1893: Frank Van Loon, via a mother-in-law’s vengeance

Add comment August 4th, 2016 H.M. Fogle

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


A Youthful Bank Robber’s Fate

“Truth is stranger than fiction.” In how many ways is this aphorism verified! Nowhere is it more strangely true than in the dark and mysterious records of crime. That a perilous sea, only occasionally visited by the ships of commerce and civilization, should witness the development of bands of pirates whose bold and cruel deeds have terrified the voyagers, and furnished themes with which the romancer could charm the morbid tastes of the lovers of the gruesome, is a thing to be expected. That a wild and sparsely settled region, abounding in fastnesses and hiding places, yet crossed by trains bearing rich treasures, should be the field in which a drove of dehumanized desperadoes carried on their nefarious trade, is in no way surprising. Storm-tossed, wreck-strewn seas and hurricane-swept prairies, nurture, or at least harbor, such characters as their appropriate children. There is nothing strange in the fact that wild regions should be the home of wilder men. The romancer can make his story as wild and improbable as he chooses; there is no one who will rise to contradict him.

It is strange, however, that such men should spring up amid peaceful surroundings. It is stranger still that a penchant for crime, carried out into deeds of more reckless daring than those of the wild and unrestrained West, should be nurtured in the quiet rural districts of Northwestern Ohio. Yet, strange to say, in this almost Arcadian corner of a great civilized state, a corner whose agrarian peacefulness was never broken by harsher sounds than the melody of church bells, or the cheerful call of the locomotive, there have been conceived and carried into execution crimes that would stand out boldly even on the pages of the wildest fiction. This corner of the state was the home of the now famous “Jack Page” band of arsonists, who terrorized the country a quarter of a century ago. Here, also, lived the man who furnished the occasion of this sketch, Frank Van Loon. Of his dare-devil deed let the reader judge.

The Supremacy of Nerve

On the seventh day of August, 1891, the village of Columbus Grove, Putnam County, Ohio, was startled out of its quiet, humdrum routine by a daring daylight robbery and murder. A young man, unknown to the few chance stragglers about the streets of the quiet village, entered a hardware store. By sheer force he compelled the person in charge to give him two loaded .38-caliber revolvers. With the dash of a true desperado, he rushed across the street to the bank. He entered the bank, broke the glass in front of the cashier’s desk, reached through and secured $1,365. The bank officials, terrified by the suddenness of the attack, dropped through a trap-door into the cellar. One of them, by venturing to look out of his hiding place, was shot by the nervy robber. The ball took effect in the shoulder, producing a painful, though not fatal wound. While the desperado was holding the bank employees at bay, an old man by the name of William Vandemark entered the bank to transact some business. Vandemark was ignorant of the fact that a desperate robbery was at that moment being committed. The robber, hearing some one enter, turned quickly and fired at the innocent intruder. The shot was fatal and Vandemark was instantly killed. As the desperate man rushed out of the bank, he shot at a man who was peacefully driving along the street. The daring young man made his escape across the fields without being recognized.

A Mother-in-Law’s Vengeance

Who this daring robber and murderer was might have remained an undiscovered fact, had it not been that a certain young farmer by the name of Frank Van Loon had, by his innate meanness, incurred the implacable hatred of his wife’s mother. Ever suspicious of her son-in-law, the woman entered his room on the morning of the day following his crime, noted that his boots were muddy, and found in his pockets the guns and the stolen money. This woman, having heard in the intervening time of the crime committed in Columbus Grove, reported her findings to the officers. The officers, knowing of the unhappy condition of things in the Van Loon home, for a time paid no heed to the advices which they received, thinking it was only a mother-in-law’s spite [at] work. But when the information had been several times repeated they concluded to investigate, and found things as the mother-in-law had reported. Van Loon was arrested. He was given a speedy trial, convicted of murder in the first degree, and sentenced to be hanged.

In the Palace of Death

Frank Van Loon, serial number 23,313, on the twelfth day of May, 1892, entered the Annex of the Ohio Penitentiary. It was his final leave-taking of God’s beautiful world of sunshine and fragrance. Never again was he to see the earth and sky meet. When he left that Place of Doom it would be as a lifeless body.

Through the law’s delay Van Loon was permitted to drag on a miserable existence between hope and despair for fifteen months. In these months of waiting he employed a part of the time in writing a history of his life. In this composition the natural selfishness and brutality of his nature were plainly manifest. It was evident from the underlying tone of his autobiography that he did not recognize that his fellow-man had any rights which he was bound to respect, especially if those rights stood in the way of his wishes being attained. His towering egotism was undoubtedly the soil which nurtured and brought to maturity the disposition which made possible his cruel crime. [editor’s note: my researches have failed to locate this interesting artifact for the modern reader’s edification.]

This egotism was constantly being made evident by his actions during his stay in the Annex. Much of the time during his waking hours was passed in quarreling with his keeper. These contentions one day led to a desperate struggle between Van Loon and Guard Bowman for the possession of an ice pick. When Van Loon had been let out of the cage for some purpose, he endeavored to get possession of an ice pick, as the only available weapon with which to kill the Guard. Both men being well developed and powerful, a desperate struggle ensued, in which the superior skill and greater endurance attained by careful training gave the victory to Guard Bowman.

The Deepening Shadows

Frank Van Loon’s long stay in the Annex was drawing to a close. The brief day of his earthly career was rapidly nearing the end. The shadows were growing deeper. Soon his sun would set in utter darkness. Van Loon had lived but twenty-three years of mortal life. They had, however, been years fruitful of enormous results in crime and meanness.

August 4, 1895, was his last day on earth. It was a dark and stormy night which preceded that day, but not more dark or more stormy than had been the young life that was that night to be taken as a forfeit to the State. Frank Van Loon’s life had been a rebellion against the laws of God and man. While the officers of human law were preparing to take satisfaction for the outrage that had been committed against it, the artillery of heaven was flashing defiance and thundering menaces and pouring down torrents of rain, as if to make it known to the universe that the sin-scorched soul which the laws of man had decreed should no longer dwell among the habitations of earth, should not rise into that world where “no wicked thing cometh,” but must turn away from heaven and wander forever in the “outer darkness.”

