2013: Kepari Leniata burned as a witch

1 comment February 6th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 2013, villagers at the Papua New Guinea village of Paiala tortured their neighbor Kepari Leniata into confessing the witchcraft murder of a local child, then burnt her alive in a trash dump. Sorcery is widely feared and practiced in PNG.

Kepari Leniata, 20, ‘confessed’ after she was dragged from her hut, stripped naked and tortured with white-hot iron rods.

She was then dragged to a local rubbish dump, doused in petrol and, with hands and feet bound, thrown on a fire of burning tyres. As the mother-of-two screamed in agony, more petrol-soaked tyres were thrown on top of her.

The tragedy unfolded after Miss Leniata’s young neighbour fell sick on Tuesday morning. He complained of pains in the stomach and chest and was taken to Mt Hagen hospital where he died a few hours later.

Relatives of the boy were suspicious that witchcraft was involved in the death and learned that two women had gone into hiding in the jungle.

After they were tracked down, the pair admitted they practised sorcery but had nothing to do with the boy’s death. Miss Leniata, they said, was the person responsible.

The boy’s family went to her hut at 7am on Wednesday, stripped her and dragged her away to torture and death. (Source)

Horrific pictures circulated in the international media.

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1967: Sunny Ang, a murderer without a body

Add comment February 6th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1967, Sunny Ang hanged in Singapore for murder.

“This is an unusual case insofar as Singapore, or for that matter Malaysia,* is concerned,” said the prosecutor. “This is the first case of its kind to be tried in our courts that there is no body.”

The missing corpse did not present anything like the difficulty the barristers might have anticipated for this landmark conviction.

For one thing, everyone knew where and how 22-year-old waitress Jenny Cheok Cheng had died: on a diving trip near the Sisters’ Islands, Cheng had slipped under the waves while her betrothed waited in the boat … and she had never resurfaced. Frogmen combing the area could find only a single swimming flipper: it had been sliced with a knife to make it slip off during the swim, the inference being that the bladehandler had been interested in the inexperienced diver “accidentally” losing her maneuver while the forceful straits currents went to work on her.

Loverboy Sunny Ang, a vain wastrel facing bankruptcy,** just so happened to be in line to benefit, having insured his bride-to-be to the tune of nearly $1 million over several policies — including one which he had extended mere hours before the murder, and extended by only five more days. One imagines here that the tampered flipper might have been just one of several innocuous-looking accidents, each one a little lure for the Angel of Death, slated to cross Jenny Cheng’s path during the couple’s seaside canoodle courtesy of her own personal Final Destination.

In his young life, Ang had washed out of teacher school, pilot school, and law school. Ang’s laziness went on full display in the murder caper because the hired boatman who took the couple out diving — a witness whom Ang was probably expecting to provide his alibi — took the stand to describe the amazing extent of his guest’s unconcern about his lover going missing.

In a situation where the reasonable homicidal villain would anticipate means, motive, and opportunity all implicating him like blazing klaxons, Ang couldn’t be arsed to allay suspicion with the duest of panic-stricken diligence, like putting on his own suit and jumping in the water to look for her, or even raising his voice a few decibels to feign alarm. He did not, however, neglect to file his insurance claims very promptly.

Small wonder with bloodless banter like this that his jury only needed two hours to convict him, body or no body.

Justice Buttrose: Did you realise that this girl, whom you love and whom you were going to marry, had gone down and disappeared, and you calmly turn round to the boatman and said, ‘All right. Go to St John’s’?

Ang: If she was anywhere around the boat we would have seen her air bubbles.

Justice Buttrose: It didn’t occur to you to go down and search for her?

Ang: No.

Justice Buttrose: Why?

Ang: Because I thought there was obviously a leak and also if she was anywhere around the boat, we would have seen her air bubbles.

Mr Seow: You had skin-diving equipment with you in the boat?

Ang: Yes.

Mr Seow: The girl you were going to marry was obviously in difficulty, if not actually dead already. Why didn’t you use your skin-diving equipment to go down?

