1889: Fulgence-Benjamin Geomay, at the Paris Exposition

Add comment May 22nd, 2017 Headsman

Attendees at the 1889 Paris Exposition had the opportunity of a dawn side excursion on May 22 to see the French soldier Fulgence-Benjamin Geomay beheaded.

This Exposition was the event that gave Paris its signature landmark, the Eiffel Tower — a design whose defeated counterproposals included, among other things, a giant-sized kitsch guillotine replica. (The fair coincided with the centenary of the French Revolution.)


This could have been the National Razor instead. (cc) image by Alex Lecea.

What an opportunity squandered! Gawkers would have to make do with the real thing instead … although as usual at this late date the scene was staged to expose minimum visible spectacle to onlookers.

Paris was considerably excited by an execution which took place at La Roquette at 20 minutes past four on Wednesday morning. The weather was eminently favourable for the lovers of the gruesome spectacles which M. Deibler directs. The nocturnal and matutinal scenes around the prison were similar to those which were enacted before and during the execution of Pranzini and Prado.

Howling, shouting, gesticulating, eating, drinking, and coarse joking were carried on all over the neighbourhood. The windows of the houses were full of spectators, and the foul nightbirds, male and female, were abroad in scores. Women in light summer costumes and big hats, who had been in the Boulevard cafes until two o’clock in the morning, were there in dozens. They were standing up in hackney carriages, supported by their temporary adorers or permanent protectors, and were craning their necks in order to catch a glimpse of the guillotine.

A still stranger sight was that of a youthful bride in her white dress and orange blossoms, who, with her husband, was having a nocturnal honeymoon on the Place de la Roquette.

The felon who was guillotined that morning was a soldier who made away with an old widow woman — a Madame Roux — who kept a wineshop in the shabby part of the Boulevard St. Germain. He was Corporal Geomay of the Eighty-seventh regiment of the Line, in garrison at St. Quentin, in the North, and while on a short furlough in Paris he entered Madame Roux’s shop at midnight on Jan. 13.

After he had partially closed her shop Geomay seized her, knocked her down, and battered in her skull with a heavy hammer. The murderer then robbed his victim, caroused in the markets during the night, and next day returned to St. Quentin, where he treated his comrades lavishly, and bestowed a watch and gold chain on a woman with whom he kept company.

Geomay was condemned to death on March 27. He met his fate without flinching, and had resolved, he said, to die like a soldier.

When he arrived at the foot of the guillotine he looked calmly at the spectators, and then in a firm voice thanked the governor and warders of the prison for the kindness which they had shown him during the period of suspense preceding his execution.

M. Deibler, the executioner, was less nervous than usual, and pulled down the knife by touching a handle, and not pressing a button.

When the head was severed from the body the remains were taken off for interment, and, in accordance with the last wishes of the deceased, were not handed over to the Faculty of Medicine. After the execution, when the cordon of police and guards was withdrawn, a rush was made by the ribald crowd to the spot, marked by four stones, which was still sprinkled with blood. Men and women exchanged obscene jokes and repartees, until, wearied out at last by their night’s watch, they slunk away to their homes in the slums.

-Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, May 26, 1889

We have a taste of that obscene repartee in this a scrap of doggerel courtesy of entertainer Aristide Bruant:

Une nuit qu’il était en permission,
V’là qu’i tue la vieille d’un coup d’sion,
C’est ti bête!

L’autre matin Deibler d’un seul coup,
Place de la Roquette,
i a coupé la tête!

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1889: William Henry Bury, Jack the Ripper suspect

4 comments April 24th, 2016 Headsman

The last execution in Dundee, Scotland occurred on this date in 1889 — and some folk suspect that the fellow that fell through the gallows-trap might have been the great bogeyman of a different place: Whitechapel.

Orphaned son to a fishmonger who was broken when he fell under the wheels of his own laden cart and a mother who expired in a lunatic asylum, William Henry Bury just so happened to be resident of Whitechapel’s adjacent East End neighborhood of Bow when the former experienced a notorious spate of murders in 1888. Bury marked his time as an unsuccessful sawdust merchant vending to Whitechapel taverns, and as a downright atrocious husband drinking and whoring away the modest inheritance of his wife Ellen, then returning home to thrash her for it.

