1887: Charles Smith

Add comment May 9th, 2017 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1887, 63-year-old Charles Smith was judicially hanged at Oxford Castle Prison by James Berry. He’d brutally murdered his wife in front of their children that February.

The Smith family were Gypsies: Charles, his wife Lucy, their 17-year-old daughter Oceana (known as Oshey) and their 11-year-old son Prince Albert. As Nicola Sly notes in her book Oxfordshire Murders,

The lifestyle of Gypsy families in 1887 was not one to be envied. The traveling people were at the mercy of the weather all year round, whether the heat of summer or the bitter cold of winter. Forced to scratch a living any way they could, many supplemented their meager income with a little poaching or petty theft. Thus they were very rarely welcomed in any area and were always in fear of the local police who almost invariably moved them on wherever they tried to settle.

According to this account, Lucy had borne many children, but only four lived long. By the time of the murder, one of the children had died and one, a daughter named Elizabeth, had grown up and left home.

Charles’s siblings regularly got in trouble with the law, and at least one of his siblings was transported for sheep theft. He and Lucy, however, were somewhat more fortunate: Lucy possessed a valid peddler’s license. In the 1881 censuses, both had their occupations listed as “hawker.” Charles made baskets, skewers, roasting forks, meat stands and pegs which his wife sold.

Throughout their lives Charles and his family traveled around Oxfordshire, pitching a tent wherever they could find a place, and in February 1887, they were camped on public land near Headlington. They’d been there before and were friendly with some of the local residents, including a couple coincidentally also named Smith.

Charles was a violent man who regularly beat his wife and children; Oshey stated he beat his wife every day, and Prince Albert would later testify, “He has been knocking my mother about nearly all his life.”

At one point the domestic violence had gotten so bad that Lucy had gone so far as to take out a formal complaint against her husband for cruelty. She never followed up on it, though.

On the 18th of February, Kate and George Smith, who lived in a nearby cottage, visited the tent and noted Lucy was visibly bruised. They asked Charles why he’d beaten her and he wouldn’t give a reason, but said it was over something that happened thirty years before.

The visitors advised him to forgive and forget, but Charles acted surly and hostile for the rest of the day. Lucy was so frightened of him that for a long time she stayed outside the tent in the bitter cold, and only partially dressed, rather than go inside where her husband was. At bedtime she finally came in.

In the early hours of the next morning, Charles began shouting at his wife, waking the children. As Oshey and Prince Albert watched in horror, their father picked up a hammer and attacked Lucy, beating her on her head, back and legs until he was too tired to do it anymore. Then he laid down and went peacefully asleep.

Mortally wounded, Lucy crawled out of the tent to get some water from a nearby stream. She never returned, and eventually Oshey went out to check on her and found her dead.

When Charles realized what he’d done, he sank to his knees beside Lucy’s battered corpse and sobbed, crying, “My wench, my wench!”

Oshey and Prince Albert ran for help, going to the same neighbors who’d visited the night before. When Kate Smith answered the door, Oshey blurted, “My Mammy’s dead. He’s been and killed her with the hammer.”

Kate and George rushed to the scene of the crime. Charles had dragged Lucy’s body into the tent and lain it out on some straw. He told them Lucy had “fallen down” and died. George told everyone he was going to fetch a doctor, but instead he went to the police, returning with two constables. By then Charles had calmed down and said casually, “Good morning. I have got a dead ‘un this morning.”

One of the constables searched the tent and found the bloodstained hammer concealed under some straw. Charles, whose coat was also bloodstained, was placed under arrest for the willful murder of his wife. The autopsy showed she’d died of a fractured skull; Charles had hit her head with the hammer three or four times.

At the ensuing trial in April, Oshey was the star witness against her father, although Charles kept shouting that she was telling lies and was a “nasty, wicked wretch.” Prince Albert testified also, as did Kate and George Smith.

The defense argued that Charles had no intention of killing his wife and there was no motive, and so it was a case of manslaughter. However, the jury returned a verdict of murder.

After he was condemned to die, Charles turned to religion for solace, praying with the prison chaplain. Some of his relatives came to visit, although Oshey and Prince Albert stayed away. His eldest daughter Elizabeth made the strange observation that “when he was a drunkard there was not a kinder man living, that something or somebody turned him into a teetotaler, and from that time he had been a cruel wretch.”

While walking to the scaffold, Charles fainted on the trapdoor just before James Berry drew the bolt. The hanging went smoothly and it was judged he died quickly and painlessly.

As for the orphaned Oshey and Prince Albert, it was recorded that “through the noble hearted philanthropy, of Miss Skene, of this City, the girl Oceana has been placed in a Home in York, and boy the Prince Albert, through the same thoughtfulness, will also be brought up to acquire the means of earning an honest livelihood.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Murder,Other Voices,Racial and Ethnic Minorities

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1887: Joseph Morley

1 comment November 21st, 2016 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1887, a teenager named Joseph Morley was hanged for the brutal murder of his 24-year-old landlady, Martha Bodger. He had been only seventeen at the time of the crime.

