1772: Bryan Sheehen, cuck

Add comment January 16th, 2018 Headsman

Colonial Massachusetts sailor Bryan Sheehen culminated a life of warped relations with the opposite sex at his hanging on this date in 1772.

According to the pamphlet An Account of the Life of Bryan Sheehen, as a child in Ireland, Sheehen‘s family split up by gender with the Catholic father taking the boys and the Anglican mother taking the girls. While the legacy of this childhood trauma can only be guessed at, it looks suggestive in hindsight

Sheehen migrated to Newfoundland and then to Massachusetts where he eventually indentured himself as a household servant to colonial shipwright Benjamin Hallowell, a “father” from whom the young adult Sheehen again fled, this time to fight in the Seven Years’ War.

Unfortunately upon his return from only six years away he found that his wife had impatiently [re]married herself to a Frenchman, a humiliating risk and fear of the seagoing set. Sheehen forced the woman to choose between the rivals but when she chose Sheehen, the latter found that he was still so disgusted with her that he preferred to abandon the wife, and the child she had borne him, and the child she had borne the Frenchman. Psychologists have a lot to unpack here already.

Relocating to Marblehead, Mass. our reborn swinging single now developed “the character of a wicked, profligate person” and eventually began stalking a woman named Abial Hollowell … her surname eerily echoing that of Sheehen’s own former master. In fact, Abial’s husband was also named Benjamin Hollowell. His advances rebuffed, Sheehen

went up, in the middle of the night, to the room where Mrs. Hollowell lay, found her asleep, awaked her, and swore, if she made the least noise, he would kill her; and then stopping her mouth, perpetrated the atrocious crime. After which (to prevent, it seems, a pregnancy) he abused her with his hand, in an unheard-of, cruel and shocking manner: Insomuch that her life was for some time almost despaired of; and she was not able for ten days after to get off her bed without help.

That’s as per a case summary appended to “A Sermon Preached at Salem, January 16, 1772″ by the Salem Rev. James Diman. The good preacher was so chagrined that Sheehen’s persistent denials had led some citizens to murmur against Mrs. Hollowell that for “justice to the woman’s character” he devotes about a page and a half to traducing Sheehen’s. Sheehen, Diman charged, was just the sort of vicious wretch who would imperil his soul by going to the gallows with a lie upon his lips, perhaps because, as a Catholic, “he might swear falsely, he might doubtless speak falsely to Hereticks, as they call all whose religious principles differ from theirs.”

Last and most important, Diman claimed to have it on good authority from “two credible persons”

that there was a young woman, daughter of one Williams, of Goldsborough, in the Eastern part of this province, abased in the same manner Mrs. Hollowell was. That she was way-layed in the the evening, between her father’s house and a neighbour’s; was seized, forced, and wounded to such a degree, that her friends were obliged to carry her home, she being unable to walk, and that the next morning early she died. That the villain, who perpetrated this crime, returned after he had done it, to his companions, who, it seems, were before, or then, made acquainted with his enterprize; for such wretches declare their sin as Sodom: And that one of them told him he would probably have a child to maintain: He answered so, that he had taken care to prevent that, and that she would never have a child by him, nor by any other man.

This guy, his informants said, was an Irishman named something like Bryan Sheehen — and he had escaped town after the incident.

* The Hallowells were notable British loyalists during the American Revolution, and returned to England when their estates were sacked by Patriots. The grandson of Bryan Sheehen’s employer, Admiral Sir Benjamin Hallowell Carew, was one of Lord Nelson‘s Band of Brothers. During the Battle of the Nile, Admiral Hallowell’s supplied the literal fireworks by defeating the French battleship Orient — whose spectacularly exploding magazines highlighted all the artistic commemorations of that victory. He later presented to Nelson as a gift a coffin fashioned from the Orient‘s mast, “that when you have finished your military career in this world you may be buried in one of your trophies.” Nelson was indeed laid to rest in Hallowell’s trophy in 1805.


The flaming Orient illuminates Thomas Luny’s Battle of the Nile, August 1st 1798 at 10 pm.

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1949: Margaret “Bill” Allen, transgender

Add comment January 12th, 2018 Meaghan

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

On January 12, 1949, Margaret Allen was executed by Albert Pierrepoint at Strangeways Gaol. She was the first woman hanged there since Charlotte Bryant in 1936.

41-year-old Margaret had beaten to death an elderly neighbor, Nancy Ellen Chadwick, on August 21, 1948, after Nancy stopped by Margaret’s cottage at 137 Bacup Road, Rawtenstall, Lancashire. Several hours later, she dragged the body outside and left it in the road, almost literally right on her doorstep.

The following facts can be gleaned about Margaret Allen’s life:

  1. Since her early twenties, she had habitually worn men’s clothing and said she wanted to be a man.
  2. She wanted everyone to call her “Bill.”
  3. She wore her hair in a short, slicked-back cut, a common style for men at the time.
  4. She once went on holiday to Blackpool with her best (and perhaps only) friend, Annie Cook, and they checked into a boarding house under the names “Mr. Allen” and “Mrs. Allen.”
  5. In 1935, after a stay in St. Mary’s Hospital, Manchester, Margaret told people she’d had a sex change operation and was now a man.*

All of it adds up to this: although few even knew it was a thing in the 1940s, it seems highly likely that if Margaret was alive today, she would have identified as a transgender man and pursued treatment, such as hormonal therapy, to change her sex.

