1948: Thomas Henry McGonigle, murder without a body

1 comment February 20th, 2018 Meaghan

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

The Latin legal term corpus delicti literally translates to “the body of the crime,” and many people are under the impression that it means the actual corpse of a murdered person and that no one may be convicted of murder without the victim’s body.

This is erroneous. Although it is true that no person can be convicted of murder without the corpus delicti, the term doesn’t mean the murdered person’s body but rather the body of evidence that proves a crime has been committed. Every criminal case must have the corpus delicti and, in most murder cases, that includes the victim’s body … but it doesn’t have to.

In the United States, murder-without-a-body prosecutions are not unheard of and happen with increasing frequency due to the advancement of forensic technologies like DNA analysis. Tad DiBiase, a former federal prosecutor, even wrote a book about them, titled No-Body Homicide Cases: A Practical Guide to Investigating, Prosecuting, and Winning Cases When the Victim Is Missing, which includes an appendix of over 400 cases.

On this day in 1948, Thomas Henry McGonigle was executed in California’s gas chamber in what was one of the earliest, perhaps THE earliest no-body homicide prosecution in the state. His victim was a fourteen-year-old high school sophomore named Thora Afton Chamberlain, and her body was never found and is believed to have been washed out to sea.

The prosecution would later call the case “one of the best organized and most intense investigations in the annals of the crime of kidnapping and murder.”

McGonigle, a married construction laborer with an arrest record for a variety of crimes including assault with intent to commit rape, was waiting in his car outside Campbell High School when classes ended for the day on November 2, 1945. Thora’s classmates saw her talking to him, and he offered her a job: he needed someone to babysit his sister’s children. It would only be for half an hour, he said.

For whatever reason, Thora trusted the stranger. Perhaps it was because he was dressed respectably in a Navy uniform with medals, including a Purple Heart. She didn’t know they weren’t his, that he’d never been in any branch of the military. He’d stolen the clothes and medals six weeks earlier.

Thora Chamberlain was never seen again after she got into the strange man’s car. McGonigle was an immediate suspect because of his record, and several witnesses identified him from a photo lineup, but in the immediate aftermath of Thora’s disappearance he skipped town.


Murderer and victim.

McGonigle told his wife he was taking a bus to Los Angeles, but in fact he hitchhiked to Illinois where his father lived. The FBI kept on his trail as he drifted across the country, registering in hotels under alias names. Finally he took an overdose of sleeping pills while on a bus bound for San Francisco, and was semiconscious on arrival. The Feds were waiting for him, but instead of jail they had to take him to the hospital for treatment. He was arrested upon discharge.

In custody, McGonigle gave a series of statements admitting culpability but providing wildly differing details as to what happened. He’d stabbed Thora. He’d shot her. He’d strangled her. She’d jumped from his car and was fatally injured. Her death was an accident. He hadn’t killed her at all; she was alive and well and working as a prostitute.

Although the entire truth about what happened is only known to Thora and her killer, the shooting story has the most evidence to support it.

McGonigle said he had shot Thora in his car and the bullet passed through her and got stuck in his car door. He said he’d removed the bullet and buried it under a certain tree in his yard, and also ripped out the vehicle’s bloodstained padding and upholstery and buried it near the construction site where he worked. There was a bullet hole in the door of McGonigle’s car, police recovered the bullet from under the tree where he said it would be, and ballistics later proved it had been fired from a .32 caliber revolver he owned. The police also found the ripped car upholstery at the indicated spot, and it was stained with human blood.

McGonigle lead the authorities to a coastal cliff in San Mateo County known as the Devil’s Slide. He said he’d thrown Thora’s body off the cliff, 350 feet down into the ocean. An extensive search revealed important, chilling evidence that may well have been the clincher: on the day of her abduction, Thora was dressed in her school colors of red and blue, including one pair of red socks and one pair of blue socks, one on top of the other. Searchers found both pairs wedged in separate crevices on the cliff face, and Thora’s parents identified them.

At the trial, prosecutor John McCarthy told the jury how it might have happened, painting a word picture of McGonigle killing Thora in a rape or attempted rape, then lifting her from his car by her armpits and dragging her along the ground to the edge of the Devil’s Slide. In the process her loafers come off and her socks are pulled down her feet. As she falls, they come off entirely and get stuck in the crevices of the cliff.

“In finding the socks,” McCarthy concluded, “the crime was solved.”

Given McGonigle’s string of confessions — which continued even at his trial — and the eyewitnesses who identified him, and the physical evidence that backed it all up, it’s no wonder the jury only deliberated half an hour. He was convicted on March 1, 1946.

While his conviction was under appeal he retracted his previous statements and denied everything. It was a frame-up, he said, all of it: he’d never confessed to anything and the FBI had planted all the evidence and the witnesses had lied. The police, meanwhile, stated he’d also confessed (over and over again…) to the murder of an unnamed “Negro waitress” from San Francisco and the only reason they weren’t going to charge him was because he was already under sentence of death.

The day he was executed, McGonigle wrote down a statement in longhand and left it with the warden:

I, Thomas Henry McGonigle, in this last testimony to the people declares [sic] that I did not shoot Thora Chamberlain and did not throw her body over a cliff and I have never made any such confession that I shot Thora Chamberlain in Santa Cruz County.

Santa Cruz County Sheriff Wallace P. “Bud” Hendrick didn’t agree. He witnessed the execution and later told reporters, “He threw his head back and gasped three times. Every time he gasped with that look of pain and death about him, I smiled. He was the most despicable … that ever walked the face of the earth. I only wish it could have taken longer.”

(Robert E. Cornish, a mad scientist and former child prodigy who made various Frankensteinian attempts to raise dead animals, wanted to try reviving a death row inmate after an execution. McGonigle volunteered himself for the experiment, but permission was denied.)

As for Thora, her body is presumed to have washed out to sea. She remains listed in missing persons databases, however, in the unlikely event that it turns up.

On this day..