Ang: I was not quite sure what sort of difficulties she was in. It occurred to me — it was a vague thought — that she might have been attacked by sharks. In fact, I remarked upon that to Yusuf [the boatman]. Not then, but long after the incident.

Justice Buttrose: You could have gone down to find out?

Ang: She might have been attacked by sharks.

Mr Seow: When did you change back into your street clothes?

Ang: I think I remember I put them on, on my way to St John’s Island.

Mr Seow: So that when the Malay divers were going in, you were then in your street clothes, and you saw no point in joining them?

Ang: I do not say I saw no point. I was in my street clothes and there were more experienced skin-divers, and there were five of them. Besides I knew the chances of finding her were very slim.

Justice Buttrose: You never got into the water at all that day? You never got your feet wet?

Ang: That is so.

* Ang went on trial in April 1965, when Singapore was still part of Malaysia — hence the reference to the scope of the country as a whole. By the time Ang hanged, Singapore had been expelled from Malaysia and become an independent polity.

** He had also previously stolen from his father and police already knew that, so he didn’t enter his capital trial with much existing credence for rectitude.

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1557: Martin Bucer and Paulus Phagius, already in their coffins

Add comment February 6th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1557,* the long-dead bones of the Protestant theologians Martin Bucer and Paulus Phagius (Fagius) were sent to the stake during the Tudor era’s brief Catholic recrudescence under Mary I.


18th century engraving (via the British Museum) shows a procession through the streets of Cambridge, with a separate scene depicting men burning both books and the two scholars in their coffins.

Both were Rhenish eminences of the reform movement, such early adopters that they embarked on their heresies from personally attending one of Luther’s earliest disputations, before his doctrines were officially excommunicate.

Bucer was a leading figure in the 1530s and 1540s struggle to keep unity among the competing strains of German Protestantism, and maintained an active correspondence with both Luther and Zwingli. The price of disunity was starkly underscored by the military rollback the Church achieved in the Schmalkaldic War of the late 1540s — and under growing pressure, both men accepted the invitations of Thomas Cranmer to cross the sea and reform the English liturgy.

Their labors there were but brief.** Each appointed to the Cambridge faculty, Phagius promptly died of the plague in 1549; Bucer outlived him, but he was in his late fifties and his health was failing. Before he too died in February of 1551, he produced a treatise to the young king Edward VI on government both ecclesiastical and secular, as well as recommended liturgical revisions that helped shape Cranmer’s 1552 version of the Book of Common Prayer.

If Bucer was fortunate to predecease Edward VI, his bones and Phagius’s would not be spared the Catholics’ wrath. In 1556, heresy proceedings (recounted at admiring length in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs) were opened against them by a deputation sent to cleanse Cambridge of its theological novelties. The Bishop of Chester conceived it a merciful example to be made:

If we had desired revengement, we might have showed cruelty upon them that are alive: of the which (alas! more the pity,) there are too many that embrace this doctrine. If we thirsted for blood, it was not so to be sought in withered carcases and dry bones. Therefore ye may well perceive, it was no part of our wills that we now came hither … but especially for the care and regard we have of your health and salvation, which we covet by all means to preserve. For you yourselves are the cause of this business; you gave occasion of this confession, among whom this day ought to be a notable example, to remain as a memorial to them that shall come after …

[I]f God, as he is slow to wrath and vengeance, will wink at it for a time, yet notwithstanding if we, upon whom the charge of the Lord’s flock leaneth, should permit so execrable crimes to escape unpunished, we should not live in quiet one hour.

Their condemnation was reversed a few years later, when Mary’s Protestant half-sister Elizabeth I succeeded the throne.

* 1557 by our present reckoning; England at the time recognized the new year in March, so it was 1556 to contemporaries.

** Though they hardly had time to make the impact on the English Reformation that they might have aspired to, Bucer had already influenced it in an important way: tracts of Bucer’s from years prior supporting more liberal divorce options, which had made Luther think the man a sybarite, had been fixed upon in the young Cranmer’s effort to construct a respectable theological framework for Henry VIII’s pursuit of Anne Boleyn.

