1631: Mervyn Touchet, Earl of Castlehaven

Add comment May 14th, 2013 Courtney Thomas

(Thanks to historian Courtney Thomas for the guest post. -ed.)

The crimes of Mervyn Touchet (executed on May 14, 1631), second Earl of Castlehaven, caused a sensation in Stuart England.

Convicted of rape and sodomy by a jury of his aristocratic peers, his crimes were alleged to have taken place under his roof and against members of his own family. While all of the witnesses against Touchet stood to gain materially from his death and various household servants did present evidence which contradicted that of his wife and son (who testified against him), he, as household head, was clearly unable to maintain proper order and obedience within his own house and this was instrumental in ensuring his conviction.

Book CoverIn this sense, although his alleged crimes were themselves horrific, it was Castlehaven’s subversion of expected social roles and modes of conduct in the context of his disordered household which truly shocked contemporaries (as Cynthia B. Herrup has skillfully argued in her study of the Castlehaven case, A House in Gross Disorder: Sex, Law, and the 2nd Earl of Castlehaven).

Mervyn was born in 1593, the eldest son of Lucy Mervyn and George Touchet; the latter was Baron Audley in the English peerage and, from 1616 until his death a year later, first earl of Castlehaven in the Irish peerage. Details of the future Earl’s childhood are scant.

From the time he was seven, in 1600, his family appears to have lived largely in Ireland, first on their estates in Munster and later in county Tyrone and Armagh (although they were in England sporadically, such as in 1594 when the elder Touchets were present at an inn in Beaconsfield to see their daughter Maria clandestinely marry the heir of John and Joan Thynne, Thomas, initiating a prolonged feud between the two families).

In 1608, Mervyn’s father settled the family’s English properties on his son and, while he remained in Ireland, Mervyn took up residence in England in the counties of Somerset and Dorset. In keeping with his new status as a propertied gentleman, he was knighted in the same year.

Sometime in this period Mervyn also embarked on legal studies and, in 1611, he was admitted to the Middle Temple. Around this time he also began his first marriage, taking as his wife Elizabeth Barnham, the daughter (and one of the co-heirs) of Benedict Barnham, a London alderman.

Through this match Mervyn gained additional properties in Middlesex, Hampshire, Kent, and Essex. Roughly a year after the marriage ceremony, in 1612, the couple’s first son, James Touchet, was baptized. The pair went on to have two more sons, George and Mervyn, and three daughters, Lucy, Dorothy, and Frances.

Upon his father’s death in 1617, Mervyn inherited his lands in Ireland and the title of Earl of Castlehaven, becoming the second Earl. It is also possible that he converted to Catholicism during this period. While Castlehaven steadfastly denied this, most of his children later became active Catholics, perhaps as a result of their early upbringing in these years.

Following the death of Elizabeth in 1622, Castlehaven remarried in 1624, this time to Lady Anne Brydges, nee Stanley, who was born in 1580 and was to outlive her husband by sixteen years. The widow of Grey Brydges, Baron Chandos, Anne was roughly thirteen years older than her new husband but she also had several young children from her first marriage and the two families now became one.

This dynastic merger was further consolidated when Anne’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth, was married to Castlehaven’s heir, James, in 1628. Elizabeth was all of 13 years old at the time.

Both marriages proved to be disastrous. In particular, the marriage of Elizabeth and James was dismal affair and ultimately led to the Earl of Castlehaven’s execution. By 1629, James had left the family estate (and his teen wife) at Fonthill Gifford and Elizabeth had become involved with Castlehaven’s favoured servant, Henry Skipwith.

It remains unclear whether this was a consensual relationship or, as was later charged, Castlehaven arranged for Skipwith to rape his step-daughter and daughter-in-law. What is certain is that Castlehaven persisted in showing great favour to Skipwith, which resulted in a confrontation between James and his father and ended with James complaining to King Charles I about his father’s conduct.

With this complaint, a formal inquiry was launched into the allegedly disorderly environment of the Touchet home.

