1854: John Hendrickson, junk science victim

Add comment May 5th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1854, an Albany, N.Y. man named John Hendrickson hanged for the murder by aconite poisoning of his wife, Maria. “He has suffered the highest penalty of the law,” New York’s Weekly Herald pronounced the next day — “but whether justly or not, will likely never be known on earth.”

Whatever the prisoner’s denials,* a web of suspicious circumstances clasped the hemp around his throat. Hendrickson, whose family had some money and connections, fought the conviction tooth and nail; his then-unusual three appeals, plus clemency petition to the governor, stretched the time from conviction to execution out to nearly a year. “The evidence adduced … was so entirely circumstantial, and the testimony of the scientific men so liable to doubt and contradiction, that it was generally feared the murderer would escape,” a Boston Post correspondent reported.** But not to worry: “the atmosphere of guilt seemed to surround him in the whole county; not a man could be found that, at heart, believed him innocent.” We’re scarcely prepared at this distance to assert an affirmative case for the man’s innocence, but in some ways it reads like an antebellum Cameron Willingham case, all the way down to the dubious forensic evidence.

Like Willingham, Hendrickson was a less than stellar husband. He was noted for abusing his wife, philandering, and doing both together when he “communicated to her a loathsome veneral disease.”

The supposed murder motivation was his wife’s recent inheritance of the estate of her father, who died just a few months before the murder. Little could really be proven save by inference from the man’s bad character; in classic tunnel-vision fashion, the record suggests nearly every data point became fixed according to this theory. For example, Hendrickson’s trial prosecutors read into evidence — in the part of their presentation they called the “Moral Evidence” — that Hendrickson remarked at his wife’s autopsy that “they won’t find arsenic.” You and I might think he’s saying that the examination will dispel the gathering suspicions of poisoning, and saying it by reference to the chemical that was the metonym for poisoning in the nineteenth century. For the state, his uttering these words was

as if he knew (as he undoubtedly did) the precise poison which she had swallowed — as if he knew that that common poison, which is found in most cases of the kind, had not been given by the murderer in this case, and hence they won’t find arsenic. Ah! gentlemen, it was nature speaking out, as she often unconsciously or unguardedly will, disclosing the otherwise well concealed and apparently undiscoverable crime.

(This is why you don’t talk to police.)

The district attorney introduced evidence courtesy of chemists named Salisbury and Swinburne, to the effect that it was no mean arsenic that carried away Maria Hendrickson but the more exotic potion of aconite — derived from a toxic herb seeded (per Ovid) by Cerberus himself.

One can peruse the evidence presented in the case here, but the most remarkable part of this trial record is the appendix — wherein numerous medical men, including a former teacher of Dr. Salisbury, skewer the forensic processes used to decide that Maria Hendrickson died by poison and even offer to reproduce them in person under the eyes of Gov. Horatio Seymour to prove their unreliability. Their findings harshly undercut the only concrete evidence that any murder took place at all.

“I am pained and oppressed with the conviction that the medical witnesses for the prosecution have, in a main point of this case, abused the confidence with which criminal courts so often compliment the man of science,” one writes — words that could still today be applied to many disciplines of junk science that have disappeared bodies into oubliettes on the strength of lie detectors, bite mark analysis, matching hair samples, and suchlike hocus-pocus.

We turn from the contemplation of this subject with feelings of sorrow, not that any of ours have been crushed under the wheels of mutilated justice, set in motion by ignorance and false science, but we feel now, as we have always felt, that a great personal wrong has been committed under the authority of law, for which there can be no atonement, as the dead cannot be brought to life, nor the blasted feelings of the living restored.

It would be well, too, for judges and jurors, who are very often hasty and inconsiderate in letting their feelings and prejudices get the better of their judgment, to remember that life, human life, is neither a toy nor a rattle, but the gift of God; when once extinguished, no matter how, it is gone forever, and the dead never rise again.

-Dr. Charles A. Lee, reviewing the Hendrickson case

* Hendrickson’s final message to his parents via his spiritual advisor, on the eve of his hanging:

To-morrow I am to die, and standing as I do on the brink of eternity, I wish to say to you, in the presence of that God before whom I am so soon to appear, that I am entirely innocent of the crime of murdering my wife. I did not give her poison. I do not know that any one gave her poison. She did not come to her death by violence of any kind, so far as I know. I believe she died a natural death. She did not vomit on the night of her death. [This remark touches the disputed forensic evidence; vomiting would be a symptom of poisoning, and state chemists’ assertion that Maria had done so was among the conclusions challenged by outside scientists. -ed.] I never knew that there was such an article as aconite in the world, until after I was in jail. Nor did I know it by any other name. I do not know that I have anything further to add, except to say some farewell words to my parents. But you will remember what I have said to you, and inform them of it. I wish you to make it public.

