1870: William Dickson, the last in Kansas for a lifetime

Add comment August 9th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1870, William Dickson’s hanging in the Leavenworth jail yard accidentally put the kibosh on Kansas executions for the next 74 years.

The Sunflower State entered the Union bleeding and had not shown particularly reticent about capital punishment during its first decade of statehood, the 1860s.

Dickson was just an illiterate laborer who murdered a pedlar in Delaware township — but the public hanging brought out the worst in the mob, and “During the execution order was maintained only by the most strenuous efforts, and repeated threats.” (Leavenworth Bulletin, Aug. 9, 1870)

The distasteful scene moved the legislature to revise the state’s capital statutes, unusually placing the responsibility of actually ordering hanging dates directly on the governor instead of a judge. (Such dates also had to be “not less than one year from the time of conviction.”)

The ensuing decades of Gilded Age governors proved perfectly happy never to do so. So, even though courts kept issuing death sentences, they were never carried out. Kansas finally abolished the death penalty outright in 1907. It was restored only in 1935, and the first hanging under the reinstated statute — the first since Bill Dickson — finally took place in 1944.

On this day..

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

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1941: Sheyna Gram and the Jews of Preili

Add comment August 9th, 2017 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1941, less than two months after Germany invaded the Soviet Union, fifteen-year-old Sheyna Gram and her parents and younger brother were murdered, together with approximately 1,500 Jewish people from the town of Preili in the occupied Latvian SSR. Nearly the entire Jewish population of Preili was wiped out by the ever-diligent Einsatzgruppen.

During World War II the Nazi death squads moved from town to town in Poland and Eastern Europe. They had one job and they performed it very well, slaughtering Jews and other “undesirables” by their thousands, most notably at Babi Yar outside of Kiev in Ukraine, where 33,771 people were killed in two days.

Preili, one of the oldest Jewish settlements in Latvia, was a much smaller community than Kiev; when the German invasion began, it had a population of less than two thousand, around half of whom were Jewish.

Latvia as a whole had a prewar Jewish population of just under 100,000. Only a few thousand of them survived, mostly those who were evacuated deep into Soviet territory and beyond the reach of the Wehrmacht. Of all the Jews in Preili, only six survived the war.

Preili was no different than any of the other Soviet Jewish communities wiped out in the Holocaust, but we know details about what happened there because Sheyna Gram left a diary behind. She chronicled the day-to-day events of the German occupation from June 22, the day the Nazis invaded the USSR, until August 8, the day before she and her family were killed.

Shortly after the war, noted Soviet journalists Ilya Ehrenburg and Vasily Grossman traveled all around the USSR, interviewing people and collecting eyewitness testimonies, letters, diaries, and other documents to bear witness to the Soviet Jewish experience during the German occupation. The result, titled The Complete Black Book of Russian Jewry, was the first major documentary work on the Holocaust. However, it wasn’t actually published until 1993, and even then it was nowhere near “complete.” In 2008, Indiana University Press translated and published The Unknown Black Book: The Holocaust in the German-Occupied Soviet Territories, which consists of accounts and documents that didn’t make it into the first Black Book; the second book is nearly as long as the first.

Among the documents included in the second volume is Sheyna Gram’s diary, translated from Yiddish. It somehow survived the war even though its author had not, and even seventy-plus years later, Sheyna has not been forgotten. Several books about the Holocaust in Latvia have referenced her diary, comparing its writer to Anne Frank, and at least one play based on the diary was performed in Latvia in around 2012.

Per The Unknown Black Book, the Gram family consisted of Itzik, a 60-year-old tailor, his 52-year-old wife, and their four children: sons Gutman, 18, and Leyba, 12, and daughters Freya, 20, and Sheyna. Evidence in the diary suggests they were not a particularly observant Jewish family.

