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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1895: Emma Williams, Frank Tinyana, and Jackey

Add comment November 4th, 2016 Headsman

From The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA), Nov. 5, 1895:

Melbourne, November 4.
Emma Williams, who was convicted of the murder of her child at Port Melbourne on August 13 last, was executed in Melbourne Gaol this morning in the presence of about a dozen persons.

Public excitement was aroused over the murder when it was first discovered owing to the callous and unfeeling way in which the deed was done and the careless attitude of the mother afterwards. The victim, who was only two years of age, was taken by its mother to the pier in the Sandridge Lagoon, where she tied a stone to its body and pushed it into the water.

After her conviction the Anti-Capital Punishment League made strenuous efforts to obtain a reprieve, chiefly because the condemned woman alleged that she was pregnant.

Medical examinations did not support that statement, and it was discovered on Friday last that the condition which lent color to the woman’s statements was produced artificially.

At first Williams treated her terrible sentence with apparent unconcern, being buoyed up with the hope of reprieve; but when that expectation had passed she became most devout and earnest in her attentions to the ministrations of the gaol chaplain (the Rev. H. F. Scott), by whom she was attended to the scaffold. She expressed great sorrow for the crime she had committed and for the loose life she had led.

She remained in that frame of mind to the end.

When the sheriff demanded the body of the prisoner from the governor of the gaol at the door of the little cell alongside the gallows this morning she walked calmly on to the drop, but her face was blanched and wore a terrified expression.

In answer to the usual questions from the sheriff as to whether she wished to say anything Williams answered “No,” in a low but firm voice.

The white cap was immediately drawn over her face and the rope adjusted, and then, as Roberts, the hangman, turned to pull the lever, she exclaimed, “Oh, Lamb of God, I come.”

The next moment the drop fell, and at that moment Williams uttered a nervous, plaintive exclamation that was not quite a scream. Then all was over. The whole of the proceedings did not occupy more than a quarter of an hour, and death was instantaneous.

The dead woman had a very eventful career, having been married when she was 14 years old. At 15 she bore a daughter, who is still living. Her husband left her, and afterwards died in the Melbourne Hospital, while the widow continued a career of dissipation. Her daughter was adopted by a friend of her husband, and the child which she drowned was born after his death.

She was born in Launceston, Tasmania, where her mother still lives.

Brisbane, November 4.
A double execution took place at the Boggo Road Gaol this morning.

Jackey, an aboriginal, was hanged for the murder of a Javanese, Jimmy Williams, at Mount Morgan, and Frank Tinana [or Tinyana -ed.], a Dative of Manila, was executed for the murder of Constable Conroy, on Thursday Island. The men behaved well in prison. Jackey was able to recite prayers taught him by the Bey. Mr. Simmonds, and Father Dorrigan attended Tinana, who admitted having committed murder. He said he bad a jealous quarrel with another colored man, in which Constable Conroy attempted to arrest him. He then stabbed Conroy to death.

During the past few days both condemned men ate and slept well, and this morning they partook of breakfast. When they came upon the scaffold Tinana was agitated and seemed afraid. Neither man spoke.

The preliminaries were quickly arranged and the bolt was drawn. Death, in each case was apparently instantaneous. When Jackey, whose height was nearly 6 ft, fell blood burst from his nose and stained his white cap.


Diagram from an 1880 memorandum the British government sent to colonial authorities in Queensland detailing procedures for the cutting-edge long drop hanging method.

No colored men were present to witness the execution, which was carried out in the presence of the usual officials. Jackey left a letter to a woman who is looking after his child, telling her to take great care of the infant, to bring it up as a white man’s, and not to let it drink rum or go to the blacks’ camp. Tinana left a letter coached in terms of great affection to his wife.

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1895: A quintuple lynching in Greenville, Alabama

Add comment April 21st, 2016 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1895, three black women and two black men were lynched in Greenville, Alabama for the murder of Watts Murphy, white.

