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.

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1898: James Fleming Parker

Add comment June 3rd, 2016 Headsman

This morning in 1898 — allegedly after enjoying the company of an obliging prostitute during the preceding night as a favor from the sheriff, a childhood friend* — James Fleming Parker hanged on Courthouse Square in Prescott, Arizona.

An effective tort lawyer would have saved Parker from his untimely end, for his path to the gallows began when he lost a prized horse struck by an Atlantic and Pacific train and the railroad — spiraling towards bankruptcy in the wake of the Panic of 1893 — came up with only the most niggardly award.

Incensed, Parker went and got his the old-fashioned way: by sticking up an A&P train.

A few things went wrong.

For one, Parker botched the heist and had to flee the iron horse with an underwhelming haul, a dead confederate in his wake.

For another, he’d been recognized and was arrested a week later after a chase through the Arizona wilderness.

And finally, he decided to double his bad bet by leading a jailbreak while awaiting trial — in the course of which he fatally shotgunned a deputy district attorney who had responded to the hue and cry. Parker was lucky to end up in the clutches of that friendly sheriff instead of lynched to the nearest trestle or telegraph pole by an angry posse, but the upshot was the same.

Last sentiment, according to the Tombstone Epitaph** (June 5, 1898):

I have not much to say; I claim I am getting something that ain’t due me; but everyone who is going to be hung says the same thing, so that cuts no figure. Whenever people say I have to go, I am one that can go.

And then he went.

* If so, this last communion followed hours after Parker’s conversion to Catholicism.

** Really.

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1898: Sokong, Lavari, and Kruba of the Imperri

1 comment November 7th, 2014 Headsman

Three Sierra Leone natives whose November 7, 1898 hanging we recall here might have had their fate written in the stars before time itself began, but a much more proximate document was the understanding concluded among European powers at the Berlin Conference of 1884-85.


“Deal table in the middle, plain chairs all round the walls, on one end a large shining map, marked with all the colors of a rainbow. There was a vast amount of red — good to see at any time, because one knows that some real work is done in there, a deuce of a lot of blue, a little green, smears of orange, and, on the East Coast, a purple patch, to show where the jolly pioneers of progress drink the jolly lager-beer.” –Joseph Conrad

This summit aimed to regularize the so-called “scramble for Africa” among rival European empires by setting forth some rules about who got to plant what flags where. One of those rules was known as the Principle of Effective Occupation: as the name suggests, the Principle was that a colonial power actually had to be in something like control of the territory it proposed to call its own.

The Berlin Conference kicked off a generation of frenetic jockeying and conquest that carved up the continent.

Further to Effective Occupation, the British expanded their longstanding coastal presence at Freetown by, in 1896, annexing the inland regions into something now christened the Protectorate of Sierra Leone.

All that Protectorating didn’t come cheap. Who better to pay for it than the Protectorated?

Britain’s proconsul accordingly dropped a Hut Tax on his subjects — a ruinously steep one that stoked an 1898 rebellion known as the Hut Tax War. The brief but bloody war (actually an amalgamation of two distinct rebellions, north and south) cost hundreds of lives on each side, not sparing civilians.

British colonial agent Thomas Joshua Alldridge, who authored several studies of the colony and its inhabitants, was part of the July expedition raiding a town called Bambaia on Sherbro Island.

I had already sent to the chief of this town, giving him an ultimatum — that if he would not by a certain day, come up and tender his unconditional submission, a punitive expedition would be the result. He was a notoriously bad character and did some terrible things, for which he was afterwards tried and hanged. The disregarding of the ultimatum caused the present expedition. I was informed that when we arrived at the waterside he had cleared out with the people before we could get into the town. Presently a few people returned, and it was evident that he was in hiding near; but to attempt to hunt for men in the African bush is a waste of time, the bush being their natural stronghold.

