On this date in 1862, Margaret Coghlan (sometimes spelled “Coughlin” or “Coghlin”) was hanged in Tasmania, Australia for the murder of her husband.
Described as a “gray-headed old woman,” Margaret was, like many residents of the colony, a transported convict.
The murder happened on January 5, less than six weeks before Margaret’s date with death. It was a fairly typical domestic homicide: the Coghlans had a drunken quarrel and Margaret’s husband threw an iron bar at her. He missed and she picked it up and beat him until he was unconscious and perhaps dead.
This much might be colored self-defense, but then Margaret administered coup de grâce by slitting her husband’s throat.
In an act worthy of one of those “dumb criminals” books, she then placed the razor in her husband’s own hand to try to make it look like he committed suicide. But the authorities did not believe the man could have beaten himself to death with the iron bar, cut his throat afterwards and left someone else’s fingerprints in blood on the razor.
According to newspaper coverage of the event, Margaret made the usual scaffold speech acknowledging the justice of her sentence and the foulness of her crime:
I acknowledge fully the justice of my sentence, I deserve this, and a thousand deaths, if that were possible, for the horrible crime I have committed. Drink, the curse that has been on me, strong drink, has caused all my misery—everything has been sacrificed for strong drink … May all forgive me whom I have injured, offended, or scandalised, by my evil living.
She was hanged by Solomon Blay, “the colony’s most unpopular public servant.” He was a convict like Margaret, transported from England after he pleaded guilty to counterfeiting. Margaret would turn out to be the last woman hanged in Tasmania, although the state didn’t abolish the death penalty for more than a hundred years after her execution.
On this date in 1846, a 46-year-old woman lamed from a fall got noosed in her rocking chair in Fulton, N.Y.
Elizabeth Van Valkenburgh had been widowed at 34 with four children, when her first husband died of dyspepsia and exposure. “There is no foundation,” the prisoner explained, “for the report that I had in any way hastened his death, nor did such a thing ever enter my mind.”
She remarried shortly thereafter to John Van Valkenburgh, apparently a violent drunk, whose depredations eventually led Elizabeth to get rid of him by spiking his tea with arsenic. “To this act I was prompted by no living soul,” she said in her confession. “I consulted with no one on the subject, nor was any individual privy to it.” She may have been keen to clear any public suspicion from her oldest children — they were old enough to try to get mom to move out of the house with them and offer to help take care of the younger kids. She suffered a fall from a barn’s hayloft as she was hiding out, which crippled her leg.
Oh, and one other thing. On the eve of her hanging, the condemned murderess produced a germane revision to her aforementioned confession, recalling that there may actually have been some foundation for the report that she also hastened her first husband’s death.
With respect to my first husband I should have stated that about a year before his death I mixed arsenic, which I purchased several months previously at Mr. Saddler’s in Johnstown, with some rum which he had in a jug, of which he drunk once, and by which he was made very sick and vomited, but it did not prevent his going to work the next day and continuing to work afterwards, until the next June. His feet and the lower part of his legs became numb after drinking this, which continued until his death, and his digestion was also impaired.
I always had a very ungovernable temper, and was so provoked by his going to Mr. Terrill’s bar where he had determined to go and I had threatened that if he did go he should never go to another bar, and as he did go nothwithstanding this, I put in the arsenic as I have said.
Because of the her impaired mobility, the condemned poisoner was carried in her rocking chair to the gallows, and stayed right in it for the whole procedure. They noosed her up sitting in the rocker, and dropped the platform to hang her as she rocked away in it.
On this date in 1896, seven months after admittance as the 45th U.S. state,* Utah hanged Charles Thiede.
By birth a Pomeranian — the place, not the dog — this Salt Lake City saloon owner had gone to sea as a youth and had the hard drinking to show for it. He was plenty notorious before death row for getting into the drink himself, in which condition he often disported himself pummeling his wife, Mary.
When his wife turned up “mysteriously” done to death — her throat twice slashed — outside of Thiede’s tavern one fine spring night in 1894, it didn’t take much connecting of the dots to infer the guilt of her abusive husband, who also was the one who happened to “find” the body. Thiede, all the way to the end, would maintain his innocence, which nobody believed; a fistful of private detectives Thiede threw at the investigation in the weeks leading up to his death turned up little but a weird story about Mary dallying with a vengeful bootlegger. (Or Charles Thiede’s own going hypothesis that some wandering Swedes tried to rape Mary.)
