1904: Wang Weiqin, by lingchi

Add comment October 31st, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1904, Wang Weiqin, an official who killed two families, was put to death in Beijing by lingchi (slow slicing, or death by a thousand cuts).

This execution is distinguished by its late date and, consequently, the photographs taken of it; needless to say, it is Mature Content below.

Several equally ghastly photographs of this event can be browsed here.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Lingchi,Mature Content,Murder,Public Executions

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1909: Joe Gauvitte, wife-slayer

Add comment August 27th, 2020 Headsman

From the Spokane, Wash. Spokesman-Review, Aug. 28, 1909:

Joe Gauvitte Is Hanged

Pays Death Penalty for the Murder of his Wife

WALLA WALLA, Wash., Aug. 27. — Joe Gauvitte, the bartender of Spokane, who killed his wife, was hanged at 5:50 this morning in the penitentiary yard. There were few visitors present and the prisoner was not allowed to speak on the platform, although he desired to do so, it being the wish of the warden that no death statement be given there.

In lieu of this, Gauvitte asked Father Jones to issue a statement thanking the officers for their courtesies and declaring he desired death. Father Jones arrived at Gauvitte’s cell at 4 o’clock and remained with him until the execution. Contrary to custom, the condemned man ate no breakfast, but devoted the time to his conference with the priest.


Joseph Gauvitte, who was hanged yesterday for wife murder, was arrested some time before he killed his wife, the evning of June 27, for having attempted to stab her. At another time he was arrested by complaint of his wife on a charge of insanity. According to his confession he was afraid she was about to leave him and he said he could not bear the thought of the separation.

In his confession, made to Prosecuting Attorney Fred C. Push, Captain of Police Coverly, Sergeant McPhee and Deputy Sheriff George Sweet, after his arrest for the murder, Gauvitte said:

The thought of killing my wife came to me on Saturday afternoon when I was at work. I thought that if I could not have her no one else could. I took a few drinks early in the night to nerve myself. While I was in the Bodega saloon my wife passed on a Broadway car and I went hurriedly down College avenue to reach the corner of Maple street before she got there. I waited and saw her alight from the car. I waited until she was almost abreast of me and then made sure she was the right person. Certain of her identity, I stepped out from behind a tree and fired point-blank at her twice. She groaned and staggered into the street and I followed. I was afraid I might only have wounded her, and I wanted to be sure to kill her.

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1905: Thomas Tattersall, taking the hangman with him

Add comment August 15th, 2020 Headsman

Thomas Tattersall was hanged at Armley Prison in Leeds on this date in 1905.

An alcoholic plasterer, Tattersall had a going reputation for home violence already when he got into his cups and fatally slashed his wife’s throat on July 3.

A terrible tragedy for the families involved, this crime at a century’s distance scarcely stands out from the common run of homicides. What attracts our notice is a third fatality, after the murdered victim and the executed killer: the clumsy hangman.

That man, John Billington, came by nooses as a family trade, albeit not of very great vintage: his father, a colorful* Lancashireman called James Billington, had transitioned his amateur personal interest in hanging into a calling as one of the realm’s official executioners after the great William Marwood died in 1883.

This elder Billington passed away in 1901 with 146 hangings under his belt. All three of his sons followed his footsteps into what proved a truly star-crossed vocation.

Eldest son Thomas Billington died of pneumonia at the age of 29, mere days after his father’s passing; he had been only an occasional assistant hangman — never the lead guy.

Second son William Billington was the real maven and succeeded his father as the lead executioner in the realm. He conducted most of the hangings in England between 1902 and his 1905 jailing for failing to pay alimony to his wife.

And that turned out to be the end of a career that appeared to haunt William later in life, because while he was incarcerated his youngest brother John Billington, commissioned to execute our man Thomas Tattersall, plunged through the trap while setting up the gear ahead of time. He was able to perform the execution, but the cracked ribs that he suffered from the fall caused an attack of pleurisy that claimed the hangman’s life that October.

* Apart from treading the scaffolds, James Billington was also a pugilist and wrestler, and other descendants in the Billington family have pursued those trades. Notable exemplars include World Wrestling Federation great Tom Billington, aka the Dynamite Kid and present-day WWE grappler Davey Boy Smith Jr.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder

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1905: Kinjikitile Ngwale, Maji Maji Rebellion prophet

Add comment August 4th, 2020 Headsman

Tanzanian medium Kinjikitile Ngwale was hanged as a traitor to Germany on this date in 1905.

