1903: Amelia Sach and Annie Walters, the Finchley baby farmers

Add comment February 3rd, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1903, the Finchley baby farmers hanged together at Holloway Prison.

Though “both repulsive in type” according to the cold notes of their hangman, Amelia Sach and Annie Walters were plenty appealing to young ladies in a certain condition.

Sach’s lying-in house in the north London suburb was a destination of choice for inconveniently pregnant women for a couple of years at the dawn of the 1900s, and there they could deliver discreetly and pay a surcharge for adoption services to place the child with a family.

Except, as the mothers must have understood, few if any of those children were destined to find a doting parent.

The baby farming business stood as cover for post-partum abortion in a society exacting penalties legal, medical, and social against single motherhood and terminated pregnancies alike. The solutions an unexpectedly pregnant maid might turn to were all desperate and unappealing, and in the absence of better provisions for orphans and mothers a significant pattern of infanticide was baked into Victorian* England.


Risky home-brew abortifacients like pennyroyal were another option.

The £25-30 donative solicited of mothers by the Goodwife Sach was not enough to maintain the little darlings surrendered to her care: only enough to ease the conscience to forgetfulness. After delivery under Sach’s eye, the infants would be spirited away by Annie Walters for “adoption.” In her hands, they’d be chloroformed or strangled.

Nobody knows how many souls who might have grown up to serve as cannon meat at the Somme were destroyed untimely by our subtle duo; in the end, they were only tripped up by Walters’s surprisingly careless decision to take one of her charges home — where a neighboring, and nosy, police officer noticed it before it mysteriously disappeared.

Their joint death was the most recent occasion Great Britain carried out a double hanging in which both of the executed were women. For a novelization of the case, pick up Nicola Upson’s Two For Sorrow (review).

* For gratification of the pedants: Queen Victoria died in 1901.

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1903: Edgar Edwards, sash weight killer

1 comment March 3rd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1903, Edgar Edwards was hanged in Wandsworth Prison for a minor-league* triple murder.

Of course, the killing was anything but trivial to its victims, a Camberwell grocer and his wife along with their infant daughter. The couple put their business up for sale: Edwards answered the ad but had a different transaction in mind. Contriving to separate man and wife in the course of the interview, he bashed Beatrice Darby to death and strangled the infant child. Evidently he had some proficiency wielding a five-pound sash weight. The reader may perceive that this weapon, albeit improvised, is a crueler device than its accessorizing name might suggest.


Sash weights.
(cc) image from With Associates.

Having done with the wife, he lured unwitting husband John to his makeshift abattoir and murdered him in the same horrid fashion.

That occurred way back in November, but it wasn’t until Edwards tried the same ploy using the same type of bludgeon** against a London businessman a month later that the earlier homicide unraveled. As the investigation led back to Leyton (thanks in part to Edwards’s foolish possession off John Darby’s business cards) the neighbors all started remembering that he’d been awfully keen about burying something in the garden a few weeks back. Rear Window this ain’t.

The motive for all this was just to take possession of the stock and sell it quietly for ready cash. Edwards had little recourse when captured but to try to draw out a family history of insanity, a ploy could not have impressed jurors much in view off the crime’s calculated ferocity.

* A century and God knows how many murders onward, this crime may be an imperceptible drop in the sea; in its day, however, it earned Edwards wax statuary at Madame Tussaud’s.

** The humble sash weight has its niche in the crime annals; it was also the weapon used by Double Indemnity inspirations Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray.

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1903: Peter Mortensen, divinely accused

2 comments November 20th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1903, Peter Mortensen was shot over a lumber bill.

The evidence against Peter Mortensen was circumstantial: a moonlight witness, some unexplained cash, and a perceived insufficiency of vigor in insisting upon his innocence when suspicion fell upon him.

Though this much sounds pretty speculative, Mortensen’s very direct pecuniary interest in Hay’s death was harder to wave away. Mortensen, a Salt Lake contractor, owed money to George Ernest Romney’s* Pacific Lumber company. On the evening of December 16, 1901, he summoned Romney’s employee James R. Hay — who was also Mortensen’s friend, neighbor, and fellow-teacher at a Mormon Sunday school — to pay up.

Hay never made it home.

