1844: John Knatchbull, moral madman

Add comment February 13th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1844, John Knatchbull hanged before an orderly crowd of 10,000 at Taylor Square in Sydney, Australia.

Knatchbull was among 20 children of a prolific baronet. The youngster fought at sea in the Napoleonic Wars but found himself in financial straits after demobilization and spiraled into a criminality.

Transported to Australia for an armed robbery, he there cultivated an extensive rap sheet — mutiny, forgery, poisoning his guards. It was a comprehensive Jekyll-to-Hyde heel turn: “all traces of a gentleman had long disappeared, he exhibited no evidence that he had been in a higher social position,” wrote a clergyman who visited him. “[H]e appeared to be in his natural place.”

So you couldn’t say that nobody saw it coming in early 1844 when Knatchbull, out on a ticket of leave, went

into the shop of a poor widow, named Ellen Jamieson, and asked for some trifling article. While Mrs. Jamieson was serving him, the ruffian raised a tomahawk, which he held in his hand, and clove the unfortunate woman’s head in a savage manner. She lingered for a few days, and died, leaving two orphan children … though an attempt was made to set up a plea of insanity, a barrister being employed by the agent for the suppression of capital punishment, so foul a villain could not be saved from the gallows. (Source)

This insanity defense was a then-novel “moral insanity” claim contending “a form of mental derangement in which the intellectual faculties were unaffected, but the affects or emotions were damaged, causing patients to be carried away by some kind of furious instinct.” That is, Knatchbull knew that he did wrong when he struck the luckless shopkeep, but he had no power to restrain himself. The court took a pass.


Sketch of the scene at Knatchbull’s hanging.

More fortunate of birth and temperament, John’s brother Edward Knatchbull, who was not only the sitting baronet but the UK’s Paymaster General, made good his vocation by arranging a donative to Ellen Jamieson’s orphaned children.

This family — the donors, not the orphans — remains among the peers of the realm, its vintage baronetcy of Mersham Hatch having been upgraded to a baronage in 1880. It’s currently held by Norton Knatchbull, who is also Earl Mountbatten (he’s the maternal grandson of the Mountbatten who led British forces in Southeast Asia, took down the Union Jack in India, and was assassinated by the IRA).

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Australia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Nobility,Notably Survived By,Public Executions

Tags: , , , , ,

1864: Samuel Wright, by contrast

Add comment January 12th, 2014 Headsman

Samuel Wright and George Townley both murdered romantic partners late in 1863. Both were tried, convicted, and condemned to hang in very short order and both the subjects of intense pressure for a crown commutation of sentence.

Only one of those men hanged. It was 150 years ago today.

George Townley

Townley lived near Manchester and was courting a young woman named Bessie Goodwin from Derbyshire. Described as a man from a respectable upper middle class family with “refined manners,” and an intelligent linguist* to boot, Townley was nevertheless a rung or two below Miss Goodwin on the wealth and status ladder.

He was, accordingly, frustrated of his designs when the young lady accepted a clergyman’s proposal and broke off her previous engagement to Townley. Despite being disinvited by ex-fiancee, Townley took a train to her village and pressed his company on her. The two went for a walk that evening, and Townley stabbed her in the throat — a fact which he confessed on the scene to the first person who responded to the commotion and found Miss Goodwin staggering towards her home with a fatal gash in her neck.

In the great tradition of weird stalkers everywhere, Townley then helped the Good Samaritan carry the dying woman home, and kissed her tenderly, all the while bemoaning to arriving gawkers his guilt. “She has deceived me, and the woman who deceives me must die,” he responded chillingly to the inquiries of his would-be father-in-law. “I told her I would kill her. She knew my temper.”

This is all a very bad hand to deal a defense barrister.

Having little to work with, his superstar attorney — remember, the family had money — went with an insanity defense, aided by the lunacy diagnosis of prominent psychiatrist Forbes Winslow.** There was some history of insanity in his family, and everyone seemed agreed on the point that Townley didn’t set out with the intent to commit murder, but impulsively — madly? — took that course as he realized during his interview that he would surely not be putting a ring on that.

The legal standard of the time gave no purchase to this sort of thing. Townley’s judge instructed the jury to find insanity only if he “was under delusions … [and] supposed a state of things to exist which did not exist, and whose diseased mind was in such a condition that he acted upon an imaginary existence of things as if those things were real.” This is the M’Naghten rule, a historically pivotal and also highly restrictive insanity definition dating to 1843.