But in 1948, such options weren’t available to Margaret. She felt like a man, dressed like one and cut her hair like one, and even adopted a man’s name. But in spite of all her efforts she didn’t really look like a man, and the local townspeople didn’t think of her as one. “Bill” Allen must have been the subject of curiosity and gossip in the small town of Rawtenstall.

As with most transgender individuals even today, Margaret’s life was difficult. She had an elementary education, had never married, and worked grueling jobs her entire life, such as in the mills and in the postal service.

Alan Hayhurst, in his book More Lancashire Murders, suggests that the four years she was a bus conductor may have been the happiest period in her life, since female employees wore slacks as part of their uniform. She was ultimately dismissed from that job for being “rude and aggressive” towards passengers.

By 1948, Margaret’s parents were dead, and she was estranged from all twenty-one of her siblings. It’s likely they were put off by her inclination to be a man.

Due to ill health, Margaret hadn’t worked since January 1948. She was living on 11 shillings a week in welfare and 26 shillings a week in National Health sick pay.

She was behind in her rent to the tune of £15, and her landlord had been threatening eviction. She hadn’t paid the electricity or coal bills in almost two years, and she had several court judgments pending against her besides. All told, she was £46 in debt and had no realistic hope of ever paying it off.

On top of everything else, Margaret was going through menopause — often a difficult time in any woman’s life, never mind a transgender one’s — and suffered frequent headaches, dizzy spells and depression as a result. Her friend Annie Cook was worried about her; she smoked too much and didn’t eat properly. She begged Margaret to pull herself together.

Enter Nancy Ellen Chadwick.

Nancy was housekeeper to a Mr. Whitaker, and lived on Hardman Avenue, about half a mile from Margaret’s home. She and Margaret first met at a mutual acquaintance’s house, then a week later on the street in the center of town. Nancy mentioned that she was out of sugar, and Margaret offered to lend her a cupful. This was generous: Britain was still laboring under postwar rationing, and sugar was rare and precious.

Margaret visited Nancy’s home a few times after that, although she did not bring the sugar. She visited her again at 8:30 a.m. on Saturday, August 21, and said she would have sugar on Monday.

“Nancy Chadwick,” Hayhurst says in his book, “was getting more and more curious about the little woman in men’s clothing.”

At about 9:30 that same morning, by accident or design, Nancy appeared on Bacup Road, saw Margaret and asked to be invited inside her home. Hayhurst describes their fatal encounter:

‘I’m afraid I haven’t got time, Nancy,’ she said, ‘you can see inside another time.’ But she found herself being pushed back into the scullery as Nancy Chadwick made a determined effort to gain entrance. Margaret still protested, but Nancy now had the bit between her teeth and was shutting the front door behind her and making for the living room.

At around 4:00 a.m. the next day, a bus driver traveling along Bacup Road stopped when he saw, illuminated in his headlights, what looked like a bundle of rags lying in the road. When he got out to take a closer look he realized it was a woman’s body.

When the doctor arrived, he determined the woman had been dead at least ten hours. There was a deep gash in her head and blood on her arms and hands, but her injuries were not consistent with a hit-and-run accident.

Two witnesses who had been walking home later told the police they’d walked past that spot at 3:45 a.m. and there was nothing there, indicating the body had been dumped sometime between 3:45 and 4:00.

Nancy Chadwick’s nephew identified the body. At the postmortem, Hayhurst records,

Dr. Bailey found that the vault of the skull was fractured in several directions over almost the whole of the skull, and there were seven incised wounds to the head, each just over 1 inch long. The cause of death was shock, produced by multiple fractures to the skull and hemorrhaging of the scalp wounds. It was apparent that Nancy Chadwick had suffered a frenzied attack with a heavy implement.

An obvious motive for the murder was robbery, for “it was common gossip in the town that Mrs. Chadwick had lots of money and was suspected of carrying it round with her.”

The police searched the nearby River Irwell for evidence. They didn’t find the murder weapon, but did find Nancy Chadwick’s handbag. Inside were some sewing materials, scissors, and a pack of playing cards, but no money at all.

Authorities also began a house-to-house search of Bacup Road, interviewing all the residents. Because there was a large drag mark leading from No. 137 to where the body lay, they paid particular attention to Margaret Allen. A look into her background would have revealed her financial problems.

At first they could find nothing suspicious inside No. 137. Margaret was taken to the police station and gave a statement, admitting she knew Nancy. Nancy had been to see her on the day she died, Margaret said, but she had refused to let her in. The old woman had left, and this was the last time Margaret had seen her alive.

The police smelled a rat. They reappeared the next day and took Margaret back to the station, where she issued a second statement, which did not differ significantly from her first. A second search of Margaret’s home, however, turned up large bloodstains in the coalhouse.

