1890: Elmer Sharkey, wretched matricide

Add comment December 19th, 2018 H.M. Fogle

From the out-of-print The palace of death, or, the Ohio Penitentiary Annex: A human-interest story of incarceration and execution of Ohio’s murderers, with a detailed review of the incidents connected with each case by H.M. Fogle (1908):


The Terrible End of Elmer Sharkey

Exit Elmer Sharkey and Henry Popp. The night of December 18, 1890, [i.e., after midnight on the 19th. People are just egregious with dates. -ed.] witnessed the double execution of Elmer Sharkey and Henry Popp.

Elmer Sharkey, serial number 20,517, was the picture of physical manhood, young, handsome and accomplished; but his crime was the most diabolical one that ever disgraced the fair pages of Ohio’s history.

About nine o’clock on the fatal night of December 18, Father Logan appeared at the Annex and baptized Sharkey in the Catholic faith. Shortly after this the two murderers were taken out into the reception room of the Annex, where they remained until after the reading of their death warrants. It was just a few minutes after eleven o’clock when Father Logan came into the Annex to comfort the condemned men. He informed them that there was no earthly hope; that the Governor absolutely refused to interfere, and that they should prepare for the worst. Sharkey and his doomed companion were then taken back into the Annex proper, where they bade good-bye to those who were left behind. A little later Warden Dyer came down the corridor and entered the reception room, to which the condemned men were again taken. Facing them the Warden said: “Boys, I have a painful duty to perform; but the law requires it. Henry,” to Popp “this is your death warrant.” Popp shook as with the ague, and stammered, “Yes sir.” He then arose to his feet and listened attentively to the reading of the warrant. The reading of Popp’s warrant finished, the Warden turned to Sharkey who was leaning against the steam heater and read his warrant. Sharkey stood with his hands in his pockets, seemingly indifferent. This over, Chaplain Sutton and Father Logan each offered up a fervent prayer, and then the Warden left the Annex to make further preparations for the executions that followed a few minutes later.

Promptly at midnight Warden Dyer, Deputy Porter and Assistant Brady at his side, stepped into the guard room. A mad rush was made for the gate. But a careful separation of the sheep from the goats was made by the Captain of the guard room, who carefully scrutinized each passport. Noiselessly the procession passed down the long, dimly-lighted corridor to the Annex. Once inside the enclosure Warden Dyer promptly mounted the scaffold, and placed everything in readiness. But a moment thus, and the approach of the doomed man was heralded by appearance of Father Logan who stepped from the cage onto the scaffold, and took his stand on the right of the trap door. A hush fell as the pale and bloodless countenance of Elmer Sharkey appeared. He moved with a nervous, gliding motion toward the fatal trap, hesitated for a moment, and then stepped squarely upon it; and with downcast eyes and drooping head, stood there in waiting, a picture of silent despair and hopeless agony. Once, twice, three times he raised his eyes and cast a quick, sweeping glance over the throng of spectators, then resumed his downward look of misery, murmuring in a low tone: “My God, make quick work of it!” When asked if he asked [sic] anything to say, he raised his head slightly and said: “I ask God’s forgiveness, and all I have wronged; and I forgive everything.” The Father pressed the cross to his passive, bloodless lips and he kissed it fervently. The hood was then made ready and he was asked for his last words. “That is all I can think of now.”

As the hood was being adjusted he faltered and would have fallen backward in a faint, but was sustained by ready hands. Just as the noose was being drawn around his neck, he again lost control of himself, and started to fall; but the noose was slipped with a quick movement; the trap sprung, and down he went. As a result of his fainting he fell in a partially horizontal attitude, and the tightening of the rope produced a swinging motion of the body, thus breaking the force of the fall. The result was that the neck was not broken, and the poor, wretched matricide was left to die by strangulation. The sounds that floated out over the awe-hushed group as the dying man struggled for breath, is [sic] beyond description. The sickening sight and horrible sounds drove many of the spectators from the execution room.

The drop fell at 12:05, and for several minutes the terrible struggle lasted, then the sounds from the throat, and convulsions of the body grew less frequent. At 12:34 the quivering heart ceased to beat, just twenty-nine minutes after the drop fell. All within that narrow enclosure breathed a sigh of relief when the attending physician finally pronounced him dead.

His execution was one of the longest on record, and the longest in the history of Ohio.

Elmer Sharkey suffered death on the scaffold for the cold-blooded murder of the woman who gave him birth, a widow of Preble County. No wonder his death was such an ignominous and horrible one. Mrs. Sharkey had violently opposed his marriage to the woman of his choice, and threatened to disinherit him if the marriage was consummated. The unnatural son, in a spirit of revenge, butchered his poor old mother with a meat axe, mangling her almost beyond recognition. He confessed his guilt, and “died in the hope of a glorious immortality.”

