Feast Day of Pope Pontian and Antipope Hippolytus

1 comment August 13th, 2017 Headsman

August 13 is the shared feast date* of third century saint and antipope — two adjectives rarely held in common — Hippolytus of Rome, and the official pope to whom he reconciled in the end, Pontian.

His legend, including his feast date, has been muddled with another ancient martyr of the same name, and even with the mythological son of Theseus — from which also derives the etymologically apt fancy that St. Hippolytus met his end by the straining of horses.**


The central panel (click for the full image) of the St. Hippolyte Triptych, from the Sint-Salvator Cathedral in Bruges, Belgium. (via the blog of Canadian Archbishop Terrence Prendergast) Attributed to Dieric Bouts and Hugo van der Goes, this image was commissioned by a courtier of Charles the Bold, Hippolyte de Berthoz — who also underwrote other depictions of his namesake’s martyrdom.

But Hippolytus the theologian and cleric was no fable.

Zealous after the correct doctrine in an age of heretical pitfalls like modalism and alogianism, Hippolytus clashed with Pope Zephyrinus and his successor Callixtus over their leniency — not only for heterodoxy but also for sinful conduct like adultery.

This timeless horn-locking between purists and pragmatists led Hippolytus to take his flock out of the Roman communion in opposition to Callixtus, and apparently to maintain himself as antipope for the best part of a generation — the very first recorded antipope, in fact.

Ironically it was the schismatic’s perspicacious quill that would bear to posterity much of our understanding of Christianity in the early third century. Apostolic Tradition, whose attribution to Hippolytus is contested, is a rare source on the early liturgy; Refutation of All Heresies helpfully catalogues dozens of beliefs disfavored of its author among pagan and Christian sects. He wrote a chronicle of the world since its creation, a compendium of ecclesiastical law, and numerous Biblical commentaries.

While world-shaping controversies gripped the sacerdotal space, the temporal world spiraled toward Rome’s Third Century Crisis, a periodization commonly dated to the rise of the cruel barracks-emperor Maximinus in the very year of our rival pontiffs’ martyrdoms, 235.

Maximinus’s years in the purple were short and sanguinary, harbinger of many like decades to come. “Italy and the whole empire were infested with innumerable spies and informers,” Gibbon wrote.

On the slightest accusation, the first of the Roman nobles, who had governed provinces, commanded armies, and been adorned with the consular and triumphal ornaments, were chained on the public carriages, and hurried away to the emperor’s presence. Confiscation, exile, or simple death, were esteemed uncommon instances of his lenity. Some of the unfortunate sufferers he ordered to be sewed up in the hides of slaughtered animals, others to be exposed to wild beasts, others again to be beaten to death with clubs.

Both Pontian and Hippolytus were arrested at Maximinus’s order, which was scarcely an act of pagan reverence on the latter’s part since he was also noted for stripping the traditional temples of valuables that could be melted into currency.

Banished to Sardinia for rough handling that was tantamount to a death sentence, the two men reconciled before attaining the crown of martyrdom.

Numerous cities in France (and one in Quebec) are named for St. Hippolytus.

* It’s the feast date in the Roman church. The Orthodox world honors Hippolytus on January 30.

** He’s the patron saint of horses, too.

† A reading of On Christ and the Antichrist is available free from Librivox.

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1891: Bir Tikendrajit, Patriots’ Day martyr

Add comment August 13th, 2016 Headsman

August 13 is marked as Patriots’ Day in the Indian state of Manipur for the execution on that date in 1891 of Prince Bir Tikendrajit.

The Kingdom of Manipur numbered among scores of “princely states” — nominally independent tributaries of the British Raj.

Part of the deal for these princely states was that the British guaranteed the throne and the succession of the cooperating ruler, but these were pragmatists. When the warrior chief Tikendrajit deposed Manipur’s raja in the fall of 1890, the British waffled and for several months the revolution appeared to be a fait accompli.

Eventually, Lord Lansdowne decided to let stand the resulting transfer of power to the ex-raja’s brother, but do right by their “guarantee” by marching 400-500 Gurkhas into Manipur to demand surrender of Tikendrajit for punishment.

This intention met unexpectedly fierce resistance, and Manipuri soldiers eventually overwhelmed the British, slaughtering most of the soldiers as well as the expedition’s leader, J.W. Quinton, High Commissioner for neighboring Assam.

Tikendrajit had the honor of commanding Manipuri’s forces in the brief ensuing conflict: the Anglo-Manipur War. It lasted only a few weeks, as the British scaled their punitive deployments up from “token” to “overwhelming” and by the end of April hoisted the Union Jack over Kangla Palace.

Tikendrajit was hanged on the evening of August 13, 1891, along with an aged general named Thangal, on the polo grounds of Imphal. Today that place is known as Bir Tikendrajit Park, in honor of a man remembered as a patriotic hero.

Three other Manipuri leaders were hanged for the rebellion, and 22 suffered penal transportation.

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1575: Charles du Puy-Montbrun, unequal

Add comment August 13th, 2015 Headsman

The intrepid Huguenot commander Charles du Puy-Montbrun was beheaded on this date in 1575.

We turn for this account to a 19th century history in the public domain by Henry Martyn Baird:


Whatever military advantages the Huguenots obtained in various parts of the realm were more than outweighed by the death of “the brave Montbrun.”

This daring and energetic leader, the terror of the enemy in Dauphiny, had just defeated a large body of Swiss auxiliaries, upon whom he inflicted a loss of eight or nine hundred men and eighteen ensigns, while that of the Huguenots scarcely amounted to half a dozen men.

But his brilliant success in this and other engagements had made Montbrun and his soldiers more incautious than usual.

They attacked a strong detachment of men-at-arms, and mistaking the confusion into which they threw the advance guard for a rout of the entire body, dispersed to gather the booty and offered a tempting opportunity to the Roman Catholics as they came up.

