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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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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1870: Margaret Waters, baby farmer

6 comments October 11th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1870, Margaret Waters became the first woman in England to hang for baby-farming.

Waters was condemned for murdering an infant she had taken in as a contractual temporary adoption; there is the matter in the dry language of the law.

But Waters’ import — and in fact, since press outrage that her ward’s death had initially been ruled only manslaughter by the coroner, the extremity of her legal straits as well — derived from her milestone symbolism in a burgeoning Victorian-era moral panic.


Margaret Waters’ case dominates the cover of the Oct. 15, 1870 Illustrated Police News, with a central illustration of Margaret Waters hanged … surrounded, appropriately, by men.

“Baby farming” hit the papers in the 1860’s with sensational exposes of a gray market business whose model was:

  1. Relieve unwilling mother of her newborn infant for a fee
  2. ???
  3. Profit!

It’s the “???” that’s up for grabs.

To the newspapermen, and the day’s elite crusaders for reform, and especially to the nascent medical industry whose British Medical Journal was instrumental in fomenting public alarm,* it signified nothing short of infanticide, a sort of post-partum abortion.

Thus, the Times of London’s sermonizing post-hanging editorial (Oct. 12, 1870):

A most just sentence has thus been executed, and the law has conspicuously fulfilled its appointed office of being a terror to evil-doers. A more terrible case, with respect both to the heinousness of the offence and to the unexpected vengeance which has overtaken it, has never occurred … The wretched woman and her sister were proved to have systematically published advertisements offering to “adopt” children for a remuneration which no one in his senses could believe to be adequate. In other words, they offered to the parents of illegitimate children a means of getting rid of charges at once burdensome and shameful to them … For the sake of a paltry and precarious gain MARGARET WATERS and her sister had the heart to make away with the helpless little creatures … nothing can palliate the hideous spectacle thus brought to light. A murder in hot blood, the deliberate gratification of revenge, or even a premeditated act of violence in the pursuit of some selfish object, fall short in some respects to the heinousness of this offence. The deepest instincts of a woman’s heart must have been deadened, and the most ordinary feelings of human nature extinguished, before such slow murder could be perpetrated upon piteous little innocents.

… MARGARET WATERS confesses to receiving children for purposes of profit, whom she, at least, knew she could not support. She confesses to receiving them for 5 l. or 10 l., and finding other people who would receive them for a fortnight’s expenses paid in advance, and would then let her hear no more of them. She confesses to taking them into the streets, placing them in the hands of children, and then running away and leaving them to their fate. She confessed to all this, and yet she professed to see in it nothing but “falsehood and deceit.” It was not murder, and nothing seems to have astonished her so much as the sudden vengeance which overtook her … while admitting the most damning facts, she extenuates their criminality. It is well that the stern sentence of the law has pronounced a terrible condemnation of these heartless excuses. “Baby Farming” as practiced by MARGARET WATERS was ruthless and systematic murder, and her doom will indelibly stamp this brand upon her infamous trade.

We wish it could be thought this unhappy woman was a solitary instance of such wilful blindness. It is to be feared she has expiated the sins of others who have actually perpetrated similar crimes, and it is certain there are many who are direct accomplices in her guilt. When she says that “the parents of illegitimate children who seek to get rid of them are more culpable than persons like herself, and that if there were no such parents there would be no ‘Baby Farmers,'” she does but exaggerate a just charge. When MARGARET WATERS abandoned children in the streets to the casual care of passers-by, she did but repeat what had been done by those who had first abandoned them to her in the dark of the night at obscure railway stations. It cannot be too strongly asserted that this execution reflects more or less the brand of murder upon all who contributed to the offence — upon the parents who only sought to get rid of their children, and upon those who allowed their journals to be the instruments of what they might have known to be an infamous traffic. It must be acknowledged that the justice of the law is but brought justice, and spares many who deserve punishment. That is inevitable. But one of the great uses of the law is to depict in true colours the real meaning of common offences. Selfish and licentious men and women will know for the future what is the natural issue of the offences against morality and society which they lightly commit. It is murder, and nothing less, that is the ultimate meaning of these social evils, and this is the contamination incurred by those who facilitate such offences.

Sounds pretty bad.

But then … all those other “selfish and licentious men and women”: had Waters somehow been the bad apple to spoil an entire bushel? (Reformers of the time write often of illicit behavior as a contagion whose example inspires a wider moral deadening.) Or was there something else going on?

