1942: Ewald Schlitt, performative cruelty

Add comment April 2nd, 2019 Headsman

From Hitler’s Prisons: Legal Terror in Nazi Germany:

Despite the unprecedented legal terror [inside Germany], he [Hitler] continued to attack the legal apparatus as slow and formalistic, comparing it unfavourably with the unrestrained actions of the police. … In the autumn of 1941, he complained repeatedly in his private circle that the German judges passed too lenient sentences … In May 1941, he complained to Goebbels that inmates could emerge from prison ‘fresh and unused’, ready to act once more against the state — a statement which showed Hitler’s disregard for the brutal realities inside penal institutions. He had made a similar point a few months earlier to Himmler, telling him that criminals knew that inside penitentiaries ‘everything is nice, hygienic, nobody will do one any harm, the Minister of Justice vouches for that’.

Hitler’s simmering hostility towards the legal system blew up in spectacular fashion in the spring of 1941. The spark was yet another supposedly lenient court sentence. On 14 March 1942, the district court in Oldenburg found the engineer Ewald Schlitt guilty of having abused his wife so badly that she eventually died. However, the judges decided that Schlitt had not acted in cold blood but was liable to sudden violent fits of temper. Rather than condemning him to death as a ‘violent criminal’, the court sentenced Schlitt to five years in a penitentiary. When Hitler heard about this case, he exploded with rage. Ignorant of the details, he demanded that Schlitt be executed and took the court’s sentence as confirmation of the impotence of the judiciary. If there were any more such sentences, Hitler fumed in his private circle on Sunday 22 March 1942, he would ‘send the Justice Ministry to hell through a Reichstag law’. Hitler made no secret of his fury. On the very same day, he berated the acting Minister of Justice Schlegelberger on the telephone. Highly agitated, Hitler exclaimed that he could not understand why criminals were treated so leniently at a time when the ‘best’ German soldiers were dying at the front. Hitler threatened Schlegelberger with very serious consequences should the legal system fail to change.

The Reich Ministry of Justice immediately engaged in damage limitation, following Hitler’s outburst. Two days after his phone call, Schlegelberger wrote to Hitler to reassure him about the ruthlessness of the legal system: ‘My Fuhrer, I share your desire for the harshest punishment of criminal elements with the greatest conviction.’ To prove his point, Schlegelberger informed Hitler that the Schlitt case would be taken up by the Reich Court. The court duly delivered the desired result. On 31 March 1942, it quashed the original sentence against Schlitt and instead sentenced him to death, a decision which was immediately relayed to Hitler. Ewald Schlitt was guillotined two days later. Schlegelberger did not let the case rest here. He was concerned enough to inform the general state prosecutors, in a meeting on the day of Schlitt’s retrial, about Hitler’s threats. …

In previous protests by Hitler against court sentence he considered too ‘mild’, the file had been closed after the execution of the offender. But not this time. One of the reasons why Hitler did not let matters rest was his growing concern about the home front. In March 1942, the Nazi leadership knew that rations would have to be cut and evidently feared a backlash among the population … The Nazi leaders were convinced that the legal system would be unable to deal with any unrest. Thus, after Hitler had discussed the forthcoming cuts in rations with Goebbels on 19 March 1942, the two men went on to complain about the failures of the judiciary and to talk about the need for tougher measures on the home front. It was at this point that Hitler floated the idea of convening the Reichstag to give himself special powers against ‘evil-doers’, an idea he returned to after the Schlitt case. The cut in rations, the most serious during the entire war, was finally introduced on 6 April 1942, and caused great disquiet. Hitler’s apparent concern about this was betrayed in an extraordinary outburst at dinner on the very next day. Inevitably, his thoughts circled around the 1918 revolution and, with unprecedented ferocity, he vented his homicidal determination to prevent another ‘stab in the back’:

If a mutiny broke out somewhere in the Reich today, then he would answer it with immediate measures. To start with, he would:

a) have all leading men of an oppositional tendency … arrested at home and executed, on the day of the first report;

b) he would have all inmates in concentration camps shot dead within three days;

c) he would also have all criminal elements rounded up for execution within three days on the basis of the available lists, irrespective of whether they were in prison or at liberty at the time.

The shooting of this scum, which comprised a few hundred thousand people, would make other measures appear unnecessary, as the mutiny would break down by itself due to a lack of mutinous elements and fellow-travellers.

