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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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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1890: Three hangings in Louisiana

1 comment January 17th, 2018 Headsman

From the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Jan. 18, 1890:

CLINTON, La., Jan. 17. — [Special.] — At 1:15 this afternoon the witnesses summoned by the sheriff proceeded to the jailyard where the scaffold had been erected. A few minutes later Charles and Isaiah Dent were led from their cells and up the steps to the platform, which overlooked a space where quite a large crowd had gathered outside the inclosure around the jail.

Both men walked firmly, Isaiah showing throughout wonderful nerve, and Charles, though a little shaky, apparently ready to meet his fate without quailing.

When they first reached the platform they seemed to be praying half audibly. While Sheriff Woodward read the death warrant both men looked about them, seemingly not more concerned than if they were only disinterested spectators of the scene. Charles Dent nodded his head assentingly each time the officer paused in his reading.

At the end of a sentence Sheriff Woodward asked them if they wished to say anything. Isaiah said, “I want to speak to them people,” indicating the crowd on the outside. “Friends and foes,” he said in a clear voice, “let this be a warning to all; don’t do like Isaiah.” After a pause he continued, “My home will be in heaven.”

When he had ceased Charles said, “Charles Dent, the same. If I hadn’t went down the road this wouldn’t have happened, but I didn’t do no shooting.”

The black caps were drawn over the heads of the doomed men. The rope that supported the trap was cut and the two fell together a distance of about 8 feet. Their necks were both broken and their agony was soon over, the pulse of Isaiah ceasing to beat within 3 minutes and all signs of life being extinct in Charles in 12 minutes.

Everything connected with the execution was skillfully arranged and quickly and smoothly carried out by the sheriff and his efficient deputies.

THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF THE CRIME

for which Isaiah and Charles Dent were executed were as follows:

Herman Praetorius, a German merchant and farmer living at Ethel, on the Louisville, New Orleans and Texas Railroad, had been furnishing supplies to the Dent brothers. Along in the summer some cause of disagreement arose and ill-feeling between the merchant and his customers became intense and the relationship between them, as such, came to an end.

Late in the afternoon on Monday, July 1, of last year, while Praetorius was returning from a visit to a plantation several miles from home, he had occasion to pass near where the Dent brothers live. Evidence on the trial showed that as he came into the public road by a bypath Charles and Isaiah Dent, two brothers, and a brother-in-law of theirs were standing a short distance up the road, in an opposite direction from that in which he was going, and that they called to him and he turned and rode back to where they were standing. Some loud words were heard and Praetorius was seen to turn to ride away from the party of negroes, who were armed and making angry demonstrations. Just as he was riding away Charles and Isaiah Dent were seen to raise their shotguns, the reports of which were heard, and Praetorius fell from his horse, shot to death. His murderers fled, Charles and Isaiah escaping to Pointe Coupee parish, the other three participants, David and Clark Dent and Frank Cooper, being subsequently arrested and placed in jail in Clinton.

After some time Charles and Isaiah Dent were

APPREHENDED IN POINTE COUPEE

and likewise lodged in jail in Clinton. Public indignation was at a fever heat and an ineffectual effort was made to hang the two principal murderers by the processes of Judge Lynch’s court. For greater security the two prisoners were taken to New Orleans and confined in the parish prison until the next term of court, which met in September.

The grand jury promptly indicted the five men for murder.

The attorneys for the Dents, Messrs. E.T. Merrick, Jr., of New Orleans, and Judge J.G. Kilbourne of Clinton, filed a motion for a change of venue, which was overruled by the court.

THE TRIAL

excited a great deal of interest and occupied several days. The result was a verdict of guilty, without qualification, as to Charles and Isaiah Dent, which consigned them to the gallows.

Frank Cooper went to the penitentiary for life and Clark and David Dent for lesser terms.

The condemned men have since their arrest steadfastly maintained that the killing of Praetorius was done in self-defense, though the testimony of eye-witnesses to the contrary was irrefutable. Isaiah has taken his fate philosophically, and seemed resigned from the time he learned the decision of the district court had been affirmed by the supreme court, to which an appeal had been taken, but his brother Charles has taken the matter much harder.

James Holcombe’s Crime.

