1876: Owen Lindsay, of the Baldwinsville Homicide

1 comment February 11th, 2019 Headsman

Friend of the site (and sometime guest-blogger) Robert Wilhelm brings this story from his essential Murder by Gaslight

Lindsay’s trip to the gallows began when a mysterious body was fished out of the drink in the upstate New York village of Baldwinsville.

Much as with Homer Simpson (electrocuted in 1929), posterity might indulge a chuckle that the instrument of Lindsay’s hanging was a fellow bearing the subsequently interesting name of Vader; needless to say, though, the means by which Lindsay and his Sith accomplice put Francis Colvin into the Seneca River was no elegant weapon for a more civilized age.

Find the whole post at MBG right here.

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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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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.”

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1876: Michael DeHay, in fire and maddened frenzy

Add comment January 14th, 2015 Michael DeHay

(Thanks to Michael DeHay for the autobiographical guest post, originally published — too late for DeHay to see the byline — in the Prescott, Arizona Miner‘s January 21, 1876 edition. Prescott’s Sharlot Hall Museum unearthed this fascinating frontier confessional and posted it on its library archives site. The Prescott Daily Courier also published an abridged version, complete with an old photo of 1870s Cerbat (it’s a ghost town today). -ed.)

I, Michael DeHay, being fully aware of my approaching fate, and though recognizing the justice of my sentence, feel impelled to give to the world this, my dying statement, hoping that my fate may prove a warning to others similarly situated as I have been, and praying that the circumstances which have hurried me on to a disgraceful end may be avoided by others so situated.

I was born in Mongoup, Sullivan Co., N.Y., April 10, 1830, and am now 45 years of age. At 18 years of age, I went to Greenwood, McHenry Co., Ill., where my father and family had previously settled. In 1850 I went to California — crossing the plains. For three years I was mining and prospecting in different places there, and then returned to Illinois; afterwards going to Minnesota and thence to Wisconsin, where in 1856 I became acquainted with and married Esther Hemstock, near La Crosse.

In 1857 I returned to California with my family, where I remained for four years, working at mining and at my trade as a carpenter. These dates may not be correct, as I have only my memory to rely on, but they are as near as I can now remember.

In 1861 I removed to Nevada with my family; lived at Aurora in Esmerelda County, about seven years or until 1868, and then removed to White Pine, and the next Spring to Pioche, and thence to Parabnega Valley in Lincoln County, where my family resided, until in August 1875, at which time I was at work in Groom District (60 miles distant from my family), as there was no work nearer my home where I had a ranch.

I was working to get money ahead with which to remove my family to some place where I could educate my children, whom I deeply love. I was one of a Committee to get a school started, and had hired a teacher and made arrangements to remove my family to Hiko (NV). At this time, when I was filled with bright hopes for the future for my children, I was almost crazed to learn that my wife had left my home, taking with her my children, team and wagon and most of my household goods, and had started towards Arizona with a Mr. Suttonfield, an entire stranger to me, and who I learned had camped for a few weeks on my ranch. The man who gave me this information was a Constable, who at the same time served a summons on me in favor of Mr. Wilson, a store keeper, for $51, most of which my wife had obtained in supplies just before leaving for Arizona.

I immediately returned to my desolate home, and the next day started in pursuit. My first and great object in following was to get possession of my dear children. I passed them at Chloride, six miles from Mineral Park, where they had camped. Had I then followed the dictates of my almost crazed brain, I should have then and there stopped and shot both the man and woman who had, as I felt, brought ruin on both myself and children, but my better judgment prevailed and I went on to Mineral Park and laid my case before Mr. Davis, to whom I had been recommended to go for advice. Under his advice, I got out a process and had them brought into Mineral Park, but nothing came of it.

I then got a house for my family to live in, and went to work and got provisions for us to live on. I did all I could to make them comfortable, and tried by every means to induce my wife to live with me as before and was willing to forgive the past. To all my appeals she turned a deaf ear, continually declaring that she never would resume her marital relations with me.

During this time I was informed that she, from time to time, met Suttonfield at his house. This continued pressure upon my mind affected me both by day and night. I was troubled with horrid dreams, and at times was nearly crazed. The night the act was committed, I was completely weighed down with trouble and sorrow, and being suddenly awaked from my troubled sleep saw, or thought I saw, my wife standing over me with a butcher-knife in her hand. She had been sleeping in one room in our only bed with some of the children, and I in an adjoining room on the floor.

When I was thus suddenly awakened, I jumped up, clutching my revolver which was under my head and rushed after her into her room. She jumped into the bed and curled down, and I, in my frenzy, fired at her and drew her out on to the floor. When I saw the blood, and saw what I had done, I was horror-struck and rushed out of the house, determined to take my own life, and with this intent, placed my pistol to my breast and fired twice. I then ran down town and for hours have but a faint recollection of what occurred, except that I went up and down a ladder into a hay-loft. At the time I committed the deed, my brain seemed to be on fire and that my head was the center of fire and maddened frenzy.

During all the time after my arrival at Mineral Park, I had never thought or meditated on the murder of my wife, or to revenge myself on her for her act of desertion, but I had at times meditated on revenge upon Suttonfield, as I felt that he was the cause of all my misery. I had never had any serious difficulty with my wife more than a few hasty words such as are likely to occur between other husbands and wives.