[Popp, not dwelt upon by Fogle, was a Bavarian immigrant who fatally stabbed the barkeep who attempted to eject him while rowdy in his cups. -ed.]

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Murder,Ohio,Other Voices,USA

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1835: Patrick O’Brien, Francis Spaight apprentice boy

Add comment December 19th, 2017 Headsman

On or very near this date in 1835,* a Limerick ship’s boy named Patrick O’Brien lost a casting of lots … then lost his life to feed his ravenous shipmates.

The spanking new 457-ton barque Francis Spaight was on the return leg of her second-ever run to Quebec to fetch timber back to her home port of Limerick. The ship was named for her owner, a big landowner and shipping magnate who had thriftily sent 216 passengers on the voyage’s first leg. As Spaight would explain to a state commission a decade later amid the Great Famine, replacing ballast with emigres on outbound voyages was pure profit. In a sort of microcosm of Ireland’s terrible economic machinery,** Spaight’s own commercial interests on land and sea dovetailed nicely in filling his hulls with Ireland’s surplus population. For example, when Spaight gained the 4,200-acre Tipperary estate of Derry Castle in 1844 he smoothly set about depopulating it** — as Ciaran O Murchada describes in The Great Famine: Ireland’s Agony 1845-1852:

He [Spaight] did this by obligating unwanted tenants to emigrate to America on board his own ships and at his cost. It was all done extremely cheaply since the ships were cargo vessels which were empty on each outward voyage in any case. By 1847 Spaight’s businesslike approach had rid him of half the Derrycastle tenants, and by the time his consolidation was completed two years later he had removed some 2,000 persons in an operation which was admired by other landlords for its efficiency and the fact that it was done without arousing any overt protest on the part of the tenants.

As to the ship that bore the master’s name, discharged of her Irish exiles and loaded with Canadian lumber, she departed her last port of call in Newfoundland on November 24. Aboard were eighteen souls: fourteen crew and four boys among whom we find our principal Patrick O’Brien — a penniless 15-year-old bound over from the Limerick workhouse as an apprentice to Mr. Spaight approximately on the eve of the Francis Spaight‘s departure. He was destined never to lay eyes on his native soil again.

On December 3, the ship capsized.† Three men were lost at sea; the other 11 crew and all four boys clambered aboard a dinghy, adrift and unprovisioned in the frigid Atlantic. There the torments of privation worked them until they slaked their hunger on their comrades’ flesh, as the Irish and then the English press related months later to their titillated readers — such as this entry from Manchester Times, June 25, 1836.

On the 19th of December, the sixteenth day since the wreck, the captain said they were now such a length of time without sustenance, that it was beyond human nature to endure it any longer, and that the only question for them to consider was, whether one or all should die; his opinion was that one should suffer for the rest, and that lots should be drawn between the four boys, as they had no families, and could not be considered so great a loss to their friends as those who had wives and children depending on them.

None objected to this except the boys, who cried out against the injustice of such a proceeding. O’Brien, in particular, protested against it; and some mutterings were heard amongst the men that led the latter to apprehend they might proceed in a more summary way. Friendless and forlorn as he was, they were well calculated to terrify the boy into acquiescence, and he at length submitted.

Mulville now prepared some sticks of different lengths for the lots. A bandage was tied over O’Brien’s eyes, and he knelt down resting his face on Mulville’s knees. The latter had the sticks in his hand, and was to hold them up one by one demanding whose lot it was O’Brien was to call out a name, and whatever person he named for the shortest stick was to die. Muville held up the first stick, and demanded who it was for? The answer was “for little Johnny Sheehan,” and the lot was laid aside. The next stick was held up, and the demand was repeated, “on whom is this lot to fall?” O’Brien’s reply was, “on myself,” upon which Mulville said, that was the death lot — that O’Brien had called it for himself.

The poor fellow heard the announcement without uttering a word.

This same story, said to have been related by an unnamed survivor of the Spaight, appeared in a number of papers with slightly varying embroideries around this time. Some versions suggest that this blind man’s bluff lot-drawing was rigged to target O’Brien as the least popular crewman; whether or not that was the case, even the “fair” version of the game was rigged at the outset to exclude the adult crew members and leave only the apprentice boys for gobbling.

The lot having been cast, we resume the ghastly narrative with Bells Life in London and Sporting Chronicle, June 26, 1836:

The men now told him he must prepare for death, and the captain said it was better it should be done by bleeding him in the arm, to which O’Brien made no objection. The captain then directed the cook, John Gorman, to do it, telling him it was his duty; but Gorman strenuously refused. He was, however, threatened with death himself by the men if he continued obstinate, and he at last consented.

