1892: A day in the death penalty around the U.S. South

Add comment January 22nd, 2019 Headsman

All five of the people executed on January 22, 1892, and all four of the victims associated with their various homicides, were African-Americans.


From the Macon (Ga.) Telegraph, Jan. 23, 1982.

Robert Carter, hanged in the Camden, Alabama, jail on January 22 for murdering his wife, a crime he admitted.

“The murder was most brutal,” wrote the newsman under the headline pictured above, indulging a touch of anatomical hyperbole. “He followed his wife into the woods from the field where both were working and beat her to death, crushing almost all the bones in her body.”


Less certain was the case of the adulterous lovers Jim Lyles and Margaret Lashley hanged in Danville, Virginia, that same January 22 for slaying Lashley’s husband George.

Lashley asserted her innocence from arrest to execution, and her trial jury had recommended her for mercy. The day before execution, Lyles made a full confession in which he claimed sole responsibility for the crime, exonerating his paramour; Lashley’s bid for an eleventh-hour clemency on the basis of was nevertheless denied.

They died together, “displaying not a semblance of weakness” after “the prayer and song service, which lasted thirty minutes, both principals rendering, in strong harmonious voices, the hymns selected for the occasion.” (Columbia, S.C. State, Jan. 23, 1892)


Lucius Dotson hanged in Savannah, Georgia, on the same morning, for the murder of Jeff Goates.

Even at the late date of 1892, Dotson’s brother, “fearing that medical students had captured Lucius’s carcass, had the coffin opened at the depot … and was surprised to find his broken-neck brother in it.” (Charleston, S.C., News and Courier, Jan. 24, 1892)


The last woman ever hanged in North Carolina, Caroline Shipp died on a Dallas, North Carolina gallows before a crowd of some 3,000 souls.

A woman of “barely 20 years old”, condemned for poisoning her infant child. Under the noose, she “displayed great coolness” and “talked eight minutes, re-affirming her innocence, and declared a man [her lover -ed.] named Mack Farrar committed the crime.” The drop of the rope hit her with what a local paper called “a soul-sickening jerk”; it took her 20 minutes to strangle to death.

The event has proven to have a durable hold on Gaston County’s memory, and Shipp’s claim of innocence continues to interest latter-day researchers.

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1890: Elmer Sharkey, wretched matricide

Add comment December 19th, 2018 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):


The Terrible End of Elmer Sharkey

Exit Elmer Sharkey and Henry Popp. The night of December 18, 1890, [i.e., after midnight on the 19th. People are just egregious with dates. -ed.] witnessed the double execution of Elmer Sharkey and Henry Popp.

Elmer Sharkey, serial number 20,517, was the picture of physical manhood, young, handsome and accomplished; but his crime was the most diabolical one that ever disgraced the fair pages of Ohio’s history.

About nine o’clock on the fatal night of December 18, Father Logan appeared at the Annex and baptized Sharkey in the Catholic faith. Shortly after this the two murderers were taken out into the reception room of the Annex, where they remained until after the reading of their death warrants. It was just a few minutes after eleven o’clock when Father Logan came into the Annex to comfort the condemned men. He informed them that there was no earthly hope; that the Governor absolutely refused to interfere, and that they should prepare for the worst. Sharkey and his doomed companion were then taken back into the Annex proper, where they bade good-bye to those who were left behind. A little later Warden Dyer came down the corridor and entered the reception room, to which the condemned men were again taken. Facing them the Warden said: “Boys, I have a painful duty to perform; but the law requires it. Henry,” to Popp “this is your death warrant.” Popp shook as with the ague, and stammered, “Yes sir.” He then arose to his feet and listened attentively to the reading of the warrant. The reading of Popp’s warrant finished, the Warden turned to Sharkey who was leaning against the steam heater and read his warrant. Sharkey stood with his hands in his pockets, seemingly indifferent. This over, Chaplain Sutton and Father Logan each offered up a fervent prayer, and then the Warden left the Annex to make further preparations for the executions that followed a few minutes later.

