1872: John Kewish, the last to hang on the Isle of Man

Add comment August 1st, 2020 Headsman

This 2004 episode from Manx Radio gives us the story of John Kewish, hanged on this date in 1872 for killing his father with a pitchfork. Kewish is the last person ever executed on the Isle of Man — indeed even at his own time such a punishment was so passe that the local gallows-makers were vexed by the contract.

Interestingly, because this Irish Sea island is a crown dependency rather than a part of the United Kingdom proper, capital punishment did not end on the Isle of Man when Westminster abolished in the 1960s. Death sentences continued to be handed down there until 1992, and thus it is that a Manx judge holds the distinction of being the last person in the British Isles to pronounce a death sentence from the bench, and a Manx criminal that of being the last to hear it. (Such latter-day sentences were always commuted by Queen Elizabeth II’s royal prerogative.)

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

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1876: Hjert and Tector, the last public beheadings in Sweden

Add comment May 18th, 2020 Headsman

Augusta, you are now so big that the world’s temptations begin to surround you. Pay close attention to your own heart, for in the human heart lies a seed of evil and when it has the opportunity to take root it grows very fast …

From the last letter of Gustav Hjert to his family

Below is a photo of the May 18, 1876 beheading of Gustav Adolf Eriksson Hjert, who with his accomplice in murder Konrad Petterson Lundqvist Tector/Tektor comprised the last public beheadings in Sweden. In the shocking image at hand, the fatal blow has been inflicted by the practiced arm of executioner Johan Fredrik Hort.

Hjert and Tector committed their capital crime together — it was a badly botched* armed robbery of a carriage that resulted in two people shot dead and no booty heisted — but they were separately separated from their heads: Hjert in Lilla Malma, and Tector in Stenkumla, both on the same Thursday morning.

* Botched as in, they were waiting to ambush the mail coach but in their eagerness they waylaid the wrong vehicle.

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Entry Filed under: Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Mature Content,Milestones,Murder,Public Executions,Sweden

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1876: Louis Thomas, gallows builder

1 comment April 28th, 2020 Headsman

This musing on the torments for condemned prisoners of seeing their own rickety gallows put up in their own prison yard comes via Ken Leyton-Brown’s The Practice of Execution in Canada … and culminates with a Winnipeg execution that took place on April 28, 1876.

In principle, hanging may be said to have begun when the procession arrived at the scaffold, at which point the hangman took control of proceedings, and to have ended with the death of the condemned. During what was supposed to be a brief time, the hangman was to perform a number of tasks. First, the condemned had to be positioned over the trap. In the years just after Confederation, this might be delayed while he made a short address to the assembled onlookers, but in later years, the address was rarely permitted. Second, the hangman would secure his ankles and sometimes his knees. Third, what was called a cap, but was actually a bag, was placed over his head, and the oose was put about his neck and tightened. And lastly, the trap would be released, allowing him to drop through the platform.

This seems a fairly simple set of operations, and it might be expected that hanging was generally quite straightforward, but in fact, problems could arise at every stage. The first of these sprang from the fact that hangings occurred at the prson where the condemned person had been held during trial. An inevitable consequence of this was that they took place in a large number of small facilities across the country, frequently in locations that had never conducted them before. This meant that the required apparatus had to be built from scratch, virtually always by people who lacked either plans or experience to guide them. Thus, predictably, it was not always a great success: a hastily erected scaffold might not work properly, and its construction could be unsettling, sometimes even cruel, to prisoners waiting to be hanged.

Even a hurriedly built gallows took some time to assemble because it had to be a substantial structure, able to meet the demands that would be placed upon it. It required a platform large enough to accommodate the various civic officials, one or more spiritual advisors, the hangman, and the condemned; it must include a trap door and a stout overhead beam; and it needed enough clearance underneath to allow for both the body to hang and the subsequent examination to ensure the death had occurred. None of this would be difficult for skilled carpenters, provided they had enough wood and nails, but the task did not necessarily appeal to them. Therefore, a gallows was often built to less than the desired standard, and on occasion this adversely affected its functioning. More serious, though, was that its construction meant for the condemned, and for everyone in the prison. It was a noisy project, and the sound of sawing and hammering, combined with the certain knowledge of what was being built and what would happen when it finished, preyed on people’s minds, especially, one supposes, on that of the condemned. Worse, they could sometimes see its manufacture, either from their cell or was they went for exercise, and could watch it take shape, knowng that they would die upon it. A Winnipeg Free Press discussion of the preparation of a scaffold for Philip Johnston and Frank Sullivan illustrates this well:

Reverberating through the precincts of the provincial jail today are the sounds of the hammer and saw and to the two men these sounds mean the beginning of the end of their existence. Formal announcement is expected today from Ottawa that no reprieve can be granted Frank Sullivan and Philip Johnson, the two men condemned to pay the extreme penalty of the law for the murder of Constable Snowden.

