1584: Silly Mary and Country Kate

Add comment February 11th, 2017 Headsman

Executioner Franz Schmidt records in his journal for this date in 1584 the hanging of two women — according to Schmidt, the first women hanged in Nuremberg.

February 11th. Maria Kurschnerin of Nuremberg, alias Silly Mary, who had formerly been whipped out of town with rods, and had her ears cropped; also Katherine Schwertzin of Weher, alias Country Kate, who had also formerly been whipped out of the town; both of them thieves and whores, who with thievish youths and fellows climbed and broke into citizens’ houses and stole a mighty quantity of things; both hanged at Nuremberg. It was an unheard of thing for a woman to be hanged in Nuremberg, and it had never yet happened.

Thought Schmidt doesn’t say it, both of these girls were very young — according to Joel Harrington’s The Faithful Executioner, both would be minors by today’s standards.

This helps account for the huge crowd that turned out to see them executed — many of them no doubt had also been in the huge crowd that had previously seen “Silly Mary” suffer a non-fatal corporal punishment the year before. The executioner Schmidt administered that punishment as well, and likewise noted it in his diary on January 10, 1583.

January 10th. Mary Kurssnerin, a young prostitute, who was a watchman’s [musketeer’s?] daughter, a girl who had thieved considerably and a handsome young creature with whom the young Dietherr had dealings; Elizabeth Gutlerin, a bath attendant; Katherine Aynerin, alias die Gescheydin, a blacksmith’s wife and a handsome creature; all three children of citizens, and prostitutes, were here pilloried and afterwards flogged out of the town. Such a dreadful crowd ran out to see this that several people were crushed to death under the Frauenthor. Subsequently Mary’s ears were cut off, and she was hanged.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Milestones,Public Executions,Theft,Women

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1896: Bartholomew “Bat” Shea, political machine ballot-stuffer

3 comments February 11th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1896, during a driving Adirondack snowstorm, Bartholomew “Bat” Shea was electrocuted at New York’s Clinton Prison for a political murder two years prior.

This was the great boom time for machine politics, corrupt political patronage networks doling “spoils” like jobs and benefits to members who in turn maintained a party’s stranglehold on an electorate. These flourished in an industrializing America’s burgeoning cities; Troy, N.Y., at 60,000-plus in the 1890s (it has fewer than that today), was one of upstate New York’s prime industrial centers, and home to a municipal machine rooted in Irish Catholic immigrants and bossed by Democratic U.S. Senator Edward Murphy.

Machine politics were a major bone of contention in the Progressive Era, and certainly in the Troy elections of 1894. The ballot that year would decide Troy’s mayor, and as per usual the Murphy machine meant to stuff the box for its handpicked candidate.

On March 6, 1894, a group of Murphy “repeaters” (so called for their intent to vote repeatedly) including “Bat” Shea and (he’ll figure momentarily) John McGough approached a Thirteenth Ward polling place.

Republican poll watchers Robert and William Ross awaited them — armed, and expecting trouble. They had sparred with the Murphy machine at the ward caucus a few days previous.

“In a twinkling,” went a press report, “clubs and revolvers were flourished. Many shots were fired and when the fight closed it was found that Robert Ross had been fatally shot, that his brother, William, received a bullet in the neck and that Shea and McGough, who fled from the scene, had each been slightly wounded.”

This bloodshed, profaning as it seemed a sacred pillar of the polis, aroused a passionate if opportunistic response from Republicans, anti-machine reformers, and Troy’s Protestants. The killer(s) “were guilty of a crime against the Republic and against republican institutions,” as the resulting Committee of Public Safety put it, deep into the appeals process. (NYT, Jan. 15, 1896) “If such a crime is to go unpunished, ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people,’ must perish from the earth.”

“In this case there is something dearer than a single life,” said a prosecutor.*

It is the question of American citizenship, a question which comes home to us all, Democrats and Republicans, rich and poor. The question is whether it is the good citizen with the ballot, or the thug with his revolver, who shall control our nation.

