1927: Robert Greene Elliott conducts six electrocutions in one day

1 comment January 6th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1927, Robert Greene Elliott — the “state electrician” who wired the majesty of the law to condemned men and women from Rockview, Pa. to Windsor, Vt. — had the busiest day of his illustrious career.

Once just a regular prison electrician, Elliott graduated himself to the euphemism in 1926 and was soon the go-to angel of electric death throughout the northeast. He pulled the lever a reported 387 times for men and women who sat in the new killing device in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Connecticut and (just one time) Vermont; when John Dos Passos wrote that “they have built the electricchair and hired the executioner to throw the switch,” well, he could have been talking about Elliott’s $150-per-head bounty.

January 6, 1927 was a full and lucrative day for Elliott.

He started the day off with a triple execution in Boston’s Charleston Prison — the first triple electrocution in Massachusetts history.* Then he took a train to New York — relaxed with family — took in a picture — and then conducted the Empire State’s triple execution in the evening. (All six of his luckless subjects in either state had been sentenced for various robbery-murders.) His $900 in wages between the two occasions would be the equivalent of a $12,000+ payday today.

Friend of the site Robert Walsh has a wonderful post detailing this character’s remarkable career; venture if you dare into the world of a prolific killer of the Prohibition and Depression eras, here.

Elliott also wrote an autobiography, Agent of Death, which is out of print and difficult to come by.


(Via).

* Elliot would return there a few months later for a more famous trio: Sacco and Vanzetti, along with their accomplice Celestino Madeiros. Some other noteworthy clients of Elliott: alleged Lindbergh baby kidnapper Bruno Richard Hauptmann and illicitly photographed femme fatale Ruth Snyder.

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1948: Arthur George Osborne, as per Harry Allen’s journal

2 comments December 30th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1948, Arthur George Osborne hanged at Armley Gaol in Leeds for murdering 70-year-old Ernest Westwood in the course of a robbery.

Osborne’s execution date was also his 28th birthday.

Mustachioed assistant executioner Harry Allen kept a handwritten journal of the executions he officiated in his 23-year career — a journal recently sold at auction. From it we have notes on each prisoner’s height (5 feet, 6.5 inches in Osborne’s case), weight (188138 pounds) and the consequent length of the rope’s drop (8 feet).


Very good job? but not expected to be so. Was hung on his 28th birthday at HMP Leeds by S. Wade got highly complimented on the speed of the job.

Harry Allen was eventually promoted to a chief executioner, in which guise he became Britain’s Last Executioner: he carried out one of the two simultaneous last hangings in England, as well as the last in Scotland and the last in Northern Ireland.

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1699: Madame Tiquet, “nothing more beautiful”

2 comments June 19th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1699, Madame Angelique-Nicole Tiquet lost her beautiful head … eventually.

The talk of every Parisian in the spring of 1699 for attempting the life of her husband, Angelique-Nicole Carlier had been well-known in Paris circles since the 1670s; coincidentally or not, that was a period when a perceived boom in “husband-killing” burgeoned the phenomenon into an outright moral panic.

In those bygone days, Mademoiselle Carlier did her manslaying metaphorically, wielding only her limitless charms (not excluding a wealthy inheritance left by her industrious albeit untitled late father). This reputed “masterpiece of nature,” alas, exchanged her magnum opus for deniers on the livre when she succumbed to the suit of Claude Tiquet, a respected councilor of the Parlement of Paris so bedazzled by the young woman that he did not pause to consider her liberalities. Although quite past her in age, Tiquet won her hand with the promise of wealth so capacious that he wooed his intended with a bouquet of flowers studded with 15,000 l. worth of diamonds — and plied her aunt with still more largesse to advance his case.

But actually, Monsieur Tiquet was not wealthy. He stretched his fortune to acquire these amorous bribes as, let us say, investments in a happy future.

“Thus they united their fortunes for life, equally blinded as to each other,” George Henry Borrow wrote. “Such are the steps that lead to the most unhappy destinies.”

The wife’s prodigality — and her belated discovery as she blew through the putative family fortune that it was he who had married the money, and not she — soon brought domestic relations to a frosty pass.

Madame kindled a more edifying romance with a young captain of the guards; Monsieur strove in vain to check her moves with locked doors and snooping skulks. They separated to distinct wings of the family house, seeing one another only rarely — and in deathly silence — while each schemed his or her embittered schemes. Years they wasted at this intolerable impasse.

Despairing at last of being rid of either her horrible husband or his horrible debts, Madame Tiquet took her plotting far enough to compass her spouse’s death. “It is impossible,” she cried in one unguarded moment to a friend, “for me to have any enjoyment of myself while my husband lives, who is in too good health for me to look for such a quick revolution of fortune.”

