1872: William Frederick Horry, Marwood’s first

8 comments April 1st, 2012 Headsman

If Pa killed Ma, who’d kill Pa?

Marwood.

Victorian riddle/pun

On this date in 1872, the landmark hanging career of William Marwood commenced — when, having persuaded the authorities at Lincoln Castle Gaol, he executed his very first subject.

The man of the milestone was William Frederick Horry, a Boston native — not Boston, Massachusetts, but the Lincolnshire port that was its namesake.

“Fred” wed Jane and the two ran The George Hotel in Burslem together.

Until Fred’s drunken, possessive outbursts led Jane to flee the house. Let it be said that a partnership in the hospitality industry might not be the ideal choice for your controlling type.

Jane and the couple’s three children actually took refuge with Fred’s own kin, the husband’s father barring his own son from the home. Horry got around that by showing up with a revolver and shooting her dead in an act of coldly calculated passion: he immediately handed the gun to his stunned brother and stayed to await arrest, saying, “You have no notion, Tom, how I loved that woman, but I could not stand the jealousy.” Nor did he show any interest in appealing for clemency; he hanged within days of his conviction.

If this reads to modern eyes like the unedifying passion play of an abusive, loutish spouse, many in Burslem were ready to consider Fred Horry “a martyr, more sinned against than sinning.” (The funeral oration of a rector!) Three thousand people lined the streets to respectfully see Horry’s coffin to its rest; even the requisite crime broadsheet concurred in the apparent public judgment about Jane’s culpably easy virtue.

Now all you who give way to jealous passion,
And the crimes which it entails,
I hope that you will learn a lesson,
From my sad and mournful tale.
Their married life has ended early,
For his wife he says his temper tried
But for them now it is all ended,
For her faults she bled and died.

Supporters erected a monolith in his honor, an unusual tribute for a wife-murderer.


The man tasked to mete out the lesson for Horry’s jealous passion was, heretofore, a Horncastle cobbler.

Already into his fifties by this time, William Marwood was strictly self-educated in the science of hanging … but it is he who would bring the exacting mechanical arts to the hangman’s ancient craft.

(Actually, Marwood was fond of distinguishing himself from the mere hangman. “Calcraft hanged them,” he said of his notoriously slipshod predecessor’s operations. “I execute them.” He went so far as to assert his professionalism with business cards.)

To make this famous mark in the annals of capital punishment, Marwood the cobbler first had to talk his way into the Horry job. This was surely facilitated by the fact that the most recent execution at Lincoln Castle, that of Priscilla Biggadike or Biggadyke, had been a bit of a botch, with one of the realm’s forgettable barely-competent hangmen clumsily fitting the noose to the front of the convict’s throat on the supposition that this would snap her neck. Instead, she strangled.

Marwood’s arrival spelled the quick end to folklore and guesswork on the scaffold; his was the rational hand of industrial Britain finally touching the ancient hanging ritual.

For most of English history, the hanging had entailed simply shoving the unfortunate subject off a ladder or a cart, leaving them to gradually choke to death at the end of the noose. This protracted process was sometimes associated with unruly public scenes, and with “executed” criminals surviving (and even intentionally calculating to survive) the hanging. “Such as have but a very superficial Notion of Anotomy, may easily conceive how a Person very soon cut down may shew even strong Signs of Life,” the Ordinary of Newgate had passingly remarked in 1736, as if it really were no big deal.

Of course, it had long been understood that adding a little plummet could generate the force necessary to break the neck, to the advantage of both speed and certainty. Guy Fawkes is supposed to have exploited the carelessness of a Stuart executioner to hurl himself off the ladder when they were just setting up for the non-fatal hanging portion of his “hanged, drawn, and quartered” sentence — and thereby cleverly offed himself before they could do the agonizing Braveheart bits to his living body.

Small drops came into use with the move towards hanging platforms late in the 18th century, and by the mid-19th century larger drops of some kind were standard operating procedure: witness the description of the setup for the country’s first private hanging a few years before our date.

But the length and the nature of the drop remained very much within individual hangmen’s ad hoc discretion. The science of dropping would only arrive in the 1860s and 1870s. Until then, execution bulletins reporting that the unhappy soul “died hard” denoted the frequent occasions when death was effected via agonizing minutes of choking spasms. Even in the London Times‘ Dec. 22, 1875 report on one such man who “died hard” noted that “in the memory of Mr. John Rowland Gibson, the prison surgeon, extending, in that capacity, over more than 40 years, there are only two instances on record in Newgate of the neck of a convict having been dislocated during execution.”