He emerged as a prophet of the Maji Maji Rebellion, a rising in German East Africa (modern-day Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi) — provoked by the strains imposed by the mother country’s exploitation of their possession, most particularly the tilt into growing cotton for export.

The rebellion takes its name from the magical maji — that’s just the Swahili word for “water” — supplied by Kinjikitile, a castor oil potion that he said would melt German bullets into water. Both the ointment and the cult* behind it provided an organizing principle for disparate peoples and grievances of what is now southeast Tanzania. The German bullets, however, did not melt.

Kinjikitile was arrested almost immediately with the onset of the revolt in July 1905 and hanged soon thereafter. The rising that he kindled raged on until 1907, and the German reply of imposing famine** laid tens of thousands of souls in the earth in the course of suppressing it. In the 1950s, a journalist would remark that “even today the Southern Province of Tanganyika, the ‘Cinderella Province,’ has not fully recovered from the German terror half a century ago. The economy of the region has never been successfully rebuilt.” But the rebellion’s spirit of fellow-feeling against the colonizer has been invoked many times since as one of the foundational stirrings of Tanzanian nationalism.

* We use the term entirely without pejorative intent.

** Not unlike what had been done immediately prior to the Herero in German South West Africa (present-day Namibia).

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1909: Sheikh Fazlollah Noori, anti-constitutionalist martyr

Add comment July 31st, 2020 Headsman

Shia cleric Sheikh Fazlollah Noori was hanged by Iran’s Constitutionalist government on this date in 1909.

We’ve observed previously the convulsions of the 1905-1911 Persian Constitutional Revolution, which proposed to bind the Qajar dynasty with a parliament. The movement achieved a constitution in 1906, which was then violently abolished by the Qajar sovereign. We meet the Constitutionalists in this post at the apex of their counterattack, in the heady aftermath of the July 13, 1909 Triumph of Tehran that forced that same Qajar sovereign to abdicate in favor of his young son


Painting of the 1909 Triumph of Tehran, at Sa’dadab Palace.

Needless to say, this was a tight moment for anti-constitutionalists.

Noori was that — not just that, but an apostate who had once espoused a parliament to restrain the despotism of the shahs, but denounced the project as un-Islamic when Western-influenced secular liberals emerged at the helm. Noori had had in mind a collaboration between state and religious authorities that would ensure a godly ship of state.

The tracts he’d issued in those key years anathematizing the reformists — and the support that he’d given the Qajar anti-constitutional coup a couple years earlier — weighed against him once those same reformists seized power.

He’s a martyr in the eyes of present-day conservatives in the Islamic Republic, who view him as a key figure in recognizing the colonial and anti-Islamic bent of western-style parliamentarianism, and an essential theorist for Islamic governance.

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1908: Chester Gillette, A Place in the Sun inspiration

Add comment March 30th, 2020 Headsman

Theodore Dreiser‘s classic novel An American Tragedy was inspired by an infamous 1906 murder whose author, Chester Gillette, was electrocuted at Auburn Prison on this date in 1908.

It was a crime tailor-made for the burgeoning mass media, popular and pretty 20-year-old Grace Brown gone to work at the Cortland, N.Y. Gillette Skirt Factory where the owner’s nephew seduced and impregnated her.

That, of course, is our man Chester Gillette, who further distressed his lover by tomcatting around town, especially charging the love triangle with class rivalry with his rumored interest in a socialite while he stalled for time with Ms. Brown. Dreiser’s novel — which is freely available from the public domain — spins on this axis, although the real-life heiress in question put out an arch press release averring that “I have never been engaged to Chester E. Gillette … Our acquaintance was of … a limited duration.”

That was also true of Gillette’s acquaintance with Grace Brown. At length he induced the future mother of his child to elope to the Adirondacks upon the apparent prospect of finally regularizing their situation. Instead, after making a couple of stops in upstate New York, they paused on July 11 at Big Moose Lake for a nice canoe outing. While out on the water, Gillette bashed his lover’s head with his tennis racket and forced her into the water to drown.

Letters the two had exchanged would establish that Gillette knew Brown could not swim … and the fact that he’d brought his whole suitcase with him for this supposed day trip would establish his premeditated intent. Gillette schlepped his stuff along with his guilty conscience through the woods to another lake and checked into a hotel under his real name(!). He was as careless with his coverup, alibi, and escape as he had been with his heart; Brown’s body was recovered the very next day and the trail led directly back to Gillette, who was not difficult to find and couldn’t stick to a story — alternately claiming that the drowning was an accident, a suicide, or something that happened when he wasn’t there at all.