Watts was a “young man of great prominence” who was said to be the nephew of Alabama’s former governor, Thomas H. Watts. He was killed on April 17, aged about thirty. When he failed to arrive home, his family began looking for him. Finally, one of the family servants confessed to what he knew: Watts had been working in the field with six black people, three men and three women, and one of the men hit him on the head with a tree limb. The others beat him unconscious and carried his body to a secluded area, where the women gathered loose brush, piled it on top of Watts’s body, and set the heap ablaze.

Newspapers reported grisly details about the crime, saying that the murderers kept piling wood on the fire until there was nothing left but the victim’s teeth, his heart and his liver, which “for some unknown reason failed to burn.”

Just why the murder happened has been lost to history, and various contradictory rumors floated around. According to one story, one of the men planned to kill him in revenge for “an imaginary wrong of a trivial nature.” In another account, it was an impulsive act of violence, the result of an argument.

Daily Inter Ocean (Chicago, Ill.), April 22, 1895

Zeb Caley or Calley, Martha Greene, Alice Greene, Mary Deane, and John Rattler were arrested on April 20 near Butler Springs, Alabama, and charged with murder. (The third man who was implicated, left unnamed in press reports, got away.) A group of men was charged with transporting the five prisoners sixteen miles to the security of jail in Greenville. They set off at 11:00 p.m. At 3:00 a.m., while the party was en route, a mob of approximately 100 men brandishing Winchester rifles surprised the party on the road, surrounded them and took the prisoners away.

The members of the mob tied each person’s hands, lead them one by one to the side of the road, and hanged them from trees. Later that day the bodies were seen by people passing by on their way to church.

On April 29, the sixth suspect in the crimes, who has never been identified, was found hanging from a tree in the same general area as the other ones. He had been dead for about a day.

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1895: Richard Burleson, Crab Shack controversy

Add comment April 12th, 2016 Headsman

A few months ago as of this writing, Joe’s Crab Shack in Roseville, Minnesota made unfortunate news for its indecorous decision to include a black-and-white photograph of an old Texas hanging in its zany family dining table collage: that of the April 12, 1895 execution of Richard Burleson in Groesbeck, Texas. (Not a lynching, as it was widely characterized: it was a legal public execution.)


The hanging of Richard Burleson as interpreted by oe’s Crab Shack.

The image was adorned by a dreadful word bubble in which the doomed man exclaims, “All I said was, ‘I don’t like the gumbo!'” perhaps suggesting that uninspired dishes are best not returned at this establishment.

Here’s now the New Orleans Daily Picayune of April 13, 1895 described the actual, gumbo-less event.

Burleson Executed
For the Murder of J.G. McKinnon.

Groesbeck, Tex., April 12. — (Special.) — Richard Burleson slept all night, arose this morning, ate a hearty breakfast and was quite cheerful. At 10:30 Sheriff Gresham read the death warrant to him and told him to prepare for death. His spiritual advisers, J.H. Linn, of Mexia, and J. Beckham and J.M. Jackson, of Groesbeck, were with him several hours, but he refused to accept Christ or acknowledge his guilt. At 11:50 a.m. he ate a light dinner and prepared to arrange his toilet. At 2 o’clock he bade his brother good-by, who was in an adjoining cell, charged with aggravated assault. He walked up the steps leading to the gallows as though the end was not so near. The trap did not work at first and necessitated some three minutes’ delay. He became impatient, and told the officers that he could hang three or four niggers in that length of time himself. He never shed a tear or seemed to dread death in the least. At 2:05 he shot through the trap. His neck was broken; he never quivered nor moved a muscle. At 2:20 he was pronounced dead. When his body was sent down such a crowd had gathered on the platform to see him that the platform fell with a crash, but, fortunately, no one was hurt. He sold his body to Dr. W. M. Brown for $5. He was 21 years old at the time of his death, and lived in Limestone county, at Tehuacana, where his mother and wife, whom he married three months before hw as arrested for this crime, reside. He spoke in high terms of the officers. The crowd was estimated at 4000, and everything passed off very quietly.

The crime for which Burleson was sentenced to be hanged was a most horrible one, and one which stirred the community as it had not been stirred in many years.

The evidence was circumstantial, but no evidence could be found more closely linked together than was that on which he was convicted.

