1899: Bailer Decker, Theodore Roosevelt’s first

Add comment January 9th, 2016 Headsman

This report of the New York Times, Jan. 10, 1899, concerns the forgettable murderer whose electrocution was approved on his first day in office by New York’s new governor — Theodore Roosevelt, soon to become President of the United States.

SING SING, N.Y., Jan. 9 — Bailer Decker, the negro wife murderer of Tottenville, Staten Island, died to-day in the electric chair in Sing Sing Prison. The curren was twice turned on, each time with a voltage of 1,780. He was pronounced dead five minutes after the first shock.

Decker met death without flinching. Just before he started from his cell to the execution room he requested of Warden Sage that the other four murderers in the condemned cells be permitted to sing “Comrades.” The Warden granted the request, and Decker joined in the singing with a clear tenor voice.

The witnesses to the execution included H.F. Bridges, Warden of the Massachusetts State Prison, at Charlestown. That State, it is said, is likely to adopt the electric chair. Mr. Bridges expressed himself as pleased with the method of the execution.*

The crime for which Decker was executed was the murder of his wife, a white woman, on May 25 last. Decker was an oysterman, but spent much of his time in saloons. He was jealous, and shot the woman while in a drunken rage. He then fired a bullet into his own abdomen with suicidal intent.

* Indeed, Massachusetts did adopt the electric chair in 1900: it would eventually use this device to kill Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927.

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1899: Armstead Taylor and John Alfred Brown, horribly

Add comment August 18th, 2015 Headsman

From the Wilkes-Barre (Pa.) Times, Aug. 18, 1899:

ROCKVILLE, Md., Aug. 18 — Armstead Taylor and John Alfred Brown, negroes, were hanged here this morning for the murder of Mr. and Mrs. Rosenstein at Slidelle in March last.

The drop fell at 10:15[?]. The hanging was a horrible botch. the knot did not slip but the drop was long enough. The men writhed, groaned and uttered inarticualate [sic] sounds for nearly ten minutes.

The murders for which they were convicted and sentenced to be hanged were committed at Slidelle, a little station two miles north of Boyds, Md. on March 13 last.

Louis Rosenstein, the postmaster of the hamlet[,] lived with his aged parents in the rear of the post office. They were said to have plenty of money. Early one morning they were attacked and the man’s skull was crushed and the woman’s head pounded with some blunt instrument.

The store was ransacked and a little over $3,000, a pair of shoes and several articles were taken.

Louis Rosenstein died the day after of his injuries and Mrs. Rosenstein lingered until May when she succumbed in a hospital at Baltimore.

Taylor went to Washington and soon attracted attention by spending money in a lavish manner in Georgetown. Suspicious neighbors gave the police the information that led to his capture.

Before Taylor was arrested, however, Sergeant Fritz Bassau of the Washington police force gave up his life. Taylor shot him down as he was climbing the stairs to arrest him, where he was concealed in the house at Georgetown. He also shot Officer Gowon in the hand.

Taylor was taken back to Montgomery county, but did not stand trial for injuring the policemen. His trial was begun at Frederick on July [?] and Brown’s a week later. Both were convicted and sentenced to be hanged August 18.

Strong efforts were made to have Brown respited, it being believed by many that he was only an accessory after the fact.

The men mounted the scaffold at 10:15. They were both calm and exhibited nerve. As they were placed on the door the sheriff asked if they had anything to say. Taylor made a rambling statement in an almost inaudible voice. He appeared weak and swayed upon his feet. He said:

Gentlemen, I done both the killings myself. My Uncle Brown is not guilty. I am the guilty man, but I expect to go to heaven.

Brown refused to make any statement beyond that he had forgiven his enemies and had found salvation.

The deputies then adjusted the rope, before placing the black caps on their heads. Both men smiled and Brown said good-bye to some friends in the crowd who spoke to him.

Sheriff Thompson tok [sic] a board about six feet in length, walked over to the side of the scaffold, reached down and inserted the end of a plank in the wire ring and sprung the trap.

The bodies fell through simultaneously and began to writhe and sway in a horrible manner. Taylor seemed to be conscious and appeared to be trying to speak.

The priests pronounced it the most horrible execution they had ever seen.

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1899: John Headrick and Carroll Rice, Missourians

1 comment June 15th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1899, young John Headrick was hanged outside Cape Girardeau‘s courthouse for murdering James Lail.

The 19-year-old Headrick was an embittered ex-farmhand of his victim, James Lail — who fired the youth for stealing a buggy.

In July of 1898, he turned up on the farm and found Lail in the barn. Lail’s wife and daughter both saw young Headrick arrive; they would testify that within half a minute of him entering the barn, they heard gunshots.

At trial, Headrick would claim that he shot in self-defense when Lail menaced him with a deadly currycomb (a brush used for horses), offering the prosecutor the opportunity for a bit of sport on the cross-ex:

Q: “You want the jury to understand that you are afraid of your life when a man assaults you with a curry comb?”

A: “Yes, sir, when I am in a place where I can’t get away.”

Q: “Especially if you are armed?”

A: “If I wasn’t armed I would have been killed.”

Q: “He aimed to curry you? He didn’t strike you with the curry comb?”

A: “No, sir, he did not. He struck at me mighty hard.”

Jokes aside, Lail’s surviving family had a terrifying ordeal still to come. As Headrick blasted away at his fallen boss, Lail’s wife Vernie arrived and threw herself over her husband protectively.

