1530: Johnnie Armstrong, border reiver

Add comment July 5th, 2018 Headsman

Scottish “border reiver” John Armstrong of Gilnockie was hanged on this date in 1530 with his followers at Caerlanrig, without benefit of trial.

The job description of the border reiver was to, well, reave the border. These mounted raiders exploited the wide gaps in sovereignty that opened along the ill-controlled England-Scotland border throughout the 16th century (their heyday) and indeed for centuries prior. They plundered vulnerable* farmers both north and south of the notional line. Sometimes the prize was livestock; other times, the “black rent” due your basic protection racket would suffice.

Their presence left an indelible imprint on the Anglo-Scottish marches, from the farmhouse fortresses called bastle houses to provisions in the “March Law” governing the manner of permissible counter-raiding.

Nettlesome as they were, they also stood useful mercenaries hired out for a number of the era’s battles; notably, English-hired reivers held off a much larger Scottish incursion in 1542. Only with the union of the crowns under James VI of Scotland/James I of England were the reivers finally suppressed.**

Johnny/Johnnie Armstrong, the younger brother of Thomas, Laird of Mangerton, is perhaps the most lasting legend among them — thanks to the signal boost he would later receive from Sir Walter Scott. Chief of a reiver band 160 strong, Armstrong made himself enough of a headache for English-Scottish diplomacy that the Scots king James V resorted to treachery to eliminate him. Having dialed up the frontier “prince” for a meeting, James simply had the sharp-dressed marauder arrested and summarily hanged when the reiver came to call. Thirty-six of his fellow reivers died with him.

Johnny Armstrong is the subject and the title of a notable child ballad (no. 169) whose lyrics can be perused in their entirety here; several renditions of its climactic third chapter can be found in the usual places.

John murdred was at Carlinrigg,
And all his galant companie;
But Scotlands heart was never sae wae,
To see sae mony brave men die.

Because they savd their country deir
Frae Englishmen; nane were sae bauld,
Whyle Johnie livd on the border-syde,
Nane of them durst cum neir his hald.

* “Vulnerable” mostly meant, not in the ambit of a powerful protector or of the reiver’s own clan.

** A subsequent echo of the border reivers — in the same vein and the same region, but clearly distinct from them — emerged later in the 17th century in the form of the moss troopers.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Power,Scotland,Soldiers,Summary Executions

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1798: Father John Murphy, Wexford Rebellion leader

Add comment July 2nd, 2018 Headsman

Catholic priest John Murphy was executed on this date in 1798 for his part in the Irish Rebellion of 1798.


The Black 47 jam “Vinegar Hill” celebrates Father Murphy, imagining him confronting and embracing the choice to rebel …

I return to my prayers
And reflect upon Your tortured lips
But not a word do I hear
Just a veil of silence around the crucifix
And I remember the Bishop’s words
“When faith is gone, all hope is lost”
Well, so be it
I will rise up with my people
And to hell with the eternal cost!

An exemplar of that rare type persuadable to follow his moral commitments all the way out of the safety of a status quo sinecure, Father Murphy initially eschewed the trend towards armed rebellion in 1798.

This outbreak was itself a response to a violent martial law-backed campaign of repression to crush Ireland’s growing United Irishmen movement for self-rule, republicanism, and Catholic emancipation — each of them scarlet fighting words to the Crown. The risings that finally broke out had only scanty success, weakened as they were by months of arrests.

By far the strongest rising occurred in Wexford, so much so that the Wexford Rebellion is nearly metonymous for the Irish Rebellion as a whole. And our man, John Murphy, was a priest in Wexford Town.

Giving due heed to Ecclesiastes, Murphy pivoted quickly from his previous counsel that prospective rebels surrender their arms once he saw an enemy patrol gratuitously torch some homes, a decision that would immortalize his name at the cost of greatly shortening his life.

