These noble heads rolled a bare 10 weeks after the death of King Edward IV to whom Woodville was certainly quite loyal: the Earl’s sister, Elizabeth Woodville, was Edward’s queen Consort.
This marked the acme of the family’s meteoric, single-generation rise from gentleman nobodies. Anthony’s dad, Richard Woodville, vaulted the family into the nobility with an illicit marriage to the Duke of Bedford’s widow. Their pretty daughter Elizabeth scandalized Britain’s elite by conquering Edward’s heart and his hand in 1464 — though this was her second marriage: the first, to Sir John Grey of Groby, had produced two children, one of whom was the Richard Grey who went to the block with Sir Anthony Woodville.
The reason that Anthony Woodville and not his father was the current Earl Rivers was because dad had his own head cut off when King Edward was temporarily deposed in 1469. (Exile to Bruges was also the reason that the second Earl Rivers met William Caxton.)
After Edward came roaring back at the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471, the Woodville family would have been feeling pretty well set up: their Yorkist faction seemed to have won as decisive a victory as could be imagined over the Lancastrians.
But King Edward’s early death meant that Anthony’s nephew Edward V inherited all too early — which is to say that he did not truly inherit at all. The 12-year-old Edward and his younger brother Richard, Duke of York, both of them children of Elizabeth Woodville, were the boy-princes left to the care of Edward IV’s brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester.
Now, they believe it; and withal whet me
To be revenged on Rivers, Vaughan, Grey:
But then I sigh; and, with a piece of scripture,
Tell them that God bids us do good for evil:
And thus I clothe my naked villany
With old odd ends stolen out of holy writ;
And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.
The next part of the story is quite notorious, and it directly concerns the Woodvilles: the reason that Richard infamously disappeared those tragic princes into the Tower of London was because they were in Elizabeth Woodville’s own custody — and Richard, soon to seize power for himself as King Richard III, feared that if given the opportunity to gather themselves the Woodvilles and not he would dominate English politics.
Events could easily have turned out differently — even with Richard on the blade end of the Woodvilles’ executioner. In the chaotic days following Edward’s death, as news made its way ponderously around the realm, Richard raced to get ahead of the Woodvilles before they were secure in their patrimony. On April 30 of 1483, Richard intercepted the royal party traveling to London and took king into custody along with Rivers, Thomas Vaughan, and Richard Grey.
Gloucester-cum-Richard III acted with dispatch from that point. He had Elizabeth Woodville’s marriage to the late king invalidated, effectively disinheriting her children. While Gloucester made ready for his coronation, Anthony Woodville and his friends made sad poetry and last wills and testaments.
On this date in 1718,* Peter the Great’s hand-picked court condemned his son and onetime heir apparent Tsarevich Alexei to death for plotting treason.
Probably no single figure more strikingly underscored Peter’s violent rupture of the old Russia than Alexei: “timid, secretive and lacking in self-confidence,” he was Peter’s opposite in nearly every particular — his nemesis, literally from birth.
The product of Peter’s unsatisfactory first dynastic marriage to a conservative boyar princess, Alexei got abandoned along with his mother Eudoxia Lopukhina when Peter went on his years-long jag through western Europe.
Peter eventually forced the tsaritsa into a convent so he could take up with the ambitious emigre beauty Anna Mons, but the firstborn son was not so easily discarded.
Often malignantly ignored in his youth, Alexei spent his teen years being browbeaten by Peter who rightly despaired of ever making the boy into a king who could carry Peter’s legacy.
Where the father was preternaturally energetic, the son was feeble and reticent; Peter’s irritated letters to Alexei frequently complain of his laziness. (“I am incapable of exertion,” Alexei whinged.) Where the father had a curious mind for the Age of Enlightenment, the son was a dreamer who preferred the mysteries of the Orthodox religion. The boy showed little interest in politics or statecraft, but his position as the firstborn son meant that politics and statecraft were interested in him. Alexei just wanted to go to church and fool around with his Finnish mistress; he feigned or induced illness to avoid the instructional tasks his father appointed him, and once even tried to shoot himself in the hand to duck work.
The father called on all of his legendary severity fruitlessly trying to twist this malformed sapling into a sovereign when the boy’s every characteristic seemed to reproach Peter’s mission of a new and reborn Russia.
