints.

His dictatorial exercise of power and abundant graft aroused resistance from more than just Texan Anglos, so he was often engaged in suppressing internal rebellions, and occasionally in being chased by them into exile. His last turn at president was aborted in 1855 by liberal reformers. Santa Anna fled to Cuba.

Considering the mad twists of fortune in his long career, it’s a miracle that none of his enemies ever actually executed Santa Anna. He was: both adoit and lucky to avoid purging during the tumultuous 1820s; captured by rebelling Texans, who preferred to avenge Alamo by forcing him to treaty terms; handed over to the U.S. government, which eventually sent him back to Mexico; captured again by rebelling Indians in Veracruz who sold him to the Mexican government which sent him to exile; and, tried by the liberals who finally toppled him, but in absentia since he had escaped once more. He had more lives than a cat; small wonder that here in his sixties and seventies he still wasn’t done plotting.

A full decade out of power, Santa Anna spent 1866-1867 in Staten Island, New York,** until the fall of Mexico’s French-backed Emperor Maximilian induced him once more — at the age of 73 — to sail for home with one last summons to his banner. Instead he was captured in a position that must have looked like curtains for sure.

The New York Times actually reported on July 5, 1867 that Santa Anna had been summarily executed; in fact, the restored liberal government of Benito Juarez clapped the nettlesome general in prison and subjected him to a court martial that ran Oct. 7-10. Juarez allegedly expected the old snake to be convicted of treason and finally executed, but like the Times, Juarez too was frustrated: the commission sentenced Santa Anna to exile and he was carried away to Havana once again.

It proved to be a waking death: cheated of the glory of a firing squad, the old general was pitiably forgotten.

“His schemes” — for still he schemed — “became increasingly the ravings of an old, deluded, sick man,” writes Robert Scheina in Santa Anna: A Curse Upon Mexico.

Permitted with Juarez’s death in 1874 to return to Mexico, Santa Anna now fought only for a pension. (He lost that fight.) So long his country’s first man, he “became increasingly depressed which was only relieved by his increasing senility. Santa Anna was suffering the worst possible punishment — obscurity and irrelevancy.” He died penniless of diarrhea in 1876.

* Santa Anna eventually came to hobble about on a cork leg, courtesy of a war wound. The leg was captured during the Mexican-American War, and Barnum put the artificial limb on exhibit.

That limb has never been returned to its native soil: Santa Anna’s prosthesis remains available to the Yankee gawker at the Illinois State Military Museum in Springfield.

** Santa Anna’s legacy in the United States (apart from that Alamo unpleasantness) was the importation of chicle, which the general liked to chew. Santa Anna’s American secretary, Thomas Adams, used it to create the chewing gum marketed as chiclets.

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1867: The Manchester Martyrs

Add comment November 23rd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1867, three Fenians hanged for the murder of a Manchester policeman.

They were the Manchester Martyrs — Michael O’Brien, William Philip Allen and Michael Larkin.

“Who were they?” an admiring James Connolly later asked, rhetorically.*

Two members of the Fenian organisation -– Kelly and Deasy –- were trapped in Manchester, and lay awaiting trial in an English prison. The Fenians in that city resolved to rescue them. [Manchester was a hotbed of Irish radicalism -ed.] This they did by stopping the prison van upon the road between Manchester and Salford, breaking open the van, shooting a policeman in the act, and carrying off their comrades under the very eyes of the English authorities.


Marker on the spot of the ambush that started all the trouble. (cc) image from Tom Jeffs.

Out of a number of men arrested for complicity in the deed, three were hanged. These three were ALLEN, LARKIN and O’BRIEN –- the three Manchester Martyrs whose memory we honour today.

There were actually five in all selected to stand trial for their lives for what the British dubbed the “Manchester Outrage”; although all five were condemned to swing, one received clemency and a second was pardoned outright since the evidence against him was soon proven to have been entirely perjured.

Indeed, all five of the men asserted their innocence in the shooting even when they acknowledged joining the crowd attempting to free their brethren.

But they, and especially their partisans, were still more energetic asserting the Fenian cause from the platform afforded by the legal antechambers to the scaffold. “God save Ireland!” they cried at several dramatic points in the trial — and these words titled a beloved patriotic tune in the martyrs’ honor.

The British, basically, freaked at the effrontery of an Irish mob hijacking a police wagon, making Fenian as dirty a word among the Anglo respectable as terrorist is today, and stampeded the case to judgment without dithering overmuch about fine points like meticulous investigation. While respectable liberals could (and did) make the clemency case on grounds of actual innocence, the right-thinking were scandalized by Irish marches in overt support of Fenianism.

“These Irish are really shocking, abominable people,” Queen Victoria wrote privately to one of the government’s Tory cabinet members. “Not like any other civilized nation.”

So it was a bloodthirsty rabble, baying and not a little drunk, that gathered outside the walls of Manchester’s New Bailey Prison to see Allen, Larkin, and O’Brien hang** for their abominableness. This lot also happened to witness the last public hanging in Manchester; England shifted to private executions the next year.

