1719: Richard Worley, pirate

Add comment February 17th, 2017 Charles Johnson

(Thanks to Captain Charles Johnson — perhaps a pseudonym for Daniel Defoe — for the guest post. It was originally Chapter XIII “Of Captain WORLEY, And his Crew” in Johnson’s magnum and only opus, A General History of the Pyrates.)

[Richard Worley‘s] Reign was but short, but his Beginning somewhat particular, setting out in a small open Boat, with eight others, from New-York. This was as resolute a Crew as ever went upon this Account: They took with them a few Biscuits, and a dry’d Tongue or two, a little Cag of Water, half a dozen old Muskets and Ammunition accordingly. Thus provided, they left New-York the latter End of September 1718, but it cannot be supposed that such a Man of War as this, could undertake any considerable Voyage, or attempt any extraordinary Enterprize; so they stood down the Coast, till they came to Delaware River, which is about 150 Miles distant, and not meeting with any Thing in their Way, they turn’d up the same River as high as Newcastle, near which Place they fell upon a Shallop belonging to George Grant, who was bringing Houshold Goods, Plate, &c. from Oppoquenimi to Philadelphia; they made Prize of the most valuable Part of them, and let the Shallop go. This Fact could not come under the Article of Pyracy, it not being committed super altum Mare, upon the High-Sea, therefore was a simple Robbery only; but they did not stand for a Point of Law in the Case, but easing the Shallop Man of his Lading, the bold Adventurers went down the River again.

The Shallop came straight to Philadelphia, and brought the ill News thither, which so alarm’d the Government, as if War had been declared against them; Expresses were sent to New-York, and other Places, and several Vessels fitted out against this powerful Rover, but to no manner of Purpose; for after several Days Cruize, they all return’d, without so much as hearing what became of the Robbers.

Worley and his Crew, in going down the River, met with a Sloop of Philadelphia, belonging to a Mulatto, whom they call’d Black Robbin; they quitted their Boat for this Sloop, taking one of Black Robin’s Men along with them, as they had also done from George Grant, besides two Negroes, which encreased the Company one Third. A Day or two after, they took another Sloop belonging to Hull, homeward bound, which was somewhat fitter for their Purpose; they found aboard her, Provisions and Necessaries, which they stood in need of, and enabled them to prosecute their Design, in a manner more suitable to their Wishes.

Upon the Success of these Rovers, the Governor issued out a Proclamation, for the apprehending and taking all Pyrates, who had refused or neglected to surrender themselves, by the Time limited in his Majesty’s Proclamation of Pardon; and thereupon, ordered his Majesty’s Ship Phoenix, of 20 Guns, which lay at Sandy Hook, to Sea, to cruize upon this Pyrate, and secure the Trade to that, and the adjoining Colonies.

In all probability, the taking this Sloop sav’d their Bacons, for this Time, tho’ they fell into the Trap presently afterwards; for they finding themselves in tolerable good Condition, having a Vessel newly cleaned, with Provisions, &c. they stood off to Sea, and so missed the Phoenix, who expected them to be still on the Coast.

About six Weeks afterwards they returned, having taken both a Sloop and a Brigantine, among the Bahama Islands; the former they sunk, and the other they let go: The Sloop belonged to New-York, and they thought the sinking of her good Policy, to prevent her returning to tell Tales at Home.

Worley had by this Time encreased his Company to about five and twenty Men, had six Guns mounted, and small Arms as many as were necessary for them, and seem’d to be in a good thriving sort of a Way. He made a black Ensign, with a white Death’s Head in the Middle of it, and other Colours suitable to it.* They all signed Articles, and bound themselves under a solemn Oath, to take no Quarters, but to stand by one another to the last Man, which was rashly fulfill’d a little afterwards.

For going into an Inlet in North-Carolina, to clean, the Governor received Information of it, and sitted out two Sloops, one of eight Guns, and the other with six, and about seventy Men between them. Worley had clean’d his Sloop, and sail’d before the Carolina Sloops reached the Place, and steered to the Northward; but the Sloops just mentioned, pursuing the same Course, came in sight of Worley, as he was cruising off the Capes of Virginia, and being in the Offin, he stood in as soon as he saw the Sloops, intending thereby to have cut them off from James River; for he verily believed they had been bound thither, not imagining, in the least, they were in Pursuit of him.