Montbrun, who, too late, discovered the danger of his troops, and endeavored to rally them, was at one time enveloped by the enemy, but would have made good his escape had there not been a broad ditch in his way. Here his horse missed its footing, and in the fall the leader’s thigh was broken.

In this pitiable plight he surrendered his sword to a Roman Catholic captain, from whom he received the assurance that his life would be spared.

The king and his mother had other views.

Henry, on receiving the grateful news of Montbrun’s capture, promptly gave orders that the prisoner be taken to Grenoble and tried by the Parliament of Dauphiny on a charge of treason.

Vain were the efforts of the Huguenots, equally vain the intercession of the Duke of Guise, who wished to have Montbrun exchanged for Besme, Coligny‘s murderer, recently fallen into Huguenot hands.

Henry and Catherine de’ Medici were determined that Montbrun should die. They urged the reluctant judges by reiterated commands; they overruled the objection that to put the prisoner to death would be to violate good faith and the laws of honorable warfare.

Catharine had not forgotten the honest Frenchman’s allusion to her “perfidious and degenerate” countrymen.

As for Henry, an insult received at Montbrun’s hands rankled in his breast and made forgiveness impossible. Some months before, the king had sent a message to him in a somewhat haughty tone, demanding the restoration of the royal baggage and certain prisoners taken by the Huguenots.

“What is this!” exclaimed the general. “The king writes to me as a king, and as if I were bound to obey him! I want him to know that that would be very well in time of peace; I should then recognize his royal claim. But in time of war, when men are armed and in the saddle, all men are equal.”

On hearing this, we are told, Henry swore that Montbrun should repent his insolence.

In his glee over the Huguenot’s mishap he recalled the prophecy and broke out with the exclamation, “Montbrun will now see whether he is my equal.”

Under these circumstances there was little chance for a Huguenot, were he never so innocent, to be acquitted by a servile parliament.

Accordingly Montbrun was condemned to be beheaded as a rebel against the king and a disturber of the public peace. The execution was hastened last natural death from the injury received should balk the malice of his relentless enemies.

A contemporary, who may even have been an eye-witness, describes the closing scene in words eloquent from their unaffected simplicity.

He was dragged, half dead, from the prison, and was carried in a chair to the place of execution, exhibiting in his affliction an assured countenance; while the Parliament of Grenoble trembled and the entire city lamented. He had been enjoined not to say a word to the people, unless he wished to have his tongue cut off.

Nevertheless he complained, in the presence of the whole parliament, of the wrong done to him, proving at great length his innocence and contemning the fury of his enemies who were attacking a man as good as dead. He showed that it was without cause that he was charged with being a rebel, since never had he had any design but to guarantee peaceable Frenchmen from the violence of strangers who abused the name and authority of the king.

His death was constant and Christian. He was a gentleman held in high esteem, inasmuch as he was neither avaricious nor rapacious, but on the contrary devoted to religion, bold, moderate, upright; yet he was too indulgent to his soldiers, whose license and excesses gained him much ill-will and many enemies in Dauphiny. His death so irritated these soldiers that they ravaged after a strange fashion the environs of Grenoble.

The death of so prominent and energetic a Huguenot captain was likely to embolden the Roman Catholic party, not only in Dauphiny but in the rest of the kingdom. In reality, it only transferred the supreme direction in warlike affairs to still more competent hands.

The young lieutenant of Montbrun, who shortly succeeded him in command, was Francois de Bonne, better known from his territorial designation as Sieur des Lesdiguieres, a future marshal of Henry the Fourth.

Although the resplendent military abilities of Lesdiguieres had not yet had an opportunity for display, it was not long before the Roman Catholics discovered that they gained nothing by the exchange.

Lesdiguieres was as brave as his master in arms, and he was his master’s superior in the skill and caution with which he sketched and executed his military plans. The discipline of the Huguenot army at once exhibited marked improvement.

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1864: Barney Gibbons, chance recognition

Add comment August 13th, 2014 Headsman

One hundred fifty years ago today, Barney Gibbons was executed by musketry by the Civil War Union army in St. Louis, Missouri.

Gibbons was among the many soldiers in that chaotic war who in the time before identity cards and omnipresent databases deserted the respective armies at their convenience. Whatever the fulminations of the right-thinking against such behavior, only a slight risk of capture and exemplary punishment attended such an act.

Gibbons’ own slip into the statistically improbable might be the slightest imaginable risk of them all.

The New York native was enlisted in the Seventh Infantry Regiment when it was sent at the outset of hostilities to the New Mexico theater of the war; there he slipped away from the march one day and re-enlisted in the Confederate army, serving against his former comrades in several battles — notably Glorieta Pass.

Then Gibbons deserted the Confederate army as well, turned up as a teamster in New Orleans, and eventually made his way to St. Louis.

And that was that, or at least it often would have been. By 1864, who could bother to search out an obscure private fallen off the march three years before?

One summer’s day in 1864, however, a former 7th Infantry sergeant named Richard Day chanced to pass Barney Gibbons on the street and somehow recognized him. “He has a cut upon his lip, and a peculiar manner of walking,” Day would later insist at the court-martial. “Capt. Jones of our company was always at him because he never could walk like a soldier, he would throw his head forward and his arms to the rear. He always walked with his hands open and fingers apart even when he had gloves on.”

Now, despite the certitude of our verbiage so far, the fact of the matter is that “Gibbons” denied all this all the way to the stake — and there were no better forensics on offer than Day’s personal recollection. That was pretty much state of the art, even if we now know that eyewitnesses are highly error-prone.