On December 12, 1863 Townley was sentenced to death for the murder, with the hanging scheduled for the approaching New Year’s Day. According to the London Times report the next week (Dec. 18), the sentence “has not made the slightest alteration in his demeanour. He partakes of his meals heartily, sleeps well, and repeatedly asserts that he was perfectly justified in taking away his victim’s life, and that he feels no remorse for the deed.”

Nevertheless, Townley’s well-off family and friends had enough pull to pry open a previously little-known legal escape hatch.

Upon the judge’s own request, the crown empaneled a committee to adjudicate Townley’s sanity for his mercy petition. But a sloppily written law actually allowed any two doctors plus any two magistrates to issue a formal certification of madness which would compel the prisoner’s removal to the asylum. Townley’s own solicitor simply assembled himself a quartet so minded and presented their finding to the Home Secretary, forcing his hand — to a great deal of public outrage once the obscure mechanism became known.

“Good friends and abundant means may give a convicted criminal unexpected advantages over an ordinary offender,” the Times complained in an editorial. (Jan. 27, 1864) Plus ça change.

Samuel Wright

Samuel Wright was not a man of means or linguistic gifts, but a bricklayer who lived in a Waterloo Road public house in Surrey, on London’s southern outskirts.

On December 13, 1863, he slashed the throat of his live-in lover Maria Green after they’d both been on a drinking bout. On December 16, mere three days later, Wright voluntarily pleaded guilty and received a death sentence.

A hue and cry for Wright’s sentence to be abated soon arose among London’s working classes, especially in the wake of Townley’s commutation. Wright had a good reputation, while Green was known for her violent temper. Wright intimated that she had menaced him with a knife during a quarrel.

Was this not a case like George Townley’s, only more so?

The contrast in the fates between the two murderers did not flatter. The crimes were analogous even to the mode of slaying.† If anything, the rich man’s suggested a more egregious context: Townley’s victim appeared more sympathetic, and Townley had gone out of his way to track her down in order to kill. Why was Townley’s heat of passion “insanity” but Wright’s was motive and deliberation?

The Home Secretary offered his sympathy but not his mercy. After all, Wright himself agreed that he intentionally killed Green. “To commute the sentence on the grounds on which it has been pressed would, in fact, be to lay down a rule of law as to the distinction between murder and manslaughter contrary to that which is well established,” wrote a Home Office spokesman on Jan. 7 in response to three separate petitions submitted on Wright’s behalf. Maybe they thought the same thing about Townley … but that decision was out of their hands.

In one of the period’s characteristic hanging broadsides, the balladeer has Wright lament,

Friends, for me have persevered,
To save me from the gallows high;
Alas! for me there is no mercy,
Every boon they did deny,
While others who was tried for murder,
And doomed to die upon a tree,
Through friends and money has been pardon’d
who deserved to die as well as me.

But, oh! my friends, you must acknowledge
what I say has oft been said before.
Some laws are made to suit two classes,
One for the rich, one for the poor;
So it is with me and Townley,
A reprieve they quickly granted he,
He was rich, and I was poor, —
And I must face the fatal tree.

The mood of the populace for the hanging at Horsemonger Lane Gaol this date in 1864‡ was decidedly ugly. On the night of the 11th, when it became clear that the many last-ditch bids for commutation — directed not only at the Home Secretary but even to Queen Victoria and even to the Prince of Wales appealing for a boon on the occasion of his first son‘s January 8 birth§ — a handbill circulated in the prison’s neighborhood entreating its denizens to protest the execution by shuttering all windows. “Let Calcraft and Co. do their work this time with none but the eye of Heaven to look upon their crime.”

Indeed this summons was widely obeyed.

A small crowd only turned out for the occasion, and shouted their disgust for the proceedings: “Shame!” and “Judicial murder!” and “Where’s Townley?” Even many months later, at the controversial August 10 hanging of Richard Thomas Parker, the crowd chanted Townley’s name, now the emblem of the unequal justice of the law.

One diarist’s entry for the day recalled that “[t]he blinds were down in all the neighbouring streets and the military were called out in case of an attempted rescue. When the unfortunate man appeared on the scaffold, loud cries of ‘Take him, take him down’ were heard in every direction, to which the unhappy man responded by repeated bows to the multitude, he still continued bowing and was actually bowing when the drop fell.”

Postscript

The language of the law that permitted Townley his backdoor commutation was revised by Parliament within weeks.

