1824: David Howe, bitter debtor

Add comment March 19th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1824, David D. Howe (or “How”) was publicly executed at the upstate New York town of Angelica. Up to five or six thousand souls — several times the population of Angelica — were said to have turned out on a fair springtime morning for the hanging.

Howe’s fate could be read as a cautionary of life before the bankruptcy code. Financially ruined by an unsuccessful investment in a turnpike, Howe attempted to recover himself by farming only to sink ever deeper into debt. Creditors soon came to drag him cruelly under the water line, and in the summer of 1823 they repossessed much of what he owned — including “all my crops, my horses, cattle, and even my farming utensils,” which of course cratered the farming venture into the bargain.

“Had I had time to have turned my property, I would have been able to pay my honest debts,” Howe complained (somewhat optimistically, given his track record) from his dungeon a few days before he hanged.

And the worst of these oppressors in his mind was the victim, Othello Church — who seized “possession of much more than he was bound for, (in my opinion, and which he acknowledged to several persons before his death.)” From Howe’s desperate standpoint, Church “had taken advantage of my troubles, and taken property from me wrongfully, and several other persons seemed combined with him to work my destruction.” The two traded high words often and in public; Howe’s obvious motive would in time help to cinch the circumstantial case against him because he was sought so immediately after the man’s murder that his horse was discovered still damp from its evil ride, and the muzzle of his rifle not yet cooled from the assassination.

Still, Howe could justify the fancy of escaping detection: after all, motive had not been enough to convict him when he was arrested — correctly so, he would admit in gallows’ shadow — for vengefully torching the barn of another vulturous creditor.

And so on December 29, 1823, having observed that “the state of the snow [was such] that I might not be tracked,” Howe — after a couple of alibi-making calls at public houses — secreted his rifle under his coat and made the six-mile ride to the farm of his nemesis. Whatever the injustice of his provocation, it is obvious in his narration that he acted with sure deliberation:

I hitched my beast near Mr. Spear’s shop — took out my knife and rubbed the flint that it might not miss fire. — I took the mitten from off my right hand and put it in my pocket, and was careful not to drop any thing whereby I might be detected. I then stepped to his kitchen door, which opened near the head of his bed, and stood 5 or 6 minutes on his door stone. All creation seemed locked in slumber, and one dread silence reigned through all the works of God.

Now my bold heart even trembled at the thought of an act so desperate, and every vibration of my soul seemed shrinking beneath the horrors of the scene.

I rapped at his door, and shuddered and the very noise I made, and was on the point of retiring, when his wife, I think, awoke him, and he exclaimed, “Who is there?” I endeavored to alter my voice, and answered, “I have a letter for you;” he then said, “walk in;” I answered, “have the goodness to open the door and take it.” He arose, and as he opened the door, as soon as I saw the appearance of his white shirt, I shot at venture; I took no sight, and had the gun by my side, and I think the muzzle was not more than three or four feet from him. I then heard him exclaim, “Oh! my God, my God!!” I heard no more of him. I then returned to my beast; and every step was marked with care, lest I should fall or loose something, as it was slippery. The shocking cries and shrieks of the family broke the midnight silence, and rent the air with horror, which I heard considerable distance. I then rode with great speed home. I dismounted and loaded my gun in haste, and set into the window whence I had taken it; then put out my beast, went to bed, and went to sleep.

The quotes above all come from The Trial of David D. How for the murder of Othello Church at Angelica, which is freely available here; it contains the evidence given against How(e) at trial as well as the confession he dictated to Rev. Joseph Badger.

Badger, a traveling evangelist, would preach the sermon at Howe’s hanging; Badger left an ample journal of his 18-day ministry to the doomed Howe, and parts of that journal can be read in Badger’s memoir. (Unfortunately I have not been able to access the complete original which the memoir references.)

Howe seems by Badger’s account to have hurled himself sincerely, and almost voraciously, into the pious repentance expected of a condemned man. One might well imagine the grateful heart with which Howe, so lately picked into penury by stone-hearted foes, greeted the clergymen and neighbors who now took such an interest in his salvation.