Proximity and misogyny begin the case for William Bury as a possible Jack the Ripper candidate, but it was a host of more specific circumstances that really interested posterity and contemporaries alike.

The Ripper killings abated in the autumn of 1888; nobody really knows why, though in making the case for Bury as the murderer, William Beadle has suggested that heavy fog that season complicated Bury’s post-slaughter escape routes back to Bow. By January, Bury had moved away to Dundee dragging along his reluctant, and now penniless, wife. Other Whitechapel homicides extending up to 1891 might be copycat crimes or coincidences, but all of the so-called “canonical five” consensus victims of Jack the Ripper were in their graves by the time Bury left town. Ripper or no, Bury is known to have committed knife attacks on at least two women (and threatened his wife with same); he’s also a likely suspect for the December 1888 strangulation murder (sans mutilation) of Rose Mylett, one of the several possible Ripper crimes outside the canonical five.

Days after moving to Dundee, Bury strangled his wife with a rope … and gashed open her abdomen, eerily mirroring the Whitechapel killer’s horrific attacks. (Although Bury’s slashes of Ellen were not as deep or ferocious as those associated with the Whitechapel killer.)

Finding he could not get the body out of the apartment, and recollecting that people were bound to notice that his wife had vanished, Bury eventually went to police with a preposterous story that he had awoken to find his wife a suicide several days before and then — strange topic to bring up — hid the body for fear that this Whitechapel emigre would be taken for Jack. Someone clearly did so, for when police investigated they found strange chalk graffiti: “Jack Ripper is at the back of this door”, “Jack Ripper is in this seller”. The operative assumption is that Bury himself scratched them but these creepy notices at a crime scene have a whiff of street vigilantes tagging the murderer as in Fritz Lang’s M. Then again, the Burys were strangers who had just arrived from the epicenter of a notorious crime spree, and Dundee probably had prankster schoolboys in abundance.

London police and Scotland Yard sniffed around Bury and didn’t find enough whiff of the Ripper to charge him up as the Whitechapel murderer, but not all were persuaded. Executioner James Berry was reportedly convinced that in Bury he had noosed England’s legendary monster, and a Scotland Yard detective — despite failing to get anything but denials out of his interrogations — allegedly agreed, telling the hangman, “We are quite satisfied that you have hanged Jack the Ripper. There will be no more Whitechapel crimes.” We have suggestive — nothing is dispositive with Jack, much to the profit of amateur sleuths down the years — hints that Ellen too believed this, as she is said to have remarked to Dundee acquaintances who quizzed her about the killings in her former neighborhood things like “Jack the Ripper is taking a rest.” Meaningless conversational nicety, or clue from the bedmate of the monster?

There are of course dozens of Jack the Ripper suspects from then and now; Bury isn’t even the only one who ultimately got executed. And there are reasons to doubt Bury beginning most obviously with his clumsy performance for the Dundee police: seemingly very far from the cool and shrewd sociopath we commonly suppose for the Whitechapel Ripper.

But there’s a lot that fits, too, and even though Bury always denied the charge, some part of him — be it a confessional mode, or a starfucking one — couldn’t resist hinting. When that hangman Berry implied in the last moments that Bury should unburden himself of the Whitechapel crimes, his mark repelled the attempt with tantalizing non-denials, e.g. “I suppose you think you are clever to hang me … but because you are going to hang me you are not going to get anything out of me.”

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1889: Abushiri, German East Africa rebel

Add comment December 15th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1889, the Germans hanged Abushiri as a rebel.

European empires arriving to East Africa naturally entered a going history of local conflicts and accommodations. In the case of the region at hand, the archipelago of Zanzibar lying just off the coast had been absorbed by, and then spun off from, the domain of the sultan of Oman. As we lay our scene in the late 19th century, it is an independent Sultanate of Zanzibar whose dominion extended to the adjacent Swahili coast and inland, an area also known as the Zanj.

Zanzibar was a British interest here, but the islands themselves do not quite enter this fray directly; the sultanate based there actually survived until 1964.

But in the 1880s, Germans scrambling for Africa arrived to gobble up the sultanate’s mainland possessions. Germany, truth be told, was a little bit late to this game, and although it secured some noteworthy footholds like Cameroon and Namibia, the Second Reich suffered a distinct little imperial brother complex vis-a-vis the British and the French — both of whom had more extensive holdings in Africa, to say nothing of everywhere else in the world.