Morley, a journeyman blacksmith, lived with a married couple, Martha Bodger and James Mears Bodger, along the Romford Road in Essex. James worked as a gardener at nearby ominous Hainault Lodge.


The Overlook Hotel-esque lodge is no longer extant and its former site has been turned into a nature preserve.

Joseph had been living with them since early in 1887 and had caused no trouble in the household.

James last saw his wife alive on October 11, 1887. He rose at 4:00 a.m. and, at 5:40 a.m., took a cup of tea to his wife. He set off for work at 5:45, reminding Joseph to make sure and shut the front door on his way out.

Just a few minutes later, the neighbors heard screams coming from from the direction of Martha’s bedroom.

The noise was cut off abruptly, and did not resume. One of the witnesses, next-door neighbor Thomas Briant, tried the Bodgers’ front door, but it was locked and no one answered. Briant’s niece, who was present, said she heard the sound of a man’s heavy footsteps coming from the kitchen. Briant also worked at Hainault Lodge and, uncomfortable with the situation, he decided to go there and tell James what had happened, just to be on the safe side.

While Briant was hurrying to the lodge, his niece stayed inside and heard someone leaving through the Bodgers’ front door. She looked out and saw Joseph Morley walking away from the house at an unhurried pace, evidently en route to his job at a blacksmith’s shop 200 yards away.

When Thomas Briant told James Bodger about the noises, the worried husband and father rushed home to see what had happened. The sight that greeted him in the bedroom was something from a horror movie. As Linda Rhodes and Kathryn Abnett describe in their book, Foul Deeds and Suspicious Deaths in Barking, Dagenham and Chadwell Heath:

Martha was lying on her back across the center of the bed. Her nightdress was pulled up towards her waist, leaving her lower body exposed. Her legs hung over the side of the bed facing the door, the feet not quite touching the ground. There was blood everywhere — across her throat, on the floor, and across the walls. The blanket, counterpane and sheet lay on the floor, and were also saturated with blood.

Next to Martha’s body lay the couple’s six-month-old baby, Amy Elizabeth. Little Amy was covered in blood but unharmed, and giggled when she saw her father. The murder weapon, James Bodger’s razor, was under the bed. The killer had wielded it with such force that the blade had snapped off the handle.

Martha was beyond help; she was already dead by the time her husband found her. The doctor counted four long, deep cuts across her throat as well as a gash on her face and defensive wounds on her left hand. She had also suffered a blow to the side of the head. There was no evidence of sexual assault, in spite of the position of her clothes. Her purse was by the bed with no money missing.

James had no doubt who must have killed his wife, and went storming off to Joseph Morley’s place of work. Morley flatly denied having had anything to do with the matter, but his boss noticed some small spots of blood on his coat.

Closer scrutiny revealed additional stains on his coat and pants, as well as on his shirt, which had been turned inside out. Morley claimed the blood was from a cut he’d gotten when he fell off his bicycle the night before, and produced deep cuts on both hands that he said were from yesterday’s accident. But the same doctor who had examined Martha’s body had a look at Joseph’s hands and said the cuts were very recent, an hour or two old at the most.

He was placed under arrest for murder. Morley, with a “dreamy unconcerned manner,” followed the police constable to the station.

At his trial in early November, Morley’s attorney argued the case against him was only circumstantial. Forensics of the 1880s could not have identified the source of the bloodstains on his clothes, or even proven they were human. Nevertheless, he was convicted, and shortly afterwards he confessed his guilt.

Deploying the timeless “blame the media” gambit, Morley claimed he had had lately been obsessed with reading about murders and other crimes in the news, particularly a case in Suffolk where a vicar had been murdered with a razor in his own bed. He said he had yielded to an irresistible impulse to kill Martha and he deeply regretted his actions. He denied any sexual motive for the crime.

He was hanged by executioner James Berry, who told reporters that Morley was the youngest person he’d had to hang so far in his career. After a good night’s sleep, Morley enjoyed a breakfast of fish, bread and butter before mounting the scaffold. He died quickly and easily, and a reporter who viewed his corpse afterwards said it looked as if he had passed away peacefully in bed.

James Bodger remarried two and a half years after his first wife’s murder, and his second marriage produced a son. Unfortunately, Bodger’s life would be a short one: he died of influenza in 1894, aged only 33.

Amy Elizabeth was brought up by her aunt and uncle. She stayed in the local area, married in 1912 and lived a long life, dying at age 90.

On this day..

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1887: Theodore Baker, who knew how it feels to be hanged

1 comment May 6th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1887, Theodore Baker was hanged for murder in Springer, New Mexico.

Baker was taken on as a lodger and ranch hand in Colfax County by an acquaintance named Frank Unruh, and there struck up a liaison with Unruh’s pretty young wife Kate.

One jealous and alcohol-fueled argument later, Baker had shot Unruh dead.

Both Baker and Kate Unruh were arrested, but in December 1885 a mob decided to dispense with the legal niceties and broke into the jail, dragging Theodore Baker out to lynch him to a telegraph pole.

