1894: Abbe Albert Bruneau

Add comment August 30th, 2018 Headsman

French priest Albert Bruneau was guillotined on this date in 1894 for murder. (Most of the available information about this case is in French, as are most of the links in this post.)

The Abbe‘s protests of innocence fell on deaf ears considering his history of degeneracy — thefts, seductions, even firing his own parsonage for the insurance money — stretching back to his seminarian days.

He’d been condemned for killing that January at Entrammes another priest, Abbe Fricot — whose body had wound up plundered of valuables and dropped down a well. This epidemic of priest-on-priest violence made for a tremendous public sensation that certainly was not conducive to Bruneau’s efforts to defend himself. Once he became suspected of Fricot’s murder, he was also baselessly implicated in (though never charged with) the unsolved killing of a Laval florist from the previous year.

A thread on guillotine.cultureforum.net draws our attention not only to some wonderful original reportage but to the riveting first-person account of Henri Massonneau in his Devant l’Echafaud (In Front of the Scaffold, available free online from Google Books or Gallica). Massonneau recounts the fury in Laval, where crowds expecting the execution a couple of days previously pelted the prison with taunts for the condemned man.

Bruneau’s cell, very tall in the tower of the Vieux Château, was illuminated. The mobs were screaming:

“Bruneau! It’s for this night! You will dance!”

In the night spots around the city, Massonneau even heard patrons grumbling for the head of Bruneau’s barrister, for having dared to defend the monster.

The magistrate and energetic proto-true crime scribbler Pierre Bouchardon* took up l’Affaire de l’Abbe Bruneau in 1942 and thought the legal proceedings inexcusably slipshod owing to the prejudicial atmosphere. (Unfortunately his Le Puits du Presbytere d’Entrammes (The Well of the Presbytery of Entrammes) falls under the pall of copyright and must be hunted among sellers of antique francophone titles.) Many other retrospectives have reached a similar conclusion.

We return to Massonneau, who has caught wind on the evening of August 29 that the beheading will take place early the next day, and even secured for himself entry into the prison to observe Bruneau’s last hours:

At half-past two in the morning, the van carrying the guillotine arrives, escorted by six gendarmes, at the Place de la Justice. This square is planted with tall trees and surrounded by stone terminals connected by chains. To allow the van to enter the square, the chains at the extreme angles had to be sawed. The square has been evacuated, but the windows of the neighboring houses are full of curiosity, and the square of the Cathedral which opens directly on the place du Palais de Justice, following it, is black with people.

We will attend the spectacle. But there will not be gladiators fighting wild beasts, nor bullfights, nor athletes measuring themselves: it will be the law that will kill an unarmed man. There are men, women, children, bourgeois, farmers, workers, many priests. Kids have climbed into the trees. We can not dislodge them. There are six thousand people around the guillotine. It’s a grand success. The weather is superb, the night is even hot.

From a distance, the crowd follows the assembly of the guillotine. When the sinister machine stands up, erect in the night, joy breaks out. We are finally quiet: Bruneau will be executed. The hour passes. My colleagues and I are entering the prison, but we are numerous and the Prosecutor of the Republic informs us that we will not be able to enter the cell of the convict. We will have to wait for him in the chapel where he will come to hear his last mass. From that moment, we will not leave him.

The magistrates entered his cell at 4 o’clock. Bruneau did not sleep. The Public Prosecutor said to him:

“Bruneau, courage. The time has arrived.”

Bruneau looked around, haggard. Then he said:

“Can I get up?”

“Yes, dress up.”

He put on his pants. The prosecutor asked him if he had a confession to make.

“No,” he replied, “I am innocent, not only of the crimes for which I was acquitted, but also of the one for which I was condemned. I only committed indecent assaults. I am innocent.” He delivered a letter to the Prosecutor.

“You will read it,” he said, “at the same time as my advocate, and you will deliver it to the public.”

In this letter, Bruneau again protests his innocence and says he forgives those who have hurt him. The letter was not published. Despite claiming to forgive them, Bruneau leveled slanderous accusations against some witnesses of the trial.

I go down to the chapel. It is located in a basement. From the chandeliers, a dozen candles flicker a dim light. Soon the chapel is full of people … I have never seen a scene more moving than the appearance of Bruneau in the chapel. He has come down at a brisk pace the twenty steps that lead to it. He wears his beard, very black, which gives him a remarkably energetic appearance. His foot scarcely leaving the last step, the condemned stiffens, and with a sudden movement turns towards the holy water font. His arms are shackled and he must make an incredible effort to take holy water. He looks like an automaton. He crosses himself, not without difficulty, then with a sure step approaches the high altar. There, he drops to his knees. A thump sounds. Bruneau seems lost in a chasm of prayer.

The chaplain approaches him and speaks to him in a low voice; Bruneau resumes his prayer; the chaplain comes to ask the prosecutor for permission to isolate himself with the condemned man to hear his confession. The prosecutor hesitates, but consents in the end. The chaplain returns near Bruneau, helps him get up, and they both head for a corner of the chapel hidden by a curtain. They disappear behind it. Two guards come to stand near the curtain.

