1824: John Thurtell, the Radlett murderer

1 comment January 9th, 2017 Headsman

They cut his throat from ear to ear,
His head they battered in.
His name was Mr William Weare,
He lived in Lyons Inn.

At noon this date in 1824, upon a fresh-built black gallows adjoining Hertford Prison, John Thurtell hanged for one of regency England’s most infamous crimes.

Son of the Norwich mayor, John Thurtell was rubbish with money and had twice crashed his bombazine business into insolvency while stiffing his creditors. (John’s brother Tom served time for defrauding an insurance company with a suspicious warehouse fire.)

But these were merely business matters.

When Thurtell fell into a £300 gambling debt to thanks to Weare’s cheating at cards, maybe it was a matter of honor. Thurtell invited the Lyon’s Inn barrister to a gaming piss-up at Thurtell’s cottage in the village of Radlett. They’d be joined by Thurtell’s mates Joseph Hunt and William Probert, “Turpin lads” in Thurtell’s estimation.

Just short of their destination, on a street later to be known as “Murder Lane”, Thurtell shot Weare in the face. The shot scored only a glancing hit against his victim’s cheekbone, but Thurtell was in for a penny, in for a pound: he tackled the fleeing Weare, opened his throat from ear to ear, and pistol-whipped his skull into bloody-brained bits.

Whatever malice aforethought had moved Thurtell to this vengeful crime did not contain near enough calculation. “The whole history of the murder, and the scenes which ensued, are strange pictures of desperate and short-sighted wickedness,” Sir Walter Scott marveled.

Abandoning the gun at the scene — it was one of a paired set of which Thurtell owned the other — the killer and his friends hauled the corpse to a nearby pond, then proceeded unperturbed to the night’s revelry fresh from homicide, even donning Weare’s own clothes in subsequent days.

Worst of all from the perfect-crime standpoint, Thurtell had undertaken the crime himself (openly popping off, per the subsequent court record, “if Weare comes down, I will do him, for he has done me out of several hundred pounds”) and his companions turned on him when the investigation inevitably bore down on them. Probert went crown’s evidence immediately in exchange for immunity, even leading authorities to the body; Hunt stalled and lied for a while, but cracked soon enough.

To the nationwide outrage at this shocking callousness among obnoxious society rakes was added the whiff of scandal about Thurtell’s involvement in “the Fancy” — the semi-illicit sport of amateur boxing.

Frequented then as now both by underworld elements and society gentlemen, boxing was officially illegal but widely celebrated and openly advertised without much fear of police intervention. At the same time, the burgeoning sport — with its naked brutality, more-than-occasional fatalities, multiracial proletarian cast, and associations with various unsavory characters, had ample moral-panic potential. The Fancy, said a judge in 1803,

draws industrious people away from the subject of their industry; and when great multitudes are so collected, they are likely enough to be engaged in broils. It affords an opportunity for people of the most mischievous disposition to assemble, under the colour of seeing this exhibition, and to do a great deal of mischief; in short, it is a practice that is extremely injurious in every respect and must be repressed.

But many of his peers were there in the audience, laying their own mischievous wagers.

As magistrates it may have been their duty to discountenance, but as county gentleman it was their privilege to support, the noble champions of the art, especially when they had their money on the event.

Thurtell, briefly an amateur pugilist himself, was a trainer and promoter on the boxing circuit.


Detail view (click for full image) of “A correct view of the execution, taken on the spot by an eminent artist.” (Source)

Thurtell was anatomized after execution; a wax likeliness of the hated murderer stood in Madame Tussaud’s until the 1970s.

As for Thurtell’s confederates: Joseph Hunt’s cooperation was sufficient to cop a last-second commutation of his death sentence; he was transported to Australia instead. William Probert completely avoided prosecution thanks to his expeditious turn to crown’s evidence, but the career criminal (now practically disbarred from honest labor by dint of his nationwide infamy) found himself in hangman Foxen‘s hands not long thereafter for stealing a horse.

The foreman of the jury that convicted Thurtell went on to become the Prime Minister.

And Thurtell’s victim Weare did his own posthumous bit for the annals of English publishing when a printer multiplied its customary revenue stream on a Thurtell gallows broadsheet with a second edition headed “WE ARE alive”. Printed in such a way to intentionally make the first two words appear to read “WEARE”, its handsome sales to the gullible allegedly originated the term “catchpenny”.

There are a number of 19th century accounts of this case available in the public domain, including here, here and here.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Athletes,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Notable Participants,Pelf,Public Executions

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1894: John Hardy, desperate little man

1 comment January 19th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1894, West Virginia hanged before a crowd of 3,000 for a mining camp murder three months before.

Hardy was reportedly already at odds with Thomas Drews, a fellow laborer in the booming Appalachian coal industry, over their mutual pursuit of the same woman when Hardy lost big to Drews in a craps game on October 13, 1893.