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1592: Thomas Pormort, prey of Richard Topcliffe

Add comment February 20th, 2017 Headsman

Thomas Pormort (or Pormant) was hanged on this date in 1592 on a gibbet erected adjacent to a Paul’s Churchyard haberdashery whose proprietor had once entrusted the condemned Catholic priest with his confession.

Pormort was a priest trained on the continent who returned to native soil about the beginning of 1591 to brave the Elizabethan persecution, but managed only a few months in the field before his arrest.

He had the misfortune to face the personal interrogation of the vindictive inquisitor Richard Topcliffe, notorious even in his own day for his gleeful sadism. Topcliffe seems not to have even feigned a politic distaste for the breaking of bones and and of men and made a point to attend the executions his offices effected, including Pormort’s.

Now, back in the day such grim ministers of state could be empowered to toy with their prey in their very own lairs. Even the sainted Thomas More had kept a personal torture chamber at his own home.

So it was with Topcliffe, who inflicted his hospitality on Pormort in the intimacy of his own place, where he apparently had the facilities necessary to put a prisoner to the rack. According to Portmort, the torturer had another intimacy besides during their pain-wracked discourse, taunting or boasting to his victim of carnal indulgences he enjoyed from the queen herself. Pormort would allege at the bar that

Topcliffe told [Pormort] that he was so familiar with her Majesty that he many times putteth [his hands] between her breasts and paps and in her neck.

That he hath not only seen her legs and knees [but feeleth them] with his hands above her knees.

That he hath felt her belly, and said unto her Majesty that she had the softest belly of any woman kind.

That she said unto him, ‘be not these the arms, legs and body of King Henry?’ To which he answered: ‘Yea.’

That she gave him for a favour a white linen hose wrought with white silk, etc.

That he is so familiar with her that, when he pleaseth to speak with her, he may take her away from any company; and that she is as pleasant with everyone that she doth love.

This Penthouse letter for the queen has no factual plausibility, and nobody thought so in 1592. Whether the priest’s report of its utterance is an actual glimpse into a seditious perversion of the torturer, or a desperate attempt by a doomed man to smear his persecutor, Topcliffe took the matter seriously enough that he made Pormort stand on the ladder under his noose in freezing cold for two hours on execution day while Topcliffe browbeat him to withdraw the allegation. (Pormort didn’t budge.)

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1810: Andreas Hofer, Tyrolean patriot

Add comment February 20th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1810, Tyrolean hero Andreas Hofer was shot in Mantua.

Andreas Hofer monument at Bergisel, where Hofer fought four battles in 1809. (cc) image by Mathias Bigge.

Hofer (English Wikipedia entry | German) was the heir to his father’s Sandhof Inn in tiny St. Leonhard — a village today that’s just over the Italian border but was in Hofer’s time part of a Tyrol undivided by nation-state borders.

This county took pride in its ancient affiliation to the House of Habsburg, who had once even made its imperial headquarters in Tyrolean Innsbruck. When in the aftermath of crushing Austria at Austerlitz the rampant Corsican transferred Tyrol to the overlordship of his ally the King of Bavaria, he did not transfer their affections: indeed, when Bavaria imposed upon its new prize the Bavarian constitution, along with added levies of taxation and military conscription, she sowed the dragon’s teeth.

Hofer emerged as one of the leaders of the anti-Bavarian party in the Tyrol’s south, and joined an 1809 delegation to Vienna to secure Habsburg support for an internal rising.

The Tyrolean Rebellion broke out in March 1809 with direct coordination from Austria — which declared war on April 9, and attacked France on several fronts hoping to regain Tyrol and various other baubles of Germanic patrimony lately lost to Napoleon. Unfortunately for the irregulars in the south Tyrol, who under Hofer and others won several early skirmishes, the French once more handed Austria a decisive defeat at Wagram July 5-6 of that year, knocking Vienna out of the war almost as speedily as she had entered it.

The consequences of Wagram were far-reaching: still more choice provinces (Salzburg, West Galicia, Trieste, Croatia) stripped away from an empire stumbling into second-ratehood. Not yet numbered among them, one could readily discern the imminent fate of our party — as did the English editorialist who cried, “O, the brave and loyal, but, we fear, lost Tyrolese!”

By this time the self-described “Imperial Commandant”, Hofer’s successful engagements could not disguise an increasingly untenable position. The militiamen who had so brightly embarked on national liberation that spring withered up and blew away in the ill autumn wind. Hofer himself hid from his enemies in one of the panoramic mountain refuges that still decorate his homeland’s inviting hiking-grounds — but the price on his head could reach him even there, and a countryman betrayed his humble hut to the French. He was surprised there and removed to Mantua for a condemnation that was allegedly came ordered straight from Napoleon.

Hofer’s martyrdom has lodged firmly in Tyrolean lore. A plaque in the town of Menan marks the spot where he was kept overnight en route to his fate in Mantua. A folk song that emerged in the 1830s and 1840s, Zu Mantua in Banden, celebrates Hofer’s sacrifice and is now the official Tyrolean anthem. (“To Mantua in chains / Loyal Hofer was led / From Mantua to Death / The enemy had him sped …”)

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1942: Max Hertz, chronicled by Oskar Rosenfeld

3 comments February 20th, 2015 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1942,* a middle-aged man was hanged in the Lodz Ghetto in front of an audience of twenty thousand. His name was Max Hertz, son of Salli Hertz and Helena Hertz née Abraham. He was from Germany.

His death was recorded in heartbreaking detail by Oskar Rosenfeld, a resident of the ghetto. Rosenfeld was an Austrian-Jewish writer and translator who’d published six novels before the war. After the Anschluss in 1938, he and his wife emigrated to Prague in Czechoslovkia to escape Nazi aggression. Nazi aggression followed them, however, and the couple made plans to move to England.

Mrs. Rosenfeld left in 1939 and her husband was supposed to come later, but the war started and Rosenfeld found himself trapped in Prague.

