1957: Walter James Bolton, the last hanged in New Zealand

11 comments February 18th, 2011 Headsman

New Zealand got itself permanently out of the execution business after hanging Walter Bolton this date in 1957 for the murder of his wife.

The 68-year-old farmer was condemned after his wife finally succumbed to a year-long bout with some mysterious recurring ailment — and the post-mortem revealed long-term arsenic poisoning. Since Bolton turned out to have been having an affair with his wife’s sister, the pieces just fell right into place.

Jurors found these circumstances credible enough to stretch Bolton’s neck, but there’s the small problem that Walter Bolton himself also tested for arsenic poisoning.

The defense argued that the farm’s wells must have soaked up the poison from sheep dip.

But if you like your wrongful executions more sinister than dunderheaded, you might turn a wary eye to that adulterous sister-in-law, Florence Doherty, who committed suicide a year after Bolton hanged. This 2001 Investigate magazine argues (beginning on p. 24 of the pdf) that Doherty may have been a serial arsenic poisoner.

(Bolton’s hanging was also botched, to complete the official dog’s breakfast.)

Whether or not Bolton was rightly accused, nothing along the lines of a public scandal over the case triggered death penalty abolition in New Zealand.

It was rather the First World’s collctive mid-20th century move away from capital punishment. Various abolition efforts building in the 1950’s finally led to a 1961 free vote on the matter, in which ten members of the conservative National Party broke party ranks to eliminate the death penalty for all ordinary crimes. (Decades later, a Labour government also eliminated the death penalty for treason; New Zealand has only ever hanged one person for that crime.)

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,New Zealand,Sex,Wrongful Executions

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1939: The only triple execution in Manitoba

9 comments February 16th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1939, the Canadian province of Manitoba carried out at Headingley Gaol the only triple execution in its history.

Peter Korzenowski and William Kanuka hanged side by side just after midnight that February 16, while their accomplice Dan Prytula waited 14 minutes for his turn on the gallows.

Less than a year before, drunk on moonshine, the trio beat and kicked 81-year-old Anna Cottick to death on her Dauphin-area farm in an attempt to plunder the place of a rumored $1,000. In fact, they only found twenty-three bucks.

According to an article that appeared on the regrettably extinct Manitoba’s Buried History site,

The process of finding enough corroborating evidence to obtain murder convictions was the stuff of modern crime dramas.

As soon as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police arrived at the Cottick farm, members noticed fresh tire tracks entering and leaving the yard. They were tracked three miles west to within 150 yards of Kanuka’s residence, and from there to the Gilbert Plains home of Prytula’s sister. The tire marks were a perfect match to the treads on Prytula’s 1929 Ford. It was confiscated and, while casts were taken of its treads, Prytula was arrested and his blood-stained clothes, boots and three .32 calibre bullets were seized and sent to the RCMP crime lab for testing.

As one group of police officers were arresting Prytula and Korzenowski, another searched the Cottick residence for additional evidence. Almost immediately they noticed what appeared to be fingerprints on the glass smashed by the assailants. Fragments were sent to experts in Winnipeg, along with a window frame and piece of wall where the bullets fired by Korzenowski and Prytula lodged.

The RCMP also searched the residence and yard of Korzenowski, located a few hundred yards from where Kanuka had been staying. There they found the revolvers used in the break-ins, hidden in a pile of stones. Korzenowski was promptly arrested, and three days later he and his two friends were part of an identification line-up paraded in front of the hospital beds of the Cotticks.*

To top all that off, they bugged the men’s jail cell with a dictograph and snared them in several incriminating conversations. Representative remark: the lawyers are so expensive, “No wonder one has to go robbing.”

* Anna’s 91-year-old husband survived the home invasion.

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1688: Philip Standsfield

2 comments February 15th, 2011 Headsman

Oh Gentlemen, see, see dead Henrys wounds,
Open their congeal’d mouthes, and bleed afresh.
Blush, blush, thou lumpe of fowle Deformitie:
For ’tis thy presence that exhales this blood
From cold and empty Veines where no blood dwels.
Thy Deeds inhumane and unnaturall,
Provokes this Deluge most unnaturall.