“How often have I scolded you for this, and not merely scolded but beaten you,” Peter wrote the boy when the latest assignment was not accomplished to his satisfaction. “Nothing has succeeded, nothing is any use, all is to no purpose, all is words spoken to the wind, and you want to do nothing but sit at home and enjoy yourself.” Start with scolding, proceed to beating — Peter’s philosophy of management as well as child-rearing.
Ever more fearful of his hated father, Alexei in 1716 gave Peter one final and greatest embarrassment by spurning his father’s last ultimatum to join the Russian army on campaign. Instead, the tsarevich fled to the protection of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI. Charles put him up in Naples for a year until Peter’s courtier Count Tolstoy** finally persuaded Alexei to return.
Alexei hoped he had arranged to get out of the royal-succession game and live as a private citizen, but where princes of the blood are concerned this option is more easily conceived than arranged. Peter well knew that the Orthodox clergy and many aristocrats awaited his death as their opportunity to roll back his reforms; the pious Alexei was inevitably a focus of these hopes and the boy embraced rather than shunned the association. Moreover, the twerp had made Peter look the fool before all of Europe with his running-away act.
Instead, the prince — whose return to Russia under the circumstances really was quite naive — found himself faced with a cruel inquisition.
Detail view (click for the full image) of Nikolai Ge’s 1871 painting “Peter the Great Interrogating the Tsarevich Alexei Petrovich in Peterhof” (via Wikimedia Commons)
Gibbon wrote of Marcus Aurelius that in permitting his notorious son Commodus to become his heir, “he sacrificed the happiness of millions to a fond partiality for a worthless boy, [and] chose a successor in his own family, rather than in the republic.”
Peter the Great easily possessed the iron resolution that the ancient Stoic lacked.
The tsar had learned seamanship in his youth by working in European dockyards; had learned soldiery by enrolling himself in the ranks and working his way up from drummer-boy. In his childhood he had seen the palace guard run amok in the Kremlin slaughtering his own family, bided his time until he could topple the power of his half-sister and take Russia in hand, and then wrought on those mutinous soldiers a terrible revenge.
And he had set for his reign a self-consciously world-historic mission, to force an unwilling nation into the European family. This enterprise of relentless, exhausting hubris the tsar applied everywhere from the cut of his noblemen’s facial hair to the whole-cloth creation of the Westward-facing capital city St. Petersburg.
Just so did Peter address himself to his truculent son.
“I will deprive you of the succession, as one may cut off a useless member,” he threatened in a come-to-Jesus letter of 1715, when Alexei was already 25 years old.
Do not fancy that, because I have no other child but you, I only write this to terrify you. I will certainly put it in execution if it please God; for whereas I do not spare my own life for my country and the welfare of my people, why should I spare you who do not render yourself worthy of either? I would rather choose to transmit them to a worthy stranger than to my own unworthy son.
Peter, to borrow a phrase redolent in Russian historiography, mourned not the cracked eggs that made his omelette.
And sometime after Alexei’s flight to Naples, Peter had clearly come to the understanding that for the good of his nation that unworthy son must indeed be spattered.
This episode places Peter in a monstrous light, just as would Marcus Aurelius appear to us had he contrived to murder the future tyrant Commodus when the latter was a mere callow youth. We do not have the luxury of seeing the path not taken, but it ought be said in the towering tsar’s defense that his disdain for the crown prince’s ability is difficult not to share. Alexei’s character stacks flaw upon flaw; no doubt Peter’s upbringing, by turns distant and brutal, was stamped upon it. Let the father bear that failure, but it does not relieve the sovereign’s choice: was he to confide his country and his legacy to the hands of this goblin? Was it even tolerable to leave this firstborn cooling his heels in a monastery, waiting for Peter’s death to cast off cowl and abdication and be acclaimed king by Old Russia?
Peter’s own youth, when he was part of an unresolved dynastic rivalry awkwardly sharing power, had been mired in plots and counterplots. Now, he could scarcely help but suspect that Alexei was also a piece of some conspiracy intending to undo Peter — whether in life or in death.