The two Sloops standing towards the Capes at the same Time, and Worley hoisting of his black Flag, the Inhabitants of James Town were in the utmost Consternation, thinking that all three had been Pyrates, and that their Design had been upon them; so that all the Ships and Vessels that were in the Road, or in the Rivers up the Bay, had Orders immediately to hale in to the Shore, for their Security, or else to prepare for their Defence, if they thought themselves in a Condition to fight. Soon after two Boats, which were sent out to get Intelligence, came crowding in, and brought an Account, that one of the Pyrates was in the Bay, being a small Sloop of six Guns. The Governor expecting the rest would have followed, and altogether make some Attempt to land, for the sake of Plunder, beat to Arms, and collected all the Force that could be got together, to oppose them; he ordered all the Guns out of the Ships, to make a Platform, and, in short, put the whole Colony in a warlike Posture; but was very much surprised at last, to see all the supposed Pyrates fighting with one another.

The Truth of the Matter is, Worley gained the Bay, thinking to make sure of his two Prizes, by keeping them from coming in; but by the hoisting of the King’s Colours, and firing a Gun, he quickly was sensible of his Mistake, and too soon perceived that the Tables were turned upon him; that instead of keeping them out, he found himself, by a superiour Force kept in. When the Pyrates saw how Things went, they resolutely prepar’d themselves for a desperate Defence; and tho’ three to one odds, Worley and his Crew determined to fight to the last Gasp, and receive no Quarters, agreeably to what they had before sworn; so that they must either Dye or Conquer upon the Spot.

The Carolina Men gave the Pyrate a Broadside, and then Boarded him, one Sloop getting upon his Quarter, and the other on his Bow; Worley and the Crew, drew up upon the Deck, and fought very obstinately, Hand to Hand, so that in a few Minutes, abundance of Men lay weltering in their Gore; the Pyrates proved as good as their Words, not a Man of them cry’d out for Quarter, nor would accept of such, when offered, but were all killed except the Captain and another Man, and those very much wounded, whom they reserved for the Gallows. They were brought ashore in Irons, and the next Day, which was the 17th of February 1718-19, they were both hanged up, for fear they should dye, and evade the Punishment as was thought due to their Crimes.

* The origin of the skull-and-crossbones design we commonly associate with pirates is murky, but Worley is often credited as one of the earliest to sail under it. -ed.

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1688: James Renwick, to end the Killing Time

Add comment February 17th, 2016 Headsman

Though none of the crowd that thronged Edinburgh’s Grassmarket this day in 1688 could know it, that date’s execution of minister James Renwick would make an end to the Killing Time, the great 1680s persecutions that scattered martyrs’ bones across Highland and Lowland.

Renwick, at any rate, was the last of many Covenanters who submitted to the public executioner; only a few months yet remained when officers in the field were empowered to force an oath of abjuration upon suspected dissidents, on pain of summary death in the field. By year’s end, the absolutist Catholic King James II — with whose brother and predecessor the movement had such a tortured history — fled to exile as the Glorious Revolution brought the Protestant William of Orange to power: royal recognition of Scottish Presbyterianism ensued.*


Monument to Renwick at his native Moniaive. (cc) image by Scott Hill.

The son of a village weaver, Renwick manifested a martyr’s uncommon zeal for the faith early in life and matriculated at the University of Edinburgh. There in 1681 he witnessed the hanging of Covenanter preacher Donald Cargill. Here, muses the hagiography, “the mantle of Elijah fell upon young Elisha.”

After studying — and ordination — abroad in the Netherlands Renwick returned to his native soil in 1683. He managed some five years of secret ministering in hidden homes and conventicles, and all the while the law sought him ever closer. By the time it finally hunted him to ground in 1688, so many of the faith’s august champions had already taken their martyrs’ crowns that at age 25** Renwick was among the biggest game remaining.

How often cowled on ghostly moors by torchlight had the young reverend rehearsed the steadfast refusal he might one day deliver to his persecutors? Had he prayed that the weakness of flesh would not betray his spirit with an unbecoming attachment to his own life? “I cannot own this usurper as the lawful king, seeing both by the word of God such an one is incapable to bear rule, and likewise by the ancient laws of the kingdom which admit none to the crown of Scotland until he swear to defend the Protestant religion, which a man of his profession cannot do,” he declared to his captors when pressed for the formula of abjuration.