As to Townley himself, another panel appointed by the Home Office found him fully cogent, which meant that officially, he had become insane after his death sentence and the insanity abated thereafter. While this finding theoretically reinstated the death penalty, actually hanging him after these circumstances was thought to be inhumane, and he was reprieved. One supposes there must have been some thought for the potential disturbance Townley’s hanging would have occasioned.

On February 12, 1865 — a year and change after escaping the noose that claimed Samuel Wright — George Townley hurled himself headlong off a high staircase onto a stone floor in Pentonville Prison, where he had been transferred as an ordinary inmate. He died on the spot.

* Of course, he could never hope to match the linguistic’s fields most famous English murderer.

** You might recognize this distinctive name from our Winslow’s son, L. Forbes Winslow, a figure in the Jack the Ripper investigation.

† An additional unflatterering comparison point to Derbyshire contemporaries: a proletarian named Richard Thorley had been hanged in Derby in 1862 for a very similar crime: he slashed his girlfriend’s throat when she tried to break up with him.

‡ Among the very last public hangings at Horsemonger Lane Gaol. All UK hangings were conducted behind prison walls by 1868.

§ This infant, Prince Albert Victor, is the royal eventually identified with Jack the Ripper by a particularly inventive hypothesis.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Not Executed,Notable Jurisprudence,Public Executions,Wrongful Executions

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

1945: Henry William Hagert

Add comment October 3rd, 2012 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1945, twenty-year-old Henry William Hagert died in Ohio’s electric chair for the murders of thirteen-year-old twins James and Charles Collins two years earlier.

Hagert, who was only seventeen at the time of the crime, had shot the boys in cold blood and for no reason at all.

The young murderer was from Lakewood, a suburb of Cleveland. He was a bit of a bad seed; those who knew him said he started to go bad when he was about seven years old, after a bout with double pneumonia and “brain fever.” After his recovery from the illness, he became unstable and aggressive. In 1942, after a high-speed police chase, he was arrested on multiple charges of auto theft and sent to the Boys’ Industrial School for a year.

Typically, this experience in reform school failed to reform him, and he returned home worse than ever.

John Stark Bellamy II, writing about him in the book The Killer in the Attic: and More True Tales of Crime and Disaster from Cleveland’s Past, noted that Hagert’s formal education stopped after his 1942 arrest, but he earned “a graduate degree in sexual perversion” from his stint in juvy.

Hagert’s mother, unable to handle him, had him committed to the psychiatric ward in Cleveland City Hospital in early July 1943. There he was diagnosed as having a “psychopathic personality” and released on August 9. (Just why is unclear; Hagert’s mother claims she begged the chief staff physician not to release him, and the doctor denied this and said, on the contrary, she had begged for him to let her son go.)

Just two days later, Hagert was driving his blue Chevy around when he picked up a nine-year-old boy, the son of a city aide. His plan had to been to sexually assault and murder the child, but he later claimed he was moved by the boy’s crying and pleas and decided to spare his life. This didn’t stop him from keeping his victim in the car overnight, torturing and sexually abusing him. The next day, Hagert drove the boy to a wooded area, tied him to a tree, and placed a series of anonymous calls to the child’s parents with clues as to his whereabouts. The police found the little boy where his abductor had left him.

The following afternoon, for reasons best known to himself, Hagert returned to the spot where he’d left the abduction victim and encountered a Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter and a photographer.

As Hagert made small talk with the photographer, the reporter became suspicious of his behavior and remembered the old cliché about the killer returning to the scene of his crime. He scribbled down a physical description of Hagert and took note of the license plate number on his Chevy. Later, he turned his notes over to the police.

A compliant Hagert was taken in for questioning. Unaccountably, two hours passed before anyone realized he had a loaded gun under his shirt. When an officer removed Hagert’s shirt, the gun fell to the floor. As the officer picked it up, the young man said casually, “The gun you have in your hand is the one I shot the other two with.”

James and Charles Collins had been missing since noon the previous day and law enforcement agents were frantically searching for them. They were last seen hitchhiking to their jobs as caddies at a local golf course. Hagert calmly confessed to killing the Collins twins and lead authorities to their bodies. The dead boys were about 300 feet apart and each had been shot at the base of the skull — that is, “execution style.”