March the 18th. He sent for me at daybreak. I found he had a restless night, and was in great distress. I made him several visits ; his family came to take their leave of him forever. At 3 o’clock P. M., the Rev. Mr. Boach, a Methodist minister, preached a short discourse in the dungeon from John 3:16. Five clergymen were present, and the scene was solemn. Mr. How took the lead in singing two hymns, and carried his part through in a graceful manner. In singing the first, he stood up and leaned partly on the stove; held his little girl by one hand, who sat in the lap of her mother, and with the other he took the hand of his affectionate brother, who stood by his side. At the close of the meeting, his wife gave him her hand for the last time. He embraced her with fondness, and when he pressed his little girl to his bosom (about four years of age) he wept aloud. He requested that several Christian friends should spend the night with him in prayer; thus his last night on earth was spent in imploring God for grace and mercy.

March the 19th. I entered the prison at break of day, found him much resigned. He observed, as I entered, that his last night on earth was gone, which he had spent in prayer. At 7 o’clock I visited him again with a company of ladies who had never seen him. Mrs. Richards, of Dansville, took him by the hand, both fell upon their knees, and she prayed for him in the most fervent manner. He then prayed for himself, for his family, for the family of Mrs. Church, who were afflicted by him, for his executioner, and all the world. As we came out, a gentleman remarked that he had never heard a man pray like him.

At 9 I entered his apartment for the last time, accompanied by his heloved daughter and a young man who was soon to become her husband. We entered with serious hearts; he received them very pleasantly, and made remarks to me on the fine weather, and the lady who had prayed with him. He asked of me the privilege of walking into the yard with the young man. They spent a short time together. He then asked me to wait on Harriet to the door. He placed her by the side of the young man, and delivered her to his charge, saying that she had long been deprived of the counsels of a mother, and would be in a few moments separated from her father forever. “I now commit her to you as a friend, protector,
and lover.”

On this day..

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

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1825: Isaac, Israel, and Nelson Thayer, in Buffalo’s only public hanging

1 comment June 17th, 2011 Headsman

Given that the great city of Buffalo, New York has raised its hangmen all the way to the White House, it might come as a surprise that the Queen City has hosted only a single public hanging day.

This is the anniversary of that day, which saw droogish brothers Isaac, Israel, and Nelson Thayer turned off from the same gallows for the murder of John Love — the Thayers’ former boarder, turned considerable creditor, turned potential forecloser.

The very enjoyable blog Murder by Gaslight, whose beat is America’s 19th century crime scene, has the story of the Thayer brothers fully narrated — along with a separate post featuring a very ungainly murder ballad.

Then the judge pronounced thare dredful sentence
Whith grate candidness to behold
You must all be hanged untell your ded
And lord mursey on your souls

Well, we can’t all be Oscar Wilde.

On this day..

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

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1850: Prof. John Webster, for the timeless conflict between donors and academics

2 comments August 30th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1850, a 57-year-old Harvard professor expiated upon a gallows at Boston’s Leverett Square the murder of one of the university’s donors.

The buzz of Boston in 1849-50, the Parkman-Webster murder case began with the disappearance of one of the crimson’s great benefactors, George Parkman, a Boston Brahmin known for his Ministry of Silly Walks gait about town (see right). According to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (who appeared as a witness at the trial of Parkman’s accused murderer), “he abstained while others indulged, he walked while others rode, he worked while others slept.”

Also, he inherited a ridiculous sum of money, and was tight with the debtors to whom he lent it.

Back before collection agencies, Parkman disappeared in November 1849 while making the rounds to shake down his borrowers. Within days, suspicion settled on Harvard anatomy and geology professor John Webster, who had squandered his own pile of money buying rock collections and maintaining appearances and such, and sank into desperate hock to the jutting-chinned ambulator who had helped him land the Ivy League appointment in the first place.

A weighty circumstantial case soon formed against Webster, with the invaluable aid of a snoopy janitor who turned up human remains in the office and testified to incriminating-sounding conversations.

Elites-on-elite crime epidemics always churn the scandal mills. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s wife Fanny wrote a friend,

You will see by the papers what dark horror overshadows us like an eclipse. Of course we cannot believe Dr. Webster guilty, bad as the evidence looks. … Many suspect the janitor, who is known to be a bad man and to have wished for the reward offered for Dr. Parkman’s body. … I trust our minds will be soon relieved, but, meanwhile, they are soiled by new details continually.

“Harvard professors do not often commit murder,” or so they say. (This was still a century before Robert McNamara.)

Boston high society was about to see a whole different side of Harvard.