Even the Times agrees that our culprit “never entertained the intention of becoming a ‘Baby Farmer’ and a Murderess. She drifted into it under the pressure of want and temptation. … It is, according to her statement, only six years since she was a married woman in good circumstances.”

According to Waters’ own account, summarized third-hand in the Times a few days prior to the hanging, (Oct. 7, 1870) her fall from respectable wedlock to public enemy number one began with the 1864 death of her husband, leaving the woman

with 300 l. in her possession. Intending to turn her capital to account, she took a house in Addington-square, Camberwell, and put into it a number of sewing-machines. Her plan was to make collars and other such articles, and sell them to the city houses. She knew little or nothing of the business, however, and, partly owing to that circumstance and partly to the miserable prices which were paid for such goods, she was at the end of the year a loser of 250 l. She then resolved to save herself by letting lodgings, and that step led her imperceptibly into her career of baby farming. … she was steadily going down-hill, and she found herself obliged to leave Addington-square and go to Bournemouth-terrace, Peckham, where she commenced baby farming as a system. She advertised for children, and she had answers from persons in all stations … She drifted along in this course, getting from bad to worse. But she protested that she had no idea of injuring the children, though she did some things she was very sorry for, owing to the difficulties of her position … She took the Clerkenwell News, and there she used to find a whole string of advertisements — three of them were put in for a shilling — from women who wanted children to nurse. She advertised herself for children to adopt, and she generally got 10 l. with one. When she got the child and the money she went to one of the other advertisers in the Clerkenwell News and arranged to put the baby out to nurse. Upon paying two weeks in advance she was hardly ever asked even for her address, and when she went away of course she never heard anything more of the child. She gained the difference between the 10 l. given her for adopting the child and the fortnight’s payment for nursing it. This was, after all, a very precarious resource, and she fell into great distress … The time came soon when she was unable to pay the money-lender his instalments, and he threatened to strip her of everything under her bill of sale … When she went to Brixton five children died, some from diarrhoea and wasting, and others from convulsions. She was very poor, and determined to save the price of burial by leaving them about. She wrapped the bodies in brown paper and took them out at night, and left them where they were found by people afterwards. She maintains that she did what she could for these children, and attended to them to the best of her power. There were also four other children whom she got rid of in a way for which she is now very sorry. She took them, one at a time, into the streets, and when she saw little boys and girls at play she called one of them and said, “Oh, I am so tired! Here, hold my baby, and here is sixpence for you to go into the sweetstuff-shop and get something nice.” While the boy or girl went into the shop she made off. The babies, she believes, were generally taken to the workhouse.

The slide into the vast but shadow world of poverty, in short … a timeless story.

While intentional infanticide undoubtedly formed some part of the baby farming picture, its nature and extent is also nothing to presume. In an era of staggering child mortality, dead infants were a norm, sometimes the norm. In the context of desperate penury, it was all the more likely. Middle-class authorities who raided Waters’ “farm” saw (and testified to) a slum purposely structured to kill off children. They may simply have beheld indigence.

Waters herself always rejected any notion that she had intentionally killed any of her charges.

Summing up the doomed woman’s testimonial, the doctor who took it underscored the point with an entirely plausible counter-narrative.

Dr. Edmunds, in concluding the recital of the remarkable and instructive statement Margaret Waters made to him a few hours before, said that when children, even under the best conditions, were taken from the breast and brought up by hand, the chances were all against them. What, then, was the chance of infants taken out in the open air the moment they were born and brought up with only such appliances as Mrs. Waters, at her wits’ end for money, flying from money-lenders and dodging landlords, had at her disposal? From what he could judge she had no intention of murdering any of the children, but they died off, as they might have been expected to die off, from diarrhoea, thrush, and convulsions, and when they died she callously got rid of their bodies as best she could when she became poor.

If Waters’ story holds water, her fees so inadequate to the long-term maintenance of children represent much the same calculated gamble involved in insurance: foul play or no, she had no reason to expect to maintain children long-term.** Cold … but hardly incomprehensible.

(It should also be observed babies to adopt actually were in demand.)

Interestingly, one of the key antecedents of the baby farming scandals in the 1860s and 70s was the codification of prim sexual mores for which the Victorian era is a byword.

Earlier in the 19th century, financial responsibility for illegitimate children had shifted from the (putative) father to the mother, and government Poor Relief to single mothers had been slashed — a bit of abstinence-only social engineering meant to stigmatize single motherhood to the greater good of the softer sex: “We trust that as soon as it has become … burdensome and disgraceful, it will soon become … rare.”