The young assailant shot her, too, then began beating her. By now, 19-year-old Jessie Lail was on the scene too. “John Headrick, what do you mean!” she shrieked. “You have wrecked my life forever! You have killed Papa, now you are killing Mother!”

In the ensuing chaos, Vernie Lail tried to make a run for it only for Headrick to chase her down and stab her — to death, or so he thought. Then the young assailant marched Jessie Lail off at gunpoint. Somehow, Vernie Lail survived a slashed throat, a shot through the back, and numerous other injuries to rise yet again and make it a quarter of a mile down the road to her mother-in-law’s house.

“By God, the old woman is gone, you can’t kill her, can you?” Headrick exclaimed to the daughter when they re-crossed the spot where mom’s body should have been. Headrick at this point wisely abandoned the scene of his carnage after trying and failing to extract a pledge from his hostage not to give evidence against him. A posse found him shortly afterwards, hiding in a barn.

The sturdy and surprisingly low-to-the-ground tree on which Headrick was hanged just outside the Cape Girardeau courthouse still stands, or did as of 2010 when it was endangered by a proposed traffic roundabout. Have a gander at the old gallows-tree in this post by Cape Girardeau journalist Ken Steinhoff, here.


Headrick’s hanging took place behind jail walls, but on the same date in Alton, Carroll Rice was hanged before a reported crowd of 5,000 for the murder of his wife.

“Just before the black cap was adjusted, and while his legs were being pinioned, the condemned man broke away form the sheriff and attempted to escape,” press reports ran.

It was worth a try.

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1899: Adrian Braun, who murdered his wife in Sing Sing

1 comment May 29th, 2015 Headsman


Wilkes-Barre Times, May 29, 1899.

On this date in 1899, Adrian Braun was electrcuted at Sing Sing.

Braun was a hulking German cigar-maker with a reputation for habitually thrashing his wife. Authorities got involved when he bashed a neighbor who intervened in a beating so hard that it fractured the man’s skull.

In August 1897, Braun caught a two-year sentence for assault. With her batterer put away, Kate Braun now had to shift for herself; struggling to make ends meet as a washer-woman, she had to give up two of her five children to the St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Orphan Asylum. Still, she scraped together enough money to buy her incarcerated husband some sweets on a prison visit.

Mr. Braun was at work peeling potatoes in the prison kitchen when he was summoned for the arrival of his spouse in March 1898. After using up their visiting time on a conversation that appeared entirely mutually affectionate, the two were about to part when Adrian Braun suddenly whipped out the potato-knife he had recently been employing and daggered the poor woman’s throat — with lethal effect.

Braun never explained his shocking crime and pursued only a half-hearted insanity defense at his ensuing trial.

“No man was ever executed at the prison who had less sympathy than was felt for Braun,” the Wilkes-Barre Times reported on the day of the man’s execution.

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1899: Cordelia Poirier and Samuel Parslow

2 comments March 10th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1899, Cordelia Poirier was hanged in Ste. Scholastique, Quebec with her lover Samuel Parslow.*

Cordelia Viau by her maiden name, the femme fatale in this transaction found that in her marriage to one Isidore Poirier she was much the sturdier spirit.

“She was a masterful woman,” this old public-domain text on insurance crimes muses, “and Poirier seems to have been a man of very common mould. He was not great or strong enough to make his wife admire or respect him, yet was too obstinate to yield to her domination.”

Cordelia soon turned this gap in magnetism to good effect on Mr. Parslow, a local carpenter, to the considerable scandal of their village, Saint-Canut.

An intolerable domestic situation drove Isidore Poirier to the bottle, and Cordelia Poirier to the insurance underwriters — from whom she obtained two separate $1,000 policies on the life of her spouse. Much to the discredit of her agents (and, one must suspect, to the commission wage model), the wife’s blunt inquiries as to whether a death by assassination woud void the policies were met with simple affirmations rather than a summons to the constable.

Sure enough, Isidore Poirier suffered just such a death on November 21, 1897: after vespers (Cordelia was an organist at the church), she and Parslow barged in on the intoxicated Isidore at his home and Parslow slashed him to death with a butcher knife. The body was discovered the next day, and it wasn’t hard to put means to motive and clap the adulterers in gaol.

Having perhaps not thought this venture through, Samuel Parslow and Cordelia Poirier promptly began informing on one another in hopes of avoiding the rope. Their confessions would only cinch one another’s fates. By the time of trial, Parslow had to feebly accuse Mrs. Poirier of hypnotizing him.**

Her cynical domestic crime and vampish reputation earned her an extreme level of disapprobation: her behavior obviously inverted and betrayed the model of domestic virtue whose penumbra of sentimentality has often been counted on to save female murderers from the gallows. Cordelia Poirier was actively hated.

“The crowd inside the jail jeered [Cordelia Poirier],” it was reported — “but even then her nerve did not desert her, and at the suggestion of the executioner she turned and faced the Jeerers, and stood erect and prayed to the last.”

* Thanks to the wonders of database searches, research for this post also revealed a completely different legal drama off the same era related to a competely different Parslow. This story is from the Feb. 4, 1898 Minneapolis Journal.

** All reports do paint Cordelia Poirier as the stronger will in her adulterous relationship, as well as her marital one, and the instigator of the murder.

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1899: Martha Place, the first woman electrocuted

2 comments March 20th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1899, Martha Place became the first woman to die in the electric chair.

William Place, a widowed insurance adjuster at 598 Hancock Street in Brooklyn, had taken Martha Garretson on as a housekeeper to help with his daughter Ida.