We pick up Gibbons’s horrifying last moments (following Catholic baptism) via the New York Times correspondent, as reprinted by the Cleveland Plain Dealer on August 23, 1864:

Although there is not at the post of St. Louis an officer who ever witnessed an execution, the preliminaries were conducted in a skillful, orderly and decent manner. — All the troops of the post were in attendance, and a hollow square having been formed with one side open toward the embankment of the for, the condemned man was placed beside a post, with a seat attached, his common pine coffin lying on the ground beside him. After making a brief statement, in which he denied having deserted, but said that he straggled and was overtaken by the rebels, he pronounced his sentence most unjust …

He was seated, and his arms tied behind the post, a white cap was drawn over his face, and six musketeers drawn up within fifteen feet of his breast. The command was given:

“Make ready.”

“Aim.”

“Fire” and two bullets entered the abdomen. And now succeeded a few seconds in which transpired a scene which shook the stoutest heart, and made every human creature present shudder. From beneath the ghastly cap came a wail of agony which pierced every ear, and as the utterance “Oh! oh! too low,” escaped from the lips of the quivering form writhing in the throes of a horrible death, every one seemed paralyzed with horror. With a quick motion the officer of the squad waved the six muskets aside and four others took their place. “Make ready.” “Aim” — but mercifully before the third command was given, the four pieces were discharged, three leaden messengers of death entering the sternum, and a mighty convulsive shudder ended the being of the poor deserter. What an eternity of woe in those intervening few seconds! What a crowding of events from infancy, hallowed by a mother’s love and prayers to the dreadful details of the present scene! Yet, all passed before the mind’s eye of the dying man, and the wonderful palimpsest of his brain touched by the consciousness of instant death, gave him to see in a second all that had been for years forgotten, ere he entered upon the unknown.

The error in firing arose from the fact, discovered too late for remedy, that the sights of the muskets were set for long range.

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1997: Chiang Kuo-ching, Taiwan wrongful conviction

1 comment August 13th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1997, Taiwanese airman Chiang Kuo-ching was shot for the rape-murder of a five-year-old girl the previous September.

Chiang was nominated as a suspect by a fellow enlistee just a day after the little girl’s body was found in a privy gutter.

So, he and three other early suspects were given “lie detector” tests. Because Chiang was the only one of these who “failed” to acquit himself by this ludicrous mummery, he became the subject of implacable official tunnel vision.

The case was referred — illegally and arbitrarily — to the country’s intelligence services, who subjected Chiang to 37 hours of torture in order to extract a confession: beatings, threats, sleep deprivation, and private screenings of “his victim’s” autopsy.

Chiang broke, and admitted to the crime.

That admission was the star witness against him in his ensuing military trial. Chiang had retracted it by then — but that was much too late to help himself, especially since potentially exculpatory forensic evidence was intentionally withheld from his defense.

As it turned out, the bloody handprint and the DNA trace recovered from the scene didn’t match Chiang at all. No evidence connected him to the crime, except the evidence of truncheons.

Another airman, Hsu Rong-chou, eventually admitted to the killing. (He’d already been convicted in two other child molestation cases, in 1997 and 2003.) In 2011, Hsu received an 18-year prison sentence for the crime that took Chiang Kuo-ching’s life. Chiang was posthumously acquitted that same year.

The latter-day reversal of the sentence was so sensational that Taiwan’s legislature enacted a special law to increase the compensation Chiang’s family received. The family also got an extraordinary televised apology from President Ma Ying-jeou, who bowed three times before an image of the wrongfully executed man.

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1926: Richard Whittemore, Mencken subject

Add comment August 13th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1926, Richard Whittemore — the chieftain of a notorious armed-robbery syndicate in Prohibition New York and Maryland — was hanged at Baltimore’s Maryland Penitentiary for murdering a prison guard during an escape the year before.

Whittemore, known as the “Candy Kid” — it’s not clear to me whether this throwback nickname alludes to his gang’s prodigious heroin addiction — was national news for a brief twelvemonth during Prohibition.

In 1925, he busted out of prison in Maryland, killing a guard. It was for this crime that he ultimately hanged, but it was for his months on the lam that he made his blackened name.

Whittemore recruited a coterie of cold-blooded toughs and commenced a series of brazenly public violent robberies. (He also wifed up someone called Tiger Girl.)

After heisting a few payrolls — back when such things were delivered in armored cars instead of by digital funds transfer — the Candy Kid’s gang made for New York, where they proceeded to stick up several jewelry stores and eventually (in Buffalo) to hijack a Federal Reserve truck.

For all their momentary success, their candle burned at every possible end. Stickups followed each other with just a few weeks in between to squander the proceeds and, as alluded, the gang indulged a judgment-impairing drug habit.

The end, when it came, was swift.

In March 1926, barely a year after blasting his way out of prison, Whittemore was caught. Within the next five months, he beat charges in New York (pdf), was extradited to Maryland, found himself convicted of murder there, and expeditiously hanged.


Years later, the death of this professional blackguard is probably most noteworthy to posterity for the attendance among the select circle of witnesses of professional crank (and son of Baltimore) H.L. Mencken.

That irascible pundit was no foe of the death penalty (although the nature of his support veered idiosyncratic). He scarcely felt the hanging’s participants to have been degraded or brutalized by the ritual of hanging Whittemore, and held forth on the subject in a subsequent essay later reprinted in A Mencken Chrestomathy:

It is unpleasant, I grant you, to see a man put to death, but the brutality of it is immensely overestimated by those who have never enjoyed that honor. They forget this technical skill that can make even killing painless and humane. And they forget that the victim himself is almost always a brute with little more sensitiveness than an ox. I witnessed recently. He went to his death with a swagger, and obviously full of an imbecile delight in the attention he was attracting. His occupations in his last days were those of a happy half-wit, and his final message, delivered through the tabloid newspaper, the Baltimore Post, was precisely the sort of defiant rubbish that such a moron would be expected to formulate and delight in. The whole thing, to him, was a gaudy show, and it was quite impossible for any rational man, observing him at the end, to have any very active sympathy for him.

