1820: John and Lavinia Fisher

Add comment February 18th, 2019 Headsman

February 18, 1820 was the execution date of South Carolina crime Hall of Famers John and Lavinia Fisher.

By legendary repute the first serial killer in America, Fisher and her husband John were said to lure travelers to their Six Mile Wayfarer House near Ashley Ferry outside Charleston where they’d be poisoned, stabbed, and robbed.

Alas, the Fishers were actually a more conventional sort of brigand.


National Advocate for the Country (New York, N.Y.), January 28, 1820.

Quite incredible legends have been embroidered for this purported Bates Motel of the early Republic: for instance, that their cover was blown by a man named John Peoples/Peeples who grew suspicious enough to avoid drinking the poisoned tea and then sat up all night like young Felix Platter until he caught wind of the imminent attack, sprang out a window, and fled to safety. If so, it was a woeful failure of the period’s journalists merely to report that he had been savagely beaten and robbed.

A few books about the Lavinia Fisher case

Instead, these two seemed to be part of a gang of bandits who occupied not only their Six Mile House but also the Five Mile House, and Lavinia wasn’t the only woman in the lot: one Jane Howard was among the half-dozen arrested when the Six Mile lair was raided by a vigilante posse in February 1819, along with William Heyward, James M’Elwray, and Seth Young, along with others uncaptured. (Names via National Advocate, March 3, 1819) Papers of the time slate them with offenses like stealing livestock and highway robbery, and it’s the latter crime — not murder — that brought the Fishers to their gallows.

Either way, Charleston tour guides will tell you that she haunts the old city jail to this day. She’s also famous for her purported last words, “If you have a message you want to send to Hell, give it to me; I’ll carry it,” which might even be a real quote.


Alexandria [Va.] Gazette & Daily Advertiser, Feb. 26, 1820

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous Last Words,Hanged,History,Organized Crime,Public Executions,South Carolina,The Supernatural,Theft,USA,Women

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1735: Alice Riley, Savannah ghost

Add comment January 19th, 2017 Headsman

Savannah’s Wright Square got its haunt (and concomitant reputation as “the hanging square”) on this date in 1735 when domestic servant Alice Riley was executed for murdering her vicious master William Wise.

Illustration from the vignette in Historic Haunts of Savannah

The Irish import with a truly misfortunate indenture to a tyrannical farmer with a predilection for using his fists, Riley and a fellow-servant named Richard White snapped at the abuse one day the previous March and stuffed Wise’s head in a bucket of water until he drowned.

As best this writer can discern, much of what else is said on various Riley biographies appears to be embroidery and conjecture; the circumstances invite the most lurid of inferences but we don’t really know much about the relationships among the two killers and their victim.

Whatever the case, other Savannah grandees thought little enough of Wise — but they also all had help of their own who ought not get any funny ideas from the example. The couple was tracked down and prosecuted, although Alice extended her lease on life by pleading her belly. A few weeks after delivering a little boy whom she named James, Alice Riley was hauled to Wright Square (then known as Percival Square) and publicly hanged as she protested her innocence and begged to see her child. The gibbet brandished her remains at passing servants there for three full days.

Although they finally took down the corpse, her spirit has never been at peace. Riley’s specter allegedly still appears around Wright Square as a frantic woman who accosts passersby about her lost child.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Georgia,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,The Supernatural,USA,Women

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1965: Andrew Pixley

Add comment December 10th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1965, Andrew Pixley was gassed in Wyoming for butchering the two young daughters of a vacationing Illinois judge.

A 21-year-old high school dropout with a few petty thefts to his name, Pixley on the night of August 5-6, 1964 broke into the Jackson hotel room occupied by 12-year-old Debbie McAuliffe, her 8-year-old sister Cindy, and 6-year-old Susan.

Their parents were relaxing in the hotel lounge at the time, but would return to a nightmare scene: Debbie dead in her bed, beaten to death with a rock; Cindy, strangled; and this slight stranger drunk or insensible lying on the floor of their room covered in their daughters’ gore. Both girls also appeared to have been sexually assaulted. (Somehow, the youngest daughter was not attacked.)