The next day, Mortensen had a receipt for the payment in Hay’s hand, and Hay had a cashless grave and a bullet hole in his head. Rarely have means, motive, and opportunity converged so exactly.

Public sentiment against Mortensen was so overwhelming** that selecting an impartial-ish jury proceeded at a weeks-long crawl as Mortensen’s attorney met prospect after prospect by bluntly asking whether they had formed an opinion as to his man’s guilt. Prospect after prospect confirmed that they had done. By the end, the court had been reduced to issuing “open venires” bypassing the regular jury summons process and authorizing anyone handy to be inducted into the jury pool. Deputies scoured Salt Lake City like press gangs, hunting for possible jurymen.

In all, the court dismissed some 600 prospective jurors for bias (which was quite a lot for the time), and ran through $4,500 in that process alone (likewise).

Those finally seated had to weigh, along with the more conventional indicia of guilt, the inflammatory witness testimony of James Hay’s father … who said he didn’t just have a pretty strong suspicion about the defendant, but that he actually knew Mortensen did it. “God revealed it to me,” the elder Hay said with “tears streaming down his cheeks” according to a report in the Idaho Daily Statesman of June 6, 1902.

He appeared to me by the Holy Ghost and put the words of His Spirit into my mouth. I had to utter them, for I knew they were true. I cannot and will not deny it here, neither will I deny it when I meet my God on the last day.

This is not the only manifestation I received. On Tuesday noon I saw the trail of blood leading from the railroad tracks to where my son-in-law was buried. I saw it in a vision just as plainly as when I afterwards visited the spot.

Again, this is judicial testimony in an American courtroom in the 20th century.

The fact that it appeared — and that the trial court refused a defense demand to instruct the jury not to consider supernatural visions in the light of real evidence — formed the central argument of Mortensen’s appeal. In the end, Utah’s Supreme Court refused to vacate the sentence. Still, the weird appearance of “divine revelation evidence” in a Utah courtroom led the Mormon patriarch Joseph F. Smith to issue a finding distancing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints from any embarrassing mummery:

[N]o member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints should, for one moment, regard such testimony as admissible in a court of law, and to make the case perfectly clear it may be further stated that such evidence would not be permissible even in a Church court, where rules of evidence, though not so technical, are founded largely upon the same principles that govern the rules of evidence in a court of law. Any attempt, therefore, to make it appear that such evidence is in keeping with the tenets of the “Mormon” faith is wholly unjustified

About six weeks before Mortensen’s execution, a prison break took place at the penitentiary. It’s been given out latterly that the arrogant Mortensen was so unpopular even with his fellow-prisoners that they intentionally left him stuck in his cell. 1903 press accounts appear to indicate otherwise — that he was not the only convict left stuck in his cell, and that Mortensen’s particular rum luck wasn’t a social lack but a digital one: somebody dropped the necessary set of keys. Either way, there was no way out, and neither when Utah’s governor interviewed Mortensen personally to see about his mercy application. Never mind his popularity with prisoners; Mortensen’s continued insistence on innocence while pleading for his life was the real diplomatic failure.

Mortensen selected shooting rather than hanging as his method of death, and went to it “firm as a rock.” He left only a last statement repeating his vociferous and widely disbelieved denial of Hay’s murder.

To the world I want to say and swear by the heavens above, by the earth beneath, and by all I hold near and dear to me on this earth, that I am not guilty of that cowardly murder of my dearest friend. I ask therefore no man’s pardon for aught that I may have done in life. I am confident that my life is an example to most people. I lay no claim — please strike out the last two words — I do not say that I am better or more worthy of respect of the world than the average man, but I have done my duty to my father and mother, my brothers and sister, and to other near relatives. I have done my absolute duty toward my wife and my five little babies. May God keep and care for those sweet darlings.


Salt Lake Telegram, Nov. 20, 1903.

* Yes, those Romneys. George Ernest Romney‘s significantly younger first cousin George Wilcken Romney became Governor of Michigan, and was in turn the father of the 2012 Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney. The mutual grandfather of George E. and George W. designed the St. George Tabernacle.

** Even Mortensen’s wife thought him guilty, for he had gone out that fatal evening of the 16th with Hay, and returned an hour later “deathly pale.” However, while God’s hearsay to Mr. Hay was available in open court, Mrs. Mortensen’s evidence was not: Utah law prohibited wives testifying against their husbands.