Surprisingly, welfare reform did not stop Victorians having sex. Given a milieu where birth control and abortion are illicit and single motherhood severely stigmatized, the policy implied a swath of single mothers powerfully incentivized to have burdensome and death-prone children taken off their hands … and an industry of entrepreneurs ready to meet the demand.

Waters was the first of eight women in England, Scotland and Wales hanged as baby farmers from 1870 to 1909. Her execution would help lead to the 1872 adoption of the Infant Life Protection Act, which introduced a regimen of license and registration in the heretofore libertarian economy of freelance child-brokering.

Books about Baby Farming and its Context

* In “Wolves in Women’s Clothing: Baby-Farming and the British Medical Journal, 1860-1872” (Journal of Family History, vol. 26, no. 3, July 2001), Ruth Ellen Homrighaus argues that

[b]y using their ‘expertise’ to stake a claim on infanticide and to relegate female reformers to the ranks of amateurs, writers for the BMJ made one of many moves to professionalize medicine … [and] establish a monopoly over health care by improving and standardizing medical education and restricting competition from untrained ‘charlatans.’

Infanticide writ large being a complex social problem, it found in baby farming a specific target amenable to outraged public mobilization, with a “subtext … [that] denied that working-class women were fit to manage childbirth and infant care.”

Margaret Waters had the ill luck to be discovered just as this campaign was in need of a potent emblematic villain. Despite the pestering of the moralistic set, police interest in hounding the persons who attended England’s considerable produce of disposable children rapidly waned in the 1870’s.

** Reviewing the still-lively baby farming scene in early 20th century America, Lawrence Friedman notes that

baby farms made a profit from a “grisly calculus”: most babies, in the days before reliable bottle-feeding, simply died when separated from their mothers. Add to this filthy conditions and poor care, and it is no surprise that most babies in baby farms did not survive. Allegedly, up to 80 percent of all babies admitted to one Baltimore baby farm died within weeks.

Part of the Themed Set: Women Who Kill.

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Themed Set: Women Who Kill

4 comments October 8th, 2009 Headsman

These pages have noticed many women to fall under the executioner’s shadow.

We have noticed too how remarkably women’s crimes and women criminals and women’s sentences are “gendered”.

In matters of patriarchy, familial behavior, sexual incontinence and resistance … it’s unsurprising to find women marked as such.

Yet even in run-of-the-mill criminal scenarios — what would be run-of-the-mill for a man — female offenders stand to attract the prurient gaze, from breathless media to academic masturbation.

When we last paused to consider the mystique of the executed woman, we focused on political criminals whose deaths were a matter of state. (Though as we have seen, even in a political purge gender can be a weapon.)

Join Executed Today this time to consider a few women of less exalted criminality … and our own response to seeing them as scaffold-fodder.

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1852: Fatimih Baraghani, Tahirih the pure

Add comment August 31st, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1852, the Persian poet Fatimih Baraghani was strangled with her veil in a Tehran garden for her women’s rights advocacy.

She’s best known as* Tahirih, the title meaning “pure one” given her by the Bab.

The moniker denoted the latter’s support of her in the Babi community that would eventually develop into the Baha’i faith. Tahirih was notable even within that outlawed sect for her staunch advocacy of female emancipation; in 1848, she dramatically unveiled in public at a conference to underscore her rejection of Islamic gender law.

Known for her intelligence as well as her militancy, she came under increasing police pressure. She was killed along with about 30 of her faith in the Persian crackdown on Babism after an assassination attempt on the Shah.

Her reported last words were modern-sounding indeed:

You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women.

Most readily available material about this inspirational character tends to the devotional, as with this video series; Executed Today does not necessarily endorse the position that at her apparent death she actually only escaped to trans-dimensional hiding.

* Fatimih Baraghani is also known as Qurratu’l-‘Ayn, or Qurrat al-‘Ayn — “consolation of the eyes.”

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1793: Charlotte Corday, Marat’s murderess

13 comments July 17th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1793, Charlotte Corday lightly dropped her head beneath the guillotine for the murder of Jean-Paul Marat.


The Death of Marat, by David.