Judge Robert McAuliffe seized the stranger, while police — and soon behind them, an angry mob calling for Judge Lynch — followed his wife’s screams to the scene.

“It was the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen,” Teton County attorney Floyd King later said. Pixley claimed that the night’s events were a blank in his mind.

Remembered for this one night of madness as one of Wyoming’s most brutal criminals, Andrew Pixley reputedly still haunts Wyoming’s Old Frontier Prison, and gives tour guides at facility (it’s a museum now) the heebie-jeebies.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Gassed,Murder,Rape,The Supernatural,USA,Wyoming

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1864: Bill Sketoe, hole haunt

Add comment December 3rd, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1864, a hulking Methodist minister by the name of Bill Sketoe was hanged in Newton, Alabama … but his ghost story was only just beginning.

Sketoe’s life is nearly as spectral as his death, but he is known to have been a longtime denizen of Newton’s Dale County where he preached the gospel and fathered a biblically-appropriate brood of seven children.

The easiest version says that Sketoe deserted the Confederate army to care for his sick wife. However, there’s no documentary evidence that Sketoe actually served under arms in the Civil War, although two of his sons did. He might actually have been suspected of aiding Unionist raiders haunting the forests — men like John Ward, a local pro-Union guerrilla with whom Confederate guards had just days before fought a skirmish.*

For whatever reason, a local Confederate cavalry militia under one Captain Joseph Breare seized the preacher near the Choctawhatchee River on December 3, 1864, and hanged him to a convenient tree.

Now, Bill Sketoe was a large man, and the bough of the Post Oak that supported his noose bent to his weight until Sketoe’s toes touched the ground. For an ad hoc execution, an ad hoc solution: one of Breare’s so-called “Buttermilk Rangers” simply dug out the ground around Sketoe’s feet until they dangled free in the hole and their owner could strangle to death properly.

Beloved Alabama storyteller Kathryn Tucker Windham immortalized “The Hole That Will Not Stay Filled”, one of the chapters of her 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey. Local legend, it seems, held that whenever someone later filled in Sketoe’s dangling-pit — with dirt, rubbish, or anything else — it would be mysteriously un-filled within hours.

Unfortunately the present-day skeptic will not be able to put geist to test because “Sketoe’s Hole” was destroyed in a 1990 flood, and is today covered over with tons of rocks supporting a bridge strut — too much infill even for spooks. (Though not enough to deter visitors.)

Sketoe’s executioner Joseph Breare resumed his law practice after the war … until a falling tree killed him during a storm in 1866.

* David Williams develops the John Ward connection in Rich Man’s War: Caste, Class, and Confederate Defeat in the Lower Chattahoochee Valley. A few months later an incursion of different irregulars led by a Dale County Confederate officer who deserted to the Union, Joseph Sanders, precipitated the Battle of Newton.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Alabama,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Confederates,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Lynching,Popular Culture,Summary Executions,The Supernatural,USA,Wartime Executions

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1833: Antoine LeBlanc, billfolded

1 comment September 6th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1833, Antoine le Blanc was hanged on the Morristown (N.J.) village green.

A cigar-chomping French immigrant, LeBlanc came to the New World to seek his fortune and found himself doing grueling farm work for Samuel and Sarah Sayre in exchange for a dank basement room but no pay.

After just a couple of weeks in this unsatisfactory situation, LeBlanc clobbered Samuel Sayre with a spade … and then did the same to Sarah Sayre … and then killed their infant child. Stuffing all the portable valuables he could find into pillowcase sacks, he hopped on a horse and fled for New York, hoping to pawn his booty for passage back to Europe.

Like an inept Scooby-Doo villain, LeBlanc in his haste managed to dribble a trail of the Sayres’ goods on the road, and these helped his pursuers corner him in the Meadowlands — an incriminating parcel of his ill-gotten gains right there beside him.

