1854: John Tapner, the last hanged on Guernsey

Add comment February 10th, 2016 Victor Hugo

(Thanks to guest writer Victor Hugo, who having haunted these pages in many a post kindly permits us to republish the open letter he wrote on February 11, 1854 to Home Secretary (and future Prime Minister) Lord Palmerston. This is the English version as published by London’s Daily News on February 17 of that year; here is a French version of the same. Hugo at the time was living as an exile from the French Empire in the British-controlled Channel Island of Jersey; the case concerned was the highly controversial hanging of John Tapner on the nearby island of Guernsey for the murder of an aged Frenchwoman. Nobody ever hanged again on Guernsey after this possible wrongful execution.

The footnote appears in the original. -ed.)

Sir, —

I lay before you a series of facts which have transpired in Jersey within the last few years:

Fifteen years ago Caliot, a murderer, was condemned to death, and pardoned. Eight years ago Thomas Nicolle, a murderer, was condemned to death, and pardoned. Three years ago, in 1851, Jacques Fouquet, a murderer, was condemned to death, and pardoned.* In each of these cases the penalty of death was commuted for transportation.

In each case, to obtain a commutation of the sentence, a petition signed by the inhabitants of the island was sufficient.

In 1851 transportation was thought a sufficient punishment for Edward Carlton, who murdered his wife under circumstances of the most horrible description.

All this has taken place within fifteen years in the island from which I now address you.

Let us shift the scene from Jersey to Guernsey.

Tapner, a murderer, an incendiary, and a robber, is condemned to death.

At present, and the facts above stated prove the truth of the assertion, the penalty of death is virtually abolished in the opinion of every sane, well thinking man.

No sooner is Tapner condemned than a cry is heard, petitions are multiplied; one, energetically establishing itself on the principle of the inviolability of human life, was signed by 600 of the most enlightened of the inhabitants of the island.

And it is worthy of notice that not one minister of any Christian sect has deigned to affix his signature to either of these petitions. These men are probably ignorant that the cross is a gallows. — The people cried: “Mercy!” The priest cried: “Death!” — Let us pity the priest and resume our subject.

These petitions have been forwarded to you — a repsite has been granted. In similar cases a respite was equal to a commutation of the sentence — the island draws breath — the gallows is not to be erected — cruel error! the gallows is erected — Tapner is hung! and this after mature consideration.

Why?

Why should Guernsey be refused that which has been so often granted to Jersey?

Why deal to one concession and to the other affront? — Why should pardon be sent here and the executioner there?

Why this difference where all things else are equal? — What use was the respite but to aggravate the torture? — Was some mystery involved? To what purpose has been consideration?

Things are whispered, sir, to which I dare not listen. No! it cannot be true. What! a voice, and that of the most obscure, if it be the voice of an exile, cannot ask pardon from an insignificant corner of Europe for a man about to die without being heard by M. Bonaparte, without M. Bonaparte’s interference. What, M. Bonaparte, who has the guillotine of Bellay, the guillotine of Draguignan and the guillotine of Montpellier, not satisfied with all these! Has he still an appetite left for a gallows in Guernsey.

What — in such a case could you have refused justice to the proscribed for fear of giving umbrage to the proscriber. If so, the man was hung to accommodate, and the gallows erected as an act of courtesy, and could you have done all this to strengthen your alliance. No, no; I do not, I cannot believe it. I cannot even admit the idea, although I shudder at it.

Before the great and generous English nation can your Queen have the right of pardon, and M. Bonaparte that of a veto. At the same time that there is an omnipotent in heaven, can there be an omnipotent on earth? No.

I merely say that it was not possible for the French journals to speak of Tapner. I state the fact, but I draw no conclusion from it. However this may be, you have determined to use the terms of the despatch, that justice should take its course, and all is over.

However this may be, Tapner, after having been three times respited, and had his case three times under consideration, was hung yesterday, the 10th of February, and if there be any truth in the conjectures, which for myself I utterly reject, I present you, sir, with the bulletin of the day. you may, if such be the case, transmit it to the Tuileries. These details cannot be offensive to the Empire of the 2nd of December. The Eagle will hover with delight over the field of this victory! He is a gallows Eagle!

