1792: Three cadavers, to test the first guillotine

Add comment April 17th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1792, the French Revolution’s iconic execution machine made its quiet experimental debut on the grounds of a suburban Paris hospital.

For all the long and terrible shadow it would cast, the first guillotine was a ridiculous rush job — courtesy of a legislature too squeamish to deal in the particulars of the humane head-chopper it had insisted upon. A ghastly farce ensued, as detailed by Paul Friedland in his Seeing Justice Done: The Age of Spectacular Capital Punishment in France,* wherein during a matter of weeks in the spring of 1792 the thing was practically willed into existence by French physician Antoine Louis by virtue of being the one guy who was willing to get into the technical journals on the matter of crunching a heavy blade through a man’s spine.**

The invention would initially be known as a louisette or louison in his honor, before that moniker was supplanted by the surname of a different physician who had become known (derisively, at first) for proposing a mechanical beheading device: Joseph-Ignace Guillotin.

Lawmakers’ shyness stems as Friedland sees it from their ambivalence about the entire project of public executions with their unruly rabble, pornographically agape: in this courtly sketch of the proposed machine, even the executioner — and this behavior is explicit in its original caption — coyly averts his eyes as his sword-arm releases the blade.

It was on March 20, 1792 that Assembly’s Committee on Legislation authorized deploying the as-yet uninvented device and “almost immediately, there followed an urgent, almost frenzied effort to build a decapitating machine as quickly as possible.” Executions remained suspended in the interim but Louis worked with dispatch, and an efficient carpenter named Guidon,† and the device performed its first real execution a mere five weeks after the enabling legislation, on April 25.

This date was its dry run, courtesy of a few fresh cadavers at the BicĂȘtre Hospital, which the chief surgeon, one Cullerier, was very happy to make Dr. Louis’s arrangements.

Sir,

You will find at Bicetre all the facilities that you desire for the trial of a machine that humanity cannot see without shuddering, but which justice and the welfare of society make necessary. I will keep the corpses of those unfortunates who die between today and Monday. I will arrange the amphitheater … [and if] the ceiling does not accommodate the height of the machine, I can make use of a little isolated courtyard situated next to the amphitheater. The honor that you are bestowing on the House of Bicetre, Sir, is a very nice gift that you are giving me, but it would be even more so if you wished to accept a simple and frugal meal, such as a bachelor can offer.

Several more VIPs multiplied the honor. Rejoining Friedland’s narrative,

On April 17 the first trial of the guillotine took place. On hand to witness the event were: Sanson, the executioner of Paris, along with his son and an aide; the carpenter who built the machine and his aides; and several members of the medical establishment including Drs. Louis, Cullerier, and Pierre Jean George Cabanis, the prominent physician and friend of Mirabeau. Reportedly also in attendance that day were several members of the National Assembly and last, but certainly not least, an individual who was both a politician and a physician: Dr. Guillotin himself. By all accounts the trial was a wonderful success. As Dr. Louis enthused in his report to [politician and intellectual Pierre-Louis] Roederer, the machine decapitated three cadavers “so neatly that one was astonished by the force and celerity of its action.” Dr. Cabanis would later describe the blade’s descent as having “severed the heads faster than one could see, and the bones were cleanly cut.”

The reports ring with awe, and well they might. For an Enlightenment audience that theretofore had known beheadings only via the error-prone action of an executioner’s muscle, it must have been a wondrous spectacle, a triumph of ingenuity and philosophy for a humane new age.

* Executed Today long ago interviewed Dr. Friedland about this book.

** A rival proposal called for automating death via a sort of proto-gas chamber: the executioner to “attach the condemned by the neck, feet, and hands behind the back [to a post on the scaffold], all of which he would cover or enclose in a kind of booth, 5 feet square, equipped with panes of glass on all four sides and with a tight-fitting cap on top … charcoal, sulfur, and other materials that cause asphyxiation could be introduced into the booth by means of an inverted funnel in such a way that the condemned would suffocate and expire instantaneously.” Yet another proposal called for a strangling machine.

† “Who charged 5,500 francs for it,” report the memoirs of the Sansons, which also notes that by way of experimentation, two of the cadavers were beheaded with the familiar-to-us oblique knife, and the third less satisfactorily with a crescent-shaped alternative.

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1990: Charles Coleman, the first lethal injection in Oklahoma

1 comment September 10th, 2015 Headsman

Despite our occasional predilection for the odd “literally executed today” post, this macabre chronicle has never really aspired to focus on our subject matter’s breaking-news beat.

Nonetheless, the landscape of the death penalty has evolved noticeably in the years since we launched on Halloween 2007. Executions are down in China, but up in Saudi Arabia and Iran; India has ended a long death penalty hiatus; Pakistan began, sustained, and dramatically repudiated a death penalty moratorium.