Aiming to remedy that substandard record, the Irish doctor Samuel Haughton in 1866 published a landmark paper, “On hanging considered from a Mechanical and Physiological point of view” (read it here), in which he noted that whereas a short-dropped prisoner’s death by apoplexy or asphyxiation is “preceded by convulsions, lasting from five to forty-five minutes,” a broken neck “is instantaneous and painless, and is unaccompanied by any convulsive movement whatever.”

“It seems to me unworthy of the present state of science,” Haughton continued, “to continue a mode of execution which, as at present used, is extremely clumsy and also painful to the criminal.”

In a mass of equations abstractly working out foot-pounds’ shock expended on the neck and which vertebrae constituted the superior articulating surface, Haughton proceeded to suggest a protocol (adapted from the American drop method) “to give hanging all the rapidity of death by the guillotine without the painful spectacle of bloodshed.”

Haughton was just a theorist. Marwood actually put those concepts into practice.

Marwood is presumed to have been influenced by Haughton’s studies; although the basis for that renowned hangmanexecutioner‘s calculations is not known, Marwood is distinguished as the creator of the “long drop” hanging method — giving variable 4- to 10-foot falls to his subjects based on their body weight, with the knot stationed under the left jawline.

He was able to do all that because this first hanging of William Horry went off without a hitch. Still, as a nonentity at first, Marwood had to continue to hustle his hanging assignments — as with this solicitous handwritten 1873 pitch (page 1, page 2) to work an upcoming death date.

But Marwood’s clean long drops — he was the only executioner using the technique — soon secured him appointment as state executioner and the official London and Middlesex hangman. Over an 11-year career from 1872 to 1883, Marwood put 178 humans to death, the bulk of British executions during that period.

Marwood’s legacy — not his direct creation, since it was formalized in the years following his death — was the bureaucratic standardization of the hanging in the form of “drop tables” defining the length of rope to use relative to the weight of the executed prisoner to guarantee the death penalty would be implemented “in a becoming manner without risk of failure or miscarriage in any respect.”

On this day..

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1872: Du Wenxiu, Panthay rebellion leader

Add comment December 26th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1872, China’s Panthay Rebellion came to an end with the surrender, suicide, and execution — in that order — of Du Wenxiu.

The Panthay Rebellion (also known as the Du Wenxiu Rebellion) was one of several cataclysmic revolts to shake foundering imperial China in the 19th century.

This one was centered in the city of Dali (also known as Talifoo) in the southeastern Yunnan Province, near the Burmese border.* The rebels in question were the Hui people, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group who had been pushed around for years by Qing officials and by the ethnic Han.

The backstory of Han-on-Hui ethnic cleansing in the 1840s makes for harrowing reading, lowlighted by the 1845 massacre of 8,000 Hui in Baoshan.

An even more ambitious operation in May 1856 went down in Kunming, where a massacre — Qing officials publicly posted a directive to “kill [the Hui] one and all”** — claimed several thousand more and razed the city’s mosques. This outburst spawned an attempt at wholesale ethnic cleansing throughout the province … but that attempt blew back on its perpetrators by triggering a rebellion that would require a generation to tame.

The unexpected tenacity of Hui resistance was multiplied by the disadvantages for the Chinese state of operating in a distant and mountainous territory, and its preoccupation with the much larger simultaneous Taiping Rebellion. Though these considerations were not sufficient to dissuade local officials from picking the fight in the first place, they would help them come to regret it.

Hui resistance quickly coalesced into an organized rebellion, and that rebellion overran Dali by the end of the year, establishing itself as the seat of an independent kingdom called Pingnan Guo. Meanwhile, the onset of the Second Opium War left China incapable of contemplating a reconquest.

Du Wenxiu, the half-Han Islamic convert rebel leader acclaimed Sultan Sulaiman of Dali, was therefore left with some operating room to establish a Hui state. He led a pluralistic nation (for the Hui themselves were and are a pluralistic identity) in the western half of Yunnan, stretching from the Tibetan frontier almost to Kunming. (They came close but never quite managed to take this city).