I make this statement with a full knowledge that my end is drawing nigh, and that another day will launch me into eternity, where I shall meet my Maker face to face. I forgive all who have wronged me, as I hope myself to be forgiven by a kind and merciful God.

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1876: The slave Francisco, Brazil’s last execution

Add comment April 28th, 2014 Headsman

Brazil carried out the last civil execution in its history on April 28, 1876.

The beloved and long-serving Emperor Pedro II — Brazil’s last emperor, for he was deposed in 1889 in favor of a Republic — had developed a strong aversion to the death penalty.

“I am not a supporter of capital punishment,” Pedro II mused in his diary on New Year’s Day, 1862,

but conditions in our society still make it necessary, and it exists in law. However, employing of the prerogatives of the regulating power, I commute death sentences, whenever the circumstances of the case justify so doing it.

Just two months before writing that entry, Pedro had failed to stop the execution of Jose Pereira de Sousa.

But as the years went on, Pedro would find his sought-for justification to intercede ever more frequently … and in time, universally. There were still death sentences handed down in the last decade-plus of the Brazilian Empire, but the sovereign’s pen sustained a standing moratorium.

Jose Pereira de Sousa’s 1861 hanging proved to be the last civil execution of a free man in Brazil’s history — the qualifier courtesy of Brazil’s status as the Western world’s last slave state. (Slavery wasn’t abolished in Brazil until 1888.)

The black slave Francisco was the very last condemned man whose execution the Emperor Pedro II failed to block. Francisco was one of a trio of slaves who had two years prior bludgeoned to death their former masters, João Evangelista de Lima and his wife. One of Francisco’s confederates was killed on the run; the second died in prison. (Source, in Portuguese like most of the little to be found about Francisco.)

Its distinguishing characteristic from the standpoint of posterity is simply that it was the last; and, that its milestone characteristic underscores Brazil’s painful slaving history.

These circumstances have recommended Francisco’s last passion to annual re-enactments (more Portuguese) on the anniversary of his execution, in the city of Pilar, Alagoas where it all took place.

After Francisco, Pedro’s already-dogged obstruction of the death penalty became absolute, persisting over the last 13 years of his reign. By the time he yielded the executive power to the Republic of Brazil, his persistence had put capital punishment permanently beyond the pale for Brazil’s subsequent authorities.

Even Brazil’s 20th century dictatorships, while implicated in extrajudicial killings, never made bold to break the taboo on a formal judicial execution.

Theoretically, the death penalty is still to this day available in Brazil though only for a major wartime crime. (It would be carried out by firing squad.) In reality, as Emperor Pedro observed with satisfaction after his involuntary retirement from politics, it’s as dead as a letter can be.

This reminds of what I have done for the abolition of the death penalty by law, rather than in practice, since I achieved that some 30 years ago through always commuting the penalty.

-Pedro II, June 15, 1890 (Source for both Pedro’s diary pull-quotes)

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1876: Basilio Bondietto

Add comment December 11th, 2013 Headsman

From the Dec. 12, 1876 Argus (Melbourne, Australia):

EXECUTION OF BONDIETTO.

Basilio Bondietto, who was tried and convicted at the last criminal sittings of the murder of Carlo Comisto, at Sandy Creek, on or about the 4th of September last, underwent the extreme penalty of the law within the walls of the Melbourne Gaol yesterday morning.

Bondietto was a Swiss, and Comisto was believed to be an Italian. They both lived together for about eight months on a selection of Comisto’s near Sandy Creek, their principal occupation being charcoal burning. About the 4th September Comisto told some neighbours that he intended proceeding to Melbourne, to make arrangements for the sale of firewood. He was never seen alive afterwards.

Bondietto when questioned as to his partner’s absence, gave several contradictory accounts, stating at one time that he had gone away with a woman, and again, that he had a quarrel with an Englishman and after a drinking bout had run away.

Suspicion being aroused, the hut where the two men lived was searched, and several stains of what was sworn to be human blood were found on the woodwork about the place. Human blood was also found on an axe outside the hut, and in the remains of the charcoal kilns a quantity of bones were discovered, some of which Professor Halford was able to swear belonged to a human body.

Boot nails, trousers buttons, and buckles were also discovered in the same place, which taken in conjunction with the blood stains and the disappearance of Comisto, left little doubt that the man had been murdered and his body afterwards consumed in one of the kilns.

At the trial, which took place before Mr. Justice Stephen, Bondietto was ably defended by Mr. Wrixon, but after a very careful investigation, extending over three days, the jury found the prisoner guilty. Since the verdict was announced strenuous exertions have been made by a number of persons to obtain a mitigation of the sentence, but without success. A very careful consideration was given by the Executive to all the circumstance, and it was determined that there was no reason to interfere with the course of justice.

Ever since his conviction the condemned man has been assiduously attended by the Rev. Fathers O’Malley, Lordan and Donaghy, he being a member of the Roman Catholic Church. The reverend gentlemen were able to converse with Bondietto in his native language, and exhorted him to entertain no hope of a reprieve but to prepare for the fate awaiting him. To those exhortations he paid great attention, and for some time past spent a considerable portion of each day in prayer.