The results of this inquiry, conducted by the Privy Council, revealed abominable crimes, in particular rape and sodomy. On April 25, 1631, the Earl was put on trial, charged with committing sodomy with a servant and assisting another servant, Giles Broadway, with the rape of his own wife, Anne, the Countess of Castlehaven (Anne alleged that the Earl had restrained her while Broadway assaulted her).

Henry Skipwith was never formally charged for his affair with Castlehaven’s daughter-in-law but rumour abounded of Castlehaven’s involvement in this as well (either in terms of instigating the rape, if such it was, or as a panderer who encouraged the illicit affair).

The trial was an early modern media sensation.

Special scaffolding was erected in Westminster Hall to accommodate the huge numbers that turned up to witness the trial and news writers throughout the realm and as far away as colonial North America speculated about the case and the outcome of the trial. Charles I, who prided himself on his happy and close-knit domestic life, was particularly shocked by Castlehaven’s behaviour and remarked that he hoped the “obscene tragedy” would quickly pass.

At the trial itself, twenty-seven peers acted as both judge and jury against Castlehaven and the testimony of six witnesses, including that of the Countess of Castlehaven and her daughter, was recorded by the court.

Their testimony painted a vivid picture of the Castlehaven household at Fonthill Gifford as a den of sexual iniquity and debauchery.

According to the Countess, Castlehaven had sexually and physically abused her from the very beginning of their marriage and this had culminated with Broadway’s rape of her at with Castlehaven’s assistance. Anne revealed that, within a few days of their wedding, the Earl was consorting openly with prostitutes and household serving boys.

She reported that he had commanded the couple’s servants to expose themselves to her and goaded her into illicit relationships with his friends and favoured servants, whom he also encouraged to embezzle money from the estate. She also alleged that, following the marriage of her daughter to Castlehaven’s heir, James, the crazed Earl had concocted a scheme to have Henry Skipwith impregnate the girl with his bastard, whom James would be forced to recognize as his own.

Throughout the trial Castlehaven was described as unstable, erratic, dissolute, and utterly devoid of religious faith and piety.

In his defence, Castlehaven alleged that he was the victim of a plot orchestrated by his family to commit judicial murder and inherit his estate and wealth. The most he would admit was over-generosity to a few of his favoured servants. He countered the charges by accusing his wife of infanticide and adultery and charging his son and daughter-in-law/step-daughter with greed.

As he reminded the court, all the witnesses against him stood to benefit a great deal from his death. Likewise, he told the court that the testimony against him on the rape charges was logically inconsistent and the reports of sodomy did not prove penetration and, without that definitive act, the sodomy charges were not sustainable.

While he was accused of subverting the natural order and not properly governing his household, he painted himself as the victim of his inferiors, who were the ones truly guilty of threatening the natural order by plotting against him.

The preserved records from the trial demonstrate that the evidence against Castlehaven was spotty and ill-sustained. The jury took several hours to deliberate and reach a verdict and, ultimately, twenty-six of the twenty-seven peers voted to convict on the charges of rape but only fifteen were persuaded by the allegations of sodomy.

After his conviction, some members of Castlehaven’s natural family, including his siblings, petitioned the crown for a pardon based on the alleged corruption of the witnesses against him. But Charles I refused to consider it or to investigate the suspicions of corruption while Castlehaven himself refused to confess his guilt and seek a pardon on his own behalf.

When he was taken to the scaffold on Tower Green on May 14, Touchet orally protested the verdict while affirming his acceptance of the King’s right to try and execute him. He also made a final declaration of his loyalty to the Church of England.

Almost immediately after his execution, various broadsides and pamphlets describing the lurid details of the cases and the motivations of those involved began to circulate, ensuring that it remained a topic of discussion and rumour for years to come.

While several writers argued for Castlehaven’s guilt, others, including his sister, Eleanor, authored a number of tracts which proclaimed his innocence and decried the wickedness of his accusers.

In July, two of the Earl’s alleged accomplices were put to death (the household page who was alleged to have committed sodomy with Castlehaven, and Giles Broadway, who aided Touchet in the supposed rape of his wife).