The trial was a mere formality. The execution on an upward-jerking gallows drew an excited crowd several times the 2,500 souls residing in Morristown itself.

And then, it really gets creepy.

LeBlanc was condemned to post-execution medical anatomization, and the good doctors of Morristown took that as license for every posthumous indignity in the 19th century book. First, the late LeBlanc got a course of electrical shocks — a popular corpse experiment of the day whose object was discovering a means of reanimation but whose consequence was merely a ghoulish danse macabre of senseless, jerking limbs as each jolt charged the putrefying flesh.

When they’d had their fill of zombie Antoine LeBlanc, they skinned the murderer and sent his hide off to be made into wallets and book covers which then got hawked to Morristown’s finest citizens. That sounds like an urban legend, but scroll down this page for the pictures: some of these objects have made it to museums, but it’s thought that others persist in private collections, handed down over the generations or just stashed away forgotten until they can emerge for a starring role on Antiques Roadshow.

Apparently the old Sayre house (significantly rebuilt after a 1957 fire) still stands in Morristown … and it’s haunted by LeBlanc and his last victim, the baby Phoebe.


Sources:

The always wonderful Murder By Gaslight blog

The New Jersey Hall of Shame (this is the link with the LeBlancskin wallet pictures)

Weird New Jersey

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,New Jersey,Pelf,Public Executions,Theft,USA

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1136: Gwenllian, the Welsh warrior woman

1 comment February 22nd, 2013 Headsman

On an uncertain date perhaps around February 1136, the Welsh princess Gwenllian (or Gwenlhian, or Gwenliana) lost a battle to a Norman lord, who had her summarily beheaded.

This execution occurred in the aftermath of the Norman conquest. Having taken England, those invaders had made inroads into its western neighbor, even temporarily occupying much of the country.

But Welsh lords pushed the Normans back, and we find those Normans at this moment in disarray over an internal succession crisis — a period known as “The Anarchy”.

Map of medieval Wales.

Seeing the opportunity, Wales’s constituent principalities rose in a “Great Revolt”.

Gwenllian, that hottie from history, was daughter of the ruler of Gwynedd, married in a political match to the ruler of Deheubarth.

While these two men in Gwenllian’s life met up with one another to plot their next moves, Norman raids on Deheubarth forced Gwenllian to lead a force into the field to fight them.

It was a sight “like the queen of the Amazons, and a second Penthesilea,” writes the chronicler. “Morgan, one of her sons, whom she had arrogantly brought with her in that expedition, was slain, and the other, Malgo, taken prisoner; and she, with many of her followers, was put to death.”

That was a bummer for Gwenllian — doomed to haunt the castle under whose walls she fought her fatal battle — but not only her, as her bereaved proceeded to mount a furious counterattackwith a vast destruction of churches, towns, growing crops, and cattle, the burning of castles and other fortified places, and the slaughter, dispersion, and sale into foreign parts, of innumerable men, both rich and poor.”

For centuries afterwards, Welsh armies took the field crying “Revenge for Gwenllian!” The field where the battle was fought is named in her honor, as is a spring there that’s reputed to have welled up at the spot where her head fell. She’s even been speculatively — maybe a bit hopefully — identified as a possible author of the Mabinogion, a Welsh literary classic, but she’s definitely the subject of a bardic lullaby

Sleep, Gwenllian, my heart’s delight
Sleep on through shivering spear and brand,
An apple rosy red within thy baby hand;
Thy pillowed cheeks a pair of roses bright,
Thy heart as happy day and night!
Mid all our woe, O vision rare!
Sweet little princess cradled there,
Thy apple in thy hand thy all of earthly care.
Thy brethren battle with the foe,
Thy sire’s red strokes around him sweep,
Whilst thou, his bonny babe, art smiling through thy sleep
All Gwalia shudders at the Norman blow!
What are the angels whispering low
Of thy father now
Bright babe, asleep upon my knee,
How many a Queen of high degree
Would cast away her crown to slumber thus like thee!