Still, it does have to be allowed that beating a spouse in private, however discreditable the deed, has a different character than slashing her throat on a public road. This was a distinct m.o., and there was little specific cause anyone could point to for Thiede’s having done it. Circumstantial evidence has a way of stacking up against you when you’re known as a violent drunk.
According to Frontier Justice in the Wild West, an Oregon firm was paid $150 to set up a scaffold (hidden from public view within a palisade) using the “twitch-up” design in vogue in the late 19th century. Thiede wasn’t going to drop: he was going to be jerked upward by dropping a counterbalance.
The hanging rope passed through a hole in the crossbeam, over two pulleys, and down the side, where a 430-pound weight was attached. Under the noose was a low wooden platform upon which the condemned man was to stand while being prepared. In the entire construction of the gallows, not a nail or pin was used; it was bolted together so that it could be disassembled and used again.
This illustration of the setup for Charles Thiede’s hanging appeared in the Aug. 11, 1896 Salt Lake Semi-Weekly Tribune. The caption explains the apparatus: “The executioner was concealed in the tent at right,and at a signal from the Sheriff pulled the hidden lever, which drew back (A) the projecting piece of steel which supported (B) the iron bar on which the 430-pound cube of lead rested, causing the weight to drop, and the body to be jerked upward.”
This clever device worked perfectly, if the aforesaid Semi-Weekly Tribune is to be believed, but it would never see action again. Most Utahans preferred the state’s other choice alternative for execution, the firing squad; there wouldn’t be another hanging there until 1912.
Thiede himself was secretly buried in nearby Sandy, Utah, whose citizens were so incensed at becoming involuntary wardens of the killer’s mortal remains that an armed standoff between Sandy residents and Thiede’s people was only dialed down when the latter agreed to remove the remains from the cemetery proper and bury them in an adjacent feld.
* When the U.S. Supreme Court remanded the case to Utah shortly before the hanging, it at first accidentally addressed its order to the Territory of Utah.
ET: Just by way of orientation, what’s the baseline legend of Frankie Silver that Appalachian children learn? And how exactly did this particular hanging come to be so richly preserved in ballads and folklore and the like?
PDY: The legend is that this true story was the basis for the black blues song, Frankie and Johnny.
Frankie killed her man out of revenge cause he done her wrong. The legend is that she was the first — or only white — woman ever hanged in North Carolina, that she sang a confession from the scaffold. This was the story I heard as a child; only later would I learn that none of this was based on facts.
Most historians now think the song, Frankie and Johnny, was based on a murder in St. Louis, although several folklore collections published in the 20th century say it was based on Frankie and Charlie Silver.
What is it that drew you to this case in the first place?
Most people’s mothers tell them stories about Winnie the Pooh and, oh my, Tigger the tiger. My mother told me about a woman who cut her husband’s head off with an axe and burned his body in the fireplace.
As a writer, I’ve always been grateful for that.
Your book makes the case that she was wrongly executed, and not only that — but that “the true story, the facts … are even more interesting than the story as it has been passed down by so many ballad singers, folklore specialists, storytellers and newspaper columnists”. What’s the most important misconception people have about Frankie Silver? What surprises you most about the story?
There are many misconceptions, starting with the murder itself. There is ample evidence from the time to prove that her husband was loading his gun to kill Frankie and she picked up the axe to defend herself.
She did not sneak up on him as he lay sleeping; she killed in self defense.
She was not the first or only woman ever hanged in North Carolina, she was one of at least 15.
She did not read or sing a confession from the scaffold.
A young school teacher plagiarized a Kentucky ballad, “Beacham’s Lament,” had it printed and handed out at the hanging. It is this ballad, in which Frankie laments her guilt, that has come down as factual. However, when I was a college student, I came across 17 different letters and petitions to the governor asking for a pardon for Frankie. In these documents, it is clearly spelled out that Charlie Silver was a drunk, abusive husband and Frankie killed him in self-defense.
