1879: Phra Pricha

Add comment November 24th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1879, the British Consul General in Bangkok lost his son-in-law to the headsman.

Fanny Knox was the multiracial daughter of Consul Thomas Knox and a Siamese noblewoman named Prang Yen.

R.J. Minney (who also popularized Violetta Szabo in Carve Her Name With Pride) novelized her intriguing story for a popular audience in the 1960s, following up on the Victorian-ingenue-in-Indochina interest created by Anna and the King of Siam. His Fanny and the Regent of Siam didn’t quite enter the canon, but 50-year-old used copies can still be scared up for a few pennies.

Anna of Anna and the King and Fanny of Fanny and the Regent had a link besides the publishing industry: Anna Leonowens‘s son Louis actually paid court to Fanny Knox. He wound up settling for Fanny’s sister Caroline when Fanny went for the Siamese aristocrat Phra Pricha (or Preecha) Kon-la-Karn. (“Phra” is an honorific for Pricha’s rank. Fanny would later be known as the Baroness Pricha Kon-la-Karn.)

But just weeks after their marriage — and while Fanny was pregnant with their first (only!) child — the new groom was accused of peculation and treachery, leading to his shocking Nov. 24 beheading.

The New York Times marveled in a sketchy April 12, 1880 recap:

Nothing so startling has happened here in a quarter of a century. You can only understand its effect by imagining John Sherman, Secretary of the Treasury, to be suddenly arrested, carried off mysteriously to Richmond or Petersburg, Va., and as mysteriously hanged. You may say that you do not hang high officers in the United States. Neither do they behead high officers in Siam. The instance of Pra Preecah [another alternate spelling] can hardly be paralleled here, at least in this generation.

The unparalleled and opaque tragedy transpired in the first few years of the majority of Siam’s King Chulalongkorn (or Rama V) — one of the royal princes tutored by the aforementioned Anna Leonowens.

In time, Chulalongkorn would be known as Rama the Great, the brilliant modernizer in his country’s history … but at this time those aspirations were constrained by much more conservative Siamese elites, most especially personified in the man who had been Chulalongkorn’s regent during his minority, Si Suriyawongse. The Times article just quoted ungenerously judges the king “a weak, cruel, cowardly despot” who “cannot much longer retain his power.”

Prominent among the king’s “Young Siam” party was the Amatayakun family, and the most prominent among that clan was Phra Pricha. Pricha was the governor of Prachinburi.

The substance of the formal accusation was that our man abused his control of Prachinburi’s lucrative Kabin gold mine to embezzle revenues that rightly belonged to the crown while grotesquely oppressing, even outright murdering, laborers under his jurisdiction there. The baron even confessed to the charge, though it’s difficult to know what weight to put upon that.

The probable subtext is political enmity between the Amatayakun family and the Bunnag family of the “Old Siam” ex-regent. Indeed, it’s been speculated that it was precisely because Phra Pricha detected the imminent accusations against him that he married Fanny Knox — so that he could give the money to his wife to protect it.

The British consul, meanwhile, quite overreached himself to intervene on behalf of his new son-in-law.

In a personal visit to Chulalongkorn, he urged the king that Pricha’s political enemies had concocted the charges — and that British gunships would back the sovereign if he should use the occasion to reverse the power of the old guard who intended to prosecute the former governor. (Source)

Chulalongkorn declined to upset the apple cart. Phra Pricha was handled by his enemies, and his family fell from power with his execution

Was the king’s reticence timidity or sagacity? 1879-1880 proved to be the nadir of Chulalongkorn’s power. Within months after Phra Pricha’s execution, team Young Siam was wresting its influence back. As the 1880s unfolded, Old Siam was literally dying off, and loyalists of the young king began filling their ministries.

Chulalongkorn’s reluctance to invite foreign intervention would foreshadow perhaps his essential accomplishment: although entirely surrounded by British and French colonies and certainly subject to those empires’ pressures, Rama the Great maintained the independence of Siam/Thailand.

Consul General Thomas Knox, meanwhile, was recalled over his impolitic meddling. Millions of tourists to Thailand’s unofficial northern capital might be interested in this side note: Nigel Brailey suggests that “It could be said that Siam’s role in Chiengmai,” which was then a distinct tributary kingdom of Siam’s subject to the growing influence of the neighboring British, “was saved by the … Phra Pricha affair.” The ambassador swap caused a year-long gap in British-Siamese diplomatic negotiations thereto which had been intensifying in early 1879.

* “Chiengmai and the Inception of an Administrative Centralization Policy in Siam (II),” Southeast Asian Studies, March 1974. (pdf cached here)

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Nobility,Pelf,Power,Thailand

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1879: Kate Webster, of the Barnes Mystery

1 comment July 29th, 2013 Richard Clark

(Thanks to Richard Clark of Capital Punishment U.K. for the guest post, a reprint of an article originally published on that site. (I’ve added some links and done a bit of minor reformatting.) The images accompanying this post are also provided by Mr. Clark. -ed.)

Kate Webster was a rather incompetent career criminal who had served several prison terms for various thefts and offences of dishonesty, both in her native Ireland and in England. These included a period of 12 months in 1877 in London’s Wandsworth prison, where she would ultimately die.

She was born Catherine Lawler in 1849 in Killane, Co. Wexford in what is now the Irish Republic and started her criminal career at an early age. She claimed to have a married a sea captain called Webster by whom, according to her, she had had four children. Whether this is true is doubtful, however.

She moved to Liverpool (stealing money for the ferry fare) and continued stealing once she arrived there. This was to earn her a four-year prison sentence at the age of 18. On release, she went to London and took work as a cleaner — often “cleaning out” her employer’s possessions before moving on.

In 1873, she settled at Rose Gardens in London’s Hammersmith area. Her next door neighbours were Henry and Ann Porter whom she got on well with and were to feature later in her story. She moved to Notting Hill to a new job as a cook/housekeeper to Captain Woolbest and whilst in his employ, met a man named Strong with whom she went to live and became pregnant by. She duly gave birth to a son on the 19th of April 1874 and was promptly abandoned by Mr. Strong. Without any means of support (there was no Social Security then), Kate resorted to her usual dishonest practices and served several prison sentences as a result.