He forced the son to name his confidantes, then put those confidantes to torture and followed their accusations. In March of 1718, several men were broken on the wheel in Red Square; Alexei’s mother, long ago exiled to a convent, was menaced through her lover who was publicly impaled. Others got off with whippings, brandings, beatings, exile.
Not long after, that Finnish mistress of Alexei returned to the rodina herself. During his mission to Italy, Count Tolstoy had compromised her, and now she willingly supplied Peter the evidence of his son’s treason: that he spoke often of the succession, and how he would abandon St. Petersburg, let the navy rot, and restore the rights of the church; that he thrilled to every rumor of Peter’s illness and even to a mutiny. (Alexei would later acknowledge to his father’s face that had the mutineers acclaimed him tsar, he would have answered the summons.)
Peter empowered a very reluctant secular court to examine Alexei as a traitor without deference to his royal person. In a word, this meant torture — and on June 19, the frail Alexei was lashed 25 times with the knout, a terrible whip reinforced with metal rings that flayed a man’s back into carrion-meat and could even break the spine. Alexei managed to endure it, so on June 24 his suppurating wounds were reopened with another 15 strokes of the cruel scourge.
Under this inhuman torment, Alexei admitted wishing his father’s death — not much of an admission since he had already said as much to dad in the weeks before. But this gave his magistrates enough to condemn the tsarevich to death later that same night, for compassing the death of the king. The reality was that Alexei, vapid and indolent, had only one design on the death of his father: to await it with hope.
What we do not quite know is whether or how this sentence was actually effected. Peter wavered and did not sign the sentence — but as contemporaries saw it, God signed it.
On the morning of June 26, Peter and a number of other court dignitaries went to Peter and Paul Fortress. The fortress’s logs do not specify whether this was yet another round of torture for Alexei; stories would later circulate that Peter or a subaltern murdered the boy here by crudely beating him to death or privately beheading him, sparing the realm the spectacle of the broken crown prince mounting the scaffold.
But the official story, that an already-faltering Alexei begged Peter’s forgiveness as he succumbed to the shock notice of his condemnation, could easily be true: 40 strokes of the knout were enough to take the life of a much firmer constitution than Alexei’s.
By any measure, Peter authored the death of his son under the pall of execution, if not its literal fact — and for all the instances of royal-on-royal violence supplied by the annals, this filicide is nearly unique: Peter the Great, Emperor of All Russia, tortured his disappointing son to death.
Peter the Great died in 1725 at age 52 — according to legend, catching his death by forging into the freezing Finnish Gulf to rescue some drowning soldiers. (“I do not spare my own life for my country and the welfare of my people …”) Peter’s wives had borne him eight legitimate sons over the years, but Alexander, Pavel, Peter, another Pavel, another Peter, yet another Pavel, and yet another Peter had all died in early childhood. This was to be (after the brief reign later in the 1720s of Alexei’s sickly son Peter II) the end of the direct male line of Romanovs.
Instead, Peter was succeeded by his remarkable wife Catherine, by origin a Latvian peasant — and the 18th century would be dominated by female monarchs, culminating with Catherine the Great.
* It was June 24 by the Julian calendar still in use in Russia at that time. By the modern Gregorian calendar, Alexei Petrovich was condemned on July 5, and died on July 7.
On this date in 1885, a vast concourse crowded into Morganfield, Ky. for the satisfaction of seeing the hated Mose Caton hang.
Caton was a Union County, Ky., farmer and cooper who married a widow to secure some land. And he seems like a catch! “Mose Caton seemed to be of the opinion that he had absolute power over the lives of his family,” this contemporaneous chronicler recorded. “The ethics of most people at the present day would prompt them to interfere if his treatment of his family should be practiced toward ordinary domestic animals.”
The poor widow Hester took to her new hubby’s thrashings like the Stanford prison experiment inmates and soon became a beaten, broken soul. Out in the boondocks, Caton had a free hand.
Disheveled and too frightened to speak, she ate in the corner, sat on a box separate from the rest of the family, slept on a filthy feather bed and absorbed any humiliation Mose cared to inflict on her … up to and including actually having Mose move his mistress right into the house, and having the mistress physically whip the wife. When Mose built a new house he gave the abused Hester the loft, into which household fire-boxes (rather than fireplaces) emptied their smoke. The woman lived in hell itself.