The confession lasts ten endless minutes. Finally, Bruneau comes to take his place, on his knees, in front of the maître-hôtel. And the mass begins. Another twenty minutes pass. The assistants suffer visibly for the convict throughout; Bruneau communes. Finally the ceremony is over. Bruneau, before going out, again takes holy water, and he has the same difficulties as before. He is very calm. He climbs the stairs without weakness. It feels like a man walking in a dream. From the chapel, one goes into the courtyard to go to the registry where the last toilette is to be made. It is a small room on the ground floor. Through the door, left open, I attend these funereal preparations. Quietly, without affectation, he says he is hungry. It’s a new delay. Priests usually eat immediately after communion. It is habit that he is hungry.

He leaves the registry. I run forward and I come near the scaffold. The police commissioner who is there says to me: “It’s not him already?”

“Yes, yes, here he is.”

“But it’s impossible! It is not legal time. I cannot yet permit the execution.”

Then all that I thought during the Mass about the mental state of the condemned returns to me, and I say to the commissioner:

“Well! Have a chair brought there, near the guillotine, and sit down until it is legal time. I’m sure he will not protest … ”

“No, no, it’s not possible,” he said. “We have to wait for the hour.”

And he makes as if to go to the prison, just as the procession emerges. I stop him:

“Do not worry for so little. In Paris, we always guillotine before the hour.”

“You think?”

“I’m sure.”

“Ah! so …”

Bruneau is near the scaffold. It is exactly 4:47. Legally, indeed, it is at 5:15 that the execution should have taken place. We are half an hour ahead. Bruneau has crossed without faltering the two hundred meters that separate the prison from the scaffold. Contrary to all the condemned, he does not want to see the guillotine. Two meters from the bascule he turns his head with affectation so as not to behold it. The chaplain presents him a crucifix. Bruneau kisses it twice, then he drops into the arms of the chaplain and kisses it for a long time.

The executioner’s assistants seize him but he tears free with a sudden movement and turns to the chaplain begging again to kiss the cross. He can not take his lips off the crucifix. The chaplain speaks to him, exhorts him to courage, and with a movement of exquisite gentleness pushes him towards the assistants who seize him and precipitate him onto the bascule.

When Bruneau entered the Palace Square, a huge “Ah!” came out of the crowd. But once he is here, we hear no sound; no word is uttered; nobody budges. Bruneau’s struggle against death at the foot of the scaffold lasted two minutes, two centuries.

The knife falls. Society is avenged. Its representatives on the Cathedral Square record this victory by frantic applause. It is interminable, already, the head is thrown in the basket with the body, the basket in the van, and the van rolls towards the cemetery. The crowd is still clapping. By the Place du Pilier-Vert, the Place des Arts, the Rue Neuve, the Pont-Neuf, the Rue de la Paix, in ten minutes the convoy arrives at the cemetery, between two curious hedges. Since three before days the pit was dug and the coffin was waiting.

Bruneau is buried at the end of an alley on the right, in the section of mass graves. The following year, passing Laval, I went to the cemetery. I found in front of the tomb two kneeling nuns who were praying. Many people, indeed, in the religious world, did not believe the culpability of Bruneau. But it is incorrect, as has been said, as I myself reported then, that the bishop of Laval made every effort to obtain pardon for the condemned. The bishop of Laval was stricken with immense sadness when Bruneau’s crimes were discovered. He cried, remained silent, and died of sorrow.

Wikipedia claims that the scandal of the murderer-priest inspired the French journalist Paul Bourde‘s 1902 play Nos deux consciences (Our Two Consciences), a piece adapted to cinema by Alfred Hitchcock in 1953 as I Confess. (review)

* Most famously, Bouchardon prosecuted Mata Hari.

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2000: Gary Lee Roll, pained

Add comment August 30th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 2000, Missouri put Gary Lee Roll out of his suffering.

A war veteran with no criminal record prior to the triple homicide that landed him in these pages, Gary Lee Roll came from — and, according to his remorseful last statement, failed — a stable and secure family.

He could trace his own tragedy back in 1973 when a botched operation by a U.S. Army oral surgeon left him with a life-altering pain in his jaw that would never go away. It eventually pulled him into a spiral of self-medication..

“It hurts to talk about it,” Roll said of the continual debilitating pain that afflicted most of his adulthood. “It affected my life so much. It changed me.”

One night in August 1992 Roll, his pain abated but his mind clouded by pot, LSD, and alcohol, persuaded two buddies to join him on a spur-of-moment robbery of a drug dealer. Our man barged into the place posing as a cop, and then reflected that he was liable to be identified by his victims. Before the trio fled richer by $215 and 12 ounces of pot, they’d left Sherry Scheper bludgeoned to death, her son Curtis, 22, knifed to death, and her other son Randy, 17, shot to death. (Randy was the one in the drug trade.)

As ill-planned as this sounds, and was, the killers were not detected for weeks afterwards, when one of Roll’s accomplices grew nervous about his situation and secretly taped our man admitting to the murder. Those tapes found their way into the hands of police.

The pain-wracked Roll entered guilty pleas and though not technically a volunteer for his own execution also showed little zeal to oppose it. “If I thought there was something I could say, I would say anything. But I don’t think there is,” he reportedly mused. His accomplices both received life sentences.

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1721: Janet Hutchie, repentant infanticide

Add comment August 30th, 2016 Headsman

The reader can peruse only the first page of the two-page Edinburgh gallows broadside that comprises this post here; the full pamphlet appears to be available only in proprietary databases.

The Last Speech and Dying Words

Of Janet Hutchie, who was Execute in the Grass-market of Edinburgh, upon the 30th of August 1721, for the Murder of her own Child.