Promptly at midnight Warden Dyer, Deputy Porter and Assistant Brady at his side, stepped into the guard room. A mad rush was made for the gate. But a careful separation of the sheep from the goats was made by the Captain of the guard room, who carefully scrutinized each passport. Noiselessly the procession passed down the long, dimly-lighted corridor to the Annex. Once inside the enclosure Warden Dyer promptly mounted the scaffold, and placed everything in readiness. But a moment thus, and the approach of the doomed man was heralded by appearance of Father Logan who stepped from the cage onto the scaffold, and took his stand on the right of the trap door. A hush fell as the pale and bloodless countenance of Elmer Sharkey appeared. He moved with a nervous, gliding motion toward the fatal trap, hesitated for a moment, and then stepped squarely upon it; and with downcast eyes and drooping head, stood there in waiting, a picture of silent despair and hopeless agony. Once, twice, three times he raised his eyes and cast a quick, sweeping glance over the throng of spectators, then resumed his downward look of misery, murmuring in a low tone: “My God, make quick work of it!” When asked if he asked [sic] anything to say, he raised his head slightly and said: “I ask God’s forgiveness, and all I have wronged; and I forgive everything.” The Father pressed the cross to his passive, bloodless lips and he kissed it fervently. The hood was then made ready and he was asked for his last words. “That is all I can think of now.”

As the hood was being adjusted he faltered and would have fallen backward in a faint, but was sustained by ready hands. Just as the noose was being drawn around his neck, he again lost control of himself, and started to fall; but the noose was slipped with a quick movement; the trap sprung, and down he went. As a result of his fainting he fell in a partially horizontal attitude, and the tightening of the rope produced a swinging motion of the body, thus breaking the force of the fall. The result was that the neck was not broken, and the poor, wretched matricide was left to die by strangulation. The sounds that floated out over the awe-hushed group as the dying man struggled for breath, is [sic] beyond description. The sickening sight and horrible sounds drove many of the spectators from the execution room.

The drop fell at 12:05, and for several minutes the terrible struggle lasted, then the sounds from the throat, and convulsions of the body grew less frequent. At 12:34 the quivering heart ceased to beat, just twenty-nine minutes after the drop fell. All within that narrow enclosure breathed a sigh of relief when the attending physician finally pronounced him dead.

His execution was one of the longest on record, and the longest in the history of Ohio.

Elmer Sharkey suffered death on the scaffold for the cold-blooded murder of the woman who gave him birth, a widow of Preble County. No wonder his death was such an ignominous and horrible one. Mrs. Sharkey had violently opposed his marriage to the woman of his choice, and threatened to disinherit him if the marriage was consummated. The unnatural son, in a spirit of revenge, butchered his poor old mother with a meat axe, mangling her almost beyond recognition. He confessed his guilt, and “died in the hope of a glorious immortality.”

[Popp, not dwelt upon by Fogle, was a Bavarian immigrant who fatally stabbed the barkeep who attempted to eject him while rowdy in his cups. -ed.]

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1896: Patrick Coughlin, shot in the mountains

Add comment December 15th, 2018 Headsman

From the San Francisco (Calif.) Call, Dec. 16, 1896.

UTAH MURDERER EXECUTED

Patrick Coughlin, the Slayer of Two Officers, Shot to Death in Rich County.

SALT LAKE, Utah, Dec. 15. — Patrick Coughlin was executed in Rich County, this State, this morning, for the murder of Deputy Sheriff Dawes and Constable Stagg, in July, 1895. Coughlin chose shooting as the method of his taking off. [He could have opted for hanging -ed.] He was pinioned, blindfolded and seated on a stationary chair, and six deputy sheriffs fired simultaneously, aiming at the heart, over which a piece of white paper was fastened. Every shot pierced the mark and death was instantaneous.


Photo of the arrangement of Coughlin’s execution. Via the University of Utah, whose watermark appears in the center.

Coughlin was about 23 years of age, a native of Pennsylvania, and came to this State when quite young. For some years he was considered a hard character. In July, 1895, he and another young man, Fred George, stole a band of horses and were pursued by officers. For over a week they eluded capture, and several times when brought to bay fired upon their pursuers, escaping further into the mountains. They were surrounded in a little cabin, and when called upon to surrender fired repeatedly, killing the two officers named and wounding others before the posse retired.

Several days later they were captured, 150 miles from the scene of the killing. Both were tried on the capital charge and Coughlin was sentenced to be shot and George to a life term in the penitentiary.

Coughlin’s execution took place near the spot where the murders were committed, up in the mountains.

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1894: Abbe Albert Bruneau

Add comment August 30th, 2018 Headsman

French priest Albert Bruneau was guillotined on this date in 1894 for murder. (Most of the available information about this case is in French, as are most of the links in this post.)

The Abbe‘s protests of innocence fell on deaf ears considering his history of degeneracy — thefts, seductions, even firing his own parsonage for the insurance money — stretching back to his seminarian days.