While these two servants had confessed to their crimes (aware that, as Castlehaven had already been convicted and executed, there was little chance that they would be acquitted and confessing meant that some mercy in the manner of their deaths would be shown to them by the state), the details of their confessions offered some support to Castlehaven’s accusations of corruption on the part of his wife and son and so the question of his guilt remained unresolved for many.

With his father’s death, James Touchet had the title of Earl of Castlehaven and his father’s lands conferred upon him by the crown. The executed Earl’s widow did not remarry and James Touchet was never reconciled with his wife, whose alleged misconduct with the servant Henry Skipwith had initiated the prosecution against the Earl.

While the Castlehaven case is often cited as both a potent example of the dangers inherent in the subordination of household discipline and as a celebrated case in the history of the treatment of homosexuality, it also established an important precedent regarding the right of a wife to testify against her husband in cases of marital cruelty and rape.

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1936: Buck Ruxton, red stains

8 comments May 12th, 2013 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1936, Buktyar Rustomji Ratanji Hakim, also known as Buck Ruxton, was hanged in Strangeways Prison for the murder of his common-law wife, Isabella, and their maid, Mary Jane Rogerson.

A general practitioner of Persian descent, Ruxton was born in India and moved to the United Kingdom in 1930 to set up practice in Lancaster.

He met a married Englishwoman, Isabella Van Ess, and took up with her after her divorce. Although they never legally married and Ruxton actually already had a wife he’d left behind in India, they lived as man and wife and had three children, and she took his last name.

Ruxton had a reputation as a good doctor and a compassionate one who waived his fees for indigent. He wasn’t nearly as good a husband as he was a physician, however: he was extremely jealous of his charming, sociable wife and continually accused her of infidelity with little actual evidence of it.

The neighbors overheard violent arguments, and Isabella would occasionally take the children and leave, seeking refuge at her sister’s home. At one point she reported her husband to the police for domestic violence, but they paid little attention to her complaints.

On September 15, 1935, Ruxton flew into one of his rages, stabbed his wife five times in the chest, beat her and strangled her with his bare hands. He battered the maid to death as well, since she had been unlucky enough to witness it. A clever little rhyme memorialized the story, one of its various versions is printed below:

Red stains on the carpet, red stains on the knife
For Dr. Buck Ruxton had murdered his wife
The maid servant saw it and threatened to tell
So Dr. Buck Ruxton, he’s killed her as well

Ruxton dismembered both bodies in the bathtub and dumped the parts in a stream near the Scottish border, over a hundred miles from Lancaster. There were thirty pieces in all, leading the press to call the case the “Jigsaw Murders.”

In an effort to hinder identification, Ruxton removed the victims’ teeth and skinned their faces. This turned out to be too clever by half: once the bodies were found in late September, the precision of the cuts told authorities that the killer was someone with anatomical knowledge and surgical skill, which narrowed the suspect pool considerably.

This filter, combined with the realization that one of the newspapers Ruxton used to wrap up some dismembered bit was a special edition copy sold only in Lancaster and Morecambe, led the cops to Ruxton and not many others. It wasn’t long before the pieces — sorry — fell into place.

Meanwhile, exciting new forensic techniques, helped firm up identification of the corpses: authorities superimposed a photograph of Isabella over one of the skulls and found a dramatically jury-friendly visible match.

Isabella Ruxton, in life and death.

Forensic entomology (in this case, the gross but useful technique of checking the age of the maggots infesting the corpses) helped pinpoint the date of death.

Ruxton was arrested on October 13, nearly a month after the double murder.

The Ruxtons’ charlady told the police that on the day Isabella and the maid disappeared, Ruxton came to her house early and told her not to come in to work. The next day, when she arrived at the Ruxtons’ house, she found it in a state of disarray with the carpets removed and a pile of burnt material in the backyard. A neighbor couple also had helpful recollections: Ruxton had persuaded them to come and help out at his house, saying he’d cut his hand while opening a can of peaches and he needed to clean up quickly because decorators were coming over. They scrubbed his walls and he gave them some bloodstained carpets and clothing.

Given all this evidence, there was little Ruxton’s defense attorney could say for him.