Only two weeks later, Hitler rang Goebbels and instructed him to take the very unusual step of summoning the Reichstag.

I also expect that the German jurisprudence understands that the nation is not there for them but they for the nation. That not the entire world is allowed to perish, in which also Germany is included, so that there is a formal right, but that Germany has to live, notwithstanding the formal interpretation of justice.

I have no understanding for it, just to mention an example, that for instance a criminal who married in 1937 and then mistreated his wife that she became mentally deranged and who then died of the results of his last mistreatment, is sentenced to 5 years of hard labor in a moment when 10,000 brave German men have to die in order to save the homeland from Bolshevism, that means to protect their wives and children.

I will take a hand in these cases from now on and direct the order to the judges that they recognize that as right what I order.

What German soldiers, German workers, peasants, our women in city and country and millions of our middle-class etc. do and sacrifice all only with the one thought of victory in their minds, then one can ask a congenial attitude for them who have been called by the people themselves to take care of their interests.

At present there are no self-styled saints with well-earned rights, but we all are only obedient servants in the interests of our people.

-From Hitler’s April 26, 1942 address to the Reichstag

On 26 April 1942, the Reichstag deputies assembled in Berlin, curious as to the purpose of the meeting. … The legal system, Hitler warned [in his address], must have only one thought: German victory. It was high time, he continued, that the legal system realised that it did not exist for its own sake, but for the nation. As an illustration of the inane approach of the judiciary, Hitler pointed to the Schlitt case. … The deputies cheered loudly, broke into chants of ‘Heil’ and then passed a resolution that explicitly exempted Hitler from ‘existing statutes of law’, giving him the right to remove from office and punish anyone ‘failing their duties’. Hitler was officially above the law.

Hitler’s attack in the Reichstag on 26 April 1942 received a mixed reception from the German public. Many Germans, it seems, supported Hitler’s views. But conservatives and members of the bourgeoisie started to voice some concerns about the threat to the rule of law. The German legal officials themselves were stunned … One senior judge exclaimed in private: ‘Out of shame, each judge has to hide his face from the public’. The officials feared that the attack would destroy public confidence int he independence of the judiciary and provide further incentives for the police to interfere in the legal process. To discuss measures which would increase Hitler’s confidence in the judiciary, the Reich Ministry of Justice held two meetings with senior regional officials in early May 1942 in Berlin. The meeting on 6 May was chaired by State Secretary Freisler. Hitler’s speech, he acknowledged, had hit the legal system like a ‘thunderstorm’. Freisler reminded the officials of the lessons which needed to be drawn: the legal officials had to become harder, focusing even more on retribution …

Hitler continued to complain in private about the weakness of the legal system. On 22 July, for example, he once more ranted at length about the judiciary, concluding that nobody resembled the jurist more closely than the criminal.

The Nazi leaders made sure that legal officials knew that Hitler was still unhappy. On the same day as Hitler’s latest private outburst, on 22 July 1942, Goebbels made an explicit speech to the officials at the People’s Courtk outlining the Nazi leaders’ criticism of the judiciary. Goebbels’s comments had special significance because, as he informed his listeners, Hitler had personally approved them. Goebbels began by complaining that many judges still had the wrong attitude, derived in large measure from their legalistic training. After referring in detail to several ‘unbearable’ sentences, Goebbels made crystal clear what was required from the judiciary. During the war, it was not important whether a judgment was fair or unfair; rather, it had to protect the state by eradicating the ‘inner enemies’: ‘The starting point is not the law, but the decision [that] this man has to disappear’.

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1590: George Schweiger, tough love

Add comment April 2nd, 2018 Headsman

In the usual telling the father welcomes back the prodigal son by slaying the fatted calf … not the son himself. This, uh, alternate version comes from the diary of Nuremberg executioner Franz Schmidt.

April 2nd [1590]. George Schweiger of Falckendorf near Nerzogaurach, a thief who, in his youth, together with his brother, first stole 40 florins from his own father. Later, when his father sent him to settle a debt, he kept the money and gambled with it; lastly, discovering that his father had a treasure buried in a barn behind the house, he stole 60 florins of it. He had a lawful wife, but left her and attached himself to two whores, promising marriage to both. Beheaded with the sword as a favour.*

His father let him lie in prison here, and desired and insisted that justice should be done, in spite of the fact that he had recovered his money.