So she engaged the services of her porter and of a freelance villain, and on the evening of April 8, 1699, these two assassins ambushed Claude Tiquet as he returned from a friend’s house and shot him three times. One ball only barely missed the heart. Tiquet survived, and he demanded those who came to his aid take him not to his own house but back to his friend’s. Of enemies, he said, “I have none but my own wife.”

This scenario speedily became the talk of Paris, and it did not take long for sentiment to coalesce against the wife. The hired assassins implicated Madame Tiquet in a years-long conspiracy to murder her husband whose previous installments — a missed ambush; a failed poisoning — had come to naught. Both Madame Tiquet and the porter, Jacques Moura, received a sentence of death, each appropriate to their respective stations: she to lose her neck, and he to swing from his.

There nevertheless remained some ambiguity about her real guilt, for the evidence was mostly circumstance and inference and colored by the purely titillating qualities of the public scandal. And then there was the fact that she was an attractive woman.

Angelique’s brother, a guardsman like the condemned woman’s lover, organized a petition for pardon. Surprisingly, even Monsieur Tiquet threw himself at Louis XIV‘s feet to plead for the life of his would-be murderess and the mother of his children. But it is said that when the Sun King wavered in his firmness, the Archbishop of Paris himself insisted upon the sentence. That prelate’s warning that save Madame Tiquet’s head should drop, no man could feel safe in his house must have fallen very ominously from the lips of the executive manager of Parisian confessionals.

Madame Tiquet heard the final failure of her appeals this day from an official who in the springtime of life had himself numbered among Mademoiselle Carlier’s suitors. And because the condemned would still not consent to confess the plot, that admirer was further obliged to order her to the cruel water torture to extract her statement.

In this procedure, the poor sinner is stretched out as on the rack, and eight pots of water painfully forced down the gullet. Madame Tiquet endured only a single pot before she calculated her inability to withstand the procedure and admitted all. Even so she continued to insist on the innocence of her lover: “I took care not to let him into the secret, else I had lost his esteem forever!”

These justice-satisfying preliminaries dispensed with, the condemned were conducted to the Place de Greve to suffer the penalty of the law. Thousands crowded the streets and windows, as was becoming the style for the execution spectacle of the era. Genuinely contrite or else wanting to play the part, she conversed humbly with her confessor and her condemned porter, exchanging absolutions and exhortations to die with Christian firmness.

Proceedings were delayed by a thunderstorm, although Madame Tiquet showed nothing but equanimity to wait at the foot of the scaffold while the weather passed. Jacques Moura hanged first: the undercard attraction.

Then the talk of all the town mounted those beams to give her own final performance, one remarked upon by all observers for its poise and stagecraft. The later memoirs of the Sanson family, written after that name inscribed itself on the guillotine during the French Revolution, dramatized the scene. It includes the regrettable inability of their own ancestor Charles Sanson de Longval* to equal the doomed woman’s grace under pressure.

When Angelique’s turn was come, she advanced, gracefully bowing to my ancestor, and holding out her hand, that he might help her to ascend the steps. He took with respect the fingers which were soon to be stiffened by death. Mdme. Tiquet then mounted on the scaffold with the imposing and majestic step which had always been admired in her. She knelt on the platform, said a short prayer, and, turning to her confessor,

“I thank you for your consolations and kind words; I shall bear them to the Lord.”

She arranged her head-dress and long hair; and, after kissing the block, she looked at my ancestor, and said:

“Sir, will you be good enough to show me the position. I am to take?”

Sanson de Longval, impressed by her look, had but just the strength to answer that she had only to put her head on the block.

Angelique obeyed, and said again:

“Am I well thus?”

A cloud passed before my ancestor’s eyes; he raised with both hands the heavy two-edged sword which was used for the purpose of decapitation, described with it a kind of semicircle, and let the blade fall with its full weight on the neck of the handsome victim.

The blood spurted out, but the head did not fall. A cry of horror rose from the crowd.

Sanson de Longval struck again; again the hissing of the sword was heard, but the head was not separated from the body. The cries of the crowd were becoming threatening.

Blinded by the blood which spurted at every stroke, Sanson brandished his weapon a third time with a kind of frenzy. At last the head rolled at his feet. His assistants picked it up and placed it on the block, where it remained for some time; and several witnesses asserted that even in death it retained its former calmness and beauty.

“Nothing was more beautiful” than Madame Tiquet’s lifeless severed head, one spectator discomfitingly enthused.

