1806: Jesse Wood, filicide

Add comment December 5th, 2014 Headsman

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.

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Themed Set: Filicide

Add comment December 3rd, 2014 Headsman

It’s said that few tragedies equal that of the parent who has to bury their own child. So much more shocking, then, the parent who takes their own progeny’s life intentionally.


Saturn Devouring His Son, maybe the most recognizable of aging painter Francisco Goya‘s disturbing “Black Paintings”. (Goya also gives this blog its banner).

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?

Executions stemming from intra-family incidents, and specifically the murder by parents of their chilren, have been a mainstay on this blog, and surely will be again in the future. But for the next several days, we’ll turn the spotlight specifically on a few practitioners of a crime held to be unnatural, yet as ancient as Abraham or Medea:


Singer Marvin Gaye was shot dead by his father.

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1329: Alberghettino II Manfredi, upstart condottiero

Add comment November 18th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1329, Italian condottiero Alberghettino II Manfredi was beheaded in Bologna.

Fruit of the Manfredi family, the lords of Faenza. Posterity doesn’t know a tremendous amount about Alberghettino, but one can infer a certain state of mind from his actions. While dad ran Faenza, his brother Ricciardo was on the condottiero cursus honorum as the temporary captain of nearby Imola.

In the mid-1320s, Alberghettino got his Fredo Corleone on by allying with the lord of Forli, a Faenza rival, in a treasonable (not to say Freudian) plot to supplant his father’s position.

He enjoyed a temporary run of the place from 1327-28 but was ousted by papal troops.

Forced to retire to Bologna, he returned immediately to conspiring with an attempt to make Bologna’s first man L-o-u-i-s, as in the Holy Roman Emperor Ludwig IV — at that moment barging about the Italic peninsula setting up antipopes.

That plot, too, failed. After that, on top of all his other woes, Alberghettino stood a head shorter than his more fortune-favored relations.

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1584: Anders Bengtsson, unchristian man and tyrant

Add comment October 22nd, 2014 Meaghan

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

Sometime in October 1584 in the city of Stockholm, Sweden, one Anders Bengtsson was sentenced to death for his crimes “against the law and justice and the subjects of His Royal Majesty.”

Anders, according to trial records, had a reputation as a violent criminal and “an unchristian man and a tyrant.” The crime that lead to his death sentence? He had “murderously beaten his son to death.”

The book Five Centuries of Violence in Finland and the Baltic Area provides some details of the crime,

A witness in the case testified to having seen him carry out this savage assault and stated that he had called on Anders a score of times to stop beating his child. After the father’s mishandling, the boy was said to be “so weak and battered that both his head and his body sagged limply.”

As the book explains, the Swedish justice system at the time did not rely heavily on the death penalty, even in cases of killing. However, because of its cruelty, Bengttson’s was considered no ordinary crime, and it was not dealt with in the ordinary way:

The town court stated in its grounds that the normal penalty prescribed by the law of Sweden under the Accidental Manslaughter Code for parents who chastised their children too harshly was a fine. However, in this case, it was not a question of an accident. Anders’s action is described as “tyrannical and inhuman.” He had not chastised his son for his betterment; rather, he had acted “like an executioner, in an unchristian way that was contrary to natural love.” The town court found that the deed could not be atoned for with a fine, and so it sentenced Anders Bengtsson to execution by the wheel.

He was put to death on some unknown date shortly thereafter.

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1925: Shi Congbin, grievance

Add comment October 4th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1925 the Chinese warlord Sun Chuanfang had a captured enemy commander beheaded. In so doing, he signed his own death warrant too.

Deep into China’s Warlord Era, the chaotic decade-plus after the collapsing empire gave way to a fractured republic. From 1916 to 1928, leagues of rival generals cut China into jigsaw pieces.

The chiefs of these shifting statelets, being warlords, fought numerous wars.

