1877: Pennsylvania’s Day of the Rope

Add comment June 21st, 2017 Headsman

This date in 1877 was Pennsylvania’s “Day of the Rope”, a Thursday blackened by the execution of ten Irish coal miners as labor radicals.*

These are supposed “Molly Maguires”, others of whom we have previously met in these pages.

Though the term is now best associated with these anthracite miners of eastern Pennsylvania, it enters the textual record earliest in Great Britain right around 1845 … which, no coincidence, was the dawn of Ireland’s Great Famine.

Where tenant farmers starved even as absentee landlords exported crops, militancy naturally ensued — intrinsically criminal and therefore secretive, inevitably characterized as terroristic by its foes. For this desperate movement the fictitious heroine “Molly Maguire” would be name and watchword, a mythic resistance character in the tradition of Captain Swing or Ned Ludd; legend — perhaps reality? — would hold that her earliest followers had desolated a lord’s land after he turned subsistence farmers off it in favor of cash crops by murdering new tenant after new tenant until nobody dared occupy the tract. Newspapers began to denounce her followers proportional to the publication’s proximity to London capital.

A sympathetic domestic description is provided by the Cork Examiner of July 9, 1845, which contends that Molly McGuireism is nothing but “the tenant creed.”

The spirit and letter of legislation are all for ramparting round the rights of property. The meaning of this plainly is — legislating for themselves, whilst the population of the country may perish. Hence, stone walls and bogs, and houses and fields, with all dead matter, are cared for and legislated upon by landlords, whilst the living and producing beings — the Christian inhabitants of the country, who are formed to make up the sum of its riches, naturally and artificially, are exterminated, expatriated, famished, or shot down like dogs. What is the necessary consequence of this infamous state of things? Circumspice. Look around you and behold the monument raised to the desolating idol. Its history and its effects are written in the hovelled mud, and the squalid wretches and the naked children, which form the social and rural beauties of the soil of Ireland.

Well, the people feel and say — they would be stupid and brutal if they did not — that legislation or legislators will do nothing for them. They are thus thrown upon their own resources and their own energies. By the midnight lamp they write their own fearful enactments. If the code of their specified rights be written in blood, it is awful, but it is not unnatural.

And in Pennsylvania’s coal fields, during the depression of the 1870s, this was much the condition of Irish immigrant miners — no few of whom had been driven there by the very famine that spawned the original Molly Maguires.

Since verifiable documentary evidence of Molly Maguireism as an organized movement is very scant it’s an open question for posterity to what extent we behold the traces of an international Irish Catholic labor militancy or the hysteria of the boss. In whichever dimensions, the ghost of Molly Maguire crossed the Atlantic and haunted the violent carbon-harvest business in Pennsylvania … a ghost that rattles its chains ever so faintly whenever your Monopoly piece takes a ride on the Reading.

Though it’s difficult to think it today, the Reading Railroad company was one of the world’s largest corporations in the 1870s. The firm’s captain of industry, Franklin Gowen, figures as the antagonist and perhaps the concoctor of the Mollies, whose appearance as a criminal offshoot of the fraternal Ancient Order of Hibernians he alleged as a calumny against the union he fought blood and nail.

In the course of an 1871 strike, Gowen complained that the union’s ability to achieve general compliance with the work stoppage could only be the result of a shadowy association of foreign agitators “which issues orders which no one dare disobey.”

There has never, since the middle ages, existed a tyranny like this on the face of God’s earth. There has never been, in the most despotic government in the world, such a tyranny, before which the poor laboring man has to crouch like a whipped spaniel before the lash, and dare not say that his soul is his own … I say there is an association which votes in secret, at night, that men’s lives shall be taken, and that they shall be shot before their wives, murdered in cold blood, for daring to work against the order. (Source)

Fired by his public-spirited humanitarianism, Gowen went to work against the despotism of refusing his wage by retaining the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Its agent, James McParland, would make his name** famous or infamous with his claim to have infiltrated secret Molly meetings orchestrating routine political assassinations (assassinations he notably failed to prevent). His (thrilling) allegations, supplemented by confessions of alleged Mollies who turned state’s evidence to save their own lives,† were decisive in noosing the Mollies as murderers. For this McParland would receive both laurels and death threats, and also inspire a character in the Sherlock Holmes adventures.


Cincinnati Commercial, June 22, 1877.

The hysteria Gowen, McParland et al orchestrated was so self-confirming in the moment that newsmen wrote as categorically about the Mollies as they would in our era about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, and their terroristic reputation would be freely wielded to bludgeon the miners’ union. But curiously these existential menaces, once prosecuted, vanished with nary a footprint from their former rollick … so was the whole network phenomenally thorough about its secrecy, or was there never any such Hibernian Black Sabbath at all? There’s never been a historical consensus save that their trials by political allies of Gowen were at the very least travesties of justice — if not outright frame-ups.

Three weeks after the Day of the Rope, deep wage cuts for railroad workers triggered the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 which soon gave the Reading Railroad company its second bloody association in as many months: the Reading Railroad Massacre.

* Six hanged in Pottsville, and four in Mauch Chunk (since renamed as Jim Thorpe). Andrew Lanahan also hanged for murder on the same day at Wilkes-Barre, giving Pennsylvania 11 executions overall for its day of the rope; Lanahan’s was not one of the Molly Maguire cases but owing to his own Irish heritage there was never-proven conjecture that his crime was “inspired” by Maguireism. Accordingly, one can find different sources claiming either 10 or 11 Mollies hanged on this occasion. After this date’s harvest, ten additional supposed Molly Maguires were hanged by Pennsylvania during the next 18 months.

