1896: Patrick Coughlin, shot in the mountains

Add comment December 15th, 2018 Headsman

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

UTAH MURDERER EXECUTED

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

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


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

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

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

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

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Murder,Shot,Theft,USA,Utah

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

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1896: Ivan Kovalev, Russian meddler

Add comment February 21st, 2018 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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1896: Mirza Reza Kermani, assassin of the Shah

1 comment August 12th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1896,* Persian revolutionary Mirza Reza Kermani was hanged publicly for assassinating the Qajar Shah of Persia.

Shah since his gouty father kicked off in 1848, Naser al-Din Shah Qajar enjoys the distinction of being the third-longest ruler in the long history of Persian polities.

Only 64 years old at his death, Naser al-Din was young enough to have made a good run at the longevity runner-up 16th century Shah Tahmasp I;** however, his increasingly dogged resistance to reform and proclivity for gifting economic concessions to foreign firms bearing lucrative kickbacks eventually induced a young revolutinary named Mirza Reza Kermani to shoot Nasser al-Din dead at a shrine. It’s alleged that he had foregone a previous opportunity to murder the king in a public space frequented by Jews celebrating Passover, for fear that the regicide would be attributed to them and induce pogroms.

Naser al-Din’s sybaritic son Mozaffar ad-Din Shah Qajar struggled equally to manage his restive subjects’ hunger for better statecraft, eventually (in 1906) leading to a constitutional era setting an a parliament at loggerheads with the Qajar princes.

* I’m attributing the date based on original reportage datelines in the Western press. There are some attributions to August 10 and to August 22 to be found.

** Number one is Shapur II, who was king for all of his 70 years in the fourth century.

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1896: Carl Feigenbaum, the Ripper abroad?

Add comment April 27th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1896, New York City electrocuted Carl Feigenbaum.

He’d been convicted of slaying the widow from whom he rented a room at eight cents per day … but many at the time suspected his homicidal exploits might also have traced to Whitechapel, under the dread sobriquet Jack.

We can only really be sure of the one murder: on September 1, 1894, he attacked 56-year-old Julianna Hoffman in her room on East Sixth Street, for the possible reason of robbing her. One ferocious slash with his long bread knife nearly decapitated the landlady; the disturbance roused Hoffman’s 16-year-old son who burst in on the assailant — reportedly just as Feigenbaum had his blade poised to begin horribly gouging the corpse. Both killer and witness grappled briefly and then fled from each other; Feigenbaum was arrested before the day was out.

Today you’d call the part of town East Village but back in the 1890s it was Klein Deutschland, with one of the world’s largest concentrations of Germans abroad.

Probing his client for material to use for an insanity defense,* Feigenbaum’s attorney elicited his client’s self-diagnosis that “I have for years suffered from a singular disease, which induces an all-absorbing passion; this passion manifests itself in a desire to kill and mutilate the woman who falls in my way. At such times I am unable to control myself.” That seems interesting.

It emerged that Feigenbaum had left Germany as a merchant mariner, and that profession had possibly seen his boats tied up in the Thames during the pivotal months when the Whitechapel murders took place.

In the Big Apple, the idea of modern crime’s great bogeyman throwing his demonic shadow across their very own dungeons appealed irresistibly, to nobody moreso than Fiegenbaum’s own attorney William Lawton, who reveled in his hypothesis of proximity to evil and made a silly bid for celebrity on that basis. Lawton claimed to have hit upon the Ripper idea as he pondered the meaning of Feigenbaum’s professed impulse to mutilate women.


From the St. Albans (Vt.) Daily Messenger, April 28, 1896.

The very day after his client’s electrocution, Lawton explicated the suspected connection to the press, “stak[ing] my professional reputation that if the police will trace this man’s movements carefully for the last few years their investigations will lead them to Whitechapel.” (Lawton is also the sole source of Feigenbaum’s alleged self-incrimination, quoted above: to everybody else Feigenbaum insisted on his innocence far past any possible stretch of plausibility, and even carried that insistence to the electric chair.)

Regrettably, Feigenbaum’s pre-Hoffman movements are obscure to the point where Lawton’s theory is essentially immune to corroboration (or refutation). Even when Lawton dropped his intended bombshell did his hypothesis come in for some public ribbing; the New York Tribune scoffed on April 29 of that year that Feigenbaum now being indisposed to object, all the city’s most troublesome unresolved homicides ought to be attributed to this empty cipher.