BONNET CARRE P.O., St. John the Baptist Parish, La., Jan. 17. — [Special.] — At dusk of day, Nov. 12, 1888, as James Holcombe and Emile Ambroise were returning from Waguespack’s plantation, where they were employed, they met Madeleine Will, a pretty colored girl, on the railroad track back of Angelina plantation in this parish. Holcombe on seeing her whispered a few words to Ambroise and advancing toward Madeleine began a conversation with her. A few minutes after Ambroise, who was a short distance away, heard a shot fired, and thinking it was intended for him ran off. In his flight he was met by young Brignac, to whom he related the story, and as Brignac came to the spot he found Madeleine Will gasping her life away, whilst Holcombe was reclining over her body.

Brignac ran to the neighbors and related what he had seen, but when they came to the spot Madeleine Will was dead and James Holcombe had disappeared.

The next day the coroner held an inquest over the body and the jury found that

MADELEINE WILL CAME TO HER DEATH

from a gunshot wound inflicted by James Holcombe and Emile Ambroise.

On the 14th of November, 1888, the accused were arrested and committed to jail without the benefit of bail.

Seven months after, on the 5th of June 1889, the grand jury then in session found a true bill of murder against both Holcombe and Ambroise. On motion of District Attorney Leche their case was then fixed for June 14, 1889.

In the meanwhile the dastardly deed had created so much excitement that two of our most prominent citizens took steps towards raising a fund to aid in the prosecution of the case.

On the day fixed for the trial the case was continued to the 15th of June, 1889, when it was regularly taken up and proceeded with.

THE STATE

was represented by Judge Gervais Leche of St. John and Chas. A. Baquie of St. Charles. Ambroise was represented by H.N. Gantier of Jefferson, and James Holcombe having no means to employ counsel, the court appointed P.E. Edrington to take charge of his case.

After a little trouble the following jury, composed of four white and eight colored men, were impaneled: Paul Webre, Jefferson Coleman, Valery Barre, Felicien Landeche, Firmin Clement, Theo. Haydel, Felix Martin, Joseph Sandez, Francois Mathieu, Alfred Vicksnair, Gustave Delonde and Bernard Orbien.

After the state had heard from four of its witnesses it was evident that it would fail in its case, as the evidence was circumstantial and not of a nature to convict, so District Attorney Leche abandoned the state’s case against Emile Ambroise and placed him on the witness stand.

THE GUILT OF JAMES HOLCOMBE

was then clearly proven.

The case was submitted without argument, and after hearing the judge’s charge the jury retired to their room, when in fifteen minutes they returned a verdict of guilty against James Holcombe as charged and not guilty as to Emile Ambroise.

On the 20th of June, 1889, counsel for Holcombe made a motion for a new trial, which was heard on the day following and the motion denied by the court. On the same day a suspensive appeal to the supreme court was granted, and that ribunal on the 13th of December, 1889, affirmed the judgment of the lower court.

On Jan. 6, 1890, the governor fixed the day of execution to be on Friday, Jan. 17, 1890.

James Holcombe was a thick set negro of the true African type, 5 feet 4 inches tall, weight 155 pounds, and 21 years old. He had taken everything philosophically so far, and it was only to-day that he evinced some uneasiness. Charitably disposed persons frequently sent him delicacies, such as champagne, fruits and cakes, all of which he seemed to relish, but his favorite dish was ham and rice, cooked together.

THE EXECUTION

took place yesterday at the courthouse. James Holcombe spent his last night on earth in an apparently comfortable manner, although he would accept of no nourishment, on this, the last day of his existence.

To questions propounded by your correspondent, his answers were that he was reconciled to his God, and willing to meet his fate.

When dressed for the scaffold the greatest coolness was shown, helping his minister to dress him. His march on the scaffold was firm and in his farewell address to the fifteen witnesses present he reiterated his innocence, saying that the God who was to receive his soul this day would in the close hereafter receive the soul of the party who committed the crime.

At 12:17 p.m. the black cap was adjusted and after prayers offered by the Rev. Baily Lee the trap was sprung, his neck was broken and death was instantaneous.

The rope was cut down at 12:49 p.m. and his body delivered into the hands of the parents of the condemned at his own request.

Credit is due to our efficient sheriff and his able deputies for the manner in which the execution was performed.

On this day..

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

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1892: Thomas Neill Cream, “I am Jack the …”

Add comment November 15th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1892, globetrotting murderer Thomas Neill Cream hanged.

Act I

Glasgow-born, Cream grew up in Canada and did his parents proud by becoming a doctor with a big black moustache.