Since his conviction his demeanour in the gaol has been generally of a composed character, although now and again he would break out into cries of “miserecordia,” and indulge in indistinct mutterings.

He evinced a hearty appetite for all his meals, the gaol allowance being scarcely sufficient to supply his wants. He professed to be altogether ignorant of English, although it was sworn by several witnesses at the trial that he could make himself understood in that language when living in the neighbourhood of Seymour.

The only English word that he seemed able to utter in gaol was “tobacco,” of which a certain quantity was allowed him. Of his antecedents very little has been discovered. It is known that he had resided in the colony for a number of years, and that he had a long acquaintance with Comisto, whom he has been executed for murdering.

He was about 60 years of age, of a spare form, hollow lantern-shaped jaws, black whiskers, and piercing eyes. There was a considerable look of imbecility in the countenance, but he appeared to be of sound mind.

The sentence was carried into effect at 10 o’clock yesterday morning. Shortly before that hour the sheriff (Mr. Wright), accompanied by the under sheriff (Mr. Ellis), arrived at the gaol, and, according to the usual form, handed his warrant for the execution to the governor of the gaol, and demanded the body of Basilio Bondietto.

Mr. Castieau handed to the sheriff the formal protest of Sir George Stephen against the execution, until an appeal was made to the Imperial authorities.

The sheriff was then conducted to the condemned cell, where Bondietto was confined. Immediately afterwards the hangman Gately entered from an adjoining cell, and performed the duty of pinioning the culprit. Bondietto all the time seemed to be exerting himself to the utmost to meet his fate with fortitude but it was evident that he was suffering terribly.

The pinioning, which took a considerable time, being completed, the white cap was put on but not drawn over the face, and the condemned man was led by Gately to the scaffold, the sheriff and governor of the gaol following in the rear.

On the platform the culprit was met by his spiritual counsellors. The form of service of the Catholic Church suitable to the occasion was read by Rev. Father Lordan, whilst Father O’Malley held the crucifix before the eyes of the condemned man.

Bondietto was asked by the latter reverend gentlemen if he had anything to say in public before quitting the world. He made some reply which was altogether unintelligible, and it was evident from the wild stare of his eyes that his whole thoughts were engrossed by the dreadful situation in which he was placed.

The rope was quickly adjusted round the neck of the culprit by Gately, but the executioner forgot to follow the usual practice of drawing the white cap over the face of the condemned.

After adjusting the rope, Gately stepped back and drew the bolt. Death was almost instantaneous, there being very few writhings of the body and the features did not appear much discomposed. After hanging for a short time, the body was cut down, and in the afternoon an inquest was held by Dr. Youl, the city coroner, when the usual verdict was returned.

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1876: Jesse Pomeroy’s sentence commuted

Add comment August 31st, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1876, serial killer Jesse Pomeroy was reprieved by a 5-3 vote of the Governor’s Council of Massachusetts. Rather than hanging him, they elected to bury him alive instead.

With a “mere” two deaths to his name, at first glance Jesse Pomeroy may not seem like much of a serial killer. In fact, according to some definitions that require a higher body count, he wasn’t a serial killer at all. But give the kid some credit: he was only fourteen years old when he was caught. What’s more, his two murders were committed in a most brutal, sadistic manner.

Jesse was born in Massachusetts in 1860, the son of a violent and abusive father and a doting mother. He’d always been considered a “difficult” child and had tortured the family pets, but his known criminal career didn’t begin until he was twelve years old.

Over the course of nine months, he lured eight young boys between five and eight years old to remote areas and attacked them, beating them badly with a stick, a belt or his hands. In his later attacks he took to biting, and started using a knife as well. He tried to stick a needle into one child’s eyes, another boy, age six, was stabbed between the shoulders and had his penis nearly half cut off. Eventually Jesse would let his victims go, leaving them physically and mentally scarred for life.

Each attack was worse than the last, and each time the intervals between them got shorter. There were three months between the first assault and the second, and only five days between the seventh incident and the eighth (which was the last).

In his biography of Pomeroy, Fiend: The Shocking True Story of America’s Youngest Serial Killer, Harold Schechter described the assaults vividly:

The seventh attack occurred … on Wednesday, September 11. This time the “boy torturer” lured a seven-year-old named Joseph Kennedy to a vacant boathouse near the salt marshes of South Boston bay. Once inside the building, he slammed his victim’s head against the wall, stripped him naked, and administered a ferocious beating, breaking the little boy’s nose and knocking out several of his teeth. Then, pulling out his pocketknife, he forced the seven-year-old to kneel and ordered him to recite a profane travesty of the Lord’s Prayer, in which obscenities were substituted for Scripture.

When young Joseph refused to commit this blasphemy, his tormentor slashed him on his face, his back, his thighs. Then he dragged the bleeding child down to the marsh and — laughing delightedly at the little boy’s suffering — doused his wounds with salt water.

Most serial killers have a basically normal appearance, and some are downright handsome.

Jesse, however, actually did look pretty creepy. His head was too large for his body, he was blind in his right eye and the eyeball was covered by a whitish film that was deeply unsettling to look at. One of the boys he attacked said the eye looked like a “milkie,” a white marble. After that, the press often referred to the unknown assailant as “The Boy with the Marble Eye.”