** McParland is the subject of a recent biography, Pinkerton’s Great Detective.

† Pennsylvania deployed demonstrative ferocity here: a 15-year-old who gave an alibi for her uncle got slapped with a thirty-month perjury sentence for contradicting a Pinkerton detective.

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1878: A day in the death penalty around the U.S.

Add comment May 24th, 2017 Headsman

From the Jackson (Mich.) Weekly Citizen:

A WOMAN’S DEATH AVENGED

NEW ORLEANS, May 24. — To-day, between the hours of 1 and 2 o’clock p.m., at the parish seat of Union parish, Louisiana, Jesse Walker, a colored man, was executed for the murder of Violet Simmons.

On the 12th of April last he was convicted. The evidence against him was circumstantial. At the time of his arrest, however, he made a confession of the crime, which he afterward claimed was forced from him.

A reporter, in company with Sheriff Pleasant, Rev. Mr. Parvin, Judge Ruthland and Capt. Raburn, visited the doomed man on yesterday evening. Walker was 22 years old, weighed 175 pounds, was very black, rather sullen and stupid. He appeared perfectly composed.

After visitors had expressed their sympathy and informed him of their mission, he made a

STATEMENT.

I know I must die to-morrow. They are punishing me for something I did not do. God knows I am as innocent as the angels of heaven, and I do not know who killed Violet.

About three years ago I drew my gun on Mr. John Simmons for trying to shoot my father. He has been mad at me ever since. I think that is the reason he swore so hard against me.

On the night Violet was killed, at the request of my brother and Noah Gandes, I started over to Aunt Wine’s to tell the girls that there would be a party that night.

It was about dark. I had gone two hundred yards when I saw Violet lying in the road.

We lived in the same yard, were cousins, and as we were often playing with each other, I went up to her and called her. She did not answer. I then ran back to the house, and called her mother. I was arrested.

At an early hour this morning

THE CROWD

began to gather from this and adjoining parishes, and by noon 3,000 people, the majority of whom were colored, assembled to witness the execution.

The sheriff had taken every precaution to preserve the peace and order. All of the saloons were closed and forty deputies were sworn in.

On Friday, at 12 m., the writer entered the jail in company with the parties named, and a sister of the prisoner. The meeting between

THE DOOMED MAN AND HIS SISTER

was very sad. She told him how often she had talked to him and prayed for him. He still protested his innocence, and said he was going to meet his mother in heaven. He inquired after his kinsfolks, and gave instructions with reference to his burial.

After giving his ring to his sister he bade her good bye, and was conducted to the debtor’s room and there very quietly dressed.

He then stated that he had evidence that he was

AT PEACE WITH GOD.

He appeared perfectly cool and collected. At 10 minutes to 1 o’clock p.m., the prisoner ascended the platform, which was erected about two hundred yards from the jail.

Rev. Mr. Britt offered up an earnest prayer, and the sobs and groans of women and children were heard from every direction.

The sheriff addressed the audience, appealing to them to keep order. The prisoner then came to the front of the platform and said:

None but me and my God knows that I am innocent. If the man who prosecuted me would have told the truth, I think he would have known something about the killing of Violet. I do not blame my lawyer. I do not blame the jury; they believe the prosecution, and have murdered me. I tried to get Lawyer Ellis to defend me. If he had defended me I would have been acquitted, but I do not blame him. I do not blame the sheriff or jailor, or the men who built the gallows. I have been wrecked, but have been praying for one week. I expect to be in heaven in less than a half hour. I want all my friends to pray for me as I have prayed for myself. I advise all young people to

QUIT GOING TO PARTIES, AND SERVE THE LORD.

I have never killed any one, but if I had my pistol when Simmons accused me of killing Violet and arrested me I would have killed him; but I thank God I did not, for then I would have never entered the kingdom of heaven.

Prince Jones (colored) then ascended the platform, and prayed fervently for the doomed man. The lips of the prisoner moved as in prayer, and tears come in his eyes.

The Sheriff then read the death warrant, during which time the prisoner retained his self-possession. At twenty minutes to 2, the rope was cut, the drop fell, and Jessie Walker was no more on earth.


Henry Roberts.

A PUBLIC EXECUTION.

SHELBY, N.C., May 24. — Henry Roberts (colored) was hanged here, publicly, to-day, at 1 p.m. There were four thousand persons present. The drop fell three feet, and his neck was unbroken. He hung thirty minutes.

Roberts reiterated his innocence, and said: “Jesus will gather me in his arms, and heaven will be my home. Chris died; so must I. I love all the world, and forgive all my enemies.”

He said all of the witnesses swore falsely, and that they have to answer for it hereafter. Roberts spoke ten minutes. His last words were: “I bid you all farewell.”

HIS CRIME.

On Feb. 1, 1877, the body of Gus Ware, a well-to-do colored farmer, living near King’s Hill, in Cleveland county, was found on the Charlotte and Atlanta Air-Line railroad, near htat point, mutilated in a horrible manner.

The deceased was in the habit of drinking too freely, and it was at first supposed that while drunk he had fallen on the track and thus met his fate, but subsequent developments did not sustain this theory.

Suspicion at once pointed Henry Roberts, another negro, who had been intimate with the murdered man, and, as was afterwards discovered, of whom the accused had become

MADLY JEALOUS,

although he had taken every pains to conceal it.