Just another Old West lynching.

Except this lynching had an unusual distinction: it was defeated by a sheriff’s posse, and Baker cut down after having strangled some minutes — unconscious, but alive. He had already survived execution and the trial hadn’t even happened.

But that didn’t mean he got to skip the trial.

After months of recovery, Baker finally went on trial for the murder of Frank Unruh, and with the damning if self-interested testimony of Kate Unruh was condemned on September 6, 1886 to face the noose once again.

Being that this was an age of mass communication, Baker — evidently somewhat garrulous — provided newspapers ample copy on the firsthand experience of execution. (Line breaks have been added to all the ensuing newspaper excerpts for readability.)

[A]t the gaol door I began to curse them, when one of the put the muzzle of his pistol to my ear and said — ‘Keep still, d— you, or I’ll put a bullet through you.’ I knew him by his voice, and knew he would do it, so I kept still.

A little further on we came to a telegraph pole. From the cross bar swung a new rope. One one end was a slipnoose.

They led me under the rope. I tried to stoop down and pull off my boots, as I had promised my folks I would not die with my boots on, but before I could do it the noose was thrown over my head and I was jerked off my feet.

My senses left me in a moment, and then I waked up in what seemed to be another world.

As I recollect now, the sensation was that everything about me had been multiplied a great many times.

It seemed that my five executioners had grown in number until there were thousands of them.

I saw what seemed to be a multitude of animals of all shapes and sizes.

Then things changed and I was in great pain. I became conscious that I was hanging by the neck, and that the knot of the rope had slipped around under my chin.

My hands were loosely tied, and I jerked them loose and tried to catch the rope above me. Somebody caught me by the feet just then and gave me a jerk.

It seemed like a bright flash of lightning passing in front of my eyes. It was the brightest thing I ever saw.

It was followed by a terrible pain up and down and across my back, and I could feel my legs jerk and draw up.

Then there was a blank and I knew nothing more until 11 o’clock next day …

My first recollection was being in the court room and saying, ‘Who cut me down.’

There was a terrific ringing in my ears like the beating of gongs. I recognised no one. The pain in my back continued.

Moments of unconsciousness followed during several days, and I have very little recollection of the journey here. Even after I had been locked up in this prison for safe keeping, for a long time I saw double. Dr. Symington, the prison physician, looked like two persons.

I was still troubled with spells of total forgetfulness. Sometimes it seemed I didn’t know who I was.

All that Baker gave out in the run-up to his actual trial.

As his (judicial) hanging neared, and his hopes for avoiding it vanished, our expansive man on death row got philosophical with a correspondent from the New York Sun. The Chicago Daily Tribune of May 23, 1887 reprints Baker’s remembrance — has it evolved from the previous year? — and Baker’s wider thoughts on life and death.

It is not the pain I fear at all. I have been hanged, and I know what I am talking about. What ails me is that I don’t want to die, and I don’t think I ought to.

Probably if you knew that in an instant you were to be blown to nothingness, so that you could experience no suffering whatever, you would appreciate how I feel about it.

As for the mode of death, you can say that it is as good as any other, and it don’t need to be too artistically done, either.

Why, when they hanged me first down here by the railroad track I was scared half to death. They had no modern appliances, and I made up my mind that they were going to give me a terrible struggle of it, but it was nothing of the sort. The mob swung me off from a telegraph pole like they would a log, and then one or two of them pulled my legs. That isn’t so almighty nice, but still it don’t hurt as you might think it would.

I must have been there ten or fifteen minutes before the Sheriff and his posse found me and cut me down.

Of course by that time I was unconscious, but I remembered enough of what occurred to banish any fear that I might have of death on the gallows. It’s death in whatever form it comes that I object to.

If I have got to go I had just as soon go by the rope as by the bullet, and I had a good deal rather go by the rope than by the knife or by poison.

You can say this much for the information and comfort of all the poor fellows who will have to swing when I am gone. Tell them to brace up and take it easy. They are going to die easier deaths than three-fourths of the fat old Judges who sentence them, and who expect to die in their beds.

There has been altogether too much writing and talking on the subject of the barbarity of the gallows. I’m in favor of abolishing capital punishment myself, but if a man must die, what’s the use of being too particular about the mode, so long as you have got a good enough scheme now?

Baker also gave his own version of the events that led to his death sentence. It should be said that his “kill or be killed” spin quite attenuates the court’s finding that Baker only wounded Unruh in their altercation, but then chased his bleeding cuckold down as far as a quarter-mile from the house to deliver the coup de grace.

Under all the circumstances my crime was not murder, anyway. I had become involved in a quarrel between Unruh and his wife, and, foolish as that was, it would have led to nothing more if Unruh had not attacked me. I had to kill him or be killed.

The woman swore against me in order to save herself. She was scared to death because they lynched me, and she was afraid that unless somebody swung for the crime she might be called on some dark night.

But whether my crime was deliberate murder or not, I think I have been punished enough. It is more than a year since the mob lynched me, and since that time I have lived with a rope around my neck all the time.