But she didn’t live there very long.
She died on Sunday, February 22.
As neighbors helped the next day to dress the body for burial, they saw written in the bruised flesh the terrible treatment Hester had endured … including a dreadful abrasion about the neck that looked for all the world like the mark of a cord about her neck.
Though the corpse was buried, reports of its condition soon led to its disinterment — bruised, oozing blood, visibly murdered.
“Mose Caton’s face was the most notable feature of the man. It might well be styled Mongolian in its principal characteristics. The rather scant chin whisker and mustache was the first requisite to this effect. Then the prominent cheek-bones; eyebrows, highest at the outside ends; and a deep sinister wrinkle, starting at the sides of the nostrils, and dropping down past the mustache, heightened the effect. His eyes, more yellow than grey, were not capable of shame, and yet they were not firm and steadfast. He could keep his eyes upon your face, but he could not look steadily into your eyes. His eyes would wander to your forehead, chin, cheeks, back to your eyes, and then away again all over your face.
“His forehead was high, but rather narrow, and retreated from the eyebrows back. The hair was black and slightly tinged with grey. He parted his hair on both sides, and a lock fell down the center of his forehead, not unlike the one commonly seen in the pictures of old Father Time. The ends of the rather long hair was tucked under like Secretary Lamar wears his hair. His clothing was of ordinary woolen goods. He wore a white shirt, and a celluloid turn down collar that was too small for him. He supplemented its length with a red ribbon, which ran through the front button-hole of his shirt collar and tied the ends of his celluloid collar together with the loose ends of the ribbon.” (Source)
“Have him at all hazards,” someone said, voicing the shocked sentiment of all present.
A posse of 25 somewhat fearful men — for Caton had a forbiddingly malevolent public reputation quite apart from the treatment of his spouse — was formed to arrest the tyrannical husband, along with the mistress and the boys. The Catons battened down the hatches and started firing. Their daughter Annie absorbed a breast- and bowel-ful of buckshot in the crossfire, a mortal injury. Only when the posse threatened to burn the house down did the besieged clan give up.
Even then, their trip to the lockup “was interrupted many times by bands of men on foot, emerging from the cypress forests in the icy wilderness, and demanding that the prisoners should be hung then and there.”
Authorities managed to keep the lynching sentiment at bay, but only just. Outraged locals were understood to stand ready to take matters into their own hands at any hint of excess delicacy or dawdling on the part of the judiciary. There were even rumors that an artillery piece had been procured to make certain matters should the need arise to assault the jail, and that the courthouse audience itself had several ropes in hand should it be called upon to issue its summary verdict.
When the jury announced that this would not be necessary, the onlookers bayed in bloodthirsty satisfaction at the sentence. Caton had scarcely a month yet to live, and this was not enough time to dissipate the hatred he had earned of his neighbors: there was an intent to hang Caton privately, but thousands of people pouring into Morganfield, Ky., made it clearly understood that they would riot and pull down the barrier if they were balked of their sight.
On this date in 1884, a Louisiana man named Noah Jackson was hanged at Lake Providence for beating in the brains of his 15-year-old wife during a fit of jealousy. (She’d been only 13 years old when they married.)
Meanwhile, in Corsicana, Tx., Harrison Williams hanged for murdering his sister-in-law Ada Sallard.
“The particulars in the murder case,” reported the Dallas Weekly Herald on June 28, 1883, “are as follows:”
Munroe Sallard and Harrison Williams, two colored men living on adjoining farms about five miles from town, married sisters. Williams has been abusing his wife ever since their marriage; on Monday morning Williams beat his wife in a brutal manner, and on being remonstrated with by her sister, Mrs. Sallard, told her that if she said a word he would kill her. Mrs. Sallard started for town on horseback to have him arrested, and when near the fairgrounds on her way home was way-laid by Williams, who took her from her horse, tied a handkerchief around her throat and then mashed her head to a shapeless mass with his boot heel. He then secreted her body in the woods, and went to her house and occupied the same bed with her husband, leaving yesterday morning [meaning June 26]. Since then he has not been seen. Her body was discovered in the woods yesterday evening, and last night an armed posse of negroes went in search of the murderer. If caught he will certainly dangle.
