1916: Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, Patrick McIntyre and Thomas Dickson, by Captain Bowen-Colthurst

Add comment April 26th, 2018 Headsman

On the morning of this date in 1916, British Captain John Bowen-Colthurst ordered the summary execution of three Irish journalists in his custody: part of a still-notorious murderous rampage through Dublin amid the Easter Rising.

Bowen-Colthurst’s subsequent “insanity” skate has been a sore subject in the century since its predictable enactment.

The product of landed Anglo-Irish elites — his childhood manor, Dripsey Castle, still stands — had trotted the globe in service of the empire: the Boer Wars, India, Tibet, and the western front.

It’s the sort of background that should have made Bowen-Colthurst a calm hand in a tight spot.* Instead, the Easter Rising panicked him. Atrocities against Irish nationalists are not exactly surprising in the abstract here, but Bowen-Colthurst’s behavior in these hours was so erratic and violent that his men would remark that he had lost his head … although they strikingly never disobeyed his patently illegal orders.

At Portobello Barracks in Dublin, which in this week swarmed chaotically with off-duty leave soldiers reporting themselves for duty in the face of the armed insurrection, the Third Royal Irish Rifles’ commander was absent on sick leave and evidently took command discipline with him. “Captain Colthurst, although not the equal in rank of Major Rosborough, was the senior office in point of service and, according to all the evidence, considered himself at liberty to ignore his brother-officers,” Francis Sheehy-Skeffington’s widow explained.

Sheehy-Skeffington — a gentle pacifist affectionately known among antiwar socialists and the women’s movement as “Skeffy” — had been arrested on sight on April 25th, while out and about trying to dissuade looters. Bowen-Colthurst marched him out overnight as a human shield for a random patrol, and did not mind murdering before his eyes a passing young man caught out after curfew.

Proceeding along, Bowen-Colthurst grenades a tobacconist’s shop, mistakenly thinking that its owner, named Kelly, was Sinn Fein man Tom Kelly. In fact, the tobacconist Kelly was a loyalist, as were the two publishers that Bowen-Colthurst arrested at his place: Patrick McIntyre and Thomas Dickson.

Ignoring their protests, our unstable captain brought all three men back to the barracks. By morning’s light, he had decided on no authority but his own to have them executed.

“I am taking these prisoners out and I am going to shoot them because I think it is the right thing to do” was all the justification that he submitted. Later, he would say that he feared the prisoners would escape; that, believing that Germans were landing and revolutionaries were gunning down Black and Tans throughout Dublin, “I took the gloomiest view of the situation and felt that only desperate measures would save the situation.” So he shot the one guy who didn’t want to fight and two guys who were on his own team. According to later testimony, he would even order Skeffy to be re-shot upon being informed that the man was still moving several minutes after execution.

Still, the tilting captain had enough self-possession to openly worry to a brother-officer that he might have committed a hanging offense … and to actively conceal the evidence of it. Had events not been exposed by a courageous whistleblower, Sir Francis Vane, everything surely would have been obfuscated into the soupy fog of war. Embarrassingly compelled by Vane’s tattling to court-martial Bowen-Colthurst only to pass him off to an asylum (and later, to Canada), the brass took it out on Vane by terminating his career a few months later: “this officer was relegated to unemployment owing to his action in the Skeffington murder case in the Sinn Fein rebellion.”

Uproar at the Bowen-Colthurst affair had some interesting knock-on effects: for one thing, the naked impunity available to an officer at a time when enlisted men in France were being shot at dawn for minor disciplinary lapses might have contributed to the British command’s decision later in 1916 to permit the execution of a shellshocked lieutenant. And, an associate of the loyalist British commander in Ireland during the Easter Rising claimed that Sheehy-Skeffington blowback subsequently led to the execution reprieve granted to Eamon de Valera: that future president of independent Ireland just so happened to have his name “first on the list” when the matter came to a head.

Today, a visitor center at the former Portobello Barracks (now called Cathal Brugha Barracks) memorializes the three men executed there on April 26, 1916.

* We don’t mean to be cavalier about the psychological strains inflicted by violence. Bowen-Colthurst seemed to exhibit signs of shell shock in the trenches, whether due to the shells themselves or to having lost his younger brother in the war.