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1481: Diego Suson, by his daughter’s hand

Add comment February 6th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1481, Spain’s first auto-da-fe under the recently established Spanish Inquisition saw six burned at the stake in Seville.

These pageants of orthodox Catholic authority, with parades of heretics publicly confessing their error and being received back into the community on penitential terms, while others more contumacious were consigned to the flames, would soon become one of the signature features of Inquisition Spain. Some 700 people were executed at such events over the decade to come.

But here in the early 1480s, the terrifying powers of the Holy Office for the Propagation of Faith (the Inquisition’s business-card title) were, well … unexpected.


/Mandatory

Don Diego Suson, one of the six put to death this date, was the wealthy patriarch of a marrano family — Jews, who had converted a century prior. The Inquisition’s whole founding spirit was the sense of characters like Torquemada that as such conversions had generally been obtained under duress, the families in question were still secretly maintaining their Semitic rites. That would make them apostates (since they were baptized and supposedly Christian), and it would implicate them in God knows what other malignancy (since they were malignant Jews).

Spain, you’ll recall, is at this point about 11 years away from expelling all its Jews full stop.

This made it especially dicey for Suson that he was also a rabbi to an underground community of still-practicing “converted” Jews. (Spanish source) Torquemada was on to a real thing here.

Unfortunately his daughter — so the legend says — didn’t quite grasp what the Inquisitors had coming and lightly betrayed the fact to her Christian lover. In no time at all, the guys with the racks and thumbscrews had the terrible family secret in hand.

It’s said that the beautiful (of course) daughter was so riven with grief and shame for the careless destruction of her father that she shut herself up in a convent … and arranged that when she died her guilt-stricken head should be hung up at her former home.

The location of this macabre monument is still marked in Seville today; once known as the Calle de la Muerte, it is now called the Calle Susona.

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1997: Michael Carl George

13 comments February 6th, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1997, 39-year-old Michael Carl George was executed by lethal injection at Greensville Correctional Center in Virginia. He’d been condemned for the murder of fifteen-year-old Alexander Eugene Sztanko in 1990.


Michael Carl George (top) and his victim, Alexander Sztanko.

The teenager’s death had been horrific by any standard: he was abducted while out riding his dirt bike, handcuffed to a tree and sexually abused. Before shooting him in the head, the killer applied a stun gun to his genitals. His body, fully clothed but shoeless, was found the following afternoon.

The boy had been killed so close to home that his unsuspecting father actually heard the gunshots. A few hours after Alex Sztanko’s body was found, George was seen loitering near the murder site by a police officer and stopped for questioning. He matched the description of a camouflage-clad man seen near the Sztanko residence the day before, and the suspicious officer asked him directly if he’d been there the previous day.

George admitted that he had, claiming he’d been turkey hunting in the woods. As he was being questioned he was standing directly in front of a “No Trespassing” sign, which gave the policeman an excuse to pick him up.

At the time of his arrest he was carrying, among other things, a knife, a handcuff key and a map, which had an “X” marking the site where Alex’s body turned up in the woods and an “O” where the boy’s dirt bike and helmet were ultimately located.

Inside George’s truck was a machete, a hacksaw, bolt cutters, a tear gas canister, leather gloves and a stun gun. A search of his parents’ home, where he lived, turned up more incriminating items: a pair of handcuffs that matched the key he carried, and a loaded 9mm pistol which turned out to be the murder weapon.

Blood, DNA and fiber evidence also pointed to George as the culprit. The case was pretty open-and-shut.

George had a reputation as a pedophile and Alexander Sztanko wasn’t the only person he killed. The first, as far as anyone knows, was Larry Wayne Perry, a mentally disabled nine-year-old who lived with his grandparents in Dumfries, Virginia.

Larry vanished without a trace on May 22, 1979 and was never found. George admitted to burying the child’s body but said his death was an accident. As the authorities lacked the evidence to prove intentional homicide, he was allowed to plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter and abduction.