O’Brien then took off his jacket without waiting to be desired, and after telling the crew, if any of them ever reached home, to tell his poor mother what had happened to him, bared his right arm. The cook cut his veins across twice with a small knife, but could bring no flow of blood, upon which there seemed to be much hesitation among the men as to what could be done.

They were relieved by the boy himself, who immediately desired the cook to give him the knife, as he could not be looking at him putting him to pain. When he got the knife, and was about to cut the vein, the captain recommended him to try the left arm, which he accordingly did. He attempted to open the vein at the bend of the elbow with the point of a knife, as a surgeon would, but like the cook he failed in bringing blood.

A dead consternation now fell upon all; but in a minute or two the captain said, “This is all of no use, ’tis better to put him out of pain by at once bleeding him in the throat,” and some of them said it was true.

At this O’Brien, for the first time, looked terrified, and begged hard that they would not do so, but give him a little time; he said he was cold and weak; but if they would let him lay down and sleep for a little, he would get warm, and then he would bleed freely.

To this wish there was some expression of dissent from the men, and the captain shortly after said to them, “that it was useless leaving the boy this way in pain; ’twas best at once to lay hold of him, and let the cook cut his throat!”

O’Brien, now roused, and driven to extremity, seemed working himself up for resistance, and declared he would not let them; the first man, he said, who laid hands on him, ‘twould be worse for him; that he’d appear to him at another time; that he’d haunt him after death.

The poor youth was, however, among so many, soon got down, and the cook was again called upon to put him to death. The man now refused more strenuously than before, and another altercation arose: but, weak and irresolute, and seeing that his own life would absolutely be taken instead of O’Brien’s, if he persisted, he at length yielded to their menaces.

Some one at this time brought him down a large case knife that was on the poop, instead of the clasp-knife that he had first prepared, with which, pale and trembling, he stood over O’Brien, who was still endeavouring to free himself from those who held him. One of them now placed the cover of the tureen (which they before used to collect rain) under the boy’s neck, and several cried out to the cook to do his duty.

The horror stricken man, over and over again, endeavoured to summon up hardihood for the deed, but, when he caught the boy’s eye, his heart always failed him, and then he looked supplicatingly to the men again.

Their cries and threats were, however, loud for death — he made a desperate effort — there was a short struggle — and O’Brien was no more.

As soon as this horrid act was perpetrated, the blood was served to the men; but a few of them, among whom was Mahony, refused to partake of it.

They afterwards laid open the body, and separated the limbs; the latter were hung over the stern, while a portion of the former was allotted for immediate use.

Shocked, as, for the sake of human nature, it is to be hoped many were at the scene they had just witnessed, a gnawing hunger came upon them all when they saw even this disgusting meal put out for them, and almost every one, even the unwilling boys, partook more or less of it.

This was the evening of the sixteenth day. They ate again late at night, and some greedily; but the thirst, which was before at least endurable, now became craving, and as there was no more blood, they slaked it with salt water.

They then lay down to rest, but several were raving and talking wildly through the night, and in the morning the cook was observed to be quite insane — his eyes inflamed and glaring, and his speech rambling and incoherent; he threw his clothes about restlessly, and was often violent. His raving continued during the succeeding night, & in the morning, as his end seemed to be approaching, the veins of his neck were cut, and the blood drawn from him. This was the second death.

On the night of that day, Michael Behane was mad, and the boy George Burns on the following morning; they were both so violent, that they were obliged to be tied by the crew, and the latter was bled to death, like the cook, by cutting his throat. Michael Behane died unexpectedly, or he would have suffered the same fate.

Next morning the captain came off deck, and, feeling too weak and exhausted to keep a look-out any longer, desired some one to take his place above. Harrington and Mahony went up very soon after; the latter thought he could distinguish a sail, and raised a shout of joy, upon which those below immediately came up. A ship was clearly discernible, and apparently bearing her course towards them.

Signals were hoisted with as much alacrity as the weakness of the survivors would allow, and, when she approached, and was almost within hail, their apprehension of her passing by was so great, that they held up the hands and feet of O’Brien to excite commiseration.

The vessel proved to be the Agenoria [sic — Agenora is the correct name of the ship], an American. She put off a boat to their assistance without any hesitation, although the weather was so rough at the time, and the survivors were saved.

The Francis Spaight was channeled almost straight from such reports by Jack London into a shocking short story.