If anyone doubted by now that Hagert was a monster, they would have been convinced by what he had to say about the double murder:

It’s pretty serious, you know. I kidnapped one kid and killed two others … I just felt like killing them, so I killed them. Now it all seems like a bad dream … I had the urge to kill before but I always managed to suppress it by running. I’d run down the street because I felt I had too much energy. The Collins boys were just victims of circumstance. I would have killed anyone at that time. It just happened to be them … I’m not especially sorry for any of those folks I have hurt … The whole thing is just like a smashed fender … When it’s done, it’s done — that’s all.

While in custody he also confessed to a third murder, but this statement turned out to be a fabrication.

An initial panel of three psychiatrists unanimously agreed that Hagert was insane. This would not do: the state could not risk the possibility that this incredibly dangerous psychopath would be committed to a hospital, only to escape later on, or be released like before, to walk the streets again.

Five more psychiatrists were appointed to examine the defendant and this group said he was sane. In spite of this, the defense went with an insanity plea anyway. There wasn’t much of an alternative, given the evidence against their client.

Testifying before the jury, one of the doctors described Hagert as “a petulant, cruel, ruthless, determined, egotistical young man with no respect for God, man or the Devil.” Another said Hagert had told him that, if he were set free, the first thing he would do was track down and kill the newspaper reporter whose tip had led to his arrest.

The tearful testimony of his mother, who said Hagert had often complained of seeing “little midgets” who mocked him, carried little weight.

The jury took only two hours to find Henry Hagert guilty without a recommendation of mercy. In his book, Bellamy opines, “Most of the jurors, one suspects, thought Henry was insane by any imaginable standard of common sense, but they knew not what else to do with such an incorrigible monster.”

Hagert’s conviction was overturned on a technicality in December 1944, but his second trial, held before a three-judge panel in March 1945, resulted in the same inevitable guilty verdict. Hagert himself didn’t seem to care much. His last words were, “Do a good job of it now. Give me a good dose — it’s good for what ails for me.” He did donate his corneas, possibly the only contribution he ever made to society.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Electrocuted,Execution,Guest Writers,Murder,Ohio,Other Voices,USA

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

1603: Not Tommaso Campanella

Add comment January 8th, 2010 Headsman

The wise were forced to live as the mad were accustomed, in order to shun death, such that the greatest lunatic now possesses the royal burdens. The wise now lived alone with their wisdom, behind closed doors, applauding only in public the others’ mad and twisted caprices.

-Tommaso Campanella

On this date in 1603, freaky-deaky Dominican philosopher Tommaso Campanella drew a life sentence — avoiding execution by dint of a painfully convincing performance of insanity.

Campanella had some problematically heterodox notions about the sun (namely, that it was going to consume the earth) and everything under it, and had had a recent scrape with the Inquisition.

What really got him in trouble was trucking with a Calabrian conspiracy to overthrow Spanish domination, apparently a product of the monk’s millenarian anticipation of a sort of proto-communist revolution.

Campanella was a strange guy, but this was quite a far-out plot.

As Joan Kelly-Gadol writes in this fine tome,

This took place, let it be noted, after he had written two works advocating a Papal monarchy for Italy and the world and two works promoting the interests of the Spanish Empire also in Italy and throughout the world.

Past performance is no guarantee of future returns. Once the conspiracy was betrayed,

Campanella was imprisoned … in the Castel Nuovo, one of the principal fortresses in which the Spaniards maintained a military garrison. He was arraigned before the civil tribunal for rebellion and before the ecclesiastical tribunal for heresy. His “examination” which began in January 1600 was gruesome. He claimed innocence in his first interrogation before the civil tribunal, was thrown into a dungeon, actually a cleft in the bedrock of the Castle, to remain there for seven days. Then followed torture. He “confessed,” admitting that he preached about the coming political upheaval but denying that he was part of a conspiracy to bring it about …

His desperation at this point can be gauged by the fact that by April of 1600 he began to feign madness. The ecclesiastical action against him began now, and he persisted in this attitude of insanity through three interrogations, including an hour of torture … On the fourth and fifth of June 1601, he was subjected to the cruel torture of “the vigil” to test whether his insanity was genuine. This was the usual torture of the rope, suspending the body of the victim by his tied hands over a blade which cut into his flesh whenever he yielded to the strain of holding himself in the air; but the vigil refined this cruelty by continuing it for forty hours. Campanella endured the ordeal without breaking.

And it wasn’t just a feat of toughness to beat the torturer at his own game, impressive as it is on those terms alone: Campanella pulled off a genius gambit exploiting the Inquisition’s own legal machinery to duck the separate capital charges he faced in civil and ecclesiastical court.

