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

Add comment May 24th, 2017 Headsman

From the Jackson (Mich.) Weekly Citizen:

A WOMAN’S DEATH AVENGED

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

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

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

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

STATEMENT.

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

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

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

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

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

At an early hour this morning

THE CROWD

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

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

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

THE DOOMED MAN AND HIS SISTER

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

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

He then stated that he had evidence that he was

AT PEACE WITH GOD.

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

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

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

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

QUIT GOING TO PARTIES, AND SERVE THE LORD.

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

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

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


Henry Roberts.

A PUBLIC EXECUTION.

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

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

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

HIS CRIME.

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

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

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

MADLY JEALOUS,

although he had taken every pains to conceal it.

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

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

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

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

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

INFIDELITY OF HIS FRIEND AND THE WOMAN.

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

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

On the 1st of January the body of Ware was

FOUND ON THE RAILROAD,

as related.

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

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

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

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


Simon Robinson.

EXECUTION OF A NEGRO BRUTE.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Florida,Hanged,Louisiana,Murder,North Carolina,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,USA

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1878: Gauchito Gil, Argentina folk saint

Add comment January 8th, 2017 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

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1878: Ivan Kovalsky, nihilist martyr

Add comment August 14th, 2016 Headsman


London Times, Aug. 26, 1878.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1878: Sevier Lewis, a family affair

2 comments August 30th, 2014 Meaghan

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

On August 30, 1878, Sevier (aka Severe, Savier) Lewis was hanged in Empire City, Oregon — today known as Coos Bay — for the murder of his much younger half-brother, Zachariah T. “Zack” Lewis on May 22, 1876.

The brothers were two of Hiram Hamilton Lewis’s nine children. Hiram was 74 years old at the time of Zack’s murder, and ambitious in spite of his age: he was running for state legislature.

Sevier, who was in his early fifties, was married and had seven children. Zack was twenty-five, single and still living at home. It was said he’d taken an interest in Sevier’s sixteen-year-old daughter Sylvia. Her father warned him to stay away, but Zack wouldn’t listen and kept coming around pestering his niece with unwanted advances. Finally Sevier had had enough.

Well, that’s one version of the story. Here’s another one:

Sylvia confided to her young uncle that she’d been raped by her father, and become pregnant. Zack went to Sevier and told him to stop the molestation immediately or he would tell the entire family what he had done. He helped Sylvia move in with her grandparents to protect her, and told Sevier that if he touched her again, he would kill him. Sevier touched her again.

These starkly contrasting purported motives may assign which characters, in the ensuing violent tableau, don the white hats and which the black. But either way, one late spring day, Sevier loaded his gun and went to his father’s home where he found little brother working in the fields. Sevier shot him dead, and then took flight.

In December 1877, a full year and a half after the shock murder and probably about the time Sevier was getting comfortable with having gotten away with it, a Coos County man chanced to recognize the fugitive in a hotel bar in Seattle and had him arrested.

Sevier’s own father and Sevier’s own son both testified against him at the subsequent trial, traveling 200 miles to to so. His defense attorney didn’t try to pretend he was innocent and only pleaded for a recommendation of mercy. He was convicted of his brother’s murder in June 1878 and sentenced to be hanged by the neck until dead. The judge also ordered him to cough up $830.10 in court costs, including $21 worth of beer he’d been prescribed during his incarceration.


Oregonian, August 31, 1878.

Lewis’s scaffold speech was bitter and disjointed — “bravado and blasphemy on the gallows,” the Portland Oregonian headlined it. He rambled on about how everyone was prejudiced against him, expressed love for his family and added, “If I could die a thousand times and save my daughter I would do it. If I could save her I would be satisfied to die.”

Author Diane L. Goeres-Gardner describes his final moments in her book Necktie Parties: Legal Executions in Oregon, 1851-1905:

Defiant, stubborn and vindictive, he finally forced Sheriff Aiken to manhandle him closer to the hanging rope. Even as the black cap was pulled over his head and he was being pushed forward he yelled, “What in the hell are you doing that for? I am not afraid to die.”

It was a clean hanging. His neck snapped and Sevier Lewis died within minutes.