During the brief existence of the Wexford Republic, the padre surprisingly became one of its prominent combat commanders, and also one of the signal martyrs after the rebels were shattered at the Battle of Vinegar Hill on June 21, 1798.*

Murphy escaped that tragic battlefield only to have his remnant definitively routed a few days later.

He had only a few days remaining him at that point, days of hiding out with his bodyguard, James Gallagher. At last they were captured at a farm on July 2, and subjected that same day to a snap military tribunal and execution delayed only by the hours required to torture him.

After hanging to death, Murphy was decapitated so that the British could mount his head on a pike as a warning.

This 1798 rebellion they were able to crush, but Murphy has survived into legend. He flashes for only an instant in the sweep of history, springing almost out of the very soil into the firmament as an allegory of revolutionary redemption, brandishing together (as Black 47 puts it above) both his missal and his gun.


The ballad “Boolvague” by Patrick Joseph McCall for the 1898 centennial of the rebellion pays tribute to Father Murphy:

At Vinegar Hill o’er the River Slaney
our heroes vainly stood back to back
And the yeos of Tullow took Father Murphy
and burned his body upon the rack
God grant you glory brave Father Murphy
and open heaven to all your men
The cause that called you may call tomorrow
in another fight for the Green again.

* There was a “Second Battle of Vinegar Hill” … comprising Irishmen but not in Ireland, for it was a convict rebellion in Australia in 1804. One of its leaders, Phillip Cunningham, was a survivor of the 1798 Irish Rebellion.

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1306: Simon Fraser, William Wallace comrade in arms

Add comment September 8th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1306, Scottish patriot Simon Fraser was drawn and quartered in London.

This Norman-descended lord was one of the side-switching nobles during the wars of William Wallace, but after completing the full circuit from Wallace to Edward I and back again, he unexpectedly decided to lash himself to St. Andrew‘s cross for good.

Perhaps he could tell where the wind was blowing, and not just for his historical reputation: Fraser’s former ally, “Red” Comyn, went down the other fork in the road, submitting himself to an irresistible English invasion the better to devote his energies to his longshot horse in the confusing Scottish regnal derby.

Comyn’s reward was to be personally daggered to death at the altar of Greyfriars Church by Robert the Bruce.


The murder of John Comyn.

But no amount of royal sacrilege could arrest the popular fad for cutting a deal, and as celebrated in this History of the Frasers,

Every man of influence in the Kingdom, except Sir Simon Fraser, Sir William Wallace, and the band of patriots who comprised the garrison of Stirling, followed the example of Cumming [Comyn] … The patriots were proclaimed outlaws and their estates forfeited, and they ultimately sacrificed their noble lives in the undying service of their country. The redoubted Sir William Wallace continued most deservedly to be the idol of his countrymen for the glorious part which he took in establishing the independence of his fatherland, but “if to him be due the glory of being the first to awaken Scotland from her ignominious slumber, his efforts were nobly seconded by Sir Simon Fraser, who alone of the aristocracy was disposed to view with envy the merit which called his hero to command.”

Fraser outlived Wallace by a year, persisting in the field “bold as Caesar” which supposedly led a couple of Scottish knights imprisoned in the Tower to cockily wager their heads that the English would never corral him.*

Fraser suffered the torment of being hanged and cut down still alive for beheading, the spectacle of a double death (with the disemboweling part mercifully saved for posthumous application). His head was set on a spike on London Bridge beside Wallace’s, and his mangled trunk hung in chains under guard lest any soul sensitive to Scotch nationalism or mephitis should undertake to cut it down.

For all that he’s not even the most famous Simon Fraser to be executed by the English.

* Edward collected his prize; you can read all about it as an aside in this ballad on the execution of Fraser.

Sire Herbert of Morham, feyr knyht ant bold,
For the love of Frysel ys lyf wes ysold.
A wajour he made, so hit wes ytold,
Ys heued of to smhyte yef me him brohte in hold,
Wat so bytyde.
Sory wes he thenne,
Tho he myhte him kenne
Thourh the toun ryde.