He’d been condemned for killing that January at Entrammes another priest, Abbe Fricot — whose body had wound up plundered of valuables and dropped down a well. This epidemic of priest-on-priest violence made for a tremendous public sensation that certainly was not conducive to Bruneau’s efforts to defend himself. Once he became suspected of Fricot’s murder, he was also baselessly implicated in (though never charged with) the unsolved killing of a Laval florist from the previous year.

A thread on guillotine.cultureforum.net draws our attention not only to some wonderful original reportage but to the riveting first-person account of Henri Massonneau in his Devant l’Echafaud (In Front of the Scaffold, available free online from Google Books or Gallica). Massonneau recounts the fury in Laval, where crowds expecting the execution a couple of days previously pelted the prison with taunts for the condemned man.

Bruneau’s cell, very tall in the tower of the Vieux Château, was illuminated. The mobs were screaming:

“Bruneau! It’s for this night! You will dance!”

In the night spots around the city, Massonneau even heard patrons grumbling for the head of Bruneau’s barrister, for having dared to defend the monster.

The magistrate and energetic proto-true crime scribbler Pierre Bouchardon* took up l’Affaire de l’Abbe Bruneau in 1942 and thought the legal proceedings inexcusably slipshod owing to the prejudicial atmosphere. (Unfortunately his Le Puits du Presbytere d’Entrammes (The Well of the Presbytery of Entrammes) falls under the pall of copyright and must be hunted among sellers of antique francophone titles.) Many other retrospectives have reached a similar conclusion.

We return to Massonneau, who has caught wind on the evening of August 29 that the beheading will take place early the next day, and even secured for himself entry into the prison to observe Bruneau’s last hours:

At half-past two in the morning, the van carrying the guillotine arrives, escorted by six gendarmes, at the Place de la Justice. This square is planted with tall trees and surrounded by stone terminals connected by chains. To allow the van to enter the square, the chains at the extreme angles had to be sawed. The square has been evacuated, but the windows of the neighboring houses are full of curiosity, and the square of the Cathedral which opens directly on the place du Palais de Justice, following it, is black with people.

We will attend the spectacle. But there will not be gladiators fighting wild beasts, nor bullfights, nor athletes measuring themselves: it will be the law that will kill an unarmed man. There are men, women, children, bourgeois, farmers, workers, many priests. Kids have climbed into the trees. We can not dislodge them. There are six thousand people around the guillotine. It’s a grand success. The weather is superb, the night is even hot.

From a distance, the crowd follows the assembly of the guillotine. When the sinister machine stands up, erect in the night, joy breaks out. We are finally quiet: Bruneau will be executed. The hour passes. My colleagues and I are entering the prison, but we are numerous and the Prosecutor of the Republic informs us that we will not be able to enter the cell of the convict. We will have to wait for him in the chapel where he will come to hear his last mass. From that moment, we will not leave him.

The magistrates entered his cell at 4 o’clock. Bruneau did not sleep. The Public Prosecutor said to him:

“Bruneau, courage. The time has arrived.”

Bruneau looked around, haggard. Then he said:

“Can I get up?”

“Yes, dress up.”

He put on his pants. The prosecutor asked him if he had a confession to make.

“No,” he replied, “I am innocent, not only of the crimes for which I was acquitted, but also of the one for which I was condemned. I only committed indecent assaults. I am innocent.” He delivered a letter to the Prosecutor.

“You will read it,” he said, “at the same time as my advocate, and you will deliver it to the public.”

In this letter, Bruneau again protests his innocence and says he forgives those who have hurt him. The letter was not published. Despite claiming to forgive them, Bruneau leveled slanderous accusations against some witnesses of the trial.

I go down to the chapel. It is located in a basement. From the chandeliers, a dozen candles flicker a dim light. Soon the chapel is full of people … I have never seen a scene more moving than the appearance of Bruneau in the chapel. He has come down at a brisk pace the twenty steps that lead to it. He wears his beard, very black, which gives him a remarkably energetic appearance. His foot scarcely leaving the last step, the condemned stiffens, and with a sudden movement turns towards the holy water font. His arms are shackled and he must make an incredible effort to take holy water. He looks like an automaton. He crosses himself, not without difficulty, then with a sure step approaches the high altar. There, he drops to his knees. A thump sounds. Bruneau seems lost in a chasm of prayer.

The chaplain approaches him and speaks to him in a low voice; Bruneau resumes his prayer; the chaplain comes to ask the prosecutor for permission to isolate himself with the condemned man to hear his confession. The prosecutor hesitates, but consents in the end. The chaplain returns near Bruneau, helps him get up, and they both head for a corner of the chapel hidden by a curtain. They disappear behind it. Two guards come to stand near the curtain.

