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

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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 stillcontroversial 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

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

1891: Four to save the electric chair

3 comments July 7th, 2011 Headsman

After its famously inauspicious debut the previous summer, this date in 1891 marked the second, third, fourth and fifth uses of New York’s pioneering electric chair.

Having grotesquely botched its maiden execution of William Kemmler, there was a considerable sentiment to retire the electric chair immediately.

The second round of “electrocutions” — 19th century papers still put this then-neologism in quotes — were closely watched as an acidelectric test of the chair’s staying-power. If these men burned to death, slowly and horribly, as Kemmler had, that might have been it. And had New York reverted to hanging or moved on to lethal injection,* the chair’s subsequent adoption by other states and its journey into the iconic popular culture would likely have been aborted.

But, they fixed up the chair, tested it on some more large animals, and moved the electrode combination from head+spine to head+leg … and voila!

There was nothing about the executions of the horrible nature that shocked the country when Kemmler was made the first victim of the law. If the testimony of a score of witnesses is to be believed, the executions demonstrated the use of electricity for public executions to be practical whether or not it is humane. While the Kemmler butchery, with all its terrible details cannot be forgotten, against that one awful failure the advocates of the law now point with unconcealed pride to four “successes.”

New York Times, July 8, 1891

“Unconcealed” pride would be an interesting choice for these advocates, since these prophets of brave new death technology had themselves feared a calamitous failure of their apparatus as much as anybody — well, as much as anybody except the condemned.

Consequently,

every witness of the execution was made to pledge himself in writing never to reveal any detail of it unless requested to do so by the authorities. No newspaper representative was admitted. As THE TIMES has repeatedly stated, it was the intention of the advocates of the law to keep the public from knowing anything about these executions … Therefore, Gov. Hill** and his henchman, Warden Brown, made up their minds that these experiments with the law should not go before the public as anything else than successes, and they packed the jury accordingly with picked men.

The Times dilates considerably in this vein; ever the helpful courtier, it is concerned principally that the state’s orchestrated public relations campaign would have had more credibility had the successful executions been witnessed by third parties who have newspapers to sell. You know?

But … if only the state’s handpicked friendly witnesses were allowed to see what went down, do we actually know that it wasn’t another dog’s breakfast? The July 8, 1891 London Times — for the executions had a global audience — cobbled together a less reassuring wire report.

There are, however, many conflicting statements current as to what actually occurred, and it is extremely difficult to discriminate as to which are true and which are false … Dr. Daniels, one of the witnesses of the executions this morning, said, in an interview this afternoon, that he might tell a great deal about the affair if he were not bound to silence. He added that the Kemmler scene was practically repeated in each case, there having been two shocks given to each of the condemned men. The truth, Dr. Daniels said, would make a thrilling story.

Wait, what!?

If Dr. Daniels actually said anything like that, someone got this electric chair proponent rewrite (pdf) pretty quickly.

I was misquoted. I simply said that if I were at liberty to give a detailed account of the scenes in the death chamber the public would no doubt be interested in knowing that the executions had been a pronounced success.

You could totally see how the guy would say “pronounced success”, and this British rag would hear, “the Kemmler scene was practically repeated in each case.” Separated by a common language and all that.

For the record, the chair salvaged itself upon these unfortunates:

  • James Slocum (a former minor league baseball player†), for murdering his wife
  • Levy Smiler, for murdering his mistress
  • Joseph Wood, for murdering a fellow-laborer
  • Shibuya Jugiro, a Japanese seaman, for murdering one of his comrades

History has all but forgotten them … save that their deaths were officially ruled a great technological triumph, sufficient to rescue “the chair” from abortive 19th century penal cul-de-sac and set it on its way to becoming a pop culture icon.

* The modern-seeming method of lethal injection was actually one of the options vetted to replace the rope in the 1880s.

** Hill at this time was flirting with a presidential run, which ultimately didn’t happen: he won a Senate seat instead.

Thanks to @LisaWinston for the tip to Slocum’s sports career.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,20th Century,Athletes,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Entertainers,Execution,Hanged,Murder,New York,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1903: Tom Horn

3 comments November 20th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1903, Tom Horn hanged in Cheyenne — a frontier legend lost in the post-frontier world.