May 2, 1894, the murderer followed the venerable Mr. J.G. McKinnon out of Mexia and asked permission to ride in his wagon, which was readily granted him; he assaulted the helpless old man shortly after he had gotten into the wagon and with some heavy object tied up in a jacket beat him over the head until life had been crushed out of his victim. He then robbed the dead body and leaving the scene of the crime fled to Tehuacana, where he was living.

A few hours later he was arrested at his home. In order to give him a legal trial the sheriff slipped across country and put him in jail at Corsicana, where he has been kept ever since, with the exception of the time when he was on trial at this place.

This was the first legal hanging in Limestone county in seventeen years.

After news of the Crab Shack’s tasteless appropriation of this picture got all over the Internet and triggered public protests, the restaurant found a less risible inanity upon which to plate crustaceans.

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1895: Minnie Dean, the only woman hanged in New Zealand

Add comment August 12th, 2015 Headsman

On August 12, 1895, Willamina “Minnie” Dean became the only woman executed in New Zealand’s history.

An immigrant from Scotland, Dean married an innkeeper making bank in a gold rush boom town. If only the mines had not played out!

After they did, the Deans fell on hard times; Charles kept pigs instead of inns, and Minnie kept unwanted children. This “baby farming” industry carved out a curious niche in the Victorian heart of darkness — the domestic heart of darkness, not the colonial one.

Between the dearth of contraception and the stigma attached to unwed mothers, there was a ready market of unwilling parents hoping someone would whisk their little angels away. The “Winton baby-farmer” did just that — for a fee.

The question, then as now, is whether the many infants who died in Dean’s care perished because of calculated homicide, or because of the staggeringly high infant mortality rate of the era. Since baby farmers took one-time fees to take in children whom they would thereafter have to maintain, their incentives were to turn over the stock as quickly as possible — either by placing the child with an adoptive parent or … well …


This report (from the Aug. 14, 1895 Daily Telegraph) alludes to a fictitious lady-in-waiting of legend, whose shadowy inspiration in fact was a real-life Scottish expatriate beheaded for infanticide by Peter the Great.

Police surveilled and investigated Minnie Dean’s operation off and on for more than five years before her June 1895 capital trial: inquests after children’s deaths in 1889 and 1891 attributed them to natural causes but also noted deplorable sanitary conditions. Police found that she had attempted to take out life insurance policies on at least some of the kids.

Fearful of the attention (but still needing the income), Dean became more furtive, and this only made her look the more guilty. As greatly as the circumstances have changed, Dean’s case and others like it mirror the difficulty present-day judiciaries still have in drawing a bright line around childhood fatalities that can be convincingly attributed to abuse.

In the end it wasn’t the coroner who undid Dean, but an eagle-eyed railway attendant who noted the woman boarding a train with a baby and a hatbox … and later leaving the train with a hatbox but no baby. Now the investigation closed in on the Winton baby-farmer quickly: when Dean could not produce the infant granddaughter a woman claimed to have given up to her, police put a spade to her garden and turned up three corpses in the topsoil. The three-year-old boy had an undetermined cause of death, but the two infant girls had perished from suffocation and a laudanum overdose. One of them was the missing infant granddaughter. Murder charges ensued.

Her attorney was Alfred Charles Hanlon, who would go on to a brilliant career at the bar but was here defending his very first homicide — and was unable to interest the jury in an alternative configuration of the incriminating circumstances, namely that Dean had covered up accidental deaths fearing just that they would be taken for murders. (A 1985 TV series about this attorney, Hanlon, explored the case in its first episode, which can be seen online here.) Still less did that angle interest gawkers crowding the courtroom and the hustlers who sold them hatboxes carrying grotesque baby dolls.

Dean maintained her innocence on the scaffold (at least “as far as intention and forethought was concerned”)

As an appropriate postscript, a boy trying to eyeball the macabre proceedings from the roof of a building overlooking the gaol fell off of it, fracturing his skull.

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1895: Areski El Bachir, Algerian rebel

Add comment May 14th, 2015 Headsman

Algerian rebel Areski El Bachir was guillotined on this date in 1895 at Azazga with five of his companions.

