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.
The state of Vermont has long since dispensed with the death penalty; it hasn’t had a death penalty law on the books since 1964, and its last execution was a decade before that. (Source)
But back when the traps were dropping on Green Mountain State scaffolds, no consideration of sentiment (or holiday pay) barred hanging a man on New Year’s Day, as occurred in 1892.
You could call Sylvester Bell a ladykiller.
According to family genealogists familiar with the case, the Canadian-born farmer used two of his wife’s relatives as character witnesses in his naturalization proceedings … and eight months later, shot said wife, the mother of his five children. Not only did Sylvester win acquittal for this non-fatal attack, Marcia Farnsworth Bell actually had to fight to get a divorce on the grounds of “intolerable severity”.
Marcia and her unmarried children moved to Randolph, Vt., where the kids opened a major department store.
Nothing daunted, a then-54-year-old Sylvester remarried the decades-younger Emma Lock (or Locke) in 1887.
‘Til death do us part: Sylvester and Emma’s marriage certificate.
We may imagine an ensuing union not altogether free of discord,* as we rejoin the public record of their lives with the Jan. 2, 1890 Burlington Clipper.
It appears that Mrs. Bell had left her husband and applied for a divorce. Thursday she, in company with Deputy Sheriff Hall, went to the house to remove her things. Bell met them very pleasantly and permitted her to pick up her goods. As she was about ready to leave she went up stairs and he followed her. Soon afterward a pistol shot was heard and Officer Hall rushed up, and Bell met him at the door of the room into which Mrs. Bell had gone and handed him the pistol, saying, “Take this. I have done the deed.” The ball entered the head of the unfortunate woman, just back of the ear, and she lived about thirty minutes, unconscious.
Bell was put under arrest and for a time the excitement, and sympathy was so strong for the murdered woman that it looked as if Bell would be lynched, but the law will now be allowed to take its course.
The article understatedly observed, “Bell’s reputation with his wives is bad.”
The course of the law will not hold much suspense for readers of this blog.
The novelty of the eventual New Year’s execution attracted the New York Times which (botching the hanged man’s name and the date of his crime) reported the scene from the scaffold, where “Stephen” Bell bought himself an extra 34 minutes in this vale of tears with the verbosity of his last statement.
WINDSOR, Vt., Jan. 1. — Stephen H. Bell was hanged here this afternoon for the murder of his wife, in the town of Fairfax, Dec. 26, 1880. At 1:40 the door of the west wing of the prison was closed and at 1:44 the prisoner was taken from his cell, where he was holding an earnest conversation with Chaplain Wassall.
The prisoner was somewhat pale from long confinement. He boldly ascended the steps and, although assisted, appeared to be nerved up for the occasion. Chaplain Wassall offered a fervent prayer, during which Bell bowed and covered his face with his hand. Sheriff Lovell, as soon as the Chaplain had finished, stepped forward and said: “Stephen H. Bell, have you anything to say why the penalty of the law should not be executed on you?”
Bell, rather pale and tremulous, stood erect, and after addressing the Sheriff and officers in charge, asking for all the time he wanted in which to speak, began a talk which lasted thirty-four minutes. It was a rambling statement, in which he declared his innocence. When he had finished, Bell stepped back to his chair.
Sheriff Lovell took him by the arm, and the condemned man stood up bravely. When Deputies How and Randall had pinioned his wrists, arms, and legs Bell stepped on the drop and said: “Gentlemen, I am a dying man; good-bye.” Instantly the Sheriff touched the spring and the drop fell. In fourteen minutes he was pronounced dead. The body was buried in Windsor Cemetery.
Bell’s descendants continue to seek information on Sylvester; anyone who may know more can get in contact via this author.
* Another report of the murder describes Emma fleeing to live with her parents on account of Sylvester’s repeatedly menacing her with a butcher knife and a gun, until the “overseer of the poor, after a time succeeded in getting them together again, he giving up his pistol and agreeing to behave himself.” Clearly, it was a different time for domestic violence victims.
On this date in 1903, a 42-year-old mother of 11 was hanged side by side with her 30-year-old lover for murdering an abusive husband in the small South Yorkshire town of Wombwell.
That June, Emily Swann had shown her outgoing boarder and lover John Gallagher (together with some neighbors) the results of William Swann’s latest beating. John returned to the house and repaid the injuries in kind — and with interest.
After some minutes of fighting audible to the neighbors, Bill had been beaten to death.
Emily’s battered-wife situation might cut a lot more ice today, but by the jurisprudence of the day it was a fairly straightforward case, especially since all kinds of incriminating remarks were attributed by the neighbors to both Emily and John — “Give it to him, Johnnie, punch him to death,” for instance, and Gallagher’s own mid-bout respite at a neighbor’s house where he reported having broken four ribs with plans to break more. Both illustrated a level of intent among both parties beyond the heat of passion.
And you wouldn’t say the authorities were disposed to sympathize with Emily’s situation in general. They rather viewed her immorality — with John and otherwise — as the cause of the thrashings William gave her.
the wonder is that he has not killed her. He has frequently gone home after leaving work and found his wife drunk in the house and nothing prepared for him in the way of food. (case file comment, quoted here)
Fortified by a stiff drink of brandy, Emily Swann glided onto the platform at Leeds’ Armley Prison beside her already-trussed defender and delivered the somewhat famous greeting, “Good morning John.” Gallagher managed to return the salutation, and a few seconds before both were launched into eternity, she replied, “Good-bye. God bless you.”