I sent messages by the people, and had it loudly called out that if he would return to the town by 4 o’clock that I would not destroy the place, but that if he did not appear before me by that time it would be burnt. As he did not do so and I could get no information whatever, the straggling and outlying parts of the town were fired, and in the morning the town itself was destroyed.

Hangings like the one Alldridge references here for the chief of Bambaia were meted out in great number to rebel leadership, some 96 executions known in just a few months. Alldridge knew the country in peacetime and not just in war, and would eventually publish several studies of the country from his observations. (The text just quoted comes from one such.)

In this 1896 photo, Alldridge recorded the election by the chiefs of Imperri — a region of Sherbro Island — of a paramount chief (Sokong). He’s the rightmost of the two seated men, wearing a black top hat; beside him sits a counselor described by Alldridge as the Imperri Prime Minister (Lavari).

The quality of this image isn’t the best; it’s just taken from a Google images scan of Alldridge’s public domain book A Transformed Colony: Sierra Leone, as it Was, and as it Is. Alldridge notes that both the Sokong and the Lavari later “suffered the full penalty of the law” for the rebellion.

That would presumably make those two leaders also part of this portrait, taken just four months before the rebellion’s outbreak at a meeting of Imperri chiefs in that town of Bambaia which Alldridge would later put to the torch:

This latter photo is online in a number of locations with the same descriptive caption:

Identified beneath the print are the Sokong, the Prime Minister and ‘a principal Kruba’ (military leader) with the following remark: ‘all of whom were tried for murder and hanged at Bonthe, Sherbro, 7th November 1898′.

Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to find a version of this photo that actually reproduces in situ the identifications alluded to. Perhaps there is a reader who can identify the Sokong and Lavari from the first picture in the second?

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1898: Doc Tanner, Copper River gold rusher

Add comment January 3rd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1898, an ornery gold prospector became the victim of an Alaskan miner’s court … and a great gold rush scam.

This is a tragic sidelight of the great Klondike gold rush, a mania set off in summer of 1898.

As legions of America’s many unemployed set out in hopes of striking it rich in the frigid north, interest in the vast and underexplored interior of next-door Alaska naturally followed. After all, there had been gold finds in Alaska before.

The putative reasons justifying the spread of the Klondike fever to Copper River were some combination of these:

  • That the Copper River promised a shortcut into the Klondike easier than the route over Canadian soil;
  • That the Copper River itself had gold — and that it could be prospected under less extreme climate, and exempt from 20 percent royalties that Canada imposed on Klondike gold

Passenger steamers, whose operators were later suspected of flogging interest in this route as the “All-American trail,” brought several thousand bonanza-seekers from west coast cities to the tent-city port of Valdez, Alaska. From there, miners could tromp over a treacherous mountain-and-glacier path to the unspeakable riches of the Copper River.

“It was one of the greatest hoaxes in Alaska’s history,” write Jim and Nancy Lethcoe. “The prospectors arrived to find a glacier trail twice as long and steep as reported.”

An estimated two hundred people died, slipping off glaciers or frozen to death on the mountain or, as we’ll see, by acts of violence. By the summer of 1898, there was another rush — 3,000 or so busted prospectors pouring out of Copper River country back for Valdez. The U.S. government had to show up with provisions to avert mass starvation.

“Last winter papers of the country contained stories of the fabulous riches of the Copper river country, Alaska, the accessibility of the gold-laden land, cheapness of transportation, and in other ways lauded to the skies the country in which one had but to scrape the earth to secure a fortune,” ran a bitter report in the Aug. 27, 1898 Jackson (Mich.) Daily Citizen. The occasion was the empty-handed return of one of that city’s native sons, A.A. Jankowsky, from the Alaskan interior. “These stories, published in good faith, no doubt, had the effect of arousing in the minds of the more adventurous a desire to search for gold in the far-away land. Last spring there was a perfect exodus to the Copper river.”