The Unknown Black Book reports that Gutman survived the war, serving in the Red Army, but Yad Vashem’s Central Database of Shoah Victims has a page of testimony for him stating he was killed in military service. Although Mrs. Gram is unnamed in The Unknown Black Book, a search of the Database of Shoah Victims turns up a Sara Gram née Zangvil who lived in Preili and was the right age. The same person, Shmuel Latvinskiy, submitted Sara and Gutman Gram’s testimonies, and Sheyna’s as well; he names himself as Sara Gram’s nephew, Gutman’s cousin, and Sheyna’s relative, making it all but certain that Sara Gram was Sheyna’s mother.

What little information is available about Sheyna indicates she was an ordinary enough teenager. She was a good student, “an intelligent girl of good spiritual development,” and had just finished the sixth grade at school when war broke out. She started her diary that very day with a few sentences, and wrote entries regularly until her death:

June 22. At twelve o’clock, the radio announced, “Germany has declared war on the USSR. At four o’clock this morning, German aircraft bombed several Russian cities.”

Toward evening, I went to Ribenishki [seven kilometers from Preili]. I sit by the radio all the time until midnight. They tell you how to protect yourself from an air raid.

The next day, Sheyna recorded that Daugavpils* had been bombed and “a state of siege has been declared.” Wanting to do her part to help with the war effort, she signed herself up for first aid lessons. “New people are coming into town all the time,” she wrote. “Each person has something new to report. The Germans are successfully advancing.” Over the following days there was an 8:00 p.m. curfew and various new rules: radios were confiscated, freedom of assembly was curtailed, and windows had to be covered.

By July 2, the Germans had arrived in Preili. The following day Sheyna wrote,

The first day went quietly. On the second day, the Germans smashed the shops and looted everything. They broke into the synagogue, hauled out the Torah scrolls, and trampled on them. In other streets, they go on various sorts of rampages. […] We are living in a state of great fear. Many Germans have stopped in our town. There are some proper gentlemen among them as well. They keep on reassuring us that they are not going to touch the workers. A decree is published that Jews and Russians do not have the right to fly their national flags. Walking on the street is permitted until 10:00 p.m., but no one dares poke their head out the door.

As per standard operating procedure, the Nazis ordered Jews to wear a six-pointed yellow star, “twelve centimeters wide and long. Men are to wear it on their backs, their chests, and their legs, just above the knee. Women will wear them on their chests and on their backs.” For the rest of the month, Jews were regularly rounded up for forced labor. Sheyna was assigned to a work party cutting peat; roll call was at five in the morning and work didn’t stop until 7:00 p.m.

Except when she was working, she didn’t leave home. She whiled away the empty hours sleeping, studying Russian, reading back issues of the Jewish magazine Yidishe bilder, and writing in her diary.

On July 27, she wrote:

This is a bloody Sunday for the Latvian Jewish people.

Morning. All the Jews in Dvinskaya Street are ordered to put on their best clothes, take some provisions with them, and go out into the street. Searches of the homes are carried out. At twelve o’clock, all the Jews are herded into the synagogue. One group of young Jews is sent to dig graves behind the cemetery. Then the Jews of two more streets are driven into the synagogue.

It is 3:30 in the afternoon. All the Jews are chased out beyond the cemetery and shot there. All 250 Jews: men, women, and children.

This is terrible. We did not expect things to end this way. The handful of survivors expects death at any moment.

Iossif Rotchko’s untranslated book about the Holocaust in Latvia describes in detail what happened that terrible day. According to his account, the killers were not German but Latvian, local collaborators, and he names names:

The unfortunate [Jews] were ordered to stop at a stone quarry. They were ordered to take off their clothes and remain in underclothes, then they were led to the edge of the pit by groups of 8-10 persons. The executioners killed them by firing at their backs, as if they were afraid to look in their eyes a final time. After all, they were neighbors. The killers were conducted to the killing ground by carts driven by the farmers I. Prikulis, J. Litaunieks, as well as others…

Whomever the perpetrators were, this was the first such massacre Sheyna was personally affected by, although she’d probably heard rumors of others. One of her friends had been among the victims, and she was understandably terrified. “We look at each other,” she wrote, “and are amazed that we are still alive.”