A model prisoner, he served just two and a half years of a five-year sentence.

Four years later, he killed Alex Sztanko.

George would later claim he had murdered a third person, but he never named the alleged victim and his statements could not be verified. His appeals raced through the court system at top speed; his time on death row was less than five years, one of the shortest in the state since Virginia resumed executions in the early eighties.

Given the circumstances of the murder and his prior record, he had very few sympathizers and not much he could say for himself on appeal. His case went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, but they voted 7 to 2 to deny a stay of execution, with Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Paul Stevens dissenting.

Alex Sztanko’s parents were quoted as saying they were opposed to the death penalty generally, but as far as they saw it, George’s death was society’s gain.

George’s lethal injection took place without incident and he was pronounced dead at 9:18 p.m. He had no last statements for the press, but he did leave a letter for Mr. and Mrs. Sztanko, both of whom declined to witness his execution.

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1839: Amos Perley and Joshua Doane, for the Upper Canada Rebellion

Add comment February 6th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1839, Amos Perley and Joshua Doan(e) were hanged in London, Ontario for a feeble armed invasion from Detroit.

The Battle of Windsor was pretty much the last gasp of Canada’s Rebellions of 1837 — touching Lower Canada (Quebec) as well as Upper (Ontario).

The effort saw stateside refugees of the Upper Canada Rebellion, also known as the Patriot War, organize an attempt to overthrow British-Canadian authority between Windsor and Niagara. But a brief incursion (a few houses were captured) failed to trigger a general response in a populace that was all risings’ed out, while United States authorities stayed well clear of these troublemakers. Officials had little difficulty mopping them up.

Six different people (named here) were executed at intervals in London, Ontario, beginning on January 7, 1839 — and ending with the two this date.

Amos Perley was a New Brunswick native who had been an American resident (citizenship status is unclear) for some time, but fell in with the Patriots.

Joshua Doane was a Quaker — a sect ordinarily leery of armed conflict and liable to be considered disloyal as a result — who abandoned the whole pacifism thing in favor of the Patriot cause. He’d had to beat it over the border when the last round of Upper Canada disturbances had been put down the previous winter: he wouldn’t get another chance after the 1838 invasion fizzled.

Doane’s touching last letter to his soon-to-be-widow survives.

London, January 27th, 1839

Dear Wife,

I am at this moment confined in the cell from which I am to go to the scaffold. I received my sentence today, and am to be executed on February 6th. I am permitted to see you tomorrow, any time after 10 o’clock in the morning, as may suit you best. I wish you to think of such questions as you wish to ask me, as I do not know how long you will be permitted to stay. Think as little of my unhappy fate as you can; as from the love you bear me, I know too well how it must affect you. I wish you to inform my father and brother of my sentence as soon as possible. I must say good-bye for the night, and may God protect you and my dear child, and give you fortitude to meet that coming event with the Christian grace and fortitude which is the gift of Him, our Lord, who created us. That this may be the case, is the prayer of your affectionate husband,

JOSHUA G. DOANE.

At this point, “people [in London] were so fed up” with the intermittent public hangings they’d been subjected to that the remaining condemned had their sentences commuted instead to penal transportation, and got shipped to Australia instead.

The disruptions did, however, help to contribute to the 1840 political unification of Upper and Lower Canada.

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1821: Owen Coffin, main course

5 comments February 6th, 2011 dogboy

On this date in 1821, a first-time whaleship crewman named Owen Coffin was executed by a comrade to feed three starving mates.

Coffin was the second-to-last victim of an event which shocked the whaling community and inspired the novel Moby Dick.

Owen Coffin was a 17-year-old aboard a doomed whaling vessel called the Essex. He was cousin to George Pollard, Jr., who was making his first trek to the Pacific whaling grounds as a ship’s captain.

The Essex sailed from Nantucket Island in 1819, one of dozens of ships to leave port in search of whales and, ultimately, whale oil. In spite of the large numbers of whales slaughtered by whalers around the world, the Essex had the unfortunate honor of taking part in the first documented violent encounter by a sperm whale on a whaleship.

