869 or 870: St. Edmund the Martyr

2 comments November 20th, 2011 Headsman

This is the feast date and martyrdom date of middle ages English king Edmund the Martyr.

Stained glass of Edmund the Martyr from Our Lady and the English Martyrs church in Cambridge. (cc) image from Laurence OP

This acute ruler of the East Angles, the last native East Anglian king, was stomped in battle by the marauding norsemen under Ivar the Boneless and his less interestingly-named brother Ubbe Ragnarsson.

These two were sore about their father Ragnar Lodbrok, who had shipwrecked in England — maybe East Anglia, maybe elsewhere — and allegedly been thrown into a snakepit.

According to the hagiographic account, these Danish heathens attempted to force Edmund to renounce Christianity. Edmund demurred.

Then those wicked men bound Edmund, and shamefully insulted him, and beat him with clubs, and afterwards they led the faithful king to an earth-fast tree, and tied him thereto with hard bonds, and afterwards scourged him a long while with whips, and ever he called, between the blows, with true faith, on Jesus Christ; and then the heathen because of his faith were madly angry, because he called upon Christ to help him. They shot at him with javelins as if for their amusement until he was all beset with their shots, as with a porcupine’s bristles, even as Sebastian was.

The martyr-king’s body was ultimately interred at the aptly-namd Bury St. Edmunds. This locale thereafter became a major, and lucrative, pilgrimage spot in Britain.

Edmund himself became the patron saint of England until he was supplanted just before the Norman invasion by omnibus patron saint George. As George had nothing to do with England, there’s been some latter-day push to revert the honor to the native king.

So far, no dice.

Update: Jamie that killjoy at the British History Podcast puts it in 869 and rebuts the notion that there was any execution at all, here.

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Entry Filed under: Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Denmark,Early Middle Ages,England,Execution,Famous,God,Heads of State,History,Martyrs,Myths,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Power,Religious Figures,Royalty,Shot,Shot with Arrows,Summary Executions,Torture

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1828: William Corder, for the Red Barn Murder

2 comments August 11th, 2011 Headsman


This nostalgic emblem of bygone pastoral idylls doubles as a great place to dump a body. (cc) image from boodie131.

This date in 1828, throngs of thousands at Bury St. Edmunds saw the climax of the Red Barn Murder case in the form of the public hanging of William Corder.

This broadside blockbuster got its start in a Suffolk village, where a local ladies’ man and his paramour plotted a rendezvous at the titular shed for the purpose of elopement — she having become pregnant by the young man’s offices.

When the meeting was over, Corder had vanished from town … and Maria Marten had just plain vanished.

Almost a year later, Maria Marten’s stepmother began reporting dreams that the poor girl had been murdered and stashed in the barn. And sure enough, when they searched it, there lay Maria — with William Corder’s handkerchief around her neck. Corder was found in London living with his new wife.

(About the stepmom: she was just a year older than her “daughter”, and considering her essential role in divining the body’s location, has to be considered suspect herself. It’s not too hard to picture her as Maria’s rival for the tomcatting Corder. She never faced any charges, though.)

In a standing-room-only trial that commenced a mere four days before the hanging — papers reported shortages of post-horses owing to the influx of rubberneckers — Corder failed to persuade anyone that he merited the least bit of mercy with his cockamamie story that Marten done shot herself through the eye.* He was doomed by the jury with 35 minutes’ deliberation.

The Red Barn murder is one of dozens in Judith Flanders’ The Invention of Murder (Review)

The London Times (Aug. 11, 1828) waxed unctuously pleased with this circumstance.

We congratulate the country on a manifest improvement in the condition of its moral feeling, since the sickly sensibility of the press, and of the multitude to whose foul taste it ministered, was wont to declare itself on the side of ruthless and treacherous murder, and to stifle at once every movement of honest compassion for the victim, and all reverence for the principles by which justice is vindicated and human society held together.

