1889: Samuel Rylands, the first hanged at Shepton Mallet

Add comment March 13th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1889, the already-venerable prison at Shepton Mallet — which dates to 1610 and was England’s oldest working jail until its closure in 2013 — began its illustrious era as an execution site.

Samuel Reyland/Ryland/Rylands (press accounts used all three variants) bludgeoned, slashed, and strangled to death 10-year-old Emma Jane Davies in Yeobridge, Somerset, on January 2nd of that same year. Some newsmen eagerly attributed to the Yeobridge Murderer a wish “to emulate the London tragedies,” i.e., the Ripper slayings of late 1888. If Rylands’s confession is to be believed, it might have traced instead to a brain injury.


From the Western Mail, Feb. 26, 1889.

Shepton Mallet would remain a site for civilian executions until 1926; it was also favored as the American military prison during World War II, and 18 U.S. military executions took place there.

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1883: Vasudev Balwant Phadke dies on hunger strike

Add comment February 17th, 2019 Headsman

Vasudev Balwant Phadke died on hunger strike against his British captivity on this date in 1883.

The “father of armed rebellion” in India, Phadke radicalized while working as a clerk in Pune and arose as a prominent revolutionary in 1875 whipping up protests against the British for deposing the Maharaja of Baroda State and for the grinding agricultural crisis.

He took his sharp anti-colonial oratory on a then-novel barnstorming tour, and eventually formed the Ramosi Peasant Force — an armed peasant insurgency consisting of a few hundred souls.

Its successes were more of the local and symbolic variety — most notably, he got control of the city of Pune for a few days — but they sufficed to draw a price on Phadke’s head which eventually found a seller. (Phadke had made contemptuous reply by issuing his own bounty on the Governor of Bombay, a purse that was not claimed.) Even after capture, he briefly escaped by tearing his cell door off his hinges.

Needing to defuse his power as a potential martyr, the British gave him a term of years rather than a death sentence, and they moved him to Aden, Yemen, to serve it. Phadke overruled the sentence and clinched his martyr’s crown by refusing food until he succumbed on February 17, 1883.

There’s an eponymous 2007 biopic celebrating this Indian national hero, clips of which can be found in the usual places.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,England,Guerrillas,History,India,Martyrs,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Revolutionaries,Soldiers,Starved,Yemen

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1886: The leadership of the Proletariat Party

Add comment January 28th, 2019 Headsman

A quartet of revolutionary socialists were executed by the tsarist authorities at Warsaw Citadel on this date in 1886.

Poland’s first socialist party of any consequence, the Proletariat was founded in 1882 by Ludwik Warynski.

“Small in number and very young in age,” were these founding socialists, “sons and daughters of a shattered class and a defeated nation.” But Moscow had long feared the diffusion of revolutionary ideologies in Poland, for as an 1873 Russian security brief observed, “of all the lands belonging to his Imperial Majesty the Kingdom of Poland more than any other constitutes a favorable ground for the Internationale.” (Both quotes from The Origins of Polish Socialism: The History and Ideas of the First Polish Socialist Party 1878-1886.)

The Proletariat Party went some way to vindicating the fears of the secret police by gaining several hundred members in its first years and conducting some successful protest campaigns in Warsaw. Naturally this invited state violence on the heads of the leadership; Warynski was in irons by the end of 1883, and would die in prison six years later.

This in turn brought new and more implacable men to the fore of the movement, like one of our day’s principals Stanislaw Kunicki (English Wikipedia entry | Polish) — who better inclined to ally the Proletariat Party with the anti-autocrat terrorist organization Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will). Eventually in the course of the 1880s crackdown

several hundred members of Proletariat were arrested, of whom twenty-nine from the industrial areas of Poland were selected as being principally responsible for the direction of the party. The trial of 23 November to 20 December 1885 produced its first socialist martyrs. In the end the Russian Piotr Bardovsky, Stanislaw Kunicki, the shoemaker Michal Ossowski and the weaver Jan Petrusinski were hanged on 28 January 1886.


A plaque at Warsaw Citadel commemorates the Proletariat martyrs ((cc) image by Mateusz Opasinski.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Poland,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Russia,Treason

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1887: Georgette and Sylvain Thomas, guillotine couples act

Add comment January 24th, 2019 Headsman

Georgette Thomas was guillotined on this date in 1887 at Romorantin, followed moments later by her husband Sylvain.

This farming couple had burned to death Georgett’s mother Marie Lebon six months previous, aided by Georgette’s brothers Alexander and Alexis who both caught life sentences for their participation.

Lebon’s offense? The family had become convinced that mom was a sorceress on the strength of a compounding series of rural disasters: lost hay, failed harvests, sickness striking down horses and chickens and even the human kids.