On release from Wandsworth in 1877, she again sought domestic work — firstly with the Mitchell family in Teddington, of whom she was to say that they didn’t have anything worth stealing. She was constantly on the move at this time and used several aliases including Webster and Lawler.

Sarah Crease, another domestic servant, became friends with Kate somewhere around this period, and it was Sarah who found herself looking after Kate’s son during his mother’s spells in prison.

The murder.

On the 13th of January 1879, Kate entered the service of Mrs Julia Martha Thomas at No. 2 Vine Cottages, Park Road, Richmond. To begin with, the two women got on well and Kate recorded that she felt she could be happy working for Mrs. Thomas, who was comfortably off, although a rather eccentric woman in her mid 50’s.

Soon, however, the poor quality of Kate’s work and her frequent visits to local pubs began to irritate Mrs. Thomas and after various reprimands, she gave Kate notice with Kate’s dismissal to take effect on Friday, the 28th of February. This period of notice was a fatal mistake on the part of Mrs. Thomas and she became increasingly frightened of her employee during its period, so much so that she asked friends from her church and relatives to stay in the house with her.

Friday the 28th arrived and as Kate had not managed to find a new job or any accommodation, she pleaded with Mrs. Thomas to be allowed to remain in her house over the weekend. Sadly, Mrs. Thomas agreed to this — a decision that was to cost both women their lives.

On the Sunday morning (the 2nd of March 1879), Mrs. Thomas went off to church as usual. Kate was allowed Sunday afternoons off work but had to be back in time for Mrs. Thomas to go to the evening service. This Sunday afternoon Kate went to visit her son, who was as usual in the care of Sarah Crease, and then went to a pub on the way back to Vine Cottages. Thus she got back late which inconvenienced Mrs. Thomas, who again reprimanded her before rushing off so as not be late for the service. Fellow members of the congregation noticed that she seemed agitated, whether this was because she suspected Kate’s dishonesty and feared her home was being robbed, is quite possible.

Whatever the reason, Mrs. Thomas left church before the end of the service and went home, sadly without asking anyone to accompany her. Precisely what happened next is unclear. In her confession prior to her execution, Kate described the events as follows:

We had an argument which ripened into a quarrel, and in the height of my anger and rage I threw her from the top of the stairs to the ground floor. She had a heavy fall. I felt that she was seriously injured and I became agitated at what had happened, lost all control of myself and to prevent her screaming or getting me into trouble, I caught her by the throat and in the struggle choked her.

At her trial, the prosecution painted a rather different picture. Mrs. Thomas’ next door neighbour, Mrs. Ives, heard the noise of the fall followed by silence and at the time thought no more of it. Little was she to suspect what was to happen next.

Kate, of course, had the problem of what to do with the body but instead of just leaving it and escaping, she decided to dismember it and then dispose of the parts in the river.

She set about this grim task with a will, firstly cutting off the dead woman’s head with a razor and meat saw and then hacking off her limbs. She par-boiled the limbs and torso in a copper on the stove and burned Mrs. Thomas’ organs and intestines.

Even Kate was revolted by all this and the enormous amount of blood everywhere. But she stuck to the job and systematically burnt or boiled all of the body parts and then packed the remains into a wooden box, except for the head and one foot for which she could not find room. It has been said that Kate even tried to sell the fatty remains from boiling the body as dripping.

Mrs. Ives was later to report a strange smell from next door (which was caused by the burning).

Kate disposed of the spare foot on a manure heap but was left with the problem of the head, which she decided to place into a black bag.

She continued to clean up the cottage on the Monday and Tuesday and then “borrowing” one of Mrs. Thomas’ silk dresses went to visit the Porter family on the Tuesday afternoon, taking the black bag containing the head with her.

She told the Porters that she had benefited under the will of an aunt who had left her a house in Richmond which she wanted to dispose of, together with its contents, as she had decided to return to Ireland. She asked Henry Porter if he knew a property broker (estate agent) who might be able to assist her.

Later in the evening Kate excused herself and went off, ostensibly to visit another friend, returning later without the black bag which was never found. Both Henry Porter and his son Robert had carried the bag for Kate at various stages of their walk to the railway station and two pubs along the way and both noticed how heavy it was.

This still left Kate with the rest of the human remains in the box to dispose of and she sought the services of young Robert Porter to help her in this, taking the lad back home with her for the purpose. She and Robert carried the box between them to Richmond Bridge, where Kate said she was meeting someone who was taking the box and told Robert to go on without her. Robert was to hear a splash of something heavy hitting the water below a few moments before Kate caught up with him again.

The box was discovered the next morning by a coal man who must have had a horrible shock when he opened it. He reported his discovery to Inspector Harber at Barnes police station and the police had the various body parts examined by a local doctor who declared that they were from a human female and noticed that the skin showed signs of having been boiled. Without the head, however, it was not possible to identify the body.

Kate meanwhile was calling herself Mrs. Thomas and wearing the dead woman’s clothes and jewellery. She kept up pressure on Henry Porter to help her dispose of the property and he introduced her to a Mr. John Church, who was a publican and general dealer, who she persuaded to buy the contents of the house. Kate and Church seemed to rapidly become friends and went drinking together several times. The real Mrs. Thomas had not been reported missing at this stage and the papers referred to the human remains in the box as “the Barnes Mystery,” a fact known to Kate as she could read, as could the Porter family. Robert told his father about the box he had helped Kate carry which was like the one described in the papers.

Kate agreed a price for the furniture and some of Mrs. Thomas’ clothes with John Church and he arranged for their removal. Unsurprisingly, this was to arouse the suspicion of Mrs. Ives next door who questioned Kate as to what was going on. Mrs. Church was later to find a purse and diary belonging to Mrs. Thomas in one of the dresses. There was also a letter from a Mr. Menhennick to whom Henry Porter and John Church paid a visit.

