2015: Siti Zainab

Add comment April 14th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 2015, in the Islamic holy city of Medina, Saudi Arabia beheaded Indonesian domestic worker Siti Zainab after a very long wait.

Zainab, a maid, was condemned to death in 1999 for stabbing to death her cruel* employer. Her execution went on pause for more than 15 years until all of the victim’s children could reach adulthood and exercise their right to enforce or mitigate the death sentence; still, for all that lead time, Saudi Arabia irked Jakarta by failing to notify consular offices of her impending beheading.

In addition to the usual controversies Saudi Arabia’s aggressive headsmen engender when dispatching the kingdom’s widely abused migrant workers, Zainab’s case raised hackles over the condemned woman’s alleged “suspected mental illness.”

* Cruel according to Zainab and her defenders. Indonesian NGO Migrant Care argued that the murder was outright self-defense.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Indonesia,Murder,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Ripped from the Headlines,Saudi Arabia,Women

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1725: Maria Romberg, her lover, her maid, and her witch

Add comment April 14th, 2016 Headsman

Infamous Swedish murderer Maria Romberg and three accomplices were beheaded in the city of Boras on this date in 1725.

Romberg (English Wikipedia entry | Swedish) was the daughter of a magistrate in that town and given in an arranged marriage to a merchant 27 years her senior. Anders Boberg was said to be an abusive drunk; it’s a sure bet that even at his best he had quite a bit less in common with his wife than did her childhood friend Haqvin Wijndruf. These two carried on a years-long affair heedless of appearances; when later implicated in murder, numerous servants and confidantes were availiable to paint the adulterers in scarlet, as did the 500-odd love letters that they had helped the pair shuttle back and forth.

By December 1724, Maria and Haqvin had been trying for going on two years to get rid of the sot. Once again evincing a mind-boggling want of discretion, they had enlisted two other outsiders into the plot: a maid named Karin Andersdotter, and a folk magician named Romans Ingeborg (who was initially hired to bewitch Haqvin to his death, but got to stay in the game even when her sorcery proved unequal to assassination).

Three days after Christmas, the three women in the conspiracy — Maria, Karin, and Romans — simply crept into Anders’s bedroom and battered him to death as he slept, afterwards positioning the body in an attempt to make it look like he had simply fallen near the fireplace and cracked open his head.

Forensic science wasn’t exactly CSI quality in the 1720s, but it was good enough to see through that story. The lovers and killers had not the wit or steel to throw up a veil of silence, and at the first cock of an inquisitorial eyebrow, they all started blabbing and pointing fingers.

According to this Swedish blogger, the site where they all lost their heads is a placid hill on a biking path near Lake Ramnasjön.

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1322: Bartholomew de Badlesmere

Add comment April 14th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1322, Bartholomew de Badlesmere, the first (of only two) Baron Badlesmere, lost his head.

The barons in the dangerous age of Edward II were marked by where they made their political allegiances between the king and his rival the Earl of Lancaster.

Badlesmere? He … evolved.

The man could tack to the wind with the very best of them, or the very worst; he was reviled as the Benedict Arnold of 14th century England for chickenheartedly failing to protect the Earl of Gloucester when the latter impetuously charged to his death at Bannockburn. As a bard of the time put it,

This is the traitorous man Bartholomew, whom in all victories may God confound, because he has been to his master as changeable as a pharisee. Hence, as the representative of Judas, he shall be condemned to death … because he refused to come to his master’s support this traitor has deserved to be put to the rack … deserved to suffer judgment of decapitation.

As the 1320s began, he was a stalwart of what has been termed the “Middle Party”, whose position vis-a-vis Edward and Lancaster was what you would expect from the name.

Badlesmere badly misplayed a strong hand by defecting in the so-called “Despenser War” to the anti-Edwardian party, even though Lancaster pretty much hated his guts — and now the king did, too,* dissipating any mutual goodwill that might have been earned a few years before when the king’s favorite (and the war’s namesake) Hugh Despenser went and rescued Badlesmere’s wife from an attack.

And unlike at Bannockburn, Badlesmere here stepped into the trap rather than out of it.

Lancaster’s party was decisively defeated on March 16, 1322 at the Battle of Boroughbridge.