Thenne seide ys scwyer a word anon-ryht:
“Sire, we beth dede; ne helpeth hit no wyht!”
(Thomas de Boys the scwyer wes to nome.)
“Nou Ychot oure wajour turneth ous to grome,
So Y bate!”
Y do ou to wyte,
Here heued was ofsmyte
Byfore the Tour gate.

Sir Herbert of Morham, a fair and bold knight,
For the love of Fraser his life was sold.
A wager he made, as it was told,
To have his head cut off if they captured Fraser,
Whatever betide.
Sorry was he then,
When he might see him
Ride through the town.

Then his squire spoke a word immediately:
“Sir, we’re dead; there’s no creature to help us!”
(Thomas de Bois was the squire’s name.)
“Now I know that our wager brings us to harm,
So my courage ends!”
I give you to know,
Their heads were cut off
Before the Tower gate.

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1829: John Stacey, in Portsmouth town

Add comment August 3rd, 2017 Headsman

A barbarous, foul, & horrid deed
I shortly will recite,
Which did occur in Portsmouth town
Upon a Sunday night;
An aged man of eighty years,
His housekeeper likewise,
Were there most basely murdered,
By a monster in disguise.

All in the night, so dark and drear,
He entrance did obtain,
And with a deadly hammer he
Beat out the old man’s brains,
His throat he cut from ear to ear,
Most horrible to view,
And streams of crimson blood did flow
The bed-room through and through.

The aged housekeeper likewise,
Lay butcher’d on the floor,
Her face and hands most cruelly
Were cut, and stabb’d full sore.
Her head it was nearly severed
From off her body quite.
Those who beheld it shivered,
So dreadful was the sight.

When at the bar the murderer stood,
He could not deny his guilt,
‘Twas clearly proved that he
The aged couples blood had spilt;
The Jury found him guilty,
And the Judge to him did say,
You must prepare to end your days,
Upon the gallows high.

Broadside ballad about double murderer John Stacey, hanged adjacent to the house of his victim on August 3, 1829

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1707: Jack (Sam) Hall, chimney sweep and robber

1 comment December 17th, 2016 Headsman

Jack Hall, chimney sweep turned robber turned folk song antihero, hanged at Tyburn on this date in 1707, along with five other men.

Two of those others, Richard Low and Stephen Bunch, were Hall’s accomplices and co-defendants for burgling the home of a Captain John Guyon on a dark November night. They took “a blue Cloth Wastcoat, a pair of Cloth Breeches, 3 Suits of Lac’d Head-cloaths, four Yards of yellow Ribbon, four Yards of green Ribbon, two Silver Spoons, and a Dram Cup.”

It was only the latest in a string of raids that must have earned them some kind of reputation, for at their execution the Ordinary of Newgate, Paul Lorrain, pressed Hall “Whether (as ’twas reported by some) he had made a Contract with the Prince of Darkness, for a set time to act his Villanies in; he answer’d, He never did, nor said any such thing.”

The devil paid dividends into the afterlife by giving surprisingly long legs to a tributary folk ballad* which survives into the present as “Sam Hall”. Some (not all) of this song’s many latter-day versions reference Jack/Sam’s first legitimate occupation, chimney-sweeping: as a boy, Hall had been sold into a indenture as a “climbing boy”.**

* This song’s passage from its source of tunes dating to the 16th century English church into a delta of variant versions in the 19th and 20th century is traced by Bertrand H. Bronson in “Samuel Hall’s Family Tree” (California Folklore Quarterly, Jan. 1942).

** The horrifying use of small children to shimmy, near-naked, up asphyxiating chimneys a-soot scrubbing persisted deep into the 19th century. William Blake paid heartbreaking poetic tribute to chimney-climbing boys, and in Dickens’ Oliver Twist, young Oliver is nearly given as an apprentice to a vicious chimney sweep named Mr. Gamfield — the avoidance of which “was the critical moment of Oliver’s fate.”