And in the United States, the prevailing execution method, lethal injection, has fallen under a barrage of legal and political challenges.

Like the guillotine, the electric chair, the gas chamber, and weirder contraptions, the prick of the needle had once been sold as a Solomonic compromise between the executioner and his critics: you still get to kill a guy, but now he doesn’t feel a thing. This time we really mean it!

Lethal injection got some run in the Nazi T-4 euthanasia program but was first approved for regular judicial executions by Oklahoma in 1977, and first used by Texas in 1982. Where gas and electricity transferred industrial technology to the death chamber, with great metal chairs and huge switches like Dr. Frankenstein’s lab, injection analogized medicine: silent and light, and so sterile that the technicians would hygienically swab the skin before they pushed in the death-dealing needle.

Most of all it was sterile for the viewers, who had occasionally been subjected under the other processes to nauseating botches: men who were supposed to be dying instantly instead thrashing wildly away, catching fire, gushing blood, or requiring jolt after jolt to finish off. The electric chair surely owes its iconic cultural position in part to its reputation for spectacular failures.

When capital punishment got its 1970s reboot, it only seemed natural to think about cleaning up the how along with the why. Nearly everyone now had the experience of anaesthetic; it was natural to think that you could just put a man down like the family dog and not have any mess to clean up afterwards.

“Being a former farmer and horse raiser, I know what it’s like to try to eliminate an injured horse by shooting him,” future president Ronald Reagan had said in proposing the technology while he was still governor of California in 1973. “Now you call the veterinarian and the vet gives it a shot and the horse goes to sleep. That’s it.”

As executions surged in the 1990s, lethal injection was thoroughly displacing America’s previous humane technologies to become the overwhelmingly predominant method.


Data via the Death Penalty Information Center’s executions database.

And the state of Oklahoma, which had been first with a lethal injection law back in ’77, finally started rolling out gurneys — when it put murder Charles Troy Coleman to death with the needle on September 10, 1990. It was Oklahoma’s first execution in 24 years.*

It was Oklahoma’s medical examiner Jay Chapman who had formulated the three-drug cocktail that for a long time comprised the definitive lethal injection protocol: the short-acting barbiturate sodium thiopental, followed by the paralytic drug pancuronium bromide, capped with potassium chloride to stop the heart. Why three drugs, Human Rights Watch later asked him? “Why not?” Chapman was not a pharmacologist and had little expertise with the drugs in question.

Nevertheless, his process “could not be construed as cruel and unusual punishment since it is merely the extreme of procedures done daily around the world for surgical procedures,” Chapman insisted when he proposed it. “It’s simply an extreme form of anesthesia.”

Extreme anaesthesia. Was it really?

Even at Coleman’s death, observers saw it differently.

“I saw him choke and gasp and struggle for air,” said Joe Ward, an investigator in the public defender’s office. “It looked like he was choking to death. He looked over … and mouthed the words, ‘I love you.’ Then he looked straight back up and started choking.” Reporter Art Cox, by contrast, viewed it as “a very easy death … a very cold death, very antiseptic.”

Oklahoma has executed well over 100 people since Charles Coleman but if anything the uncertainty about that “easy” and “antiseptic” death has only grown — in the Sooner state and elsewhere.

And the question has become quite urgent during the lifetime of this blog as political pressure on manufacturers has dried up the supply of sodium thiopental, forcing the many states using lethal injection to scramble for a variety of new drug sequences that are basically being invented on the fly and sussed out with live experimentation on the next death row prisoner in the queue.

Oklahoma’s version was to switch from sodium thiopental to pentobarbital; in January 2014, a man being executed with pentobarbital exclaimed, “I feel my whole body burning.”. Months later, the manufacturer of that drug also cut off the supply, unwilling to be party to the executions it facilitated.

So Oklahoma switched to a third anaesthetic, midazolam, a drug whose execution debut took place in Florida in 2013. The state has also tried to shield its suppliers from anti-death penalty campaigners with a secrecy law.

Proceeding on a mad catch-as-can basis, Oklahoma proceeded to horribly botch its midazolam executions, throwing its new procedure right back to the courts. Just this past June, a divided U.S. Supreme Court narrowly approved the continued use of its midazolam cocktail, which a dissenting justice savaged as “the chemical equivalent of being burned alive.”

It’s a story still being written before our eyes — a long quarter-century after Charles Coleman premiered Oklahoma’s modern era of executions on this date in 1990.

* The last previous execution in Oklahoma was that of James French in 1966.

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1581: James Douglas, Earl of Morton

Add comment June 2nd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1581, James Douglas, the Earl of Morton was beheaded on the Maiden.

The fourth and last of little King James‘s regents, Morton was arguably the most able of the bunch and distinguished his span of authority by winning the raging civil war against James’s mother Mary.