There’s obvious, as-yet-unrealized commercial potential here in this sacrificial princess (though she’s not to be confused with Gwenllian of Wales). Word is that a silver screen treatment of the Gwenllian legend is circulating in Hollywood studios looking to duplicate the success of Braveheart.

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Entry Filed under: 12th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,History,Martyrs,Myths,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Soldiers,Summary Executions,The Supernatural,Wales,Wartime Executions,Women

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1929: Myles Fukunaga

1 comment November 19th, 2012 Headsman

This date in 1929 saw the hanging of a Shakespeare-quoting, suicidal kidnapper for “the most brutal murder in the history of Hawaii”. It was among the last civil executions in Hawaii.

As detailed in the 1991 essay “A Short History of Hawaiian Executions, 1826-1947” (pdf) by Joseph Theroux, a resource we’ve touched on before and which also includes a full list of 75 known legal executions in Hawaii during that period:*

[I]n the death of Gil Jamieson, who had been kidnapped by a mad youth who filled his ransom letters with quotations from the Shakespearen play [Macbeth]: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / that struts and frets his hour upon the stage / and then is heard no more …”

The victim had his skull chiseled in and was strangled and left near Seaside Avenue in Waikiki.

The murderer and author of the letters was captured some days later, tried, convicted, and sentenced to hang, all within three weeks. This feat was facilitated because his lawyers, Beebe and Huber, offered no defense and called no witnesses. The jury included members who were part of the search party and the victim’s bodyguard and gravedigger. A Navy psychiatrist offered to testify for the defense but was rebuffed. The medical examiner was also the prosecution psychiatrist, Doctor Robert Faus. He testified that past suicide attempts by Miles Fukunaga were “normal.” Despite protests and appeals, Fukunaga was hanged.

Ten years earlier, a well-known local haole athlete, David Buick, found himself down on his luck. He ordered a taxi driver, one Ito Suzuki, to drive out of Honolulu proper to a place called Red Hill. He ordered the man to stop the car and get out. He pointed a gun at the driver and robbed him of one dollar. When Suzuki turned to flee, Buick shot him in the back. Before he died, the taxi driver identified Buick a the gunman. The charge was eventually reduced to second degree murder, and Buick is said to have returned to the Mainland following his jail time.

In both cases, there was premeditation, kidnapping, murder, and flight. Fukunaga willingly confessed and indeed showed extreme remorse. Buick never confessed or showed the slightest regret over his actions. But Fukunaga had murdered a fine boy of a prominent haole family.** Buick had only murdered a middle-aged Japanese taxi driver.

This shocking crime — Fukunaga openly cited the notorious Leopold and Loeb murder and the more recent Hickman kidnapping as his models — ratcheted up ethnic tensions in Hawaii between whites, especially elite whites, and Japanese.

The Japanese community’s newspaper Hochi mounted a vigorous clemency campaign emphasizing sentencing differences like that vis-a-vis Buick. “If Myles Fukunaga is hanged it will not be because he killed a human being,” the paper editorialized. (pdf) “It will be because he killed the son of the vice-president of one of our big trust companies and because his victim was a white boy.”

* Ethnic data of those 75 executed: 24 Hawaiian; 24 Filipino; 9 Japanese; 6 Korean; 5 Chinese; 3 Puerto Rican; 3 unknown; 1 Caucasian.

** Gill Jamieson’s father, Frederick Jamieson, was a vice president of the Hawaiian Trust Company (since folded into the Bank of Hawaii). According to Kokugo Gakko in, the targeting of a bankster family by a frustrated working-class youth (Fukunaga was reportedly logging 80-hour weeks in menial jobs, having been forced to quit school in his teens to support his family) was no coincidence at all.