Deported to the Lodz Ghetto in 1941, within a few months he secured a relatively cushy position as an archivist with the ghetto administration. He helped write the official Lodz Ghetto Chronicle, a diary of the day-to-day events of the ghetto.

Oskar Rosenfeld

Behind closed doors, Oskar Rosenfeld was keeping his own, personal diary, accumulating twenty-one notebooks in all. Sixty years later, the director of the Yad Vashem libraries described his style as “riveting. At times he is philosophical and literary, at others he is spare and raw. Often instead of full sentences, Rosenfeld writes strings of words words so packed with meaning that normal sentence structure is superfluous.”

The diary was mostly in German, with occasional parts in Hebrew, Yiddish and English.

Rosenfeld employed a simple, fairly transparent code to avoid trouble if his notebooks should come into the wrong hands. He refered to the Nazis, for example, as “Ashkenes.” When he wrote “Germans,” he meant only German Jews. The Ghetto Chairman, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, designated Eldest of the Jews, was often called “Praeses.” The words “Gestapo” and “Kripo” were written using the Greek alphabet.

His entries described in painstaking detail the grotesque land in which he was imprisoned: the religious and cultural life of the ghetto, the residents’ attitude toward the administration, the rumors flying around about the war front, the deportations, and above all everyone’s struggle to survive from day to day.

Starvation, overwork, disease and despair wore away at the Lodz Jews, like sand castles crumbling. The Nazis’ Jewish problem, Rosenfeld noted wryly, was being solved “in installments.”

During the frigid Polish winters—unusually harsh in those years—the coal ration was pitiful, and people chopped up their own furniture for firewood. When that was gone, they turned to the streets and stole whatever they could get their hands on: fences, even sheds and outhouses were dismantled for burning. In spite of this hundreds of people froze to death.

A bigger problem was food. Or rather, lack of food.

“According to German scientific findings,” Rosenfeld wrote,

the consumption of calories in normal times was 3,640 calories with 93 grams of albumen [protein] per person. The allocated ration in the fall of 1941 was 1,300 calories and 36 grams of albumen. Since the fall of 1941, the ghetto — with the minor exception of the workers in the factories — received a mere 900 calories and 25 grams of albumen per person. Not taking into account the lack of vitamins. This was no longer nutrition, this was a prescription for a slow death.

People traded everything they had, literally the clothes off their backs, for a few turnips or some sausage. During times when food was particularly scarce, a diamond necklace or a good pair of shoes might fetch a single loaf of bread. And sometimes one loaf was all a person could expect to get for an entire week.

When someone died — and there were deaths in nearly every family — their surviving relatives would often wait several days to report it, so they could claim the dead person’s rations. There were even reports of cannibalism, which Rosenfeld dutifully recorded.

The Lodz Ghetto was a work camp, not a death camp, and was designed to squeeze all the labor it could out of the inhabitants. People who were just too sick or weak to keep up were likely to find themselves on the next list for deportation to mysterious “labor camps in the East.”

Nobody knew for sure where the deportees were going, but the ghetto residents had reason to be suspicious and fearful and most of them did everything they could to stay out of the transports. No one who was deported ever returned to the ghetto. These were supposed to be long journeys and deportees were advised to pack several days’ worth of food, but like as not, the trains would come back empty the very next day.

In fact, the deportation transports usually traveled no more than forty miles outside of Lodz.

Their destination was Chelmno, the Germans’ first death camp. There they used gas vans to asphyxiate their victims. These were relatively primitive and inefficient; it wasn’t until later that they came up with the idea of gas chambers instead of vehicles.

The Lodz Ghetto had its own police force staffed by Jewish volunteers (who were universally despised as collaborators by the others) and a court that presided over criminal trials.

Violent crime, and for that matter most crimes against other persons, was rare: most of the court cases involved crime against the ghetto community as a whole. (Demolishing public fences and buildings for fuel, for example. See above.)

The rules were harsh. Kitchen workers caught sneaking even a spoonful of soup or some half-rotted beets were subject to prosecution. A carpenter could be brought up on charges of sabotage if he took some scrap wood home to burn. Jozef Zelkowicz, another employee in the Ghetto Archives, wrote about one case where a tailor forgot he’d draped a length of of thread over his shoulder for easy access during his work. After leaving at the end of his shift, he was arrested for “stealing” the thread.

Offenders usually got a short jail term of a few weeks or months. That was the least of the punishment, however: when they got out, they were often banned from working again and their families were banned from receiving welfare, essentially a death sentence. Convicted criminals and their families also had priority for deportation, however, and tended to get shipped out before they starved to death.

Not this time, however. For whatever reason, the Nazis decided to make a public example of Max Hertz.

It was the very first public execution in the ghetto. In fact, Rosenfeld said, they’d constructed the gallows just for this occasion:

At 5 p.m. on Friday, the building department had received the order for a gallows to be erected on Fischplatz by 7 a.m. the next morning. Precise specifications were given: wooden beams, heavy iron hooks, bent to a shape just this long and that wide. A man from Germany was entrusted with the job. He worked hard and long, and got it done on time. This worker was, it turned out, an intimate friend of the condemned man.

The Nazis were so pleased with the craftsmanship that they placed another for a set of gallows designed to hang twelve people at once.

Rosenfeld’s description of the execution is worth of being quoted almost in full:

Friday, collective, six o’clock in the evening, impersonal declaration to all members of the collective… Meet at nine o’clock at the Fish Market. Rumors: military parade, directives from the German military, the Eldest to speak. –Afterward some reported that they knew… The sick had express dispensation from attending the meeting. Shabbat from nine o’clock on a queue of men and women being led by room commandant through the almost empty streets across the “little bridge” at the Old Market Place between the ghetto and the city, past Hamburgerstrasse to the Fish Market. Along the way local passersby asked what was going on… Nobody had the answer. Frost. Clear. Biting wind. Terribly uncomfortable in the open air. The closerto the square, the clearer that something terrible was about to happen. The streets usually teeming with people on Shabbat — empty…

The rumor of the true drama seems to have gained credence in the ghetto, none of the local inhabitants want to risk being forced to participate and therefore remained at home.