Harriet was a widow. Her partner, Robert Henry Blake, was legally married to another woman, but they were separated and he lived with Harriet and two of his children by his wife: Amina, age seven, and Robert Jr., age five.
Despite residing at Cupid’s Court in London, their relationship was far from blissful. Robert was an inveterate womanizer who openly flaunted his affairs. It all came to a head on New Years’ Eve, 1847, when Robert told Harriet he was going to the theater without her. He’d made plans with a friend, Stephen Hewlett, and she wasn’t invited.
Harriet was furious and suspected, rightly, that Robert was actually going to be with another woman. She followed him as he left their home and tagged along behind him wherever he went, telling him he’d better get used to it because she would be with him all night.
Robert did meet up with his friend Stephen and complained of Harriet’s jealousy. “If I was to kiss that post,” he said, “she would be jealous of it.” Eventually he was able to give Harriet the slip, though, and went immediately to a prostitute’s house, where he stayed the night.
Harriet, meanwhile, angrily searched for her errant lover for hours, saying darkly that Robert would regret his actions for the rest of his life.
“I will do something that he shall repent and will die in Newgate,” she told Stephen Hewlett. She added, “I have something very black in mind … You will hear of me before you see me.”
He didn’t take her seriously. He should have.
A few hours after midnight on New Years’ Day, witnesses saw Harriet walking the city streets with little Amina, still asking people if they’d seen Robert. The next time anyone saw her was at 4:00 a.m. She was alone, and knocked frantically at her neighbor’s door. The neighbor opened the bedroom window and looked out, and asked what on earth was wrong.
“Oh, Mrs. Moore, I have done it,” Harriet said. She added that Blake had “met a little strumpet” and left her last night, and hadn’t come home. “A pretty spectacle is there for him when he does come home,” she added. “I shall go and deliver myself up to a policeman.”
Her neighbor asked why and she replied, “I have murdered the two children.”
That got Mrs. Moore’s attention and she sent her husband to find a police officer. Harriet herself went looking and found one, and asked to be arrested, but she didn’t disclose the reason until they were on the way to the station house. Finally she unburdened her secret:
I have murdered the children to revenge their father. They were innocent — through my vindictiveness I have done the deed.
A look in at the Blake/Parker house showed Harriet was telling the truth: Amina and Robert Jr. were lying in bed, quite dead. They had been smothered and their bodies were still warm. Harriet’s clothes were stiff with dried blood, but it wasn’t the children’s; it was her own blood, from a beating Blake had given her a few days before.
Harriet had to be persuaded not to plead guilty to her crimes from the outset. At her trial, which was presided over by two judges, her defense was that of provocation. Her attorney argued that Robert’s horrible treatment of her had driven her out of her mind and she was not a “responsible agent” at the time of the murders.
The jury was out for only ten minutes before returning with a verdict of guilty of willful murder. The automatic sentence was death, but the jurors included a strong recommendation of mercy because of the provocation Harriet had received. (Even after the murders Robert had boasted of all the women he’d seduced during the time he lived with Harriet.)
Judge Baron didn’t agree with the jury, pointing out that “the children gave her no provocation at all.”
Nevertheless, he promised to pass the recommendation on to the Home Secretary. When the two judges passed their sentence on the convicted woman, they emphasized that she had no right to take her feelings about Blake out on two “unoffending children” who were “in a sweet, innocent sleep.”
Harriet cried out, before being lead from court, “God forgive you, Robert. You have brought me to this.”
The Home Secretary did receive the jury’s recommendation of mercy, but didn’t act on it. The widespread perception was that if Harriet had murdered her louse of a partner rather than his children, she would gotten off with a lesser verdict of manslaughter. But the deaths of two small children, killed for the actions of their father, could not be countenanced.
Harriet spent her last days dictating letters to people. In one of several letters sent to Blake, she wrote, “Awful as my fate is, I would rather die than live again the wretched life I have done for the last twelve months.” She sent him a Bible and a pair of cuffs she’d knitted, and advised him to return to his wife and forsake drinking, bad company and other women.
