1840: Francois Benjamin Courvoisier, for the murder of Lord Russell

4 comments July 6th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1840, a valet was hanged at Newgate Prison for the murder of his aristocratic employer, Lord William Russell.

This celebrity murder of a former Member of Parliament, septuagenarian patriarch of one of England’s august noble houses, by a member of his household activated all the crime-panic circuits still familiar a couple centuries later.

That of class, of course: the perpetual frisson of animosity between the respectable and those they held in economic servitude, bursting bloodily onto the front pages.

That of foreignness, since Courvoisier was Swiss.

And that ever-popular fear of youth amok, when the 23-year-old claimed inspiration from William Harrison Ainsworth‘s then-popular potboiler about the beloved underclass robber Jack Sheppard.*

Speedy Trial

The valet was quickly on trial for his life; the total time elapsed from Russell’s death to Courvoisier’s own was two months to the day.

But a less hasty schedule might have permitted better investigation, as Courvoisier was well on his way to acquittal with his lawyer’s deft rebuttal of the crown’s entirely circumstantial case.

When police discovered the decisively damning evidence of Russell’s stolen effects midway through the trial, the Swiss man made himself an milepost in the evolution of professional ethics at the bar. Summoning his lawyers, Courvoisier informed them that he was indeed guilty but that he had no intention of pleading guilty to a hanging crime and expected his defense to continue.

Attorney Charles Phillips reluctantly complied, implicating fellow-servant Sarah Mancer as the potentially guilty party. When it became publicly known after the trial that Phillips had become aware of his client’s guilt, he was publicly vilified for the vigor of his representation, e.g., contesting “with violent language the witnesses for the prosecution, whose evidence he [knew to be] true,” and a lively debate among legal types on professional propriety in such an instance ensued.**

Read All About It

None of this availed Benjamin Courvoisier aught. His celebrity was brief, but intense — he even signed an autograph for the sheriff, dating it “the day of my execution,” as he was being pinioned for hanging. Broadsides like these below (links to selections from Harvard Library’s extensive publication of execution broadsides) sold a reported 1.65 million copies. (Source)

Broadside 1

Broadside 2

Broadside 3

Broadside 4

Among the published broadsides are several popular ballads relating to the case — one written to lament the murder, before the apprehension of a suspect; others for the condemned’s execution. One certainly wouldn’t call these great literature, but they’re representative examples of broadside balladry, nearly de rigueuer for scandal-mongering Victorian crime coverage and therefore very relevant for these pages.

COURVOISIER’S LAMENT
(Written by Himself.)

You Christians all of every nation,
A warning take by my sad fate–
For the dreadful crimes that I’ve committed,
I, alas! repent too late.
Only think what I must suffer,
And the death which I must undergo–
I cannot rest by day or night,
My heart’s so full of grief and woe.

My parents they were poor — but honest —
And brought me up in virtuous ways;
And never, ’till this sad occurrence,
Did I embitter their fond days.
But now, alas! quite broken-hearted,
My friends and family must be,
To think that I soon must quit
This world for a long Eternity.

My Master was a Nobleman–
Lord William Russell was his name;
Beloved he was by all who knew him,
And well he did deserve the same.
Oh! how could I so basely murder
One that was so good and kind?
I hope the Lord above will pardon
Me, that I may mercy find.

Alas! my days they are all numbered.
When I must give up my last breath;
For the horrid crimes that I’ve committed,
Die an ignominious death.
Oh! while I’ve life, let me entreat you
All, take warning by my fate!
Shew the ways of evil-doers,
Or you’ll repent when ’tis too late.

Attend unto my true confession–
A lesson it may be to you;
Give not your mind too much to pleasure,
Act upright — be just and true.
Let not the sight of gold e’er tempt you
To act dishonest to your friend:
For that alone caused me to murder,
And brought me to this untimely end.