She is of stately Norman figure; in her twenty-fifth year; of beautiful still countenance: her name is Charlotte Corday, heretofore styled d’Armans, while Nobility still was … A completeness, a decision is in this fair female Figure: ‘by energy she means the spirit that will prompt one to sacrifice himself for his country.’ What if she, this fair young Charlotte, had emerged from her secluded stillness, suddenly like a Star; cruel-lovely, with half-angelic, half-demonic splendour; to gleam for a moment, and in a moment be extinguished: to be held in memory, so bright complete was she, through long centuries!–Quitting Cimmerian Coalitions without, and the dim-simmering Twenty-five millions within, History will look fixedly at this one fair Apparition of a Charlotte Corday; will note whither Charlotte moves, how the little Life burns forth so radiant, then vanishes swallowed of the Night.

Carlyle’s voluptuous prose is well-suited to our heroine (for so she has officially seemed, since fall of Robespierre, or from the very first): in the mere hours from striking dead the ferocious Jacobin Jean-Paul Marat on July 13 to her beheading this day, she captivated the country and immortalized her name.

Hapless beautiful Charlotte; hapless squalid Marat! From Caen in the utmost West, from Neuchatel in the utmost East, they two are drawing nigh each other; they two have, very strangely, business together.

Or was it strange at all?

Implacable in her purpose, utopian in her design, unafraid to plant a butcher’s knife into the chest of an enemy of France, Corday has a little something in common with her mortal foe.


Charlotte Corday, by Paul-Jacques-Aime Baudry.

These make casting too easy: Marat, bad because he was ugly and ugly because he was bad; Charlotte, therefore, just the reverse. (She was also a virgin; they made sure to check at the autopsy.) Our Norman assassin’s looks have inordinately exercised her interlocutors from the moment of her arrest; her prosecutors, too, understood them as essential.

“Not at all pretty,” a contemporaneous government article (cited in Crisis in Representation) put about. “She was a virago, brawny rather than fresh, without grace, untidy as are almost all female philosophers and eggheads … an old maid … with a masculinized bearing … [who] had thrown herself absolutely outside of her sex.”

And there it is. Charlotte Corday’s power to excite both rapture and repulsion is plainly rooted in the unexpected contradiction between her sex and her crime. If she is a resolute political assassin, surely she is not feminine … or is it the other way around?

Take Andre Chenier‘s engorged ode: “Fair, young, resplendent, led to the executioners, you seemed to be riding in your bridal car … You alone were a man and vindicated the human race. And we, vile eunuchs, a cowardly and soulless herd, we know how to repeat some womanly whimper, but the steel would weigh heavy in our feeble hands. … One scoundrel less crawls in this slime. Virtue applauds you. Hear the majestic sound of its virile praise, heroic maid.” This is “throwing herself outside of her sex” in the affirmative sense of uplifting herself beyond mere womanhood, a girl so heroic she might almost qualify as a dude.

Place it at the historical pivot into a modernity unready to reckon with the place of the woman, and confusion reigns.

“The spectacle of such wickedness, beauty, and talent united in the same person,” a newspaper recorded, “the contrast between the magnitude of her crime and the weakness of her sex, her appearance of actual gaiety, and her smile before the judges, who could not fail to condemn her, all combined to create an impression on the spectators that is difficult to portray.”*

Still, this judgment offers more insight than some latterly “tributes,” like this Anglo magazine piece 30 years later: “an ornament and an honour to the sex of woman … Woman is the child of feeling. From this source spring up all her good and bad qualities. It is seldom ambition or policy which leads her on to any enterprise: it is the passions. … it was under the influence of such feelings that Charlotte Corday performed that act, which virtuous and generous minds, so far from considering a crime, will look upon as one of the most heroic deeds of recorded history.”

Which is a fascinating form of sexism, since it was precisely Corday’s unearthly calm — masculine virtue! — that awed the Revolutionary Tribunal. But everything about Charlotte Corday is up for interpretive grabs; Nina Rattner Gelbart even argues, in “The Blonding of Charlotte Corday” (Eighteenth-Century Studies 38.1 (2004)) that though a real-life brunette, her depictions trend increasingly flaxen-haired.**

As for Charlotte Corday her work is accomplished; the recompense of it is near and sure. The chere amie, and neighbours of the house, flying at her, she ‘overturns some movables,’ entrenches herself till the gendarmes arrive; then quietly surrenders; goes quietly to the Abbaye Prison: she alone quiet, all Paris sounding in wonder, in rage or admiration, round her. …