Renwick passed this test but little could even he have imagined how speedily would be fulfilled his gallows prayer:

Lord, I die in the faith that Thou wilt not leave Scotland, but that Thou wilt make the blood of Thy witnesses the seed of Thy church, and return again and be glorious in our land. And now, Lord, I am ready.


Condemned Covenanters on Their Way to Execution in the West Bow, Edinburgh. Artist unknown. (Source)

James Renwick has enjoyed tender biographical treatment from posterity; see here and here for some longer-form examples.

* While good news for the Presbyterians, this put many an Episcopal and Catholic in a tight spot of their own, setting up decades of bloody tragedy for Jacobite loyalists … but this is a subject for other posts.

** The captain who finally caught Renwick is supposed to have exclaimed at seeing his youth, “Is this the boy Renwick that the nation has been so much troubled with?” The outlaw minister turned 26 two days before his execution.

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1526: Guillaume Jobert, Genevieve-blasphemer

Add comment February 17th, 2015 Headsman

Guillaume Jobert, one of the first Reformation martyrs in Paris, had his tongue bored through on this date in 1526,* then was burned at the stake at the Place Maubert.

Jobert, the young gentleman son of the avocat du roi of La Rochelle, incurred this ghastly punishment by making some impious cracks about the faith and in particular the devotions given St. Genevieve.

Genevieve was no one to be trifled with. She was supposed to have stopped Attila the Hun dead in his tracks with her prayerful intercession and saved Paris from the sack in 451, in remembrance of which feat she had become honored as the patron saint of Paris.

Genevieve’s cult really took off in the High Middle Ages, the period when a burgeoning Paris firmly established itself as the hub of all France. So powerful was the Parisian devotion to the saint (and the saint’s devotion to Paris) that her cult became a defining marker of the community — and when that community was ruptured by the Reformation, affinity for the cult came to mark the community’s boundaries. To the extent that Genevieve was identified with Paris, with France, with the sacraments, with the royal family — and she was identified with all these things — the Protestant skepticism of saints posing as divine intercessors with demigod-like spheres of influence positioned reformers in opposition to a good many things more than “merely” theology. There is a secular echo of this same critique from centuries later in Voltaire:

The girl that was born in the stubble fields of Nanterre,
Has become a saint that is implored by hollow and stupid people …
But a good citizen should be devout only to you.

As Moshe Sluhovsky notes in “The Politicizations of Sainte Genevieve”, a chapter of his Patroness of Paris: Rituals of Devotion in Early Modern France, the Protestant Reformation in particular

challenged the sacrality of Paris, the identity of France, and the cult of the saints. It was therefore necessary to reaffirm the city’s Catholicity by redefining it in opposition to heresy. Sainte Genevieve was used to delineate who should be included in the sacred social body and who should be excluded from it.

Overtly blaspheming Genevieve certainly put Joubert in the “exclusion” category.

While we have little specific detail about Joubert, some sense of the gravity of his offense might be gleaned from an event that ensued a decade after his tongue-boring execution, when the Affair of the Placards sparked a furious Catholic backlash against religious dissidents. One week later, six Protestants were burned at the stake following a monumental procession through the city meant to reaffirm France’s devotion to the Catholic faith.

For the occasion, St. Genevieve’s relics were removed from her sacred abbey and marched along with all that abbot’s canons and the king himself. These 1,000-year-old remains never appeared in these sorts of ceremonies “without grette and urgent causes,” an English Protestant observer remarked. Notably, accrding to Sluhovsky, the reliquary on this occasion crossed the Seine to the Right Bank for the first time ever.

* Date from this public-domain French journal.

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1815: Eight deserters by order of Andrew Jackson

5 comments February 17th, 2014 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1815, eight young men condemned for desertion during the War of 1812 were executed by firing squad in Nashville, Tennessee.

They were brought out to be shot one by one, as there weren’t enough people available to form a firing squad large enough for the group of them.

Desertion was rife during this inglorious conflict, according to Wikipedia:

The desertion rate for American soldiers in the War of 1812 was 12.7%, according to available service records. Desertion was especially common in 1814, when enlistment bonuses were increased from $16 to $124, inducing many men to desert one unit and enlist in another to get two bonuses.