Lady Anne Neville in Shakespeare’s Richard III

There long persisted superstition* of ancient vintage that the wounds of a murder victim will bleed in the presence of the murderer.**

This date in 1688 saw the execution in Edinburgh of one Philip Standsfield (sometimes Stansfield or even Standfield) for parricide, his conviction being secured in part by the supposed accusation of his father’s corpse.

The prodigal firstborn of James Standsfield was an incorrigible scoundrel, and the state had a considerable circumstantial case to the effect that said scoundrel finally popped the old man to prevent disinheritance. (It also appeared that he’d tried to do it other times over the years.)

Circumstantial evidence is nice.

But how about some forensic evidence to really cinch a conviction? No DNA evidence here in the 17th century, so maybe something a little more … supernatural?


From A True Relation of a Barbarous Bloody Murther etc., available here.

The King’s Advocate insisted — over the objections of a defense attorney that “it was a superstitious observation, founded neither upon law nor reason” — that the corpse’s having bled on Philip Standsfield but none of the others in his party simultaneously attempting to move it “he must ascribe … to the wonderful Providence of God, who in this manner discovers murder.”

Divine forensics. That’s even better than the arson evidence Texas used to kill Cameron Willingham.

And it had the same result, to wit,

the said Philip Standsfield to be taken upon Wednesday next, being the 15th of February instant, to the Market-cross of Edinbrugh, and there, betwixt two and four o’clock in the afternoon, to be hanged on a gibbet till he be dead, and his tongue to be cut out and burnt upon a scaffold, and his right hand to be cut off and affixed to the east port of Haddingtoun, and his body to be carried to the Gallowlie betwixt Leith and Edinburgh, and there to be hanged up in chains; and ordains his name, fame, memory, and honours to be extinct, his arms to be riven forth and delete out of the books of arms …†

Well, you get the idea. Executed Today would like to apologize to the dempster of Edinburgh for keeping Philip Standsfield’s name, fame, and memory alive.

In our defense, we are hardly the only ones: this is thought to be the last time that Scottish law employed the bleeding-corpse “test”.

* Some other instances of purported “bleeding at the touch” may be perused here.

** In a 1927 piece in the Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology, Canadian jurist William Renwick Riddell says this folk belief “was wide spread and is not dead yet” and offers in a footnote (perhaps by way of explaining his interest) that “when at the Bar, I was once offered such evidence by my client; but I declined to use it.”

† The execution was botched, and the gibbeted body illicitly pulled down and tossed in a ditch — which is where the elder Standsfield’s had been discovered.

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1909: Valgrand in place of Fantomas

1 comment December 19th, 2010 Headsman

On this date* in 1909, in the first novel of the hit French Fantomas crime serial, the title character escapes the guillotine by having a duped actor beheaded in his place.

Fantomas’s Wikipedia entry calls the character “a transition from Gothic novel villains of the 19th century to modern-day serial killers“: he’s a swashbuckling anti-hero who’s a master of disguise and perfectly okay with getting his hands bloody.

His own personal Javert, an inspector by the name of Juve who has stalked him for years,** has finally managed to have Fantomas convicted of a murder and sent to await execution. (Here’s a synopsis of the book.)

The widow of that crime’s victim — also Fantomas’s lover — subsequently contrives to arrange a tete-a-tete with an actor then portraying Fantomas’s lurid crime spree on the Parisian stage. She wants him to come in costume, which excites the actor as a seriously macabre kink: little does this Valgrand suspect that his own tete will be swapped for the murderer’s by next light.

That following day finds a drugged Valgrand infiltrated into Fantomas’s cell, in a sort of travesty of the noble Sydney Carton‘s guillotine switcheroo. Still suffering the effects of the potion his supposed inamorata has plied him with only hours before, and still made up to resemble the condemned man, he’s incapable of objecting as he’s hustled to the scaffold.

Juve was watching the unhappy wretch, and could not restrain a word of admiration.

“That man is a brave man! He has not even turned pale! Generally condemned men are livid!”

The executioner’s assistants had bound the man upon the plank; it tilted upwards. Deibler grasped the head by the two ears and pulled it into the lunette, despite one last convulsive struggle of the victim.

