1918: Boris Donskoy, Left SR assassin

1 comment August 10th, 2018 Headsman

One hundred years ago today, the Germans hanged Russian revolutionary Boris Donskoy.

Donskoy was not a Bolshevik but a Left Social Revolutionary — the party faction most closely aligned with Team Lenin. And his offense was a revolutionary crime, but one that events soon swept into irrelevancy.

In March of that same year, Russia’s revolutionary government had fulfilled its promise to exit the charnel house of World War I, ceding in exchange for peace the huge territorial gains that Germany had exacted in the bloodlands in-between empires.

These prospectively gigantic territorial gains were not long held by Berlin, whose wartime government would collapse suddenly before the year was out … but in the short interim where we lay our post, the Baltic States, Belarus, and Ukraine are under firm German control.

The last of these stood under the authority of Field Marshal Hermann von Eichhorn. Donskoy, a radical sailor who had served on the Executive Committee of Kronstadt when it demonstrated against the Revolution’s initial, too-moderate Provisional Government, on July 29 assassinated the field marshal — declaring to his captors that the old Prussian warhorse had been condemned by the Left SRs for suppressing the Ukrainian revolution.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Mature Content,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Russia,Terrorists,Ukraine,USSR,Wartime Executions

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1966: James French, fried

1 comment August 10th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1966, James French went to the Oklahoma electric chair, clinching his spot in perpetuity on last-words listicles by cracking to the press pool, “Hey, fellas. How about this for a headline for tomorrow’s paper? French Fries!”*

French had enjoyed five years to work out this chill fare-thee-well since the calculated murder of his cellmate in 1961, back when he, French, was already serving time for murder.

It’s alleged that French committed this ruthless deed in pursuit of the mercy seat, as a form of suicide by executioner; whether this is or isn’t so he had certainly embraced the consequence by the time he presented himself to the judiciary.

“He deserved to die,” the expansive French once informed an interviewer. “And now because of what I did, I deserve to die, too. I don’t want to die. Who does? But the rules are clear: to take a life is to forfeit your own.”

It’s just that his letters imploring speedy implementation of justice could not override procedural errors in his first trial (they biased the jury by presenting French in manacles) nor his second trial (bad jury instruction by the judge) until the third time charmed in 1965.

The man could have lived a long life punning on his surname — perhaps he would have insisted on going by James Freedom as a post-9/11 America blundered into Iraq? — had he chosen to fight his death sentence, for even then the law’s French frying apparatus was grinding to a halt. Just two more executions — Aaron Mitchell and Luis Monge, both in 1967 — would take place in all the land before capital punishment went into a decade-long hiberation during which all previously existing death sentences were invalidated. French’s was the last death by electric chair until John Spenkelink in 1979 and the last ever electrocution in Oklahoma (which has used lethal injection in the modern, post-1972 era).

* His actual, and better, last words in the death chamber were by way of declining to make a final statement: “Everything’s already been said.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,Gallows Humor,Milestones,Murder,Oklahoma,USA

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1916: Nazario Sauro, Italian patriot

3 comments August 10th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1916, Italian nationalist and sailor Nazario Sauro was hanged by an Austro-Hungarian military court in Pula, Croatia.

Born in the Habsburg-controlled port of Koper at the crown of the Adriatic Sea,* young Sauro (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) evinced a much greater affinity for the seas than his schooling and had his first command — a merchant ship — by the tender age of 20.

Besides seamanship, his birthplace blessed or cursed him with the fin de siecle‘s ferment of Italian irredentism: his native Istria was one of those outlying lands with an ample Italian heritage laboring under the moldering Austrian boot. Patriots pined to append it to Mazzini’s energetic young state.

So, Sauro alongside his nautical career developed an avocation in remaking the map. He took pains to monitor harbor defenses during his shipping runs around the Adriatic; nor was his conviction in national self-determination confined to his own country, for he won admiration in Albania by smuggling supplies to anti-Ottoman rebels there.