We’re not sure how well these eight got paid off in life … only that they collected their last check in lead.

  1. Nathaniel Chester, age unknown, a member of the Corp of Artillery.
  2. Benjamin Harris, 38, a private in the 44th Regiment. Born in Virginia and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, he enlisted on March 26, 1814 and deserted on July 1.
  3. John Jones, 33, a private in the 2nd Rifle Regiment. He’d enlisted for a five-year stint on July 25, 1814 in Farquier, Virginia. The date he deserted has not been recorded.
  4. Jacob King, 20, a private in the 1st U.S. Artillery. He was born in Pennsylvania and enlisted on March 28, 1814 for five years. He deserted on July 12.
  5. James McBride, 21, a native of Virginia. Records about his military service are unclear: some reports are that he enlisted on April 20, 1813, and other accounts give the date as July 22, 1814. It’s possible he deserted twice; this was a common practice, as noted above.
  6. William Myers, 19, a private from Georgia. He enlisted on March 27, 1814; it’s unknown when he deserted.
  7. Drury Puckett, 36, a member of the 2nd Infantry. (Almost certainly the son and namesake of this Drury Puckett.) Like Harris and McBride, he was from Virginia and he had enlisted there for five years on September 24, 1814. The record says he deserted on December 31, but this is surely in error, because by then he had already been sentenced to die.
  8. John Young, age unknown, from Winchester, Virginia. He enlisted on October 3, 1814 and deserted after a mere five days.

General (and future President) Andrew Jackson affirmed their sentences on January 28, pardoning five others at the same time. This was twenty days after Jackson fought the Battle of New Orleans, the final major conflict in the war. This day’s event was the largest mass execution in Tennessee history.

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1938: Juan Soldado, patron saint of Mexico-US migrants

1 comment February 17th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1938, Juan Castillo Morales was shot in a cemetery for raping and murdering an eight-year-old girl.

Morales was executed under the strange ley de fugas (“law of fugitives”), an expedient quasi-lynching arrangement that gave the inmate the opportunity to flee for his life in front of the firing detail. He didn’t make it — nobody ever made it.

But the method of his death is the least bizarre thing about his story.

Juan Castillo Morales is better known today as Juan Soldado, “Juan the Soldier.” He was an army private serving at the border town of Tijuana, just across from San Diego, Calif., when young Olga Camacho disappeared on February 13. (Yes, that’s four days before the execution.)

Olga’s abduction — and the discovery of her body, throat slashed and sexually molested — triggered a public outcry.

Our man was arrested on the 14th, and the evidence quickly started stacking up against him. Even his wife incriminated him. At least, allegedly: there’s very little documentary evidence remaining from the case, and very little about the life of Juan Castillo Morales, all of which helps fuel its latter-day ambiguity.

Castillo Morales, again allegedly, confessed in jail. The public had its pedophile: the man was nearly lynched by rioters threatening to put the whole town to the torch. This radioactive case was disposed of in great haste by a secret military tribunal before the whole city spiraled out of control. Thousands of onlookers turned out for the public “fleeing” execution.

So far, so unsurprising (at least by the standards of these grim pages): a notorious sex crime, a mini-moral panic, a perp done (however unusually) to death.

Now, it gets interesting.


With blood lust sated and Morales entombed in the cemetery where he was shot to death, mysterious reports began circulating … that his grave was oozing blood, and that his anima (soul) was floating around proclaiming his innocence.

Book CoverMaybe there were people who already believed that but dared not speak up when lynch law reigned. Maybe the rushed, not-altogether-judicial “investigation” and the cruelty of the execution catalyzed some latent communal guilt.

But for sure, once the idea that the man was innocent got out there, it had legs. There’s a folk belief that “those who have died unjustly sit closest to God”; before 1938 was out, newspapers had already begun to report people praying at the grave … and some of them reporting miracles worked in consequence.

He wasn’t Juan Castillo Morales the executed army private any more: for posterity, he would be Juan Soldado, the everyman sublime.

Against any odds you’d care to stake, Juan Soldado has developed in the decades since into a going cult figure in Tijuana, and throughout the border region — a popular saint (by no means acknowledged by institutional Catholicism) for everyday people’s problems. A chapel built over his resting place bursts with offerings and thanksgivings.