Regent Morton had a reputation for avarice during his run in the 1570s. However, deriving as it does from his executive impingement on the treasures of courtiers and clans no less grasping than himself, that reputation probably ought to be taken with a grain of salt.


Rimshot

If nothing else, Regent Morton had the excuse of king and country. Sir Walter Scott, for one, favored this Red Douglas with a much more charitably statesmanlike gloss in The Monastery and The Abbott.

As one example, Morton irked divines by enforcing with a minimum of pious exceptions a pre-existing statute requiring a one-third cut of ecclesiastical revenues.

Likewise, he made an enemy of Lady Agnes Keith — the widow of the assassinated first regent — and her (subsequent) husband, the Earl of Argyll by forcing them to turn over crown jewels that were being held in their quote-unquote safekeeping.

In 1578, this Argyll kidnapped King James VI and induced the 12-year-old to declare his majority and dismiss the Earl of Morton. Argyll landed a Chancellorship out of the deal: Morton — well, you know. He would eventually be accused, 14 years’ belatedly but not inaccurately, of complicity in the 1567 murder of Lord Darnley.

Argyll in the end lost his head to that distinctive Scottish proto-guillotine known as the Maiden. Though the apparatus actually dates back to 1564,* a legend as moralistic as it is specious holds that the Regent Morton was himself the man who ordered construction of the device that would eventually end his own life. Sir Walter could hardly be asked to resist that kind of material:

“Look you, Adam, I were loth to terrify you, and you just come from a journey; but I promise you, Earl Morton hath brought you down a Maiden from Halifax, you never saw the like of her — and she’ll clasp you round the neck, and your head will remain in her arms.”

“Pshaw!” answered Adam, “I am too old to have my head turned by any maiden of them all. I know my Lord of Morton will go as far for a buxom lass as anyone; but what the devil took him to Halifax all the way? and if he has got a gamester there, what hath she to do with my head?”

“Much, much!” answered Michael. “Herod’s daughter, who did such execution with her foot and ankle, danced not men’s heads off more cleanly than this maiden of Morton. ‘Tis an axe, man, — an axe which falls of itself like a sash window, and never gives the headsmen the trouble to wield it.”

“By my faith, a shrewd device,” said Woodcock; “heaven keep us free on’t!”

-Sir Walter Scott, The Abbott

When next in Edinburgh, quaff Scots engineering acumen with the friendly backpackers crashing at the High Street Hostel — the glorious stone town house that was once Regent Morton’s very own crib.


By Kim Traynor (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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1307: Murcod Ballagh, beheaded

Add comment April 1st, 2015 Headsman

“In the yeare 1307 the first of Aprill,” Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland records, “Murcod Ballagh was beheaded neere to Merton by sir David Caunton knight.”

First published in 1577, this document — heavily mined by Shakespeare for his histories — is silent as to the further particulars of the beheading. But the accompanying image depicting the execution surprisingly presents a guillotine-like device being employed for the task.

As John Wilson Croker’s History of the Guillotine observes, this one illustration 270 years after the fact scarcely suffices to establish that a guillotine precursor really was in use in Ireland in the first years of the 14th century. Were that the case, this might be the earliest quote-unquote “documented” execution by a beheading-machine.

(Executions in Halifax, Scotland, can be sourced as early as the 1280s, but it is not known if the famed Halifax Gibbet was in use at that early date.)

But it does at least establish the authors’ awareness of such technology — perhaps by familiarity with the Scottish Maiden, or perhaps by having caught wind of similar gadgets in France and Italy.

“This mode of execution was common on the Continent in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,” Croker concludes with a bit of overstatement. “And yet had passed into such entire desuetude and oblivion as to have appeared as a perfect novelty when proposed by Dr. Guillotin.”

“This is certainly a striking illustration of the proverb that there is nothing new under the sun.”

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1793: A Lyon mitraillade

Add comment December 14th, 2014 Headsman

The executions on December 14, 1793 illustrated above (image from here) date to Revolutionary France’s violent suppression that month of the France’s second city for its resistance to Jacobin power.

We have alluded before to this bloody interim, led by the National Convention‘s ruthless emissaries Collot d’Herbois and Joseph Fouche — two men well aware that any appearance of undue leniency in the chastisement of Lyons might send their own heads under the guillotine back in Paris.

To accomplish such an urgent task, they dispensed with the mere guillotine and rolled out a new death-dealing technology: the mitraillades, or execution by grapeshot.*

This bizarre killing method involved lining up the prisoners to be executed — scores or hundreds at once at the height of the Lyons crackdown — before the mouths of cannon loaded with anti-infantry balls. When the cannons fired, they mowed down the victims en masse. And then, gloated the executioners’ Convention ally Barere, “the corpses of the rebellious Lyonese, floating down the Rhone, would warn the citizens of Toulon of their coming fate!”