There was a click of a spring, the flash of the falling knife, a spurt of blood, a dull groan from ten thousand breasts, and the head rolled into the basket!

But Juve … sprang towards the scaffold. He thrust the assistants away, and plunging his hands into the bran that was all soaked with blood, he seized the severed head by the hair and stared at it.

“Good God!” he cried in tones of anguish.

“It isn’t [Fantomas] who has just been put to death!” Juve panted brokenly. “This face has not gone white because it is painted! It is made up — like an actor’s! Oh, curses on him! Fantomas has escaped! Fantomas has got away! He has had some innocent man executed in his stead! I tell you Fantomas is alive!”

And so he was … to the tune of a staggering 32 books over three years. Eat your heart out, J.K. Rowling.

Fantomas on the silver screen

This series has enjoyed a number of adaptations to the screen, and indeed it’s a media milestone as well since the books were cranked out at record pace by a team of writers working simultaneously on modular chapters to meet publication deadlines that fed immediately into cinema deals. There were also comic and radio spinoffs, though they’re not known to have been forward-thinking enough to have had a website.

In the classic first silent adaptation of Fantomas in 1913 (the book was published in 1911), poor Valgrand catches a break: he’s recognized and spared beheading at the last moment. There’s a very thorough guide for viewing that film here.

* The book situates the action where Valgrand is seduced and tricked on December 18, and the narrative makes it clear that the execution itself is at dawn the next morning.

It can be placed in 1909 because a guard mentions the execution of Henri Duchemin, a real historical figure guillotined earlier in 1909. (That year marked a resumption of executions in France; a death penalty opponent serving as President of the Third Republic systematically blocked executions from 1905 through 1908.)

Lady Beltham, whose feminine wiles spring the master criminal, subsequently commits suicide in 1910, which leaves only the one possibility.

** Juve is a big fan of the then-trendy, now-discredited system of Bertillonage; Fantomas consistently runs circles around this “scientific” crime-fighting. Academics, if you please?

Through the incorporation of Alphonse Bertillon’s anthropometrics — the dominant mode of criminal investigation at the time –, as both the narratological and criminological impetus for its exponentially serialized representations of criminality, Fantomas articulates resistance to the representational strategies of the numerical classification of criminals as a means of social and “scientific” control, while compelling the ongoing modern capitalist cycle of mass literary production and consumption.

-Nanette Fornabai, “Criminal Factors: ‘Fantômas’, Anthropometrics, and the Numerical Fictions of Modern Criminal Identity,” Yale French Studies, No. 108 (2005)

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1994: Andrei Chikatilo, the Butcher of Rostov

5 comments February 14th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1994, Ukrainian serial killer Andrei Romanovich Chikatilo was shot dead in a soundproof room in Novocherkassk, Russia, for a stupendous serial murder spree in the 1980s USSR.

The quintessential case study in anonymous middle-aged melancholy turned larger-than-life horror, the sexually dysfunctional Chikatilo raped, murdered and mutilated dozens in a homicidal career beginning at the unusually late age of 42.

After that initial foray into rape-murder in 1978, three years passed before the factory clerk (molestation allegations had drummed him out of teaching in the interval) began his harvest of 50-plus victims: children and teenagers of both sexes, and young adult women.

In addition to the staggering body count, the murders of the “Rostov Ripper” were marked by orgiastic savagery: breasts severed, eyes gouged out, genitalia mutilated and even eaten, and bodies lacerated with scores of stab wounds.

Like many monsters, he was also, as much as his more well-adjusted fellows, a creature of his own time and place.

Chikatilo was a socially maladjusted child in part due to his father’s capture by the Germans during World War II, subjecting the family to the postwar ostracism that awaited returning POWs. (Some sources also say Chikatilo saw his mother raped by German soldiers.)

The part of his life for which he’s most famous, meanwhile, drew out into a years-long bloodbath even though he was a suspect from the very first murder — a crime for which another man was wrongfully executed. Sclerotic bureaucracy and investigative cock-ups hobbled the police effort throughout, a sort of criminological emblem of the Soviet Union’s twilight. Authorities were loathe to involve the public by admitting the presence of a serial killer, a type officially associated with bourgeois society.