For several months prior to the murder Roberts had been living with a white woman in South Carolina [obscure] miles from King’s mill. About January he carried Ware over to the house of his mistress and introduced him. The man, it seems, conceived a passion for the woman, and determined to possess himself of her at the earliest opportunity.

Roberts visited the woman almost every night, affording no opportunity for his rival to make an appointment with her. About a month after Ware met Roberts’ mistress, he was called away to work in the upper part of Cleveland county.

His rival seized this opportunity to make love to the white charmer, which he did with such success that he was allowed all the privileges of his predecessor.

One night, about a fortnight before the murder, Roberts came to King’s mill unexpectedly. Hearing that his victim was away from home, and doubtless gessing [sic] his whereabouts he went to the woman’s house.

Creeping upon the back porch of the building, he was enabled to see at a glance all that transpired in her chamber, the night was a bright moonlight one, and the hour about 11 o’clock. A glance through the window confirmed Robert’s suspicion as to the

INFIDELITY OF HIS FRIEND AND THE WOMAN.

Ware occupied her bed and she sat near by. He crept down from his post of observation, and returned to his home at King’s mill without allowing anyone to know of the discovery that he had made.

A few days after this occurred, while under the influence of liquor, Roberts became garrulous and related to some of his friends the position in which he had detected his rival, and swore that he intended to be revenged if it took him a life time. No one regarded his drunken threats, and he was allowed to go unmolested.

On the 1st of January the body of Ware was

FOUND ON THE RAILROAD,

as related.

The supposition was that Roberts and Ware had met near that point the night before, and the jealous negro caught his rival and threw him on the railroad track, or, it might have been, tied him down to the rail, as bits of rope were found near the body when it was discovered next day, the ravellings of hemp, showing very clearly that rope had been used for some purpose connected with the murder of the deceased.

Two trains had passed over the body before it was discovered.

Henry Roberts was arrested[,] charged with the crime, committed to jail and tried before the April term of the superior court of Cleveland.

The evidence was entirely circumstantial, but the chain presented itself to the mind of the jury so complete that after a short absence they returned a verdict of guilty of murder in the first degree, and the court sentenced Roberts to be hanged on Friday the 24th of May.


Simon Robinson.

EXECUTION OF A NEGRO BRUTE.

PENSACOLA, Fla., May 25. — On the night of the 11th of last March, a negro named Simon Robinson, alias Simon Johnson, alias John Simons, entered the house of Mrs. Amanda Dawson (colored), during her absence, and outraged the person of her child, aged 5 years, using a knife to accomplish his purpose.

The following day he was arrested, and at his examination was identified by the child, which died that night, and Robinson was committed to await his trial at the April term of court, March 13.

Handbills were circulated, calling upon colored people to remember and avenge Amanda Dawson’s child, and asking what white people would do under similar circumstances.

That night the jail was attacked by a crowd, who were warned away by the sheriff, but soon returned with an increased force and demanded Robinson.

Upon the sheriff’s refusal to give him up the mob began firing upon the sheriff, and in the melee, two colored men were killed outright, another mortally wounded, and several others slightly.

At the April term of the circuit Robinson was found guilty of rape and murder, either crime of which is punishable in Florida by death, and sentenced by Judge Maxwell to be hanged.

The Governor fixed the date for May 24th. On yesterday the scaffold in the jail-yard was completed, and at half-past 11 this morning Sheriff Hutchinson led the prisoner onto the scaffold, where he was asked if he had anything to say.

He talked for about twenty minutes, his remarks consisting chiefly of supplications for mercy from heaven, and declarations that he was ready and glad to go home, etc. Upon being asked if he was guilty of the crime, he steadfastly maintained his innocence to the last.

At 12:04 p.m. the black cap was placed over his head, and at 12:08 the trap was sprung and the body of Robinson shot downward, having a fall of seven and a half feet. His neck was instantly broken, and at 12:15 he was pronounced dead.

The gallows was high enough above the jail-yard fence to allow a full view of the proceeding to the crowd, numbering from fifteen hundred to two thousand people present.

Robinson was a negro of no character whatever, his wife having left him about four years ago, after detecting him in an unmentionable crime. Since his execution it is reported he made a full confession last night, immediately after being baptized by his attending clergymen.

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1876: Marshall Crain, Bloody Williamson killer

Add comment January 21st, 2017 Robert Elder

(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. This post originally appeared on the Last Words blog here. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)

“I must make a statement in regard to this matter. I feel it my duty to God and to man to do so. I am guilty of killing the two men. My soul is stained with blood and my punishment is just. I hope all will forgive me. I pray God to guide and prosper this country. I am the murderer of William Spence. And George W. Sisney. That is all I have to say.”

Marshall Crain, convicted of murder, hanging, Illinois.
Executed January 21, 1876

Crain, a twenty-year-old hired assassin, murdered Sisney and Spence in 1876. The double murder, labeled by the press the “Williamson County Vendetta,” was part of a long- standing feud between the Bulliner and Henderson families of Carbondale, Illinois. Before Crain’s execution, he was remanded to a jail in Marion County in order to avoid a lynching at the hands of an angry mob.

The Chicago Tribune noted: “He was born, raised, educated, married, committed his crimes and was executed within a radius of 10 miles.”

(Williamson County, Illinois has an impressively vast catalogue of highlight-reel violence to its history; there’s more about the Great Vendetta and other skeletons in Williamson’s closet in Bloody Williamson: A Chapter in American Lawlessness.