On the day of his arrest on September 20, 1872, the police brought Joseph Kennedy, one of Pomeroy’s victims, around to various local schools to see if the child could find his attacker in the classrooms.

When little Joseph entered Jesse’s classroom, Jesse lifted his head when the teacher told him to but kept his gaze directed down at his desk. Joseph couldn’t see his deformed eye and didn’t recognize him. That afternoon, however, for some reason Jesse decided to pop in to the local police station on the way home from school. The boy was there and this time he recognized him.

Arrested and subjected to several hours of grilling, Jesse quickly confessed to his crimes, saying he “could not help himself” and wasn’t sure why he’d done such terrible things.

His victims identified him as the boy who had hurt them, and five of them testified against him in juvenile court. Jesse was sent off to the Lyman School for Boys, a juvenile reformatory.

The authorities were supposed to keep him locked up until he turned 18, but Pomeroy, who was no fool, read the fine print in his sentencing and discovered that if he “reformed,” he would be released early.

He immediately set about becoming an absolutely angelic inmate. He obeyed all the rules, did all the work assigned to him and didn’t talk back to the staff. When the other boys tried to bully him, he ignored them.

Before long, he was awarded the coveted position of dormitory monitor, with some responsibility over the other boys. On the outside, his devoted mom, who never believed in his guilt, kept up a letter-writing campaign, asking anyone with influence to help get her son released.

Jesse’s good behavior was rewarded and he was paroled to his mother’s custody in February 1874. He had been in custody for less than a year and a half. By then, his mother had left his father and was running a small store in South Boston.

On March 18 that year, six weeks after Jesse was released from the reformatory, ten-year-old Katie Curran disappeared. She was last seen when she went into the Pomeroy family’s store to buy a notebook for school. A neighbor boy saw her go into the store, where Jesse was manning the counter, but no one ever saw her come out.

Shockingly, in spite of his antecedents, the police at the time didn’t consider him a suspect in Katie’s disappearance, didn’t thoroughly search the store, and accepted his story that he hadn’t seen Katie at all that day.

This may have been because Jesse had never been known to attack little girls. In any case, over the ensuing six weeks the search instead concentrated on the Boston Wharf, on the theory that she’d accidentally fallen off a dock and drowned. Another theory was that she had been kidnapped.

The investigation went nowhere.

On April 22, Jesse accosted four-year-old Horace Millen while the child was on the way to the bakery with a few pennies to buy a sweet. Numerous witnesses saw them together, hand in hand, walking to the harbor; most of them assumed they were brothers out for an adventure.

What happened next is unprintable.

Suffice it to say that at 4:00 p.m., Horace’s body was found beyond a hill in a remote area near the shore. He’d been stabbed eighteen times in the chest, his throat was cut, and his face and genitals were mutilated. His fists were still clenched, the nails biting into his palms, indicating he’d been conscious during the attack and died in considerable pain.

As the police began their murder investigation, someone remarked that Horace’s injuries were remarkably similar to the attacks Jesse Pomeroy had committed before he was locked up two years ago.

As soon as the cops discovered Jesse was in fact on parole, they rushed to his house and took him into custody. His boots were caked with mud and grass was stuck to the soles, his face was scratched and his pocketknife was bloodstained.

At first, Jesse denied having done anything wrong. But when he was confronted with Horace Millen’s corpse, he cracked and started sobbing. “Please don’t tell my mother,” he pleaded. “Put me somewhere, so I can’t do such things.”

Unaccountably, more than a month passed from the time Jesse was arrested until Katie Curran’s body was found, and it was located by accident. Jesse’s mother and brother had to move out of their store in the wake of the murders. A new tenant moved in to the building and decided to refurbish the basement. Workers found Katie’s body. Her throat had been cut and her genitals mutilated.

When confronted with the news about Katie, Jesse denied any knowledge of her death and seemed indignant. “After all,” Harold Schechter noted, “aside from the fact that he was already in custody for child-murder and the little girl’s decomposed corpse had been found in the cellar of his family’s store, there was no reason in the world suspect him.”

Jesse ultimately confessed to killing the girl as well. He said he’d lured Katie down into the basement by saying there were some notebooks down there for her to look at. As soon as they reached the bottom of the steps, he took hold of her and cut her throat. He hadn’t even concealed her body very well, just tossing it in the ash heap.

The police search of the Pomeroys’ store must have been perfunctory indeed to have missed it.

(Jesse would later retract both confessions and claimed, to the end of his days, that he had never harmed a child in his life and was the victim of circumstances, coercive tactics by the police and a deliberate frame up.)

At his trial, his defense was one of insanity.

Three psychiatrists, or “alienists” as they were known in those days, examined him, one for the defense and two for the prosecution. Jesse told them he would get “a sudden feeling” that prompted his violence to small children and “I could not help doing it.”


Jesse Pomeroy, young and old.

The doctors noted his lack of remorse or any sympathy for his victims. They believed Jesse would always be dangerous to society. His attorney argued that he should be found not guilty by reason of insanity and then locked away in a mental institution for good.

In the end, the jury convicted him of first-degree murder, for which the mandatory penalty was hanging. However, they issued a recommendation of mercy on account of his youth.