The defense tried to challenge the identification of the bodies, but the superimposed skull picture was quite convincing. Ruxton admitted his guilt prior to his execution and signed a short confession. He was hanged in spite of a petition with 10,000 signatures asking for mercy.

The Ruxton case, a smashing tabloid hit in its day, has been the subject of its own book, T.F. Potter’s The Deadly Dr. Ruxton: How They Caught a Lancashire Double Killer. It’s also featured in many general true crime books, including Colin Wilson and Damon Wilson’s Crimes of Passion: The Thin Line Between Love and Hate, Colin Evans’s The Casebook of Forensic Detection: How Science Solved 100 of the World’s Most Baffling Crimes, and Harold Schechter’s A to Z Encyclopedia of Serial Killers.

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1883: Emeline Meaker, child abuser, first woman hanged in Vermont

1 comment March 30th, 2013 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this day in 1883, Emeline Lucy Meaker was hanged for the murder of her nine-year-old sister-in-law and ward, Alice. She was the first woman executed in Vermont and almost the last; the only other one was in 1905, when Mary Mabel Rogers was hanged after killing her husband for his insurance.

Alice’s father died in 1873 and her impoverished mother sent her and her brother Henry to live in an overcrowded poorhouse. There, the little girl was reportedly sexually abused. Others noted that she was “a timid, shrinking child—of just that disposition that seems to invite, and is unable to resist—persecution.”

In 1879, Alice and Henry got a chance for a better life when their much older half-brother* Horace (described by crime historian Harold Schechter as a “perpetually down-at-heels farmer”) agreed to take them in for a lump sum of $400. However, Horace’s wife, Emeline, was unhappy at this extra burden. She referred to Alice as “little bitch” and “that thing.”

Schechter writes of the killer in his book Psycho USA: Famous American Killers You Never Heard Of:

Married to Horace when she was eighteen, forty-five-year-old Emeline was (according to newspapers at the time) a “coarse, brutal, domineering woman,” a “perfect virago,” a “sullen, morose, repulsive-looking creature.” To be sure, these characterizations were deeply colored by the horror provoked by her crime. Still, there is little doubt that … Emeline’s grim, hardscrabble life had left her deeply embittered and seething with suppressed rage — “malignant passions” (in the words of one contemporary) that would vent themselves against her helpless [sister-in-law].

Young Alice’s life, however difficult it may have been before, became hell after she went to live with her half-brother and his family.

She was forced to do more and heavier chores than she was capable of, and for the slightest reason, Emeline would beat her horribly with a broom, a stick or whatever else was at hand.

Soon Alice’s sister-in-law dropped the pretense of punishment and simply hit Alice whenever she felt like it. Emeline was quite literally deaf to the little girl’s screams, as she had a severe hearing impairment. So did Horace.

Some of the neighbors later said they could hear the child’s cries from half a mile away, and Emeline had no compunctions about abusing Alice in front of visitors. Everyone in in their small community of Duxbury was aware of what was going on, but no one bothered to do anything about it until it was too late.

Less than a year after Alice’s arrival, Emeline decided to do away with her. The crime is reported in detail in Volume 16 of the Duxbury Historical Society’s newsletter.

Emeline convinced her twenty-year-old “weak minded” and “not over bright” son, Lewis Almon Meaker, to help. He later said his mother had persuaded him that Alice would be “better off dead” and that “she wasn’t a very good girl; no one liked her.”

Emeline’s first suggestion was to take Alice out into the mountain wilderness and leave her there to die, but Almon thought this was too risky. Instead, on the night of April 23, 1880, Almon and Emeline woke up Alice, shoved a sack over her head and carried her to the carriage Almon had hired in advance. They drove to a remote hill and forced Alice to drink strychnine from her own favorite mug, which her mother had given her.

Twenty minutes later, the child’s death agonies ceased and Almon buried her in a thicket outside the town of Stowe.

Emeline and Almon, people who had been concerned about the riskiness of a previous murder plot, didn’t bother to get their stories straight about the unannounced disappearance of their charge, so when the neighbors asked where Alice had gone their contradictory explanations for her disappearance raised suspicions.