As I have said to you, my sufferings when I was being resuscitated were greater than they were when I was hanging. It took me three months to get over the effects of the lynching. Two or three times a day my brain would be in a whirl, and I would lose all control of myself. Then when I slept I would go through it all again.

At length, when I was brought to trial and was convicted and sentenced to death, I had th erope once more before me.

The anxiety about the trial, and later about my appeals, has worn on me until my nerves are in about as bad a condition as they were when I was in the hospital at Santa Fe, and the old complaint from which I suffered when I was recovering from the lynching has returned again.

I haven’t slept for months without hanging by the neck through it all. Can you imagine what it is to be conscious all the time of dangling in that way? Asleep or awake I have a rope about my neck, and I know exactly how it feels.

I think I have had enough of it, but as they seem to think not in these parts I suppose I shall have to take some more.

I can tell you, though, that I don’t want anybody to bring me to life this time.

When I go out tomorrow I will know just what is coming, and when I tell the Sheriff to let me slide I will be the first man in America who has lived a year and a half to say that a second time to a hangman.

This same article says — though this already sounds like folklore — that Baker went fearlessly to the gallows, and his last words were addressed to the hangman as he adusted the knot around Baker’s neck: “That’s right. I have been in the habit of having it a little higher up.”

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Executions Survived,Hanged,History,Lynching,Murder,New Mexico,Sex,USA

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1887: Josiah Terrill, “I ain’t guilty of this here charge”

1 comment September 2nd, 2013 H.M. Fogle

From the out-of-print The palace of death, or, the Ohio Penitentiary Annex: A human-interest story of incarceration and execution of Ohio’s murderers, with a detailed review of the incidents connected with each case by H.M. Fogle (1908):


Chapter 4

Josiah Terrill
September 2, 1887

Hanged Sept. 2, 1887, for the murder of a Meigs County, Ohio, citizen. It is believed that he was innocent but lacked friends and finances to clear himself.

Died Brave, Proclaiming His Innocence


Josiah Terrill, serial number 18,872, a Meigs County murderer, was hanged September 2, 1887. He met his fate bravely and, as is said of college graduates, “acquitted himself with great honor.” Like nine-tenths of the men who die upon the gallows, Terrill denied all knowledge of the crime with which he was charged, and with a last breath declared that he suffered death as an innocent man.

A few hours before the time appointed for his execution, the condemned man awoke from a refreshing sleep and asked for something to eat. The request, of course, was granted. Someone unguardedly expressed surprise at the desire to eat, and Terrill said, “You ain’t going to choke me off that way are you, without anything to eat?”

While Terrill was eating, a Missouri Colonel conversed with him, urging him to unburden his mind if he had any guilty knowledge. The murderer reiterated his oft repeated declaration of innocence, and requested the Warden to give him a drink of whiskey. But the man’s nerve was so great that the Warden declined to give him a stimulant to raise his courage for the trying ordeal.

After the final administration of spiritual comfort, the Warden read the death warrant, and the condemned man was lead [sic] to the scaffold.

Terrill was perfectly cool and collected, and his features shone in their natural color. As he stepped to the trap, Warden Coffin asked him if he had anything to say, to which he replied, “I say I ain’t guilty of this here charge.” “You say you are guilty?” queried the Warden who, with others, misunderstood him. “I say I ain’t guilty of this here charge,” reiterated Terrill. “God in heaven knows I ain’t guilty. There are some people and lawyers in Pomeroy who think they have got satisfaction on me now. That’s all I’ve got to say.”

Warden Coffin then stepped over and shook hands with the condemned man, bidding him good-bye. The minister gravely followed his example, saying in a solemn tone: “Josiah, put your confidence and trust in the Lord.” “I have,” replied Terrill.

He was placed over the trap and, standing as if being measured for a suit of clothes, permitted Deputy Cherrington to adjust the ropes. There was some difficulty in fastening a strap, and he considerately moved his feet to facilitate operations. The black-cap–a rude bag–was placed over his head and the noose adjusted. At 12:34 A.M., before the audience realized that it had happened, Warden Coffin shot the lever from north to south. Rattle went the trap against the sides of the scaffold, and with a boom the body of the condemned man shot down seven feet, oscillated once or twice and then became quiet. There was not a twitch of the muscles or a movement of the body.

Instantly there was a plank placed across two chairs on the platform directly under the body of the hanging man, and two doctors sprang upon the plank to take note of the pulse and respiration. The heart beats were very rapid at first, but after six minutes began to lessen. In twelve minutes he was dead. The rope was lowered so the body could be placed on the plank, the knot was cut and the noose loosened, and then the black-cap removed, exposing the swollen and blackened face. His neck had been broken by the fall, but the rope had not cut the flesh. The body was placed in a coffin and shipped to Pomeroy, where it was buried by the dead man’s mother.

Strange to say, he expressed no desire to meet the aged woman before his death; on the contrary, he remarked at supper that the only person he cared to see was his child (illegitimate).

There has always existed grave doubts in the minds of some of Meigs County’s best citizens as to Terrill’s guilt. The evidence against him was purely circumstantial, but the jury evidently thought it strong enough to warrant a verdict of guilty.