In terms of his motives he said that revenge had been foremost in his mind. In 1928 his parents had been unable to meet monthly rental payments. The Hawaiian Trust company served as the collecting agent for their landlord and had sent a rent collector to the Fukunaga family to demand full payment of back rent. Humiliated and ashamed, Fukunaga bitterly resented the bank’s action and, on learning that Vice President Frederick W. Jamieson had a son, he decided to seek revenge … by kidnapping and murdering the boy. Fukunaga also confessed to another motive. As the eldest son of seven children, Fukunaga stated that he had felt a filial obligation to help his poor parents … he had hoped to accomplish this filial act with the ransom money.

All this might tend to militate against the “insanity” defense, which Fukunaga himself energetically rejected.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,Hawaii,Kidnapping,Murder,Pelf,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,The Supernatural,USA

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1537: Janet Douglas, Lady Glamis

Add comment July 17th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1537, a Scottish noblewoman suffered the fate decreed for her treason — in the terse entry of the judicial record, combusta.

Knocking around Glamis Castle — where Shakespeare’s great villain Macbeth got his start, as Thane of Glamis* — Janet Douglas had the going enmity of Scottish king James V on the substantial grounds that Janet’s father had held the teen-king his virtual prisoner for a few years in the 1520s. Once James got free, he proscribed the lady’s brother, the Earl of Angus (whom Janet continued to shelter when occasioned), confiscated properties, forbade Douglases from approaching his person, and all that sort of thing.

Presumably according to this same anti-Douglas animus, an abortive attempt was made in 1531 to try our Lady Glamis for poisoning her late first husband, Lord Glamis. However, the charge foundered on the refusal of her peers to participate: “the lairds of Ardoch, Braco, Fingask, Abernethy, Piferran, Lawers, Carnock, Moncreiff, Anstruther, Lord Ruthven, Lord Oliphant, and many others, were fined for absenting themselves from the jury.”

Six years later she was more successfully returned to the dock, this time on a charge of plotting to poison the king himself. There seems to remain very little detail that would trace the precise unfolding of those years and offer later interlocutors a clear interpretation; while “innocent noble railroaded” is the most conventional read — Henry VIII’s agent reported that the conviction was secured “without any substanciall ground or proyf of mattir” — this book gives it a “maybe she did, maybe she didn’t” spin. That whole embittered proscription thing cuts both ways, as motives go.

At any rate, torture induced Janet Douglas’s own 16-year-old son John to testify that she had procured a potion intended to resolve that feud, and despite reported doubts and a spirited defense, the judges found her “committit art and part of the tressonabill Conspiratioune and ymaginatioune of the slauchter and destructioune of our soverane lordis” and therefore to “be had to Castell hill of Edinburghe, and thair brynt in ane fyre to the deid as ane Traytour.” (John was reprieved of this fate, but he still had to watch.)

King Jamie took over Glamis Castle and hung his spurs there until his own death in 1542 … whereupon his crown passed to Mary, Queen of Scots, and the castle reverted to that young John, the new Lord Glamis.

Glamis Castle still stands, picturesquely, and legend has it that the visitor there might encounter the burned woman’s ghost haunting the place as the Grey Lady.**

* Not actually true of the historical man Macbeth.

** Not to be confused with the New York Times. Actually, there are several ghosts who go by this colorless title.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Nobility,Notable for their Victims,Public Executions,Scotland,The Supernatural,Treason,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1786: Elizabeth Wilson, her reprieve too late

3 comments January 3rd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1786, Elizabeth Wilson was hanged in Chester, Pennsylvania for the murder of her infant twins.

“One of the melodramas of the early American republic,” our Elizabeth (sometimes called “Harriot Wilson” in the accounts) was a farmer’s daughter of Chester County who got knocked up by a passing sailor. When this gentleman declined to make an honest woman of her after she had borne the bastards, the kids disappeared — later to be discovered dead in the woods by a hunter.

The fallen woman denied having killed them directly, but “acknowledged having placed the children by the road-side, in order that any person passing that way, and who had humanity enough, might take them up.”

She would eventually, after condemnation, accuse her lover of having slain the children.