It was an unusual exchange because the English execution protocol did not solicit remarks from the doomed prisoner, and in the occasional double hangings,* most participants were too frightened, awed or preoccupied to make small talk with their fellow-sufferers in the few seconds available.
* England would soon do away with double hangings altogether. Subsequent convicts to be hanged “together,” like Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters, were in fact executed simultaneously but at different prisons.
It’s the sesquicentennial of a then-sensational, now-forgotten hanging in Rochester, N.Y.
At dawn on December 20, 1857, the city had awoken to the discovery of a mangled corpse by the Genesee River’s High Falls … and more than enough evidence to have the corpse’s killers in hand by tea time.
Marion Ira Stout — he just went by Ira — had made a dog’s breakfast of the job, according to History of Rochester and Monroe County New York from the Earliest Historic Times to the Beginning of 1907.
[W]hen they got near the edge of the bank, Ira struck his victim a sudden blow with an iron mallet, smashing the skull and producing death instantly. Stout then threw the body over the precipice, supposing that it would fall into the river and be swept into the lake before sunrise, but instead of that it landed on a projecting ledge thirty feet below the upper level. Perceiving that there had been some failure in the matter, Ira started to go down a narrow path that led sideways along the cliff, but in the darkness he missed his footing and fell headlong, breaking his left arm in the descent and landing beside the corpse. Summoning all his remaining strength he was just able to push the body over the bank, when he sank in a dead faint. On recovering from which in a few minutes, he called to his sister, who was still above, to come and help him. When she started to do so, the bushes to which she clung gave way; she stumbled, broke her left wrist, and fell beside her prostrate brother. But it would not do to remain there, wretched as was their plight. So, after searching in vain for Ira’s spectacles, which they had to leave behind them, but taking with them the fatal mallet, they scrambled slowly and painfully up the bank and made their way laboriously to their home on Monroe Street.
In lieu of a last statement, Stout referred his audience to this writing, which was published posthumously. Courtesy of the New York State Historical Association Library, Cooperstown, N.Y.
Sure enough, the glasses were waiting near the victim for the cops to find come daylight.
How did Ira, his sister, and the late Charles Littles — the sister’s husband — find themselves in this macabre dance?
That’s the murky bit, though it’s fair to say there was some negative energy in the family.
Littles was a violent, jealous, philandering drunk. His wife Sarah seems like the classic abused spouse. Ira was an ex-con who seemingly had his life back together. Oh, and Ira and Sarah were sleeping together — professedly true in the literal sense (they were observed to sleep in bed together in their underthings), and possibly true in the Biblical sense.
Now, where in this tangled knot of incestuous desire, domestic violence, protectiveness, jealousy and intrigue lies the motive is less than self-evident, but Ira and Sarah most definitely schemed to lure Charles to his demise. (Charles was found with a club which he’d brought to clobber a lover of Sarah that he’d been told would make a rendezvous.)
Still, the condemned charmer garnered sympathy for having saved his sister from an abusive marriage; Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass rallied to his defense, and a female admirer smuggled him poison to cheat the hangman … which said admirer managed to end up ingesting herself, and barely survived.
Death got all ten-thumbed around Ira Stout, it seems. His hanging was no different.
The New York Times‘ archive has free access to the report of Stout’s execution, interestingly detailing the upward-jerking “sudden suspension” hanging apparatus in use for the job:
The gallows is the same which has always been in use in the jail — the rope, a hempen cord, alone being new. A weight of 186 pounds rests upon a swing door set in the garret floor of the jail. From this weight, the rope runs over two pulleys above, and the end of it drops through two doors, and nearly to the main floor of the jail. The weight falls about eight feet, jerking the slack end that distance. The halter attached to the main rope is a long distance below the main enginery of death, and the latter is not seen by the spectators or prisoner. The Sheriff stood at the foot of the stairs, some forty feet from the prisoner, and by a small cord pulled the latch which let the fatal weight fall.
But since this is Ira Stout, you know it didn’t come off without a hitch.
The death of the ill-fated man was not as sudden as could be desired. His struggles for eight or ten minutes were severe, and caused the spectators to turn away in disgust.
His neck was probably not dislocated, and he died by a slow process of strangulation. Doctors Hall, Avery, James and Miller stood near, and in eight minutes after the drop fell they said his pulse was as full as in life.
Sort of puts a grim twist on Stout’s own (fairly self-pitying) letters to the papers, in one of which he remarked, “I do not wish to show a cowardly tenacity for life, but I consider it my right and duty to live as long as I can.”
According to a feature story in the newsletter of Mount Hope Cemetery where Ira Stout takes his eternal rest, he might have tried to hang on quite a bit longer.
A rumor was current last night at a late hour that Stout was not dead, and that efforts were being made to resuscitate him by the use of galvanic batteries and other means sometimes employed for the restoration of persons supposed to be dead. How much truth there is in the rumors thus made we cannot say, as we have not taken pains to inquire at the house of Mrs. Stout.