Days after the battle, Badlesmere was caught skulking in a glade by the Earl of Mar and shipped to Canterbury for trial. He was condemned to death on this date, and sent directly from court to a hurdle dragged by a horse to Blean three miles away, where he was hanged and beheaded. He was one of 20 or so lords and knights Edward had put to death.

Lancaster himself was another — although a “Contrariant” whom he didn’t execute, Roger Mortimer, would make Edward regret his clemency by overthrowing the king four years later.

* In an affair that Edward II biographer Kathryn Warner thinks was neatly contrived by the king, his Queen Isabella called on Badlesmere’s wife when the latter held Leeds Castle sans husband. Lady Badlesmere refused to admit the queen, giving Edward a welcome excuse for besieging a fortress holding out against its sovereign.

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1950: Eugene LaMoore, the last hanged in Alaska

2 comments April 14th, 2013 Melissa S. Green

Thanks to Melissa S. Green for giving Executed Today permission to reprint this summary of Alaska’s last execution. It appeared as a section of Green’s longer history of the death penalty in the state, first published here.

For the first (proper, juridical) execution in Alaska, see here. -ed.


Austin Nelson and Eugene LaMoore, both black, were separately convicted and executed for the same crime, the December 1946 murder of a 52-year-old (white) Juneau storekeeper named Jim Ellen. Ellen’s store had also been robbed. Ellen had immigrated to the U.S. from Greece as a boy in 1909. He was a World War I veteran who held memberships in the American Legion and the Juneau Elks Lodge.

Austin Nelson, a 24-year-old who did odd jobs around Juneau, was arrested for the murder after a check written by him to Jim Ellen was found on the store counter following the robbery/murder. He was represented at trial by Henry Roden and Joseph A. McLean. Nelson was convicted on circumstantial evidence, including that of a witness who reported seeing him in the victim’s store on the night of the murder. No one witnessed the actual murder, nor was a murder weapon found, not even the straight-edged razor witnesses testified that Nelson had once owned. Nelson lacked money to pay for an appeal and there was no provision for a public attorney in post-conviction proceedings, His execution was set for July 1, 1947.

Eugene LaMoore, a 42-year-old fisherman with a Tlingit wife and two children, was originally an alibi witness at Nelson’s trial. He testified that he had spent much of the evening with Nelson on the night of the murder, including along the avenue where the victim’s store was located. LaMoore’s credibility with the jury was apparently eroded when he initially denied a felony robbery conviction of twenty years before. Although LaMoore returned to the stand the following day to correct his testimony, he was arrested by U.S. Marshal William Mahoney on a charge of perjury and held on a bond of $10,000 — a high bond in 1947 — which LaMoore could not pay. He was held in a cell in the federal jail, shackled in leg irons and, later, in a ball and chain. He was repeatedly questioned by the local FBI agent and other local law enforcement authorities about the murder of Jim Ellen. Shortly before Nelson’s scheduled execution, Nelson was brought to visit LaMoore in his cell. According to later testimony by LaMoore, Nelson pled with LaMoore to help save his life.

On July 1, 1947, the date of Nelson’s scheduled execution, LaMoore signed a typed confession stating that he had participated in a robbery of Jim Ellen’s store with Austin Nelson and that Nelson had killed Ellen during the robbery.

LaMoore was charged with first degree murder. Nelson’s execution was delayed because he was now considered a material witness against LaMoore.

LaMoore was represented at trial by Henry Roden and Joseph A. McLean, the same court-appointed attorneys who had represented Nelson. The only significant evidence offered at trial to suggest LaMoore’s involvement in the murder was the typed confession he had signed while in jail. At trial, LaMoore retracted the confession, stating it had been made on the advice of a prominent Juneau attorney, Herbert W. Faulkner, who had been persuaded by Deputy Marshal Walter Hellan to come and talk with him (LaMoore had had no lawyer at the time).

LaMoore testified that Faulkner agreed to advise him, though Faulkner denied having done anything except typing up what LaMoore wanted to say in the confession. LaMoore also stated that the confession had been prompted by a desire — especially after Nelson’s visit to his cell — to delay Nelson’s execution. Despite his retraction and the lack of other significant evidence, LaMoore was convicted by the jury and sentenced to death.