A garden joined the prison. In this garden the scaffold was erected. A breach was made in the wall for the prisoner to pass through. At 8 o’clock in the morning the neighbouring streets were crowded with spectators, of whom 200 of the privileged were admitted into the garden. The man appeared in the breach. He walked erect and with a firm step; he was pale, the red circle caused by anxious wakefulness surrounded his eyes.

The month just passed had added twenty years to his age — a man thirty years of age appeared fifty.

“A cotton night-cap was drawn over his head and turned up in front (says an eye-witness); he was dressed in a brown coat, which he wore during the trial, and an old pair of slippers.”

He walked partly round the garden, in a walk gravelled expressly for the occasion. The javelin men, the sheriff, the under-sheriff, and the Queen’s solicitor surrounded him. His hands were tied loosely, as we shall presently see.

According to English custom, while the hands were crossed upon the breast, a cord bound the elbows behind the back.

Behind him, the chaplains, who had refused to sign the petition for mercy, followed weeping.

The gravel walk led to the ladder — the cord was swinging — Tapner ascended the ladder — the executioner trembled: inferior executioners are at times susceptible of pity. Tapner placed himself under the noose, and pressed it over his head, and his hands not being firmly tied, he desired the executioner, who seemed quite confused, to arrange the rope. Then, “as if he had had a presentiment of what was to follow,” says the same eye-witness, “he said, ‘Tie my hands tighter.’ ‘That is unnecessary,’ replied the executioner.” Tapner standing thus with the rope round his neck, and his feet on the trap, the executioner drew the night-cap over his eyes, and nothing more could be seen of that pale face but the mouth moving as in prayer.

After some moments, the man destined to this high office pressed a spring — the drop fell, and the body fell abruptly through — the cord tightened, the body turned, and the man was considered dead.

“It was thought (says the eye-witness) that Tapner was killed at once by the rupture of the spinal marrow, he having fallen 4 feet,” but the witness further adds, “the relief of our oppressed hearts did not last two minutes.” Suddenly the man not yet a corpse, but already a spectre, moved.

The legs were thrown convulsively about, as if seeking some stay in the empty space; what could be discovered of the face was horribly disfigured; and the hands, which had become loose, were clasped and relaxed, as if to implore assistance. The cord around the elbows had snapped in the fall. Amidst these convulsions the rope began to swing, the elbows of the poor wretch came in contact with the edge of the trap, he clung to it with his hands, rested his right knee upon it, raised his body, and seemed to lean towards the crowd. Again he fell; and twice, says the eye witness, was the same scene repeated. He then raised his cap, and the crowd gained a sight of his face. This, it seemed, was too much. It was necessary to close the scene. The executioner reascended the scaffold, and caused the sufferer (I still quote the eyewitness) to let go his hold. The executioner and the victim struggled for a moment; the executioner triumphed. Then this wretch, himself like one condemned, threw himself into the aperture where Tapner was hanging, straightened his knees, and hung to his feet. The rope oscillated for a moment, bearing the victim and the executioner, the crime and the law. At last the executioner himself relaxed his hold; all was over; the man was dead.


Also a prolific drawer, Victor Hugo produced this Ecce in 1854, and several other depictions of the gallows in the ensuing years — possibly inspired by his horror at Tapner’s fate. Ecce is also known as John Brown, although that American slavery abolitionist was not executed until 1859.

You see, sir, how things were managed; the effect was completed; for the town, being built as an amphitheatre, everything was seen from the windows, all eyes were fixed on the garden. If it were the object to excite a feeling of horror, it was done: the crowd cried “Shame, shame,” and several females fainted.

During this time, Fouquet, who had been pardoned in 1851, is repeating. The executioner has converted Tapner into a corpse; Mercy, Fouquet into a man!

Between the time when Tapner fell into the trap, and that in which the executioner, no longer perceiving any motion, let go his feet, 12 minutes elapsed. Twelve minutes! Let that time be calculated, if any one knows by what clock to number the moments of suffering. Such, sir, was the mode of Tapner’s death.