Juan, as befits a border-town saint, is particularly regarded as a patron of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, and particularly liable to relieve the troubles of migrants. With that following has, of course, come a general understanding among most devotees that Juan Soldado was innocent, even that he was executed to cover up for a powerful general who was the real killer.

Juan Soldado receives tribute and supplication throughout the year, but particularly on June 24: so little is known about John the Soldier’s real biography that the official feast date of John the Baptist has been appropriated for his celebration, and picnics, pilgrimages, mariachi bands singing “happy birthday”, crowd the cemetery on that day. (The Day of the Dead is another biggie at Soldier John’s shrine.)

Olga Camacho’s family still lives in Tijuana and understandably disdains the cult around the little girl’s presumed murderer.

The curious phenomenon of a devotional following for an executed sex-killer is sensitively explored in the late Paul Vanderwood’s Juan Soldado: Rapist, Murderer, Martyr, Saint.

As a historiographical phenomenon, Soldier John fits into a pattern of folk saints from early 20th century Mexico, including similarly dubious characters like executed bandit Jesus Malverde, the unofficial patron saint of drug trafficking — as well as non-executees like Pedro Jamarillo and Nino Fidencio.

Part of this, surely — and Vanderwood developed the theme — is the story of the border, the story of Tijuana and Mexico in the 1930s. But part, too, is the story of Catholicism and of the contradictory, occasionally transformative, emotions excited by execution.

The potential of even an unambiguously guilty criminal to become in his passion a channel for worship goes all the way back to, well, the Passion itself, and the “good thief” on the cross with Christ. Twentieth century France has its own guillotined murderer who’s also a candidate for sainthood. And this is hardly the only occasion when folk veneration has produced an unofficial saint. Some of them even become official saints with the passage of time. But official or otherwise, once adopted into the practice of a living community of believers, they are animated by the life of that community and in return they succor the same.

“I pray to Juan Soldado even if the church does not approve,” one woman told Vanderwood. (Here quoting his “Juan Soldado: Field Notes and Reflections” in the Winter 2001 Journal of the Southwest). “I do not think that God minds.”

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1524: Not Jean de Poitiers, father of the mistress

Add comment February 17th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1524, the French aristocrat Jean de Poitiers, Seigneur de Saint Vallier lay his head on a chopping-block.

He kept it there for a full hour, but the headsman never swung the blade — and Jean de Poitiers walked away with a royal clemency.

This lucky Seigneur had been caught up in an English- and Habsburg-backed plot by the Constable of France to break off a chunk of France. (Said Constable fled to Charles V.)

Jean de Poitiers skated on noblesse oblige and lesser culpability, but there’s a scurrilous story that he was heard thanking God as he was led back from the scaffold for his daughter’s many charms.

Diane de Poitiers

The aforesaid beguiler, then-24-year-old Diane de Poitiers, had gone to King Francis to plead for her father’s life. Apparently she made an impression. (Or the king was planning to pardon Jean anyway.)

The implication of having gone the extra mile derives not from any particular fact known about that meeting, but from Diane’s subsequent, and rather illustrious, career as mistress to the monarch — not to Francis, but to his son Henri II.

In the 1530s, when Diane was a cougar-aged widow,* she became the mistress of the teenaged prince — and the rival of his teenaged bride, Catherine de’ Medici.

Diane was anything but the other woman in this arrangement: the brilliant, forceful personality whom Henri trusted as no other, it was Diane de Poitiers who wielded queen-like power during her lover’s reign. (They even had an H-D monogram.) She made calls in statecraft and in the royal household, and one can fancy the fury Queen Catherine conceived for having her husband’s older mistress decide how to raise the kids.

Diane’s career ought to have ended in a state funeral, but the hale and hearty Henri suffered a freak jousting accident in 1559 that reordered female influence in the Valois dynasty. Catherine wouldn’t even let Diane near the deathbed of the king as he painfully expired — and the queen exiled the former royal favorite to a distant estate as soon as possible.

* Diane de Poitiers was on either end of May-December arrangements in her time, and the monument that she put up for her much-older husband Louis de Breze can be seen at the cathedral in Rouen.

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1872: Gomburza

3 comments February 17th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1872, reformist Filipino priests Mariano Gomez, Jose Burgos and Jacinto Zamora (together, the first syllables of their surname formed the acronym “Gomburza”) were garroted in Manila for their alleged support of an anti-Spanish mutiny.