(Emphasis added.)

* i.e., he was sentenced to hanging as a common thief, but was given the quicker and more honorable execution of beheading as a mercy.

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1828: William Dyon and John Dyon, all in the family

Add comment April 2nd, 2017 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1828, William Dyon, 45, and his son, John, 23, were hanged for the murder of William’s brother, who was also named John.

The brothers had fallen out over their father’s inheritance; William Dyon Sr. had favored John’s family over William Jr.’s. Writing dramatically of the case in his book Foul Deeds and Suspicious Deaths in Doncaster, Stephen Wade described the brothers as

sons of a Lincolnshire farmer, and the two boys were so different that this tale almost attains a biblical resonance, with jealousy, brooding and resentment, and finally a deathly hatred that led one brother to a bloody death; and the other to the scaffold. It is a Cain and Abel story, but with more than one layer of evil: William Dyon was joined by his son, John, in the murder.

According to contemporary account, from his youth William was “of a Wild disposition, and addicted to low sports; in his youth, a frequenter of cocking matches [and] bull baits.” While William joined “scenes of riot and dissipation,” John was a much steadier sort and very helpful to his father on the farm. Dyon Sr. was wealthy and he rewarded his more filial son with 63 acres of land, followed by cash gifts amounting to £300 sterling, while giving William nothing.

When he drafted his will he also favored John, virtually ignoring his other son.

William and his son planned out the murder more than a week in advance, enlisting the help of another man named John White who had known both brothers for years. John Dyon was walking through the front gate of his farm, 800 yards from his house, when he was ambushed by his brother and nephew and shot to death on the evening of February 16, 1828. His family didn’t find him until morning.

The victim was lying in the grass by the gate, stiff and cold, shot in the chest. He was carrying about £40 and an expensive watch, so robbery was ruled out as a motive for his death.

The inquest that followed returned a verdict of “willful murder by person or persons unknown,” but suspicion had already fallen on the embittered relatives.

Both Dyon pere and fils had been seen loitering near the farm with guns; they claimed to be hunting, but it wasn’t the right time of year for that. They had also asked people what time the victim normally returned home from the Doncaster market.

Their enmity towards the victim was well­known in the area and many witnesses remembered hearing William threaten his brother and even say outright that he planned to murder him. After John’s death he was seen boasting about his crime in the local pub.

The investigating magistrate actually performed some CSI work: he noticed a pair of boot tracks at the site of the murder and saw that the wearer had walked with their feet turned outward. William Dyon walked in that way.

Furthermore, the prints were from a left boot and a right boot; not many shoes were made left­ and right­footed during that time period, but William owned a pair that was.

The two suspects produced an alibi, initially confirmed by William’s brother­in­law and his servant: they were at home at the time of the murder. But this collapsed when both witnesses recanted. Then their accomplice, White, came forward with his evidence.

Lincoln, Rutland, and Stamford Mercury, April 11, 1828

By the time of the trial, there wasn’t much of a defense left to offer. The jury deliberated five minutes before voting guilty for both defendants.

On the scaffold under 10,000 eyes, John acknowledged the justice of his sentence. William, who had been caught passing notes to his son in gaol enjoining him to keep his silence, merely announced that “the Lord will pardon my sins.” A friend of the victim wanted to buy the execution ropes, but he was turned away.

“The bodies,” Wade wrote, “were dissected by the anatomists and their skins tanned.”

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1954: Henry Frank Decaillet

Add comment April 2nd, 2016 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1954, 52-year-old Henry Frank Decaillet met his death in the gas chamber at San Quentin in California.

Teenage girls seem to have been his type; when he married at 23 years old, his bride was just 14. They had five children, four of whom survived to adulthood. By the time of Decaillet’s crime, though, he and his wife had been estranged for years and had separated.

Decaillet, a farmhand, had joined his local Pentecostal Church and there he met Phoebe Ann Bair described as “a pretty brunette large for her age.” Her family was also part of the church. She was thirteen. He fell in love with her, he said, and they entered into a sexual relationship for about a year.

The affair had become the subject of local gossip by mid-1953 and the local police had a chat with Decaillet about the risks associated with having sex with minors. Phoebe herself had cooled towards him. He heard she had been “messing around with some boys” her own age and he became frantic.