In the living room she said quietly, “I’ll tell you all about it. The other statements I gave you were wrong.” Back at the police station she made her confession:

As I was saying, I was coming out of the house on Saturday last about twenty past nine in the morning, when Mrs. Chadwick came around the corner. She asked if this was where I lived and could she come in. I told her I was going out. I was in a funny mood and she seemed to get on my nerves, although she hadn’t said anything. I said I would have to go, as I was going out and could she see me sometime else, but she seemed somehow to insist on coming in.

I just looked round and saw a hammer in the kitchen. This time we were talking just inside the kitchen with the front door closed. On the spur of the moment, I hit her with the hammer. She gave a shout that seemed to start me off more. I hit her a few times but I don’t know how many. I then pulled the body into my coalhouse. I’ve told you where I was all day, that part is true and true that I went to bed at ten to eleven. When I awoke, the thought of what was downstairs made me keep awake. I went downstairs but couldn’t tell the time as all the clocks are broke. There were no lights in the road and I couldn’t hear any footsteps. My intention was to pull her into the river and dispose of the body but she was too heavy and I just put the body in the road. Later, I heard the noise outside and knew they had found her. I looked out of the window and saw the bus. Then I went back to sleep. Just before I put the body out, I went round the corner and threw the bag into the river. The bag I sort of dropped in, the hammer head I hit her with I threw some distance up the river and the handle I used for the fire. I looked in the bag but there was no money in it. I didn’t actually kill her for that. I had one of my funny turns … I had no reason to do it at all. It seemed to come over me. The noise after the first hit seemed to set me off.

She made her first court appearance on September 2, her forty-second birthday. The Bacup Times website notes she was wearing her preferred masculine outfit of navy blue pants, a checkered shirt, a grayish-blue pullover sweater and a fawn overcoat.

At Margaret’s trial, the defense didn’t bother to pretend she was innocent. How could they, when the evidence was so overwhelming? Her legal aid attorney merely pointed out that she had not committed the murder for financial gain and asked for a verdict of “guilty but insane.”

You can’t just go around beating old ladies in the head with a hammer, of course. But given the stress Margaret was dealing with, and her considerable need for privacy, it would be perhaps understandable if she had panicked and lashed out violently when a near-stranger tried to push her way into her home.

Had the murder happened today, Margaret might have chosen the partial defense of diminished responsibility, which would have given the jury the option of convicting her of manslaughter rather than murder. This defense would have fit the case much better than an insanity plea, but it was not available to her in the 1940s.

Annie Cook, Margaret’s friend (lover?), testified as to Margaret’s “funny turns” and headaches, as well as one prior suicide attempt, but the prison medical officer said he could find no signs of physical or mental disease.

In his summing-up the judge said there was no medical evidence to support an insanity verdict. The outcome was clear, and the jury deliberated only fifteen minutes before convicting her.

Annie visited her until the end, and sent around a petition for a reprieve, but it got a hostile reception and only 112 people signed.

In spite of everything, Margaret remained calm and cheerful. The prison chaplain would later write,

She was a woman with plenty of grit and she faced it as a man would and I felt the whole thing was bestial and brutal. She was well prepared and behaved like a man. In fact she had more guts then most men I have seen.

Margaret wanted to dress in men’s clothing at her hanging, but the prison authorities said no and gave her a blue smock and a frock to wear instead.

Annie inherited her ring and cigarette lighter, as per her wishes.

* Whatever procedure Margaret may have had, it seems unlikely that it was a sex-change operation. That type of surgery was in its infancy in the 1930s, and female-to-male sex reassignment surgery is rare and difficult to perform even today.

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1943: Marie-Louise Giraud, Vichy abortionist

Add comment July 30th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1943, the French executioner Jules-Henri Desfourneaux guillotined Marie-Louise Giraud as an abortionist.

Born in defeat, the Vichy regime had a program of renewing an enervated nation by restoring its values — families and proper sexual mores foremost among them. Marshal Petain famously diagnosed the reasons for France’s quick collapse under German guns: “Too few children, too few arms, too few allies.”

Interest in the fertility rate was not a Vichy innovation; worries about depopulation had become acute following the bloodbath of the First World War, and birth rates in the interwar years fell conspicuously too low for regenerating the cannon fodder. France’s scolds saw her as decadent, and eventually as deserving prey to the neighboring power that had regenerated both hearth and national purpose through fascism.

Petain placed a similar regeneration at the center of his broken nation’s agenda, and designed policy around cultivating traditional families with fecund and obedient wives.

One remarkable plank in that platform was to ramp abortion up to the stature of capital crime. Even though abortion was technically illegal before Vichy, it had long been winked at in practice.

No longer.

During the war years, the Vichy state plucked our principal Giraud from the seaside Norman village of Barneville-Cateret to prove they were serious about never again letting France get caught out with too few children.

Giraud had performed 27 illegal home abortions for hire, under hygienic conditions perfectly compatible with death by septicemia, which one of her patients suffered in January of 1942. Since the legitimate part of her economic life was as a hosteler to prostitutes, she was way out of strikes with the morals police.

The last woman ever guillotined in France, Marie-Louise Giraud is the subject of the wrenching 1988 Claude Charbol film Une Affaire de Femmes.