For an interesting consideration of the Tiquet affair, including her posthumous use in polemical melodrama either critiquing or celebrating her repentance of a life of iniquity, there’s a freely downloadable academic paper here. It’s by the author of this wild true-crime mystery unfolding elsewhere in France at just about the same time.

* Charles Sanson de Longval was the first Sanson executioner, the founder of the dynasty of headsmen. He had fallen into the dishonorable profession from a much more respectable social station and had been transplanted to Paris from Rouen only a few years before.

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1573: Meister Frantz Schmidt’s first execution

6 comments June 5th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1573, 19-year-old Frantz Schmidt — heretofore only an apprentice to his father’s craft — conducted his first solo hanging. As the body of the thief hung there, his father or perhaps another established Scharfrichter stepped forward and ritually slapped the teenage hangman three times, announcing his successful passage into the ranks of Germany’s master executioners.

“Leinhardt Russ of Zeyern, a thief. Executed with the rope at the city of Steinach. Was my first execution.” Those words begin Meister Frantz’s remarkable diary* of 361 hangings, beheadings, breakings-on-the-wheel, drownings, and burnings — as well as many other sub-capital punishments, primarily as the executioner of Nuremberg from 1578 to 1617.

Nuremberg executioner Frantz Schmidt at work in 1584.

Executioners occupied a strange outcast social niche, with charge not only of death sentences but of other dishonorable public tasks. Either as cause or consequence of this, the profession carried its own stigma for underworld less-than-respectable behavior; it was not unheard-of for a shady executioner to wind up climbing the scaffold as patient rather than hangman.

But in his 45-year career, the sober Meister Frantz operated with ahead-of-his-time dignity and sobriety, so much so that Schmidt was granted citizenship in Nuremberg and eventually had his civic honor officially restored. He freed himself and his heirs from the social pollution inherent to his life’s work.

Joel Harrington of Vanderbilt has authored a new book titled The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century, a fascinating account not only of Frantz Schmidt’s life but the world he inhabited. Dr. Harrington was good enough to chat with Executed Today.**


Book CoverET: Your book is built around a sort of life’s mission by Frantz Schmidt to return himself and his family to respectable-ness. Certainly he accomplished this marvelously in the end, but I’m curious how firm do you feel is the inference that this was his specific intent from the start?

JH: I have no doubts that as a child, Frantz Schmidt was repeatedly told the tale of his family’s fall from grace, especially since he can still remember so many details even as an old man. We also know from his own words in his appeal to the emperor to restore that lost honor that his grandfather, father, and his own children all felt the sting of this stigma. Finally, the late-in-life struggles to assert that regain honor — against the challenges of his bitter successor — further underscore the centrality of this mission in Frantz Schmidt’s life.

Executioners often had a family trade at this point, but the Schmidts — specifically the father, Heinrich Schmidt — had a bizarre path into this business via the German nobility’s old prerogatives. Could you explicate the “ancient custom” that allowed Albrecht Alcibiades to force Frantz’s father Heinrich, who was not an executioner, to become one? And for that matter, the social customs that then led Heinrich’s neighbors in Hof to treat him as a dishonored untouchable after he was forced to carry out these three executions — rather than viewing him, as we might today, as himself a victim who ought to be helped to get back to his real life?

Most European laws in the early sixteenth century were customary and highly localized. Legal codification throughout jurisdictions was just getting underway. This meant that two villages only a few miles apart might have very different traditions regarding something like execution. In the larger cities, such as Nuremberg, and well organized territorial states, such as the prince-bishopric of Bamberg, standing executioners on salary were the norm. But in many of the hundreds of tiny German states during this period, execution by the victim’s oldest male relative or by another local male was still practiced.

In the case of Hof, the margrave intentionally invoked an ancient and outdated tradition because he was in a hurry to get the job done. The stigma around the job of executioner in general was, by contrast, nearly universal. There seems to have been a little less hostility in southern German states but nobody would have openly socialized with an executioner or his family. As I describe in the book, the severity of this stigma — like all social prejudices — would depend on the individual or occasion in question. So, while some people clearly had sympathy for Meister Frantz, there were still stark boundaries of propriety as to how they might express that sympathy.

Executioners had charge of a variety of disreputable tasks and spheres of civil live: refuse, prostitutes, lepers, torture, and so forth. I’m struck by the importance of Schmidt’s Nuremberg assistant, “the Lion”, in allowing the faithful executioner to (somewhat) separate some of the most visibly dishonorable tasks from Schmdit’s direct purview. Just as a realistic matter, could Frantz Schmidt have reached respectability had he himself had to handle everything personally?

