1830: George Cudmore, posthumous book-binding

1 comment March 25th, 2015 Headsman

George Cudmore was on March 25, 1830 executed at Devon County Gaol, the present-day site of Exeter Prison.

Wanting to run off with his mistress, Cudmore slipped his wife a lethal dose of the 19th century’s prolific domestic assassin, arsenic. But suspecting the foul play, the surgeon opened Grace Cudmore’s belly and found the incriminating powder. At trial, Cudmore was convicted of the murder while the mistress, Sarah Dunn, was acquitted — somewhat to her own surprise.

The man’s strange last request was for Dunn to witness his hanging — grandly justified as a means to scare straight his ex-lover’s amoral libido. (Dunn already had four children out of wedlock at this point.) Exeter’s Western Times (March 27, 1830) reported that the ghastly sight of her Cudmore’s strangling on the rope “sunk [Dunn] down, and violent hysterics deprived her for awhile, of any further consciousness.”

More strange by far than the man’s late turn to righteousness was the disposal of his remains.

Condemned to the post-mortem terror of dissection, part of Cudmore’s skin was flayed, tanned, and eventually used to cover a book — an 1852 edition of The Poetical Works of John Milton.


Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?

Paradise Lost

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

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2003: Vignes Mourthi, framed in Singapore?

Add comment September 26th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 2003, 23-year-old Malaysian Vignes Mourthi was hanged in Singapore’s Changi Prison as a drug courier, along with his supposed collaborator Moorthy Angappan.

Mourthi vigorously maintained his innocence, and his family has done likewise in the years since, helping turn the young factory worker into a wrongful-execution poster child.

It was a Sgt. Rajkumar who arrested Mourthi by posing as a buyer of his cargo. Rajkumar would later present an undated, unsigned “confession” purporting to show that Mourthi was completely aware that it was heroin he was moving. At first read one might might indeed doubt Mourthi’s insistence that he thought he was carrying “incense stones” … but his compatriot Angappan was indeed an incense dealer and a family friend known to Mourthi as such.

British journalist Alan Shadrake‘s 2010 indictment of Singaporean justice Once a Jolly Hangman (banned in its titular city-state) calls Mourthi’s hanging “arguably one of the most appalling miscarriages of justice in Singapore’s history”.

Rajkumar’s testimony about Mourthi’s confession was instrumental in hanging the young man, but just a couple of days after he arrested Mourthi, Rajkumar himself was arrested (and then released on bail) on a rape accusation. According to the recent book Once a Jolly Hangman, whose denunciations of Singapore’s death penalty system earned its author a prison term in the repressive city-state,

Intense efforts were … made by Rajkumar’s many friends in the CNB and a police friend at Clementi Police Station to persuade ‘J’ to withdraw her statement. The bribes involved large sums of money, which she refused … There were frantic, secret meetings between Rajkumar, his police officer friends and his accuser in shopping malls and fast-food outlets during which he, his family and friends continued to offer large sums of money in exchange for withdrawing her allegations. All this intrigue was going on while Rajkumar was busy getting enough evidence together to ensure Mourthi would be found guilty and hanged.

So. That’s less than ideal.

Sadly for the accused, none of this credibility-melting information was ever known during Mourthi’s trial and appeal. After Mourthi’s execution, the bad cop who hanged him went on trial for corruption over his witness-tampering, and eventually served 15 months.

Certainty is never given to mortals. But Mourthi’s father for one has no doubt: “I know he is innocent.”

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Drugs,Execution,Hanged,Malaysia,Ripped from the Headlines,Singapore,Wrongful Executions

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1875: Tiburcio Vasquez, California bandido

11 comments March 19th, 2012 Headsman

A spirit of hatred and revenge took possession of me. I had numerous fights in defense of what I believed to be my rights and those of my countrymen. I believed we were unjustly deprived of the social rights that belonged to us.