The crowd of persons assembled to witness the awful scene was immense, and far exceeded in number those present at any execution of late — their conduct, also, we regret to add, was worse than usual, the yells and hootings which prevailed for some time previous to the culprit making her appearance being perfectly dreadful.
-London Times, February 22, 1848
Mrs. Moore visited her in her cell and found her surprisingly at ease. “I have received more kindness in Newgate than ever since I left my mother’s home,” Harriet told her former neighbor.
Harriet was hanged by one of Britain’s most famous executioners, William Calcraft — although it was never the tidiness of his executions that he was famous for. Calcraft didn’t handle Harriet all that well, either: according to one account, Harriet’s “muscular contortions and violent motion of the hands and arms … were truly dreadful” as she choked to death. Her frame was so slight that the fall didn’t break her neck.
(Thanks to Michael DeHay for the autobiographical guest post, originally published — too late for DeHay to see the byline — in the Prescott, Arizona Miner‘s January 21, 1876 edition. Prescott’s Sharlot Hall Museum unearthed this fascinating frontier confessional and posted it on its library archives site. The Prescott Daily Courier also published an abridged version, complete with an old photo of 1870s Cerbat (it’s a ghost town today). -ed.)
I, Michael DeHay, being fully aware of my approaching fate, and though recognizing the justice of my sentence, feel impelled to give to the world this, my dying statement, hoping that my fate may prove a warning to others similarly situated as I have been, and praying that the circumstances which have hurried me on to a disgraceful end may be avoided by others so situated.
I was born in Mongoup, Sullivan Co., N.Y., April 10, 1830, and am now 45 years of age. At 18 years of age, I went to Greenwood, McHenry Co., Ill., where my father and family had previously settled. In 1850 I went to California — crossing the plains. For three years I was mining and prospecting in different places there, and then returned to Illinois; afterwards going to Minnesota and thence to Wisconsin, where in 1856 I became acquainted with and married Esther Hemstock, near La Crosse.
In 1857 I returned to California with my family, where I remained for four years, working at mining and at my trade as a carpenter. These dates may not be correct, as I have only my memory to rely on, but they are as near as I can now remember.
In 1861 I removed to Nevada with my family; lived at Aurora in Esmerelda County, about seven years or until 1868, and then removed to White Pine, and the next Spring to Pioche, and thence to Parabnega Valley in Lincoln County, where my family resided, until in August 1875, at which time I was at work in Groom District (60 miles distant from my family), as there was no work nearer my home where I had a ranch.
I was working to get money ahead with which to remove my family to some place where I could educate my children, whom I deeply love. I was one of a Committee to get a school started, and had hired a teacher and made arrangements to remove my family to Hiko (NV). At this time, when I was filled with bright hopes for the future for my children, I was almost crazed to learn that my wife had left my home, taking with her my children, team and wagon and most of my household goods, and had started towards Arizona with a Mr. Suttonfield, an entire stranger to me, and who I learned had camped for a few weeks on my ranch. The man who gave me this information was a Constable, who at the same time served a summons on me in favor of Mr. Wilson, a store keeper, for $51, most of which my wife had obtained in supplies just before leaving for Arizona.
I immediately returned to my desolate home, and the next day started in pursuit. My first and great object in following was to get possession of my dear children. I passed them at Chloride, six miles from Mineral Park, where they had camped. Had I then followed the dictates of my almost crazed brain, I should have then and there stopped and shot both the man and woman who had, as I felt, brought ruin on both myself and children, but my better judgment prevailed and I went on to Mineral Park and laid my case before Mr. Davis, to whom I had been recommended to go for advice. Under his advice, I got out a process and had them brought into Mineral Park, but nothing came of it.
I then got a house for my family to live in, and went to work and got provisions for us to live on. I did all I could to make them comfortable, and tried by every means to induce my wife to live with me as before and was willing to forgive the past. To all my appeals she turned a deaf ear, continually declaring that she never would resume her marital relations with me.
During this time I was informed that she, from time to time, met Suttonfield at his house. This continued pressure upon my mind affected me both by day and night. I was troubled with horrid dreams, and at times was nearly crazed. The night the act was committed, I was completely weighed down with trouble and sorrow, and being suddenly awaked from my troubled sleep saw, or thought I saw, my wife standing over me with a butcher-knife in her hand. She had been sleeping in one room in our only bed with some of the children, and I in an adjoining room on the floor.