A new State law has got rid of the obscene crowds that used to flock to hangings, and of the bungling that once made them revolting. The gallows at the Penitentiary is admirably designed. Whittemore dropped at least ten feet, and he was unconscious instantly. Save for one brief drawing up of the legs as he died he didn’t move an inch. The old-time jail yard gallows was a wooden structure with a high step, and the condemned had to climb up that step. It was a dreadful ordeal. He could see the noose a long way off. But Whittemore, stepping out of a second-story door on to a high platform, was on the trap before he saw the rope at all. If he had not delayed the proceedings to bawl a nonsensical farewell he would have been dead in less than a minute after he emerged. As it was, he dropped in less than two minutes. Was the thing horrible as a spectacle? No more than the most trivial surgery. One does not see a man hanged. One sees a black bag.

I have spoken of Whittemore as a moron. The term is probably flattering. His farewell message in the Post and his philosophical autobiography in the same instructive paper, published a few months ago, showed the mentality of a somrwhat backward boy of ten. Such professional killers, I believe, are nearly all on the same level: a Gerald Chapman is very rare among them, as a man of honor is rare in Congress. The sentimentalists, observing the fact, employ it as an argument against capital punishment. It is immoral, they contend, for the State to take the life of a creature so palpably stupid, and hence so little capable of sound judgment and decent behavior. But all this, it seems to me, is full of bad logic. The State of Maryland did not kill Whittemore because he was a moron: it killed him because he had demonstrated conclusively that his continued existence was incompatible with the reasonable safety of the rest of us. What difference did it make whether his criminality was due to lack of intelligence, or, as in the case of Chapman, to intelligence gone rancid? The only important thing was that he was engaged habitually, and apparently incorrigibly, in gross and intolerable attacks upon the public security. What was to be done about it? He had been sent to prison without effect. He had actually committed a murder in prison. There remained only the device of taking his life, and so getting rid of a dangerous and demoralizing nuisance.

To argue that society, confronted by such a rogue, has no right to take his life is to argue that it has no rights at all — that it cannot even levy a tax or command a service without committing a crime. There are, to be sure, men who so argue, and some of their arguments are very ingenious. But they have not converted any considerable body of reflective men and women. The overwhelming majority of people believe that, when a man adopts murder as his trade, society is justified in putting him to death. They have believed it in all ages and under all forms of government, and I am convinced that they still believe it today. The execution of Whittemore was almost unanimously approved in Maryland. If he had escaped the gallows there would have been an uproar, and it would have been justified.

The opponents of capital punishment have firmer ground under them when they object to the infliction of the death penalty upon criminals other than professional murderers. The public opinion of Christendom long ago revolted against its employment to put down minor crimes: for example, theft. There has been of late a revolt against its use even in certain varieties of murder, and that revolt, I believe, is largely responsible for the increasing difficulty of getting convictions in capital cases, and the increasing tendency of the courts to upset convictions by legal quackery. The truth is that our criminal codes need a thorough overhauling. The old categories of crime are only too often archaic and irrational. It is absurd to hang an aggrieved husband for killing his wife and her lover, and let a professional murderer live because, in a given case, the State is unable to prove premeditation. The test should be, not he instant intention, but the antecedent circumstances. Every one of us, under easily imaginable conditions, may commit a premeditated murder. But that possibility does not make us professional criminals, and it does not necessarily justify the death penalty in case we succumb. Juries obviously have felt that way, for many a murderer has escaped under the so-called unwritten law.

Judge Frederick Bausman, of the State of Washington, a very intelligent jurist, once suggested a way out. All crimes, he said, should be divided into two new categories; those which a reasonable and otherwise reputable man, under the circumstances confronting the accused, might be imagined as committing, and those showing only deliberate and gratuitous criminality. Under the first heading would fall many crimes of passion and many ordinary thefts. Under the second would fall the doings of the Chapmans and Whittemores. The man who commits the former is now often used too harshly; the man who commits the latter is almost always used too softly. What sense is there in the old rule of evidence that the record of an accused, save he go on the stand himself, may not be brought against him on his trial? It is hypocritical and vain, for juries consider it notwithstanding. It is unjust, for the record often contributes to a sound judgment, as it did in the Whittemore case. The important thing is not to play a game according to a set of tight and stupid rules but to punish and put down crime. The way to do that is to proceed swiftly and harshly against professional criminals. I believe that every gunman should be hanged after his first shot, whether it kills or not. To stop short of that is to put the rights that he has deliberately forfeited above the public security. In other words, it is to convert the judicial process into a scheme for protecting and fostering crime.

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1915: George Joseph Smith, Brides in the Bath murderer

7 comments August 13th, 2011 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1915, serial uxoricide George Joseph Smith was hung by the capable John Ellis at Maidstone Prison in the UK.

Smith had committed three murders and various forms of larceny as well; he’d earned his noose several times over.

Two things tend to trip people up when they’ve seemingly committed the perfect crime: either they brag about it to impress others, or they repeat the crime using the same methodology as before, since it worked so well the first time. Either of those actions greatly increases the risk of the criminal’s getting caught.

Smith made the latter mistake. He was in a sense a victim of his own success.

Smith was born on January 11, 1872. His criminal record began when he was sent to a reformatory at nine and served a seven-year sentence. In young adulthood he was in and out of prison on theft- and fraud-related convictions.

His complicated marital career began when he married Caroline Beatrice Thornhill, a domestic servant, in 1898. Smith persuaded her to steal from her employers. Caroline served time in prison as a result, and implicated her husband, who got two years for his role in the thefts.

After George Smith’s release, Caroline thought it wise to put a few thousand miles between herself and her estranged husband, and so she left the UK for Canada. She never filed for divorce, however.

Smith remained legally married to her for the rest of his life, so none of his numerous other marriages were legal.