Tiburcio Vasquez

On this date in 1879, legendary Californio outlaw Tiburcio Vasquez was hanged in San Jose.

Born to a respectable family (his grandfather was the first mayor of San Jose) when the land was under Mexican control, Vasquez was among the many chagrined to find themselves demoted to second-class citizenry by the norteamericano conquest of the Mexican-American War.

That occurred when Vasquez was in his early teens, and soon thereafter the young man was plying California’s ill-policed byways with the whole litany of depredations characteristic of the frontier outlaw: livestock rustling, highway robbing, shopkeep stickups.*

One of the latter furnished the proximate cause of his death and probably the most infamous single incident among his exploits: an armed robbery in Tres Pinos** that resulted in three shooting deaths and a serious manhunt.

For Vasquez, the end of the rope (last word: “Pronto”) was just the last act of a legendary career, of poetry and horsemanship and countless enchanted inamoratas. He was renowned in his own time, and has graduated since into a mythical, and potently symbolic, figure of the other peoples of the Golden West.

For this anniversary of Tiburcio Vasquez’s execution, we’re pleased to welcome John Boessenecker, author of the recent biography Bandido: The Life and Times of Tiburcio Vasquez . (Find another topical interview with this same author here.)

Book CoverHow did you separate fact from folklore researching this outlaw? How much do we really know about him?

Generally speaking the whole genre of outlaws and lawmen is sort of known for bad research and myths and crazy stories. It tends to attract — here I’m denigrating myself– people who are a little off. Like myself. The movie buffs tend to get reality mixed up with what they’ve seen in the movies.

The whole genre has attracted poor research and sensational writers since the days of the dime novels. Though there are real historical groups: the Wild West History Association is probably the best example — True West magazine and Wild West magazine do a god job of publishing authentic history.

With Vasquez in particular, he became a folk hero in his own lifetime to disadvantaged Hispanics.

He was personally very well-liked; as a general rule, he didn’t rob Hispanics (although he did from time to time); he paid for safe harbor and food; he was a terrific dancer; he wrote poetry to is female admirers. He was a bigger-than-life personality, sort of the life of the party.

Among the larger Hispanic community as he became more notorious in the 1870s, he became a folk hero in his own lifetime. A lot of the myths are exaggerations of things he really did.

When the colonized cannot earn a living within the system, or when they are degraded, they strike out. The most physical way is to rebel. This can be done in an organized way, as was done by Juan Cortina in Texas, or it can express itself in bandit activity. An analysis of the life of Tiburcio Vasquez clearly demonstrates that, while in the strict sense of the word he was a criminal, at the same time his underlying motivation was self-defense. Some Anglo-American folklorists have attempted to portray Tiburcio Vasquez as a comical and oversexed Mexican bandit … dismiss[ing] the legitimate grievance of Chicanos during the nineteenth century. While it is true that Tiburcio Vasquez was an outlaw, many Mexicans still consider him a hero.

Rodolfo Acuña, Occupied America: A History of Chicanos

His outlaw career seems like it’s bound up in this Anglo-Hispanic cultural collision. To what extent does that influence how he’s “read” by others?

His life is sort of a microcosm of what was going on. The first portion of my book deals with the rise and fall of the native settlers of California.

With the loss of California in the Mexican-American War and then the discovery of gold, they became second-class citizens in their own land. So Vasquez becomes a folk hero — he robbed stagecoaches, thumbed his nose at the sheriff, and got away.

But he was also a bandit.

In the 1960s, the so-called Chicano historians (pdf) latched on to Vasquez, and they actually believed he was a Robin Hood figure or a “social bandit”. This is a total crock.

You find these same outlaw myths in all cultures. Vasquez is no different, though he’s better documented than most. People would sing corridos about him.

There were some quotes by him that says that he was driven to it, the Anglos drove me to it — but that’s no different from Jesse James or Billy the Kid saying they were driven to it, even if it’s true. Most of these guys I’m talking about are or were history professors; they should have known better.