He manifested an early knack for being in the vicinity of patients who died unexpectedly: Cream’s wife Flora died of consumption in 1877 while on a medicine regimen he had prescribed her (granted, Cream himself was away in London at this time), and a patient and possible mistress turned up dead outside the good doctor’s offices overdosed on chloroform. As suspicion burgeoned, Cream legged it for the United States.

Cream set up as a red light district abortionist in Chicago, and it didn’t take long for his special gift to manifest again. He beat one murder charge when a patient’s rotting corpse was found stashed in his midwife’s apartment; but, in 1881, epilepsy pills he provided another mistress for her husband turned out to be spiked with strychnine in a botched attempt to stitch up the druggist for blackmail. Daniel Stott ended up dead; Thomas Cream, in Joliet — 31 years old with a life sentence.

So ended the homicidal career of Thomas Cream … until 1891, when Gov. Joseph Fifer yielded to the entreaties and bribes of Thomas’s brother and commuted the sentence.

Act II

Cream sailed for England that October and a fresh start … in the same line of work. He’d be back in custody by the following June, with at least four more murders under his belt, sloppy and incontinent now like the late-career Ted Bundy.

Cream took lodgings in Lambeth and dove right into London’s seedy underbelly. Barely two weeks after his arrival, a 19-year-old prostitute he’d plied with drinks was dead of strychnine and Cream was using his old ploy of blackmailing a random bourgeois for her murder. A few days later, he did the same thing with yet another streetwalker and another extortion target.

The nigh-industrial rapidity of these maneuvers speaks to Cream’s self-destructive impulsiveness; one can picture such a high-risk caper working (maybe Cream had even made it work sometimes back in Chicago) but only if the murder was executed with great care and the shakedown target very deliberately selected and framed. The “Lambeth Poisoner” (as the press came to call the writer of these anonymous blackmail letters) had done neither; his hamfisted money grabs only drew the attention of Scotland Yard.

Cream so ached for exposure that he gave a visiting New Yorker whom he met an impromptu tour of the sites associated with the Lambeth Poisoner — whose number had by then been augmented with yet two additional prostitutes, again offed with strychnine. Creeped out at the fellow’s suspicious expertise, the Yank tipped off the police; pieces fell into place quickly from that point.

His whole career, including that bit on the far side of the Atlantic, was exposed now and Cream (who here referred to himself as “Dr. Thomas Neill”, as reflected by the carton above) was convicted in a short trial in October 1892 — just a few weeks before the court’s sure sentence was imposed.

Act III?

Cream murdered a minimum of five people. Beyond those five, he’s worth a cocked eyebrow or more in the death of his wife and several women under his care in his medical (mostly abortionist) guise.

Chris Scott’s historical novel Jack imagines Cream as the Whitechapel killer.

But hangman James Billington put Cream into a whole different coffee when he claimed that the Lambeth Poisoner had gone through the trap uttering the aborted sentence “I am Jack the–” … meaning, Billington means you to understand, Jack the Ripper. As a result, Dr. Cream has a ledger in every Ripperology suspects table but there are at least a couple of major problems with the hypothesis:

  1. Nobody else present for the execution reported hearing any such suggestion from the condemned man; and
  2. The Ripper was an elusive criminal with a whole different m.o.; and
  3. Cream was still serving his Illinois prison term when the Ripper murders toook place back in 1888.

You might think that being clad in irons on a different continent makes for an ironclad alibi, but bars are no bar to a criminal as nimble as Jack. The Cream dossier makes the incredible claim that Cream chanced to have a lookalike double in the criminal underworld, and that the two routinely passed as one another — so Cream could have been serving his sentence while his double committed the Whitechapel murders, or vice versa.

If this twist strikes the reader as a little bit too Scooby Doo for reality, well, the man’s verifiable body count more than qualified the doctor for his place in the criminal annals … and his place on the gallows.

A few books about Thomas Neill Cream

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Doctors,England,Execution,Famous Last Words,Hanged,Illinois,Murder,Pelf,Serial Killers,USA

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1898: George Clark, fratricide

Add comment October 21st, 2017 Headsman

From the San Diego Union, January 25, 1898:

Napa, Cal., Jan. 24. — In the presence of the sheriff and district attorney of Napa county, and of six other witnesses, George Willard Clark has confessed that he was the murderer of his brother, W.A. Clark, at St. Helena on last Thursday.