You’re right, the Lion played a key role in this respect. The broader evolution of the job was also significant, from a kind of catch-all for various unpleasant tasks to a civic professional focused on interrogation and punishment. You can also see this in the clothing that executioners start to wear in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, usually either colorful bourgeois outfits or military garb.

Frantz Schmidt’s later entries have a great deal of detail, and you use that to tease out the executioner’s psychology, and the way he thinks about crime, sin, choice, and misfortune in his mature adulthood. It’s quite intriguing. Why, however, did Schmidt begin his journal in the first place? Is there something his shorter, earlier entries tell us about the younger man and the evolution of his views of the “poor sinners” he handled?

After a long time — and especially after I found the oldest version of the journal — I figured out that he started the journal upon his 1578 appointment in Nuremberg. This means that he reconstructed the executions of the previous five years from memory (and without dates).

Why then? The timing strongly suggested to me that he was already thinking about using the journal as a supporting document in his eventual appeal to have his honor restored.

As for changes over time, the most obvious ones are that his passages become much longer, more detailed, and more concerned with motivations and explanations than the earlier, bare-bones accounts. The main evolution in his thinking about poor sinners shows both harsher judgments of those who squandered countless chances to reform and greater pity for those who simply make a bad decision in the heat of the moment.

You have a fascinating chapter devoted to Schmidt’s sidelight as a healer, and to the important ways this practice intersected with executioners’ expertise in [harming] the body. I was amazed that Frantz Schmidt himself also took part in the era’s dissection trend. If one were a regular Nuremberger at this time, would one have any compunctions about a medical consultation with the executioner, a man one might otherwise shun? If a non-executioner physician were available too, would there be any intrinsic preference for the physician as a more respectable figure?

Yes, it’s quite a paradox. You would think that most people would be squeamish or embarrassed about consulting an executioner on medical matters, but by his own estimate Frantz Schmidt saw 15,000 patients over the course of 45 years — fifty times the number of individuals he executed. So he must have been doing something right.

This journal was (re-)discovered at an interesting point, at the beginning of the 19th century when public executions are ending but romantic German nationalism is beginning. How has “Frantz Schmidt” the present-day cultural figure been used and misused by we moderns? What’s the most important misapprehension that reading his diary ought to dispel for us?

This is really the focus of my epilogue, which discusses how “medieval” executioners have been used for the purposes of “enlightened” penal reform, nineteenth-century gothic fantasies, and in modern tourism to elicit disgust, amusement, or even the glorification of pain and suffering. My chief goal in writing the book was to get closer to understanding one such man in his own terms and in the context of his own society. To the degree that the book succeeds, parts of his world will look bizarre and alien, while other aspects (especially how people treat each other) will be strikingly familiar.

* Print-on-demand editions of Schmidt’s original diary are on the market. Although these derive from what I believe to be public domain translations, I have not been able to locate a free English copy online; German speakers can read it here.

** Also recommended: this podcast interview with Dr. Harrington.

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1686: Paskah Rose, Jack Ketch interregnum

2 comments May 28th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1686, the English executioner Paskah (or Pascha) Rose was hanged at Tyburn for burglary — by his predecessor and his successor, the famed hangman Jack Ketch.

(c) image from Peter Herring, used with permission. Also see this illustration

The “Jack Ketch” character from a Punch and Judy puppet show: traditionally, Punch gets the better of their meeting and hangs Jack Ketch.

The Irish immigrant Ketch is the first name in English executioners. Indeed, you can call any of his successors right down to Pierrepoint a “Jack Ketch” and be perfectly understood.

The immediate successor, however, was Ketch’s own assistant — who inherited top billing after Ketch went to jail for “affronting” a sheriff.

Jack Ketch had been trodding the scaffold-boards, hanging, beheading, and drawing-and-quartering for two-plus decades at that point: he’s thought to have been appointed in 1663, and he’d inserted himself into those performances rather more prominently than an executioner ought by botching some of Restoration England’s most high-profile executions.

There’s little reliable information about these early executioners, but it seems Ketch’s reputation for clumsiness had forced him to issue an “Apologie” justifying himself.

But the man unquestionably had longevity in his favor, which is more than Paskah Rose could say.

Within months of becoming the chief London executioner, Rose and another man were chased down in the act of burgling clothes from a house, “the Goods found in Rose’s Breeches.”

Rose and his co-defendant Edward Smith accordingly hanged along with three others at Tyburn this date — by Jack Ketch, now returned from his carceral retirement for one last tour.