Our man emerged in the 1880s bedeviling the French from Kabilya where the French had already had to suppress a rebellion. Collective punishment for that rising, onerous taxes, and the empire’s confiscations to benefit colonists all fired continuing resentment.

To French eyes, El Bachir was simply a bandit. But for periods of his nearly 15 years’ activity his word was next to law where the triclor could not reach. Kabilya’s colonial officials lived in fear of his revenge.

It required a dedicated military expedition mounted by the Governor-General of Algiers in order to capture El Bachir and disperse his band. Many of his followers were deported to the New Caledonia penal colony.

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1895: William Lake

Add comment April 4th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1895, William Lake died in the electric chair for soiling Albion, N.Y., with a most gory crime of passion.

The farmhand Lake nursed a very one-sided crush on a servant in the household of farmer Joseph Van Camp, 18-year-old Emma Hunt. One October night in 1894, the farmer called on a neighbor, leaving the two alone in the kitchen.

He returned an hour later to find Emma Hunt slaughtered as if by a demon. Her throat was slashed ear to ear and cross-shaped slashes to her abdomen had nearly disemboweled her. Nearby lay a bloody hammer that had caved in her skull. Lake was nowhere to be found, but he only dodged the sheriff’s posses for a few days before an officer caught him hiding in a barn.

It turned out upon Lake’s ready confession that this crime of passion was also one of calculation. Emma, said Lake, “bothered me and hectored me” in disdaining his affections, and “I made up my mind I would kill her.” (New York Herald, Oct. 22, 1894)

While the family ate supper on that horrible night, William Lake wrote out a confession to the murder he was going to commit once left alone, and packed a satchel with which to flee. (He forgot the satchel when the time came.) Lake’s written confession attributed a lifelong bitterness to his illegitimate birth.

He did not attempt to mitigate the crime in any way and welcomed a death sentence that was conducted within seven weeks of his conviction.

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1895: Harry Hayward, the Minneapolis Svengali

Add comment December 11th, 2014 Headsman

Minnesota executed Harry Hayward shortly after midnight on this date in 1895.

Dubbed the “Minneapolis Svengali” by the press for his perceived similarity to the sinister hypnotist of that year’s hit literary release, the prodigal rake Hayward cast his spell over a New York emigre with the name of Kitty Ging and a pocketbook every bit as alluring.

On December 3, 1895, Kitty rented a horsey from a livery stable, but the ride returned to the stable alone. What terrible fate befell her? And how did the Mesmer of Minneapolis work her murder from his innocuous booth at a theater that night?

Our oft-endorsed friends at Murder by Gaslight unwind this terrible tale here.

He fixed me with his eyes. I couldn’t say no when he looked at me that way — nobody could.

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1895: Jesus Vialpando and Feliciano Chavez, desperados

5 comments November 19th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1895, two outlaws hanged publicly at Las Vegas, New Mexico, for killing a rancher during a raid on his cattle earlier that year.

We will come soon enough to Jesus Vialpando and Feliciano Chavez, but their story and ours properly begins a bit earlier … with a gentleman named Vicente Silva.

From the San Francisco Call, July 3, 1898 (via)

Silva had struck silver and cashed his claim in for the proprietorship of a saloon in Las Vegas, NM where he tolled the vices of later prospectors and of the ranchers and herders who peopled the area.

In the 1880s the deposits were drying up and with them the tumblers at Silva’s well. Ever the enterprising businessman, he procured a remote ranch to use as the base for a fresh initiative: running by night a secretive gang that terrorized San Miguel county and neighboring Guadlupe, Mora, and Santa Fe counties, too. For a couple of years these villains had the run of unsettled territory’s rural places, and waylaid travelers or rustled livestock with near impunity — murdering when necessary and even brazenly “disappearing” some ranchers known to be too vigorous about defending themselves.

The Silva gang came unglued in the winter of 1892-93. Suspecting one of its number of preparing to expose him, Silva ordered the man done to death — and Pat Maes was efficiently lynched to a bridge in a driving snowstorm. Silva himself fled his legitimate persona in Las Vegas and embraced outlawry as a fugitive in the bush.