Goaded by the sharp commands of the Jewish police, took their places, men in the front, women in the back, similar queues were streaming toward the square from other directions. It didn’t take long. Shortly before nine o’clock, Fish Square was filled with a human wall, was encircled, a horrifying silence, a few locals out of curiosity.

Finally the masses begin to understand. Sense of foreboding during the march that they were to attend an execution scene (or a witch burning); in the square, many for the first time, gallows. It had been erected early in the morning by the Jewish police. Several women fainted at the sight, others fell into convulsive sobbing; several of the men managed to send some of the women back home or took them (secretly!) to nearby apartments. Those who wanted to go back later found the street blocked off; then order to seal off the surrounding area of Fish Square.

Quite low on three steps, small podium, to the left across from the post office for newly settled rectangular trapdoor; above the trapdoor a vertical balcony, at the upper end a horizontal beam with a hemp cord.

A cold shudder went through the onlookers… No more illusions, no dream, raw reality, for everybody knew who was Ashkenes.

Several well-fed, field-gray SS officers. At the corner of the square, soldiers with mounted machine guns to keep the crowd in check. Nobody had the courage to flee. The transport leader warned of the most severe consequence for anybody who tried to leave. A few managed to get to the collective. An Ashkenes car was parked not far from the square.

Word making the round: cause and candidate. Cause: Jewish star; another variant: a Communist wanted for a long time, flight only a pretext. Left wife and child to take better care of them from Germany (name: Herz [sic], Cologne). The wife is said to be among the onlookers, unaware of what’s happening.

Men quite numb. Some of the women somewhat worried. The Ashkenes men are in a good mood, well fed, smoking, looking cheerfully at the crowd.

Almost an hour and a half. Cold is intensifying…rubbing to generate warmth, with hands on the knees. About ten-thirty suddenly complete silences. From the direction of Zgierz, probably from the Baluter Ring (Gestapo Headquarters, office of the Praeses — government square), appears a man without a hat, flanked right and left by field-gray soldiers, his gray hair in the wind, no collar, open neck, moving closer slowly, in a short winter jacket…directly to the gallows. Most onlookers, especially the women, avert their eyes, others turn their backs to the square; many look nevertheless sideways to the spot where the scene is to unfold. (Tragic irony…joke, perhaps to be released again!!!) Most of them after all witnessing for the first time such business and desire for sensationalism. Since none had ever attended a witch burning or torture or pillory, they didn’t know how to behave, didn’t find the right style; tugged embarrassed on their clothing, clenched the fists, and waited for a sign that was to tell them what it was they should do. Suddenly the silence was so horrifying that the healthy voices of the field-gray Ashkenes could clearly be heard in the square. A man of more than eighty suddenly remembered hearing from his room a strong voice by the wire around midnight, a song that began with la-la and ended with “and if the world were full of devils,” and began to make, quite unexpectedly, his own observations about this. Yes, this old man even rolled up the torn gloves for a moment to make sure that his fingernails were clean. A women her lipstick —

Not a word was heard. Silence. The candidate shivered in the cold. The field-grays in furs. His overcoat was taken from him. He folded his hands. Saw the entire scene, the crowd. Implacable. Mounted the steps to the podium. There was met by two Jewish policemen and a third man who busied himself callously with the cord.

It was said that a Jewish policeman, a well-known Communist, had been ordered to assist in this execution — as a deterrent. Completely dull expression of the crowd, who didn’t like to see Ben Israel [son of Israel] under the gallows. Sensationalism won out over disgust, women there with handkerchiefs over their faces but peering nevertheless, men completely dispassionate. The symbolism — a people pilloried — did not enter their consciousness. The bareheaded man shivered, folded his hands. Something was wrong with the cord. The Jewish policeman handled it very clumsily. The field gray standing next to him straightened it out, busied himself; the Jewish policemen in their excitement had made a wrong move, not well familiar with the executioner’s tool, more used to tefellin [phylacteries] (observation of an onlooker). The moment came when the crowd thought something was going to happen, a declaration or reading of the sentence or some other matter. But nothing. Continued silence. When the man saw that there was no escape, he again folded his hands and suddenly, with a lamenting voice: “Why don’t you let me live…”


A hanging (not necessarily this one) in Lodz Ghetto.

Many expected instead of this plea some kind of demonstration as a legacy from the crowd, some inspiring motto. But nothing of the sort. He was no hero in our sense. Now eyes averted from the gallows, dull thumping was heard of heavy material and wood, a few seconds for the convulsing body, dangling. The crowd was even able to look at it for some time—seconds (counting to thirteen). The corpse softly in the wind. Rigid features, rigid limbs.

The field grays gave a sign, Jewish police gave a sign, and the crowd quickly began to disperse, going home, the wife of the delinquent was present…

The body remained hanging the entire Shabbat. The Jews avoided the place.

The Lodz Ghetto Chronicle includes an entry on this execution, noting it took place in a large square at Bazarna and Lutomierska Streets. According to the chronicle, Max Hertz had escaped the ghetto and spent several days in Lodz proper. He was arrested at the train station when he tried to buy a ticket to Cologne. This was about three weeks before his execution.

The Polish writer and child Holocaust survivor Henryk Grynberg later honored him in a fragment of poetry:

Max Hertz brought from Cologne
on October 23, 1941
went back to the station
but when paying for his ticket
a star fell out of his pocket
right into the ticket clerk’s eye
and he hung over the bazaar
showing the shortest way back
to Europe

The spectacle of Max Hertz’s death had indeed left an unforgettable impression on its audience, just as the Nazis intended.