While it’s true that twenty-five cents doesn’t really seem all that “big”, this sum could represent a decent slice of a day’s pay in the coal mining game, and that in an industry where downward wage pressure had generated a ferocious national strike only months before. Hardy was profoundly nonplussed to have to fork over the sweat of his brow to a love rival and, with the added incitement of whiskey, shot Drews dead. (Ten more spectators at his hanging wound up in stir themselves for drunk and disorderlies.)

Hardy’s execution has pride of place in Americana as the inspiration for the tune “John Hardy Was A Desperate Little Man”. (Or simply, “John Hardy”; as a folk figure, he has occasionally been confused or conflated with John Henry)

One of the most popular folk ballads in American history, the song has foggy origins but amazing reach: it has been performed, covered, and reinterpreted by a scores of artists including the Carter Family, Lead Belly, Duke Ellington, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Bob Dylan with the Grateful Dead.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Pelf,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA,West Virginia

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1996: Larry Lonchar, bad gambler

Add comment November 14th, 2015 Headsman

Minutes after midnight on this date in 1996, Georgia electrocuted Larry Lonchar

Ten grand in the red on gambling debts, Lonchar in 1986 raided the home of the bookie he owed and gunned down that bookie, his female partner, and his two sons. (One of the sons survived by playing dead.)

A DeKalb county 911 call recorded the horrifying last moments of Margaret Sweat:

911: DeKalb Emergency 911.

Caller: Police.

911: What address?

Caller: [redacted]

911: What’s the problem?

Caller: Everybody’s been shot.

911: Who’s been shot?

Caller: Me — and —

911: With a gun?

Caller: Yes.

911: Who did it?

Caller: I don’t know.

911: Is that a house or an apartment?

Caller: It’s a condominium. . . .

911: Okay. Now you say everybody’s been shot, I already got you help on the way, but when you say everybody’s been shot, how many?

Caller: Uh, me.

911: Where are you shot at?

Caller: In the living room — I’ve crawled to the phone.

911: I mean what part of your body, Ma’am.

Caller: I think my stomach — they’re coming back in — please-(inaudible)

911: Who did it? Give me a description of them!

Caller: Why are you doing this. Please — (inaudible). Please, please, I don’t even know your name. Please — please Larry. I don’t even know your n –.

Lonchar had little stomach to fight a death sentence he acknowledged deserving — an execution date in 1993 had been averted only at the last moment when his brother’s suicide threat induced Lonchar to reluctantly pick up his appeals — and by the end he was holding out strangely for only a late delay. It seems that he wanted to donate his kidneys, but the wrack of the electrical chair promised to damage the tissue past using. That situation had even led Georgia lawmaker Doug Teper to introduce legislation to conduct executions by guillotine: say what you will about the iconic French razor, it’s easy on the organs.

The spectacle of legal beheadings was spared America, then and since — though who knows what may someday come of the ongoing breakdown of the lethal injection process.

Lonchar’s execution was witnessed by British human rights attorney Clive Stafford Smith, who had come to represent him: Smith wrote about the experience for the Guardian here.

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1928: Edward Rowlands and Daniel Driscoll

1 comment January 27th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1928, Edward Rowlands and Daniel Driscoll hanged in Cardiff for murdering a man whose last words exculpated Rowlands and Driscoll.

That victim, Dai Lewis, was a former prizefighter who was pivoting his career to dabble in the bookmaking side of the sport.

Lewis was trying his hand at a bit of the old protection racket, strongarming bookies into kicking back shillings by “buying his chalk” to mark their boards in exchange for being their muscle. But in so doing he was intruding on the turf of Cardiff’s established mobsters — specifically the Rowland brothers, Edward and John.

On September evening after a day at the races, the upstart entrepreneur Lewis was accosted by a small group of men as he left a pub. The assailants battered him to the ground, and then one of them slashed his throat.

The wound was mortal but not immediately so; streetwalkers in the vicinity rushed to the felled man as his attackers fled, and were able to stanch the bleeding well, and Lewis was rushed to the Royal Infirmary.

As Lewis bled fatally into his lungs, the doctors helpless to save him, a series of suspicious hangup phone calls to the Infirmary asking after his condition led police to another pub where the Rowland boys were relaxing with three of their cronies: Daniel Driscoll, John Hughes, and William “Hong Kong” Price. But when the five were brought to Dai Lewis’s bed, the dying pugilist refused to break the underworld’s code of silence by implicating them.

Lewis’s explicit denial that the Rowlands and Daniel Driscoll had been among his attackers didn’t cut very much ice, especially when John Rowland cracked and confessed to wielding the blade that took Lewis’s life.

In a muddled trial with a good deal of contradictory and fleeting eyewitness testimony, both Rowlands and Driscoll — who unwisely floated a phony alibi — were convicted. (Price was acquitted, and Hughes was released uncharged; our story takes its leave of them here.)