When the midnight hour had come, the march from the Guard Room began. Noiselessly the guards moved over the sawdust covered corridors to the Annex. The Warden, Hon. C.C. James, read the warrant to the condemned man. The same nerve that characterized the attack on the bank was manifest in this last and closing ordeal of his life. Unassisted and unfalteringly he mounted the steps to the gallows and and took his place on the trap.

While standing on the trap Van Loon sang in a strong, clear voice, “Nearer My God to Thee.”

There was no tremor in his voice, nor quaking in his limbs. Apparently without fear he gave voice to the familiar hymn. Strangely the music floated out on the midnight air, while the terrific electrical storm, raging without, seemed playing the accompaniment. The deep diapason of Nature’s orchestra, blending with the stentorian voice of the singer, echoed and reverberated through the adjoining corridors of the prison until many of the prisoners were startled from their slumbers. On hearing the hymn and its wild accompaniment, and remembering that it was the night of Van Loon’s execution, they listened with bated breath, scarcely knowing whether to attribute the unwonted disturbance to earth, heaven or hell; wondering whether the voice was that of man, angel or demon.

At the close of this strange oratorio, the trap was sprung; the body shot downward. The execution was a success. Frank Van Loon was no more.

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

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1925: Con O’Leary

Add comment July 28th, 2016 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1925, Cornelius “Con” O’Leary* was hanged in Ireland for the murder of his brother, Patrick. He, his mother and his two sisters had all been charged in the crime, but in the end, Con was the only one to swing for it. The story of his brother’s slaying and his execution is told in Tim Carey’s book Hanged For Murder: Irish State Executions.

In early 1924, five adults occupied the O’Leary farm in the village of Kilkerran in Cork: the elderly mother of the family, the oldest son Patrick, his younger brother Con, and their sisters, Hannah and Maryanne. All of the children were unmarried. (There had originally been eight of them, but one had died and three others had moved away.) Their father had died a few years before and left the farm to his wife, with the stipulation that Patrick would inherit after her death.

Forty-six­-year­-old Patrick and 40-year-old Con didn’t get along and everyone knew it. Con, contrary to tradition, didn’t work the family farm but had a job as a laborer at a farm nearby, leaving his older brother, a large man with a “quarrelsome” nature, to manage the O’Leary farm alone.

Patrick thought his brother should either start working the family’s land or else pack up and move elsewhere, but Con refused to budge.

The two men hadn’t spoken to each other in years and went to great lengths to avoid each other: Patrick spent his nights in a loft in the barn and got up early, and Con wouldn’t go to the barn until after his brother had left and wouldn’t go to the house until after his brother had gone to bed. Maryanne also spent her nights away from home, at an elderly female neighbor’s house.

On March 7, 1924, a child tending cows in a field near the O’Leary farm noticed a potato sack under some bushes, opened it up and discovered a horrifying sight: a severed head, badly decomposed and beaten to a pulp.

The gardai were summoned and launched a search of the area. They found a severed right arm and a torso. Although the authorities recognized the dead man, they summoned Con O’Leary to make an official identification.

Carey records,

By the time Con O’Leary was brought to the field it was dark. When they shook the head out of the sack the guards shone torches to help him see. Con looked at the head for some time before saying, “Yes, that is my brother Pat.”

“Con, are you sure now?” the sergeant asked.

“Yes, that’s my brother Pat all right.”

At this point a garda inspector arrived. However, when he asked Con if he could identify the head he said he couldn’t. When the sergeant asked, “How is it you identified it for me and you cannot identify it now?” Con said nothing.

Patrick’s head, arm and torso were then brought to the back room of a pub in the nearby village of Milltown. Lit by candles and a bicycle lamp, the head was rested on a bit of hay on a table.

Hannah was brought in, and claimed she did not recognize the remains. Maryanne, however, immediately identified her brother. Con kept insisting that he wasn’t sure, then started rubbing his hands together repeating, “I am innocent, my hands clean.”

When the gardai checked the loft where Patrick slept, it was obvious they’d found the crime scene. The rafters were clearly bloodstained in spite of an apparent attempt to wash them, and although the bedclothes were clean, there was blood on the floor under the bed. He had probably been beaten to death in his sleep; there were no indications of a struggle.

The next day, the O’Leary family held a traditional Irish wake in their home — including the requisite open casket, with the body parts carefully arranged inside. The neighbors attended and openly discussed their suspicions that Con had committed the murder. He only repeated that he was innocent and his hands were clean. That night, of the three remaining O’Learys, only Maryanne stayed up to keep a vigil by the coffin.

Further searches commenced and in the end eight body parts turned up, all within 650 yards of the farmhouse. The final discovery was Patrick’s other arm, which the family sheepdog was seen carrying around; it had already eaten most of it.

On March 14, a week after the discovery of Patrick’s head, his mother, brother and sisters were all charged with his murder. The gardai decided he had probably been killed on February 26, which is the last day he was seen alive. Curiously, the family hadn’t raised the alarm after he disappeared. They later said they thought he’d simply dropped out of sight of his own accord and would return soon enough.

While awaiting trial, Maryanne died of cancer in prison. She claimed, probably truthfully, that she had been away on the night Patrick died and had no knowledge of what happened to him.

Because Mrs. O’Leary was elderly and in poor health, the charges against her were dropped and she was released from prison. She returned to the family home and lived there alone until her death in 1928.

Con and Hannah went to trial on June 23, 1925, and both pleaded not guilty. The jury deadlocked on reaching a verdict for either of them, however, and a second trial began a week later. It lasted two days.

There was virtually no evidence to implicate Hannah, but that didn’t stop the judge from suggesting in his summing­up about how she might have been involved: he said changing Patrick’s gore­soaked bedsheets for clean ones might “might be a woman’s job” but chopping him into bits and pieces was probably “a man’s job.”

In less than an hour, the jury convicted both of them, but with a recommendation for mercy in Hannah’s case.

