1889: Jessie King, the last woman hanged in Edinburgh

Add comment March 11th, 2020 Headsman

Jessie King, the last woman executed in Edinburgh, was hanged on this date in 1889.

She was a practitioner of that distinctive late Victorian industry of baby farming: for a few pounds (literally just £2 to &pound5;) King adopted illegitimate children from pregnant working-class girls who couldn’t bear the financial or reputational cost of rearing them, with the promise of moving them on to loving homes that was often a reality of shuffling them off this mortal coil — either via neglect or outright homicide.

This particular operation was detected when some youths found a bundle where she’d hidden one such body, and a raid upon the apartment King shared with the much older Thomas Pearson revealed two more dead adoptees. Pearson, who could have easily been construed as the prime mover in this operation, was suffered to turn crown’s evidence, and save his own neck by stretching his lover’s. That wasn’t all she was up against in the courtroom: she also faced the adverse medical testimony of Dr. Joseph Bell, notable as the inspiration for the literary Sherlock Holmes character.

Contemporaries doubted King’s mental health, and she attempted suicide to cheat the hangman. Her Catholic confessor unsuccessfully appealed for clemency with the suggestion that she’d been steered into her crimes by the domineering Pearson.

To save Pearson she made the statement which has done her so much injury. She now declares that he in one of the cases did the deed and in the other two, he stood near directing and guiding her in the administration of the [whisky] …

It seems a more likely solution of this terrible crime that this hard-hearted man and unfaithful husband — an aged man! was there directing the unsteady and clumsy hand of a poor woman he had made his slave.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Pelf,Scotland,Women

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1889: Louisa Collins, the last woman hanged in New South Wales

Add comment January 8th, 2020 Headsman

The last woman hanged in New South Wales, Australia was the “Botany Murderess” Louisa Collins, on this date in 1889.

A transport convict’s daughter from near Merriwa, Collins was accused in the courts and the common run of opinion of murdering both her husbands with arsenic — first Charles Andrews, 13 years her senior and father to nine of her 10 children* — and then Michael Collins, the lover with whom she scandalously fell into bed while husband’s body was still warm, and indeed before: desperate to relieve the financial pressure of their large family, Charles and Louisa had taken in boarders, of whom Michael Collins was one — at least until Charles threw him out for getting too familiar with the lady of the house.

The fact that this adulterous couple immediately shacked up (and, as our principal’s surname will have signaled, shortly thereafter wed) after a stomach ailment felled the husband set tongues a-wag and eyebrows a-cock. The subsequent death of Michael and Louisa’s only child together,** and then of Michael himself, could not but appear confirmation of the very worst.

Although accused, she was only convicted once over the course of four trials.

Where murder is concerned, any one will do for the law no matter the conviction ratio. But the chain obviously smacks of an unseemly jury-shopping, facilitated by the first three panels’ failure to reach any verdict rather than acquit outright and cinched by the Crown’s convincing the court to admit at her last trial previously-barred testimony.

The hard evidence remained stubbornly circumstantial as usual with arsenic cases: her paramour and an insurance policy on her husband supplied a motive that was positive but far from dispositive, and the alleged means was nothing more than a commercial pest controller called Rough On Rats whose presence in the house would have incriminated half of Australia.† (Arsenic was also used in the sheepskin tanning industry where both of Louisa’s late men sweated their daily bread.) Neighbors fleshed out these bare bones with eye-of-the-beholder judgments against Louisa’s comportment, such as the insufficient-mourning canard that’s still a staple of wrongful convictions.

Moreover, Louisa Collins’s case became enmeshed in the era’s web of gender politics: the campaign soliciting clemency on grounds of femininity overlapped but also contradicted the simultaneous campaign for women’s suffrage, goring oxes left and right.