Elizabeth’s brother William Wilson vigorously undertook on this basis to secure her a pardon at the hands of the Commonwealth’s executive authority, the Supreme Executive Council — then under the leadership of no less august a character than Benjamin Franklin.

And he found a sympathetic audience. Council Vice-President Charles Biddle* “firmly believed her innocent, for to me it appeared highly improbable that a mother, after suckling her children for six weeks, could murder them … there was a large majority would have been for pardoning her.”

Instead of an outright commutation, it granted a stay of execution for William Wilson to investigate further, which he did to no successful effect.

“But here we must drop a tear!” exclaims the Faithful Narrative of Elizabeth Wilson, a popular pamphlet (pdf) sensationalizing the case. “What heart so hard, as not to melt at human woe!”

For William Wilson’s suit on behalf of his sister had succeeded in earning, on the eve of the Jan. 3 hanging, a second respite on Biddle’s certain anticipation that clemency would be forthcoming. Ill himself, William took the stay of execution from Biddle’s own hands and raced through a fearful storm on the 15-mile ride from Philadelphia to Chester … but

did not arrive until twenty-three minutes after the solemn scene was closed. When he came with the respite in his hand, and saw his sister irrecoverably gone, beheld her motionless, and sunk in death, who can paint the mournful scene?

Let imagination if she can!

Imagination can do quite a lot with this sort of material, and so the tale of Elizabeth Wilson — the intrinsic pathos of the condemned, her widely-suspected innocence, her evangelical-friendly repentance, the cliffhanger conclusion — became widely re-circulated, and undoubtedly embroidered.

Quaker colonial diarist Elizabeth Drinker (who had firsthand experience of official injustice, when suspicious-of-Quakers revolutionaries had banished her husband from Philadelphia) was still seeing these publications over a decade after Wilson’s death.

May 16 [1797]. Unsettled. Wind variable. Read a narrative of Elizabeth Wilson, who was executed at Chester, Jany ’86, charged with the murder of her twin infants. A reprieve arrived 20 minutes after her execution, by her brother from Philadelphia. She persisted to the last in her account of the murder being committed by the father of the children, which was generally believed to be the truth. I recollect having heard the sad tale at the time of the transaction.

The Wilson story actually persisted (and persists) for centuries yet. Her shaken brother, William, withdrew himself from society and lived out his last years in a cave: he entered folklore as the Pennsylvania Hermit, affixed with his tragic sister to all manner of spook stories, like a spectral horseman galloping to Chester, or a ghostly woman rummaging the leaves where the bodies were found. You’ll hear all about the Pennsylvania Hermit when touring his former stomping grounds, now open to the public (for a fee, my friend) as Indian Echo Caverns.

* Biddle was a future U.S. Senator, but he’s probably best known through his son. Born just five days after Elizabeth Wilson’s execution, Nicholas Biddle was a bitterly controversial character as one of antebellum America’s original banksters.

Charles Biddle’s notes on the case veer into the era’s philosophical concern with the timeless problem of making a just response to infanticide.

“Perhaps,” he muses “the punishment of death is too great for an unmarried woman who destroys her child. They are generally led to it from a fear of being exposed … [and] while death is the punishment, a jury will seldom find a verdict against them.”

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Pardons and Clemencies,Pennsylvania,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Reprieved Too Late,The Supernatural,USA,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1640: Bishop John Atherton, buggerer

1 comment December 5th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1640, John Atherton achieved the unenviable distinction of being the only Anglican bishop hanged for buggery.* (His proctor, and alleged lover, John Childe, got the same treatment a few months later.)


Suppose a Devill from th’infernall Pit,
More Monsterlike, then ere was Devill yet,
Contrary to course, taking a male fiend
To Sodomize with him, such was the mind
Of this Lord Bishop, he did take a Childe
By name, not years, acting a sinne so vilde
-From the text of the pamphlet this image decorates

The Oxford-educated Englishman was appointed Lord Bishop of Waterford and Lismore by King Charles‘s hated governor Thomas Wentworth.