Con, who maintained his innocence to the end, went to his death a month after his conviction. He was executed by Thomas Pierrepoint and buried in an unmarked grave. Hannah was sent to Mountjoy Women’s Prison. She was released in 1942, at age 56, and went to live in a Magdalen laundry.

* Not to be confused with Irish historian Cornelius O’Leary.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Ireland,Murder,Other Voices

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326: Crispus and Fausta, incestuous lovers?

Add comment July 23rd, 2016 Headsman

On an uncertain date perhaps around late July of 321,* the Roman emperor Constantine the Great had his son and also his wife mysteriously put to death.

It’s mysterious because besides execution, Constantine had a damnatio memoriae passed over his former family to bury any record of their sins in Time’s obscurity. These edicts didn’t always work … but in this case, if there were any who dared to record what happened, that illicit account did not survive its journey from antiquity.

But it was surely a shocking scandal in its time.

Crispus was Constantine’s first-born son and very much in the father’s favor. He was the child of a wife or concubine named Minervina. In 307, Constantine put this woman aside to make a more politically expedient marriage to Fausta, the daughter of Diocletian‘s retired-now-unretired co-emperor Maximian who with his son Maxentius held sway in Italy at that moment of the Roman Tetrarchy‘s ongoing collapse.**

Although Crispus didn’t offer his dad much in this situation by way of family alliances, Constantine kept him in his favor — by all appearances grooming him as an heir. Call it paying it forward: as a young man, Constantine himself had been in a similar position when his father Constantius dumped Constantine’s peasant mother in favor of an imperial marriage. That moment might have strangled a world-historic career before it even began, but Constantius instead chose to keep Constantine on the paternal cursus honorum.

So it went with Crispus — for a while.

In 317, Constantine, now emperor in the western part of the empire,† made Crispus into his Caesar; the boy ruled in Gaul and Germania for several years, thrashing barbarian tribes as he ought. Dad, meanwhile, was maneuvering towards victory over his eastern opposite number Licinius, with Crispus contributing an important naval victory in 324.

The young man (in his twenties at this time; his precise year of birth is uncertain) seemed on his way to a scintillating future.


Bronze coin from the mint of Rome depicting Crispus.

Things went pear-shaped suddenly in 326 when his father had him executed without any kind of warning that survives in the scant records available to us — and not only Crispus, but also Constantine’s own wife, that Fausta whose marriage might have threatened the boy’s status.

We don’t know why but the rumor as trafficked by the much later Byzantine historian Zosimus suggests a possible Parisina and Ugo scenario: “He put to death his son Crispus, styled Caesar, on suspicion of debauching his mother-in-law Fausta, without any regard to the ties of nature … [and] causing a bath to be heated to an extraordinary degree, he shut up Fausta in it, and a short time after took her out dead.”

It is down to conjecture what one ought to make of this nth-hand scandal-mongering; for impugning someone’s character one can hardly do better than an incest accusation. The story does appear to fit the few available facts, however, and Fausta was much closer in age to Crispus than to Constantine. It might also be noteworthy that three of Fausta’s sons went on to become Emperor and one daughter Empress but none of them ever rehabilitated mom.

Damned memory be damned, Crispus was rediscovered during the Renaissance and favored with several dramatic renditions embellishing the young man as a tragic hero, often with speculation that he was wrongly condemned to Constantine’s everlasting shame.‡ The events surrounding Crispus’s death being almost entirely obscured, writers could really go nuts with it; for example, Sir Walter Scott‘s Count Robert of Paris (set in Constantinople during the Crusades) features the story of an entirely fictitious penance built into subsequent Byzantine execution rituals by a remorseful Constantine:

But the death-blow had no sooner struck the innocent youth, than his father obtained proof of the rashness with which he had acted. He had at this period been engaged in constructing the subterranean parts of the Blacquernal palace, which his remorse appointed to contain a record of his paternal grief and contrition. At the upper part of the staircase, called the Pit of Acheron, he caused to be constructed a large chamber, still called the Hall of Judgment, for the purpose of execution. A passage through an archway in the upper wall leads from the hall to the place of misery, where the axe, or other engine, is disposed for the execution of state prisoners of consequence. Over this archway was placed a species of marble altar, surmounted by an image of the unfortunate Crispus — the materials were gold, and it bore the memorable inscription, TO MY SON, WHOM I RASHLY CONDEMNED, AND TOO HASTILY EXECUTED. When constructing this passage, Constantine made a vow, that he himself and his posterity, being reigning Emperors, would stand beside the statue of Crispus, at the time when any individual of their family should be led to execution, and before they suffered him to pass from the Hall of Judgment to the Chamber of Death, that they should themselves be personally convinced of the truth of the charge under which he suffered.

* Approximate times around the spring and summer of 326 have been proposed by various authors based on the very vague allusions of ancient sources. This author argues that numismatic evidence permits a more precise triangulation. Constantine in 326 journeyed from his new capital in the east to Rome: an imperial mint traveled with him, striking coins as it went — and some of those coins show Crispus. His presence on coins from various stops of this journey indicates that Crispus must have been alive as the procession reached Rome on July 21, 326, but the Caesar vanishes from them, and from history, immediately thereafter.

** The History of Rome Podcast narrates this period, with Constantine’s rise into political relevance in episode 130.

† The Tetrarchy was still tetrarching along pending Constantine’s victory over all: the system featured separate senior emperors East and West each dignified Augustus, and each Augustus had a junior fellow-emperor and heir titled Caesar. Constantine was Augustus of the West, and Crispus was a Caesar.

‡ Fausta tends to get somewhat shorter shrift than her putative lover. Crispus’s presence in the literary culture would appear to make him the namesake of the Boston American Revolution martyr Crispus Attucks. African-descended men in North America often carried Roman names, though “Crispus” was by no means a common one.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Italy,Notably Survived By,Put to the Sword,Roman Empire,Royalty,Scandal,Sex,Soldiers,Uncertain Dates,Women,Wrongful Executions

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2013: Orelesitse Thokamolelo, bad in-law

Add comment May 27th, 2016 Headsman

Orelesitse Thokamolelo caught six death sentences in Botswana for slaughtering six family members, and on this date in 2013 he suffered the first of them at Gaborone Central Prison.