Chikatilo was arrested once in 1984 carrying a Bundy-esque murder kit, but authorities couldn’t make anything stick (Chikatilo’s Communist Party membership helped); another officer stopped him leaving the forest where bodies turned up, but didn’t search the satchel which contained his most recent victim’s severed breasts. Chikatilo was investigated early on, but ruled out as a suspect because of a blood type mismatch between his blood and crime-scene semen — apparently the result of a rare biological anomaly that (combined with authorities’ outsized confidence in forensic detection) bought him years of killing and involved thousands more suspects before investigators finally circled back to Andrei Romanovich.

Even at his last arrest, investigators who knew they had their man nearly let him slip away because they couldn’t charge him within 10 days — finally cajoling a confession and the killer’s cooperation at nearly the last possible hour.

According to Cannibal Killers, the Chikatilo task force solved 1,062 unrelated crimes, including 95 murders, while puzzling out the Rostov Ripper.

There’s much more about Chikatilo’s career at trutv.com; the 1995 film about the Chikatilo murders, Citizen X, indulges some dramatic license, but it’s pretty watchable for a TV movie.

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2008: Michitoshi Kuma, “It can’t be undone now”

1 comment October 28th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 2008, during a record-setting year for executions, Japan hanged Michitoshi Kuma, 70, and Masahiro Takashio, 55.

Michitoshi Kuma attracts our notice in particular not simply because he insisted throughout his trial and appeal that he was innocent of abducting and murdering two seven-year-olds in 1992 … but because the circumstantial evidence that convicted him was buttressed by a DNA testing regime that has fallen into disrepute.

One crucial piece of evidence against Kuma was the DNA samples taken from blood near the victims’ bodies. The samples were tested with DNA typing of the MCT118 locus.

The same method of testing was used in the case of the murder of a young girl in Ashikaga, Tochigi Prefecture, in 1990, known as the Ashikaga case. The test result was seen as crucial evidence in supporting the life sentence handed down to the accused, Toshikazu Sugaya.

However, the result was overturned when the DNA was tested again as part of the immediate appeal filed by Sugaya’s defense counsel after his request for a retrial was dismissed.

Sugaya, 62, was freed from prison on June 4, 17 years after police had arrested him.

“At first glance, DNA tests look scientific. That’s why it’s dangerous to have complete faith in them,” Iwata said.

“The tests were carried out in a particularly sloppy way in the early 1990s, when the Iizuka and Ashikaga cases occurred,” he said, adding that the Iizuka case likely was another example of a wrongful conviction.

“It can’t be undone now,” one of the defense lawyers lamented upon hearing of the hanging — conducted, as per usual in Japan, in secret and without prior notice to either the inmate or his attorneys.

The Ashikaga case, in which another prisoner convicted about the same time as Kuma and with the same DNA technology was exonerated and released a few months after Kuma’s hanging, embarrassingly reversed what had once been a signal judicial triumph for early DNA testing.

“The media treated the science as if it were invincible, like Atom Boy,” [one of Toshikazu Sugaya’s attorneys] said sarcastically. “They just kept admiring the DNA judgment without reservations.”

The objections Sugaya’s exoneration prompted about Kuma’s conviction, of course, arrived a bit too late.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Japan,Murder,Ripped from the Headlines,Wrongful Executions

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1920: Dennis Gunn, hanged by a fingerprint

6 comments June 22nd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1920, Dennis Gunn’s fingerprints made history by hanging their owner for murder.

“You’ll have a job to prove it,” said Dennis Gunn when police charged him with murder.

Use of the fingerprint in forensic science had been developing over the decades preceding, and already begun to earn its bones with criminal convictions.

Dennis Gunn’s conviction marked a watershed in the mainstreaming of the youthful science, especially in New Zealand and the British Empire/Commonwealth: the first execution that hung — so to speak — on a print.

The 25-year-old was tied to the murder of Ponsonby postmaster Augustus Braithwaite because a smudge left on a stolen cashbox matched the prints Gunn had contributed to the nascent New Zealand fingerprint library when he had been convicted of evading military service two years before.

Armed with this connection, a police search of Gunn’s environs turned up the apparent tools of the crime — a revolver (with yet another matching print), a thieves’ kit, and more pilfered proceeds of the postal strongroom.