Despite the surface similarities of his aborted disemboweling to the infamous London crime spree, Feigenbaum’s case for Ripper immortality doesn’t enjoy much of a constituency today. (Trevor Marriott’s 2005 Jack the Ripper: The 21st Century Investigation is a notable exception to the skepticism.)

* Feigenbaum, who had been literally caught red-handed, ultimately did not pursue the insanity defense that was probably his only hope of avoiding the chair because he did not have enough money to hire the expert alienists who would be required to present such a case to the jury. But for a guy supposedly resource-constrained, Lawton does seem to have gone to some trouble to research the possible Ripper connection.

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1896: Benjamin Ratcliff, school shooter

1 comment February 7th, 2016 Headsman

While one might suppose that the plague of school shootings is a strictly recent phenomenon for our degenerated times, Benjamin Ratcliff hanged in Canon City, Colorado on this date in 1896 for gunning down the entire school board of Jefferson district, Park County.

An “aged and eccentric ranchman,” Ratcliff had his homestead in the Tarryall Creek area which he maintained with a son and two daughters — motherless ever since his wife Elizabeth passed away in 1882.

One of the daughters had suffered a crippling injury that left one leg shorter than the other. She walked with a permanent limp.

Among the many woes this imposed upon her was an extreme difficulty reaching the Michigan Creek school, which sat on another ranch seven miles away from the Ratcliff home. Ratcliff petitioned unsuccessfully for some manner of accommodation but so far was the school board from consenting that he caught wind of a rumor allegedly being circulated by one of its number to the effect that Ratcliff pere had incestuously impregnated his own 18-year-old daughter.

Spitting mad, Ratcliff stopped by the schoolhouse on election day — May 6, 1895 — to air his grievances. When the school board arrived to open the polls he picked a fight that ended with Ratcliff gunning down all three members of the board with his Winchester rifle: Samuel Taylor, Lincoln McCurdy, and George Wyatt.


Archival sketch via Park County (Images of America).

Four years before Ratcliff hanged, another settler who lived about 30 miles from the Ratcliff ranch had disappeared. Gottlieb Fluhmann was never accounted for in his own time, but his apparent remains were accidentally discovered in 1944; Ratcliff has sometimes been speculatively credited with that murder, too — though Ratcliff descendants reject that imputation as so much rehashed gossip.

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1896: Chiefs Kahimemua and Nicodemus, Mbanderu rebels

1 comment June 12th, 2015 Headsman

Children, how should it be otherwise? They were ranchmen and proprietors, and we were there to make them landless workingmen; and they rose up in revolt. They acted in just the same way that North Germany did in 1813.

-Gustav Frenssen, Peter Moor’s journey to Southwest Africa; a narrative of the German campaign (review)

On or about this date in 1896, Herero chiefs Kahimemua Nguvauva and Nicodemus Kavikunua were executed by the Germans.

Germany was little more than a decade into its colonization of South-West Africa (present-day Namibia) when the events of this post took place, and the growing German presence was a growing thorn in the side of native chiefs.

Colonial administrator Theodor Leutwein had the delicate task of trying to negotiate a convenient-to-Germany colonial order among rivalrous tribes of Herero hersdmen … even as Germany’s expanding presence guaranteed their continually growing irritation.

Leutwein approached this Gordian knot in a manner convenient for a European functionary but less so for his unwilling subjects: he recognized the friendly leader Samuel Maharero as the “paramount” chief with whom he could arrange policy — a stature that rival Hereroland chiefs did not so readily admit. Maharero and Leutwein scratched one another’s backs: Maharero made treaties touching lands and people that were never truly in his jurisdiction, and superior German arms then cowed lesser chiefs into compliance with those treaties — and the attendant cattle confiscations, boundary adjustments, land clearances, and population expulsions, all of it tending to the steady increase of Maharero and his German backers.

Finally in 1896, chiefs Nicodemus and Kahimemua rose in revolt in the colony’s eastern reaches, a short-lived bush scrap known as the Ovambanderu Khauas-Khoi War.*

The Germans prevailed easily, forced the discontented chiefs’ surrender, and then eliminated them.