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1680: The wife of Abdullah Celebi, and her Jewish lover

Add comment June 28th, 2016 Headsman

At noon on Friday, 28 June 1680, people crowded into Istanbul’s Hippodrome, the city’s main public space, to stone to death a Muslim woman identified as ‘the wife of Abdullah Celebi’ for adultery with an infidel, and to witness the beheading of the Jew who was alleged to be her lover, a neighbourhood shopkeeper. Neighbours who had raided her home when they knew that the Jew was inside claimed to have found the couple having intercourse, which was doubly illicit: not only was she married, but sexual relations between Christian or Jewish men and Muslim women were forbidden by law. The accused denied any wrongdoing, but a mob dragged the two before the chief justice of the empire’s European provinces (known as Rumelia), Beyazizade Ahmet (d. 1686), who had previously been the main judge at Istanbul’s Islamic law (shariah) court.

Beyazizade accepted the testimony of the witnesses. Denying the accused a trial, he condemned the pair to death. Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa Pasha (d. 1683) reported his decision to Sultan Mehmet IV (r. 1648–87, d. 1693), who confirmed the sentence. The sultan attended the double execution in person and offered the man conversion to Islam, permitting him to die swiftly and with dignity by decapitation. Mehmet IV was the only sultan to order an adulteress to be executed by stoning during 465 years of Ottoman rule in Istanbul.

Indeed, public stoning of adulterers was such a rare event in medieval and early modern Islamic history that it is difficult to find any other examples of Islamic rulers punishing transgressors of sexual norms in this way.

This remarkable double execution comes to us by way of three Muslim chroniclers via “Death in the Hippodrome: Sexual Politics and Legal Culture in the Reign of Mehmet IV” by Marc Baer* — whom we have excerpted above. Regrettably, it’s entombed behind a paywall.

Our Ottoman interlocutors universally hold the stoning and beheading as a gross moral failure on the part of both judge and sultan. To begin with, all three chroniclers consider the accusation against the couple legally groundless: evidently the two were not really caught in flagrante delicto and both denied the liaison; this led Sari Mehmet Pasha** to sharply criticize the judge for even admitting neighbors’ suspicions as evidence — rather than punishing the accusers themselves for slander.

According to shariah it is incumbent to accept such testimony only when this situation is witnessed with one’s own eyes, meaning that the witnesses actually see the man insert his penis in and out of the woman ‘like inserting the reed pen in and out of the kohl pot’. But this is one of those impossible conditions set forth to ensure that such charges and their punishment are not frivolously made. Moreover, what is also needed is the woman’s own confession, or admission of guilt. Yet in this case she insistently denied the charge. The Jew likewise continuously claimed he had no knowledge of the affair.

Indeed, another astonished chronicler, Mehmet Rashid, believed that the law required such exacting pornographic specificity of a witness that no adulterers had ever been executed in the history Islam without their own confession. All describe the eyewitness standard as a shield, not a cudgel.

Moreover, even a demonstrable crime of the flesh — and even one committed by a Jew or Christian with a married Muslim woman — ought not result in capital punishment according to religious scholars of the period marshaled by Baer. (At least, not of the man: theoretically the woman could be stoned to death although in practice this never occurred either.)

What was bizarre and blameworthy to contemporaries was that an esteemed judge issued a verdict of literally historic harshness on such dubious grounds — and that the sultan seemed eager not to restrain, but to enforce it. Their narratives† cast Mehmet in a very dark light. “Let me see [the executions] in person,” he says in Silahdar Findiklili Mehmet Agha’s account — then makes a point to cross the Hellespont that morning from the Asian to the European side of the city the better to establish himself in a mansion commanding a view of the ceremonies.

At that time they brought the woman and the Jew to the place of execution. Being told, “Become a Muslim, you will be redeemed, you will go to Paradise,” the Jew was honored by the glory of Islam and then decapitated at the base of a bronze dragon

Wailing and lamenting, [the woman] cried, “They have slandered me. I am innocent and have committed no sin. For the sake of the princes, do not kill me, release me!” But they did not let her go.

Since the incident is unique even in Mehmet’s own long reign one draws larger conclusions at one’s own risk: hard cases make bad law. But it might be possible to perceive here a misjudgment by a man who, having grown to manhood out of the shadow of the dangerous harem that had lately dominated Ottoman politics felt keen to assert himself as a champion of realm and faith alike. (And his sex into the bargain.)

Baer presents Mehmet as an unusually eager proselytizer, always ready with a conversion blandishment whether for infidels captured in the empire’s European wars or for chance encounters with Jewish and Christian commoners. (He also forced a noted rabbi, Shabbatai Tzevi, to convert after the latter started getting some traction as a possible Messiah, and eventually began pressuring Istanbul’s numerous court Jews — physicians, advisors, and miscellaneous elite intelligentsia — to become Muslims as well.) And a Muslim movement had in recent years clamped down on carnivalesque diversions like taverns and public singing thought to trend toward impiety.

Three years later, Mehmet would (over)extend the Porte’s sway to the gates of Vienna. But Mehmet’s defeat there helped to collapse his own power back home, and he was deposed in 1687.