** Transcribed here via the Portland (Me.) Advertiser of Apr. 18, 1854.

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1815: Eliza Fenning, for the dumplings

3 comments July 26th, 2015 Headsman

Two hundred years ago today, an Irish serving-girl named Eliza Fenning hanged for poisoning her master’s family. The reliability of the judgment against her was widely questioned in 1815 and has not improved with age.

Robert Turner’s family, along with one of his apprentice stationers all sat down to a meal of dumplings that Eliza, a cook, had prepared for dinner on March 21 of that same year. Within minutes, all were in agony. As Charlotte Turner, who was the mistress of the house even though only a few months older than Ms. Fenning, told the Old Bailey:

I was taken ill myself in less than three minutes afterwards; the effect was so violent, that I had hardly time to get into the yard before my dinner came up. I felt considerable heat across my stomach and chest, and pain.

Q. Was the vomitting of a common kind?

I never experienced any thing before like it for violence; I was terribly irritated; it was not more than a quarter of an hour my apprentice Roger Gadsell was taken very ill in a similar way to myself.

It appeared from the symptoms — and from the blackened dough of the dumplings — that the meal had been laced with arsenic, that cunningly ubiquitous terror of the 19th century. The inference of family, Crown, and eventually court was that Eliza had availed the opportunity of preparing the food to revenge herself on the Turners because Charlotte Turner had caught her some days before sneaking into the apprentices’ room for a snog.

It’s a sure thing that homo sapiens has murdered for feebler reasons than this, but the insufficiency of the provocation, the vociferous denials of the condemned, and the puzzling fact that she too ate the noxious dumplings — all these things militated against confidence in the verdict which was hotly disputed in the public at large. Methods of establishing the presence and quantity of arsenic in a sample were extremely primitive in general, and painfully specious as applied by the surgeon who came to that verdict in the Fenning case.

The court inconclusively pursued the various ingredients in the dish: the same flour had been used for a meat pie that had brought up nobody’s dinner, so that was out; Eliza suggested the milk might be to blame, or a new yeast the house obtained on the eve of the dinner party. There is a wide-ranging effort in the transcript to establish the young woman’s access to an arsenic packet that Robert Turner kept in a desk drawer to poison mice, but this seems little relevant; it was an unlocked desk drawer in a busy household, plus arsenic was widely available in town. Everyone had effective access to arsenic, should she or he have a mind to find it.

As friend of the site (and occasional guest blogger) Richard Clark puts it in his overview, “it is difficult to be sure whether Eliza was guilty or not” even all these years later. But it’s a certainty that what was developed against her in 1815 would fall leagues short of any present-day standard for a confident conviction. Was she really unbalanced enough to try to murder the entire household over a tongue-lashing, yet steely enough to eat the poisoned dish herself to dispel suspicion, yet incautious enough not to have readied any other alibi for the moment when attention would turn to the cook? What possible basis could she have had for believing that she could salt in enough of the toxin to kill everyone else but eat a safely sub-lethal dose herself?

And maybe, as with Cameron Willingham, we might best begin with the premise: was there actually a dose of arsenic, laid in by a sinister hand — or might some contaminant carelessly proximate to the food supply of an unruly metropolis have been the true and undetected culprit?*

The case dissolves under even mild scrutiny into a tissue of social and medical quackery: the uppity servant, the sexually precocious Irishwoman, the assassin infiltrating the dumplings. (See Judith Flanders’s The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime for a scathing defense of Fenning.)

Whatever it was that the family puked up, everyone did so speedily enough to remain among the living. Attempted murder, however, was still a capital crime in England, and would remain so until 1861.

Though her case would attract widespread sympathy and public controversy, Eliza Fenning’s defense before the bar was all but nonexistent: four good-character witnesses, plus this statement:

My lord, I am truly innocent of all the charge, as God is my witness; I am innocent, indeed I am; I liked my place, I was very comfortable; as to my master saying I did not assist him, I was too ill. I had no concern with the drawer at all; when I wanted a piece of paper I always asked for it.

That’s the whole of it — complete and unabridged. It is a pathetic thought to consider this helpless plea in light of the idea that the food might have been poisoned accidentally; tunnel vision had already settled on a semi-coherent story of the embittered serving-girl’s revenge,** and without the art to draw out some different interpretation of the few facts available, Eliza found her place fixed by the self-validating suspicions cast upon her.