Of the whales available to the whalers of the day, the sperm whale was most prized: aside from the typical blubber found on all whales, which could be processed for its “oil” (actually a free-flowing form of wax), this whale’s head was filled with the clean-burning substance called spermaceti, a name inspired by its resemblance to the sexual fluid. Spermaceti fetched a high price at market when sperm whales were in sufficient abundance to hunt them.


A 1902 photograph of whalers cutting into a sperm whale’s jaw. (cc) image from Curious Expeditions.

There Once Was a Crew from Nantucket

At the time, Nantucket Island was the center of the whaling world.

The industry was primarily run by Quaker businessmen, who negotiated profit-sharing rates for young, largely local crews willing to risk their lives in search of whales. To fill out the ship numbers, poor non-Nantucketers were imported from other New England ports. The Essex was no different: the ship originally held 21 crewmembers, eight of whom came from off-island.

The ship’s journey began inauspiciously by being flattened in a squall, but after repairs, she continued on in pursuit of whales. The ship made its classic trip around the southern tip of South America, put in to port in Ecuador, then traversed 2000 miles of ocean westward in search of a recently-discovered sperm whale hunting ground.

The Essex being rammed by a sperm whale, sketched by crewmember Thomas Nickerson.

And the crew did find whales and made a mildly successful trip of it … until it really pissed off the wrong whale.

The Essex discovered a group of sperm whales consisting of two females and one male. When the call went out, the three small whaleboats — built to be light and fast for the pursuit — launched.

These boats separated the females from the male, and one of the crews made a kill. It was around that time that the male, probably already distraught at being partitioned from his group, first ran into the 38-foot Essex. The jostle, which may have been accidental, apparently further upset the abnormally large whale, which briskly left the area, made a sharp turn, then swam all-out on a direct collision course with the Essex.

The old timber ship didn’t stand a chance.

The crew which had stayed aboard the main vessel watched in horror as the Essex was shattered beneath them. Two of the whaleboat crews noted the sinking and returned quickly, and Captain Pollard immediately set his crew about saving as many of the provisions as they could, including water and food.

But the speed with which the Essex went under left them with too little of both. As the final whaleboat made its way to the carnage, it was clear that the full crew complement was doomed to a long trip on a trio of very small boats.

Call Me Ishmael

Pollard and first mate Owen Chase hatched a plan (crewman Thomas Nickerson indicates that it was largely Chase who pushed the plan) to set sail for South America, thousands of miles distant and through unfavorable currents and winds, rather than for the Pacific Islands, about half as far away and in the direction of both favorable winds and currents.

The choice was sealed by fear of the unknown and a century of tales of South Pacific cannibals. Hopefully they came to appreciate the irony.

The crew went through its supplies in the first month at sea, and finally came ashore at Henderson Island, a raised, uninhabited coral reef that they mis-identified.

The fortunate crew found a temporarily available freshwater spring from which to refill their casks, and they subsisted on local fauna for several days while deciding their next course of action. Though Tahiti lay just a few hundred miles westward (again, in the direction of favorable winds and currents), our wayfarers opted to continue towards South America.

Three of the crew decided to stay behind. The remaining 17 crewmembers set out in late December 1820, and again quickly depleted their supplies.

One of the ships — carrying the second mate but no navigational equipment — was separated from the others during a storm and never heard from again, leaving two to carry on under increasingly desperate circumstances.

Cannibal Corpse

Passengers on both boats began succumbing to want and exposure, and their starving former comrades had little choice but to devour their remains.

The boat containing Owen Chase, Thomas Nickerson, and Benjamin Lawrence was eventually rescued by the Indian off the coast of Chile, and both Nickerson and Chase wrote accounts of the the survivors’ cannibalism.

Yet it was aboard Pollard’s boat that the most gruesome events unfolded.

The deaths of two crewmen had provided for the others — but not nearly enough to hope for landfall.