The theory of example is satisfied; the philosopher alone mourns, and asks himself if this be what is called allowing justice to take its course? We must believe the philosopher to be wrong. The punishment has been frightful, but the crime was hideous. Must not society be defended? What will become of us if, &c. &c. The audacity of criminals would meet with no restraint. There would be nothing but atrocities and murders. A check is absolutely necessary. At least, it seems your opinion, Sir, that Tapners should be hung unless they be emperors. Let the will of statesmen be done!

Theorists, dreamers, those visionary spirits who have formed some notion of good and evil, cannot sound, without difficulty, certain depths of the problem of destiny.

Had Tapner, instead of killing one woman, destroyed 300, adding to the heap some hundreds of old men and children — had he instead of breaking a door, violated an oath — had he, instead of purloining a few shillings, stolen 25 millions — had he, instead of burning the house Saujon, overawed Paris by force of arms, he would have an ambassador at London.

It might, however, be as well to define a little more precisely the point at which Tapner ceases to be a robber, and Schinderhannes commences politician. Sir, this is horrible! We are members, you and I, of the infinitely small. I am only a refugee, you are only a minister — I am ashes, you are dust — Atom may surely speak freely to atom — where each is nothing, truth may be spoken. Well then, be assured, whatever may be the actual success of your policy, however glorious the alliance of M. Bonaparte, however honourable it may be for you to act in strict union with him, however far famed and magnificently may be your common triumph in Turkish affairs, this rope, which was fastened round a human sack, the trap which opened under his feet, the hope that, in falling, he would break his spine, the face become livid beneath the deep shadow of the gallows, the bloodshot eyes bursting from their sockets, the tongue lolling from the throat, that groan of anguish only stifled by the knot, the terrified soul which still clings to its tenement, the convulsed knees which seek some support, those bound hands mutely clasped and asking help — and that other man, that man of darkness, who throws himself upon these last struggles, who clings to the knees of the dying wretch, and himself hangs upon the hanging — Sir, these things are frightful!


Victor Hugo, The Hanged Man, c. 1855-1860.

And if haply the conjectures which I disavow be true, if the man who hung to the feet of Tapner were indeed M. Bonaparte, it would be monstrous. But, I repeat, I do not believe this. You have yielded to no influence; you simply said — let justice take its course; you gave this order, as you would have done any other, the prolonged discussions concerning capital punishment do not interest you. To hang a man, and to drink a glass of water are the same things in your estimation — you did not comprehend the importance of the act; it was the oversight of a statesman, nothing more. Sir, keep your blinders for earth, and do not offer them to eternity! Do not trifle with such deep interests, mix nothing of your own with them; it would be impudent. I can see more deeply into those interests than you — Beware! Exul sicul mortuus. I speak as from the tomb.

Bah! what matters it? A man is hung; and what more? a coil of rope to be wound up; some timber work to be taken to pieces a corpse to be buried. Certainly these are great matters! We will fire the cannon, a little smoke in the East, and all will be over. A microscope will be required to detect Guernsey and Tapner. Gentlemen, this rope, this beam, this corpse, this dreadful though invisible gallows, this suffering, carry us into immensity. They involve the social question, which is more important than the political; they do more — they carry us beyond earth. That, which is of little consequence, is your cannon, your politics, and your smoke. The assassin who to-morrow becomes the victim, as a soul which takes its flight holding the end of the gallows-rope — it is this which is frightful. Statesmen, who between two protocols, two dinners, and two smiles, carelessly press with white-gloved hand the spring of the gibbet, and the trap falls under the feet of the victim. Know you what you do? The infinite appears; the unfathomable and the unknown; the mighty shade which rises suddenly and terribly beneath your littleness.

Proceed! Let us observe the men of the old world at their work. Since the past still struggles let us examine it. Let us observe its successive phases.