Boston Journal, Jan. 7, 1898

Baltimore Sun, Sept. 6, 1898

Jankowsky, like many others, survived the treacherous journey into the interior only to find the Copper River region entirely destitute of gold. After supporting himself for a bit running a canteen, he joined a veritable stampede of thousands of duped prospectors fleeing back from the interior to Valdez. By his telling to the Citizen, “All along the trail were seen immense stores of provisions, representing in many instances, the savings of many years of prospectors, which were abandoned. Some of these contained cards marked, ‘Boys, help yourselves, I’ve gone home!’ Some of the men in their eagerness to get out had left their tents standing, containing clothing, bedding, stoves, firearms and everything else.”

Our date’s principal, Doc Tanner, at least had the comfort of never experiencing this disappointment ubiquitous to his fellow-adventurers.

The Kentucky native joined a party bound for Copper River that sailed from Seattle on November 20. Each had “grub-staked” $250 up-front with the understanding that they would be discharged from their ship with six months’ provisions … but when they were let out, they received only three months’ worth.

Oddly, Tanner seems to have been the only one incensed by this. When the leaders of the expedition refused to provide him an itemized account, Tanner turned into the cantankerous black sheep of the party as they drug their undersized packs over the dangerous Valdez glacier.

Matters came to such a pass that as dark fell on January 2, several of the other prospectors met in a tent to discuss turning Tanner out of the party full stop. Overhearing them, the enraged Tanner burst into the tent with the cool action hero words, “I’m here for business now,” then started firing. He killed two of the men; a third only owed his life to a lamp’s timely extinguishing during the affray. (1898 newspaper reporting also indicated that the tragedy redoubled for one of the victims, William Call: his wife upon hearing news of the murder fell into madness and was committed to an asylum, and lost the family’s indebted farm.)

Tanner immediately gave himself up to other miners of the camp and at dawn the next day faced an extra-legal drumhead tribunal that judged him guilty of murder and promptly hanged him.

As for Valdez, more orderly development of the trail from that port into the Alaskan interior ensued. Though cold comfort to men shot in their tents, hanged by miners, or fallen into glacial crevasses, that route eventually became part of the present-day Richardson Highway, and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.

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1898: Alfred C. Williams

Add comment October 7th, 2012 Robert Wilhelm

(Thanks for the guest post to Robert Wilhelm, author of the Murder By Gaslight historic crime blog, and author of the book Murder And Mayhem in Essex County. Executed Today readers are sure to enjoy Wilhelm’s detailed investigations into long-lost historic crime. -ed.)

When Alfred C. Williams was arrested for the murder of John Gallo, his conviction seemed highly unlikely. There appeared to be no direct link between Williams and Gallo. There was no absolute proof that Gallo had been murdered, or even that he was dead. But in this case, circumstantial evidence, rather than increasing doubt, actually succeeded in dispelling doubt, bringing investigators closer to the truth and drawing the noose ever tighter around Alfred Williams’s neck.

John Gallo was a young Italian immigrant who worked on a farm in Lynnfield, Massachusetts. He was industrious and popular with the other workers, but kept to himself and very seldom left the farm. Gallo lived alone in a small shack in the rear of the farm. In the early hours of July 28, 1897, the shack caught fire and burned with flames so high they could be seen in neighboring towns. The shack was leveled, leaving nothing but ashes and the charred remains of a body, so badly burned that it could not be identified.

The body was so charred that it took two examinations to verify that it was, in fact, the body of a human. The head and neck were gone, both arms and both legs had been completely consumed, bone and all, by the fire. The spinal column remained with some back muscle attached; the heart, liver, kidneys, and bladders remained, but were badly burned. Everything else was completely gone. The medical examiner could state that the body was that of an adult human being, but nothing more.