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1851: James Jones and Levi Harwood, but not Hiram Smith

Add comment April 15th, 2016 Headsman

For the April 15, 1851 hanging of James Jones (James Burbage was his actual name) and Levi Harwood, we crib from PlanetSlade’s collection of murder ballads. While this ballad amply narrates the murder committed in a home invasion, click through to PlanetSlade to find out about the third man who wasn’t hanged — the one who actually pulled the fatal trigger, but who saved himself by testifying for the crown to send his mates to the gallows.

Of all the crimes on Earth the worst,
Foul murder is of all accursed,
Assassins are by all abhorred,
Despised by men, condemned by God.

We are condemned and death is nigh,
And in two dismal cells we lie,
James Jones and Harwood: it is true,
We’ve murder done, no pity knew.

A minister of God we’ve slain,
For sake of gold, man’s curse and bane,
Poor Mr Hollest kind and good,
We left him weltering in his blood.

To Frimley Grove, ’twas there we went,
On robbing we were fully bent,
The rector’s house we soon broke in,
And then to plunder did begin.

With faces masked, disguised to all,
And pistols loaded well with ball,
Like vile assassins on we crept,
To where the good old couple slept.

But Mrs Hollest struggled brave,
And nobly fought their lives to save,
Undaunted, boldly bore her part,
A woman with a warrior’s heart.

Her husband had one ruffian down,
And held him firmly on the ground,
The coward wretch for help did call,
‘Twas then the other fired his ball.

Thy wound was fatal, good old man,
Thy blood in streams around it ran,
We both escaped while thou didst bleed,
And now we suffer for the deed.

How could we thus such monsters prove,
To murder those whom all did love?
To want thou didst assistance lend,
And ever was the poor man’s friend.

Widows weep thy loss: they mourn,
The only friend they had is gone,
And orphans’ tears they quickly fall,
For thou a father’s been to all.

And Mrs Hollest? She was kind,
Distress in her a friend did find,
Her sole delight it seemed to be,
To dry the tears of misery.

So we confess the crimes we’ve done,
Is there no hope on Earth? There’s none,
Grim death will drag us to the tomb,
A scaffold is the murderers’ doom.

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1874: Christopher Rafferty, the first executed for killing a Chicago cop

2 comments February 27th, 2016 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1874, Christopher Rafferty was hanged for the murder of Chicago Patrolman Patrick O’Meara, who was shot to death on August 4, 1872.

A fourteen­-year veteran of the force, O’Meara was not the first officer of the Chicago Police Department to die in the line of duty — but he appears to be the first whose death brought about a legal execution.

The murder went down like this: Rafferty, a bricklayer by trade and a bit of a hard case despite his youth (he was 25), had participated in a riot the week before the shooting. Rafferty and two other men, one of them his brother, were arrested and then released on bail. Rafferty swore he was innocent and claimed a man named Donovan would support his story, but Donovan refused to provide him with an alibi. To pay him back, Rafferty tracked Donovan down and beat him with a brick. Donovan staggered to the police station, reported the crime and swore out a warrant against his assailant.

At a little after midnight, when O’Meara and his partner, James Scanlan, tracked Rafferty down at Daniel O’Brien’s Saloon at Halsted Street and 35th Place, the thug seemed to be in a good mood and even offered O’Meara a cigar. He seemed to cooperate when the two officers told him they had to arrest him, but then bolted for the door while simultaneously pulling a gun from his pocket and firing at the two policemen, hitting O’Meara in the chest.

O’Meara collapsed and bled out on the saloon floor. His last words were, “Stay, Chris, don’t shoot.” But Rafferty shot again, barely missing Scanlan’s head. After a struggle with Scanlan, he escaped into the night.