The notoriety of cannibalism did not translate to any sense that the famished survivors ought to be prosecuted: they were objects of pity and the survival of those who made it was rather celebrated than disdained since even weeks later as they arrived back at Limerick they presented an appearance “ghastly and spectre like with a singular woe-be-gone expression of countenance.” (Quoted in Neil Hanson’s book about a later instance of cannibalism, The Custom of the Sea)

Francis Spaight — the oligarch, not his barque — wrote an appeal that the public sustain with charity his own invalided employees … for, “mutilated by the frost and otherwise rendered helpless” they would “be unable not only to obtain bread, but to labour for it during the rest of their lives.” What, you think I’m going to hire them? (Actually the skipper who orchestrated O’Brien’s death went back to work captaining Spaight’s ships.) Spaight put in ten quid for the lot of them, something like US $1,000 in present-day money.

And the grief-stricken mother of Patrick O’Brien haunted Spaight’s country estate “where her hysterical cries were truly heart-rendering.” (Source)

* Understandably calendar-keeping was not foremost on the minds of the Francis Spaight survivors. Many sources give the 18th as the date of O’Brien’s sacrifice; I’m gingerly preferring the 19th in deference to the immediate newspaper reports such as the one quoted in this article. This also appears to square with rescue on the 23rd: by the quoted narrative, the cook is slaughtered two days after O’Brien (hence, the 21st), and Michael Behane and George Burns die on the following day (the 22nd), only for the survivors’ salvation to appear “the next morning.”

** “Irish genius discovered an altogether new way of spiriting a poor people thousands of miles away from the scene of its misery … instead of costing Ireland anything, emigration forms one of the most lucrative branches of its export trade.” –Marx

† Though useless to our survivors in their hour of need, the Francis Spaight did not sink. She was recovered, pumped out, and returned to service. Years later she went down for good at Table Bay, near the Cape of Good Hope.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,At Sea,Borderline "Executions",Canada,Children,Chosen by Lot,History,Ireland,No Formal Charge,Uncertain Dates

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1919: Frank Ezell and Brown Ezell, “Atticus Finch” clients

Add comment December 19th, 2016 Headsman

From the Monroeville (Ala.) Monroe Journal reported on Christmas Day 1925:

For the second time within a period of forty years, Monroe County has had a legal execution for the commission of crime. Frank Ezell and Brown Ezell, father and son, on Friday, December 19, expiated on the gallows under the sentence of the court the murder of Mr. William H. Northrup.

Morbid curiosity drew a large crowd to town on the fateful day, but few were admitted within the prison walls, while those outside could catch but an occasional word that fell from the lips of the accused men and realize only in imagination the gruesome task that fell to the lot of Sheriff Russell and his assistants.

Both negroes made statements on the gallows, the older man protesting his innocence of any complicity in the crime. The younger made full confession, asserting that he alone was responsible and that his punishment was just. The Journal spares its readers the frightful details of the execution. Let us hope that there may never again be occasion for a similar sentence of law.

This story arrives to us via Kerry Madden’s Harper Lee: Up Close, a biography of the reclusive author of To Kill a Mockingbird … and it is noteworthy in that context because Frank Ezell and Brown Ezell, father and son, were defended in this case by 29-year-old lawyer A.C. Lee: Harper Lee‘s father.

The future author would not be born until 1926, but this traumatizing event still troubled her father years later: it was his first criminal case, and his last. As another biographer, Charles Shields, remarked, “[T]his was fairly typical of the time. This method of doing business in the courts was informally called ‘Negro Law,’ which means that you get a young, inexperienced white attorney to practice on some hapless black client. Some of those trials took as little as half an hour.”

The family memory of the father’s futile defense, combined with Harper Lee’s own firsthand experience of a troubling miscarriage of justice, were influences that she channeled into To Kill a Mockingbird, modeling the heroic defense attorney Atticus Finch on her own father.

“Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win.”

-Atticus Finch

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Alabama,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Notable Participants,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1750: John Young, resisting

Add comment December 19th, 2015 Headsman

A piece titled “Extract of a Letter from Edinburgh, dated Dec. 20” in the May 16, 1751 edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette:


John Young, late Serjeant in Lord Ancram’s Regiment of Foot, was executed here Yesterday Afternoon, pursuant to the Sentence of the High Court of Justiciary, pronounced against him, on a Remit made to that Court by the Lords of Session; before whom a full Proof was deduced of Young’s having vended false Notes of the Royal Bank of Scotland, knowing them to be so forged and fabricated.

This unhappy Man had amused himself, before Trial, with the Hopes of being acquitted; after Sentence, with those of obtaining a Pardon; for which great Interest was used by the Officers of the Army, &c. though all to no Purpose; the Hurt done to publick Credit by such destructive Practices rendering it necessary that an Example should be made to deter others from committing the like in Time coming. Indeed this unfortunate Man complained bitterly of his hard Fate, in eing made the only Sacrifice to Justice, while two others, rather more culpable than he, (they being the very Engravers and Fabricators of the Notes) found Means to save themselves by turning Evidences against him, who did not scruple to accuse him of Perjury, though with what Truth I cannot determine.