The confession lasts ten endless minutes. Finally, Bruneau comes to take his place, on his knees, in front of the maître-hôtel. And the mass begins. Another twenty minutes pass. The assistants suffer visibly for the convict throughout; Bruneau communes. Finally the ceremony is over. Bruneau, before going out, again takes holy water, and he has the same difficulties as before. He is very calm. He climbs the stairs without weakness. It feels like a man walking in a dream. From the chapel, one goes into the courtyard to go to the registry where the last toilette is to be made. It is a small room on the ground floor. Through the door, left open, I attend these funereal preparations. Quietly, without affectation, he says he is hungry. It’s a new delay. Priests usually eat immediately after communion. It is habit that he is hungry.

He leaves the registry. I run forward and I come near the scaffold. The police commissioner who is there says to me: “It’s not him already?”

“Yes, yes, here he is.”

“But it’s impossible! It is not legal time. I cannot yet permit the execution.”

Then all that I thought during the Mass about the mental state of the condemned returns to me, and I say to the commissioner:

“Well! Have a chair brought there, near the guillotine, and sit down until it is legal time. I’m sure he will not protest … ”

“No, no, it’s not possible,” he said. “We have to wait for the hour.”

And he makes as if to go to the prison, just as the procession emerges. I stop him:

“Do not worry for so little. In Paris, we always guillotine before the hour.”

“You think?”

“I’m sure.”

“Ah! so …”

Bruneau is near the scaffold. It is exactly 4:47. Legally, indeed, it is at 5:15 that the execution should have taken place. We are half an hour ahead. Bruneau has crossed without faltering the two hundred meters that separate the prison from the scaffold. Contrary to all the condemned, he does not want to see the guillotine. Two meters from the bascule he turns his head with affectation so as not to behold it. The chaplain presents him a crucifix. Bruneau kisses it twice, then he drops into the arms of the chaplain and kisses it for a long time.

The executioner’s assistants seize him but he tears free with a sudden movement and turns to the chaplain begging again to kiss the cross. He can not take his lips off the crucifix. The chaplain speaks to him, exhorts him to courage, and with a movement of exquisite gentleness pushes him towards the assistants who seize him and precipitate him onto the bascule.

When Bruneau entered the Palace Square, a huge “Ah!” came out of the crowd. But once he is here, we hear no sound; no word is uttered; nobody budges. Bruneau’s struggle against death at the foot of the scaffold lasted two minutes, two centuries.

The knife falls. Society is avenged. Its representatives on the Cathedral Square record this victory by frantic applause. It is interminable, already, the head is thrown in the basket with the body, the basket in the van, and the van rolls towards the cemetery. The crowd is still clapping. By the Place du Pilier-Vert, the Place des Arts, the Rue Neuve, the Pont-Neuf, the Rue de la Paix, in ten minutes the convoy arrives at the cemetery, between two curious hedges. Since three before days the pit was dug and the coffin was waiting.

Bruneau is buried at the end of an alley on the right, in the section of mass graves. The following year, passing Laval, I went to the cemetery. I found in front of the tomb two kneeling nuns who were praying. Many people, indeed, in the religious world, did not believe the culpability of Bruneau. But it is incorrect, as has been said, as I myself reported then, that the bishop of Laval made every effort to obtain pardon for the condemned. The bishop of Laval was stricken with immense sadness when Bruneau’s crimes were discovered. He cried, remained silent, and died of sorrow.

Wikipedia claims that the scandal of the murderer-priest inspired the French journalist Paul Bourde‘s 1902 play Nos deux consciences (Our Two Consciences), a piece adapted to cinema by Alfred Hitchcock in 1953 as I Confess. (review)

* Most famously, Bouchardon prosecuted Mata Hari.

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1894: William Whaley, “the horror of the situation”

Add comment June 22nd, 2018 H.M. Fogle

This ghastly description of a botched hanging comes courtesy of 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 19

William Whaley
June 22, 1894

A negro robber who beat out the brains of Allen Wilson, near Yellow Springs, Ohio, with a dray pin. Hanged June 22, 1894

A Brutal Robber Meets a Just Fate


William Whaley, serial number 25,257, was executed in the Ohio Penitentiary Annex twelve minutes after the birth of a new day, June 22, 1894, for the brutal murder of Allen Wilson, a thrifty and hard working colored man.

The crime was committed near Yellow Springs, Greene County, Ohio, on the night of June 6, 1893. Robbery was the motive for the crime, and a dray pin the instrument of destruction. He sneaked upon his victim in the dark, and literally beat his brains out.