The snake was public enemy number one by the time he came to his trial, making the case a national sensation. Dreiser improved it to literature in 1925, and it was such a hit that he was immediately called upon to adapt it for the stage. A version hit the silver screen as soon as 1931, but its best-known rendering is the 1951 classic A Place in the Sun, which earned Academy Award nominations for both Shelley Winters and Montgomery Clift, who portrayed the young lovers.

It’s had an enduring appeal for the century since; rumors of Grace Brown’s ghost haunting Big Moose Lake brought the case to the Unsolved Mysteries television program in the 1990s, and an award-winning 2003 novel A Northern Light centers around a fictional friend of Grace Brown’s. There’s even an A Place in the Sun opera.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Murder,New York,Sex,The Supernatural,USA

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1903: Mathias Kneissl, Bavarian bicycle bandit

Add comment February 21st, 2020 Headsman

Bavarian bandit Mathias Kneissl was beheaded by the fallbeil guillotine in an Augsburg prison on the morning of February 21, 1903.

Kneißl/Kneissl got a juvenile start on his delinquency — the family trade, one might say; his parents were part-time thieves and fences and an uncle was a famous robber of the Munich-Augsburg roads named Johann Pascolini. He caught his first serious jail time at the tender age of 18 in an affair when his brother Alois shot dead a police officer who had come to investigate them for poaching.

Alois died of tuberculosis in prison but Kneissl emerged from his cell in 1899 — 24 years old and penniless. He soon returned to his vomit, mounting a bicycle-borne crime spree around Bavaria’s Dachau district.

Quaint though it might read in retrospect, a mobile gunslinging cyclist could be a hell of a menace in a world without cars or telephones. Kneissl proved it over the span of about a year and a half before his March 1901 arrest, raiding farms and passersby trying to accumulate a stake sufficient to vanish with his sweetheart to America.

Instead that sweetheart betrayed his hideout to authorities, who require an hourslong siege to capture the wanted outlaw. Two Altomünster gendarmes whom he had killed in a shootout supplied the requisite capital charge, notwithstanding the popular “social bandit” glow he had gained from his many months on the lam. (Folk songs celebrating him are still in circulation to this day; there have also been 1970 and 2008 cinematic treatments of this criminal legend.)

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1900: A day in the death penalty around the world

Add comment December 7th, 2019 Headsman

… courtesy of the Foreign News dispatch in the pages of the Boston (U.S.) Daily Advertiser, Dec. 8, 1900:

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1903: Phil Davis, Walter Carter and Clint Thomas, multiracial lynching

1 comment November 30th, 2019 Headsman

From the Dec. 1, 1903 Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle:

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Georgia,Hanged,Lynching,Murder,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1908: Joe James, in the crucible of the Springfield Race Riot

1 comment October 23rd, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1908, the “negro boy scarcely of legal age”* Joe James hanged at Sangamon County jail in Illinois. His alleged crimes helped spark that year’s Springfield Race Riot, one of the deadliest such rampages in U.S. history.

He was a southern youth who’d been pulled north up the Mississippi, living by the sweat of his brow. As a newcomer to the Land of (in fact the very town of) Lincoln, he’d been tossed in prison for vagrancy when he couldn’t speedily demonstrate a place of employment, but he’d proven a good-natured inmate whom his jailers trusted with errands outside the walls.

On Independence Day of 1908, which was just three days before he was due to be released, James finally abused his parole and decided to take in the celebrations in Springfield’s majority-black working-class neighboroods, where he proceeded to drink himself into oblivion at one of the town’s many saloons, or so he said. (Many other witnesses did see him boozing and banging away on the piano.) He’d be awoken at dawn the next morning passed out at Reservoir Park — awoken by white men who proceeded to beat him up.


Joe James’s mughot (right) shows the effects of the thrashing.

Reservoir Park, you see, stood but half a mile from the home of a beloved North End white resident, Clergy Ballard. (Clergy was his name, not his profession: this Clergy mined.) That same Fourth of July night, an unknown black intruder had burgled the house late at night and upon being caught out had scuffled with Clergy in a running bout/flight that crossed several neighboring yards before the patriarch caught a mortal wound from the assailant’s blade.