Another base ruffian has now equalled or exceeded Thurtell in guilt, and is about to follow him in the experience of lawful retribution. To the honour of the people, we have not yet heard one ejaculation of unnatural pity for the miscreant who deliberately butchered the mother of his infant on pretence of accompanying her to the altar. Corder has united in this one deed of horror — if it be his only one — whatever the heart revolts at most in the conduct of man to woman. He seduced — then betrayed — then massacred the wretched creature, in cold blood; and providential were the means of his detection, as his crime was hateful to God and man.

Why will not unhappy females bethink themselves before it be too late, that he who is depraved enough to corrupt their innocence, has already made no small advance in that course which ends too often in his exacting from them the only remaining sacrifice?

Corder left the scaffold just as he had reached it, corrupting females all the way down.

Seated on a wall, which gave a commanding view of the whole scene, were several ladies, dressed in the first style of fashion. I mention this fact because it shows the intense curiosity prevalent in this county respecting every action of Corder: for nothing else could have brought respectables females to behold a catastrophe so uncongenial with the usual kindness and benevolence of the female character.

London Times, Aug. 12, 1828

An account of the trial is long since in the public domain and available free from Google books; especially recommended is the collection of dozens of Victorian-Craigslist notes Corder received when he advertised for a wife upon reaching London.

Also of interest: this journal article comparing popular ballads around the case, and even linking to a recorded performance.

As befits such a magnetic public spectacle, Corder’s body was slated for a long afterlife as a macabre totem of the principles by which justice is vindicated.

His corpse was publicly displayed — some 5,000 people are reported to have filed past it — and the hanging rope sold off in increments. Gruesome relics from the case — Corder’s scalp, his death mask, a book bound in his skin — were harvested for exhibition. (Tourists also poured into Corder’s village of Polstead, stripping souvenirs from the red barn and chipping Maria Marten’s gravestone down to the nub.)

The murderer’s skull was one of these trophies, but its owner became convinced it was cursed and had it buried. The rest of Corder was anatomized, as was the style at the time, and its skeleton remained on public display until just a few years ago with that of 18th century crime lord Jonathan Wild.

While the traditional ballads are to be expected …

this venial crime among commoners has sustained popular memory of sufficient longevity to put the Red Barn Murder onto such unanticipated media as the silver screen

… and Tom Waits’ somber blues/rock.

* Corder confessed before his execution.

Part of the Themed Set: Branded.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Infamous,Murder,Public Executions,Scandal,Sex

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1740: Charles Drew, parricide

1 comment April 9th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1740, a “horrid parricide” was hanged for murdering his father.

No known connection to Polish metal band Parricide.

The neglected son of an attorney, Charles Drew needed no better provocation for shooting the old dog than his paramour’s remark, “I wish somebody would shoot the old dog.”

The specific provocation for the wish, and the deed, was the likelihood of being disinherited by dad should he make an honest woman of Miss Elizabeth Boyer.

Chas attempted to deflect attention by posting a reward for information, finding to his consternation that said reward quickly triggered the arrest of a man to whom he had actually confided about the crime.

This gave Drew great uneasiness; he took the utmost pains to suppress all farther informations, and even to destroy the credibility of those already made. He publicly declared that Humphreys was not the man who shot his father, and threatened to prosecute the officer who apprehended him.

Their correspondence eventually (by way of a nosy attorney) betrayed young Charles, who upon exposure “seemed not to have a proper sense of the enormity of the crime of which he had been guilty, and would have attributed it to his father’s ill treatment of him.”

Lacking therefore the connivance of the criminal himself in explicating the moral lesson (“don’t kill dad”), the Newgate Calendar clears its editorial voice to expand upon the indignity of Drew’s hanging* this date in 1740.

The crime of murder is in itself so horrid, that it requires no aggravation; but that of parricide is of the worst species of murder. The destruction of those from whom, under God, we have immediately derived our being, has something in it so shocking to humanity, that one would think it impossible it should ever be committed.