With the outbreak of World War I, Sauro — then nearing 34 years of age — hopped a train over the border into his true nation and enlisted in Venice to fight against Austria. Considering that he was still a subject of Austria, this action invited a treason charge were he ever to be captured … and this finally occurred when now-Lt. Sauro ran aground in a submarine in the Austrian Bay of Kvarner on July 30, 1916. Once someone recognized him from his long prewar career at sea, his fate was sealed.


Lyrics here

Still a celebrated patriotic martyr to this day, number of cities around Italy host monuments to Sauro and streets named for Sauro; he’s also honored by the Italian navy’s Sauro-class submarine. Mussolini had a grand statue of the illustrious native son erected in Koper in 1935, when that city was under Italian control … but Nazi Germany tore it down in 1944 once relations between the former Axis partners went pear-shaped.

* Koper is in present-day Slovenia, but within literal (and littoral) walking distance of Italy.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Austria,Capital Punishment,Croatia,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Habsburg Realm,Hanged,History,Italy,Martyrs,Separatists,Soldiers,Treason,Wartime Executions,Yugoslavia

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1284: Tekuder, Mongol sultan

Add comment August 10th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1284, the deposed Mongol ruler Tekuder was put to death.

The Mongols had conquered half the world on the back of steppe horses and religious toleration. Mongols variously adopted Nestorian Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam, as well as tribal shamanism; it even sponsored debates among the rival confessions. What counted in the end for the men who commanded its armies was wins and losses.

Our man Tekuder was the son of Hulagu Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan who exemplified pluralistic competence. The son of a Christian but an eventual convert to Buddhism, Hulagu Khan’s signal achievement in the religious arena was done by his sword-arm: he defeated and destroyed the Abbasid Caliphate.

In time, three of the four large khanates comprising the Mongol ascendancy would declare themselves for Islam … but in the 13th century the doctrine most likely to get you in trouble was simply to be too doctrinaire.

Hulagu’s son and heir Tekuder, though once baptized into his parents’ Christian faith, turned to Mohammed’s faith with a convert’s zeal and demanded the compliance of his military brass. He declared the Ilkhanate of Persia and Mesopotamia a Muslim sultanate, and tilted Mongol diplomacy away from the Franks and towards Mamluk Egypt.


Tekuder receives an ambassador.

This split Tekuder’s coalition between Muslims on one side, and Christians and Buddhists on the other, and “the whole of the old Mongol party of malcontents, Buddhists and Nestorians alike, rallied to”* Tekuder’s own nephew Arghun.** One may infer from this entry which man prevailed.

Arghun enjoyed a successful seven-year reign with an incidental appearance in the Marco Polo saga: Arghun appealed to his great-uncle Kublai Khan to send him a wife, and Marco Polo was a part of the party that escorted that woman to Persia in 1291-1293.

Marco Polo would proceed back home to Venice after this voyage, laden with Spice Road riches after a quarter-century’s absence.

Arghun Khan of Persia, Kublai’s great-nephew, had in 1286 lost his favourite wife the Khatun Bulughan; and, mourning her sorely, took steps to fulfil her dying injunction that her place should be filled only by a lady of her own kin, the Mongol Tribe of Bayaut. Ambassadors were despatched to the Court of Kaan-baligh to seek such a bride. The message was courteously received, and the choice fell on the lady Kokachin, a maiden of 17, “moult bele dame et avenant.” The overland road from Peking to Tabriz was not only of portentous length for such a tender charge, but was imperiled by war, so the envoys desired to return by sea. Tartars in general were strangers to all navigation; and the envoys, much taken with the Venetians, and eager to profit by their experience, especially as Marco had just then returned from his Indian mission, begged the Kaan as a favour to send the three Firinghis in their company. He consented with reluctance, but, having done so, fitted the party out nobly for the voyage, charging the Polos with friendly messages for the potentates of Europe, including the King of England. They appear to have sailed from the port of Zayton (as the Westerns called T’swan-chau or Chin-cheu in Fo-kien) in the beginning of 1292. It was an ill-starred voyage, involving long detentions on the coast of Sumatra, and in the South of India, to which, however, we are indebted for some of the best chapters in the book; and two years or upwards passed before they arrived at their destination in Persia. The three hardy Venetians survived all perils, and so did the lady, who had come to look on them with filial regard; but two of the three envoys, and a vast proportion of the suite, had perished by the way. Arghun Khan too had been dead even before they quitted China; his brother Kaikhatu reigned in his stead; and his son Ghazan succeeded to the lady’s hand. We are told by one who knew both the princes well that Arghun was one of the handsomest men of his time, whilst Ghazan was, among all his host, one of the most insignificant in appearance. But in other respects the lady’s change was for the better. Ghazan had some of the highest qualities of a soldier, a legislator and a king, adorned by many and varied accomplishments; though his reign was too short for the full development of his fame.