It may well have been the internecine politics of the day that claimed Atherton’s life, just as the civil wars they engendered in the ensuing decades claimed the original trial records.

While posterity is left to speculation, Atherton was defended in print in those years as well. (Defended as no homo, that is — not defended on principle against ubiquitous anti-gay laws.) If it wasn’t really a voracious sexual appetite (not exclusively same-sex**), goes this argument, it was intra-Protestant infighting, with Atherton’s successful clawback of land for the weak Irish Anglican church stepping on the toes of the local land barons who had recently expropriated it.

This politics outside the boudoir argument gets compelling treatment in Mother Leakey and the Bishop, a historical investigative thriller that links Atherton to a weird ghost story† in his native Somerset — that of “Old Mother Leakey,” the Minehead ghost.

Mother Leakey was Atherton’s mother-in-law, and Somerset family members claimed she haunted them — including with a message for the bishop that one of his sisters-in-law actually went to deliver in Ireland. The message isn’t known; in legend, this was a warning from beyond against the prelate’s ungodly behavior; in reality, it was more probably a family shakedown.‡

Despite the skepticism of the Leakey family’s own contemporaries, the facts, allegations, suppositions, and pure flights of fancy somehow managed to blend and recombine into a lasting tale of the paranormal that Minehead still retails to this day.

And it goes right back to the public opprobrium Bishop Atherton endured — as described in that 1641 hanging pamphlet:

“demonstrates the link between the stories of Mother Leakey and Bishop John Atherton … in a highly readable and often entertaining fashion”

… through pride, high fare, and lustfull life,
Incest committed with the Sister of his wife,
For which he sued his pardon, and then fled
To Ireland, where a worser life he led

He surely warned was to mend his life,
By his own Sister Master Leakies wife,
Which Master Leakies Mother being dead,
And in her life-time conscious how he led
His lustfull life, her Ghoast in gastful wise
Did oft appeare before her Sisters Eyes,
But she feare-strucken durst not speak unto it,
Till oft appearing forced her to doe it:
Then thus she spake, Mother in Law what cause
You from your rest, to my unrest thus drawes?
Who answered, daughter tis the wicked life
Your Brother leads, warne him to mend his life;
If not, then plainely tell him tis decreed,
He shall be hangd, bid him repent with speede:
Then shall my restless spirit be at rest,
And not till then; Thus vanisht. She addrest
Herselfe for travaile, Into Ireland went
With this sad message unto him was sent:
Which how he tooke to heart may plaine appeare
By the slight answer he returned her,
What must be, shalbe: If I must, I must dye,
Mariage, and hanging, come by destiny.
Thus scoft her counsell, sent her back, and when
Shee was returnd, he grew farre viler then
He was before, if Viler man may be,
For one bad Act before, committed three.

* According to Who’s Who in Gay and Lesbian History, Atherton and Childe were the second pair of alleged homosexual lovers executed in the British Isles. The first was the Earl of Castlehaven in 1631, along with his manservants.

** “[O]ne should note the compound sexual nature of the ‘sodomy’ charge in this context, a portmanteau omnibus of non-procreative sex, which is what ’sodomy’ was widely held to be.”

† Walter Scott footnotes this legend in Rokeby: “Mrs Leakey … dispatched her [daughter-in-law] to an Irish prelate, famous for his crimes and misfortunes, to exhort him to repentance, and to apprize him that otherwise he would be hanged; and how the bishop was satisfied with replying, that if he was born to be hanged, he should not be drowned.”

‡ Archbishop William Laud dispatched a team of ghost-whisperers to investigate the Leakey story well before the ectoplasm hit the fan for Atherton, and they weren’t buying: “certainly it is a fiction and a practice … it may be some money business.” Bishop Atherton had left home under a cloud with the suspicion that he’d had an affair with his wife’s sister, and this was part of the eventual Irish complaint against the horny goat.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Homosexuals,Ireland,Milestones,Political Expedience,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Sex,The Supernatural,Wrongful Executions

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Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!