Certainly the German public, flush with the boom of industrialization and having only just shown the French what-for on the battlefield, clamored for its rightful share of overseas acquisition. The popular thirst for expansion dragged along reluctant chancellor Otto von Bismarck into an adventure so inimical to the good order he prized.

One such German dreaming big dreams of bigger maps was a cocksure 29-year-old doctor of history, Carl Peters. Fresh off a few post-academic years knocking about in a London astir with the white man’s burden, Peters co-founded the German East Africa Company and then put that colonial corporation literally on the map with a bold expedition to Zanzibar. Within a few weeks of arriving in November 1884, and despite the explicit dissuasion of the German consulate there, Peters had obtained via just the right mixture of largesse and menace treaty rights to 155,400 square kilometers conferred by a number of coastal chiefs in the mainland ambit of the Sultan of Zanzibar.

When Peters returned in glory to Germany brandishing these concessions, Chancellor Bismarck was practically forced to accept them as a German protectorate … and charter Peters’s corporation to start exploiting it. The mid-1880s saw a minor local race between Peters and rival British explorers to establish their respective colonial presences on the Swahili coast,* resulting in an 1886 Anglo-German agreement formally dividing the region’s spheres of influence: British to the north, German to the south. Today this line, shooting near-straight to the southeast from Lake Victoria to the Indian Ocean with a slight bend round Mount Kilimanjaro, forms the border between Kenya and Tanzania.

We are, at length, arriving at the unfortunate party whose execution occasions this post.

The problem for young Master Peters with his personal agglomeration of the fatherland was nothing but that familiar difficulty for invaders from time immemorial — and Peters was ultimately an invader, no matter what treaties he could wrangle. For his short spell as the commercial governor of this distant land, Peters earned of his Bantu subjects the sobriquet Milkono wa Damu: the man with blood on his hands.

Diplomats could partition the land in Berlin, and could even compel the supine sultan to acknowledge their arrangements. But no edict could command legitimacy for the man with blood on his hands.

Beginning in September 1888, rebels comprising both Arabs and Swahili tribesmen sacked German East Africa Company assets up and down the coast Peters had so diligently won for Germany. Rousted from most of its towns and trading posts, the Company hunkered down in its territorial capital of Bagamoyo and cabled Berlin for help. Bismarck paternally relieved the in-over-its-head company with the aid of mercenaries hired from Egypt and Mozambique, crushed the uprising with customary roughness, and ushered Peters’s firm out of the colonial administration business in favor of adult supervision. The little protectorate soon became German East Africa, administered as a proper colonial appendage of the German Empire.

This Abushiri revolt (English Wikipedia entry | German) is named for its most prominent leader, a mixed-race Arab-Oromo coastal planter named Abushiri ibh Salim al-Harthi (English Wikipedia entry | German). He would be betrayed to German hands trying to escape and promptly executed; however, resistance by others continued to 1890.


(Via)
They struck down
The flag of Islam
And now proposed
To raise their own.

They came to Pangani
Full of wrath,
They fitted up the house
And laid cannon.

And the ship at Maziwe
The whole town was humbled
And the Europeans
Strode about the streets.

The town was silent,
No one spoke,
Not a free man
Said a word.

-Swahili poet Hemedi al-Buhriy†

This new disturbance, whose suppression Britain also aided, helped lead London and Berlin back to the negotiating table for the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty of 1890 — a comprehensive African arrangement to settle up spheres of influence not only on the Swahili coast but touching Namibia and Togoland, too. Meanwhile, Germany gave up remaining claims north of the Swahili coast dividing line and ceded Zanzibar itself to British authority; in exchange, she obtained the islands of Heligoland off her northwest shoulder — closing a potential security vulnerability.**

Among the many curiosities of the years to follow for the great imperial powers concerned, few are more vexing than just why it was that England and Germany went to war in 1914. Profitable as that bloody effusion has been for these grim annals, it posed as antagonists two countries that had long been thought by keen observers to be natural allies — a belief shared by numerous British and German statesmen. Otto von Bismarck was certainly one of these; his desire for an English alliance (against France and Russia) was a pole star of the Iron Chancellor’s foreign policy. Indeed, he worked amicably with his British opposite number Lord Salisbury; Bismarck once opined of his unwillingly adopted East African holdings that they were “admirably suited to become the sacrificial ram on the altar of friendship” with Great Britain.