Gunn attempted to indict the reliability of the fingerprint evidence at trial, and according to the London Times (Apr. 20, 1920) he had the support in this endeavor of “public demonstrations of sympathy, men and women rushing to shake hands with Gunn.”

But it didn’t fly with the jury.*

Gunn’s condemnation, read the official report,

disposes of all attempts to question the conclusiveness of this class of evidence, and proves the truth of the remark of the Chief Justice of Australia, that a man who leaves a clear fingerprint on an object leaves there an unforgettable signature.

Law enforcement organs around the world rapidly accepted the principle.

Too rapidly? Some think so; and, in the train of a new century’s bulletproof identification technology, DNA, wrongful convictions founded on purported fingerprint matches have drawn some renewed scrutiny (pdf) to the technique that put Dennis Gunn on the Mount Eden Prison gallows this date in 1920.

* Playing for time after conviction, Gunn copped to the robbery and tried to pin the murder on a supposed confederate. No dice.

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1864: Doctor Edmond-Désiré Couty de la Pommerais, poisoner

1 comment June 9th, 2009 Headsman

At dawn this morning before the walls of La Roquette, a homeopath convicted of poisoning his mistress was beheaded for one of Paris’s most sensational crime dramas of the 1860’s.

The ill-fated Madame de Pauw had fallen suddenly ill and expired in the doctor’s care; means and opportunity were obvious, and motive readily adduced from the handsome life insurance policies of the expired woman.

La Pommerais was convicted on this basis of killing his paramour in the midst of a farcical insurance scam, with noted forensic scientist Ambroise Tardieu establishing to the court’s satisfaction the presence of the poison digitalin.

(One can read a detailed 1865 critique of Tardieu’s conclusions and testimony, a reminder that the criminal justice system’s struggles with the uses and limitations of forensic science are a longstanding concern. This (if one takes it as such) murder, which reads in retrospection like a classic in the genre of comedic criminality, might have been the perfect crime absent an obvious pecuniary design: the death was put down to a routine cause and only scrutinized when an anonymous tip and/or the suspicious insurance adjusters led the authorities to exhume the body 13 days after burial.)

American newsman George Alfred Townsend chanced to be abroad in Paris on this occasion, and recorded the scene as “thousands of Parisians bent their steps the night before the execution” in Campaigns of a Non-combatant — excerpted at length here for its topicality to this blog.

The news had gone abroad that la Pommerais would not be pardoned. It was also generally credited that this would be the last execution ever held in Paris, since there is a general desire for the abolition of capital punishment in France, and a conviction that the Legislature, at its next session, will substitute life-imprisonment.* This, with the rarity of the event, and that terrible allurement of blood which distinguishes all populaces, brought out all the excitable folk of the town; and at dusk, on the night before the expiation, the whole neighborhood of La Roquette was crowded with men and women. All classes of Parisians were there, — the blouses, or workingmen, standing first in number; the students from the Latin Quartier being well represented, and idlers, and well-dressed nondescripts without enumeration, — distributing themselves among women, dogs, and babies.

Venders of galeaux, muscles, and fruit were out in force. The “Savage of Paris,” clothed in his war plumes, paint, greaves, armlets, and moccasins, was selling razors by gaslight; here and there ballad-mongers were singing the latest songs, and boys, with chairs to let, elbowed into the intricacies of the crowd, which amused itself all the night long by smoking, drinking, and hallooing. At last, the mass became formidable in numbers, covering every inch of ground within sight of the prison, and many soldiers and sergeants de ville, mounted and on foot, pushed through the dense mass to restore order.