Edward Burke and Thomas O’Gorman’s book End of Watch — Chicago Police Killed in the Line of Duty, 1853­-2006 noted,

[O’Meara’s] cold­blooded murder outraged Chicagoans. It was an atrocity further deepened by the fact that the killer had escaped. Local neighborhood folks took to the streets frantic with excitement following his murder, forming small posses that headed out to the prairie grass to hunt for the killer. Local police officials soon persuaded people to permit Chicago detectives to track Officer O’Meara’s murderer down themselves.

O’Meara

They caught him just a few hours later, walking in the fields on his way to Joliet. Rafferty was tried and convicted of the murder a month later, but his conviction was overturned twice on procedural grounds. His three separate trials and convictions are responsible for the long (for those days) wait between his arrest and his execution.

He met his death calmly and without a struggle, sleeping “as peacefully as a child” in the hours before his predawn hanging. His father was permitted to visit him shortly before the execution, and two priests accompanied him to the scaffold. His was the last public hanging in Lake County.

Just before he was hanged, Rafferty (or someone using his byline) penned the following ballad, which looks a shameless rip-off of one already floating about for the years-ago execution of James Rodgers*:

Come all you tender Christians, I hope you will draw near,
And likewise pay attention to a few lines I have here.
For the murder of O’Meara, I am condemned to die,
On the 28th** of February, all on the gallows high.

My name is Chris Rafferty, that name I never denied,
I left my aged parents in sorrow for to cry.
Oh little did they think in my youth and bloom
That I would come to Chicago to meet with my sad doom

My parents reared me tenderly as plainly you may see
Constantly good advice they always gave to me.
They told me: quit night­walking and shun bad company
Or State’s Prison or the gallows my doom would surely be.

Scanlan and O’Meara, they came in a saloon.
They said to me, “Chris Rafferty, we want you right soon.”
It was then I pulled that fatal pop and shot him through the heart
Which leaves a loving wife and husband for to part.

On the day of my trial it would pierce your heart to see
My companions and associates they were all standing by.
I bid them take a warning by my sad fate,
And to leave out their night­walking before it was too late.

O’Meara left behind a wife and five children. As for Rafferty’s family, the Chicago Tribune claimed they were left “in destitute circumstances: that the father is aged, the mother blind, the sister insane, the brother has fled, that the family were supported by the labor of the two sons, and, deprived of this, are now in distress.”

Killer and victim both rest in Calvary Cemetery.

* It must have been a hit, since the same ballad also got re-used for President James Garfield’s assassin.

** Despite what the verse says the execution was on the 27th, not the 28th.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Illinois,Milestones,Murder,Other Voices,USA

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1891: Ed Leeper and James Powell

Add comment September 29th, 2015 Headsman

The Ballad of Leeper and Powell

Come all my friends and near relations;
Come and listen unto me.
I will sing about two men,
About two men that’s to be hung.

‘Twas on the eighteenth night of December,
In eighteen hundred ninety-five,*
‘Twas the night they did the murder
For which they had to give their lives.

One says, “Father and dear mother,
Won’t you both remember me,
When I’m dead and gone forever,
And my face no more you’ll see?”

“We were held long in this prison —
No one came to go our bail** —
God will aid and assist us
Now to break the Gatesville jail.”

And when started from that prison
And the guards surrounded them —
“I must die and I’m not guilty,”†
‘Twas the answer Jim made then.

Ed was tall and fair complected;
Jim was low and very neat.
They were pale and very silent,
And their lips did seem to meet.

One says, “Lord, oh, do have mercy
On those who swore my life away.”
They tied their wrists and their ankles,
Placed black caps upon their heads.

The trapdoor fell and left them hanging,
Between the earth and the sky.
It was for a dreadful murder
These two men were made to die.

They’s cut down, placed in their coffins,
Delivered over to their friends,
Who were there for that purpose,
To receive them at their end.

Come all young men, now take warning;
Live, oh, live a sober life.