Two other men were actually implicated in Robert Ross’s death before “Bat” Shea. John Boland, a fellow ballot-watcher, was the first arrested, but outcry against the apparent bid by the Murphy machine to fix the homicide on the victimized party soon freed him.

John McGough of the “repeater” party was also taken into custody, and accused at first of having fired the fatal shot.

Eyewitnesses soon pinned the murder on “Bat” Shea, and a conviction was speedily secured on this basis — with McGough subsequently receiving a long prison sentence for attempted murder, his shot having come within centimeters of taking William Ross’s life, too.

But many of those whom the Murphy machine benefited never believed the evidence against Shea and certainly never thought him capitally liable. Eyewitnesses hewing to their own party affiliation, pushing their own political agenda aided by convenient certainty upon the triggerman of this or that specific bullet in a general firefight. (The Rosses were shooting, too.)

The evidence could certainly be disputed, and over nearly two years Shea’s advocates did just that in courts and clemency petitions — a remarkable (for the time) odyssey to save Shea from the executioner.

Days prior to Shea’s January 1896 execution, his fellow repeater McGough sent a letter to Republican Gov. Levi Morton,** claiming that he, not Shea, shot Ross.

Interviewed directly by the governor’s agents, McGough stuck to his story. This wasn’t enough to convince Morton to spare Shea. For one thing, it would invite the suspicion that the Murphy people were conniving to weasel each other out of the debt that someone owed for Ross’s blood — McGough having already been convicted for his part in the skirmish, and thus safely out of the executioner’s potential grasp.

So much for Republican New York, Protestant New York, respectable New York. Shea’s many supporters who could never secure a legal toehold received his remains in honor at Troy, crowding a train platform where the coffin arrived in at 2:30 a.m. the morning after the electrocution. All that Wednesday, February 12, throngs of supporters paid their respects as the electrocuted man lay in state at his family’s River Street home.

At funeral services at St. Patrick’s Church on February 13, the officiating Father Swift averred uncertainty as to Shea’s guilt.

“If he was guilty,” said Swift (NYT, Feb. 14, 1896), “I do not believe he was conscious of it.”

For the reported 10,000 who turned out to lay the “murderer” to rest, the sentiment was quite a bit less ambivalent. Countless floral arrangements crowded into the Shea home. “Innocent,” read the cards upon many of them. Or, “Murdered.” (With a similar sympathy but perhaps much less taste, someone else sent flowers shaped like the electric chair.)

The present-day visitor to Troy can see “Bat” Shea’s name on a downtown Irish pub … and a monument of Robert Ross defending a ballot box at Oakwood Cemetery.


(cc) image from @zakkforchilli.

* This statement was made in the McGough trial, not the Shea trial. It’s sourced to this 1890s celebration of Ross and his cause.

** Morton had been U.S. Vice President from 1889 to 1893. More interestingly for this blog, Morton was U.S. President James Garfield’s 1881 appointee as ambassador to France. This was the very diplomatic post for which Charles Guiteau had petitioned Garfield, and being passed over (on account of being a whackadoodle obscurity) caused Guiteau to assassinate Garfield. Morton was succeeded as governor by Frank Swett Black … a Troy clean-elections crusader who had gone into politics after sitting at the prosecution’s bar in the case of “Bat” Shea.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Murder,New York,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1751: James Field, pugilist

1 comment February 11th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1751, Irish boxer James Field was hanged at Tyburn.

He had ditched his criminal record in Dublin for the burgeoning London metropolis and hung out a shingle at a pub on Drury Lane. (Perhaps he knew the Muffin Man.)


“dustmen, scavengers, flue-fakers, gardeners, fish-fags, and brick-layer’s labourers … the Hibernian was relating the ill usage he had been subjected to, and the necessity he had of making a hasty retreat from the quarters he had taken up” (Description of Drury Lane … from 1821. Close enough.)

Field soon developed a blackhearted reputation in London, and because he was a big bad boxer on the brute squad, constables were known to “fail to recognize” him the better to get home safe to dinner.