At midnight, a body of cavalry forced back the people from the square of La Roquette. A number of workmen, issuing from the prison-gates, proceeded to set up the instrument of death by the light of blazing torches. The flame lit up the dark jail walls, and shone on the helmets and cuirasses of the sabre-men, and flared upon spots of the upturned faces, now bringing them into strong, ruddy relief, now plunging them into shadow. When the several pieces had been framed together, we had a real guillotine in view, — the same spectre at which thousands of good and bad men had shuddered; and the folks around it, peering up so eagerly, were descendants of those who stood on the Place de la Concorde to witness the head of a king roll into the common basket. Imagine two tall, straight timbers, a foot apart, rising fifteen feet from the ground. They are grooved, and spring from a wide platform, approached by a flight of steps. At the base, rests a spring-plank or bascule, to which leather thongs are attached to buckle down the victim, and a basket or pannier filled with sawdust to receive the severed head. Between these, at their summit, hangs the shining knife in its appointed grooves, and a cord, which may be disconnected by a jerk, holds it to its position. Two men will be required to work the instrument promptly, — the one to bind the condemned, the other to drop the axe. The bascule is so arranged that the whole weight and length of the trunk will rest upon it, leaving the head and neck free, and when prone it will reach to the grooves, leaving space for the knife to pass below it. The knife itself is short and wide, with a bright concave edge, and a rim of heavy steel ridges it at the top; it moves easily in the greased grooves, and may weigh forty pounds. It has a terrible fascination, hanging so high and so lightly in the blaze of the torches, which play and glitter upon it, and cast stains of red lights along its keen blade, as if by their brilliance all its past blood-marks had become visible again. A child may send it shimmering and crashing to the scaffold, but only God can fasten together the warm and throbbing parts which it shall soon dissever. And now that the terrible creature has been recreated, the workmen slink away, as if afraid of it, and a body of soldiers stand guard upon it, as if they fear that it might grow thirsty and insatiate as in the days of its youth. The multitude press up again, reinforced every hour, and at last the pale day climbs over the jail-walls, and waiting people see each other by its glimmer. The bells of Notre Dame peal out; a hundred towers fall into the march of the music; the early journals are shrieked by French newsboys, and folks begin to count the minutes on their watches. There are men on the ground who saw the first guillotine at work. They describe the click of the cleaver, the steady march of victims upon the scaffold-stairs, the rattle of the death-cart turning out of the rue Saint Honore, the painted executioners, with their dripping hands, wiping away the jets of blood from the hard, rough faces; nay! the step of the young queen, white-haired with care, but very beautiful, who bent her body as she had never bent her knee and paid the penalty of her pride with the neck which a king had fondled.

At four minutes to six o’clock on Thursday morning, the wicket in the prison-gate swung open; the condemned appeared, with his hands tied behind his back, and his knees bound together. He walked with difficulty, so fettered; but other than the artificial restraints, there was no hesitation nor terror in his movements. His hair, which had been long, dark, and wavy, was severed close to his scalp; his beard had likewise been clipped, and the fine moustache and goatee, which had set off his most interesting face, no longer appeared to enhance his romantic, expressive physiognomy. Yet his black eyes and cleanly cut mouth, nostrils, and eyebrows, demonstrated that Couty de la Pommerais was not a beauty dependent upon small accessories. There was a dignity even in his painful gait; the coarse prison-shirt, scissored low in the neck, exhibited the straight columnar throat and swelling chest; for the rest, he wore only a pair of black pantaloons and his own shapely boots. As he emerged from the wicket, the chill morning air, laden with the dew of the truck gardens near at hand, blew across the open spaces of the suburbs, and smote him with a cold chill. He was plainly seen to tremble; but in an instant, as if by the mere force of his will, he stood motionless, and cast a first and only glance at the guillotine straight before him. It was the glance of a man who meets an enemy’s eye, not shrinkingly, but half-defiant, as if even the bitter retribution could not abash his strong courage … he seemed to feel that forty thousand men and women, and young children were looking upon him to see how he dared to die, and that for a generation his bearing should go into fireside descriptions. Then he moved on between the files of soldiers at his shuffling pace, and before him went the aumonier or chaplain, swaying the crucifix, behind him the executioner of Versailles — a rough and bearded man — to assist in the final horror.

It was at this intense moment a most wonderful spectacle. As the prisoner had first appeared, a single great shout had shaken the multitude. It was the French word “Voila!” which means “Behold!” “See!” Then every spectator stood on tiptoe; the silence of death succeeded;** all the close street was undulant with human emotion; a few house roofs near by were dizzy with folks who gazed down from the tiles; all the way up the heights of Pere la Chaise, among the pale chapels and monuments of the dead, the thousands of stirred beings swung and shook like so many drowned corpses floating on the sea. Every eye and mind turned to the little structure raised among the trees, on the space before La Roquette, and there they saw a dark, shaven, disrobed young man, going quietly toward his grave.

