1868: Joseph Eisele, honest, kind-hearted triple murderer

Add comment March 6th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1868, several thousand folk braved knee-deep mud to converge on Parkersburg, West Virginia for the last public hanging in Wood County.

Joseph Eisele was a German immigrant who worked at a furniture shop. He had, he would admit, manifested a predilection for crime from his childhood in Germany, on account of which he’d begun going by “John Schafer” once he pulled up stakes for America.

“Joseph Eisele is five feet nine inches high, stoutly built, somewhat round shouldered, and weighs one hundred and seventy pounds,” ran the introduction to Joseph Eisele’s own confessional pamphlet about Joseph Eisele.* “He is thirty-four years of age, with a complexion quite fair and florid, his light brown hair is worn short, and his beard shaved clean, except a light moustache, which gracefully shades a slightly sensual, though well shaped mouth, his nose is straight, well cut and proportioned, his gray eyes are somewhat deep set, and of a mingled expression of sadness and timidity, not in keeping with the open, genial brow, square jaw, strong chin, and other features of his manly and prepossessing countenance.”

It’s a description aiming to suggest a physiognomy of queer contrasts, mirroring the cold-blooded series of crimes committed by a seemingly conscientious and thoughtful man.

Even while “prowling around nightly with his terrible hatchet in his pocket, seeking more victims, he was sustaining a character for industry, frugality, temperance, honesty, kind-hearted liberality, and all the house-hold and domestic virtues, together with a dignity, modesty and intelligence rare among men in his walk of life,” a correspondent mused to the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Eisele murdered three men, Joseph Lilienthal, Aloys Ulrich, and Rudolph Tsutor, and robbed them, and did so with a carelessness for his own safety that would astonish once it became public. Lilienthal he killed in daylight behind an occupied boarding house. Ulrich’s distinctive possessions were sold off with little attempt to disguise them. Tsutor Eisele slew at his home at 10 in the morning, miraculously without being observed coming or going. Then the killer paid out his debts that same day.

Since it looks like Sherlock Holmes wouldn’t be on this case, it would be up to Eisele’s prey to help themselves.

Finally in early January 1868, Eisele clobbered a creditor across the neck in an attempt to take his fourth victim. John White fought back with “almost superhuman strength and courage” as his attacker later put it admiringly. The melee careened out into the street where finally, finally, Eisele was detected in his crime. He managed to flee the scene as bystanders came running, but was arrested shortly after.

At this point, the dignity, modesty, and intelligence stuff resurfaced.

Eisele’s trial began at 2 p.m. on January 20, and so ready was the defendant to expiate his guilt that the verdict was in the books before dinner. In a prepared statement that a translator read from Eisele’s native German (which also begged his adoptive countrymen not to think ill of Germans), Eisele foreswore any defense.

I want no witness and no defense, and can not really give any reason for my misdeeds, except that the evil spirit led me into temptation, and I could not resist it. I am willing to sacrifice my blood and life for my crimes, and hope the Almighty God will forgive me, and after death receive me into his kingdom. I therefore beg the people present for their forgiveness. I have no enmity towards any one in the world, and acknowledge that I deserve all that may befall me and am ready to bear it all with patience.**

There’s apparently some sentiment to mark the spot of the historic hanging in Parkersburg.

* As of this writing, Eisele’s book is available on Amazon! The quotes from it source to the Cincinnati Daily Enquirer, March 11, 1868.

** Cincinnati Daily Gazette, Jan. 27, 1868.

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

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1868: Three Italian bandits

Add comment January 27th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1868, a trio of notorious Italian brigands went under the French guillotine in Marseilles.

Joseph Coda-Zabetta, the leader, had escaped a hard labor sentence in Italy and fled to France where he founded a large band of robbers who terrorized France’s Mediterranean countryside from Nice to Marseilles for some months in 1867.

From raiding unoccupied country homes the gang soon progressed to bold invasions of occupied houses and waylaying travelers. “In one instance,” a press report of their trial reported,* “six of the band attacked a convoy of carriers, one of whom received a pistol-shot in the breast and a stab with a knife, from which injuries he afterwards died.”

Twelve of the band faced trial, and four of their number received death sentences. (Seven others had long prison sentences; a man named Muletto was acquitted.)