That gore still spatters latter-day observers of this still-fascinating affair, who in recent years have enjoyed two different volumes illuminating the respective silhouette-halves that Louisa Collins presents posterity: a woman railroaded (Last Woman Hanged, by Caroline Overington (author interview)); and, cold-blooded murderess (Black Widow: The true story of Australia’s first female serial killer, by Carol Baxter (author interview)). There’s also a recent historical novel, The Killing Of Louisa, by Janet Lee (author interiew).

Two things that all parties can agree on: first, that her quadruple prosecution makes for a troubling legal spectacle — “a collusion between the prosecution and the state and the judiciary to keep her going to trial until the desired result,” as Baxter put it; and second, that Collins’s eventual hanging at Darlinghurst was a ghastly botch. The next day’s Sydney Morning Herald reported how

The executioner signalled to his assistant to pull the lever, but the handle refused to move. It could be seen that pressure was applied, and also that the pin which held the handle in its place was fast in its slot. The assistant endeavoured to remove the pin, but failed, and in a few seconds a mallet was used. Four or five blows were applied Mrs Collins meanwhile standing perfectly upright and motionless-before the pin gave way.

The delay caused could not have been short of one minute, when the lever moved and the body fell through in a slightly curved position. After one swing to the side and in a moment it was suspended perpendicularly, with the face towards the yard. There was a slight spurt of blood, followed by a thin stream which ran down the dress and spotted the floor beneath. Nearer examination showed that the strain of the drop had so far opened the neck as to completely sever the windpipe, and that the body was hanging by the vertebra. Slowly the body turned round on the rope until the front part faced the doorway, and there it remained stationary until lowered by the executioner on to a wicker bier. Death was instantaneous. After hanging for 20 minutes the corpse was conveyed to the inquest room, and again given over to the female warders.


Poor service: hangman Robert Rice Howard, aka “Nosey Bob” after a distinctive disfigurement of that appendage courtesy of a horse’s backheel.

* Seven of these nine children by Charles Andrews survived infancy. At the time of the alleged murders, five of these children still shared the house with their parents.

** The possible murder of the infant Collins child wasn’t on Louisa’s charge sheet but remains an understandable suspicion.

† As a brand name for arsenic, Rough On Rats became a ready resource for numerous aspiring suicides and homicides.

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

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1881: Percy Lefroy Mapleton, police sketch milestone

Add comment November 29th, 2019 Headsman

When Percy Lefroy Mapleton plunged through the gallows-trap at Lewes Prison on this date in 1881 for robbing and murdering a train passenger, he had the consolation of a minor milestone in policing history: he was the bobble-headed subject of the first published police sketch.

Mapleton (he gave his name initially as Percy Mapleton Lefroy) entered the annals of crime lore at Brighton‘s Preston Park railway station on the 27th of June, a mere five months before his execution. On that occasion, he presented himself, bloodied and bedraggled, to a ticket agent with a complaint that he’d been assaulted on the train by two unknown men.

Maybe it was the gold watch chain dangling out of his boot (the man said he’d stashed it there for safekeeping) or an unexplained couple of Hanoverian medals he possessed (the man didn’t know anything about those!), or his keen desire to ditch the investigators and return immediately to London for some business (so why take the train to Brighton in the first place?). There wasn’t quite sufficient reason to hold him, but there was ample cause to give him a minder for his ride back to London.

Apparently Sgt. George Holmes hadn’t been fully briefed on suspect escort protocol.

During their ride, police searching the rail line by which the strange bloodied man had arrived turned up the body of an elderly coin dealer named Isaac Gold, the sort of character who would have pocket watches and Hanoverian medals to steal. A telegraph sent from the nearest station arrived ahead of Mapleton’s train, reading

Man found dead this afternoon in tunnel here. Name on papers “I Gold”. He is now lying here. Reply quick.

At this point, explicit instructions to keep eagle eyes on Percy Mapleton would hardly seem to be required — yet they were indeed forthcoming. Despite what headquarters and common sense were telling him, however, Sgt. Holmes allowed the murder suspect to talk him into letting him “change clothes” unsupervised in a house. And so began a nationwide manhunt.