In time William felt her a suitable enough helpmate to put a ring on it and make her Ida’s full-time mother.

Honestly, though, some kids are just better off in a single-parent household.

Martha’s aptitude as a nurturer really can’t have met Bill Place’s expectations. “She felt that her husband loved his daughter more than he did her, and her jealousy rapidly changed into hatred for the little girl,” opined the New York Times. (July 9, 1898) “As the child grew into a pretty young woman and became more and more of a contrast to her, her hatred began to take active form. Place tried to reconcile them, but in vain. For three years Ida and her stepmother rarely spoke to each other, and in her father’s absence the girl was generally away from home.”

On at least one occasion, Mr. Place summoned the police to deal with a death threat that landed Martha in the dock.

On February 7, 1898, there’d be no more need for threats.

William Place arrived home that day to find the vengeful termagant brandishing an axe in his direction, with which she clobbered him twice about the head. Only wounded when she walked away from him, Place managed to pry a door open and call for help. When the police arrived, they found Martha in a gas-filled room attempting suicide (or pretending to) … and they found Martha’s bete noir, the poor stepdaughter, stone dead on her bed with acid burns on her face and an axe-gash from her scalp to her neck.

There’s a reason the “Wicked Stepmother” is such a venerable trope.

Public opinion did not take kindly to this destruction of hearth and home by such an unlovely faux-mother. The Times (July 8, 1898, once again) judged her

rather tall and spare, with a pale, sharp face. Her nose is long and pointed, her chin sharp and prominent, her lips thin and her forehead retreating. There is something about her face that reminds one of a rat’s,* and the bright, but changeless eyes somehow strengthen the impression. She looks like a woman of great strength of mind and relentless determination. The only time her expression changed during the trial was when her husband, William W. Place, testified to the attack made upon him. Then her thin lips parted in a sardonic grin, and she fixed her eyes upon him. The smile hardly ever left her face while he was on the stand. He did not look at her.

A greater contrast than that between this husband and wife could not be imagined. He is a man of refined appearance, and speaks in a quiet, pleasant voice. He testified calmly, except once or twice, when the questions of the lawyers bore upon the persecution of Ida. Then his voice trembled with emotion, while, on the other hand, it was impossible to make one’s self believe that Mrs. Place was possessed of any other feeling than that of a mild curiosity.

The criminal conviction was simplicity itself, and if women are generally less exposed to the risk of execution, their most characteristic point of vulnerability will tend to be a violation of the demands of sacred motherhood. Envious rat-faced stepmom acid-burns blooming daughter of refined burgher? That’s as paradigmatic as a female execution gets.

There was, of course, no shortage of attention since executions of women aren’t exactly everyday affairs in American history … and this one in particular would be the very first since New York introduced the industrial age’s death penalty innovation, the electric chair. The Medico-Legal Society of New York had a contentious debate at its February 1899 meeting over whether women ought to be executed at all. (The lone female speaker, Ida Trafford Bell, earned applause from the women in attendance by insisting that the fairer sex should have “just as much right to be electrocuted as a man.” (NYT, Feb. 16, 1899) Probably so, but they were still a generation away from having just as much right to vote.

Anyway, the governor of the state — Theodore Roosevelt, who was just a couple of years from becoming U.S. president thanks to another New York murderer — had the final say in the matter. Martha Place’s presence in these annals naturally discloses the outcome of his deliberations.

No more painful case can come before a Governor than an appeal to arrest the course of justice in order to save a woman from capital punishment, when that woman’s guilt has been clearly established, and when there are no circumstances whatever to mitigate the crime. If there were any reasonable doubt of the guilt — if there were any basis whatsoever for interference with the course of justice in this case — I should so interfere. But there is no ground for interference …

The only case of capital punishment which has occurred since the beginning of my term was for wife murder, and I refused to consider the appeals then made to me on behalf of the man who had killed his wife, after I became convinced that he had really done the deed and was sane.** In that case a woman was killed by a man; in this a woman was killed by another woman. The law makes no distinction of sex in such a crime.

This murder was one of peculiar deliberation and atrocity. To interfere with the course of the law in this case could be justified only on the ground that never hereafter, under any circumstances, should capital punishment be inflicted upon any murderess, even though the victim was herself a woman and even though that victim’s torture preceded her death.” (as quoted in the New York Times, March 16, 1899)

Happily the Sing Sing electric chair performed its duty smoothly with, per the March 21 Times, “no revolting feature” in evidence. It was, boasted the prison doctor, “the best execution that has ever occurred here.”

* As we’ve often seen, observers of women in the dock have a knack for perceiving a correlation of physical beauty to virtue, and the reverse.

** Roosevelt rejected Bailer Decker’s appeal for mercy on January 3, 1899 — his very first day in office.

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1899: Three in the Klondike Gold Rush

Add comment August 4th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1899, the gallows of gold rush boom down Dawson City, Yukon strained for three murderers.

The 1896 gold strike in the Klondike triggered a huge rush of prospectors warming sub-Arctic climes with visions of sudden wealth. “When the world rang with the tale of Arctic gold, and the lure of the North gripped the heartstrings of men,” as put by that lure’s great muse Jack London, who himself had already come and gone from the Dawson City by this time, and struck his own variety of fortune in the process.

Miners pouring into the Yukon did not, of course, enter virgin territory. Native peoples had occupied it for thousands of years.

In May 1898, two prospectors, Christian Fox and William Meehan, camped near the mouth of McClintock Creek were only mildly uneasy about the arrival of the Nantucks, Tagish brothers who set up an adjacent camp. Relations were amicable for a while, but when returning one afternoon from the day’s work the prospectors were suddenly fired upon from ambush by their neighbors.