The two were tried and convicted by court-martial on June 11 and shot either that same day, or this, the next day.**

Maharero and the German colonists both profited by their relationship with each other, and eliminated some rivals in the process. But their marriage was only an expedient one.

Years later, as the German posture towards natives moved from rough colonial domination to outright genocide, Maharero himself would rebel, eventually having to flee to Botswana for his trouble. The sentiments he voiced at that time — sentiments that have helped land him an honored place in the national-resistance mythology of the post-colonial state Namibia — would have been awfully surprising to Nicodemus and Kahimemua, had they been around to hear him utter them.

All our obedience and patience with the Germans is of little avail, for each day they shoot someone dead for no reason at all. Hence I appeal to you, my Brother, not to hold aloof from the uprising, but to make your voice heard so that all Africa may take up arms against the Germans. Let us die fighting rather than die as a result of maltreatment, imprisonment or some
other form of calamity. (pdf source)

Both Kahimemua and his enemy Maharero share honorary space at Namibia’s “Heroes’ Acre” memorial to patriotic heroes.

* Refers to two different groups of peoples who participated in the rebellion: the (Ova)Mbanderu — whose zone one can see on this map of Namibia c. 1896: look for where the colony’s eastern border with British territory does a right-angle dogleg, then carry your eyes straight to the left along the 22nd parallel; and, some allied Khauas-Khoi.

** Sources I’ve found are cleanly split on which was the execution date. It is not clear to me that there exists any dispositive primary source.

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1896: John Pryde, Brainerd murderer

2 comments July 23rd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1896, John Pryde hanged in Crow Wing County jail for a Brainerd murder over a little bit of money.

Pryde had worked all the preceding winter in a lumber camp but closed his engagement (so he said) with a Valentine‘s Day jaunt to Lothrop — abandoned in the present day but then the terminal stop on the Brainerd & Northern Minnesota Railway, where the lumber he’d been hewing would be loaded up for the Brainerd sawmill. According to this site about Minnesota ghost towns, Lothrop “was a typical hell-raising, end-of-tracks town.”

Some of the hell so raised consisted in the timeless pastime of wagering on small cardboard rectangles, and to hear Pryde’s (possibly suspect) account of it he got sharked at the poker table: ” I knew nothing about cards, only what I had found out by looking on. I tried the game and won, at one time being $100 ahead, and if I had known enough to quit then I would not be where I am today. But I was flush and my companions urged me to keep right on, saying that luck was with me and I could win everything in sight. I did so, to my regret, and lost all my winnings and also my winter’s wages, having but a few dollars in my pocket when I reached Brainerd, and I was all broke up.”

Back in Brainerd so penniless and broke up, Pryde decided a buddy from the logging camp could supply him and sent Andrew Peterson a letter urging him to hie to Brainerd immediately for a job that was waiting him. Peterson did so; Pryde met him on his return on Feb. 24 and escorted his victim around the outskirts of the city to a spot sufficiently remote to shoot him in the back of the head and rummage through his possessions.

Pryde found one dollar.

Unfortunately for Pryde, Peterson survived — not for good, just long enough to be found and identify his killer before he succumbed and made it a murder charge.

By the time authorities took Pryde into custody on this intelligence, he had already made arrangements for another logger to come on down for another “job”, with the same object in mind. (But hopefully more than a dollar in his pockets.)

With that pleasing want of artifice that can characterize the Upper Midwest at its finest, Pryde admitted everything and lodged a guilty plea just days after Peterson’s March 3 death. He did add that he regretted the mistake he made in not slashing Peterson’s throat to finish him for sure, and then burning the body to hide the crime.

Pryde’s fall — from an employed and relatively flush young man on the make to a condemned murderer — took all of three weeks.

There were suggestions that Pryde might have pulled the same trick on a different fellow who had disappeared from the work camp. He rejected that quite indignantly.

This story from his last days, and including his gallows address (blaming gambling) and his written last statement (blaming gambling) shows a man really locking in a narrative.

What we know about John Pryde is that he killed in cold calculation someone who was in no way connected to his gambling woes, and he was preparing to do the same a second time. There’s really only so much misbehavior one gets to write off to tilt. But Pryde was a young man and we might allow that a sense of guilt (however belated) and a wish to reconcile himself to his loved ones (however hypocritically) are not of themselves discreditable qualities. There were no protracted appeals or dramatic stays of execution to grow him into any other person but the one who shot his work chum dead for a buck. He had a bare five months to make sense of it all: one wonders if his parents in Chicago, who received this last missive from him, ever did.