Whaley was a young man not over twenty-five years of age, and with perhaps one exception, was the most profane man that was ever incarcerated in the Ohio Penitentiary Annex. He refused all spiritual consolation, and cursed his executioners almost with his dying breath. He was a cowardly cur, and betrayed his cowardice while on the scaffold. Three times he sank to his knees as the noose was being adjusted. The attending Guards were compelled each time to assist him to his feet, and finally to hold him up by main strength until the rattle of the lever shot his body through the open trap. Being almost in a total state of collapse, the body instead of plunging straight through the opening, pitched forward, striking the side of the door, thus breaking the force of the fall. For this reason the neck was not broken, and death was produced by the slow and harrowing process of strangulation.

Reader, if you have never seen a sight of this kind you cannot understand or comprehend the horror of the situation. Time after time the limbs were drawn up with a convulsive motion, and then straightened out with a jerk. The whole body quivered and shook like one might with the ague; while the most hideous and sickening sounds came from the throat. This continued for eighteen minutes; but to one looking on it seemed an age. After eighteen minutes the sounds ceased; the body became perfectly still; the limbs began to stiffen; the heart-beats to weaken. In just twenty-six minutes after the drop fell the last pulsation was felt, and the doctor solemnly said: “Warden, I pronounce the man dead.”

The outraged law had been avenged, and a soul unprepared had been ushered into Eternity.

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

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1890: Elizabeth and Josiah Potts, wife and husband

Add comment June 20th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1890, an affectionate married couple hanged together in Elko, Nevada, for a murder they insisted they had not authored.

We obtain this headline and the associated (nationally circulated) story from the San Diego Union of June 26, 1890.

[Associated Press Dispatches.]

ELKO, Nev., June 20. — Elko is in a ferment of excitement, many parties pouring in to witness the execution of the Potts family for the murder of Miles Fawcett in January, 1888. Over sixteen women have already applied for permits to witness the execution, which were refused.

The conduct of Mrs. Potts during the past five days has been an alternation of hysterical crying, screaming and swearing at her husband, who mopes the time away in solitude. Yesterday morning at 5 o’clock she attempted to commit suicide, gashing her wrists and trying to smother herself. The vigilance of the death watch prevented further injury but she fainted from loss of blood. Both the Potts retired early last night in a nervous condition.

At 10:30 o’clock the Sheriff read the death-warrants to Josiah and Elizabeth Potts. The reading of the warrant took place in the doorway of the latticed cell, which Josiah has occupied for so long a period.

He stood in a despondent attitude, with his head bowed down against the iron bars, and not once during the reading of the warrant did he lift his head. His wife stood erect, clad in a neat muslin suit draped in black, with a red rose in her bodice. She was pale, but with a most determined aspect in every feature. During the reading of her own warrant only once did she show any emotion whatever, and she convulsively clutched her throat when her husband’s was being read, and when the words “hanged by the neck till you are dead” were reached, she gave a hysterical gasp and seemed to exhibit much feeling.

The reading of the warrants was finished at 10:30, and both the condemned people emerged from the jail, where they had been confined for eighteen months, and proceeded outside the door to the yard between the Courthouse and jail, in which the scaffold had been erected. The sunshine relieved in a measure the gruesome surroundings. During the readings of the warrants, and evidently owing to the intense nervous strain on every one, a Deputy Sheriff was so overcome that he had to call for a glass of water.

At the conclusion of the reading Mrs. Potts earnestly ejaculated:

I AM INNOCENT AND GOD KNOWS IT,

and Josiah Potts reiterated, “God knows we are innocent.” The gloomy procession led the way through a side door and with a bravery unexpected by the sixty-odd spectators, the condemned couple seated themselves on stools provided on the scaffold, while the deputies speedily proceeded to bind them with leather straps, Mrs. Potts helping to adjust them herself while Potts sat through it all in stolidity.

When everything had been properly adjusted, they were directed to rise and all of the attendants shook hands with the condemned unfortunates. The attendants held the strap attached to Mrs. Potts’ manacled wrists and Potts made several most earnest endeavors to clasp the hands of his wife but without accomplishing it. Finally a touch on her wrist caused her to turn her eyes toward his and a mute appeal of love caused their lips to meet. As the rope was stretched around Mrs. Potts’ neck she clasped her hands together, and lifting her eyes towards the sky, exclaimed “God help me; I am innocent.”

Her husband reiterated in a hollow tone, “God knows we are innocent,” as the black caps were drawn over their heads.