Having already proven his willingness to slay his own followers, Silva soon had to go even farther than that: in February 1893 he demanded that his cronies murder his (Silva’s) wife, and the wife’s brother — again for fear of betrayal. The men so tasked did carry out their orders, but, wary of the Robespierrian trend betokened by these purges, they also took the opportunity to murder Silva himself.

That scattered his associated desperadoes to the desert winds. Pursued by rewards on their heads — and no longer in mortal terror of the chief’s vengeance should they turn stool pigeon on their former mates to collect — many of the gangsters were rounded up in the years to come.

Our two characters, Vialpando and Chavez, numbered among Silva’s dispersed marauders and had managed to escape the most recent instance of a tattling comrade. Come the winter of 1894-95, two years on from Silva’s exit stage 6 feet under, these ex-henchmen still had their former liberty … and none of their former ease.

Staggering through another blizzard like the one that had fallen on poor Pat Maes so many moons before, they* came upon Lorenzo Martinez’s land and trespassed with famished gusto. They had soon made of one of Martinez’s cows a much-needed repast, but as they huddled around a fire to devour it in warmth, the rancher’s son Tomas arrived on the scene. Who knows but with what suspicion these parties eyed one another, and what guarded words they exchanged. Later Vialpando would explain through an interpreter that, catching glimpse of the man’s cartridge belt “I became afraid of him that he might be the owner of that animal that we had killed there,” and with familiar glances to Feliciano made a silent impromptu pact to kill Martinez before the rancher got a drop on them.

Four days later, Martinez’s faithful dog Gallardo — whom the raiders had also shot, but not managed to kill — turned up back at the family homestead half-frozen and matted in its own blood and all but dragged Martinez’s brother to the spot where Tomas’s cremated remains mingled with the carcass of the dead cow. The discovery was quick enough to put authorities on the right track, and they had Vialpando and Chavez in custody within a fortnight.

They offered only a feeble attempt at spinning the admitted homicide as “self-defense”. At the prisoners’ request, Governor William Thornton met personally with them in jail a few days before their hanging, where the doomed men begged for mercy “without pretending to give any reason why he should” grant it. (New Mexican, Nov. 14, 1895)

Around 6 o’clock on the morning of November 19, Vialpando was escorted alone to a one-man public gallows at an arroyo north of town. Wan and terrified, Vialpando had all he could do to keep his composure and made no statement before he was efficiently executed.

By 7 o’clock the sheriff’s party had returned to the jail for Chavez. Less unmanned by the occasion, Chavez had a rambling 18-minute address to the crowd from the gallows, translated on the fly from his Spanish by a handy interpreter, the substance of which was to vaguely distribute among the rest of his party enough responsibility for Martinez’s murder that he could complain about taking the punishment for it. At last, with the parting cry of “Adios, todos!”, Chavez too was hanged at 8 o’clock.

The men’s bodies were shipped a few miles down the way to their families in Romeroville, along with a few dollars in nickels they had accumulated from well-wishers while awaiting execution. A public subscription covered the cost of their burial.

* The party was four in all. Zenobia Trujillo and Emilio Encinias were present when Martinez found their party but were sent away before he was murdered; they were charged as accessories after the fact.

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1895: The Vegetarian perpetrators of the Kucheng Massacre

1 comment September 17th, 2012 Headsman

On the morning of September 17, 1895, in the presence of the British and American consuls, seven perpetrators of a Chinese massacre of western Christian missionaries were beheaded at Foochow.

Anticipating the better-known Boxer Rebellion by four years, the Kucheng Massacre (there are many other transliterations of “Kucheng”) was likewise a response to the Celestial Empire’s frustrating second-class status as against European interlopers.

Christian missionaries had been a point of friction in China for decades. Though their rights to proselytize had been guaranteed in a hated treaty dictated to China by force of arms, they often met resentment or worse on the ground.