To exorcise her infernal influence, they doused her with oil and holy water, set her ablaze, and forced her into the farmhouse fireplace … right in front of those kids she had bewitched.

Some two thousand people crowded the public square for this rare spectacle of a husband-wife joint marital severing. So shocking was the execution of the struggling Georgette Thomas in particular — and so distressed was that veteran taker of heads Louis Deibler, who asked out of any female chops in the future — that France never again publicly guillotined a woman.

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1884: Howard Sullivan, too leisurely about escaping

Add comment December 2nd, 2018 Headsman

The moral of this story is that when you have the opportunity to break out of death row, don’t dawdle.


Philadelphia Inquirer, Dec. 1, 1884


New York Herald, Dec. 3, 1884

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1885: Robert Goodale, messily

1 comment November 30th, 2018 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 with some explanatory links added by Executed Today. CapitalPunishmentUK.org features a trove of research and feature articles on the death penalty in England and elsewhere. -ed.)

45-year-old Robert Goodale was a market gardener who had been married to a lady called Bethsheba for 22 years. He owned a piece of land at Walsoken Marsh, near Wisbech, where he grew fruit and vegetables. On the property was a house that was used only for storage and not lived in, together with a well. The Goodales lived in Wisbech with their two sons, aged 18 and 21. All of them would walk to Walsoken in the mornings and work on the land.

On the 15th of September 1885 Bethsheba did not arrive at the market garden and a search was made for her. Her body was discovered the following day in the well. Examination of the body revealed that she had been struck three times on the head, most probably with a bill-hook, and then thrown down the well, where she drowned.

Goodale was arrested by Sgt. Roughton on suspicion of murder and later charged with the crime. He came to trial at the Norfolk Assizes at Norwich before Mr. Justice Stephen on Friday the 13th of November 1885.

Evidence was presented of the Goodales’ unhappy marriage and of threats of violence made against Bethsheba by her husband. A witness testified that he had heard a quarrel in the Goodales’ house on the afternoon of the murder. Dr. Stevenson the Home Office analyst said he had found traces of mammalian blood on the prisoner’s hat and jacket.

The defence led by Mr. Horace Browne contended that the case against Goodale was very weak. He conceded that husband and wife were not on good terms but insisted that Goodale’s conduct was not consistent with that of a murderer. He rebutted the blood stain evidence and suggested that it had come from the prisoner having a nose bleed. At this time it was not possible to determine the group to which the blood belonged and therefore it could not be certain that it was the victim’s blood, or even that it was human rather than animal blood.

The trial resumed on the Saturday and after the closing speeches and the summing up it took the jury just 20 minutes to reach their verdict of guilty of the wilful murder of his wife. Goodale was sentenced to death and removed to the Condemned Cell in Norwich Castle to await execution on Monday the 30th of November.

He was visited by his two sons and his sister on the Friday. Later that day he asked to see the governor of Norwich Castle, Mr. Dent. He and the Chief Warder went to Goodale’s cell where he told them that the crime had taken place due to extreme provocation. He claimed that his wife had told him that she liked other men. Mr. Dent took Goodale’s statement down in writing and sent it to the Home Secretary. The Rev. Mr. Wheeler and a former Sheriff of Norwich went to London and made representations for a reprieve at the Home Office. On Sunday the 29th of November the governor received a letter saying that the Home Secretary had not found cause to grant a reprieve.

James Berry had arrived at the prison and tested the drop on the Monday morning in the presence of the governor and under-sheriff. The gallows there had been constructed some three and a half years earlier for the execution of William Abigail on the 22nd of May 1882. The trap doors were set level with the floor over an 11′ 5″ deep brick lined pit in the middle of a small yard. This yard was approximately 48 feet long by 15 feet wide near the Castle wall, opposite Opie Street. The gallows consisted of a black painted wooden beam supported by two stout uprights set over the black painted trap doors.

Goodale stood 5′ 11″ tall and was a heavy man at 15 stone (210 lbs.) with a weak neck. Berry considered that a drop of 5′ 9″ should be given. He used a “government rope” that had been used for the hanging of John Williams at Hereford a week earlier.

At 7.55 a.m. on the Monday morning the bell of St. Peter’s church began to toll and the officials proceeded to the condemned cell. A procession then formed consisting of the governor, the Rev. Mr. Wheeler, the surgeon, Mr. Robinson and the under-sheriff, Mr. Hales. Mr. Charles Mackie of the Norfolk Chronicle represented the press. They went down a passage that connected the cell to the gallows yard where Berry met them and pinioned Goodale, after which they continued into the prison yard.

Here Berry strapped Goodale’s legs and applied the white hood and the noose. Goodale several times exclaimed “Oh God, receive my soul.” As the church clock struck for the eighth time Berry released the trap doors and Goodale disappeared into the pit, but the rope sprung back up to the horror of the witnesses.