It all started on a nice visit he paid to his brother Landane Thokamolelo.

The Botswana Gazette reported (May 29, 2013) that “on the second day of his visit, Thokamolelo woke up and demanded to cook food where upon [sic] his brother’s wife and mother-in-law refused.” Whether this was the women’s exacting spirit of hospitality or their fear for the state of the kitchen, their houseguest didn’t appreciate the denial. In the ensuing argument, he “took a knobkerrie and beat his brother’s mother-in-law and his brother’s wife to death.” In for a penny, in for a pound, Thokamolelo then turned the bloodied club on the wife’s four-month-old child.

The brother during all this was out collecting firewood with two other children, and when they returned later that day, Thokamolelo served them the same way, albeit with fresh bludgeons: the brother he overpowered and battered to death with a hammer, after which he pursued the fleeing children into the bush and “killed them with a log.” The doggedness and calculation implied in murdering the second trio must have weighed heavily against Thokamolelo’s attorney’s attempt to float an insanity argument. Not even reefer drives a man that crazy: “After anxious inquiring of mind of this matter, I also find no misdirection by the trial court in considering the effect of dagga taken by the appellant and giving it weight,” an appellate judge ruled in April 2013.

Botswana is not a particularly frequent user of the death penalty, with a single-digit death row and hangings typically separated by several years. (Its most recent was Patrick Gabaankanye, just a few days ago as of this writing.) That small sample, however, holds some uncommonly interesting cases — such as Mariette Bosch and Modise Mokwadi Fly.

Part of the Themed Set: The 2010s.

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1548: Giulio Cybo, Andrea Doria disaster

Add comment May 18th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1548, Giulio Cybo was beheaded in Genoa for plotting against his father-in-law Andrea Doria.

Cybo (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) was a babe of barely 20 when he died, the whole of his short life lost to frustrating defeats in the skein of peninsular and familial politics.

His parents were the original Cybo and Malaspina whose union founded the Cybo-Malaspina house that until the 18th century ruled the small Duchy of Massa and Carrara where Liguria meets Tuscany.

Successful though their line might prove, theirs was a house divided and the parents’ rivalry for precedence in their territory transferred to their two sons. Thus Giulio, the father’s favorite, makes his first appearance on history’s stage invading Massa with a cohort of gendarmes to seize power from his own mother.

The success of his rude maneuver was short-lived and mom soon restored her authority — backed by the imperial forces haunting the land during the interminable Italian Wars. Although Giulio was married to the daughter of the Genoese admiral Andrea Doria,* whose word was law in that city, the in-laws frustratingly stiffed him out of the dowry payment that Giulio intended to use to restore his Freudian conquest.

These material grievances, and a young man’s wide streak of tragic impetuousity,** drove Giulio into the arms of Giovanni Luigi Fieschi. The latter was a Genoese nobleman whose dramatic plot to topple Doria failed with operatic† absurdity in 1547 when Fieschi mid-coup fell off a gangway and drowned in the harbor. Only in Genoa.

Cybo’s complicity in this scheme could not be proven because he arrived too late to do anything other than make a politic show of support for the already-victorious Doria. But now, encouraged by the French — the Habsburg empire’s enemy in the aforementioned Italian Wars and therefore the sponsor of its every rival faction — Cybo gathered some fellow malcontents in Venice and began working up a plot to oust Doria, restore the liberty of Genoa, and really put all the parents in their place. Once bitten, however, the wily old Doria was on the lookout for these troublemakers and had Cybo’s circle infiltrated early. The young man was arrested en route back to Genoa to implement his design.

The letters of the Fieschi [family] which were found on his person left no room to doubt his guilt. Some tell us that he was several times tortured and confessed that Farnese, Maffei, Ghisa and the Pope himself were accomplices in the plot, and that the Fieschi and Farnese were its instigators.

The emperor did not wish to execute Cybo; and we find evidence in documents of the period that even the bloodthirsty Gonzaga made every exertion to save him. On the other hand Graneville and Doria laboured with all their power to secure his punishment. In fact, so soon as Doria heard of this plot, committed rather in intention than act and excusable by the youth of the conspirator, “the prince (I use the words of Porzio) inflamed to wrath by the offence and full of vengeful animosity, disregarded the double tie which bound him to the young man, and made incessant appeals to Caesar for the blood of his relative.”

Many Italian and foreign princes asked grace for the prisoner, and the emperor was at first undecided; but severity triumphed over mercy — Doria desired vengeance and he obtained it. The victim met his fate with manly intrepidity. He was beheaded and his body exposed between two wax candles in the public square … on the 18th of May, 1548. He was scarcely twenty years of age.

Porzio says: —

His courage and military capacity inspired all who knew him with the conviction that, if he had not perished in boyhood, he would have become one of the first captains of his age. He made a single mistake: that of endeavouring to expel one foreigner with another — to drive out the Spaniards in order to establish the French in Italy.

* This man, one of the great naval captains of his age, was of course the namesake of the Genoese ocean liner Andrea Doria that sank in 1956.

** Cybo “liked not to rest contented in the battle of life,” was James Bent’s judgment, although it is difficult to tell that he ever had the option to do so.

** Well, stage-worthy at any rate: Fieschi’s fiasco is the basis of Schiller’s play Fiesco.

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1836: Isaac Young/Heller, axman

Add comment April 29th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1836, a troubled (ex-)family man named Isaac Young — latterly going by Isaac Heller — was publicly hanged in Liberty, Indiana for axing his entire family to death in a fit of madness.

Young hailed from Pennsylvania, and the reason he had changed his name and moved to Indiana was that he had done a similar thing in his native haunts.

As a teenager in the 1820s, Isaac Young had been seized strangely by the spiritual tremors abroad during America’s Second Great Awakening. A baptized zealot who fancied himself blessed with the power of prophesy, Young was also captive to an inescapable — and seemingly defeatist — impression of being forever pursued and haunted by the devil. Young’s religious thunderings tended to produce more interest in the utterer’s state of mind than in the listener’s state of soul, and the youth was known to succumb to “gusts of passion.”