But these by no means represented everyone in Manchester.

The very week of the Fenian ambush, a philosopher had dropped in to Manchester to visit a local industrialist. These were, granted, not Englishmen but Germans. Still, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were keenly interested in the Fenian cause.

Marx exhorted English workers, now and over the years ahead, to make common cause with Fenianism; he apparently authored this clemency appeal for the Manchester Martyrs sent by the First International. The very day after the execution, Engels — our Manchester industrialist — compared the martyrs to John Brown and prophesied that the hangings “accomplished the final act of separation between England and Ireland.” (See Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies)

These martyrs have stood the test of time, in part because Engels’ prediction (more or less) came to pass. But we think it’s their countryman Connolly whose epitaph rings truest — the summons three men in Manchester issued posterity to stand against monstrous edifices as “unyielding foes even to the dungeon and the scaffold.”

We honour them because of their heroic souls. Let us remember that by every test by which parties in Ireland to-day measure political wisdom, or personal prudence, the act of these men ought to be condemned. They were in a hostile city, surrounded by a hostile population; they were playing into the hands of the Government by bringing all the Fenians out in broad daylight to be spotted and remembered; they were discouraging the Irish people by giving them another failure to record; they had no hopes of foreign help even if their brothers in Ireland took the field spurred by their action; at the most their action would only be an Irish riot in an English city; and finally, they were imperilling the whole organisation for the sake of two men. These were all the sound sensible arguments of the prudent, practical politicians and theoretical revolutionists. But “how beggarly appear words before a defiant deed!”

* Connolly was observing the anniversary of the men’s death in 1915, which was the same anniversary a 13-year-old Kevin Barry began his own path to future martyrdom by attending a Manchester Martyrs memorial.

** Hanged badly. Notoriously erratic hangman William Calcraft only killed Allen on the drop; descended the gallows to help Larkin along; and was denied access by O’Brien’s confessor, who said he held that strangling man’s hand full 45 minutes until he finally succumbed.

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1867: Bridget Durgan, “hardly human”

4 comments August 30th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1867, Irish immigrant maid Bridget Durgan (or Durgin, or Dergan) was hanged in New Brunswick, New Jersey for murdering the mistress of the house.

In this instantly sensational case, Durgan at first represented herself the party raising the hue and cry with the neighbors as her mistress was slaughtered by two unknown visitors. (Since it was a doctor’s house, the “unknown visitors” part wasn’t an unusual circumstance.)

Unfortunately our maidservant conducted this office without recognizing that her own dress was bloodstained and would implicate her in the crime — as would the suspicious circumstance that the homicide took place on the very eve of Durgan’s involuntary termination date, the victim having judged her contribution to the household inadequate.

If Durgan’s published confession is to be believed — and many didn’t believe it, since the condemned woman’s stories varied wildly before settling on the rather pat version that none of the other suspected participants were involved — she had come down in the world from a less abject birth in Ireland, transferred upon her victim a hatred conceived for a previous mistress in a previous household, and done the deed in some confused attempt to supplant Mrs. Coriell.

(This confession offers a florid narration — and illustration (pdf) — of the dying woman staying Bridget’s coup de grace long enough to give her infant child one last kiss.)

So, from the standpoint of criminal heinousness and public outrage over same, this was definitely the sort of thing to hang a body.

Difficult questions of weighing the proper level of culpability for offenses committed by those with a seemingly diminished mental capacity were at this time becoming a hot topic in criminology; in a few years, a madman who assassinated a president would make them national news.

Poet and women’s rights activist Elizabeth Oakes Smith, then entering her seventh decade, went to see Bridget Durgan. It was, she said, a habit of hers to “visit the prisons … that I may the better understand my own sex in every aspect.”*

Smith published a study (pdf; the same analysis was also printed in the New York Times) of our unhappy subject for the edification of the popular press. It’s quite an interesting read for a window on the social outlook in the post-Civil War North, doubly so when recalling as one reads that Smith is attempting to argue a case for clemency for her subject, and against the death penalty in general.

In the scale of human intelligence I find Bridget Durgin on the very lowest level. She has cunning and ability to conceal her real actions; and so have the fox, the panther, and many inferior animals, whose instincts are not more clearly defined than those of Bridget Durgin …

Ain’t nothin’ but mammals: left, Bridget Durgan, as illustrated in her confessions (pdf); center, a panther ((cc) image from Iain Purdie); right, a cunning fox ((cc) image from Jakob Newman).

her hair combed close to her head … give the observer an opportunity to notice her strong animal organization. She is large in the base of the brain, and swells out over the ears, where destructiveness and secretiveness are located by phrenologists, while the whole region of intellect, ideality and moral sentiment is small …

Her texture, temperature, all are coarse; hair coarse and scanty, forehead naturally corrugated and low, nose concave and square at the nostrils, leaving a very long upper lip … her eyes wavering constantly. They open across, not below, the ball, and the pupil is uncommonly small; I should say she would be naturally dim-sighted. It is purely the eye of a reptile in shape and expression. The jaws are large and heavy, but the mouth is small … narrow gums, catlike in shape, with pointed teeth.