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1903: Dora Wright, in Indian Territory

2 comments July 17th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1903, Dora Wright was hanged at McAlester in Indian Territory — the present-day U.S. state of Oklahoma.

Wright beat and tortured to death a 7-year-old orphan in her charge named Annie Williams. Wright tormented the little girl over several months until she finally succumbed to a thrashing in February 1903. It was, the local paper said, “the most horrible and outrageous” crime in memory in the area; Wright’s jury only needed 20 minutes’ deliberation to condemn her.

As Oklahoma was yet four years shy of statehood, “Indian Territory” jurisdiction — and with it any decision on executive clemency — fell to U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. The inclination of the Rough Rider is aptly conveyed by the words of Attorney General Philander Knox‘s brief on the case to the President, which were released for press consumption:

The real facts in this case are that this woman tortured to death a little child seven years old, her niece, whom she was pretending to care for and support. She whipped the child most unmercifully with large switches, struck it about the hand and face so as to cause wounds sufficient to produce death, burned holes in its legs and thighs with a heated poker, and committed other nameless atrocities upon the person of the child. The testimony shows that the woman pursued a course of cruelty which was fiendish and barbarous … The only ground upon which her pardon is sought is that she is a woman, and that the infliction of the death penalty upon a woman would be a shock to the moral sense of the people in the community.

T.R. was incredulous at the feminine special pleading.

“If that woman was mean enough to do a thing like that,” Roosevelt said, “she ought to have the nerve to meet her punishment.”

Wright did have that nerve in the end, and was noted for the calm with which she comported herself on the scaffold. (She was hanged alongside another fellow, Charles Barrett, who shot a man dead in a robbery.)


From the Duluth (Minn.) News-Tribune, July 18, 1903.

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1903: George Chapman, Ripper suspect

10 comments April 7th, 2012 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1903, the wife-poisoner George Chapman was hanged at Wandsworth Prison in the United Kingdom.

He had at least three deaths on his record … and, if you fancy, possibly quite a few more.

Chapman was born Severin Antoniovich Klosowski in the village of Nargornak, Poland on December 14, 1865, the son of a carpenter. At the age of fifteen he was apprenticed to a surgeon, and five years later he ended his medical studies in Warsaw. Just how much medical training he actually had is hard to determine, but the fact is that after he moved to the UK in 1887 or 1888, he worked not in the medical field but as a hairdresser’s assistant and later in his own barbershop.

In 1890, Chapman (still going by his birth name) married Lucy Baderski, having conveniently forgotten all about the wife he’d left back in Poland. His Polish wife found out about Lucy, however, and went to Britain to settle things. Bizarrely, for a short time the three of them all lived together, before Klosowski’s first wife threw up her hands and returned to Poland.

Klosowski’s relationship with Lucy Baderski was very troubled, and Klosowski was abusive. In one incident, he attacked her with a knife and threatened to cut her head off. Lucy was saved only because a customer suddenly came into the barbershop and Klosowski had to tend to him.

In 1892 she left him, although she was pregnant; they had emigrated to New Jersey by this time, and the beleaguered wife returned to England, where she had his daughter in May of that year.

Klosowski followed her back to England a few weeks later, but they separated for a final time not long afterward.

The following year, Klosowski took up with an Englishwoman named Annie Chapman. This, too, ran aground on Kloslowski’s violence and unfaithfulness, but he left her with daughter (whom he refused to support) and she left him with a surname (probably to assimilate and to escape his previous relationship entanglements).

From here on in, he goes by George Chapman.

Sometime after Annie left him, Chapman took up with Mary Isabella Spink, a woman who lived in the same boardinghouse. She was married and had a son, but her husband had deserted her.

They entered into a false marriage, like Chapman had done before with Lucy, and set up a successful barbershop with “musical shaves.” Mary would play the piano while Chapman did the barbering. For awhile they got a lot of money from the shop, but that didn’t stop Chapman from brutally beating Mary on a regular basis and even trying to strangle her. Eventually their barbershop failed and Chapman became a pub manager, living in the apartment upstairs.

Late in the year in 1897, Mary began suffering nausea and crippling stomach pains. Her husband stayed at her side constantly, tending to her needs and paying for a doctor, but Mary just got worse and worse and wasted to a skeleton. She finally died on Christmas Day. That morning Chapman found her dead, cried a little and went downstairs to open the pub.