When I was thus suddenly awakened, I jumped up, clutching my revolver which was under my head and rushed after her into her room. She jumped into the bed and curled down, and I, in my frenzy, fired at her and drew her out on to the floor. When I saw the blood, and saw what I had done, I was horror-struck and rushed out of the house, determined to take my own life, and with this intent, placed my pistol to my breast and fired twice. I then ran down town and for hours have but a faint recollection of what occurred, except that I went up and down a ladder into a hay-loft. At the time I committed the deed, my brain seemed to be on fire and that my head was the center of fire and maddened frenzy.
During all the time after my arrival at Mineral Park, I had never thought or meditated on the murder of my wife, or to revenge myself on her for her act of desertion, but I had at times meditated on revenge upon Suttonfield, as I felt that he was the cause of all my misery. I had never had any serious difficulty with my wife more than a few hasty words such as are likely to occur between other husbands and wives.
I make this statement with a full knowledge that my end is drawing nigh, and that another day will launch me into eternity, where I shall meet my Maker face to face. I forgive all who have wronged me, as I hope myself to be forgiven by a kind and merciful God.
In the Middle Ages there were two chances of life at the last moment accorded to a malefactor condemned to death, besides a free pardon from the sovereign. One of these was the accidental meeting of a cardinal with the procession to execution; the other was the offer of a maiden to marry the condemned man, or, in the case of a woman sentenced to death, the offer of a man to make her his wife.
The claim of the cardinals was a curious one. They pretended to have inherited the privileges with which the vestal virgins of old Rome were invested. In 1309 a man was condemned to be hung in Paris for some offence. As he was being led to execution down the street of Aubry-le-Boucher, he met the cardinal of Saint Eusebius, named Rochette, who was going up the street. The cardinal immediately took oath that the meeting was accidental, and demanded the release of the criminal. It was granted.
In 1376, Charles V was appealed to in a case of a man who was about to be hung, when a young girl in the crowd cried out that she would take him as her husband. Charles decreed that the man was to be given up to her.
In 1382, a similar case came before Charles VI, which we shall quote verbatim from the royal pardon.
Henrequin Dontart was condemned by the judges of our court in Peronne to be drawn to execution on a hurdle, and then hung by the neck till dead. In accordance with the which decree he was drawn and carried by the hangman to the gibbet, and when he had the rope round his neck, then one Jeanette Mourchon, a maiden of the town of Hamaincourt, presented herself before the provost and his lieutenant, and supplicated and required of the aforesaid provost and his lieutenant to deliver over to her the said Dontart, to be her husband. Wherefore the execution was interrupted, and he was led back to prison … and, by the tenor of these letters, it is our will that the said Dontart shall be pardoned and released.
Another instance we quote from the diary of a Parisian citizen of the year 1430.* He wrote:
On January 10, 1430, eleven men were taken to the Halles to be executed, and the heads of ten were cut off. The eleventh was a handsome young man of twenty-four; he was having his eyes bandaged, when a young girl born at the Halles came boldly forward and asked for him. And she stood to her point, and maintained her right so resolutely, that he was taken back to prison in the Chatelet, where they were married, and then he was discharged.
This custom has so stamped itself on the traditions of the peasantry, that all over France it is the subject of popular tales and anecdotes; with one of the latter we will conclude.
In Normandy a man was at the foot of the gibbet, the rope round his neck, when a sharp-featured woman came up and demanded him. The criminal looked hard at her, and turning to the hangman, said: —
A pointed nose, a bitter tongue!
Proceed, I’d rather far be hung.
Four days after Christmas in 1868, Thomas Jones was executed in London, Ontario for one of the most sensational murders perpetrated in the region at the time. He had brutally slaughtered his twelve-year-old niece in the town of Delaware.
Early that year, according to this article on the case, Jones had tried to rob his own brother’s house while wearing a false beard to disguise his identity. Unfortunately for him, young Mary Jones recognized her uncle and subsequently testified against him in the ensuing trial. Thomas Jones held this against her, as did Thomas’s daughter Elizabeth, who was thirteen.