Now, grapeshot is an outstanding weapon in the right spot, but it is not at all certain to kill its targets. On the battlefield, mangled survivors were just about as good as dead bodies when it came to mauling the soldiery.

But executioners usually aim for something a bit more predictably lethal. The mitraillades could not offer anything close to dependable, near-universal slaughter … and so the horror of the artillery discharge was followed (as one sees in the drawing above) by the horror of the many stunned and injured survivors of the cannonade being finished one by one at close quarters with muskets and bayonets. Though a single coup de grace might count as a mercy, a hundred at once made for simple butchery.

The mitraillade did such brutal work that the national government soon ordered its Lyons deputation to lay off the innovation and return to the standard device for a Republican execution — the guillotine.

* Present-day Francophones will most likely associate the word mitrailleuse with the machine gun. That term dates to a a 19th century “volley gun” capable of spitting out 25 rounds from a cluster of rifle barrel activated by a single crank; for obvious reasons, this weapon inherited its name from the French word for grapeshot, mitraillade.

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1913: Andriza Mircovich, by a shooting-machine

Add comment May 14th, 2014 Headsman

101 years ago today, a Serbian immigrant was shot for murder in Carson City, Nevada.

It was an ordinary murder, by an ordinary man: his cousin died in a mining fire in 1911, and Andriza (or Andrija) Mircovich, feeling he got stiffed on the resulting inheritance, stabbed to death the probate attorney (a fellow South Slav named Gregorovich).

The execution, however, was extraordinary — and has never in history been repeated.

The march of science had lately made possible whole new methods of execution heretofore uncontemplated — like electricity and poison gas. At the same time, mechanical engineering had improved old standbys like beheading and hanging from slipshod, error-prone affairs to efficient operations worthy of an age of industry.

Somewhere between those categories lies the firing squad. Firearms, of course, were new technology relative to the noose and a big ol’ axe, but we do find executions by shooting back to the 17th century at least.

Though the guns themselves had been updated, Nevada was forced by circumstances to do for firing squads what Dr. Guillotin had done for headsmen.

Nevada law at the time allowed inmates to choose between hanging and shooting. The state had all the accoutrement for the former, but it hadn’t ever conducted one of the latter. When Mircovich insisted on being shot, and prison officials couldn’t find people willing to pull the trigger, Nevada actually built a “shooting gallery of steel” — an entire contraption to automate the lethal fusillade.


Image from this history of Nevada capital punishment.

The 1,000-pound gallery of steel, whose arrival caused the prison warden George Cowing to resign in horror,* consisted of a shed with three protruding mounted rifles, which would be individually sighted on the heart of the restrained prisoner and fired when guards cut a string to release a spring mechanism.

In a macabre Rube Goldberg parody, it was improved for the consciences of the guards by having three strings that would be simultaneously cut, only one of which actually triggered the gallery. A redundant layer of plausible deniability was added, since each of the three guards had aimed only one of the three rifles, by loading only two of the three guns with live ammunition.

Mircovich went to his death still fulminating profanely against the judge who condemned him and the injustice of it all. The scene, it must be said, was not exactly the finest hour in penal history.

But the device itself? It worked perfectly, killing Mircovich nigh-instantly with two balls straight to his heart.


From the Los Angeles Times, May 15, 1913.

Nevada got rid of this inconvenient execution option not long after, and Mircovich remains the only human being put to death by shooting (whether by human hands or mechanical ones) in the Silver State’s history. The guns from this weird artifact currently reside at the Nevada State Museum, Carson City; the scaffolding that once surrounded them is in some aircraft carrier or tank, having been donated as scrap metal during World War II.

* Cowing was replaced by former governor Denver Dickerson, who would later oversee Nevada’s pathbreaking gas chamber debut. Digression: Dickerson’s turn as governor had been notable for his arranging a boxing match in Reno between the black champion Jack Johnson and the “great white hope” James Jeffries, which resulted in a legendary Johnson victory and — another sign of the era’s dismal condition of race relations — a nationwide wave of racial violence.

According to Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, Dickerson was the kind of guy who could see past skin color well enough to make bank wagering on Johnson.

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1894: John Cronin, by an automated gallows

1 comment December 18th, 2013 Headsman

From the Dec. 18, 1894 Atchison (Ks.) Daily:

HARTFORD, Conn., Dec. 18. — John Cronin was hanged here at 1:00 o’clock this morning.

The execution of Cronin was especially interesting, being the first hanging in this state under the law passed by the last general assembly and the first trial of an automatic gallows in the east.

This last is the idea of Warden Woodbridge. Aided by James H. Rabbett, a forger, now serving a two and one-half years’ sentence, the warden evolved what he considers an improvement on the hanging machine in use in Colorado.

Small shot has been substituted for water in the operation of the lever which releases the weight and an arrangement made whereby the execution may be stayed at any moment.