-The Travels of Marco Polo

* Quote from The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia.

** We have met Arghun Khan in passing in these pages, as the executioner of Georgian prince Demetre II, the Self-Sacrificer.

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Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Borderline "Executions",Execution,God,Heads of State,History,Iran,Mongol Empire,Notably Survived By,Persia,Power,Summary Executions

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1792: William Winter, Elsdon Moor gibbet habitue

Add comment August 10th, 2014 Headsman

Atop a hill called steng Cross at the Northumberland village of Elsdon stands an eerie heirloom of England’s gallows history: Winter’s Gibbet. (Or “Winter’s Stob”, to use the local parlance.)


(cc) image from Flickr user johndal

It was here — within sight of the spot where he had murdered an old shopkeep to plunder her stores — that William Winter was gibbeted in chains following his August 10, 1792 hanging at the Westgate of Newcastle. In this fate, he followed his father and brother, hanged four years prior at Morpeth.

According to William Weaver Tomlinson’s Comprehensive Guide to the County off Northumberland,

In 1791 there lived here an old woman named Margaret Crozier, who kept a small shop for the sale of draper and other goods. Believing her to be rich, one William Winter, a desperate character, but recently returned from transportation, at the instigation, and with the assistance of two female faws [vendors of crockery and tinwork] named Jane and Eleanor Clark, who in their wanderings had experienced the kindness of Margaret Crozier, broke into the lonely Pele on the night of 29th August 1791, and cruelly murdered the poor old woman, loading the ass they had brought with her goods. The day before they had rested and dined in a sheep fold on Whisker-shield Common, which overlooked the Raw, and it was from a description given of them by a shepherd boy, who had seen them and taken particular notice of the number and character of the nails in Winter’s shoes, and also the peculiar gully, or butcher’s knife with which he divided the food that brought them to justice. No news, however, of Jane and Eleanor Clark’s fate.

This last line, however, is mistaken: Jane and Eleanor were hanged with William Winter. Indeed, “such was the uncommmon strength of William Winter, that, after receiving sentence of death, he carried both his female companions, one under each arm, from the bar, and across a wide street to the old Castle; supporting, at the same time, his own heavy chains, as well as the irons affixed to the women.” Afterwards, these lightweights weren’t gibbeted, but given over for dissection.

Winter’s rotting corpse hung for many years on his gallows. After it fell apart, the structure was dismantled — but in 1867 the English naturalist Walter Trevelyan, now landlord of the site, had a replica erected with a wooden mannequin. That figure was in its turn stolen, and over the years only the oft-stolen and -replaced wooden head has remained; even the gallows itself was torn down at least once. But it has weathered the years and borne the dim memory of William Winter down to the present day.


At the base of the Winters Gibbet sits a stone that was once the base of a Saxon cross that gave Steng Cross its name — an old medieval marker on the road from Elsdon to Wallington and Morpeth.

(cc) images above from Flickr users Phil Thirkell (first two) and just1snap (last two)

That legend alluded to by Tomlinson, that the shepherd’s boy was able to identify Winter by the pattern of his hobnails, was later exploited as an exemplar of watchfulness in Lord Baden-Powell‘s seminal Scouting for Boys, the book that launched the scouting movement.