I received your letter and was glad to hear from you, but I know that it was a hard thing for you to hear what I have done. Well, mother, I have thrown my whole life away, and not only that, how I have disgraced you and pa, and my only sister for the rest of your life; it is true that I made an awful mistake in life. Dear mother, my life was thrown away by the gambling hell hole, there is nothing in the world but that, and it would break most anyone up. It was my first time to gamble, and I was led away by one of my companions and was led into an eternal destruction, that is what put me in the place I am in now. Now my lot is a hard one, but I have made my peace with the Lord, and am prepared to meet my father in Heaven. God will forgive the most sinful if we only believe in Him. The Bible says that God has forgiven the greatest of sins.

I am very sorry over this matter, but it can’t be helped now. There is one thing, that I hope this will warn other young men and will put them on the straight road and show them what gambling will lead a young man to do, first from one thing and then to another.

Dear mother, now I have given you all the news that I have. Oh, dear mother, I cannot reward you for your kindness. You always stuck up for me, and if I had only taken your advice, I don’t think I would be where I am today. It is true what you said. I had a good home, and did not realize what a home was. I know I ought not to have left home but we young men do not pay enough attention to our mother and father. Now, father and mother, don’t take this matter too hard, as it won’t help it in the least. We all have go to go some time, sooner or later. There is a home prepared for us all and there we will have peace and joy. Now I will bring this letter to a close, hoping it will find you all well, as I remain, your most loving son,

JOHN PRYDE.

Now, I will bid you good bye, good bye. Father, forget me not, keep this letter to remember me.

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

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1896: Bartholomew “Bat” Shea, political machine ballot-stuffer

3 comments February 11th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1896, during a driving Adirondack snowstorm, Bartholomew “Bat” Shea was electrocuted at New York’s Clinton Prison for a political murder two years prior.

This was the great boom time for machine politics, corrupt political patronage networks doling “spoils” like jobs and benefits to members who in turn maintained a party’s stranglehold on an electorate. These flourished in an industrializing America’s burgeoning cities; Troy, N.Y., at 60,000-plus in the 1890s (it has fewer than that today), was one of upstate New York’s prime industrial centers, and home to a municipal machine rooted in Irish Catholic immigrants and bossed by Democratic U.S. Senator Edward Murphy.

Machine politics were a major bone of contention in the Progressive Era, and certainly in the Troy elections of 1894. The ballot that year would decide Troy’s mayor, and as per usual the Murphy machine meant to stuff the box for its handpicked candidate.

On March 6, 1894, a group of Murphy “repeaters” (so called for their intent to vote repeatedly) including “Bat” Shea and (he’ll figure momentarily) John McGough approached a Thirteenth Ward polling place.

Republican poll watchers Robert and William Ross awaited them — armed, and expecting trouble. They had sparred with the Murphy machine at the ward caucus a few days previous.

“In a twinkling,” went a press report, “clubs and revolvers were flourished. Many shots were fired and when the fight closed it was found that Robert Ross had been fatally shot, that his brother, William, received a bullet in the neck and that Shea and McGough, who fled from the scene, had each been slightly wounded.”

This bloodshed, profaning as it seemed a sacred pillar of the polis, aroused a passionate if opportunistic response from Republicans, anti-machine reformers, and Troy’s Protestants. The killer(s) “were guilty of a crime against the Republic and against republican institutions,” as the resulting Committee of Public Safety put it, deep into the appeals process. (NYT, Jan. 15, 1896) “If such a crime is to go unpunished, ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people,’ must perish from the earth.”

“In this case there is something dearer than a single life,” said a prosecutor.*

It is the question of American citizenship, a question which comes home to us all, Democrats and Republicans, rich and poor. The question is whether it is the good citizen with the ballot, or the thug with his revolver, who shall control our nation.

Two other men were actually implicated in Robert Ross’s death before “Bat” Shea. John Boland, a fellow ballot-watcher, was the first arrested, but outcry against the apparent bid by the Murphy machine to fix the homicide on the victimized party soon freed him.