Coda, Antoine Quaranta, and Felix Mardi (Italian pdf) were all guillotined on this date in 1868. (They died, it was said, repentant (French).) The fourth condemned prisoner, Jacques Mulatere, had his death sentenced commuted to life at hard labor.

* London Times, Dec. 20, 1867

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1868: Joseph Brown, for arson, murder, and money

1 comment May 30th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1868, Joseph Brown hanged in Hudson, N.Y..

He and his wife Josephine had recently moved to the hamlet of Canaan just this side of the Massachusetts border. With them was a twelve-year-old daughter.

On the night of December 5, 1867, they left little Angie in their basement rental and called on neighbors for the evening — and the house went up in flames. Neighbors rushing to the emergency had to force their way through the doors to extinguish the blaze, and discovered the Angie’s scorched remains amid several bushels of suspiciously flammable rubbish. Some neighbors thought the Browns had not hurried to the scene as they ought, and found their expressions of grief unconvincing.

These dubious circumstances could hardly help but lift an eyebrow, but in the end there was little for it and a coroner ruled the death accidental, perhaps caused by the unattended child attempting to fill a lighted kerosene lamp.

However, the fate of “poor little Angie” took on a decidedly more sinister cast when the Browns turned around and filed for a $5,000 life insurance benefit on Angie’s bones — a short-term, three-month policy due to expire in two weeks. A suspiciously dead child was one thing, but now there was money at stake. Travelers Insurance — the present-day corporate conglomerate then in its infancy, carving out its titular niche with innovative policies insuring against once-dangerous rail travel — put some real investigative muscle into the situation before it paid up.

The facts as developed by Travelers made a damning circumstantial case against the couple that was soon taken over by the criminal authorities: “a reflected glow of guilt,” in the summing-up of the state’s attorney who prosecuted Joseph.

Angie turned out not to be the couple’s own child at all, but a loaner from a woman in their hometown of Dayton, Ohio. She had given permission for her daughter to accompany the couple on a trip to Connecticut. (A weird arrangement in which the child was to call them “mother” and “father”, but one made innocently by the victim’s natural mother so far as anyone could determine.)

En route, Joe and Jo insured the life of this child who was not their own. And by the time they got to Canaan, Joseph had indiscreetly negotiated to purchase some property, intimating an ability in no way justified by his pre-fire resources to pay several thousand dollars cash on the nail.

To cinch Joseph’s conviction, physicians hired by Travelers testified that Angie had not inhaled smoke … meaning that she was dead before the fire started at all.

“I have told the insurance company that I would give them the policy if they would let me go,” a desperate Joseph at one point said in a police interview. He should have thought of that sooner.

But he was, as he said on the scaffold, “not an accomplished man” and he could only complain confusedly about minor points of the trial he considered prejudicial while maintaining a general insistence upon his innocence that persuaded nobody.

At the time of this hanging, Josephine Brown still lay in the Columbia County jail awaiting her turn at the bar in the same affair. But despite the sense among many participants in the case that it was she who instigated her cloddish husband to the lucrative homicide, the prosecution couldn’t assemble a satisfactory case and dropped charges later that year.

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1868: Priscilla Biggadike, exonerated Stickney murderess

5 comments December 28th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1868, Priscilla Biggadike withstood one last gallows-foot plea from her minister to admit to poisoning her husband.

‘I implore you not to pass away without confessing all your sins; not only generally, but especially this particular case, for which you are about to suffer. I had hoped that you would have made that confession, and thus have enabled me, as a minister of Christ, to have pronounced the forgiveness of your sins … It has grieved me much to find that [you] still persist in the declaration, that you are not accountable for your husband’s death; that you still say that you did not administer the poison yourself; that you did not see any other person administer it, and that you are entirely free from the crime. Do you say so, now?

The Prisoner, still in a firm voice, said, yes.

The Chaplain. — There is only one [hope] left, that you have endeavoured to confess your sins to God, though you will not to your fellow creatures. All I can now say is that I leave you in the hands of God; and may he have mercy on your soul. What a satisfaction it would be to your children, to your friends, to your relations, to know that you had passed from death into life, in the full persuasion that your sins were forgiven you … I am sorry I cannot exercise that authority [to pronounce sins forgiven] at the present moment.