Eventually, those gusts blew a hurricane.

Young lived with his brother, who had a wife and a 10-year-old orphan girl — and, little did they know, the devil watching over them all. One night in 1830, Young awoke with a start at a sound he perceived upon the stair, convinced that some entity had entered the room he shared with the little girl; his religious eccentricities jumbling him right into lunacy.

“The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” Young bellowed at the dragon from Revelations come to visit him in his nightshirt in Dauphin County. He tried to grapple with the phantom but missed it, and of a sudden he turned his frenzy on the girl, battering her furiously. Young would later say that he was “forcibly impelled” to the attack by an overwhelming “duty” to “destroy” the child; his brother and his sister-in-law attempted to intervene but Young seized a club and with a berserker rage chased them from the house — then returned to his cowering little roommate, and sawed off her head with his knife.

He was acquitted of this murder by reason of his manifest insanity, but this was not a time and place with resources to aid the mentally ill. All anyone could think to do was to keep him chained in the poor house until after a few months he appeared to return to reason — at which point he was finally released and blew town, now rechristened with his mother’s maiden name.

In the hamlet of Liberty, the new man Heller escaped the devil … for a few years. He opened a grocery store and married a woman named Elizabeth McCollam with whom he had a happy brood of three children.

Until one day the gusts returned to swirl his soul again.

“The first symptom of insanity noticed in this county was about three years ago [i.e., 1833], by a young man who was going home with him on a Sabbath evening,” the Connersville (Ind.) Watchman reported in a profile that was widely reprinted around the Republic.*

The young man noticed something very extraordinary in his manner, and was much affected. At length he asked him what was the matter. He replied in effect that a superhuman influence or inspiration was upon him. Soon after he became very much excited on religious subjects … Witnesses stated that for several days at a time, during the last two or three years, he would act like a wild man or a raving maniac. During that time he was twice taken into the care of the overseers of the poor and kept some time as an insane person.

Heller’s neglect of his work soon exhausted his family’s modest reserves and left wife and children surviving on the charity of neighbors, spiraling Heller even deeper into depression, and in his “great horror of the poor house” he owned “that he would rather die than be separated from his family.” One hears in these words a man with the walls closing in about him … or else, a man hammering out the rationale for the madness he has already determined to undertake. There was calculation in Heller’s fatal outburst; a neighbor visited on the morning of his hecatomb and found the family in good spirits and Heller cogent. The disturbed patriarch waited until the guest was well away before he

took his axe from under the bed, went to the fire, turned round [and] commenced rubbing the fingers of one hand over the edge. His wife asked him what he was going to do — he replied he was going to chop some wood. About this time the woman told the children to get some apples out from under the bed. the two little ones immediately crawled under the bed, and the little sister-in-law stood near the bed looking at Heller. She saw him raise the axe and strike his wife one full blow about the chin and neck. Seeing this she sprang to the door, threw it open and fled for the nearest neighbor’s between a quarter and a half a mile off, crying murder as she ran. After she had fled some two hundred yards, she saw Heller come round the end of the house and look after her. Heller states that after he had despatched his wife he went out of the house and looked after the little girl — that he then went back into the house — his little boy came towards him, when he split him down and chopped his head off. He then dragged his little daughter Sarah out from under the bed — placed his foot upon her breast — she raised her hands for protection, and at the first blow he cut off the fingers of one hand and nearly took off her head. He then went and rolled the mother off of the infant on which she had partly fallen, and cut its head off.

His spiritual torments and probable schizophrenia here are the framework — a cynic might say, the excuse — for a much more commonplace scourge: the murderer said “in justification of the act ‘that they were likely to become a county charge, and that he would rather see them in their present situation.'” (Connecticut Courant, Mar. 21, 1836) In the confession he willingly supplied later, he admitted having attempted to set his homicidal plan in motion several times prior, once even brandishing a butcher’s blade over his wife like the Psycho shower scene before she soothed him. Elizabeth Heller must have been a woman of remarkable calm under pressure; unfortunately for her, resources for abused spouses were about as plentiful as those for the mentally ill.

“Nearly all … who know any thing about the case, regard it as incomprehensibly mysterious,” the newspaper reports concluded. “Many who know the most about it, say they hardly know how or what to think of it. It is doubted whether the annals of crime can produce a parallel case, and it is devoutly hoped they never may!”

But the annals of crime hold many mansions, as readers of this here site surely know.

Heller’s final, “successful” outburst was actually just one of a number of grisly mass-murders by family fathers who through the closely intimate exertion of a bloody blade drenched their domestic idylls with the gore of their loved ones — enough even to form a discernible pattern. Struggling to come to grips with this “homicidal insanity” or “monomanie-homicide”, the early American psychologist Isaac Ray lamented the “painful frequency” of cases “where the individual, without provocation or any other rational motive, apparently in the full possession of his reason, and oftentimes in spite of his most strenuous efforts to the contrary, imbrues his hands in the blood of others, — oftener than otherwise, of the partner of his bosom, of the children of his affections.” Incomprehensible perhaps, but scarcely unparalleled: what could make sense of this “horrid phenomenon”?

Pious family men turning Middle America domiciles into charnel houses was the going postal of settler-era America, and maybe Ray even had the Young/Heller-style addled religiosity in mind when he noted that absent some rational accounting the mind would default “to that time-honored solution of all the mysteries of human delinquency, the instigation of the devil.”

In a review of the period’s “familicide” cases, Daniel Cohen (“Homicidal Compulsion and the Conditions of Freedom: The Social and Psychological Origins of Familicide in America’s Early Republic,” Journal of Social History, Summer, 1995) speculates that the revolutionary grant of personal autonomy exacted a dangerous emotional toll upon men who felt themselves failures or simply could not pay “the high psychic costs of economic freedom, particularly for men prone to anxiety and depression.” Isaac was surely prone.