What happened to Hiram Lewis’s political aspirations? Well, given the scandal, it’s no surprise that he lost the election. He moved to Lane County after Zack’s murder and died in 1879, supposedly of a broken heart.

What can history tell us about which brother to believe? Was Sevier really trying to protect his daughter, or did Zack pay the ultimate price for his attempt to rescue Sylvia from her predatory father?

Andie E. Jensen, author of Hangman’s Call: The Executions and Lynchings of Coos County, Oregon 1854-1925, studied the available records and notes that Sevier’s youngest child Lucy’s year of birth is unknown — the dates range from 1875 to 1877 — while all his other children had their exact date and place of birth recorded. He speculates that Lucy, said to be the daughter of Sevier and his wife Elizabeth, was in fact Sylvia’s child.

“Fact or fiction,” he concludes, “we will never know for sure. The end result was the execution of Sevier Lewis, whose act of murder victimized more than just his half brother Zack.”

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1878: The Brassell boys

Add comment March 27th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1878, Joe and Teek* Brassell were hanged in Cookeville, Tennessee.

These brothers (their eldest sibling Jim Brassell wisely bowed out of the scheme) and two other buddies got into the whiskey moonshine from the Brassells’ own home still, and decided to knock over a nearby lodging where two guests thought to be heavy with cash were staying.

So the quartet blacked up faces and turned clothes inside out by way of disguise and around midnight tromped up to the Allison Stand Inn wielding pistols.

“Don’t worry!” Russell Allison called to his guests, recognizing his onetime schoolmates. “It’s the Brassell boys!”

Great disguise.

Nothing daunted by their identities outed, the moonshine party invaded the log residence. A bedroom melee ensued, and in the course of it Teek Russell shot Russell Allison fatally in the gut; another shot only narrowly missed Mrs. Isbell, the wife of the tax collector W.J. Isbell whom the party was trying to target in the first place.** Isbell wasn’t there at all, and the whole band fled the house not a penny richer, but about to be wanted men.

The next day as Allison lay expiring from his painful wound, the Allison family rounded up its own posse and descended on the Brassell residence. Again, Teek gut-shot an Allison — Russell’s brother Joe — and killed him, too. But the rest of the posse detained the desperados and they were soon hailed to Cookeville Jail. The murder became extremely notorious in the area and the Brassells boys were easily condemned, albeit after nearly two years’ worth of legal continuances.†

We’ve liberally included these youths in our arsenic themed set. Of course, these young men worked their mayhem with firearms and not philters, but in a sense their case underscores the ubiquity of that poison for 19th century crime. Desperate to escape, even the brutally direct Brassell boys turned like dissatisfied housewives and furtive insurance adjusters to inheritance powder: in their case, they managed to have some smuggled to them in jail, which they planned to insinuate into some apples they would share with their guards while being moved between Nashville and Cookville.

As it transpired, the guards caught wind of this scheme and foiled it, along with several other jailbreak attempts. But that was the great thing about that innocuous dust: everywhere someone would profit from some other fellow dropping unexpectedly dead, the first thought was invariably arsenic!

Frustrated of this and all other exits from their grim condition, the Brassell boys at last had to face the hemp. It would be the only judicial hanging in the history of Putnam County, Tennessee, and it would not want for ceremony. The execution itself occurred on a Wednesday; on the Sabbath preceding, the local Sunday school’s curriculum included (pdf) a visit to the condemned cells, where prisoners and children sang “Let us cross over the river”.

On hanging-day itself, the boys were up early for press interviews in the jailhouse. Shortly after 11 a.m., they piled into a wagon, grabbed seats on their own coffins, and were taken under guard to the double gallows specially built for them on Billy Goat Hill. Their sister Amanda trailed the wagon, but after a farewell hug she complied with Joe and Teek’s request to leave without seeing them hang.

Amanda had plenty of time to comply. The hanging wasn’t until 1:30!

The Brassells passed their last two hours or so of life on the scaffold. As they sat under their hanging-nooses, a crowd of thousands — some estimates put it as high as 20,000; old folks in the early 20th century would still say that it was the largest crowd Cookeville had ever seen — imbibed a series of preachers and religious songs, the warnings of the condemned duo themselves, and a scene where their intended target Mr. Isbell climbed up on the platform himself and pressed the two for a confession. Joe admitted his guilt. Teek refused until the very end to do so.‡ To cap off the drama, the sheriff, hatchet in hand to chop the fatal rope, counted down the last five minutes.