With the destruction so complete, it appeared to investigators that nothing could be learned to explain what had happened that night. But as the investigation progressed, details began to emerge, like an image developing on a photographic plate. The fact that there was too little information became a clue in itself, and soon investigators were able to compile a list of facts that pointed to foul play:

  1. The body had been destroyed to a greater extent than would be expected from a fire in such a small building.
  2. The deceased had not been burned in bed. The bedsprings had survived the blaze but the body was found several feet away.
  3. The victim had not been dressed. Some buckles, metal buttons, a few coins and the clasp of a pocketbook were found by the side of the bedsprings, none were found near the body.
  4. The body lay in the doorway between rooms with the head back in the room toward the bed, not falling forward as a person naturally would if trying to escape from a burning room.
  5. A kerosene-oil can, which was usually kept near the stove, was found in the middle of the floor
    next to the body.

It was believed that the victim had been murdered before the fire started. His body was doused with kerosene and ignited, which would account for the severe damage to the body. The flame then quickly spread to the rest of the house.

John Gallo had earned $1.50 a day at Phillips’s farm and was paid monthly, always in five dollar bills. He spent very little and at the time of his death, it was suspected that he had around one hundred dollars earned on the farm. It was also well known that Gallo always carried three twenty dollar gold pieces that he had earned on a construction job prior to coming to the farm. No trace of the gold pieces or any melted gold were found.

Another crime had allegedly been committed near Lynnfield in the early morning of July 28. That afternoon, Alfred C. Williams reported that he had been held up near his rooming house in Wakefield. He had been unable to sleep and went outside to smoke a cigar. As he stood with one foot on the rail fence by the road, someone struck him on the head from behind. He turned to fight back, striking his assailant on the nose causing it to bleed. He was knocked unconscious, robbed of his watch and a small amount of money, and then thrown down the banks of Wakefield Pond.

He told his story to the police, showing them bruises on his neck and face from the fight, and bloodstains on his clothing from the assailant’s nose. The officers were skeptical of his story and held Williams for questioning. Unlike most holdups, Williams apparently had more money in his possession after the crime than he did before. On July 27, Williams had not had enough money to buy a meal or even pay a five-cent streetcar fare. The morning of July 28, he paid his back board bill and made some purchases. The police found seventy-five dollars, in five dollar bills, on his person.

The police learned that Williams had previously worked as a laborer on Phillips farm and knew the habits of the deceased. They searched Williams’s room and under the carpet, they found two twenty dollar gold pieces. When Williams was told where they found the coins he responded, “I know, I put them there.” They also found a bloodstained coat and vest in his room. Alfred C. Williams was arrested for the murder of John Gallo.

At the trial, the prosecution presented a case against Williams that was based entirely on circumstantial evidence. While there was nothing to directly link Williams to the fire, his familiarity with Gallo’s habits, his possession of money — including gold pieces — the day after the fire, the bloody clothing, and Williams’s inconsistent stories, taken all together were incriminating.

The defense challenged the very core of the evidence. There was no proof that the body found in the ashes was John Gallo’s; it could not be proven that a murder was committed or that the fire was not started accidentally; there was no proof that Alfred Williams was anywhere near the fire that night. But Williams was sticking to the story that he was held up on the night of July 28, so his alibi was also a matter of circumstantial evidence, and no one seemed willing to believe it. The jury deliberated for six hours before returning a verdict of guilty, first degree murder.

Alfred C. Williams was hanged in the yard of Salem jail on October 7, 1898. It was not a public hanging; the sheriff issued a few invitations, but only for the purpose of providing legal witnesses. Williams’s arms and legs were bound and his head was covered as he stood on the gallows. At 10:01 a.m. the trap was sprung and Williams dropped six feet, one inch. His neck was broken and he died within seconds. Williams professed innocence to the end.

Get Murder and Mayhem in Essex County here.

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1898: Choe Si-hyeong, Donghak leader

Add comment July 20th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1898,* the second patriarch of the Donghak religion was put to death in Korea.