Then, at the stroke of 9 a.m., she was hanged by ten-thumbed executioner Thomas Askern. True to form, Askern made a mess of it, and Biggadike painfully strangled to death with the rope’s knot infelicitously positioned under her chin* … although, since this execution was behind the walls of Lincoln Castle (in fact, it was the first female hanging after an 1868 Act of Parliament had made all hangings private), at least it didn’t incense a vast concourse of onlookers.

Posterity, though, has taken plenty of umbrage at Priscilla Biggadike’s fate.

She and her late husband Richard kept two lodgers in a two-room house in the village of Stickney.

Richard already suspected an affair between Priscilla and one of those lodgers, Thomas Procter (or Proctor), when he returned home from work on September 30, 1868, enjoyed tea and cakethat his wife had made for him, and then fell violently, fatally ill. The post-mortem examination showed Richard Biggadike had been poisoned with arsenic.

Priscilla Biggadike and Thomas Procter were both arrested on suspicion of murder but charges against Procter were soon dropped.

Priscilla was known to have quarreled with her husband over that whole infidelity thing, and she had alluded at least once to having arsenic around for killing mice. She was accordingly found guilty of poisoning him, though “only,” in the words of the jurors when the judge pressed the question, “upon the ground of circumstantial evidence.”

Indictment, trial, conviction, and execution for the “Stickney Murderess” wrapped up in two months’ time. But the discharged co-accused, Thomas Procter, years later made a deathbed confession that it was really he who poisoned Richard Biggadike.

(During the investigation, Priscilla had even attempted to blame Thomas Procter, reporting that on one occasion prior to the murder he’d even made what looked like an attempt to poison Richard by mixing white powder into his tea, after which Richard became sick. Police didn’t regard the accused as a particularly credible source for obvious reasons, but it’s hard to believe anyone would have failed to follow up on that sort of lead.)

On account of that whole wrongful-hanging mix-up, Priscilla Biggadike received a posthumous pardon. She’s even had a short musical made about her conviction, which was recently performed in Lincoln Castle. If you visit, you can still see the cell where she passed her final days.

* The bad botch of this job led Lincolnshire officials to audition for their next execution a local cobbler and amateur noose enthusiast destined to revolutionize the British hanging with his scientific approach: William Marwood.

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1868: Sam Dugan lynched in Denver

Add comment December 1st, 2012 Headsman

Like San Francisco and other western cities dissatisfied with the half-lawless frontier atmosphere, the city of Denver formed a “Vigilance Committee” — ominously known as “The Stranglers” — to maintain rough quasi-justice, “meted out innocent and guilty alike.”

This date in 1868 marks the end of one of the guilty.

Sam Dugan, aka Sanfourd Dougan, is seen here lynched to a cottonwood tree at Cherry Street, midway between 4th and 5th streets, in Denver.

(Denver’s city plan has changed quite a bit since those days, but I believe the present-day location of this lynching would be approximately Speer Blvd. in a knot of paving the edge of the downtown University of Colorado campus.)

The photo, snapped by the morning light of Dec. 2, 1868, showed the previous night’s work of the Vigilance Committee.

Dug(g)an was a young (23 years old) knockabout in the territories with a blackhearted reputation, having been thought to have killed a man at a camp the year before.

In 1868, he and buddy Ed Franklin robbed a justice of the peace, one Orson Brooks, at gunpoint. As one can imagine, Brooks was one of the little town’s more prominent citizens and the crime outraged residents.

Denver lawmen chased Brooks’s assailants to nearby Golden, Colo., where Dugan’s accomplice Franklin — blind drunk — was shot dead resisting arrest. An innocent Golden citizen named Miles Hill also died when he was caught up in the the shootout to take Dugan … but Dugan himself escaped.

Public fury over this bloodshed (on Nov. 22) precipiated the Nov. 23 lynching of already-jailed outlaw L.H. Musgrove from a Cherry Creek bridge, not far from where Dugan would soon stretch hemp. (Musgrove had ridden in a murderous gang with the late unlamented Ed Franklin.)