By morning’s light, rumors of the home invasion were afoot in the neighborhood, and the discovery of an unrecognized black kid passed out in the vicinity led everyone to draw the obvious conclusion — a conclusion that subsequently became self-confirming especially given the moral panic licensed by the fact that Ballard’s daughter had first encountered the intruder in her own bedroom. “One conclusion that finds most supporters is that James was a degenerate negro, inflamed by strong opiates with a crazed brain that sought satisfaction only in human blood.” (Decatur (Ill.) Herald, July 6, 1908)

From a century’s distance the evidence, while not impossible to square with James’s guilt, is feeble and circumstantial. James had been arrested within a day of his arrival to town, so he barely knew Springfield at all; he had no motivation to select Ballard’s house, possessed no valuables taken from it, and was armed neither when he was given his day pass from jail, nor when he was taken into custody the next morning. And as his attorney* pled to James’s eventual jury in vain, “No guilty man in his right senses would go six blocks away from where the fatal blow was struck and lie down to pleasant dreams.”

Against this stood eyewitness identifications by the surviving Ballards, who had glimpsed the unfamiliar assailant fleetingly by moonlight or streetlamp and who by the time they were making their official attestations had knowledge of James as the suspect, his every particular now a mold into which liquid recollection could pour.

While it was the Ballard outrage that set Springfield on edge, a second black-on-white crime a few weeks later really set match to tinder: another North End white woman, Mabel Hallam, alleged that she’d been raped in her home by an unknown black intruder. Out of a lineup she picked George Richardson, a respected middle-class streetcar conductor, grandson to Abe Lincoln’s barber. Even while admitting that “colored men [all] looked alike,” she fingered Richardson with the insightful words, “I believe that you are the man, and you will have to prove that you are not.”

Rape across the color line even moreso than murder was a frequent incitement to mob violence, and with Richardson jailed alongside the presumed rape-aspirant Joe James, a crowd of 3,000 or more gathered in downtown Springfield on August 14 with lynch law on its mind. The sheriff thwarted its aim by spiriting both of his endangered prisoners out of town, and announced as much to the multitude, hoping it would disperse.

Instead, balked of its strange fruit, the mob rampaged through the black districts of Springfield and for that night and deep into the following day — when a 5,000-strong state militia quelled the disturbance with some difficulty — put black homes to the torch. At least nine black Springfielders died, but accounts of people forced back into their own burning homes or buried secretly by night to avoid any further incitement hint at uncounted casualties besides. Seven whites were also slain.

Horrific photos show burned-out homes and businesses, and rioters posing smugly at the scenes where they’d lynched two men — one an octogenarian who literally used to be Abe Lincoln’s friend — for no better cause than showing defiance to the mob.


Photos from the Chicago Tribune, Aug. 17, 1908.

This particular atrocity stood out even at the nadir of American race relations for its location: the hometown and burial place of former U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator. Indeed, some caught on the lips of the crowd that awful night slogans explicitly drawing the connection — “Curse the day that Lincoln freed the niggers!” and “Lincoln freed you, now we’ll show you where you belong!” The Springfield events catalyzed the formation early in 1909 of the NAACP. Today, several markers in Springfield commemorate the riot of August 14-15, 1908 — but it still remains a delicate subject in the town that it violently reshaped.

A few books about the 1908 Springfield Race Riot

As for the accused men whose supposed crimes lurked behind this explosion, they proceeded to vastly different fates. Mabel Hallam’s rape charge fell apart and she recanted when it was discovered that she had a sexually transmitted disease, while George Richardson did not. Instead she charged “Ralph Burton”, the son of one of the men lynched during the riots — but this charge also failed to stick on account of there being no such son. George Richardson lived out the balance of his 76 years in Springfield and died peacefully in hospital.

Joe James, however, had no such benediction from his own unreliable accusers. Springfield still smoldered, its bloodlust alongside its ruined buildings; letters delivered to the courthouse threatened a renewed bloodbath should he be acquitted, and black families packed go-bags in the event they should make a sudden departure.

The requisite conviction ensued. James testified on his own behalf, sticking to his claim to have passed out drunk, innocent of the Ballard situation. He would have little to say to anyone beyond that time, referring the many press inquiries to his existing statements.

* There was dispute about James’s age throughout the proceedings; his mother — not an unbiased source, of course — fixed his birthday at November 28, 1890, which would have made him just 17; James estimated it at “19 or 20”. Even the largest of these figures would have made him too young to execute by the statutes of the day. The state, by contrast, officially estimated James at 23 years old.

** A man named Octavius Royall, a “former prosecutor and successful middle-class black attorney representing the local bank” who out of an uncommon measure of courage and decency “decided to represent the most dangerous of all clients.” (Source)

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Illinois,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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