Nelson, who had been kept alive during LaMoore’s trial but was never called to testify, was executed on March 1, 1948, a month after LaMoore’s trial ended. LaMoore was executed on April 14, 1950 after an unsuccessful appeal. He reportedly took 13 minutes to die.

His was the last execution to be held in Alaska.

Sources:

Lerman, Averil. (1994). “Death’s double standard: Territorial Alaska’s experience with capital punishment showed race and money mattered.” We Alaskans [Sunday magazine of the Anchorage Daily News], May 1, 1994.

Lerman, Averill. (1998). “Capital Punishment in Territorial Alaska: The Last Three Executions.” Frame of Reference [Alaska Humanities Forum] 9(1): 6-9, 16-19, April 1998.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Alaska,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Other Voices,USA

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1736: Andrew Wilson, in the Heart of Midlothian

Add comment April 14th, 2012 Headsman

“The mob of Edinburgh, when thoroughly excited, had been at all times one of the fiercest which could be found in Europe.”

-Walter Scott, Heart of Midlothian

Cycles of violence often climax in executions. On this date in 1736, the execution of Andrew Wilson instead initiated the cycle … which culminated in one of the most notorious riots in Scottish history.

Worthy fodder indeed for Scott’s pen.

That January, Wilson, George Robertson, and William Hall had robbed an excise tax collector of £200, earning all three of them a death sentence. Hall drew a commutation, and Robertson spectacularly escaped from the condemned men’s sermon when he bolted for the door while Wilson obstructed the guards. (All the civilians present stood aside for the fleeing man, who successfully reached Holland and safety.)

Public sympathy for the self-sacrificing Wilson — whose victim was collecting a much-resented levy for the much-resented new British Union — had become acute by April 14th, when Wilson was to be publicly executed in the Grassmarket.

A great, and tense, crowd turned out for the occasion. The poet Allan Ramsay was present among them.

[The escape of Robertson] made them take a closer care of Wilson who had the best character of them all (til his foly made him seek reprisals at his own hand), which had gaind him so much pity as to raise a report that a great mob would rise on his execution day to relieve him, which noise put our Magistrates on their guard and maybe made some of them unco flayd [unusually afraid] as was evidenced by their inviting in 150 of the Regement that lys [lies] in Cannongate, who were all drawn up in the Lawn Market, while the criminal was conducted to the tree by Captain Porteous and a strong party of the City Guard.

This Captain John Porteous of the also-resented Edinburgh City Guard was not a well-calculated selection to calm everyone’s nerves.

He’d hooked up the lucrative officers’ appointment courtesy of political pull, then proceeded to become a violent, overbearing ass and “procured him the universal hatred of the people in that city.”

Wilson was executed, as Ramsay says, “with all decency & quietnes,” but when the body was being removed the irritable crowd favored its obnoxious guards with a few missiles. Porteous, who obviously wasn’t the turn-the-other-cheek type, destructively escalated the confrontation.

After he was cut down and the guard drawing up to go off, some unlucky boys threw a stone or two at the hangman, which is very common, on which the brutal Porteous (who it seems had ordered his party to load their guns with ball) let drive first himself amongst the inocent mob and commanded his men to folow his example which quickly cleansed the street but left three men, a boy and a woman dead upon the spot, besides several others wounded, some of whom are dead since. After this first fire he took it in his head when half up the Bow to order annother voly & kill’d a taylor in a window three storys high, a young gentleman & a son of Mr Matheson the minister’s and several more were dangerously wounded and all this from no more provocation than what I told you before, the throwing of a stone or two that hurt no body. Believe this to be true, for I was ane eye witness and within a yard or two of being shot as I sat with some gentlemen in a stabler’s window oposite to the Galows. After this the crazy brute march’d with his ragamuffins to the Guard, as if he had done nothing worth noticing but was not long there till the hue and cry rose from them that had lost friends & servants, demanding justice. … I could have acted more discreetly had I been in Porteous’s place.

There were up to 30 casualties, and the temper of that fierce Edinburgh mob went from bad to worse over the ensuing months.