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1870: John Gregson, drunk and disorderly

Add comment January 10th, 2017 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1870, the very first private execution took place at Kirkdale Gaol in Liverpool.

Steven Horton’s book Liverpool Hangings: Kirkdale Hangings, 1870-1891 notes that between 1831 and 1867, executions at Kirkdale Gaol had been public, observed by crowds ranging in size from 500 to 100,000 people, but the Capital Punishment Amendment Act of 1868 put an end to them.

However, Horton says, “Hangings that carried on in private [at Kirkdale Gaol] were so near the walls that it was said by those outside that a thud could be heard when the trapdoor opened.”

Between 1870 and 1892, the year Kirkdale Gaol closed, 29 condemned prisoners were hanged privately there. “Most of those condemned,” Horton says,

were from slum properties and lived lives of squalor where drink seemed their only escape, fueling angry misjudgments which would ultimately lead to them standing on the scaffold. Just under half of the killings … involved a man or woman killing their spouse or partner. The majority were following drinking bouts …

The very first case, that of John Gregson, fit this description very well.

Gregson was a collier at Wigan. (Over sixty years later, George Orwell would write a book about the miners there.) He had married his wife Ellen in 1863. John was an alcoholic who habitually abused his wife, even after the births of their two children, and the marriage was miserable. Throughout the 1860s he appeared in court a whopping 24 times for drunken, disorderly conduct, once spending a six-month term in jail.

On October 18, 1969, John Gregson was once again in court for drunkenness. Ellen paid his fine and they went home together, stopping at a few pubs along the way. The couple lived with a lodger, who was looking after their children while they were out that day. Once the Gregsons returned, Ellen began breastfeeding the baby and two neighbors dropped by to visit.

John removed his jacket and asked one of the neighbors, Mrs. Littler, to pawn it for him. She promised to do it the next day, but he didn’t want to wait and said he’d take it to the pawnshop himself. Ellen told him if he would wait a few minutes, she’d take it there for him. John then took the baby and told her to go out, pawn the jacket and come back with a pint of beer or he would kick her.

Ellen told him the children were hungry and she was willing to pawn the jacket for food, but not drink, and John became enraged, tripped her, and began kicking her back, side and chest as she lay on the floor.

The second guest, a man named Hilton, tried to intervene and forced John into a chair, but John stood up, kicked Hilton and then began kicking Ellen again, striking her on the back of the head.

Blood began leaking from Ellen’s ears and mouth and Hilton said, horrified, “You’ve killed her.”

“If I haven’t, I ought to,” John snapped.

Ellen wasn’t dead, though, and she was put to bed, where she lay moaning while John went to sleep next to her. The next day he got some brandy and tried to give it to her, but her teeth were clenched tightly and she wasn’t able to swallow anything. Finally beginning to feel ashamed of himself, he pawned the jacket for ten shillings and used the money to pay for a doctor.

By then it was too late. In fact, it was probably too late the moment John’s heavy, iron-soled clogs connected with his wife’s head. Ellen died in the hospital on October 21; the autopsy showed a fracture at the base of her skull.

At his trial in December, John wept while the evidence was presented. His defense attorney argued by way of mitigation(!) that he regularly beat his wife and that day had been no different, and as there had been no intent to kill he was only guilty of manslaughter. But the judge, Baron Martin, told the jury that if they believed the testimony of the witnesses present during the attack, this was a case of a murder.

The jury convicted John Gregson of murder, but recommended mercy. However, Judge Martin told Gregson not to hold out any hope for a reprieve and said he, personally, had no more doubt that this was a murder than he had in his own existence.

As Martin J. Wiener’s book Men of Blood: Violence, Manliness, and Criminal Justice in Victorian England noted, by the 1860s, fatal domestic violence was being punished more severely than it used to be:

Gregson’s drunken fatal kicking of his wife near Liverpool produced … not only a murder conviction, but his execution. Gregson could not successfully claim that his wife had herself been drunk or otherwise grievously provoking; furthermore, his case displayed a tightening in judicial interpretation of “malicious intent.” When his counsel argued that from mere drunken kicking itself one could not find an intent to kill, or even do serious bodily injury, Baron Martin immediately interjected to say that this statement about the law was “not so”: “if a man does an unlawful act, and death ensues, he is guilty of murder.” The hesitant jury’s recommendation of mercy as well as a petition campaign for reprieve that followed (joined by the coroner who had conducted the original inquest) were of no avail, since in addition the Home Office believed that he did in fact intend to kill her.

As all murder convictions came as a matter of course to be considered for reprieve, the Home Office’s role in the punishment of spousal killings expanded, while at the same time its line on such cases was hardening.

In prison John regularly met with the chaplain, saying he repented of his actions and believed his sentence was just, although he swore he had never meant to kill Ellen. Many of his fellow prisoners were there for alcohol-related offenses, and John asked the chaplain to share his story with them, so they might learn from his mistakes before it was too late.

In the last week of his life he was visited by Ellen’s father, his own mother, and his two about-to-be-orphaned children.

The execution took place on Monday morning. Horton says:

The Daily Post reported how the private nature of the execution, free of unruly crowds, gave it a much more solemn air, with people speaking in no more than a whisper. Outside there were none of the ‘denizens of the lowest purlieus of Liverpool’, instead just half a dozen policemen and a few interested onlookers waiting for the black flag to be hoisted.