She held to her innocence all the way to the end; it was put about that a Newgate screw had overheard her father bid her do so no matter what lest he lose all honor after she died. One last character assassination for the road.

Supporters — and she has had many, down to the present day — flocked to Eliza’s Irish wake in the days after her hanging (the body “being placed in the kitchen of the house, and dressed out in ribbons, flowers, &c.”†) and then thronged a funerary procession from Red Lion Square to the tombs of St. George Bloomsbury.

* In 1900, to the consternation of brewers, around 6,000 pub-fanciers in northern England fell ill from beer that turned out to be contaminated with arsenic present in an ingredient (sulphuric acid) that made a different ingredient (glucose) that went into the beer.

** As Fenning was condemned just a few weeks before Waterloo, the paranoia that England’s burghers nurtured over the prospect of incipient Jacobinism must be presumed a relevant part of the scenario … doubly so, considering the young lady’s nationality.

The Lincoln, Rutland and Stamford Mercury, Aug. 4, 1815. Reports that the family had the effrontery to accept 40 quid worth of gifts from well-wishers were also lamely represented by Fenning’s persecutors as black marks on the family name.

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1922: Colin Campbell Ross, for the Gun Alley Murder

2 comments April 24th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1922, Colin Campbell Ross was hanged for the rape-murder of a little girl, still on the scaffold vainly protesting his innocence.

I am now face to face with my Maker, and I swear by Almighty God that I am an innocent man. I never saw the child. I never committed the crime, and I don’t know who did. I never confessed to anyone. I ask God to forgive those who have sworn my life away, and I pray God to have mercy on my poor darling mother, and my family.

Ninety-odd years later, folks finally believe him.

Ross had a couple of brushes with the law already to his rap sheet when 12-year-old Alma Tirtschke went missing in the vicinity of Ross’s Melbourne dive bar on December 30, 1921.

In a classic instance of police tunnel vision, the proximity of a violent felon to the murdered girl — for Alma’s body was found the next morning in nearby Gun Alley, which bestowed a popular moniker upon the case — soon formed the theory of the crime, the predetermined conclusion into which incoming evidence was read.

(It certainly catalyzed the investigation that the case became a media sensation. Rupert Murdoch’s father through the Melbourne Herald shamelessly hounded the Crown for each day’s delay, and jacked up the reward purse.)

Witnesses established that Ross had been tending bar all that afternoon; to account for that, it was necessary to posit that Ross had plied his prey with wine for several hours until he could finish her off after his shift.

Once arrested, despite continuing to assert his innocence to all and sundry, Ross proved to suffer from that universal tendency accused men have to senselessly unburden themselves to a random cellmate. The Crown could scarce shirk its public duty by omitting the incriminating evidence merely because it was related by a convicted perjurer. Ross, his accuser claimed, “said he was simply burning to tell someone.”

Still more damningly, a blanket from Ross’s home proved to have some strands of auburn hair glancingly similar to Alma Tirtschke’s — or possibly Ross’s girlfriend.

A Crown analyst from ventured to compare these under a microscope, and would later put it to the court that they looked like Alma’s. This would be the first time hair forensics were deployed in an Australian courtroom.

Was it not possible, asked Ross’s counsel — who genuinely believed his client’s innocence and fought the corner until the very last — that it might be almost literally anyone else’s auburn hair?

“Yes; quite possible, but not probable,” was the reply from the witness. “Because of the general similarity of hair.” Oh.

Even decades later this gotcha was being celebrated as a triumph of forensic science, for the blanket’s locks “corresponded exactly” with those of the victim.

But they didn’t correspond.

“The day is coming when my innocence will be proved,” Ross wrote in a farewell letter to his family.

That day took 85 years in coming.

In the 1990s, author Kevin Morgan stumbled somewhat miraculously upon preserved hair samples from the case and began an odyssey that would see him to officially exonerating Colin Campbell Ross.

Tests Morgan was able to arrange with the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine and then with police both agreed that under modern microscopic examination the hairs in question did not bear even a surface resemblance. With the support of the Victorian Attorney General and the Australian Supreme Court, Ross was granted a posthumous pardon on May 27, 2008 — the first person ever so distinguished in Victoria’s history.

Tirtschke’s own family, too, supported this result: they had long harbored their own doubts about the verdict. “She didn’t say who was the right man but she said the wrong man was hung,”* one descendant said of her grandmother’s recollections.