What led you to this story?

When I was a kid in the early 60s I watched all the westerns. Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen were my favorite. But then I wanted to know, was there a Wild West here in California? So when I got into high school I went and read everything I could get my hands on about early California history.

Vasquez and Black Bart were pretty much the most famous early California outlaws. So I started researching Vasquez in high school, and collected information for about 40 years, but it took me another four years to write it.

There’s never been a biography about Vasquez. There were three paperback books published about him, one after he was captured and two right after he was hanged — they’re not dime novels, but they’re sort of semi-fictional. There have been many magazines, many book chapters since, but everything published about him has just been a rehash of those three books. (n.b. — here’s a pdf of one of those original 1870s books -ed.)

It must have been a compelling story for you to stick with it for 40 years.

It’s just sort of a great story from early California. Vasquez was very colorful.

He fell under the influence of a guy named Anastacio Garcia when he was about 16 years old, and his parents seem to have separated. He had a large family; all of them were extremely honest. One of his brothers was a very prominent rancher; another brother served a term as a justice of the peace in Los Angeles County.

Vasquez, possibly because his father wasn’t around, fell under the influence of Garcia and got involved in the Roach-Belcher feud. Garcia was a hired gun, and the two of them were involved in a brawl in a Fandango house in 1854 and one of them killed a local constable. Tiburcio Vasquez fled Monterrey and never appeared openly after that.

But he basically did not change.

He was engaged to Garcia’s sister when he was 17 and she apparently broke it off. That seemed to have embittered him because he never had another serious relationship again with another woman. He was a real rounder, he got shot over women, took off with the wives of other gang members.

That was very foolish — that’s what got him the noose, when a cuckolded gang member testified against him at trial. He never made any effort to change; he was what you call a career criminal.

He was a very cultured person, and even if you compare him to more modern-day criminals like Clyde Barrow or Pretty Boy Floyd or John Dillinger, none of them had that kind of culture. He really was sort of the prototype of that sort of charismatic bandit who at the same time is both charming and deadly.

Probably the thing to me that was the most fascinating was the information I dug up about his family: his parents, his sisters who were very loyal to him; his brothers who all tried to get him to go straight. I was very pleased to meet the descendants of some of his brothers, so it was fascinating to reconstruct his family life to try to explain his personality.

So what was the nature of that bandit career?

Well, he wasn’t a remorseless killer, though he was involved in nine murders — he always said it was someone else.

The one that he was hanged for, his gang killed three people in a robbery. He claimed someone else pulled the trigger. Some witnesses said it was Vasquez himself, but under the law then and now, if you band together to commit a felony and someone dies, everyone involved is culpable for murder.

He’d been doing a lot of robberies before then, but he’d do them in remote areas. He tried not to kill anyone; he’d tie people up — but he was also involved in a lot of gunfights. Basically he’d shoot to escape. In doing the research I found that he had fired into a brothel in Santa Cruz and wounded three people; another time he fired into a stagecoach station.

One of the great Vasquez stories is, he gets out of San Quentin and he goes to San Juan Bautista which is one of the most picturesque villages in California then and now — it was one of his favorite hangouts. One of his gang members, Salazar, had tried to go straight. Vasquez shows up at San Juan and finds out that Salazar has married this gorgeous 15-year-old named “Pepita” and he and another gang member lust after her and get her to run off with the gang. So Salazar comes gunning for him; they have a gunfight right there in front of the mission, and Salazar shoots Vasquez through the chest and damn near kills him. His gang gets him out of it … the girl gets pregnant, evidently with Tiburcio’s child and she dies of a botched abortion. It’s sort of the Vasquez story in a microcosm, it looks pretty romantic on the surface and you look a little deeper and it becomes pretty grisly.

He gave a lot of interviews after he was captured and they give color to the story. There’s the natural human inclination to paint yourself in the best light.