It seems this whole event, from the murder to the hanging, still survives in Cookeville folklore. There’s a lengthy ballad about the Brassell boys’ crime and execution, available here (pdf). Also see this fantastically detailed web page about the crime, including a blurry restored photograph of the hanging, and this pdf roundup.

A fragment of the Brassell boys’ joint headstone can still be seen at a family plot adjacent to Upperman High School in the small town of Baxter, just outside Cookeville.

* Teek had “George Andrew” on his birth certificate.

** William Jefferson Isbell was a tax collector carrying his proceeds; he had fallen ill that day and had to stop elsewhere. The Isbells and Allisons were related through marriage.

† “Justice, when most severe to him who has offended, is always most mercifully to him who would offend,” the Supreme Court most severely ruled — admonishing the young men not to entertain any hope of reprieve. (Quoted in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, March 28, 1878)

‡ Teek’s obstinacy on claiming innocence when the evidence against him seemed so overwhelming led to some later speculation that he might have semi-willingly taken the rap for a different Brassell — maybe Jim, the one who supposedly bowed out of the raid, or maybe even Amanda.

Part of the Themed Set: Arsenic.

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1878: Joseph LaPage, murderer of Josie Langmaid

Add comment March 15th, 2014 Headsman

Joseph LaPage died on a gallows at Concord, N.H. on this date in 1878 for the horrific murder of Josie Langmaid more than two years before.

The 17-year-old Josie’s disappearance one October morn while walking to her classes at the Pembroke Academy shocked the town of Pembroke and the adjoining village of Suncook. Late that night, frantic search parties found Josie’s body by torchlight in a cluster of trees just off Academy Road — ravaged, mutilated, and headless. (The head turned up the next morning, half a mile away.)

The horror of her murder so shook* Pembroke that it put up a memorial obelisk that still stands today — right near the turn into present-day Three Rivers School. Additional inscriptions on the macabre monument direct the viewer to a little stone pillar 90 feet north at the exact spot her body was recovered … and yet another one 82 rods on where her head was recovered.

“As I pull out of the driveway of the school, leaving my daughter behind, the monument is a visible reminder of how quickly our lives can change,” one commenter mused in a detailed post on the excellent true-crime blog Murder By Gaslight.

All of New England thrilled to the horrific crime, in consequence of which — after a week’s worth of panicky arrests of random tramps and the town’s only African-American — it soon became known that an itinerant French woodcutter named Joseph LaPage who had been suspected of a similar slaying previously in St. Alban’s, Vermont, just so happened to be in the area.

And upon arrest, he was found to have a boot whose bloodied heel appeared to match the shape of a violent gouge found on Langmaid’s severed head.

This is not reliable forensic evidence in the modern sense. But evidence began to exclude nearly every other person who had fallen under early suspicion, and the circumstances implicating Joseph LaPage soon stood out damningly.

Perhaps the most powerful was a history of savage violence against women.

LaPage (born outside Montreal as Joseph Paget) had come to live in the United States by escaping over the Canadian border after raping his sister-in-law, Julianne Rousse. He had escaped the St. Alban’s prosecution in part thanks to alibis provided by his sons, who now recanted their testimony. LaPage was known to abuse his wife, and was thought to have outraged his own daughter.

And it was found that in Pembroke, LaPage had been making unnervingly personal inquiries after the habits of his employer’s pretty young daughter — a Pembroke Academy student herself who customarily walked to school along Academy Road with Josie Langmaid. She might have been LaPage’s intended target, but on the fateful morning she chanced to catch a carriage ride instead.

Though LaPage fought his sentence for two years and even won an appeal overturning the first verdict against him, he was condemned a second time. He confessed on the eve of his hanging to both Langmaid’s murder, and that of Marietta Ball in St. Alban’s — complete with hand-drawn maps for both crimes indicating how he had gone about committing them, and where he had disposed of the remains.

However, because LaPage was not forthcoming with such a confession at the point of trial, and because evidence such as Julianne Rousse’s rape testimony and the suspicions against him from St. Alban’s was excluded as irrelevant, it had been necessary to develop the strongest possible evidentiary case in the Langmaid murder without depending overmuch on the accused’s brutish reputation.