Ketch died late that same year of 1686, but has lived on in any number of ballads, doggerels and broadsides immortalizing the name. He was surely aided in this by the less impressive caliber of many who succeeded him: it wasn’t long after Ketch dispatched Pascha Rose that another “Jack Ketch” — an ignoble profession that wouldn’t until centuries hence be drawn from the country’s respectable classes — also met Pascha Rose’s same fate.

There’s a now-public-domain Autobiography of Jack Ketch by 19th century English writer Charles Whitehead.

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1908: John Boyd, by John Radclive

Add comment January 8th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1908, John Boyd managed six fitful hours of sleep, had a breakfast of toast, poached eggs and tea, and then went to the Don Jail gallows for murdering his paramour’s rival suitor.

Canada had long before ceased public executions. Prior to Boyd’s execution, Don Jail hangings had occurred in a jail yard — technically behind prison walls, but easily peeped upon by curiosity-seekers willing to obtain higher ground. Boyd’s execution introduced a new privacy measure: it was the first of 26 hangings to occur in an interior chamber completely away from public eyes, the same place where Canada eventually held its last hangings in 1962.

But apart from this minor milestone, we notice on this date the hurried and disturbed departure of prolific hangman John Radclive. “Another poor soul gone,” he was overheard to say as he left.

Radclive is the subject of an empathetic Toronto Star profile that’s well worth the read.

He was Canada’s first professional hangman, with 69 recorded executions and perhaps just as many which the uneven documentation of the day failed to note. Predecessor of the better-known Arthur Ellis, Radclive learned his trade direct from William Marwood, and was put on the federal payroll as a full-time executioner in 1892.

He had a swagger in his ill-starred step back then: he once started a brawl boasting in a pub that he had “come to hang a Frenchman, and hoped it would not be the last.” By the time he got to Boyd and beyond, he was ready for the last. Alcoholism had wasted his nerves (and his liver: he died of cirrhosis in 1911). In 1910 Radclive told a psychiatrist,

“Now at night when I lie down, I start up with a roar as victim after victim comes up before me. I can see them on the trap, waiting a second before they meet their Maker. They haunt me and taunt me until I am nearly crazy with an unearthly fear.”

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1875: Six in Fort Smith under Hanging Judge Isaac Parker

7 comments September 3rd, 2011 Headsman

I have ever had the single aim of justice in view … ‘Do equal and exact justice,’ is my motto, and I have often said to the grand jury, ‘Permit no innocent man to be punished, but let no guilty man escape.’

Judge Isaac Parker

On this date in 1875, the most famous — or infamous, depending on your perspective — “hanging judge” of the American West dropped the trap on his noosing career with his first six hangings at Fort Smith, Arkansas.

Isaac Parker, around the time he arrived at Fort Smith

Isaac Parker had parlayed a legal career in Missouri into a congressional seat, when the fall of the Arkansas Republican party’s fortunes late in Reconstruction swept him out of office in 1874.

No problem: his co-partisan president, Ulysses S. Grant, appointed Parker to a federal judgeship in neighboring Arkansas. It’s upon that renowned tenure that the man’s reputation, uh, hangs.

Parker arrived at Fort Smith on May 4, 1875, the youngest federal judge in the west and a man whose jurisdiction included the lawless Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma).

This expanse of land, the final destination of the Trail of Tears, had once been preserved for tribes forcibly “removed” from eastern North America.

But by the post-Civil War years, the frontier was sweeping past on iron wheels … and as long as Indian Territory remained (mostly) protected from white settlement, it remained a sparsely-populated refuge for outlaws.

Pandemonium in the Territory was only exacerbated by the Fort Smith court’s reputation for corruption and inefficiency; the office was open for Parker’s appointment because his predecessor had resigned to avoid impeachment.

Judge Isaac Parker came to clean up the place.

Fort Smith was an unusual portfolio for a federal judge. While most of Parker’s colleagues were confined to the tedium of interstate civil litigation, Parker was the court of first call for many regular criminal cases in the Indian Territory which in other jurisdictions would have been a state matter. He estimated in 1885 Congressional testimony that seven-eighths of his caseload came from Indian Territory.*

And in those cases he quickly established himself a reputation for severity.

“I never hanged a man,” Parker said of himself later in life. “The law hanged him. I was only its instrument.”

But make yourself the law’s instrument to the tune of 79 hangings, and folks are bound to sit up and take notice.


“they nearly hung me for stealin’ a horse
in Fort Smith Arkansas.

Judge Parker said guilty and the gavel came down
just like a cannon shot …”

At his court’s very first sitting in May 1875, Parker death-sentenced a murderer — Daniel Evans, who came straight from frontier central casting and had murdered a man for his boots.