Hindsight is 20/20, of course … but it doesn’t seem to require hindsight to think that her lawyer would have been expected to introduce evidence of domestic violence even if that wasn’t the main thrust of his defense. Would it also have seemed that way to the reasonable barrister in the 1830s, or was there good reason for him to avoid it? Can we say that she was hanged for poor lawyering?
The late Sen. Sam Ervin was, like me, a great believer in Frankie’s innocence. A letter he wrote me explaining why is reproduced in the new edition of my book. He explained to me that at the time she was tried, the accused was deemed an incompetent witness and could not take the stand in her own defense. The law was changed in North Carolina in 1859 so that, as now, you can choose to defend yourself but you still cannot be compelled to testify against yourself.
Frankie’s lawyer, perhaps at the insistence of Frankie’s father, pleaded innocence. In other words, he could not introduce evidence of extenuating circumstances such as spousal abuse if he was saying she didn’t do it in the first place. In the book, I note that a man named Reuben Southard beat his wife to death that same year in the same county and got off with court costs. In one of the petitions, Frankie’s neighbors assert that it has often happened that a man murdered his wife with no legal consequences. In an article for his local newspaper, Ervin blamed Frankie’s lawyer for the outcome of the trial, not realizing that her lawyer was his own great great uncle.
Over the longer arc, it’s surprising to me that the claim by a woman who killed her husband that he was an abusive spouse — especially if that claim attracted a lot of support at the time — would go underground in the historical recollection of the case. In its essentials, this is one of the stock templates we have for thinking about a domestic crime. What happened in Morganton, and with the families’ descendants, over the years to shape the popular memory of the event? And does it suggest any larger lessons to you about the way we construct our histories?
The explanation is quite simple. All that survived over the years was this ridiculous “ballad,” in which Frankie confessed her guilt. She had nothing to do with that ballad.
Fayetteville Observer, July 30, 1833
But, in fact, she did write out a confession.
The confession itself has never been found but we know from other sources that it explained that she killed in self defense. The documents that detailed Charlie’s abuse and other details about the case remained hidden in the governors’ papers in the North Carolina Archives until I discovered them in 1963 when I was a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
In the play, a minister who is working to save Frankie from the gallows, overhears a young man singing the silly ballad. He is asked if a hundred years from now people will still be singing that ballad, not knowing what really happened. He answers: “People would rather believe a simple lie than a difficult truth.”
Compounding the historical image of Frankie has been the fact that her family was ashamed of having a convicted murderer in their midst. It was Charlie’s family that became the keeper of the legend and all its misconceptions. The Silvers kept alive the fake ballad “confession” and did everything they could to preserve the image of Charlie as a faithful husband who was killed by a spiteful wife.
Do you find that here in 2012, there are still people whose oxen are gored if your research contradicts their own version of the story — especially if you present Charlie as a violent husband?
You betcha! The Silvers to this day are rather vehement in defense of their Charlie.
It was a historic moment when I was invited to speak in the old church house near the murder scene for the Silver family reunion. In the basement of the church, they have created an extraordinary archive on the murder story and the family in general.
By this time, they have accepted that Charlie may not have been the innocent victim they’ve been told about. Many in the family are serious about their historical researches and want to know the facts. However, a contemporary Charlie Silver also said, “I just wish people would stop talking about it.”
You’re working on a program for Discovery channel’s “Deadly Women”. Does it hold any new revelations about this intriguing historical case?
The chief revelation came to me after being questioned by a very bright young woman named Colette Sandstedt for the program. She had done her homework exceedingly well. By the time we had gone over all the historical evidence I had collected over the past 50 years, I was ready for her last question: “What is the most shocking aspect of this case to you?”
I answered: “The most shocking aspect of the case is the way this poor woman has been misrepresented for almost 200 years.”
What I done, I did in self-defense, or I would have been killed myself. Where I was I could not overcome it.
-Lena Baker’s final statement
The state of Georgia has only ever electrocuted a single woman: African-American maid Lena Baker, put to death on this date in 1945 for murdering her abusive employer.
Baker was a sharecropper and a former sex worker hired to care for white mill owner Ernest Knight as he recuperated from a broken leg. This, as Baker’s biographer Lela Bond Phillips puts it, “developed into a sexual relationship.”