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1947: Hisao Tani, for the rape of Nanking

Add comment April 26th, 2017 Headsman

Lieutenant General Hisao Tani was shot on this date in 1947 for his part in the Rape of Nanking.

Tani commanded a division that took part in the conquest and occupation of that Chinese city in 1937, and it was outside its gates — following a Chinese war crimes trial — that he took his leave of this world.

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1875: William Hole, family tragedy

Add comment April 26th, 2016 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1875, William Marwood* executed William Hole at Bristol Prison for the murder of his wife the previous summer.

Any murder story is a sad and brutal one, but William Hole strikes this writer as an especially pathetic and pitiful specimen of killer.

As told in Nicola Sly’s book Bristol Murders, William and his wife Alice had been married thirty years by the time of her death. What had initially been a happy relationship went downhill after their only child, a son named James, was killed in an accident. William in particular was inconsolable and attempted suicide.

Further misfortune befell him: three years after his son’s death, William was thrown from a horse-drawn cart and sustained a serious head injury. He was probably brain-damaged, and he definitely suffered from horribly painful, intractable headaches for the rest of his life. His sense of melancholy deepened and he regularly threatened to kill himself. The depression turned into paranoia and delusions. He started hearing voices.

The Baptist parents had been teetotalers through three decades of marriage, but after his head injury William took to alcohol to quiet his demons, and so did his wife. They were constantly quarreling and the more they drank they more they argued.

In spite of the couple’s fights, however, and William’s alcoholism and chronic headaches, he wasn’t a complete basket case. He was, for example, able to run his own successful barge business, employing several men. He was well-liked in the area and didn’t have a reputation for violence or criminality.

Until, that is, the night of August 28, 1874, when sometime after 10:30 p.m. the entire neighborhood was roused by screams of “Murder!”

William, it seems, had come home blind drunk and suffering from another of his headaches. He found Alice slumped on the doorstep, also drunk. He knocked her to the ground, went inside and locked her out. Some time later he asked her, twice, to come indoors. Both times she refused. The second time her husband went out into the street, hit Alice again and went back inside. When he re-emerged he was carrying a knife.

A neighbor witnessed all of this and she watched the bloody events that followed. In Sly’s words,

William lunged at his wife, sending her sprawling to the ground. He then bent over her and made two quick slashes with the carving knife across Alice’s throat… Illuminated by a streetlamp was a ghastly scene. Alice Hole was slumped against the kerb, her arms waving, with blood pumping from her throat. William had once again retreated to his own house and was sitting calmly on his windowsill.

Two female neighbors asked William to help them carry Alice into the house and he refused, saying, “She shan’t come in. Take her anywhere; I have killed her and I shall be hung.” Somehow the women got Alice inside her house by themselves and laid her out on the living room rug. She bled out before the doctor arrived.

When the police showed up, William was ready and waiting for them. He told one officer, “Here I am. I did it. I shall not run away. Take me if you like.” He did, however, ask for one last drink of brandy, since he wouldn’t be having another for a long time. This was refused.

At the police station he said, “This is all through a drunken wife,” and confessed in great detail, even going so far as to mime the murder in front of the police. Then he begged to be allowed to drown himself. Request denied, of course, so he tried and failed to strangle himself with his own handkerchief. Denied alcohol in prison, this habitual drunkard began suffering the symptoms of delirium tremens.

He would later claim he had no memory of the murder, although he never denied having done it.

At trial, Hole’s two attorneys used the defense of insanity, pointing out his prior head injury, his prior suicide attempts, his alcoholism, and the fact that he had been dead drunk at the time of the murder. But, summing up the case, the judge told the jury that if William Hole knew what he was doing and knew it was wrong, he had to be found guilty. Given that he had confessed freely and anticipated the likelihood that he “shall be hung,” it would to be hard to argue he didn’t realize the nature and consequences of his actions.

A successful bargeman turned employer and local philanthropist, our troubled soul attracted an energetic campaign for reprieve — but the Home Secretary denied a petition of 30,000 to stay the execution.