Young, however, at the Day, nay, at the very Time of Execution, betook himself to a very unusual Expedient to save his Life for a Time, seeing then all his Hopes of Pardon entirely baffled: The Magistrates appointed to witness the Ceremony having assembled about two o’Clock, at the Prison Door, with the proper Officers, the Guard, and an infinite Multitude of Spectators; they, attended by two Clergymen, went up to the Prisoner, and having read over to him the Sentence, they asked his Objections to the executing the same. Young answer’d, that he had none: But observing the Sentence appointed the Execution to be performed betwixt the Hours of Two and Four in the Afternoon, that suggested a Thought to him, that if he could preserve his Life till past Four, the Magistrates could not afterwards execute him. Accordingly he desired Leave to retire a short Time with two reverend Ministers, for ghostly Consolation; which being granted, he return’d with them to the Iron Room, where he had been confin’d since under Sentence; and after talking a little with them, he begg’d they would allow him to spend a few Minutes in private Devotion, which seeming reasonable, they withdrew, and he usher’d the Clergymen to the outer Door of his Apartment, which shutting behind them, he retired to the inner Room, the Iron Door of which he also immediately bolted.

Soon after the Officers of Justice, surprized at his Delay, endeavoured to open the Door, which, to their great Surprize, they found bolted: Then they knock’d, and desired him to come out. No, said he, in this Place I am resolved to defend any Life to the utmost of my Power.

On this the Door was attempted to be forced, but it, as is said, being of Iron, in vain were the most violent Endeavours used for that Purpose.

This extraordinary Accident was immediately rumour’d about. My Lord Provost was sent for, and accordingly appeared in Person. The City Clock was stopp’d, and Surprize and Expectation appeared in every Face. A considerable Time being spent to no Purpose in forcing the Door, that Attempt was given over, and the only possible Method of getting in was found to be by breaking up the Floor of the Room over Head of the Prisoner, which at length was, in about two Hours, effectuated; and a Passage being opened, a Gun was presented to him, the Prisoner, in order to terrify him, and compel him to open the door; but this did not frighten him in the least; for he said, that as he liv’d, so he desired to die, like a Soldier. The Fellow, however, who held the Gun, being a little remiss, Young making a Leap up, laid hold of the Muzzle, and pulled it down, threatening, on getting Possession of the Piece, to shoot the first Man that dar’d to enter; but happily the Gun was unloaded, which prevented so fatal a Catastrophe. Rewards were then offered to such of the City Guard as would go down and seize him; and at length, after severals refusing, one Fellow had the Courage to go down, whom Young welcom’d with a violent Blow, on the Breast from the Butt of his Gun, that laid the Soldier on the Ground. Had Young been arm’d with a Sword or Bayonet, it is likely the Fate of the first Adventurer would have stopp’d the Attempts of a second; but he having only an empty Musket, and the Passage being wide, three or four more jump’d in at once, and at length after a violent Struggle, overpowered and bound the unhappy Victim, who still refusing to walk, the Door was opened, and he dragged headlong down Stairs, in a most deplorable Condition. When he was brought out, he ask’d if it was Four o’Clock (as indeed it then was) but being answered, That he should e hanged were it past Eight, he immediately composed himself to suffer that so much dreaded Death. Still however, did he refuse being accessary [sic] to his own Murder (as he was pleased to term it) by walking, as usual, to the Place of Execution: He was therefore forced upon a Cart, where the Hangman, fitting by him, holding the End of the Rope, which was immediately put about his Neck, he was in this Manner dragged to the Grass Market, amidst thousands of amaz’d Specattors; where again refusing to ascend the Scaffold, he was carried up by the Guard, and after about fifteen Minutes, being near Half an Hour past Four, and almost dark, he was hang’d by the Neck till he was dead.

This poor Man served in the Army many Years, with Reputation; was beloved by his Officers, being never before conicted of the least Offence, and was said to have been recommended to the first vacant Colours in his Corps.

The extraordinary Manner of his Exit, the strenuous Efforts to preserve his Life, and the unhappy Success that attended them, made him an Object truly worthy of Compassion.

He was a middle aged Man, very tall, and remarkably well-look’d.

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1694: James Whitney, highwayman

3 comments December 19th, 2014 Headsman

Dapper highwayman James Whitney was hanged at Smithfield on this date in 1694.

A monument to the allures and the perils of a midlife career change, Whitney threw over a tiresome life as the proprietor of an inn in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire,* purchased with his liquidation the accoutrements of the gentleman thief, and took to the road.