The cause of death was listed as phthisis, or pulmonary tuberculosis. A few months later, Chapman sent Mary’s orphaned son to the workhouse.

Chapman needed help with the pub, so he hired Bessie Taylor, a former restaurant manager. What follows is familiar: a love affair, a fake marriage, and domestic violence. Then Bessie became sick, showing the same symptoms Mary Spink had. To avoid curious stares, Chapman moved them into London and leased another pub. Bessie was operated on but her condition didn’t improve.

Like Mary, she died on a holiday: Valentine’s Day in 1901. The cause of death was exhaustion from diarrhea and vomiting, secondary to an intestinal obstruction. Chapman made Bessie’s family pay for the funeral.

In August 1901, he hired the teenage Maud Eliza Marsh for a barmaid. They had another bogus marriage, but Chapman quickly grew tired of her. Maud got sick the same way his previous two wives had. Chapman got a doctor for her and mixed her medication himself. Her parents insisted that she be hospitalized.

Maud showed great improvement there and was released after a few weeks, only to become sick again once back at home with Chapman.

Her father, who had gotten suspicious, called in another doctor for a second opinion, but then Maud died quite suddenly. The doctor insisted on an autopsy, and found 693 milligrams of antimony in her body. The doctor determined that the final dose of poison had been more than 600 milligrams, an enormous amount — evidently Chapman had panicked when he realized Maud’s family suspected him.

Chapman was arrested and charged with murder.

Antimony is an almost perfect poison: odorless, colorless and nearly tasteless. However, it also acts as a preservative. When the authorities exhumed Mary Spink and Bessie Taylor, they saw both bodies were in much better condition than they ought to have been.

Mary had been in the ground five years, but one witness said her face was “perfect” and it looked like she’d been dead for less than a year. Bessie looked positively fresh.

Chapman was convicted of Maud Marsh’s murder in March 1903; the jury deliberated only eleven minutes.

He died without ever admitting his guilt. He never even admitted to being Severin Klosowski, although Lucy Baderski visited him after the trial.

There have been many poisoners, but most of the time the murderer has some tangible gain in mind, such as an inheritance or insurance policy. This doesn’t appear to have been the case with Chapman.

He liked money as much as anyone else, it’s true, and would stoop to crime to get it. (Once he torched his pub for the insurance money, but the police became suspicious when they found out all the furniture had been removed from the premises before the fire started. The insurance company refused to pay, and Chapman had to move, but for some reason he was not prosecuted.)

Still, he really didn’t gain financially from his wives’ deaths. Mary Spink gave him £500, but he let her live for a few years after that. Maud Marsh and Bessie Taylor left him nothing.

Chapman may simply have wanted the women out of the way so he could take up with someone else.

But in that case, he could have chosen better for a quick, clean murder. When a person is given antimony in a single large dose, they usually to expel it by vomiting, and are left relatively unharmed.

The way to murder someone using antimony is give it to them slowly and patiently in small doses over a period of weeks or months. It is a lingering, painful death — but it also taxes the discipline of the poisoner. Chapman wasn’t the slow-and-steady type.

Public interest in Chapman didn’t die with him and remains alive and well, because of the Jack the Ripper case.

This infamous and never-identified killer strangled and mutilated five prostitutes in London’s East End during 1888, and many hobbyists think Chapman and the Ripper may have been the same man.

Frederick George Abberline, who headed the Ripper investigation, had strong suspicions against him, summarized in an interview with the Pall Mall Gazette:

As I say, there are a score of things which make one believe that Chapman is the man; and you must understand that we have never believed all those stories about Jack the Ripper being dead, or that he was a lunatic, or anything of that kind. For instance, the date of the arrival in England coincides with the beginning of the series of murders in Whitechapel; there is a coincidence also in the fact that the murders ceased in London when Chapman went to America, while similar murders began to be perpetrated in America after he landed there.* The fact that he studied medicine and surgery in Russia before he came over here is well established, and it is curious to note that the first series of murders was the work of an expert surgeon, while the recent poisoning cases were proved to be done by a man with more than an elementary knowledge of medicine. The story told by Chapman’s wife of the attempt to murder her with a long knife while in America is not to be ignored.