At 8:00 a.m., executioner William Calcraft slipped the rope around John Gregson’s neck. The condemned man was pale and shaky, but he quietly submitted to the hangman’s ministrations. Calcraft drew the bolt, and after “three or four slight writings” the killer was dead.

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1878: Gauchito Gil, Argentina folk saint

Add comment January 8th, 2017 Headsman

January 8 is the execution day in 1878 of Argentine folk saint “Gauchito Gil”.

Nobody knows for sure if he really existed, but thousands flock to his sanctuary near Mercedes on this remembrance date while roadside red-flagged shrines throughout Argentina pay him homage all the year round.

If he was real at all, or even if he wasn’t, Antonio Mamerto Gil Nunez was an freelance ranchhand gaucho who ditched his conscription into the Argentine Civil Wars for life as an outlaw — flourishing in the classic social bandit guise as a friend to the put-upon peasantry with beneficence extending all the way to saintly healing powers.

Ambushed and captured at last, Gil’s last charity was reserved for the policeman who decided to have him summarily executed — whom Gil warned was about to receive an en-route pardon. The cop didn’t buy this obvious dilatory gambit and slit the bandit’s throat, only to return and find the promised clemency riding on up. As Gil had also prophesied, the policeman’s son had fallen quite ill and now he prayed to the brigand he had just put to death, who posthumously secured the boy a miraculous recovery.

The reports of the duly impressed executioner proliferated and soon fathered a flourishing popular veneration. Although Gauchito Gil is of course entirely unrecognized by the institutional Catholic Church, many devout pilgrims visit his site to pray for, or to offer thanks for, a favorable intercession in life.

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1873: Elizabeth Woolcock, the only woman hanged in South Australia

Add comment December 30th, 2016 Headsman

Elizabeth Woolcock on December 30, 1873 became the first and only woman ever hanged in South Australia.

The daughter of a gold prospector, Elizabeth Oliver (as she was then) began a lifelong bout with chemical dependency when she became hooked on the opium used to treat her after she survived a rape at the tender age of seven. (This attack also left her permanently unable to bear children.)

At 19, she joined the Moonta household of alcoholic Cornish immigrant Thomas Woolcock — first as his housekeeper helping to mind the sole child to survive the tuberculotic ravages that had carried away his brother and mother, and within a few weeks as Woolcock’s wife.

Elizabeth was very young and had not known Thomas long. Her infelicitous choice opened an unhappy union that, in the trial to come, would mark her with an obvious motive for murder. “I have to put with it as long as I can but Tom has got so bad, that I cannot bear it any longer,” she wrote to her stepsister a few months before the events that would lead her to the gallows. “He is a perfect devil; and if stop [sic] here much longer I shall hang myself.”

Motivation aside, however, quite a few people not only latterly but also in Woolcock’s own time have suspected that she got a bum rap, product of shoddy medical evidence and a sort of self-confirming communal tunnel vision when Thomas wasted away over a period of weeks in 1873. Thomas Woolcock’s cousin in particular appears to have spearheaded the campaign to open a coroner’s investigation of the death aimed squarely at his widow.

Three different physicians treated Thomas from the time he fell ill at work on July 23 of that year until his death six weeks later. Drs. Bull, Dickie and Herbert each made different diagnoses and prescribed, as this examination of the case puts it, “a bizarre (to modern eyes at least) range of medication that included rhubarb, cream of tartar, mercury and lead acetate.”

Dr. Bull’s prescription of pills containing mercury seems like any obvious place to begin the inquiry since the government’s chemists concluded that mercury poisoning had killed the man, and since the erratic Bull had a chinashop-type relationship to medical competence. (Dr. Bull had done time in the insane asylum; a few months after Woolcock’s execution, he died of an opium overdose.)

Instead, and seemingly driven by the suspicions of local chin-waggers, the investigation and subsequent trial focused on Elizabeth’s acquisition of “poisons” in a dismayingly unspecific sense: she used her stepson to hustle the local druggist for morphine and opium to service her own addictions, and this was a “poison”; she obtained a dandruff medicine that (like many household products of its day) contained mercury, and this was a “poison”;* she had some strange draught called antinomial wine that she was seen to spice with sugar and this too was inferred a “poison”. It all painted Elizabeth Woolcock as a latter-day Tofana without quite telling a coherent story of how she went about killing her husband. It’s not even clear now — and was publicly questioned in 1873 — whether the initial determination of death by mercury poisoning was itself reliable, nor can be certain whether, if mercury is supposed to be the lethal agent, it alone accounts for the entire span from health to grave or if instead a small exposure from Dr. Bull’s pills or contact with the skin medicine only finished Thomas off in a context where unrelated illness had already broken his health.

The evidence as it survives for us doesn’t rule out the possibility, but it’s difficult to reconcile it with anything like the confidence that ought to sustain a death sentence. However, Elizabeth’s garbled last letter did appear to vindicate the prosecution with an admission, though it’s one that her defenders have dismissed as pro forma for a confessor who would have been pressuring her to acknowledge the crime in the context of a final spiritual redemption.

in a evil hour i yielded to the temptation he was taken ill at the mine and came home and quarreled with me and Satan tempted me and i gave any poison for i more and i being very self willed i told him that i knew what power the poison had as i took it my self for some months and i was so ill treated that i was quite out of my mind and in an evil hour i yielded to the temptation he was taken ill at the mine and came home and quarreled with me and Satan tempted me and i gave him what i ought not but thought at the time that if i gave him time to prepare to meet his god i should not do any great crime to send him out of the World but i see my mistake now i thank god he had time to make his peace with his maker.