Joseph Scalzo’s “Campanella, Foucault, and Madness in Late-Sixteenth Century Italy”,* an academic paper that reads like a thriller, narrates Campanella’s “dangerous competition” with his persecutors.

In fine: on Easter Sunday 1600,** as he was approaching conviction and condemnation in his state trial for treason, Campanella began his insanity ploy, successfully forcing a delay in that case and initiating his separate church trial for heresy.

Then, by remaining stubbornly committed to what most of his examiners believed was a charade, Campanella won … by forcing them to inflict that juridically determinative 40-hour “vigil” torture.

the jurisprudence of the time accorded torture so much force, such as to annul all other proofs and “to purge circumstantial evidence”; if the torture had been vigorous and unusual. The accused came, all the more to avail himself of the result obtained, according to the scholarship of the criminologists most in vogue. Thus, Campanella had judicially to be regarded as insane, although everyone was persuaded that he probably simulated insanity. The consequence, in the tribunal of the Holy Office, was not indifferent: He was a “relapsed heretic,” and even if repentant, he would have been disgraced and consigned to the secular court of justice, which would have executed him; being mad, he could no longer suffer condemnation, and in the circumstance in which he might already have been condemned, he would have been spared the death penalty, to reason and repent.

(this is Scalzo’s quotation of Luigi Amabile, an Italian who wrote the book on Campanella; I have been unable to find the Amabile original online.)

Home free.

Having reached this judicial safe haven, Campanella soon — in fact, according to the man who tortured him, literally on the walk from the vigil back to his cell — resumed a recognizable rationality.

He’d languish in prison until 1626 (a few years after he got out, he had to flee to France), but he made the most of it. Campanella wrote his magnum opus, the utopian City of the Sun, while awaiting his sentence in 1602. A number of other works on a wide array of subjects — science, philosophy, theology, political governance (he returned to giving the Spanish empire supportive advice), a vigorous defense of Galileo — were also composed during his 27 years under lock and key.

Campanella’s visionary anticipation of radical egalitarianism would, like Thomas More‘s, help shape the utopian literary genre. But Campanella’s take, while still a theocratic one, lent itself to distinctly more subversive interpretation.†

For example, this Brezhnev-era Soviet essay‡ (unearthed and translated by Executed Today friend and sometime guest-blogger Sonechka) decants the Dominican’s heretical notions into Marxist orthodoxy.

How many times were the communists denounced by their enemies for this “commonality of wives”! Scientific communism, certainly, is not responsible for the figments of a monk like Campanella. But it is instructive to penetrate his logic. It is not commodification or dehumanization that hides behind Campanella’s “commonality of wives”. The women of the “City of Sun” have the same rights as men … The “commonality of women” is equivalent to the “commonality of men” on the basis of mutual equality. That is why, though [we are] decisively rejecting this type of family-free communism, it is necessary to consider who stands on the higher moral grounds — Campanella’s woman, alien to deceit and pretense, or a false bourgeois woman, whose lot in life is adultery and legalized prostitution.

Ultimately, this wild man not only got the high moral ground: he got to die in bed. Once in a while, we get a happy(ish) ending.

So although it actually has nothing to do with Tommaso, “La Campanella”“Little Bell”, a Paganini violin concerto — allows us here at this blog (in common with our day’s hero) an atypically soothing* denouement.

* Joseph Scalzo, “Campanella, Foucault, and Madness in Late-Sixteenth Century Italy”, The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 21, No. 3 (Autumn, 1990)

** Campanella’s Easter 1600 madness was initiated only a few weeks after fellow intellectual omnivore Giordano Bruno was burned for heresy up the road in Rome. Strictly coincidence.

† Since so much of Campanella’s work was produced while the author was under duress — fighting capital charges, applying for clemency and release — it remains disputable just which parts of it can be taken to represent his real beliefs.

‡ L. Vorob’ev. “Utopija i dejstvitelnost”. (“Utopia and Reality”) in Utopicheskij roman XVI-XVII vekov (Utopian Novel of XVI-XVII century); Series “Biblioteka vsemirnoj literatury”, Khudozhestevnnaja literature, Moscow, 1971, p. 19.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Artists,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Famous,God,Heresy,History,Intellectuals,Italy,Naples,Not Executed,Notable Jurisprudence,Religious Figures,Spain,Torture,Treason

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

1880: Edwin Hoyt, in Bridgeport

Add comment May 13th, 2009 Headsman

From the New York Times.

THE DEATH OF A PARRICIDE.