Short on food and water and despairing of bringing all four remaining souls to port, Charles Ramsdell suggested that the quartet draw lots to both remove one consumer from the boat and provide for the remaining three. Pollard objected to subjecting his crew to such a fate, but Barzillai Ray and Owen Coffin agreed to the plan. The lots were cast, and Coffin pulled the black spot. The other three cast again to decide his executioner, and Ramsdell was chosen.

Pollard’s account indicates that he immediately spoke up for Coffin, offering himself up in place, but Coffin demurred and prepared himself for the execution.*

The following day, February 6, Coffin dictated a short note to his mother and declared, as per Pollard’s diary, that “the lots had been fairly drawn.”

Charles Ramsdell shot Owen Coffin, then joined Ray and Pollard in consuming his remains.

Ray died just days later, and Ramsdell and Pollard barely survived the next two weeks. When the Dauphin came up alongside the whaleboat on February 20, its crew thrilled to the spectacle of Ramsdell and Pollard sucking on the bones of their dead crewmates, emaciated beyond recognition.

Based on their statements about the events of the previous 95 days, a vessel was dispatched to find the three Henderson Island survivors. Because the crew had mis-identified the island, however, the search took longer than expected. Not until April 5, 1821, were the three located … out of fresh water and also scarcely alive.

A few books about the Essex

The Essex was a legend in its own time, and the story of the sinking and the harrowing events which followed continue to circle around Nantucket Island. Though the island’s economy collapsed less than 30 years later, Herman Melville kept the story alive through his literary classic Moby-Dick, whose story revolves around the captain of a whaling ship attacked by a vengeful whale.**

It is also suspected that a portion of Edgar Allen Poe’s 1838 novel† The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket is based on the Essex disaster.

Closer to modern times, the rock group Mountain’s album and eponymous song “Nantucket Sleighride”, which was used as the theme song to London Weekend Television’s Weekend World, is dedicated to Coffin.

Coffin is not the only sailor adrift ever selected for cannibalism by lot, but his case is unusual because the particulars are so well-documented. Several other cases are provided in Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea. Arthur Gordon Pym uses a victim by the name of Richard Parker, coincidentally the same name as a man who was actually cannibalized in 1884‡ in an affair leading to the famous common law case R v Dudley and Stephens, wherein the killers were charged with murder and sentenced to 6 months in prison — unlike the 1835 incident of the Francis Spaight, which saw the crew acquitted for three such killings.

* One of the crueler accounts of such lot drawing occurred aboard the Peggy, where crewman David Flatt pulled the short straw. However, prior to the execution the following morning, the crew was rescued. Flatt, however, had a breakdown in the intervening hours and suffered mental illness which persisted even after their rescue.

** He was also inspired by the story of Mocha Dick, a notorious white whale which survived dozens of encounters with whalers and is now available in trenta sizes.

Arthur Gordon Pym is Poe’s only full-length novel.

‡ Richard Parker was also the name of a man executed for the Nore Mutiny, as well as one killed in the wreck of the Francis Spaight in 1846 — not to be confused with the Francis Spaight on which cannibalism occurred 11 years prior.

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1885: George Gibson and Wayne Powers

3 comments February 6th, 2010 Headsman

As of today, Scott County, Va., has gone 125 years since its last hanging — the execution in Estillville* of George Gibson and Wayne Powers for the drunken murder of a comrade.

Wayne Powers and Jonas Powers (brothers), and George Gibson and William Gibson (no relation), were on the road to West Virginia looking for opportunity and all that jazz, when the last-named William Gibson was slain by his traveling companions.

The crime was either one of minute pecuniary interest (the three survivors divided up the few dollars William had on him, and the clothes off his back), or just some inane drunken midnight quarrel between men who all happened to be well-armed.

At any rate, the inebriated killers “spent nearly the entire night trying to burn the body with a fire made of fence rails, and were thus discovered.”