Although juveniles had been executed in the United States before and would be again, the state of Massachusetts had never hanged a boy of fourteen. On the other hand, Jesse had committed no ordinary crimes. By any standard he was a monster. His case was extremely controversial and the governor, William Gaston, was besieged with petitions both for and against clemency.

Gaston didn’t want to hang Jesse Pomeroy and stalled on the issue for as long as he could. It may well have cost him re-election. But his successor, Alexander Rice, didn’t want to hang Jesse either, campaign promises to the contrary.

So in August 1876, two years after Jesse’s murder conviction, by which time the furor in the press had died down, Rice commuted the now-sixteen-year-old’s sentence to life in prison. But there was a catch: the sentence had to be served in solitary confinement.

He would spend 41 years in a tiny cell, isolated from the world. His mother visited him once a month until her death. The only other people he saw were the guards. He was allowed to exercise alone in the prison yard and was allowed to read books. He wrote some bad poetry. Most of his efforts, however, were concentrated on escape. Schechter records:

Nothing — no amount of time locked in a dungeon, no beatings administered with a brass-tipped cane, no efforts at reinforcing his cell — discouraged Jesse for long. When plates of boiler-iron were bolted to his walls to keep him from digging at the stones, he set to work prying loose the bolts. When the walls were painted with a white preparation that would make even a pin-scratch conspicuous, he turned his attention to the floor, cutting loose one of the heavy boards, then digging at the ground underneath … Over the course of fifty years, virtually everything that fell into his hands became a potential implement of escape … He managed, over the decades, to fashion an amazing assortment of tools: awls, chisels, saws, drills, files, pry bars.

He never even came close to breaching the prison walls and his escape attempts mainly just made him a pain in the prison’s collective ass. Then again, a man needs a hobby.

In 1887, his ninth year in the solitary cell, he caused an explosion that blasted a hole in the ceiling and temporarily blinded him but didn’t get him anywhere. Only in 1912 was he ever able to actually make it out of the cell, something that took three years of work to accomplish — and he was caught within minutes. By then he was fifty-two.

His sentence was relaxed in 1917 and he was allowed into the general population. By then, Jesse’s health was failing, and his crimes were passing out of local memory. New inmates to the prison no longer recognized his name, something that deeply upset him. In 1929, he was transferred to the prison farm at Bridgewater. He took a car to get there, his very first automobile ride, but didn’t he didn’t seem interested in his surroundings. One reporter described him as “a deadened creature gazing with lusterless eyes upon a world that means nothing to him.”

He died at the Bridgewater Prison Farm on September 29, 1932, having spent sixty of his seventy-two years behind bars.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Massachusetts,Murder,Not Executed,Other Voices,Pardons and Clemencies,Serial Killers,USA

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1876: Four for the Mutiny on the Lennie

1 comment May 23rd, 2013 dogboy

As criminals go, the Lennie mutineers were neither organized nor gifted. Indeed, they likely did not fancy themselves mutineers when they perpetrated a triple-murder of the officer corps on board the vessel during high seas.

Matteo Cargalis, Pascalis Caludis, George Kaida, and Giovanni Carcaris were hanged on this date for that “atrocious conspiracy” in Newgate prison’s largest mass execution behind closed doors.

As they say, you get what you pay for, and Captain Stanley Hatfield apparently didn’t pay too well. His ragtag crew of multinationals — Turks, Greeks, Dutch, Belgians, and possibly others (Hatfield himself was a Canadian) — was in it for the money when the vessel left Antwerp bound for New Orleans on 24 October 1875.

The circumstances of the mutiny’s start are hazy, but what is clear is that the entire ship’s complement excluding first officer, cabin boy, and steward were on deck in heavy seas about 10 days out. What seems to have been a minor labor dispute resulted in Hatfield and Second Mate Richard Macdonald being summarily dispatched by stabbing; the first mate, Joseph Wortley, was sought out below and shot in his quarters.

Since the crew was all in now, the murderers and a small group of associates pressed the remainder of the deckhands into service. The two remaining persons belowdecks were now let out. The Belgian steward, Constant von Hoydonck (spelled in various ways, but Anglicized in what seems to be the most popular way), and the cabin boy, Henri Trousselot, were given the option to join the rest of the crew.

To the now-leaderless and ill-educated rebellious deck crew, Von Hoydonck’s literacy made him was the best hope of finding safe harbor, and Von Hoydonck hammed it up like Mark Hamill going on about Tosche Station.

Trousselot was worth little (though he was also literate), and he gamely followed Von Hoydonck’s lead and elected to join the mutineers.

The rest of the tale reads like a Hardy Boys story, with an implausible plot built around incompetent characters.

Apparently, one of the Greek crew members knew someone back home that he felt would be interested in the vessel, so the crew now had a “plan”. All they needed was a quick trip through the Strait of Gibraltar followed by a trip across the Mediterranean, and they were home free! Von Hoydonck volunteered to navigate the course to the Strait, but rather than head southeast, he led the ship straight back toward the French coast.

The details of the voyage, embellished and colorfully littered with age-appropriate judgments about Greeks, were handled by the newspaper “The Age” in 1958:

When France was sighted he brazenly told them it was Spain, and sailed along the coast.