At Tunis it is impaling; with the Czar the knout; with the Pope it is the garrot; in France the guillotine; in England the gallows; in Asia and America the slave market. All this will be swept away. We, the anarchists, the demagogues, the blood-drinkers, tell you, the protectors and saviours of the world, that human liberty is to be respected, human intelligence is holy, human life is sacred, and the human soul divine. Now go on hanging! But beware! The future opens. You think that living which is dead, and that dead which is living. The ancient form of society, but it is dead. You are deceived. You have stretched out your hand to the spectre of darkness, and chosen her for your bride. You turn your back upon life: it will soon arise behind you. When we pronounce the words Progress, Revolution, Liberty, Humanity, you smile, unhappy man, and point to the darkness in which we both are involved. Do you indeed know what that night is? Learn the truth; ere long the ideas will burst forth in all their strength and glory. Democracy yesterday took the name of France; to-morrow it will take that of Europe. The eclipse does but conceal the increasing magnitude of the star.

I am, sir, your obedient servant,

VICTOR HUGO.
Marine-terrace, Feb. 11

* We read in the Jersey newspapers, of January 7, 1851:

James Fouquet — We are informed that James Fouquet, condemned to death by our Royal Court, for the murder of Derbyshire, and whose punishment was commuted by her Majesty into transportation for life, was removed, about six months ago, from the prison at Milbank, where he had hitherto remained, to Dartmoor. He is nearly cured of the wound in his neck, and his conduct has been such, while at Millbank, that the governor of that prison thinks it extremely possible, there will be a further commutation of his sentence into banishment from the English territories.

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1945: Anacleto Diaz, Philippines Supreme Court Justice

1 comment February 10th, 2015 Headsman

Supreme Court justice Anacleto Diaz and his two sons were among 300 Filipinos machine-gunned by the Japanese on this date in 1945 during the Battle of Manila.

The distinguished 66-year-old jurist had served in his youth in the forces of independence fighter Antonio Luna. Diaz was captured by the Americans, and honed his English so well as a POW that he later built a career as a legal scholar in the American-governed archipelago. He was appointed to the Philippines Supreme Court by U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Diaz and his comrades were far from the only civilians to suffer during the bloody monthlong Battle of Manila: Japanese troops conducted intermittent atrocities both wholesale and retail, collectively known as the Manila Massacre. Japan’s commanding general, Tomoyuki Yamashita, was hanged as a war criminal in 1946 due to the Manila Massacre in a highly controversial case — since the Manila Massacre’s atrocities couldn’t be attributed directly to Yamashita’s own orders. But the U.S. war crimes tribunal found, and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed, that the subordinate troops’ actions redounded to the account of their superiors who “fail[ed] to discharge his duty as a commander to control the acts of members of his command by permitting them to commit war crimes.”

This is one of the foundational cases for that opportunistically observed precedent known as “command responsibility” (indeed, this is the “Yamashita Standard”).

As one might guess by the late date and the juridical aftermath, this Battle of Manila ended in an American victory reconquering a now-devastated Philippines capital, and driving the Japanese from the Philippines — making good Gen. Douglas MacArthur‘s famous promise to return there.

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1973: Tom Masaba, Sebastino Namirundu, and 10 other Uganda Fronsana rebels

1 comment February 10th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1973, 12 actual or supposed Ugandan guerrillas opposing the Idi Amin dictatorship were shot in groups of one or two at various places around the country — having been condemned just days before in military trials for terrorism and assassination plots.

The Fronasa rebel movement was a new player on the Uganda political scene, and it drew a ferocious government response. Idi Amin’s regime was reluctant even to dignify its opposition by naming it, but it certainly made no secret about the punishments. “The public are to attend,” said the official announcement, ominously. (London Times, Feb. 8, 1973.)

“The execution by firing squad that has been carried out today is a real lesson to the people of Uganda to know that involvement in guerrilla activities means loss of life,” a military spokesman explained, unnecessarily. (Times, Feb. 12) Just to make sure the public turned up thoroughly for the lesson, the shootings were filmed and televised.

There’s an extensive photographic series of at least one set of executions — that of Tom Mabasa and Sebastino Namirundu in Mbale. It’s viewable here. Per the image captions,

Masaba and Namirundu were interrogated, stripped naked, fitted with short white aprons and tied to their execution posts. Masaba, who was accused of being a terrorist, was reported to have said, “Let those, like me, who are killing innocent people in the country, come out and report to the authorities.”