The compartment in which the shot are confined resembles an hour glass and the mechanism is thoroughly under the warden’s control. The shot was started in motion by the movement of a lever, and another lever would have enabled the warden to have stopped it at any time. The progress of the shot and the approaching moment when the weight would be released is indicated on a dial resembling a clock.

When Cronin had been seated in the chair and made fast, a signal from the executioner indicated to the man who had charge of the lever that he was ready. The machinery was then set in motion, there being no visible evidence of anything unusual.

The adjustment of the machine was made so perfect that the weight of 306 pounds made no perceptible noise as it was released and fell back to the ground beneath. Instantaneously the victim was jerked into the air, falling backward to within 2 feet of the floor.

One of the principal improvements over the Colorado appliance is the fact that the prisoner is not his own executioner. With the original machine,* when the prisoner was placed on the chair it released a lever which started the mechanism and in this way the man was practically forced to commit suicide.

John Cronin’s crime was the murder of Albert Skinner, at South Windsor, October 6, 1893. He was prompted by revenge for some fancied grievance. He had been boarding with Skinner for several months, but finally was ordered away. A fight ensued at the time and Cronin then went on a protracted debauch. The morning of the murder he went to Skinner’s house and meeting Skinner in the yard immediately shot him, inflicting a fatal wound.

* Developed to hang Dr. T. Thatcher Graves but to my knowledge never actually used.

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1888: One Newfoundland, for Thomas Alva Edison

5 comments July 30th, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1888, a 76-pound Newfoundland was electrocuted before a crowd in a lecture hall at the Columbia College School of Mines (now the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Columbia University) in New York City. The pooch was an innocent bystander who’d fallen victim to the War of Currents between Thomas Edison and his electrical adversary, George Westinghouse.

Edison was a proponent of direct current (DC), where the electricity flows in one direction from source to receiver. Westinghouse, one the other hand, favored AC, alternating current, where the electrical current will reverse direction from time to time and electricity doesn’t flow from the source to the receiver so much as in between them.

In the late 1800s, as electrical systems were spreading all over America, Westinghouse’s company and Edison’s company were duking it out as to which system would prevail over the other. Westinghouse’s AC, being far more efficient, was usually the system of choice for providing electricity to houses, businesses and streetlights, which was where most of the profits lay. (DC was better for things like batteries.)

Desperate to hold onto eroding market share, Edison saw an opportunity to do Westinghouse dirty when New York State adopted the electric chair as their means of execution. Some notable botches had rendered hanging unpalatable, but industrial electrification was still such a newfangled concept that at the time the law was passed, the chair had yet to be built. Edison figured that a propaganda blitz to make sure the device used AC would help convince the public that the rival current was too deadly to be used in private homes and city streets.

Edison hired Harold P. Brown to help him in his campaign to prove AC’s dangerousness: which brings us to this day’s event, as described in Craig Brandon’s detailed book The Electric Chair: An Unnatural American History.

In private experiments, Brown and his assistant, Arthur E. Kennelly, “attached electrodes to dozens of stray dogs and tried various combinations of volts and amperes before announcing that it took only 300 volts of alternating current to kill a dog, but 1,000 volts of direct current.”


Seriously?*

Satisfied that they were ready to go public, Brown scheduled a demonstration at Columbia on July 30, inviting electricians, scientists and the press to watch. Kennelly and Dr. Frederick Peterson, a member of the Medico-Legal Society of New York, assisted him.

Book CoverBrown opened his demonstration by insisting that he had been drawn into the controversy not out of any self-interest but because of his concern that alternating current was too dangerous to be used on city streets. He denied charges that he was in the pay of any electric light company and had “no financial or commercial interest” in the results of his experiments. Of course, the fact that he was using Edison’s equipment and was assisted by Edison’s chief of research spoke of itself.

Brown then brought in the first experimental subject: a 76-pound Newfoundland dog in a metal cage. The dog had been muzzled and had electrodes attached to one foreleg and one hind leg.


SERIOUSLY?! (cc) image from DanDee Shots.

Brown connected the dog to the DC generator that Edison had loaned him and starting with 300 volts gradually increased the voltage to 1,000 volts. As the voltage increased, the observers noted, the dog’s yelping increased but it remained alive.

Having proven the safety of DC current, Brown disconnected the suffering animal from the DC generator and connected it to the AC generator with the remark, “We shall make him feel better.” (No word on whether he was twirling his mustache as he said so.)

Brown turned the voltage to 330, and the dog collapsed and died instantly.

The viewers were impressed, but Brown wasn’t done yet and brought in another dog. He said he was going to connect this one to the AC generator first. This, he said, would prove that the animal didn’t die because the shocks from the DC generator had weakened it.

Before he could accomplish this, however, an agent from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals arrived and asked Brown to stop the experiment and spare the poor dog’s life. It took some convincing, but in the end Brown agreed to stay of execution. The second dog would die another day.