As for Oskar Rosenfeld: he continued working in the Ghetto Archives up until August 1944. His final diary entry was on July 28 of that year. He was well aware that the fate of the ghetto hung in the balance:

We are facing either apocalypse or redemption… There are plenty of skeptics, nigglers, who don’t want to believe it and still have doubts about that which they have been long and waiting for years… After so much suffering and terror, after so many disappointments, it is hardly surprising that they are not willing to give themselves over to anticipatory rejoicing. The heart is marred with scars, the brain encrusted with dashed hopes.

It turned out to be apocalypse: in August, before the Red Army liberated Lodz, the ghetto was liquidated and almost all of its inhabitants sent to Auschwitz. Like most of the others, Rosenfeld was gassed on arrival. He was sixty years old. But his notebooks survived him, and ultimately ended up in the custody of Yad Vashem. His diary was published in English for the first time in 2003, under the title In the Beginning was the Ghetto: Notebooks From Lodz.

* Rosenfeld places the date of the execution on Friday, February 20. All other sources, including the Lodz Ghetto Chronicle and Max Hertz’s Yad Vashem page of testimony, place it as Saturday, February 21, but I’m sure Rosenfeld is right. The execution seems to have taken place at the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath. The Sabbath is on Saturday, but to religious Jews it actually starts after sunset on Friday; Rosenfeld writes that the body “remained hanging the entire Sabbath” which implies it hung for some time. If it hung “for the entire Sabbath” starting Saturday night, that would have been for less than two hours.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Concentration Camps,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Jews,Poland,Public Executions,Theft

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1961: About fifteen anti-Lumumbists, in Stanleyville

Add comment February 20th, 2014 Headsman

Although it occurred some weeks before, the execution/murder of Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba only became public on February 13, 1961.

A week later, on February 20, pro-Lumumba forces in Stanleyville (today, Kisangani) shot approximately 15 prisoners in retaliation. Stanleyville was the headquarters of Lumumba ally Antoine Gizenga, whose enclave the late Lumumba had been trying to reach when he was captured. In the confused post-Lumumba days, Gizenga elevated himself to head of state for the rebellious Lumumbist state; 21 Communist-backed states would recognize this as Congo’s legitimate government, in opposition to the official one of Joseph Kasavubu.

Those suffering the Lumumba-backers’ wrath this date included ten politicians — notably Alfonse Songolo, a former Lumumbist minister who had prominently broken with that faction after Lumumba was deposed the previous autumn — plus five soldiers in the anti-Lumumba force of the bright young officer and future definitive author of Congolese horrors, Joseph-Desire Mobutu.

The London Times had reported (Feb. 23-24) that “usually well-informed sources” alleged the execution, but that the U.N. was unable itself to confirm the fact independently.

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1645: Conor Macguire, Lord Baron of Enniskillen

Add comment February 20th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1645, Conor Ma(c)guire, Lord Baron of Enniskillen, was drawn, hanged, and quartered at Tyburn.

Lord Macguire’s offense had occurred three-plus years earlier during the Irish Rebellion of 1641 — a bloody Catholic-Protestant civil war that would start the ball rolling towards Cromwell‘s depredations.

If the grievances of the latter are still well-remembered, English and Scottish Protestants had their own bill of particulars from the Irish Rebellion over Catholic-perpetrated slaughters like the Portadown Massacre. (Irish Catholics had their grievances from spending the preceding decade suffering land grabs for English settlers under the authoritarian rule of Thomas Wentworth. And on it goes.)

Actually, in the wake of the Irish Rebellion, there was a systematic project to collect witness testimony (not all of it reliable) about Catholic-on-Protestant violence. This codex would come in handy for Cromwell’s subsequent statecraft; it’s freely available online in an enormous searchable database.

Such beyond-the-pale doings took place literally beyond “the Pale” around Dublin, and outside similar fortified spots where the English holed themselves up.

These outposts gave the foreign heretics quite a bit of leverage, which Macguire and some other lords contrived to reverse via a plot to seize Dublin castle, kill its English lords, “and to put all the Protestants there likewise to the sword.” It was the lynchpin of an audacious coup that involved similar actions at English strongholds all around the island.

While some other fortresses did succumb, the plot against Dublin failed when Macguire’s co-conspirator Hugh “the Stereotype” MacMahon got drunk the night before and blabbed about it to his Presbyterian brother-in-law. Thus narrowly preserved, Dublin authorities arrested MacMahon and Macguire. (MacMahon was drawn and quartered in November 1644.)

The personal was very much political here, with the loss of lands and revenues under Wentworth stoking national and religious resentments against the English lords and settlers. Macguire described the recruiting pitch made by one of the rebellion’s leading spirits, Rory O’Mo(o)re: “[O’More] began to lay down to me the case that I was in then, overwhelmed in debt, the smallness of my estate, and the greatness of the estate my ancestors had, and how I should be sure to get it again, or at least a good part thereof.” (Source)

Whatever rank greed held in Conor Macguire’s motivations, however, he was constant to his horrific end. This interesting account of the scene on the scaffold will hardly fail to move the most ardent Orangeman to a bit of pity for the poor bastard enduring in his last moments on earth an endless badgering by the London sheriff to endorse a policy statement on intersectional strife.

On Thursday, February 20th, he was drawn on a sledge from the Tower, through London, and so to Tyburn; when being removed into a cart, he kneeled and prayed awhile; after which Sheriff Gibbs spake to him, representing the heinousness of his crime, and the vast numbers who had been murdered by that conspiracy, for which he was to suffer, and, therefore, exhorted him to express his sorrow for it: to which he answered, ‘I desire Almighty God to forgive me my sins.’

Sheriff Gibbs.—Do you believe you did well in those wicked actions?

Macg.—I have but a short time, do not trouble me.

Sher.—Sir, it is but just I should trouble you, that you may not be troubled for ever.

Macg.—I beseech you, Sir, trouble me not; I have but a little time to spend.

Sher.—I shall give you as much time after as you shall spend to give satisfaction to the people; I do require you, as an instrument set in God’s hands here, to make an acknowledgment to the people, whether you are sorry for what you have done or no; whether it be good or no.