JUSTLY now may I to my sad Experience append my Seal with the Holy Man, Job 14.1. Man that is Born of a Woman, is of few Days, and full of Troubles, Psalm 51.5. I was conceived in Sin, and brought forth in Iniquity, and from that Mass of Original Guilt has arrived to such an Height and Pitch of actual Transgressions, that I am hardly to be reckoned among the Society of Christians, but am sentenced and adjudged justly to be cut off from the Body thereof, as an Infectious Member, least it should endanger the whole Body, and justly with the Holy Psalmist to my Bitter Experience, cry out, Iniquities, Iniquities have prevailed, but O purge away my Sin, Psalm 65.3. And as a Bullock unaccustomed to the Yoke, ran on in a Course of Sin, not thinking that God would lay them before my Face, for Reprove me therefore; till at last that Holy Judge of Heaven and Earth, before whom all Things are naked and bare, has in his Holy Providence found me out at last in this my Brutal Wickedness, and am now in a little to lay down my Life for the Unnatural Crime of taking away the Life of the Innocent Fruit of my own Body, and now stands a Monument to Men and Angels upon a Gibbet, ready Erect for that Effect, to receive the Fatal Blow as a Visible Judgment of the Divine Displeasure and Indignation of the Almighty God, against such a Monstruous and Horrid Crime as I have been Guilty of. Oh that now I may be made a singular Monument of the unsearchable Riches and Free Mercy, and Grace of God, through Jesus Chris his only Son my Lord; not having my own Righteousness, which is nothing, but that of his imputed to me, which yet can make me clean before that great Tribunal, for as black as the Devil, Hell and my own Corruptions have made me.

It would be expected I should give some Account of my self, and satisfie the World, as to several Aspersions that passed upon me , and as I am a dying Woman, I shall declare to the World the naked Truth, and it only, so far as my Memory can serve me, and do Justice to Peter Vallance whom I horridly wronged by leasing making on him.

I was Born in the Weems, my Parents coming over to Preston grange while I was a Child, where they lived till they died, which was several Years agoe, and were not wanting to me in my Education, conform to (rather beyond) their Station and Abilities.

I am now going in 30 Years of Age, and declares, I never knew a Man in the World but John Williamson to whom the Child was, alace a married Man, his Wife being my own Commerad while she was unmarried. I intirely free him of the Act of Murder it self, as was alledged; But acknowledges, it was by his Advice and Direction,and he desired me earnestly to do it; and when it was done to put it in some Hole or another, that it might be hid from the Eyes of the World. But Oh! who can hide from the Eye of an All-seeing God, to whom all Things are naked and bare.

I likewise further own, I never knew the said Williamson but once in an Morning, when my Brother and Family were at the Coal-pit, but he has frequently attempted it, but never got his Design perpetuate but that Time, by which I was got with Child by him, and when I found my self with Child, I told him, and he gave me several Things to Cause me Miscarry, but I never took them. I did not Reveal my being with Child to any but to him and one Isobel Guthry, who in a little after died in Child-bed.

I truly own my Guilt in destroying the Child, but not directly, for it was alive when I was delivered, but for want of Help and my Unnaturality in the Birth it soon died, which if it had not, I was resolved to have strangled it, which makes me equally Guilty in the Sight of GOD, as if I had actually done it, and thereafter tyed it in a Codwair, and keeped it three Days in my Chest, into which Codwair I put an big Stone, and threw it in a Mill-dam, where it lay 18 Days before it was found, and knows nothing of its having a Cord about its Neck, as the Witnesses declared, unless it had been the Knitting of the said Codwair, and what Stories Janet Ritchie and Isobel Vint said of my having a Child before is intirely false. I own I was among the Crowd when an Highland Boy found the Child when the Dam was run out, by seing the white Codwair, as I told before; and upon its being found, The Minister and Elders made search through the Town, and I was found to have Milk in my Breast, and said I had lately parted with Child before Mr. Horsburgh and an other Minister, and said it was to Peter Vallance. God forgive me for wronging him, for I never knew him, only he convoyed me one night from Tramant Home, from which I took Occasion to say the Child was to him, and owned it in his Face before the two Ministers aforsaid. I beg God Pardon for that Sin, for I added one Sin to cover another. Oh that I was so brutally Blind-folded.

I had several Offers of Marriage even beyond my Station, and did in a solemn Manner Promise to one William Stewart, but basely broke, and was disingenous, he is now Abroad, and sent me several Tokens, and that even since I came to the Tolbooth of Edinburgh. God Bless him, and forgive me for so rashly making, and thereafter basely breaking such a solemn Vow, as I ingaged my self with to him.

I own the Justness of my sentence, and the Return of the Verdict, and the Witnesses Depositions, only they wronged me as to the Cord being about its Neck, as aforsaid, the Reflection of which makes me now Shrink and Tremble, to think I could hide from an All-seeing God, to whom being the very inward Thoughts and Imaginations of the Heart ly naked and bare, and that one of his Prerogatives, To search the Heart, and try the Reins, and Jerusalem as with light Candles.

I likewise ow, I was much addicted to the horrid Sin of Lying and Profanation of the Lord’s Holy Day, and neglect of his Ordinances, letting light of them and the Offers of Peace and Salvation through Jesus Christ made to them therein, the Contempt of which, and neglect thereof, now lyes Heavy on me and Grieves me, now to the Soul to think how light I left of that which now I see to be so valuable and precious, and that I then trampled upon, now to be the only Sanctuary and City of Refuge, that I must run unto, least the Avenger of Blood overtake me in the Way, and I perish, which Blood, and whose Offers, if rightly applied, can yet make me clean from all my others Sins, and even from that of Blood Guiltiness. O! monstrous Wickedness, not to be named; and I believe scarcely known to the Heathen World it self.