Authorities were obliged by public outrage to arrest Porteous for murder, and in an electric trial with a good deal of witness testimony scrambled by the post-hanging chaos, Porteous himself was condemned to hang.

We might, however, suppose with Scott that “if Captain Porteous’s violence was not altogether regarded as good service, it might certainly be thought, that to visit it with a capital punishment would render it both delicate and dangerous for future officers” — to say nothing of the “natural feeling, on the part of all members of Government, for the general maintenance of authority.” It’s not as if there are a lot of cops charged with capital crimes today for even the most egregious homicides.

Intervention to block the hanging came straight from London at the instigation of first Prime Minister Robert Walpole, whose intervention was also not liable to tame any passions. Instead …

In the ensuing riot, an Edinburgh lynch mob overpowered Captain Porteous’s guards at the Tolbooth and hauled the scoundrel out to the Grassmarket where he was beaten and hanged on a dyer’s pole.

Despite a £200 reward for the authors of Porteous’s death, and a passing Parliamentary threat to revoke the city’s charter altogether, no Edinburgher ever talked, and no person was ever prosecuted for the Porteous riots.


It was not until 1973, with “all passion spent”, that this memorial stone was erected for John Porteous in Greyfriars Kirkyard. (cc) image from Kio Stark.

The Heart of Midlothian, Scott’s novel that features these infamous riots, was also the nickname for the the Old Tolbooth, the Edinburgh gaol where both Wilson and Porteous were housed before their respective unfortunate demises. Today, the Heart only remains as a literal heart-shaped mosaic in the city’s paving-stones marking the building’s former location.

Generations of passersby have paused to hawk a loogie on this design as a gesture of the citizenry’s lasting contempt for the long-demolished prison.


The present-day “Heart of Midlothian” in Edinburgh’s paving-stones. (cc) image from Lee Carson.

Much less hostile is the reception given Walter Scott’s oeuvre.

The names of the novelist’s books and their characters were often repurposed by Scots to name nigh anything … stuff like, a Heart of Midlothian Dancing Club in Edinburgh, from which in turn emerged a cadre of sportive youth who formed the still-extant Heart of Midlothian Football Club.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Notable Participants,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Scandal,Scotland,Theft

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1647: Domenica Gratiadei and her coven of witches

2 comments April 14th, 2011 Headsman

This date in 1647 marked the execution of five supposed witches in Trentino.

Secular and modernist as this grim site‘s curators confessedly stand, we have perhaps given too little credence to those devout officers of the law who labored in those years to uphold the throne of heaven besieged by Satan’s varied earthly minions.

Montague Summers

In an effort to balance the record, we present this date’s account as rendered by a guy who took the supernatural a bit more seriously: Montague Summers.

Summers is a weird figure, but if he wasn’t really a throwback believer in Rome’s phantasmagoric early modern theology, he was the century’s most sublime performance artist.

Converting to Catholicism as an Anglican deacon, he went about in spooky clerical robes although his ordination status remains unclear to this day, immersed his capacious mind in supernatural arcana, and penned voluptuously eloquent books credulously treating the spectral evidence another era had given against sorcerers, vampires, lycanthropes, and suchlike habitues of the Monster Manual.*

I have endeavoured to show the witch as she really was -– an evil liver: a social pest and parasite: the devotee of a loathly and obscene creed: an adept at poisoning, blackmail, and other creeping crimes: a member of a powerful secret organization inimical to Church and State: a blasphemer in word and deed, swaying the villagers by terror and superstition: a charlatan and a quack sometimes: a bawd: an abortionist: the dark counselor of lewd court ladies and adulterous gallants: a minister to vice and inconceivable corruption, battening upon the filth and foulest passions of the age.

Summers projected (perhaps intentionally) a mysterious and vaguely sinister persona and did not disdain to cultivate a friendship with nefarious occultist Aleister Crowley, his contemporary. There were even rumors of an unwholesome interest in pederasty.

We’re confident that none of this has done his sales a bit of harm. So who are we social pests and parasites of the blogosphere not to batten upon it ourselves?