On June 11, 1868, Mary’s mother sent her to Uncle Thomas’s house to fetch a cup of flour. (One wonders why she did so, given the history of bad blood between uncle and niece.) Mary never returned.
Suspicion inevitably fell on Thomas, who insisted she’d come and gotten the flour and left his home alive and well. Forty-eight hours after Mary’s disappearance, the search party got fed up, grabbed Thomas’s ten-year-old son and threatened to kill him if he didn’t tell what happened to his cousin.
The boy led them to her body, hidden in the woods under a fallen tree. Her skull had been fractured.
According to the child, both his father and his sister Elizabeth had participated in Mary’s murder. Public feeling ran high against the accused and the entire family had to be taken into custody and transported from Delaware to London to avoid a possible lynching. Only Thomas and Elizabeth faced murder charges, but according to this account, Thomas’s wife and younger son were kept in jail for four months and his two older sons, both in their teens, remained there until well after their father’s death.
The prosecution’s theory was that either Thomas had murdered his niece after Elizabeth lead her into the woods at his direction, or Thomas talked Elizabeth into committing the murder.
At trial, Elizabeth tried to take the rap for her father, claiming she’d beaten Mary to death entirely on her own and Thomas had only helped her hide the body. Thomas’s youngest son testified in support of this, saying he’d witnessed his sister striking Mary with a club.
Thomas used his underaged daughter’s statements like a shield — he would maintain his innocence to his dying breath — but in the end the jury convicted him of murder. What may have tipped the balance was the medical evidence, which indicated Mary had been dealt some powerful blows, stronger than a child could have inflicted.
Elizabeth was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to ten years for her role in the crime, in spite of her youth. The older two of Thomas’s three sons, ages seventeen and fifteen, were finally released without charge in the spring of 1869. Elizabeth served seven years before she was freed.
In spite of the bitter cold many residents of Delaware came to watch Thomas hang at the Middlesex County Gaol. Around six thousand people were in the crowd — approximately half the population of London. This would be the last hanging in Middlesex county.
On July 9, 1806, Jesse Wood was returning from a hard day’s work on the farm with his sons Joseph and Hezekiah. All of them being somewhat in their cups, they fell to arguing and the father went to his home and retrieved a musket — “loaded with a heavy charge of slug shot” according to the Sherburne, N.Y. Olive Branch of July 30.
Wood pere‘s wife soon heard the report of the gun. Running out of the house, she found Jesse and Hezekaih, upright, and Joseph Wood and the discharged musket, at rest.
“His conduct at the place of execution, was deliberate and calm,” ran a report from Poughkeepsie that ran in many New York papers that December. “He died solemnly denying his built.”
The concourse of spectators was great, and they seemed deeply impressed with the solemnity of the scene, and greatly shocked at the hardened iniquiry of the criminal, in persisting to declare his innocence, when he was convicted on the clearest testimony. There is something inexpressibly awful in the idea that a rational creature has rushed into the presence of his God, with deliberate falsehood on his lips!
In a fine instance of history’s running game of “telephone”, this story was written up in the late 19th century featuring Joseph and the father as co-murderers of the brother … and as such parables demand, Joseph in the end makes good his father’s shocking scaffold denial by confessing on his own deathbed many years later.
1806 sources are absolutely unambiguous that Joseph was the murder victim. I have not found any indication that Hezekiah ever copped to the crime that hung his father.
Filicides are amply represented among those crimes that become media sensations, and when they happen to occur among the great and powerful they can scar the memory of a nation: think of Suleiman the Magnificent executing his own heir, or the homicidally mad Crown Prince Sado locked in a rice chest to save Korea’s dynasty.
Detail view (click for the full, gorgeous canvas) of Ilya Repin‘s emotional painting of Ivan the Terrible the moment after he has struck his son dead, dooming the Rurikid dynasty. Incited to his own act of lunacy by the tsar’s riveting madman expression, iconographer and Old Believer Abram Balashov slashed these faces with a knife (image) in the Tretyakov Gallery in 1913.
Despite the special horror reserved for filicide, it is not a rare event in the annals of crime. After all, it is axiomatic that crimes tend to be committed by people near enough to be of the same circle as the victim. What circle is closer than the family itself?