* Though a lesser horror compared to being railroaded in the first place, Ross’s hanging was also badly botched. An experimental four-strand rope failed to sever his spinal cord, leaving his dangling body to convulse as Ross wheezed his last breaths through a torn windpipe.

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1642: George Spencer, pork loin

3 comments April 8th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1642, George Spencer paid the penalty at the New Haven (Connecticut) colony for a pig-fucking that he probably never perpetrated.

Seven and a half weeks previous, a farmer named John Wakeman had reported to magistrates that his pregnant sow had delivered a litter of healthy piglets … plus one abomination from the nightmares of H.P. Lovecraft and Ron Jeremy.

Itt had no haire on the whole body, the skin was very tender, and of a reddish white collour like a childs; the head most straing, itt had butt one eye in the midle of the face, and thatt large and open, like some blemished eye of a man; over the eye, in the bottome of the foreheade which was like a childes, a thing of flesh grew forth and hung downe, itt was hollow, and like the mans instrument of generation.

Genetics is a funny thing. Once in a while the little variations in a new generation will produce an adaptive advantage that takes the species another step down its evolutionary path.

And then other times what you get is dickface swineclops.

As so often with a proper monster story, it was the frightened townsfolk who produced the real horror.

The resemblance of this poor (and mercifully stillborn) pig to a man — “nose, mouth and chinne deformed, butt nott much unlike a childs, the neck and eares had allso such resemblance” — looked like palpable divine anger to New Haven worthies, and inspired a suitably inquisitorial response.

Its target was localized to George Spencer, a former servant to the pig’s former owner. Spencer had a bum eye himself plus a reputation as a “prophane, lying, scoffing and lewd speritt.” With a model of heredity we might strain to credit as primitive, it emerged as widespread suspicion that soon manifested into fact that Spencer had fathered the penis-headed chimera.

Maybe George Spencer really did go hog wild. Who really knows? But the account of the “investigation” — in which the only actual evidence was Spencer’s own confession plus his mutant “progeny” — has every hallmark of the false confessions whose prevalence is only lately becoming well-understood. European and American “witches” were also telling their persecutors just what they wanted to hear in the mid-17th century.

Spencer denied the charges at first. The magistrate Stephen Goodyear(e)* interrogated him: did Spencer not “take notice of something in [the monster pig] like him”? Goodyear implied that they already knew Spencer was guilty.

During a nervous pause, which Goodyear took to be Spencer preparing his soul to unburden itself but a less hostile viewer might have taken to be the frightened farmhand fretting about how he was going to escape with his neck, Goodyear hit him with Proverbs 28:13. It’s a nice dual-purpose verse to stamp the divine imprimatur on the good cop-bad cop approach: “He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy.”

Spencer wasn’t getting anywhere denying everything. He decided to try confessing and getting in on that mercy.

(Even at this, he told someone else that he had only confessed “for favor”. Upon hearing this, Goodyear stalked back to Spencer’s cell and made him commit to the confession.)

The next day, a team of town grandees showed up to get the details. Again, Spencer denied it, but now his previous day’s remarks hemmed him in. His story was shifty; he changed the location of the sin from the sty to the stable, varied between a half-hour and two hours engaged in his sin.

By the time of the trial that commenced on March 2, Spencer — perhaps now realizing that the proverb he ought to have heeded was “don’t talk to police” — was back to full denial. This time he stuck to it all the way through the proceedings, and little good it did him as witness after witness who had heard various iterations of his confession reported the admission. The judges had to decide how to adjudicate this kind of case at all, and they decided to go straight to the Pentateuch.

according to the fundamentall agreement, made and published by full and generall consent, when the plantation began and government was settled, that the judiciall law of God given by Moses and expounded in other parts of scripture, so far as itt is a hedg and a fence to the morrall law, and neither ceremoniall nor tipicall, nor had any referrence to Canaan, hath an everlasting equity in itt, and should be the rule of their proceedings. They judged the crime cappitall, and thatt the prisoner and the sow, according to Levit. 20 and 15, should be put to death.

By hanging-day on April 8, Spencer was still refusing to admit the charges, and he even continued his obstinacy to the gallows — giving only the sort of standard-issue hanging-day exhortation to straighten those laces and not skip church that everyone always gave. To this he still “joyned a denyall of his fact.”