* Marwood’s command of the scientific hanging craft was on display as usual. The next morning’s York Herald reported that “Marwood, the executioner, provided a drop of five feet, and Hole being a heavy man, weighing 16 stone, death was instantaneous”

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Feast Day of Popes Cletus and Marcellinus

Add comment April 26th, 2015 Headsman

Back before being pope meant jeweled slippers and your own guillotine, the bishopric of Rome — at least as chronicled in the early histories of the Church — was a virtual halfway house to a pagan executioner.

Granted, the very earliest pontiffs are mostly ciphers to posterity; little dependable information about most of them survives. We have sketchy documentation, conflated names, and traditions of legendary hagiography further to the glory of Christianity’s earliest fathers. They are almost universally ranked as both saints, and martyrs.

But is it really right that literally none of these heirs of St. Peter for three centuries reached leadership positions by dint of being venal political hustlers? Or that none just dropped dead of some inglorious disease before they could exalt their deaths in martyrdom?

Persecutions of Christianity were not, after all, literally continuous throughout this age; indeed, prominent as they are in our latter-day remembrance, instances where they turned deadly were likely rather few and far between. Roman governors had provinces to administer; not many of them viewed hunting down and killing otherwise law-abiding cultists as the most important thing to prioritize.

“Christians and pagans could live on very good terms with each other,” Victor Duruy writes in his History of Rome, and of the Roman People, from its Origin.

Asper declared openly that he was disinclined to prosecutions of that kind … Severus furnished them the reply which permitted him to discharge them … Candidus treated them as contentious persons, and sent them back to their towns with these words: “Go, and be at peace with your fellow-citizens.” “Unhappy men,” said another to them [i.e., to Christians seeking their own martyrdom], “if you are resolved to perish, are there not ropes or precipies enough for you?” and he drives them from his tribunal.

Little as we know of these men, it is a sure thing that, pre-Constantine, they did run some risk of life and limb to profess Christianity under the noses of Rome’s rulers. Even a period of toleration could turn ugly with the rise of a hostile emperor or some chance shift of the political winds; the first persecution, after all, is supposed to have been initiated by Nero as an expedient to deflect anger over the Great Fire of Rome. But despite this site‘s use of the martyrology, we can hardly take for granted that any early Christian of significance was put to a baroque death by bloodthirsty Romans.

April 26 is or was the shared feast date of two of these popes from Rome’s antiquity — both of them traditionally considered martyrs, but both now on the outs with Rome’s official chronicle. It’s a reminder that even the ancient past isn’t really past and that history, like religion, is not so much holy writ as an eternal process of becoming.

Pope Cletus was the third pope, and the second in a row after Peter’s direct successor Pope Linus to make you think of a cartoon character. One early chronology named Cletus and Anacletus (or Anencletus) as the third and fourth popes; it is generally understood now that these were merely two different names for one single man. In 1960 a distinct July 13 feast for “Saint Anacletus” was removed from the calendar, collapsing everything to April 26.

Still, basically nothing definite is known of Pope St. Cletus — including the occasion or circumstances of his death, which may well have been promoted to a martyrdom simply from reverence of Cletus’s Erdos numberChrist number of 3 or less. Cletus is said to have ordained 25 priests, and died in the year 88 or 92. He was ultimately removed from Catholicism’s liturgical calendar in 1969, though he still remains in the Roman Martyrology.

Near the opposite chronological end of Rome’s era of official intolerance we find Pope St. Marcellinus.

Marcellinus was the 29th pope, and had the tiara* when the Diocletian persecutions began in 303. While such information as survives about Marcellinus is also not very substantial, it is quite interesting.

When anti-Christian persecutions did crop up, those Christians who weren’t in active pursuit of martyrdom had a difficult choice to make: either apostasy, or punishment. Confronted in the breach with a demand to make the requisite obeisance to the gods of Rome, many ordinary Christians preferred the expedient burning a few sacrificial herbs to the prospect of, if not death, prison, torture, exile, harassment, property seizure, or whatever else was on offer for their sect at that moment. These were the lapsi — the lapsed ones.

Such episodes tended to create post-persecution friction between the go-along, get-along crowd on the one hand, and the purists who refused any such accommodation on the other. Could lapsi be re-admitted to the communion after renouncing their faith to please a Roman proconsul? (Broadly speaking, the official church did welcome lapsi back with some kind of penance and absolution.)

