1827: Joseph Sollis, the sheriff unmanned

Add comment April 27th, 2018 Headsman

Joseph Sollis was executed in North Carolina on this date in 1827 for murder. It didn’t go so well, apparently leading a regular gawker to pierce the spectacle’s fourth wall and get involved in the action himself.


Article from the May 8, 1827 Raleigh Register

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Murder,North Carolina,Public Executions,USA

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1896: Carl Feigenbaum, the Ripper abroad?

Add comment April 27th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1896, New York City electrocuted Carl Feigenbaum.

He’d been convicted of slaying the widow from whom he rented a room at eight cents per day … but many at the time suspected his homicidal exploits might also have traced to Whitechapel, under the dread sobriquet Jack.

We can only really be sure of the one murder: on September 1, 1894, he attacked 56-year-old Julianna Hoffman in her room on East Sixth Street, for the possible reason of robbing her. One ferocious slash with his long bread knife nearly decapitated the landlady; the disturbance roused Hoffman’s 16-year-old son who burst in on the assailant — reportedly just as Feigenbaum had his blade poised to begin horribly gouging the corpse. Both killer and witness grappled briefly and then fled from each other; Feigenbaum was arrested before the day was out.

Today you’d call the part of town East Village but back in the 1890s it was Klein Deutschland, with one of the world’s largest concentrations of Germans abroad.

Probing his client for material to use for an insanity defense,* Feigenbaum’s attorney elicited his client’s self-diagnosis that “I have for years suffered from a singular disease, which induces an all-absorbing passion; this passion manifests itself in a desire to kill and mutilate the woman who falls in my way. At such times I am unable to control myself.” That seems interesting.

It emerged that Feigenbaum had left Germany as a merchant mariner, and that profession had possibly seen his boats tied up in the Thames during the pivotal months when the Whitechapel murders took place.

In the Big Apple, the idea of modern crime’s great bogeyman throwing his demonic shadow across their very own dungeons appealed irresistibly, to nobody moreso than Fiegenbaum’s own attorney William Lawton, who reveled in his hypothesis of proximity to evil and made a silly bid for celebrity on that basis. Lawton claimed to have hit upon the Ripper idea as he pondered the meaning of Feigenbaum’s professed impulse to mutilate women.


From the St. Albans (Vt.) Daily Messenger, April 28, 1896.

The very day after his client’s electrocution, Lawton explicated the suspected connection to the press, “stak[ing] my professional reputation that if the police will trace this man’s movements carefully for the last few years their investigations will lead them to Whitechapel.” (Lawton is also the sole source of Feigenbaum’s alleged self-incrimination, quoted above: to everybody else Feigenbaum insisted on his innocence far past any possible stretch of plausibility, and even carried that insistence to the electric chair.)

Regrettably, Feigenbaum’s pre-Hoffman movements are obscure to the point where Lawton’s theory is essentially immune to corroboration (or refutation). Even when Lawton dropped his intended bombshell did his hypothesis come in for some public ribbing; the New York Tribune scoffed on April 29 of that year that Feigenbaum now being indisposed to object, all the city’s most troublesome unresolved homicides ought to be attributed to this empty cipher.

Despite the surface similarities of his aborted disemboweling to the infamous London crime spree, Feigenbaum’s case for Ripper immortality doesn’t enjoy much of a constituency today. (Trevor Marriott’s 2005 Jack the Ripper: The 21st Century Investigation is a notable exception to the skepticism.)

* Feigenbaum, who had been literally caught red-handed, ultimately did not pursue the insanity defense that was probably his only hope of avoiding the chair because he did not have enough money to hire the expert alienists who would be required to present such a case to the jury. But for a guy supposedly resource-constrained, Lawton does seem to have gone to some trouble to research the possible Ripper connection.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Murder,New York,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1803: Michael Ely, personator

2 comments April 27th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1803, Michael Ely hanged at Newgate Prison for feigning a bit of glory in the ongoing Napoleonic Wars.

The crime was no stolen valor stuff, but “personation” — fraudulently presenting oneself as a different person, in this case with a plain pecuniary objective.

After the HMS Audacious returned from campaigning against Napoleon in the Mediterranean, where she had the honor to capture the 74-gun French man-of-war Genereux near Malta, Audacious crew members were entitled to shares of a royal prize bounty for their acquisition. (Genereux thereafter flew the Union Jack until the ship was broken up in 1816.)

Ely presented himself to the crown’s prize agent as the Audacious seaman Murty Ryan to collect Ryan’s jackpot of one pound, 12 shillings.

One problem: Francis Sawyer was actually acquainted with the crook personally and (so he testified later) “I told him I knew his name was not Murty Ryan.” Ely countered by alleging that he had changed his name to avoid punishment after deserting a previous impressment — a phenomenon that Sawyer agreed was “quite common” and a good enough excuse that Sawyer paid him out, albeit suspiciously. But once the real Murty Ryan showed up looking for his share, Audacious crew members were able to verify that whatever his name might be, that first guy had never been aboard their ship.