Only at the very last, with the noose about his neck, “and being tolde it was an ill time now to provoke God when he was falling into his hands, as a righteous and seveere judge who had vengeanc at hand for all his other sins, so for his impudency and atheisme, he justified the sentence as righteous, and fully confessed the bestiality in all the scircumstances,” meanwhile blaming for the probable damnation of his soul a sawyer in the audience named Will Harding who tried to keep the flesh alive by counseling Spencer to just keep his damned mouth shut and not confess anything in the first place. This death’s-edge admission would have satisfied onlookers, but ought not satisfy us; the complex psychology of false confessions with their underlying fear of punishment and need to please a captor are potentially even sharper at the communal performance of a public execution — the offender’s last opportunity to spiritually rejoin his own community. Spencer knew he was doomed; he knew everyone thought he was lying; he would presumably have genuinely feared hell and deeply desired to give his own certain death meaning. Somewhere in this id soup is surely reason enough to say the thing his friends and neighbors all but willed him to say.

Thing said, the poor sow was butchered under Spencer’s eyes first (as Leviticus demands). Then Spencer was strangled on hemp, “God opening his mouth before his death, to give him the glory of his rightousnes, to the full satisfaction of all then present.”

* Goodyear(e)‘s daughter Hannah would eventually marry the son of John Wakeman, whose sow it was that gave birth to the pig that started all the ruckus. In the early 1650s, Stephen Goodyear would favor colonial authorities with suspicions of a witch in his very own household, but that poor servant managed to avoid execution.

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1644: Goodwife Cornish

2 comments December 2nd, 2013 Meaghan

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

Sometime in December 1644 in Maine, one Goodwife Cornish was executed for the murder of her husband, Richard Cornish. Her first name has been lost to history.

The couple had married in the town of Weymouth in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1634. It was a match made in hell.

According to Daniel Allen Hearn, writing of this case in his book Legal Executions in New England, 1623-1960, Richard Cornish was “a tireless worker” but his wife as “a woman of loose habits.”

The couple moved north to the settlement York in modern-day Maine in 1646, and “Goodwife Cornish wasted no time in reestablishing her notoriety.”

In 1644, Goodman Cornish’s body was found floating in the York River. He’d been killed in an unusual way: impaled on a stake, then placed in his canoe, which was weighted with stones. As Hearn records:

A cry of murder was raised. The sensational news swept the town and surrounding countryside. Had hostile Indians killed Richard Cornish? Probably not. Although the man’s skull had been crushed as if by a war club no one could imagine an Indian being so wasteful as to purposefully sink a good canoe. Such a craft would have been desirable plunder to an Indian. Moreover, what Indian, it was asked, would squander precious time by weighting down a canoe when he could be making good his escape? For these reasons it was determined that the murder of Richard Cornish was the work of some crafty white person. Suspicion fell upon the wife of the decedent. She had openly despised her husband. She was also rumored to have committed adultery.

Goodwife Cornish, when questioned, denied having murdered her husband.

But she admitted to multiple extramarital affairs and named her latest boyfriend as Edward Johnson. The authorities subjected both of them to “trial by touch,” acting on the old superstition that a murdered person’s corpse would bleed if the killer touched it.

When Goodwife Cornish and Goodman Johnson were brought before Richard Cornish’s body and made to touch it, blood supposedly oozed from his wounds. The ensuing trial, Hearn says, was “a farce.”

Much was made of Goodwife Cornish’s infidelity, but the only actual “evidence” against either her or Johnson was the fact that they’d both flunked the touch test. “It was reputation more than anything else,” Hearn notes, “that counted against Goodwife Cornish.”

Johnson was ultimately acquitted, but Goodwife Cornish was convicted of murder and condemned to die. Having maintained her innocence to the end, she was hanged in York.

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1997: Chiang Kuo-ching, Taiwan wrongful conviction

1 comment August 13th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1997, Taiwanese airman Chiang Kuo-ching was shot for the rape-murder of a five-year-old girl the previous September.

Chiang was nominated as a suspect by a fellow enlistee just a day after the little girl’s body was found in a privy gutter.

So, he and three other early suspects were given “lie detector” tests. Because Chiang was the only one of these who “failed” to acquit himself by this ludicrous mummery, he became the subject of implacable official tunnel vision.

The case was referred — illegally and arbitrarily — to the country’s intelligence services, who subjected Chiang to 37 hours of torture in order to extract a confession: beatings, threats, sleep deprivation, and private screenings of “his victim’s” autopsy.

Chiang broke, and admitted to the crime.

That admission was the star witness against him in his ensuing military trial. Chiang had retracted it by then — but that was much too late to help himself, especially since potentially exculpatory forensic evidence was intentionally withheld from his defense.