Menhennick knew the real Mrs. Thomas and it became clear from the discussion that it could well be her body in the box. The three men, together with Menhennick’s solicitor, went to the Richmond police station and reported their suspicions. The next day a search was made of No. 2 Vine Cottages and an axe, razor and some charred bones were recovered, together with the missing handle from the box found in the river. Thus on the 23rd of March, a full description of Kate Webster was circulated by the police in connection with the murder of Mrs. Thomas and the theft of her effects.

Kate had decided to flee to Ireland taking her son with her — which was to be the first place the police looked for her. She was arrested on the 28th of March and kept in custody awaiting collection by two detectives from Scotland Yard. She was brought back to England and taken to Richmond police station where she made a statement on March 30th and was formally charged with the murder.

The statement accused John Church of being responsible for Mrs. Thomas’ death and he was subsequently arrested and charged with the murder too. Fortunately, he had a strong alibi and had also assisted the police in discovering the crimes. At the committal hearing, the charges against him were dropped while Kate was remanded in custody. She was transferred to Newgate prison to save the journey by horse drawn prison van across London each day for her trial.

Trial.

Kate Webster’s trial opened on the 2nd of July 1879 before Mr. Justice Denman at the Central Criminal Court (the Old Bailey) next door to Newgate. In view of the seriousness of the crime, the Crown was led by the Solicitor General, Sir Hardinge Giffard, and Kate was defended by Mr. Warner Sleigh.

A hat maker named Mary Durden gave evidence for the prosecution telling the court that on the 25th of February, Kate had told her she was going to Birmingham to take control of the property, jewellery, etc. that had been left her by a recently deceased aunt. This, the prosecution claimed, was clear evidence of premeditation, as the conversation had occurred 6 days before the murder.

One of the problems of the prosecution case, however, was proving that the human remains the police had found were actually those of Mrs. Thomas. It was a weakness that her defence sought to capitalise on, especially as without the head there was no means of positively identifying them at that time. Medical evidence was given to show that all the body parts had belonged to the same person and that they were from a woman in her fifties.

The defence tried to suggest that Mrs. Thomas could have died of natural causes, in view of her agitated state, when she was last seen alive leaving church on the Sunday afternoon. Both Henry Porter and John Church gave evidence against Kate describing the events of which they had been involved, and her defence again tried to point the finger of suspicion at them. In his summing up, the judge, however, pointed to the actions and previously known good characters of both of them. Two of Kate’s friends, Sarah Crease and Lucy Loder, gave evidence of her good nature.

Late on the afternoon of Tuesday, the 8th of July, the jury retired to consider their verdict, returning just over an hour later to pronounce her guilty. Before she was sentenced, Kate yet again made a complete denial of the charge but cleared Church and Porter of any involvement in the crime. As was normal, she was asked if she had anything to say before she was sentenced and claimed to be pregnant. She was examined by a panel of matrons drawn from some of the women present in the court and this claim was dismissed as just another of her lies. She went back to Newgate and was transferred the next day to Wandsworth to await execution. It has been suggested that Wandsworth did not have a condemned cell at this time although it would seem unlikely. In any event, Kate was guarded round the clock by teams of female prison officers.

Kate was to make two further “confessions” in Wandsworth, the first implicating Strong, who was the father of her child. These allegations were also found to be baseless.

Kate was informed by her solicitor that no reprieve was to be granted to her, despite a small amount of public agitation for commutation. So on the eve of her hanging, Kate made another confession to the solicitor in the presence of the Catholic priest attending her, Father McEnrey, which seemed somewhat nearer the truth. She stated that she was resigned to her fate and that she would almost rather be executed than return to a life of misery and deception.

Execution.

The actual execution of the sentence of death had changed a great deal over the 11 years between the ending of public hangings and Kate’s death, even though the words of the sentence had not.

No longer was it a public spectacle with the prisoner being given a short drop and allowed to die in agony. William Marwood had made great improvements to the process and had introduced the “long drop” method, designed to break the person’s neck and cause instant unconsciousness.

The execution was, as usual, to take place three clear Sundays after sentence and was set for the morning of Tuesday, the 29th of July at Wandsworth prison. Wandsworth was originally the Surrey House of Correction and had been built in 1851. It took over the responsibility for housing Surrey’s condemned prisoners on the closure of Horsemonger Lane Gaol in 1878.

Kate was to be only the second person and the sole woman to be hanged there.

At 8.45 a.m., the prison bell started to toll and a few minutes before 9.00 a.m. the Under Sheriff, the prison governor, Captain Colville, the prison doctor, two male warders and Marwood formed up outside her cell.

Inside, Kate was being ministered to by Father McEnrey and attended by two female wardresses. She would have typically been offered a stiff tot of brandy before the execution commenced. The governor entered her cell and told her that it was time and she was led out between the two male warders, accompanied by Father McEnrey, across the yard to the purpose built execution shed which was nicknamed the “Cold Meat Shed.” (See photo)

Having the gallows in a separate building spared the other prisoners from the sound of the trap falling, and made it easier too for the staff to deal with the execution and removal of the body afterwards. As Kate entered the shed, she would have been able to see the large white painted gallows with the rope dangling in front of her with its simple noose laying on the trapdoors. The idea of coiling up the rope to bring the noose to chest level came later, as did the brass eyelet in the noose. Marwood stopped her on the chalk mark on the double trapdoors and placed a leather body belt round her waist to which he secured her wrists, while one of the warders strapped her ankles with a leather strap. She was not pinioned in her cell, as became the normal practice later.

She was supported on the trap by the two warders standing on planks, (one is just visible in the bottom left hand corner of the photo) set across it. This had been the normal practice for some years in case the prisoner fainted or struggled at the last moment. Marwood placed the white hood over her head and adjusted the noose, leaving the free rope running down her back. Her last words were, “Lord, have mercy upon me.”

He quickly stepped to the side and pulled the lever, Kate plummeting down some 8 feet into the brick-lined pit below. Marwood used significantly longer drops than later were found to be necessary. Kate’s body was left to hang for the usual hour before being taken down and prepared for burial. The whole process would have taken around two minutes in those days and was considered vastly more humane than Calcraft’s executions.