On July 30, she reported that the Germans had said “they are not going to touch the Jews again. They are satisfied with the 250.” She was skeptical, however, writing the next day:

Every day there are new persecutions, and there is no end in sight. We have lived this long, but we do not know whether or not we will manage to survive. They send Jewish girls to clean freed-up Jewish apartments for those who have been killing them. They do not take me. But when they clean out the apartment of my murdered friend Mery Plagova, which they are preparing for a police officer, I go. I gather up her photos and keep them with me. I cannot believe that my friends the Plagovas are dead.

The Jewish holiday of Tisha B’av on August 3 found the young diarist still contemplative.

I have never fasted on this day or ever fasted at all. Today, however, a week after the great catastrophe, after that bloody Sunday, when so many innocent victims fell, I have decided, keeping it a secret from the authorities, of course, to fast the entire day. At 1:30, they come to see me and register me for the peat work. Mama orders me to eat something, otherwise I will not be able to work. I obey her. Then they change the list and send my little brother instead of me.

Three days later the Gram family was ordered out of their apartment, but “there are no apartments to move to. It is as though we are living up in the air … Yet another commission comes and decides that we can stay where we are.”

August 8 was her last entry:

The peasants say that lots of airplanes flew over during the night. At seven o’clock we go to wash the floors of the police station. The boss is in a bad mood today. It rains the entire time. At twelve o’clock they arrest three Jewish representatives. They demand that they send thirty people out to work. Twenty-one turn up, leaving nine short. The commandant demands the nine; otherwise things will go badly. The nine have hidden themselves. We are all dreadfully worried.

Rain the entire day. They want to select nine other Jews, but he insists only on the ones from before. From the moment, the representatives are under arrest. No one knows when our sufferings will end. I feel as though the next awful thing is getting closer and closer to me.

Her intuition was right: the next day, the 1,500 Jews from Preili and the surrounding area were murdered in the Jewish cemetery, among them Sheyna, Itzik, Sara and Leyba Gram. The Unknown Black Book notes that Freya Gram survived for another week: she was “kept back after work that day by the commandant, who, when he had had his fill of her, had her killed on August 16.”

A memorial with Latvian, Hebrew and English text, marks the spot where the Preili Jews died. It was funded by David Silberman, a Holocaust survivor from Preili, and dedicated on August 8, 2004, sixty years almost to the day after the massacre. The central obelisk has a quote from Sheyna Gram’s diary, and buried beneath it is an urn with a list of the names of the victims, pieced together by the aforementioned Shmuel Latvinskiy, who wrote pages of testimony for the Gram family. Additional photos of the memorial can be seen at the bottom of this page.

* Sheyna calls this city by its Yiddish name, Dvinsk. An 832-page list of Jewish people from Daugavpils who died in the Holocaust can be found here.

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A Day in the Death Penalty Around the Martyrology

Add comment August 9th, 2016 Headsman

The Roman martyrology distinguishes August 9 as the feast date of several minor ancient saints of questionable veracity purportedly martyred by the persecutions of Rome.

Firmus and Rusticus
The Virgin of the Rosary with Saints Firmus and Rusticus (1603) by Pietro Marone

Saints Firmus and Rusticus are two gentlemen of Bergamo who are supposed to have wound up martyred in Verona under Diocletian‘s persecutions. There’s an Acts of Firmus and Rusticus that the contemporary church does not consider authentic; it’s possible that if they really existed they might have been North African Christians whose remains were translated to Verona.

Firmus and Rusticus are not the patron saints of Romeo and Juliet‘s hometown; that honor instead goes to Zeno.

Numidicus

Much more obviously African is St. Numidicus, who under the short-reigning but heavy-persecuting emperor Decius was burned at the stake in Carthage and/or survived burning to accept ordination at the hands of St. Cyprian.