HANGING OF EDWIN HOYT AT BRIDGEPORT — PERSISTING TO THE LAST THAT HE WAS INSANE.

BRIDGEPORT, Conn., May 13. — The first administration of capital punishment in Fairfield County since 1809 occurred in this city to-day. Edwin Hoyt was hanged for the murder of his father, in the Town of Sherman, June 23, 1878. Hoyt was then 37 years of age, and had shown during his life a very ugly disposition. His wife, the mother of his five children, had experienced his temper in a manner which placed her life in danger, he having discharged a shot-gun at her and severely wounded her. On the Sunday of the murder he had nothing to exasperate him except the refusal of his brother-in-law to accompany him on a fishing trip. Having been refused, he went home, and, taking a butcher-knife from his house, told his wife that he was going to kill his father. He then returned to the house of his brother-in-law, where his father was at the dinner-table with the family. He appearad [sic] despondent, and said it would be better for him to die, but that there were two or three people he wanted to kill first. He then went to the porch and sat down with his father. A few minutes afterward he sprang up and stabbed his father several times, making a fatal wound in the neck. Hoyt was tried twice, the first time in October, 1878, and the second time in April, 1879. The State claimed that the motive for the killing was animosity toward his father, who had always exercised great severity toward him, and who, he believed, had decided to wholly disinherit him. The defense in both cases was that of insanity.

Hoyt had never believed that he was to be hanged until Wednesday evening, when the final attempt to save his life by means of a writ of error proved ineffectual. After this he was not despondent, but talked pleasantly with the Rev. Dr. E.W. Maxey, who baptized him according to the rites of the Protestant Episcopal Church about 7 o’clock in the evening. After the clergyman went away he ate a hearty supper, smoked a cigar, and wrote a letter to his brother George. The letter was finished by the time Judge Blydeuburgh, of New-Haven, and Mr. Taylor, of Danbury, Hoyt’s counsel, arrived. They were with him about an hour, during which time he delivered his will to them, saying that he wished to have it kept private. They suggested to him that he might desire to make a final statement. He had nothing to say, he answered, in addition to what he had said, for he was not responsible for the killing, having known nothing of it. After his lawyers had left him, the Rev. Dr. Maxey came to remain with him until the time of the hanging.

The hanging occurred in a yard on the west side of the jail, and was witnessed by about 500 people. The yard was nearly filled, and from the woman’s ward of the jail many spectators looked down on the gallows. The prisoners in the male ward were permitted to witness the hanging from their windows. At just 11:30 o’clock the procession to the gallows started. First came Sheriff Sanford; next came Deputies Bartram and Dann, and behind them walked Hoyt, the Rev. Dr. Maxey having his hand on his right arm. Deputies Wakeley and Hughes were in the rear of the prisoner, and behind them walked Drs. George R. Porter, Robert Lauder, and E.D. Noony, of Bridgeport, and Dr. Marshall, of Greenwich. Hoyt, on the scaffold, raised his face to the sky, but showed no emotion beyond that which was expressed in his pale face. He was dressed in the old clothing which he has worn in jail, having refused to change to a black suit sent to him by a friend. The streaks of gray in his otherwise black hair and mustache gave him the appearance of being at least 10 years older than he was. When he was placed on the trap Sheriff Sanford asked him if he had anything to say. He answered in a faint voice, “No, Sir.” Dr. Maxey then read prayers, after which the noose was arranged and the black cap adjusted. Sheriff Sanford shook hands with Hoyt, saying, “Good-bye, poor fellow,” and stepped to the spring near which one of his deputies was standing. The trap fell. There was no noise except that made as the body fell a distance of five and a half feet. Dr. Porter, who had been in charge of the bodies of Mrs. Surratt and the other conspirators executed at Washington, had his hand on the wrist of the condemned man as the rope straightened. The fall of the trap occurred at 11:35 1/2, and at 12:14 the body was taken down. Death was instantaneous, resulting from a dislocation of the neck. There was some muscular tremor, but it lasted only a second. After the body had been taken to the jail, the physicians applied electric batteries and produced muscular contortions of the face and limbs an hour and a quarter after death occurred. The body was given up to Hoyt’s sisters, and taken to Sherman for burial.

On this day..

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

Tags: , , , , , ,

1882: Charles Guiteau, James Garfield’s colorful assassin

12 comments June 30th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1882, America’s weirdest assassin recited fourteen verses of the Gospel of Matthew and (sans requested orchestral accompaniment) a poem of his own composition entitled “I am Going to the Lordy,” and was hanged in the District of Columbia jail for shooting forgettable Gilded Age president James Garfield.