Meehan was slain in the fusillade. The injured Christian Fox managed to float away, get to land, and reach a miners’ settlement. He described the attack thus:

I was lying on the sacks against the side of the boat … and I saw Joe standing with his gun like this … and all the boys went into the brush, and I says to myself “Now they have shot us for our outfit, and are hurrying down to the next bend in the river to catch the boat … My only show is to get to the opposite side of the river and try to make for a white habitation” … I took the paddle in my hand and tried to paddle the boat but I was too weak, so I … used it as a pry … The boat ran up to a nice little level place where it was grassy and as I stepped out I stepped over the leg of my partner as he was stretched out over the boat with his head back and his mouth open and I saw that he was dead, and I said “Good by Billy old boy, I can do nothing for you here.”

By Fox’s report, the four Nantucks were soon taken into custody.


The four Nantuck brothers, shackled after arrest.

The trial unfolded in a court at the territorial capital of Dawson City. A compelling chapter in Strange Things Done: Murder in Yukon History does wonderful work with the cultural disconnections, including a two-page exchange between judge and interpreter (and, off-camera, Frank Nantuck) in which the court struggles to get the accused sworn “so help me God” since Frank’s cosmology has no idea of an afterlife. “He says, when he is dead he is dead — that is all I can get out of him,” the helpless middleman reports.

Q Has he any knowledge of God at all or any idea about a future state of rewards and punishments?

A No sir.

Q Or any clear belief in religion of any kind?

A No sir.

Q Will you say to him that we want him to tell us the truth and not to tell us anything that is not the truth; that he may be punished if he tells us anything that is not the truth; that we are going to ask him some questions and that he must tell us just the truth; ask him if he will agree to do that.

The outcome of the trial will not surprise and there was no question but that the Nantucks had done the shooting. What the Dawson court only barely noted was that brothers had been detailed to avenge two Tagish deaths. An old woman had previously been given or found some “baking powder” and proceeded to make bread with it: in fact, it was arsenic, which was used in mining. Here again is the cultural dislocation; the Nantucks living next to Fox and Meehan were trying to feel out whether those two prospectors were of the tribe that had provided this poison, and of equivalent social rank to the two men who died eating the arsenic-bread. Basically, neither side in this subarctic tragedy had any concept of what the other was on about.

There’s a play about this case, Justice. Peruse the play’s pdf companion study guide on the real historical case here.

In the end, all four Nantucks were condemned to die; Frank was probably still a minor, and he had cooperated with the investigation, so his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment … which did not turn out to be very long at all, since Frank and his condemned brother Joe both died in jail of tuberculosis during the 1898-99 winter.

Dawson Nantuck and Jim Nantuck remained to hang.

Momentarily sensational, the case was long forgotten among whites; it has, however, remained in the oral tradition of Yukon First Peoples. Both communities, however, saw the case brought to the fore when excavations accidentally turned up their remains — along with those of two other hanged men.

One of the other two was the third man to hang this date, a fellow by the name of Ed Henderson. Henderson was an American prospector whose fate might be a bit less instructive for posterity. He suffered from a horrible bladder infection that caused him to pass bloody water every 15 or 20 minutes. “The tortures of the damned,” he described it to court. Wincing yet?

The fact that Henderson suffered from it meant his two prospector-mates suffered from it as well — call it purgatory-level suffering; a member of their party had to relieve himself constantly and thrashed about in his sleeping bag all night for the agony it caused him.

Their empathy for his situation was overturned along with Ed Henderson’s inside-the-tent piss-bowl one night. The drenched and vengeful Tomberg Peterson started an immediate brawl, but Henderson’s leaky plumbing didn’t impair his ability to shoot Peterson dead. Henderson himself reported the incident when the prospectors reached their destination, possibly thinking that no jury would convict him.

The trio comprises the first men hanged by the Yukon Territory, which was only separated from the Northwest Territory in 1898. In fact, there was a bizarre procedural deficiency for the Nantucks (but not for Henderson): they were condemned by the court of the wrong, former territory since word of the territories’ separation had not reached Dawson City at the time of the trial. Nobody saw fit to remedy this blunder, however.

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1899: Not J.M. Olberman, spared by Oregon’s governor

1 comment April 28th, 2013 Headsman

This date in 1899 was the one appointed for the Roseburg, Ore. hanging of a miner named J.M. Olberman for murdering his partner-in-prospecting.

But as described in this April 28, 1899 story from the Portland Oregonian (transcribed in its entirety), a governor willing to “take a larger and less restricted view” of a case than the courts would do spared Olberman on the eve of his hanging.


SALEM, April 27. — The sentence of J.M. Olberman, who was to have been hanged in Roseburg tomorrow for the murder of J.N. Casteel, his mining partner, near Myrtle Creek, last year, has been commuted to life imprisonment. At 5 o’clock this afternoon Governor Geer sent a telegram to Sheriff Stephens, of Douglas county, advising him of the commutation. When asked tonight to give his reasons for extending clemency to Olberman, Governor Geer said:

I finally concluded to commute Olberman’s sentence to life imprisonment for the reason that there were many extenuating circumstances that remove his crime from the class of deliberately planned murders. His victim had not only viciously warned him the night before that he would kill him when he was least expecting it, but had refused to go to bed, lying on the lounge al lnight, and muttering his threats long after Olberman had retired. Reputable citizens of Mytle Creek have proven to me that Casteel had not only threatened Olberman’s life, but that of several other men, and that he was a ‘bully’ by natre, and a dangerous man. I have petitions signed by 62 citizens of Myrtle creek, where the tragedy occurred, stating that Casteel ‘frequently threatened to kill people, drove his son-in-law from home by threats to kill him; that he threatened to kill Olberman, and we believe he would have carried the threat into execution had he not himself been killed.’