Like neighboring Japan, Korea was ripe for “new religions” late in the 19th century and into the 20th. And to the concussive effects of modernity were added, for Korea, those of colonialism: a fading dynasty pressured by both western and Japanese empire-building.

“Donghak arose at a time when Korea was on the verge of radical transformations,” writes Kirsten Bell.**

Internally, society was stagnating under a rigid Confucian social hierarchy, which saw destitute peasants over-taxed and generally ill-used by corrupt government officials and landed gentry (yangban). External forces such as the West’s encroachment into the East were also causing considerable alarm. Donghak arose in these circumstances and was … explicitly envisioned … as a rebuttal to the growing influence of the West in Korea; further, Donghak was constructed in explicit opposition to Roman Catholicism, known as “Western Learning.”

Donghak, or Tonghak, was “Eastern Learning” (that’s its literal meaning), a sort of synretic liberation theology for the peasantry in a put-upon peninsula.

This egalitarian movement, light on the dogma beyond the notion that an omnipresent divine inheres to every person, yielded its founder up to the laurels of martyrdom in 1864. That gentleman, Choe Je-u, passed leadership to his kinsman, our day’s subject, whose proselytizing and organizing built the religion over two succeeding generations.

“Despite ongoing government persecution, Donghak proved popular with the disaffected masses,” Bell notes.

Choe Si-hyeong published the Donghak scriptures and planted countless secret Donghak societies around Korea. Rooted as they were in a lower class with an axe to grind, these burgeoning cells tended increasingly towards the revolutionary. In 1894, they tended all the way: the Donghak Peasant Revolution.

In this dramatic affair, a surging peasant-nationalist army marched on Seoul with every prospect of overturning the decrepit monarchy — which unworthily preserved itself by inviting a Chinese intervention.†

This, in turn, precipitated an (uninvited) Japanese response, which became the First Sino-Japanese War, whose titular belligerents had it out all over the Korean peninsula.

Japan, with its modern army, cleaned up in the fight, a signal of its rise as regional hegemon. (It would soon annex Korea altogether.) And just in passing, it routed that ambitious peasant army late in 1894, scattering Donghak adherents to the hills.

Choe Si-hyeong was finally captured and put to death in 1898. Still, that wasn’t the end of the line for Donghak: rebranded Cheondoism after its original moniker became unfortunately affixed to the word “revolution,” the faith is still going strong with well over one million adherents in present-day South Korea.

Choe Si-hyeong is the subjet of the 1991 Im Kwon-taek film Fly High, Run Far.

* The precise date is asserted in Buddhism in the Modern World but generally not extremely easy to come by. I’d rather have access to a clear primary source or a larger consensus of secondary sources or a pony.

** “Pilgrims and Progress: The Production of Religious Experience in a Korean Religion,” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, August 2008.

† The Qing were about to be squeezed by a similar domestic movement, the Boxers.

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1898: The Six Gentlemen of the Hundred Days’ Reform

3 comments September 28th, 2009 Headsman

This afternoon in 1898, six liberals got the chop for their hopeless attempt to give a tottering empire the reforms it desperately needed.

The Hundred Days’ Reform — actually 103 days, from June 11 to September 21 — marked the attempt by China’s Guangxu Emperor to implement a far-reaching modernization programme backed by forward-thinking officials with a mind to correct China’s supine position vis-a-vis the West, and even vis-a-vis its neighbors.

“Reform has never come about in any country without the flow of blood. No one in China in modern times has sacrificed himself for the cause of reform, and because of this China is still a poor and backward country. Therefore, I request that the sacrifices begin with myself.” –Tan Sitong

The Wuxu Constitutional Reform still stands as the great attempt made by Chinese progressives who tried to follow the example of the modern powers in order to save China from extinction. Represented by Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao, the bourgeois reformists were imbued with the spirit of national salvation; they carefully set about designing a blueprint for a constitutional monarchy based on the example of Western countries. They advocated the establishment of parliament and a national conference, and wanted to see honest and fair-minded people with the courage to criticize authority installed in a position of power. National policies should be discussed by the monarch and the people. They also wanted a constitution to stipulate the rights and obligations of the monarch, officials, and the people. The constitution was to be the highest code for all people in the country. They also wanted to establish a system featuring a tripartite balance of forces: parliament was to legislate, the magistracy to deal with issues of justice, the government with administration. All of these would be under the monarch.