Both Knight and Baker were alcoholics, and the Knight liked to keep his domestic in the gristmill for days on end.*
As an interracial liason, it was also entirely taboo; Knight’s son tried everything to separate his dad from this scandalous arrangement, including moving the family and beating up Baker.
Knight pere was even more committed to keeping her.
On the night of April 29-30, 1944, the elder Knight locked Baker up in the mill, after she’d attempted to flee him. Baker testified that after Knight got back from church — it was Sunday, after all — Baker tried to leave over Knight’s threats. The two fought over Knight’s pistol, and the fight ended when the pistol discharged through Knight’s head. As to how it went off or who pulled the trigger, Baker said she didn’t know.
Although the irascible, hard-drinking Knight wouldn’t have won any popularity contests among his white neighbors, this breach of the color line was prosecuted both vigorously and speedily: a one-day trial that August (the all-white, all-male jury goes without saying, right?) sufficed to send the maid to her death.**
** In 2005, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles — which turned down Baker’s clemency application in early 1945 — issued a posthumous pardon suggesting that a non-death penalty manslaughter charge would have been the more appropriate conviction. Baker’s family and defenders read that as vindication; there’s a detailed NPR story about it here.
From the Birmingham (England) Daily Post, Nov. 1, 1893 (and also reproduced here)
A WOMAN BEHEADED IN GERMANY.
The Berlin correspondent of the Daily News telegraphs that on Monday, for the first time in many years, a woman was beheaded in Germany. The prisoner had murdered her husband by poisoning him, after he had brutally ill treated her and her children. At the trial the woman said she would reserve her defence, but she was sentenced to death, and the Emperor confirmed the sentence. Yesterday the woman, whose name was Zillmann, was informed that she was to die. She had hoped to be pardoned, and burst into tears.
She was on Sunday taken to Plotzensee, where the execution took place. There she asked for coffee and a well-done beefsteak, saying, “I should like to eat as much as I like once more.” To the chaplain the woman declared her innocence to the last moment. In the night she spoke continually of her miserable married life, and of her five children. On Monday morning, however, she was quite apathetic while being prepared for the execution. Her dress was cut out at the neck down to the shoulders, and her hair fastened up in a knot, her shoulders being then covered with a shawl. At eight the inspector of the prison entered Zillmann’s cell, and found her completely prostrate, and not capable of putting one foot before the other. Two warders raised her up, and led her to the block. Without a sound she removed the shawl from her shoulders, and three minutes after eight the executioner had done his work.
We have some affection in these pages for men or women who do not “play the man” (or woman) at the end but die in piteously naked humanity.
Given that we bear no brief for the man’s eternal soul, it seems in these parts as if bursting with rage is no less legitimate a way than any other to shuffle off this mortal coil: surely, it is better spectacle than many. “The most despicable mangy canine whelp that ever met an ignominious fate,” reported Salt Lake’s Daily Tribune, “could not have whined itself out of existence in a more deplorable, decency-sickening state than was Enoch Davis’ last hour.”
Davis got started well before the last hour; according to this review of Utah’s notable executions, he kicked off execution day by asking his jailers if he could enjoy one last … prostitute.
Maybe that would have chilled him out a little.
Instead, the Salt Lake Herald reporter recounted (under a scandalized headline) that “for vileness, filth, obscenity, indecency, billingsgate and profanity, no man, standing on the threshold of eternity’s ante-room, ever equaled Davis, barring Ruloff who was hung in Binghampton [sic], New York, in 1872 [sic].”
By turns cursing, resisting, demanding (he had better luck with his demand for whisky), and cursing some more — the Herald report is full of blushing bowdlerizations of Davis’s dirty stories and blasphemous digressions. Solicited of his last remarks, “[t]he subsequent dialogue was of such a disconnected character that reproduction is impossible. First, because it was too filthy; second, the same. And so on ad infinitum.”
Now those are last words we can all enjoy.
Beyond the newsmen, and about 500 residents of Provo, Lehi, and environs who assembled for the show, the audience included the six anonymous members of the firing squad. In order to secret their identity, they had been carried to the site in the dead of night and situated in a tent: they would not emerge until the following nightfall.