Efforts, thus far unavailing, to secure a posthumous pardon for Elizabeth Woolcock continue to the present day.

* The family dog died shortly before Thomas got sick; it would be postulated against Elizabeth that she experimented with poisoning on the pet before moving on to the man. An alternative hypothesis that fits the facts could be that the dandruff medicine was administered to treat a skin condition of the dog, which then proceeded to lick at the ointment and poison itself.

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1871: James Wilson, steely burglar

Add comment October 13th, 2016 Headsman

From the San Francisco Daily Call (Oct. 28, 1871) via a curious trans-Pacific audience in Australia’s Queanbeyan Age (Dec. 21, 1871). As usual, paragraphs added for readability.

EXECUTION OF JAMES WILSON, AT HARTFORD — DESPERATE ATTEMPT AT SUICIDE.

The last hours in the life of the burglar and murderer hanged at Hartford Conn., on Friday, the 13th instant, were sensational enough to suit his morbid craving for notoriety, and strangely rounded out a long career of adventure and rascality.

James Wilson, or to give his true name, David Kently, has been for many years a public outlaw.. He is charged, and justly according to his own confession, with between 200 and 300 burglaries.

The crimination of this career, it will be remembered, was the murderer of Warden Williard, of the State Prison at Weshersfield, on August 16th, 1870. The Warden called to Wilson’s cell-door to hear one of the complaints that troublesome prisoners were always ready with, and was perfidiously stabbed by a sword-cane (how obtained no one knowns), which Wilson thrust between the bars of his door and into the Warden’s abdomen.

Wilson asserted then and to the last that maltreatment provoked the deed.

For this he was condemned to death. Five days before legal limit of his live [sic] expired he was removed from State prison to the Hartford jail.

He had during the previous months exhibited a remarkable mental activity and versatility. He invented several ingenious little machines. He wrote a considerable ways in an autobiography, which was to have been entitled “Thirty Years in the Life of a Crack,” and would certainly have ranked among the curiosities of both crime and literature, had he not in a fit of rage destroyed it.

He made many attempts to get a new trial; then to obtain a communication to Sheriff Russell, designed to explain the desperate means he took, shortly after midnight, to evade the scaffold and the noose.

This attempt at suicide, briefly mentioned by telegraph, was made with a wire three inches long and an eighth of an inch in diameter, sharpened at one end, which he had got from the rim of a ration pan in prison, two months before, and had kept sheathed in leather torn from a Bible binding, concealed as probably no man ever thought of doing so before, in his rectum.

This wire, while keepers slept, he thrust into his heart; but it struck the muscular portion and would not pierce it. He turned over and bent upon the weight of his heavy body, and finally grasped the Testament at his side, and dealt blow for blow upon the wire. He drove it in quite half an inch below the skin, but in vain. The life pulse did not stop, and there in terrible agony the man could no longer suppress a groan, and the keepers found him in a dead faint.

When he was brought to consciousness, he had no regret except for his failure in the attempt.

His demeanour was unshaken thenceforward. He walked to the scaffold, though physically weak, and made a few remarks to the two hundred people in the jail yard, which are thus reported:

I don’t suppose it will amount to much what I can say, or stop the execution. I suppose most of you know why I shall say but a few words to-day. With three inches of steel in his heart a man can’t say much nor be expected to. I did all I could to avoid being here; not that I fear death, but such a kind of death — not fit for a dog or a murderer. I am not a murderer. I killed William Willard in self-defence, and I did just right and I hope his fate will be a warning to all other tyrants like him.

At this time the Deputy Sheriff stood behind Wilson with rope in his hand.

The victim turned round quickly seized the rope in his own hands, and then advanced quite dramatically, and leaning over the railing he continued, with great earnestness:

When a man puts this over his head in the cause of humanity, it is not a disgrace in that cause I put it over mine. And Sheriff Russell you may tighten it up as quickly as you please.

While saying these words he had pulled the noose over his head and thrown the rope out toward the sheriff’s hands. The sheriff then said, “Wilson, do you desire to have prayer offered up for you?”

“Well, yes. I have no objection to a short prayer,” replied the victim calmly but rather coolly.

The minister then offered a short but fervent prayer, keeling at Wilson’s side. When the minister had finished, Wilson repeated the word “Amen” quite audibly. While he was being pinioned, he bade all on the scaffold good-by; and to Captain Wooding he said, “I hope, if you have the opportunity, you will tell the warders of Wethersfield Prison they may profit by the example they have had to not oblige any other convict to murder a warden for humanity’s sake.”

The hanging was decently done, and the pulse extinct in fourteen minutes.

The authorities of the Yale Medical College at New Haven must have accepted the body on the terms he required in his will, as it was but in charge of his counsel, Mr Aberdeen, and sent by him to New Haven.

On this day..

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

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1876: Hillary Page, the Chesterfield fire fiend

Add comment September 1st, 2016 Headsman

Hillary Page, “the Chesterfield fire fiend”, went to Virginia’s gallows on this date in 1876.

Born a slave, Page by 1874 was a mere servant at the Ruffin family’s “Summer Hill” estate off the Richmond and Petersburg Turnpike. He had lived there all his life. That year, a series of attempted arsons ravaged the area, including one that devastated Summer Hill.

Eventually, a black youth named Wesley betrayed Page as their author, though contemporaries thought the spree, which claimed no fatalities, arose less from viciousness than simpleminded pyromania.