Tom Horn passed the months between trial and execution braiding rope. Legend obviously holds that he made the noose that hanged him.

Horn‘s forty-three colorful years traced the waning days of the Wild West: he was a cavalry scout who helped capture Apache warrior Geronimo, a Pinkerton agent, a hired gun in the murderous Wyoming cattle wars. (He made a side trip to Florida during the Spanish-American War to organize Teddy Roosevelt’s supply train before the Battle of San Juan Hill.)

He had hunted many rustlers to their deaths, though he may have swung for a killing he didn’t do; the verdict against him in the murder of 14-year-old Willie Nickell is still hotly disputed to this day. It turned on a dubious liquor-induced “confession” as recorded by the lawmen who wanted to arrest him.

Horn’s death, to the hymn of “Life’s Railway to Heaven”, is a milestone in the passing of the frontier West; too, it was a milestone in a weird experimental cul-de-sac for modern America’s fascination with technological innovation on the scaffold. A contraption called the “Julian gallows,” named for the man who designed it, used the prisoner’s weight on the trap to open a water valve that filled a barrel that knocked over a post supporting the trap, causing the prisoner to eventually drop without any hangman’s hand on a lever.

A steady,* solitary man, Horn took it all in with equanimity. Maybe it was written: not for this rugged plains gunslinger to lurk on as a relic into the age of flight, cubism, trench warfare. Already in his lifetime the frontier had disappeared into kitsch.

Tom Horn lives on in Wyoming lore, and the tale has no greater curator than Wyoming’s Chip Carlson. Carlson manages www.tom-horn.com and is the author of Tom Horn: Blood on the Moon; he was good enough to chat with Executed Today about our day’s subject.

First things first — did Tom Horn actually do the crime for which he hanged?

Tom Horn was convicted because of social pressure (the fact that he represented the cattle barons) and the political ambitions of the prosecutor and presiding judge.

So what was different in Wyoming after Horn’s execution?

The cattle barons and other big business entities (e.g., mining barons, railroad barons, etc.) had much less influence on public affairs.

He seems like an almost self-consciously inscrutable character. What drove him?

He was a faithful and reliable employee, but seemed to thrive on adrenaline.

Was he just, at the end, a man who couldn’t change as his world changed around him?

Yes, he was out of date and out of the times.

Did people of his own time also see him as a part of the frontier West that was no more?

Yes.

How did you become so interested in Tom Horn? As the go-to expert on his life, what do you find draws others to him, and what sorts of lessons do people draw from his story?

He is the number one Name in Wyoming history, because of the controversies about whether he killed 14-year-old Willie Nickell (tom-horn.com page) and how his trial was conducted. (tom-horn.com page)

I had read every book published about him up till the time I started researching him, and when contrasting the various testimonies in the inquest with the trial, puzzled, how the hell could they have ever convicted him? All this is laid out in my book, Tom Horn: Blood on the Moon.

Two films about Tom Horn — Mr. Horn, starring David Carradine, and Tom Horn, starring Steve McQueen — were released within months of each other in 1979-80.

* His reported last words were coolly directed at one of his executioners who showed anxiety — “Ain’t losing your nerve, are you, Joe?”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Hanged,History,Interviews,Mercenaries,Milestones,Murder,Other Voices,Popular Culture,Soldiers,Terrorists,USA,Wrongful Executions,Wyoming

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

1810: Tommaso Tintori, the first guillotined in Rome

3 comments February 28th, 2010 Headsman

It’s easy enough to accuse the Catholic Church of being behind the times.

But this date two hundred years ago found it in the criminological progressive vanguard (just ask Lord Byron!), conducting Rome’s first beheading by guillotine, that brave new instrument of egalitarian execution.

Okay, granted: it wasn’t the ecclesiastical authorities but the French occupiers who introduced the guillotine, as was their wont.

But when the Papal States were restored a few years later, after the Napoleonic Wars, the vicars of Christ were enlightened enough to keep this efficient device (and its sunk capital cost) around … at least as one option among the restored traditional sentences of hanging, quartering, and the local specialty, mazzolatura.