The below is drawn from Summers’ The Geography of Witchcraft — and as the reader will perceive, Geography at least purports to treat the flying-off-to-infernal-orgy stock in trade of those bygone witch hunters as legitimate evidence of the lead crone’s “attendance at the Sabbat, sometimes, no doubt, an experience on the psychic plane, for she was undoubtedly a medium of unusual powers, and sometimes in actual fact.”

A typical case of Witchcraft, and one which owing to its prominence and the meticulous investigations of the authorities has luckily been reported in full, attracted considerable attention in the winter of 1646 and the following spring. It will, moreover, be found to present so many factors and features, which occur again and again in the contemporary trials of wellnigh every European country, that it may profitably be dealt with in some detail.

A certain old woman of Castelnovo, Maria Salvatori, nicknamed “la Mercuria,” who had long been suspected of sorcery, was arrested on 26 October, 1646, and formally examined. At first the two principal charges, sufficiently damning in themselves, seem to have been that at her communions she did not swallow the Sacred Host, but kept It in her mouth to spit It out secretly and reserve It for some abominable purpose, and also that by her ecbolic spells she had caused the young Marchesa Bevilacqua to miscarry in childbirth. She was again interrogated on 8 November and put to the torture of the cord when she accused Domenica, the widow of a certain Tomaso Camelli, and Domenica’s daughter, Lucia, the wife of Antonio Caveden, both of whom dwelt at the hamlet of Villa, of being rank witches. She also avowed she had taken a Host from her mouth to give to Lucia Caveden, who thereby confected a charm which caused the abortion of the Marcioness. She added that she had also bewitched Cristoforo Sparamani, the son of Cecilia Sparamani, and that a certain Delaito Cavaleri was a necromancer and a worshipper of Satan. A further interrogation followed on 15 November, as a result of which the court, consisting of Paride Madernino, delegate in all criminal and civil cases in the districts of Castelnovo and Castellano, and his assessor Giovanni Ropele, doctor utriusque iuris, promptly gave orders to GiuseppeCoriziano, “bargello di questa turia,” to arrest Domenica and Lucia. This was done, and on Saturday, 24 November, 1646, at Nogaredo, the proceedings against the witches were formally opened. “Processus Criminalis pro destructione lamiarum.” On 27 November Domenica Carnelli was questioned by the judges, but they got little enough out of her. Two days following Lucia Caveden was brought before the tribunal. She vehemently declared that the charges were all malice; the hag Salvatori was her enemy; and with many cries she called Heaven to witness her innocence, repeatedly exclaiming “per grazia del Signor Iddio no son una stria” But the next day she proved less firm and implicated yet another woman, Domenica Gratiadei, who was immediately thrown into prison, a number of suspicious objects being found in her house when it was closely searched by the officers. Certain pots of a dark unguent and a mysterious powder being produced in court, Lucia Caveden confessed that these were for the destruction of human life and cattle. Seeing that the game was up Domenica Gratiadei, upon being put to the torture, soon laid bare all the secrets of the infernal sisterhood. She had made this unguent with which she annointed herself to attend the Sabbat “trasformata in gatto,” she had cast the evil eye on Cristofero Sparamani, she had renounced her baptism, defiled the Blessed Sacrament, adored Satan with divine honours. The judges were filled with horror, and trembled at the hideous tale of diabolism these women poured forth. Cecilia Sparamani, a plain honest woman, was next summoned as a witness and told how her son fell into fits of no ordinary kind. The doctors had acknowledged their skill baffled, and in spite of the prayers of two Capuchin fathers and the exorcisms of Monsignore the Bishop of Brondolo, this preternatural sickness still persisted. She informed the court that as soon as summer came and the roads were passable she intended to take the boy to the shrine of S. Antony at Padua, to whom she had a special devotion.

On 18 December, 1646, Benvenuta, the daughter of Domenica Gratiadei, made a startling confession. She declared that she had been taken by her mother “as if in a dream” to a place where there was dancing and singing, where she had been welcomed by a large number of revellers, and especially by a young man, who having kissed and fondled her awhile afterwards had connexion with her. This was, her mother averred, Satan himself. When closely questioned as to these proceedings the girl could only reply: “Tutto mi sembra, come ho detto, un sogno: e parevami che sempre vi fosse il diavolo in forma di quel giovene.” It would seem from these very striking and significant words that the girl was a hypnotic subject, entirely under her mother’s control, and that on these occasions she passed into a semi-trance state. The case dragged on throughout the months of January and February, 1647. There were interminable interrogations, and a large number of persons were gradually implicated.