Let not the world blame those two Females
Who, fellow-servants were with me;
For of the murder and the robbery,
None whatever knew but me.
No other crimes have I committed,
Save one single robbery;
Tho’ it was said that Etiza Grimwood
Basely murdered was by me.

Charles Dickens attended this hanging, mining the scene for Barnaby Rudge.

William Thackeray came too — he was becoming publicly engaged as a man troubled by capital punishment, and it was the first execution he had witnessed. (Actually, he turned away at the decisive moment.) Thackeray published an article about the experience in Fraser’s magazine, reflecting doubt at the salutary value of public executions and empathy with the young man’s scrambled mental state as he was raced from condemnation to the gallows in a mere fortnight.

At first, his statements are false, contradictory, lying. He has not repented then. His last declaration seems to be honest, as far as the relation of the crime goes. But, read the rest of his statement — the account of his personal history, and the crimes which he committed in his young days; them “how the evil thought came to him to put his hand to the work.” It is evidently the writing of a mad, distracted man. The horrid gallows is perpetually before him; he is wild with dread and remorse. Clergymen are with him ceaselessly; religious tracts are forced into his hands: night and day they ply him with the heinousness of his crime, and exhortations to repentance. Read through that last paper of his. By heaven, it is pitiful to read it. See the Scripture phrases brought in now and anon; the peculiar terms of tract-phraseology (I do not wish to speak of these often meritorious publications with disrespect). One knows too well how such language is learned-imitated from the priest at the bedside, eagerly seized and appropriated, and confounded by the poor prisoner.”

* Courvoisier’s Jack Sheppard reference triggered thunderous indictments of this text in the popular press — “a publication calculated to familiarise the mind with cruelties,” howled the London Examiner “and to serve as the cut-throat’s manual” and caused the stage adaptation to be censored (pdf).

Though Ainsworth had decades of writing ahead of him, it’s been argued that his reputation never fully recovered from this case, and that’s why he’s not in the canon. What he lacks in posthumous celebration he garnered in contemporary buzz; Ainsworth’s “Newgate novels” valorizing highwaymen helped to feed an enduring popular craze for hanging broadsides and “penny dreadfuls” and to mainstream a (commercialized) version of thieves’ cant. See The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People 1770-1868.

** See The Bar & The Old Bailey, 1750-1850. In a more unctuous vein, the bishop of London submitted a petition to the House of Lords demanding repeal of the right of defendants’ lawyers to make closing statements.

Part of the Themed Set: The Ballad.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Notable Participants,Public Executions,Scandal

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2000: Fu Xinrong, involuntary organ donor

4 comments May 30th, 2009 Headsman

One Fu Xinrong was shot in the back of the head this day in China’s Jiangxi province. The previous fall, he had raped his girlfriend, murdered their newborn son, and turned himself in to police.

His death, just one no-account criminal among China’s thousands of practically anonymous execution victims, attracted no particular notice.

But quite against all odds, Fu Xinrong posthumously became the subject of a scandal: the hook for a story in the Chinese press piquantly titled, “Where Did My Brother’s Body Go?”

For the answer — that Fu Xinrong’s corpse had been driven to a Nanchang hospital and its kidneys transplanted to unidentified recipients — unveiled the shadowy post-execution operations even more unseemly than China’s industrial-scale death penalty.

According to a Washington Post report of July 31, 2001,

After Fu was shot in the back of the head, four attendants got out of the van and picked up his corpse … A government prosecutor attempted to stop them, but they explained that they were from Nanchang and that they had a deal with the court …

“We found the hospital’s director and confronted him with the evidence,” one reporter said. “In the beginning, he refused to say anything about it, but when he saw what we had, he had to admit it on the condition that we did not release the hospital’s name in our report.”

Further investigation indicated that a senior court official, whose surname is Yang, had sold the body to the hospital, the report said.