To my mind, these facts, which are well established, make a wide distinction between Olberman’s crime and that which is committed by a highwayman, who deliberately murders for gain, or the brute who takes human life purely for revenge, and there should be a distinction between the degrees of punishment following their commission.

Courts are sometimes prohibited from going outside the forms of law and the record, although convinced, perhaps, that the equities of the case would warrant a different finding. It is to correct such conditions that the right to take a larger and less restricted view of the circumstances surrounding a case is given to the executive. It is great power to place in the hands of one man, and should be used very sparingly and rarely.

I have an abundance of testimony from Myrtle Creek and Portland, where he lived for four years, that Olberman is a man of steady habits, and of a peacable disposition, and has never associated with the criminal class. The commutation of his sentence was asked by most of the people in the vicinity where the murder was committed, and the same request was made by letter to me by both the daughters of the murdered man, one of his sons-in-law, and three of the trial jurors.

Olberman committed a great crime, but the provocation surrounding him makes him less guilty, in my judgment, than the other man who deliberately murders for either gain or revenge; and his crime being less his punishment should be less. I do not think I have erred in saving this man’s life, but if I have it has been on the side of mercy, and to do so is sometimes a positive virtue.

Among those who signed petitions and sent personal letters to the governor in Olberman’s behalf were Governor Bradley, of Kentucky; a member of congress from Kentucky; United States Senator Joseph Simon, H.M. Martin, William Flocks and George McDougall, three of the trial jurors, and Mrs. May Stewart and Mrs. June Reynolds, daughters of the murdered man.

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1899: Ologbosere, of the Benin Empire

19 comments June 28th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1899, British forces occupying Benin City hanged a local tribal leader for the massacre whose perpetration had justified London’s, er, “humanitarian” intervention.

The locale of today’s post is “Benin”, but it’s important to note that this is not the modern country of Benin but rather the land just to the east currently situated in southern Nigeria — which was then the Benin Empire, at the tail end of a very long run.

Ruled from Benin City (also presently in Nigeria), this great African state had been in direct contact with European countries since the 15th century.

By the 19th, of course, it had waned with colonial incursions — but Benin itself had sagely declined to extend “free trade” to the powers that meant to dominate it, nor to cede sovereignty by signing a “protectorate” arrangement.

It was only a matter of time before Britain (or someone else) made an offer Benin couldn’t refuse.

In January 1897, a British expedition attempting to enter Benin during a religious festival against the orders of its oba (king) was slaughtered by a Benin force led by the oba‘s son-in-law, Ologbosere (alternatively, Ologbosheri). Britain claimed it was a diplomatic mission; Benin apparently believed the deputation meant to attack.

Regardless, the tactical victory would prove a strategic debacle.


New York Times, Jan. 21, 1897. The last paragraph of this article innocently observes that “the country is said to be very rich, and it would not be surprising to find that one result of the punitive expedition would be the annexation of the whole territory to the British possessions in West Africa.”

The circumstances of this encounter remain murky and hotly disputed to this day. (Here’s a Benin-sympathetic take.) We at Executed Today are confident that a global superpower would never misrepresent its intentions nor engineer a provocation in order to unseat a resource-rich dictator.

As we learn from the London Times (June 12, 1897),

The object of the mission is described as peaceful, and one version even asserts that the party were unarmed … it was intended to send a party to Benin city to ask the King to remove the obstacles which he places in the way of trade …

The King and his capital have a bad reputation. He is a “Ju Ju” follower and addicted to human sacrifices, the gruesome remains of which are to be found in abundance in his capital. He is said recently to have threatened death to the next white man who attempted to visit him, and there is but too good reason to fear that he has kept his word. A military expedition against him probably would have been necessary in any event sooner or later.


Why, less than a teaspoon of Ju-Ju is enough to …

Dispatched within days, the retaliatory Benin punitive expedition sacked Benin City by the end of February, sending its reigning oba into exile. The Benin Empire had fallen; as the journalist had predicted, it was folded into Britain’s colonial administration.

Punitive force personnel reported a veritable bloodbath perpetrated within Benin City by its outgoing administration, including that trump taboo, human sacrifice.

Naval intelligence officer R.H. Bacon wrote,

The one lasting remembrance of Benin in my mind is its smells. Crucifixions, human sacrifices, and every horror the eye could get accustomed to, to a large extent, but the smells no white man’s internal economy could stand. …

Blood was everywhere; smeared over bronzes, ivory, and even the walls, and spoke the history of that awful city in a clearer way than writing ever could. And this had been going on for centuries! Not the lust of one king, not the climax of a bloody reign, but the religion (save the word!) of the race …

the atrocities of Benin, originating in blood lust and desire to terrorise the neighbouring states, the brutal love of mutilation and torture, and the wholesale manner in which the caprices of the King and Juju were satisfied, could only have been the result of stagnant brutality …

[I saw] a crucifixion tree with a double crucifixion on it, the two poor wretches stretched out facing the west, with their arms bound together in the middle. The construction of this tree was peculiar, being absolutely built for the purpose of crucifixion. At the base were skulls and bones, literally strewn about; the debris of former sacrifices … and down every main road were two or more human sacrifices.