As that year unfolded, he added enough condemned men to the bowels of the miserable jail nicknamed “Hell on the Border” — for an eight-strong hanging date to christen September.

One of the eight had his sentence commuted due to youth.

One was shot trying to escape.

And the other six were the debut crop for the mass-occupancy gallows that Parker ordered constructed at Fort Smith. (Its capacity was a full dozen.)


Modern replica at Fort Smith — today a national historic site — of Judge Parker’s gallows. (cc) image from photoguyinmo.

The clientele was six unconnected murderers, committing various atrocities for various motives and aptly embodying the region’s ethnic diversity.

  • Evans, white
  • James Moore, white
  • Samuel Fooy, quarter Cherokee
  • Smoker Mankiller, Cherokee
  • Edmond Campbell, black
  • John Whittington, white

And the audience? Five thousand or so reportedly on hand in Fort Smith this date, plus a national media audience … and posterity deep into the second century since this sturdy magistrate donned his first black cap and set about putting chaos into order with a rope in his hand.


New York Tmes, September 4, 1875.

Whatever one might have to say about his methods, Parker presents a magnetic personality, a figure so truly of his own time and place that he obligingly died just weeks after his court was finally relieved of its Oklahoman jurisdiction in 1896. He’d never hang around to jolt our anachronism meter by weighing in on trench warfare or cubism.

Parker is undoubtedly a more layered figure than his “hanging judge” reputation would suggest, and even his life’s project to bring his unruly jurisdiction to heel was more complicated than just being a hardass. (He had a significant administrative challenge to manage his chronically underfunded court, and he needed to foster the sense of communal reciprocity and legal integrity that would encourage fellow-citizens to turn up for jury duty and witness testimony that make the law’s everyday business possible.) The judge was famous for the long hours he kept, and capital cases were never more than a tiny fraction of his work.

Parker was notorious (slash-beloved, again depending on perspective) for his prosecution-friendly courtrooms, but even the tough sentences he handed down came in his mind from a place of tough love. He wrote late in life that

not one of [those he suffered to long prison terms for violent crimes], no matter how depraved, had entirely lost that better part of human nature …

The object of punishment is to revive, that in some cases, almost extinct spark, to lift the man up, to stamp out his bad nature and wicked disposition, that his better and God given traits may assert themselves.*

Still, whether you prefer him as the stern avatar of law on an outlaw plain or bloodthirsty yahoo, Parker’s ready amenability to latter-day Hollywood tropes will surely maintain his popularity in the cultural rookery of wild west cutouts.

Among numerous other reference points, the novel True Grit, and the 1969 and 2010 films based on it, use Judge Parker’s Fort Smith as the heroine’s embarkation point — with her dangerous journey carrying her into the untamed Indian Territory on his doorstep.

Pat Hingle’s “Judge Fenton” (from “Fort Grant”) in the Clint Eastwood western Hang ‘Em High also shows an unmistakable debt to the Judge Parker persona.

A few books about Judge Parker

Spare a thought, too, for the man operating the ropes and levers this date.

George Maledon, named Fort Smith’s official hangman just a couple of years before Isaac Parker’s appointment, would enforce the Hanging Judge’s hanging sentences into the 1890s: 60-plus executions in all, plus five other escaping prisoners he gunned down, all in a day’s work for an Arkansas lawman.

Maledon has a sad coda to this story, which wasn’t so upbeat to begin with.

The year after the veteran hangman hung up his hood and opened a grocery store, Maledon’s daughter was murdered. The bereaved father’s friend Judge Parker, still on the bench at that time, condemned the killer to die in a case we’ll suggest might have warranted a recusal by present-day standards. Nevertheless, a successful appeal balked Maledon’s successor of the malefactor, and the disgusted ex-executioner got his species of payback by taking the accoutrement of his late profession on the road as a traveling act.

There, under the billing of “the Prince of Hangmen,” Maledon lectured and exhibited old hanging ropes and pictures of the outlaws they had choked.

People of all classes flocked to the show grounds, crowded about the lecturer and filled the tent, viewing the gruesome relics and listening to the old hangman’s recital of soul-stirring events as he pointed out the…instruments of his vocation. (Source)

* See Mary Stolerg, “Politician, Populist, Reformer: A Reesamination of ‘Hanging Judge’ Isaac C. Parker”, The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Spring 1988

Part of the Themed Set: Americana.

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1917: Gasim, by Lawrence of Arabia

2 comments July 5th, 2010 Headsman

“With Major Lawrence, mercy is a passion. With me, it is merely good manners. You may judge which motive is the more reliable.”