These three clerics were leading exponents of liberalization; they notably pressed the rights of the native-born clergy as against the powerful religious hierarchy of imported Spanish priests.

While that critique had a somewhat receptive ear under the forward-thinking governorship of Gen. Carlos-Maria de la Torre, a more reactionary successor did not look as kindly on such agitation.

When naval shipyard workers rebelled in the 1872 Cavite Mutiny — over higher taxes, including a surcharge to avoid forced labor, not over the Gomburza priests’ agenda as such — the colonial administration used it as a pretext to seized the priests and condemn them for subversion.

Alas, Spain couldn’t manage to garrote away its subject peoples’ aspirations.

A bad end for Gomez, Burgos and Zamora was just the start for reform and independence agitation in the Philippines.

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1600: Giordano Bruno, freethought martyr

12 comments February 17th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1600, gadfly philosopher Giordano Bruno was burnt for heresy in Rome’s Campo dei Fiori.

A figure of ridicule in the 17th century, Bruno got this statue at the site of his execution in the 19th — when the world finally began to catch up with him.

A Dominican inductee in his teens, Bruno was cast out of the order for his heterodoxy.

There followed a lifetime seemingly always on the run, with each successive safe harbor turned against his pantheistic principles and abrasive personal manner.

Bruno has been understood with hindsight to have grasped, fleetingly, the world-upending implications of the Copernican system. In “a time when more than 99% of the intellectuals believed that the Earth was the center of the Universe, and a few others, like Copernicus and Galileo, believed that it was the Sun, instead, at the center of the Universe,” Bruno intuited modern cosmology — wherein both earth and sun were merely heavenly bodies among many others, situated in an infinite universe that did not revolve around them.

More than that, he intuited the expanse of philosophical, scientific and spiritual inquiry that would follow from that idea’s comprehensive destruction of the medieval order, centuries ahead of his time.

That little of Bruno’s own scientific work has withstood the test of time, and other scientific contemporaries did not sympathize with him, enables a hostile source like the Catholic Encyclopedia to sniff that

the exaggerations, the limitations, and the positive errors of his scientific system; his intolerance of even those who were working for the reforms to which he was devoted; the false analogies, fantastic allegories, and sophistical reasonings into which his emotional fervour often betrayed him have justified, in the eyes of many, Bayle’s characterization of him as “the knight-errant of philosophy.” His attitude of mind towards religious truth was that of a rationalist. Personally, he failed to feel any of the vital significance of Christianity as a religious system.

These latter traits are precisely the reason for his reclamation by Age of Reason deists.

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But the sixteenth century had no place for him.

This historical thriller — the first of a series — features Bruno in England, where some think he might have spied for Francis Walsingham.

Bruno fled Italy for Geneva, where he was soon excommunicated by Calvinist authorities, and thence to France, impressing King Henri III before wearing out his welcome. He spent time in England and Lutheran Germany, running afoul of each new host with his radical ideas, his contempt for the dead hand of Aristotelianism, and his decided want of tact.

He returned at last to Italy and these pages, perhaps counting on the Venetians’ historic rivalry with the papacy in accepting a sponsorship in the maritime republic. There the Inquisition clapped him in irons and shipped him to Rome where for unclear reasons he spent six-plus years imprisoned before facing trial as a heretic.

“Perhaps you, my judges, pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear than I receive it.”

Refusing all opportunity to recant, Bruno was led to the stake this morning gagged against any last outrages against St. Peter’s throne, and the friar who recorded Bruno’s unyielding end — famously mythologized in turning away from the proffered crucifix — could hardly have thought he was writing Bruno’s heroic epitaph as a martyr to the spirit of critical inquiry and passionate dissent.

But he insisted till the end always in his damned refractoriness and twisted brain and his mind with a thousand errors; yes, he didn’t give up his stubborness, not even when the court ushers took him away to the Campo de’ Fiori. There his clothes were taken off, he was bound to a stake and burned alive. In all this time he was accompanied by our fraternity, who sang constant litanies, while the comforters tried till the last moment to break his stubborn resistance, till he gave up a miserable and pitiable life.

That end serves as the climax to the forgettable 1973 Italian flick Giordano Bruno.