The constitutional reform was to take place with radical intellectuals submitting their memoranda to Emperor Guang Xu, who alone had the power to promulgate them. The feudal diehards being in a position of strength and the national bourgeoisie being weak, however, the new politics survived no more than 100 days or so. When the forces of reaction inevitably clamped down on the movement, the six reformists who had inspired the movement for constitutional reform met their deaths like heroes.

Although sincere in its aspirations, the reform movement was bound to fail, as it depended on a reform “from top to bottom”, which ultimately had to be enacted by the emperor. The Hundred Days’ Constitutional Reform, however, remains a landmark event in the modern history of China, its failure notwithstanding. The Chinese bourgeoisie in fact succeeded in spreading democratic and constitutionalist ideas widely, and this had a significant effect on future generations. The political and legal theory of the Western bourgeoisie could now take root in the soil of China.*

The emperor’s Machiavellian conservative aunt, the Empress Dowager Cixi, who had been the power behind the Chinese throne since 1861, made the sure reform didn’t see two hundred days with a “coup” that didn’t formally overthrow the Emperor — just made him irrelevant.

Troublemakers further down the food chain didn’t get off so easily.

Kang Youwei, the reform movement’s chief exponent, escaped to Japan. Six others suffered the wrath of the Dowager Empress: Kang Guangren (Kang Youwei’s brother), Lin Xu, Yang Shenxiu, Yang Rui and Liu Guangdi … along with the young reformer Tan Sitong, who notably refused imprecations to flee arrest.

The sword’s blade across my neck,
I look toward heaven — laughing.
-Etched on a prison wall, allegedly by Tan Sitong


Photo of an unspecified 1867 Qing beheading in Canton.

* “The Chinese Legal Tradition and the European View of the Rule of Law” by Wu Shu-Chen in The Rule of Law History, Theory and Criticism, Part VI.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Treason

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1898: Theodore Durrant, the Demon of the Belfry

1 comment January 7th, 2009 Headsman

The annals of crime will attest that malefaction, like any other history, repeats itself — as tragedy and then as farce and then simply with numbingly grisly monotony.

Which brings us to San Francisco, for another forgotten crime of the century — a theater of the time actually produced a play called Criminal of the Century — that sent the Nancy Graces of the Gilded Age aswoon.

Theodore Durrant‘s basic profile — normal-seeming medical student and Sunday school superintendent with a secret pervy side — might not seem so remarkable with a century’s worth of serial killer profiles in the books, but ponder what programming hours Court TV would fill with mutilated, violated female parishioners found stuffed in the cupboard and belfry at any of the nation’s Emanuel Baptist Churches.

That Durrant was the last person seen with either of them anchored what the Associated Press would call (only a week after the bodies were discovered) a “chain of circumstantial evidence that has been welded link by link … so strong that it seems hardly possible that it can be rent asunder.”

Why,

information poured in … proving that the prisoner was a degenerate of the most depraved class. For obvious reasons, names cannot be given of young ladies to whom he made the most disgusting propositions, and the wonder of it is that he was not killed, or at least exposed before. But in most instances the nature of his insults were such that the young ladies offended feared to inform their relatives, lest they would take the law in their own hands. One young lady told her mother that some time previous to these murders, Durrant had inveigled her into this same library and excusing himself for a moment, returned stark naked and she ran screaming from the church.

The particulars were nationwide news copy from the outset in 1895 to hanging in 1898, and the city had a difficulty scraping together a jury qualified to give the man a fair trial (deliberation time: five minutes).