Sun Chuangfang, one of the generals of a warlord party known as the Zhili clique, was engaged in the south in 1925 in a campaign whose successful resolution would ultimately install him in Nanking with effective control of five provinces. In the service of achieving such a power base he must have thought little about destroying an enemy commander caught in a counterattack and mounting the man’s severed head on a pike to cow any opposition.

According to Eugenia Lean’s book about the amazing incident,

On October 3, 1925, while leading the Superior Iron Brigade (Tiejia jun), a brigade of mercenary troops, in an attempt to capture Guzhen, Shandong, Shi Congbin was surrounded by Sun Chuanfang’s troops with no support in sight. Shi’s four thousand soldiers were slaughtered, while Shi himself was taken prisoner and beheaded the next day upon Sun’s personal order. Shi Jianqiao [Shi Congbin’s daughter] related in heart-wrenching detail how her family would not have learned the truth except for the bravery and loyalty of one of Shi Congbin’s personal servants. “Only a single servant was able to flee home. When we asked him about news from the front line, he threw himself to the ground in tears. We knew the news was not good.” The servant had been too grief-stricken to speak. Only after he Shi family had gone to Tianjin did they learn all the facts behind Shi Congbin’s death.

The named daughter Shi Jianqiao was about 20 years old when she received this devastating news.

Years elapsed. The general, as we have said, rose to his acme, and then fell, and retired, and like as not he had never in the following decade tarried over the destruction Shi Congbin.

But Shi Jianqiao did. She nursed her grievance and her sense of filial honor until when she was 30, she at last found her opportunity to strike back at her father’s slayer. Approaching the by-then-long-retired general as he performed Buddhist meditations, the faithful daughter shot him three times.

The supporting cast in Shi’s tale of revenge included the grieving widow and the suffering family her father had left behind. Even though there is little indication that the Shi family underwent any real financial strain, Shi Jianqiao nonetheless insisted that Shi Conbin’s death meant that a poor widow and six children, four of whom were still young, were left to fend for themselves. Sun Chuanfang was directly to blame for her family’s plight. The way in which Shi portrayed her mother was particularly important. Traditionally, dutiful daughters and chaste wives were expected to commit suicide if their fathers o husbands were killed unjustly. Such an extreme gesture was meant as an ultimate expression of loyalty and protest against injustice. But in this twentieth-century tale, Shi Jianqiao did not commit suicide and, moreover, justified her decision to live in terms of her filial piety to her mother. She portrayed her mother as particularly grief-stricken by the affair and argued that she needed to right the wrong committed against her father on behalf of her mother. In her GGRS, Shi declared, “Although all I wanted to do was die, my elderly moter’s illness gave me the will to live.” In her will, she stated, with similar effect, “To my dear mother … what I have been hiding from you for years, I can no longer hide. Our enemy has not yet been retaliated [against]. Father’s death can no longer be obscured … A sacrifice should be made for father’s revenge. In the future, five children will still be able to wait on you. They are all dutiful.” Shi Jianqiao’s act of revenge would be the ultimate gesture of filial piety, while her remaining siblings would be able to wait on her elderly mother in more mundane ways throughout the rest of her mother’s life.

Shi Jianqiao’s family loyalty attracted so much sympathy in China that she received a free pardon and even became a symbol of national resistance against the Japanese occupation. She died in 1979.

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2007: Daryl Holton, wanted dead

Add comment September 12th, 2014 Headsman

Daryl Holton went to the Tennessee electric chair.

Holton was an depressive Gulf War veteran with an acrid relationship with his ex-wife Crystle.

Bitter at being kept from his children for weeks on end, Holton picked up his three kids and their half-sister on November 30, 1997 and told them they’d be going Christmas shopping.

According to the confession that he gave when he turned himself in later that night, he instead drove them to an auto repair shop in Shelbyville, where he shot them in two pairs by having first Stephen and Brent (aged 12 and 10) and then Eric and Kayla (aged 6 and 4) stand front-to-back facing away from him, then efficiently shot them unawares through the back with an SKS. (Eric and Kayla played elsewhere while the older boys were murdered. Eric was hearing-impaired.)