Sole bird of the sun, thou wandering phoenix!
That measurest thy days as does the world
With lofty summits of Arabia Felix.
Thou art the same thou wast, but I what I was not:
I through the fire of love, unhappy die;
But thee the sun with his warm rays revives;
Thou burn’st in one, and I, in every place;
Eros my fire, while thine Apollo gives.
Predestined is the term of thy long life;
Short span is mine,
And menaced by a thousand ills.
Nor do I know how I have lived, nor how shall live,
Me does blind fate conduct;
But thou wilt come again, again behold thy light.

-From Bruno’s esoteric The Heroic Enthusiasts, available on gutenberg.org

A few recent books about Giordano Bruno

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2004: Cameron Willingham, for an accidental fire?

37 comments February 17th, 2008 David Elliot

(Thanks to David Elliot at Abolish the Death Penalty for the guest post -ed.)

Update: Heartbreaking New Yorker article shreds the state’s case.

Polling data reveals interesting things about U.S. public opinion and the death penalty. If you ask an open-ended question about the death penalty –- for example, “Do you feel the death penalty is appropriate for certain egregious crimes?” –- then you usually see somewhere around a 65 to 35 percent split in favor. On the other hand, if you ask which is preferred – the death penalty or life in prison without parole, the results tend to be closer to 50-50.

Upon occasion, another question is asked: Do you feel an innocent person has been put to death in the U.S.? The results are pretty emphatic: Americans don’t trust their government to get it right, and they do believe innocent people have been executed, by a ratio of about three to one.

So the question fairly arises: Have innocent people been executed in the U.S. in what we sometimes refer to as the “modern era,” i.e., since executions were allowed to resume in 1976?

Enter Cameron Todd Willingham.

On Feb. 17, 2004, Cameron Todd Willingham was strapped to a gurney in a Texas death chamber as he declared his innocence for the last time. Minutes later, he was executed by lethal injection. In December of the same year, the Chicago Tribune uncovered secrets behind the Willingham case, addressing questions left unanswered and raising doubts left unacknowledged.

The Fatal Fire

Cameron Todd Willingham with one of his purported victims — his daughter, Amber.

On Dec. 23, 1991, Willingham was at home with his three daughters. His wife, Stacy, left their home in the morning to pay the bills and shop for Christmas gifts at a Salvation Army store. The family had been struggling that year; Todd, as everyone called him, had recently been laid off, and Stacy was supporting the family with her wages from a bar. The Willinghams were two months behind on rent, and they had even stopped paying some bills in order to save money for Christmas.

Willingham recalled waking up briefly as his wife was leaving the home around 9 a.m. When he heard their one-year-old twins, Karmon and Kameron, crying, he woke up to feed them and went back to sleep. About an hour later, his two-year-old daughter Amber woke him with her cries, and the house was already full of smoke. Willingham remembers not being able to see “anything but black” toward the front of the house.

The circuits were popping throughout the home as Willingham frantically went to his daughters’ bedroom. At this point, his hair caught on fire, and he was able to see little more than the glowing of the ceiling. Willingham called out for his children and felt along the floor and bed for them, but he could not find them. This is when debris began falling from the ceiling, causing him to burn his shoulder. He fled the home through the front door.

After fleeing his house, he asked his neighbors to call the fire department and screamed to them, “My babies is in there and I can’t get them out.” A neighbor, Mary Barbee, then asked other neighbors to place the call because her own telephone was disconnected. Willingham reported that, while this was happening, he tried to re-enter his home, but it was too hot. Then, he knocked out two bedroom windows with a pool cue, but could not get into the bedroom.

Buvin Smith arrived on the scene after hearing the neighbor’s call over a radio scanner. Smith remembered restraining Willingham from going onto the porch, and heard him yelling that his “babies were in the house” and noticed that he was “acting real hysterical.”

A Circumstantial Case

Almost immediately, Willingham became a suspect. According to the Chicago Tribune, prosecutors often are able to rely on circumstantial evidence in cases when a child dies and the parent survives. In this case, the prosecution convinced the jury that Willingham killed his children because they interfered with his beer-drinking, dart-throwing lifestyle. The jury believed it.

Neighbors told investigators that they did not believe Willingham tried hard enough to save his children. In fact, Barbee said that she saw Willingham standing by the fence as heavy smoke came out of the windows. Also, she told investigators that Willingham seemed more concerned with moving his car away from the burning house as the windows blew out than with saving his children.