Holes cut in the canvas provided their firing positions on Davis, staked out in a bar seat that was (for obvious reasons, but also because Davis was by that point too drunk to sit straight) as securely nailed down as the officiants could manage.
Davis objected to everything else, and of course he objected to this too. “Let me see ‘em! Let me see them men who are going to kill me!” the doomed man carped, not wanting to “die like an Indian.” Odd phrase, but he was a little stressed out.
The sharpshooters demurred.
The demurrers shot sharp.
That part, at least, went off without a hitch. Like an Indian, like a cur, or merely like a weak and wicked villain, Davis succumbed instantly to the volley.
His own cowardly tears fell through the foulest of breaths during his last hour, his complete lack of nerve … might have won him a little human sympathy if it were not for his vile and lying tongue.
Belize, B. Honduras, June 5. — Nora Parham, aged 36, the East Indian mother of eight sons, was hanged today for the murder of the man with whom she had been living.
So ran a minute, page-10 wire story in the London Times* from the British Central American possession soon to become self-governing as the country of Belize.
The unfortunate subject of the story was the first, and remains to date the only, woman put to death in Belize.
But she’s very much more than a bit of trivia.
A domestic violence victim hanged for murdering her batterer — who just happened to be a cop — Parham remains a lively source of controversy down to the present day.
Nora’s position as the victim in an abusive marriage, combined with serious doubt about whether she truly killed her husband at all, have given her enduring appeal. There’s a going campaign to issue her a posthumous pardon. In fact, there was a going campaign before she died to issue her a humous pardon, opposed by a governing party paper on the grounds that “sympathy” ought not “change court rulings.”
And it’s hard not to feel sympathy for Nora Parham and the years of beatings she’s reported to have endured in her relationship with Ketchell Trapp. One doubts even the harshest magistrate would condemn a person in her situation to hang today.
“By refusing to treat the pair as wife and husband, not just cop slayer and cop,” argues this volume on gender politics in colonized Belize, “the government deepened its own highly political silence about domestic and community gender oppression and violence and added a threatening element to its re-call to ‘domestic womanhood.'”
That cop/husband was doused with gasoline and set afire, but admitted as he expired from these ghastly injuries that he had been beating Parham before the fatal fire.
Even so, it sounds like a calculated way to kill a person.
But many believe, as Parham testified at her trial** that it wasn’t homicide at all … that Trapp was incidentally splattered with gasoline during his donnybrook with his wife, then carelessly set himself ablaze lighting a cigarette while off in the outhouse. (While naked, no less. What a way to go.)
“While he came back in the bedroom, I had a gasoline iron [in] my hand with a pan of gasoline.
“He came in the bedroom with a stick in his hand and hit me on my head. When he was going to hit me another hit, I threw the gasoline on him and he grabbed away the pan from me, and I went through the backdoor and he stone me with the said pan.
“After he stoned [me], I ran around the house and he never see where I got to. I went in the house through the front door, then I took the gasoline iron from where I left it and put it in the box.
“While I was inside I heard a noise and I run to see what it was. When I went I saw Ketchell Trapp come out of the latrine under fire. I then run up to help him but I see I could not, then I continued running towards the Hospital back street, running towards the station.
-Nora Parham, at trial
That trial excerpt is drawn from a strongly pro-Nora account with more details about the case here.
Belize still hands down death sentences, but has not carried one out on anybody, man or woman, since 1985.
* June 6, 1963
** All-male jury, which was true of all juries in Belize until 1970.
German emigre Fred Behme was settled into married life when he converted from Catholicism to Methodism.
Unfortunately — so Behme saw it — his wife Mary didn’t hew to the old cuius region, eius religio principle where the man of the house was concerned, and stuck with the bishop of Rome for the salvation of her immortal soul.
And there’s just something about the zeal of a convert.
Fred Behme’s domestic missionary work grew more violent (pdf), and eventually his battered spouse moved out; when Fred coaxed her back, and found out that she’d baptized their infant son into idolatrous Catholicism while living apart from him, he chose Easter Sunday to commit what one newspaper called “one of the most hideous and blood-thirsty crimes that ever stained the good name and honor of McLeansboro”: Fred got the other kids out of the house, he attacked Mary with an axe,
drug her by the hair into the yard, and beat in the side of her head. He covered the body with corn fodder. He then took the little boy [whom Mary had baptized] to the barn and hanged him by the neck until he died. (Source)
Though the hanging was invitation-only, it was visible from McLeansboro’s public square and large crowds gathered to witness the hirsute Protestant check out with a short speech in German.