None of which helped him avoid execution.

His hanging was actually the most publicized hanging in the history of the Pacific coast; newspapers came from Canada, New York all over the country to witness the hanging.

He was hanged in front of a big crowd, a thousand people or more present. People climbed trees and telegraph poles became the jailhouse was packed. The sheriff had 300 or 400 invitations issued and then many many more were clustered around.


Executed Today would be remiss not to add that our day’s gallows-bird was the namesake of the Vasquez Rocks, a small Natural Area Park north of Los Angeles where the outlaw used to hide out.


The Vasquez Rocks. (cc) image from KateMonkey.

This striking triangular rock formation, thrust out of the earth by tectonic action, has been used extensively in film productions of every genre since at least the 1930s, including with almost compulsive frequency in the Star Trek franchise — e.g., Captain Kirk fighting the Gorn:

* There’s a good deal of material about Tiburcio’s career linked here.

** The Tres Pinos robbed by Vasquez’s gang is now known as Paicines; it would lose its original name to the distinct settlement that grew up around the Tres Pinos train station 4.7 miles away.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Hanged,History,Interviews,Mexico,Murder,Myths,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Outlaws,Popular Culture,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Theft,USA

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1887: Thomas Cluverius, Richmond murderer

Add comment January 14th, 2012 Headsman


Dallas Morning News, January 14, 1887.

On this date in 1887, a long-running (for the time) legal drama in Richmond ended with the hanging of Thomas Cluverius for murder.

On Friday the 13th — March 13, 1885 — Cluverius killed his cousin and lover Lillian Madison, who was eight months pregnant with his child, an act “as dark as any that can be found in all the calendar of crimes.” (Columbus Daily Enquirer, Jan. 15, 1887)

From the illicit affair to the shocking crime of passion and calculation to the damning lost watch key found at the site of the murder: everything conspired to spill newsprint, not only in Virginia but nationwide.

Nevertheless, by the time he hanged, the young lawyer was supported by at least a chunk of public opinion prepared to credit his dogged insistence on innocence.* He maintained it all the way to the scaffold. The drama of a potential gubernatorial reprieve, backed by hundreds of Old Dominion worthies, went to literally the very last hour of the condemned man.

The facts of this case now 125 years in the grave enjoy meticulous and evocative coverage at The Shockoe Examiner, a Richmond blog that we come to via Murder by Gaslight’s Cluverius post.

We’re very pleased on this occasion to interview a writer who has given “Tommie” and “Lillie” a more literary treatment. John Milliken Thompson‘s first novel The Reservoir (review), just published in the summer of 2011, illuminates the timeless conflicts between lust and propriety, in the very specific locale of post-Reconstruction Richmond.

ET: For you as a writer, how did you come by this story, and why did you decide to make it your first novel?

JMT: I came across a brief mention of the case in a book on Richmond history and made a mental note of it.

Sometime later I began looking into the case and, after finding all kinds of material on the trial and on Richmond in the 1880s, I became more and more intrigued. A failed attempt to turn the story into a nonfiction account led me to write it as a novel.

Book CoverWhat was the most challenging thing about approaching the story?

Creating believable, interesting characters within a compelling plot is THE challenge of writing any piece of fiction. This one was no different, though it helped to have a historical framework and tons of good material to turn to.

That said, one of the toughest things about telling this story was getting the voice right. My goal was to create a narrative that could get close in to Tommie’s head, without revealing too much (to the reader or himself), and then pull farther back.

I found it interesting that you said you “felt so connected to these long-dead people that [you] owed it to them to get it right,” because I have that sense myself sometimes. In the end, what are you hoping that 21st century readers take away from the story? What did you take away from it?

In the end, I think what I most want is for readers to feel moved by the plight of these young people, who made some crucial mistakes and paid dearly for them. We all make mistakes in our youth; sometimes we learn our lessons before we get in deeper, sometimes not.