“Captain” Whitney — he had no right to the rank he appropriated for himself — was one of those stickup men who greatly esteemed the pose of honor associated with his new calling. On one occasion, he relieved a gentleman traveler of a large sack of silver on Newmarket Heath, but when his victim pleaded the length of his journey Whitney opened the bag to its former owner with an invitation to take what he would need.

The man plunged his hands in and hauled out as much as they would carry, leading Whitney to remark with a smile, “I thought you would have had more conscience, sir.”

In another fine caper (there are more of them assembled here) Whitney told a man to stand and deliver, only to have the traveler reply that he was about to say the same back to him. The two robbers laughed at their encounter and went their separate ways, but Whitney later chanced to turn up at the same inn as his so-called brother plunderer and overhear him regaling his fellows with the tale of having outwitted a highwayman by pretending to be one of the same profession.

Whitney stalked the man and a companion out of the hostel the next morning and this time robbed them successfully: “You should have kept your secret a little longer, and not have boasted so soon of having outwitted a thief. There is now nothing for you but to deliver or die!” Nobody likes your stories anyway, you blowhard.

True, James Whitney ended his adventure at the gallows: death is the fate of us all. From his day to ours, folk toiling away the ceaseless lonesome days between ashes and ashes have understood the soul’s stirring to exalt their scant mortal hours with deeds of valor and romance and derring-do. And as Whitney himself is said to have remarked to a miser whose lucre he was seizing, “Is it not more generous to take a man’s money from him bravely, than to grind him to death by exacting eight or ten per cent, under cover of serving him?”**

Nobody knows any of James Whitney’s peers in the publican guild, but as Captain Whitney he joined England’s most legendary gentleman outlaw in verse.

When Claude du Val was in Newgate thrown,
He carved his name on the dungeon stone;
Quoth a dubsman, who gazed on the shattered wall,
“You have carved your epitaph, Claude du Val,

Du Val was hanged, and the next who came
On the selfsame stone inscribed his name;
“Aha!” quoth the dubsman, with devilish glee,
Tom Waters, your doom is the triple tree!”

Within that dungeon lay Captain Bew,
Rumbold and Whitney — a jolly crew!
All carved their names on the stone, and all
Share the fate of the brave Du Val!

Full twenty highwaymen blithe and bold,
Rattled their chains in that dungeon old:
Of all that number there ‘scaped not one
Who carved his name on the Newgate Stone.

* The George Inn. A map search does yield a The George in Cheshunt; whether this is actually the same facility where our famous highwayman once earned a lawful keep, I have not been able to establish.

** Parables from this golden age of highwaymen often place in the mouths of outlaws sharp critiques of their targets, who despite putative respectability turn out upon examination to be far more deeply corrupt than the dashing adventurer. See for example Old Mobb.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Outlaws,Public Executions,Theft

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1475: Louis de Luxembourg, Count of Saint-Pol

Add comment December 19th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1475, the Louis de Luxembourg, Count of Saint-Pol was beheaded.

The French King Louis XI “had need of a head such as his” because of Louis de Luxembourg’s part in the pompously self-styled League of the Public Weal. The “public weal” in question comprised civil war on behalf of feudal prerogatives that had slipped from aristocratic hands during the Hundred Years’ War.

They were led by the ruthless Duke of Burgundy Charles the Bold.

Louis de Luxembourg’s allegiance with Charles the Bold netted him, during the League’s successes, the title of Constable of France and the hand of the queen’s sister as inducements from Louis XI.

But Saint-Pol was not the type to stay bought.

Treacherously maneuvering between the Burgundian party, the royals, and the English (Luxembourg’s uncle sold Joan of Arc to the English, so they went way back) Louis eventually managed to irritate them all. He ultimately hatched a plan to assassinate Louis XI himself and fracture the French realm among a variety of great lords.

The English and French kings having acquainted each other with the comte’s underhanded schemes on their respective sides of the channel, Saint-Pol was obliged to seek Charles the Bold’s protection — but the latter had himself contracted with the French crown to hand him over if captured, and duly forwarded the traitor to the Bastille. (There’s more about Saint-Pol’s prosecution in this volume.)

Louis did his sovereign one last little injury on his way off this mortal coil: sixty additional sous were required by the executioner of Paris “for having the old sword done up, which was damaged, and had become notched whilst carrying out the sentence of justice upon Messire Louis de Luxembourg.”

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Beheaded,Burgundy,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Nobility,Public Executions,Treason

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1684: Jane Voss, narrow escapee

2 comments December 19th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1684, Jane Voss was hanged

We pass over for this entry her four companions in death: a couple of forgettable gentleman highwaymen; a murderer fled to the continent; a coiner named D’Coiner.