Even in a city without a professional police force, though, that’s a thin reed to rest one’s liberty upon. Eventually the mighty British Empire marshaled the marshals necessary to bring Field to bar for a violent heist. This time, his hulking build clinched his sure identification, and he earned the hemp for his felonies.

Field lives on in William Hogarth‘s anti-animal cruelty engravings Four Stages of Cruelty, published later in 1751. He’s the model for the hanged corpse being carved apart in the dissection theater in the last plate.

Second Plate:

In Hogarth’s Second Stage of Cruelty, a small poster in the background advertises a James Field bout against George Taylor.
Fourth Plate:

In Hogarth’s Reward of Cruelty, the hanged corpse laid out for dissection (and dog food) is modeled on James Field.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Athletes,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Entertainers,Execution,Hanged,History,Pelf,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Theft

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1992: Johnny Frank Garrett, “kiss my ass because I’m innocent”

12 comments February 11th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1992, Johnny Frank Garrett was executed by lethal injection, with the tart last words,

“I’d like to thank my family for loving me and taking care of me. And the rest of the world can kiss my everloving ass, because I’m innocent.”

Although Garrett was only 17 at the time a nun from a neighboring Amarillo convent was raped and murdered, and he may have qualified as developmentally disabled to boot — both factors that today would exclude him from execution — that whole innocence story didn’t have much public traction.

“No, no, not at all,” New Mexico attorney Jesse Quackenbush told this site in an interview. “He was villainized from day one: he was a nun-murderer who needed to be executed. The only sympathy really came from the Pope.”

But two decades on, Garrett’s dying profession is one of the more troublesome skeletons in the Texas execution machine’s closet, thanks in no small part to Quackenbush himself.

Quackenbush directed the documentary The Last Word (viewable free on Netflix), a powerful brief not only for Garrett’s innocence* but against the comprehensive rot of the system that shunted hm off this mortal coil — from the front-line investigators all the way through the Lone Star State’s intentionally broken executive clemency farce.

“It was a system-wide failure that caused this kid to die. It wasn’t just the legal system,” Quackenbush said. “The media played a part. The governor was looking more to her own re-election hopes.* There was a dysfunctional family. The Supreme Court wasn’t morally deep enough to realize that executing 17-year-olds and ‘mentally retarded’ prisoners was wrong. There’s the system in Texas that allowed the prosecutors to hand-pick the pathologists to provide junk science.

“It’s a multifaceted failure, and no one facet is more to blame than the others.”

Garrett, a white teenager, disappeared into a Kafkaesque legal labyrinth, after the alleged supernatural vision of a local soothsayer acclaimed him the culprit in the murder of a nun named Tadea Benz. Corporeal indicia of guilt falls somewhere between circumstantial and laughable: fingerprints in a convent he had visited many times, the inevitable jailhouse snitch, and an unrecorded supposed “confession” that Garrett refused to sign.

As in a preponderance of death cases, especially in Texas (pdf), a meek and all-but-unfunded defense team offered scant resistance as prosecutors made the most of this eminently disputable evidence: once the one-sided trial was in the books and the crucial direct appeals likewise slipped past, the proceedings lay beyond the reach of judicial review.

This novel is inspired by the Garrett case.

For all that, there yet remains one un-litigated piece of evidence.

Around the time of Sister Benz’s death, there was another rape-murder of another elderly Amarillo woman, a crime that authorities publicly described as “too similar” to the Benz case not to be part of the same crime spree.

That case went unsolved … but years after Garrett’s execution, DNA databases matched an old semen sample from that second crime to a Cuban rapist (he was among the criminals and undesirables that Castro expelled to the U.S. during the Mariel boatlift) named Leoncio Perez Rueda.

Suggestive.

More dispositive evidence in the form of still-testable crime scene samples may yet reside in Amarillo’s evidence lockers — semen and blood samples that, in the era of DNA, Quackenbush thinks would exonerate Johnny Frank Garrett.

If testing this sort of thing sounds like a no-brainer, you don’t work for Amarillo.