The black flag was hoisted on the flag pole above the main gate, where a small crowd of people had gathered for her execution. They would have seen and heard nothing and yet these rather pointless gatherings continued outside prisons during executions until abolition.

As the criminal was female no newspaper reporters were been allowed to attend the execution but the Illustrated Police News did one of their famous drawings of the scene as they imagined it, with Marwood putting the hood over a pinioned Kate’s head.*

The Sheriff’s Cravings show that William Marwood received £11 for hanging Kate, presumably £10 plus £1 expenses.

Later in the day, her body was buried in an unmarked grave in one of the exercise yards at Wandsworth.** She is listed in the handwritten prison records as Catherine Webster, interred 29/07/1879. Although she was the second person to be executed at Wandsworth, she was buried in grave no. 3 as the graves were numbered 1, 3, 5, etc. on one side of the path, while on the other side they were numbered 2, 4, 6, etc. and it was decided to use those on one side first.

In all, 134 men and Kate were to be hanged at Wandsworth up till the 8th of September, 1961, when Henryk Niemasz became the last to suffer for the murder of Mr. and Mrs. Buxton.

Comment.

If the events of that Sunday evening were exactly as Kate described them, it is strange that Mrs. Ives did not hear the quarrel or any other noises from next door. Again why were there bloodstains at the top of the stairs if Mrs. Thomas’ injuries had occurred at the bottom?

It is generally held that Kate lay in wait for Mrs. Thomas and hit her on the head with an axe causing her to fall down the stairs, where she then strangled her to prevent any further noise. This would, of course, make the crime one of premeditated murder and is much more in line with the forensic evidence.

Whether Kate decided to kill Mrs. Thomas in revenge for her earlier telling off or whether it was because she saw a great opportunity to steal from Vine Cottage, or both, is unclear. It is not unknown for previously non-violent criminals to turn to violent murder. John Martin Scripps became, to date, the last British man to be hanged for murder when he was executed in Singapore in April 1996. He too had convictions for dishonesty.

But what turned Kate to such appalling violence? Did she just snap or had she spent two hours or so thinking about it? We will never know the answer to these questions because there was no psychiatric assessment carried out on murderers back then.

Postscript.

It was reported in October 2010 that Julia Martha Thomas’s skull has finally been discovered in the grounds of Sir David Attenborough‘s property in Park Road, Richmond by workmen excavating for an extension. He had purchased a former pub called “The Hole in the Wall” which was adjacent to his property and has had demolished the rear of the pub. It is highly likely that Kate Webster frequented “The Hole in the Wall”.

The coroners report stated that the skull had fractures consistent with falling down stairs and also had depleted collagen which suggested it had been boiled.

* Interesting sidelight on the popular circulation of crime news here, using a comparison of this case and that of another noteworthy 1879 hanging, Charles Peace. -ed.

** After the 90th Wandsworth execution, the authorities started to re-use some graves of previously hanged male prisoners. Nobody else was ever buried in Kate’s grave, however.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Murder,Other Voices,Women

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1879: Benjamin Hunter, in the Hunter-Armstrong Tragedy

Add comment January 10th, 2013 Headsman

(Thanks for the guest post to Robert Wilhelm of the Murder By Gaslight historic crime blog, and author of the book Murder And Mayhem in Essex County. Executed Today readers are sure to enjoy Wilhelm’s detailed investigations into long-lost historic crime. This post, reprinted with permission, first appeared last February on Murder By Gaslight. -ed.)

John Armstrong

The night of January 23, 1878, a man was found on the ground with a serious head wound, not far from the home of Ford W. Davis in Camden, New Jersey. Near the wounded man, a hammer and a hatchet were found, each marked with the initials F. W. D. The man was identified as Philadelphia music publisher, John M. Armstrong and when it was learned that he owed Ford W. Davis a sizeable amount of money, Davis was arrested. But Armstrong also owed $12,000 to Benjamin F. Hunter who had insured Armstrong’s life for more than double that amount.

Date: January 23, 1878

Location: Camden, New Jersey

Victim: John M. Armstrong

Cause of Death: Blows from a hammer and an axe

Accused: Benjamin F. Hunter

Synopsis:

Benjamin Hunter

Armstrong was taken to his home in Philadelphia, across the Delaware River from Camden, to be treated for head wounds. As a friend of the Armstrongs, Benjamin Hunter was among the first sent for by the stricken family. In the guise of helping, Hunter suspiciously rearranged the bandages on Armstrong’s head, reopening the wound. But when Armstrong died, Ford Davis was charged with his murder.

Some days later a young man named Thomas Graham was drowning his sorrows in a Philadelphia saloon. Laden with guilt, Graham made statements about the Armstrong murder that were incriminating enough to have him arrested. In jail, Graham made a full confession. Graham was an employee at Benjamin Hunter’s hardware concern and Hunter had offered him $500 to kill John Armstrong. Graham was in need of money and readily agreed.

They made a plan and set a date for the murder and Hunter made arrangements to be in Virginia that day. But Hunter returned to find Armstrong still alive — Graham’s nerve had failed him. Undaunted, Hunter came up with a more detailed plan to murder Armstrong. He gave Graham a hammer which bore the initials F. W. D. then had Graham mail a postcard to Armstrong, purporting to be from Ford Davis, asking Armstrong to meet him in Camden. Graham was to kill Armstrong with the hammer then leave it behind to frame Davis. Graham lost his nerve again but this time lied and said Armstrong never showed up.

Thomas Graham

Hunter decided not to leave anything to chance and met Armstrong, face to face, and persuaded Armstrong to accompany him on the ferry from Philadelphia to Camden. Graham, armed with the hammer and a hatchet that Hunter had given him, also initialed F.W.D., followed after them, riding in a different section of the boat. In Camden they took a streetcar and Graham followed on foot. They got off the car on Vine Street and Hunter left Armstrong and went back to give Graham the signal.

Graham hit Armstrong once with the hammer, but lost heart before he was able to finish the job. He threw the hatchet away and ran back to the ferry. Hunter grabbed the hatchet and attacked Armstrong, striking him on the head. He left Armstrong severely wounded, with a fractured skull.