Our correspondents, writing in the wake of that reversal, unmistakably view affairs like this date’s executions as evidence of moral depravity that was punished by its authors’ subsequent misfortunes. Writing of the once-powerful judge, who chanced to die around the same time Mehmet fell, Defterdar concludes that “Beyazizade fearlessly persevered in the matter without scruple” until “the hearts of young and old turned away from him in disgust” and he fell “from the summit of his dignity.”

* Past and Present, Feb. 2011

** The imperial treasurer, himself executed in 1717.

† It does bear remarking that all three chroniclers wrote after Mehmet IV’s own fall.

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1923: Florence Lassandro, unwilling feminist

Add comment May 2nd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1923, the only woman ever executed in Alberta’s history was hanged at Fort Saskatchewan.

Alberta had introduced alcohol prohibition in 1916. Florence Lassandro and her husband Carlo, Italian immigrants, were in the profitable contraband business that resulted, employed by the “Emperor Pic” — a rum-running godfather named Emilio Picariello.

Emperor Pic and Florence were together in a vehicle crossing from the British Columbia border in September, 1922, when an attempt to serve a warrant resulted in a chase in which Picariello’s son (fleeing in another vehicle) was shot through the hand. Shortly thereafter, Picariello and Lassandro sought out the shooter, police constable Steve Lawson, and in the resulting confrontation Lawson himself was shot dead.

The circumstances of this fatal encounter are murky and disputed; Lassandro initially claimed to have pulled the trigger, and this helped to get she along with Picariello condemned to death for the crime. As her execution neared — under circumstances we’ll get into momentarily — she amended that statement.

“We agreed that it would be best for me to take the responsibility and say that I did it, as women don’t hang in Canada and he would get off,” she said in a telegram to the Justice Minister (according to Jana Pruden‘s Edmonton Journal story of Oct. 9, 2011). “I never shot a gun in my life — was always afraid of them.”

But in the public debate over her prospective hanging, the question wasn’t so much about Lassandro not being a triggerman but about her not being a man.

The discomfiture still usual in our own day over putting a woman to death was certainly present in early 20th century Canada. No woman had hanged anywhere in Canada since Hilda Blake 24 years years prior.

But Florence Lassandro found an unexpected hand cutting away this lifeline: the women’s movement.

Canadian women had won suffrage in most provinces during the war years, and only in 1921 had the first woman been seated in Parliament. The next movement milestone on the horizon (it would be achieved in 1929) was winning juridical recognition of women as legal “persons”.

So the women’s movement in 1920s Canada was deeply sensitive to any appearance of special pleading which appeared to place adult women on any footing lesser to adult men. A Prohibition gangster who shot a cop would surely be hanged if a man; indeed, Emilio Picariello, slated to die on the same morning as Florence Lassandro, had no real hope of clemency. So wasn’t Florence Lassandro’s claim on mercy nothing but the old sentimental paternalism that women were trying to escape?*

“I also desire to protest against the pernicious doctrine that because a person who commits a murder is a woman that person should escape from capital punishment,” wrote Emily Murphy, Canada’s (and the British Empire’s) first female magistrate. “As women we claim the privileges of citizenship for our sex, and we accordingly are prepared to take upon ourselves the weight of the penalties as well.”

An Alberta provincial barrister agreed, if a bit condescendingly: if “women will occupy themselves with all those things (law, Bench, franchise, etc.), taking the places side by side with men as their equal in all things, including even part in the framing and administration of our own laws, surely women should be equally subject to those laws in the event of their offending against them.” (Both quotes from Westward Bound: Sex, Violence, the Law, and the Making of a Settler Society.)

So Florence Lassandro was subject to those laws indeed.**

Early on the morning of May 2, Emilio Picariello (about whom, just go prove the point, we’ve barely spoken) went first to the gallows, scornfully refusing the hood. Minutes after he swung, Lassandro — visibly stricken with fright — followed.

“Why do you hang me when I didn’t do anything?” she implored of the official witnesses. “Is there not anyone who has any pity?”

No one answered.

“I forgive everyone.”

And then she hanged.

Twelve months later, Prohibition was repealed in Alberta.

* This is by no means a latter-day insight. Olympe de Gouges‘s French Revolution-era Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen turned the equation around and argued, “Woman has the right to mount the scaffold; she must equally have the right to mount the rostrum.”

As a somewhat digressive aside, Paul Friedland has made the case that men experiencing a very gender-specific shock at seeing women attending executions was instrumental in the gradual removal of once-public executions behind prison walls.

** Lassandro’s fellow-Italians had her back where her fellow-women did not, and they argued — not unreasonably — that Canada already had a de facto practice of never executing women and it was awfully convenient that everyone was now so high-minded about scrapping taboo once there was a poor Italian immigrant in the dock.

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1820: Amasa Fuller, the Indiana hero

Add comment August 14th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1820, Amasa Fuller was hanged for murdering his rival in love.

“I am a man, and have acted the part of a man!” he declared when taken standing over the still-expiring body of his victim, Palmer Warren. “I glory in the deed!”

It’s one of those problematic constructions of manhood that might do for a graduate thesis.