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1883: Henry De Bosnys, bane of Elizabeths

Add comment April 27th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1883, Henry De Bosnys was hanged in Elizabethtown, New York, for murdering his wife.

De Bosnys was an immigrant near to 50 years old who turned up in 1881 in a little town on Lake Champlain as a farm hand. As we will see, this humble station contrasted sharply with the life De Bosnys claimed he had formerly led.

With him was “a colored woman who passed as his wife,” Eliza — but not for long. Soon after, De Bosnys took her away on his boat claiming that he had found work for her elsewhere on the lake. De Bosnys returned, but Eliza never did.

Whatever suspicions this might have aroused about the French farmhand did not suffice to deter another Eliza, the local widow Elizabeth Wells, from marrying De Bosnys only a few weeks later.

Their short union was characterized by terrible quarrels when the wife declined to place her small farm in the husband’s name. On August 1, 1882, she became the second Essex County woman to go for a ride with De Bosnys and fail to return.

At 122 meters deep, Lake Champlain is an oblivion where a corpse might vanish without trace. This is less true of a pile of leaves along a country lane — which is where Mrs. De Bosnys turned up, shot twice in the head with 22 calibre bullets and her neck gashed all the way to her spine.

When arrested, De Bosnys had a .22 pistol with two shots discharged, and a bloody knife. His story was that the couple had run into a Scotsman they knew, got drunk together on whisky, and that he, Henry, had fallen right asleep and knew nothing of what became of the wife. “His story,” the New York Times observes almost unnecessarily (Aug. 6, 1882), “is regarded as very improbable, and he is thought to be an escaped criminal who is concealing his identity.”

De Bosnys initially said he had come to the New World at age 17. By the time he went to the gallows — still insisting on his innocence — he had improved his biography considerably. The Times, possibly short of column-inches that day (Apr. 28, 1883), freely narrated the murderer’s compounded embellishments.

His education was thorough and extensive, and he could write and speak English, French, Italian, Spanish, Greek, and Portuguese, and could less perfectly speak and understand several other languages. While yet a mere lad he sailed with a north polar expedition under Leclaire, and was gone nearly two years, from February, 1848, to October, 1850. [I am unsure if this corresponds to any actual known polar expedition. -ed.] In 1854, with his father and brother, he volunteered for the Crimean war, and served in the French army in the Crimea for a couple of years. A few years of peace followed, in which De Bosnys completed his education, but on the breaking out of the war with Austria, in 1859, he joined MacMahon‘s army, in which he saw a few months’ service, sailing in the Autumn to China with the French contingent. Returning to France he joined the French expedition to Mexico in 1861, and after a few months joined the Mexican side, becoming a Captain of guerrillas under Lopez. In this service he was severely wounded in an engagement. He came North, and, being cured of his wound, enlisted in the Fourth Pennsylvania Volunteers in 1863. He was wounded at the battle of Gettysburg and discharged from the army. Returning to France he was married, but after two months’ matrimonial experience sailed on another arctic expedition. After an absence of two years he returned to this country, where he led a roving life until the outbreak of the Franco German war. He entered the French Army, rising by successive promotions until he became a Colonel under Gen. Boubaki. He served all through the war with varying fortunes, at its close escaping to Marseilles, whence he shipped for America.

One would think a man with that history would have a vision wider than squeezing 15 acres out of a widow, or at least the perspicacity to clean up his murder weapons — but then again, he really did speak all those languages. Maybe this was the date Elizabethtown hanged the Most Interesting Man in the World. If so, history records that the man’s savoir faire extended so far as cannily inspecting the apparatus of his own execution a few hours before hanging on it, and offering the hangman a few engineering tips (De Bosnys thought the rope needed more soaping).

Henry De Bosnys’s skull is preserved at Elizabethtown’s Adirondack History Center Museum — and, it is said, his spirit haunts that place too.

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1940: Wilhelm Kusserow, Jehovah’s Witness

5 comments April 27th, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1940, 25-year-old Wilhelm Kusserow was executed by firing squad at Münster Prison in Germany.

A Jehovah’s Witness, he interpreted God’s command “thou shalt not kill” literally and refused to serve in the German army — a big no-no in Hitler’s Third Reich.

Kusserow had actually been born Lutheran, but his parents became Jehovah’s Witnesses after World War I and raised their eleven children in the faith. Jehovah’s Witnesses, in addition to not serving in the army, also refused to Heil Hitler, since the tenets of their religion required them to make obeisance only to Jehovah.

They were persecuted by the Nazis from the beginning of Hitler’s regime, and by 1935 the religion was banned altogether. The Kusserows, and many others, continued to practice their faith in secret.