When they asked why he hugged the shore, he told them it was to avoid the chief traffic routes and the consequent danger of being hailed by another ship…

By November 14 he had navigated the Lennie between the Isle of Rhe and the French mainland. In spite of rough seas he brought the ship almost within hailing distance of the short and then calmly ordered the anchor to be let go.

This was carried out promptly enough by the slow-thinking mutineers, but after some ten minutes what intelligence they had started to function, and they swarmed round remanding to know why they were at anchor.

[Von Hoydonck] surveyed them coldly and pointed out that that the coast of Spain (which, of course, was some 250 miles away) was rocky and dangerous, and as they could not risk standing out into the traffic lanes they must anchor here until the heavy sea subsided.

The mutineers were not satisfied with this explanation and angrily threatened to send him after the ship’s officers.

[Von Hoydonck], playing his part superbly, indignantly informed them that as they seemed to have so little faith in his handling of the ship they could sail her themselves. He then went below, slamming the companion door behind him as if in a temper.

Von Hoydonck then had Trousselot write up notices of the mutiny in French, English, and Dutch; these letters were placed in a dozen or more bottles and slipped out a port hole, hopefully to quickly reach shore. Meanwhile, the mutineers decided they really needed that navigationally competent steward and urgently repaired relations with him.

The storm subsided during the night and Von Hoydonck got some sleep. By morning, the mutineers had taken the initiative, and they rounded the Isle of Rhe and traced down the Isle of Oleron toward a lighthouse that — to the geographically confused crew — looked mighty like the Pillars of Hercules.

Unfortunately, it failed to meet the one critical test: the pinch of island and shore lacked the distinctive Rock of Gibraltar.


… and Gibraltar’s distinctive Barbary Apes.

Von Hoydonck offered the lame excuse that, instead of risking the Mediterranean, he had led them to a nearly uninhabited part of the French coast, where they could get off the boat without risk of being found out. Six of the more aggressive members of the mutineers took this bait, so they hopped a life boat and scuttled to shore.

Five mutineers now remained, and none of them was particularly big on the cause. So Von Hoydonck followed up his successful bluff by clambering up the rigging in the dead of night to raise the flag of distress. He then took to the deck with a pair of revolvers and waited for morning.

The bottles had done their job, and the French man-of-war Tirailleur was dispatched immediately when authorities heard of the trouble; her crew quickly spotted the Lennie.

The six who had gone ashore were almost as swiftly rounded up on the mainland.

In all, eight of the 11 on board were put on trial, and only the four implicated directly in the murders of the officers were found guilty* and sentenced to death.

At the time, the Lennie was quite well-known; the actions of Von Hoydonck were celebrated in the local press, and the crown awarded Von Hoydonck 50 pounds for his actions.**

Strangely, the ship’s story has slipped into obscurity,† perhaps because reality in this case sounds like a plot written for 8-year-olds.

* Though the vessel’s occupants had mutinied, the British had the crew extradited under charges of murder. Two of the defendants were released by the technicalities of the extradition treaty.

** Constant von Hoydonck went on to own a pub in Middlesex and was bankrupt by 1892. Henri Trousselot moved to New Zealand, where he and others are memorialized for attending to a double shipwreck in Timaru; he lived to 66.

† The Record of Yarmouth Shipping reports that the Lennie was refitted and carried on to New Orleans with a new crew.

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Entry Filed under: Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Murder,Mutiny,Other Voices

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1876: Marie Louise Houghton escapes capital murder prosecution

1 comment October 2nd, 2011 Undine

Thanks to Undine of the blog The World of Edgar Allan Poe for breaking her posting hiatus with this guest entry. -ed.

When reflecting upon the life and times of Edgar Allan Poe, Edward Wagenknecht once wrote that “One might also say of Poe that he lived in a Gothic novel. Hardly anybody behaves normally in this history.” Of all the names one finds in Poe’s biographies, no one better illustrates these words than Marie Louise Barney Shew Houghton. While there were many players in Poe’s life story who undoubtedly deserved to be put in the dock, (the Reverend Rufus Wilmot Griswold being merely the most famous example,) Mrs. Houghton was the only one of the lot who faced the prospect of being tried, and very possibly convicted and executed, of first-degree murder.

This was the date in the year of the nation’s centennial that Houghton slipped the noose.

Mrs. Houghton is known to history as having been the nurse of Poe’s wife Virginia during her final illness, as well as an all-around Poe family benefactor. This saintly reputation, unfortunately, comes largely from her own boasts on the matter, made many years after the poet’s death. In 1875, she began a correspondence with Poe’s early biographer John H. Ingram. Her avowed intent was to insure that she—as opposed to other ladies who were vying for the title—would be remembered as Poe’s dear friend and guardian angel. Unfortunately, at the time she contacted Ingram, she was clearly in appalling shape, mentally and emotionally. The numerous extant letters she wrote him—which date from January to June of 1875–are always rambling, usually incoherent, and occasionally quite insane. She related to Ingram many colorful stories about Poe that are completely uncorroborated, patently absurd, and often at complete variance with the known facts. Ingram privately acknowledged that Mrs. Houghton was mentally unstable, and he suspected as well that she was enhancing, or even completely inventing, many Poe anecdotes, in order to keep their correspondence alive. He wound up dismissing her with the euphemism, “imaginative.” In spite of all this, Ingram—who was desperately in need of original source material about the ever-elusive Poe—wound up relaying far too much of her dubious information in his 1880 biography, and, even more unforgivably, Poe’s modern-day historians repeat unquestioningly this same apocrypha to this day.