After Graham’s confession, Ford Davis was released and Benjamin Hunter was arrested for murder.

Trial: June 10, 1878

Benjamin Hunter pled not guilty to the murder of John Armstrong. The defense asserted that there was no evidence that Hunter was in Camden that night. They also provided numerous witnesses that testified to Hunter’s good character. And they challenged the indictment on the grounds that since Armstrong died in Philadelphia, the murder could not be prosecuted in New Jersey.

It came out in court that Hunter had loaned Armstrong a total of $12,000 and to insure his loan Hunter had persuaded Armstrong to agree to a life insurance policy with Hunter as beneficiary. The amount of the policy was $26,000.

Thomas Graham had turned state’s evidence and it was his eye-witness testimony which tightened the noose around Hunter’s neck. The trial lasted 23 days and at the end the jury, with almost no deliberation, found Hunter guilty.

Verdict: Guilty of first degree murder

Aftermath:

Hunter’s attorneys appealed the verdict on the grounds that since Armstrong died in Philadelphia, Hunter could not be convicted of murder in Camden, New Jersey. The appeal was denied and Hunter was sentenced to hang on January 10, 1879.

With all hope gone, Benjamin Hunter confessed. The amount of money he had loaned Armstrong had been so large that he had been losing sleep worrying about it. Armstrong appeared to be using the money to maintain a lavish lifestyle rather than improving his failing business. Hunter’s only hope of retrieving his money was Armstrong’s death.

A week before the execution, Hunter attempted suicide, trying to spare his family and himself the indignity of a hanging. He was not allowed a knife or fork when eating, but he was able to tear away the top of a tin cup and used sharp edge to cut into his leg. Under a blanket he was able to cut an artery without the knowledge of the jailers on his deathwatch, and he had lost a pint and a half of blood before passing out and alerting them. He was saved from death and the execution went on as scheduled.

It was reported that Hunter, due to weakness from the loss of blood, and fear of death had to be carried to the gallows; though some claimed he had been given brandy and was dead drunk when carried in.

The hanging was to be done using a method adopted by the state of New Jersey — used in the case of Antoine La Blanc, among others — in which, rather than falling through a trap, the condemned man is pulled upward when a counterweight is dropped. Hunter’s execution was horribly botched as this eye-witness account attests:

“There was no scaffold. He was hanged in the corridor of the Court House, with a rope reaching up into the Court House over a pulley and to a weight in the cellar below. He was hanged at a cross-like arrangement, made by two corridors populated by men from some of whom the Sheriff demanded ten dollars apiece, and Eli Morgan, Deputy Sheriff to Sheriff Daubman, was to cut a little rope that held a stronger rope that controlled a three-hundred pound weight that was intended to hoist up the murderer into the air. The narrator was within two feet of Hunter when he was hanged. The rope was so long that it failed of its purpose and stretched, and the man went up in the air for but a few feet then tumbled down like a bunch of wet rags. Then Eli Morgan grabbed the rope and hauled him up hand over hand and held him there until he was throttled to death.”

It took Hunter at least fourteen minutes to die of strangulation.

Benjamin Hunter’s brother tried to collect on the life insurance policy and agreed to give the money to the Armstrong family. The insurance company refused to pay and Armstrong’s wife and administratrix of his estate, sued the company. The court sided with the insurance company saying they did not need to pay. The case was appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court who overturned the verdict and called for a new trial. If the insurance company could prove that the policy had been taken out by Hunter as part of the crime of murder, then policy need not be paid, if there was no fraud, then the money must be paid.

The false accusation and imprisonment of Ford Davis had completely prostrated him. Shortly afterwards, partly out of consideration for his innocent sufferings, Davis was appointed crier of the Camden Courts, and he held that position for many years.

Resources:
Books:

Hunter, Benjamin F., and Thomas Graham. Hunter-Armstrong tragedy the great trial : conviction of Benj. F. Hunter for the murder of John M. Armstrong. Philadelphia: Barclay, 1878.

Lawson, John Davison. American state trials: a collection of the important and interesting criminal trials which have taken place in the United States from the beginning of our government to the present day. St. Louis: Thomas Law Books, 1921.

Seen & heard by Megargee, Volume 4, Part 1. Philadelphia: Louis N. Megarcee, 1904.

The Medico-legal journal … New York: Medico legal journal, 1886.

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

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1879: John Blan, panicked

2 comments June 6th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1879, there was a public hanging in St. Charles, Missouri.

John Blan or Bland had murdered his brother-in-law in a log cabin following a dispute about money: Blan clobbered him with a club, then fled into the surrounding woods, only to return after his victim’s family had patched the poor fellow up and put him to bed and finish the guy off with a shotgun. It’s a murder that smacks of irresolution; Blan would later say that he was “scared and did not know what [he] was scared about” and that, afflicted by “the haunts,” he fancied the victim he had just shot pursuing him through the darkened forest. (Blan was also drunk.)

We’re attracted to this story because of the humanizing glimpse of a weak man terrified under the shadow of death that the newspaper reports of his hanging provide. On the scaffold or otherwise, we don’t all check out with a haughty disdain for the reaper.

The story below comes from the June 7, 1879 St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat, which source had previously (March 6, 1879) reported the prisoner’s unsteady conduct “during the days the evidence was being taken, manifested a great deal of bravado, but after the jury had gone out yesterday evening he grew solemn and seemed to realize his terrible danger. When he came into Court this morning to hear the verdict, he had a haggard expression, as if he had passed a night of intense anxiety. When the verdict was read perfect quiet pervaded the Court-room, and the prisoner turned very pale and supported himself by holding to the arms of his chair. He had evidently not expected such a verdict.”

The doomed man’s nerves had not improved in the interim.