As it turned out, the bloody handprint and the DNA trace recovered from the scene didn’t match Chiang at all. No evidence connected him to the crime, except the evidence of truncheons.

Another airman, Hsu Rong-chou, eventually admitted to the killing. (He’d already been convicted in two other child molestation cases, in 1997 and 2003.) In 2011, Hsu received an 18-year prison sentence for the crime that took Chiang Kuo-ching’s life. Chiang was posthumously acquitted that same year.

The latter-day reversal of the sentence was so sensational that Taiwan’s legislature enacted a special law to increase the compensation Chiang’s family received. The family also got an extraordinary televised apology from President Ma Ying-jeou, who bowed three times before an image of the wrongfully executed man.

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1936: Buck Ruxton, red stains

9 comments May 12th, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1936, Buktyar Rustomji Ratanji Hakim, also known as Buck Ruxton, was hanged in Strangeways Prison for the murder of his common-law wife, Isabella, and their maid, Mary Jane Rogerson.

A general practitioner of Persian descent, Ruxton was born in India and moved to the United Kingdom in 1930 to set up practice in Lancaster.

He met a married Englishwoman, Isabella Van Ess, and took up with her after her divorce. Although they never legally married and Ruxton actually already had a wife he’d left behind in India, they lived as man and wife and had three children, and she took his last name.

Ruxton had a reputation as a good doctor and a compassionate one who waived his fees for indigent. He wasn’t nearly as good a husband as he was a physician, however: he was extremely jealous of his charming, sociable wife and continually accused her of infidelity with little actual evidence of it.

The neighbors overheard violent arguments, and Isabella would occasionally take the children and leave, seeking refuge at her sister’s home. At one point she reported her husband to the police for domestic violence, but they paid little attention to her complaints.

On September 15, 1935, Ruxton flew into one of his rages, stabbed his wife five times in the chest, beat her and strangled her with his bare hands. He battered the maid to death as well, since she had been unlucky enough to witness it. A clever little rhyme memorialized the story, one of its various versions is printed below:

Red stains on the carpet, red stains on the knife
For Dr. Buck Ruxton had murdered his wife
The maid servant saw it and threatened to tell
So Dr. Buck Ruxton, he’s killed her as well

Ruxton dismembered both bodies in the bathtub and dumped the parts in a stream near the Scottish border, over a hundred miles from Lancaster. There were thirty pieces in all, leading the press to call the case the “Jigsaw Murders.”

In an effort to hinder identification, Ruxton removed the victims’ teeth and skinned their faces. This turned out to be too clever by half: once the bodies were found in late September, the precision of the cuts told authorities that the killer was someone with anatomical knowledge and surgical skill, which narrowed the suspect pool considerably.

This filter, combined with the realization that one of the newspapers Ruxton used to wrap up some dismembered bit was a special edition copy sold only in Lancaster and Morecambe, led the cops to Ruxton and not many others. It wasn’t long before the pieces — sorry — fell into place.

Meanwhile, exciting new forensic techniques, helped firm up identification of the corpses: authorities superimposed a photograph of Isabella over one of the skulls and found a dramatically jury-friendly visible match.

Isabella Ruxton, in life and death.

Forensic entomology (in this case, the gross but useful technique of checking the age of the maggots infesting the corpses) helped pinpoint the date of death.

Ruxton was arrested on October 13, nearly a month after the double murder.

The Ruxtons’ charlady told the police that on the day Isabella and the maid disappeared, Ruxton came to her house early and told her not to come in to work. The next day, when she arrived at the Ruxtons’ house, she found it in a state of disarray with the carpets removed and a pile of burnt material in the backyard. A neighbor couple also had helpful recollections: Ruxton had persuaded them to come and help out at his house, saying he’d cut his hand while opening a can of peaches and he needed to clean up quickly because decorators were coming over. They scrubbed his walls and he gave them some bloodstained carpets and clothing.

Given all this evidence, there was little Ruxton’s defense attorney could say for him.

The defense tried to challenge the identification of the bodies, but the superimposed skull picture was quite convincing. Ruxton admitted his guilt prior to his execution and signed a short confession. He was hanged in spite of a petition with 10,000 signatures asking for mercy.

The Ruxton case, a smashing tabloid hit in its day, has been the subject of its own book, T.F. Potter’s The Deadly Dr. Ruxton: How They Caught a Lancashire Double Killer. It’s also featured in many general true crime books, including Colin Wilson and Damon Wilson’s Crimes of Passion: The Thin Line Between Love and Hate, Colin Evans’s The Casebook of Forensic Detection: How Science Solved 100 of the World’s Most Baffling Crimes, and Harold Schechter’s A to Z Encyclopedia of Serial Killers.