To that end, the LaPage prosecutions also became a bit of a minor forensics laboratory: there had been bloodstains found on some of his clothes, but of course, this could be blood from butchering an animal or from injuring himself in the course of woodcutting, or anything else.

Could one say more than that in the 1870s? A significant subplot of LaPage’s trials consisted of scientists expert in “blood microscopy” explaining their tests on Langmaid’s and LaPage’s clothing, and in particular their suggestion of a tentative match between some of the samples based on restoring with a simulated serum the dried corpuscules to something resembling their living state and examining the dimensions of the corpuscules. The blood on Josie Langmaid’s clothes “resembled in every respect that found upon the clothing of LaPage,” one doctor testified. (St. Albans (Vt.) Messenger — which newspaper heavily reported the course of LaPage’s trial, for obvious reasons — January 10, 1876.)

LaPage’s defense naturally attempted to repel such evidence by arguing against the method of “restoring” corpuscules, against the reliability of their post-mortem characteristics, and against the dependability of the alleged matches between samples. LaPage’s last-minute confession led the St. Alban’s Messenger (March 22, 1878) to exult that

[i]t must be exceedingly gratifying to Drs. Richardson, Treadwell and Chase, to have this confirmation by voluntary confession of the revelations of crime by the microscope. It will no longer do for flippant attorneys to scout** the revelations which modern science gives, at the hands of intelligent, patient, skillful and thoughtful manipulators in microscopy and photography; and the conviction and punishment of such a monster as LaPage, largely by the testimony of blood experts secures another triumph for modern science.

* In addition to the obelisk, a “Suncook Town Tragedy Ballad” (lyrics here) preserves the terrible tale.

** “To scout” has a little-used meaning of “to scorn; dismiss”. This meaning has a completely different etymology from the more usual meaning of searching or reconnoitering.

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1878: J.W. Rover, sulfurous

Add comment February 19th, 2014 Headsman

Reno, Nevada had its only hanging on this date in 1878, and it’s never since been certain whether it was the right man they hung.

J.W. Rover, Frank McWorthy, and Isaac Sharp(e) had come from Oakland to work a sulfur claim in present-day Pershing County (then Humboldt County).

Sharp ended up dead, his body horribly mutilated and its dismembered parts scattered to different burial holes.

A mental health counselor I know is fond of saying of the family dysfunctions he has handled that who is crazy depends upon who gets to the phone first. It turns out that sometimes murder does, too.

McWorthy rode in to Winnemucca and swore out a complaint accusing Rover of the murder. Rover would spend the next three years vigorously but never quite successfully insisting that McWorthy was the one who killed Sharp.

Rover was convicted of murder in July 1875, but because the verdict didn’t mention degree of murder, the case had to be retried. In April 1876, Rover was convicted again, of first-degree murder, thank you very much. But the Nevada Supreme Court overturned that verdict, too, and granted Rover a change of venue to Reno’s Washoe County, where Rover was convicted for a third time in June 1877.

In all these proceedings, Rover never wavered from his claim of innocence, calling God to witness at trial after trial that it was his associate and accuser McWorthy who was the guilty party and wanted to frame up Rover to get his hands on that lucrative sulfur deposit.

Having failed three times over in court, Rover’s lawyers turned as the hanging approached to Section 458, a remote provision of the criminal code permitting a special jury to be impaneled “if after judgment of death there be good reason to suppose that the defendant has become insane.”

Three years and all those hearings on, Rover’s fate would finally rest in the hands of twelve new jurors impaneled on the very eve of his hanging. While Rover passed his final night in the Reno jail, his sanity jury met in a courtroom in an upper-story room.

Rover’s lawyers and the District Attorney made their arguments to the jury until midnight that night, then adjourned, and then re-assembled at 7:30 on the morning of the scheduled execution. Rover couldn’t sleep a wink, passing the night rambling emotionally with reporters — at one point breaking down as he read them a letter from his sister.

“As he lay there he formed an object at once of pity and interest,” one scribe wrote for the newspaper of nearby silver mining boomtown Virginia City.*

He was reclining upon a rude bed covered by a coarse blanket. His pillow had no case, and his hair was unkempt and rough-looking. His beard had the appearance of being about one month’s growth. The cell was narrow, and was lighted by the feeble rays of a tallow candle held by a Deputy Sheriff.