Fu’s father committed suicide. The family sued the court in 2001; I have not been able to establish whether or how that suit was resolved. However, according to a 2003 U.S. Congress report (pdf) the editor who green-lighted the story’s publication was sacked.*

Fu’s case, in any event, is far from unusual.

On the contrary, his kidneys entered a veritable souk** of transplanted organs that’s been openly pitched at westerners willing to part with five figures and their decency in exchange for a life-giving replacement part from a shot-to-order prisoner.

* This would have been around the same time that a similar fate befell journalists indiscreet enough to explore the unflattering-to-the-People’s-Republic social environment of an executed gangster.

** Finally officially acknowledged in 2005.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,China,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Murder,Rape,Shot

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1997: First use of lethal injection in China

1 comment March 28th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1997, Kunming City Intermediate People’s Court debuted a brand-new execution technology for the world’s capital of capital punishment.

With a 1996 Criminal Procedural Law reform making lethal injection an option for processing the enormous ranks of China’s condemned, experimentation got underway this date on two convicts whose identities and crimes I have not seen indicated. These were not only the first lethal injections in China, but the first anywhere outside the U.S.

According to the New York Times, China began its foray without the usual accoutrement of medicalization: rather than the familiar strap-down gurney, Kunming officials simply brought the doomed prisoners to the same execution ground used for shootings and had them roll up their sleeves for the needle.

Whatever its initial inelegance, China has enjoyed many thousands of test cases since to refine the practice — as many as 15,000 per year at this time, Amnesty International has charged.*

In the 12 years since, and aided by the offices of its guinea pigs, lethal injection has gained significantly in both technical sophistication and official acceptance; it is now thought that most Chinese executions use this method, rather than the old gunshot-to-the-back-of-the-head.

To What End?

More humane? Maybe.

Easier on an executioner than discharging a bullet at point-blank range? You’d have to think so.

Cheaper? Well, maybe — if the cost of the mobile killing van is spread over enough, er, “subjects”.

But lethal injection enjoys one significant benefit of distastefully obvious utility to the state:** it facilitates tissue transplant from a recently executed prisoner.

Though Chinese officials have always stonewalled on the subject, lucrative organ harvesting from executed prisoners has long been endemic in the country.

* China’s death penalty system has been famously opaque, so this figure is far in excess of the known thousand-plus judicial executions every year (1,718 in 2008) and would include several times that number in other judicial executions not publicly reported, plus extrajudicial killings that presumably wouldn’t involve lethal injection. Even with only the official executions specifically known to the wider world, China easily accounts for the majority of the world’s executions year after year.

** The older (and still-used) method of shooting a prisoner in the head also preserves organs, of course.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,China,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Known But To God,Lethal Injection,Milestones

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1989: Horace Franklin Dunkins, Jr., “just hope that he was not conscious”

29 comments July 14th, 2008 Headsman

Minutes after midnight this date in 1989, Alabama’s executioners electrocuted a developmentally disabled murderer. Nine minutes later, after rewiring the chair, they finally managed to kill him.

Alabama’s fifth execution of the “modern” era initially made the headlines as the nation’s first execution of a mentally impaired prisoner after the Supreme Court’s controversial Penry v. Lynaugh decision (since overturned) green-lighted the death penalty for developmentally disabled defendants.

Horace Franklin Dunkins, Jr. and an accomplice had raped a mother of four, tied her to a tree, and stabbed her to death, an unquestionably horrific crime. A black man with a white victim deep in Dixie … well, his IQ in the high sixties wasn’t going to help him do anything but waive his right to remain silent. The jury at his trial didn’t hear about his borderline mental retardation — Penry would require that juries get that information in the future — and at least one juror later said that little tidbit would have made the difference in Dunkins’s case.

At any rate, the buzz in this morning’s papers wasn’t about the circumstances of Dunkins’s entry into the criminal justice system, but his clumsy exit from it into the great hereafter.