During the Nazi era, some 10,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses did time in prisons and concentration camps (where they were required to wear a purple triangle), Wilhelm’s parents and siblings among them. 2,500 to 5,000 died.

The children in Jehovah’s Witness families were taken from their parents and sent to orphanages, foster families or reform schools.

(French Witness Simone Arnold Liebster would write a memoir about the years she spent in institutions as a child because she and her parents refused to renounce their beliefs.)

At Wilhelm Kusserow’s trial, the judge and the prosecutor were apparently reluctant to condemn this young man. They pleaded with him to back down, promising to spare his life if he did so, but Wilhelm refused. Some things were more important to him than life itself.

In his final letter to his family he wrote,

Dear parents, brothers, and sisters:

All of you know how much you mean to me, and I am repeatedly reminded of this every time I look at our family photo. How harmonious things always were at home. Nevertheless, above all we must love God, as our Leader Jesus Christ commanded. If we stand up for him, he will reward us.

Hitler later decided the firing squad was too honorable a death for Jehovah’s Witnesses and ordered that they be decapitated instead. Wilhelm’s younger brother Wolfgang, who had also refused to serve in the army, was executed in this manner in 1942.

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1649: Robert Lockyer, Leveller

2 comments April 27th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1649, Robert Lockyer (or Lockier) was shot before the scenic backdrop of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral* for the Leveller-inspired Bishopsgate mutiny.

These weeks following the epochal execution of the late king Charles I were also the climax of a pivotal intra-party conflict among the triumphant Parliamentarians … one whose class dimensions map a lot more readily to a modern template. Levellers were, “in a small way, the precursors of the ‘Socialists’ of 1849” in the words of this popular history.

The prosperous gentry represented by the Grandee faction were just fine with the whip hand they’d obtained in government by overturning the monarchy; against them were arrayed the more radical Levellers (or “Agitators”) who could not fail to notice that they had no say in electing the Parliament upheld by their victorious arms, and an oligarchy governing them that bore a suspicious resemblance to the supposedly defeated nobility.

So there was that.

Meanwhile, up in high statecraft, Oliver Cromwell was preparing to make his name accursed of Ireland by smashing up the island and the Grandees hit upon an arrangement as expedient for fiscal ambitions as for territorial: the soldiers assigned to this expedition would have the opportunity to opt out of it, for the low low price of forfeiting the substantial back pay they were due from those years of civil war — pay whose fulfillment was naturally a chief Leveller demand.

How did this cunning plan to pillage the soldiery’s pensions to conquer Ireland go over in the ranks? Reader, not well.

Since the same reason that shall subject them unto us in generall, or any of us singly, may subject us unto them or any other that shall subdue; now how contrary this is to the common interest of mankind let all the world judge, for a people that desire to live free, must almost equally with themselves, defend others from subjection, the reason is because the subjecting of others make(s) the subdued strive for Dominion over you, since that is the only way you have left them to acquire their common liberty.**

So there was that, on top of that.

Grumblings gave way to refusals to march, and the refusal by a regiment stationed in Bishopsgate to leave London lest it also leave its leverage soon became the eponymous mutiny of this post — the Bishopsgate Mutiny.

Grandees quelled this particular insubordination without need of bloodshed, but thought it meet to deliver a little anyway as proof in this fraught political environment against the next such affair. Six of the soldiers drew military death sentences; Cromwell pardoned five, but let known Leveller/Agitator firebrand Lockyer go to his death over the appeals of Leveller leaders like John Lilburne and Richard Overton.

The signal was unmistakable — certainly to the thousands who donned Leveller colors to follow Lockyer’s funeral procession through London.

In the days following Lockyer’s execution, several Leveller-inspired regiments would openly rise … what proved to be the movement’s last great stand, efficiently crushed by Cromwell.

*The Parliamentarians had twisted high church dogmatists by putting Old St. Paul’s Cathedral to profane use as a cavalry stable, which employment actually made it a sort-of suitable place for a military execution. (The current structure was rebuilt on the same site after the previous church succumbed to the Great Fire of London.)

** From Mercurius Militaris, quoted by Norah Carlin, “The Levellers and the Conquest of Ireland in 1649,” The Historical Journal, June 1987 — which, however, makes the case that while the Levellers were obviously not cool with the pay expropriation, their opinion on the Ireland conquest in the abstract was far from uniformly anti-imperial.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Martyrs,Military Crimes,Mutiny,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Shot,Soldiers

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1792: Jacob Johan Anckarström, assassin of Gustav III

1 comment April 27th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1792, Jacob Johan Anckarström lost his right hand and his center head for murdering Gustav III.

Like some other nobles, this officer considered the “theater king” and enlightened despot Gustav III a, well, despot.

Times being what they were, regicide was in order, to usher in an age of constitutional liberalism.