John McGough of the “repeater” party was also taken into custody, and accused at first of having fired the fatal shot.

Eyewitnesses soon pinned the murder on “Bat” Shea, and a conviction was speedily secured on this basis — with McGough subsequently receiving a long prison sentence for attempted murder, his shot having come within centimeters of taking William Ross’s life, too.

But many of those whom the Murphy machine benefited never believed the evidence against Shea and certainly never thought him capitally liable. Eyewitnesses hewing to their own party affiliation, pushing their own political agenda aided by convenient certainty upon the triggerman of this or that specific bullet in a general firefight. (The Rosses were shooting, too.)

The evidence could certainly be disputed, and over nearly two years Shea’s advocates did just that in courts and clemency petitions — a remarkable (for the time) odyssey to save Shea from the executioner.

Days prior to Shea’s January 1896 execution, his fellow repeater McGough sent a letter to Republican Gov. Levi Morton,** claiming that he, not Shea, shot Ross.

Interviewed directly by the governor’s agents, McGough stuck to his story. This wasn’t enough to convince Morton to spare Shea. For one thing, it would invite the suspicion that the Murphy people were conniving to weasel each other out of the debt that someone owed for Ross’s blood — McGough having already been convicted for his part in the skirmish, and thus safely out of the executioner’s potential grasp.

So much for Republican New York, Protestant New York, respectable New York. Shea’s many supporters who could never secure a legal toehold received his remains in honor at Troy, crowding a train platform where the coffin arrived in at 2:30 a.m. the morning after the electrocution. All that Wednesday, February 12, throngs of supporters paid their respects as the electrocuted man lay in state at his family’s River Street home.

At funeral services at St. Patrick’s Church on February 13, the officiating Father Swift averred uncertainty as to Shea’s guilt.

“If he was guilty,” said Swift (NYT, Feb. 14, 1896), “I do not believe he was conscious of it.”

For the reported 10,000 who turned out to lay the “murderer” to rest, the sentiment was quite a bit less ambivalent. Countless floral arrangements crowded into the Shea home. “Innocent,” read the cards upon many of them. Or, “Murdered.” (With a similar sympathy but perhaps much less taste, someone else sent flowers shaped like the electric chair.)

The present-day visitor to Troy can see “Bat” Shea’s name on a downtown Irish pub … and a monument of Robert Ross defending a ballot box at Oakwood Cemetery.


(cc) image from @zakkforchilli.

* This statement was made in the McGough trial, not the Shea trial. It’s sourced to this 1890s celebration of Ross and his cause.

** Morton had been U.S. Vice President from 1889 to 1893. More interestingly for this blog, Morton was U.S. President James Garfield’s 1881 appointee as ambassador to France. This was the very diplomatic post for which Charles Guiteau had petitioned Garfield, and being passed over (on account of being a whackadoodle obscurity) caused Guiteau to assassinate Garfield. Morton was succeeded as governor by Frank Swett Black … a Troy clean-elections crusader who had gone into politics after sitting at the prosecution’s bar in the case of “Bat” Shea.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Murder,New York,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1896: Chief Uwini of the Maholi

1 comment September 13th, 2013 Headsman

This date in 1896 during the Second Matabele War saw the execution by field court-martial of the rebellious Chief Uwini.

This war, in present-day Zimbabwe, featured a revolt of the Matabele (Ndebele) people against Cecil Rhodes’s* British South African Company.

In the field, it was a short-lived affair.

Ndebele rebels slew over 200 white settlers in Matabeleland and Mashonaland during the first week of the surprising rising in March 1896. But most settlers were able to hunker down in he town of Bulawayo behind makeshift breastworks.

Up to 15,000 Ndebele warriors menaced this little citadel, but were deterred from storming it by the settlers’ modern weapons — artillery and the legendary Maxim gun** — until relieved in May. (Rhodes himself led one of the relief columns.) At that point, the rebels retreated to their strongholds, fragmented from one another, and generally got picked off or bought off group by group over the ensuing months.

One of the men arriving with Rhodes’s relief column was Robert Baden-Powell, an army scout who will bring us to this date’s feature execution.

Baden-Powell was dispatched with a squadron of cavalry to pacify the area northeast of Bulwayo. When he arrived there, one of the main rebel chiefs in the Somabula Forest, Chief Uwini, had just been taken prisoner.