Yesterday’s word from Ottawa that John Stoike had been reprieved and the fact that no announcement was made in regard to a new trial for the other two men caused a start to be made on the erection of the scaffold. Unless Minister of Justice Doherty grants a stay of execution today in order to listen to a new witness the men will be executed at 7 o’clock Friday morning.

Ellis, the executioner, is expected to reach the city tomorrow. Last night the floor of the double scaffold had been constructed and the framework will be completed in time for a thorough test to be made by noon tomorrow.

A scaffold had to be a sturdy affair, and it was often left standing for long or short periods as a mute reminder to prisoners of what their future might hold if they were unlucky or did not mend their ways. Usually, though, the scaffold was taken apart after a hanging and the wood either salvaged or stored. A stored scaffold could be reassembled when next it was needed, a detail typically mentioned in newspaper accounts. The hanging of Louis Thomas in 1876 provides an example. In 1874 Joseph Michaud had been hanged at Winnipeg, and it appears that the scaffold had been dismantled and the pieces stored. Two years later, when Angus McIvor was executed, it was taken out of storage and reassembled. The scaffold was then left up, and four months later Thomas became the third person to die on it. The most macabre feature of this was that, while in jail, Thomas was required to help raise McIvor’s scaffold, all the while knowing that his life would probably end on the same apparatus.

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

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1871: Generals Lecomte and Thomas, at the birth of the Paris Commune

Add comment March 18th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1871, the Paris Commune was born, with the execution of Generals Lecomte and Thomas.

Paris had come to the brink of revolution by dint of the country’s humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. After a monthslong Prussian siege of the capital, Paris had become thoroughly radicalized and stood at tense loggerheads with the newly elected conservative national government of Adolphe Thiers. A militant National Guard swelled by the city’s large proletariat had defended Paris during its late privations, only to see a government of national humiliation accept punishing peace terms from Bismarck and submit to a Prussian victory parade on the Champs d’Elysees.

Now, it blanched at the national government’s intention to reassert its own long-absent authority in Paris.

These sovereigns’ rivalries chanced to focus in the critical moment upon 400 bronze cannon in Paris, which the National Guard had used in the city’s defense and deployed to working-class neighborhoods with the intention of keeping them out of the government’s hands.

On March 18, upon an order by Thiers which some of his ministers opposed, the army moved upon these guns, intending to seize weapons and authority together. General Claude Lecomte (English Wikipedia entry | French), a rock-ribbed career officer of 63, had charge of this operation so offensive to the Parisian populace.

Lecomte was able to deploy his men at Montmarte where a great portion of the guns would come into his possession, but well did the master observe that “The line between disorder and order lies in logistics” — for a delay in the arrival of the horses and tumbrils by which the artillery would be hauled away gave time for word to spread in the city and an angry crowd assemble to oppose this outrage. Thiers had overruled objections that his soldiery was itself sympathetic to the radicals and would not be reliable in the breach; now, those warnings were vindicated as the soldiery declined to fire on Parisians and instead fraternized as the people took back Montmarte.

Although Lecomte was “merely” seized for the Central Committee of the National Guard, Paris’s blood was up; “the mob wanted to tear their victims to pieces, and it is my opinion they are the culpable judges,” writes John Leighton in Paris Under the Commune.

The first to lay hands on General Lecomte were linesmen and Mobiles, one of the latter observing, as he made a gesture, “Formerly you punished me with thirty days in prison, now I will be the first to fire at you.” Whilst this was going on a new movement was observed in the crowd. It was the arrival of another prisoner, a venerable gentleman, with a white beard, in plain clothes. It was General Clement Thomas, who had been arrested in the Place Pigalle by the National Guards. The General had been advised to run away, but he would remain, saying, “I will walk, it is my right.” This brought about a mob, who conducted him to the Rue des Rosiers, making it still worse for the prisoner Lecomte, for it was well known that Clement Thomas had been pretty severe at the Hotel de Ville and elsewhere, on the battalions of Montmartre and Belleville.