“The following story, which in the main is true, is a sample of a story that should be given by the Instructor illustrating generally the duties of a Boy Scout,” runs the introduction to a three-page exegesis on the “strong, healthy hill-boy” who easily covered several miles after passing Mr. Winter, came upon the scene of the crime, recognized the bootprints, and summoned constables whom he guided back to the escaping murderer.

Thus the boy did every part of the duty of a boy scout without ever having been taught.

He exercised —
Woodcraft
Observation without being noticed
Deduction
Chivalry
Sense of duty
Endurance
Kind-heartedness

That last virtue Baden-Powell attributes by dint off the youth’s being broken-hearted at beholding the gibbet, to realize he had caused the criminal’s death. “You must not mind that,” says a magistrate to the child in a fabricated dialogue. “It was your duty to the King to help the police in getting justice done, and duty must always be carried out regardless of how much it costs you, even if you had to give up your life.”


Illustration from Baden-Powell’s Scouting for Boys.

The historical Robert Hindmarsh sort of did pay that most extreme price for his duty; allegedly he was so terrified of reprisals that it led him to an early grave just a few years later. This circumstance, instructive of the marauding family’s reach and impunity, might be further bolstered by the popular superstition that Elsdon Moor is also haunted: a “Brown Man of the Moors” tale predates this crime, but is also sometimes conflated with the purported apparition of William Winter himself.

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

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1949: John George Haigh, the Acid Bath Murderer

6 comments August 10th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1949, Britain’s “Acid Bath Murderer”* was hanged by Albert Pierrepoint at Wandsworth Prison.

The name really tells you all you need to know about this enduringly infamous serial killer.

John George Haigh drained puddles of deathly sludge into the pipes at 79 Gloucester Road in London and 2 Leopold Road, Crawley, West Sussex.

He wasn’t a criminal mastermind, but he had that one good idea, and the doggedness to keep going with what worked through the latter half of the 1940s. Serving a previous sentence for fraud, Haigh impressed himself with a jailhouse experiment revealing the efficacy of sulfuric acid for completely dissolving the body of an unfortunate mouse. Perhaps he had been motivated to the test by the memory of a notorious trial in France featuring the same disposal-of-remains expedient. Perhaps he thought it up all by himself.

Shortly after obtaining his parole, Haigh put the insight to foul use by whacking his wealthy former employer over the head and stuffing him into a 40-gallon drum in his Gloucester Road basement. William McSwan’s body dissolved over two days in a sulfuric acid bath. Haigh poured the remnant ooze down a manhole and moved into McSwan’s house, telling the victim’s parents that their son had ducked out to avoid World War II conscription. Once the war ended and the questions came, Haigh made slurry of mom and dad, too.

Undoubtedly a sociopath, Haigh didn’t murder out of compulsive love of taking life. He had a cold, pecuniary motive. “I discovered there were easier ways of making a living than to work long hours in an office,” he wrote of the earlier, non-homicidal frauds and thefts that had started his criminal career. “I did not ask myself whether I was doing right or wrong. That seemed to me to be irrelevant. I merely said, ‘That is what I wish to do.’ And as the means lay within my power, that was what I decided.”

Now the means lay within his power to appropriate a fellow’s pension and estate by disappearing him into a vat of chemicals. Why should he ask himself whether that was right or wrong?

Haigh had blown through the McSwan’s fortune by 1948, and started dissolving hand to mouth. In February of that year, the killer lured a doctor and his wife to his new acid bath station in Crawley. These he shot dead, and rendered as per usual into vitriol compote. But he got sloppy the following year by targeting a wealthy widow who actually shared his same apartment block; when she was reported missing, the neighbor with the criminal record went right into the suspect filter. A search of Haigh’s workshops turned up papers tying him to all three sets of murders … as well as a nearby dump whose “yellowish white greyish matter” yielded “28 lb. of melted body fat, part of the left foot eroded by acid, three gallstones, and 18 fragments of human bone eroded by acid.” (London Times, April 2, 1949) Preserved dentures proved a match for the late Olive Durand-Deacon.