Each a fellow with an interesting tale of his own, no doubt, but for Jane Voss one notices her perpetual proximity to the gallows. It’s a reminder that for a certain class of person, the omnipresent prospect of a sudden trip to the hanging-tree — intended as a mortal terror — was little but the everyday circumstance of a life nasty, brutish and too often short.

A chapbook of the day’s crop* records that the notorious Jane’s “frequent felonies and often Convictions have made her known to most in and about London, she having been above 12 times in Newgate, and several times Condemned to dye.”

She fortuitously escaped such a fate as an an accessory to Thomas Sadler’s theft of the High Chancellor’s ceremonial mace eight years before.

Not being a principal culprit in that escapade, Voss got off with penal transportation, only returning (at least insofar as the English authorities knew) legally after her transportation term had ended.

Our correspondent alleges that “no less than 7 Persons, whom had passed for her Husbands, have at several times been Executed for Robberies, &c.” Indeed, one notorious highwayman named John Smith (alias Ashburnham) hanged earlier in April 1684 had made a point of asking the Newgate Ordinary to send word to Jane Voss to cool it lest she follow him.

Alas, it was right about this time that Jane snatched her last silver tankard. She’d had too many reprieves to escape this time … save for the mandatory stalling mechanism of pleading her belly.**

* “True account of the behaviour, confessions, and last dying words, of Capt. James Watts, Capt. Peter Barnwell, Daniel D’Coiner alias Walker, Richard Jones, and Jane Voss alias Roberts,” 1684. (via Early English Books Online)

** Here’s Jane Voss’s Old Time Restoration England Pregnancy-Simulating Potion: drink “a Gallon of New Ale and Honey” before examination. Use as needed.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Public Executions,Theft,Women

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1932: Yoon Bong-Gil, nationalist assassin

Add comment December 19th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1932, the Japanese shot Korean Yoon (or Yun) Bong-Gil for bombing a parade dais in Shanghai.

A parade to celebrate the emperor’s birthday may be standard enough fare on the home front, but in a China being swallowed by said emperor’s empire it was a provocative act.

In the first months of 1932, Japan had merrily exploited — or incited — anti-Japanese incidents in Shanghai as pretext for an imperialist mini-war, won handily by Japan.

When the aggressors presented their celebratory pageant of arms in the city’s Hongkou Park (today, Lu Xun Park), our young Korean terrorist* “threw a narrow tin box high in the air. In an ear-splitting roar, the grandstand flew apart like a mechanical toy.” (Time magazine, excerpted in this useful Axis History Forum thread.) All seven of the Japanese VIPs on the dais were casualties, and two of them died: one instantly and another succumbing to his injuries a month later.

“A young Korean patriot has accomplished something tens of thousands of Chinese soldiers could not do,” remarked an admiring Chiang Kai-shek. Coming just months after another Korean activist had taken a whack at Hirohito in Tokyo, the generalissimo couldn’t help but appreciate his brothers in resisting colonization.

For this accomplishment Chiang would later go to bat for postwar Korean independence. But for his part, the patriotic Yoon got only a free trip to Japan for military trial and execution.

When calling in Seoul, drop by a well-appointed memorial hall dedicated to Yoon’s memory … or, at the national cemetery where Yoon’s remains were repatriated in 1946.

You’ll find another subtle memorial to this incident in pictures from the decks of the USS Missouri, where a Japanese delegation surrendered to end World War II on September 2, 1945. Leading the delegation is a distinguished gentleman with a top hat and a cane: it is Mamoru Shigemitsu, walking with an artificial leg thanks to Yoon Bong-Gil’s bomb 13 years before.**


Mamoru Shigemitsu aboard the USS Missouri.

* Note: calling Yoon Bong-Gil a “terrorist” is controversial in Korea. We use the word without moral censure.

** Mamoru Shigemitsu had been Japan’s ambassador to China at the time of the assassination bid.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,China,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,Japan,Korea,Martyrs,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Separatists,Shot,Terrorists

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1909: Valgrand in place of Fantomas

1 comment December 19th, 2010 Headsman

On this date* in 1909, in the first novel of the hit French Fantomas crime serial, the title character escapes the guillotine by having a duped actor beheaded in his place.

Fantomas’s Wikipedia entry calls the character “a transition from Gothic novel villains of the 19th century to modern-day serial killers“: he’s a swashbuckling anti-hero who’s a master of disguise and perfectly okay with getting his hands bloody.

His own personal Javert, an inspector by the name of Juve who has stalked him for years,** has finally managed to have Fantomas convicted of a murder and sent to await execution. (Here’s a synopsis of the book.)

The widow of that crime’s victim — also Fantomas’s lover — subsequently contrives to arrange a tete-a-tete with an actor then portraying Fantomas’s lurid crime spree on the Parisian stage. She wants him to come in costume, which excites the actor as a seriously macabre kink: little does this Valgrand suspect that his own tete will be swapped for the murderer’s by next light.