“The Richmond correspondent of the Petersburg Index” (as quoted by the Alexandria Gazette, Feb. 7, 1876), ventured a bit of compassion for the young man.

I think he ought to be sent to the penitentiary for life [rather than hanged]. He is too dangerous to be allowed to go at liberty, and justice wil be satisfied without taking his life. He is only 19 or 20; he lived on the place with his mother and father, and had no great malice in his misdeeds. He merely kindled the fire to see it burning. Sometimes he was the first to give the alarm; he always helped to put it out. He either did the firing to see the houses burn, or compel his parents to remove to Richmond, which he desired and they refused to do. A few years ago a young lady, who was being educated at a Richmond boarding school, fired the house a dozen times. Once it came near burning down. It was said she had a mania on the subject. Nobody is so charitable to Hillary.

Perhaps there was a bit of charity after all in the air, for it took an inordinate (for the time) 19 months for the case to proceed from arrest to gallows: Page’s first death sentence was overturned on appeal and his eventual hanging-date was pushed back by the governor so that the condemned could be examined for lunacy.

By the end of it the fire fiend was quite a celebrity. At a stopover in the courthouse jail en route to a gallows,* Page was besieged by journalists shouting questions at him until his ministers arrived and shooed them away.

“Hillary, do you feel any better prepared to die than you did yesterday?”

“Yes, sir. I feel a heap better.”

“Do you acknowledge yourself guilty of everything that has been charged against you?”

“Yes, sir, all but one thing, and that is young Mr. Ruffin’s house. I didn’t burn that. It caught fire by itself. I didn’t burn that.”

“Hillary, why did you say that Colonel Ruffin and his son came to you and desired you to make statements implicating other parties?”

“All that was false. I just said so because I thought it would do me good. I was put up to it. It’s natural that I should try to save my life.”

(Source: Richmond Dispatch report in the very topical Public Executions in Richmond, Virginia: A History, 1782-1907)

The road, our correspondent noted, “was lined with vehicles of all descriptions” for “it seemed that all the whites and blacks of the county were going to witness the saddest act of a poor unfortunate career.”

* “It was by a general verdict accorded to be as mean a scaffold as was ever erected for the execution of a human being,” the Dispatch reported (again, via Ward’s Public Executions in Richmond, Virginia). “The sheriff of the county was even more nervous than the condemned.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arson,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA,Virginia

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1870: Charles Harth, Prussian spy

Add comment August 27th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1870, a spy of the Franco-Prussian War was shot in Paris.

Barely a month old at this point, the Franco-Prussian War was a fast-unfolding fiasco for the Franco side. For three weeks, French reverses as the Prussians pressed through the frontier had been the talk of the capital.

The action at this moment was the huge Prussian siege of Metz, for whose relief the French emperor Napoleon III — Marx’s original “first as tragedy, then as farce” guy — was even then mobilizing a relief force. Napoleon was ridiculously out in the field, personally “leading” the army; on September 1, his column would be intercepted by the Germans and the resulting Battle of Sedan ended with the emperor’s own capture and the demise of his Second French Empire.


“Discussing the War in a Paris Cafe”: Illustrated London News, September 17, 1870. Within a few months the burghers will have fled these uproarious cafes with the rise of the Paris Commune.

For the moment, however, that empire is still alive in its final hours; Charles Harth must number among the last executions it ever carried out. The London Standard reported the story under an August 27 dateline (we excerpt here from the Milwaukee Daily Sentinel‘s reprint of September 16):

Prussian blood has been drawn for the first time since the declaration of war within the enceinte of Paris.

Charles Harth, found guilty of having visited France for the purpose of spying out its weakness, died the death this morning. His trial took place on Monday, as you will remember, and after a very brief procedure, the court martial that tried the man condemned him without a single dissenting voice. The Prussians (who, by the way, are accused in the Paris Press to-day of having hanged a woman at Gorse) will protest, no doubt, against the manner in which their countryman was treated, but military law is short and sharp in its decrees, and his judges were satisfied of Harth’s culpability. If he was guilty, as we are bound to believe, there is no room for protest. He deserved his fate.

After his condemnation, in the first instance, he had the privilege of appeal, which was availed of, on his behalf, by his council, but the Court of Revision, which considered the case on Thursday, found no reason to reverse the judgment. M. Weber, the advocate assigned by the prisoner, appears to have stuck generously by him, and even to have forwarded a petition for mercy to the Empress Regent. However much it must have cost the Empress to refuse it, as Regent no other course was open to her. Mercy could not be extended to the enemy’s spy, while the enemy himself was on French soil, and French blood was bieng shed in torrents on the battle-field.

Accordingly the order was given that the sentence should be carried out. At 5 o’clock this morning Harth was awakened in his cell in the military prison in the Rue du Cherche Midi by a messenger, who announced to him that his hour had come. He received the news calmly, like a man who had given up all hope, and was expecting it; more than that, like a man who was prepared to meet the worst, with the courage of dogged resignation.

M. Roth de Lille, the Protestant pastor of the gaol, was shown into the cell of the doomed man, and remained with him until the cellular van that was to convey him to the scene of his execution drew up with a rumble and a clatter of horses hoofs at the prison gate. Harth entered it boldly, and the vehicle drove off through the quiet streets with their early freshness upon them escorted by twelve mounted gendarmes, armed cap a pie, and making music to the ride of death with their clunking accoutrements.