The efforts of those men to submit to supernatural authority were less single-minded pursuits of spiritual perfection than desperate attempts to evade seemingly irresolvable personal conflicts, most importantly between moral demands (or social obligations) and destructive urges or desires. It was ultimately less important for them to avoid sin than to resolve dilemmas or evade choice. When the breathless individual freedom of the early republic collided with the relentless responsibilities of paternal stewardship, the result was an implosion of self-destructive violence … the beginning not the end of a disturbing national tradition …

Many social barriers had fallen in post-Revolutionary America, but several unhappy men could still not control the rain, or the currency, or their own darker impulses. Where others may have perceived boundless opportunities, they experienced gnawing fears and terrifying compulsions. Situations of free choice did not inspire them with a “heady feeling of command” or a “sense of marvelous potential,” to use Robert Wiebe’s expansive phrases, but drove them instead to desperation. Physical unsettlement, economic insecurities, and religious speculations all combined to baffle and torment them. Unable to cope with the perplexities of life in a free society, they constructed internal imperatives to evade and annul that very freedom. By their actions, each tacitly endorsed John Cowan’s conclusion in prison: “Liberty would be more horrible to me than death.” Thus did a handful of troubled Americans confront freedoms profound enough to transform sober Christians into deluded visionaries, loving husbands into axe-wielding assassins, and tidy republican households into slaughterhouses.

Where Pennsylvania acquitted, Indiana convicted — but within even a few years the cooling of passions stirred by the slaughter led many to regret the judgment. According to this volume, even the judge later acknowledged that he ought to have set aside the verdict owing to Heller’s state of mind.

* We’re channeling this via the Gloucester (Mass.) Telegraph of May 4, 1836.

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1356: Four friends of Charles the Bad

Add comment April 5th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1356, the French King John II — John the Good, to history — avenged himself on his cousin and rival, Charles the Bad.

This affair embroils us in the French dynastic turmoil that spawned the Hundred Years’ War: five months after the nastiness in this post, King John was an English prisoner following the catastrophic Battle of Poitiers. It’s a good job he got his revenge in when he had the chance.

The fight — in its largest sense — was all about the throne of France, the poisonous fruit of the dynasty-destroying Tour de Nesle affair of royal adultery decades before. That affair destroyed two princesses who could have become queens, and with it the potential of legitimate heirs for their husbands. With the family tree’s next generation barren, succession passed from brother to brother until the last brother died.

So now who’s big man in France?

Awkwardly, the last king’s nearest male relative also happened to be the king of France’s rival — his nephew, Edward III of England.

France barred Edward with a quickness, on the grounds that Edward was related via a female line. That put the patrimony in the hands of John the Good’s father, a previously un-royal cousin known as Philip the Fortunate. Less fortunately, this succession also conferred upon the new Valois line Edward’s rival claim and the associated interminable violent conflict.

Besides these two, there was yet another cousin who aspired to the French scepter: our guy Charles the Bad, King of the Pyrenees-hugging realm of Navarre. This guy’s mother had her legitimacy cast in doubt by the whole adultery thing years ago, and her woman bits had ruled her out of ruling France — but not Navarre. (No Salic Law in Navarre: a digression beyond this post.)

So Charles, her son and heir in Navarre, was at least as close to the Capetian dynasty as were his cousins — and maybe closer. He was also “one of the most complex characters of the 14th century,” in the judgment of Barbara Tuchman (A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century). “A small, slight youth with glistening eyes and a voluble flow of words, he was volatile, intelligent, charming, violent, cunning as a fox, ambitious as Lucifer, and more truly than Byron ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know.’

“His only constant was hate.”

And Charles sure hated King John. Was it the political rivalry? The daughter John had foisted on him as a bride? The territory John nicked from Navarre to confer on John’s favorite as Constable of France?* Yes.

Charles had subtlety in his bag of clubs, and brutal directness too. In 1354, he revenged at least one slight by having his brother murder the aforementioned Constable — also a favorite and childhood friend** of King John — in a tavern ambush.

(There’s an audio introduction to Charles the Bad complete with hammy re-enactment of the homicide in episode 110 of the History of England podcast. What follows below leads off episode 111.)

Too weak politically at that moment to repay Charles in his own coin, John had to sullenly consent to a putative reconciliation … but he was only biding his time. Charles compounded the enmity by his scheming on-again, off-again negotiations with the English, hoping to leverage the war between those powers to his own advantage.

He was a constant thorn in King John’s side, and the latter had problem enough with the English invasions and the struggle he had to gin up tax revenue to oppose them. The apparent last straw: Charles buddied up to John’s son the Dauphin and tried to engineer a coup d’etat against John. John settled on a vengeful stroke to put both the King of Navarre and the crown prince in their places, a party-fouling scene to beggar Game of Thrones in Froissart’s description:

The king of France, on Tuesday the 5th of April, which was the Tuesday after midlent Sunday, set out early, completely armed, from Mainville, attended by about one hundred lances. There were with him his son the earl of Anjou, his brother the duke of Orleans, the lord John d’Artois, earl of Eu, the lord Charles his brother, cousins-german to the king, the earl of Tancarville, sir Arnold d’Andreghen, marshal of France, and many other barons and knights. They rode straight for the castle of Rouen, by a back way, without passing through the town, and on entering found, in the hall of the castle, Charles, duke of Normandy, Charles king of Navarre, John earl of Harcourt, the lords de Preaux, de Clerc, de Graville, and some others seated at dinner. The king immediately ordered them all, except the dauphin, to be arrested, as also sir William and sir Louis de Harcourt, brothers to the earl, the lord Fricquet de Friquart, the lord de Tournebeu, the lord Maubué de Mamesnars, two squires called Oliver Doublet and John de Vaubatu, and many others. He had them shut up in different rooms in the castle; and his reason for so doing was, that, since the reconciliation made on occasion of the death of the constable of France, the king of Navarre had conspired and done many things contrary to the honour of the king, and the good of his realm: the earl of Harcourt had also used many injurious expressions in the castle of Vaudreuil, when an assembly was holden there to grant a subsidy to the king of France against the said king, in order to prevent, as much as lay in his power, the subsidy from being agreed to. The king, after this, sat down to dinner, and afterwards, mounting his horse, rode, attended by all his company, to a field behind the castle, called the Field of Pardon.