(Via)

* The crime(s) for which Leeper and Powell hanged actually occurred on the evening of December 17, in 1889. Two armed outlaws waylaid some farmers returning to the country after they sold their cotton in Gatesville; a J.T. Mathis was mortally wounded in the resulting firefights, lingering until December 18 before he finally succumbed. (Another man named W.H.H. Harvey was wounded, but survived.)

** Actually, Ed Leeper’s mother was a prosperous Tennessee matron who spent liberally on her son’s defense; the men’s appeals, even challenging the legality of the entire Texas penal code, went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court — quite unusual for the time. But it is correct that they did not have bail: the enormity of the crime, and the fear of inviting a lynch mob, saw them behind bars and under heavy guard from the time of their arrest hours after the robbery.

This is not to say that Mrs. Leeper’s efforts were wholly without effect:

Newspaper article describing the death of a prosecuting attorney who was injured returning by train from Austin 'on the Leeper and Powell business'.
From the Dallas Morning News, September 30, 1891.

† Since the attack took place under cover of darkness, nobody could positively identify the assailants. Leeper and Powell, well-known local ruffians, were suspected at once and the suspicion appeared circumstantially supported.

Both men did continue to assert their innocence on the scaffold: “I die innocent and I die game for the crime of some one else,” in Powell’s words. (Dallas Morning News, September 30, 1891)

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1875: Richard Coates, gunner and rapist

Add comment March 29th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1875, artilleryman Richard Coates (or “Coote”) was hanged for murder.

He’d been detailed as a schoolteacher for the Purfleet garrison. One day deep into his cups, he raped a 6-year-old* girl. And then killed her by bashing her head into a privy.

The “Purfleet Murder” got all kinds of copy on the Victorian crime wire, for the crime was very simple and simply horrendous. After he had done with his victim, Coates tucked her broken body under his greatcoat like a shoplifter and smuggled her down to the river to dispose of.

Adding humiliation to the greater sins of the day, he was unable there to get the body up over the palings, so he abandoned it inside the fence. Presumably no veteran hand at homicide, Coates appeared palpably agitated to basically everyone else who saw him that day, and his clothes turned up bloodstained. He was an easy suspect to collar.


To the tune of Civil War hymn “Just Before the Battle, Mother” by George F. Root.

Richard Coates, that cruel murderer,
Now is cold within his grave,
None could show him any pity,
None stretch for a hand to save;
His horrid crime was so unmanly,
I’m sure we no excuse could give,
He did disgrace our gallant soldiers,
And he was not fit to live.


CHORUS

Richard Coates, the Purfleet murderer,
On Easter Monday met his doom;
He killed the soldier’s little daughter,
Now he’s dead and in his tomb.

For the murder of poor Alice Bougham
He justly was condemned to die,
For a murder so outrageous,
The country for his death did cry;
You never heard or ever read of
Such treatment to a little child,
Altho’ so innocent and so loving,
Cruelly murdered and defiled.

A full confession of the murder
To the champlain he has made,
He has told the truth to those around him,
For which his poor old mother prayed;
He took his victim to the closet,
Frightful was his conduct there,
He took her life in a cruel manner,
Before his death he did declare.

He tried to throw his victim’s body
Over the pailings in the sea,
The fence was high, he could not do it,
It was ordained it should not be;
Could he have thrown her in the water,
And the tide have carried her away,
The murder of the soldier’s daughter
Would not have been found out to-day.

He might have done well in the army,
In the barracks he was born,
Alas! he has disgraced his father,
Who the uniform has worn;
Heaven help his poor old mother,
She has been a true good soldier’s wife,
She would sooner have seen him shot in action,
Than in such a way to lose his life.

Then let us all now take a warning
By his sad and fearful end,
Don’t give way to unholy passion,
Nor against the laws offend;
Try to be honest and be sober,
I’m sure you’ll find it is the best,
In the world let’s do our duty,
As we hope in heaven to rest.


[audio:Driven_From_Home.mp3]

This one is set to “Driven From Home” by William Shakespeare Hays.