Mad as a march hare, Charles Julius Guiteau had irritated the obscure reaches of the Republic near four decades, trying his hand at free love, law, newspapering* and evangelism. A contemporary account of his religious flimflammery survives:

Charles J. Guiteau (if such really is his name), has fraud and imbecility plainly stamped upon his (face). (After) the impudent scoundrel talked only 15 minutes, he suddenly (thanked) the audience for their attention and (bid) them goodnight. Before the astounded 50 had recovered from their amazement…(he had taken their money and) fled from the building and escaped.

Having failed at each characteristic American monkeyshine more comprehensively than the last, he naturally gravitated to politics; while today Guiteau might tilt with his psychoses on some vituperative blog, in 1880 he published and delivered as a speech a widely-ignored crackpot encomium** for his eventual victim. Guiteau reckoned the GOP carried the 1880 elections on the strength of such rhetorical thunderbolts as “some people say he [Garfield] got badly soiled in that Credit Mobilier transaction but I guess he is clean-handed.”

Stunned that his contributions did not earn him a diplomatic posting to France, Guiteau stepped out of obscurity and into this blog’s pages by shooting the ungrateful (and unguarded) executive in the back at a Washington, D.C. train station (since demolished, and today occupied by the National Gallery of Art).

“To General Sherman: I have just shot the President. I shot him several times as I wished him to go as easily as possible. His death was a political necessity. I am a lawyer, theologian, and politician. I am a stalwart of the Stalwarts. I was with Gen. Grant, and the rest of our men in New York during the canvass. I am going to the Jail. Please order out your troops and take possession of the Jail at once. Very respectfully, Charles Guiteau.” (Click for the full image.) From the Georgetown Charles Guiteau collection.

Thoughtfully, he had already hired a cab to take him to jail, where he expected to be liberated by General William Sherman.

Malpractice

The bugger of Garfield’s assassination is that Guiteau was no better at killing presidents than he was at electing them. Despite his exultation “Arthur is President now!”, he actually inflicted what could have been a non-fatal flesh wound that through ten-thumbed medical intervention became an agonizing eighty-day Calvary for the miserable Garfield.

Doctors jabbed unwashed hands into the the wound, failing to dig out the bullet they were looking for but successfully turning the three-inch wound into a crater, puncturing Garfield’s liver, and passing him Streptococcus. Alexander Graham Bell invented a metal detector to find the missile, but the damn thing gave a bad reading … because Garfield was lying on a bed with metal springs. His doctors, feuding with one another and with the press, instituted a regimen of rectal feeding — “Nutritive enemas — consisting of beef bouillon, egg yolks, milk, whiskey, and several drops of opium … Garfield’s flatulence became intolerable,” according to one biographer — that “basically starved him to death.”† He lost 100 pounds before succumbing; the autopsy concluded that Garfield probably would have lived if not for the medical attention, which didn’t stop the doctors from submitting a sizable invoice to the feds for services rendered.

(In a moment of lucidity, Guiteau defended himself with the observation “The doctors killed Garfield; I just shot him.”)

Not Ha-Ha Funny

Horribly hilarious, this American Absurdistan. “Except for the dead-serious details of his assassinating President Garfield and being in all likelihood clinically insane, Charles Guiteau might be the funniest man in American History,” Sarah Vowell put it.

Guiteau’s circus trial — with the defendant constantly interrupting to harangue participants, object to his own attorneys or converse with the spectators, plus the macabre appearance of the late Garfield’s actual vertebrae (now at Washington D.C.’s National Museum of Health and Medicine) as an exhibit — was for all that a landmark test of evolving law around criminal insanity.

Just as Garfield probably would have survived his injury had he been treated by the next generation’s medical norms, Guiteau probably would have survived his brush with the law if treated by the next generation’s legal norms.

Against an almost-too-strict-to-achieve earlier bar for legal insanity, a more accommodating jurisprudential norm called the M’Naghten Rules or M’Naghten Test was even then being adopted from English courts: essentially, did the “criminal” realize his act was wrong? Still the basis for legal insanity claims in much of the U.S. today, the first trial of a presidential assassin would be the M’Naghten standard’s trial by fire.