Biographical details of our milestone criminal are scarce on the ground, but we have his name, date of execution, and crime — omicidio — courtesy of the Italian list kept by the famed executioner Mastro Titta.

Seguono Le Giustizie Eseguite Nel Nuovo Edifizio Per Il Taglio Della Testa Nel Governo Francese.

106. Tommaso Tintori, reo di omicidio, li 28 febbraio 1810.

As one might guess, that “106” means that the prolific Titta had already notched 105 official kills in his 14 years as executioner prior to the guillotine. He would run his career total north of 500.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Italy,Milestones,Murder,Notable Participants,Occupation and Colonialism,Papal States,Public Executions

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

1997: First use of lethal injection in China

1 comment March 28th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1997, Kunming City Intermediate People’s Court debuted a brand-new execution technology for the world’s capital of capital punishment.

With a 1996 Criminal Procedural Law reform making lethal injection an option for processing the enormous ranks of China’s condemned, experimentation got underway this date on two convicts whose identities and crimes I have not seen indicated. These were not only the first lethal injections in China, but the first anywhere outside the U.S.

According to the New York Times, China began its foray without the usual accoutrement of medicalization: rather than the familiar strap-down gurney, Kunming officials simply brought the doomed prisoners to the same execution ground used for shootings and had them roll up their sleeves for the needle.

Whatever its initial inelegance, China has enjoyed many thousands of test cases since to refine the practice — as many as 15,000 per year at this time, Amnesty International has charged.*

In the 12 years since, and aided by the offices of its guinea pigs, lethal injection has gained significantly in both technical sophistication and official acceptance; it is now thought that most Chinese executions use this method, rather than the old gunshot-to-the-back-of-the-head.

To What End?

More humane? Maybe.

Easier on an executioner than discharging a bullet at point-blank range? You’d have to think so.

Cheaper? Well, maybe — if the cost of the mobile killing van is spread over enough, er, “subjects”.

But lethal injection enjoys one significant benefit of distastefully obvious utility to the state:** it facilitates tissue transplant from a recently executed prisoner.

Though Chinese officials have always stonewalled on the subject, lucrative organ harvesting from executed prisoners has long been endemic in the country.

* China’s death penalty system has been famously opaque, so this figure is far in excess of the known thousand-plus judicial executions every year (1,718 in 2008) and would include several times that number in other judicial executions not publicly reported, plus extrajudicial killings that presumably wouldn’t involve lethal injection. Even with only the official executions specifically known to the wider world, China easily accounts for the majority of the world’s executions year after year.

** The older (and still-used) method of shooting a prisoner in the head also preserves organs, of course.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,China,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Known But To God,Lethal Injection,Milestones

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

1697: Godfrey McCulloch, on the maiden

Add comment March 26th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1697, Godfrey McCulloch was beheaded for murder.

A lesser Scotch noble, McCulloch was heir to a family that had seen better times. His forebears had built and laid their [attached] heads at cozy Cardoness Castle, but hard times had seen the Gordon clan foreclose a bum McCulloch mortgage, and that put the families at pistols drawn.*

A minor confrontation between Godfrey McCulloch and Sir William Gordon saw McCulloch plant in Gordon’s leg a bullet wound that festered into a fatal infection.

McCulloch fled to the continent, but eventually — there’s no place like home — returned, and was recognized in Edinburgh.

One boring scaffold speech later, and that was that … unless you credit the legend that his headless body sprang up and ran 100 yards.

McCulloch was beheaded on the Maiden, a guillotine precursor that automated the chopping process.

He seems to have the distinction of being the last person so executed. (Update: Perhaps not.)

* McCulloch, who was also a member of the Scottish Parliament, held a sheriff’s commission in Wigton. Although anti-Covenanter, he washed his hands of the Wigtown martyrs case.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Maiden,Milestones,Murder,Nobility,Politicians,Public Executions,Scotland

Tags: , , , , , ,

1924: Gee Jon, debuting the gas chamber

11 comments February 8th, 2009 Headsman

It was the best of intentions. It was the worst of intentions.

As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, the forefathers’ standard means of dispatching an evildoer — a length of rope or a shot of lead — were under re-examination by a technophilic nation convinced its science could find a way to kill a man without inconveniencing him.