Once or twice, he would furtively ask the reporters’ estimation of his chances with the proceedings upstairs. The reporters didn’t know. The jury didn’t either.

That morning, as crowds besieged the courthouse seeking one of the 200 visitors’ permits for the “private” execution, the jury huddled inside it making its final deliberations over four long hours. At last, at noon, it came down seven votes for sane, five for insane.**

Seventy minutes after that vote, Rover was escorted to the gallows supported by two men and a stiff drink of whiskey. This was nearly a two-hour theater in its own right: after a 20-minute recitation of the death warrant, Rover spoke for 50-plus minutes, continuing to insist upon his innocence:

I am so prostrated by this long prosecution that I am unable to say what I want to say …

Gentlemen, McWorthy has got away, but if I had my liberty the face of the world would not be large enough to hide him. I would search him out and bring him to justice, and if the law could not reach him I would find a strong arm of justice that would reach him …

I must be hung; you will be sorry for it some day, but what good will that do me when I am dead and gone? Good-by. My heart is with you.

By the end, Rover could barely hold up. He took a drink of water. “Oh, gentlemen, I cannot realize that I am to be hung!” he cried as his limbs were pinioned at last, and had to be supported lest he swoon. The Catholic priest finally had to settle him down from his last babbling.

“Not guilty,” he insisted one last time. Then to the sheriff: “Go on and do your duty.”


Rumors of Rover’s innocence persisted for years after his hanging, not excluding claims that his ghost was on the haunt.†

In 1899, a newspaper reported that “It afterward developed that Rover was innocent of the crime for which he suffered. McWorthy died a few years ago in Arizona, and on his deathbed confessed that he was the murderer of Sharp.”

McWorthy might or might not have been the guilty party. But that story was not accurate — McWorthy was still alive at the time in Oakland, California.

* The newspaper in question was the Territorial Enterprise, notable for employing the young Mark Twain in the early 1860s. Indeed, it was here that the writer Samuel Clemens first employed that nom de plume. Ten years before Rover’s hanging, Clemens/Twain actually witnessed and wrote about a public hanging in Virginia City.

** Not as close as it sounds: Rover needed a unanimous verdict.

† The present-day Washoe County Courthouse, not built until many years after Rover’s hanging, allegedly has a haunted jail whose spook might be Rover.

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

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1878: Bill Longley, gunslinger

2 comments October 11th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1878, “gunfighter” Bill Longley was hanged for murder in Giddings, Texas.

This flim-flam man was an anti-hero of the Wild West, a near-exact caricature of everything disreputable about his milieu. Remorselessly homicidal, virulently racist, and pathologically unfaithful to any bond of honor or friendship: “an idle boaster, a notorious liar and a man of low instinct and habits,” in the estimation of an officer of the army cavalry regiment from which Longley deserted.

And he was a relentless self-promoter pleased to exaggerate both the quantity and the valor of his sixguns’ conquests.

Longley’s end at the end of a rope — for murdering his childhood friend in solidarity with some uncle’s ill-founded grudge — makes a fittingly puerile end to a repulsive career, and not least because Longley’s family later circulated rumors* that Longley had connived with his executioners to escape the noose and been spirited away under a false name.

Recent DNA testing proved that story false, but most of the Longley mythos is regrettably forensic-proof.

The outlaw himself was his own Homer, perhaps consciously playing catch-up with the legendary bandits already afoot in the land.** It’s certainly the case that he was a wanted killer, and a renowned marksman. Upon these gifts, Longley spun preposterous tales of his exploits in 1860s-70s Texas: being shot out of a noose at an attempted lynching;† slaughtering men and women (particularly blacks: his favored prey) in bunches; riding with the Cullen Baker gang; killing people in fair fights and not for their money.

“His hot temper, his fondness for liquor, and unsettled conditions during reconstruction led him to become one of the most daring gunslingers of his day,” is how a Texas state grave marker reckons him, with a warmth the Lone Star State does not reserve for its present-day “daring gunslingers.” No doubt “unsettled conditions” have been involved in many of those crime sprees as well.