Alas, in due time and with sufficient stability elsewhere in China the Pingnan state came under withering attack from the late 1860s. It sought help from the British as a potential foil against Chinese power, but the aid was not forthcoming and probably would have been too little and much too late. The Pingnan / Panthay / Hui state

ended much as it had begun — in a bloody massacre of the Hui populace. On 26 December 1872, imperial troops surrounded Dali, the Pingnan capital. Du Wenxiu, in a move that he hoped would spare the lives of the city’s residents, made the decision to hand himself over to the Qing general. Swallowing a fatal dose of opium as his palanquin carried him to the Qing encampment, Du was already dead by the time that he was delivered to the Qing commander. Not to be robbed of the gratification of killing him themselves, Qing officials hastily dragged Du before the Qing troops to be decapitated.† According to Emile Rocher, a French adviser to the provincial officials in Yunnan at the time, Du’s head was encased in honey and sent to the emperor.

Du’s sacrifice, however, was in vain. Three days later, imperial troops began a massacre that, according to the government’s own conservative estimates, took ten thousand lives by the time it was concluded — four thousand of the victims were women, children, and the elderly. Hundreds drowned trying to escape from Dali by swimming across Erhai Lake. Others attempted to flee through the narrow passes at either end of the valley. All were chased down and slain by the Qing troops. The imperial soldiers were ordered to cut an ear from each of the dead. These grisly trophies filled twenty-four massive baskets and, together with Du’s severed head, were sent to Beijing, where they served as a silent and unequivocal corroboration of the Pingnan regime’s bloody demise.**

Du Wenxiu was within living memory when the Qing themselves fell; shortly after that happened, an honorary tomb was constructed for the martyred rebel outside Dali.

* “Panthay” is a Burmese word for Chinese Muslims.

** David Atwill, “Blinkered Visions: Islamic Identity, Hui Ethnicity, and the Panthay Rebellion in Southwest China, 1856-1873,” The Journal of Asian Studies, Nov. 2003. This article and/or Atwill’s book (review) on the same subject appear to be the ultimate source of nearly every accessible English resource on the Panthay Rebellion.

† According to the London Times (Aug. 27, 1873) the aides and litter-bearers who accompanied the dying Du to the Qin camp were also beheaded for their troubles. It ballparks the ensuing butchery at 40,000 to 50,000 souls.

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1872: Jose Balta, former President of Peru

1 comment July 26th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1872, four days after he was deposed as President of Peru, Jose Balta was summarily shot by the would-be dictatorship of Tomas Gutierrez.

Balta (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) made his name as a soldier, an ironic background for a martyr to constitutional government.

As a colonel, Balta in 1867 led a revolt against President Mariano Ignacio Prado in Chiclayo (mirrored by a similar revolt by Gen. Pedro Diez Canseco Corbacho in Arequipa). The resistance forced Prado’s resignation, and Balta won the ensuing 1868 election.

(Notably, it was under Balta’s administration that unprincipled American railroad speculator Henry Meiggs got his prolific track-building operations going in Peru. Basically, the government took all the capital it raised on its guano-export contract — appropriate source — and plowed it into Meiggs’ well-hyped railroads, whose returns rarely justified the outlay to construct them. Wealthy and influential at his zenith, this adventurer was widely considered culpable for the disastrous state of the Peruvian economy by the time of his 1877 death, since in the interim the guano market had crashed and Peru found itself buried in debt it would ultimately default on. Oh, and: reason Meiggs was in Peru? He had to flee California after perpetrating a real estate scheme.)

Back to Balta. The soldier-President was adamant about an orderly departure from office (with a handover to an opposition party*) when his term came up in 1872, but others around him were less keen on constitutional precedents when there was power to be kept or lost.

On July 22, 1872, War Minister Tomas Gutierrez and his brother, Col. Silvestre Gutierrez, arrested the president. Tomas Gutierrez proclaimed himself dictator.

He was surely expecting a more appropriately cowed reaction from the country than he got: the President-elect got away on a warship, whose crew declared for him; the Peruvian Congress passed a resolution outlawing the Gutierrez coup; and the public reaction against him was chilly enough that someone gunned down Silvestre Gutierrez in a railway station on July 26.

News of this turn for the worse reached brother Marcelino, who had (ex-)President Balta in his charge at Callao … and Marcelino had Jose Balta immediately shot. This event meets the definition of an execution better by its circumstances than by its ceremony, since there was none of the latter; Balta was simply blasted while lying sick in bed, perhaps even still asleep, and not with the least sense of occasion.

And by no standard did it meet the usurpers’ definition of utility.

Neither of the remaining two Gutierrezes would outlive Jose Balta by so much as a day, and news of Balta’s murder only helped fan the incipient uprising: both were killed by mobs as the would-be dictatorial party collapsed in the hours ahead. All three of Tomas, Silvestre and Marcelino wound up on lampposts in Lima (and then burned to ashes in a public square) as recompense for their four days’ sovereignty.