The first great American contribution — if you can call it that — to the the art of killing me softly was the electric chair, and its debut did not impress everyone.

Out west, grossed out by electrocution and inspired by the pestilent fogs that had lately enveloped World War I trenches, the Nevada legislature cottoned to the brainchild of one Dr. Allen McLean Hamilton to say it with cyanide.

Unfortunately, the logistics of billowing a plume of lethal gas directly into the prisoner’s cell to take the condemned asleep and unawares — another ostensible mercy that would have opened a path towards a Japan-like system of perpetual apprehension followed by sudden execution — proved insoluble; so, they had to build a little airtight room and give the procedure all the familiar ceremonial trappings.

That little airtight room was used for the first time ever on this date in 1924.

Its occupant was Gee Jon, a Chinese-born resident of San Francisco’s Chinatown who had gunned down a member of a rival tong in the railroad town of Mina not far from the California border.

A minute or two after the sodium cyanide pellets hit the sulphuric acid to release a toxic cloud of hydrogen cyanide gas, Gee Jon fell unconscious. He remained in the chamber, shrouded in gas, for half an hour to make sure: later, the apparatus improved with the addition of a stethoscope to enable a doctor to declare death from outside the cell.

Good enough for government work.

The gas chamber would win a fair following in the American South and West, notably California.

However, the gas chamber’s questionable “humaneness” — including some stomach-churning dying panics by suffocating prisoners, and the paranoia of prison staff that a leak in the seals could give them a snort of HCNnever matched the dream of the zipless kill, and the Zyklon-B associations Nazis later provided did not boost public relations. With the onset of the (seemingly) more humane and (definitely) much cheaper method of lethal injection, the gas chamber vanished from the scene in the 1990’s.

Though it still remains a backup option in Arizona, California, Maryland, Missouri and Wyoming, next month will mark a full ten years since the most recent — and quite possibly last ever — gassing.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Gassed,History,Milestones,Murder,Nevada,Organized Crime,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1783: The first hangings at Newgate Prison

15 comments December 9th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1783, London’s colorful penal history moved across town.

For centuries, public executions had been carried out at the storied Tyburn gallows, a ribald, rambunctious affair that involved carting the doomed from Newgate Prison through teeming city streets, by way of ale house pit stops.

The Tyburn era drew to a close late in the 18th century. Five weeks before, its last victim swung there.


The former hanging grounds of Tyburn, sketched by William Capon in 1785. The gallery still standing was privately erected, to sell tickets to spectators eager for a view.

Little more than a month later, the curtain raised and the trap fell on a new chapter for the London hanged.

Henceforth, the processional would be dispensed with, and the condemned simply walked across a courtyard and up a flight of stairs to a public gallows just outside the prison.

These were still public executions, and hardly eliminated the carnival atmosphere as this c. 1789 sketch will attest:

But it marked a move towards, if not altogether to, a version of the death penalty more familiar to modern eyes. For one thing, the prison itself became the site of punishment, absent the elaborate and occasionally dangerous theater of the trip to Tyburn; at Newgate, they were regularized, an extension of the frightful dungeon, and as the crowd itself was controlled and separated from the elevated platform, the natural next step would be at last to withdraw inside the prison’s walls.

At the same time, there is a technological advance towards “scientific” hangings geared to minimize suffering: the ‘New Drop’.

This system, whereby a trap sprung beneath the prisoner’s feet suspended him on the gallows, was not strictly new — a form of it had been used at Tyburn as early as 1760, though not repeated.* But the new drop (still just a variety of short drop, where strangulation is likely) marks a distinct shift towards a mechanistic punishment, clearly removed from the sometimes fraught physical confrontation between a prisoner and a hangman attempting to force him or her from the cart, and an antechamber into the grim 19th century science of reckoning hangman’s drops for the precise effect of snapping (without severing) the neck.

Of course, progress always has its detractors.

74-year-old Samuel Johnson groused at the “innovation” of leaving Tyburn:

[T]hey object that the old method drew together too many spectators. Sir, executions are intended to draw spectators; If they do not draw spectators, they don’t answer their purpose. The old method was most satisfactory to all parties; the public were gratified by a procession and the criminal was supported by it.