Haigh was a pragmatist, as always.

“Tell me, frankly, what are the chances of anybody being released from Broadmoor?” he chattily asked one guard, referring to the high-security psychiatric facility he intended to inhabit. But his problem would be getting into it. Haigh’s jury needed only minutes to dismiss his longshot insanity defense, and condemn the Acid Bath murderer to die.**

Haigh hanged a mere three weeks after sentence, not even six full months from his last murder.

* Not to be confused with the “Brides in the Bath” murderer. Best just to stick to showers.

** Legal oddity: the Daily Mirror described Haigh as a “murderer” during his trial — that is, before his lawful conviction. Haigh was able to land the editor of this paper in the clink himself for this accurate, prejudicial epithet.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Pelf,Serial Killers

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1932: Richard Johnson, great-grandfather of Craig Watkins

1 comment August 10th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1932, two African-American men were electrocuted in Huntsville, Texas.

Richard Johnson was a career criminal already serving a 35-year sentence for various burglaries when he busted out of prison in 1931. He teamed up with 20-year-old Richard Brown to rob a white couple in a parked car.

When the man, Ted Nodruft, tried to drive away, they shot him (he died the next day), and then proceeded to rape his fiancee and steal her jewelry. When caught, each man tried to throw the lion’s share of blame on the other.

These two on their own hardly stand out to posterity, and certainly not in the context of notoriously execution-friendly Texas, whose “List of individuals executed in Texas” Wikipedia entry (most states have such a page) is actually paginated by decade. Here’s the doings for the rest of the 1930s in the still-newish Texas electric chair.

We pause to note them here on this site because they made unexpected headlines earlier this year when Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins — the first elected black D.A. in Texas history — publicly revealed that Richard Johnson was his great-grandfather.

Long before that revelation, Watkins had already earned nationwide plaudits for doing what every district attorney should be doing as a matter of course: publicly emphasizing justice rather than conviction counts as his office’s guiding principle, greeting the rising tide of exonerations with a proactive program to search out potential miscarriages of justice rather than doubling down on them … hell, even apologizing to people whose lives have been ripped apart by wrongful convictions.

Watkins knew about the “dark secret of our family” for many years before he mentioned it in the run-up to witnessing his first execution (it was topical because Watkins used the trip to also visit his great-grandfather’s grave in the prison cemetery). How exactly that blood tie has helped to shape Craig Watkins’s outlook is hard to say, but not for any reticence on the DA’s part: he’s been disarmingly public about speaking to the real ambiguities and human costs of the criminal justice system that prosecutors are usually not supposed to acknowledge.

The broader issue is, look, I have walked 25 men out of prison for crimes they didn’t commit. We have gotten this case in Williamson County, where the DA withheld evidence, or it’s alleged that he withheld evidence. Because of that, a guy spent 25 years on death row. The Supreme Court of Texas has instituted a court of inquiry to look into the actions of this individual. At the time he was DA; now he is a judge. You have got the Todd Willingham case. We have had all of these folks who have been exonerated that were on death row throughout our nation.

And so my concern, basically, is, look, we are seeking the ultimate punishment against someone, and we need to have all the safeguards in place to make sure that we don’t wrongly execute someone. And I think with all the evidence that we have seen, I think anyone that does not come to the conclusion that a person has been executed in this country for a crime they didn’t commit is being irresponsible. So that’s my position. Like I said, I can argue from my moralistic standpoint all day, but that’s not where the argument should be had. It should be one of logistics. Are we making mistakes? Do we need to reevaluate the process to make sure we are not making mistakes?

Watkins personally opposes the death penalty on moral grounds, but seeks it routinely in his capacity as district attorney. Here’s the man expanding on some of those themes in a 30-minute interview with the Dallas-Fort Worth NBC affiliate:

Watkins (or someone in his office) blogs infrequently here, and tweets @craigmwatkins.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Murder,Notably Survived By,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Ripped from the Headlines,Texas,Theft,USA

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1888: Hugh Mottram Brooks, for the Trunk Murder

2 comments August 10th, 2011 Headsman

Entomb your mate in a trunk and the Show-Me State will hoist your neck on a rope: Hugh Mottram Brooks found that out on this date in 1888.