Once in the Rue des Rosiers, General Thomas felt he was lost, but as he would not die without knowing the cause, he mounted some steps and in a loud voice demanded, “What do you reproach me with?” “To death!” replied the crowd. “You are too great cowards to shoot me,” said the General. With these words he was driven into the garden, whilst General Lecomte in the scuffle attempted to escape by the back door, though unfortunately without success. Once in the garden, the old vine-covered walls and chestnut trees became crowded with miserable spectators ready to see the horrible deed perpetrated by a peloton of soldiers of the line and two francs-tireurs. In falling, poor General Lecomte exclaimed, “Oh my poor children! my —-” As he sunk mortally wounded, a villain of the group stepped forward and slapped him in the face. Clement Thomas was shot by National Guards. At first only wounded, he afterwards fell pierced in fourteen places. A National Guard pulled him over by the beard, that his face might be seen, and for two hours afterwards the bodies afforded a ghastly spectacle that was enjoyed by an ignoble procession of spectators.

Outside the garden, with the city in an uproar, the proletarian organs that had grown over the long siege took Paris firmly in hand while national government officials fled as they could — or were rounded up as hostages if they could not. The Commune would be master of Paris for ten tense weeks, until Thiers’s republic drowned it in blood.

For Leighton, no friend of the Commune, all the woe in its suppression could be traced to the ham-handed cannon debacle of March 18, 1871:

One thing appears certain — that General Lecomte did not take prompt measures and proper precautions, and that the Government, which sent him to remove 171 guns, without teams, and so small a force, acted inconsiderately, and must be held morally responsible for the disasters which ensued — disasters that, terrible as they are, might have been worse and have led to the total ruin of France.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",Cycle of Violence,Execution,France,History,No Formal Charge,Power,Public Executions,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1874: Sid Wallace

Add comment March 14th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1874, colorful outlaw Sid[ney] Wallace was hanged for murder in Reconstruction Arkansas.*

A large enough figure to merit his own entry in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, Wallace was a little boy on a farm near Clarksville in Johnson County when his father was murdered by Union men in 1863.

The legend has it that his family’s slave, Missouri Blackard, kept the identities of the killers from the youth until he turned 20 or 21 … whereupon Wallace served his revenge cold, tracking one of them as far as Kansas to murder him.

How Sid learned that one of the killers had relocated to Kansas is never explained, but the account describes him traveling to Kansas, finding the murderer, and staying the night with him and his family, claiming to be a peddler. He even displayed his wares to the family to make his story convincing. Only in the morning, as he was taking leave of the family, did he identify himself as the son of Vincent Wallace, as he drew a pistol and shot his host dead. No charges were ever filed against Sid for this cold-blooded act, nor was it mentioned during his trials for the killings that happened in Johnson County. (Unvarnished Arkansas: The Naked Truth about Nine Famous Arkansans)

Back in Clarksville, Wallace carved out a niche (with his brother George, until the latter got shot) as a colorful James Gang-like populist criminal with a knack for escaping actual or would-be jailers: the most charming adventure attributed him is dodging a posse by hiding under Missouri Blackard’s (evidently quite capacious) skirts while the latter took a casual stroll to the well. We’re not vouching for this story, just reporting the allegation.

To return to Unvarnished Arkansas, Clarksville

was shattered by a pair of murders in the last days of August 1873. Constable R.W. “Doc” Ward was the first victim to be assassinated. Doc Ward had first come to Arkansas with the Federal army during the Civil War; like some other northern soldiers, Ward had stayed in the South after the war to make his fortune. Such men often were described as “carpetbaggers,” suggesting that their only motivation to remain in the South was to profit at the expense of the defeated and demoralized southerners. Carpetbaggers had rebuilt the government of Arkansas and other southern states, even representing these states in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, as well as in state legislatures and in governors’ offices. Carpetbaggers had opened banks, built railroads, started businesses, and constructed houses for themselves and their famlies. Many carpetbaggers, like Doc Ward, had been appointed or elected to positions of local authority. Ward does not appear to have been generally disliked in Johnson County; he was just a man doing his job, like so many other men around the county. Still, as constable, he had a responsibility to arrest criminals, and anyone pursuing a life of crime could expect to profit from the elimination of the local enforcer of the law.