By the Lex Pompeia of the Romans parricides were ordained to be put into a sack, with a dog, a cock, a viper, and an ape, and thrown into the sea, thus to perish by the most cruel of all tortures. The Egyptians also put such delinquents to death in the most horrible manner. They gradually mangled their body and limbs, and, when almost every limb was dislocated or broken, they placed the criminal, writhing and screeching with pain, upon thorns, where he was burnt alive! In China impiety to parents was considered a crime similar in atrocity to treason and rebellion, for which criminals were sentenced to be cut in ten thousand pieces! By the ancient Jewish law it was also death for children to curse or strike their parents: in fine, every nation punished the parricide in the most exemplary manner.

* Drew “seemed to part with life with evident signs of reluctance.”

Part of the Themed Set: Selections from the Newgate Calendar.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Public Executions

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1722: Arundel Cooke and John Woodburne, despite a novel defense

1 comment April 5th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1722, Arundel Cooke and John Woodburne were hanged at Bury St. Edmunds, curiously becoming the first victims [edit: or maybe not] of a law of unintended consequences.

This duo’s path to the gallows begins years before their births, when Stuart Restoration parliamentarian John Coventry trod on the royal toes and was in consequence beaten up by some of Monmouth‘s goons.

Incensed, parliament passed the Coventry Act.

By this statute it is enacted that if any person shall of malice aforethought, and by laying in wait, unlawfully cut or disable the tongue, put out an eye, slit the nose, cut off the nose or lip, or cut off or disable any limb or member of any other person, with intent to maim or disfigure him, such person, his counsellors, aiders and abettors, shall be guilty of felony, without benefit of clergy.

“Previous to the passing,” claims The Newgate Calendar, “it was customary for revengeful men to waylay another and cut and maim him, so that though he did not die of such wounds he might remain a cripple during the remainder of life, and such case was not then a capital offence. It was also a dangerous practice resorted to by thieves, who would often cut the sinews of men’s legs, called ham-stringing, in order to prevent their escape from being robbed.”

Sounds like an interesting time. One may well wonder how very customary this practice was, with the half-century lapse before the law found its first prey.

Cooke and Woodburne, for that matter, did not commit the sort of crime that long-ago parliament had had in mind.

Cooke, a well-off barrister, desired to secure for himself the sizable estate to which he was married, and hired working stiff John Woodburne to bump off his brother-in-law, on Christmas evening no less. The would-be assassin jumped him in a churchyard and

knocked down the unhappy man, and cut and maimed him in a terrible manner, in which he was abetted by the counsellor [Cooke].

Imagining they had dispatched him, Mr Cooke rewarded Woodburne with a few shillings and instantly went home; but he had not arrived more than a quarter of an hour before [the victim] knocked at the door, and entered, covered with wounds, and almost dead through loss of blood. He was unable to speak, but by his looks seemed to accuse Cooke with the intended murder, and was then put to bed and his wounds dressed by a surgeon. At the end of about a week he was so much mended that he was removed to his own house.

The perps were easily discovered, and having maimed the intended victim, appeared to fall within the compass of the Coventry Act.

But had they really committed a hanging offense? The defendant put his professional legal training to use.

[Cooke] urged that judgment could not pass on the verdict, because the Act of Parliament simply mentions an intention to maim or deface, whereas he was firmly resolved to have committed murder.

That’s a defense you don’t hear every day. Evidently, the court wanted to keep it that way.

Lord Chief Justice King, who presided on this occasion, declared he could not admit the force of Mr Cooke’s plea, consistent with his own oath as a judge — “For,” said he, “it would establish a principle in the law inconsistent with the first dictates of natural reason, as the greatest villain might, when convicted of a smaller offence, plead that the judgment must be arrested because he intended to commit a greater. In the present instance judgment cannot be arrested, as the intention is naturally implied when the crime is actually committed.”

Cooke’s university education and oleaginous lawyering did, however, enable him to make a successful request to be hanged before dawn on his scheduled day of execution, so as not to be exposed to the rude opprobrium of the commoners. John Woodburne (whether due to class position or the value he put on his last hours of life, the text does not inform us) was not extended the same courtesy, and swung later that day in full public view.

Part of the Themed Set: Selections from the Newgate Calendar.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Attempted Murder,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Lawyers,Notable Jurisprudence,Pelf,Public Executions

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