I likewise own, I was adicted to the Sin of Tipling and Drunkenness, which is an inlet to all Vice, for what Sin is in a Drunk Man, yea rather in a Woman, capable of Refuse, yea ready to fall into. The Head full of Fumes Nature overcharged, and out of its ordinary Course, and the Hands ready to commit. But alace! I cannot say that of my self, for what I did was deliberate, and of a long Time premeditate, and resolved upon by the Advice of that Wretch Williamson, to whose Measures I too too easily condescended unto. God forgive him for advising, and me for consenting to that Unnatural, yea worse than Brutal Wickedness, for the Brutes themselves endanger their own Lives for the Preservation of their own young, as we daily see. Oh that I should be more Brutish than a Brute; I whom God has created a Rational Creature after his own Image, and indowed with a reasonable Soul to Act, as if I had no Soul at all, and to be Guilty of a Crime, that the Brutes themselves are not Guilty of, who are under no Law or Government, and knows nothing of a future State or a World to come.

I likewise own, very much Ignorance of God and the Way of Salvation, through Jesus Christ his Son, who came to save that which was lost, which yet I think intitles and gives me Ground to apply to him and his Righteousness, that the Shame of my Nakedness may not appear in that Day.

I own, I have been much obliged to the Ministers of Edinburgh, who were not wanting to me in their Visits, their praying with me and for me, shewing me the dreadful Nature of Sin and Way of Salvation. God reward them for their Pains.

I desire the Help of the Prayers of all the Spectators here, to join with me in this my last and greatest Extremity, now when I am ready to drop into a World of Spirits, from whence there is no returning, and as the Tree falls so it must ly; let me be a Warning to you all to take Care of Sin, and the fatal Consequences thereof, and Dedicate and Devote your selves to God in your younger Days, which is a noble Season, and give not louse Reins to your selves, but Check Sin in its Bud, least it break forth to a Cockatrice, and be much in Prayer, to the Exercise of which I have been an intire Stranger, hardly knowing what it was to Bow an Knee, and beware of Sabbath-breaking, the Contempt of God’s Holy Ordinances, the Sin of Lying and Drunkenness, and that of Uncleanness, which has at last crowned the Work with me to all, which I have been too much adicted. I die in Peace with all Men, and forgives as I Expect to be forgiven at the Hands of a Merciful God, who Rejoices in Mercy, and whose Mercies are above all his other Works; God Sanctifie this Dispensation to my Poor afflicted Brother and his Family, and support them under it, and grant them Grace to improve it to the best Advantage, and unto that Trinity in Unity, Unity in Trinity. God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, I recommend my Spirit.

O Save me my Redeemer.

EDINBURGH: Printed by Robert Brown in the middle of Forrester’s-Wynd. 1721.

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1587: Thomas Conodale, A Sea Faringe man

Add comment August 30th, 2015 Headsman

Today’s obscure mariner hanged at the Wapping execution dock comes from a tidbit unearthed years ago by the now-inert blog ReScript:

30 Awgust Ano 1587: burial

Thomas Conodale beinge A Batchelor He was Borne in Glossester beinge A Sea Faringe man and executed at wappinge For pyracye the xxxth daye of Awgust in ano 1587 betwixt the ower of too and three of the clocke was Buried the Sayde xxxth Daye of awgust in ano 1587 beinge xxviij yeares owlde no parishioner For the minester ijs For the grownd in the common churche yeard xijd For the Second clothe xd For the pitt & knell ijs viijd For the clarkes atendance viijd For the Sextenes attendance iiijd he was exicuted at Waping.

To the best of your correspondent’s knowledge, this constitutes the entirety of the relatively accessible information available about this forgotten corsair — although as ReScript notes, the Davy Jones’ locker of admiralty records might yet keep Conodale’s story.

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1878: Sevier Lewis, a family affair

2 comments August 30th, 2014 Meaghan

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

On August 30, 1878, Sevier (aka Severe, Savier) Lewis was hanged in Empire City, Oregon — today known as Coos Bay — for the murder of his much younger half-brother, Zachariah T. “Zack” Lewis on May 22, 1876.

The brothers were two of Hiram Hamilton Lewis’s nine children. Hiram was 74 years old at the time of Zack’s murder, and ambitious in spite of his age: he was running for state legislature.

Sevier, who was in his early fifties, was married and had seven children. Zack was twenty-five, single and still living at home. It was said he’d taken an interest in Sevier’s sixteen-year-old daughter Sylvia. Her father warned him to stay away, but Zack wouldn’t listen and kept coming around pestering his niece with unwanted advances. Finally Sevier had had enough.

Well, that’s one version of the story. Here’s another one:

Sylvia confided to her young uncle that she’d been raped by her father, and become pregnant. Zack went to Sevier and told him to stop the molestation immediately or he would tell the entire family what he had done. He helped Sylvia move in with her grandparents to protect her, and told Sevier that if he touched her again, he would kill him. Sevier touched her again.

These starkly contrasting purported motives may assign which characters, in the ensuing violent tableau, don the white hats and which the black. But either way, one late spring day, Sevier loaded his gun and went to his father’s home where he found little brother working in the fields. Sevier shot him dead, and then took flight.