By 6 o’clock Blan began to weaken and frequently shed tears. … At 7:30 o’clock Blan with sobs, told the Sheriff he was afraid he could not stand it. At 7:35 there was a sudden call for the guards at the outside door of the jail and quite a commotion inside. It was soon ascertained that Blan had made a desperate break for liberty. Rev. Mr. Morton and the Jailer were in the cell with him, and just as Dr. Johns, the County Physician, opened the cell door with a drink for Blan, he pushed the Jailer and minister aside, rushed to the door, struck at the Doctor, hitting him on the shoulder and knocking him out of the way, passed through the entry into the Jailer’s kitchen (the only way out) and there ran into the arms of Sheriffs Rienzi and Cook and a number of his deputies, who secured him after a hard struggle …

In a very few minutes Blan was taken on to the scaffold, and there, supported by several Deputy Sheriffs, the death warrant was read to him by Sheriff Rienzi.

Blan was much agitated, was very pale, and his legs seemed too weak to support him … after a short prayer … Blan then asked, “How much time have I got? Can I live till 9 o’clock?” He was told to step on the trap, which he did, and his feet were bound. He asked for water, and when it was given him said to those assembled: “I wish everybody well. May the good stay good, and the bad get better. I have no bad feeling against anybody. I did the deed.” The Sheriff then placed the black cap, and Blan cried out: “Farewell to everybody. Whisky [sic] and trouble got me into this scrape. I don’t deserve hanging.” The rope was adjusted and the trap sprung at 7:52 o’clock.

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1879: Takahashi Oden, dokufu and she-demon

2 comments January 31st, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1879, Takahashi Oden was put to death for murder at Tokyo’s execution grounds — the last woman beheaded in Japanese history.

Oden confessed to slaying her lover, and was also suspected of poisoning off her husband.

This made her perhaps the most infamous of Japan’s dokufu, poison-women — a perceived epidemic of the early Meiji period. Oden’s infamy thrust her into the crime genre’s characteristic harvest pulp literature, like Takahashi Oden yasha monogatari. (Takahashi Oden, the She-Demon’s Tale)

“Oden’s body became part of a scientific discourse that worked to produce ‘knowledge’ about feminine norms based on determinist biological differences,” Sharon Chalmers observes. “Deviancy was also characterised in terms of ‘masculine’ traits … [and] female transgression was read as sexual excess.”

And the feeding frenzy of the popular press around each new dokufu only exaggerated the effect: the sexual rapacity angle moved media.*

Since Japan was all about divining the secrets of the human form from the condemned, Oden was dissected after her death.

According to Murder Most Modern: Detective Fiction and Japanese Culture, the anatomizing team was especially keen on delineating that scientific discourse of feminine deviance. And, of course, the pamphleteers were keen on publicizing it. In this case, standing as we do today outside the surgeons’ intellectual framework, we can readily discern the corpse’s role for these men as grist for the ideological mill.

Immediately following her execution, her body was taken to the hospital affiliated with the Metropolitan Police Office (Keishicho) and dissected by an army surgeon and three regular doctors. Some accounts of this autopsy reveal that these doctors focused their attention on Oden’s genitalia during the procedure. Her bizarre autopsy is said to have been prompted by a newly emerging field of study called zokaki ron, roughly “the study of (re)productive organs.” A cross between sheer superstition and legitimate study of anatomy, zokaki ron was getting much scholarly as well as popular attention as one of the branches of science recently introduced from the West. After the autopsy, the primary operating surgeon, Osanai ken (1848-85), made the following report on Oden: “Abnormal thickness and swelling of the labia minor. Over-development of clitoris. Enlargement of vagina.” For Osanai — a skilled physician who is credited with having performed the first operation in Japan with chloroform and even makes an appearance in Shibue Chusai (1916), a novel by Mori Ogai (1862-1922) about a doctor of Chinese medicine in late Edo period Japan — such physical abnormalities explained Oden’s violent nature: after all, she ruthlessly slit her victim’s throat and left him in a pool of his own blood, and it took several blows for the authorities to execute her as she kicked and screamed in resistance.


Autopsy of Takahashi Oden, from Takahashi Oden yasha monogatari.

Though a lot of water has passed under the bridge since Oden’s day, she was the subject of a 1958 Nobuo Nakagawa film, Dokufu Takahashi Oden.


Katsuko Wakasugi as the title character in Dokufu Takahashi Oden.

* For more on the Oden story as crime literature, see Mark Silver’s “The Lies and Connivances of an Evil Woman: Early Meiji Realism and ‘The Tale of Takahashi Oden the She-Devil'” in Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, June 2003 — or, his book Purloined Letters: Cultural Borrowing and Japanese Crime Literature, 1868-1937.

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1879: Three botches in three states

3 comments May 16th, 2010 Headsman

America’s weird love-affair with Frankenstein execution technology has been an occasional theme on this blog, but the fact is that the old-school execution methods these ghastly machines replaced were unpleasantly hit-and-miss.

On this date in 1879, three different U.S. states produced botched executions, each blurbed this New York Times article. (pdf)


One is attracted most readily to the firing-squad execution of murderer Wallace Wilkerson in Utah.

Wilkerson appealed the constitutionality of this method of execution, and in 1879’s Wilkerson v. Utah, the U.S. Supreme Court held that “the punishment of shooting as a mode of executing the death penalty for the crime of murder in the first degree is not” cruel and unusual punishment.

This legal precedent has actually been cited* by the present-day Supreme Court in rejecting legal challenges to lethal injection. Which is ironic, because a couple of months after the high court issued Wilkerson v. Utah, Wilkerson suffered a very cruel execution indeed.

The doomed man talked the officials conducting his execution into allowing him to die without being strapped down. With the resultant range of motion, Wilkerson at the last breath before the fusillade hit him drew his shoulders up as he braced for the impact — and pulled the white target pinned to his shirt above his heart.

The volley didn’t kill him — it just knocked him out of his chair to the ground, screaming “Oh, my God! My God! They have missed!”

He bled to death in 27 minutes, prompting the tongue-in-cheek observation by the Ogden Junction that “the French guillotine never fails.”