The synoptic reports of two other officers are excerpted in this tome; e.g.,

Seven large sacrifice compounds were found inclosed by walls … [containing earthen] altars [that] were covered with streams of dried human blood … [and] open pits filled with human bodies giving forth the most trying odours.

Whilst Britain set about making Benin safe for the olfactory nerves of long-barred merchandisers, Ologbosere persisted in the bush for more than two years. He was finally snared with the connivance of some local tribal chiefs keen to do business with the new boss.


Ologbosere, captured.

Tried on June 27 — just one day before his actual execution; the verdict, of course, foreordained — Ologbosere was damned by those chiefs’ testimony that the strike force he had led back in 1897 to precipitate the intervention “was not sent to kill white men — and we therefore decide that according to native law his life is forfeited.”

Ologbosere said otherwise, to no avail.

The king told me that he had heard that the white men were coming to fight with him, and that I must get ready to go and fight the white men … when all the people called the mass meeting at Benin City and selected me to go and fight the white men, I went. I had no palaver with the white men before.

The day I was selected to go from Benin City to meet the white men all the chiefs here present were in the meeting, and now they want to put the whole thing on my shoulders.


Great Britain’s punitive expedition also resulted in the capture of many hundreds of metal objects scattered to European museums and collections — collectively known as the Benin Bronzes. (It’s a misnomer: they’re actually brass.)

Hocked to defray the expense of their plundering, their diffusion around the empires’ continent helped broaden European appreciation for African art, and influenced modernist art movements. (Notably (pdf) German expressionism: tons of the bronzes ended up in Germany, and many can still be seen at Berlin’s Ethnological Museum.)

Nigeria, and the successor obas of Benin, have for decades besought their return in vain.


Cultural encounter: this Benin “bronze” shows the oba with two attendants, and the smaller floating heads of two European (Portuguese) traders.

More on this object, and its place in the story of Benin and Europe, in this episode of the BBC’s History of the World in 100 Objects; or, at the “bronze’s” page at the British Museum website.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Benin,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Nigeria,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Royalty,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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1899: Hilda Blake, poorhouse orphan

2 comments December 27th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1899, domestic servant Hilda Blake was hanged in Brandon, Manitoba for murdering the mistress of the house.

Book CoverThe only woman ever executed in Manitoba is the subject of Walk Towards the Gallows: The Tragedy of Hilda Blake, Hanged 1899 (U.S. Amazon link | Canadian), which charts her course from an English poorhouse to death on the Canadian frontier.

(A Norwich newspaper recently profiled its long-lost pauper daughter here and here.)

On the occasion of the 110th anniversary of Hilda’s hanging, Executed Today was able to sit down with Tom Mitchell, co-author (with his Brandon University colleague Reinhold Kramer) of Walk Towards the Gallows.

Here’s an excerpt from that book. And here are some reviews:

ET: How did you run across Hilda Blake?

TM: It’s a very simple story, really. The province of Manitoba tore an old jail down, and handed the property to the department of health for a senior citizens’ center. So, construction began, and an old jail guard named Bill Ryan showed up on the site and confronted the building superintendent and said, this is holy ground, and it is immoral for you to be constructing anything on this site without removing the human remains.

Hilda and two other victims of capital punishment were on the site, and the guard knew what was there. This made front-page news.

I was doing labor history at the time, so the possibility of finding out a lot of detail about domestic servants was compelling. And it turned out she was sort of a magnet for legal proceedings. When I went to find her court pocket, I found there were actually five court pockets.

As an orphan, she ran away from [her previous placement with] the Stewarts and took up residence with a family headed by a widow homesteader Mary Rex, A legal struggle ensued over who should have Hilda, and in the course of that, Hilda had to make a statement about who she was and where she wanted to be. When we read the letter, it’s clearly not Hilda’s voice, it’s somebody else writing for her. You’re almost always dealing with Hilda second-hand.

There is no other domestic servant probably in the British Empire for whom as much documentation exists, and it’s basically because of Hilda’s notoriety in the murder and these court cases previous. And of course you can track her right back to the British census and the records of the poorhouse and her old neighbourhood and community of Chedgrave, Norfolk England.

The only straightforward account Hilda gives is “My Downfall,” [see below -ed.] and if you read that, you get a pretty good sense of her sensibility. And if you read the press accounts of what she read in jail, you say, right, we’re dealing with a 21-year-old woman for whom literature -– Victorian novels — often times provided her with life strategies and notions of how a woman should conduct herself. Of course Victorian sensation novels were also filled with women who used guns for various ends.

Why was this isolated domestic crime such a big deal?

Western Canada in the 19th century was a frontier, and often times the leading edge of civilization in this frontier were white women and the sort of ideals and morality associated with white women — domestic environment, civility, gender relationships, social class and status involving men and women in terms of how they ought to account for themselves and so on.

So when you have an attack on this sort of basic notion of the social order that people are trying to build, the response is more visceral and more trenchant than it might have been in a more settled community. Here, it was almost akin to the Riel Rebellion: the lower orders are rising against us; every middle-class wife probably looked at her husband and said, “I hope you’re not misbehaving with the help, because we could have a problem.”

So what can we in the 21st century say about how British orphans shipped to Canada for domestic servitude experienced the world? And, of course, about how Hilda specifically experienced it?

Hilda was quite literary in her own way, and she obviously read and developed strategies for life from literature. She seemed to take her role models from literature, and we argue that in part that she can be understood through the books that she read, like Jane Eyre.