As they looked down into the pit they could see the body and the head lying separately at the bottom.

The law required that an inquest be held after an execution and this was presided over by Mr. E. S. Bignold, the Coroner. Mr. Dent gave evidence that the machinery of the gallows was in good working order and that Goodale was decapitated by the force of the drop. Mr. Dent did not think that a drop of 5′ 9″ was excessive and in fact thought it was insufficient for a man of ordinary build. He also stated that James Berry was perfectly sober.

Berry himself testified and at the end of this the Coroner absolved him of any blame for what had happened. The jury returned a verdict that Goodale “came to his death by hanging, according to the judgement of the law.” They further said “that they did not consider that anyone was to blame for what had occurred.”

This is the only occasion of a complete decapitation occurring at a hanging in England, Scotland and Wales, although Berry had several partial ones.

Assuming that Goodale actually weighed 15 stones (in some reports it is given as 16 stones) and that Berry had correctly set the drop at 5′ 9½” or 5′ 10″ then the energy developed would have been around 1218 foot lbs. This is around 100 foot lbs. more than would have been given after 1939 for a man of normal build with a normal neck. The “Goodale Mess” as it came to be known, led to a lot of unfavourable comment in the press.

Just one day after the most damning newspaper editorials had appeared, the head of the Prison Commission, Sir Edward Du Cane, wrote to the Home Secretary on the 2nd of December. In his letter he suggested the setting up of a Committee on Capital Punishment (which became the Aberdare Committee).

Footnote:

The Norwich Chronicle published an interview with Goodale’s spiritual advisor, the Rev. Mr. Wheeler, a Baptist minister. He felt that maybe Goodale might not have been convicted of murder if he had said earlier what he said in his confession on the Friday evening. When Bethsheba fell into the well, he fetched a ladder to go down and look for her but that he could not get down the well since the opening was just 18 inches wide and he could not physically fit through it.

Had he spoken up earlier, Mr. Wheeler said, the police would have found the ladder still in the well and the dirt of the well on Goodale’s clothes. It might have led to a verdict of manslaughter.

When Goodale finally came forward with this tale, it was too late.

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

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1888: Not Sarah J. Robinson

Add comment November 16th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1888, Massachusetts almost hanged Sarah J. Robinson.

The reader will easily infer from press appellations such as the “Massachusetts Borgia” or “Sommerville Borgia” that Mrs. Robinson was a prolific poisoner.

The true toll of Robinson’s career remains uncertain to this day but they monstrously included her own son and daughter — the victims that brought her within the shadow of the gallows.

An Irish immigrant, she had discovered the capacity of arsenic for relieving the financial burdens that, then as now, weighed upon the poor. In 1881, her landlord suspiciously died in her care, abating a debt of rent; a few years later, her husband did likewise, leaving her an insurance windfall, and then her sister too.

Still the maintenance of five children — four of her own, plus a nephew — harried her. To keep the wolves at bay she moved frequently, sold off furniture. And last, she enrolled two children in a working-class insurance fraternal and collected so speedily to attract the wrong attention. Her many murders afforded multiple bites at the legal apple, so when a jury hung on a charge of murdering her kids, they just turned around and got her for a nephew instead.

Mrs. Robinson was escorted to the court room … A large rocking chair was provided for her comfort in the rear of the court room outside the prisoner’s iron cage. She languidly sank into it, and as soon as seated requested a drink of water, which was brought her by Sheriff Tidd. Her hands trembled like leaves as she eagerly held the tumbler to her lips. (Boston Journal, June 29, 1888)

Notwithstanding her many victims, the prospect of noosing this trembling-hand, rocking-chair mother discomfited the public. The governor commuted her sentence to solitary imprisonment four days before her scheduled November 16, 1888 hanging.

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1882: Jack Chatman, waxed wroth

Add comment September 22nd, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1882, Jack Chatman hanged in Louisiana’s Bossier County for murder.

The attached, racist article is from the New Orleans Times=Picayune of August 4, 1882 — anticipating an execution that day from which our man won a short reprieve.

Jack Chatman married a woman, although he and the woman were already married at the time. He resided at the Larkin Place in Bossier. One evening he went to Cash’s plantation, three miles above Shreveport, and found his wife there in company with a cotton picker named John Williams.

He waxed wroth and seizing his spouse by the feet, dragged her out of the house to another cabin a few hundred yards distant. The woman feared violence at his hands, and after a desperate struggle freed herself and ran off, Williams in the meantime came up and the men fought with bare knuckles and it is said Williams got the best of the set-to.

The next morning Chatman took up his position in some cotton near Williams’s cabin, and as soon as Williams appeared at his door Chatman brought his double-barreled shotgun to bear upon his rival and shot him. The secret of the murder was too terrible to keep locked in his bosom, and his mouth soon gave all a key to the real offender.