A conspiracy of Swedish nobles surrounded the royal victim at a masquerade ball on March 16, 1792, and shot him in the back. Alas for them, the scene was immediately sealed and the attendees unmasked before the gang could get away.

Although in the confusion nobody knew whodunit among those disguised revelers, it was only a matter of time before the discarded murder weapon was identified as Anckarström’s.

(Actually, it was a much longer matter of time before it became a “murder” weapon. The king only succumbed to the infection 13 days later.)

Five were condemned to death, but the four who hadn’t pulled the trigger were commuted to exile instead. Exile for regicide? Maybe that’s making you wonder why they all thought it was such an oppressive regime they all lived under.

Jacob Johan Anckarström could give them the answer. He was said to have met his beheading joyfully, which would only be natural after he’d been flogged in chains in three different parts of the city over the preceding three days.*

For readers of Swedish (or exploiters of online translation), there’s much more about Jacob and his dastardly plot here and here.

Appropriately, given the murder’s stagey venue, the Anckarstrom assassination was great performance art material in the 19th century. Verdi based Un Ballo in Maschera on it, although he’s given the principals a generic love-triangle relationship — and because of mid-19th century censorship, the iteration of it below is set in colonial Boston with “Anckarstrom” sporting the very New England name “Rennato”.

Although this particular plot didn’t achieve the revolutionary thing its authors intended, it didn’t have the opposite effect either. The king’s teenage son Gustav IV Adolf succeeded the throne, with an unsurprising hatred of Jacobinism. But in the tumult of the Napoleonic Wars (that also cost Sweden its dominion over Finland), Gustav IV was deposed and a liberal constitution adopted.

* He wasn’t handled with kid gloves in prison, either, but you can take in the scene over the libation of your choice at the present-day cafe that occupies Anckarstrom’s onetime dungeon. The joint is named for another Swedish political martyr, Sten Sture.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Assassins,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Martyrs,Murder,Nobility,Notable for their Victims,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Soldiers,Sweden,Torture,Treason

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1995: Nie Shubin. Oops.

1 comment April 27th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1995, Nie Shubin was shot in the back of the head in Hebei Province for the rape and murder of a woman in Zhang Ying village.

According to a 1994 newspaper report (.pdf) supplied by the authorities,

After a week of skillful interrogation, including psychological warfare and gathering evidence, police officers made a breakthrough. On September 29, this vicious criminal finally confessed to having raped and murdered the victim. On August 5, while loitering around Zhang Ying village, he stole a shirt and then walked to the vicinity of the Xinhua Road police station, where he saw Ms. Kang ride her bicycle into a corn-field path. He went after her, knocked her off her bike, dragged her into the field, beat her unconscious and raped her. He then used the shirt to strangle her to death.

Sounds pretty definitive, even if they did have to beat it out of him. A confession is a confession, after all.

Except, not.

In 2005, another man admitted to the murder, reportedly supplying persuasive crime scene details to boot.

Nie Shubin’s parents — who had complied with China’s one-child policy — have unsurprisingly been devastated by the loss of their only son, which they learned about the day after his execution when the boy’s father attempted to deliver a care package to the prison.

“All my hopes,” said the mother, “rested with him.”

Update: As of late 2011, the poor mother is still fighting to formally exonerate her executed son.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,China,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Murder,Rape,Shot,Wrongful Executions

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1733: William Gordon, almost cheating death

Add comment April 27th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1733, English highwayman William Gordon was hanged at Tyburn (along with three thieves unconnected to him) for stealing a hat, wig, watch and ring while “in a state of intoxication.”

Gordon is hardly notable as a criminal at a time and place hangings were ubiquitous. But the Newgate Calendar relates that he came within a whisker’s breadth of making himself very notable indeed in the history of hangings; indeed, since punching a hole in one’s own neck is far less desperate than the straits of a man expecting the rope, it’s a bit surprising that this relatively favorable experiment didn’t find more imitators.

Mr. Chovot, a surgeon, having, by frequent experiments on dogs, discovered, that opening the windpipe, would prevent the fatal consequences of being hanged by the neck, communicated it to Gordon, who consented to the experiment being made on him. Accordingly, pretending to take his last leave of him, the surgeon secretly made an incision in his windpipe; and the effect this produced on the malefactor was, that when he stopt his mouth, nostrils, and ears, air sufficient to prolong life, issued from the cavity. When he was hanged, he was observed to retain life, after the others executed with him were dead. His body, after hanging three quarters of an hour, was cut down, and carried to a house in Edgware road., where Chovot was in attendance, who immediately opened a vein, which bled freely, and soon after the culprit opened his mouth and groaned. He, however, died; but it was the opinion of those present at the experiment, that had he been cut down only five minutes sooner, life would have returned.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Executions Survived,Hanged,History,Public Executions,Theft,Tyburn

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