Meanwhile, on the very same day in Missouri …

ST. LOUIS, Mo., May 16.–A special dispatch from Booneville, Mo., says: “John I. West, who murdered a tramp last October, was to-day hanged at the Old Fair Ground near this city. When the trap was sprung, at 11:41 A.M., the rope broke, and the culprit fell to the ground on his back, but was too weak to rise. His groans and the gurgling sounds of strangulation were terrible to hear. He was picked up and speedily raised to the trap again, and, while being held by four or five men, was dropped a second time. This time he swung, and in 11 minutes was pronounced dead.

After reaching the platform of the gallows, West spoke nearly half an hour to the crowd present, reiterating his confession of the murder of Shinn, reviewing his past life, and appealing to young men and women to take his fate as a warning. There were about 8,000 people present, among whom was the father of West, who had come from Chapin, Ill.

(There’s a great deal more about West’s crime in the Times article, but it’s pretty dull reading for all the column-inches. He was a tramp who committed a semi-random murder, seemingly activating all the crime-freakout circuits so familiar to cable news programmers.)


Hillsboro, North Carolina, held a first-ever triple hanging — of the “Chapel Hill burglars”. As you might guess, these gentlemen burgled, and said burgling occurred in Chapel Hill. It was for housebreaking, not murder, that they were condemned, with the help of a confederate who turned state’s-evidence against them as soon as the lot was arrested.

Each of the culprits proclaimed his innocence to the last moment. [Lewis] Carlton spoke for an hour, and said his salvation was sure. The parting between [Henry] Andrews and his sister on the scaffold was most affecting, and moved the crowd of witnesses to tears. All the doomed men bore themselves firmly, and showed no signs of wavering. The hanging took place at 2:30 P.M., and was very badly conducted. The ropes around the necks of [Henry Alphonso] Davis and Carlton were too long, and their feet rested on the ground. They were raised up and the ropes retied, causing death by strangulation.

(According to this “history of the University of North Carolina” page, one of the burglars’ victims was writer Cornelia Phillips Spencer. Famous as the woman who rang the bell re-opening UNC in 1875, her role in closing the university in the first place in 1870 and her retrograde racial politics have recently been in Tar Heel news. The linked article suggests that her brush with the Chapel Hill burglars might have given Spencer an appreciation for the Ku Klux Klan’s version of order. After all, a white supremacist vigilante is just a liberal who’s been burgled.)

The St. Louis Globe-Democrat of May 17, 1879 adds of our men’s exit (in an addendum to a report primarily about the aforementioned West) that

[t]he execution was romantic in the extreme. Just as the doomed men ascended the platform a murky cloud, which had been drifting around, hung over the crowd and the instrument of death. Alfonso Davis began to speak, and as he opened his mouth the thunder began to peal, and the rain came down in torrents. Not a man, woman or child in the vast crowd moved or seemed to be aware that the rain was falling, so wrapped up in the death scene were they. At times the cloud threw such a dense shadow over the scene that it seemed as though night had enveloped the place. Then the lightning, vivid and intense, lit up the field of blood and cast forward, in bold and statuesque relief, the figures of the doomed and their executor as he stood like an artilleryman, lanyard in hand, ready to send the signal of death forward … the souls of three burglars went out and beyond, forked lightning illuminating their way and the wildest of thunder pealing their requiem.


The Bayou State redeemed this black day for the executioner’s craft by the uneventful hanging one Robert Cheney (black, of course) “for ravishing Amelia Voight in June, 1878.”

All told, four states killed six men on May 16, 1879, but only two of them died “cleanly.”

* The author of the New York Times opinion piece cited here, Gilbert King, has guest-blogged on this site:

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1879: James McDonnell and Charles Sharpe

Add comment January 14th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1879, two Molly Maguires hanged in Mauch Chunk, Pa., while their reprieve waited for them just outside the door.

John Kehoe may have been the symbolic last chapter in the Mollies‘ suppression, but Pennsylvania didn’t intend to forego its mopping-up operation.

James McDonnell and Charles Sharpe (or Charles Sharp) had been convicted of murdering George Smith in 1863; like other Molly Maguire crimes, this one either (take your pick) languished for 13 years until the criminal enterprise that authored it was toppled, or was plucked from obscurity as a pretext on which to condemn the men on rather doubtful evidence.

It was on the strength of “snitch” testimony from admitted murderers that McDonnell and Sharpe were sentenced to die — McDonnell, a hirsute Irishman straight from barbarian central casting, even tried turning informer himself to save his own life, just as his accusers had done. (He continued to deny responsibility for the Smith murder, including on the gallows in his last statement.)

But as Maguire cases go, these were small fry … and it’s the sad circumstances of their end and the evocative description of the scene under the gallows that attracts our attention today.

An execution which it was thought would be one of the quietest hangings that ever took place in Mauch Chunk has proved the most exciting. A reprieve from Gov. Hartranft arrived here one-half minute after the drop fell — just 30 seconds too late to save the lives of the condemned men.

A scene of great excitement took place in the jail; but, although the condemned men had been hanging only a few minutes, there was no movement made toward cutting them down. The telegraph messenger reached the jail door before the drop fell; but no attention was paid to his knocking and ringing, the wife of one of the men having previously been extremely violent outside. When the drop fell the knocking and ringing continued, and the Sheriff sent out a man to arrest the persons whom he imagined to be creating a disturbance. It was then found to be the telegraph messenger with a reprieve. A brother of McDonnell, who had been kneeling by the scaffold, arose and excitedly charged the Sheriff and the bystanders with the murder of his brother. The excitement spread, and the Sheriff appealed to one of the priests, who exonerated him from blame. Amid this excitement and the reproaches of the maddened brother of McDonnell and the wailings of the bereaved families outside, the hanged men were forgotten, and their bodies remained suspended for 30 minutes after the drop fell. There is no reasonable doubt, however, that both were dead when the reprieve came.

It should be noted that the reprieve was not an outright commutation, only a stay of the sentence for a few more days. Nevertheless, the melodramatic affair led the Times to wax lyrical.

“The evil of this whole case,” it began, clearly not speaking from the point of view of McDonnell and Sharpe, “is that the gallows in Pennsylvania is invested with great uncertainty.”