Chatman was arrested, and on October 24, 1881, he was tried by a jury, composed of colored men, and found guilty of murder unqualified by any phrase which might save his life. An effort to have the verdict reversed by the Supreme Court failed, and there was nought to stand between him and his punishment.

Jack Chatman is thirty-three years of age, and although not tall, is heavily built, weighing 180 pounds, and is credited with having even less intelligence than the average negro.

He admits having killed Williams, but if the deed was to be done over again he does not think he would do it. He says he expects to go to heaven, but boasts that Williams will not be found there, he not having had time to properly prepare himself for eternity.

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

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1880: A day in the death penalty around the U.S.

Add comment July 9th, 2018 Headsman

A half-dozen murderers hanged in five different U.S. states on this date in 1880.


Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, July 10, 1880. We make the count six, not four.
George Allen Price (Pennsylvania)


Harrisburg (Penn.) Patriot, July 10, 1880.

George Sanford and Richard McKee (Arkansas)


Columbus (Ga.) Daily Enquirer, July 13, 1880.

Alexander Howard (North Carolina), Daniel Washington (South Carolina), and Henry Ryan (Georgia)

(Note: Henry Ryan’s execution is missing from the Espy File of U.S. executions.)

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1883: Not Alferd (sic) Packer, #nerdprom attendee

Add comment May 19th, 2018 dogboy

The National Press Club is probably best known for its White House Correspondent’s Dinner. This site prefers to think of it as the site of the Alferd Packer plaque, a memorial to a cannibal who avoided hanging.


(cc) image from Kurt Riegel.

The plaque is rather unassuming, its simple polished brass declaring: “The Alferd Packer Memorial Grill — In Memory of Stan Weston 1931-1984.” Weston was the public affairs officer at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who came up with a 1977 contest to name the USDA’s new cafeteria. But hold that thought for now.

Packer was born in Pennsylvania in 1842. He made his way west and joined the Union Army in Minnesota, then ambled on into the Rockies as a pioneer after the Civil War. In a particularly stunning feat of incompetence, he and five others separated from a larger expedition and tried to make it across a mountain pass in January 1874. Three months later, Packer arrived on the other side, declaring that he got separated from the other five.

But Packer had taken money and effects from them, which made the remaining members of his expedition more than a little suspicious. Caught out in a lie, Packer confessed to a carnivorous progress through his comrades: Israel Swan froze to death, and he was eaten; James Humphreys died a few days later, and he was eaten; then Frank Miller was likely murdered and eaten; and George “California” Noon fell to the pistol of Wilson Bell. With Bell armed and dangerous, Packer claims to have killed him and taken a bit of a snack for the road.*

Packer was arrested shortly after his return, but he slipped his bonds and escaped to Wyoming. There the law finally caught up to him. He was returned to Colorado, where a judge sentenced the cannibal to death.

The hanging was not to be. Packer appealed the conviction, which was ultimately overturned by the Colorado Supreme Court; on retrial he was remanded for a 40-year prison sentence instead. He was paroled in 1901, took a job as a guard at the Denver Post (who had, incidentally, helped him make parole), and died in 1907.

Back to the memorial grill.

Why would the USDA honor such an odd historical figure? Politics.

In 1977, newly appointed Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland had a beef with the General Service Administration, which refused to terminate the Nixon-era contract award for cafeteria services and food. Bergland’s response? Let the disgruntled employees name** and shame. The USDA cafeteria became the Packer Memorial Grill,† and Bergland paraded the press through the facility, taking every opportunity to point out just how similar he felt the food was to the diet of the honoree.

The contract was rescinded later in 1977. The plaque, meanwhile, was taken off the wall just a week after its installation. Initially, the GSA claimed it was not approved prior to installation, but it turns out the building manager, a GSA employee named Melvin Schick, simply found the name distasteful.

All of which begs the question of how it ended up gracing the National Press Club’s bar, emblazoned with Stan Weston’s name. The answer probably lies in Wesley McCune, founding member of the “Friends of Alferd Packer” and member of the National Press Club. Schick returned the plaque to Weston after the goings-on at the USDA cafeteria, and Weston hung it in his office. McCune’s group met most Aprils to hold an Alferd Packer dinner at the National Press Club. Stanley D Weston died in July of 1984, and while it’s unclear when the plaque went up, by 1989, this unusual object had a permanent home.

* A memorial was placed at Cannibal Plateau in the 1920s.

** The plaque was originally purchased by Bob Meyer and Stan Weston.

† And it wasn’t the first! The University of Colorado has had an Alferd Packer Restaurant & Grill since 1968.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Colorado,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Murder,Not Executed,Other Voices,Pardons and Clemencies,Popular Culture,USA

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