Approaching the matter from a very different perspective, Lord Byron found the Italian beheadings of Mastro Titta “altogether more impressive than the vulgar and ungentlemanly dirty ‘new drop’, and dog-like agony of infliction upon the sufferers of the English sentence.”

* In the correspondence of an early 19th century Secretary of the Admiralty, we have confirmation of this in a letter of Sir Peter Laurie, available from Google Books here and here. Laurie reports that “something like a drop in hanging criminals”

was not adopted as the general mode of execution till 1783, when ten felons were executed on the 9th of December in that year for the first time in front of Newgate, on a new drop or scaffold hung with black … The gallows used at Tyburn was purchased by a carpenter who, having no sentiment in his composition, converted it into stands for beer butts in the cellars of a public house called the “Carpenter’s Arms” in Adam Street.

On this day..

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

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

1890: William Kemmler, only in America

27 comments August 6th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1890 the iconic symbol of the American death penalty made its grisly debut upon the person of William Kemmler at New York’s Auburn Prison.

The long New World tradition of hanging condemned prisoners came under fire as a barbarism in the late 19th century, leading reformers to look for killing procedures less likely to result in a horrendously protracted strangulation or a midair decapitation. As Empire State Governor David Hill put it,

The present mode of executing criminals by hanging has come down to us from the dark ages, and it may well be questioned whether the science of the present day cannot provide a means for taking the life of such as are condemned to die in a less barbarous manner.

On this stage, Executed Today presents a rogues’ gallery of homo Americanus, the salesmen and swindlers who would help the U.S.A. ride the lightning.

The Dentist

A true renaissance man, Buffalo dentist Dr. Alfred Southwick, applied his active mind to the need to better kill a fellow, and soon hit upon an inspiration — that is to say, a town drunk hit upon an electrical generator and died instantaneously, and the observant Southwick said “eureka!”

Without the subsequent industry of this neglected gentleman, who added to his repertoire scientifically-minded electrical butchery of animals alongside political gladhandings to bring a flutter to a busybody’s heart, the Chair’s entire oeuvre of machismo-sadism might have missed the country altogether. Just imagine living in a world where New York had pioneered its other leading reform alternative: lethal injection.

(This, incidentally, is why the chair is a chair, and not a bed or a stake or a St. Andrew’s Cross: because the guy who thought of it spent all day administering his own tender mercies to seated penitents.)

The Plutocrats

As Southwick nagged his senator and shocked stray cats into the great hereafter, the gears of commerce strove relentlessly ever-onward. The business of America was ever business, and never more so than the Gilded Age.

And the business of killing people was about to become the biggest business there was.

The age of electricity was buzzing into incandescence, and two rival standards were at currents amped over eventual dominance of this stupendous industry. Thomas Edison’s earlier Direct Current (DC) standard was being challenged by Nikolai Tesla’s Alternating Current (AC), backed by the financial muscle of George Westinghouse.

Cheaper and more efficient, AC tilted the playing field against Edison. Seeing his days numbered, the Wizard of Menlo Park fought back the way any dinosaur industry would: dirty.

AC, Edison said, was too dangerous for consumer use — a lurking killer. “Is this what your wife should be cooking with?” And he started taking up traveling road shows zapping large animals with AC to demonstrate the rival product’s deadliness. (This press coined the term “electrocution” from these spectacles.)

This clip of the electric demise of a circus elephant — don’t hit “play” if you’re not up for animal cruelty — is from some years later (Edison kept tilting at windmills and megafauna carcasses as his DC empire disappeared), but it’ll give a sense of the horrifying spectacle.

(Topsy, it should be noted, was being put down as a danger and not strictly for kicks.)

Elephants? Horses? Dogs?

How about a human?

With the New York legislature’s embrace of Southwick’s seated voltage people-eater, Edison turned his PR gears on the state, demanding they adopt his competitor’s “deadlier” current for the contraption. And they did, reflecting a widespread belief inculcated by Edison’s experiments — as this New York Times article on an Edison crony’s public livestock-killing show in the days leading up to the advent of the electrocution law indicates:

The experiments proved the alternating current to be the most deadly force known to science, and that less than half the pressure used in this city for electric lighting by this system is sufficient to cause instant death.