Unlawfully Wedded …

The guy wasn’t good-looking, but he could charm like any good con artist. A year after his marriage to Caroline, Smith bigamously married another woman. He cleaned out her saving account and then deserted her.

Between 1908 and 1914, he married no fewer than seven additional women, usually under an alias, and deserted most of them after a short time, sometimes only a matter of days — but not before he helped himself to their possessions and bank accounts.

As true crime writer Harold Schechter tells it in his book The Serial Killer Files: The Who, What, Where, How, and Why of the World’s Most Terrifying Murderers:

Smith initially limited himself to scamming gullible spinsters out of their life savings by luring them into bigamous marriages … The moment Smith had his hands on his new bride’s money, he would disappear. Usually telling her he was going out on an errand — to pick up a newspaper or buy a pack of cigarettes — he would never return. On one occasion, he brought his newlywed wife to the National Gallery of Art and, after viewing some paintings, excused himself to go to the bathroom. She never saw him — or her life savings — again.

That particular bride was named Sarah Faulkner. Smith had already plundered £350 in cash from her and her jewelry as well, and while she was waiting for him to return from the loo he was back at their hotel, swiping her clothing and the rest of her money.

The only wife that didn’t fit this pattern was Edith Pegler.

Smith was away from her side for months at a time on “business trips” and when he returned it was always to ask for money, but he never left her for good and they remained together for seven years. As to whether he actually harbored some form of affection for her or whether he just didn’t want to kill his cash cow while it was still milkable, we can only speculate.

Yet all these women were, in a sense, lucky.

Smith may have broken their hearts and taken their cash, but he left them their lives.

… ‘Til Death Do Us Part

The first unlucky wife was Bessie Mundy, whom Smith murdered on July 13, 1912.

They’d married in August 1910, but he left her after persuading her to give him £150 in cash. On the way out the door, he accused her of giving him a venereal disease.

Eighteen months later, Bessie ran into Smith on the street. Somehow, the charmer got his ex to forgive him and resume their relationship.

In fact, Smith wanted to get his hands on Bessie’s £2,500 inheritance, but it was in trust and he couldn’t touch it.

After their reunion, the couple drew up mutual wills, naming each other as beneficiaries. Bessie willed her husband £2,579. Less than a week later, she was mysteriously dead.

Smith rented a house for them in Herne Bay and had a new cast-iron bathtub installed. Tragically, Bessie drowned in the bath. Her husband said he’d been out buying dinner and returned to discover the body.

Since Smith claimed his bride suffered from epilepsy and that she’d had a seizure the day before she died, it was easy to believe she’d simply had an unfortunate accident.

In spite of his newfound wealth, Smith had Bessie consigned to a pauper’s grave and even returned the slightly-used bathtub to the ironmonger for a £1 17s. refund.

This, perhaps, is where Smith might have counted himself lucky and checked out of the homicide business — or at least thought about a different m.o. Instead, hubris and habit got him hanged.

The Brides of Bath murder victims: from left to right, Bessie Mundy, Alice Burnham, and Margaret Lofty.

Next to go was Alice Burnham, who was making a goodly living as a nurse. Smith married on November 4, 1913, and became her widower on December 13.

Alice and her new husband were honeymooning at a seaside boardinghouse in Blackpool when she drowned in the bathtub while he was supposedly out getting eggs.

Smith, who claimed she had a weak heart, had insured her life for £500. She too was buried on the cheap.

Margaret Elizabeth Lofty died in her London home a little over a year later, on December 18, 1914. Newspapers reported she had drowned in the bathtub while her husband — identified as Robert Lloyd — was out buying tomatoes. He and the landlady found the body. Lofty and “Lloyd” had married only the day before and, appropriately enough, the ceremony was performed in the city of Bath.

Although it was initially classified as death by misadventure, Margaret’s murder ultimately lead to Smith’s downfall.

Rotten luck, it was: Alice Burnham’s father read an account of her death in the newspaper and, even though the husband had a different name, he couldn’t help but notice that Margaret’s death was suspiciously similar to his daughter’s.

Joseph Crossley, who was the couple’s landlord at the time of Alice’s death, noticed the same thing. Since both the Burnhams and Crossleys had taken a dislike to Smith from the get-go, they both wrote the police, asking them to open an investigation.

Authorities quickly determined that George Joseph Smith and Robert Lloyd were the same man. They sure had the same playbook.

Margaret had made out a will just hours before she died, naming her husband the sole heir to her estate. She had also withdrawn her life savings from the bank the same day, and three days before she had taken out a £700 life insurance policy on herself, with her husband as the beneficiary. Ka-ching.

When the grieving widower showed up at the insurance office to collect on Margaret’s policy, he was arrested. Lloyd/Smith was initially charged with putting a false name on a marriage certificate, but bigamy and murder charges would follow fast.

When news of the arrest was published, a police chief from Kent read the story and told the London police about Bessie Mundy’s death, which was strikingly similar to the other two.

Forever Hold Your Peace

But how could he could have drowned the women in the tub, without leaving marks of violence on their body?

Margaret had only a small bruise on her elbow. For answers, the police turned to renowned pathologist Bernard Spilsbury. The first thing he did was exhume the bodies to determine whether the women had, in fact, drowned. They had.

After experimenting with the very same bathtub Margaret Lofty died in, he determined how it might have happened. John Brophy, a crime writer, describes it chillingly:

With honeymoon playfulness he would enter the room where his bride was already in the bath, admire her naked beauty, bend over her fondly, and, still murmuring endearments, hold her feet. Suddenly, he would tug her feet upward, jerking her head at the end of the bath, below the water, so that in a few moments she would be drowned with no bruises on the body or other signs of assault or resistance.

Effective. Actually, you can see why he stuck to his system.

When Smith went to trial, it was only for the murder of Bessie; British law didn’t permit him to be tried for multiple murders in one go. However, the prosecution wanted to bring evidence in the Lofty and Burham deaths into the trial, arguing that they indicated a criminal “system.”