According to the account of a Dr. John Vanlandingham:*

I saw Dunkins in the electric chair and I heard the generator start…. After a short period of time the other doctor … and I were called into the execution chamber. I could see that Dunkins was breathing…. I checked his peripheral pulse, in his wrist, and it was normal. I listened to his heart and his heartbeat was strong with little irregularity…. I told an official that Dunkins was not dead. Dr. – and I returned to the witness room…. I again heard the generator begin.

“I believe we’ve got the jacks on wrong,” the prison guard captain called out. It was flatly not enough current to kill, although it apparently did the killer the favor of knocking him out.

From 12:08 to 12:17, Dunkins sat motionless and seemingly unconscious while the execution team went all MacGyver on Yellow Mama. Once they’d fit Tab A into Slot B into Lethal Electrode C, they were finally able to try again. The doctors pronounced death 19 minutes after the switch had first been thrown.

”I regret very very much what happened,” the Alabama Prison Commissioner, Morris Thigpen, said at a news conference after the execution. ”It was human error. I just hope that he was not conscious and did not suffer.” (The New York Times)

* Dr. Vanlandingham was participating in the execution despite an injunction by the American Medical Association, which considers it a violation of the Hippocratic Oath. Physicians’ involvement (or not) in executions is a thorny ethical issue of its own; Vanlandingham, however, is not the only doctor to break the taboo.

Part of the Themed Set: Embarrassed Executioners.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Alabama,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Electrocuted,Execution,Milestones,Murder,USA

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1792: Nicolas Pelletier, Madame Guillotine’s first kiss

15 comments April 25th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1792 — a surprisingly late date, just nine months before the king himself would die under its blade — debuted the iconic symbol of the French Revolution, the guillotine.

Today, it turned a thief and killer named Nicolas Pelletier from thug to trivia. Much more illustrious names would follow, and anon.

Though predecessors of the grim machine had been used centuries before in Scotland, Italy and Switzerland, the guillotine ushered in a distinctly modern era of technological application to capital punishment informed by egalitarianism — prior to the French Revolution, nobles and commoners had different modes of execution — and by legal and medical expertise aimed at minimizing pain.*

In fact, the device’s namesake, physician Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, opposed the death penalty altogether; he approved scientific and “painless” execution as a stopgap measure.**

For his troubles, the humane doctor’s name became synonymous with terror, enough so that his descendants changed their handle. One wonders how the doctor judged his own legacy; certainly better for any condemned person to die on the guillotine than the breaking wheel, but the mechanical efficiency of the “French razor” and the depersonalization of the condemned in relation to the headsman and the witnesses also made possible the mass executions the French Revolution is known for.

Singular Guillotin, respectable practitioner: doomed by a satiric destiny to the strangest immortal glory that ever kept obscure mortal from his resting-place, the bosom of oblivion! … “With my machine, Messieurs, I whisk off your head (vous fais sauter la tete) in a twinkling, and you have no pain;”–whereat they all laugh. (Moniteur Newspaper, of December 1st, 1789 (in Histoire Parlementaire).) Unfortunate Doctor! For two-and-twenty years he, unguillotined, shall near nothing but guillotine, see nothing but guillotine; then dying, shall through long centuries wander, as it were, a disconsolate ghost, on the wrong side of Styx and Lethe; his name like to outlive Caesar’s.

Carlye

Whither the ethical role of the physician dedicated to life in the protocol of dishing out death? It’s a strikingly current dilemma.

Want to know more about how the guillotine was built? Want to build your own?

* Pain reduction was distinctly not the order of the day under the ancien regime. Often, quite the opposite.

** It was still another physician, Antoine Louis, who actually designed the decapitation machine; for a time, it was known as the Louisette. The working model was built from Louis’ design by a piano maker — and it may be more than coincidence that the science of constructing this mechanically complex musical instrument was also bursting with creativity on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Milestones,Murder,Notable Participants,Public Executions,Theft

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