Philip Sugden, author of The Complete History of Jack the Ripper, noted, “An impressive array of circumstantial factors can be alleged against Chapman.”

  • Chapman was definitely living in London during the time of the Ripper killings, which cannot be said of other suspects such as Frederick Deeming or Michael Ostrog.

  • Chapman’s youthful medical apprenticeship would seem to supply him with the grisly surgical expertise the Ripper displayed.
  • Chapman approximately matched witness descriptions of the Whitechapel fiend.
  • Also, curiously enough, one of the Ripper victims was named Annie Chapman — the same name as his estranged lover.
  • Perhaps most importantly, Sugden points out, Chapman was not only violent and a misogynist but also a known killer: “There must have been few men, even in late Victorian London, capable of multiple murder. The Ripper was one. Chapman was another.”

Sugden thought Chapman was a much better Ripper candidate than any of the other suspects he discussed in his book, but that didn’t mean he was definitely or even probably the real Ripper: “That Chapman committed crimes of which we have no present knowledge I can well believe. That he was Jack the Ripper is another matter.”

The main problem with the Chapman-Ripper theory is the fact that he poisoned his wives, rather than use some more demonstratively violent method of homicide.

Serial killers’ methods do evolve and adapt, but rarely change that drastically. “To exchange knife for hammer, gun or rope, weapons of violence all, is one thing,” Sugden observes. “To forsake violence in favor of subterfuge, as is alleged of Chapman, is quite another.”

It is for that reason that John Douglas, when he talks about the Ripper murders in his book The Cases That Haunt Us, rules out Chapman as a suspect.

Whether Chapman was Jack the Ripper or not, he certainly was an evil, vicious bastard in his own right.

R. Michael Gordon has written a book about his crimes, titled The Poison Murders of Jack the Ripper: His Final Crimes, Trial and Execution.

* This is not strictly accurate. There was one Ripper-type murder, of a prostitute named Carrie Brown, in a New Jersey hotel in 1891. Whether the Ripper actually committed the crime is open to speculation.

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1903: Willis, Frederick, and Burton van Wormer

2 comments October 1st, 2011 Headsman

I know the vicinity of our old Dutch settlements to have been very subject to marvelous events and appearances. Indeed, I have heard many stranger stories than this …

-Washington Irving, “Rip Van Winkle”

On this date in 1903, an“unusual if not unprecedented” execution occurred when three brothers died one after the other in the Sing Sing electric chair. (Correction: at Clinton Prison, not Sing Sing.)

Willis, Frederick, and Burton van Wormer — stock, as their name suggests, of vintage Dutch family whose more reputable products ca be found on various Empire State placenames — were doomed for the Christmas Eve, 1901 murder of their uncle.

The family tree’s branching over generations had put family enmities between relatives; in this case, working stiff John van Wormer’s home in Columbia County, N.Y. was mortgaged to his brother-in-law (and the eventual murder victim), richie-rich Peter Hallenbeck. After John passed away, Peter lowered the boom and foreclosed on the widow, booting John’s sons out of the house.

The boys got even with an unsubtle gangland masked home raid, riddling their Uncle Scrooge with bullets.

(Signs of the times: the murder happened mere weeks after William McKinley‘s assassination, and testimony had one of the boys bragging with reference to the fatal gut-shot wound inflicted on the late president. “I made a Czolgosz shot. I shot him in the stomach.”)

Though these three attracted national public sympathy — someone even telegrammed a bogus reprieve signed, “The President of the United States” in a vain stab at delay — their case was pretty open-and-shut.

Since they were doing death as a brother act, it was only fair that they sort out precedence within the family: the condemned themselves decided the order of their execution, with Willis first, Frederick second, and Burton third. The whole thing took 15 minutes.

But leave it to the youngest child to stick out from the crowd. Frederick, the baby of the family, actually managed to survive the electric chair, sort of. Not walk clean away from it like Willie Francis would do, but impolitely revive when he was supposed to be laid out dead like folk used to do back in the bad old hanging days.