The book Battles of the Ugandan Resistance contains an account of Namirundu’s capture. According to the author, Namirundu was a mere bystander whe Ugandan troops arrived to his area trying to arrest rebel leader (and present-day Uganda president) Yoweri Museveni. Museveni gave them the slip, but as soldiers rudely searched houses, the teenaged Namirundu made a panicked run to get away from them, which act was taken as self-incrimination and led him to the stake.

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1892: Four anarchists in Jerez

Add comment February 10th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1892, four anarchists named Burique, Lamela, Lebrijano and Zarzuela were publicly garroted on a large stage in front of the prison at the Andalusian city of Jerez (or Xeres).


Via

Spain, like many other European states, grappled with anarchists in the late years of the 19th century.

Revolutionary peasants made the rich agricultural lands of Andalusia among the anarchist strongholds: the shadowy La Mano Negra, the “Black Hand”, had been smashed up with a number of executions in the early 1880s. This was not the end of agitation, however: its successor movement, Los Desheredades, “the Disinherited,” continued to grow.

On the night of January 9, 1892, a band of several hundred agricultural workers boldly raided Jerez in an attempt to free some anarchist prisoners. They were driven off after a night’s fearful fighting — a prototype “anarchist outrage” for headlines the world over. It was, for Federico Urales, “an act of dreams. Sticks and sickles to beat the well-fed lords of Jerez, from the men who starved to keep to keep their lands.” (Source, in Spanish)


From the Melbourne, Australia Argus, Jan. 11, 1892

“We know what the workers are: wicked people! With them, one has the bread in one hand, and the garrote in the other.” -from Vicente Blasco Ibanez’s La Bodega, in which the Jerez mutiny is a central theme. It’s available in the public domain in the original Spanish

Dozens of “outragers” were captured in hot pursuit that next morning. The investigation quickly honed in on the four ringleaders, who were put to death this date. One allegedly left a written statement conveniently renouncing anarchy. Another spoke from the platform, and “declared that he died in the cause of the working classes, and he appealed to the crowd not to respond by expressing sympathy.”*

But many others would suffer lengthy, non-capital sentences on evidence perhaps more expedient than rigorous. The poet Fermin Salvochea spent most of his fifties in prison on a spurious accusation of having conspired in the Jerez attack.

And these executions scarcely quelled Spain’s unrest. Angry cadres demonstrated (or rioted) against the executions throughout Iberia, provoking the familiar cycle of more police raids, more outrages, more martyrs … for years to come, and culminating in the indiscriminate arrests and mass torture of Barcelona anarchists in that city’s Montjuic Castle in in 1896-97

* From the Feb. 11, 1892 New York Times, which proceeds to describe the distinctive execution method thus:

[The garrote] is a brass collar, which is contracted by means of a screw in the back. As the screw is turned the collar shuts upon the neck of the condemned, and at the same time the sharpened steel point of the screw enters the spinal marrow where it joins with the brain, causing instantaneous death.

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1794: Jacques Roux, the Red Priest, cheats the guillotine

Add comment February 10th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1794, French Revolution firebrand Jacques Roux committed suicide to avoid execution during the Terror.

Roux was a Catholic vicar on the eve of the Revolution, and “of the many priests who had left the church to join the Revolution none was more articulate and socially aware.”

He became a leading exponent of the radical enragés, a faction that really took the Revolution’s purported egalite to heart.

In early 1793, Roux was an official representative to the execution of Louis XVI — one can read his minimalistic report here; knowing that Roux was a priest, Louis tried to press him for some spiritual aid, and was rebuffed. “I am only here,” Roux answered icily, “to lead you to the scaffold.”

The man’s invective against the merchant classes packed considerably more heat.

Roux’s Manifesto of the Enrages minced no words:

Freedom is nothing but a vain phantom when one class of men can starve another with impunity. Equality is nothing but a vain phantom when the rich, through monopoly, exercise the right of life or death over their like. The republic is nothing but a vain phantom when the counter-revolution can operate every day through the price of commodities, which three quarters of all citizens cannot afford without shedding tears.