He was accused of murdering an old man for whom he had previously worked. The opinion of the writer is that Josiah Terrill died an innocent man. This opinion is based upon evidence, and what could be learned from some of Meigs County’s best citizens. Certain it is that he was a poor illiterate man, without money and without influential friends.

Charles Phillips, the murdered man, was aged and decrepit. By frugality and hard toil he had accumulated quite a sum of money. Robbery was the motive of the crime, and a bludgeon and knife were the instruments of destruction.

Innocent or guilty, Terrill is in the hands of a just God, where he will remain until that great “Day of Judgment,” when all wrongs will be righted, and the innocent shown and the guilty punished according to the unerring judgement of an ETERNAL GOD.

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1887: Ellen Thomson and John Harrison, lovers

1 comment June 13th, 2013 Headsman

Ellen Thomson, the only woman ever executed in Queensland, was hanged this date in 1887, along with her lover John Harrison — both condemned for murdering Ellen’s husband William.

Ellen arrived at Port Douglas in the late 1870s, already a widowed mother.

She became a housekeeper for William Thomson, a man almost twice her age.

Unsurprisingly, they ended up in matrimony.

Unsurprisingly, that May-December match ended in grief.

Ellen’s relationship with the younger marine John Harrison brought the conflict to a head; the husband was murdered in October of 1886. On the eve of the hanging, Harrison attempted to protect his paramour by claiming sole responsibility for the crime … but it was too little, too late. Both were hanged at Boggo Road Gaol.

Port Douglas’s Court House Museum still maintains an exhibit on this milestone case.

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1887: Henri Pranzini, repentant?

3 comments August 31st, 2012 Headsman

On this date 125 years ago, a notorious French triple murderer was guillotined outside La Roquette Prison.

This condemned murderer, so infamous that anarchist bomber Ravachol planned to invoke his name as an emblem of crime in a suppressed courtroom speech, slaughtered a prostitute, her maid, and the maid’s child so that he could plunder the apartment’s jewelry.

Your basic sensational common butchery, given added legs by comparison to the next year’s apparition across the channel of the Whitechapel murderer.*

That’s just one of several more famous (or infamous) contemporaries for whom Pranzini was a sort of subplot character.

The artist Paul Gauguin — though he couldn’t quite remember the name right — suspected that this particular killer plotted his crime at the cafe that both he and Vincent Van Gogh frequented. (Van Gogh painted the proprietress, who was also possibly his lover.)

According to Van Gogh, the whole Pansini [Pranzini] affair, as well as many others, was hatched in this place … From this Pansini case sprang another case, also, according to Van Gogh, hatched in this famous cafe, the Prado case

We’ve noticed in these pages Gauguin’s disturbing severed-head jug, and its seeming inspiration from that other guillotinee, Prado.

While Gauguin’s meditations on the guillotine veered to the grotesque, a Norman teenager fresh off an apparition of Jesus Christ found spiritual sublimity in this villain. The woman eventually known as St. Therese of Lisieux later recollected

I heard talk of a great criminal just condemned to death for some horrible crimes; everything pointed to the fact that he would die impenitent…. I felt in the depths of my heart certain that our desires would be granted, but to obtain courage to pray for sinners I told God I was sure He would pardon the poor, unfortunate Pranzini; that I’d believe this even if he went to his death without any signs of repentance or without having gone to confession. I was absolutely confident in the mercy of Jesus. But I was begging Him for a “sign” of repentance only for my own simple consolation.

My prayer was answered to the letter! In spite of Papa’s prohibition that we read no papers, I didn’t think I was disobeying when reading passages pertaining to Pranzini. The day after the execution I found the newspaper “La Croix.” I opened it quickly and what did I see? Ah! my tears betrayed my emotion and I was obliged to hide. Pranzini had not gone to confession. He had mounted the scaffold and was preparing to place his head in the formidable opening, when suddenly, seized by an inspiration, he turned, took hold of the crucifix the priest was holding out to him and kissed the sacred wounds three times! Then his soul went to receive the merciful sentence of Him who declares that in heaven there will be more joy over one sinner who does penance than over ninety-nine just who have no need of repentance.

I had obtained the sign I requested.

Nameless citizens on the square when the blade fell settled for less exalted signs, like the ancient superstition of dipping into the spattered blood. (“Such scenes would disgust the black savages of Dahomey and the Gold Coast,” the London Times sniffed (September 1, 1887), and in vain urged the French government to take up legislation for private executions.)

* Pranzini found himself in Madame Tussaud’s for a spell.

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1887: Israel Lipski

4 comments August 21st, 2012 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1887, 22-year-old Israel Lipski was hanged at Newgate Prison for the murder of Miriam Angel.

His trial and execution were well-publicized in their day, and were the subject of a 1984 book, The Trials of Israel Lipski: A True Story of a Victorian Murder in the East End of London by Martin L. Friedland.

But Lipski has been largely forgotten now … except as a footnote in a much more famous unsolved murder.