That following day finds a drugged Valgrand infiltrated into Fantomas’s cell, in a sort of travesty of the noble Sydney Carton‘s guillotine switcheroo. Still suffering the effects of the potion his supposed inamorata has plied him with only hours before, and still made up to resemble the condemned man, he’s incapable of objecting as he’s hustled to the scaffold.

Juve was watching the unhappy wretch, and could not restrain a word of admiration.

“That man is a brave man! He has not even turned pale! Generally condemned men are livid!”

The executioner’s assistants had bound the man upon the plank; it tilted upwards. Deibler grasped the head by the two ears and pulled it into the lunette, despite one last convulsive struggle of the victim.

There was a click of a spring, the flash of the falling knife, a spurt of blood, a dull groan from ten thousand breasts, and the head rolled into the basket!

But Juve … sprang towards the scaffold. He thrust the assistants away, and plunging his hands into the bran that was all soaked with blood, he seized the severed head by the hair and stared at it.

“Good God!” he cried in tones of anguish.

“It isn’t [Fantomas] who has just been put to death!” Juve panted brokenly. “This face has not gone white because it is painted! It is made up — like an actor’s! Oh, curses on him! Fantomas has escaped! Fantomas has got away! He has had some innocent man executed in his stead! I tell you Fantomas is alive!”

And so he was … to the tune of a staggering 32 books over three years. Eat your heart out, J.K. Rowling.

Fantomas on the silver screen

This series has enjoyed a number of adaptations to the screen, and indeed it’s a media milestone as well since the books were cranked out at record pace by a team of writers working simultaneously on modular chapters to meet publication deadlines that fed immediately into cinema deals. There were also comic and radio spinoffs, though they’re not known to have been forward-thinking enough to have had a website.

In the classic first silent adaptation of Fantomas in 1913 (the book was published in 1911), poor Valgrand catches a break: he’s recognized and spared beheading at the last moment. There’s a very thorough guide for viewing that film here.

* The book situates the action where Valgrand is seduced and tricked on December 18, and the narrative makes it clear that the execution itself is at dawn the next morning.

It can be placed in 1909 because a guard mentions the execution of Henri Duchemin, a real historical figure guillotined earlier in 1909. (That year marked a resumption of executions in France; a death penalty opponent serving as President of the Third Republic systematically blocked executions from 1905 through 1908.)

Lady Beltham, whose feminine wiles spring the master criminal, subsequently commits suicide in 1910, which leaves only the one possibility.

** Juve is a big fan of the then-trendy, now-discredited system of Bertillonage; Fantomas consistently runs circles around this “scientific” crime-fighting. Academics, if you please?

Through the incorporation of Alphonse Bertillon’s anthropometrics — the dominant mode of criminal investigation at the time –, as both the narratological and criminological impetus for its exponentially serialized representations of criminality, Fantomas articulates resistance to the representational strategies of the numerical classification of criminals as a means of social and “scientific” control, while compelling the ongoing modern capitalist cycle of mass literary production and consumption.

-Nanette Fornabai, “Criminal Factors: ‘Fantômas’, Anthropometrics, and the Numerical Fictions of Modern Criminal Identity,” Yale French Studies, No. 108 (2005)

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Entertainers,Escapes,Execution,Fictional,France,Guillotine,History,Innocent Bystanders,Murder,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Serial Killers

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1862: An unknown Confederate deserter

1 comment December 19th, 2009 Headsman

From a letter written by one Private Thomas Warrick of Alabama, cited in The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy by Bell Irvin Wiley:

I saw a site today that made me feel mity Bad I saw a man shot for deserting there was twenty fore Guns shot at him thay shot him all to pease … he went home and thay Brote him Back and then he went home again and so they shot him for that Martha it was one site that I did hate to see it But I could not helpe my self I had to do Jest as thay sed for me to doo.

This unknown soldier shot “all to pease” had just run afoul of Gen. Braxton Bragg‘s draconian anti-desertion policy meant to crack down on soldiers going AWOL for casual leave, often to help the families they had left behind keep up the farm.

As Wiley points out, our letter-writer Private Warrick was himself planning to do just that.

Bragg’s little salutary bloodbath evidently had its effect, because he didn’t go AWOL. Wiley quotes Warrick, now in a more Joe Friday mode than when he had promised to “come home Eny how”, writing his parents in 1864,

I would be glad to see you all now but I recon that I have bin home my last time till this war closes.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Confederates,Death Penalty,Desertion,Execution,History,Known But To God,Military Crimes,Separatists,Shot,Soldiers,Tennessee,USA,Wartime Executions

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