“You bring incense in one hand, a spear in the other;” one evangelist reported being told: that is, however honorable the immediate intentions of many individual missionaries, their presence looked like a stalking horse for less reputable western interventions like the opium trade. (That’s how it looked to many Chinese. Professional western diplomats themselves found the impolitic preachers a hindrance to their statecraft, according to Ian Welch’s 2006 paper “Missionaries, Murder and Diplomacy in Late 19th Century China: A Case Study” (pdf).*)

On August 1, 1895, these frustrations unleashed a river of blood at the village of Huashan in Gutian County, where a Buddhist secret society — known as “Vegetarians” in the western press for their characteristic dietary vow — fell upon a group of vacationing British Anglican missionaries still abed at dawn and ruthlessly slaughtered eleven of them. (There are some 1890s books paying tribute to the fallen available online: Robert and Louisa Stewart: In Life and in Death, and The sister martyrs of Ku Cheng : Memoir and Letters of Eleanor and Elizabeth Saunders (“Nellie” and “Topsie”) of Melbourne.)

“The attack came,” said a physician from a nearby town who was summoned to the bloody scene, “like a thunderbolt from a clear sky, not one of the victims having received the slightest intimation of the intended assault.”

Word of the carnage struck western powers with similar force.

Incensed newspaper-readers literally demanded** gunboat diplomacy, and literally got it, especially when Chinese authorities drug their feet on the condign punishment the missionaries’ countrymen were clamoring for.

All this put British diplomacy on a sticky wicket, which Welch (pdf) deals with in detail. To satisfy the domestic audience, the government had to be seen to be taking a hard line on avenging the outrages; at the same time, London was wise to the Chinese state’s shakiness and wary that a “barbarous holocaust” perpetrated against the Vegetarians would trigger a mass backlash and bring the whole thing down.

An obdurate Chinese viceroy impeded the quick resolution everyone was after by making inflammatory public proclamations against Christians, and releasing without explanation six of the thirteen men who had initially been condemned to death in the month of August. The seven who were executed on this date were therefore only the vanguard of 26 humans ultimately put to death for their involvement in the atrocity.

Some of the execution photographs that follow are Mature Content. They’re obtained via Visual Cultures in East Asia; some also available at USC Digital Library.



Raids and investigations to bring the Vegetarian movement to heel continued for several months thereafter, and the whole affair ultimately was quelled without doing any of the wider damage that might have been feared — not even to missionaries who continued pouring into China.

And that, effectively, kicked the can down the road on the anti-foreigner sentiments afoot in the land … sentiments that would find much costlier expression a few years later when another secret society kicked off the Boxer Rebellion.

* I’ve relied heavily on Welch for this post. He’s also collected a massive trove (over 1,200 pages) of primary documents from this incident available in a series of pdfs (some quite large) from the Australian National University website:

** This was not universally so. The wife of missionary Stephen Livingston Baldwin, who knew some of the victims of the attack, urged a “charitable” response and sensitivity that “the Chinese feel that all the world is against them, and they are not far from right.” (New York Times, Aug. 10, 1895) In letters responding to intemperate coverage elsewhere, she acidly compared (pdf) western editorialists’ high dudgeon to their look-forward-not-back dismissal of recent stateside anti-Chinese violence.

It was ten years yesterday since more Chinese were killed, and burned alive and left to die wounded, in one hour, at Rock Springs, Wyoming (the very same Territory in which the recent massacre occurred) than have been Americans and English in China in the thirty-four years I have personally known that land, being a resident there twenty years and closely connected with it ever since. Ten years yesterday since that awful Rock Springs massacre, and up to date no one arrested, much less punished! The anti-Chinese papers of the town and neighbourhood gloating over the awful details and assuring all that there would be “no Congressional investigation,” and no waste of “enterprising newspaper eloquence” over the woes of the Chinese, “though their blood flow like rivers, as they had no votes and no friends.” In less than four weeks after the Ku-Cheng massacre, arrest, investigation and execution have all taken place for the Ku-Cheng massacre. Would that our colored, red and yellow brethren, so helpless in our so-called civilized and Christian land, had some power behind them to bestir Ministers Plenipotentiary, wave flags, and run gunboats to the front, to bully, if necessary, our pusillanimous Government into some sort of civilization — I will not say Christian justice!

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,England,Execution,God,History,Mass Executions,Mature Content,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,Terrorists

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