On the evening of June 11, Decaillet accosted Phoebe at a Pentecostal Church meeting. She refused to speak to him and he drove to her house and took a .22 caliber rifle out of his car. He’d been carrying it around in his vehicle for some time, debating over what to do. Now he had made up his mind. He went into the Bair home, where three of Phoebe’s siblings and two other children were present. When they saw the gun, they went running out the door for the police.

Decaillet hid in a closet in the house. Phoebe and her parents arrived home at 9:45 p.m. Mr. and Mrs. Bair realized they’d left one of their other children behind at the church and left to pick her up, telling Phoebe to stay home and get ready for bed. After her parents left, as Phoebe was standing in the kitchen, Decaillet shot her through a crack in the door. She ran and tried to reach the front door, but he chased after her, grabbed her and shot her three more times in the head.

When the police arrived at the Bair residence, Decaillet was sitting on the sofa with rifle in hand and Phoebe’s head cradled in his lap. He admitted to his crime, saying he’d been planning it for weeks.

He said Phoebe had been leading an immoral life and he had killed her “to stop her from becoming a prostitute.”

Decaillet had little to say for himself after that. Although he was a heavy drinker who’d been treated at the state hospital for alcoholism — in fact he became a Pentecostal as part of his effort to turn over a new leaf — he was sober at the time of the murder. He said he knew what he’d done was illegal and wrong and agreed that he should die for it. He pleaded guilty to murder, without requesting leniency.

Less than a year passed between murder and execution.

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1756: Veronika Zeritschin, the last witch executed in Germany

Add comment April 2nd, 2015 Headsman

When did Europe stop executing witches?

Early modern Europe’s witch hunt era wound down in the 18th century, but the precise milestone dates are surprisingly tricky to pin down. The superstition outlived the judicial machinery, and some of the last reputed “witches” — like Anna Göldi and Barbara Zdunk — don’t seem to have been formally charged with sorcery.

The clear “lasts” we do have are country by country, earlier or later depending on the vigor of the pushback witch-hunters could muster against the the onset of rationalism.

The last witch execution that can be documented in the Holy Roman Empire’s illustrious history took place on this date in 1756, in Landshut, during the age of Maria Theresa.* Its subject was a 15-year-old named Veronika Zeritschin, who was beheaded and then burned.

There is scant information readily available online as to how she came to that dreadful pass, perhaps because the distinction was long thought to be held by a woman named Anna Maria Schwegelin (English Wikipedia entry | German) — condemned for her Satanic intercourse in 1775. That sentence, it was only latterly discovered, was not actually carried out, leaving poor Anna to die in prison in 1781.

As one might infer, Veronika Zeritschin’s own distinction might not be entirely secure against subsequent documentary discoveries. But as of now, she appears to be the last person executed on German soil as a witch.


Salvator Rosa, Witches at their Incantations (c. 1646). “Rosa has a secret to tell us: how the romantic imagination feeds on terrors and beliefs that were once all too real.”

* Marie Antoinette‘s mother. Maria Theresa’s absolutism was not quite that of the Enlightenment; she was a staunch foe of the trend towards religious toleration:

What, without a dominant religion? Toleration, indifferentism, are exactly the right means to undermine everything … What other restraint exists? None. Neither the gallows nor the wheel … I speak politically now, not as a Christian. Nothing is so necessary and beneficial as religion. Would you allow everyone to act according to his fantasy? If there were no fixed cult, no subjection to the Church, where should we be? The law of might would take command. (Source)

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1880: James Madison Wyatt Stone, landing on his feet

2 comments April 2nd, 2014 Headsman

The wonderful blog Ghosts of D.C. calls our attention (via SanhoTree) to a fabulously gruesome botched hanging in the nation’s capital on this day in 1880.

James Madison Wyatt Stone was condemned for a brutal double-throat-slashing attack on his estranged wife, Alberta, and her sister, Lavinia Pitcher. Those two women lived together in Northwest D.C. along with Alberta’s two children by Stone; they had already had to shoo away the husband on previous occasions.

On Oct. 5, 1878, Stone forced his way into their residence and attacked Lavinia — she just happened to be in the sitting room when Stone burst the door. Pursuing her into the yard, Stone slashed her throat with a razor. Alberta came rushing down the stair to her shrieking sister’s aid, and Stone turned on her and delivered a similar injury. Alberta died the next morning; Lavinia survived.

