1871: James Wilson, steely burglar

Add comment October 13th, 2016 Headsman

From the San Francisco Daily Call (Oct. 28, 1871) via a curious trans-Pacific audience in Australia’s Queanbeyan Age (Dec. 21, 1871). As usual, paragraphs added for readability.

EXECUTION OF JAMES WILSON, AT HARTFORD — DESPERATE ATTEMPT AT SUICIDE.

The last hours in the life of the burglar and murderer hanged at Hartford Conn., on Friday, the 13th instant, were sensational enough to suit his morbid craving for notoriety, and strangely rounded out a long career of adventure and rascality.

James Wilson, or to give his true name, David Kently, has been for many years a public outlaw.. He is charged, and justly according to his own confession, with between 200 and 300 burglaries.

The crimination of this career, it will be remembered, was the murderer of Warden Williard, of the State Prison at Weshersfield, on August 16th, 1870. The Warden called to Wilson’s cell-door to hear one of the complaints that troublesome prisoners were always ready with, and was perfidiously stabbed by a sword-cane (how obtained no one knowns), which Wilson thrust between the bars of his door and into the Warden’s abdomen.

Wilson asserted then and to the last that maltreatment provoked the deed.

For this he was condemned to death. Five days before legal limit of his live [sic] expired he was removed from State prison to the Hartford jail.

He had during the previous months exhibited a remarkable mental activity and versatility. He invented several ingenious little machines. He wrote a considerable ways in an autobiography, which was to have been entitled “Thirty Years in the Life of a Crack,” and would certainly have ranked among the curiosities of both crime and literature, had he not in a fit of rage destroyed it.

He made many attempts to get a new trial; then to obtain a communication to Sheriff Russell, designed to explain the desperate means he took, shortly after midnight, to evade the scaffold and the noose.

This attempt at suicide, briefly mentioned by telegraph, was made with a wire three inches long and an eighth of an inch in diameter, sharpened at one end, which he had got from the rim of a ration pan in prison, two months before, and had kept sheathed in leather torn from a Bible binding, concealed as probably no man ever thought of doing so before, in his rectum.

This wire, while keepers slept, he thrust into his heart; but it struck the muscular portion and would not pierce it. He turned over and bent upon the weight of his heavy body, and finally grasped the Testament at his side, and dealt blow for blow upon the wire. He drove it in quite half an inch below the skin, but in vain. The life pulse did not stop, and there in terrible agony the man could no longer suppress a groan, and the keepers found him in a dead faint.

When he was brought to consciousness, he had no regret except for his failure in the attempt.

His demeanour was unshaken thenceforward. He walked to the scaffold, though physically weak, and made a few remarks to the two hundred people in the jail yard, which are thus reported:

I don’t suppose it will amount to much what I can say, or stop the execution. I suppose most of you know why I shall say but a few words to-day. With three inches of steel in his heart a man can’t say much nor be expected to. I did all I could to avoid being here; not that I fear death, but such a kind of death — not fit for a dog or a murderer. I am not a murderer. I killed William Willard in self-defence, and I did just right and I hope his fate will be a warning to all other tyrants like him.

At this time the Deputy Sheriff stood behind Wilson with rope in his hand.

The victim turned round quickly seized the rope in his own hands, and then advanced quite dramatically, and leaning over the railing he continued, with great earnestness:

When a man puts this over his head in the cause of humanity, it is not a disgrace in that cause I put it over mine. And Sheriff Russell you may tighten it up as quickly as you please.

While saying these words he had pulled the noose over his head and thrown the rope out toward the sheriff’s hands. The sheriff then said, “Wilson, do you desire to have prayer offered up for you?”

“Well, yes. I have no objection to a short prayer,” replied the victim calmly but rather coolly.

The minister then offered a short but fervent prayer, keeling at Wilson’s side. When the minister had finished, Wilson repeated the word “Amen” quite audibly. While he was being pinioned, he bade all on the scaffold good-by; and to Captain Wooding he said, “I hope, if you have the opportunity, you will tell the warders of Wethersfield Prison they may profit by the example they have had to not oblige any other convict to murder a warden for humanity’s sake.”

The hanging was decently done, and the pulse extinct in fourteen minutes.

The authorities of the Yale Medical College at New Haven must have accepted the body on the terms he required in his will, as it was but in charge of his counsel, Mr Aberdeen, and sent by him to New Haven.

On this day..

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

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1820: John Baird and Andrew Hardie, for the Radical War

Add comment September 8th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1820, Scottish radicals John Baird and Andrew Hardie were hanged and then posthumously beheaded (execution broadside | another) at Stirling for treason.

They were the casualties (along with James Wilson, who suffered the same fate on August 30) of the “Radical War”, a short-lived Scottish uprising for economic and political reform.

The whole realm was convulsed by the birth pangs of industrial capitalism: artisans driven into factories; urbanization, exacerbated by lagging political representation for burgeoning population centers; and the revolutionary ideas of 1789 everywhere afoot in Europe.

Indeed, ever since the cataclysmic French Revolution, nervous authorities had kept a very tight lid on excesses of popular agitation. On May 1, 1820, London police hanged the Cato Street conspirators, a small group of radicals baited into plotting an assassination by an agent provocateur who meant to destroy them.

Similar methods were employed further north.

Troubled by dangerous reform movements, the government itself helped instigate a violent rising so it could identify and round up radical elements.

Long story short: in spite of giving itself a bit of a fright with the breadth of response to a general strike, it got a few easily crushed firebreathers to march out in arms. Baird and Hardie, two weavers (an artisan profession that had been particularly affected and therefore particularly radicalized by incipient industrialization), were two of its leaders.

While this blog naturally gravitates to the activities of the iron fist, the crown had wit enough to wear the velvet glove as well. Agitation like the Radical War and the Cato Street conspiracy helped shape the context of gradual constitutional concessions that enabled the British Empire to adapt itself to its changing circumstances. In 1822, the great Scottish jurist Lord Jeffrey (who defended Baird and Hardie at the bar) would write in a private correspondence, “I rather think we are tending to a revolution, steadily, though slowly — so slowly, that it may not come for fifty years yet.”

Traitors’ heads were all a part of the dialectic of authority and legitimacy, the prospect of popular violence in the streets and official violence on the scaffold helping validate moderate reforms as sensible accommodations by both state and populace.

As Gordon Pentland puts it,*

The lesson was one for putative radicals and the authorities as well — attempted risings and executions were to be expected if the opportunities to engage in constitutional activities … were shut down in favour of relying on the machinations of spies.

This lesson looks simple enough in retrospect. But states that did not heed it as the 19th century unfolded ultimately charted a very different course.

That intervening history, Pentland observes, has left layers of contesting interpretative frameworks to debate the proper understanding of the Radical War “martyrs”.

The usability of 1820 was enhanced by its leaving, like William Wallace, precious little in the way of documentary information on actions and intentions. This has allowed the martyrs to be imagined and reimagined in a number of different ways and recruited to a range of political narratives: as the innocent victims of rancorous Tory persecution and as an object lesson in the strengths of British popular constitutionalism; as heirs to the Covenanters and as exemplars of the continuing constitutional duty to resist tyranny; as prototype proletarian revolutionaries; and, latterly, as insurrectionary republican nationalists.

* “‘Betrayed by Infamous Spies’? The Commemoration of Scotland’s ‘Radical War’ of 1820”, Past & Present, November 2008, 201(1).

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Activists,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Power,Public Executions,Scotland,Treason

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