The words of the clergyman who had remained with them to the last broke the silence by saying: “Put your trust in God and He will see you righted,” and then the drop fell. Instantaneously,

MRS. POTTS WAS A CORPSE,

owing to her heavy weight. Her flacid [sic] flesh caused a rupture of the carotid artery and a stream of blood burst forth from under the chin of the dead woman, staining her white raiment. To the great surprise of all who had seen Potts’ emaciated condition his vitality was great, it being a fraction over fourteen minutes, as counted by the Associated Press reporter, before life was pronounced extinct by Drs. Meiggs and Petty.

At 11:08 the body of Mrs. Potts was cut down when it was seen that her excessive weight on the five foot and a half drop had almost dissevered her head from the trunk, the muscles in the back of her neck alone supporting the connection.

About nine minutes later Josiah Potts’ body was cut down and the body of himself and wife, in the absence of any claiming friends, were deposited in the potter’s field of the Elko grave yard half an hour later.

After the interment of the bodies of Mr. and Mrs. Potts, District Attorney Love, accompanied by an Associated Press reporter, placed in the potter’s field all the remains of the murdered Fawcett known to exist above the earth. The box of bones had been in the District Attorney’s office at the Courthouse from the time when he first started to search for the criminals.

THE CRIME

for which the couple was executed was the murder of Miles Fawcett, 70 years of age, at Carlin, January 1st, 1888, because he insisted on being paid some money due from Potts. He visited Potts and this was the last seen of him until his dead body was discovered some months after by a person who rented the house formerly occupied by Potts.


That’s the end of the Union article.

Despite the incriminating circumstances of Mr. Fawcett’s disappearance, many people found the Potts’s insistence upon their innocence persuasive … especially after a last message from Elizabeth Potts reached public ears.


Laramie (Wyoming) Daily Boomerang, June 24, 1624.

Innocent or guilty, Elizabeth Potts remains the first, last, and only woman ever legally executed in Nevada. As of this writing (mid-2018) the Silver State has not had any woman on death row since Priscilla Joyce Ford died in 2005.

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

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1895: A day in death penalty around the U.S. (McTeague edition)

Add comment June 7th, 2018 Headsman


Headline from the Tacoma (Wash.) Daily News, June 7, 1895.

On this date in 1895, the hangman noosed for the cycle with single, double, and triple executions in three different U.S. states.

Arkansas

In Morrilltown, William Downs or Downes for criminally assaulting a woman called Pauline Bridlebaugh.

“On the scaffold Downs declared that he was guilty of part but not all he was charged with,” according to multiple newspaper reports. The eight-foot fall failed to snap his neck, and Downs strangled to death over 15 agonizing minutes.

Alabama

“Lee Harris and Abe Mitchell, colored murderers, highwaymen and thieves, were hanged here [Birmingham] today before 2000 people for the murder of Grocerymen Merriweather and Thornton. Both bodies were turned over to the undertakers, who purchased them several weeks ago for $18 from the men themselves.”


From the Oakland Tribune, June 7, 1895.
California

Three Californians hanged, sequentially, at San Quentin prison on the morning of June 7 in an affair timed to ensue the arrival of the 7:40 train from San Francisco, carrying about 100 official witnesses.

Emilio Garcia stabbed and slashed to death a San Bernardino old timer whom he believed to possess a hoard of gold.

Anthony Azoff fatally shot a Southern Pacific detective in the course of a botched robbery of that railroad firm’s offices; he was balked of a suicide attempt in the hours before his execution.

And Patrick Collins acquired more lasting infamy than any of his scaffold brethren by sensationally stabbing to death his estranged wife at the kindergarten where she worked when she refused his demand to hand over her wages.

Collins’s guilt was very apparent, so his trial gave the horrified public ample rein to sketch the brute in terms of the era’s crackpot racist typologies. In one Examiner article tellingly titled “He Was Born for the Rope,” it was postulated that “if a good many of Patrick Collins’ ancestors did not die on the scaffold then either they escaped their desert or there is nothing in heredity … Seeing him you can understand that murder is as natural to such a man when his temper is up as hot speech is to the anger of the civilized.”


Various newspaper images of Patrick Collins, from The Construction of Irish Identity in American Literature.

Be they ever so headline-conquering in their time, such crimes are like to fade speedily from the public memory. Collins, the man who slaughtered his tightfisted wife, and Collins, the savage ethnic archetype, have improbably survived his moment of notoriety, by imparting to literature the inspiration for San Francisco novelist Frank Norris‘s 1899 offering McTeague.