Upon Easter Monday within Chelmsford gaol,
A murderer, when dying, his crime doth bewail,
Upon the dark scaffold he drew his last breath,
The penalty of murder he paid with his death;
Richard Coates was his name, by Sata beguiled,
He outraged so cruel a dear little child,
And all through the country it has been the cry,
His sentence was just, he deserved to die.


CHORUS

Gone from this life, gone from this world,
By the hands of the hangman to Eternity hurled,
May heaven forgive him, is all we can say,
As we hope for forgiveness on our dying day.

There never was known such a cowardly crime,
That we are relating at this present time;
It is dreadful to think there could be a man,
Who in his senses this murder could plan.
He pleaded “not guilty” almost to the last,
Till he saw all the chance of forgiveness was past;
His poor moter begg’d him the truth to unfold,
And confess to his crime for the sake of his soul.

He took the poor child to the coset, he said,
Innocent and smiling to her death she was led.
He murdered her there at the bottom of the field,
And beneath his great coat her dead body conceal’d,
He went to the edge of the wide rolling sea,
To throw the child in but it was not to be,
Tho’ time after time the villain did try,
He could not reach over the pailings so high.

When he found that his crime he could not conceal,
He left the child’s body ‘neath the grass in the field,
Where the dear little angel soon after was found,
By those who so long had been searching around.
They seized him and ask’d him the crime to explain,
He cried “I’m not guilty” again and again;
They could not believe him in spite of denial,
They sent him to saol to wait for his trial.

As he walked from the cell through the sweet morning air,
At the end of the prison the gallows was there;
‘Twas the last time he’d gaze on that beatiful sky,
As he walked to the spot where he knew he must die.
The hangman was ready, deep sounded the bell,
‘Twas scarcely a moment before the drop fell!
The murderer, Coates, from the world was torn,
His body was there, but his dear life was gone.

May his fate be a warning to both old and young,
May it be an example to everyone,
From the straight path of duty never to stray,
Or we shall regret it on our dying day.
The murderer now is gone from this world,
By his own folly to destruction is hurled,
Then pray let us all to this warning attend,
And may heaven preserve us from his fearful den.


According to Flat Earth: History of an Infamous Idea, Coates’s condemnation was immediately followed — in the same courtroom, before the same judge — by the tragicomc libel trial of nutbar flat-earther John Hampden for his ongoing campaign to savage the reputation of Alfred Russel Wallace.**

The bombastic Hampden — who denounced “that Satanic device of a round and revolving globe, which sets Scripture, reason, and facts at defiance” and actually wrote Wallace’s wife wishing that her hubbie would have “every bone in his head smashed to a pulp” — would have been right at home with the Coates ballad that vengefully prayed,

While the spotless soul of little Alice,
Is taken to a better land
May perdition light upon the monster,
Who has disgraced the name of man.

* Reports of age differ, but Alice Boughen was definitely a prepubescent youngster well under the age of 10.

** Wallace is the guy whose collegial letters to Darwin mooting Wallace’s own ideas about natural selection led the previously reticent Darwin to rush into publication with On the Origin of Species.

Part of the Daily Double: Victorian Soldiery.

On this day..

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

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1878: The Brassell boys

Add comment March 27th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1878, Joe and Teek* Brassell were hanged in Cookeville, Tennessee.

These brothers (their eldest sibling Jim Brassell wisely bowed out of the scheme) and two other buddies got into the whiskey moonshine from the Brassells’ own home still, and decided to knock over a nearby lodging where two guests thought to be heavy with cash were staying.

So the quartet blacked up faces and turned clothes inside out by way of disguise and around midnight tromped up to the Allison Stand Inn wielding pistols.

“Don’t worry!” Russell Allison called to his guests, recognizing his onetime schoolmates. “It’s the Brassell boys!”

Great disguise.