On 2 January 1647, Domenica Gratiadei gave a detailed description of the Sabbats she had attended. She and an old warlock named Santo Peterlino always led the coven. “The rest followed in the shape of cats; but the Devil went first of all.” They enjoyed banquets, dances, plays, music, songs, and afterwards all worshipped Satan, presenting him with Hosts which they kept from their last communion. Before attending the Sabbat she anointed herself with an unguent made of “the Blessed Sacrament, the blood of certain small animals, Holy Water, the fat of dead babies” which was mixed with horrible imprecations and blasphemies to confect the charm.

On 10 January, a strange figure, Maddalena Andrei, nicknamed “La Filosofa,” first appears in the case. She confessed that she had assisted in the making of the ointment and had also adored the Devil who frequently appeared to her, “brave, like a gallant captain, dressed all in red.” On 9 March, when Giuseppe Goriziano entered the cell of La Filosofa to summon her to court he found her lying dead upon the floor. The common people believed that she had been carried off by Satan, especially as the Archpriest of Villa, Don Giovanni Bragliardi, shrewdly suspecting that the unhappy woman had committed suicide, refused her sepulture in consecrated ground.

This long and complicated Witchcraft-trial at length came to an end in April 1647. The court was throned with an excited yet hushed crowd, when the judge Paride Madernino and his assessors the Counts of Lodrone and Castel-Romano delivered the sentences. Domenica Camelli, Lucia Caveden, Domenica Gratiadei, Catterina Baroni, Zinevra Chemola, Isabella and Plonia Gratiadei, and Valentina Andrei were condemned to death. Maria Salvatori, “la Mercuria,” and Maddalena Andrei, “la Filosofa” had expired in prison. The condemned were beheaded and their bodies burned. It would seem, however, that Isabella and Polonia Gratiadei and Valentina Andrei managed to escape and could not be traced. The execution of the rest took place on 14 April, 1647, when Leonard Oberrdorfer the common hangman carried out the judicial sentence.

The chief witches here naturally fall into four groups each constituted of one old and one young woman, Domenica Camelli and Lucia her daughter; Domenica Gratiadei and Benvenuta her daughter; Isabella Gratiadei and Plonia her daughter; Maddalena Andrei and her daughter Valentina. The chief of the coven was undoubtedly Domenica Gratiadei, whose vile confessions, a mixture of most horrid blasphemies and lewdest obscenity, convince her of being a wretch wholly devoted to evil, and an active propagandist of the Satanic cult. It was she who had debauched her own daughter to “the Devil,” that young man whose name and individuality do not appear, but who may be guessed to have been a noble of the district, using the witches for his own ends and, presumably, supplying them with money to carry out his dark designs. That the whole gang frequently attended the Sabbat, at which he was not unseldom present, there can, I think, be no question.

This case is recounted in much greater detail in Italian in this Google book; this page has another summary, also in Italian.

* “[I]n every way a ‘character,’ and in some sort a throwback to the Middle Ages,” the London Times blurbed Summers at his death (obituary in the Aug. 11, 1948 issue). But his “preoccupations with the supernatural, however, represented only one side of his nature. His solid services to learning lie rather in his copious editorial and critical work on the English Restoration drama — a field in which he possessed the most comprehensive and expert knowledge.”

Summers’ edited compendium of 17th century playwright Aphra Behn‘s works is available free at gutenberg.org.

For exemplars of the stuff more topical to this post, one can also peruse free online his The Vampire: His Kith and Kin and his translation of the notorious witch-persecution manual Malleus Maleficarum.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Italy,Mass Executions,Public Executions,The Supernatural,Torture,Witchcraft,Women

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1865: Not George S.E. Vaughn

11 comments April 14th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1865, Abraham Lincoln had a date for Ford’s Theater — and with John Wilkes Booth’s single-shot Derringer pistol.

Abraham Lincoln was famous for his clemencies.