Macg.—I beseech you do not trouble me; I am not disposed to give you an account. Pray give .me leave to pray.

Dr. Sibbald.—Give glory to God, that your soul may not be presented to God with the blood of so many thousand people.

Sher.—You are either to go to heaven or hell. If you make not an ingenuous confession your case is desperate. Had you any commission or not?

Macg.—I tell you there was no commission that ever I saw.

Sher.—Who were actors or plotters with you? or, who gave you any commission?

Macg.—For God’s sake give mo leave to depart in peace. They then asked him if he had not some pardon or bull from the Pope for what he did? to which he only answered, ‘I am not of the same religion with you.’ And being further urged about a bull, or pardon, said, ‘I saw none of it; all that I knew I delivered on my examinations; all that I said on my examinations are true; all that I said is right. I beseech you let me depart in peace.’ And so not returning them any answer to their question, he continued mumbling over a paper, which he had in his hand, as he had done from his first coming. The sheriffs commanded his pockets to be searched, whether ho had no bull or pardon about him, but they found in his pocket only some beads and a crucifix, which were taken from him. And then Dr. Sibbald said to him, ‘Come, my Lord, leave these, and acknowledge your fault to God and the world: one drop of the blood of Jesus Christ is able to purge you of all the heavy load that is upon you; it is not your Ave Marias nor these things will do you any good, but it is Agnus Dei qui tollit peccata Mundi.’ The Lord Macguire seemed not to regard his discourse, but read out of his paper to the people as followeth:

Since I am here to die, I desire to depart with a quiet mind, and with the marks of a good Christian; that is, asking forgiveness first of God, and next of the world. And I do forgive, from the bottom of my heart, all my enemies and offenders, even those that have a hand in my death. I die a Roman Catholick, and although I have been a great sinner, yet I am now, by God’s grace, heartily sorry for all my sins; and I do most confidently trust to be saved, not by my own works, but only by the passion, merits, and mercy of my dear Saviour Jesus Christ, into whose hand I commend my soul.

And then added, ‘I beseech you, gentlemen, let me have a little time to say my prayers.’

Sher.—Sir, if you answer ingenuously to those questions we shall ask you, you shall have time afterwards; whether do you account the shedding of Protestant blood to be a sin or not, and whether do you desire pardon of God for that sin?

Macg.—I do desire pardon of God for all my sins: I cannot resolve you in anything for my part.

Sher.—You can tell what your conscience dictates to you. Do you think it was a sin or not?

Macg.—For my part I cannot determine it.

Sher.—Then now it seems nothing to you to kill so many.

Macg.—How do you mean killing of them? to tell you my mind directly, for the killing, I do not know that, but I think, the Irish had a great cause for their wars.

Sher.—Was there any assault made upon you? Had you not entered into a covenant? Had you not engaged yourselves by oath to the king?

Macg.—For Jesus Christ’s sake, I beseech you, give me a little time to prepare myself.

Sher.—Have pity on your own soul.

Macg.—For God’s sake have pity on me, and let me say my prayers.

Sher.—I say the like to you, in relation to your own soul, whether do you think the massacre of so many thousand Protestants was a good act? For Jesus Christ’s sake have pity on your soul.

Macg.—Pray let me have a little time to say my prayers.

All this time his eye was mostly on his papers, mumbling something out of them to himself. Whereupon one of the sheriffs demanded these papers from him; he flung them down; they were taken up and given to the sheriff. They asked him further, whether they were not some agreement with the recusants in England? Whereunto he answered, ‘I take it upon my death, I do not know that any man knew of it;’ and after some other such like talk, the sheriff bidding him prepare for death, he said: ‘I beseech all the Catholics here to pray for me. I beseech God to have mercy on my soul:’ and so was executed.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,God,Gruesome Methods,History,Ireland,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Treason

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1677: Five witches at the Gallowgreen of Paisley

Add comment February 20th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1677, Janet Mathie, Bessie Weir, Margaret Jackson, John Stewart, and Marjory Craig were hanged for having bewitched a Sir George Maxwell of Pollok.

These unfortunates were “sacrificed on the altar of popular superstition”, in the words of a later broadside — one element of that superstition being the belief in the superordinary insight of the deaf-dumb.

God hath taken away the tongue and ear of the dumb, and hath given them a rich gift of knowledge in the room of it; and by this would teach all of us his goodness to his creatures, and that we should study humility and sobriety of mind.

This is a culture working with some embarrassingly primitive forensics to begin with.

So, when the Pollok lord started ailing, the indications by “a young deaf and dumb girl, of unknown origin,” to the effect that a local family was doing him mischief by stabbing a wax effigy, well, that was enough to open a case. When they found a wax effigy right where the girl pointed, “The prosecution wanted no stronger proof.”

So they got the 14-year-old daughter (she was spared execution this date) to confess, and tortured her brother into agreeing that the devil appeared as a cloven-hooved Negro, and our unnamed detective-girl miraculously found not one, not two, but three different effigies all attributed to the diabolical voodoo parties to cinch the condemnation.

It’s rather embarrassing what tripe did then and can still now pass for persuasive indicia of guilt among parties already committed to convicting someone. Like show trial victims, even the condemned were swept into the act of auto-denunciation — one final tenuous strand to link an outcast to her community, even from the stake. At least, some of them were.

John and Annabel exhorted their mother to confess, reminding her of all the meetings which she had had with the devil in her own house, and that “a summer’s day would not be sufficient to relate what passages had been between the devil and her.” But Jennet Mathie was a stern, brave, high-hearted Scotch woman, and would not seal her sorrow with a lie. “Nothing could prevail with her obdured and hardened heart,” so she and all, save young Annabel, were burnt; and when she was bound to the stake, the spectators saw after a while a black, pitchy ball foam out of her mouth, which, after the fire was kindled, grew to the size of a walnut, and flew out into sparks like squibs. This was the devil leaving her. As for Bessie Weir … the devil left her when she was executed, in the form of a raven; for so he owned and dishonoured his chosen ones.