On Wednesday morning, the thronged Palais de Justice and Revolutionary Tribunal can see her face; beautiful and calm: she dates it ‘fourth day of the Preparation of Peace.’ A strange murmur ran through the Hall, at sight of her; you could not say of what character. Tinville has his indictments and tape-papers the cutler of the Palais Royal will testify that he sold her the sheath-knife; “all these details are needless,” interrupted Charlotte; “it is I that killed Marat.” By whose instigation? — “By no one’s.” What tempted you, then? His crimes. “I killed one man,” added she, raising her voice extremely (extremement), as they went on with their questions, “I killed one man to save a hundred thousand; a villain to save innocents; a savage wild-beast to give repose to my country. I was a Republican before the Revolution; I never wanted energy.” There is therefore nothing to be said. The public gazes astonished: the hasty limners sketch her features, Charlotte not disapproving; the men of law proceed with their formalities. The doom is Death as a murderess. To her Advocate she gives thanks; in gentle phrase, in high-flown classical spirit. To the Priest they send her she gives thanks; but needs not any shriving, or ghostly or other aid from him.

On this same evening, therefore, about half-past seven o’clock, from the gate of the Conciergerie, to a City all on tiptoe, the fatal Cart issues: seated on it a fair young creature, sheeted in red smock of Murderess; so beautiful, serene, so full of life; journeying towards death,–alone amid the world. Many take off their hats, saluting reverently; for what heart but must be touched? Others growl and howl. Adam Lux, of Mentz, declares that she is greater than Brutus; that it were beautiful to die with her: the head of this young man seems turned. At the Place de la Revolution, the countenance of Charlotte wears the same still smile. The executioners proceed to bind her feet; she resists, thinking it meant as an insult; on a word of explanation, she submits with cheerful apology. As the last act, all being now ready, they take the neckerchief from her neck: a blush of maidenly shame overspreads that fair face and neck; the cheeks were still tinged with it, when the executioner lifted the severed head, to shew it to the people. ‘It is most true,’ says Foster, ‘that he struck the cheek insultingly; for I saw it with my eyes: the Police imprisoned him for it.’†

In this manner have the Beautifullest and the Squalidest come in collision, and extinguished one another. Jean-Paul Marat and Marie-Anne Charlotte Corday both, suddenly, are no more. ‘Day of the Preparation of Peace?’ Alas, how were peace possible or preparable, while, for example, the hearts of lovely Maidens, in their convent-stillness, are dreaming not of Love- paradises, and the light of Life; but of Codrus’-sacrifices, and death well earned? That Twenty-five million hearts have got to such temper, this is the Anarchy; the soul of it lies in this: whereof not peace can be the embodyment! The death of Marat, whetting old animosities tenfold, will be worse than any life. O ye hapless Two, mutually extinctive, the Beautiful and the Squalid, sleep ye well,–in the Mother’s bosom that bore you both!

In Carlyle’s third volume on the French Revolution, “Charlotte Corday” is the first chapter in Book IV: The Terror.

While the assassin went contentedly to her death, and left smitten admirers in her passing, more realistic politicians saw that all her magnificent stoicism, all her self-sacrifice, had doomed the liberals who were her political fellow-travelers and opened the door to the very Terror she meant to avert. (And also that the gesture might have been better directed elsewhere, since Marat was already dying.)

“She has killed us,” prophesied Girondin deputy Pierre Vergniaud. “But she has taught us how to die.”

What meaning this leaves one with — any at all? — is the subject of the Peter Weiss play-within-a-play Marat/Sade, which sets a cast of lunatics in the Napoleonic era under the direction of the Marquis de Sade to portraying Marat’s rendezvous with Charlotte Corday.

* Cited by Elizabeth R. Kindleberger in “Charlotte Corday in Text and Image: A Case Study in the French Revolution and Women’s History,” French Historical Studies, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Autumn, 1994).

** Also of interest from Gelbart is the Vichy government’s affinity for our murderess: “Antisemitism made of Marat a Jew and a vile creature, dark, dirty, satanic, a bloodthirsty monster. In contrast, Corday was pure, saintly, beautiful, virginal, and of course fair.”

† The slap given Charlotte Corday’s severed head is historically attested by the French press (which was aghast); the famous story about it of a much more fantastic quality is that the severed head blushed — and, in the phrasing of Englishwoman Helen Maria Williams, “exhibited this last impression of offended modesty.” The legend of Charlotte’s crimsoned cheeks always comes up in the backstory of the guillotine’s experiments to determine if a head retained consciousness; Charlotte’s blush may in fact be credited as one of the reasons these experiments actually came to pass.