One wonders what Ingram’s reaction would have been if he had known anything about his pen-pal’s personal life. Marie Houghton was a predecessor to today’s “New Age” devotees. Her first marriage, to the “water-cure” practitioner Joel Shew, gave her an avenue into what were the more extreme circles of Transcendentalist faddism, which embraced alternative medicine, “free love,” “freethinking,” communal living, and disdain for established institutions. Ironically, she represented everything Poe most despised in contemporary society.

In the mid-1840s, Marie Louise separated from her husband and entered into an affair with another member of their circle, Dr. Ronald Houghton, although she continued to live with Dr. Shew. In 1849, she gave birth to a son, Henry, who was probably acknowledged as Houghton’s, although at least one historian has theorized that the father was a third man who was living with (and financially aiding) the Shews. The next year, the Shews divorced and she married Houghton. Although they had several more children, the marriage proved unhappy, and they too separated. She continued to work as a nurse, while indulging in a number of extremely complicated and very dodgy financial and property transactions on the side.

However, it was this son Henry who proved to be the catalyst that brought Mrs. Houghton serious trouble. After a varied and exciting career out west where he was charged with adultery, mule thievery, swindling, and “open and notorious lewdness,” Henry Houghton returned to the family home in New York, bringing with him his mistress, a Mary E. Stanley, who had evidently been Henry’s partner in crime as well. With them was a toddler who was understood to have been their child, even though Mary was at the time married to another man.

In 1876, the now-pregnant Mrs. Stanley was living with the Houghton family, although by this point Henry appears to have tired of her. Her common-law mother-in-law, Mrs. Houghton, acted as her sole medical attendant. Unfortunately, Mrs. Stanley died soon after giving birth. The Houghtons failed to summon a doctor until she was obviously at death’s door. Very curiously, she was quickly buried without a death certificate having been issued, apparently at the instigation of Marie Houghton. After her burial, the undertaker prevailed upon the physician who had been at her deathbed, a Dr. Bleecker, to provide him with some sort of certificate. Bleecker was reluctant to do so, as he had never actually treated the deceased, but finally issued one with the noncommittal statement that the cause of death appeared to be “congestive chills.”

“To Mary Louise”
by Edgar Allan Poe

Of all who hail thy presence as the morning–
Of all to whom thine absence is the night–
The blotting utterly from out high heaven
The sacred sun–of all who, weeping, bless thee
Hourly for hope–for life–ah, above all,
For the resurrection of deep buried faith
In truth, in virtue, in humanity–
Of all who, on despair’s unhallowed bed
Lying down to die, have suddenly arisen
At thy soft-murmured words, “Let there be light!”
At thy soft-murmured words that were fulfilled
In thy seraphic glancing of thine eyes–
Of all who owe thee most, whose gratitude
Nearest resembles worship,–oh, remember
The truest, the most fervently devoted,
And think that these weak lines are written by him–
By him who, as he pens them, thrills to think
His spirit is communing with an angel’s.

Mary Stanley’s death would have passed unremarked had it not been for a collection of letters she had written to a friend, which was soon brought to the attention of the authorities. In brief, these letters stated that Mrs. Houghton wished to perform an abortion on her. (It was alleged that Houghton supplemented her income as a professional—and, on occasion, fatally incompetent—abortionist.) When Mrs. Stanley refused, she attempted to give her patient certain “medicines” which Mrs. Stanley believed were intended to permanently rid the Houghtons of her as well. Faced with this uncooperative attitude, Mrs. Houghton “became cruel to her, and starved both herself and her child.” The question of why she remained in the household appeared to be answered by murky and never-clarified issues regarding the estate of Mrs. Houghton’s late estranged husband. It was said that she stubbornly stayed put in an effort to defend the interests of Mrs. Houghton’s other son, Frank, who was involved with a legal dispute with his mother over a certain piece of property. There was a good deal of nightmarishly complex litigation surrounding Dr. Houghton’s estate, and evidently Mrs. Stanley played some crucial role regarding the dispute over the distribution of Roland Houghton’s properties. According to these letters, Mrs. Stanley was attempting to act as some sort of a roadblock in schemes Henry and his mother were attempting in relation to the matter.

After the local coroner and District Attorney had read their fill of these missives, their first act was to have Mrs. Houghton arrested.

An inquest was soon held, and these letters, as well as testimonies of friends of the dead woman, were presented to the jury. A lurid picture was painted of Mrs. Houghton’s long career of poisoning (including two alleged attempts against her husband,) abortions both successful and fatal (Mrs. Stanley wrote of seeing “terrible things” in the Houghton’s cellar that related to this practice—other testimony agreed that she literally knew where the bodies were buried,) financial fraud, and all-purpose cruelty. Mrs. Stanley wrote that “I do not think there is another woman as bad as her living,” and if half of what was related about her at the inquest was true, this was a genteel understatement. Mrs. Stanley also declared that the Houghtons wanted her dead, not only for the fact that she “knew too much” about their depraved dealings, but because she was threatening to “swear her child” on Henry Houghton—i.e., hit him with a paternity suit. (The inquest also included testimony that Mrs. Houghton expressed great joy that Mary Stanley’s death freed her son from taking responsibility for his mistress and their child.)