The executions went off without a hitch and the brothers were pronounced dead. Later, after they’d been laid out in the autopsy room, a guard saw one of them out in the autopsy room, a guard saw one of them, Frederick Van Wormer, move a hand. Then an eye flickered. The prison doctor was immediately summoned. Putting a stethoscope to the “dead” man’s heart, he discovered it was still beating. Frederick’s heart (it was determined later) was bigger than that of anyone executed up to that date, so two charges of full current had failed to kill him. The convict was carried back to the chair and kept in it until he was dead beyond the shadow of a doubt. [he died without actually being re-executed -ed.]

In part because of accidents like these during the early decades of the electric chair, numbers of people weren’t convinced it was as deadly as it was supposed to be. (Source)

They’re not kidding about that brain bit, either.

A fellow by the name of Edward Anthony Spitzka autopsied the van Wormers, “direct[ing] my attention especially to the brains. The opportunity afforded by this triple execution was certainly most rare, and a similar case will not soon occur again,” and found Frederick with a robust 1.6 kg brain, compared to less than 1.4 kg for his siblings. Now that JSTOR has opened its oldest journal content, you can read all about Spitzka’s meddlings in the van Wormer grey matter here.

Additional historical artifacts: an original invitation to the proceedings.

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1903: Ora Copenhaver and William Jackson, a double hanging

1 comment June 12th, 2011 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1903, there was a double hanging at the state prison in Michigan City, Indiana: William Jackson, a black man, and Ora E. Copenhaver, who was white.

According to the Indianapolis Star‘s history of capital punishment in Indiana, they were the seventh and eighth persons to be executed since Indiana adopted the death penalty in 1897. Ora (sometimes called “Orie” in press reports) was twenty-six years old at the time of his death; Jackson was forty-five. Copenhaver had murdered his wife (unnamed in the press reports) in Indianapolis on September 7 the previous year:

Shortly before their dinner hour on the day of the tragedy Copenhaver called his wife to the door and without a warning or giving her any inkling of his intent, drew a revolver from his pocket and fired four shots at her, three of which took effect […] Copenhaver, after shooting his wife, calmly walked to a neighboring store and telephoned to the police station, informing the desk sergeant that a murder had been committed. He then awaited the coming of the police and surrendered himself. Jealousy was ascribed as the motive for the deed.

Justice was swift and without mercy: Copenhaver was convicted by a jury of his peers on October 15, a mere 38 days after the shooting. He was formally sentenced on October 28, and the sentence was carried out seven and a half months after that. The Fort Wayne News called the murder “dastardly” and praised the death sentence. The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, citing an unnamed “authentic source,” claimed that in the weeks before his death Copenhaver feigned insanity in an effort to evade his punishment. Yet he was calm and ready when the moment came.

Little information can be found about Jackson, described as “an Evansville Negro.”

On some unspecified date in 1902, he killed his coworker, a night watchman named Allan Blankenship, at a mill in Melrose, Indiana. He also robbed his victim of the princely sum of $3.90. Contemporary reports state Jackson seemed “wholly indifferent” about his sentence and spent most of the last day of his life reading the Bible. He had no last words.

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1903: Tom Horn

3 comments November 20th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1903, Tom Horn hanged in Cheyenne — a frontier legend lost in the post-frontier world.

Tom Horn passed the months between trial and execution braiding rope. Legend obviously holds that he made the noose that hanged him.

Horn‘s forty-three colorful years traced the waning days of the Wild West: he was a cavalry scout who helped capture Apache warrior Geronimo, a Pinkerton agent, a hired gun in the murderous Wyoming cattle wars. (He made a side trip to Florida during the Spanish-American War to organize Teddy Roosevelt’s supply train before the Battle of San Juan Hill.)

He had hunted many rustlers to their deaths, though he may have swung for a killing he didn’t do; the verdict against him in the murder of 14-year-old Willie Nickell is still hotly disputed to this day. It turned on a dubious liquor-induced “confession” as recorded by the lawmen who wanted to arrest him.

Horn’s death, to the hymn of “Life’s Railway to Heaven”, is a milestone in the passing of the frontier West; too, it was a milestone in a weird experimental cul-de-sac for modern America’s fascination with technological innovation on the scaffold. A contraption called the “Julian gallows,” named for the man who designed it, used the prisoner’s weight on the trap to open a water valve that filled a barrel that knocked over a post supporting the trap, causing the prisoner to eventually drop without any hangman’s hand on a lever.