But that isn’t what happened.

The failure of these great powers’ flirtation with one another, and the arrangements they ultimately made with other powers instead, defined the belligerents of the Great War. And while we would scarcely propose to lay the charnel houses of Verdun and Gallipoli at the shores of Zanzibar, it has sometimes been postulated that the fatal obstacle to Britain’s arrangement with Germany might have been the paucity of horses to swap.

Thanks to far-flung colonial expansion, Britain had many borders with France all over the globe, and accordingly had frequent need to collaborate and an ample store of chips to trade. With Germany, she had but a few intersections, in Africa — and these were settled almost too comprehensively (pdf) after the Abushiri revolt.

* It goes without saying that the sultan was none too happy about this development, but he was made to get used to the idea. (Germany sent warships, and Great Britain declined to back the sultan.)

The Anglo-German agreement accordingly limited the sultan’s authority on the coast to a 10-mile strip. Although the European powers commanded whatever leases they desired from this zone, Zanzibar’s anomalous territorial claims on the mainland would not be extinguished until the post-colonial era. When that day came, the 10-mile strip made for quite a sticky wicket during negotiations for Kenyan independence in the 1960s. The whole situation lies very far from the scope of this post, but the connosseur of diplomatic Gordian knots should pause to enjoy this pdf exploring the whole mess.

** Each party valued the thing it received quite a bit more than the thing it traded away in this treaty. From Britain’s perspective, Heligoland would be nigh-indefensible in the event of war with Germany; from Germany’s perspective, the claims it gave up outside of German East Africa were little better than phantasmal.

† via Charles Pike’s “History and Imagination: Swahili Literature and Resistance to German Language Imperialism in Tanzania, 1885-1910,” The International Journal of African Historical Studies, Vol. 19, No. 2 (1986)

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1889: Thomas Brown, Fargo-Moorhead outlaw

Add comment September 20th, 2015 Headsman

At 4 a.m. on this date in 1889, Clay County, Minnesota hosted its only execution.

This affair began, as such things do, when “a bunch of drunken hoboes got into a fight near Hillsboro, ND” in the autumn of 1888. One of them was killed, and a farmer who saw it happen identified Brown as the suspect. What little is known of Brown* indicates that he was a hardened outlaw; he broke out of prison in Wisconsin, and did time in the Dakota territories, too. While awaiting his fate he would solve a frontier sporting mystery by admitting that he murdered the tramp who had killed bareknuckles pugilist George Fulljames.

So police had their eyes peeled for Brown 40 miles down the way in the border settlement of Fargo-Moorhead. (Fargo is on the North Dakota side of the river, Moorhead on the Minnesota side.)

One night in October, an off-duty Fargo cop spotted Brown a few blocks into the Minnesota side of town, and alerted Moorhead policeman John Thompson. But Brown had noticed them, noticing him, and drew on the Moorhead officer. While Brown was demanding to know what the two had spoken about, another Moorhead policeman approached.

This Patrolman Peter Poull’s appearance set off the gunplay: Brown wheeled and felled Poull with a shot through the heart, but the distraction allowed Patrolman Thompson to draw and wound he fleeing desperado. Brown was captured, his revolver empty, collapsed on the train tracks with shots through his shoulder and leg. It was only because the quick-thinking Clay County sheriff whisked Brown out of jail under cover of darkness by forcing a night train to Minneapolis to make an unscheduled stop that a lynching was averted.

“Unless I get a change of venue I guess I shall have to swing,” Brown observed, with preternatural coolness.

He did not get a change of venue.

Brown’s execution was one of the first (to state it more exactly: it was the second) to occur under the state’s new “midnight assassination” law, which not only shamefacedly stashed hangings behind prison walls under cover of darkness, but also prohibited newspapers from publishing the particulars of the event.