My colleague, Reinhold Kramer, whose contribution to Walk Towards the Gallows cannot be overstated, is an English professor. He developed this feature of the biography as well as other fundamental themes of the book.

My continuing frustration with the book is that nobody will see it as labor history. Everybody wants to see it as whodunit or something — but that’s okay; it’s been used for a lot of different courses, some on women, some on crime, some on women and the world of work.

How widespread and significant is this phenomenon of the domestic servant?

From 1870 to about 1930, there were something in the order of about 70 or so thousand children shipped from poorhouses (which were created by the 1830s poor law).

The whole idea of adoption is a 20th century thing. If you were a poor kid, an orphan, in the 19th century, you didn’t get adopted, you were put in a poorhouse and shipped off to Australia, Canada. On the western frontier of Canada, the labor of these children was a valuable commodity.

The British government recently apologized to the descendants of these children for the fact that they were sent out, often with sort of gratuitous statements from the organizations that sent them that they would follow them up. For many of them, it was tragic, and for Hilda and Mary Lane it was more than tragic.

As an economic sector, how important was this domestic service trade to Canada at the turn of the century?

Typically these were young women, and not all of them would be living within the residence of their employer, but most of them would be. The vast majority were young British women — Irish, English, what-not — and it was for women in the paid labor force, this was the main occupation. Young women coming off the farm or young immigrant women, this was one step above prostitution.

So, you could be a sex worker, or you could be a domestic worker. You didn’t get into this if there were options, and many young women would choose options that paid less, just to have social freedom.

So what would be a typical life path for a girl like Hilda?

The premise with Hilda was that she would work as a domestic servant and eventually marry, but the difficulty was that you always carried this badge of your social station.

You had basically no place to meet men in private, and the amount of time off you had was perhaps an afternoon per week. The possibility of you having some kind of independent social life was very very unlikely, so you were a captive of your place in the world of work.

For Hilda, she must have realized that her only escape was in moving up within this small world that she resided in. She kissed Mary Lane before she shot her, and I think was saying, this is nothing personal but it’s my only chance of moving up in the world.

You do a lot with how Hilda Blake played as a political issue, and the symbolism invoked by the press in handling her execution. Frankly, a lot of it seems very contemporary: “villains were bad because they were bad,” crime is “a platform upon which to preach the value of bourgeois order”. How did this crime work as a cultural narrative?

The big issue for Canada in the late 1890s was the quality of immigrant coming to Canada, because it was clear that if the West was going to develop, the country needed hundreds of thousands of people.

Clifford Sifton, who happened to be the MP for Brandon was the Minister for Immigration, and he was bringing Count Leo Tolstoy’s Doukhobors from Russia, Ukrainians from Austro-Hungary, and so on, and he considered these good-quality immigrants because they were agrarian, they could survive. He was being attacked bitterly by people whose ideas of adequate immigrants were shaped by Social Darwinism.

The other problem was that working class immigrants, paupers especially, from Britain were viewed as being marginally adequate because of their questionable morality. The notion of gender at the time was that women were, just by their nature, moral creatures, and if they weren’t, then she was more atavistic than even criminal men — they were moral imbeciles, they were dangerous.

When Hilda Blake murdered Mary Lane, it just happened that a federal election was in the offing, and the main issue that the Conservative party was going to use to try to defeat the Liberals and Clifford Sifton in his own district was immigration, so if the federal government didn’t execute Hilda Blake, they would be handing them an issue to run on.

The Melita Enterprise condemned Hilda early on with the line “we don’t want the Hilda Blakes of the world, they carry blood with the taint of Cain,” which is a great line I wanted to use for the title of our book.

So the federal government faced this dilemma, and our argument was that virtually all women who faced the death penalty had had their sentences commuted, but in the case of Blake, her social background made it impossible.

The one powerful person she had in her corner was the Governor General Lord Minto. The thing that made him susceptible in some senses to understanding the case was his own sense of guilt for the affair he was carrying on with a young woman in Ottawa. That wasn’t a secret; she was nicknamed “Minto’s Folly.”

How about the victim, Mary Lane?

Here was a woman who was murdered by someone she had taken in, been friends with, gunned down in the parlor of her own home. She was a very-well respected person in the community, she was an Anglican, and reportedly sympathetic to women in Hilda’s situation in life.

It’s amazing that Robert Lane manages to avoid coming in even for any kind of censure or public embarrassment.

There was nothing, not in terms of any juridical sense; apparently he wasn’t even interviewed.

The theory of the crime in domestic murders was always the love triangle: if the man of the house got gunned down, the hired man had better look out; in this case, when the woman got gunned down, it was a bit confusing about who would have done this. Ultimately Hilda confessed and protected Lane, but what protected him even more was his middle-class status within that community and the notion that men of that ilk were moral creatures who couldn’t possibly have connived to have had their wives gunned down. If he’d been a working class guy whose morals would have been more suspect, he probably would have been hanged with Hilda.

I think the authorities also couldn’t have been unaware of the implications: if they hanged Lane, his four kids would be orphans.

How widespread were these sexual relationships — or sexual exploitation — between masters of the house and domestics?

Domestic servants should have received danger pay, because they were victimized so often. Most of the women set up in these Magdalene Houses, these houses for single women who were pregnant, were domestic servants.

We talk about the amendments to the criminal code in the late 19th century, and there were some protections put in for women, but Charles Tupper, a Conservative, opposed these because he said they would arm domestic servants with terrific power to blackmail their employers. So the largest class of women in the paid economy were left outside the protection of the code, and any domestic servant who claimed that their employer impregnated them would face a court that would use every possible mechanism to get at their immorality.