Our man-actor from the town of Lawrenceburg (and from a star-crossed family with a pattern of violent deaths) had been courting assiduously a “young lady”. Apropos of that graduate thesis, the historical records basically don’t even mention her name; according to a single newspaper article cited in Cecilia Reclaimed: Feminist Perspectives on Gender and Music, it was “Catharine Farrar”. The court records generally just call her the “young lady,” even adding that she was “not handsome,” as in “why are you people committing homicide over this prize?”

But let’s just say Miss Farrar was really great. And Amasa Fuller was really smitten.

Having wooed Farrar into an engagement, Fuller was incensed when he found out that she’d been swooped by a rival while he, Fuller, was away on a business trip. Murder by Gaslight has illuminated the fuller story of Fuller’s revenge; in fine, he returned to Lawrenceburg, and after several unsuccessful attempts to start a scrap with his rival, Fuller forced his way into Palmer’s office, offered him a pistol for a duel, and when the peacable Palmer again refused to fight, Fuller just plain shot him — right through the heart.

Strangely from our retrospective standpoint, the good people of Lawrenceburg viewed Fuller not so much as an unbalanced stalker as, well, the Indiana hero — a man of honor. After Fuller’s conviction,* Lawrenceburg and its surrounding Dearborn County petitioned almost en masse for Fuller’s pardon.

When they didn’t get it, they settled for an execution ballad, “Fuller and Warren”, that lauds “brave Fuller” standing “like an angel” on the scaffold’s trap. (Right before the rope broke.)

This ballad has some bitter words for the near-anonymous object of Fuller’s heart who “robbed him of his honour and his life”: “Cursed be she who has caused this misery; / In his stead she had ought for to die.” And it’s not much kinder to womankind in general:

Of all the ancient history that I can understsnd,
Which we’re bound by the scripture to believe,
Bad women are essentially the downfall of man,
As Adam was beguiled by Eve.

So, young men, beware, be cautious and be wise
Of such women when you’re courting for wives.
Look in Genesis, and Judges, and in Samuel, Kings, and Job,
And the truth of the doctrine you’ll find.

For marriage is a lottery and few gain the prize
That’s both pleasing to the heart and to the eye.
So those who never marry may well be called wise.
So, gentlemen, excuse me; goodbye.

(Some versions of the ballad — there are dozens of variations on record — omit these last and nastiest stanzas.)

* He was prosecuted by future U.S. Congressman Amos Lane, about whom, more in this 1930 JSTOR offering.

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1912: Albert Wolter, white slaver

Add comment January 29th, 2012 Headsman

A century ago today, 20-year-old Albert Walter strolled the 15 feet from the death cell to the Sing Sing electric chair, calling out “Good-bye boys” to his fellow-prisoners as he died for the murder of 15-year-old Ruth Wheeler in a possible white slavery crime two years earlier.

Wolter left a note steadily — all the reports remark on the youth’s sangfroid; he took a nap while the jury went to deliberate with his life in its hands — avowing his innocence, and indulging the “hope there may come a time when the conscience of the perpetrator will overpower him, and he will come to the front and acknowledge his guilt.” He charitably added for “those who have maliciously prosecuted and killed me, for them I pray God’s forgiveness.”

Lots of New Yorkers would have had to ask it.

Despite his cool under fire, Wolter was overwhelmingly acclaimed the guilty party, the evidence against him being as close to airtight as circumstantial gets.

Newsmen ravenous for virginals despoiled by outlanders instantly sunk fangs into the story of the layabout 18-year-old German immigrant — idle lifestyle the product of parasitism upon the drudgery of a young countrywoman toiling 12-hour days at a bakery — who lured the “saintly” stenographers’ school graduate to his apartment with the promise of work and had her charred and headless trunk bundled up on the fire escape by morning. (Other charred remains, and Wheeler’s monogrammed signet ring, were retrieved from inside the apartment.)

Reporters soon sketched the persona of a burgeoning little pimp who had already routed several girls into prostitution. In amid the decadence and displacement of fin de siecle industrialization, you couldn’t ping a more heart-racing (pdf) moral panic than white slavery.*


Sale in a Roman Slave Market, by Jean-Leon Gerome (1883).

Congress was at that very moment in the process of legislating the (still-extant) Mann Act named for the Illinois legislator who sponsored it after a notorious 1909 Chicago case.

But the Big Apple, as the country’s largest city and its gateway for Europe’s polyglot huddled masses, was the reputed center of the whole reputed business.

This illustration from Fighting the Traffic in Young Girls is outstandingly captioned:

“THE FIRST STEP. Ice cream parlors of the city and fruit stores combined, largely run by foreigners, are the places where scores of girls have taken their first step downward. Does her mother know the character of the place and the man she is with?”

The men and the women who engage in this traffic are more unspeakably low and vile than any other class of criminals. The burglar and holdup man are high-minded gentlemen by comparison. There is no more depraved class of people in the world than those human vultures who fatten on the shame of innocent young girls. Many of these white slave traders are recruited from the scum of the criminal classes of Europe.

And in this lies the revolting side of the situation. On the one hand the victims, pure, innocent, unsuspecting, trusting young girls — not a few of them mere children. On the other hand, the white slave trader, low, vile, depraved and cunning, — organically a criminal.