Mrs. Levina Clark was married to William A. Clark more more [sic] than twenty years ago in Clay county, Illinois. She is 46 years old and the mother of seven children. George W. Clark, the murderer, became intimate with her thirteen or fourteen years ago. Their relations continued while the husband was in California making a home for her, and during that time a child was born of which George Clark was the father.

After coming to California to live at and near St. Helena, Napa county, Mrs. Clark professed Christianity, and attempted to break off relations with her brother-in-law, but he persisted in his attentions. At times he asked her if she would live with him in case of her husband’s death. Last month he put strychnine in his brother’s coffee on two occasions, but the brother detected the poison and had the coffee analyzed by a druggist. Then, on Thursday morning George Clark lay in wait for his brother and shot him, while he was preparing breakfast in the kitchen of his St. Helena home.

The murderer was brought to Napa. On Saturday Mrs. Clark told at the inquest the story of her relations with her brother-in-law, but George Clark continued to declare his innocence of t[h]e murder, until he was finally induced to make a full confess, the details of which do not differ materially from the facts of the crime already reported and confirmed by the statement of Mrs. Clark.


From the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, January 26, 1898:

The pretty little city of St. Helena nestling in the picturesque Napa valley just a few miles from the Sonoma county line is now shocked and dismayed over one of the most hideous crimes, bristling with the darkest sense of horror, frightful in its details.

The circumstances attending the cruel murder of William A. Clark in the gray dawn of last Thursday morning at St. Helena, as told by the murdered man’s wife at the inquest held Saturday, and on Sunday in the confession of the accused brother of the deceased, were such as to cause stout men’s hearts to quail and to paralyze the better feelings of the women of St. Helena who know Mrs. Clark, not, however, to respect her for many of them had known of her character long before the awful story of the crime.

A PRESS DEMOCRAT reporter spent several hours at St. Helena Sunday and visited the scene of the tragedy. Everything around the town seemed gloomy. A pall seemed to have enveloped the vicinity of the little homestead where the cruel bullet fulfilled its ghastly mission and robbed W.A. Clark of his life.

A glimpse was caught of Mrs. Clark’s face. To say the least of it, it was repulsive. The pictures of her which have appeared in the metropolitan dailies, if anything, flatter her. She is big, ungainly in figure, and not the least bit pretty. What surprises the people of St. Helena and everyone else who knows her, whether by sight or by description, is that any man, especially the brother of him who had taken her to be his wife, could have become infatuated with such a creature as to commit a foul murder in order to marry her, coupled with almost certain discovery of the crime, and the accompanying reward of capital punishment for the offense.

By the people of St. Helena Mrs. Clark is not pitied. How could she be after the revolting story of the double life led by her with the self confessed murderer at the inquest? No. Vina Clark is left alone in her “sorrow.”

Many people are ready to accuse the wretched woman of being a party to the crime. The trend of her dreadful story regarding her illicit relations with her dead husband’s brother, coupled with the repeated declarations of George Clark that she had many times promised to marry him if her husband should die, would seem to prove that she is morally, if not legally an accessory to the terrible crime.

On Saturday night and Sunday, after the revelations made at the inquest, the guilt of George Clark was firmly established in the minds of every resident of St. Helena. Ask everybody you met on the streets of that city as to what their opinion was of the murder and they would reply: “The most cold blooded affair ever perpetrated and beyond doubt the brother did the deed.”

The circumstances of the killing are familiar to the readers of the PRESS DEMOCRAT. Last Thursday morning W.A. Clark was shot down at his home at St. Helena. George W. Colgan was the first person to bring the news to Santa Rosa, and the PRESS DEMOCRAT was the first paper north of San Francisco to publish the report.

Soon after the crime the officers suspected George Clark of the murder. Why? Because it had been rumored in the community that it was George Clark who had on two occasions tried to poison his brother by putting strychnine in his coffee. The officers knew this.

The officers went to George Clark’s house. They found him in bed. He was apparently asleep. He was awakened and told of the murder. He expressed great surprise and consternation at the news.

The officers espied under the bed the suspects’ shoes. Those shoes were wet with fresh mud. A few minutes later those shoes corresponded with the prints in the mud at the murdered man’s house. Little by little the yoke was clasped upon the brother’s shoulders, and he is now awaiting trial in Napa county jail.


From the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, October 8, 1898

San Quentin, Oct. 5. — George W. Clark, who is to be hanged at San Quentin Friday of next week, has made formal confession that he, and he alone, is responsible for the death of his brother.