The king then ordered the earl of Harcourt, the lord of Graville, the lord Maubué and Oliver Doublet to be brought thither in two carts: their heads were cut off,† and their bodies dragged to the gibbet at Rouen, where they were hung, and their heads placed upon the gibbet. In the course of that day and the morrow, the king set at liberty all the other prisoners, except three: Charles king of Navarre, who was conducted to prison in the Louvre at Paris, and afterwards to the Châtelet: some of the king’s council were appointed as a guard over him. Fricquet and Vaubatu were also confined in the Châtelet. Philip of Navarre, however, kept possession of several castles which the king his brother had in Normandy, and, when the king of France sent him orders to surrender them, refused to obey, but in conjunction with the lord Godfrey de Harcourt and other enemies of France, raised forces in the country of Coutantin, which they defended against the king’s troops.

* The post was vacant because the previous Constable had been executed.

** And distant kin, but who isn’t?

† By a convenient prisoner dragooned into the duty, who required many more hacks at the bone than there were heads to sever.

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1554: Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk

Add comment February 23rd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1554, Tudor nobleman Henry Grey — who for nine days had been the father of the queen — was beheaded at Queen Mary’s command.

He was one of the inveterate schemers who grappled to secure his family’s foot upon the throne during the uncertain years when Edward VI succeeded Henry VIII. Frail and underaged, Edward’s foreseeable early death without issue created a situation where the cream of the aristocracy could plausibly dream themselves the namesakes of the next great English dynasty. Heck, the late royal monster was himself just the son of the guy who had taken the throne in battle by offing the previous dynasty, an event still knocking about in a few living, wizened memories.

So for the late 1540s into the early 1550s the court’s nigh-incestuous parlor game of consanguinary bedroom alliances was played for the highest stakes.

Queens were wild at this table. Henry VIII’s will had queued up the succession after Edward with his two half-sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, followed next the three daughters of our man Henry Grey — because Henry Grey was married to King Henry’s niece. (That niece got cut out of the succession herself, however.) It was Henry’s fond hope, but not his kingdom’s destiny, that Edward would have grown up to sire a male heir who would render academic the ladies’ pecking-order.

But until that time the order mattered, and Henry Grey — let’s just call him Suffolk for simplicity’s sake even though he doesn’t obtain that title until 1551; he’d previously been Marquess of Dorset — started angling to jump the queue by cuddling up to King Edward.

There was a concoction with Thomas Seymour in the 1540s to orchestrate the marriage of Suffolk’s oldest daughter Jane Grey to Edward, where the Grey family could do the heir-siring directly; but, Edward’s other guardians discovered and scotched the plan. Yet even though young Edward didn’t put a ring on it, he so favored this family — and, a staunch Protestant, he so feared the potential succession of his Catholic sister Mary — that Edward when dying drew up his own will designating this same Jane Grey as his heir while declaring Mary and Elizabeth illegitimate.*

This was actually a coup not so much for Suffolk as for the realm’s de facto executive, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland — who had been the one to secure Jane Grey’s hand in marriage to Dudley’s own son, Lord Guildford Dudley. Both were teenagers: it was Northumberland who meant, through them, to rule. It need hardly be added that Suffolk was pleased enough in 1553 to tie his family’s fortunes to the big man on campus.

The plan’s speedy and total failure is well-known but that is not the same as saying it was foreordained. England had to this point never submitted to a female sovereign ruling in her own right; Mary, an on-again off-again bastard during the wild realignments of Tudor dynastic politics, was a Catholic who had remained nearly cloistered on her estates for the past several years, rarely seen at court. How much “legitimacy” would she command when the chips were down, against Northumberland who already had the apparatus of state in his hand? For the chance to make the Tudors just the overture to the glorious era of Dudley England it was surely worth a roll of the bones.

At any rate, Edward died on July 6, 1553 and Lady Jane Grey was duly pronounced queen on July 10 — the “Nine Days’ Queen” for the span of her reign before Mary supplanted her. On that very same July day a letter from Mary, gathering her adherents in Dudley-hostile East Anglia, arrived to the realm’s ruling clique demanding her own prompt recognition. Even as Northumberland marched out to fight for Jane’s rights (and his own) English grandees were going over to Mary’s claim in a landslide. That’s legitimacy for you: when you’ve got it, you’ve got it.

It was Dudley who caught the brunt of Mary’s wrath in this instance; the kids (quite rightly) were understood as his pawns and stored away in the Tower, heads firmly attached to shoulders but under a dangling treason conviction with which Mary could destroy them at her whim. That time would not be long in coming: as many monarchs have found before and since, a living rival claimant, however submissive, poses a grave danger just by breathing in and out.

Suffolk made sure of it — and doomed his daughter in the process.

Although he already owed his life and his liberty to Mary’s clemency to the onetime friends of Northumberland,** Suffolk wagered both desperately as one of the chief conspirators in Thomas Wyatt‘s January 1554 Protestant rising. This attempted restoration of Protestant power in the kingdom brought fighting to the walls of London and gave the shaken Queen Mary cause to close one security gap by having the Nine Days’ Queen beheaded on February 12, 1554 — while, to far fewer tears, avenging another more self-evident treason by executing Jane’s father as a rebel, too.

* King Edward didn’t have a beef with the Protestant Elizabeth; it’s just that as a legal matter she was either in or out on the line of succession by the same logic that Mary would be in or out. The point was to disinherit Mary.

** Suffolk’s wife, the one whom Henry VIII cut out of the female succession scramble, was friendly with Mary and got hubby released from the Tower post-Northumberland with a slap on the wrist.

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1719: Patrick Carraghar and Two Arthur Quinns

Add comment February 21st, 2016 Headsman

The Last Speeches of
Patrick Carraghar, Nephew to the great Collmore, and Two Arthur Quinns

who were Executed on Saturday the 21st of this Instant February 1718-19 at Dundalk. Together with the Tryal of Capt. Collmore.