“They didn’t suffer,” Holton would tell his shocked interrogators that night. “There was no enjoyment to it at all.”

The original plan was to complete a family hecatomb by proceeding to murder Crystle and her boyfriend, and then commit suicide. But on the drive over, Holton lost his zest for the enterprise, smoked a joint, and just went straight to the police where he announced that he was there to report “homicide times four.”

Holton had a light trial defense focused on disputing his rationality and competence at the time of the murders — a theme that appellate lawyers would attempt to return to, hindered significantly by Holton’s refusal to aid them or to participate in legal maneuvers that would prevent his execution. A spiritual advisor reported him at peace with his impending death: “He’s very clear, very focused.”

Holton is met in depth in the 2008 documentary Robert Blecker Wants Me Dead, detailing his remarkable relationship — even friendship — with vociferous death penalty proponent Robert Blecker.

Holton’s was Tennesee’s first electrocution in 47 years and, as of this writing, its last. The Volunteer State subsequently removed electrocution from its statutes altogether — but in 2014 it re-adopted the electric chair as a backup option in view of the nationwide shortage of lethal injection drugs.

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1793: Walter Clark, hanged women’s father

Add comment August 14th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1793, Walter Clark was executed for burglary at Morpeth, with one Margaret Dunn. Clark rates a mention in the spirit of the apple not falling far from the tree: a year before Clark’s conviction and hanging, his two daughters Jane and Eleanor had suffered the same fate with William Winters for a murder committed just up the road from Morpeth.

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1788: John and Robert Winter, father and son

Add comment August 6th, 2014 Headsman

On August 6, 1788, “John and Robert Winter, the father and son, were executed at Morpeth, pursuant to their sentence, for breaking open the house of William Charlton, esq., of Hesleyside. As they had lived for many years in a course of the most daring and shameless villainy, at their death, they testified the most brutal want of feeling, fear, or compunction.”

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1878: The Brassell boys

Add comment March 27th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1878, Joe and Teek* Brassell were hanged in Cookeville, Tennessee.

These brothers (their eldest sibling Jim Brassell wisely bowed out of the scheme) and two other buddies got into the whiskey moonshine from the Brassells’ own home still, and decided to knock over a nearby lodging where two guests thought to be heavy with cash were staying.

So the quartet blacked up faces and turned clothes inside out by way of disguise and around midnight tromped up to the Allison Stand Inn wielding pistols.

“Don’t worry!” Russell Allison called to his guests, recognizing his onetime schoolmates. “It’s the Brassell boys!”

Great disguise.

Nothing daunted by their identities outed, the moonshine party invaded the log residence. A bedroom melee ensued, and in the course of it Teek Russell shot Russell Allison fatally in the gut; another shot only narrowly missed Mrs. Isbell, the wife of the tax collector W.J. Isbell whom the party was trying to target in the first place.** Isbell wasn’t there at all, and the whole band fled the house not a penny richer, but about to be wanted men.

The next day as Allison lay expiring from his painful wound, the Allison family rounded up its own posse and descended on the Brassell residence. Again, Teek gut-shot an Allison — Russell’s brother Joe — and killed him, too. But the rest of the posse detained the desperados and they were soon hailed to Cookeville Jail. The murder became extremely notorious in the area and the Brassells boys were easily condemned, albeit after nearly two years’ worth of legal continuances.†

We’ve liberally included these youths in our arsenic themed set. Of course, these young men worked their mayhem with firearms and not philters, but in a sense their case underscores the ubiquity of that poison for 19th century crime. Desperate to escape, even the brutally direct Brassell boys turned like dissatisfied housewives and furtive insurance adjusters to inheritance powder: in their case, they managed to have some smuggled to them in jail, which they planned to insinuate into some apples they would share with their guards while being moved between Nashville and Cookville.