Our surviving fugitive Dugan, meanwhile, made a run for Wyoming but was picked up within a few more days at Fort Russell after he stole a mail carrier’s horse. Marshal David Cook, whose public-domain Hands Up! or Twenty Years of Detective Work in the Mountains and on the Plains is a major source for this post, went to retrieve him.

Given the Musgrove lynching, Cook must have had an idea of the danger Dugan would face in Denver. Denver papers anticipating the party’s arrival said that Cook’s team “will bring the prisoners dead or alive. The former condition would be preferred by many.”

About 90 to 100 vigilantes made that preference into fact after dark on Tuesday, Dec. 1, stopping a police wagon moving Dugan between lockups, just as it was crossing a bridge over Cherry Creek.

The hijackers redirected the wagon around the corner to a copse of trees and “in a moment a rope was thrown over the limb, and in another moment, Dugan was standing in the wagon immediately under the fatal noose.”

That’s from a newspaper report that appeared in several publications; our cite is from the Milwaukee Daily Sentinel on December 21, 1868.

Dugan, “completely unmanned, crying and sobbing like a baby,” wheedled and stalled, begging for a Catholic priest and making various professions of innocence or mitigation that would cut no ice with his judges.

After he had said all that he had to say, the order was heard, “Drive on,” and the wagon which had served as his frail bulwark between life and eternity moved from under, and the spirit of Sanford S.C. Dugan took its flight into the presence of Him who shall judge us all according to the deeds done in the body. The fall, about eighteen inches, broke his neck. He was a man six feet two inches in height, and weighed 205 pounds.

Cook, in Hands Up!, says he “would gladly have prevented” the lynchings, “but it was useless for [lawmen] to fly in the face of an entire community, which had been outraged and which was aroused, not so much to vengeance as to the necessity of protecting itself against the rough element of the plains.”

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1868: Giuseppe Monti and Gaetano Tognetti, by the Papal guillotine

1 comment November 24th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1868, Italian revolutionaries Giuseppe Monti and Gaetano Tognetti were guillotined in Rome.

Theirs was a passion of the Risorgimento, the 19th century drive to unify as a single nation the peninsula’s quiltwork of minor kingdoms, duchies, and city-states.

Following the Third Italian War of Independence, this had largely been accomplished … with the notable exception of the Papal States surrounding Rome. You can hardly have Italy without the Eternal City.

So national liberator Giuseppe Garibaldi gathered a force under the slogan Roma o morte and prepared to march … while Pope Pius IX began receiving reinforcements from the sympathetic French emperor Napoleon III.

Inside Rome, Monti and Tognetti prepared a little morte of their own. Intending to mount a fifth-column uprising to coincide with the arrival of Garibaldi’s army, the two detonated a couple barrels of gunpowder under the Serristori barracks, killing 23 French zouaves and four Roman civilians. (All links in this paragraph are Italian.)


Kablamo.

Unfortunately for the bombers, no general rising ensued, and the Papal and French armies subsequently repulsed Garibaldi at the Battle of Mentana on Nov. 3, 1867 — extending the papal enclave’s lease on life only slightly, but just enough to deal with Monti and Tognetti.

Their fate at the hands of the civil and religious authorities (one and the same, at this time), is dramatized in the 1977 Italian film In Nome Del Pap Re. (This Google books freebie purports to relate their final days.)

The triumph, such as it was, was short-lived for the Papal States: these were the very last executions by guillotine in Rome; the Papal States polity as a whole had time for only two more executions in its history before the Italian nationalist army completed the risorgimento by capturing Rome in 1870.

The two are memorialized in a celebratory ode by Giosue Carducci.

PER GIUSEPPE MONTI E GAETANO TOGNETTI
MARTIRI DEL DIRITTO ITALIANO

I
Torpido fra la nebbia ed increscioso
Esce su Roma il giorno:
Fiochi i suon de la vita, un pauroso
Silenzio è d’ogn’intorno.

Novembre sta del Vatican su gli orti
Come di piombo un velo:
Senza canti gli augei da’ tronchi morti
Fuggon pe ‘l morto cielo.

Fioccano d’un cader lento le fronde
Gialle, cineree, bianche;
E sotto il fioccar tristo che le asconde
Paion di vita stanche

Fin quelle, che d’etadi e genti sparte
Mirar tanta ruina
In calma gioventù, forme de l’arte
Argolica e latina.