Durrant, for his part, protested his innocence to the gallows. Few believed him, but he did pick up a married groupie the press nicknamed “Sweet Pea Girl” for the flowers she kept bringing him.*

The more things change …

Even the legal route to hanging was (by 19th century standards) characteristically-for-California tortuous. The “fight for delay,” reported the Los Angeles Times (Jan. 8, 1898), was “vigorously maintained for almost twenty months, not even ceasing with the execution of the death sentence.”

Durrant came within two days of execution twice in 1897; the full narrative of legal maneuvers will be amply suggested by the Times‘ account of those made in the last week alone.

On December 31, an appeal for a writ of supersedeas was made to the State Supreme Court, but was refused. The Federal courts were then vainly appealed to for a writ of habeas corpus. On January 3 a petition was presented to Gov. Budd, praying for executive interference in the case. The petition stated that Durrant was a vital witness in the slander suit brought by his mother against [trial juror Horace] Smyth.**

On January 5 Durrant’s attorneys made another application to the United States court for a writ of habeas corpus. This was denied; also permission to appeal to the United States Supreme Court. On January 6, Attorney Boardman arrived in Washington, and endeavored to persuade Justice Brewer of the Supreme Court to grant permission to an appeal. Justice Brewer declined, and Boardman announced that he would appear before the entire court on Friday and demand to be heard.

In San Francisco on January 6, Attorneys Dickinson and Deuprey asked the United States Circuit Court for leave to file a bill of exceptions. … On the same afternoon, Gov. Budd formally announced that he would not interfere.

Durrant’s beloved sister would change her name to Maud Allan and emerge as a popular dancer in Europe in the early years of the 20th century. Renowned for her sensual portrayal of Salome, Maud strikes an immediate reminder of another character from these grim pages … and like Mata Hari, Durrant’s sister was accused (non-fatally, in Maud’s case) of consorting with German operatives during World War I.

* A paroled murderess also had Durrant’s back.

** According to the story, Smyth publicly called Durrant a “moral monster” and suggested that the condemned had had relations with his mother and sister.

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

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1898: Joseph Vacher

2 comments December 31st, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1898, “the French Ripper” Joseph Vacher was guillotined for a three-year homicidal spree through the French countryside.

Less renowned to posterity than the unidentified British contemporary to whom his nickname alluded, Vacher was thoroughly infamous in his day. The New York Timesreport of his beheading noted that “[t]he crimes of Joseph Vacher have surpassed in number and atrocity those of the Whitechapel murderer.”

After release as “completely cured” from a mental hospital to whose hapless mercies a failed murder-suicide — both murder and suicide failed — involving his unrequited love had left him, Vacher drifted through rural France from 1894 until his arrest in 1897 killing randomly, frequently, and savagely.

He left at least 11 victims, and possibly several dozen, often atrociously mutilating the bodies. The seeming sang-froid of his murders — one story has him coolly misdirecting a police officer in a frantic chase for the killer of a body he has left behind minutes before — and their horrific nature and extent threw his case into the eye of a public already fearful of “drifters”.

If it is likely that the murders themselves demanded their author’s execution regardless, Vacher’s claim that madness — “simulated insanity”, the Times called it — drove the killings and negated his culpability remained a challenging medical and judicial issue. As Susan A. Ashley writes in The Human Tradition in Modern France:

The … judicial proceedings centered on his mental competence. Could he be held responsible for his actions? He claimed that he acted on impulse, that he was driven to kill and maim by fits of uncontrollable rage. The court-appointed experts, however, concluded that he had carefully planned and carried out the killings, and the jury agreed.

Medical experts and legal authorities seriously disagreed over Vacher’s mental state and over the limits of his legal responsibility. They examined his past and his behavior after his arrest and drew very different conclusions about his sanity.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Infamous,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Serial Killers

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