As it transpired, the guards caught wind of this scheme and foiled it, along with several other jailbreak attempts. But that was the great thing about that innocuous dust: everywhere someone would profit from some other fellow dropping unexpectedly dead, the first thought was invariably arsenic!

Frustrated of this and all other exits from their grim condition, the Brassell boys at last had to face the hemp. It would be the only judicial hanging in the history of Putnam County, Tennessee, and it would not want for ceremony. The execution itself occurred on a Wednesday; on the Sabbath preceding, the local Sunday school’s curriculum included (pdf) a visit to the condemned cells, where prisoners and children sang “Let us cross over the river”.

On hanging-day itself, the boys were up early for press interviews in the jailhouse. Shortly after 11 a.m., they piled into a wagon, grabbed seats on their own coffins, and were taken under guard to the double gallows specially built for them on Billy Goat Hill. Their sister Amanda trailed the wagon, but after a farewell hug she complied with Joe and Teek’s request to leave without seeing them hang.

Amanda had plenty of time to comply. The hanging wasn’t until 1:30!

The Brassells passed their last two hours or so of life on the scaffold. As they sat under their hanging-nooses, a crowd of thousands — some estimates put it as high as 20,000; old folks in the early 20th century would still say that it was the largest crowd Cookeville had ever seen — imbibed a series of preachers and religious songs, the warnings of the condemned duo themselves, and a scene where their intended target Mr. Isbell climbed up on the platform himself and pressed the two for a confession. Joe admitted his guilt. Teek refused until the very end to do so.‡ To cap off the drama, the sheriff, hatchet in hand to chop the fatal rope, counted down the last five minutes.

It seems this whole event, from the murder to the hanging, still survives in Cookeville folklore. There’s a lengthy ballad about the Brassell boys’ crime and execution, available here (pdf). Also see this fantastically detailed web page about the crime, including a blurry restored photograph of the hanging, and this pdf roundup.

A fragment of the Brassell boys’ joint headstone can still be seen at a family plot adjacent to Upperman High School in the small town of Baxter, just outside Cookeville.

* Teek had “George Andrew” on his birth certificate.

** William Jefferson Isbell was a tax collector carrying his proceeds; he had fallen ill that day and had to stop elsewhere. The Isbells and Allisons were related through marriage.

† “Justice, when most severe to him who has offended, is always most mercifully to him who would offend,” the Supreme Court most severely ruled — admonishing the young men not to entertain any hope of reprieve. (Quoted in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, March 28, 1878)

‡ Teek’s obstinacy on claiming innocence when the evidence against him seemed to overwhelming led to some later speculation that he might have semi-willingly taken the rap for a different Brassell — maybe Jim, the one who supposedly bowed out of the raid, or maybe even Amanda.

Part of the Themed Set: Arsenic.

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1899: Martha Place, the first woman electrocuted

2 comments March 20th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1899, Martha Place became the first woman to die in the electric chair.

William Place, a widowed insurance adjuster at 598 Hancock Street in Brooklyn, had taken Martha Garretson on as a housekeeper.

In time William felt her a suitable enough helpmate to put a ring on it and make her Ida’s full-time mother.

Honestly, though, some kids are just better off in a single-parent household.

Martha’s aptitude as a nurturer really can’t have met Bill Place’s expectations. “She felt that her husband loved his daughter more than he did her, and her jealousy rapidly changed into hatred for the little girl,” opined the New York Times. (July 9, 1898) “As the child grew into a pretty young woman and became more and more of a contrast to her, her hatred began to take active form. Place tried to reconcile them, but in vain. For three years Ida and her stepmother rarely spoke to each other, and in her father’s absence the girl was generally away from home.”

On at least one occasion, Mr. Place summoned the police to deal with a death threat that landed Martha in the dock.

On February 7, 1898, there’d be no more need for threats.