Romanus Ostiarius

August 9 is the vigil of St. Lawrence‘s martyrdom in Rome. St. Romanus is a legendary spinoff on Lawrence: a Roman guard who is supposed to have been so moved by Lawrence that he solicited baptism from the saint, and was immediately martyred for his trouble. Although his dubious historicity — one can’t but suspect outright fiction — has ushered him into the martyrology’s footnotes, he was formerly consequential enough to be sculpted for the colonnade of St. Peter’s.

There are several other martyrs also named Romanus; still, this guy in his day was the most important and the most Italian which makes me fairly confident that he also conferred his name upon the Tuscan town San Romano, and through its position amid the Florentine conflict with Siena and Lucca, to Uccello‘s triptych series The Battle of San Romano, a great pathbreaker for lance-aided linear perspective in the early Renaissance.


Noccolo Mauruzi da Tolentino unseats Bernardino della Ciarda at the Battle of San Romano, by Paolo Uccello (c. 1435-1455).
Secundian, Marcellian and Verian

At last we have St. Secundian, another Decian martyr who was supposedly a Senator or similar VIP. August 9 marks his martyrdom perhaps near Civitavecchia, along with two bookish minions — students or scholars of some sort.

On this day..

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2000: Brian Roberson, “Y’all kiss my black ass”

Add comment August 9th, 2015 Robert Elder

(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)

“To all of the racist white folks in America that hate black folks and to all of the black folks in America that hate themselves: in the infamous words of my famous legendary brother, Nat Turner, ‘Y’all kiss my black ass.’ Let’s do it.”

—Brian Roberson, convicted of murder, lethal injection, Texas.
Executed August 9, 2000

Roberson was convicted in the stabbing death of James Boots, seventy-nine, and his wife, Lillian, seventy-five, who lived across the street from him in Dallas. Roberson was African-American and his victims were Caucasian. Amnesty International issued a memo before the execution urging action and “expressing concern at the prosecutor’s systematic exclusion of African-Americans from the trial jury.” Roberson claimed he was “juiced up” on PCP and liquor during the crime. His last words were alternately recorded as “You ain’t got what you want.”

Later that same year, Roberson’s twin brother, Bruce, was arrested for allegedly threatening then President-elect George W. Bush. In a New York Times article, officers reported that Bruce wanted “to take him down.” The piece continued: “Mr. Roberson told them that Mr. Bush ‘stole the election and he’s not going to get away with it.'” Bush had been governor at the time of Brian’s execution.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Guest Writers,Lethal Injection,Murder,Other Voices,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Texas,USA

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1849: Friedrich Neff, 1848 Revolutions radical

Add comment August 9th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1849, the German revolutionary Friedrich Neff was shot at Freiburg.

A law and philosophy student, Neff had been one of the firebrands of the Baden incarnation of Germany’s 1848 Revolutions.

These stirrings for political liberalization and national unification in the loose 19th century German Confederation, which comprised dozens of duchies and principalities left over from the dissolved Holy Roman Empire, were just the sort of thing to inspire student radicals like Neff.

Neff‘s Heidelberg was an initial center of the movement, led by Friedrich Hecker* and Gustav Struve. (All links in this sentence are German Wikipedia pages.) Though Hecker and Struve were established lawyers who most certainly had something to lose, they led rebel guerrillas into the field against the troops dispatched to crush the republican stirrings. They didn’t have much success, but it’s the thought that counts.

On September 21, 1848, Struve unavailingly proclaimed a German Republic in Baden, an event that is known as the Struve-Putsch and whose defeat four days later closes the first chapter of the 1848 revolutions (at least in Baden).

As a Struve-Putsch supporter (and an open advocate of political violence even before that), Neff had been obliged to flee to Switzerland and onward to Paris. That positioned him perfectly when the 1848 revolution scheduled an 1849 comeback to be the man to muster a legion of Baden exiles who would attempt to topple the duchy.