Nothing daunted by their identities outed, the moonshine party invaded the log residence. A bedroom melee ensued, and in the course of it Teek Russell shot Russell Allison fatally in the gut; another shot only narrowly missed Mrs. Isbell, the wife of the tax collector W.J. Isbell whom the party was trying to target in the first place.** Isbell wasn’t there at all, and the whole band fled the house not a penny richer, but about to be wanted men.

The next day as Allison lay expiring from his painful wound, the Allison family rounded up its own posse and descended on the Brassell residence. Again, Teek gut-shot an Allison — Russell’s brother Joe — and killed him, too. But the rest of the posse detained the desperados and they were soon hailed to Cookeville Jail. The murder became extremely notorious in the area and the Brassells boys were easily condemned, albeit after nearly two years’ worth of legal continuances.†

We’ve liberally included these youths in our arsenic themed set. Of course, these young men worked their mayhem with firearms and not philters, but in a sense their case underscores the ubiquity of that poison for 19th century crime. Desperate to escape, even the brutally direct Brassell boys turned like dissatisfied housewives and furtive insurance adjusters to inheritance powder: in their case, they managed to have some smuggled to them in jail, which they planned to insinuate into some apples they would share with their guards while being moved between Nashville and Cookville.

As it transpired, the guards caught wind of this scheme and foiled it, along with several other jailbreak attempts. But that was the great thing about that innocuous dust: everywhere someone would profit from some other fellow dropping unexpectedly dead, the first thought was invariably arsenic!

Frustrated of this and all other exits from their grim condition, the Brassell boys at last had to face the hemp. It would be the only judicial hanging in the history of Putnam County, Tennessee, and it would not want for ceremony. The execution itself occurred on a Wednesday; on the Sabbath preceding, the local Sunday school’s curriculum included (pdf) a visit to the condemned cells, where prisoners and children sang “Let us cross over the river”.

On hanging-day itself, the boys were up early for press interviews in the jailhouse. Shortly after 11 a.m., they piled into a wagon, grabbed seats on their own coffins, and were taken under guard to the double gallows specially built for them on Billy Goat Hill. Their sister Amanda trailed the wagon, but after a farewell hug she complied with Joe and Teek’s request to leave without seeing them hang.

Amanda had plenty of time to comply. The hanging wasn’t until 1:30!

The Brassells passed their last two hours or so of life on the scaffold. As they sat under their hanging-nooses, a crowd of thousands — some estimates put it as high as 20,000; old folks in the early 20th century would still say that it was the largest crowd Cookeville had ever seen — imbibed a series of preachers and religious songs, the warnings of the condemned duo themselves, and a scene where their intended target Mr. Isbell climbed up on the platform himself and pressed the two for a confession. Joe admitted his guilt. Teek refused until the very end to do so.‡ To cap off the drama, the sheriff, hatchet in hand to chop the fatal rope, counted down the last five minutes.

It seems this whole event, from the murder to the hanging, still survives in Cookeville folklore. There’s a lengthy ballad about the Brassell boys’ crime and execution, available here (pdf). Also see this fantastically detailed web page about the crime, including a blurry restored photograph of the hanging, and this pdf roundup.

A fragment of the Brassell boys’ joint headstone can still be seen at a family plot adjacent to Upperman High School in the small town of Baxter, just outside Cookeville.

* Teek had “George Andrew” on his birth certificate.

** William Jefferson Isbell was a tax collector carrying his proceeds; he had fallen ill that day and had to stop elsewhere. The Isbells and Allisons were related through marriage.

† “Justice, when most severe to him who has offended, is always most mercifully to him who would offend,” the Supreme Court most severely ruled — admonishing the young men not to entertain any hope of reprieve. (Quoted in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, March 28, 1878)

‡ Teek’s obstinacy on claiming innocence when the evidence against him seemed so overwhelming led to some later speculation that he might have semi-willingly taken the rap for a different Brassell — maybe Jim, the one who supposedly bowed out of the raid, or maybe even Amanda.

Part of the Themed Set: Arsenic.

On this day..

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

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