Although the regular newspapers loved this bit of theater, the trade magazine The Electrical Engineer claimed the experiment was unscientific. The magazine offered a terrible little poem about the proceedings:

The dog stood in the lattice box,
The wires around him led,
He knew not that electric shocks
So soon would strike him dead…
At last there came a deadly bolt,
The dog, O where was he?
Three hundred alternating volts,
Had burst his vicerae

Although the ASPCA might have brought his first experiment to a premature end, Brown was not deterred. He toured New York State for months, giving dog and pony shows before fascinated crowds, where he would electrocute cats, cows, calves, and well, dogs and ponies, using both direct and alternating currents. He paid young boys twenty-five cents apiece to round up stray animals to get fried.

The public watched — but wasn’t fooled, and continued to use alternating currents. Even the 1890 execution of William Kemmler in New York’s brand-spanking new AC electric chair failed to convince anyone that they were going to drop dead if they installed AC electricity in their homes. (Brown helped design the chair.) AC won the War of Currents hands-down.

The poor Newfoundland, having laid down its small life for the greater prosperity of Edison’s investors, died, unmourned, in vain.

* This shock-a-dog diagram is from “Death-Current Experiments at the Edison Laboratory,” an article that Harold Brown published in the New York Medico-Legal Journal, vol. 6, issue 4. He remarks therein, just by the by, on alternating current’s “life-destroying qualities,” and how the august committee carrying out these electrocutions “were not a little startled when I told of them results of recent tests for leakage made by me not long since on the circuit of one of the alternating current stations in this city.” Brown was, he said, indebted to “Mr. Thos. A. Edison, through whose kindness I was allowed the use of apparatus.”

As noted, the thorough Brown put said apparatus to use on a variety of fauna. In the interest of science, he also includes in this same article diagrams on the electrocution of a calf and a horse; we enclose them here for your edification.

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1872: William Frederick Horry, Marwood’s first

8 comments April 1st, 2012 Headsman

If Pa killed Ma, who’d kill Pa?

Marwood.

-Victorian riddle/pun

On this date in 1872, the landmark hanging career of William Marwood commenced — when, having persuaded the authorities at Lincoln Castle Gaol, he executed his very first subject.

The man of the milestone was William Frederick Horry, a Boston native — not Boston, Massachusetts, but the Lincolnshire port that was its namesake.

“Fred” wed Jane and the two ran The George Hotel in Burslem together.

Until Fred’s drunken, possessive outbursts led Jane to flee the house. Let it be said that a partnership in the hospitality industry might not be the ideal choice for your controlling type.

Jane and the couple’s three children actually took refuge with Fred’s own kin, the husband’s father barring his own son from the home. Horry got around that by showing up with a revolver and shooting her dead in an act of coldly calculated passion: he immediately handed the gun to his stunned brother and stayed to await arrest, saying, “You have no notion, Tom, how I loved that woman, but I could not stand the jealousy.” Nor did he show any interest in appealing for clemency; he hanged within days of his conviction.

If this reads to modern eyes like the unedifying passion play of an abusive, loutish spouse, many in Burslem were ready to consider Fred Horry “a martyr, more sinned against than sinning.” (The funeral oration of a rector!) Three thousand people lined the streets to respectfully see Horry’s coffin to its rest; even the requisite crime broadsheet concurred in the apparent public judgment about Jane’s culpably easy virtue.

Now all you who give way to jealous passion,
And the crimes which it entails,
I hope that you will learn a lesson,
From my sad and mournful tale.
Their married life has ended early,
For his wife he says his temper tried
But for them now it is all ended,
For her faults she bled and died.

Supporters erected a monolith in his honor, an unusual tribute for a wife-murderer.


The man tasked to mete out the lesson for Horry’s jealous passion was, heretofore, a Horncastle cobbler.

Already into his fifties by this time, William Marwood was strictly self-educated in the science of hanging … but it is he who would bring the exacting mechanical arts to the hangman’s ancient craft.

(Actually, Marwood was fond of distinguishing himself from the mere hangman. “Calcraft hanged them,” he said of his notoriously slipshod predecessor’s operations. “I execute them.” He went so far as to assert his professionalism with business cards.)

To make this famous mark in the annals of capital punishment, Marwood the cobbler first had to talk his way into the Horry job. This was surely facilitated by the fact that the most recent execution at Lincoln Castle, that of Priscilla Biggadike or Biggadyke, had been a bit of a botch, with one of the realm’s forgettable barely-competent hangmen clumsily fitting the noose to the front of the convict’s throat on the supposition that this would snap her neck. Instead, she strangled.

Marwood’s arrival spelled the quick end to folklore and guesswork on the scaffold; his was the rational hand of industrial Britain finally touching the ancient hanging ritual.