Though all three were condemned, Jonas Powers was reprieved as not actually involved in the killing; both his brother and George Gibson used their scaffold time to insist upon his innocence. He was not ultimately executed.

His less fortunate companions did not neglect to blame Demon Rum for their woes, and took their leave of this earth doing their little bit to speed the day of a ruinous social policy.

O! may the cup of intoxicating drink never touch their lips, for it was this that has brought a fate so terrible upon their father. Society would do well to banish liquor forever from its midst. I, who have been decoyed to my ruin by it, might with some show of just reproach turn upon that people whose laws license this most deadly and dangerous of all agents, and say, ‘shake not thy glory locks at me.’”

The hanging itself was technically private, but the doomed men were trotted out on a stand outside the jail yard to address three thousand onlookers, and many of the public climbed trees to watch the gallows proceedings over the walls.

* Estillville is today known as Gate City. If the name rings a bell, it might be for its recent foray into the electoral fraud headlines.

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1945: Robert Brasillach, intellectual traitor

3 comments February 6th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1945, and notwithstanding a partial outcry in French literary circles, fascist intellectual and Vichy collaborator Robert Brasillach was shot for treason in Montrouge.

Novelist, journalist and llitterateur Robert Brasillach (English Wikipedia entry | French) was the “James Dean of French fascism,” fashionable apostle of the interwar far-right movement Action Française.

A proper James Dean dies young, which fate was supplied courtesy of Brasillach’s editorship of the anti-semitic rag Je Suis Partout (“I Am Everywhere”) and enthusiastic support of the Vichy government.

Inasmuch as his collaboration had been in the form of ideas propagated, Brasillach’s case engaged the French polity in the challenging question of whether “intellectual crime” — and even “intellectual treason” — could exist categorically.

Given another year, when occupation was not so fresh a memory and the Nazis were no longer knocking at the door, the puzzle would probably not have been a life and death one.

But then, ideas are sometimes life and death matters themselves, and nowhere is that more true than in France.

Many anti-fascist intellectuals appealed to de Gaulle for Brasillach’s life — many, but not all. Death penalty opponent Albert Camus signed the petition for clemency; Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir refused.

Between fellow-feeling among the literary set, ideological enmity, and the searing experience of the occupation only just lifted lay a test for the conscience of many a French thinker — aphorized by the very words de Gaulle would use in turning aside the appeal.

“Talent is a responsibility.”

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1615: Patrick Stewart, 2nd Earl of Orkney

3 comments February 6th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1615,* the tyrannical Earl of Orkney was beheaded in Edinburgh for treason.

Not this Patrick Stewart.

Ultimately a footnote in the sweep of Scottish history, the earl was — and remains — locally infamous for his decadence and cruelty. He persecuted “witches” gleefully. In fact, we have already met one in these pages: Alison Balfour, speciously accused of attempting to murder him. Stewart said that absent vigorous prosecution his subjects “wald all have becommit witches and warlockis for the people ar naturally inclynit thairto,” though the property forfeiture accompanying a witchcraft conviction might also have had something to do with it.

None of this had aught to do with the noble’s fall, although it was cited against him in passing; a treason charge for usurping royal authority arising from parochial jockeying for power did him in.**

It’s almost certainly just a scurrilous rumor — one of those stories of more Truth than truth — that the beheading had to be stayed a few days to let the savage earl bone up on the Lord’s prayer.

The headless lord does have a latter-day biography all his own, an out-of-print 1992 tome called Black Patie: The Life and Times of Patrick Stewart Earl of Orkney, Lord of Shetland. The same author has also written a volume about the earl’s equally despotic father, Robert Stewart.

* What would be 1615 to a modern reader, but what was then 1614 by the delayed onset of the legal new year. The specific month and date is courtesy of worldroots.com.

** They did in his son, too, whom Patrick Stewart instigated to press an uprising while the old man was awaiting the block; after the now-tourist-friendly Stewart castle succumbed to a siege, the boy was (separately) executed as well, extinguishing the noble title.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Infamous,Nobility,Scotland,The Worm Turns,Treason

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