Wikipedia alleges (without a clear source indication) that one G. Phil Hanna was among this multitude, and that seeing Behme strangle to death on an inexpertly deployed rope launched a lifelong interest in the hangman’s craft that would culminate when Hanna pinch-hit on the execution team that carried out America’s last public hanging 40 years later. Others of less august accomplishment no less vividly recalled their (and their town’s) one-time walk through the valley of death.
The family that prays together … (The perp is the bearded man; the victims are the woman seated next to him, and the child in her lap.)
On a drizzly morning this date in 1856, Elizabeth Martha Brown (or Browne) was hanged for murder as a young and fascinated Thomas Hardy looked on.
Brown was born Clark(e), but she took the name of a husband 20 years younger than she, which is how she got into this mess.
Said John Brown was rumored to have made the match for money, though his older wife sure seems to have held her own in the looks department. (More on that in a bit.)
In due time, John afflicted their already-tempestuous wedded life with an affair — courtesy of one Mary Davis, a young woman stuck in her own unhappy May-December marriage.
According to the confession Elizabeth provided two days before her own death, she had a fantastic row with her drunken husband when he came home at 2 a.m. one night and Elizabeth accused him of being
“to Mary Davis’s?”
He then kicked out the bottom of the chair on which I had been sitting, and we continued quarrelling until 3 o’clock, when he struck me a severe blow on the side of the head, which confused me so much I was obliged to sit down.
He then said (supper being on the table at the time) “Eat it yourself and be damned,” and reached down from the mantelpiece a heavy hand whip, with a plaited head and struck me across the shoulders with it 3 times, and every time I screamed out I said “if you strike me again, I will cry murder” He replied “if you do I will knock your brains through the window,” and said hoped he should find me dead in the morning, and then kicked me on the left side, which caused me much pain.
He immediately stooped down to unbuckle his boots, and being much enraged, and in an ungovernable passion at being so abused and struck, I seized a hatchet that was lying close to where I sat, and which I had been making use of to break coal for keeping up the fire to keep his supper warm, and struck him several violent blows on the head – I could not say how many – and he fell at the first blow on his side, with his face to the fireplace and he never spoke or moved afterwards.
Unfortunately, this confession broke a protracted* attempt to stick to an implausible “the horse kicked him dead” story whose maintenance seriously complicated any bid to secure clemency for the woman.
She received, instead, a different kind of life: literary immortality that hardly any in Dorchester that gray morning could have aspired to.
Thomas Hardy, not yet the canonical novelist famous enough for his own Monty Python sketch but a 16-year-old architectural apprentice, was among the three or four thousand who braved the inclement weather to witness Brown’s hanging** — the mandatory sentence then for a circumstance the courts would handle differently today.
Even seven decades later, Hardy could recall the vividly sensual effect of this macabre scene.
I saw — they had put a cloth over the face — how, as the cloth got wet, her features came through it. That was extraordinary.
I remember what a fine figure she showed against the sky as she hung in the misty rain and how the tight black silk gown set off her shape as she wheeled half round and back.
In both her tragic life and her hempen death, Brown is thought to have informed Hardy’s title character in the 1891 novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles, slyly subtitled “A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented.”
“Justice” was done, and the President of the Immortals, in Aeschylean phrase, had ended his sport with Tess.
* Everything is relative, of course. In Brown’s instance, less than five weeks separated murder from execution, so she had scarcely had time to be obstinate about withholding the confession.
** Brown was said to have died with great firmness, and the report from the scaffold brings us the classically Victorian detail that executioner William Calcraft, having departed the platform to spring the trap after pinioning his prisoner, was obliged to make a return trip when he realized he’d forgotten to tie down her dress against any immodest billowing.
An ironic precaution, given that we remember this hanging precisely because of Hardy’s captivation with the more refined eroticism of the “wet hanging gown contest” tableau.