“He was badly wounded in the shoulder, but, enraged at being a prisoner, he would allow nothing to be done for him; no sooner had the surgeon bandaged hi than he tore the dressings off again. He was a fine, truculent-looking savage, and boasted that he had always been able to hold his own against any enemies in this stronghold of his, but now that he was captured he only wished to die.”

-Baden-Powell (Source)

This prisoner put Baden-Powell in a conundrum. He had written orders to turn prisoners over to the Native Commission for civil handling (whether trial or otherwise).

Uwini had been induced to surrender by another officer’s promise to spare his life. However, this wounded chief could not be escorted five days back to Bulawayo by a force large enough to protect against the likely rescue attempt by his followers without abandoning his mission. Neither could Uwini be brought along on the patrol.

Something had to give.

Baden-Powell decided it would be the safe-conduct promise.

“I have taken another step, which I hope you will not disapprove of — viz. — trying Uweena by Court Martial,” Baden-Powell wrote his superiors on September 13. “He is the big chief of this part, we have lots of evidence that he instigated rebellion and murders of whites, he is badly wounded, we cannot send him to Buluwayo, and I must be leaving this with some of the senior officers tonight. So if the court find him guilty and sentence him to be shot I shall take on myself the responsibility of confirming it. The effect too should be very good for being carried out promptly and at his own stronghold — and we have a good number of rebels, prisoners and refugees, here to witness it & report it to the remainder.”

Another letter dated later that same day confirmed that the expected sentence had indeed been rendered, and Uwini had been ceremoniously shot that evening at sunset before the walls of the enemy fortress, in the presence of as many witnesses as Baden-Powell could find.

This quasi-juridical field execution put Baden-Powell in front of a court of inquiry after the fact. The court exonerated him, citing the circumstances and the purported effect of the execution in cowing the local insurgents.

Despite leaving the court of inquiry “without a stain on my character,” in Baden-Powell’s own words, this incident can’t help but throw a morally questionable shade for later observers. And this agent of empire does have later observers — because Lord Baden-Powell (as he eventually became styled) would go on to found the Scout Movement.† His 1907 boys scouting camp and subsequent book laid the foundation for the ensuing decades’ Anglo scouting tradition.

And this very Matabele War contributed crucial parts of the scouting backstory. It was in the course of this campaign that Baden-Powell became acquainted with the American scout and adventurer Frederick Russell Burnham. The two struck up a lifelong friendship, and Baden-Powell cribbed notes from the ranger’s guile (like wood “scoutcraft”) his counterpart had picked up on the dwindling American frontier. It was also in Rhodesia that Baden-Powell first wore the Stetson hat and neckerchief combination that would become a distinctive look both for Baden-Powell himself, and for the scout movement he launched.

* As of this story’s setting, the place in question had just begun to be called Rhodesia.

** It is in the context of Great Britain’s colonial adventures in Africa in this period (though not specifically just those of Matabeleland) that Hilaire Belloc published his 1898 poem “The Modern Traveller”. In it, a character named “Blood” gave this early machine gun its definitive literary tribute: it’s the couplet highlighted below, but the larger excerpt may be illuminating.

Blood understood the Native mind.
He said: “We must be firm but kind.”

A Mutiny resulted.
I never shall forget the way
That Blood upon this awful day
Preserved us all from death.
He stood upon a little mound,
Cast his lethargic eyes around,
And said beneath his breath:

“Whatever happens we have got
The Maxim Gun, and they have not.”

He marked them in their rude advance,
He hushed their rebel cheers ;
With one extremely vulgar glance
He broke the Mutineers.
(I have a picture in my book
Of how he quelled them with a look.)
We shot and hanged a few, and then
The rest became devoted men.

And here I wish to say a word
Upon the way my heart was stirred
By those pathetic faces.
Surely our simple duty here
Is both imperative and clear;
While they support us, we should lend
Our every effort to defend,
And from a higher point of view
To give the full direction due
To all the native races.
And I, throughout the expedition,
Insisted upon this position.

† Baden-Powell also counseled scouts to be unflinching should the “duty” arise to hang a man.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Notable Participants,Occupation and Colonialism,Revolutionaries,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions,Zimbabwe

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