He mounted the steps deliberately, looking towards his feet; the priest held up the crucifix, and he felt it was there, but did not see it; his lips one moment touched the image of Christ, but he did not look up nor speak; then, as he gained the last step, the bascule or swingboard sprang up before him; the executioner gave him a single push, and he fell prone upon the plank, with his face downward; it gave way before him, bearing him into the space between the upright beams, and he lay horizontally beneath the knife, presenting the back of his neck to it. Thus resting, he could look into the pannier or basket, into whose sawdust lining his head was to drop in a moment. And in that awful space, while all the people gazed with their fingers tingling, the legitimate Parisian executioner gave a jerk at the cord which held the fatal knife. With a quick, keen sound, the steel became detached; it fell hurtling through the grooves; it struck something with a dead, dumb thump; a jet of bright blood spurted into the light, and dyed the face of an attendant horribly read; and Couty de la Pommerais’s head lay in the sawdust of the pannier, while every vein in the lopped trunk trickled upon the scaffold-floor! They threw a cloth upon the carcass and carried away the pannier; the guillotine disappeared beneath the surrounding heads; loud exclamations and acclaims burst from the multitude; the venders of trash and edibles resumed their cheerful cries, and a hearse dashed through the mass, carrying the warm body of the guillotined to the cemetery of Mt. Parnasse. In thirty minutes, newsboys were hawking the scene of the execution upon all the quays and bridges. In every cafe of Paris some witness was telling the incidents of the show to breathless listeners, and the crowds which stopped to see the funeral procession of the great Marshal Pelissier divided their attention between the warrior and the poisoner, — the latter obtaining the preponderance of fame.

(This attention-getting execution attracted an apocryphal story† (pdf) that the severed head of La Pommerais was subject to a “wink test” to determine whether consciousness survived the fall of the blade.)

The doctor bequeathed the world a book on homeopathic medicine, which the discerning reader of French can peruse free.

* Actually, the last execution in France was still 113 years away.

** Rashomon-like, not all observers concurred as to the event’s quiet solemnity. The New York Times reported that

[t]he language of those non-official persons who assembled to witness this expiation of a great crime was brutal to the last decree. They hissed and hooted as the convict was about to mount the ladder, and were loudest in their brutal demonstrations when the crucifix was pressed to his lips. The blade had scarcely severed his head from his body, when a rush was made to do violence to the trunk. The troops were obliged to interfere, and had some difficulty in repelling the crowd, which was excited by the sight of a ‘gentleman criminal’ to a pitch of savage ferocity … The Pays, in noticing this expiation of a great crime, states that the crowd retired in silence. But I am in a position to affirm that the contrary was the cxase.

† Put about — as a hoax? — by Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Doctors,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Murder,Notable Sleuthing,Pelf,Public Executions

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1611: Louis Gaufridi, sorceror-prince

3 comments April 30th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1611, the pathetic figure of a former priest — his body shaved to expose Devil’s marks, a noose about his neck — was conveyed to the secular powers to be tortured one last time, then hauled through the streets of Aix-en-Provence and burned to ashes.

Witchsmellers were thick on the ground in pre-Thirty Years’ War France, as elsewhere.

In our scene in the south of France, we find a characteristic entry in this horrible catalogue.

Parish priest and lothario Louis Gaufridi, having seduced a local teenager, found himself in hot water when she contracted the trendy disorder of demonic possession and started raving about the times she went with the cleric to see Black Sabbath.


Not this Black Sabbath.

Other inmates at the convent to which Gaufridi’s paramour had been conveyed were soon in on the act, indicting him for cannibalism, exotic sexual perversions, and — of course — devil-worship.

Gaufridi’s denials were overcome in the usual way, with the support of doctors who filed a report scientifically vouching that the infernal powers had laid their mark upon the subject. The priest soon saw the wisdom in copping to the charges, and not only his torture-adduced confessions (which he vainly attempted to repudiate in court) but the veritable original contract specifying the terms of his demoniacal servitude was produced for magisterial consideration.