“The [Garrett] family offered the city of Amarillo complete civic immunity and they still refused to run a DNA test, and threatened to countersue** if the family tried to pursue it,” Quackenbush says. “In the state of Texas there are still only laws protecting DNA access for living people: if you’re already executed, you have no rights.”

Which is a particular pity — since “the chances of executing innocent people are still really high.”

* Quackenbush’s case for Garrett’s innocence is outlined in this legal memo (pdf). This site maintains an extensive archive of resources about the case.

** In this, it’s not unlike the Ruben Cantu case, where post-execution evidence of innocence has also been met with legal threats by the state.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Execution,Famous Last Words,History,Interviews,Lethal Injection,Murder,Other Voices,Political Expedience,Rape,Ripped from the Headlines,Texas,The Supernatural,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1984: Maqbool Bhat, for Kashmir

3 comments February 11th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1984, India hanged Kashmiri nationalist Maqbool Bhat.

A terrorist to his enemies and a freedom fighter to his friends, Bhat was born in the Kashmir region back when it “was ruled by the Dogra Family and the entire Kashmiri nation was living a life of slavery.”

When Bhat was a nine-year-old child, the prince of Jammu and Kashmir inked a bitterly controversial accession of his domain to the foundling independent nation of India. Kashmir has been hitched to the adjective “troubled” ever since.

The broader Kashmir region remains a warren of competing claims among Pakistan, India, and China. Bhat operated not for any of these governments, but for Kashmiri independence … and since he came of age in the revolutionary twilight of colonialism, he did not shy from putting the fight in freedom fighter. Bhat was an early exponent of an armed independence struggle.

Both India and Pakistan proscribed as terrorist Bhat’s Jammu and Kashmir National Liberation Front (forerunner of the still-extant JKLF, which is the same acronym less the middle letter); both those longtime subcontinent antagonists arrested Bhat at different times for subversive activities. The most notable: Bhat engineered an airplane hijacking in 1971 to push his cause onto the world’s front pages.

But the hostage-taking game came a-cropper for the Kashmiri rebel.

Languishing under a dormant death sentence for the 1968 murder of an Indian policeman,* Bhat unexpectedly became the focus of his fellow-travelers’ revolutionary ardor: in Birmingham, England, Kashmiri activists kidnapped Indian diplomat Ravindra Mhatre in an attempt to force a hostage exchange.

When Delhi refused to deal, the captors executed Mhatre. Within days, India traded tit for tat by stringing up Bhat — a man who in life had been known for his boast that “nobody has the rope which can hang men.”

They may not have got their man, but they sure got a martyr.

Five years after Bhat’s execution, Kashmir finally broke into armed revolt — Bhat’s very own project, and one that has claimed tens of thousands of lives in the succeeding years.

That movement repeatedly demands the return of Bhat’s remains for burial. It annually marks this anniversary of his martyrdom with tributes and strikes.

* Bhat’s partisans insist that he was wrongly accused.

Update: Reprint of a 1984 article, “The last days of Maqbool Butt”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,India,Martyrs,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Political Expedience,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Terrorists,Wrongful Executions

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1585: Frederick Werner, the executioner’s brother-in-law

1 comment February 11th, 2010 Headsman

Being ‘broken on the wheel’ was an agonising and prolonged way in which to die …

The felon was secured, spread-eagled, face upwards, on a large cartwheel mounted horizontally on an upright which passed through the hub, the wheel sometimes being slightly canted in order to give the spectators a better view of the brutal proceedings …

Death was meted out by the executioner wielding a heavy iron bar, three feet long by two inches square, or using a long-handled hammer. Slowly and methodically he would shatter the victim’s limbs; the upper and forearms, the thighs and the lower legs … On being removed from the wheel the corpse would resemble a rag doll, the various short sections of the shattered limbs being completely disconnected from each other …

In some states in Germany the regulation number of blows was forty. Franz Schmidt, executioner of Nuremberg in the sixteenth century, wrote in his diary that on 11 February 1585 he ‘dispatched Frederick Werner of Nuremberg, alias Heffner Friedla, a murderer who committed three murders and twelve robberies. He was drawn to execution in a tumbrel [a cart], twice nipped with red-hot tongs and afterwards broken on the wheel.’