For most of English history, the hanging had entailed simply shoving the unfortunate subject off a ladder or a cart, leaving them to gradually choke to death at the end of the noose. This protracted process was sometimes associated with unruly public scenes, and with “executed” criminals surviving (and even intentionally calculating to survive) the hanging. “Such as have but a very superficial Notion of Anotomy, may easily conceive how a Person very soon cut down may shew even strong Signs of Life,” the Ordinary of Newgate had passingly remarked in 1736, as if it really were no big deal.

Of course, it had long been understood that adding a little plummet could generate the force necessary to break the neck, to the advantage of both speed and certainty. Guy Fawkes is supposed to have exploited the carelessness of a Stuart executioner to hurl himself off the ladder when they were just setting up for the non-fatal hanging portion of his “hanged, drawn, and quartered” sentence — and thereby cleverly offed himself before they could do the agonizing Braveheart bits to his living body.

Small drops came into use with the move towards hanging platforms late in the 18th century, and by the mid-19th century larger drops of some kind were standard operating procedure: witness the description of the setup for the country’s first private hanging a few years before our date.

But the length and the nature of the drop remained very much within individual hangmen’s ad hoc discretion. The science of dropping would only arrive in the 1860s and 1870s. Until then, execution bulletins reporting that the unhappy soul “died hard” denoted the frequent occasions when death was effected via agonizing minutes of choking spasms. Even in the London Times‘ Dec. 22, 1875 report on one such man who “died hard” noted that “in the memory of Mr. John Rowland Gibson, the prison surgeon, extending, in that capacity, over more than 40 years, there are only two instances on record in Newgate of the neck of a convict having been dislocated during execution.”

Aiming to remedy that substandard record, the Irish doctor Samuel Haughton in 1866 published a landmark paper, “On hanging considered from a Mechanical and Physiological point of view” (read it here), in which he noted that whereas a short-dropped prisoner’s death by apoplexy or asphyxiation is “preceded by convulsions, lasting from five to forty-five minutes,” a broken neck “is instantaneous and painless, and is unaccompanied by any convulsive movement whatever.”

“It seems to me unworthy of the present state of science,” Haughton continued, “to continue a mode of execution which, as at present used, is extremely clumsy and also painful to the criminal.”

In a mass of equations abstractly working out foot-pounds’ shock expended on the neck and which vertebrae constituted the superior articulating surface, Haughton proceeded to suggest a protocol (adapted from the American drop method) “to give hanging all the rapidity of death by the guillotine without the painful spectacle of bloodshed.”

Haughton was just a theorist. Marwood actually put those concepts into practice.

Marwood is presumed to have been influenced by Haughton’s studies; although the basis for that renowned hangmanexecutioner‘s calculations is not known, Marwood is distinguished as the creator of the “long drop” hanging method — giving variable 4- to 10-foot falls to his subjects based on their body weight, with the knot stationed under the left jawline.

He was able to do all that because this first hanging of William Horry went off without a hitch. Still, as a nonentity at first, Marwood had to continue to hustle his hanging assignments — as with this solicitous handwritten 1873 pitch (page 1, page 2) to work an upcoming death date.

But Marwood’s clean long drops — he was the only executioner using the technique — soon secured him appointment as state executioner and the official London and Middlesex hangman. Over an 11-year career from 1872 to 1883, Marwood put 178 humans to death, the bulk of British executions during that period.

Marwood’s legacy — not his direct creation, since it was formalized in the years following his death — was the bureaucratic standardization of the hanging in the form of “drop tables” defining the length of rope to use relative to the weight of the executed prisoner to guarantee the death penalty would be implemented “in a becoming manner without risk of failure or miscarriage in any respect.”

On this day..

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

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1936: Allen Foster, who fought Joe Louis

2 comments January 24th, 2012 Headsman

More than twenty-five years ago, one of the southern states adopted a new method of capital punishment. Poison gas supplanted the gallows. In its earliest stages, a microphone was placed inside the sealed death chamber so that scientific observers might hear the words of the dying prisoner to judge how the human reacted in this novel situation.

The first victim was a young Negro. As the pellet dropped into the container, and the gas curled upward, through the microphone came these words: “Save me, Joe Louis. Save me, Joe Louis. Save me, Joe Louis…”

It is heartbreaking enough to ponder the last words of any person dying by force. It is even more poignant to contemplate the words of this boy because they reveal the helplessness, the loneliness and the profound despair of Negroes in that period. The condemned young Negro, groping for someone who might care for him, and had power enough to rescue him, found only the heavyweight boxing champion of the world. Joe Louis would care because he was a Negro. Joe Louis could do something because he was a fighter. In a few words the dying man had written a social commentary. Not God, not government, not charitably minded white men, but a Negro who was the world’s most expert fighter, in this last extremity, was the last hope.