Stone was chased down by neighbors who had been roused by the very noisy assault, which citizen captors then fended off attempts to exact summary justice until police arrived to take Stone into custody.

So that’s the crime. But get a load of the punishment.

Stone was hanged in a prison courtyard from a gallows 20 feet high, with just a five-foot drop of the rope. The details are important here because you might think from the story that follows that he was dropped almost all the way to the ground: the violence of the noose striking tends to cause a hanged body to oscillate. “He’s only got to be an inch or two off-centre and he’ll swing like a bloody pendulum when he’s dropped,” the executioner Syd Dernley remembered being told during his 20th century training program.

You can see pretty easily why that’s pertinent from the Washington Post‘s account of what happened when the trap was dropped.

Instead of the dangling and possible convulsed form of the dying man being as expected, all were horrified at seeing the body standing for a moment headless on the ground, the blood spurting in thin jets from the neck. Before anyone had time to realize what had occurred the decapitated trunk fell back, prone. The head had shot backwards also and bounded against the frame of the scaffold, falling about four or five feet from the body, the bleeding base being uppermost.

Falling 20 feet to land arrow-straight upright while your black-bagged head is torn off by a rope must be something like tossing a coin and having it come up … sides.

Physicians coolly retrieved the head from its bloodied sack, and found Stone’s visage “placid, and the lips moved as if about to say something.” (New York Times) It was sewed back to the murderer’s formerly blood-jetting neck for burial.

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1897: Ernest and Alexis Blanc, brothers in blood

Add comment April 2nd, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1897, some 4,000 residents of Lafayette turned up to watch the hanging of two Parisian-born young men.

It had been nearly a full year since Martin Begnaud was discovered bound, gagged, and stabbed over 50 times in his general store at Scott, Louisiana, just outside Lafayette. That was on April 22, 1896.

The motive was self-evident: the prosperous late burgher had been plundered of several thousand dollars. But who did it?

The matter remained a mystery for many months, although two men were indicted for the deed — and blessedly never brought to trial.

But a few days after the murders, brothers Ernest and Alexis Blanc, teenage French orphans who were sharecropping on a plantation in April 1896 also abruptly disappeared without even bothering to sell their crop shares. This naturally raised suspicion as well, but their whereabouts were totally unknown and as months passed any hope of finding them had practically vanished.

Just after New Year’s 1897, the Blancs made a slight miscalculation: they turned up again in Scott and applied to work at their old plantation.

They were swiftly arrested and questioned separately. It did not take long for them to crack; indeed, full of guilt as they were, one might speculate whether these young Catholics didn’t return with the subconscious desire to purge themselves.

The older sibling Ernest explained that they had

secured the loan of a book treating of the daring deeds of Jesse James. From reading this book originated the idea and our plans for the murder. Seeing how poor we were, and how difficult to otherwise better our situation, we made up our minds to emulate the examples inculcated by the book.

(In those days, television was called ‘books’.)

The boys executed this plan with something less than the steel-hearted aplomb of a seasoned outlaw, however. Having gained access after hours to Begnaud and his store on the pretext of making a purchase, the brothers nervously bought tobacco … and then sardines … and then made small talk about mouse traps … all the while trying to screw up the nerve to do the deed, and get Begnaud to turn his back on them so they could have the advantage. When Ernest (as he claimed) finally murdered the shopkeep, “my hand trembled. The triangular instrument burned my hand. I shut my eyes.”

(Both of the previous two quotes are as per the January 9, 1897 Lafayette Advertiser.)

After that, they took off on a travel spree which ought to have carried them safely away from the scene of their crime for good. Instead they returned, like a dog to vomit, and gave up their lives to unburden their hearts. “We have talked too much,” Alexis said matter-of-factly to a reporter before their sentencing. “That is all. Had we kept the secret and not confessed, we would not be here.”

The fact that there was a sentencing at all was a bit of an achievement, and the Blancs have generally been considered the first legal hangings in Lafayette Parish. Actual or suspected malefactors were typically handled with more dispatch and fewer legal niceties previously (also making it something of a miracle that the original, wrongly-accused pair was still around to draw breath). Both Ernest and Alexis spent a good deal of their time jailed in New Orleans for their own protection.

But that protection ran out today.