This story had made worldwide headlines within hours of the time an employee at St. Louis’s Southern Hotel had opened the door to a guest bedroom emitting a horrible stench and discovered a corpse stuffed in a trunk.


Headline of the St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat, April 15, 1885. The story occupied the entire front page.

The remains, in life, had belonged to Charles Arthur Preller, an English traveling salesman who had been hanging about the hotel with his impecunious countryman, Brooks.

Those two had been understood on the premises to have been involved, in the Oscar Wilde sense. But the spark for homicide was mere avarice.

The dramatic note left pinned to the late Preller — “so perish all traitors to the great cause” — was almost immediately deemed a red herring, and suspicion descended on Preller’s recent companion, who had absconded with our dead salesman’s money.

A global manhunt pursued the fugitive, who was found to have fled to San Francisco and thence overseas; he was soon arrested in Auckland and extradited back to face a sensational trial — which, by the by, entailed disinterring the corpse to search it for evidence that it had been catheterized. (It hadn’t, and this rubbished the defendant’s alibi that he’d accidentally killed the guy while consensually chloroforming him in the course of a bit of home medicine.)

The wonderful 19th century crime site Murder by Gaslight covers this case and Brooks’s futile defense in meticulous detail. Aptly enough, the Trunk Murderer didn’t have a leg to stand on.

Brooks hanged along with another murderer, Henry Landgraff. The British government did make diplomatic representations on its citizen’s behalf, but they were ignored — prosecutors retorting that London had recently given short shrift to American citizen Patrick O’Donnell.

Part of the Themed Set: Branded.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Homosexuals,Missouri,Murder,Pelf,USA

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1858: James Seale, on the heath with Thomas Hardy

1 comment August 10th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1858, an “unusual incident” occurred in the life of then 18-year-old architect’s apprentice Thomas Hardy, as related by Hardy’s second wife, Florence.

He probably could have used a Thomas Hardy’s Ale.

One summer morning at Bockhampton, just before he sat down to breakfast, he remembered that a man was to be hanged at eight o’clock at Dorchester. He took up the big brass telescope that had been handed on in the family, and hastened to a hill on the heath a quarter of a mile from the house, whence he looked towards the town. The sun behind his back shone straight on the white stone facade of the gaol, the gallows upon it, and the form of the murderer in white fustian, the executioner and officials in dark clothing and the crowd below being invisible at this distance of nearly three miles. At the moment of his placing the glass to his eye the white figure dropped downwards, and the faint note of the town clock struck eight.

The whole thing had been so sudden that the glass nearly fell from Hardy’s hands. He seemed alone on the heath with the hanged man, and crept homeward wishing he had not been so curious. It was the second and last execution he witnessed, the first having been that of a woman two or three years earlier, when he stood close to the gallows.


The man in question was James Seale (or Searle), and this was not only to be the last hanging Hardy witnessed — it was the last in Dorset full stop.

The London Times‘ Aug. 11 blurb of the hanging noticed that

the wretched culprit was tried … for the wilful murder of a young woman named Sarah Ann Griffy, at Stoke Abbotts, on the 30th of April last, and also for having set fire to the house in which his victim resided. The prisoner is a very young man, not having reached his 20th year, and had been working as a labourer for some time past in the vicinity … On the day of the murder … when all the parties, who were farm labourers, were at work, excepting the deceased, the prisoner entered the house, and, after maltreating her, inflicted a most fearful gash in her throat, nearly five inches long, with a clasped cheese knife, and other injuries on the hands, arms, and breast, and then set fire to the house.