But Honest Abe had one last order of business to attend to before his carriage called him away to destiny: the pardon of a convicted Confederate spy due to be shot in St. Louis two days hence. Lincoln’s handwritten clemency for George Vaughn was the last official act of his presidency.

Lincoln in Story (“The Life of the Martyr-President told in Authenticated Anecdotes,” a light 1901 volume for popular consumption) relates:

Before the war Vaughn, with his wife and children, lived in Canton, Mo. He was a friend of Martin E. Green, a brother of United States Senator James S. Green, both strong pro-slavery men. At the opening of the war Martin E. Green recruited a regiment and received a colonel’s commission from the Confederate Government. George Vaughn enlisted under Green’s command and fought through the war.

After a period of fighting, Green and Vaughn crossed into Mississippi from Tennessee, camping at Tupelo, Miss. Not having heard from his family, Green was anxious to hear from his old home, so he delegated Vaughn to go on the mission of delivering letters to his wife.

Vaughn had almost completed his trip, having reached La Grange, six miles south of Canton, when he was captured by a squad of Federal troops.

They searched his person, and, finding letters and papers concealed about him, he was tried as a spy and sentenced to be shot. John B. Henderson, Senator from Missouri, finally succeeded in getting an order from the President for a retrial, but the verdict remained as hitherto. Again Henderson appealed to Lincoln, who granted a third trial, with the same result.

Henderson was not disconcerted, and again went to Lincoln. It was on the afternoon of April 14, 1865 — a melancholy date — that the Senator called at the White House. He called the attention of Lincoln to the fact that the war was practically closed, and said: “Mr. Lincoln, this pardon should be granted in the interest of peace and conciliation.”

This story gravitates naturally to the clemency of “the Great Heart” (as, for instance, D.W. Griffith called Lincoln). Far be it from us to say otherwise, but this is also self-evidently a story of the unusual prerogatives of the well-connected: not just any accused spy could get two trial do-overs and then a pardon free and clear ordered straight from the White House.

Mr. Lincoln replied: “Senator, I agree with you. Go to Stanton and tell him this man must be released.”

Henderson went to the office of the Secretary of War. Stanton* became violently angry, and swore that he would permit no such procedure.

Vaughn had but two days to live, and Henderson hastened to make one more stand. After supper he went to the White House. The President was in his office, dressed to go to Ford’s Theatre, when the Senator entered and told of the meeting he had had with Stanton.

Lincoln turned to his desk and wrote a few lines on an official sheet of paper. As he handed it to Senator Henderson he remarked: “I think that will have precedence over Stanton.”

It was an order for an unconditional release and pardon — the last official paper ever signed by Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln was dead within hours. Vaughn passed away in 1899 in Maryville, Mo.

* Stanton is supposed to have delivered the remark as Lincoln’s deathbed, “now he belongs to the ages” … an alleged epitaph whose actual content is subject, like all biography, to textual uncertainty and ideological redefinition.


Update: The excellent tale of a different soldier pardoned on this same date has recently been debunked by the National Archives in an academic scandal: in January 2011, researcher Thomas Lowry confessed to altering the pardon order for one Patrick Murphy from the true (and much less dramatic) date of April 14, 1864 to April 14, 1865.

Vaughn was actually pardoned just before Lincoln went to Ford’s Theater; Murphy (totally unconnected to Vaughn) was pardoned 365 days prior.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,History,Milestones,Missouri,Not Executed,Notable Participants,Pardons and Clemencies,Separatists,Shot,Soldiers,Spies,U.S. Military,USA,Wartime Executions

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Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!


Recent Comments

  • afc: Well, Gramont completely fucked that up. Vanini didn’t say anything about being joyful during torture....
  • jehanbosch/ Johan Louis de Jong: The crippling of the Christian Byzantine Empire was a great tragedy. The Emperor...
  • Anna: Thank you! I thought it might have been taken at the same time that this one https://imgur.com/a/X03Sj but I...
  • Kevin M Sullivan: Hi Anna, I’ve seen the actual photos of Bundy that were taken after his death that shows his face...
  • Brad: I honestly can’t say. Most of the post-execution photos of Bundy that are available are closeups of his...