Lipski was of Polish-Jewish origin. His real name was Israel Lobulsk; he changed it when he moved to the UK.

He lived in a boardinghouse and worked as an umbrella and walking-stick salesman. Miriam, who was also Jewish, lodged at the same address, 16 Batty Street.

Miriam was found dead in her bed June 28 of that year. She’d been killed in an unusual way: she was forced to consume nitric acid, also known as aquafortis, a strong corrosive chemical now used in rocket fuel. She was six months pregnant at the time of her death.

Lipski was found hiding under her bed. He too had consumed nitric acid and the inside of his mouth was burned. Investigators later determined he’d purchased an ounce of the chemical that very morning. They theorized he had killed Miriam during a rape attempt.

Lipski, for this part, insisted he was innocent of any crime and told an extraordinary story: he stumbled across two co-workers in Miriam’s room rifling through her things. Miriam was already dead at this point. The two men attacked and robbed him, poured the nitric acid down his throat and threw him under the bed, where he fainted.

The judge’s summing-up to the jury, described by one news account as “lucid and temperate,” went with the rape theory:

… that the murderer of Miriam Angel entered her room under the influence of unlawful passion; that, balked in this design, his passion turned to homicidal fury; and that in a reaction of shame and terror he had taken a dose of the same poison that he had given to his victim. If that theory was probable, continued the judge, the murder was much more likely to have been the work of one man than two.

The climate of pervasive anti-Semitism in East London during this time sealed Lipski’s fate. London’s Jewish population, largely impoverished Polish and Russian refugees, was ever liable to blame for a wide variety of social problems. On top of everything else, Lipski’s legal defense was abysmal and the judge clearly biased. He might have been guilty, but the fairness of his trial is questionable.

Following Lipski’s conviction and death sentence there was worried speculation that he might, after all, be innocent. Several prominent people, including members of Parliament and investigative journalist William Stead, petitioned the Home Secretary for a reprieve or commutation. (Stead referred to Lipski as “the young martyr” and the “much injured young exile.”) The wind went out of their sails, however, after Lipski’s confession was published:

I, Israel Lipski, before I appear before God in judgment, desire to speak the whole truth concerning the crime of which I am accused. I will not die with a lie on my lips. I will not let others suffer even in suspicion for my sin. I alone was guilty of the murder of Miriam Angel.

I thought the woman had money in her room, so I entered, the door being unlocked and the woman asleep. I had no thought of violating her, and I swear I never approached her with that object, nor did I wrong her in this way. Miriam Angel awoke before I could search about for money, and cried out, but very softly. Thereupon I struck her on the head and seized her by the neck, and closed her mouth with my hand, so that she should not arouse the attention of those who were about the house.

I had long been tired of my life, and had bought a pennyworth of aquafortis that morning for the purpose of putting an end to myself. Suddenly I thought of the bottle I had in my pocket, and drew it out and poured some of the contents down her throat. She fainted and, recognizing my desperate condition, I took the rest. The bottle was an old one which I had formerly used … The quantity of aquafortis I took had no effect on me.

Hearing the voices of people coming upstairs, I crawled under the bed. The woman seemed already dead. There was only a very short time from the moment of my entering the room until I was taken away.

Even before his execution, “Lipski” became a part of Londoners’ vocabulary. It was used as both a slur against Jews and as a verb, the way a certain kind of suffocation murder still known as “burking” was named after William Burke of “Burke and Hare” fame.

A year after Israel Lipski’s execution, the name “Lipski” once again came under scrutiny after a murder suspect yelled it out in front of a witness, leaving scholars and true-crime buffs to speculate about its meaning for the next 120 years and counting.

The victim in that case was a prostitute named Elizabeth Stride. The suspect is known only by his trade name, Jack the Ripper.

But that’s another story.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Jews,Language,Murder,Other Voices,Popular Culture,Rape,Theft,Wrongful Executions

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1887: Thomas Cluverius, Richmond murderer

Add comment January 14th, 2012 Headsman


Dallas Morning News, January 14, 1887.

On this date in 1887, a long-running (for the time) legal drama in Richmond ended with the hanging of Thomas Cluverius for murder.

On Friday the 13th — March 13, 1885 — Cluverius killed his cousin and lover Lillian Madison, who was eight months pregnant with his child, an act “as dark as any that can be found in all the calendar of crimes.” (Columbus Daily Enquirer, Jan. 15, 1887)

From the illicit affair to the shocking crime of passion and calculation to the damning lost watch key found at the site of the murder: everything conspired to spill newsprint, not only in Virginia but nationwide.

Nevertheless, by the time he hanged, the young lawyer was supported by at least a chunk of public opinion prepared to credit his dogged insistence on innocence.* He maintained it all the way to the scaffold. The drama of a potential gubernatorial reprieve, backed by hundreds of Old Dominion worthies, went to literally the very last hour of the condemned man.

The facts of this case now 125 years in the grave enjoy meticulous and evocative coverage at The Shockoe Examiner, a Richmond blog that we come to via Murder by Gaslight’s Cluverius post.