Willingham’s wounds were treated shortly after the fire. Firefighters did not think that his burns were severe enough had he indeed searched for his daughters in the manner he described. His shoulder, back, and hair were burned, but his bare feet were not burned at the bottom.

Police stated that, the day after the fire, Willingham complained about not being able to find a dartboard in the wreckage of his home. Others mentioned hearing loud music and laughter in the following days as the couple attempted to salvage their belongings.

A police chaplain grew suspicious that Willingham’s hysterics during the fire were not genuine. The chaplain, George Monaghan, noted that Willingham seemed “too distraught.”

In addition to these evaluations of Willingham’s behavior, fire investigators reported over 20 indicators of arson. These include the “crazed glass,” or the web-like cracks in the glass. Until more recent research was completed, arson specialists believed this to be a clear indication that an accelerant had been used in the fire. The fire experts also noted that the fire had reached a stage known as flashover, when a fire reaches such a high temperature that an explosion results. This further supported their reasoning that an accelerant had been used.

Willingham was charged with murder on Jan. 8, 1992, just two weeks after the fire. In August of the same year, his trial began, after Willingham turned down a deal from the prosecution and insisted that he was innocent. During the trial prosecutors presented inmate Johnny E. Webb as a witness. He testified that Willingham confessed at the county jail to killing his children in order to cover up the fact that his wife, Stacy, had been physically abusing them. Webb, a recovering drug addict, was taking psychiatric medication to relieve post-traumatic stress syndrome. The prosecution also presented as witnesses the neighbors who claimed that Willingham should have done more. Fire investigators Doug Fogg and Manuel Vasquez also testified at Willingham’s trial. Both of these investigators testified in court that the fire was caused by arson.

Both of these investigators testified to assumptions about fire that have been scientifically proven to be wrong.

Forensic Evidence Reconsidered

When the Chicago Tribune investigated the case, several experts reviewed documents, trial testimony, and video documentation of the fire scene and concluded that the original investigation was terribly flawed. Gerald Hurst, a Cambridge University-educated chemist, and John Lentini, John DeHaan, both private consultants specializing in fire investigation, along with Louisiana fire chief Kendall Ryland, examined the materials. They suggest that this fire may have been simply accidental.

After the Chicago Tribune investigation, Lentini worked with the Innocence Project to assemble an independent, peer-review panel of arson experts. The five-member panel –- with a combined 138 years in high-level fire investigation experience –- issued a 44-page report (.pdf) on the case.

They determined that “each and every one” of the forensic interpretations made by the state’s experts at Willingham’s trial was not scientifically valid. For example, the original investigators determined that an accelerant was used because wood cannot burn hot enough to melt aluminum. In fact, according to these leading experts, it can.

The 1991 investigators also claimed that the brown rings on the Willingham’s front porch indicated accelerant usage. Experts called this “baseless speculation,” explaining that fire-hose water often leaves brown rings on surfaces after evaporation.

Was it Known Before the Execution?

This information didn’t only come to light recently. Shortly before Willingham was executed, Hurst reviewed the case and issued a report that dismissed every single indicator of arson Fogg and Vasquez had originally cited. What was done with this report? Texas judges and Gov. Rick Perry turned it aside, confident of Willingham’s guilt.

Jury members are less confident now. One jury member asked, “Did anybody know about this prior to his execution? Now I will have to live with this for the rest of my life. Maybe this man was innocent.”

In fact, a similar debunking of arson forensics by the same expert resulted in another Texas death row inmate’s exoneration and release — just seven months after Willingham was put to death.

Have innocent people been executed in the U.S.? Indeed they have. You can read more about other cases at www.InnocentAndExecuted.org


Update: After a 2009 New Yorker expose made Cameron Todd Willingham a byword for wrongful executions, our guest author’s former shop, the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, took a cue from Justice Antonin Scalia‘s scornful dismissal of the prospect.

There has not been “a single case—not one—in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit. If such an event had occurred in recent years, we would not have to hunt for it; the innocent’s name would be shouted from the rooftops.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Arson,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,History,Lethal Injection,Murder,Notable Sleuthing,Other Voices,Posthumous Exonerations,Texas,USA,Wrongful Executions

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