“This legion was the wildest band which the revolution brought forth,” this history of the revolution recounts. “It was commonly called the Legion of Fugitives, because composed largely of political refugees from Baden, who had fought under Hecker and Struve … There were also in the Legion many daring adventurers, some of whom were still wearing the red trousers of the Algerian Foreign Legion of France.” But these, too, were easily crushed, and Neff was arrested fleeing into exile. His last letter urged his mother to “remain firm and steadfast. I will go to death tomorrow as calmly as I once strolled in our garden — would that I had ten lives to give for the cause.”

Neff is a hero to social democrat types in present-day Germany, and there are public monuments him — like this plaque marking his birthplace in Rümmingen.


(cc) image from Erik Vogelpohl.

* Haberdashers might be familiar with the Heckerhut, a wide-brimmed, high-peaked hat popularized by Friedrich Hecker.

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1786: Tom, “faithful, industrious, healthy slave”

4 comments August 9th, 2013 Meaghan

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

On August 9, 1786, in the state of Franklin (in what is now eastern Tennessee), a black slave named Tom was hanged for murder.

Tom had poisoned John Fuller Lain, a white man. The circumstances of the murder and Tom’s motive for it have been lost to history; all we know is that Lain was not his owner. Tom’s owner, William Evans, actually hired counsel to defend him, but the court refused to hear it.

Tom was imprisoned in July of that year, tried and convicted on August 8 and put to death the next day.

Aptly for a man of Franklin, Evans was concerned about the Benjamins. He filed a lawsuit against the sheriff for wrongful destruction of his personal property, but this was dismissed. Doggedly, on May 2, 1799 — nearly thirteen years after Tom’s death — Evans petitioned the General Assembly asking to be reimbursed for the value of the dead man, whom he described as “faithful, industrious, healthy slave … in the prime of life.”

Edwards reckoned Tom was worth £100. A hundred people signed the petition, but the General Assembly — by now the Tennessee General Assembly, since “Franklin” had failed as an independent entity — refused to cough up the funds.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Murder,Other Voices,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,State of Franklin,Tennessee,USA

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1934: Anna Antonio, enough for a million men

1 comment August 9th, 2012 Meaghan

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

On this date in Sing Sing Prison in New York, Italian-American Anna Antonio was electrocuted for murder.

She’d been convicted of hiring two hit men, Sam Ferraci and Vincent Saetta, to kill her husband Salvatore for his $5,000 in life insurance. The dirty deed was done at Easter in 1933: Salvatore’s body turned up beside a country road, full of holes. He’d been shot five times and stabbed fifteen times.

When Saetta and Ferraci were picked up, they implicated Anna. All three conspirators were convicted and sentenced to death. They spent sixteen months on death row, where Anna was the sole female inmate, attended by three matrons.

As chronicled in Geoffrey Abbott’s book Amazing Stories of Female Executions, Anna had been originally scheduled to die with Ferraci and Saetta at 11:00 p.m. on June 28. The executioner, Robert G. Elliott, arrived, set everything up and waited … and waited … and waited …

No one appeared.

It wasn’t until 1:15 a.m. that he was told to just go home: no one would die tonight.

Just ten minutes before eleven on that night, Saetta had had a talk with the prison warden, unburdened himself and signed an affidavit. He admitted he and Ferraci had killed Salvatore, but he said the motive was a $75 drug debt. He swore Anna had had no part in the crime.

In an earlier conversation with a prison clerk, Saetta had said he and his partner in crime had only said Anna was involved because they thought this would save their own lives: “They’ll never send me to the hot seat. Not while there’s a dame in the case. In New York they don’t like to send a woman to the chair and they can’t send me and not her.”

The governor, Herbert Henry Lehman, thought it prudent to issue a 24-hour stay for all three of the condemned in order to investigate this new evidence. Anna Antonio fainted with relief at hearing the news.

Twenty-four hours later, she was again facing the chair. Again, Executioner Elliott showed up at Sing Sing, and again he was turned away: the stay had been extended by a week.

