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.

On this day..

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

2 comments 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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1993: Mohamed Mustafa Tabet, serial rapist with a badge

1 comment August 9th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1993, the police chief of Casablanca was shot in Kenitra Central Prison for abuse of power.

Mohamed Mustafa Tabet (or Tabit) wasn’t exactly Captain Renault.

While Morocco still has prisoners on death row, Tabet’s was the first execution actually carried out in 11 years, and it’s the last execution in Morocco to date. He went on the rocket docket, just five months from his arrest to standing up against a wall.

To earn that rare distinction, Tabet exploited his official power to rape or sexually exploit hundreds of women. Tabet confessed to some 1,500 victims over 13 years; the minimum figure matches the 518 personal identity cards found in his apartment. (Also found: 118 video cassettes — many of them violent — and a computer list of his crimes.)

The “Tabet Affair” — actually called “Tabetgate,” proving that the United States retains the power of exporting ideas — opened a discomfiting window on gender and power in Morocco.

Webster University Prof. Don Conway-Long was in Morocco at the time researching gender and masculinity for his dissertation. His paper “Sexism and Rape Culture in Moroccan Social Discourse” (pdf) is probably the most illuminating readily-available English* document on the affair — and the many contradictory reactions it drew from contemporaries, and the pressure it put on the government to contain the fallout as “a morals case, instead of looking further into overall police corruption.”

Prof. Conway-Long was good enough to spare Executed Today a few minutes to explore power and gender in Morocco, then and now.

ET: The scale of the crime spree seems just unimaginable, that he could get away with victimizing hundreds upon hundreds of women.

DCL: And not that many came forward! It was just a couple of women. If it’s difficult to talk to rape and sexual assault survivors here [in the U.S.], it’s exponentially harder in Morocco.

You were in Morocco in the years leading up to this trial. What was the country like in terms of its gender outlook?

It’s more like our 1950’s in terms of the attitudes towards women. Some educated professors at one point were laughing at the idea that a man could be charged with raping his wife in the West. In some ways, attitudes in Morocco are maybe 20 years behind what we see in the West. We had that same conception in the 1950’s — Missouri actually finally changed that law in 1993. [See here and here -ed.]

Morocco was also probably one of the most liberal countries of the Muslim world in the sense of being more closely connected to the West. Morocco has had more openness, more tourism.

How did the Tabet case impact women’s position?

[In 1995,] about a year after I left, a battered women’s shelter was set up in Casablanca, the first one in Morocco. By comparison, our first shelters in the U.S. and U.K. were set up in 1971, 1972.

In 2004, they passed a new family law that changed a lot of the freedoms that women have — e.g., women can ask for divorce, and don’t have to obey their husbands.

But I have no idea if you can claim there’s any causal relationship between the discovery of Tabet’s crimes and these later events. At the time, some men thought he was this great sexual hero, very virile.

So what lies ahead?

The old king died in 1999; his son Mohammed VI is in there now and he’s young and more aware and one of the rising stars of the monarchs of the middle east, like the king of Jordan. His [Mohammed’s] head is on the right way, but running a country like this with so much variation — there’s 50% illiteracy, the Western Sahara conflict, a certain level of Islamist opposition, and around twenty political parties all the way out to the Communists.

So there’s no certain future, absolutely not.

As far as cases like Tabet’s — let’s hope it’s not happening still, but Morocco when I was there was a place where you pass six different kinds of uniforms walking down the street with Uzis that would be pointed at your body as you passed.

* There’s more in French and Arabic.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Infamous,Interviews,Milestones,Morocco,Notable Sleuthing,Other Voices,Rape,Scandal,Shot

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