After Jan. 1 the alternating current will undoubtedly drive the hangmen out of business in this State.

Too bad for Edison that the business he was really trying to kill was made of sturdier stuff.

The Alcoholic Vegetable Merchant

As the 1880’s wane, we come at last to our subject — in several senses of the term — an illiterate nobody of German stock who chanced to kill his common-law wife with just the right timing to join in a new kind of experiment.

William Kemmler mounted a “cruel and unusual punishment” appeal against his sentence funded by Westinghouse himself: no dice. Perhaps appreciating the odd foothold on history he was about to attain, he showed little worry as he entered the execution room and sat himself — “undoubtedly the coolest man in the room,” a journalist present reported.

The End of the Beginning

That reporter’s description for the New York Herald graphically captures humanity’s first horrible encounter with this “humanitarian” machine, beginning with the prisoner’s parting remarks.*

Doubtless he knew that his words will go down in history and he had his lesson well learned. He addressed his audience [in] a commonplace way and without hesitation.

“Well, gentleman, I wish everyone good luck in this world, and I think I am going to a good place, and the papers have been sa[yi]ng a lot of stuff that isn’t so. That’s all I have to say.”

And so with a parting shot at what he was good enough to refer to not long ago as “those d—d reporters,” William Kemmler took his leave of earth. The quiet demeanor of the man as he entered had made a strong impression on those in the room. His self-possession after his oratorical effort simply amazed them. He got up out of his chair as though he were anxious to try the experiment, not as though he courted death, but as though he was thoroughly prepared for it. …

There was no delay. Kemmler constantly encouraged the workers at the straps with “Take your time; don’t be in a hurry; do it well; be sure everything is all right.” He did not speak with any nervous apprehension.

Warden Durston leaned over, drawing the buckle of the straps about the arm. “It won’t hurt you, Bill,” he said, “I’ll be with you all the time.”

A minute later Kemmler said, “There’s plenty of time.” He said it as calmly as the conductor of a streetcar might have encouraged a passenger not to hurry.

Kemmler was pinioned so close that he could hardly have moved a muscle except those of his mouth.

The Warden took a last look at the straps. “This is all right,” he said.

“All right,” said Dr. Spitzka, and then bent over and said, “God bless you, Kemmler.”

“Thank you,” said the little man, quietly.

“Ready?” Said the Warden.

“Ready,” answered the doctors.

“Goodbye,” said the Warden to Kemmler. There was no response.

GAVE THE SIGNAL.

The Warden stepped to the door leading into the next room. It was then forty-three and one-half minutes past six o’clock by the prison clock. “Everything is ready,” said the Warden to some one hidden from view in the next room.

The answer came like a flash in the sudden convulsion that went over the frame of the chair. If it seemed rigid before under the influence of the straps, [it] was doubly so now has it strained against them.

The seconds ticked off. Dr. McDonald, who was holding the stopwatch, said “Stop.”

Two voices near him echoed, “Stop.”

The Warden stepped to the door of the next room and repeated the word “Stop.”

As the syllable [passed] his lips the forehead of the man in the chair [grew] dark [in] color, while his nose, or so much of it as was exposed, appeared a dark red.

There was very little apparent relaxation of the body, however. [A] fly lighted on the nose and walked about unconcernedly. The witnesses drew nearer to the chair.

“He’s dead,” said Spitzka, authoritatively.

“Oh, yes, he’s dead,” said McDonald.

“You’ll notice,” said Spitzka, “the post-mortem appearance of the nose immediately. There is that remarkable change that cannot be mistaken for anything else, that remarkable appearance of the nose.”

The other doctors nodded [assent]. They looked at the body critically for a minute and then Spitzka said, [“]oh, undo that now. The body can be taken to the hospital.”

“Well, I can’t let you gentlemen out of here until I have your certificates,” said the Warden.

FOUND SIGNS OF LIFE.

It was while this businesslike conversation was going on that Dr. Balch made a discovery.