In McTeague, a vicious husband murders the wife he has abandoned when she refuses him money. The murderer here presents as an overpowering ancestral beast within — attributable, says Christopher Dowd, to Norris’s “study of criminal anthropology, particularly the school of thinking developed by Cesare Lombroso regarding atavism, hereditary criminality, degeneration, and criminal physiognomy. According to Donald Pizer, by the time Norris wrote McTeague, he had developed a ‘preoccupation’ with the themes of atavism and reversion, and ‘particularly with the role of heredity in causing either an obvious physical or mental devolution or a return to an earlier family condition’. Suddenly, Norris had a way to explain the behavior of his murderous protagonist — he was born a criminal, having inherited the degenerate traits and predilections of his Irish ancestors. Combined with the newspaper reports of the Collins murder, criminal anthropology gave Norris all the tools he needed to write, what Pizer calls, ‘that mythical creature of literature, a naturalistic tragedy'”. For example, Norris zooms through the disordered mind of McTeague as he struggles to control himself on one occasion.

He was disturbed, still trembling, still vibrating with the throes of the crisis, but he was the master; the animal was downed, was cowed for this time, at least.

But for all that, the brute was there. Long dormant, it was now at last alive, awake. From now on he would feel its presence continually; would feel it tugging at its chain, watching its opportunity. Ah, the pity of it! Why could he not always love her purely, cleanly? What was this perverse, vicious thing that lived within him, knitted to his flesh?

Below the fine fabric of all that was good in him ran the foul stream of hereditary evil, like a sewer. The vices and sins of his father and of his father’s father, to the third and fourth and five hundredth generation, tainted him. The evil of an entire race flowed in his veins. Why should it be? He did not desire it. Was he to blame?

McTeague does not exit upon the gallows as did his real-life inspiration; instead, having murdered and robbed his wife, the fugitive flees to the scorching desert of Death Valley where he faces a fight to the finish with a friend/rival who has pursued him. McTeague overpowers this foe, but the man’s dying act is to handcuff himself to McTeague — condemning the latter to sure death.

McTeague has long been in the public domain; it can be perused here; a Librivox audio reading of the book is available here. It’s also been adapted to at least two films in the silent era — including one of the genre’s greats — plus a more recent PBS radio drama, an opera, and miscellaneous other media.

On this day..

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1896: Five Persians by gatching

Add comment May 10th, 2018 Headsman

From the London Graphic, August 15, 1896:

An Execution in Pesia

From a corrspondent

A hideous form of execution, which has not been practiced for twenty years, was revived the other day to strike terror into the hearts of the people. The murder of the Shah was followed by a succession of robberies on the road between Bushire and Isfahan, the nomad tribes going out in large parties and looting villages and caravans, and an Englishman was even stripped naked and beaten with sticks. One hundred thousand pounds was estimated as the value of property that changed hands during one week. Every day individuals came naked into Shiraz, and the roads were strewn with merchandise that the robbers found unsuitable to carry off.

At this juncture H.R.H. Rukn-ed-Dowleh, Governor of Shiraz, marched out of prison five men, who, common report said, had been there for the last five months, and had had nothing whatever to do with the matter, but had merely been brought from the south, because they refused to pay the excessive taxes imposed on them.

These men were to be executed to frighten the people by being buried alive in plaster of Paris. This form of execution is called “Gatching,” and consists of a hollow pillar being erected over a hole about two feet deep, so that the whole forms a well into which the prisoner is put, sometimes (the most merciful method) head downwards, and at others with his head sticking out over the top; Plaster of Paris is then emptied in, and between each basketful water is poured down the well. The gatch then swells, and when it hardens it stops the circulation, causing the most excruciating agony.

About nine a.m. on Sunday, May 10th, the five prisoners, chained neck to neck, were marched out of prison, and slowly escorted by a large mob, who were kept from pressing too close by soldiers with fixed bayonets and others with long sticks, they were taken to the Koran Gate, near the Bagh-i-No, on the town side of which, alongside the road, their wells had been prepared. It took one hour to reach the Bagh-i-No, but the torture of this form of execution being unknown to the prisoners, they walked along without a sign of fear.

They were taken into a high-walled garden, a guard being placed at the entrance, and in a short time the first to be executed was brought out. Round his neck was a steel collar with a chain, which his guard held tightly in his hand. Someone offered him a pitcher of water, from which he eagerly drank, and then, not knowing to what awful death he was doomed, he walked calmly and without a word to his well.