We’re very pleased on this occasion to interview a writer who has given “Tommie” and “Lillie” a more literary treatment. John Milliken Thompson‘s first novel The Reservoir (review), just published in the summer of 2011, illuminates the timeless conflicts between lust and propriety, in the very specific locale of post-Reconstruction Richmond.

ET: For you as a writer, how did you come by this story, and why did you decide to make it your first novel?

JMT: I came across a brief mention of the case in a book on Richmond history and made a mental note of it.

Sometime later I began looking into the case and, after finding all kinds of material on the trial and on Richmond in the 1880s, I became more and more intrigued. A failed attempt to turn the story into a nonfiction account led me to write it as a novel.

Book CoverWhat was the most challenging thing about approaching the story?

Creating believable, interesting characters within a compelling plot is THE challenge of writing any piece of fiction. This one was no different, though it helped to have a historical framework and tons of good material to turn to.

That said, one of the toughest things about telling this story was getting the voice right. My goal was to create a narrative that could get close in to Tommie’s head, without revealing too much (to the reader or himself), and then pull farther back.

I found it interesting that you said you “felt so connected to these long-dead people that [you] owed it to them to get it right,” because I have that sense myself sometimes. In the end, what are you hoping that 21st century readers take away from the story? What did you take away from it?

In the end, I think what I most want is for readers to feel moved by the plight of these young people, who made some crucial mistakes and paid dearly for them. We all make mistakes in our youth; sometimes we learn our lessons before we get in deeper, sometimes not.

The inference is that Tommie killed Lillian because she was pregnant. How damaging would Lillian’s giving birth really have been to Tommie socially, professionally, or otherwise? Do we need to look for more complex motivations?

That’s a good question, and Tommie even considers what his life would be like if he had “done the right thing” by Lillie and married her. Even if he had been able to live down the scandal of marrying a pregnant girl, which in those days and in their circle would’ve been significant, it would still not have been the life this ambitious young man had envisioned for himself.

And what about the world he lived in — 1880s Virginia, and the place of the crime, Richmond. What’s this place like a generation after the Civil War? And why did this crime in this place become national news?

Well, Richmond, the former Confederate capital, was making a comeback after being ravaged by the war. This event caught the interest of the general public because of the high standing of the families involved and because the lawyers trying the case were distinguished men and famous orators.

Despite maintaining innocence to the last, it seems pretty difficult to imagine that Thomas Cluverius was actually innocent. Still, at the time there were plenty of people who apparently thought he might be. Why on earth did he attract that level of support? If not for the watch-key, might he have avoided conviction altogether?

That’s the fickle nature of the public — once the scapegoat has been cast out, there is a lingering sense of doubt and guilt that causes many of us to look into our own hearts … let he who is without sin.

I think the watch-key did play a big role, but it wasn’t necessarily the sine qua non. I think the sheer volume of testimony offered by the prosecution overwhelmed any reserve the all-male jury might have felt. The burden of proof, in fact if not by law, lay with the defense, and the proof (of innocence) simply wasn’t there.

What are you working on next?

I’m finishing up a coming-of-age novel about a young woman who suffers a number of poignant losses in turn-of-the-century North Carolina. By the way, until “turn-of-the-century” means turn of the 21st (maybe in two decades?) I’m using that phrase to mean turn of the 20th.

Thanks for inviting me on your blog.

* Or empathize with the young lawyer’s lost-potential pathos.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Interviews,Murder,Other Voices,Sex,USA,Virginia

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1887: William Jackson Marion, who’d be pardoned 100 years later

4 comments March 25th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1887, William Jackson Marion was executed in Nebraska for the murder of his best friend, John Cameron.

Jackson had always upheld his innocence and his ignorance of Cameron’s fate; he was the picture of “utmost coolness” on the scaffold, declaring only “that I am a sinner, the same as other men. I have made no confession and have none to make. Go to the court dockets and see where men have been tried and acquitted and compare my case with them.”

And then, as given by the Gage County Democrat, the first, last, and only man hanged in Beatrice “stood erect upon the trap-door while his hands and feet were bound, the black cap drawn over his face, and the noose adjusted,” the trap sprung, and after a thousand-plus people had taken the opportunity to view this infamous corpse, it was buried in the potter’s field.


It was then 15 years since young “Jack” Marion and John Cameron had hauled out from Grasshopper Falls, Kansas, looking for work on a railroad.

Somewhere in the wilderness, John Cameron disappeared, and Marion returned to his mother-in-law’s saying his buddy had left. Marion’s whereabouts fade; he’s supposed to have drifted in Indian country: was it flight? It sure looked that way a year later, when a body turned up with clothes that matched Cameron’s … and bullet wounds in the head.

Only a decade after those railroad recruits had rolled out their mule-packs was Marion finally apprehended and tried, and even then, it would take four years (and two trials, and several appeals) to resolve this circumstantial and very cold case.