As implied by Hardy’s ability to remember the hanging at breakfast, find the telescope, and get to his observation point before the trap dropped at 8 a.m., the youth was an early riser. Michael Millgate’s biography of Thomas Hardy notes that

[b]y eight o’clock in the morning, the time when Seale’s execution took place, Hardy would have been up reading for two or three hours before setting off for Dorchester and Hicks’s office: when only candles were available for indoor illumination it was necessary to keep a countryman’s hours and take advantage of all the available daylight. He had now added the study of Greek to his continuing study of Latin: the signature in his first copy of the Iliad is dated 1858, and he seems to have worked persistently through it until some time in 1860, marking the passages that he had read — and that Jude Fawley, much later, would be described as reading in Jude the Obscure.

Part of the Themed Set: Thomas Hardy.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arson,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Public Executions,Rape

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1862: Nueces Massacre

August 10th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1862, German immigrants fleeing Confederate conscription were caught near Texas’ Nueces River and slain to a man.

The nomenclature of the “Nueces Massacre” is controversial since this party of Union loyalists making a leisurely pace* for Mexico got its shots off as it was gunned down in a gully by Texas Partisan Rangers in the predawn hours.

But the incident becomes a clear candidate for these pages with the summary execution of the surviving captured and wounded men later this day. Here’s the account of an obviously upset member of the Confederate party:

[S]ome of the more humane of us did what we could to ease the sufferings of the wounded Germans. They had fought a good fight, and bore themselves so pluckily I felt sorry I had taken my part against them. We bound up their wounds, and gave them water, and laid them as comfortably as we could in the shade. Poor creatures, how grateful they were!

He then pauses for breakfast and helps gather up the scattered German horses; we rejoin the narration after 4 o’clock in the afternoon.

I hurried over to where we had left the German wounded to see how they were getting on, and was surprised to find them gone. Asking what had become of them, I was told they had been moved to a better shade a short distance away. With this answer I was quite satisfied, and never dreamed the brutes with whom I served would be guilty of foul play, especially after the gallant fight the enemy had made.

Just then one of our wounded called for water, and I brought him some from the cool spring. As I was giving it to him, the sound of firing was heard a little way off. I thought at first they were burying some of the dead with the honors of war; but it didn’t sound like that either. Then, possibly it might be an attack on the camp; so I seized my rifle and ran in the direction of the firing. Presently I met a man coming from it who, when he saw me running, said, “You needn’t be in a hurry, it’s all done; they shot the poor devils, and finished them off.”

“It can’t possibly be they have murdered the prisoners in cold blood!” I said, not believing that even Luck [a villainous — to the diarist’s mind — lieutenant] would be guilty of such an atrocious crime. “Oh, yes; they’re all dead, sure enough — and a good job too!” Feeling sick at heart, though I hardly even then credited his report, I ran on, and found it only too true.

It seems they were asked if they wouldn’t like to be moved a little way off into better shade. The poor creatures willingly agreed, thanking their murderers for their kindness. They were carried away, but it was to the shade and shadow of death, for a party of cowardly wretches went over and shot them in cold blood.

More summary justice followed in the weeks ahead against members of the party who had escaped** and others, and Confederate Haengerbande would plague Texas Germans of insufficient southern enthusiasm for the remainder of the war.

Fred Shon Powers offers this detailed account of the affair; there’s another here.

This day’s victims are honored by the Treue der Union obelisk, the only Union monument in Confederate territory, a prominent distinction that (as with all things in the Civil War) invites political football. This conservative article throws cold water on the “Germans-as-antislavery-Unionists” trope, and academic papers from a 1990’s conference gathered in this volume treat Nueces among other topics of “disloyalty” in the Confederacy.


The photo is taken by Steve & Marion Daughtry In Comfort, Texas. Image used with permission.

* An escapee recounted decades later by way of explanation for the party’s fatal inattention to either haste or defense, “Having read a proclamation from the Confederate government announcing that all persons not friendly to it might leave the country, we believed we had a right to do so in large or small bodies, as best suited our convenience, to the border and there cross over into Mexico.”

** About half the group had separated from the main body just before the Confederates engaged them. From this number come the “escapees,” many of them later killed in the hills or while crossing into Mexico. Those who stayed put all died this day.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Confederates,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot,Summary Executions,Texas,USA,Wartime Executions

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