Pope Marcellinus is interesting because he too is said to have lapsed under the initial pressure of Diocletian’s persecution. The Liber Pontificalis, likely combining distinct traditions that were in circulation about Marcellinus, says that he burned incense to the Roman gods when it was demanded of him — and that only afterwards did he repent his weakness and confess Christianity unto martyrdom.

It is not at all certain that Marcellinus did apostatize, but it is clear that a story to that effect (disputed by ex-apostate St. Augustine, among others) was out there in late antiquity — and it’s a bit suspicious that Marcellinus’s name is omitted from some early lists of popes. (It’s possible he was being conflated with his successor, Marcellus: the opposite of what happened with Pope Cletus.) It’s also very uncertain that Marcellinus was in fact martyred; the Catholic encylopedia considers his “in all probability, a natural death” in 304. And it was probably not in April that this death occurred.

Given all those question marks, Marcellinus’s April 26 celebration was booted from the liturgical calendar in the same 1969 cleanup that fixed Pope Cletus.

* The papal tiara did not yet literally exist at this point, of course.

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1784: Angelo Duca, primitive rebel

Add comment April 26th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1784, Italian bandit-hero Angelo Duca was hanged at Salerno.

“Angiolillo” haunted the Basilicata region, which surmounts the arch between the “toe” and the “heel” of southern Italy’s boot.

His biography, hopelessly intertwined with folklore, holds that he abandoned farming over the oppression of the overweening Duke of Martina — just like any self-respecting social bandit.

Soon a gang of about 20 Italic outlaws had flown to his camp and naturally they “gave alms, bought grain, endowed the dowries of poor girls,” and generally forcibly redistributed some small portion of the rentier class’s gorgings to the poor whose care ought to have been a noble lord’s concern.

As the 18th century came to a close, revolutionaries with steel souls and guillotines would come to dominate the narrative of resistance. But they never completely usurped the romance of the road, especially in rural parts like Angiolillo’s. Eric Hobsbawm informs us that “in the Capitanata under Joachim Murat there were something like seventy [robber] bands, in the Basilicata of the early [eighteen] sixties thirty-nine, in Apulia some thirty.”

Primitive Rebels is the title of the volume we’re quoting here, an antecedent to Hobsbawm’s classic Bandits. In Primitive Rebels the late godfather of the social bandit concept situates these bands and their susceptibility to popular mythologizing as “an endemic peasant protest against oppression and poverty: a cry for vengeance on the rich and the oppressors, a vague dream of some curb upon them, a righting of individual wrongs.”

The eternally seductive dream of righting the injuries of an unjust world by the manly exertions of gold-hearted thieves and knights of the road unfortunately for our principal (and no small number of his fellows) arrives with its own fatal paradox. Social bandits want a better king, not a headless king, but in this they also concede the crown the powers its malice abuses. A king will get the best of a desperado sooner or later.

Upon his own capture, Duca was hauled directly to the Bourbon ruler King Ferdinand. Ferdinand did not experience a cathartic reawakening on account of his prisoner’s implied critique; instead, he simply ordered the nettlesome brigand’s immediate beheading, sans judicial procedure, after which the corpse was torn limb from limb for public exhibition.

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1926: Shao Piaoping, journalist

2 comments April 26th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1928, Chinese journalist and social activist Shao Piaoping was shot at Beijing’s Tianqiao execution grounds — fulfillment of his lifelong motto, “To die as a journalist.”

The intrepid Shao blazed a trail for print media in his native country, bucking a prejudice that mere journalism was a bit on the declasse side.

He co-founded and edited Hanmin Daily in 1911, just in time to get his support for the Xinhai Revolution into newsprint.

But Shao was no propagandist, and, post-revolution, was repeatedly arrested for his scathing critiques of Yuan Shikai and the various other illiberal strongmen taking roost. He had to duck out to Japan twice during the 1910s; there, he kept cranking copy, now as a foreign correspondent for Shanghai’s top newspapers. As the decade unfolded, he also became a theoretician of journalism without abating his prodigious ongoing output.

“I saw my role as that of helpful critic and believed it wrong to praise petty people simply to avoid trouble,” this pdf biography quotes Shao saying of himself. “I was determined not to dispense with my responsibility.”