William Place arrived home that day to find the vengeful termagant brandishing an axe in his direction, with which she clobbered him twice about the head. Only wounded when she walked away from him, Place managed to pry a door open and call for help. When the police arrived, they found Martha in a gas-filled room attempting suicide (or pretending to) … and they found Martha’s bete noir, the poor stepdaughter, stone dead on her bed with acid burns on her face and an axe-gash from her scalp to her neck.

There’s a reason the “Wicked Stepmother” is such a venerable trope.

Public opinion did not take kindly to this destruction of hearth and home by such an unlovely faux-mother. The Times (July 8, 1898, once again) judged her

rather tall and spare, with a pale, sharp face. Her nose is long and pointed, her chin sharp and prominent, her lips thin and her forehead retreating. There is something about her face that reminds one of a rat’s,* and the bright, but changeless eyes somehow strengthen the impression. She looks like a woman of great strength of mind and relentless determination. The only time her expression changed during the trial was when her husband, William W. Place, testified to the attack made upon him. Then her thin lips parted in a sardonic grin, and she fixed her eyes upon him. The smile hardly ever left her face while he was on the stand. He did not look at her.

A greater contrast than that between this husband and wife could not be imagined. He is a man of refined appearance, and speaks in a quiet, pleasant voice. He testified calmly, except once or twice, when the questions of the lawyers bore upon the persecution of Ida. Then his voice trembled with emotion, while, on the other hand, it was impossible to make one’s self believe that Mrs. Place was possessed of any other feeling than that of a mild curiosity.

The criminal conviction was simplicity itself, and if women are generally less exposed to the risk of execution, their most characteristic point of vulnerability will tend to be a violation of the demands of sacred motherhood. Envious rat-faced stepmom acid-burns blooming daughter of refined burgher? That’s as paradigmatic as a female execution gets.

There was, of course, no shortage of attention since executions of women aren’t exactly everyday affairs in American history … and this one in particular would be the very first since New York introduced the industrial age’s death penalty innovation, the electric chair. The Medico-Legal Society of New York had a contentious debate at its February 1899 meeting over whether women ought to be executed at all. (The lone female speaker, Ida Trafford Bell, earned applause from the women in attendance by insisting that the fairer sex should have “just as much right to be electrocuted as a man.” (NYT, Feb. 16, 1899) Probably so, but they were still a generation away from having just as much right to vote.

Anyway, the governor of the state — Theodore Roosevelt, who was just a couple of years from becoming U.S. president thanks to another New York murderer — had the final say in the matter. Martha Place’s presence in these annals naturally discloses the outcome of his deliberations.

No more painful case can come before a Governor than an appeal to arrest the course of justice in order to save a woman from capital punishment, when that woman’s guilt has been clearly established, and when there are no circumstances whatever to mitigate the crime. If there were any reasonable doubt of the guilt — if there were any basis whatsoever for interference with the course of justice in this case — I should so interfere. But there is no ground for interference …

The only case of capital punishment which has occurred since the beginning of my term was for wife murder, and I refused to consider the appeals then made to me on behalf of the man who had killed his wife, after I became convinced that he had really done the deed and was sane.** In that case a woman was killed by a man; in this a woman was killed by another woman. The law makes no distinction of sex in such a crime.

This murder was one of peculiar deliberation and atrocity. To interfere with the course of the law in this case could be justified only on the ground that never hereafter, under any circumstances, should capital punishment be inflicted upon any murderess, even though the victim was herself a woman and even though that victim’s torture preceded her death.” (as quoted in the New York Times, March 16, 1899)

Happily the Sing Sing electric chair performed its duty smoothly with, per the March 21 Times, “no revolting feature” in evidence. It was, boasted the prison doctor, “the best execution that has ever occurred here.”

* As we’ve often seen, observers of women in the dock have a knack for perceiving a correlation of physical beauty to virtue, and the reverse.

** Roosevelt rejected Bailer Decker’s appeal for mercy on January 3, 1899 — his very first day in office.

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