The circumstances of the homicide have never in the years since become entirely clear; one common hypothesis is that the bookies were “merely” trying to give their rival a warning slash on the cheek to scare him away from their customers, and in the struggle the knife went astray. Another is that the murder gave police a pretext to target some gangland figures they were keen to get rid of.

But from the moment of their conviction the boys, and especially the plausibly-innocent Driscoll, were the subjects of intense public support. Reports say at least 200,000 Britons (some say as many as 500,000) signed petitions for Driscoll’s pardon, and Liverpool dock hands threatened a national strike. Edward Rowlands too continued to maintain his own innocence.

No fewer than eight members of the jury who convicted Driscoll were so troubled at the sentence that they petitioned the Home Secretary to extend mercy. (Two of the jurors traveled personally to London to present their petition.)

The Crown was not interested:

It is a fixed and necessary rule that the individual views of jurymen must not be allowed to inluence the exercise of the Royal prerogative of mercy. Jurymen may support an appeal for mercy like the rest of the public, but once a unanimous verdict is given the individual jurors cannot qualify it.

Ironically, only the admitted killer, John Rowland, would be spared the noose: he went mad under the pressures of incarceration and was sent to Broadmoor. John’s brother Edward and their chum Daniel Driscoll both besought the Royal prerogative of mercy in vain.

Driscoll took the bad beat with a gambler’s sang-froid, playing cards over port on the eve of his hanging — as thousands gathered outside the doors of the prison to weep and pray as the morning hanging approached.

“Well, I’m going down for something I never done,” were his last words (source). “But you don’t have to pay twice.”

At the Cathedral that day, the Catholic priest — Driscoll’s confessor — announced what his parishioners already believed: “they hanged an innocent man at Cardiff jail this morning.” Efforts to obtain a posthumous exoneration have surfaced several times in recent years but never yet achieved the trick.

Actor Chris Driscoll is Daniel Driscoll’s nephew.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Organized Crime,Wales,Wrongful Executions

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1501: Antonio Rinaldeschi, bad gambler

2 comments July 22nd, 2010 Headsman

This date in 1501,* the Italian city-state of Florence celebrated a “double feast”: that of St. Mary Magdalene, which marked a civic carnival every July 22; and, the hanging of sacrilegious gambler Antonio Rinaldeschi on the walls of the Bargello.

Eleven days prior, Rinaldeschi was having a bad run of wagering at The Fig Tree tavern.

Like Jesus is some people’s co-pilot, the Virgin Mary must have been Rinaldeschi’s card-counter — for, stalking out of the premises much the poorer, our doomed punter blasphemously uttered “words that are better kept silent” about her. Then, passing an image of Holy Mother at the piazza Santa Maria de Alberighi, he gathered up some nearby dung and flung it at the sacred pic.

This dry poo maybe should have just slid right off, but the Lord works in mysterious ways.

Write William Connell and Giles Constable in “Sacrilege and Redemption in Renaissance Florence: The Case of Antonio Rinaldeschi” (Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 61 (1998), and the source of most of this entry’s narrative),

a portion of it, resembling a rosette (‘quasi pareva una rosetta secha’), stuck to the Virgin’s diadem, above the nape of her neck. The dirtied image drew much attention. The archbishop came to look. Candles and votive images were brought before the fresco, which quickly became an object of popular devotion.

Someone saw something and the trail led back to the ill-tempered cardsharp within days, who tried to stab himself to death when he realized what was about to go down. He copped to the crime pretty quickly (at least one source says it was so that he could be executed in preference to being lynched), and his corpse dangling out the Bargello window decorated the other Mary’s regularly-scheduled homage of parades and horse-races.

(And, now that it was no longer needed as evidence, the miraculous ordure was cleaned off the statue.)

Florence at the dawn of the 16th century was truly a place where religion could get you killed. This was the city that had elevated severe Dominican friar Savonarola to dictator and morals enforcer in the 1490s (Savonarola especially hated gambling), then overthrew and burned him in 1498.

Our authors think there’s some evidence that the first couple years of the 1500s were a period when the populist religious fanatics who once grooved on Savonarola’s violent party pooper act were back on the march as against, say, the more out-of-touch syphilitic reckless gambling blasphemer element that was now, post-Savonarola, enjoying free run of the town. Having one of the latter excrement-ize a Marian monument is the sort of thing that would have led the Florentine Fox News: naturally, he had to be made an example of.

To help you bear that example in mind, a nine-panel painting, “The History of Antonio Rinaldeschi”, attributed to the hanged man’s contemporary Filippo Dolciati, can be seen in Firenze’s Stibbert Museum.

Madonna + manure, meanwhile, has its own art legacy … and the combination is still good for raising a ruckus to this day.


The Holy Virgin Mary, by Chris Ofili: a black Mary smeared with elephant dung.

* The primary sourcing on the chronology of the execution is sketchy enough that it’s possible Rinaldeschi was hanged on July 21, before midnight — rather than in the dark early hours of July 22.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Florence,God,Hanged,History,Italy,Notable for their Victims,Pelf,Public Executions,Scandal

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