-Chicago U.S. District Attorney Edwin Bell, prefacing the bodice-ripping 1910 Fighting the Traffic in Young Girls**

While the Empire State enacted its own Wolter-inspired law charging schools with vetting the employers who recruit their graduates, Wolter entered the criminal justice system on greased lightning (just like he left it). He was a condemned murderer within five weeks of Ruth Wheeler’s death.†

Wolter himself (evidently surprised to learn that he was old enough for the death penalty; that may not have been the case where he was from) tried to put the blame on a phantom Teuton, one “Frederick Ahner” who was the mastermind in Wolter’s own fall and who must have done the Wheeler business while Wolter was out at the park. That’s “the perpetrator” to whom Wolter’s last letter refers: his conscience never led Ahner to so much as materialize, much less to confess.

The fate of Wolter’s bakery-girl cohabitant — and, one might think, prospective accessory — Katchen “Katie” Mueller was very different. She precipitously aligned herself with her lover’s prosecutors, urged “My dear Al” to confess (almost successfully), and got respectable patronage “to break away from the life she had been leading”. A year after Wolter’s electrocution, Mueller’s redemptive next marriage made the society pages.

* Wolter may have been (pdf; see p. 61 footnote) a specific inspiration of the 1919 Theodore Dreiser play “The Hand of the Potter”, which is all about the era’s white slavery panic.

** Similar dubious (pdf) vice-crusader porn is to be had in (among many other period pieces) a 1911 tract by another Chicago prosecutor, Clifford Roe. Though The Great War on White Slavery is in the public domain, I haven’t been able to locate a complete text online — only this excerpt.

† On the other hand, the then-protracted period of 22 months required to proceed from conviction to execution made Wolter “dean of the death house” by the time he died.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Murder,New York,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Sex,USA

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1963: Nora Parham, the only woman hanged in Belize

6 comments June 5th, 2011 Headsman

Belize, B. Honduras, June 5. — Nora Parham, aged 36, the East Indian mother of eight sons, was hanged today for the murder of the man with whom she had been living.

So ran a minute, page-10 wire story in the London Times* from the British Central American possession soon to become self-governing as the country of Belize.

The unfortunate subject of the story was the first, and remains to date the only, woman put to death in Belize.

But she’s very much more than a bit of trivia.

A domestic violence victim hanged for murdering her batterer — who just happened to be a cop — Parham remains a lively source of controversy down to the present day.

Nora’s position as the victim in an abusive marriage, combined with serious doubt about whether she truly killed her husband at all, have given her enduring appeal. There’s a going campaign to issue her a posthumous pardon. In fact, there was a going campaign before she died to issue her a humous pardon, opposed by a governing party paper on the grounds that “sympathy” ought not “change court rulings.”

And it’s hard not to feel sympathy for Nora Parham and the years of beatings she’s reported to have endured in her relationship with Ketchell Trapp. One doubts even the harshest magistrate would condemn a person in her situation to hang today.

“By refusing to treat the pair as wife and husband, not just cop slayer and cop,” argues this volume on gender politics in colonized Belize, “the government deepened its own highly political silence about domestic and community gender oppression and violence and added a threatening element to its re-call to ‘domestic womanhood.'”

That cop/husband was doused with gasoline and set afire, but admitted as he expired from these ghastly injuries that he had been beating Parham before the fatal fire.

Even so, it sounds like a calculated way to kill a person.

But many believe, as Parham testified at her trial** that it wasn’t homicide at all … that Trapp was incidentally splattered with gasoline during his donnybrook with his wife, then carelessly set himself ablaze lighting a cigarette while off in the outhouse. (While naked, no less. What a way to go.)

“While he came back in the bedroom, I had a gasoline iron [in] my hand with a pan of gasoline.

“He came in the bedroom with a stick in his hand and hit me on my head. When he was going to hit me another hit, I threw the gasoline on him and he grabbed away the pan from me, and I went through the backdoor and he stone me with the said pan.

“After he stoned [me], I ran around the house and he never see where I got to. I went in the house through the front door, then I took the gasoline iron from where I left it and put it in the box.

“While I was inside I heard a noise and I run to see what it was. When I went I saw Ketchell Trapp come out of the latrine under fire. I then run up to help him but I see I could not, then I continued running towards the Hospital back street, running towards the station.

-Nora Parham, at trial

That trial excerpt is drawn from a strongly pro-Nora account with more details about the case here.

Belize still hands down death sentences, but has not carried one out on anybody, man or woman, since 1985.

* June 6, 1963

** All-male jury, which was true of all juries in Belize until 1970.

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1879: Takahashi Oden, dokufu and she-demon

2 comments January 31st, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1879, Takahashi Oden was put to death for murder at Tokyo’s execution grounds — the last woman beheaded in Japanese history.

Oden confessed to slaying her lover, and was also suspected of poisoning off her husband.

This made her perhaps the most infamous of Japan’s dokufu, poison-women — a perceived epidemic of the early Meiji period. Oden’s infamy thrust her into the crime genre’s characteristic harvest pulp literature, like Takahashi Oden yasha monogatari. (Takahashi Oden, the She-Demon’s Tale)

“Oden’s body became part of a scientific discourse that worked to produce ‘knowledge’ about feminine norms based on determinist biological differences,” Sharon Chalmers observes. “Deviancy was also characterised in terms of ‘masculine’ traits … [and] female transgression was read as sexual excess.”