“The dumbe girl, Jennet Douglas, now speaks well, and knows Latine, which she never learned, and discovers things past!” says Sinclair. But she still followed her old trade. She had mesmeric visions, and was evidently a “sensitive;” and some of the people believed in her, as inspired and divine, and some came, perhaps mockingly, to test her. (From E.L. Linton)

Sometimes, at least, these malevolent professional accusers get their comeuppance.

The dumb girl herself was afterwards carried before the great council at Edinburgh, imprisoned, scourged through the town, and then banished to “some forraigne Plantation,” whence she reappears no more to vex her generation. God forgive her! She has passed long years ago to her account, and may her guilty soul be saved, and all its burning blood-stains cleansed and assoilzed!

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1570: Hegumen Kornily of the Pskov-Pechery Monastery

1 comment February 20th, 2011 Headsman

Though the primary sources are shaky, at least one chronicle avers that it was on this date in 1570 that the Russian tsar Ivan the Terrible had Hegumen Kornily [Cornelius] of the Pskov-Pechery Monastery put to death.

An icon of the sainted Cornelius marks the spot of his martyrdom at his Pskovo-Pechery monastery. From (cc) image by Usama.

This was the coda to Ivan’s bloody sack of Novgorod, part of the violent state consolidation carried out in Ivan’s terrible police state.

Having left Novgorod prostrate, Ivan marched westwards towards the edge of Livonia (what is now the Russian-Estonian frontier) to put Pskov in its place.

If Ivan’s depredations here were less extensive than in Novgorod — and they were less extensive — it might be due in no small measure to this date’s victim.

Over a period of four decades, Kornily had overseen the golden age of his priory — agglomerating lands, riches, and brethren. He had also charted a somewhat independent, contra-Moscow political course, and apparently harbored anti-Ivan refugee Andrei Kurbsky.*

[Ivan] came [to Pskov] in great wrath, roaring like a lion, for he wished to torture innocent people and to spill much blood. But the Lord God, all-bountiful and all-merciful lover of mankind … took pity on the human race … when the Grand Duke came before Pskov, he halted near the town and rested at the monastery of St Nicholas. And … when the Grand Duke heard all the bells ringing, his heart was softened and he came to himself, and ordered all his soldiers to blunt their swords with stones and forbade them to commit murder in the town … he was met by the Abbot of the Pechery monastery, Kornily, with all the clergy … and they went into the cathedral church of the Holy Trinity and heard mass.**


Ivan the Terrible begs Kornily for admission to the monastery, by Klavdy Lebedev. (Detail view; click for the full canvas.)

This all sounds friendly enough.

What we may have in the passage foregoing is a conflation of legends about the monk, who is unambiguously attested a martyr to Ivan at the gates of the monastery even as he’s credited with sparing the city as a whole from the tsar’s full fury. (This particular execution — or murder — date is cited in this popular history of Ivan; “February” sometime is generally agreed.)

So maybe it was one of the tyrant’s famous piques of rage — or maybe Kornily didn’t really charm him into altering his plans at all.

Although the particulars are half-obscured in legend, one can still visit at this gorgeous monastery the “Path of Blood”: the route from the gates to the cathedral along which the remorseful tsar allegedly carried his victim’s body. Ivan also made several gifts to the monastery.†

Kornily himself is still venerated on these sacred grounds, thanks not only to his holy martyrdom but to his worldly machinations. A decade after the abbott laid down his life, the walls he had raised around the monastery proved fortification enough to repel the Polish king Stephen Bathory‡ — helping cement Kornily’s reputation as the celestial defender of Pskov.

* See the title of the next footnote? Vassian Muromtsev was a protege of Kornily’s in the Pskov-Pechery monastery; Kurbsky actually had a running correspondence with Muromtsev.

Muromtsev “was put to death together with [Kornily],” reports Kurbsky, although his authority for this claim is doubtful. “They say that they were both crushed together on the same day by some kind of instrument of torture; and their holy martyred corpses were buried together.”

** Quoted in Nikolai Andreyev, “Kurbsky’s Letters to Vas’yan Muromtsev,” The Slavonic and East European Review, June 1955.

† Andreyev, “The Pskov-Pechery Monastery in the 16th Century,” The Slavonic and East European Review, June 1954.

‡ We’ve met Stephen Bathory’s infamous niece in these pages.

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1388: Nicholas Brembre, Mayor of London

1 comment February 20th, 2010 Headsman

One day after Nicholas Brembre’s treason trial was interrupted for the sudden capture and summary execution of his political ally Robert Tresilian, the former Mayor of London was back in the dock of the Merciless Parliament this day to receive (and immediately suffer) the Lords’ judgment that he be hanged.

Like Robert Tresilian, Brembre had backed the young Richard II’s bid to throw off the influence of a circle of advisors during the dangerous 1380s.

Brembre spent the early part of the decade bursting his ample coffers with a plum customs-collection gig (in which capacity he employed Geoffrey Chaucer), with a couple of stints as London mayor mixed in.

He earned a reputation for corruption and election-rigging (“on the day of the election … Sir Nicholas and others of his faction ordered to the Guildhall of London certain persons, ‘foreigns’ and others in great numbers, who were armed, to make the election”).

A wiser fellow than myself once said, sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear, well, he eats you.

A rough customer to the last, Brembre tried (pdf) to mount a defense by right of single combat. It was not taken up.