Although perhaps individually explicable — anatomists had plausible reasons to have human remains at work, and other anatomists than Webster could have had access to his office — the cumulative weight of Webster’s ham-handed attempts to declare that he had paid up his debts to Parkman just before the latter’s mysterious disappearance, of the discovery of what (disputed) dental forensics declared to be Parkman’s dentures, of the ghastly appearance of a torso (disputedly) declared to be Parkman’s stuffed in a tea chest at Webster’s offices started to really make the man look guilty.

In view of a mediocre defense, the jury convicted Webster of whacking his own professional benefactor, in the university building erected on said benefactor’s donated plot of land.

Talk about donor recognition.

While the prof’s seeming post-conviction acceptance of guilt — in a plain strategem to secure clemency — and generally shifty demeanor have cemented him as the definitive perpetrator in the standard historical reading,* Fanny’s snobbish take on the “bad man,” janitor (and moonlight body-snatcher) Ephraim Littlefield, has not been entirely lost to the tradition.

At the end of the day, everything about the case is circumstantial — indeed, besides being historically noteworthy for the first use of dental forensic evidence in a murder trial (forensics we might find rather speculative and unconvincing today), Webster’s case generated a landmark ruling from the judge’s jury instruction establishing “reasonable doubt” as the threshold for criminal conviction rather than the “absolute certainty” Webster’s prosecutors had no hope of attaining; that ruling influences American jurisprudence down to the present day.

And one cannot but notice how many of the circumstances — creepily playing Sherlock Holmes with a freelance dig into the professor’s furnace to discover charred bones, for instance — were provided by the fellow-suspect-turned-star-witness Littlefield, who niftily reaped the $3,000 reward for his offices in substituting Webster for himself under the pall of suspicion.

According to peripatetic crime blogger Laura James, a forthcoming (2009) book promises to revisit the sensational trial, “to examine all the intricacies for ourselves — not aided by the eager voice of the janitor.”

* Bemis, one of the prosecutors, wrote the go-to source on the Webster trial, available from Google Books; another contemporaneous account is here.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Doctors,Execution,Hanged,History,Intellectuals,Massachusetts,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Notable Sleuthing,Pelf,Public Executions,Scandal,USA

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63 B.C.E.: Publius Cornelius Lentulus

6 comments December 5th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 63 B.C.E., Publius Cornelius Lentulus was executed by strangulation in Rome’s Tullianum for conspiring to overthrow the Roman Republic.

He was one of the key figures in the Catiline conspiracy, a political intrigue set against a ruinous social crisis that pushed the country to the precipice of civil war.

Roman had fought Roman intermittently over much of the preceding 70 years in episodes underpinned by a class conflict pitting wealthy landowners (politically represented by the Senate) against the growing populations of plantation slaves who tilled their fields and urban plebeians displaced from independent farming on the other. Debt was choking the Roman economy.

Catiline, an ambitious politician from a fading patrician family, had sought the consulship on a populist platform of debt forgiveness; failing to win the office through legal channels, he maneuvered to take it by force. The affair is known mostly through the testimony of its enemies, so it is difficult to gauge the true mixture of opportunism and conviction that informed the conspirators.

A cliffhanger sequence of moves and countermoves against the consul Cicero ensued, highlighted most spectacularly by one of Cicero’s famous orations driving every Senator to seat himself away from Catiline — who nevertheless rose passionately in his own defense.

Catiline left Rome to raise an army in the countryside, leaving Lentulus (himself a former consul) to manage the intrigue within Rome.

Lentulus made the least of the moment, dilating when he could have acted and exposing the plot by dint of a ham-handed attempt to involve visiting Gauls with grievances of their own.

The arrested conspirators’ fate was debated in the Senate this very morning. The young Gaius Julius Caesar, then conducting an affair with Cicero’s Cato’s [correction] sister, stood against (illegal) summary execution, but the victories he would enjoy over Cicero yet lay some years into the future; fearing an attempted rescue, the Senate’s grim sentence was carried out immediately. Cicero personally escorted Lentulus to his death.

Lentulus’ failure likewise doomed Catiline, whose army shrunk from desertions before its commander hurled it into martyrdom with a stirring speech that recalled in passing “how severe a penalty the inactivity and cowardice of Lentulus has brought upon himself and us.”

Part of the Themed Set: The Fall of the Roman Republic.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Heads of State,History,Italy,Notable Participants,Politicians,Power,Revolutionaries,Roman Empire,Strangled,Summary Executions,Treason

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