The boys went to their death in good humor, never adding a failure of nerve to their account of sins. Ernest even joked on the platform at the sight of so many people scrambling up trees to catch a glimpse of the hanging that “There are some who will surely have their necks broken in advance of ours.”

The Lafayette Gazette scored a coup by securing a lengthy confessional from the hands of the doomed lads themselves, which ran on April 3 and reiterated the role of leisure reading in the crime spree.*

It was a life of tranquility, sweet and honest, which we regret having discarded to follow the evil promptings of ambition; the love of fortune, and the desire for gold which the devil suggested to us through the leaves of a book entitled the “James Boys.”** It was by reading this book we were lead to steal. Why work in the field? Why walk behind a plow? And at the end of the year receive not enough to buy clothes to put on our backs?

To rob one of his gold in a single night appeared to us much easier. The birds had eaten the crops and we were discouraged.

The murder itself, they said, had not been premeditated. But

[w]e were discussing the manner in which we would tie [Begnaud] so that he could not give the alarm before morning, when he said:

“Do not destroy my account books nor my private papers, without which I cannot make a living.”

In the silence of the night this sonorous voice appeared probably stronger than it really was and impressed us with a feeling impossible to express, and we rushed to his room and I (Ernest) stabbed Martin who was sitting on his bed. How many times I stabbed him I know not, nor did I ever know.

The Blancs logged some serious mileage in their months living on the Begnaud score. But Catholic guilt aside, it sounds as if their capture might really be attributed more to the country’s miserable economic situation.

After visiting Belgium and England we boarded a steamer for New York City arriving there on the 12th of July. We had already spent the greater portion of the $3,000 [stolen from Begnaud]. Then we commenced our journey across the United States, visiting Chicago, St. Paul, Helena, Portland, Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles, El Paso, Salt Lake City, Ogden, Omaha, Council Bluffs and St. Louis. In the latter city we spent the remainder of our money. Each one having ten dollars, we took the Frisco line on foot, passing through Missouri, Arkansas, Indiana Territory and Texas, and followed the Texas Pacific as far as Mexico, where we rested a few days. All along the route we tried to get work, but failed. There was nothing for strangers to do. It is in this manner that we reached Lafayette on January 2, 1897. Knowing so many people there we thought it would be easy to find employment. We knew that we were risking our necks, but being so miserable, did not care very much.

And this decision to risk returning in preference to starvation is, after all, nothing but the same calculation of risk and reward that people at the economic margins have always made: to descend a lethal mine to feed one’s family; to seek one’s fortune on the treacherous seas; or if it should come to that, not to walk behind the plow but to follow the lead of the James boys and make one’s bread by banditry.

* According to No Spark of Malice: The Murder of Martin Begnaud, the Gazette cleverly obtained the full rights to all the Blancs’ prison writings, and were able to turn them into a 23-page French pamphlet La Vie, le Crime et les Confessions d’Ernest et Alexis Blanc; ou, L’Histoire d’un Crime Horrible. This sold like hotcakes after the hangings and would now be in the public domain; sadly, it does not appear to be available online as of present writing.

** There were probably several books of this title then, just as there have been several since. This volume has a 1911 copyright, but if it is not a version of the same book the Blancs read, it’s surely not too far distant.

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1674: Benjamin Gourd, the last bestiality execution

Add comment April 2nd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1674, Benjamin Gourd (or Goad) was hanged for bestiality in Puritan Massachusetts.

Six New England colonists (pdf) had died for bestiality up through 1662, but the sentence was falling out of fashion.

Gourd, caught having his way with a mare “at noon day in an open yard” and within sight of the gallows, has the distinction of being the last colonist of the future United States put to death for fauna-philia. And even the jury that sentenced him was noticeably reluctant about dooming the 17-year-old.

Well, preacher Samuel Danforth wasn’t going to have any of this ungodly backsliding on Gourd’s ungodly backsliding.

Danforth’s The Cry of Sodom Enquired Into; Upon Occasion of the Arraignment and Condemnation of Benjamin Goad, for His Prodigious Villany (that’s a pdf of the full spiel; here’s a Cliff Notes version) is regarded as the first published “execution sermon” in American history.

the Earth groans under the burthen of such Wickedness. You pity his Youth and tender years, but I pray pity the holy Law of God, which is shamefully violated; pity the glorious Name of God, which is horribly profaned; pity the Land, which is fearfully polluted and defiled.