Anyway, such of Longley’s record that can be substantiated better resembles a string of ambushes and uncomplicated murders, perpetrated to start with against freedmen during Reconstruction (Longley’s first known killing was of an uppity former slave in 1867, during a highway stickup), and then almost willy-nilly for plunder, race hatred, or personal pique against defenseless targets misfortunate enough to cross his path. His most “romantic” exploit was over a love rivalry … not a Capulet-and-Montague affray, but the killer bursting in on the reverend father of the girl who frustrated his designs, and wasting him with a shotgun.‡ (His actual rival got off with a pistol-whipping.)

Longley’s last arrest in 1877 removed him from these pursuits long enough to burden the local Giddings Tribune (and anybody else who would listen) with a steady supply of letters trumpeting his ferocity … and as his fate became apparent, his eventual treacly and apparently sincere contrition. “My first step was disobedience; next whisky drinking; next, carrying pistols; next, gambling, and then murder, and I suppose the next step will be the gallows.” The classic fall and redemption story.

After an escape attempt and a foiled scheme to bribe the guards, Longley gamely took his redemption in a botched hanging that dropped him so far that his feet reached the ground. The executioners had to muscle the rope back up into the air and keep it there for 11 minutes to get him where he could choke to death.

There’s an excellent HistoryNet article describing “Bloody Bill” Longley’s times and crimes in great detail here. There’s a wee genealogy, including the interesting tidbit that Longley’s father helped bury the dead of Goliad, here.

* Apparent cause of the rumor: the mom couldn’t deal with Longley’s wicked character and dishonorable death, so the family deceived her, even forging letters from “Bill Longley”.

** Most particularly, John Wesley Hardin. Longley eagerly claimed responsibility for killings that might not even have happened, in an apparent attempt to top Hardin’s body count (27 or 28) with his own (allegedly, 32). Just prior to his execution, influenced by redemption or hope for clemency or whatever, Longley downgraded his career notch count to “only” eight.

† This most famous and fantastic of all Longley’s “exploits” seems to be sourced to nobody but Longley himself; notwithstanding that prima facie credibility deficit, it’s still retailed as fact on a number of online Longley bios.

‡ This last episode was among the crimes of Longley’s last three years’ liberty that might have been prevented had not the Lone Star State refused in 1874 to honor a reward posted on the outlaw by that carpetbaggers’ Reconstruction regime. Un-paid, Longley’s captors simply turned him loose instead. That’s federalism at its finest.

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

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1878: Max Hödel

4 comments August 16th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1878, journeyman tinsmith Max Hödel was beheaded in Berlin’s New Prison for taking a potshot at Kaiser Wilhelm I.

Nothing daunted by the prospect of trading his life for an 81-year-old* man’s, this propagandist of the deed tried to kill the conservative German emperor in May of 1878. He missed his target, but killed a bystander.

(Hodel’s cover story that he was just trying to blow his own brains out, not shoot the emperor, was belied by a number of hints he had given to others prior to the attack — e.g., telling a photographer who took his picture that the photo would soon be worth thousands.)

Just weeks after Hodel’s miss, another unsuccessful attempt to kill the emperor was undertaken by Karl Nobiling. Though Nobiling died of self-inflicted injuries, Hodel had to make do with decapitation.

Reichstag fire-like, these two outrages provided the Reich sufficient pretext to outlaw the Social Democratic Party** — even though the gunmen were much more radical types than this. (Hodel himself had previously been booted from the SDP.)

Germans having taken a front-row seat to the Paris Commune just a few years before, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had no intention of allowing radical organizing of any variety to pick up any steam.

Coincidentally, our day’s protagonist shares an execution date with the next generation’s (better) anarchist assassin, Sante Geronimo Caserio — guillotined 16 Aug. 1894 for killing the French president.

* And he was right: nature didn’t take its course with Kaiser Wilhelm for nine more years; he missed outliving his own son and heir by a mere three months.

** Engels — writing polemically, of course — reckons over 11,000 political prisoners arrested from 1879 to 1880 alone.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Assassins,Attempted Murder,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Notable for their Victims,Power,Revolutionaries,Treason

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1878: John Kehoe, king and last of the Molly Maguires

17 comments December 18th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1878, John “Black Jack” Kehoe was hanged in Pottsville — as Pennsylvania’s anthracite trusts took a victory lap around the corpses of the Molly Maguires.