In December 1877, a full year and a half after the shock murder and probably about the time Sevier was getting comfortable with having gotten away with it, a Coos County man chanced to recognize the fugitive in a hotel bar in Seattle and had him arrested.

Sevier’s own father and Sevier’s own son both testified against him at the subsequent trial, traveling 200 miles to to so. His defense attorney didn’t try to pretend he was innocent and only pleaded for a recommendation of mercy. He was convicted of his brother’s murder in June 1878 and sentenced to be hanged by the neck until dead. The judge also ordered him to cough up $830.10 in court costs, including $21 worth of beer he’d been prescribed during his incarceration.


Oregonian, August 31, 1878.

Lewis’s scaffold speech was bitter and disjointed — “bravado and blasphemy on the gallows,” the Portland Oregonian headlined it. He rambled on about how everyone was prejudiced against him, expressed love for his family and added, “If I could die a thousand times and save my daughter I would do it. If I could save her I would be satisfied to die.”

Author Diane L. Goeres-Gardner describes his final moments in her book Necktie Parties: Legal Executions in Oregon, 1851-1905:

Defiant, stubborn and vindictive, he finally forced Sheriff Aiken to manhandle him closer to the hanging rope. Even as the black cap was pulled over his head and he was being pushed forward he yelled, “What in the hell are you doing that for? I am not afraid to die.”

It was a clean hanging. His neck snapped and Sevier Lewis died within minutes.

What happened to Hiram Lewis’s political aspirations? Well, given the scandal, it’s no surprise that he lost the election. He moved to Lane County after Zack’s murder and died in 1879, supposedly of a broken heart.

What can history tell us about which brother to believe? Was Sevier really trying to protect his daughter, or did Zack pay the ultimate price for his attempt to rescue Sylvia from her predatory father?

Andie E. Jensen, author of Hangman’s Call: The Executions and Lynchings of Coos County, Oregon 1854-1925, studied the available records and notes that Sevier’s youngest child Lucy’s year of birth is unknown — the dates range from 1875 to 1877 — while all his other children had their exact date and place of birth recorded. He speculates that Lucy, said to be the daughter of Sevier and his wife Elizabeth, was in fact Sylvia’s child.

“Fact or fiction,” he concludes, “we will never know for sure. The end result was the execution of Sevier Lewis, whose act of murder victimized more than just his half brother Zack.”

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1535: Guillaume Husson, colporteur

Add comment August 30th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1535, the Protestant Guillaume Husson was burned for heresy.

The year before, Protestants had outraged the capital with a placarding campaign; maybe inspired by or in league with them, Husson turned up in early 1535 in Rouen and proceeded to flood the place with heretical tracts. Husson was identified by his hotelier and turned over to authorities before he could proceed to wreak his freaky doctrines on the next city.

The spectacle of public execution at this time followed a ceremonial script, although it was one that Protestants like Husson were going to rewrite with their behavior.

In an hours-long process, the condemned was first forced to perform amende honorable before a church, begging pardon of God with a rope about his neck and a heavy candle in his hands. For some offenses, this ritual penance could comprise the entirety of the punishment; for an execution, it was just the first act.

Its effect depended, of course, on the compliance of offenders who could usually be counted on to play the only part that held out hope of social redemption and everlasting salvation.

But as a Protestant, Husson wasn’t in a very compliant mood: he owed no plea to God for distributing correct religion, and he certainly rejected the Pope’s right to demand it of him. So Husson refused to perform the amende honorable, and even refused to hold the candle.

Catholic authorities would face in the years ahead the novel challenge of stage-managing many executions of reformers, ready to welcome execution, unreconciled with the Church, as their holy martyrdom. They would need strategies to deal with these obstinates. On Aug. 30, 1535, that strategy was “more violence”: for besmirching the ceremony, Husson had his tongue punitively torn from his mouth.* (Mutilation at this point could also sometimes be a formal part of the sentence.)

Following a long procession through the city to the place of execution, Husson was said (by his fellow Protestant propagandist Jean Crespin) to have died with such great firmness — thrusting his own head into the leaping flames to dramatize his embrace of the stake, and inspiring many onlookers (per Crespin) “to want to know more closely the true God of Israel.”

* David Nicholls, “The Theatre of Martyrdom in the French Reformation,” Past & Present, no. 121 (Nov. 1988)

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1481: Michal Olelkowicz and Iwan Holszanski, Lithuanian princes

Add comment August 30th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1481, two Lithuanian princes were beheaded in Vilnius for plotting the assassination of the Polish-Lithuanian king.

This late 15th century was a heady time for Poland under the Jagiellon dynasty, and one of this dynasty’s going projects was keeping the adjacent realms of Poland and Lithuania linked together. In time, they would become formally joined, but at this point they were independent entities “united” only by the personal union of the Jagiellon monarch himself.

That monarch in the late 15th century was the redoubtable Casimir IV (Kazimierz IV): Grand Duke of Lithuania since 1440, King of Poland since 1447. Casimir’s family hailed from Lithuania; indeed, as that place had been last European place to Christianize, Casimir’s own father had been born a pagan.

Casimir IV’s eponymous son is St. Casimir, patron saint of both Lithuania and Poland; both actively honor his feast date of March 4.
Lithuania agonistes

Lithuania had a strong independent streak (pdf), and its boyars did not necessarily see eye to eye with the Grand Duke. Casimir was keen on centralizing Lithuania’s administration and checking the potential rivalry of the most powerful Lithuanian families, the classic seeds of crown-vs-nobility conflict the world over.