A steady,* solitary man, Horn took it all in with equanimity. Maybe it was written: not for this rugged plains gunslinger to lurk on as a relic into the age of flight, cubism, trench warfare. Already in his lifetime the frontier had disappeared into kitsch.

Tom Horn lives on in Wyoming lore, and the tale has no greater curator than Wyoming’s Chip Carlson. Carlson manages www.tom-horn.com and is the author of Tom Horn: Blood on the Moon; he was good enough to chat with Executed Today about our day’s subject.

First things first — did Tom Horn actually do the crime for which he hanged?

Tom Horn was convicted because of social pressure (the fact that he represented the cattle barons) and the political ambitions of the prosecutor and presiding judge.

So what was different in Wyoming after Horn’s execution?

The cattle barons and other big business entities (e.g., mining barons, railroad barons, etc.) had much less influence on public affairs.

He seems like an almost self-consciously inscrutable character. What drove him?

He was a faithful and reliable employee, but seemed to thrive on adrenaline.

Was he just, at the end, a man who couldn’t change as his world changed around him?

Yes, he was out of date and out of the times.

Did people of his own time also see him as a part of the frontier West that was no more?

Yes.

How did you become so interested in Tom Horn? As the go-to expert on his life, what do you find draws others to him, and what sorts of lessons do people draw from his story?

He is the number one Name in Wyoming history, because of the controversies about whether he killed 14-year-old Willie Nickell (tom-horn.com page) and how his trial was conducted. (tom-horn.com page)

I had read every book published about him up till the time I started researching him, and when contrasting the various testimonies in the inquest with the trial, puzzled, how the hell could they have ever convicted him? All this is laid out in my book, Tom Horn: Blood on the Moon.

Two films about Tom Horn — Mr. Horn, starring David Carradine, and Tom Horn, starring Steve McQueen — were released within months of each other in 1979-80.

* His reported last words were coolly directed at one of his executioners who showed anxiety — “Ain’t losing your nerve, are you, Joe?”

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1903: Hilario Hidalgo and Francisco Renteria

2 comments July 31st, 2010 Headsman

Border-related violence and crime due to illegal immigration are critically important issues to the people of our state, to my Administration and to me, as your Governor and as a citizen.

-Statement (pdf) by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer on signing the anti-immigration law, which went into effect July 29, 2010

Some stories are just plain classics.

In February 1903, two Mexicans shot up Goddard Station stagecoach stop, for motivations that were never plain. (There was no robbery, but it might have been revenge.)

The shooters got away, but law enforcement soon enough decided that a couple of railroad workers on the Mexican side of the border matched their description, and contrived to lure them into Arizona where they could be arrested.

Hilario Hidalgo and Francisco Renteria, were put on trial for their lives in Prescott, Ariz., in June 1903, where they were doomed to hang on the strength of eyewitness testimony and thirty minutes of the jurymen’s time. Appeals forbidden, the sentence was executed on this date — not six months after the crime.

With feelings of profound regret and sorrow, I hereby invite you to attend and witness the private and decent and humane execution of two human beings, namely: Richard Roe and John Doe. Crime — Murder.

Said men will be executed on July 31, 1903 at 12 noon. You are expected to deport yourself in a respectful manner and any flippant or unseemly language or conduct on your part will not be allowed. Conduct on anyone’s part bordering on ribaldry and tending to mar the solemnity of the occasion will not be tolerated.

-Sheriff’s invitation to the hanging, quoted in Frontier Justice in the Wild West: Bungled, Bizarre, and Fascinating Executions

The men cracked wise at the reading of their death warrant — “I have heard that repeated so often that if it was a song I would sing it to you,” reported the Los Angeles Times (Aug. 1, 1903) — and with “perfect nerve” checked out, calling only “Adios! Adios!” from the scaffold.

It was the last hanging in Prescott, Ariz.

On this day..

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

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1903: Arthur Alfred Lynch condemned

1 comment January 23rd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1903, Irish MP Arthur Alfred Lynch waited 26 minutes for a jury to convict him, then heard the sentence of a British court for having fought against the British Empire in the Boer War.