When Mrs. Houghton took the stand in her defense, it was said that she gave her testimony “fairly and with much plausibility.” She simply denied everything the dead woman had written. Mrs. Stanley, she said, was a designing criminal who had robbed her son “not only of his money, but of his good name.” She had allowed the pregnant woman to live in her house out of pure Christian charity. Mrs. Stanley’s death, on September 12th 1876, was of a “congestive chill” that came on so suddenly there was no time to send for a doctor. She admitted that she had practiced medicine from 1851 until the previous year, when she was threatened with imprisonment if she did not cease her unaccredited ministrations. She also conceded that Mrs. Stanley had threatened to “crush” the Houghton family, and that “something disagreeable” had occurred several months before that had inspired Mrs. Stanley to write these accusatory letters. However, it was also revealed that at the time of Mrs. Houghton’s arrest, certain family papers were seized by the authorities which corroborated much of what the deceased had alleged.

When Dr. Bleecker testified, he could say only that an autopsy on the dead woman “could not determine the cause of death satisfactorily.”

After all this, it is quite startling to read that the jury ruled that Mary Stanley died of natural causes, “from hemorrhage and exhaustion while in labor.” The only way of explaining this conclusion (which seemed to have no evidence to back it up) is to note that from the newspaper reports, the jury was clearly on Mrs. Houghton’s side from the beginning. In fact, the jury attempted to halt the inquest very early on, claiming they had heard enough evidence to reach a verdict. The coroner and DA overruled them, insisting that they hear additional witnesses. Also, one of the jurors questioned a doctor who testified, asking if it wasn’t true that pregnant women were often prone to paranoid fancies, where they imagined dangers that did not exist. When the doctor admitted that such things were possible, this obviously sealed the deal for this panel. The reason for this obvious bias in favor of the defendant is, most unfortunately, unknown.

The case was left open for further investigation, but as far as can be ascertained by a search of contemporary newspapers, the matter was closed as far as the authorities were concerned. Marie Houghton left the court a free woman, if not exactly one without a stain on her character. She died less than a year later, at the age of fifty-five, on September 3, 1877.

One of the strangest things about this case is the fact that it has attracted so little attention, from that time to this. The only detailed contemporary accounts I have been able to uncover are a handful of articles from one newspaper, the Brooklyn Eagle, and two columns in the New York Herald which simply repeated some of the information published in the Eagle. Even though the story contained enough scandal to keep a platoon of yellow journalists in clover for years, it was otherwise ignored. Despite the fact that the central character was a figure well-known to anyone who has the slightest interest in Poe’s life, this odd little episode appears to be unknown to his biographers. It is a great pity deeper investigation in the matter appears impossible at this late date, as from what was reported, Marie Houghton was either the most viciously slandered woman of her era, or a monster Poe himself could not have created in his darkest fits of imagination.

Sources:
Brooklyn Eagle, Sept. 21, Sept. 23, Sept. 25, Sept. 30, Oct. 3 1876
New York Herald, Sept. 22 and 23, 1876
Building Poe Biography, ed. John Carl Miller

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Common Criminals,Crime,Guest Writers,History,Murder,New York,No Formal Charge,Not Executed,Other Voices,Scandal,USA,Women

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1876: Kenneth Brown, father of Edith Cowan

Add comment June 10th, 2011 Headsman

Australian liberal campaigner Edith Cowan — a notable suffragist, and later an activist for disadvantaged children — enjoys the distinction of being her country’s first female Member of Parliament.

But Cowan was disadvantaged herself in her own childhood by the hanging on this date in 1876 of her father, explorer Kenneth Brown.

While Kenneth entered this world in England, his family emigrated to Australia in his infancy, and there established the pastoral outpost Glengarry Station.

Is this sufficient to justify a wholly unrelated excerpt from Glengarry Glen Ross? Reader, it is.

Kenneth Brown would come to spend a lot of time at that station, in between jaunts exploring Western Australia. Edith Cowan — nee Edith Brown, obviously — was born there, though her mother (Brown’s first wife) died in childbirth a few years later.

Brown’s remarriage to Mary Tindall was less than an unqualified success.

He and Mary regularly argued about both Kenneth’s drinking, and his suspicion that Mary was unfaithful. After an afternoon of drinking and arguing, Kenneth shot and killed Mary. There were three trials and two juries were discharged before a third reached a guilty verdict, all amid embarrassing publicity and gossip. Brown’s appeal for clemency was denied and in 1876, when Edith was 15, he was executed for his wife’s murder. More than 100 years later, Edith Cowan’s grandson wrote that the effect on the family was crippling, and extended on into later generations. (Source)

Even “crippled” by the family tragedy, Edith went on to earn the Order of the British Empire and grace Australia’s $50 note.

Edith Cowan isn’t the only notable family connection for this date’s featured act: Kenneth Brown’s younger brother was politician Maitland Brown, infamous to Australia’s aboriginals as the leader of the La Grange expedition/massacre.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Australia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Notably Survived By

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