And both watched with a wary eye the growth of Muscovy under the energetic leadership of Ivan III, aka Ivan the Great.

That expanding state in the 1470s gobbled up the buffer city-state of Novgorod; Ivan III’s newly-minted honorific Tsar of all the Rus(sians) openly announced his designs on Lithuania’s own historically Slavic Ruthenian territory. “The gatherer of the Russian lands,” Ivan is known as … and Lithuania (much larger then than it is now) stood to be the gatheree.

The Great Stand on the River Ugra

Come 1480, Casimir was allied against Moscow with the Mongol Horde, the famous “Tatar yoke” that had been collecting Russian tribute for two-plus centuries. In Russian historiography this is the crucial moment when that yoke is thrown off, and the Muscovites accomplished that in part by crossing up the Lithuanians.

The Horde, having marched through Lithuanian territory, assembled on the banks of the Ugra River, opposite a waiting Muscovite army. Neither army attacked. Instead, they waited … and waited … and waited some more.

The Horde, for its part, was waiting for reinforcements from its Lithuanian ally. But those reinforcements never arrived, thanks in part to Russia’s alliance with Crimean khan Mengli Giray, who seems to have absorbed Casimir’s attention in the fall of 1480 with a vexing combination of raids into southern Lithuania and dilatory ceasefire diplomacy. Distracted by the homeland threat, Lithuania never got around to supporting the Horde … and the Horde, after freezing itself on the banks of the Ugra for a couple of months, simply marched away in frustration.

Moscow never again paid it tribute … and its Crimean ally destroyed the Great Horde utterly in 1502.

Chop

This was the context, back in Lithuania, for the attempt on Casimir’s life that would cost two princes their heads. Notwithstanding his unhelpful alliance with the Great Horde, it seems apparent that Casimir himself espoused a fundamentally western policy: the Jagiellon dynasty had branches in Hungary, Bohemia, Germany, and Casimir had more taste for meddling in these realms than dealing with Russia. One could imagine how a Lithuanian magnate out his lucrative Novgorod trade would feel like the head man didn’t really have his eye on the ball; in 1478, a Lithuanian delegation even requested that Casimir appoint a Lithuanian governor to look after the interests of the Grand Duchy. (Casimir refused.)

And these nobles were getting it at both ends, since Casimir’s state-centralization project meant that they were being cut down to size in terms of their internal political power, too.

Apparently with the support of Moscow itself (whose expansionary interest is self-evident) Iwan Holszanski and Fedor Bielski hatched a plan to murder the Grand Duke and his sons on Palm Sunday, 1481 — which was also the occasion of Fedor Bielski’s wedding. The idea was to replace him with Michal Olelkowicz (Mikhail Olelkevich), who had been Novgorod’s elected prince-ruler in the late 1460s; it’s not clear to me if Olelkowicz himself was actually in on the scheme.

Casimir, at any rate, caught wind of the plot. Legend has it that a servant decorating a room ran across the conspirators’ weapons niches and reported it; it’s alternately alleged that the assassins meant to jump Casimir while out on his favorite pastime, hunting.

However it was supposed to go down, it didn’t work. Bielski was able to flee to Moscow (ditching his newlywed bride), but left Holszanski and the coup’s prospective beneficiary Olelkowicz to suffer beheading this date upon evidence “brighter than the sun” of their treason.

Sources:

This webcache page.

The Polish-Lithuanian State 1386-1795, by Daniel Stone.

Russia’s Steppe Frontier: The Making of a Colonial Empire, 1500-1800, by Michael Khodarkovsky.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Assassins,Attempted Murder,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Lithuania,Nobility,Notable for their Victims,Poland,Power,Public Executions,Treason

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1867: Bridget Durgan, “hardly human”

4 comments August 30th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1867, Irish immigrant maid Bridget Durgan (or Durgin, or Dergan) was hanged in New Brunswick, New Jersey for murdering the mistress of the house.

In this instantly sensational case, Durgan at first represented herself the party raising the hue and cry with the neighbors as her mistress was slaughtered by two unknown visitors. (Since it was a doctor’s house, the “unknown visitors” part wasn’t an unusual circumstance.)

Unfortunately our maidservant conducted this office without recognizing that her own dress was bloodstained and would implicate her in the crime — as would the suspicious circumstance that the homicide took place on the very eve of Durgan’s involuntary termination date, the victim having judged her contribution to the household inadequate.

If Durgan’s published confession is to be believed — and many didn’t believe it, since the condemned woman’s stories varied wildly before settling on the rather pat version that none of the other suspected participants were involved — she had come down in the world from a less abject birth in Ireland, transferred upon her victim a hatred conceived for a previous mistress in a previous household, and done the deed in some confused attempt to supplant Mrs. Coriell.

(This confession offers a florid narration — and illustration (pdf) — of the dying woman staying Bridget’s coup de grace long enough to give her infant child one last kiss.)

So, from the standpoint of criminal heinousness and public outrage over same, this was definitely the sort of thing to hang a body.

Difficult questions of weighing the proper level of culpability for offenses committed by those with a seemingly diminished mental capacity were at this time becoming a hot topic in criminology; in a few years, a madman who assassinated a president would make them national news.