Clark, it will be remembered, is the man who was enamored of his brother’s wife, and with whom he had sustained forbidden relations.

He imagined that if his brother were put out of the way the woman would marry him.

Detection quickly followed the commission of the crime, and for a time Mrs. Clark was believed to be implicated.

The confession of the condemned man is made with a view of clearing her, as he had previously intimated that she had been aware of his intention to commit murder. The confession is as follows:

San Quentin state prison, Cal., October 4, A.D. 1898. — To whom it may concern: I, George W. Clark, incarcerate, believing that I am about to die, and sincerely desiring in these, my last days on earth, that the truth with reference to the specific crime with which I stand charged, shall be known, do hereby solemnly state that I, and I alone, am guilty of the same. That no one save myself alone was in any wise implicated in the same either before or after the fact, and the same was wholly plotted, planned, arranged and executed by myself with the knowledge or consent directly or indirectly of no one save myself only. I make this my last statement, more particularly to and to exhonerate [sic] one Mrs. Lavina Clark, then wife and present widow of William A. Clark, now deceased. I positively aver that she was not implicated therein in any shape or form, and so far as my knowledge goes had no knowledge or suspicion thereof.

(Signed)
G.W. Clark.

Witness: F.L. Abrogast, B.J. O’Neil.


From the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, October 22, 1898

San Quentin, Oct. 21. — George W. Clark of St. Helena, who murdered his brother because he loved the brother’s wife, was executed this morning at the penitentiary here. Coward though nature made the man, religion was able to transform him. Even Durrant was not more cool than Clark when he stepped on the death trap. The officers of the prison, knowing the mental and moral weakness of the fratricide, were prepared for what they most dread, a “scene” at the gallows. Until recently Clark shrank with most pitiable terror from the fate that the sentence had set upon him. Within the past few days, however, Chaplain Drahm the prison [sic] converted the condemned man and filled him with fortitude and resignation. Clark’s guards thought it was merely a temporary exultation of spirit that would depart when the prisoner stood on the brink of death. They erred.

An hour before his execution Clark said to a press representative that he would die like a brave man.

I am ready. The grave has no terrors for me; death has lost its sting. The Lord has been very good to me and I bear up bravely through this aid. My hope is in God. His strength and not my own supports me today.

Beyond acknowledging my gratitude to God I have no statement to make. In the next life I shall receive my just due. I bear malice to no man, have no complaint to make, and will spend my last hour in pious exercises. The prison officials have been very kind. They could not have done more for me than they have done.

Then Clark began to pray with Chaplain Drahm. With hymns and prayer they passed the speeding minutes until at 10:25 o’clock Warden Hale interrupted the devotions. The fratricide waived the reading of the death warrant. Guards fastened straps to his wrists and ankles and the little procession formed and [ … ] to the slate-colored gallows in the next room.

Clark climbed the thirteen steps of the scaffold with firm tread. Of the fifty spectators a number were from Napa county. From the death trap Clark recognized a number of acquaintances to whom he nodded and smiled, as though he were passing them on the street.

Quickly the knot was adjusted behind his ear, the black cap was drawn over his face, Amos Lunt, the hangman, lifted his hand as a signal, three concealed men cut three ropes, one of which released the trap, and the body of the fratricide dropped and hung quite still.

Prison Surgeon Lawler, assisted by Dr. Mish of San Francisco and Dr. Jones of San Rafael, felt for the pulses and for respiratory movements. It was 10:32 o’clock when the body dropped. Ten minutes later the pulses ceased to beat and the lungs to expand. The corpse was cut down and laid in a coffin.

Mindful of the ghastly incident of last Friday, when the rope nearly pulled Miller’s head from the trunk, Warden Hale was cautious that Clark should not be cut. The rope was given only five feet of slack, and after the execution the head of the corpse swung in the very aperture left by the opened trap door. It was a nice calculation, well made. The stiff, new hemp caused a slight abrasion from which blood trickled, but the flesh was not torn.

Clark murdered his brother that he might be free to marry his brother’s widow. He had been unlawfully intimate with the woman during thirteen years.

Very early one morning Clark went to his brother’s hom and found the man whom he was about to murder lighting the kitchen fire. Clark crept to a window and shot his brother from the rear. The victim died instantly.

Clark was arrested on suspicion, and in the county jail at Napa broke down and confessed. He was convicted on March 23 of murder in the first degree. He was the twenty-first man hanged at San Quentin penitentiary.

On this day..

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

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