For the last four years the rich alone have profited from the advantages of the Revolution. The merchant aristocracy, more terrible than that of the noble and sacerdotal aristocracy, has made a cruel game of invading individual fortunes and the treasury of the republic; we still don’t know what will be the term of their exactions, for the price of merchandise rises in a frightful manner, from morning to evening.

Unfavorably contrasting the new haves with the ancien regime is the sort of thing that gets you into trouble in a bourgeois revolution.

Burdened by multiple wars, and then by poor harvests, France’s economy was a mess. Later that same year, Paris’s urban poor, the sans-culottes, invaded the Convention to force anti-hoarding and price control measures. Roux didn’t create that situation: he just had the nerve to risk his neck talking about it.

But by then, that prim ascetic Robespierre had already begun hounding Roux. He would hound him to his death.

Kropotkin‘s anarchist history, The Great French Revolution, 1789-1793, valorizes the courageous former priest. In Kropotkin’s narration, we find Roux ordered transferred out of ordinary police court to the Revolutionary Tribunal on some spurious charge of financial impropriety.*

Knowing what that meant, Roux stabbed himself in court thrice with a knife. The president of the court hastened to his assistance and displayed much friendliness towards him, even giving him the kiss of civic brotherhood, before he was removed to the Bicetre prison. In the prison infirmary Roux “tried to exhaust his strength,” as it was reported to the procurator of the Revolutionary Tribunal, Fouquier-Tinville, by opening his wounds; and finally he succeeded in stabbing himself once more, this time mortally, through the lung.

In terms of present-day iconographic potential, the French Revolution probably did not produce a more outstanding radical leftist; Roux’s direct critique of economic power clearly marks him as a forerunner of subsequent generations’ communist and anarchist movements … as well as even more contemporary voices.


(cc) image from Elentari86.

And undoubtedly, Roux’s project remained (and remains) unfinished. Surveying the scene after the Terror, Roux’s onetime ally Jean-Francois Varlet remarked, “In my country there has only been a change of dress.”

There’s more of Roux’s writing on Marxists.org.

* A much more serious graft charge would likewise be deployed to topple Danton.

Longtime readers may recall that this post was briefly (and mistakenly) up on this date in 2011. Oops.

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1952: Liu Qingshan and Zhang Zishan, the first corruption executions in Red China

1 comment February 10th, 2010 Headsman

China has been clamping down on official malfeasance lately, but corruption trials have a long and storied vintage in the realm.

The very oldest casket in the cellar has stamped upon it this date in 1952, when Maoist China carried out its first corruption executions.


The public trial of Liu Qingshan and Zhang Zishan. (Source.)

“Faithful and unyielding” during wartime, Liu Qingshan and Zhang Zishan exploited their resulting positions of authority to plunder economic development money.

Theirs was the signal case in an anti-corruption “campaign against three evils” that ended late in 1952, with the announcement that 196,000 party members and cadres had been convicted of something. (Cited here.)

One then-youthful man remembered that

in the winter of 1951, Mao launched a national campaign against what he called the three evils — corruption, waste, and bureaucracy. Taking advantage of the winter holidays, students were sent to various places as members of so called Tiger Hunting Teams. With six other students I was sent to the Art Supply Service then attached to our school. It was housed two miles from the campus. I worked there under the office of the Campaign Against the Three Evils. The entire staff and all the workers were organized to study Party policies attached to this campaign. The staff was then called upon to make a clean breast of their crimes and accuse others they knew to be criminals as well. These crimes included embezzling, forgery, theft, bribery and other white collar crimes. Some suspects were already being locked up in isolated rooms within the offices. Most of those locked up were directors on various levels. Some were even old Party members from the early Yanan days. We had no mercy on those we saw to be “criminals.”

I learned from the newspaper that corruption and waste had become very serious problems indeed. It also revealed how Party cadres had degenerated from revolutionary heroes into grafters. The best example we were told of was two senior cadres, the secretaries of the Tianjin Prefectural Party Committee, Liu Qing-san and Zhang Zi-shan, who were even sentenced to death for their crimes. The Party wanted to show that its own members were not exempt from justice. In showing this, they concurred with the old Chinese belief that it was best to execute one as a warning to a hundred.