It was almost akin to a feudal relationship within the home.

Why did Hilda plead guilty and ask for the maximum punishment?

This was, I think, Hilda’s sense of how a proper woman would behave. You have to think of Hilda growing up as an orphan, with no strong role models. So a lot of I think how she thought of herself and how she should behave came out of what she read.

Reviewers of the book weren’t always satisfied with that.

Sure. You write that “writing a history that did not ignore Blake’s subjectivity required a historical ‘reading’ of a wide range of sources,” and you build some ambitious speculative history on that basis. What kind of reception did that get?

Some reviewers saw that treatment as sort of postmodern, that we were satisfying ourselves with kind of a literary account of Hilda without too seriously thinking about the things we couldn’t talk about because we didn’t have the evidence.

We didn’t go that way without first being made aware by Hilda of her own great interest in novels and coon songs — the sort of Victorian era rap music; it’s a lower-class music, a sort of Victorian blues … you can see how Hilda would have identified.

We felt it was quite reasonable to argue as we did that often times her life strategies were rooted in Victorian novels.

Is there any sort of lasting public memory of these events, or were you resuscitating a completely cold case?

The Lane family still resents any discussion of this case. They still reside in Brandon, and it’s still a very live matter for them.

One descendant from outside Brandon called me after the book published and told me it wasn’t at all the version he had heard growing up. The story he’d been told is that Mary died when she was standing out in her front yard and she was hit by a bolt of lightning.

By the same token, after Hilda accused a tramp of the shooting, all the itinerant foreign born men in town making their way from one job to another were rounded up. There’s another family we found that who had a story in the family that grandpa had almost been hanged when “the maid fell in love with the master and murdered the mistress.”

It’s really fascinating how these echoes of the past persist through family oral tradition. These are the skeletons in the closet, and they show up in different guises.

In Brandon once a year, a local dramatic society go to the cemetery in Brandon and represent various well-known figures in the graveyard, and the public is invited to go and ask them questions about their lives. After the one year where Robert Lane was represented by one of the actors, his descendents objected and said that it was a serious incursion into their family privacy.

How about Hilda? Has she been portrayed?

Hilda hasn’t been represented because she’s not in the cemetery; she’s still under the senior citizens’ building. The superintendent told me he got a backhoe and an undertaker one Saturday and went exploring for human remains, and they couldn’t find any. So the building project went ahead and Hilda is now under the northeast corner of the Rideau Park Personal Care Home. Not exactly what the poorhouse guardians had promised Hilda’s older sister when they sought her permission to send Hilda and her brother Tommy to Canada in 1889.

Tom Mitchell and Reinhold Kramer are also co-authors of the forthcoming When the State Trembled: How A.J. Andrews & the Citizens Broke the Winnipeg General Strike.


“My Downfall”
by Hilda Blake

(From Walk Towards the Gallows, as published on the Western Sun, Dec. 14 1899)

One I was innocent, lighthearted and gay,
And sang while I worked through all the long day;
A stranger to sorrow, not a care had I,
A laugh on my lip, but never a sigh.

But one day the devil, in the form of a man,
Came smiling towards me; said he “You can
Know more, if you’ll take them,
Of joy and pleasure,” I heard him say,
“Than e’er you have dreamed of; I’ll show you the way.”

I followed the tempter, along the smooth track,
I’d gone a long distance, ‘fore e’er I looked back,
Or thought of returning —
When I turned, the way back seemed so lonely and dreary,
E’er I’d gone many steps I grew footsore and weary,
That down by the roadside, to rest and to weep,
My strength was exhausted, I soon fell asleep.

I awakened refreshed, my exhaustion all gone,
Saw the phantom of Pleasure, still beckoning me on;
Then I made up my mind
To leave Prudence behind,
And pursue my perilous way.

As I journeyed along my heart lost its song,
For the path grew stony and dark;
Each step that I took tore the flesh off my feet,
And the track was a blood-stained mark.

I looked at the tempter, in his eye was a gleam;
I saw he was standing beside a dark stream;
He cried, “Come along, take a few steps more
And your struggle is ended, your journey is o’er.”

As I stood on the brink of that river,
My heart grew faint and sick;
What I saw only made me shiver —
I thought Fortune had played me a trick.

“As I look across I see only the dead,
Neither joy, nor pleasure,” to Satan, I said:
“But pleasures there are, though hidden from view,
They only wait to be claimed by you.”

I thought as he spoke, he moved his hand
And I saw I was standing on sinking sand.
As I leaped across, a frantic yell
Reached my ear
When too late, I saw I had leaped into hell;
I tried to go back, but an awful wall
Loomed up, and separated me from all
My youth and innocence.

Forsaken by friendship, kith, and kin
I lie in my lonely cell;
It seems but a dream that I’ve crossed that dark stream
And descended from heaven to hell.

You hypocrites, pleading religion,
You inquisitive seekers of fame,
Ready now with your good advice
When I’ve drunk of the sorrow and shame;
You gave me no timely warning,
You held out no helping hand, —
Why didn’t you see me sinking
As I stepped on this treacherous sand?

Oh Friend of all Friends who rules earth and sea,
Look down with a pitying eye upon me;
Thou’ll forgive my transgressions, says the book that is best —
Come ye that are weary, and I’ll give you the rest.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Canada,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Interviews,Murder,Other Voices,Sex,Women

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