Part of the Themed Set: The Feminine Mystique.

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Themed Set: The Feminine Mystique

5 comments July 15th, 2009 Headsman

Our tour through the world’s condemned has made the company of many a woman, but our hobby is a noticeably gendered one: whether as common criminals, fallen royals, political prisoners, war criminals, or any other subset of the execution-prone, women who face the headsmen map differently in the public conscience than men.

If the distinctions are none other than those that structure every social transactions, the dramatic tableau of the scaffold raises the stakes, sharpens the gendering, be she whore or madonna, black widow or holy maid.

Often, condemned women excite more sympathy, even romantic longing; occasionally, a crime’s inversion of femininity redoubles their opprobrium. A few criminal categories — abortion, witchcraft — are, for lack of a better term, female-gendered by default.

Though this series hardly marks the last women for these pages, three very notable cases in very different situations offer a vantage point not only on female and male through history, but on one’s own response to the spectacle of the executed woman.

On this day..

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1903: Emily Swann and John Gallagher, the Wombwell murderers

Add comment December 29th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1903, a 42-year-old mother of 11 was hanged side by side with her 30-year-old lover for murdering an abusive husband in the small South Yorkshire town of Wombwell.

That June, Emily Swann had shown her outgoing boarder and lover John Gallagher (together with some neighbors) the results of William Swann’s latest beating. John returned to the house and repaid the injuries in kind — and with interest.

After some minutes of fighting audible to the neighbors, Bill had been beaten to death.

Emily’s battered-wife situation might cut a lot more ice today, but by the jurisprudence of the day it was a fairly straightforward case, especially since all kinds of incriminating remarks were attributed by the neighbors to both Emily and John — “Give it to him, Johnnie, punch him to death,” for instance, and Gallagher’s own mid-bout respite at a neighbor’s house where he reported having broken four ribs with plans to break more. Both illustrated a level of intent among both parties beyond the heat of passion.

And you wouldn’t say the authorities were disposed to sympathize with Emily’s situation in general. They rather viewed her immorality — with John and otherwise — as the cause of the thrashings William gave her.

the wonder is that he has not killed her. He has frequently gone home after leaving work and found his wife drunk in the house and nothing prepared for him in the way of food. (case file comment, quoted here)

Fortified by a stiff drink of brandy, Emily Swann glided onto the platform at Leeds’ Armley Prison beside her already-trussed defender and delivered the somewhat famous greeting, “Good morning John.” Gallagher managed to return the salutation, and a few seconds before both were launched into eternity, she replied, “Good-bye. God bless you.”

It was an unusual exchange because the English execution protocol did not solicit remarks from the doomed prisoner, and in the occasional double hangings,* most participants were too frightened, awed or preoccupied to make small talk with their fellow-sufferers in the few seconds available.

* England would soon do away with double hangings altogether. Subsequent convicts to be hanged “together,” like Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters, were in fact executed simultaneously but at different prisons.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Sex,Women

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1855: The slave Celia, who had no right to resist

5 comments December 21st, 2008 Caitlin GD Hopkins

(Thanks to Caitlin at Vast Public Indifference for the guest post -ed.)

In 1850, 60-year-old Robert Newsom, a prosperous farmer, traveled forty miles from his home in Callaway County, Missouri to neighboring Audrain County to buy a slave. Newsom was the head of a large and complex household that included several of his grown children, grandchildren, and five enslaved boys and men. His wife had died a few years earlier, a consideration that may have influenced his decision to purchase a female slave, a fourteen-year-old girl named Celia.

From the first day, Newsom treated Celia as his concubine. Testimony given before the Missouri Supreme Court in 1855 indicates that Newsom raped Celia for the first time on the journey home from the slave market. He installed her in a small cabin behind his house, where he continued to rape her on a regular basis over the next five years. During that time, she gave birth to two children.

In the spring of 1855, Celia began a relationship with George, another slave on the farm, and soon discovered that she was pregnant again. At George’s urging, Celia approached Newsom’s daughters and pled with them to protect her from their father during her pregnancy. The oldest daughter, Mary, later testified that Celia had threatened to hurt Newsom if he came to her cabin again, but there is no evidence that either she or her sister intervened.

On the night of June 23, 1855, Robert Newsom went to Celia’s cabin, no doubt intent on raping her yet again. He never returned to his own home.