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2012: Richard Stokley, while his accomplice goes free

8 comments December 5th, 2012 Headsman

On a summer’s day in 1991, Richard Stokley and Randy Brazeal picked up two 13-year-old girls from a fair in Cochise County, Arizona and drove them to the desert. There they raped them, then stomped, strangled and stabbed the two to death and dumped their naked bodies in a flooded mineshaft.

Today, Richard Stokley is set to bewas executed for that double homicide.

His accomplice Randy Brazeal is a free man living in Arkansas.

And little but the chance progress of justice and the human judgment calls that officers of the court make every day will distinguish the fate of two men, even though their trial judge has said that he “didn’t have a feeling that one was less culpable than the other.”

Brazeal, a 19-year-old troublemaker new to the area, and Stokley, a local brute twice his age, would spin different stories about exactly what happened in the desert that night to Mandy Meyers and Mary Snyder: about how the attacks began, and who particpated in what.

Long story short: Stokley’s version had both men as full participants, raping at least one girl apiece and each strangling a different victim. Brazeal’s version had him basically just giving people a ride and Stokley committing the crimes. (It’s not clear whether the victims were abducted from the fair, or went along willingly only to be attacked later.)

Forensic DNA testing was only just emerging in 1991, and it required months to process … months that the state did not have before Brazeal’s murder trial was set to begin. Even then, the state’s attorney worried that “the status of the law is in some question as to whether the DNA evidence would be admissible.”

This uncertainty set the parameters for a plea deal in which prosecutors took the guaranteed conviction and Brazeal dodged the needle. He was released in 2011 after serving concurrent 20-year sentences for second-degree murder.

But weeks after that deal was sealed (and before Stokley’s trial) DNA tests on semen retrieved from Mandy Meyers showed that both men had indeed raped her.

The DNA evidence helped seal Stokley’s conviction, even though it and other forensic evidence around the scene also tended to buttress Stokley’s “equal partners in the crime” story to the detriment of Brazeal’s version.

The net outcome* doesn’t necessarily look like justice. Mandy’s devastated mother, Patty Hancock, has been vocal in the run-up to Stokley’s execution about her disgust with the sentencing disproportion.

“With the evidence that they did have, Randy Brazeal should be sitting right next to Richard Dale Stokley,” she told one reporter. “And I will say that until the day I die.”

Stokley, for his part, filed a similar appeal in the courts as grounds for reducing his own sentence. But even though he’s availed every legal avenue possible, he didn’t bother trying the long odds at a gubernatorial reprieve — instead writing the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency:

I am also sorry I was mixed up in those awful events that brought me to this. I have been sorry for the victims and the victims’ families. But no one wants to hear of my miserable sorrow, they just want for me to get dead, which is vengeance. They think it will bring ‘closure.’ But there is no healing in that. Ever.

I have decided to decline a clemency hearing. I don’t want to put anyone through that, especially since I’m convinced that, as things stand now, it’s pointless. I reckon I know how to die, and if it’s my time, I’ll go without fanfare. And if it ain’t, I won’t. God’s will be done.

God’s will is scheduled for 10 a.m. Mountain time today. (Update: Stokley was executed as scheduled.)

* It’s particularly striking that the man who was more forthcoming and cooperative with investigators ended up with the heavier sentence.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Arizona,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Lethal Injection,Murder,Rape,Ripped from the Headlines,USA

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1953: 32 merciful Soviet soldiers

7 comments June 18th, 2012 Meaghan

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

In June 1953, some discontented young citizens of Magdeburg, East Germany revolted and began demonstrating against the repressive Communist regime. On June 17, in the spirit of totalitarian governments everywhere, the authorities ordered a platoon of soldiers to open fire on a crowd of protesters.

Incredibly, the soldiers refused.

Every one of them vanished shortly thereafter, never to be seen again.

It was long assumed that the entire platoon had been executed for insubordination. This wasn’t confirmed until 1998, however. Four years previously, Magdeburg construction workers digging the foundation for a new building accidentally unearthed a mass grave containing 32 bullet-riddled skeletons. From the condition of the remains, authorities determined the victims — all of them young men — had died sometime between 1945 and 1960.

They could have been the missing Soviet platoon, but they could also have been prisoners executed by the Gestapo mopping up in May 1945, just before the Germans fled the city in advance of the Red Army.