Doc Ward was sitting on a wooden sidewalk in front of W.P. Rose’s drugstore one fine summer evening — August 20, 1873 — when a single gunshot rang out, and the constable fell, mortally wounded. He did not die until September 12, however. The shocked witnesses reported that a gunman had fired a double-barreled shotgun at the constable and then ridden away on horseback. No one was arrested for the crime. Exactly one week later, county judge Elisha Mears was walking home for his noontime meal after a pleasant visit to Blind Bob’s Saloon in Clarksville when, once again, a single shot rang out. Mears fell, badly injured — he died an hour after midnight. Witnesses said that the gunman had been concealed, but no one claimed to know who had fired the shots. Tongues began to wag, though, and fingers of blame were being pointed at Sid Wallace. Even in Little Rock, the Arkansas Gazette took notice of the crimes, grumbling that no effort was being made to bring the assassin to justice.** Citizens of Johnson County were not as blind to criminal behavior, however, as the Little Rock journalist suggested. More than a century later, one writer would characterize their attitude with these words: “The killing of Judge Meers [sic], a progressive Johnson County native, turned the tide of public opinion in Clarksville against Sid Wallace. Sid was the prime suspect, and most thought he should not have shot the judge, even if he was a Republican.”

But even under sentence of death, the roue got a pass to escort the prison warden’s daughter to a dance. Unsurprisingly, she returned home begging for her date’s life.

He was hanged publicly in Clarksville on March 14, 1873, with the manful last words, “I have no confession to make to man, but whatever I have to confess must be to God. I die in defense of myself and friends, and I regret not having a dozen deaths to die.” He had only the one, but that hasn’t hindered his rich posthumous life in folk hero-dom, regional class, including a highly dubious rumor that he survived his execution and lived on to rob and murder again on western trails.

* The very tail end of that post-Civil War era: in Arkansas, the terminal event was a factional bush war that broke out in April 1874 and brought about a new state constitution followed by nearly a full century of Democratic governors.

** Arkansas, which was out on the frontier at this point in America’s march across the continent, had a national reputation: the New York Times threw it some shade while reporting Wallace’s hanging: “The determination which has been shown during the past year by the decent citizens of Arkansas to bring murderers to justice will eventually result in making the State a desirable place of residence. For many years it has been heard of almost entirely in connection with the reports of dark deeds.”

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

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1879: Anders Larsson, the first private execution in Sweden

Add comment February 13th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1879, Sweden conducted its first private execution, that of Anders Larsson.

Executioner Johan Fredrik Hjort.

Deep in the 19th century’s Long Depression, the farmer had murdered his pregnant wife in despair at providing for the whole family.

This positioned him to become the first* subject of an 1877 royal decree moving Sweden’s beheadings behind prison walls. The time and the location of the execution were also supposed to be concealed from the public — announced only after the fact, like present-day hangings in Japan — but in this instance word got around and the walls of Västerås county jail were thronged with would-be gawkers.

* There’s a complete list of modern Swedish executions here.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Milestones,Murder,Sweden

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1872: George “Charcoal” Botts

Add comment January 27th, 2020 Headsman

It’s the old, old story: conniving war profiteer helps client get divorce, conniving war profiteer installs divorced client as mistress, rival lover also awaiting divorced client’s divorce shoots conniving war profiteer, rival lover winds up on Executed Today.

It’s the story of George Botts (hanged January 27, 1872) and D.C. Civil War gadabout Oliver “Pet” Halsted. Friends of the site Murder By Gaslight has the details.

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1877: Dato Maharaja Lela, Perak War rebel

Add comment January 20th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1877, the British put a bow on a suppressed rebellion in Malaysia by executing one of its leaders.

The conflict is known as the Perak War. Perak was a sultanate on the Malaysian peninsula that had been torn by conflict for much of the 19th century and in 1874 sought protectorate status from the trade-hungry British who were only too happy to grant it.

Many Malayans were much less happy, and the very next year the first British Resident of Perak, James W. W. Birch, was assassinated by nationalists chuffed at his meddling — launching in the process the brief and unsuccessful Perak War.

The sultan-appointed mufti Dato Maharaja Lela (English Wikipedia entry | Malaysian) was the author of this murder* and then one of the primary leaders of a very short-lived rebellion. It was all done and dusted in a matter of weeks with the British carrying a couple of decisive early engagements and our Maharaja sinking into the wilderness for a few months as a fugitive. Add in some mopping up and there’s your war.

He’d be captured and eventually executed for the Birch assassination, in Taiping, Perak (Not to be confused with Taiping Island, in Taiwan); in this he had a better fate than the sultan, whom the British merely exiled to the Seychelles — where the deposed sovereign occupied his time adapting a French ditty into what became the Malaysian national anthem.