And the feeding frenzy of the popular press around each new dokufu only exaggerated the effect: the sexual rapacity angle moved media.*

Since Japan was all about divining the secrets of the human form from the condemned, Oden was dissected after her death.

According to Murder Most Modern: Detective Fiction and Japanese Culture, the anatomizing team was especially keen on delineating that scientific discourse of feminine deviance. And, of course, the pamphleteers were keen on publicizing it. In this case, standing as we do today outside the surgeons’ intellectual framework, we can readily discern the corpse’s role for these men as grist for the ideological mill.

Immediately following her execution, her body was taken to the hospital affiliated with the Metropolitan Police Office (Keishicho) and dissected by an army surgeon and three regular doctors. Some accounts of this autopsy reveal that these doctors focused their attention on Oden’s genitalia during the procedure. Her bizarre autopsy is said to have been prompted by a newly emerging field of study called zokaki ron, roughly “the study of (re)productive organs.” A cross between sheer superstition and legitimate study of anatomy, zokaki ron was getting much scholarly as well as popular attention as one of the branches of science recently introduced from the West. After the autopsy, the primary operating surgeon, Osanai ken (1848-85), made the following report on Oden: “Abnormal thickness and swelling of the labia minor. Over-development of clitoris. Enlargement of vagina.” For Osanai — a skilled physician who is credited with having performed the first operation in Japan with chloroform and even makes an appearance in Shibue Chusai (1916), a novel by Mori Ogai (1862-1922) about a doctor of Chinese medicine in late Edo period Japan — such physical abnormalities explained Oden’s violent nature: after all, she ruthlessly slit her victim’s throat and left him in a pool of his own blood, and it took several blows for the authorities to execute her as she kicked and screamed in resistance.


Autopsy of Takahashi Oden, from Takahashi Oden yasha monogatari.

Though a lot of water has passed under the bridge since Oden’s day, she was the subject of a 1958 Nobuo Nakagawa film, Dokufu Takahashi Oden.


Katsuko Wakasugi as the title character in Dokufu Takahashi Oden.

* For more on the Oden story as crime literature, see Mark Silver’s “The Lies and Connivances of an Evil Woman: Early Meiji Realism and ‘The Tale of Takahashi Oden the She-Devil'” in Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, June 2003 — or, his book Purloined Letters: Cultural Borrowing and Japanese Crime Literature, 1868-1937.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Japan,Milestones,Murder,Sex,Women

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1866: Martha Grinder, the Pittsburgh Borgia

Add comment January 19th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1866, serial killer Martha Grinder was hanged in Pittsburgh for a poisoning spree.

The “Pittsburgh poisoner” or — we think rather more colorfully — the “Pittsburgh Borgia” — was supposed to suffer from the 19th century’s favorite mental illness, the now-passe “monomania”, which means overwhelming fixation on some single thing or idea.

The idea? Murder.

The national press was captivated by this woman, “the Lucretia Borgia of that day — a woman who, under the guise of helping her sick neighbors, without apparent motive, poisoned them.”

While killers may be nothing new, and even female killers not exactly unheard-of, it was that absence of any object — love, greed, vengeance, anything — save killing itself that moved the papers: one monomania, feeding on another.

According to The Penalty Is Death: U.S. Newspaper Coverage of Women’s Executions, the Pittsburgh press saluted her as “wretched torturer,” “a demon embodied,” “fiendish”; her arrest caused the Philadelphia Inquirer (Aug. 30, 1865: fresh from the gallows expiation of a national catastrophe) to bemoan “a saturnalia of crime … passing over the land.”

One particular neighbor, Mary Caruthers, was poisoned over a period of weeks by her neighbor and apparent caretaker — just the gender role betrayal to really freak out the 19th century. (The court played along: at one point, it admonished the many women attending for their un-feminine interest in this public trial. No indication that it admonished the Pittsburgh Post for its daily trial dispatches.)

This one murder conviction is why Grinder swung, but by that time she had been conclusively hanged in the public mind as a veritable Locusta.

Martha Grinder did eventually confess (pdf) to Caruthers’s murder and to another, but denied any others; papers postulated a total death toll of at least several more who died under Grinder’s nursing “care.” This strikes one as the sort of circumstantial evidence that could be marshaled against anyone in a caregiving position, especially in an environment of dubious forensic technique, and might prove amenable to liberal adoption by newspapermen free from the burden of proof but fettered to the “Borgia” appellation.

On the other hand, and even though the confession came only on the very eve of hanging, our condemned might be thought incentivized by the executive pardon system to own enough guilt to demonstrate contrition without admitting so much as to undercut any possible sympathy. What has one got to lose, right? If that was her game, she didn’t win it.

“Quite prostrated” by her imminent doom, Grinder was reported to have ground away her final days in an opiate haze, but she composed herself sufficiently for an unexpectedly calm performance on the scaffold.


Philadelphia Inquirer, September 25, 1866.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Pennsylvania,Serial Killers,USA,Women

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