-Alec Guinness as Prince Faisal in Lawrence of Arabia

This date in 1917 was the eve of the Battle of Aqaba, wherein a force of Arabs with famous British officer T.E. Lawrence emerged from the desert to surprise and capture the Ottoman Red Sea port today located in Jordan.*

And that makes this, in the cinematic masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia, the date on which the titular character kept the peace within his fragile coalition by personally executing a malefactor to prevent a tribal blood feud.

The victim, Gasim, is a real figure described in the real T.E. Lawrence’s memoirs

a gap-toothed, grumbling fellow, skrimshank in all our marches, bad-tempered, suspicious, brutal, a man whose engagement I regretted, and of whom I had promised to rid myself as soon as we reached a discharging-place.

Gasim is most famous as the beneficiary of the movie scene in which Lawrence boldly turns back into the desert to rescue this worthless retainer when Gasim’s camel is found riderless in the caravan. This, too, is based on an actual incident in Lawrence’s memoir, albeit heavily dramatized on celluloid.

In the film, Lawrence’s godlike power to give Gasim life is soon mirrored by the godlike power to deprive it.

Effectively exploiting dramatic license, Lawrence of Arabia portrays the Englishman surveying the scene of the coming triumph when a disturbance breaks out in his camp. Hastening thither, he discovers clan lining up against clan over the destructive right of blood vengeance because of a murder in the camp — a murder committed by the man he has saved.

To forestall a “tribal bloodbath” on the very eve of victory, Lawrence himself volunteers to execute the culprit. Having once risked everything to save Gasim, Lawrence sacrifices him ruthlessly when the occasion demands.** This act underscores the chameleon-like other-ness of the character, one of the film’s principal leitmotifs: “I have no tribe, and no one is offended!”

Though the real Lawrence did no such thing to the real Gasim, this astonishing scene is also related in the memoirs — just at an earlier point, and with a different, less dramatically integral character.

My followers had been quarrelling all day; and while I was lying near the rocks a shot was fired. I paid no attention; for there were hares and birds in the valley; but a little later Suleiman roused me and made me follow him across the valley to an opposite bay in the rocks, where one of the Ageyl, a Boreida man, was lying stone dead with a bullet through his temples. The shot must have been fired from close by; because the skin was burnt about one wound. The remaining Ageyl were running frantically about; and when I asked what it was Ali, their head man, said that Hamed the Moor had done the murder. I suspected Suleiman, because of the feud between the Atban and Ageyl which had burned up in Yenbo and Wejh; but Ali assured me that Suleiman had been with him three hundred yards further up the valley gathering sticks when the shot was fired. I sent all out to search for Hamed, and crawled back to the baggage, feeling that it need not have happened this day of all days when I was in pain.

As I lay there I heard a rustle, and opened my eyes slowly upon Hamed’s back as he stooped over his saddle-bags, which lay just beyond my rock. I covered him with a pistol and then spoke. He had put down his rifle to lift the gear; and was at my mercy till the others came. We held a court at once; and after a while Hamed confessed that, he and Salem having had words, he had seen red and shot him suddenly. Our inquiry ended. The Ageyl, as relatives of the dead man, demanded blood for blood. The others supported them; and I tried vainly to talk the gentle Ali round. My head was aching with fever and I could not think; but hardly even in health, with all eloquence, could I have begged Hamed off; for Salem had been a friendly fellow and his sudden murder a wanton crime.

Then rose up the horror which would make civilized man shun justice like a plague if he had not the needy to serve him as hangmen for wages. There were other Moroccans in our army; and to let the Ageyl kill one in feud meant reprisals by which our unity would have been endangered. It must be a formal execution, and at last, desperately, I told Hamed that he must die for punishment, and laid the burden of his killing on myself. Perhaps they would count me not qualified for feud. At least no revenge could lie against my followers; for I was a stranger and kinless.

I made him enter a narrow gully of the spur, a dank twilight place overgrown with weeds. Its sandy bed had been pitted by trickles of water down the cliffs in the late rain. At the end it shrank to a crack a few inches wide. The walls were vertical. I stood in the entrance and gave him a few moments’ delay which he spent crying on the ground. Then I made him rise and shot him through the chest. He fell down on the weeds shrieking, with the blood coming out in spurts over his clothes, and jerked about till he rolled nearly to where I was. I fired again, but was shaking so that I only broke his wrist. He went on calling out, less loudly, now lying on his back with his feet towards me, and I leant forward and shot him for the last time in the thick of his neck under the jaw. His body shivered a little, and I called the Ageyl, who buried him in the gully where he was. Afterwards the wakeful night dragged over me, till, hours before dawn, I had the men up and made them load, in my longing to be set free of Wadi Kitan. They had to lift me into the saddle.

Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence almost palpably manifests the conflicting aspects of his character as he shoots Gasim to death — and he confirms the transformative effect of his first homicide in subsequent dialogue with Gen. Edmund Allenby.

Lawrence: I killed two people. One was … yesterday? He was just a boy and I led him into quicksand. The other was … well, before Aqaba. I had to execute him with my pistol, and there was something about it that I didn’t like.
Allenby: That’s to be expected.
Lawrence: No, something else.
Allenby: Well, then let it be a lesson.
Lawrence: No … something else.
Allenby: What then?
Lawrence: I enjoyed it.

* Actually, Aqaba is Jordan’s only port. This battle was not so epic as the film depicts.

** In a bit of complex foreshadowing, the cinematic Gasim has told Lawrence at the outset of the expedition that “Allah favors the compassionate.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Common Criminals,Cycle of Violence,Execution,Fictional,Jordan,Murder,No Formal Charge,Notable Participants,Ottoman Empire,Political Expedience,Public Executions,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1935: Thomasina Sarao, miscalculated

5 comments March 29th, 2010 Headsman

Shortly after midnight this date* in 1935, the career of 71-year-old Canadian executioner Arthur Ellis came to an end with the botched hanging of Thomasina Sarao.

All a simple matter of physics.

When the old-school “drop ’em from a cart” method of strangulation hanging gave way to the “new drop”, the hangman’s art eventually came to encompass the scientific application of the humane level of force to the doomed person’s vertebrae.

Something in the neighborhood of 1,000 ft/lbs was about right. Too little, and the poor wretch strangles to death. Too much, and you rip the head right off.

Thomasina Sarao got too much, and it ripped her head right off.

They’d worked everything out to a handy table, see, where if you weighed this much, they knew to drop you this far, derived from the formula

1020/weight in pounds (less 14 lbs for the head) = drop in feet

Except in the widow Mrs. Sarao’s case — the Italian immigrant had offed her husband to collect the insurance** — Arthur Ellis was given the wrong weight for his client. He coiled a noose for a woman 32 pounds lighter than the person who actually mounted the scaffold, and he therefore made it more than a foot too long.

That whole “ripping off a woman’s head” thing really harshed everyone’s vibe. So, although hangings had long been moved behind prison walls, the Canadian government stopped the ongoing practice of allowing members of the general public to obtain tickets to witness them.

“Arthur Ellis” — it was actually a trade name he’d made up, and so dignified that one of his successors used the same alias — died three years after his grisly retirement party. He’s saluted by the Arthur Ellis Awards, the Crime Writers of Canada’s annual awards: a little trophy of a guy getting hanged.

[Ellis Trophy][Ellis Trophy]
Winners of the Arthur Ellis Award, like Robert J. Sawyer, get this trinket to commemorate. At least the little wooden fetish has his head attached to his shoulders. (Images (c) Robert J. Sawyer, and used with permission.)

* March 28 is sometimes reported, but the period press reports (like this wire story) seem to agree on the 29th, as does this index of Canadian executions.

** Two male co-conspirators, Leone Gagliardi and Angelo Donofrio, were also hanged for the same crime, a few minutes before Sarao on a different scaffold.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Canada,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Notable Participants,Power,Women

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2004: Dhananjoy Chatterjee, the last hanged in India … for now

10 comments August 14th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 2004, Dhananjoy Chatterjee hanged at Calcutta’s Alipore Central Jail for the 1990 rape-murder of 14-year-old Hetal Parekh.

Chatterjee’s hanging also brought into the limelight the garrulous, publicity-hounding 84-year-old executioner Nata Mallick, who conducted the hanging with his son and grandson and told anyone with a microphone stories of the hangman’s glory days.

Those days are long past on the subcontinent.

Among death penalty countries, India is the anti-Singapore: despite its billion-plus population, death sentences are vanishingly rare. Chatterjee is not only the most recent person hanged in India as of this writing, but the only one hanged there since 1995.

One actual hanging in fourteen years for a billion-person country? The only lower execution rate would be actual abolition.

Chatterjee may be relieved of his milestone distinctions in the not-too-distant future, however. (Where “not-too-distant” by the standards of the Indian death penalty might still mean years away.)

Mohammad Afzal, condemned for the 2001 terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament, has become a political lightning rod; India’s conservative Hindu party Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has made political hay pushing for Afzal’s execution.

Update: A different Pakistani terrorist, Ajmal Kasab, became the next hanged after Chatterjee in 2012. Afzal Guru got his in February 2013.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,India,Milestones,Murder,Rape,Ripped from the Headlines

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