On April 26, a police officer subjected both mother and son to questioning. Almon didn’t last long before he broke down and confessed. He led the deputy sheriff to the burial site and they disinterred Alice’s remains, still visibly bruised from her last thrashing. Because the deputy’s buggy was small, Almon had to hold Alice’s corpse upright to keep it from falling out during the three-hour journey back to Roxbury.

That must have been some ride.

Emeline and Almon were both charged with murder. Each defendant tried to put as much blame as possible on the other, but both were ultimately convicted and sentenced to death. Almon’s sentence was commuted to life in prison, but Emeline’s was upheld in spite of years of appeals and a try at feigning madness.

Her violent tantrums, attempts at arson, and attacks on the prison staff didn’t convince anyone she was crazy — they merely alienated her family and others who might have otherwise supported her. Once she realized she wasn’t fooling anybody, she calmed down and passed her remaining days quietly knitting in her cell.

She was hanged at 1:30 p.m., 35 months after the murder.

On the day of her execution she asked to see the gallows. The sheriff explained to her how it worked and she declared, “Why, it’s not half as bad as I thought.” For the occasion — she had a crowd of 125 witnesses to impress — she wore a black cambric with white ruffles.

The not-half-bad gallows snapped Emeline Meaker’s neck, but it still took her twelve minutes to die. Emeline wanted her body returned to her husband, but Horace refused to accept it and it was buried in the prison cemetery.

Ten years after his mother’s execution, Almon died in prison of tuberculosis.

* Some reports say Alice was Horace’s niece rather than his half-sister.

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1862: Margaret Coghlan, the last woman hanged in Tasmania

Add comment February 18th, 2013 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

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.

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1846: Elizabeth Van Valkenburgh, in her rocking chair

1 comment January 24th, 2013 Headsman

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.

The key original documents from her trial, including the death sentence and the rejection of clemency (a petition to which 10 of Valkenburgh’s 12 jurors subscribed) are preserved here.

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.

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1896: Charles Thiede, the first since Utah statehood

Add comment August 7th, 2012 Headsman

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.

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1833: Frankie Silver, Morganton legend

7 comments July 12th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1833, a young woman named Frankie Silver was hanged in Morganton, North Carolina for murdering her husband Charles.

The cover of Perry Deane Young’s book (available at Amazon.com) shows actress Amanda Ladd in the title role of Young’s play Frankie. Young can be contacted at www.perrydeaneyoung.com or by e-mail at pyoung3@bellsouth.net

Silver is a staple of North Carolina folklore, supposed to have assassinated her spouse in a jealous rage and checked out singing her confession from the gallows.

But the reality, as best one can discern from the distance of time, is quite a bit murkier; indeed, quite a bit more dark and dramatic.

Executed Today is honored to mark the occasion by interviewing author Perry Deane Young.

Young’s acclaimed The Untold Story of Frankie Silver: Was She Unjustly Hanged? debunks many of the fables surrounding this old time true crime.

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 2001, Frankie was finally allowed to have her say in a play which I wrote with William Gregg and which was produced by the Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre in August 2001.

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.”

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1945: Lena Baker

3 comments March 5th, 2012 Headsman

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.”

A twisted, sometimes-violent 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.**

She’s (obviously) the subject of the 2008 film Hope & Redemption: The Lena Baker Story.

* Virtual imprisonment of domestic labor: not a thing of the past.

** 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.

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1893: Bertha Zillmann, completely prostrate

Add comment October 31st, 2011 Headsman

From the Birmingham (England) Daily Post, Nov. 1, 1893 (and also reproduced here)


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.

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1894: Enoch Davis, like a cur

2 comments September 14th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1894, Enoch Davis — condemned for the fatally pistol-whipping his wife, who was planning to leave him (you’ll see why in a moment) — was shot to death at Lehi Junction, Utah.

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.

-Salt Lake Tribune, quoted in Frontier Justice in the Wild West: Bungled, Bizarre, and Fascinating Executions

This illustration (and the sketch of Davis above) both from the September 15, 1894 Salt Lake Herald.

Part of the Themed Set: Americana.

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