(cc) image from Jarrod Carruthers.

There is not one character of beauty, even in the lowest degree, about the girl — not one ray of sentiment, nothing genuine, hardly human …

I looked upon Bridget Durgin without prejudice, and I describe her without exageration. She was born without moral responsibility, just as much as the tiger or the wolf is so born;

Tiger ((cc) image from Chris Ruggles); wolf ((cc) image from C. Young Photography).

and the question naturally arises, what is the duty of a wise, humane and just legislator in her case … whether it is right to take an irresponsible, morally idiotic creature, and she a woman, whose sex has had no voice in making the laws under which she will suffer, and hang her by the neck till she is dead, is a question for our advanced civilization to consider.

Durgan, who bore all the public opprobrium of a Casey Anthony — plus points for being unattractive,** and for class-based moral panic, and for actually being convicted — had little chance to avoid her sentence, as Smith herself admitted.

When the time came, she met her fate steadily (in some quarters, this was also held against her insofar as it could support the “dumb animal” narrative) and yanked aloft on an upward-jerking gallows, ushered to the afterlife by a couple thousand people who crowded adjoining buildings for a view into the jailhouse yard. (A spectators’ platform collapsed.) This bit of technological wizardry was poorly engineered and, rather than efficiently snapping Durgan’s neck as was its intent, strangled the murderess to death instead.

“More abominable curiosity, more mawkish sentimentality, more religious affectation, has been expended on this bloodthirsty animal than we remember in the case of almost any other modern criminal,” complained The New York Times.

* Smith had another reason for familiarity with prisons: her son Appleton Oaksmith, late a filibuster in William Walker‘s party, did time during the Civil War for pro-Confederate gun-running and slave trading. His mother helped secure him a pardon.

** The New York Times (May 21, 1867) had simply called our hated Irishwoman “ordinary-looking.” We’ve seen with, for instance, Charlotte Corday that observers are wont to shape perceived feminine beauty according to perceived criminal monstrousness, and vice versa.

Part of the Themed Set: Americana.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,New Jersey,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA,Women

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1867: Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico, “Archdupe”

4 comments June 19th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1867, a firing squad disabused a Habsburg heir of his pretensions to the throne of Mexico.

A little bit loopy, a little bit liberal, and fatally short of common sense, Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph* decamped from the easy life at his still-under-construction dream palace outside Trieste for an exalted title that really meant playing catspaw for Napoleon III‘s Mexican land grab.

(To assuage the pangs of imperial adventurism upon our tender-headed hero, Maximilian had been “invited” to assume the Mexican throne by a convention handpicked to do just that.)

There the puppet emperor with the silver spoon in his mouth found himself pitted in civil war against the Amerindian peasant from the school of hard knocks: Benito Juarez, one of Mexico’s great liberal statesmen.

As the tide turned in favor of Juarez and the liberals, and Napoleon’s attention increasingly fixated on problems closer to home, the French threw in the towel.

But Maximilian had too much honor or too little sense to heed his patron’s advice to get out while the getting was good; sticking it out with “his people,” he was captured in May, 1867.

Juarez desiring to give any future bored European nobles second thoughts about New World filibustering, Maximilian got no quarter.**

While Louis Napoleon emceed a world’s fair on the other side of the planet, Maximilian was shot with two of his generals, Miguel Miramon and Tomas Mejia.


Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian, showing an obvious compositional debt to Goya’s Executions of the Third of May. Further analysis: written English; video Spanish.

Maximilian’s widow Charlotte — “Carlota”, when trying to blend with her adoptive subjects — descended into a long-lived madness back in the Old World, but was rumored to have borne with one of Maximilian’s French officers an illegitimate child who would go on to become an infamous Vichy collaborator.

Books about Emperor Maximilian

This sensational affair attracted plenty of coverage in the ensuing years; as a result, there is a good deal of topical material from near-contemporaries now in the public domain. Maximilian in Mexico: A Woman’s Reminisces of the French Intervention 1862-1867 (Gutenberg | Google Books) is a zippy read.

* Brother to Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph.

** Spanish trial records are here. European appeals for clemency poured in, but Maximilian had doomed himself with the “Black Decree” of 1865, ordering summary executions of captured Republicans.

The time for indulgence has gone by: it would only encourage the despotism of bands of incendiaries, of thieves, of highwaymen, and of murderers of old men and defenseless women.

The government, strong in its power, will henceforth be inflexible in meting out punishment when the laws of civilization, humanity, or morality demand it.

Juarez answered the clemency appeal of Princess Salm-Salm with solemn words:

If all the Kings and Queens in Europe [pled for Maximilian] I could not spare that life. It is not I who take it; it is the people and the law, and if I should not do their will the people would take it and mine also.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Hanged,Heads of State,History,Mexico,Murder,Notably Survived By,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Royalty,Shot,Wartime Executions

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