He was drawn from the Tower through the city on a hurdle to Tyburn, resting at furlong intervals he gave great penance, beseeching mercy from God and men against whom he had sinned in past times, and many commiserating prayed for him. And when the noose was put on him so that he might be hanged, the son of Northampton* asked him whether the aforesaid things done elsewhere to his father by Brembre were legally done. For Northampton was formerly a mayor of the city of London, a richer and more powerful citizen among all those who were in the city, and through certain ones, associates who were death-bearing plagues, namely Brembre, Tresilian and others, was enormously vexed by certain nefarious conspiracies and confederacies then condemned to death, and with all his goods stripped hardly escaped alive. And concerning those things Brembre confessed that neither piously nor justly but with a violent heart for the sake of destroying Northampton he had infelicitously committed those things. And seeking forgiveness, hanging by the rope, he died when his throat was cut. Behold how good and pleasant it is to be raised up to honors! It seems to me better to carry out business at home among paupers than be thus lordly among kings, and at the end climb the ladder among thieves; since it is more a matter of onerousness than honor to assume the name of honor. You who are reading, look down to regard him, and you might be able to consider by their ends how their works receive results. For in every work be mindful of the end. (Source)

Richard II subsequently outmaneuvered the foes whose ascendance in 1388 forced Brembre’s execution; in 1399, the attainder was posthumously reversed … just before his royal patron Richard II was overthrown by Henry IV.

* “Northampton” here refers to former London Mayor John of Northampton, not to be confused with the ennobled Earl of Northampton — which latter title was actually held at this time by Henry Bolingbroke, the future King Henry IV and a member of the anti-Ricardian Lords Appellant party that engineered Brembre’s downfall. (Got all that?)

Part of the Daily Double: The Merciless Parliament.

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1258: Al-Musta’sim, the last Abbasid Caliph

5 comments February 20th, 2009 Headsman

For centuries after the prophet Muhammad trod the earth, the caliph had stood as a unifying principle in the Islamic world, conferring moral authority on the sultans and amirs who in turn gave the caliph temporal security. Despite political conflicts, rival claimants, and contested successions, the office, like the papacy, had weight for all Muslims, even the usurpers who conquered to the very gates of Baghdad only to “kiss the ground … and walk astride the caliph’s stirrup.”*

Seven hundred fifty-one years ago today, that last redoubt of that single Muslim community was extinguished when the last Abbasid caliph was put to death by the Mongols.

Al-Musta’sim Billah held power in the sunset days of a once-mighty empire,

a weak and miserly creature, in whose improvident hands the Caliphate, even in quieter times, would have fared ill … we need not to travel beyond the imbecility of the Caliph and the demoralisation of his now shrunken kingdom, for the causes of impending ruin. … As characteristic of his meanness, we are told that he appro­priated the state jewels of the Chief of Kerak, who with difficulty obtained their partial restitution by proclaiming the Caliph’s dishonesty before the assembled pilgrims at Mecca. (Sir William Muir)

Retrospection, of course, aids us in appreciating the “sunset” — certainly it did not occur to Musta’sim that the ascension in Egypt of Shajar al-Durr in 1250 that marks the dawn of Mamluk rule was the seed of a successor order. On the contrary, he sent this Islamic queen a contemptuous offer to provide a man for Egypt, since it could find none to seat on its throne.

He would have done better to man up against the Mongols, who had not failed to notice that Baghdad lacked the muscle to protect its accumulated wealth.

A gold dinar from the Al-Musta’sim period. Interestingly, albeit tangentially, Sir Thomas Arnold recorded that for decades after this date, some Islamic rulers “went on putting the name of the dead Musta’sim on [their] coins, because [they] could find no other [caliph], and the Muslim theory of the state had not succeeded in adjusting itself to the fact that there was no Khalifah or Imam in existence.”

Genghis Khan‘s grandson Hulagu Khan (or Hulegu, or Hülegü) reduced Baghdad in a matter of days and plundered the city.** Al-Musta’sim having combined an impolitic bluster towards the advancing horde with an utter failure to ready the city’s defenses, Hulagu Khan was most unimpressed with his prisoner.

On February 20th, in a village near to Baghdad, Al-Musta’sim was executed. Contemporary chroniclers are silent as to the method; Marco Polo reported that he had been immured with his treasures in an opulent tower to starve to death.

According to The Cambridge History of Iran (volume 5), this was likely a later interpolation of a story that 13th century intellectual Nasir al-Din Tusi recorded:

[Hulagu Khan] set a golden tray before the Caliph and said: ‘Eat!’ ‘It is not edible,’ said the Caliph. ‘Then why didst thou keep it,’ asked the King, ‘and not give it to thy soldiers? And why didst thou not make these iron doors into arrow-heads and come to the bank of the river so that I might not have been able to cross it?’ ‘Such,’ replied the Caliph, ‘was God’s will.’ ‘What will befall thee,’ said the King, ‘is also God’s will.'”

It is more generally supposed that Al-Musta’sim was rolled in a carpet and trampled to death — the Mongols’ own method for putting princes to death without shedding royal blood.

However effected, the caliph’s demise ended the classical period of Islam. And yet, as Gustave Edmund von Grunebaum observes in his book on the period, that ending was itself a beginning for the flowering of high Islamic civilization that the days of the caliphate had prepared.

What terminates in 1258 is the major chain of political legitimacy to which reality had failed to conform for rather more than four centuries when the extent of the Muslim empire had ceased to be coterminous with the rule of Islam and the unity of tradition had become no more than a postulate.

None the less, the fall of Baghdad did more than bring home the precariousness of all human structures, even those erected on the true faith and devised to safeguard it. It demonstrated that the ‘Abode of Islam’ had become saturated with Islam, that the community no longer required a caliphate to give it a political and religious centre of gravity, that the vitality of Islam as an interpretation of man and the world, a way of life, and a style of thinking and feeling was now independent of any institutional support.

… the very irreparability of the calamity made the faithful realize that the abiding of their world, its beliefs and manifestations, had outgrown any particular political form and had indeed become too wide to be contained in history. In this realization the epigones undoubtedly rejoined the innermost intent of ancestors and founder.

* Later historian Ibn Tabataba, cited in The Middle East Remembered.

** Christians were spared the rapine, as Khan had a Coptic wife.

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Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Caliphate,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Iraq,Milestones,Mongol Empire,Mongolia,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Religious Figures,Royalty,Trampled,Wartime Executions

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