It took nearly half an hour to fill the well with gatch, during all which time the sticks of the soldiers were in use to keep the crowd from pressing too close and hampering the movements of those employed with the gatch. After this, the second was brought out, and as the crowd moved to the well prepared for him I took the accompanying photograph, which shows the man buried up to the chin, his face covered with powdered gatch and his eyes closed, so as not to see the crowd standing round; the gatch has not begun to set, and the man is suffering no pain.

Having obtained a photograph of a form of execution which I hope has been resorted to for the last time, I hurried from the spot, and only just in time, as I afterwards heard, to escape the most heartrending scenes. When the gatch became solid and tightened on the poor prisoner, his yells were frightful to listen to, and as they were carried over the walled garden, those waiting their turn realised that the death to which they were doomed, so far from being the painless one they had hoped for, was instead of a terrible nature. As the fourth man was led from the garden he begged the executioner to take him to the Bazaar, where he would find some one to give him ten tumans (2 l.), after which he could cut his head off. The fifth man became even more frantic as the yells issued from the mouths of his companions. “Spare me! Spare me!” he cried, “and I will show you were 2,000 tumans (400 l.) lie hid,” but his offer came too late.

When, three days later I passed along the road, I found capitals had been added to the pillars, covering the heads of the poor men, who had thus horribly been done to death.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Gatching,Gruesome Methods,History,Iran,Mass Executions,Persia,Public Executions,Theft,Torture

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1896: Ivan Kovalev, Russian meddler

Add comment February 21st, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1896, Russian refugee Ivan Kovalev was hanged for a Sacramento double murder.

Kovalev and nine other Russian convicts had in 1893 fled from the most remote and dreaded of Russia’s Far East penal colonies, Sakhalin Island.

They might have met Anton Chekhov when he visited in Sakhalin in 1890 to compose the investigative articles that would become his book Sakhalin Island, one of the great pieces of journalism of his time. “Utter hell,” the great playwright mused of that brutal and befogged colony. “I feel that if I were a convict, I would escape immediately, whatever the consequences.”

Kovalev and nine mates felt exactly the same and they did it in the form of a downright suicidal flight from Sakhalin’s abyss in an open launch ventured into the Pacific in hopes of reaching Japan. They were on the brink of succumbing to their privations when they were miraculously picked up by a San Francisco-based whaler, the Charles W. Morgan.**

The convicts claimed that they were escaped political prisoners, a demographic that enjoyed western sympathy; there’s every chance that they were actually violent criminals but their tale of woe in the bowels of tsardom was persuasive and times being what they were a background check with the nearest consulate was not an option. The Sakhalin escapees were allowed to stay in California.

On December 30, 1894, about sixteen months after they drew their last moldy Sakhalin rations, Kovalev with two accomplices† bashed the brains out of the aged grocer F.H.L. Weber and his wife with an axe so that they could rob his store. Chekhov? Make that Dostoyevsky.

It took several months to zero in on the perpetrator but once the conviction was secured, indignant Sacramentans applied in record numbers for passes to attend the hanging, such “a spirit of enmity and hatred toward this son of far-away Russia” having been aroused by the horrid circumstances of the butchery that “it is evident that a spirit of satisfaction is abroad in the community at the thought that … Ivan Kovalev will expiate that crime with his life.”

* The New York Public Library hosts a digital collection of photos of the Sakhalin penal colony, here. Others can be browsed at the Sakhalin Regional Museum site.

** The Charles W. Morgan had an 80-year service history; it’s been restored and can be visited in Mystic, Connecticut.


1971 U.S. postage stamp commemorating the Charles W. Morgan‘s preservation.

† The accomplices don’t figure in the execution story: one was mortally wounded in an unrelated subsequent robbery, prior to Kovalev’s arrest; the other wound up serving time for burglary.

On this day..

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

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1892: A day in the death penalty around Kentucky

Add comment February 5th, 2018 Headsman

The Bluegrass State had what one paper jokingly called a “hanging match” with hangings in the towns of Stanton, West Irvine, and Henderson on this date in 1892 — as we see from this economical entry from the Chicago Daily Inter Ocean of Feb. 6, 1892:

Although not the most historically consequential hangings, uxoricide was good enough to earn Mr. Bush (he’s also called “Simpson Bush” in some accounts) a murder ballad.

… They say he tried to drown her, but in that did not succeed
But with the fatal pistol he carried out the deed
The babe was in its mother’s arms, Up to them he did creep
The demon pulled the trigger and killed her while asleep.

[He stepped] up to her bedside, [and] shot her through the head
The infant drank its mother’s blood, while the woman lay there dead
They say that he was jealous when he done this cruel crime
He shall stand before his Maker and answer another time …

On this day..

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

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