This manhunt would be distinguished by a police sketch of the fugitive created with the help of Mapleton’s acquaintances. London Metropolitan Police’s (then-newborn) Criminal Investigation Department appealed to the press for help and the Telegraph made history by printing the man’s profile, first time such a drawing had hit newsprint for this purpose.

Age 22, middle height, very thin, sickly appearance, scratches on throat, wounds on head, probably clean shaved, low felt hat, black coat, teeth much discoloured … He is very round shouldered, and his thin overcoat hangs in awkward folds about his spare figure. His forehead and chin are both receding. He has a slight moustache, and very small dark whiskers. His jawbones are prominent, his cheeks sunken and sallow, and his teeth fully exposed when laughing. His upper lip is thin and drawn inwards. His eyes are grey and large. His gait is singular; he is inclined to slouch and when not carrying a bag, his left hand is usually in his pocket. He generally carries a crutch stick.

The publicity blitz generated dozens of erroneous reported sightings throughout the country, but successfully put the screws to the wanted man who was hemmed into an untenable boarding house bolt-hole with an increasingly suspicious landlady and a dwindling pool of money. At last he was

apprehended on Friday evening, July 8, at 32, Smith-street, Stepney, where he took lodgings two days after his disappearance from Wallington … He went out very little, and chiefly at night … He described himself as an engraver, and as one who needed quietness. A telegram sent by Lefroy from 32, Smith-street, to his friend Seele was the cause of his arrest. It appears that the suspicions of his landlady, Mrs. Bickers, being aroused by his peculiar mode of living, she sent her daughter to the address indicated on the telegram, which ran as follows: —

From G. Clark, 32, Smith-street, Stepney, to S. Seele, at J.T. Hutchinson’s, 56, Gresham-street, London, E.C. — Please bring me my wages this evening, about eight, without fail. Flour to-morrow. Not 33.

This telegram led some unknown person, it is said, to call at Scotland-yard, and give information.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Notable Sleuthing,Pelf,Theft

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1883: Mampuru, Sekukuni rival

1 comment November 22nd, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1883, the Boer South African Republic hanged Bapedi chief Mampuru.

Sekukuni

Mampuru is notable as the half-brother and rival — eventually murderous rival — of Sekukuni (also rendered Sekhukhune), the chief of the Pedi or Bapedi people. Their backstory is significant: Mampuru had been the intended heir of their shared father, King Sekwati, but the warlike Sekukuni had seized rulership instead when Sekwati died in 1861.

While Mampuru skulked in exile with the neighboring Swazi, it was Sekukuni who led his people’s resistance to the incursions of the Dutch Boers settling the Transvaal.

In 1876, he successfully fought off the Boer Transvaal Republic — which contributed to it becoming in 1877 the British Transvaal instead, at least according to the British.

Less successful was Sekukuni in the war soon prosecuted against him by the British. Extensively narrated here (also see part 1 of this same article sequence here), the upshot was that the British eventually trapped Sekukuni’s last defenders in a rocky hill remembered as the “Fighting Koppie” and captured him. The Swazi, with that displaced rival Mampuru, fought in this war with the British.

Sekukuni and his surviving family would be marched to Pretoria and imprisoned there until 1881.

In the intervening years, power was rebalanced all around among the players. Mampuru had been able to re-establish himself among the Bapedi with no small help from his British allies — but those British allies had been defeated by a Boer rebellion in the First Boer War.* One article in the settlement ending the Boer-British conflict permitted Sekukuni’s release.

As might be expected the ex-chief’s return to his homeland was scarcely welcomed by his brother. After some months of political acrimony, Mampuru settled the feud by having a team of assassins stab Sekukuni to death in his sleep, on the night of August 13, 1882.

For Mampuru, the sibling rivalry win was as Pyrrhic as it surely was satisfying, for he was immediately branded an outlaw by the Boer Transvaal and himself obliged to flee from the countrymen whom he meant to rule. When the Boers captured him, they had him condemned a murderer and hanged him stark naked for an audience of 200-plus white men in Pretoria. As an added indignity, they botched the hanging and dropped Mampuru to the ground on their first go, when the noose snapped. (In 2013, the jail where he hanged was renamed for Mampuru.)