By the late 1910s, he was publishing his own capital-city newspaper, Jingbao (literally “The Capital”) and developing his academic thought as a teacher at Peking University. He was perhaps China’s premier journalist; even so, he still had to slip into exile in Japan in 1919 after openly supporting the May Fourth student movement.

Shao left an impressive mark on his students, perhaps none more so than a penniless young leftist working in the university library, Mao Zedong.

As a guerrilla, Mao — still at that time an obscurity to most of the outside world — remembered Shao fondly to journalist Edgar Snow. In contrast to many other Peking University scholars who gave the provincial twentysomething short shrift, Shao “helped me very much. He was a lecturer in the Journalism Society, a liberal, and a man of fervent idealism and fine character.” Word is that Shao even loaned Mao money.

Shao’s acid pen and unabashed sympathy for agitators led to his arrest in 1926 by the warlord Zhang Zuolin — whose wrath Shao incited by denouncing bitterly a horrific March 18 massacre of students.

But the martyr journalist’s heroic career — not to mention his accidental link with the future Great Helmsman — insured his elevation into the pantheon, even though Shao’s underground membership in the Communist party was not known for decades after his death. Mao personally declared him a hero of the revolution, and intervened to see that his widow and children were cared for. China has any number of public monuments in Shao’s honor.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,Intellectuals,Power,Shot

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1945: Sigmund Rascher, feared science

12 comments April 26th, 2012 Headsman

It’s on this date in 1945 that Sigmund Rascher is supposed to have been summarily executed in Dachau.

If that’s what happened, it’s no more than Rascher (English Wikipedia page | German) deserved.

This doctor made his Nazi bones by forging a relationship with Heinrich Himmler (he married Himmler’s ex-mistress), and joining Himmler’s SS.

Rascher was doing cancer-cure experiments on animals, but once he had Himmler in his Rolodex he graduated to research on homo sapiens.

From 1941 to 1944, Rascher conducted some of the textbook ethical trespasses of Berlin’s human experimentation regime, using Dachau prisoners in:

  • high-altitude experiments to help fighter pilots, tested by subjecting prisoners to rapid de- and re-pressurization;
  • freezing experiments, tested by subjecting prisoners to freezing water or outdoor exposure, and then attempting by various methods to restore body warmth;
  • blood clotting experiments, tested by giving prisoners major gunshot wounds or other grievous bodily injuries, then monitoring how well a new drug slowed the bleeding.

Class act all the way. Rascher did publish some papers and deliver some conference presentations on aspects of his horrifying science, but in one of those little contradictions of the evil security state, the man was foiled in his bid for an advanced academic credential because much of the research was too secret for his peers to review.

In the end it was a much more mundane breach of ethics that did him in: Rascher and wife were arrested in 1944 for having actually kidnapped the children they claimed were their own.

They were stashed away in separate camps. For unclear reasons — perhaps because Rascher connected all this atrocious research back to Himmler, who was vainly trying to cut a peace deal with the West at this point, or maybe simply because Himmler was annoyed at the embarrassment his protege’s misconduct had given him — the bad doctor was summarily shot in his cell as the Allies bore down on Dachau.

(We will note in passing this argument, and this, disputing that story as well as this execution date. Executed Today is not in a position to contribute to that conversation.)


Elsewhere …


Caption: Polish and Russian forced laborers shot by the SS after they had collapsed from exhaustion during a death march. Wisenfeld, Germany, April 26, 1945.

— National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Md. Via the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

From the Themed Set: The Death Rattle of the Third Reich.

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1843: Ewen Cameron, black bean leftover

Add comment April 26th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1843, a Mexican firing squad disposed of Texan commander Ewen Cameron.

A Scottish immigrant, Cameron arrived in Texas just as it broke free of Mexico. His reputation for martial prowess on the frontier earned him a newsman’s tribute as “the Bruce of the West.”

High praise indeed: but his end would better resemble Wallace.

Cameron hitched on to the ill-fated Mier Expedition plundering raid over the border.

He was among the men forced to participate in the Black Bean Lottery wherein 176 Texan prisoners picked beans from a pot to determine who would live and who would die. Cameron picked a white bean, saving his life … but only briefly.*

The verdict refused by Fortune was reinstated by the hands of men.