I, Louis, a priest, renounce each and every one of the spiritual and corporal gifts which may accrue to me from God, from the Virgin, and from all the saints, and especially from my patron John the Baptist, and the apostles Peter and Paul and St. Francis. And to you, Lucifer, now before me, I give myself and all the good I may accomplish, except the returns from the sacrament in the cases where I may administer it; all of which I sign and attest.

I, Lucifer, bind myself to give you, Louis Gaufridi, priest, the faculty and power of bewitching by blowing with the mouth, all and any of the women and girls you may desire; in proof of which I sign myself Lucifer.

That’s right. He did it all for the nookie.

(That, and to “be esteemed and honored above all the priests of this country.” Thomas Wright, in his omnivorous and freely available chronicle of European witch trials, remarks that these two attributed motives suggest “the reason why Gaufridi was persecuted by the rest of the clergy.” And oh, but the ladykiller — or rather, the reverse — still starred in the fantasies of the possessed years after his death. (French link))

Gaufridi’s execution immediately freed his erstwhile lover from her satanic affliction. Madeleine de la Palud, however, having officially established herself as susceptible to the penetrations of the Evil One, would remain suspect in the eyes of the inquisition for the 60 years remaining of her life. She twice faced witchcraft charges herself.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,God,History,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Sex,The Supernatural,Torture,Witchcraft

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1874: William Udderzook, because a picture is worth a thousand words

2 comments November 12th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1874, William Udderzook was hanged in West Chester, Pennsylvania for an insurance scam gone horribly macabre — accidentally making judicial history in the process.

Udderzook and his brother-in-law Winfield Scott Goss had contrived to pick up some easy scratch by insuring Goss’s life and having him “burned to death” in a laboratory fire; Udderzook procured a medical cadaver for the purpose, and duly identified its charred remains the late lamented Goss, who was in fact laying low in Newark under an assumed name.

An amateurish stunt by today’s standards, but forensic science was still in its infancy. During the Civil War just a decade before, the majority of the dead had been buried unidentified. Personal recognition was still the best way available in most cases to tell who was who.

Udderzook and Goss’s wife therefore collected on their say-so, but insurance adjusters smelled fraud. It was through their pressure that the “Goss-Udderzook tragedy” unfolded, and became an object lesson and test case in the science of establishing identity.

Goss was the first hoisted on his own petard, for his faked death meant that Udderzook could not afford to have investigators find him alive. So Udderzook murdered Goss, this time for real — real gruesome, that is. When the body was discovered, it had been dismembered, disemboweled, and repeatedly stabbed.

When Udderzook faced trial, Goss’s identity with “Wilson” (his assumed name) was the central question, and it was established using photography. (The same way they identified the body, actually, per a contemporary New York Times account here. (pdf))

Udderzook fought the photographic identification all the way to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court — which turned aside the appeal with a landmark ruling whose embrace of the photographic science would unlock its forensic potential:

That a portrait or a miniature painting from life and proved to resemble the person may be used to identify him cannot be doubted, though, like all other evidences of identity, it is open to disproof or doubt, and must be determined by the jury. There seems to be no reason why a photograph, proved to be taken from life and to resemble the person photographed, should not fill the same measure of evidence. It is true that the photographs we see are not the original likenesses; their lines are not traced by the hand of the artist nor can the artist be called to testify that he faithfully limned [sic] the portrait. They are but paper copies taken from the original plate, called the negative, made sensitive by chemicals, and printed by the sunlight through the camera. It is the result of art, guided by certain principles of science. . . .

It is evident that the competency of the evidence in such a case depends on the reliability of the photograph of a work of art, and this, in the case before us, in which no proof was made by experts of this reliability, must depend upon the judicial cognizance we make of photographs as an established means of producing a correct likeness. The Daguerrean process was first given to the world in 1839. It was soon followed by photography, of which we have nearly a generation’s experience. . . . We know that its principles are derived from science; that the images on the plate, made by the rays of light through the camera, are dependent on the same general laws which produce the images of outward forms upon the retina through the lenses of the eye. The process has become one in general use, so common that we cannot refuse to take judicial cognisance of it as a proper means of producing correct likeness.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Sleuthing,Pelf,Pennsylvania,USA

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