The judge allowed it, setting a precedent that would be used in later criminal cases.

In pretrial investigations later described in court, Spilsbury demonstrated his murder theory using Bessie’s bathtub and a female police officer in a bathing suit. It worked all too well: she lost consciousness immediately and they had to drag her out of the tub and perform artificial respiration to revive her.

No wonder the jury was only out for twenty-two minutes before it delivered a guilty verdict.

Caroline Thornhill, Smith’s legal wife, returned to Britain for his trial. She married a Canadian soldier the day after his execution.

The “Brides in the Bath” case has remained vividly alive in British memory.

The historian Harold Nicholson compared Smith’s behavior to Adolf Hitler’s in his 1939 book, Why Britain is at War; Smith was mentioned in novels by Evelyn Waugh, Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, and in 1952 the case was made into an episode for the true-crime radio show The Black Museum.

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More recently, in 2003 the murders were featured into made-for-TV movie called The Brides in the Bath.

Warning: Video contains NSFW naked ladyparts. Oh, and homicide.

At least two plays, Tryst and The Drowning Girls, are based on the story. In 2010, the author Jane Robins published a book about the case, called The Magnificent Spilsbury and the Case of the Brides in the Bath.

Part of the Themed Set: Branded.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Infamous,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Other Voices,Pelf,Popular Culture,Serial Killers,Theft

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1776: Neptune, as witnessed by John Gabriel Stedman

2 comments August 13th, 2010 Headsman

On or around this date in 1776,* a couple of blacks in Suriname (both slave and free) were executed for unrelated crimes … notably a free man named Neptune whose coolness under horrific torture is related by John Gabriel Stedman in The Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam.

Dutch-born and of Scottish descent, Stedman was a soldier who volunteered to serve in the West Indies and found himself in Suriname fighting those “revolted negroes” — Maroons fled from slavery who had established independent communities and episodically (most of the 1770s were one such episode) fought the white colonies.

Maroon settlements in Suriname still pesist to this day.

Though that was Stedman’s business on the Caribbean coast of South America, the culprits whose deaths he witnessed today were not among the “revolted”, but more prosaic criminal fare. Prosaic, that is, until Neptune’s insouciantly comedic discourse in the midst of the most appalling torture.

Stedman sets the scene for us with the more everyday depravities prevailing in the colonial capital, Paramaribo

If, as I have just mentioned, cruelties were become less common in the rivers by the rebels, barbarities still continued in a shocking degree in the metropolis; where my ears were deafened with the clang of the whip, and the shrieks of the negroes. Among the most eminent of these tyrants was a Miss Sp—n,who lived next door to Mr. de Graav, and who I saw with horror from my window give orders that a young black woman should be flogged principally across the breasts, at which she seemed to enjoy peculiar satisfaction. To dissipate the impression this scene had left on my mind, I got into a whiskey, and rode out; when the first thing I saw was a negro girl fall naked from a garret window on a heap of broken bottles: this was indeed an accident, but she was so mangled, though not dead, that she exhibited a spectacle nearly as wretched as the other.—Cursing my unlucky fate, I turned the horses, and drove to the beach, as the only place to avoid every scene of cruelty and misery; but here I had the mortification to see two Philadelphia sailors (while they were fighting on the forecastle of their vessel) both fall over the ship’s bow into the stream, where they sunk, and were no more seen. On board another American brig, I discovered a little tar defending himself from the cross-trees with a hatchet, against a serjeant and four armed men, for a considerable time; till they threatening to shoot him out of the rigging, he at last surrendered, and being brought ashore, was dragged to Fort Zelandia, in company with two others, by a file of musketeers, where, for having been drunk on duty, they received a fire-cant each, at the captain’s request; that is, they were bastinadoed or beaten on the shoulders by two corporals with bamboo canes, till their backs were black, and swelled like a cushion. However arbitrary this mode of correction, the captain endeavoured to explain the necessity of it; the private American sailors being of a turbulent spirit indeed when drunk, although when sober they may be fairly classed among the best seamen in the world.

But the narrator is just getting warmed up, and after a good night’s sleep …

Early the next morning, while musing on all the different dangers and chastisements to which the lower class of people are exposed, I heard a crowd pass under my window. Curiosity made me start up, dress in a hurry, and follow them: when I discovered three negroes in chains, surrounded by a guard, going to be executed in the savannah. Their undaunted look, however averse I may be to the sight of cruelties, so attracted my attention, as to determine me to see the result, which was thus:— The sentence being read in Low Dutch (which they did not understand) one was condemned to be flogged below the gallows, and his accomplice to have his head struck off with an axe, for having shot a slave who had come to steal plantains on the estate of his mistress. The truth however was, that this had been done by that lady’s absolute command; but the murder being discovered, she, in the hopes of saving her character, besides the expence of paying the penalties, gave up her valuable slave, and permitted the unhappy man to be thus sacrificed. He laid his head upon the block with great indifference, stretching out his neck; when, with one blow of the axe, it was severed from his body.