The inference is that Tommie killed Lillian because she was pregnant. How damaging would Lillian’s giving birth really have been to Tommie socially, professionally, or otherwise? Do we need to look for more complex motivations?

That’s a good question, and Tommie even considers what his life would be like if he had “done the right thing” by Lillie and married her. Even if he had been able to live down the scandal of marrying a pregnant girl, which in those days and in their circle would’ve been significant, it would still not have been the life this ambitious young man had envisioned for himself.

And what about the world he lived in — 1880s Virginia, and the place of the crime, Richmond. What’s this place like a generation after the Civil War? And why did this crime in this place become national news?

Well, Richmond, the former Confederate capital, was making a comeback after being ravaged by the war. This event caught the interest of the general public because of the high standing of the families involved and because the lawyers trying the case were distinguished men and famous orators.

Despite maintaining innocence to the last, it seems pretty difficult to imagine that Thomas Cluverius was actually innocent. Still, at the time there were plenty of people who apparently thought he might be. Why on earth did he attract that level of support? If not for the watch-key, might he have avoided conviction altogether?

That’s the fickle nature of the public — once the scapegoat has been cast out, there is a lingering sense of doubt and guilt that causes many of us to look into our own hearts … let he who is without sin.

I think the watch-key did play a big role, but it wasn’t necessarily the sine qua non. I think the sheer volume of testimony offered by the prosecution overwhelmed any reserve the all-male jury might have felt. The burden of proof, in fact if not by law, lay with the defense, and the proof (of innocence) simply wasn’t there.

What are you working on next?

I’m finishing up a coming-of-age novel about a young woman who suffers a number of poignant losses in turn-of-the-century North Carolina. By the way, until “turn-of-the-century” means turn of the 21st (maybe in two decades?) I’m using that phrase to mean turn of the 20th.

Thanks for inviting me on your blog.

* Or empathize with the young lawyer’s lost-potential pathos.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Interviews,Murder,Other Voices,Sex,USA,Virginia

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1924: The first electrocutions in Texas

4 comments February 8th, 2011 Headsman

There is sweeping over Texas, as never before in her history, a wave of crime. Murder, theft, robbery and holdups are hourly occurrences that fill the daily press. The spirit of lawlessness has become alarming. Our loose method of dealing with violators of the law is in a large degree responsible for the conditions that today confront us.

-Texas Gov. Pat Neff, in a 1921 message to the state legislature.

It was just after midnight on this date in 1924 that the state of Texas first used its new electric chair, supplanting public hangings with a regime of private executions administered by the state.

Five men, all black, died in rapid succession on the new contraption. (Although witnesses, “sickened by the odor of burning flesh that filled the room, were given a brief respite” between the fourth and the fifth executions.) It was a half-year’s worth of backlog built up while the new death chamber had been constructed for the transition from county-level hangings.

Robert Perkinson’s Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire chronicles the evolution of that state’s prison regime after the Civil War in lucid, page-turning prose. We’re very grateful that he’s allowed Executed Today to mark the Lone Star State’s era of electrocutions with this brief excerpt from that book.


Although elected as a progressive, Pat Neff was the first Texas governor to make hard-fisted, no-nonsense crime fighting a central part of his political identity.

… Neff proposed tougher penalties for bootleggers, an expansion of the Texas Rangers, and the abolition of the state’s suspended sentencing law, an innovation enacted at the end of leasing. He also radically curtailed executive clemency. …

Walter Boyd, aka Leadbelly, was … caught in Neff’s clutches. “‘Dat man ain’ gonna tu’n you loose, ol’ Walter,'” his fellow convicts told him. “‘He wouldn’ tu’n his own mammy loose.'” … Leadbelly had tried everything but running to regain his freedom. Through hard work on the line, he had convinced a captain to request that his escape record be expunged, which under a different governor would have enhanced his chances of parole. About a year after his arrival at Sugar Land, Leadbelly’s father showed up carrying a “fat roll of bills.” He had sold the family’s last parcel of land and tried, rather brazenly, to buy his only son’s freedom, but the warden turned him down …