Il gran prete quel dì svegliossi allegro,
Guardò pe’ vaticani
Vetri dorati il cielo umido e negro,
E si fregò le mani.

Natura par che di deforme orrore
Tremi innanzi a la morte:
Ei sente de le piume anco il tepore
E dice – Ecco, io son forte.

Antecessor mio santo, anni parecchi
Corser da la tua gesta:
A te, Piero, bastarono gli orecchi;
Io taglierò la testa.

A questa volta son con noi le squadre,
Né Gesù ci scompiglia:
Egli è in collegio al Sacro Cuore, e il padre
Curci lo tiene in briglia.

Un forte vecchio io son; l’ardor de i belli
Anni in cuor mi ritrovo:
La scure che aprì ‘l cielo al Locatelli
Arrotatela a novo.

Sottil, lucida, acuta, in alto splenda
Ella come un’idea:
Bello il patibol sia: l’oro si spenda
Che mandò Il Menabrea.

I francesi, posato il Maometto
Del Voltèr da l’un canto,
Diano una man, per compiere il gibetto,
Al tribunal mio santo.

Si esponga il sacramento a San Niccola
Con le indulgenze usate,
Ed in faccia a l’Italia mia figliuola
Due teste insanguinate. –

II
E pur tu sei canuto: e pur la vita
Ti rifugge dal corpo inerte al cuor,
E dal cuore al cervel, come smarrita
Nube per l’alpi solvesi in vapor.

Deh, perdona a la vita! A l’un vent’anni
Schiudon, superbi araldi, l’avvenir;
E in sen, del carcer tuo pur tra gli affanni.
La speme gli fiorisce et il desir.

Crescean tre fanciulletti a l’altro intorno,
Come novelli del castagno al piè;
Or giaccion tristi, e nel morente giorno
La madre lor pensa tremando a te.

Oh, allor che del Giordano a i freschi rivi
Traea le turbe una gentil virtù
E ascese a le città liete d’ulivi
Giovin messia del popolo Gesù,

Non tremavan le madri; e Naim in festa
Vide la morte a un suo cenno fuggir
E la piangente vedovella onesta
Tra il figlio e Cristo i baci suoi partir.

Sorridean da i cilestri occhi profondi
I pargoletti al bel profeta umìl;
Ei lacrimando entro i lor ricci biondi
La mano ravvolgea pura e sottil.

Ma tu co ‘l pugno di peccati onusto
Calchi a terra quei capi, empio signor,
E sotto al sangue del paterno busto
De le tenere vite affoghi il fior.

Tu su gli occhi de i miseri parenti
(E son tremuli vegli al par di te)
Scavi le fosse a i figli ancor viventi,
Chierico sanguinoso e imbelle re.

Deh, prete, non sia ver che dal tuo nero
Antro niun salvo a l’aure pure uscì;
Polifemo cristian, deh non sia vero
Che tu nudri la morte in trenta dì.

Stringili al petto, grida – Io del ciel messo
Sono a portar la pace, a benedir –
E sentirai dal giovanile amplesso
Nuovo sangue a le tue vene fluir…

In sua mente crudel (volgonsi inani
Le lacrime ed i prieghi) egli si sta:
Come un fallo gittò gli affetti umani
Ei solitario ne l’antica età.

III
Meglio così! Sangue dei morti, affretta
I rivi tuoi vermigli
E i fati; al ciel vapora, e di vendetta
Inebria i nostri figli.

Essi, nati a l’amore, a cui l’aurora
De l’avvenir sorride
Ne le limpide fronti, odiino ancora,
Come chi molto vide.

Mirate, udite, o avversi continenti.
O monti al ciel ribelli,
Isole e voi ne l’oceàn fiorenti
Di boschi e di vascelli;

E tu che inciampi, faticosa ancella,
Europa, in su la via;
E tu che segui pe’ i gran mar la stella
Che al Penn si discovria;

E voi che sotto i furiosi raggi
Serpenti e re nutrite,
Africa ed Asia, immani, e voi selvaggi,
Voi, pelli colorite;

E tu, sole divino: ecco l’onesto
Veglio, rosso le mani
Di sangue e ‘l viso di salute: è questo
L’angel de gli Sciuani.