[F]rom this time out the condemned man at the foot of the gallows may not only hope that a reprieve may arrive for him at any moment, but he may take off his thoughts from the certain doom before him and be agonized with the reflection that the boon which he waits for may come when his life has gone past recall. If a stay of proceedings is to be granted at all, it should be granted while the condemned man’s life may be said to keep the case open. It is a refinement of cruelty to keep hope alive and quivering at the foot of the gallows.

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1879: Charles Peace, Victorian cat burglar

26 comments February 25th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1879 was hanged one of the most colorful — and, subsequently, romanticized — career criminals of 19th century England, for the murder of a onetime friend whose wife he had endeavored to seduce.

Charles Peace told a clergyman who had an interview with him in prison shortly before his execution that he hoped that, after he was gone, he would be entirely forgotten by everybody and his name never mentioned again.

Posterity, in calling over its muster-roll of famous men, has refused to fulfil this pious hope, and Charley Peace stands out as the one great personality among English criminals of the nineteenth century. In Charley Peace alone is revived that good-humoured popularity which in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries fell to the lot of Claude Duval, Dick Turpin and Jack Sheppard.

So declaims H.B. Irving’s rollickingly readable sketch of Victorian England’s most notorious pre-Ripper outlaw.

Peace was a knave all his 47 years, and lost the best part of two decades to various stints in prison. It is chiefly for his last few years — not surprising, perhaps, in a habitue of these annals of execution — that he so colorfully endows his spot in the firmament of criminal history.

A copious string of home burglaries, audacious in both their nature and extent, disturbed South London in 1877-78, arousing the fear of the communities. Police suspected an entire gang must be at work. Irving, once again:

Perhaps [Peace] hardly realised the extent to which his fame was spreading. During the last three months of Peace’s career, Blackheath was agog at the number of successful burglaries committed in the very midst of its peaceful residents. The vigilance of the local police was aroused, the officers on night duty were only too anxious to effect the capture of the mysterious criminal.

Upon capture the master criminal revealed himself a gnarled character at once grandfatherly and fey — “a half-caste about sixty years of age, of repellent aspect,” the police described their catch. As the onion layers fell away, this strange creature of such otherworldly capacity for theft also revealed himself the vanished fugitive of a two-year-old murder — a personal affair (of much less brilliance than his burglary) whose particulars are thoroughly handled by Irving.

Although Peace was known by both name and distinctive appearance for that crime, he had coolly disregarded the price on his head and concealed himself in the infallible cloak of bourgeois respectability. “A period of true splendour,” Charles Whibley called it in his A Book of Scoundrels:

Like Fielding, like Cervantes, like Sterne, Peace reserved his veritable masterpiece for the certainty of middle-life. His last two years were nothing less than a march of triumph. If you remember his constant danger, you will realise the grandeur of the scheme. From the moment that Peace left Bannercross with Dyson’s blood upon his hands, he was a hunted man. His capture was worth five hundred pounds; his features were familiar to a hundred hungry detectives. Had he been less than a man of genius, he might have taken an unavailing refuge in flight or concealment. But, content with no safety unattended by affluence, he devised a surer plan: he became a householder. Now, a semi-detached villa is an impregnable stronghold. Respectability oozes from the dusky mortar of its bricks, and escapes in clouds of smoke from its soot-grimed chimneys. No policeman ever detects a desperate ruffian in a demure black-coated gentleman who day after day turns an iron gate upon its rusty hinge. And thus, wrapt in a cloak of suburban piety, Peace waged a pitiless and effective war upon his neighbours.

Whibley lovingly chronicles Peace’s superb technique and stupendous windfall. The thief’s overt career was in dealing musical instruments — skillful handling of the fiddle was a lifelong avocation; the simpatico that established with Sherlock Holmes earned the tribute, “My old friend Charlie Peace was a violin virtuoso” from Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective in “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client” — and he was obliged to justify wealth so disproportionate to his station with an allusion to marrying into money.

Nothing like a Holmesian surmise from such retrospectively suggestive clues found him out; the police chanced to nab him on the job and commenced the familiar tedium of turning former friends against him (enlivened by Peace’s attempt to escape by hurling himself from a train). The supposed heiress who had lived with Peace as his supposed wife readily cooperated in his doom, for which services she applied on the day after his sentence for the £100 reward. Contemporaries caught up in the allure of the wondrous criminal branded her “traitress Sue”.

Charley did not so ill-use his confederates; he was obstinate in his refusal to yield up the name of his fence, and remained affectionate after his treacherous lover to the very end. Indeed, Whibley notes, in his departing reconciliation with an injurious world, Peace “surrendered himself to those exercises of piety from which he had never wavered”

The foolish have denounced him for a hypocrite, not knowing that the artist may have a life apart from his art, and that to Peace religion was an essential pursuit. So he died, having released from an unjust sentence the poor wretch who at Whalley Range had suffered for his crime,* and offering up a consolatory prayer for all mankind. In truth, there was no enemy for whom he did not intercede. He prayed for his gaolers, for his executioner, for the Ordinary, for his wife, for Mrs. Thompson, his drunken doxy, and he went to his death with the sure step of one who, having done his duty, is reconciled with the world. The mob testified its affectionate admiration by dubbing him ‘Charley,’ and remembered with effusion his last grim pleasantry. ‘What is the scaffold?’ he asked with sublime earnestness. And the answer came quick and sanctimonious: ‘A short cut to Heaven!’

The incidence of Peace-related “penny dreafuls” — sensationalized popular publications — testify to the public imagination captured by this day’s victim. The wonderful site Yesterday’s Papers has posted a variety of fascinating Victorian Peace accounts (some reportedly by way of like-minded fellow-travelers). Executed Today is pleased to reprint several images here with permission.

* After he was condemned to die, Peace confessed to having also shot a constable in order to evade capture some years earlier. He had actually attended the trial where an innocent man, one John Habron, was sentenced to death for that crime. Habron, luckily, had been reprieved two days before his own hanging; on the strength of Peace’s confession, he was exonerated and released.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Common Criminals,England,Famous Last Words,Hanged,Infamous,Murder,Popular Culture

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