Poet and women’s rights activist Elizabeth Oakes Smith, then entering her seventh decade, went to see Bridget Durgan. It was, she said, a habit of hers to “visit the prisons … that I may the better understand my own sex in every aspect.”*

Smith published a study (pdf; the same analysis was also printed in the New York Times) of our unhappy subject for the edification of the popular press. It’s quite an interesting read for a window on the social outlook in the post-Civil War North, doubly so when recalling as one reads that Smith is attempting to argue a case for clemency for her subject, and against the death penalty in general.

In the scale of human intelligence I find Bridget Durgin on the very lowest level. She has cunning and ability to conceal her real actions; and so have the fox, the panther, and many inferior animals, whose instincts are not more clearly defined than those of Bridget Durgin …

Ain’t nothin’ but mammals: left, Bridget Durgan, as illustrated in her confessions (pdf); center, a panther ((cc) image from Iain Purdie); right, a cunning fox ((cc) image from Jakob Newman).

her hair combed close to her head … give the observer an opportunity to notice her strong animal organization. She is large in the base of the brain, and swells out over the ears, where destructiveness and secretiveness are located by phrenologists, while the whole region of intellect, ideality and moral sentiment is small …

Her texture, temperature, all are coarse; hair coarse and scanty, forehead naturally corrugated and low, nose concave and square at the nostrils, leaving a very long upper lip … her eyes wavering constantly. They open across, not below, the ball, and the pupil is uncommonly small; I should say she would be naturally dim-sighted. It is purely the eye of a reptile in shape and expression. The jaws are large and heavy, but the mouth is small … narrow gums, catlike in shape, with pointed teeth.


(cc) image from Jarrod Carruthers.

There is not one character of beauty, even in the lowest degree, about the girl — not one ray of sentiment, nothing genuine, hardly human …

I looked upon Bridget Durgin without prejudice, and I describe her without exageration. She was born without moral responsibility, just as much as the tiger or the wolf is so born;

Tiger ((cc) image from Chris Ruggles); wolf ((cc) image from C. Young Photography).

and the question naturally arises, what is the duty of a wise, humane and just legislator in her case … whether it is right to take an irresponsible, morally idiotic creature, and she a woman, whose sex has had no voice in making the laws under which she will suffer, and hang her by the neck till she is dead, is a question for our advanced civilization to consider.

Durgan, who bore all the public opprobrium of a Casey Anthony — plus points for being unattractive,** and for class-based moral panic, and for actually being convicted — had little chance to avoid her sentence, as Smith herself admitted.

When the time came, she met her fate steadily (in some quarters, this was also held against her insofar as it could support the “dumb animal” narrative) and yanked aloft on an upward-jerking gallows, ushered to the afterlife by a couple thousand people who crowded adjoining buildings for a view into the jailhouse yard. (A spectators’ platform collapsed.) This bit of technological wizardry was poorly engineered and, rather than efficiently snapping Durgan’s neck as was its intent, strangled the murderess to death instead.

“More abominable curiosity, more mawkish sentimentality, more religious affectation, has been expended on this bloodthirsty animal than we remember in the case of almost any other modern criminal,” complained The New York Times.

* Smith had another reason for familiarity with prisons: her son Appleton Oaksmith, late a filibuster in William Walker‘s party, did time during the Civil War for pro-Confederate gun-running and slave trading. His mother helped secure him a pardon.

** The New York Times (May 21, 1867) had simply called our hated Irishwoman “ordinary-looking.” We’ve seen with, for instance, Charlotte Corday that observers are wont to shape perceived feminine beauty according to perceived criminal monstrousness, and vice versa.

Part of the Themed Set: Americana.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,New Jersey,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA,Women

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1996: Ebbisaa Addunyaa, extrajudicially executed

1 comment August 30th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1996, Oromo singer Ebbissaa Addunyaa was slain in his Addis Ababa home.

He “appeared to have been extrajudicially executed on suspicion of supporting the OLF,” according to Amnesty International. “No investigations were known to have taken place into allegations of torture, ”disappearance” or extrajudicial execution.”

“Extrajudicial execution” is a category challenge for these pages; Ebbisaa Addunyaa was not tried for anything, never mind convicted. His “execution” was a close cousin to simple murder … but a murder carried out by state security forces, targeting him specifically, and acting, if not under color of law, at least with legal impunity.

Ebbisaa and his friend Tana Wayessa

were at Ebbisaa’s home … north of the American Embassy in Addis Ababa, when gunmen burst in. Eyewitnesses claim the bodies were dragged from the house and put in a Land Rover with a government license plate. The security men, who carried out the murders, first cleared the street. Residents who looked out of their houses after the gunfire were told to get back indoors. The bodies were recovered [the] next day from the morgue at the Menelik II hospital.

All this took place in the turbulent 1990s wake of the collapsed Derg dictatorship. An initial multiparty post-Derg coalition government had included the Oromo Liberation Front — an organization upholding the rights of Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group — but the OLF soon withdrew from the coalition.

Ebbisaa was an OLF cadre who used his musical gifts for advocacy, and became a target when the outlawed OLF was forced underground.

A United Nations “Special Rapporteur” monitors “Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions” for the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).

Many of the Special Rapporteur’s reports dating back to the 1990s are available on the website of NYU’s Project on Extrajudicial Executions, and the 1997 country report (pdf) for Ethiopia reveals that Ebbisaa’s execution/assassination/murder was only one in a pattern.