At the end of the week, a further stay was granted; the state was still mulling over what to do.

Meanwhile, the suspense was, pun intended, killing Mrs. Antonio. Abbott records:

At that stage the state of the condemned women can hardly be imagined; suffice it to say that her wardresses reported their prisoner’s condition alternated between bouts of hysteria and collapsing into a semi-coma. Eventually the decision was issued that all executions would take place on 9 August and all hopes were dashed.

She had weighed 100 pounds on June 28, but in the interim she stopped eating and dropped fifteen pounds in six weeks: she was probably among the smallest people to ever sit in the electric chair.* At one point she cried in anguish, “I have already died enough for a million men!” The Crime Library provides a detailed account of her execution.

On the last day of her life (which, horribly enough, was also her daughter’s birthday), Anna told the prison warden she was innocent. She reminded the warden that her late husband had been a drug dealer and said if she had wanted him dead, she could have just killed him with one of the guns that were lying around the house.

She did, however, admit that prior to the murder, Ferraci and Saetta had told her they intended to kill Salvatore. She said she had chosen not to try to prevent it because she was afraid for herself and her three children. Anna didn’t particularly care much for Salvatore anyway; he was violent and abusive.

Anna spent the day of August 9 playing with her children. She may have been expecting yet another reprieve; when she was told the execution was definitely on this time, she seemed stunned.

When asked about a last meal, she said simply, “I want nothing.”

She walked calmly into the death chamber at 11:12 p.m. and was pronounced dead four minutes later. Ferraci came after her, and Saetta was last.

* Even 14-year-old George Stinney, who was too small for the electrocution mask, weighed in at 90 pounds.

On this day..

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1961: José Isaías Constante Laureano, the last executed in Mexico

Add comment August 9th, 2011 Headsman

At dawn fifty years ago today, Jose Isaias Constante Laureano was shot in Saltillo, Coahuila for murder — the last application of capital punishment in Mexican history.

Laureano, an infantryman, died under military law for getting drunk and shooting dead two of his comrades in arms. (Spanish link; here’s another)

Though only formally abolished in 2005, capital punishment in Mexico simply dwindled away in the middle part of the century. The last civilian execution was all the way back in 1937. Mexico’s closest engagement with the death penalty these days has been protesting the dozens of cases of Mexican nationals condemned in the United States after being denied Vienna Convention rights of consular access.

Since past performance is no guarantee of future returns, nowhere is it written that the next five decades will also remain death penalty-free in Mexico. In fact, given the country’s wave of destructive drug war crimes, calls to restore the ultimate sanction have been heard from Coahuila’s own governor as well as from such unexpected quarters as Mexico’s Green Party.


Green Party pro-death penalty billboard in Mexico. (cc) image from Randal Sheppard.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Mexico,Milestones,Murder,Ripped from the Headlines,Shot,Soldiers

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1856: Elizabeth Martha Brown, Tess of the D’Urbervilles inspiration

3 comments August 9th, 2010 Headsman

On a drizzly morning this date in 1856, Elizabeth Martha Brown (or Browne) was hanged for murder as a young and fascinated Thomas Hardy looked on.

Brown was born Clark(e), but she took the name of a husband 20 years younger than she, which is how she got into this mess.

Said John Brown was rumored to have made the match for money, though his older wife sure seems to have held her own in the looks department. (More on that in a bit.)

In due time, John afflicted their already-tempestuous wedded life with an affair — courtesy of one Mary Davis, a young woman stuck in her own unhappy May-December marriage.

According to the confession Elizabeth provided two days before her own death, she had a fantastic row with her drunken husband when he came home at 2 a.m. one night and Elizabeth accused him of being

“to Mary Davis’s?”

He then kicked out the bottom of the chair on which I had been sitting, and we continued quarrelling until 3 o’clock, when he struck me a severe blow on the side of the head, which confused me so much I was obliged to sit down.