As one report given out in North America recounted it:

The events of the past week will forever be remembered in Peruvian history. The spectacle of a Constitutional President deposed and imprisoned by a military usurper; of a Congress dispersed at the point of the bayonet, after the members, irrespective of partisan feeling, had united in signing a solemn protest, declaring the new officers of the so-called Government criminals and outlaws; of an entire country gathering together its strength to repel the attack made upon its liberties and legal rights; of the rising of the people when their indignation could no longer be restrained on the news of the cowardly assassination of Balta by the Dictator; of the triumph of moral force and justice over bayonets and a bastard cause; of the terrible vengeance of the populace on their tyrants; of the final re-establishment of peace, order and good government. This wonderful series of events has been witnessed by Lima in the space of five days. The Peruvian people have nobly vindicated their name and their national honor; the country is now on a firmer basis, and presents greater hopes for prolonged tranquility, prosperity and progress than it has for many years past.

(Not exactly. The economy, as mentioned, crashed in the 1870s, and there was a successful coup in 1879.)

* The guy set to succeed Balta was Manuel Pardo — not to be confused with Mariano Prado, whom Balta had supplanted.

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1872: Gomburza

3 comments February 17th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1872, reformist Filipino priests Mariano Gomez, Jose Burgos and Jacinto Zamora (together, the first syllables of their surname formed the acronym “Gomburza”) were garroted in Manila for their alleged support of an anti-Spanish mutiny.

These three clerics were leading exponents of liberalization; they notably pressed the rights of the native-born clergy as against the powerful religious hierarchy of imported Spanish priests.

While that critique had a somewhat receptive ear under the forward-thinking governorship of Gen. Carlos-Maria de la Torre, a more reactionary successor did not look as kindly on such agitation.

When naval shipyard workers rebelled in the 1872 Cavite Mutiny — over higher taxes, including a surcharge to avoid forced labor, not over the Gomburza priests’ agenda as such — the colonial administration used it as a pretext to seized the priests and condemn them for subversion.

Alas, Spain couldn’t manage to garrote away its subject peoples’ aspirations.

A bad end for Gomez, Burgos and Zamora was just the start for reform and independence agitation in the Philippines.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Garrote,History,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Philippines,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Spain,Strangled,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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1872: Patrick Morrissey, by a future U.S. president

7 comments September 6th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1872, Buffalo sheriff — and future U.S. President — Grover Cleveland personally sprang the trap to hang matricide Patrick Morrissey.

Grover Cleveland hanged convicts on two non-consecutive occasions.

Morrissey’s drunken altercation with his widowed mother, that led to a stabbing, that led him to the gallows, would obviously be lost to remembrance but for his accidental association with the man who would become president 12 years later. Of course, it was precisely the other way around at the time of the hanging — so the New York Times article (pdf) on the execution has a pleasurable aspect of discovered curiosity: for the newsman, a dull just-the-facts slog in a forgettable day’s work; for posterity, an accidental glimpse at history’s backstage.*

Cleveland had taken office as Erie County sheriff the year before, his stepping stone from a legal practice into an illustrious electoral career in the Democratic Party that would see him rise to Mayor of Buffalo and Governor of New York (and, after his death, to the $20 bill).

One of Cleveland’s duties as sheriff was to carry out death sentences; he declined to delegate the responsibility to one of his assistants — the hagiography says that his ethical rectitude compelled him to assume the weighty responsibility personally — and handled Morrissey’s dispatch with his own hands.

With his subsequent ascent in the political realm, Cleveland’s activities this day made him the rare notable executioner to earn his fame in another walk of life.

Or infamy, as the case may be. In an era of competitive sloganeering and sobriquets,** Cleveland’s Republican opponents tried to hang him — so to speak — with the nickname “The Buffalo Hangman”.

* The other death row murderer referenced in the Times story was Cleveland’s second (and last) execution on February 14, 1873.

** Like most presidential pols of the time, Cleveland had many more nicknames, both friendly and not — “Uncle Jumbo” because of his girth; “Old Veto” for his liberal use of executive power; and others. (He was also elected a bachelor and married a 22-year-old beauty while in office. Eat your heart out, Bill Clinton.) The New Yorker avers that Buffalo voters during Cleveland’s early local incarnation actually knew him by the avuncular-yet-unwholesome handle of “Big Steve”.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,New York,Notable Participants,Popular Culture,USA

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