Abrasive characters like the Bruce are not so well appreciated across their respective frontiers, and Cameron had built some ill-will in the Mexican army with his intrepidity the previous year.

The officer thereby embarrassed, Antonio Canales, was loath to let this reviled prisoner escape his clutches, and urgently petitioned Santa Anna to dispose of him.

This was duly done at Perote Prison, where the other lottery survivors languished for months or years along with other captives of various Mexican-Texan skirmishes.

Cameron County, Texas (the state’s southernmost) is named for Ewen.

* According to this account, the Mexicans loaded the fatal black beans onto the top layers in an effort to get the officers (who drew first) to pick them. Cameron was wise to the scheme, and foiled it by thrusting his hand all the way into the pot.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Mexico,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Texas,USA,Wartime Executions

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1901: “Black Jack” Tom Ketchum, who was left in three pieces

19 comments April 26th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1901, a two-bit outlaw from a vanishing frontier made his reservations for hell.

Tom Ketchum — who had become known as “Black Jack” when misidentified with another hombre he resembled — was the last man to hang in America for attempting to rob a train. Given the way the authorities in Clayton, N.M., conducted the job, that’s probably for the best.

This Texas-born outlaw enjoyed a colorful career in the 1890s Southwest plundering trains, killing folk, and other distinctively American pastimes. His name attaches to the [in]famous Hole in the Wall Gang.

He was finally caught attempting a dangerous one-man train robbery, when a conductor (taking part in his third stickup, and tired of being on the wrong end of the gunbarrel) got the drop on Ketchum and winged him with a shotgun. Too weakened by his injury to escape, Ketchum surrendered himself to the law, and his wounded arm to the surgeons.

The un-amputated remainder belonged to Clayton, N.M. — New Mexico Territory, that is, which was not yet a state at this time, but was keen on making an example to stanch the tide of train robberies.

(Formally, the charge that hung Ketchum was “felonious assault upon a railway train”; he was the only person executed for this offense before the Supreme Court decided that a hanging crime needed more victims than just an iron horse. This jurisprudential advance might not have done Black Jack very much good anyway, since neighboring Arizona had also put in an extradition request for murder.)

So far, so good.

Then, they actually dropped him.

When the body dropped through the trap the half-inch rope severed the head as cleanly as if a knife had cut it. The body pitched forward with blood spurting from the headless trunk. The head remained in the black sack and flew down into the pit.

SOME MEN GROANED.

Some men groaned and others turned away, unable to endure the sight. For a few seconds the body was allowed to lie there half-doubled up on its right side, with the blood issuing in an intermittent stream from the severed neck as the heart kept on with its mechanical beating. Then with cries of consternation the officers rushed down from the scaffold and lifted the body from the ground. It was only then apparent exactly what happened.

The drop of the body was seven feet and the noose was made so it slipped easily. Ketchum was a heavy man, and the weight of the body, with the easy-running noose, caused the rope to cut the head cleanly off. Dr. Slack pronounced life extinct a little over five minutes from the time the body dropped through the trap. It is stated too much of a drop was given for so heavy a man.

Just so we’re clear: a seven-foot drop is much, much too far for a man of Ketchum’s 190-plus pounds. Maybe they were distracted by rumors of an escape attempt.

The newspaper account above cites much more forgettable scaffold-talk from Ketchum, but we can’t help but find charm (and obviously, black humor) in his alleged last words,

I’ll be in hell before you start breakfast, boys! Let her rip!

Fictional? If so, they’re more like what Ketchum’s last words ought to be. Although let St. Peter‘s ledger reflect that Ketchum was a decent enough chap to post a letter to President McKinley on the morning of his own execution copping to several robberies for which other people were imprisoned.

Initially buried — naturally — at Clayton’s Boot Hill, this infernal denizen’s grave can now be found (and more than a century on, tourists and admirers do find it) at Clayton Memorial Cemetery.

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1861: Paula Angel … but why?

8 comments April 26th, 2009 Headsman

Thanks to Laura James for the guest post, which originally appeared on her outstanding blog CLEWS Nov. 9, 2005. Laura’s first book, The Love Pirate and the Bandit’s Son, hits the shelves on May 5.