* Birch’s ham-handed carelessness of local mores is the stock motivation imputed to his killers, but some have pointed to his move towards outlawing the slave trade as a serious ding to Dato Maharaja Lela’s bottom line.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Malaysia,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Separatists,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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1879: Juan Oliva Moncusi, attempted regicide

Add comment January 4th, 2020 Headsman

Juan Oliva Moncusi (sometimes given as Moncasi) was publicly garroted at Madrid’s Campo de Guardias on this date in 1879 for his failed assassination attempt on King Alfonso XII the previous October 25.

“That day the young* king had returned to his capital, after a month’s absence,” quoth The Atlantic,

Everywhere he was received with hearty welcomes; the crowds cheered, and ladies showered bouquets of flowers upon him from the balconies. As the royal cortege passed along the principal street of Madrid a young man pressed through the soldiers who kept the line, and, drawing a pistol, fired point-blank at Alfonso. The bullet missed its aim. The would-be assassin was instantly seized, and he proved to be one Juan Oliva Moncasi, a cooper, twenty-three years of age. He had for several years been noted in the district of Tarragona, in the province of Catalonia, where he was born, for his exaggerated ideas in politics. He was uncommonly daring and cool in his behavior after his arrest, and he declared that he did not feel the slightest remorse. He had meditated this crime for a long time past, and came to Madrid with the firm resolve to carry out his design. He admitted that he had forfeited his life, but said he believed that he was, like Nobiling and Hoedel, furthering the objects of his school in social questions.

Source are at odds over whether to characterize this young man as a socialist or an anarchist, but his attack — succeeding the aforementioned separate assassination attempts by Nobiling and Hoedel upon the German Kaiser, and followed by the November 1879 attempt on the Italian king by Giovanni Passannante — shook Europe’s crowned heads. The anarchist Kropotkin would complain in his memoirs of the harassment he endured in Switzerland by authorities who suspected a coordinated international plot.

Although that proved not to be the case, Moncusi’s errant bullet might have actually insured the continued existence — down to the present day — of the Bourbon line in Spain, for in view of the year’s campaign of attentatsthe royal advisers deemed it urgent that the succession to the throne should be assured” and accelerated negotiations to wed Alfonso to the Habsburg princess Maria Christina.

And not a moment too soon. When Alfonso died young of dysentery in 1885, Maria Christina was pregnant with what proved to be a posthumous son and heir.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Garrote,History,Notable for their Victims,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Spain,Strangled

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1872: Joseph Garcia, for the Llangibby Massacre

Add comment November 18th, 2019 Headsman

Spanish seaman Joseph Garcia was hanged at Usk Prison on this date in 1872, for the Llangibby Massacre.

It occurred in the Welsh village of that name, inland from the mouth of the Severn where Garcia had alit as a mariner at Newport nearly a year before.

He’d committed a burglary there, and been committed to jail for his pains. His sentence was nine months … followed by release to a foreign land whose language he barely spoke, his ship long gone and no friend or occupation to direct him.

A “short, thin man, just five feet five inches tall, with a swarthy complexion, coarse black hair and beard,” Garcia trudged the road in to the farming town. Several times he was observed loitering there but his presence was really announced by the billows of smoke pouring from the home of William Watkins, a farmworker — and neighbors who rushed to the scene beheld the horror of its owner dead from a stab wound through his throat, his wife similarly dealt with, and all three of their small children also put to the blade — their wee corpses already partly charred from the fire.

The stranger’s foreignness invited attention, of course, and when he was arrested back at Newport circumstantial evidence appeared to confirm the connection: he had some injuries and bloodstains that suggested a scrap, a pair of boots that might have been stolen from Watkins, and some stolen household articles that a surviving daughter of Watkins fortunate enough to be away from the house at the fatal hour recognized as the family’s own. He also possessed a knife that he hadn’t been discharged with.

Then as now the fury for a swarthy outlander come uninvited to go a-viking among law-abiding Britons was potent; while legal proceedings were entirely regular, “the noise outside the court was powerful enough at times to prevent the witness from being heard, and from the character of the exclamations which permeated to the interior of the court the crowd appeared ready to lynch Garcia.” (Period press quoted here.) Indeed, such a sentiment was openly published in at least one broadsheet murder ballad:

May the murderers to justice quickly be brought,
And suffer the penalty they surely have sought,
Lynch law in some countries they would very soon find,
And their bodies be swinging on the trees to the wind.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Wales

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