[T]he jury have found you guilty of the crime of high treason, a crime happily so rare that in the present day a trial for treason seems to be almost an anachronism — a thing of the past. There can be no doubt that in times gone by there was great abuse, and many persons were indicted, convicted, and punished for matters which would not now be thought worthy of serious or, perhaps, any notice. There has been a kind of national reaction by which many persons have been disposed to treat serious crimes against the State as if the name of treason, and as if the thing, no longer existed. One moment of reflection will show you how erroneous is such a conception …

Yes, even if the black cap gave away the ending, the judge was going to take his time getting to it.

The misdeeds which have been done in this case, and which have brought you to the lamentable pass in which you stand, must surely convince the most sceptical and apathetic of the gravity and reality of the crime. What was your action in the darkest hour of your country’s fortunes, when she was engaged in the deadly struggle from which she has just emerged? You joined the ranks of your country’s foes. Born in Australia, a land which has nobly shown its devotion to its parent country, you have indeed taken a different course from that which was adopted by her sons. You have fought against your country, not with it. You have sought, as far as you could, to dethrone Great Britain from her place among the nations, to make her name a byword and a reproach, a synonym for weakness and irresolution. …

Even allowing that this sentence was pronounced before either of the coming century’s world wars, calling the Boer War to conquer South Africa for the crown England’s “darkest hour” only underscores how very long Britannia had stayed in the sun. Were the early shadows of empire’s twilight visible from here … or was it just standard issue judicial showboating?

[Y]ou thought it safe, no doubt, to lift the parricidal hand against your country. You thought she would shrink from the costly struggle wearied out by her gigantic efforts, and that, at the worst, a general peace would be made which would comprehend a general amnesty and cover up such acts as yours and save you from personal peril. You misjudged your country and failed to appreciate that though slow to enter into a quarrel, however slow to take up arms, it has yet been her wont that in the quarrel she shall bear herself so that the opposer may beware of her, and that she is seldom so dangerous to her enemies as when the hour of national calamity has raised the dormant energies of her people — knit together every nerve and fibre of the body politic and has made her sons determined to do all, to bear all, to sacrifice all on behalf of the country that gave them birth.

The only — I will not say excuse, but palliation that I can find for conduct like yours is that it has been for some years past the fashion to treat lightly matters of this kind, so that men have been perhaps encouraged to play with sedition and to toy with treason, wrapt in a certain proud consciousness of strength begotten of the deep-seated and well-founded conviction that the loyalty of her people is supreme, and true authority in this country has slumbered or has treated with contemptuous indifference speeches and acts of sedition.

There’s some relish here, the kind you’d hear if Antonin Scalia had an opportunity to pass sentence on Cynthia McKinney.

This ponderous bombast was the culmination of a highly-anticipated, highly-publicized trial of a man who had returned to London and arrest as an elected Irish parliamentarian after upholding the Boer cause in print throughout Europe, and enrolling an Irish unit in the fight.*


Col. Lynch’s Irish Brigade, from this South African military history page.

Incidentally, this is the same judge who sentenced Oscar Wilde for the love that dare not speak its name, intoning on that occasion that “people who can do these things must be dead to all senses of shame, and one cannot hope to produce any effect upon them.” (Mr. Justice Wills’ update of his father’s classic treatise on circumstantial evidence is available from Google books, as is Wanderings Among the High Alps, which he wrote in his capacity as mountaineering hobbyist.)

But had you and those with whom you associated yourself succeeded, what fatal mischief might have been done to … that inheritance of power which it must be our work to use nobly and for good things; an inheritance of influence which will be of little effect even for good unless backed by power, and of duty which cannot be effectually performed if our power be shattered and our influence impaired. He who has attempted to do his country such irreparable wrong must be prepared to submit to the sentence which it is now my duty to pronounce upon you … that you be taken hence to the place from which you came and from thence to a place of execution there to be hanged by the neck until you are dead.

For all this sound and fury, one would hardly know that it was generally and publicly understood the sentence would be swiftly commuted — as it was, a few days later.

Arthur Lynch received a free pardon in 1907, and in 1909 was returned to parliament as an Irish nationalist delegate to resume his remarkable career as writer, physician, engineer and all-around polymath.

* Lynch’s part in the war is included in The Boer Fight for Freedom, another century-old tome in the public domain and available on Google Books.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Doctors,England,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Intellectuals,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Pardons and Clemencies,Politicians,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Soldiers,South Africa,Treason

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