Although Celia was never allowed to testify in her own defense, investigators reconstructed the events of the night through a combination of physical evidence and Celia’s confession. Fearful of Newsom, Celia had hidden a hefty stick in a corner of her cabin. When Newsom attacked her that night, Celia retrieved her weapon and beat him to death with it. She then dismembered the body and burned it to ashes in her fireplace. The next morning, Celia offered Newsom’s eleven-year-old grandson two dozen walnuts in exchange for his help cleaning out the fireplace and spreading the ashes in the yard.

The jury that convicted Celia of murder accepted her confession as fact, but some elements of her tale do not ring true. As Melton McLaurin observes in his book, Celia, A Slave, the task of cutting enough wood and tending the roaring fire necessary to consume a human corpse in a single night “would have taxed the strength of a healthy woman, and Celia was pregnant and sick” (McLaurin, 49). McLaurin implies that George either helped Celia or was primarily responsible for Newsom’s demise and that Celia may have lied to protect him. George disappeared shortly after the murder and was never arrested or charged.

Celia stood trial for Newsom’s murder in October of 1855 (State of Missouri v. Celia, a Slave). Her lawyer, John Jameson, argued that Celia was legally entitled to defend herself from a would-be rapist under an 1845 law that made any attempt “to take any woman unlawfully against her will and by force, menace or duress, compel her to be defiled” a felony. He requested that the jury be instructed that

The words “any woman” in the first clause of the 29th section, of second article of laws of Missouri for 1845, concerning crimes & punishments, embrace slave women, as well as free white women.

The judge, William Augustus Hall, refused to honor the defense’s motion. Instead, he instructed the jury that a slave had no right to resist her master, even in the case of sexual assault. The jury found Celia guilty and sentenced her to death. (Celia’s child was delivered stillborn in prison.) The Missouri Supreme Court denied her appeal, and she was hanged on December 21, 1855.

Celia’s story is currently part of the interactive Slavery and the Making of America exhibit at PBS.org.

For more information, please see the following books:

McLaurin, Melton A. Celia, a Slave: A True Story. (University of Georgia Press, 1991). Google Books preview

Gordon-Reed, Annette, ed. Race on Trial: Law and Justice in American History. (Oxford University Press, 2002). Google Books preview.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Missouri,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Other Voices,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Slaves,USA,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1793: Olympe de Gouges, a head of her time

9 comments November 3rd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1793, Olympe de Gouges’ forward thoughts were removed from her shoulders in the Place de la Revolution.

Most recognizable today for her Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Citizen* — a proto-feminist call for equality of the sexes issued in response to the day’s revolutionary but guy-centric Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizende Gouges was much more than a one-issue woman.

Fully engaged with the liberal intellectual currents of the Enlightenment, de Gouges spent the 1770’s and 1780’s in Parisian salon circles cranking out plays (over 40) and petitions, pamphlets and manifestos on animal welfare, poverty, the treatment of orphans, and ending slavery.

The latter issue, and not women’s rights, was the cause her contemporaries would have most associated with her.

But the natural-born gadfly didn’t pick her battles with injustice, and the Terror was a bad period to be indiscriminate. Like some of her Girondist associates, she risked the Paris mob’s wrath by openly opposing Louis XVI‘s execution — right in character, Olympe was down on the whole idea of the death penalty — and she carried principle into foolhardiness by printing broadsides savaging Robespierre.

Show trial time.

There can be no mistaking the perfidious intentions of this criminal woman, and her hidden motives … calumniating and spewing out bile in large doses against the warmest friends of the people, their most intrepid defender.

Misogynist condescension veined the prevailing interpretation of this misbehavior.

Olympe de Gouges, born with an exalted imagination, mistook her delirium for an inspiration of nature. She wanted to be a man of state. She took up the projects of the perfidious people who want to divide France. It seems the law has punished this conspirator for having forgotten the virtues that belong to her sex.

And strange to say, that condescension outlived Robespierre by centuries.

Only recently, as mainstream thought has (sort of) caught up with de Gouges, has the scope of her work (French link) attracted renewed appreciation, and Olympe been acknowledged an Olympian herself.

* Article 10: “Woman has the right to mount the scaffold; she must equally have the right to mount the rostrum.” The work was dedicated to Marie Antoinette.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Activists,Artists,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,France,Freethinkers,Guillotine,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Public Executions,Treason,Women

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