The third negro, whose name was Neptune, was no slave, but his own master, and a carpenter by trade; he was young and handsome, but having killed the overseer of the estate Altona, in the Para Creek, in consequence of some dispute, he justly forfeited his life. The particulars, however, are worth relating: This man having stolen a sheep, to entertain a favourite young woman, the overseer, who burnt with jealousy, had determined to see him hanged; to prevent which, the negro shot him dead among the sugar canes; for these offences of course he was sentenced to be broken alive upon the rack, without the benefit of the coup de grace or mercy-stroke. Informed of the dreadful sentence, he composedly laid himself down on his back on a strong cross, on which, with arms and legs expanded, he was fastened by ropes: the executioner, also a black man, having now with a hatchet chopped off his left hand, next took up a heavy iron bar, with which, by repeated blows, he broke his bones to shivers, till the marrow, blood, and splinters flew about the field; but the prisoner never uttered a groan nor a sigh. The ropes being next unlashed, I imagined him dead, and felt happy; till the magistrates stirring to depart, he writhed himself from the cross, when he fell on the grass, and damned them all, as a set of barbarous rascals; at the same time removing his right hand by the help of his” teeth, he rested his head on part of the timber, and asked the by-standers for a pipe of tobacco, which was infamously answered by kicking and spitting on him; till I, with some American seamen, thought proper to prevent it. He then begged that his head might be chopped off; but to no purpose. At last, seeing no end to his misery, he declared, “that though he had deserved death, he had “not expected to die so many deaths: however, (said he) you christians have missed your aim at last, and I now care not, were I to remain thus one month longer.” After which he sung two extempore songs (with a clear voice) the subjects of which were, to bid adieu to his living friends, and to acquaint his deceased relations that in a very little time he should be with them, to enjoy their company for ever in a better place. This done, he calmly entered into conversation with some gentlemen concerning his trial; relating every particular with uncommon tranquillity—”But,” said he abruptly, “by the sun it must be eight o’clock; and by any longer discourse I should be sorry to be the cause of your losing your breakfast.” Then, casting his eyes on a Jew, whose name was De Vries, “A-propos, sir,” said he, “won’t you please to pay me the ten shillings you owe me ?” — “For what to do ?” — “To buy meat and drink, to be sure—don’t you perceive I am to be kept alive?” Which speech, on seeing the Jew stare like a fool, this mangled wretch accompanied with a loud and hearty laugh. Next, observing the soldier that stood sentinel over him biting occasionally on a piece of dry bread, he asked him ” how it came to pass, that he, a white man, should have no meat to eat along with it ?” — ” Because I am not so rich,” answered the soldier. — “Then I will make you a present, sir,” said the negro; “first, pick my hand that was chopped off clean to the bones, next begin to devour my body, till you are glutted; when you will have both bread and meat, as best becomes you;” which piece of humour was followed by a second laugh; and thus he continued, until I left him, which was about three hours after the dreadful execution.

Wonderful it is indeed, that human nature should be able to endure so much torture, which assuredly could only be supported by a mixture of rage, contempt, pride, and the glory of braving his tormentors, from whom he was so soon to escape. [ here a footnote is marked in the original text, whose content is: “At Demerary, so late as October, 1789, thirty-two wretches were executed in three days, sixteen of whom suffered in the manner just described, with no less fortitude, and without uttering one single complaint.” -ed. ]

Though I never recal to my remembrance, without the most painful sensation, this horrid scene, which must revolt the feelings of all who have one spark of humanity, I cannot forbear exhibiting to the public the dreadful spectacle in the annexed drawing.


Detail view of William Blake‘s illustration of Neptune’s breaking on the rack. (Click for full image.)

If the reader, however, should be offended with this shocking exhibition, and my dwelling so long on this unpleasant subject, let it be some relief to his reflection, to consider this punishment not inflicted as a wanton and unprovoked act of cruelty, but as the extreme severity of the Surinam laws, on a desperate wretch, suffering as an example to others for complicated crimes; while at the same time it cannot but give me, and I hope many others, some consolation to reflect that the above barbarous mode of punishment was hitherto never put in practice in the British colonies.

I must now relate an incident, which, as it had a momentary effect on my imagination, might have had a lasting one on some who had not investigated the real cause of it, and which it gave me no small satisfaction to discover. About three in the afternoon, walking towards the place of execution, with my thoughts full of the affecting scene, and the image of the sufferer fresh in my mind, the first object I saw was his head at some distance, placed on a stake, nodding to me backwards and forwards, as if he had really been alive. I instantly stopped short, and seeing no person in the savannah, nor a breath of wind sufficient to move a leaf or a feather, I acknowledge that I was rivetted to the ground, where I stood without having the resolution of advancing one step for some time; till reflecting that I must be weak indeed not to approach this dead skull, and find out the wonderful phenomenon, if possible, I boldly walked up, and instantly discovered the natural cause, by the return of a vulture to the gallows, who perched upon it, as if he meant to dispute with me for this feast of carrion ; which bird, having already picked out one of the eyes, had fled at my first approach, and striking the skull with his talons, as he took his sudden flight, occasioned the motion already described. I shall now only add, that this poor wretch, after living near six hours, had been knocked on the head by the commiserating sentinel, the marks of whose musket were perfectly visible by a large open fracture in the skull.

Stedman’s work details a number of other atrocities against Suriname’s African (primarily slave) population, many of them powerfully illustrated by William Blake with near pornographic effect. These sorts of things were of ancient vintage in the realm.

The Narrative itself became both an important anti-slavery text, and an invaluable historical reference. (Where I have clipped the text, Stedman is about to segue into a discourse on the local vulture population, just the sort of detail that present-day researchers might have a hard time sourcing for 18th century Suriname.)

But even though contemporary abolitionists made use of the Narrative, Stedman’s 18th century publisher actually played down the author’s tone on the subject. A version much more overtly critical of slavery and the savage corporal punishments that upheld it has recently been published from the original manuscripts. (An abridged version of that original is also available.)

* Stedman’s narrative mingles chronological journal-style entries with general observations about his environs. The text is slightly ambiguous as to the date, but the chapter in question begins by situating the action on Aug. 12, digresses into a description of the regional landscape, then returns to the narrative where this blog entry picks it up. It’s not completely explicit that the metropolitan atrocities he witnesses also occur on the 12th, but the text invites that inference — with the execution taking place the next morning after.