This multiple murderer was in fact Schmidt’s brother-in-law and, probably in view of their relationship, the judges decreed that only thirty-one blows need be struck. One wonders whether, after that number, there was anything worthwhile left to aim at.

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1944: Twenty-two or more Poles

3 comments February 11th, 2009 Headsman

The demonstrative public hanging this day in 1944 of Poles in the remains of the Warsaw Ghetto* was little more than an everyday atrocity in Nazi-occupied Poland — although, ten days after the gauleiter responsible for previous mass executions had himself been assassinated by the Polish Home Army, it presumably had an extra bit of meaning for the city’s denizens.

According to Gregor Dallas’s 1945: The War That Never Ended,

Nazi terror reached new heights for the non-Jewish population of Warsaw in the winter of 1943-4. People were seized at random in the streets and executed on the spot; between October and February some 270 to 300 men and women were publicly hanged or shot each week — the kind of atrocities the French commemorate in Tulle and Oradour were, in Warsaw, a part of daily life. ‘On my way to Leszno Church today,’ Julian Kulski, a young soldier of the Home Army, recorded on 11 February 1944, ‘I saw a crowd of people standing in front of the Wall. They were gazing at something above the Wall, on the Ghetto side of it. As I got closer, I could see for myself — hanged from the upper-storey balconies of what had been an apartment house were the bodies of twenty-two of our Freedom Fighters.’ Kulski, at any rate, took them for Freedom Fighters.


This blurry photo dated to the same day and location was taken from a moving tram.

This mass execution may also be one alluded to by Jewish resistance fighter Yizhak “Antek” Zuckerman,** who survived the war in Warsaw with false papers identifying him as a Pole. His A Surplus of Memory: Chronicle of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising remembers such an execution occurring while they lived on Leszno Street after the ghetto’s destruction — and that it greatly upset his wife, Zivia Lubetkin, because Zuckerman was so late arriving home that day.

One day the Germans hanged fifty Poles on street lamps, something they often did. This time it was on Leszno Street, in retaliation for harassing Germans. In such a case, they would take fifty Poles from their “stock” in Pawiak, publish their names, add the crime for which they were being murdered, and hang them in the city on electric poles. In this case, they also strung people up on the outside walls of the ghetto, where there was still a wall, even though there was no longer a ghetto.

* Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto had been liquidated the previous spring; at this point, it was rubble behind the still-standing wall.

** Zuckerman also appeared as a witness in the Israeli trial of Adolf Eichmann.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Hostages,Known But To God,Mass Executions,Mature Content,Occupation and Colonialism,Poland,Power,Public Executions,Wartime Executions

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1869: Patrick Whelan, Canada’s first assassin?

2 comments February 11th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1869, Irish immigrant Patrick Whelan was hanged at Ottawa’s Nicholas Street Gaol for the assassination of Canadian politician Thomas D’Arcy McGee.

McGee, a Father of the Confederation — Canada as a self-governing dominion was only months old when he was gunned down in Ottawa — was the first politician assassinated in the country, and for a century more, the only one. He may have been a sort of proto-Michael Collins, shot by onetime fellow-travelers in the Irish nationalist movement for going legit with the English.

It’s an open question whether the tailor convicted of his murder was actually one of them. Whelan, like McGee, was an Irish immigrant and supposedly a Fenian sympathizer. He also matched the gunman’s description.

Whelan was snatched up within 24 hours and convicted on essentially circumstantial evidence.

Hanged in a snowstorm before thousands, he maintained his innocence to the end — a plea that has had its advocates in posterity, including a high-profile recent play. Whelan bolsters his own case by haunting the jail where he met his fate … a structure which still stands today, now serving as a (singularly atmospheric) hostel.

Whelan is sometimes reported as the last man publicly hanged in Canada, although apparently he is not. (Officially, that honor belongs to Nicholas Melady.)

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Assassins,Canada,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Notable for their Victims,Public Executions,The Supernatural,Wrongful Executions

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