Those lingeringly detailed descriptions — of the hardihood of the dead man and the conduct of the onlookers and the ceremony upon the gallows and whether the victim confessed and if he died fast or died hard — have been a staple of print media practically since its birth, and certainly an indispensable font for these grim annals. But the legislature had been persuaded that their circulation constituted a moral degradation to the consumers who eagerly read them. This directive was at best unevenly complied with: a number of newspapers did publish such accounts, and they were not punished for it. And of course the law did not reach across the Dakota border at all, so the Fargo Argus was able to insinuate an editor into the death chamber, who later described the killer’s last moments thus:

When the spectators reached the gallows, Brown was standing on the drop, on either side being a priest, all engaged in half audible prayer … Sheriff Jensen then tied Brown’s feet, and adjusted the noose about his neck, the knot being behind his right ear … In a weak and trembling** voice, almost inaudible he bade the jailor, Sheriff and priests goodbye, shaking hands with them and wishing them well. He then turned to the spectators, half smiled and nodded a farewell. The black cap was then pulled over his head and fastened under the chin, he with the priests praying meanwhile.

The drop fell at exactly 4:30 o’clock and the murderer of Officer Poull was launched into eternity. Brown’s neck was broken by the fall … In twelve and a half minutes his pulse ceased to beat, and in fifteen his heart had ceased action.

* Even to the end he refused to reveal his real identity or background, so as not to shame his family.

** Other published accounts speak of the hanged man’s unusual nerve. Between the moralizing interests of the interlocutors and the circulation of bogus information facilitated by the midnight assassination law, we here profess agnosticism as to Brown’s actual behavior.

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1889: Mark Francis and James Turney

Add comment March 27th, 2015 Headsman

LEBANON, Tenn., March 27. — Mack Francis and James Turney, negroes, were hanged at 12.23 this afternoon for the murder of Lew Martin last summer. They showed a great deal of bravado and confessed their guilt after ascending the scaffold. Francis struggled much, but Turney died instantly, his neck being broken. The execution was private, but a large number of people stood around the gallows.

Lew Martin was a half-witted, inoffensive negro. On the evening of the murder he went to church, having $7* in his possession. This he imprudently displayed, and the two men who were to-day hanged saw it. They planned the murder while sitting behind the church, and shot their victim as he was on his way home. In his confession Francis said:

We waited outside the door of the church till the crowd came out, and when Martin was about one hundred yards down the road we followed him. When we caught up with him he was walking with some of the people from the church and we fell back and waited till he got by himself. Then we caught up with him again and walked along, one of us on each side of him. Then Jim drew his pistol and shot him twice. Lew’s head fell forward and he said ‘Jim.’ Jim then turned to me and said threateningly, ‘Shoot; why don’t you shoot.’ I then shot twice, and hit Lew in the body, and Jim shot three more times, when Lew fell. We went through his pockets and found seven dollars, and Jim took four dollars and I took three. When we killed him we thought he had more money, but when we left the church I had no idea of killing him.

Philadelphia Inquirer, March 28, 1889.

* The equivalent of about $175 in 2014 dollars. (via)

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1889: Alfred Schaeffer, diabolical dynamiter, lynched near Seattle

Add comment January 7th, 2013 Headsman

From the Chicago Daily Inter Ocean, January 8, 1889 (paragraph breaks added for readability: the original had none at all):

A DIABOLICAL DYNAMITER.


After Killing Three Persons and Wounding Others He Is Barbarously Lynched

SEATTLE, Wash. T., Jan. 7. — Alfred Shaffer [sic], a Bohemian, fired a heavy charge of giant powder under the house of George Bodala, at Gilman,* thirty miles east of Seattle, at 4:30 o’clock this morning, instantly killing John and Michael Scherrick, and Anna, the 9-year-old child of Bodala, and badly wounding Bodala, his wife, and little son and daughter.

Last spring Bodala caused the arrest of Schaeffer on the charge of criminal assault upon his wife. Schaeffer was sentenced to a short term of imprisonment, and when he was released he made such serious threats against the life of Bodala that he was again arrested, and incarcerated in jail nine days.

When he was released he returned to Gilman, and since then he lost no opportunity attempting to injury Bodala, and this morning put his threats into execution. The two Scherricks and the little girl were instantly killed.

Bodala was brought to the Providence Hospital to-day, and is in a very bad condition. The other three will probably recover. Schaeffer was found by the people of Gilman at his own house. He was placed under arrest, and later in the afternoon, upon the arrival of the sheriff, turned over to that officer.