[Leadbelly] was well known as a musician. When he heard that Governor Neff was planning a personal inspection, he composed a special song. Neff was “a big, fine-lookin’ man,” he recalled, and “sho was crazy about my singin’ an’ dancin’. Ev’y time I’d sing a new song or cut a few steps he’d roll me a bran-new silver dollar ‘cross the flo'” Once his audience warmed, Leadbelly presented his unusual appeal.

Please, Governor Neff, be good and kind,
Have mercy on my great, long time.

With his boot tapping and strings blazing, the musician hit all the conventional clemency notes. He called himself Neff’s “servant,” pleaded on behalf of his wife Mary (in reality his girlfriend), lamented his thirty-year sentence, and even offered an oblique critique.

Some folks say it’s a sin,
Got too many women and too many men.
… In de pen.

Neff himself remembered the encounter almost as vividly. In his autobiography, The Battles of Peace, he painted the singer as a happy minstrel and himself as the benevolent master. “On one of the farms … was a negro as black as a stack of black cats at midnight,” he wrote. “This negro would pick his banjo, pat his foot, roll his eyes, and show his big white teeth as he caroled forth in negro melody his musical application for a pardon.” In his paternalistic way, the governor was moved, or at least amused. He announced that he would grant the supplicant’s request but in his own time. “Walter, I’m gonna give you a pardon,” Leadbelly remembered Neff telling him, “but I ain’ gonna give it to you now. I’m gonna keep you down here to play for me when I come, but when I get out of office I’m gonna turn you loose.” True to his word, the governor enjoyed Leadbelly’s high-spirited performances on command whenever he visited the lower farms, then set him free on his last day in office.


Lead Belly singing the prison blues song “Midnight Special”.

Few other convicts were as fortunate. Despite the costs to taxpayers, almost a thousand more convicts entered Texas prisons than were allowed to leave during Neff’s four-year reign. Inmates sentenced to death, most of them African Americans and Hispanics convicted of rape or murder, found especially little sympathy. Largely in response to lynching, which the governor condemned, Texas centralized the death penalty in 1923. Previously, every county had carried out its own executions, usually in the form of public hangings. Progressives hoped that by sequestering such events at the Walls, they would discourage mob sentiment and encourage reverence for “the majesty of the law.” But the site and method of execution did not alter its racial dynamics.

Following the lead of New York and other states, lawmakers also ordered prison officials to carry out executions by a new technique, one they perceived as “more modern and humane,” the electric chair. Huntsville officials thus built a new death house, the very same in use today, and by the end of the year a squat, straight-backed throne — soon christened Ol’ Sparky — was ready for operation. Governor Neff wasted little time in authorizing its use.

On a visit to the Walls in January, the governor stopped in to visit with five men he would soon send to their deaths. “A queer feeling creeps over you as you pass the death cell and pause,” he wrote. “They knew, and I realized, that I held within my hand the power to save them from the electric chair. How feeble were words, both theirs and mine, at such a time.” Not long after the governor departed, the men, all of them African American, ranging in age from twenty to thirty-nine, were approved for elimination.

In a dramatic gesture of conscience, Huntsville’s warden, R.F. Coleman, resigned his post only days before. “It just couldn’t be done,” he told reporters. “The penitentiary is a place to reform a man, not to kill him.” But a replacement was quickly found, and the Walls’ inaugural electrocutions went forward as scheduled. At nine minutes after midnight, the first condemned man, Charlie Reynolds, was escorted by two guards into the brightly lit death chamber. He blinked rapidly, reported a witness, was speedily strapped in the chair, and then stiffened violently when the new warden threw the switch. Within the hour, four other men met the same fate.

On this day..

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

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