The Speech of Patrick Macallaher

Dear Christians,

I Patrick Carraghar am the Nephew of that Collmore who was Executed last Wednesday, who was the Ruin of me, who am but Eighteen Years of Age now, tho’ of these Tender years, I am very sensible of the great Follies and Sins that I have been Guilty of, my Father and Mother Liv’d in the Place call’d Loghross, in the County of Armagh, as for my Father People may say what they please of him; for he is Alive, but for my Mother she was never charg’d with anything that was ill, and the Neighbours in the Country knew her to be an honest good Woman she dy’d when I was very young, neverthleess I was bound Prentice to a Taylor, but did not serve my Master long, but followed my Uncle, which is the Cause of my coming to this untimely End, tho’ I was Try’d for keeping Company and assisting one Gillaspy M’Culum, a Proclaimed Tory, for my part I was neither Guilty of Murhter nor Robbery of my self, but I have been by when Robberry was committed, I have no more to say but that I die a Roman Catholic, and I beg of thee O my great God to have Mercy on my poor Soul. Dear Christians Pray for me.

The Speech of the Two Quins

Good Christians,

For our Parts we have but little to say for our selves, only that we were born in the Fews, in the County of Armagh, and our Parents Lived Poor and Honest, but many honest Parents has had Wick’d Idle children as we both have been very Disobedient to our Parents or Friends, which gave us good advice, but we follow’d too much of our own, which Brings too many young Fellows either to the Gallows or to be Transported, and as we are Dying Persons, we desire all young People to take the Advice of their Parents and Friends, here we die for Robbing a poor honest Man’s House in the County of Cavan, his name is one Coleman, we can’t deny the Fact, it being prov’d so home on us, though we thought what we took there did not deserve Death, but this with other wicked Sins and Crimes is the Cause of our being Brought to this shameful End, O great God we Crave Mercy, and Begs of thee O merciful Father to receive our Souls, O good People pray for us, for we die Roman Catholicks, and sweet Jesus receive us Amen. One of the Quinn’s had the Impudence to Curse and Abuse the High Sheriff, the Grand Jury and the whole Court, and told them that they Murdered him.


The Whole Tryal and Examination of Capt. Collmore a Proclaim’d Tory, and was Noted for being Guilty of Bloody Murthers, Rapes and Robberies in the County of Armagh

When Collmore was brought to the Bar to be Tryed, he denied himself to be the Man, then the Clerk of the Crown was obliged to Swear to the Proclamation where he was nam’d; so when the Jury was call’d and Sworn, he was asked several Questions, but answered to no Purpose, then one Andrew Thompson appear’d, and the Book was given him, who Swore that he was the same Charles Carraghar who Liv’d formerly with Mr. Blykes of Darcy in the Fews, and that he Stole Two Heffers from Aldarman Grimes, and was for the same Indicted and Proclaimed at Ardee[.] Collmore objected against the Evidence, because he said that Thompson had formerly forsworn himself, to which the Evidence answered, that as he was coming home late to his House one Night, that he was met by this Collmore, and was forced in Defence of his Life, which was so much threaten’d by him, to Swear that he never Presented him, the Jury immediately brought him in Guilty.

Councellor Townly gave him the following sentance, That he should be Hanged; and be Cut down before he was dead, his Privy Members to be Cut Off, his Bowels burn’d, and his Quarters to be dispos’d off at the King’s Pleasure.

When Collmore was brought to the Gallows, he Hang for a small Time, he was Cut down while alive, when the Hangman was cutting off his Privities, he cry’d out, then the Sheriff ordered his Throat to be Cut, the Hangman could not do it readily, for he strugled very much, his Head was afterwards Cut off, his Chops open’d and shut, tho’ his Head was a Yard from his Body, his Carcass was divided into 4 parts, and set up in 4 several Parts of the Country. He died very obstinately.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Ireland,Murder,Outlaws,Public Executions,Theft

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1926: Josef Jakubowski, Weimar Germany wrongful execution

1 comment February 15th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1926, Weimar Germany beheaded Josef Jakubowski for a murder he did not commit. Though a notorious miscarriage of justice in Germany, it is not widely known elsewhere and most of the links about Jakubowski are in Germany.

A Pole reared in the tsar’s Lithuania, Jakubowski emigrated by way of that great ravager of imperial borders, the First World War: taken as a POW, he preferred sticking around as a Mecklenburg farmhand over returning to a now-Bolshevik Russia engulfed in civil war.

Jakubowski never married, but if he had done it would have been to Ina Nogens, a local woman with whom he fathered a daughter out of wedlock. But his lover died (in non-suspicious circumstances) leaving Jakubowski to support not only the infant girl but also Ina’s three-year-old son by another man, Ewald — who were nonetheless being raised not by Jakubowski but by the Nogens relatives.

On November 9, 1924, Ewald disappeared: he was found outside the village the next day, strangled to death.

The Nogens family immediately made known their suspicions of the almost in-law from a foreign land, and in no time at all Jakubowski was caught in that still-familiar gaze of official tunnel vision and its mirrors of endlessly receding self-vindication. The most substantial evidence against Jakubowski was the shaky — and in fact, manipulated — eyewitness report of a mentally impaired teenager made to sort of put the Pole on the path to the Nogens house on the morning of the little boy’s disappearance. That’s it. It’s the sort of case would have to level up several times to achieve the stature of laughability, but when everyone already knows you did it, actual evidence is really just a luxury. Jakubowski was an outsider who maybe wanted to stop paying child support. Work backward from there!

Two years after the luckless migrant lost his head to the fallbeil, it came out that some of the Nogens clan were the ones really behind the murder, a two birds, one stone scheme to take off their hands both bastard whelp and Auslander. Three were judicially convicted of the very same murder, and one, Ina’s brother August, was actually sentenced to death — although the sentence was remitted. Despite issuing these other convictions, no German state organ has ever officially reversed Jakubowski’s condemnation.

The case was portrayed in a two-part West German TV series in 1964, Der Fall Jakubowski.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Wrongful Executions

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