We think Corey Robin will recognize Danforth’s indictment of the youth’s “licentious liberty” obtained in defiance of an unnamed Master as the root of all his ruin, and any American with an AM radio dial will recognize the rest.

Being at length, by the good hand of God, brought under the Yoke of Government and Service, (which might have bridled and restrained him from such wickedness) he violently brake away from his Master, and with an high hand boldly and impudently, like a childe of Belial, shook off that Yoke of God, casting reproach and disgrace upon his Master. Having now obtained a licentious liberty, he grew so impudent in his wickedness, as to commit this horrid Villany in the sight of the Sun, and in the open field, even at Noon-day; proclaiming his sin like Sodom. Though he be a Youth in respect of years, yet he is grown old in wickedness, and ripe for Vengeance.

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1977: Girma Kebede in the Ethiopian Red Terror

Add comment April 2nd, 2011 Headsman

There’s a reason why “may you live in interesting times” is a curse.

The eras we call a “Terror” — Stalin’s Russia, Robespierre‘s France, Pol Pot’s Cambodia — are pretty interesting.

Ethiopia in the mid-1970’s was one of the most interesting places in the world.

After the Derg, a shadowy committee of leftist officers, toppled the monarchy in 1974, factional violence between Ethiopia’s two main Marxist parties soon came to the fore.

Long story short, All-Ethiopian Socialist Movement (MEISON) backed the Derg — while its rival the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP) denounced it as fascistic.

And when Mengistu assumed dictatorial power in February 1977, it was Red Terror on.

It was as dirty as it sounds, “one of the most systematic uses of mass murder by the state ever witnessed in Africa” according to Human Rights Watch. This was the context of Mengistu’s most notorious public appearance, at an Addis Ababa rally later this same month of April 1977 when he theatrically smashed bottles of (apparently) blood while inciting his supporters against “enemies.”

Now that is red terror.

The Derg-MEISON alliance* built up Kebeles, small neighborhood militias — “essentially a matter of arming the lumpenproletariat against members of the urban intelligentsia,” writes Christopher Clapham.

But even these MEISON-allied goon squads were liable to run afoul of revolutionary justice if their indiscriminate mayhem failed to discriminate at the most essential moment.

On two occasions, March and again in May 1977, house-to-house searches were carried out in Addis Ababa, and suspected EPRP members rounded up for execution. Attempts by the EPRP to launch a school strike were likewise countered by the execution of students who failed to attend classes. The press regularly reported the execution of ‘anarchists’ and ‘paid assassins’. Along with the conflict between the rival political factions went the settling of personal scores, and gratuitous killings by psychotics on either side. The most notorious of these, Girma Kebede, was a Meison kebelle chairman in the Arat Kilo area of Addis Ababa, and the well-educated son of a former high official; he overreached himself by taking away for execution a group of ‘reactionaries’ from the Ministry of Education who included Mengistu’s uncle, and was then shot on the charge of seeking ‘to alienate the people from the Government and incite the broad masses against the revolution’.

On this date in 1977, Girma Kebede paid the forfeit. His, er, strategy of killing scores of humans to alienate the people from the government would take many more years and bodies to succeed.

* Later that year, the Derg-MEISON alliance also fell apart, Mengistu cemented his power, and MEISON got the same treatment it had once meted out to its EPRP enemies.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Ethiopia,Execution,Executioners,History,Political Expedience,Power,Shot,Terrorists,Wartime Executions

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1781: John Donellan, Esq.

1 comment April 2nd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1781, John Donellan was hanged for murdering his brother-in-law to secure an inheritance.

JOHN DONELLAN had been a captain in the army, and was the son of Colonel Donellan. He certainly distinguished himself as a good soldier, for not only had he been much wounded in the service, but, if his own account may be credited, he was singularly instrumental in the taking of Mazulapatam. … In June, 1777, he married Miss Boughton; and on Friday, 30th of March, 1781, he was tried at the assizes at Warwick for the wilful murder of Sir Theodosius Edward Allesley Boughton, Bart., his brother-in-law.