While the judge gave ample leeway for the defense to use M’Naghten, the legal standards it implied were still not widely understood and the medical testimony about Guiteau’s mental condition was (embarrassingly, for the profession) wildly contradictory. Ultimately, the judge cued the jury that “the law requires a very slight degree of intelligence indeed” on Guiteau’s part to impute him with sufficient criminal culpability to hang. There were cheers in the courthouse when the jury took an hour to decide that Guiteau had that very slight degree of intelligence indeed.

In the final analysis, as Charles Rosenberg observes in The Trial of the Assassin Guiteau: Psychiatry and the Law in the Gilded Age, the jurors’ prompt conviction of the widely hated, barking-mad defendant underscored the real-life constraints of dry legal theory as applied by an outraged community to a notorious offender:

[T]he Guiteau case demonstrated anew that the circumstances of a particular case had ordinarily as much to do with its disposition as the precise injunctions of rules of law … Many observers agreed after the trial that if an individual of Guiteau’s marked eccentricity had killed an ordinary man … he would almost certainly not have been convicted; very likely he would not even have been brought to trial. Similarly, while Garfield lay on his sickbed, it was commonly assumed that his assailant would be institutionalized if the President should survive. But if not, then not.

Reckoning the gesture could cost him the 1884 Republican nomination, Chester A. Arthur declined to spare his “benefactor” (“Arthur has sealed his own doom and the doom of this nation,” was Guiteau’s reaction, picturing fire and brimstone) and left Guiteau to his strange and lonely fate. The latter was talked out of an early plan to go to the gallows in the Christlike garb of only his undergarments, but did insist upon delivering his incoherent parting ramble in a high-pitched childlike tone (“the idea is that of a child babbling to his mama and his papa”).

Wrapping up this surreal historical episode in a neat little bow, Charles Guiteau got his own bluegrass tune:‡

For more adventures through Guiteau’s looking glass, there’s a fine page at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

* One of Guiteau’s failed newspaper ventures was to exploit the telegraph to reprint original content from other outlets. That one looks a lot less harebrained in retrospect: it’s a primitive model of the wire service, and latterly of RSS-based distributors like Google News.

** Scans of Guiteau’s apologia for Garfield — via Georgetown’s Charles Guiteau collection — are here: cover, pages 1-2, page 3.

† You really want to know more about the South Park-esque practice of rectal feeding? Garfield’s quack physician published this pamphlet in 1882.

‡ The “Charles Guiteau” ditty is actually a rather shameless knock-off of a murder ballad for James Rodgers, an Irish immigrant hanged in New York in 1858.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Execution,Famous Last Words,Hanged,History,Infamous,Milestones,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Political Expedience,USA,Washington DC,Wrongful Executions

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1898: Joseph Vacher

2 comments December 31st, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1898, “the French Ripper” Joseph Vacher was guillotined for a three-year homicidal spree through the French countryside.

Less renowned to posterity than the unidentified British contemporary to whom his nickname alluded, Vacher was thoroughly infamous in his day. The New York Timesreport of his beheading noted that “[t]he crimes of Joseph Vacher have surpassed in number and atrocity those of the Whitechapel murderer.”

After release as “completely cured” from a mental hospital to whose hapless mercies a failed murder-suicide — both murder and suicide failed — involving his unrequited love had left him, Vacher drifted through rural France from 1894 until his arrest in 1897 killing randomly, frequently, and savagely.

He left at least 11 victims, and possibly several dozen, often atrociously mutilating the bodies. The seeming sang-froid of his murders — one story has him coolly misdirecting a police officer in a frantic chase for the killer of a body he has left behind minutes before — and their horrific nature and extent threw his case into the eye of a public already fearful of “drifters”.

If it is likely that the murders themselves demanded their author’s execution regardless, Vacher’s claim that madness — “simulated insanity”, the Times called it — drove the killings and negated his culpability remained a challenging medical and judicial issue. As Susan A. Ashley writes in The Human Tradition in Modern France:

The … judicial proceedings centered on his mental competence. Could he be held responsible for his actions? He claimed that he acted on impulse, that he was driven to kill and maim by fits of uncontrollable rage. The court-appointed experts, however, concluded that he had carefully planned and carried out the killings, and the jury agreed.

Medical experts and legal authorities seriously disagreed over Vacher’s mental state and over the limits of his legal responsibility. They examined his past and his behavior after his arrest and drew very different conclusions about his sanity.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Infamous,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Serial Killers

Tags: , , , , , , ,


Calendar

December 2019
M T W T F S S
« Nov    
 1
2345678
9101112131415
16171819202122
23242526272829
3031  

Archives

Categories

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!