This afternoon while the Sheriff was at dinner a crowd of 100 broke open the door of the house where Schaeffer was confined, took him to a tree opposite the railroad depot, and strung him up, first trying to make him confess.

He refused, and was hanged.

After thirty seconds he was cut down again and given another chance to confess, still declining he was again elevated and cut down for a second time after forty-five seconds.

He was then very weak, and, efforts to make him confess failing, he was again pulled up, and left hanging until death ensued.

* Present-day Issaquah.

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1889: John Gilman, tetchy landlord

2 comments December 13th, 2012 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1889, 60-year-old John F. Gilman was hanged in Oregon for the murders of William and Elizabeth Eationhover (Eatenhoover, Etenhover).

Elizabeth and her husband Christopher were German immigrants. They arrived with their five-year-old son William in Coquille, Oregon in July 1888 and signed a five-year lease on farmland belonging to Gilman and his wife.

The Eationhovers built a small house forty yards from John Gilman’s house. They hadn’t lived there long before they began having disputes with Gilman about just what they could do on his land. Gilman wanted them to move and offered to cancel the lease, but the Eationhovers refused to budge.

Less than a year had passed before Gilman had decided the only way out of the situation was to cancel his tenants’ lease … on life.

He tried subtlety first, poisoning their food. That didn’t work and he was forced to use a more direct form of homicide.

On Saturday, July 12, 1889, Christopher was returning home after working all week at another, distant farm. When he reached the river, he noticed Gilman on the other side and asked him to row over and give him a ride. Gilman obliged and Christopher continued his journey home — but when he reached the corral, Gilman came up behind him and hit him in the head with one of his boat’s oars. He then pulled out a knife and stabbed him multiple times.

Gilman had made a miscalculation, though — one that saved Christopher Eationhover’s life. He’d been carrying two knives in his pocket, and one had a broken blade. He’d mistakenly pulled out the broken one, and it could not inflict fatal wounds.

As the two men struggled, ElizabethGilman’s wife came out of the house to break up the fight. Christopher then took the opportunity to get away. He staggered down to the river, rowed the boat across and went to get help.

By the time he returned with a posse, however, his wife and child had disappeared. The kitchen table was set for breakfast, and little William’s plate still had food on it, long since grown cold.

When the authorities arrived at the Gilman house, they found John Gilman in bed asleep. He hadn’t even bothered to change his bloodstained clothes. Arrested, he insisted he had no idea where the Eationhovers were or what had happened to them. He suggested that perhaps they’d followed after Christopher and got lost.

A search party found them the next afternoon, poorly concealed in a shallow grave. Nearby was another, empty grave, presumably for Christopher.

The two had died horrible deaths.

Elizabeth had been beaten on the arms, hips and face, and had a bad cut on the back of her head, but the actual cause of death was strangulation. Medical evidence indicated she’d remained alive for a time after the beating.

Five-year-old William had tried to run away, but his killer was too fast for him. He’d been strangled with a rope and his neck was broken.

Gilman would later confess to the crimes. He said he had beaten Elizabeth and then ran off, leaving her semi-conscious and helpless, to kill the child. He then returned to finish off Elizabeth. He claimed he’d strangled the victims (actually hanging William from a tree) because he didn’t want to leave blood evidence in the house.

While clearing out his conscience in this rummage sale (which sorely tempted lynch law), Gilman also confessed to another murder, that of George Morras in 1888. He later recanted his statements, but law enforcement believed he had in fact committed the crime.

John Gilman was indicted for two counts of murder. His wife, Fidelia, was charged as an accessory, but later acquitted. John’s insanity defense failed, and there was no appeal or executive clemency.

One final tragic detail in this very tragic story: on October 21, 1892, nearly three years after the hanging of the man who killed his family, Christopher Eationhover hanged himself.

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1889: Auguste Neel, on St. Pierre

Add comment August 24th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1889, the only guillotine execution in North America took place on the tiny French remnant colony of Saint Pierre, just off Newfoundland.

August(e) Neel had capped a Dec. 30, 1888 drinking binge with fellow fisherman Louis Ollivier by breaking into a boat captain’s cabin they expected to find empty. Instead, they found the armed captain ready to defend himself … so they overpowered him and stabbed him to death.