… Sir Theodosius was twenty years old on the 3rd of August past. On his coming of age he would have been entitled to above two thousand pounds a year, and in the event of his dying a minor the greater part of his fortune was to descend to his sister, the wife of Mr Donellan. It was known in the family on the evening of Tuesday, the 26th that Sir Theodosius was to take his physic the next morning. … As he was taking it he observed that it smelled and tasted very nauseous; upon which [his mother, Lady Boughton] said: “I think it smells very strongly like bitter almonds.” He then remarked that he thought he should not be able to keep the medicine upon his stomach.

Here a bottle was delivered to Lady Boughton containing the genuine draught, which she was desired to smell, and inform the Court whether it smelled like the medicine Sir Theodosius took. She answered in the negative. She was then desired to smell another containing the draught, with the addition of laurel-water, which she said had a smell very much like that of the medicine she gave to Sir Theodosius. … Two minutes after Sir Theodosius had taken the draught he struggled very much. It appeared to her as if it was to keep the draught down. He made a prodigious rattling in his stomach, and guggling …

She saw Mr Donellan less than five minutes after. … he asked her where the physic bottle was; on which she showed him two draughts; when he took up one of the bottles and said, “Is this it?” she answered, “Yes.” He then rinsed it, and emptied it into some dirty water that was in a washhand-basin; and on his doing so she said: “What are you at? You should not meddle with the bottles.” Upon that he snatched up the other bottle and rinsed it …

We omit the forensic testimony presented to confirm that the victim was indeed poisoned.

As well as the latter-day observer can tell, we have a guilty — and fairly clumsy — poisoner after his brother-in-law’s boodle.

We’ll never know the answer, but the Newgate author hints at other family members who might have had the same means, motive and opportunity … like Donellan’s wife:

[Lady Boughton] soon afterwards went into the parlour, where she found Mr and Mrs Donellan; and the former told his wife that her mother had been pleased to take notice of his washing the bottles, and that he did not know what he should have done if he had not thought of saying that he had put the water into them to put his finger to it to taste.

Lady Boughton’s just full of evidence! Don’t suppose she could have had anything to gain, hmm? Let’s ask a jailhouse snitch:

John Darbyshire deposed that he had been a prisoner in Warwick jail for debt, and that Mr Donellan and he had had a bed in the same room for a month or five weeks. He remembered to have had a conversation with him about Sir Theodosius being poisoned. On his asking him whether the body was poisoned or not, he said there was no doubt of it. The witness said: “For God’s sake, Captain, who could do it?” He answered it was amongst themselves; he had no hand in it. The witness asked whom he meant by themselves. He said: “Sir Theodosius himself, Lady Boughton, the footman and the apothecary.” The witness replied, “Sure, Sir Theodosius could not do it himself!” He said he did not think he did — he could not believe he would. The witness answered: “The apothecary could hardly do it — he would lose a good patient; the footman could have no interest in it; and it is unnatural to suppose that Lady Boughton would do it.” The Captain said how covetous Lady Boughton was: she had received an anonymous letter the day after Sir Theodosius’s death charging her plump with poisoning him; that she called him and read it to him, and trembled. She desired he would not let his wife know of that letter, and asked him if he would give up his right to the personal estate, and to some estates of about two hundred pounds a year belonging to the family. The conversation was about a month after the Captain came into the jail. At other times he said that it was impossible he could do a thing that never was in his power.

Stranger things have happened, but it sounds like a weak attempt to set mom up; it sounded weak to the jury, too.

At seven o’clock on the next day, the 2nd of April, 1781, he was carried to the place of execution at Warwick, in a mourning-coach, followed by a hearse and the sheriff officers in deep mourning. As he went on he frequently put his head out of the coach, desiring the prayers of the people around him.

On his arrival at the fatal spot he alighted from the coach and, ascending a few steps of the ladder, prayed for a considerable time, and then joined in the usual service with the greatest appearance of devotion; he next, in an audible tone of voice, addressed the spectators to this effect: that as he was then going to appear before God, to Whom all deceit was known, he solemnly declared that he was innocent of the crime for which he was to suffer; that he had drawn up a vindication of himself, which he hoped the world would believe, for it was of more consequence to him to speak truth than falsehood, and he had no doubt but that time would reveal the many mysteries that had arisen in his trial.

After praying fervently some time he let his handkerchief fall — a signal agreed upon between him and the executioner — and was launched into eternity. When the body had hung the usual time it was put into a black coffin and conveyed to the town hall to be dissected.

Part of the Themed Set: Selections from the Newgate Calendar.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Pelf,Public Executions

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