He then said (supper being on the table at the time) “Eat it yourself and be damned,” and reached down from the mantelpiece a heavy hand whip, with a plaited head and struck me across the shoulders with it 3 times, and every time I screamed out I said “if you strike me again, I will cry murder” He replied “if you do I will knock your brains through the window,” and said hoped he should find me dead in the morning, and then kicked me on the left side, which caused me much pain.

He immediately stooped down to unbuckle his boots, and being much enraged, and in an ungovernable passion at being so abused and struck, I seized a hatchet that was lying close to where I sat, and which I had been making use of to break coal for keeping up the fire to keep his supper warm, and struck him several violent blows on the head – I could not say how many – and he fell at the first blow on his side, with his face to the fireplace and he never spoke or moved afterwards.

Unfortunately, this confession broke a protracted* attempt to stick to an implausible “the horse kicked him dead” story whose maintenance seriously complicated any bid to secure clemency for the woman.

She received, instead, a different kind of life: literary immortality that hardly any in Dorchester that gray morning could have aspired to.

Thomas Hardy, not yet the canonical novelist famous enough for his own Monty Python sketch but a 16-year-old architectural apprentice, was among the three or four thousand who braved the inclement weather to witness Brown’s hanging** — the mandatory sentence then for a circumstance the courts would handle differently today.

Even seven decades later, Hardy could recall the vividly sensual effect of this macabre scene.

I saw — they had put a cloth over the face — how, as the cloth got wet, her features came through it. That was extraordinary.

and

I remember what a fine figure she showed against the sky as she hung in the misty rain and how the tight black silk gown set off her shape as she wheeled half round and back.

Recent film adaptations of Tess of the D’Urbervilles. The book is available free from Gutenberg.org.

In both her tragic life and her hempen death, Brown is thought to have informed Hardy’s title character in the 1891 novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles, slyly subtitled “A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented.”

“Justice” was done, and the President of the Immortals, in Aeschylean phrase, had ended his sport with Tess.

-Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles

* Everything is relative, of course. In Brown’s instance, less than five weeks separated murder from execution, so she had scarcely had time to be obstinate about withholding the confession.

** Brown was said to have died with great firmness, and the report from the scaffold brings us the classically Victorian detail that executioner William Calcraft, having departed the platform to spring the trap after pinioning his prisoner, was obliged to make a return trip when he realized he’d forgotten to tie down her dress against any immodest billowing.

An ironic precaution, given that we remember this hanging precisely because of Hardy’s captivation with the more refined eroticism of the “wet hanging gown contest” tableau.

Part of the Themed Set: Thomas Hardy.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions,Sex,Women

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1943: Blessed Franz Jagerstatter, conscientious objector

1 comment August 9th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1943, an Austrian farmer was beheaded in Berlin’s Plotzensee Prison for refusing to fight for the Third Reich.

Franz Jägerstätter, who lost his own father in World War I, was anschlussed right into the Third Reich when Germany absorbed Austria in 1938.

In Solitary Witness is the aptly-titled biography of the man; though his fatal refusal of mandatory military service (and his critique of Nazi Germany) sprang from his deep-rooted Catholicism, it was far from the norm for his German-Catholic neighbors.

“We must go courageously on the way of suffering,” he wrote, “whether we begin sooner or later.” Somewhat oddly neglected as a martyr figure in the immediate postwar period, Jagerstatter was recently beatified by Pope Benedict XVI — a German himself, of course, who did not refuse his tiny measure of youthful service to the Wehrmacht in those years, and who assuredly grasps the untapped public relations potential of this compelling figure.


An icon of Franz Jagerstatter, and a naked Nazi imp.

Jagerstatter’s widow is still alive; she and her children movingly keep Franz’s memory to this day — and his example continues to inspire Catholics who go the way of suffering today against war and injustice.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Austria,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Germany,Guillotine,History,Martyrs,Religious Figures,Wartime Executions

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