The Special Rapporteur transmitted the following allegations of violations of the right to life concerning 16 identified persons and 13 unidentified persons: Ahmed Good Abdi, Ahmed Sanay Farah, Ahmed Sangaab and Hassan Ahmed Sagal, reportedly arrested and killed on 8 August 1996 in Toon-Ceeley by members of the Ethiopian armed forces; Ebissa Addunya, a singer and musician, and Tana Wayessa, reportedly shot and killed on 30 August 1996 by members of the Ethiopian security forces in the former’s house in Addis Ababa; 4 unidentified persons reportedly killed on 8 August 1996 in Gabababo; Awal Idire, aged 16, Awal Sani, aged 13, Badiri Shaza, aged 12, and Usen Kalu, aged 12, reportedly killed on 20 July 1996 by members of the Ethiopian armed forces because they had the initials of the Oromo Liberation Front tattooed on their hands; Mohamed Arabi Hirsi, Abdi Mohamed Yare, Gahnug Yusuf Aare, Mohamed Aw Farah Ga’iye, Haye Hirad, alleged to be tribal chiefs and clan elders, reportedly killed on 18 July 1996 by members of the Ethiopian armed forces; Sarecya Seerar Mohamed, her newborn child and eight other unidentified individuals, reportedly killed in mid-August 1996 by members of the Ethiopian armed forces in Qabridaharre (30 September 1996).

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Artists,Borderline "Executions",Disfavored Minorities,Ethiopia,Execution,Famous,History,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot,Wrongful Executions

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1850: Prof. John Webster, for the timeless conflict between donors and academics

2 comments August 30th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1850, a 57-year-old Harvard professor expiated upon a gallows at Boston’s Leverett Square the murder of one of the university’s donors.

The buzz of Boston in 1849-50, the Parkman-Webster murder case began with the disappearance of one of the crimson’s great benefactors, George Parkman, a Boston Brahmin known for his Ministry of Silly Walks gait about town (see right). According to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (who appeared as a witness at the trial of Parkman’s accused murderer), “he abstained while others indulged, he walked while others rode, he worked while others slept.”

Also, he inherited a ridiculous sum of money, and was tight with the debtors to whom he lent it.

Back before collection agencies, Parkman disappeared in November 1849 while making the rounds to shake down his borrowers. Within days, suspicion settled on Harvard anatomy and geology professor John Webster, who had squandered his own pile of money buying rock collections and maintaining appearances and such, and sank into desperate hock to the jutting-chinned ambulator who had helped him land the Ivy League appointment in the first place.

A weighty circumstantial case soon formed against Webster, with the invaluable aid of a snoopy janitor who turned up human remains in the office and testified to incriminating-sounding conversations.

Elites-on-elite crime epidemics always churn the scandal mills. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s wife Fanny wrote a friend,

You will see by the papers what dark horror overshadows us like an eclipse. Of course we cannot believe Dr. Webster guilty, bad as the evidence looks. … Many suspect the janitor, who is known to be a bad man and to have wished for the reward offered for Dr. Parkman’s body. … I trust our minds will be soon relieved, but, meanwhile, they are soiled by new details continually.

“Harvard professors do not often commit murder,” or so they say. (This was still a century before Robert McNamara.)

Boston high society was about to see a whole different side of Harvard.

Although perhaps individually explicable — anatomists had plausible reasons to have human remains at work, and other anatomists than Webster could have had access to his office — the cumulative weight of Webster’s ham-handed attempts to declare that he had paid up his debts to Parkman just before the latter’s mysterious disappearance, of the discovery of what (disputed) dental forensics declared to be Parkman’s dentures, of the ghastly appearance of a torso (disputedly) declared to be Parkman’s stuffed in a tea chest at Webster’s offices started to really make the man look guilty.

In view of a mediocre defense, the jury convicted Webster of whacking his own professional benefactor, in the university building erected on said benefactor’s donated plot of land.

Talk about donor recognition.

While the prof’s seeming post-conviction acceptance of guilt — in a plain strategem to secure clemency — and generally shifty demeanor have cemented him as the definitive perpetrator in the standard historical reading,* Fanny’s snobbish take on the “bad man,” janitor (and moonlight body-snatcher) Ephraim Littlefield, has not been entirely lost to the tradition.

At the end of the day, everything about the case is circumstantial — indeed, besides being historically noteworthy for the first use of dental forensic evidence in a murder trial (forensics we might find rather speculative and unconvincing today), Webster’s case generated a landmark ruling from the judge’s jury instruction establishing “reasonable doubt” as the threshold for criminal conviction rather than the “absolute certainty” Webster’s prosecutors had no hope of attaining; that ruling influences American jurisprudence down to the present day.

And one cannot but notice how many of the circumstances — creepily playing Sherlock Holmes with a freelance dig into the professor’s furnace to discover charred bones, for instance — were provided by the fellow-suspect-turned-star-witness Littlefield, who niftily reaped the $3,000 reward for his offices in substituting Webster for himself under the pall of suspicion.

According to peripatetic crime blogger Laura James, a forthcoming (2009) book promises to revisit the sensational trial, “to examine all the intricacies for ourselves — not aided by the eager voice of the janitor.”

* Bemis, one of the prosecutors, wrote the go-to source on the Webster trial, available from Google Books; another contemporaneous account is here.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Doctors,Execution,Hanged,History,Intellectuals,Massachusetts,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Notable Sleuthing,Pelf,Public Executions,Scandal,USA

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