And then, for some reason — “because we were sloshed and we wanted to find out how much fat the old seadog had in his body,” Neel told the court — the murderous sots dismembered the body.

While the murder was not particularly premeditated, it occurred during a perceived crime wave, and the post-mortem butcher’s act really grossed out the court. (They probably also didn’t do themselves any favors at the bar by having attempted to sail to Newfoundland.) All in all, a prime case for example-setting: Neel, as the lead culprit in the caper, was sentenced to the worst example possible. His partner got 10 years at hard labor.

Now, St. Pierre hadn’t had an execution and didn’t have the infrastructure for it. But French law didn’t let the locals in far-flung islands just do a practical straightforward thing like hang a bloke or shoot a bloke. And it wouldn’t do to have the colony send Neel somewhere where executions were a done thing. It was there in black and white that executions had to be conducted by guillotine, near the site of the crime. And so an old spare guillotine was disassembled, boxed up, and shipped up to St. Pierre from Martinique, expressly to sever Neel’s head.

Neel seems to have been the calmest man on the island, almost philosophically indifferent to the the head-chopper. The community he had aggrieved could not say the same: St. Pierre had to recruit a local petty criminal to serve as executioner, and the guy was so ostracized that he left for France afterwards. They hadn’t thought through the execution procedure to determine who would give the order to drop the blade, so after an uncomfortable pause, Neel himself shouted at the executioner to do it. By the time it hit bottom, human flesh was left grotesquely clinging to the dull imported blade.

The prosecutor vowed in the face of this dog’s breakfast never to seek another death sentence.

Never used again, this infamous device remains in St. Pierre to this day. It can be seen there behind the stairs at the Musée de l’Arche.


The St. Pierre guillotine. (cc) image from The Tedster, who also thoughtfully provides photos of the museum’s explanatory placards. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

The Neel story was “re-imagined” — nigh rewritten — for the heavily fictionalized 2000 Juliette Binoche film La Veuve de St. Pierre.

The primary source for this account — apart from the museum placards linked in the caption above — is the invaluable Bois de Justice, an astonishingly encyclopedic resource on the history of the guillotine.

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1889: “Cattle Kate” Ella Watson lynched

3 comments July 20th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1889, Ella Watson, a homesteader with a small ranch, was demonstratively lynched by vigilantes of Wyoming’s powerful cattlemen.


“Cattle Kate”

In the Western frontier amidst the rapine of the Gilded Age, ranching oligopolists had Wyoming by the throat.

Ellen Watson was a late-30’s escapee of an abusive marriage in Kansas who had homesteaded her own land and set up shop as an independent proprietor.

This put her in a class of people soon to be pitted in a resource war against the big ranchers — the Johnson County War, to erupt in 1892.

Watson was a casualty of the increasingly violent run-up to open “war”, a period when the catchall “cattle rustling” charge did the dirty work of licensing arrests and property seizures (and worse) deemed convenient for Big Cattle. When the latter decided that Watson’s stock was stolen, they seized her and partner James Averell and strung them up.

Hanging from the limb of a stunted pine growing on the summit of a cliff fronting the Sweetwater River, were the bodies of James Averell and Ella Watson. Side by side they swing, their arms touching each other, their tongues protruding and their faces swollen and discolored almost beyond recognition. Common cowboy lariats had been used, and both had died by strangulation, neither fallen over two feet. Judging from signs too plain to be mistaken a desperate struggle had taken place on the cliff, and both man and woman had fought for their lives until the last.

The subsequent trial of the paramilitaries ended in acquittal when potential witnesses were bought off or intimidated into silence, leaving “Cattle Kate” a legendary figure most defined by cattlemen-controlled Cheyenne newspapers. These made her out to be not only a thief but a (literal) whore, an image sharply contested by George Hufsmith’s The Wyoming Lynching of Cattle Kate.

Michael Cimino’s legendary cinematic Hindenburg Heaven’s Gate is about the Johnson County War, and features Isabelle Huppert as Watson, opposite Kris Kristofferson as Jim Averell. The film treats her sympathetically … but she’s also a madam who accepts payment for her cathouse’s services in the form of rustled cattle.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",Hanged,History,Lynching,No Formal Charge,Pelf,Power,Public Executions,Summary Executions,USA,Women,Wyoming

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