Ei, prima che il fatale esecutore
Lo spazzo abbia lavato,
Esce raggiante a delibar l’orrore
Del popolo indignato.

Ei, di demenza orribile percosso,
Com’ebbro il capo scuote,
E vorria pur vedere un po’ di rosso
Ne l’òr de le sue ruote.

Veglio! son pompe di ferocie vane
In che il tuo cor si esala,
E in van t’afforza a troncar teste umane
Quei che salvò i La Gala.

Due tu spegnesti; e a la chiamata pronti
Son mille, ancor più mille.
I nostri padiglion splendon su i monti,
Ne’ piani e per le ville,

Dovunque s’apre un’alta vita umana
A la luce a l’amore:
Noi siam la sacra legion tebana,
Veglio, che mai non muore.

Sparsa è la via di tombe, ma com’ara
Ogni tomba si mostra:
La memoria de i morti arde e rischiara
La grande opera nostra.

Savi, guerrier, poeti ed operai,
Tutti ci diam la mano:
Duro lavor ne gli anni, e lieve omai
Minammo il Vaticano.

Splende la face, e il sangue pio l’avviva;
Splende siccome un sole:
Sospiri il vento, e su l’antica riva
Cadrà l’orrenda mole.

E tra i ruderi in fior la tiberina
Vergin di nere chiome
Al peregrin dirà: Son la ruina
D’un’onta senza nome.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Italy,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Papal States,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Terrorists

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1868: Kondo Isami, Shinsengumi

Add comment May 17th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1868, Shinsengumi commander Kondo Isami was beheaded at Itabashi as the civil war between the Tokugawa Shogunate and the rising Meiji government that would replace it unfolded.

A commoner raised to samurai, Kondo is famous for commanding the Shinsengumi, a sort of shogunate paramilitary renowned for hunting pro-imperial samurai.

This, of course, was ultimately a nonstarter, notwithstanding the Shinsengumi’s flair for dramatic success.

Kondo had little power to reverse the Tokugawa Shogunate’s deteriorating position even though his skill earned him progressively higher appointments in its service.

In the event, however, our principal lost the Battle of Koshu-Katsunuma, and was captured shortly thereafter.

From there, nature took its course.

He was brought in a cage to Itabashi, near Yedo, where he was beheaded. His head was put in spirits and sent to Kioto, where it was exposed in the dry bed of the Kamogawa near the fourth bridge. This most shameful of all punishments was inflicted upon Kondo Isami because, as chief adviser of his lord, the prince of Aidru, he had made himself especially hateful to the southern clans. (Source)

As a result, Kondo wouldn’t be around to say “I told you so” when the victorious Meiji scrapped their samurai-friendly xenophobia and replaced their former supporters in the warrior caste with a modernized army.

But he and his doomed band of upwardly-mobile swordsmen in romantic service of a historical dead-end are still with us. Shinsengumi adventures and Kondo Isami characters remain a staple of popular culture.

[flv:http://www.executedtoday.com/video/Shinsengumi_trailer.flv 440 330]

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1868: Thomas Wells, the first private hanging in England

5 comments August 13th, 2009 Headsman

The hanging this date at Kent’s Maidstone Prison of Thomas Wells for the murder of the Dover postmaster stamped the understated debut of England’s era of private executions.

It was a shift almost a century in the making; in 1783, Albion had eliminated London’s traditional, disorderly procession to Tyburn in favor of public hangings just outside the walls of the prison — to the chagrin of traditionalists like Samuel Johnson.

As the 19th century unfolded, even this compromised spectacle attracted increasing criticism, noticeably from literary types who decried the aesthetics, effectiveness, and/or morality of public execution.

Eventually, on May 29, 1868,* Parliament passed the Capital Punishment Amendment Act of 1868, also known as the Capital Punishment within Prisons Act. The public hanging was no more.

Our day’s otherwise mundane murderer became the first to answer for his crime in this brave new behind-prison-walls world. And if the objective was to banish the spectacle and theater of the scaffold — well, the report in next day’s London Times of Thomas Wells’ hanging would suggest the measure achieved its purpose.