Took the words right out of Mao’s mouth.

Only if we execute the two of them, can we prevent 20, 200, 2,000 or 20,000 corrupt officials from committing various crimes.

… although of course, that was a primitive age; one could hardly expect that sort of startling yield on investment in today’s on-the-go China. “[T]he effect would not be so great. To show our determination, we would have to execute several more than two.”

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1956: Wilbert Coffin

4 comments February 10th, 2009 Headsman

Just after midnight this day in 1956, Wilbert Coffin hanged for murdering three American tourists — a case that has since entered Canadian annals as a paradigmatic wrongful execution.

The aptly-named Coffin affair saw the prospector sent up on an entirely circumstantial case.

Under the pressure of losing tourist dollars to breathless coverage in the U.S., and with the aid of a desultory defense attorney, the Coffin case was rushed along to completion. Though sympathy in Gaspe seems to have been considerable, its elevation to cause celebre was likewise bound up in Quebec politics, pushed by foes of powerful, unscrupulous premier Maurice Duplessis.

Gadfly journalist Jacques Hebert (not the guillotined French Revolution demagogue of the same name, of course) published three books on the case (the 1963 volume immoderately titled J’accuse les assassins de Coffin landed him in jail)

While the death penalty vanished from Canada, the Coffin case has never fully faded as a public controversy. And it’s had something of a revival around the hanging’s recent 50th anniversary, with the government flirting with a posthumous pardon.

There’s even a prime alternate suspect, now dead, whose family has allegedly implicated him.

The Gaspe guitarist who appears in the above piece, Dale Boyle, makes his Wilbert Coffin song (and details about the case) available on his web site.

Lew Stoddard’s blog covers the Coffin case in exacting detail from the standpoint of a strong advocate of the hanged man’s innocence. The Coffin family itself also maintains wilbertcoffin.com, naturally dedicated to clearing Wilbert’s name.

Still, even should officialdom ultimately side with the apparent judgment in the court of public opinion, a wrongful execution is a wound that can never be salved.

I’ve often wondered what went through my brother’s mind when they came and took him out of his cell to take that last walk to be hanged. You can’t imagine what it’s been like to live with this all these years. It’s like a black, black hole that never ends.

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1905: Samuel McCue, mayor of Charlottesville, Virginia

4 comments February 10th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1905, the former mayor of Charlottesville, Va., was hanged in the city’s jail for the murder of his wife, Fannie — a sentence he may have accepted to protect his mistress from taking the rap.

This fascinating and little-known tale of local color is extensively explored in the Charlottesville weekly The Hook. For a gripping and off-the-beaten-path true crime mystery, the full story is well worth digesting.

Here’s an excerpt:

The City of Charlottesville congratulated itself on the afternoon of February 10 when it read in a special edition of the Daily Progress that J. Samuel McCue had confessed to his crime just hours before he was hanged. With a collective sigh of relief, the citizens could go about their lives knowing that they had done their duty.

But let us look carefully at Sam’s “confession.” Being an attorney, he always chose his words with care. His last words before the judge, after his conviction: “I am as innocent as any other man in the courtroom.”

Then before going to the gallows, he allegedly made a confession.

“J. Samuel McCue stated this morning in our presence and requested us to make public that he did not wish to leave this world with suspicion resting on any human being other than himself; that he alone is responsible for the deed, impelled to it by an evil power beyond his control; and that he recognized his sentence as just.

Signed: George L. Petrie, Harry B. Lee, John B. Turpin”

Are we to believe that a guilty man, just hours from death, was worried that someone else might later be suspected of the crime? He had been tried and convicted of it. What would make him worry that after his death anyone would look for another suspect, thereby proving their own mistake? Who would take responsibility for such an error, and why would Sam care?

Mysterious indeed.

McCue’s was the last legal hanging in Albemarle County.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Politicians,Scandal,Sex,USA,Virginia,Wrongful Executions

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