As Jessica Snyder Sachs noted in her 2001 book Corpse: Nature, Forensics, and the Struggle to Pinpoint Time of Death, the victims all had extensive tooth decay and no sign of dental work, which was consistent with Russia but not central Europe. This was hardly conclusive, however.

To solve the mystery, investigators turned to Reinhard Szibor, a biologist at the nearby Otto von Guericke University.

Szibor had helped in criminal cases before and was famous for using pollen to link suspects to crime scenes. Pollen clings to people’s hair, skin and clothes and is, of course, also inhaled. The stuff is nearly indestructible and will remain long after human remains have disintegrated. Authorities hoped Szibor could use pollen samples from the mass grave to determine what time of year the victims died.

Discover Magazine explains how he did it: Szibor rinsed out the skulls’ nasal cavities, had a look, and found pollen from lime trees, plantains and rye, all of which release their pollen during June and July. In other words, the Magdeburg victims had died during the summer months, the time when the Soviet platoon was reportedly executed, and not in the springtime when the Nazis retreated from the city.

Though we still don’t know the precise date of their deaths, and likely never will, the soldiers who paid for their humanity with their lives had finally been identified.

Die Lösung (The Solution)

After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers’ Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

-Bertold Brecht

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,East Germany,Execution,Germany,Guest Writers,History,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Power,Russia,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Uncertain Dates,USSR

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1928: Frederick Browne and Pat Kennedy, hanged by a microscope

3 comments May 31st, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1928, Frederick Browne and William Henry “Pat” Kennedy hanged simultaneously (but at different prisons: Pentonville and Wandsworth, respectively) for murdering an Essex policeman.

Police constable George Gutteridge was found dead in September 1927 on a byway near Howe Green, dressed in his full police regalia, shot four times in the face while apparently in the process of writing up a miscreant motorist.


Frederick Browne (top) and Pat Kennedy.

Two of the shots had been through each of Gutteridge’s eyes, conceivably in deference to the ancient superstition that dead men’s eyes preserve the last image they beheld in life. If that was the reasoning, Frederick Browne, the triggerman, was living in the wrong century.

The “Gutteridge murder” investigation — a national sensation from the time the constable’s mutilated body was discovered — took several months to hone in on suspects Browne and Kennedy, known car thieves with some history of violence. But the real break in the case was, well, a case: a cartridge case from a .455 Webley recovered at the crime scene. It would be the most eloquent witness against Browne and Kennedy.

The now-familiar science of forensic ballistics was, though not quite brand new, still an occult art in Anglo courts of law. Just days before Gutteridge’s murder, Sacco and Vanzetti had been executed in the United States based in part on ballistics studies. That gun-barrel research had been continued in the post-conviction appeals and clemency investigation, and provided one of the clinching pieces of evidence against the anarchists, but it was also ferociously contested.

In Great Britain, it was the Gutteridge case that put this field on the map for the general public — courtesy of professional gunsmith and ballistics investigator Robert Churchill.

Churchill used microscope analysis of the recovered casing to match the bullet not only to a .455 Webley, but to the .455 Webley recovered from Browne’s car: to that gun, and no other.

Post-Browne and Kennedy, murderers given to gunplay became very well advised to dispose of weapons once they’d been used: this case served notice that individual handguns left a sort of fingerprint on the rounds they discharged, and could thereby incriminate their owners months or years after the fact.

This conclusion was not universally embraced, perhaps owing in part to the role of ballistics in the controversial Sacco and Vanzetti affair: according to Basil Thomson, George Bernard Shaw wrote to Browne’s family during the trial to express his skepticism, complaining of the crown’s “manufactured evidence.” In 1932, the renowned barrister Patrick Hastings successfully repelled Robert Churchill’s firearms evidence at the high-profile murder trial of Elvira Barney.

But the reason Churchill was on the stand on that occasion was because his damning testimony in 1928, explaining where a small fault in the Webley’s breech block had scarred the bullet as it launched, not only sufficed to hang Browne and Kennedy* — “hanged by a microscope”, in the words of The Sunday Dispatch — but also launched a star career for Churchill personally, and made the bones of firearm ballistics for modern criminal trials.

* More precisely, the forensic testimony hanged Browne — who stuck with a flat denial, which the ballistics associated with his own gun refuted. Kennedy lacked the wit to shut his mouth and in the course of trying to spin his story to throw all the blame onto Browne also just by the by confessed to his own involvement.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Notable Sleuthing,Theft

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