The matter was indeterminate; the newspapers in town sniped at each other over the proper course — “there is a strong under current of public sentiment that is opposed to hanging, and particularly upon circumstantial evidence, collected ten years after the trial [sic], and connected by the testimony of his mother-in-law who showed … personal malice” complained the Gage County Democrat. Up to the very last, the governor postponed hanging by two weeks in response to a citizens’ petition. As is so often the case, though, the will to grant outright executive clemency went begging.


In 1891, under the headline The Dead Is Alive!, the Beatrice Daily Express delivered a thunderbolt to its readers.

There has always lingered, and always will linger, in the minds of a number of people … a doubt of Jack Marion’s guilt of the murder of John Cameron, and for which crime he was executed in this city four years ago.

The Express has today received almost indisputable information which establishes the startling fact of Jack Marion’s innocence. In other words John Cameron is still alive and was seen at LaCrosse, Kansas, one week ago Saturday, and a statement was obtained of him regarding his whereabouts from the time he and Jack Marion separated … and upon which day the law says Jack Marion killed his boon companion and friend.

The “victim” hadn’t been killed at all — he’s just up and blown town, just like Jack Marion said.


Although John Cameron turned up alive four years after the hanging, it would take another ninety-five for John Law to set things right.

That was when the executed man’s grandson, Elbert Marion, officially petitioned for Jack Marion’s posthumous pardon.*

Considering the century’s wait, the Board acted with relative dispatch on the hand-written petition. The evidence, Elbert pointed out, “has been accepted as fact by many many people including the Nebraska State Historical Society” and the living Cameron’s identity considered well-established by his contemporaries.** Elbert’s documentary history was considerable; in the minutes of the meeting, it’s handled by unanimous vote with no more than a few minutes’ conversation — one board member (the Attorney General, no less) observing of a proposal to kick the can down the road to a later evidentiary hearing, “we have sufficient information now on which to act responsibly.”

Now that’s bureaucracy for you.

In 1986, the Nebraska Pardons Board unanimously voted to issue a posthumous pardon to William Jackson Marion, hanged on March 25, 1887, for the murder of John Cameron. Secretary of State Allen Beermann, a member of the Board, noted that this was only the second request for a posthumous pardon the board has heard during his 16-year tenure. Marion’s grandson, Elbert Marion, requested the pardon, arguing that the coroner had misidentified a skeleton as Cameron, and maintaining that Cameron was seen alive by two of Marion’s relatives four years after Marion’s execution. The Board justified the unconditional pardon by stating “that the public good would be served by granting such application and that a posthumous pardon should be bestowed by the government through its duly authorized officers, as an act of grace.” (Source, a pdf)

Nebraska’s In the Matter of a Posthumous Pardon to William Jackson Marion, under the signature of Gov. Bob Kerrey, took formal effect on the 100th anniversary of its title character’s death — March 25, 1987.

* Elbert Marion’s hypothesis — and it is only that — was that Cameron, fleeing a potential paternity suit, swapped outfits with an Indian who might also have been on the run from his own trouble. Elbert reckons that the trick might have worked a little too well, and Cameron’s pursuers ambushed the Indian by mistake.

** One of Elbert Marion’s letters to the Pardons Board contains an offhanded reference to Kansas’s 1907 abolition of the death penalty; Elbert Marion believed (or had heard) that his grandfather’s execution had helped influence the legislature’s decision, but I have not been able to further substantiate this notion.

With special thanks to Sonya Fauver at the Nebraska Pardons Board and Allen Beermann, Nebraska’s Secretary of State at the time (and one of the signatories on the posthumous pardon) for archival assistance on this story.

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

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1887: Roxalana Druse, the last woman hanged in New York

6 comments February 28th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1887, 40-year-old Roxalana Druse was hanged in Herkimer, N.Y.

Ms. Druse and her daughter* had slain, chopped to pieces and destroyed the remains of Roxalana’s 72-year-old husband William.

Attention to her case ran toward the hyperbolic.


Detail of image courtesy of Special Collections Department, Harvard Law School.

As Roxalana Druse’s fatal date approached, said the Saturday Globe (an early national paper here mining the product-moving public fascination with mayhem we have noted across the pond), “she has dwindled to a mere shadow of her former self and would hardly tip the scales at 85 pounds.”

Still, this infamous-at-the-time crime would be little more than a piece of period folklore were it not for the horrible end Druse suffered.

Shrieking with terror as she was hooded (so says the New York Times account, which also reports that she deferred her last statement to her Universalist spiritual counselor, who made a general denunciation of the death penalty), Roxalana Druse was hanged on an upward-jerking gallows — and the rope reportedly failed to snap her neck, leaving her to slowly strangle to death.

This botched job in a high-profile hanging intensified pressure on the New York legislature to do away with the gallows; the next year, it became the first jurisdiction in the world to adopt electrocution for death sentences.

And Roxalana? She’s preserved in local lore in Herkimer, where she is said to haunt the courthouse where she heard her sentence.

* Roxalana Druse insisted that her teenage daughter Mary had nothing to do with it. Mary received a prison sentence, and was pardoned in 1895.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Milestones,Murder,New York,The Supernatural,USA,Women

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