Even to say what the Mollies were is to take a side in their life-and-death struggle. Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine had poured into Pennsylvania’s coal mining country in the mid-19th century, where life in the mines was nasty, brutish and short, and the pay wasn’t anything to write home about either.

In a time when capital ruthlessly hunted any intimation of labor organizing and the Irish were a distinctly second-class people, the (apparent, or at least alleged) response of the Mollies was natural: form a secret society, and wring by threat of bodily harm the concessions it could not pursue by collective bargaining. For the recent Irish transplants, the tableau of a Catholic underclass working for a Protestant landlord who owned (and gouged on) everything in sight had a certain familiar feel.

Terrorists? They certainly used violence to achieve political objectives, at least if the testimony of their foes is credited. But they weren’t the only ones.

Mine owners turned public and private violence on Irish radicals pushing for things like the eight-hour day. The notorious strike-breaking Pinkerton Detective Agency was detailed to infiltrate the Mollies.

The main blow against the Mollies was struck over a period of (extrajudicial) vigilante justice in the mid-1870’s, culminating in “Pennsylvania’s Day of the Rope” in 1877, when ten supposed members were (judicially) hanged around the Keystone State.

Kehoe, a power broker in mining country with some sway at the capital who was reputed to call the shots among the Maguires, faced the hangman singly a year later for an 1862 cold-case murder so doubtfully ascribed to Kehoe that the governor hesitated to sign the death warrant.

He signed it just the same, marking a sort of ceremonial “end to Molly-ism.” The New York Times exulted two days hence “that the widely-extended and long-continued tyranny and terror of this association is at an end,” and all because the resolute executive had gone and sent a hempen message to “the savage and benighted population of the coal region.”

The lesson taught by the punishment of the Molly Maguires would have been shorn of much of its terror and impressiveness if the energetic and persistent efforts made in behalf of KEHOE, the reputed king of that organization, had resulted in rescuing him from the gallows. If they had even so far succeeded as to have caused his punishment to be commuted to imprisonment for life, the admonitory influence of his fate upon the murderous clain of whom he was the last surviving chief would have been greatly lessened, and the snake of Molly Maguire-ism, of which he was the forked tongue and fangs, might haply have been only scotched, not killed. … The law has shown that it has subtlety enough to hunt [the Molly Maguires] through every possible labyrinth of refuge and strip from them every artifice of disguise, and power enough to wring them out of the desperate grasp of sympathizing constituencies and crush them.

Florid.

Like we said, violence wasn’t the exclusive resort of one side. But the monopoly of violence … that was held, as always, by the same hands that held the monopolies. Sean Connery as Kehoe reflects on the uneven contest while awaiting his fate in a (fictional) exchange with the Pinkerton mole who condemned him from the 1970 film The Molly Maguires.*

Pennsylvania Gov. John Hartranft left office a few weeks later, and reflected in his outgoing address on the lessons “the manufacturers and operators” ought to draw from the late unpleasantness.

The Mollie Maguire murders, like the agrarian murders in Ireland, and the trades-union outrages, arsons, and machine-breakings in England, were not the work of the so-called criminal classes. They were essentially class murders … If some of the leading spirits of the class had been members of a board of arbitration as representatives of labor, with some of the employers or their agents as representatives of capital, it is not unreasonable to suppose that most of the disagreements that have kept the coal regions in a state of turmoil might have been amicably adjusted, and many of those who were assassinated and of those who have been hanged living to-day.

101 years later, Kehoe received what was thought to be the first and only posthumous pardon in the state’s history. The Mollies’ true extent, purpose and actual actions — even their very existence as anything but a stalking-horse for the more thorough conquest of surplus labor — remain hotly debated to this day, since the public record of this tight-lipped society consists of little beyond the courtroom testimony of a handful of parties thoroughly prejudiced to hostility by class interest or payoffs.

* Written by Walter Bernstein, who had only recently emerged from the Hollywood blacklist for his Communist proclivities.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Notable Sleuthing,Organized Crime,Pelf,Pennsylvania,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Terrorists,USA,Wrongful Executions

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