Cowardly murderer or anti-colonial resistance martyr? That’s still up for debate.

* A result to be avenged/reversed 20 years on.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,South Africa

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1885: Pedro Prestan, isthmus rebel

Add comment August 18th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1885, the Colombian rebel Pedro Prestan hanged at a railroad at the town of Colon, on the isthmus of Panama that was then still a part of Colombia.

The Caragena-born Prestan was part of a liberal rebellion against the government of Rafael Nunez; in the end, Nunez is going to author Colombia’s 1886 constitution and write the words to its national anthem, so it would be fair to say that said rebellion was not crowned with victory.

Nevertheless, in his moment Prestan shook imperial capitals around the globe in the spring of 1885 when his attempt to receive a shipment of weapons at Colón during Ferdinand de Lesseps‘s initial attempt at canal construction was underway. This shipment was interdicted in port with the aid of an American warship, leading Prestan to seize four American hostages as a guarantee for his product. “At the first gun you hear fired from the vessel, shoot these men!” Prestan ordered.

The resulting crisis brought a landing by American marines (operating gingerly lest they provoke the execution of their countrymen), an incursion of Colombian troops, the wholesale burning of Colon, and a brush with war between the U.S. and Chile — the latter also dispatching its navy to the region as a precaution against the United States seizing Panama outright.

In the end, the hostages weren’t shot, Prestan didn’t get his guns, and the foreign interlopers all withdrew to settle the isthmus some other day.

The destruction of Colon was laid at Prestan’s feet once they caught him. A court-martial condemned him on the evening of August 17th; he was hanged the very next day before a large crowd, with a rail car (pulled from under his feet when the moment came to drop him) serving as his scaffold. Prestan protested his innocence of incendiarism to the last.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arson,Capital Punishment,Colombia,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Panama,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Wartime Executions

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1884: Seven anarchists of La Mano Negra

Add comment June 14th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1884, seven alleged terrorists of the Black Hand* were garroted in Jerez (Xeres), Spain.

This frightening organization was announced to the public via Spanish police discovery of documents purporting to outline their murderous perfidy and conveniently justifying a crackdown on restive Andalusia, then plagued (so the crown saw it) with a burgeoning labor movement.

Whether La Mano Negra (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) truly existed as an organization has been subject to debate from that day to this, but anarchist worker militants had undoubtedly moved in 1881-82 towards overtly violent confrontation with landowners — bread riots during an agricultural crisis paired with robbery and arson. It was by no means merely adventurism. A Madrid newspaper reporting the sack of a bakery saw for the starving looters only three options: “O la limosna, o el robo, o la muerte” … alms, theft, or death.

Three thousand or more of protesting workers would be arrested in those months, and bound over to be used at the discretion of torturers; in the main, they affiliated to the labor union FTRE rather than anything so exotic as a Black Hand. But several murders that took place during or at least proximate to the Andalusian labor disturbances would be attributed to that sinister appendage and bring seven men controversially to execution in Jerez’s market squae on June 14, 1884.

As for others made to prefer alms or theft, hundreds were burdened with judicial penalties of various sorts and deported to Spanish colonies. A successful clemency campaign in the early 1900s reversed a number of those sentences, finally permitting these anarchists or “anarchists” to return to Spanish soil.

* This fell moniker refers to a number of distinct movements with a violent cast of mind sufficient to expose them to the predations of this very blog — notably, the Serbian terrorists who assassinated Archduke Ferdinand

The successors of the Jerez Black Hand that is the subject of this post also paid their own subsequent notable visit to the scaffold in the 1890s.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Garrote,History,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Murder,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Spain,Strangled,Terrorists,Torture,Wrongful Executions

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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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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Milestones,Murder

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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.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,Milestones,Murder,Public Executions,Witchcraft,Women

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