The Ecole Militaire, that huge pile of barracks that will be familiar to those who visited the Exposition of 1867, from its position facing the Champs de Mars, was fixed on as the place of execution. The Polygon of Vincennes is the spot usually designed, but the Ecole Militaire was nearer, and this is no time for the formalities of precedent. Whatever is done to paralyze the invader had better be done quickly.

The courtyard of the barracks was occupied by all the troops quartered there in marching order. The battalion of the Grenadiers of the Guard, that serves as depot, was there in line with fixed bayonets, and detachments of Lancers with their gay pennons, and brown, brawny Cuirassiers, and the guides — the daintiest of all the French cavalry — in their heavily-embroidered jackets, were there too. A pretty sight for a military man, these flashing arms and helmets and polished cuirasses in the cheerful morning sunshine.

How did it strike Charles Harth, for he had been a military man by his own admission, a Lieutenant in the Prussian infantry. When the prisoner stepped from the van and threw a rapid look over the assembled troops, he gave a few nervous twitches of his head.

The clock over the centre of the building chimed the quarter to six. Six precisely was the hour fixed for the shooting. The prisoner had yet fifteen minutes to live.

He was led into an angle of the court yard, where the troop horses are usually shod, and which forms a quiet corner to itself. Here he was placed close to the wall, and in front of a squad of twelve men of the Forty-second Regiment of the line, namely, two sergeants, four corporals, and half-a-dozen privates. The firing party stood in two ranks, the two sergeants being stationed in the rear.

As the prisoner was approached by the turnkeys of the military prison whose duty it was to tie his hands behind his back, he shrunk back and said, ‘No! I wish to die like a soldier.’ But on representations being made to him that there was no exception to the rule, he yielded. His eyes were then bandaged, when he expressed a wish to be allowed to give the word ‘fire.’ Adjt. Codont, who had acted as registrat to the court-marshal [sic], came forward and read the sentence amid an impressive silence.

At a pause at one of the paragraphs in the document, the prisoner, fancying the reading had been finished, cried” ‘Tirez, coquns, et ne me manquez pas.’ ‘Fire, you rascals, and mind you don’t miss!’ But the squad did not stir; it was waiting another signal.

As the last syllable died away on the Adjutant’s lips the officer commanding the firing party drew his sword, the soldiers raised their Chassepots to their shoulder and took aim, the sword was lowered, and a dozen shots went off like one, with a sudden startling detonation. Before the report of the discharge had smitten the straining ears of those who looked on, the prisoner fell forward with an inclination to his right side. Over his left breast, in the region of his heart, his shirt was torn into a jagged hole, where the bullets had entered.

As he lay motionless on the ground one of the sergeants in the rear of the firing party advanced through the little cloud of smoke and discharged his piece into the dead man’s brain. Dead man, I say, for Harth must have died before he reached the ground in his fall.

The troops were marched past the body, which was then lifted, limp and warm, and put, dressed as it was, into a coffin, and trotted off to the Cemetery of Mont Parnasse, where it was dropped into a grave which had been opened to receive it, and hastily hidden from view.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,France,Germany,History,Prussia,Shot,Spies,Wartime Executions

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1878: Ivan Kovalsky, nihilist martyr

Add comment August 14th, 2016 Headsman


London Times, Aug. 26, 1878.

On this date in 1878,* Odessa nihilist Ivan Kovalsky was shot by directive of a military tribunal.

A “propaganda of the deed” type, Kovalsky advocated and practiced armed resistance to what one of his leaflets called “this vile government.” When tsarist police raided his printing press in January 1878, Kovalsky dramatically fought back with a revolver and a dagger while his comrades destroyed documents.

They did not slay a policeman in the process of repelling arrest, so the harsh decision to shoot Kovalsky for resisting made him a wholly political martyr — actually one of the very first in Russia’s running internal battle against her revolutionaries.

Two days later, secret police general Nikolai Mezentsov was daggered to death disembarking a carriage in broad daylight by Sergei Stepniak-Kravchinsky, leaving propaganda of the word to match that of his bloody deed: a manifesto titled “Death for Death” and dedicated “to the memory of Martyr Ivan Martynovich Kovalsky, shot by the secret police for defending his freedom”:

The chief of gendarmes, the leader of a gang that has all of Russia under its heel, has been killed. Few have not guessed whose hands dealt the fatal blow. But in order to avoid any confusion, we announce for general information that gendarme chief Adjutant General Mezentsov was in fact killed by us, revolutionary socialists … We tried the perpetrators and inciters of the brutalities done to us. The trial was as just as the ideas we are defending. This trial found Adjutant General Mezentsov deserving of death for his villainous deeds against us, and the sentence was carried out on Mikhailovsky Square on the morning of August 4, 1878. (Source)

The murderer successfully fled the scene and escaped into exile where he founded the Anglo-American Society of Friends of Russian Freedom and wrote widely on his estranged homeland.

* Gregorian date. The date in Russia, still on the Julian calendar at the time, was August 2.

** Submitted without comment: Stepniak’s interview in exile describing the escape from the assassination, which he attributed to “one of my friends”:

My friend rushed upon the General, stabbed him with a knife, and jumped into a carriage which was waiting for him. As you may imagine, the comrade who drove lashed the horse furiously, for rapid flight was the only alternative to being hung. Nevertheless, my friend the assassin took the whip out of the driver’s hand, saying ‘Don’t lash him, the animal is doing what he can.’ And my friend was afterwards pleased with himself for having felt this pity, for he said to himself, ‘After all, I am not altogether a bad fellow.'”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Martyrs,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,Treason,Ukraine

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