It’s not clear today how old she was — nineteen, maybe, or twenty-six, or twenty-seven — the reports all differ. It’s not even clear what her true name was: Paula Angel by most accounts, but she was also called Pablita Martin. But the most pressing questions, still unanswered nearly 150 years after her execution, are why she was hanged in the first place and how the sheriff managed to bungle the job so badly.

Paula Angel was the first and last woman ever executed in New Mexico (while it was yet a territory). Her crime: she stabbed her married lover, Juan Miguel Martin, to death when he tried to end their affair. Her execution was on April 26, 1861, in San Miguel, now Las Vegas.

Anyone familiar with historical crimes and trials, particularly those involving women, will marvel at such an outcome. A capital conviction for stabbing a lover, a crime passionel? That’s certainly not the outcome one would expect for that era (or this era, for that matter; today we’d label it second-degree murder at worst).

One explanation for Miss Angel’s hanging is that the newspapermen never got the story. Decades later, the wire services circulated very brief accounts of her trial and execution under headlines such as “The Story The Newspapers Missed.” So she may well have lacked the greatest champion anyone facing a murder charge can have: public opinion — the verdict of the greater jury. Throughout the nineteenth century, there was a universal revulsion for the execution of women, no matter what their crime, and judges and juries were anxious to find a reason to acquit a woman.

But the authorities in New Mexico Territory were eager to see her hanged. The accounts that survive today report that the jailer taunted her every day leading up to her execution — “I’m going to hang you until you’re dead, dead, dead,”* is the quote attributed to the sheriff.

What was her social status? Was she a prostitute? Was she a violent menace to the community? Had she committed other terrible acts? Was she unrepentant? Did she sullenly testify at her trial and put in a poor appearance on her own behalf? Most importantly, was she ugly? The accounts available today don’t say.

When it came time to launch Angel into eternity, the sheriff did not build a gallows. He selected a sturdy cottonwood tree outside of town. Paula Angel was driven there on a wagon, forced to ride on her own coffin to the site of her execution, which was witnessed by ranchers and townsmen. The sheriff fixed the rope to the tree, garlanded her with hemp, and then resumed his seat on the wagon and hawed the horses. But he’d made an error. He forgot to tie her hands behind her.

Paula Angel managed to get her fingers underneath the rope in a last pitiful effort to save her own neck, and she struggled on the end of the rope. It must have been an awful sight to see. The crowds surely voiced loud complaints. The sheriff was forced to put the wagon beneath her a second time, to cut her down, retie the rope amid the jeers and catcalls, properly secure her hands and feet, and to repeat the process. She did not survive her second hanging.

And there hasn’t been one woman executed in New Mexico since. Rarely has any woman from that state even faced the possibility, though a few years ago Linda Henning nearly became the second woman executed there — and she certainly deserved it. Fans of Court TV will recognize the name, since Court TV has rebroadcasted Henning’s bizarre trial more than once. She was tried for the cooly planned and bloody murder of Girly Chew Hossencofft, the estranged wife of her boyfriend, in one of the weirdest trials of the century. But the jury rejected the death penalty. The reason Henning agreed to involve herself in the murder of a woman she had not even met: Henning was convinced that Girly Chew was a reptilian alien queen from another galaxy.

You read that right: an alien queen from another galaxy. You can’t make this stuff up.

***

Recommended reading: Death on the Gallows : The Story of Legal Hangings in New Mexico, 1847-1923 by West Gilbreath (High Lonesome Books, 2002).

For the stories of the men executed in New Mexico see the excellent compilation by Mark Allan of the Angelo State University Library. [Note: link updated from Laura’s original post. -ed.]

For more on the Hossencofft case see the website of author Mark Horner.

* [Shades of Billy the Kid. Maybe it was something lawmen said to lend it that Wild West atmosphere. -ed.]

[Former New Mexico state historian Robert Torrez unpacks the Paula Angel story and reprints a corrido (folk ballad), “La Homicida Pablita” written by her cousin in Myth of the Hanging Tree. -ed.]

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Milestones,Murder,New Mexico,Other Voices,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Sex,USA,Women

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