“McDonald,” he cried, “McDonald, look at that rupture,” he pointed at the abrasion of the skin on Kemmler’s right thumb. In the contraction of the muscles the figurehead[?] scraped against it and removed the skin, and from that little [wound] blood was flowing-[an] almost certain indication of life.

A low cry of horror went through the assemblage.

“[Turn] on the current,” excitedly cried Dr. Spitzka. “This man is not dead.”

The crowd fell back from the chair, as though they were in danger. The Warden sprang into the closed door and pounded on it with his hand.

“Start the current!” he cried. As he spoke of fluid began to drop from Kemmler’s mouth and to run down his beard; a groaning sound came from his lips, repeated and growing louder each time.

It seemed [an] age before the card was again turned on. In fact it was just seventy-three seconds from the end of the first contact when the first sound was heard to issue from Kemmler’s lips, and it was not more than a half [minute] before the card was again turned on.

RECOVERING CONSCIOUSNESS.

But every second to that time the horrible sound from those groaning lips was becoming more distinct, [a straining] of the chest against the leather harness stronger and more evident.

The man was coming to life. The spectators grew faint and sick. [Men] who had stood over dead and dying [men] and had cut [men] to pieces without an emotion [grew] pale and turned their heads away.

One witness was forced to lie down while one of the doctors fanned him.

But [the end] came at last. There was another convulsion of the body, and … it became rigid with the rigidity of iron.

“That man wasn’t dead,” cried Spitzka excitedly. As he spoke the body twitched again. The electrician had given the current gain new alternation and now 2,000 volts [were] playing in short, successive shocks down Kemmler spine. The sound ceased with the first convulsion, but the fluid continued to trip from the mouth and down the beard, making the body a sickening spectacle.

“Keep it on now until he’s killed,” said one of the doctors. …

“Keep it on! Keep it on!” Cried Warden Durston through the door.

Silence reigned for a moment. A bell without began to [toll] solemnly. …

BURNED BY THE CURRENT.

Then from the chair came a sizzling sound, as of [meat] cooking on hand. Following it immediately a billow of smoke came from the body and filled the air of the room with the odor of burning hair.

There was a cry from all the members of the little group, and Warden Durston cried through the door leading to the next room to [turn] the current off.

(Also of interest: the New York Times‘ (non-eyewitness) report on the affair.)

More shocking — so to speak — papers ran the next day’s headline “Kemmler Westinghoused,” the verb “to Westinghouse” being another shameless Edisonian bid to stamp his marketing project onto the Queen’s English. This fine, rounded, archaic neologism the right sports anchor could resuscitate as a fresh synonym for thrashing, horsewhipping, poleaxing, or else (in greater justice) for moderation and decency as the only principal in the sordid affair that rejected death-dealing by electricity.

(Officially, Edison also opposed the death penalty. Like Dr. Guillotin, he was doing his part for humanity in the meantime … just with a little skin in the game. Did we mention the business of America is business?)

Westinghouse, for his own part, thought the Kemmler debacle would nip the electric chair in the bud, and he was scarcely the only one.

Official reviews for the “art of killing by electricity” were, ahem, mixed.

“They could have done better with an axe.”**
-George Westinghouse

“Strong men fainted and fell like logs on the floor.”
-New York Herald

“Revolting … a disgrace to civilization.”
-New York Times

“We live in a higher civilization from this day on.”
-Alfred Southwick

Books (remarkably numerous!) about the creation of the electric chair

It should, in fairness, be noted that the U.S. was not the only country (pdf) to mull an electrocution chair in the 19th century … but it was (and for a long time remained) the only one to actually use one.

* The Herald excerpt, along with several other articles from the same paper about the Kemmler execution, is here, but the text has obviously been generated from a scan with uneven results. As I do not have access to the originals, [bracketed] remarks in the excerpt indicate this author’s own interpretations or interpolations of seemingly mistaken transcriptions.

** Some sources make it “would have done better with an axe.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Language,Mature Content,Milestones,Murder,New York,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Pelf,Popular Culture,USA

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Next Posts Previous Posts


Calendar

August 2022
M T W T F S S
« Nov    
1234567
891011121314
15161718192021
22232425262728
293031  

Archives

Categories

Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!