-Martin Luther King, Why We Can’t Wait

This story isn’t precisely accurate as Dr. King told it, but the factual basis for this empathetic legend is Allen Foster.

On this date in 1936, Foster was the first man executed by lethal gas in North Carolina — and en route to this minor distinction he punched his ticket for commemoration in civil rights literature when he flourished a flamboyant uppercut to witnesses as he was led to the gas chamber and cried out, “I fought Joe Louis!” It was an allusion to having matched with the world champ when both were youngsters in Alabama.

This coincidental brush with celebrity was about as strange as the fact that it occurred in a gas chamber at all.

After the arrival of the electric chair, the South adopted it virtually across the board; North Carolina had switched from hanging to electrocution in 1910.

But the Tarheel State was also generally more progressive than its neighbors;* V.O. Key would write of North Carolina, “It has been the vogue to be progressive. Willingness to accept new ideas, sense of community responsibility toward the Negro, feeling of common purpose, and relative prosperity have given North Carolina a more sophisticated politics than exists in most southern states.”

Part of that “sophisticated politics” was, in the 1930s, a growing debate about the application — indeed, the mere existence — of capital punishment.

According to Trina Seitz’s “The Kiling Chair: North Carolina’s Experiment in Civility and the Execution of Allen Foster” (North Carolina Historical Review, Jan. 2004):

North Carolinians were beginning to doubt the effectiveness of the sanction and the method used to enforce it. Furthermore, private citizens, humanitarians, and state institutions alike were increasingly scrutinizing the demographics of those being put to death.

Though this scrutiny did not lead so far as actual abolition, it provided the receptively reformist environment for Mitchell County Dr. Charles Peterson’s “pet project” of switching the execution protocol to lethal gas.

The reason for his fascination with gas seems to be obscure; the method had never been employed east of the Mississippi. Maybe it had something to do with 1932’s remarkably smooth gassing of a North Carolinian from nearby Burke County in Nevada, the nation’s gas chamber pioneer.

Whatever the reason, Peterson took a seat in the legislature in 1935 and won adoption for his idea in this very first session.

Unfortunately for Peterson — and doubly so for Foster — North Carolina didn’t have quite the same facility with hydrogen cyanide, and Foster’s execution was a notorious botch that immediately got people back on the electrocution bandwagon.

Foster was doomed for raping a white woman — this may be progressive North Carolina, but it’s still the South — and according to Seitz’s rendering of the News and Observer‘s first-hand report:

“Good-bye.” The Negro’s lips framed the words so clearly that no man in the witness room could doubt what he had said. As he said it, he winked and then forced a smile at the faces peering in at him. Then he began to suffer. No man could look squarely into his eyes and fail to perceive that they were registering pain. The Negro fought for breath, knowing he was going to die and fighting to get it over with as quickly as possible …

he sucked the gas desperately until his head rolled back three minutes later, indicating to physicians that the man finally had lost consciousness. But after a period of quiescence, his small, but powerfully built torso began to retch and jerk, throwing his head forward on his chest, where witnesses could see his eyes slowly glaze … The torturous, convulsive retching continued spasmodically for a full four minutes.

Officially, it took about 11 minutes for Foster to die, and as those agonizing minutes dragged by a physician broke the witness room’s mortified silence by exclaiming, “We’ve got to shorten [the execution method] or get rid of it entirely.” Um, yeah? The prison warden was quoted the next day as saying that even hanging was preferable to this.

The ensuing political controversy, however, did not succeed in reverting the method to electrocution.

Like the original electric chair, North Carolina’s gas chamber was the beneficiary of some hasty technical fixes: heating the gas chamber (it was at the freezing point when Foster died; Colorado executioners advised North Carolina that this would impede the gassing); tweaking the chemical formula.

The very next week, a white murderer named Ed Jenkins followed Foster into the toxic plume, this time to rave reviews: he “died painlessly and the method of execution was humane”. These advances were enough to keep the gas chamber in place, although the state legislature considered several bills to return to electrocution from 1937 to 1943.

During one such debate, North Carolina playwright Paul Green testified to the assembly (per Seitz),

Some day the electric chair and the gas chamber will be set up in the State Museum as symbols of an age of horror and ignorance. School children will look at them and feel superior to us as they look back upon an era of ignorance

Three hundred sixty-two people ultimately died in North Carolina’s gas chamber. And as Green anticipated, the execution chair resides today in the state’s Museum of History.

* This is still true of North Carolina: it has employed the allegedly more humane method of lethal injection since 1984, when no other Southern state save Texas used the needle until the 1990s; that use has been sparing enough that its per-capita execution rate remains markedly lower than most other former Confederate states; and in 2009, North Carolina implemented a still-controversial Racial Justice Act empowering condemned prisoners to challenge their sentence with statistical evidence of racial disparity even though courts don’t require this at all.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Gassed,History,Milestones,North Carolina,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,USA

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