Yesterday morning Thomas Wells, aged 18, who was found guilty at the last Kent Assizes of the wilful murder of Mr. Walsh, the master of the Priory Station on the London, Chatham, and Dover Railway, by shooting him in revenge for a reprimand which that gentleman, under whom he served as a porter, had given him for some misconduct, suffered the extreme penalty of the law. This was the first execution under the new Act requiring executions in future to be inflicted within the prison walls.

It was, of course, generally known that the execution would be conducted in private, and that the only sign would be the hoisting of a black flag outside the prison wall. At the moment of the falling of the drop there were very few, if any, strangers in the vicinity of the prison, and the town presented quite its ordinary appearance, presenting a marked and extraordinary contrast to that which it has hitherto exhibited on the occasion of a public execution. The scaffold was erected in a small yard adjoining the debtors’ portion of the gaol, which had at one time been used as an exercise yard for the prisoners. It is enclosed by four high walls. The apparatus is the same that was formerly used, with some slight alterations. The drop is on a level with the stone paving of the yard, and the executioner has to descend several steps to remove the bolt which supports the platform, and the latter then drops into a recess prepared for it. No one was present at the execution but the undersheriff, governor, sergeant, chaplain, and the representatives of the Press.

After his trial the culprit seemed to have been fully aware that there was no hope for him, but he expressed remorse for the act he had committed, and wrote a very penitent letter to Mrs. Walsh, the widow of the deceased, entreating her forgiveness. No efforts appear to have been made in any quarter to obtain a remission of the capital sentence.

The culprit prayed fervently with the Rev. Mr. Frazer, the chaplain, for a few seconds, and as the drop fell he was singing with a loud clear voice the 486th hymn. He appeared to die after two or three convulsive struggles.

Of course, not everything old can be new overnight; this hanging was carried out by longtime public hangman William Calcraft, who’d had his start in the trade back in 1829 and was renowned for unpleasantly strangling his charges with his itty-bitty drops. Though the Times report downplays the climax, other press attendees agreed that Wells died hard.

This day’s milestone, nevertheless, was a way station en route to further innovations, the decisive transition from an ancient form of public corporal discipline to the rational, calculated, mechanistic procedure meet for an industrial empire.

Behind prison walls, Calcraft would yield his own place to William Marwood’s precisely measured drops, and then to the 20th century’s coolly efficient Albert Pierrepoint. The changes may have been incremental, but by the end, little save the rope remained of England’s storied hanging era.

The natural end of that evolution, some would have us believe, is disposing the rope altogether. If Wells’s private hanging held the seed of capital punishment’s eventual abolition, it sprouted quite neatly indeed: it was this same date in 1964 that England conducted its last private hangings — or executions of any kind.

* The act was passed only three days after the last public hanging in England.

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

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1868: Henry James O’Farrell, would-be assassin

Add comment April 21st, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1868, the first Australian known to have attempted a political assassination received the short drop and sudden stop that often constitutes the wages of that distinguished profession.

It was March 12 — less than six weeks before — that Henry James O’Farrell, Dublin-born alcoholic vegetable merchant fresh from the asylum, had shot the visiting Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh at a picnic in the Sydney suburb of Clontarf.

Someone was smiling down on Alfred that day, because the shot was deflected by a metal buckle and inflicted only a flesh wound. Onlookers tackled the assailant before he could finish the job.

O’Farrell claimed affiliation with the Irish nationalist Fenian brotherhood, which inflamed anti-Irish passions (some cynically whipped up by New South Wales Prime Minister Henry Parkes). Paranoia redoubled when a Fenian assassin killed a Canadian politician a few weeks later.*

Under the circumstances, it was a hopeless struggle for O’Farrell’s attorney, who strove to demonstrate (probably accurately) that his charge was not so much a terrorist as a madman. Even the Duke of Edinburgh’s own intercession for clemency did not secure it, eager as the populace was to make an offering of its loyalty.**

* Irish convicts transported to Australia, especially after the 1798 uprising, formed a significant demographic among early New South Wales settlers. (Source)

** Another offering was a still-extant hospital in Sydney named for Prince Alfred.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Assassins,Attempted Murder,Australia,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Notable for their Victims,Occupation and Colonialism,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Terrorists,Treason

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