The next date explicitly named is Aug. 24, the birthday of the Prince of Orange, so if Neptune did not die on Aug. 13, it was within only a very few days after.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Gallows Humor,Gruesome Methods,History,Mature Content,Murder,Netherlands,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,Suriname,Wrongful Executions

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1868: Thomas Wells, the first private hanging in England

4 comments August 13th, 2009 Headsman

The hanging this date at Kent’s Maidstone Prison of Thomas Wells for the murder of the Dover postmaster stamped the understated debut of England’s era of private executions.

It was a shift almost a century in the making; in 1783, Albion had eliminated London’s traditional, disorderly procession to Tyburn in favor of public hangings just outside the walls of the prison — to the chagrin of traditionalists like Samuel Johnson.

As the 19th century unfolded, even this compromised spectacle attracted increasing criticism, noticeably from literary types who decried the aesthetics, effectiveness, and/or morality of public execution.

Eventually, on May 29, 1868,* Parliament passed the Capital Punishment Amendment Act of 1868, also known as the Capital Punishment within Prisons Act. The public hanging was no more.

Our day’s otherwise mundane murderer became the first to answer for his crime in this brave new behind-prison-walls world. And if the objective was to banish the spectacle and theater of the scaffold — well, the report in next day’s London Times of Thomas Wells’ hanging would suggest the measure achieved its purpose.

Yesterday morning Thomas Wells, aged 18, who was found guilty at the last Kent Assizes of the wilful murder of Mr. Walsh, the master of the Priory Station on the London, Chatham, and Dover Railway, by shooting him in revenge for a reprimand which that gentleman, under whom he served as a porter, had given him for some misconduct, suffered the extreme penalty of the law. This was the first execution under the new Act requiring executions in future to be inflicted within the prison walls.

It was, of course, generally known that the execution would be conducted in private, and that the only sign would be the hoisting of a black flag outside the prison wall. At the moment of the falling of the drop there were very few, if any, strangers in the vicinity of the prison, and the town presented quite its ordinary appearance, presenting a marked and extraordinary contrast to that which it has hitherto exhibited on the occasion of a public execution. The scaffold was erected in a small yard adjoining the debtors’ portion of the gaol, which had at one time been used as an exercise yard for the prisoners. It is enclosed by four high walls. The apparatus is the same that was formerly used, with some slight alterations. The drop is on a level with the stone paving of the yard, and the executioner has to descend several steps to remove the bolt which supports the platform, and the latter then drops into a recess prepared for it. No one was present at the execution but the undersheriff, governor, sergeant, chaplain, and the representatives of the Press.

After his trial the culprit seemed to have been fully aware that there was no hope for him, but he expressed remorse for the act he had committed, and wrote a very penitent letter to Mrs. Walsh, the widow of the deceased, entreating her forgiveness. No efforts appear to have been made in any quarter to obtain a remission of the capital sentence.

The culprit prayed fervently with the Rev. Mr. Frazer, the chaplain, for a few seconds, and as the drop fell he was singing with a loud clear voice the 486th hymn. He appeared to die after two or three convulsive struggles.

Of course, not everything old can be new overnight; this hanging was carried out by longtime public hangman William Calcraft, who’d had his start in the trade back in 1829 and was renowned for unpleasantly strangling his charges with his itty-bitty drops. Though the Times report downplays the climax, other press attendees agreed that Wells died hard.

This day’s milestone, nevertheless, was a way station en route to further innovations, the decisive transition from an ancient form of public corporal discipline to the rational, calculated, mechanistic procedure meet for an industrial empire.

Behind prison walls, Calcraft would yield his own place to William Marwood’s precisely measured drops, and then to the 20th century’s coolly efficient Albert Pierrepoint. The changes may have been incremental, but by the end, little save the rope remained of England’s storied hanging era.

The natural end of that evolution, some would have us believe, is disposing the rope altogether. If Wells’s private hanging held the seed of capital punishment’s eventual abolition, it sprouted quite neatly indeed: it was this same date in 1964 that England conducted its last private hangings — or executions of any kind.

* The act was passed only three days after the last public hanging in England.

On this day..

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

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1964: Gwynne Owen Evans and Peter Anthony Allen, England’s last hangings

6 comments August 13th, 2008 Headsman

At 8 o’clock in the morning this date in 1964, two gallows traps 50 kilometers apart opened simultaneously — dropping the last two men England ever hanged.

Gwynne Owen Evans and Peter Anthony Allen couldn’t have been much smaller fare for a milestone as momentous as the last entry in England’s copious annals of execution.


Evans (left) and Allen.

The two twentysomethings had dropped by Evans’s former coworker’s place in the aptly-named port Workington to borrow money. Since the call was at 3 a.m. and the petitioners were armed, it might appear that they had in mind an offer that John Alan West couldn’t refuse. The reader is invited to fill in the rest: a quarrel, a murder, a stolen watch, a medallion dropped at the crime scene with one of the perps’ own names on it …

Three months later, they were on trial for their lives; a month after that, hanged by the neck until dead. If there is tragedy in these hapless thugs, it may be that either could possibly have saved the other by claiming sole responsibility for the murder; since each blamed the other, the jury ended up finding them equally culpable.

While the last hangings in Canada featured two unconnected men hanged together, the last in England had partners in crime hanged separately. Allen died at Liverpool’s Walton Prison; Evans was dropped at Manchester’s Strangeways Prison.*

And unlike the Canadian case, Evans and Allen didn’t die knowing they were likely the last.

Although hangings had slowed to a crawl in Britain — there were just two in 1963, and none in 1964 before this day — death sentences continued to be handed down. But the trend was toward abolition: the British Parliament suspended the death penalty for ordinary crimes late in 1965, and made the suspension permanent in 1969. The handful of exceptional crimes for which the gallows remained nominally available — treason, piracy, espionage — were never enforced as such before those statutes too were removed from the hangman’s jurisdiction by 1998.

* Evans’ executioner, Harry Allen — no relation to Peter Anthony Allen — also conducted the last hanging in Scotland.

Part of the Themed Set: At the End of the Rope.

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

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